On the shore, a man waited. Wilom took a deep breath as he got out of the boat and let it out slowly. The man was standing tall and nervously straight, square shoulders, watching the River with a belligerent intensity. Wilom could tell already he was going to be difficult.
“Excuse me? I’m here to take you to the boat. Are you ready to go?”
“Do I look like I’m ready to go? Isn’t there someone else you can get first?”
Be like the ferryman. “No. There’s only you.”
“Well, surely you can wait. I promised my friend I’d wait here for him.”
“That may take a very long time,” Wilom said.
“I don’t care. Take someone else.”
“That isn’t possible. Please, come with me.”
“I’m not sure about you, boy, but where I come from, we keep our promises.” The man walked to the cliff, sat down and crossed his arms.
“You need to come with me. Please. I’m just trying to do my job.”
The man held up a hand and spoke slowly, with deliberate calm. “That’s alright, I understand that. I’m not angry at you for it. But I’m not moving until my friend gets here.”
Wilom looked back around at the boat. The patronising tone was really starting to get to him. He wondered if he should just get the ferryman.
“No, there isn’t a way you can make me leave.”
“You can wait on the other side, if you like.” Wilom said.
“I told you, it was a promise! You’re probably too young to understand what it means to have a lifelong friend. If you were a bit older, you’d know why I can’t go.”
Wilom turned around and left.
Back at the boat, the ferryman turned his hood towards him.
“Sorry,” Wilom said. “I was going to get angry.”
The ferryman stepped out of the boat.
“I forgive you. I will help you with this assignment.”
“Um,” Wilom started. The ferryman turned to face him. “Should I follow you?”
“You always say you would like to learn.”
Wilom followed the ferryman down to the man sitting by the bank.
He looked up. “Oh.”
Wilom tried not to let himself derive very much amusement from the expression on the man’s face.
“Please come with me, Mr James Thurt.”
“I’m waiting for my friend.” Mr Thurt pressed his folded arms tighter against himself, and pressed his back into the cliff face.
“Your friend is not due here for many, many years.”
“I can wait here.”
“No, you cannot.”
“And if you wait here, you will not be able to fulfil that promise. Your friend will find you, and you will not know him. This is not a place for waiting.”
“Surely it won’t come to that.”
“I am not known for speculating, Mr Thurt.”
Mr Thurt glanced from the ferryman to Wilom and back again.
“If you wish to wait, the other side will do just fine,” the ferryman pressed.
Mr Thurt stood up, but didn’t take the ferryman’s hand. “Can’t you just go get someone else, and come back? If I look like I’m … you know?”
“No, Mr Thurt. That is not how it works. There will be nobody else until you leave.”
“But I promised!”
The ferryman just waited.
Mr Thurt hesitated, then took the ferryman’s hand. “Can’t I …?”
Mr Thurt followed them to the boat, and sat looking over the side as the ferryman rowed.
“You wouldn’t happen to know what’s on the other side of the River?” he asked Wilom.
“No. We’re not allowed to know.”
“Oh. Right. Sorry, just asking. In case, you know, I won’t be me anymore if I cross. I just … I did promise.”
Wilom didn’t know what to say to that. “I understand.”
Mr Thurt got off on the other side. As he glanced around, the ferryman said. “We will stay here until you are gone.”
Mr Thurt took a deep breath, and walked away.
True to his word, the ferryman stayed there until they could no longer see Mr Thurt, and then for a little while longer. Wilom didn’t dare speak until the ferryman poled away.
“I might have done a little better if I’d known to tell him all that.”
“That is possible. You will know next time.”
Wilom looked back at the bank. “Was it true, though?”
“Not entirely. I neglected to mention the Shades.”
“You will be fine. First, the lighthouse keeper’s job is to stop them coming this far down. Second, you are my apprentice, and such things have weight.”
“Right.” Wilom looked back over at the bank.
“But if he had stayed …?”
“They would have come. Or he would have gone to them. It can sometimes be unclear which.”
Wilom watched the water pass by under the boat.
“Things like that really remind you how it’s different back home and here,” Wilom said. “I remember the stories that Alph used to tell when we were hanging out on the bank of the river near my home town. Horror stories, ghost stories. Even with the shades and things down here, they seem very silly now.”
The hood inclined, acknowledging his comment without feeling the need to elaborate.
“I miss them,” Wilom said, for the first time. “I wish I’d known to go back and see them earlier.”
“You can still go.”
Wilom shook his head. “No. I can’t. It’s been years. They’d be happy to see me, I think, but … I doubt it would bring them any comfort to know that I wasn’t really dead all this time, and going back after so long only to tell them it’s a final visit …”
“Is it better than never seeing them again?” the ferryman asked.
“Yes. Or no. I don’t know. I think so?”
“Then stay,” the ferryman said.
“Every time I think you’re going to have an argument with me …” Wilom muttered. “What do you think I should do?”
The hood did not move. “Who am I to know what you should do, and what is good for your friends?”
“You can’t say that,” Wilom said. “Hundreds of people come past here each day! You know exactly what to do and say for them!”
The hood turned to face him fully. “I do not know what is best for them. I know what to do and say to make them feel comfortable. I know that it will likely make your friends feel better to see you, and I know that you feel uncomfortable at the thought of seeing them. Which should I advocate? Your comfort, because I am closer to you? Their comfort because there are more of them and it is better that more people are happy? Should I opine that you will feel better after you see them, even if I understand it will open wounds for you? If I were to tell you to go, and you did not feel better afterwards, what then?”
Wilom bit his lip and looked away. “I get the point,” he said.
“Whatever you choose, I trust it will be the correct decision for you, and I hope you will not regret it.”
“What’s one more regret?” Wilom asked, but then realised that had been far too sharp, and said, “I mean, I understand.”
The hood inclined.
“I won’t go,” Wilom said. “It might be cowardly, but I think I’d feel bad if I left the River. I know you’ll still be here, but …”
“You feel it is your duty to stay,” the ferryman finished for him.
Wilom shook his head. “No, not quite,” he said. “I think. Maybe you’re right.”
The ferryman’s hood inclined again, and Wilom couldn’t decide what it meant.