Wilom tried to count the people for a while, to try and get some inkling of how much time might be passing. He never seemed to be able to count much past twenty, though — for some reason as soon as he thought he had an accurate count, he’d remember someone else he’d taken, or realise that one he’d counted had actually been from long, long before, and he’d have to start again.
He didn’t tell the ferryman about it. Not because he thought the ferryman would be angry with him, or think it wrong. Mostly just because, well, it seemed childish.
But then, the ferryman never seemed to care much about how things seemed.
Every so often, he’d remember that he ought to see Tanim. But always, it came just as he went to collect someone, usually because they reminded him of Tanim in some way, either in age, build, mannerism, or that vague, hesitant remembrance usually phrased as ‘something around the eyes, perhaps’. But then he would put it off ‘just until this person is gone’, do his job and it would slip his mind.
As one woman got off the boat, Wilom recognised her name. She was the daughter of an old woman he’d seen pass by, a long time ago.
She certainly hadn’t died of old age, and she’d been an adult when her mother had passed away, so in some ways, it felt like cheating. But then … his first generation.
His first generation.
“Do you notice families?”
“That woman back there – I remember when we ferried her mother across.”
“Yes, I remember that. I remember her father as well. I remember her uncle, and her grandparents.”
“How many generations?” Wilom asked. “Since you became a ferryman, I mean.”
“What reason have I to count, even if I were able?”
“Right. Sorry. I kind of assumed you were immune.”
“I was new to this once, too. But I forgive you.”
“There is no need to apologise. I forgive you. Here is the bank.”
Wilom got off the boat and went to do his job.
As they were rowing back, Wilom saw a familiar figure on the shore.
She was about Wilom’s age, and was leaning against the cliffs, tapping a foot.
“Is that … do you recognise her? Vanda — was that her name?”
“Yes, I believe it is.”
Wilom hesitated. “I didn’t think people were supposed to come back.”
“They are not.”
“Then, how is she …?”
“I am not sure.”
Wilom tapped the gunnel of the boat. “Isn’t it your job to be worried about that?”
“No. That is the lighthouse keeper’s job.”
“Is he worried?”
“I have not asked him. If he is, he has not indicated so to me.”
They pulled up on the shore, and Wilom jumped out.
“Wilom, wasn’t it? Good to see you again.”
“You too, I guess.”
Vanda jumped into the boat and lay back across the seat, hands behind her head and legs dangling over the other side. She looked comfortable, like she was on a family outing on a lake.
Wilom assumed that the normal etiquette rules on the boat didn’t really apply to her. “Um … how did you die this time?”
“Smallpox,” she said calmly, like he’d asked her what her favourite colour was.
“You don’t have a lot of luck, do you?”
Vanda looked at him, and shrugged. “You could say that to most people who come through here, couldn’t you?”
“Not many people come through here twice.”
Vanda broke into a grin. “Yeah, not many.”
“So why are you different?”
Vanda shrugged. “Not quite ready to go through with it, I guess.”
“If that’s true, then I’m the owner of a chicken circus.”
Vanda laughed. “I knew it!”
“What did you know?”
She turned to him, still laughing. “You apprentices always find their sense of humour my second time across.”
Wilom rolled his eyes. “Good. I was worried I’d stand out from the crowd or something.”
Vanda glanced over at him, and raised an eyebrow. “You’re the rudest apprentice I’ve met yet, though.”
Wilom looked away. She was right – he was being rude. For a moment, her manner had reminded him so much of his old friends that he’d slipped up. “Sorry,” he began, and then realised that she was grinning at him. He grinned back. “But it probably explains why I’m still an apprentice after all this time.”
“No helping some people,” Vanda agreed, and stuck out her hand. “Friends, then?” she asked.
“What, you’re planning on coming back again?”
“I’m not planning on staying over that side, that’s for sure. Besides, aren’t you and the ferryman supposed to be friends to all who cross the river or something?”
Wilom reached over and shook her hand. “I’m not sure that’s how it works, but I’ll happily be friends with you,” he said. “I promise not to be rude next time.”
Vanda glanced at the ferryman. “Well … I could stand a little rudeness,” she said. “Makes the whole thing less dreary, you know? Hey, we’re at the bank.”
Vanda jumped out and into the mist. “I’ll catch you again next time around. Hey – before I go, got any money?”
Wilom pulled out a couple of coins and passed them over. He’d had a coin or two when he’d left on the first night, and occasionally people felt the need to give him coins for the ferry ride. Vanda held them up to see them better, turning her back to the river to get the best light.
“These are amazing,” she said. “I remember these! That takes me back. Thanks.” she tossed them back to Wilom. He scrambled to catch them as her throw went off-course, and he picked them up from the bottom of the boat.
“That was a terrible throw,” he said.
“Aw, come off it. You try throwing three coins at once.”
“I suppose I shouldn’t have expected better, given how clumsy you seem to be.”
“Excuse you, catching smallpox is not clumsy!”
Every time he saw her, she had a new arsenal of strange little phrases, it seemed. He found himself smiling, and put on his best impression of his grandfather. “My, such language! You mustn’t be so quick to deny the truth.”
She rolled her eyes. “I’ll make you a bet, then.”
“Yeah. I bet you that next time I’m down here, it won’t be because of an accident or a mishap.”
“What does that leave?”
“Disease, murder, and forces of nature,” she answered promptly.
Wilom shrugged. “Alright.”
“I want the bronze coin,” she said, pointing to it.
“You mean the most valuable coin I ever owned?”
“Pfft, they’re all worth the same now. It’s a bit of a shame, really – they’re too old to be useful, but too recent to sell to a museum.”
“Alright, bet then,” Wilom said. “If you do die by accident, what do I get?”
“I’ll bring you a coin,” Vanda said.
“A bronze one?”
Vanda snorted. “Not bronze. Nobody makes bronze coins anymore. I’ll bring you back a silver coin.”
“Silver? Real silver?”
She waved her hand. “It’s just common nickel. But they do silver plating now, to make them look like the real thing.”
“But … that makes no sense. Nickel isn’t worth as much as silver.”
She shrugged. “Take it up with everyone who spends them,” she said, then waved. “Don’t lose that coin, now! I’ll get it off you next time I’m down here!”
She disappeared into the mist, and the ferryman began to row back across the River.
“Hey, when you said, last time, that that happens “every so often”, did you mean people who are enthusiastic about dying, or Vanda specifically?”
“Both are accurate. However, at the time, I was referring to Vanda.”
Wilom crossed his arms. He still thought the ferryman ought to be a little less calm.