Wilom jumped off the boat and walked along the shore.
“W … Wilom?”
Wilom stopped abruptly. “Aunt Jali?”
She was old. Her hair was white, she seemed to have shrunk inside her clothes. Wilom thought he recognised the jumper she was wearing, but the colours had faded, so he couldn’t be sure.
Jali stood up a little straighter, and her wrinkled face crumpled. “Wilom! I … you … where …”
Wilom waited for her to finish a sentence, silently preparing his answers. Where have you been? Are you dead?
But she never finished the sentence. She raised her arms like she was about to throw them around Wilom, then lowered them again, sadly.
Wilom stepped forward and wrapped her in an embrace.
He bent his head over her shoulder and rested his chin near the back of her neck. She reached her arms up to touch his shoulders. He could feel how the texture of her skin had changed, and how her bones seemed so close to the surface.
“You said you’d be back by morning,” she said.
“I know,” Wilom said. “I … had a change of plans.”
“And all we had of you was the note … oh, Wilom, honey, we were right! We were right – something happened to you and now …”
Wilom realised all of a sudden what she and Tanim had expected. Of course. He’d put off visiting them, but he hadn’t even written! With no contact from him, they’d thought … and he’d thought he had so much more time.
She pushed him away and wiped tears from her eyes. “Well,” she said. “It’s alright – I’m here now. Let’s go together, won’t we?”
Wilom paused, looked at her, and then burst out laughing.
Her stunned face only made him laugh harder, until his sides hurt and his mouth ache.
“No, Aunt Jali,” he said. “I think, actually, you’ll be coming with me. Are you ready?” He held his hand out to her.
Aunt J nodded slowly, and took his hand.
“Wilom …” she said.
He scratched his cheek. “You’ll meet my master in a minute. It’s not exactly a normal arrangement, I know.”
“We worried about you.”
The sentence was so familiar, and Wilom could feel the memories bubbling up. Even after so long, those words still had the power to get under his skin like nothing else. But he found he couldn’t tell her that. Not here, not on the River, not on the last time he’d ever see her. So instead, he said, “Sorry. I was very busy.” He wondered briefly if he should tell her he wasn’t allowed back up. It would be believable, and it would be better than implying that he just never thought about her.
“You might at least have thought to come to visit.”
“Actually, I’m not …” he hesitated. “I’m not allowed back up. I didn’t realise when I chose to come down here.”
Aunt Jali rubbed his shoulder. They walked slowly along the bank towards the boat. Wilom tried to convince himself that the lie had been for the best, that it would be a comfort to Jali in some way.
“How is Tanim?” he asked.
“Oh, he’s doing well enough, I suppose, for an old man.” Jali smiled privately.
“And the town?”
“We get along.”
“A lot of people have died,” Wilom said.
Jali tensed. “Well … it happens,” she said.
“Yes,” Wilom agreed. “It does.”
They reached the boat, and Jali nodded to the ferryman. She accepted Wilom’s help to climb aboard and sat close to him in the boat. She put her hand on his forearm as they rode. He decided he’d endure it, just this once. The boat moved off.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
Wilom, honestly surprised, twisted his neck to look at her. “For what?”
“I made you run away,” Jali said.
Wilom found himself, for a moment, at a loss for what to say. She was right, but agreeing felt so petty. “I would have found a reason eventually,” Wilom told her. “I wasn’t exactly being helpful. I’ll go back and visit Tanim soon.”
“Promise you will,” Jali said. “Tanim deserves at least one visit.”
Wilom nodded. “I promise.”
“How was your father when he crossed the River?” she asked, suddenly.
“Your father, I said.”
“Father … my father is dead?”
Jali looked horrified. “You don’t remember him? He died nearly five years ago!”
“Of what?” was all Wilom could think to ask.
“Heart attack, poor soul.”
“I don’t remember him. He didn’t come through here.”
Jali made a small noise in her throat. “Perhaps there was another way he could have come. Wilom, I’m sorry – you shouldn’t have found out like that.”
“Don’t worry,” Wilom said. “I …” he stopped for a moment. “I suppose it seems a little different from this side.”
“We’ll all see him again sometime,” Aunt J said. “I’ll remember you to him.”
There was a long pause, and then she said, “You’ve grown, Wilom.”
Wilom had to stop and think about that. He didn’t feel any older. “Maybe,” he said.
The bank approached.
“Well, just make sure you get back to see your uncle,” Jali said, stepping out of the boat. “And come up here and give your aunt a hug.”
He stepped into the mist. The ferryman had done it before, so there must be ground there, even if he couldn’t see it. Sure enough, there was, but he didn’t dare look down.
She wrapped her arms around his chest. He put his arms around her shoulders, and refrained from telling her that he couldn’t breathe.
Wilom stepped back into the boat.
“Ferryman,” he said, slowly. “My aunt just died.”
“Yes. She did.”
“Should I feel bad about that?”
“I think so. But I don’t.”
“And that bothers you.”
“What about it bothers you?”
Wilom turned his head away. He’d kind of expected an answer like that. He was talking to the ferryman, after all. Sometimes he wondered if the ferryman had forgotten entirely about emotions.
The ferryman continued, “I believe it is quite natural to feel differently, knowing as much about death as you do. Do you feel sorry for the people she left behind?”
Wilom thought for a moment. “Yeah. Yeah, I do.”
“Then, is that enough for you?”
Wilom looked back up at the ferryman’s hood. Sometimes, he really wished he could see the ferryman’s face. “I think so. I can’t believe I stayed away so long! I didn’t realise how much time was passing. I didn’t … I didn’t know.”
The ferryman watched him and calmly poled the boat down the River.
“You knew,” Wilom said.
“I was aware, yes.”
“Well … why didn’t you bloody tell me?” It was the first time Wilom had raised his voice on the River since the beginning of his apprenticeship. The sound seemed wrong and thin. There was no echo, and no change in the mist.
“You seemed as if you needed the time.” The ferryman’s hood did not move, and his voice did not change.
Needed the time? “Evidently! You gave me decades of it!” Wilom felt his face, and looked down at his hands. “No wonder I didn’t notice. I can’t see a difference.”
“It does make it difficult to accurately judge time, yes,” the ferryman said.
The full implications hit Wilom suddenly. “Oh,” he said, and slumped against the side of the boat, resting his cheek on the cool wood. “My friends would all be adults now, wouldn’t they?”
“More than likely,” the ferryman said calmly. “Perhaps their children would be too, by now.”
“Shit.” Then, a sudden thought struck him and the problem seemed enormous, overwhelming. “I was … I was going to go back and see my friends,” he said. “I was going to have a normal life, with a house!”
Wilom froze. No. He wasn’t, was he? He was going to stay on the River and be a ferryman. “So, you just let the time slip away because it doesn’t matter in the end?”
“You may leave if you wish,” the ferryman said. “I have always promised that you could. You had only to ask. But you never talked about going back, so I assumed you did not want to. Was I wrong?”
Now the shock had worn off, it all made sense – though he put it to the back of his mind. Wilom let the water run through his fingers and shook off the last drops clinging to his hand. The ferryman was right. He could have chosen at any time to go. He didn’t know how to feel about that. “So, how am I going?” he asked.
“Am I getting better?”
“You have not yelled at any of our charges again.”
“So, I’ve improved?”
“If you are insistent upon an answer, then yes, you have improved.”
Wilom stopped. “I guess that means not to ask?”
“I am trying to tell you that you are asking the wrong question.”
“So, what’s the right question?”
“You will ask it when you know it.”