When Wilom finally did see Tanim standing on the bank, he wanted nothing more than to turn back. To hide somewhere on the bank, and beg the ferryman to take this assignment.
But, well … the ferryman wouldn’t say he’d done the wrong thing, but it would be, just the same. And the questions he’d ask! Wilom didn’t think he’d ever get used to being filleted by ferryman’s questions. Aunt J would have dreamed of taking lecture lessons from the ferryman. The ferryman barely needed to say anything to give a lecture.
So Wilom, trying to look much calmer than he felt, walked to Tanim, avoiding Tanim’s face.
“Wilom?” Tanim said. “Wilom, what are you doing here?”
Wilom steeled himself to look up and meet his uncle’s eyes. “I got my apprenticeship here,” he said. “I didn’t realise how time would pass until it was already too late to visit.”
Tanim gave him a tight hug. “Wilom, you should have known it would never have been too late to visit.”
Tanim smiled a nostalgic smile. “I always wondered what you would have looked like all grown up. Looks like this is it.”
Wilom spread his arms. “This is it,” he said.
“I do wish you’d come back, so we might have had a bit more time,” Tanim said. “But never mind that. Let’s go, Wilom. I’m looking forward to seeing my wife again.”
Wilom led Tanim towards the boat, and helped him in.
Tanim looked over the side, at the water. “It’s a little like going fishing, isn’t it?”
“I never did go fishing with you.”
“You weren’t interested in fishing.”
“I suppose I wasn’t.”
“Is it interesting down here?” Tanim asked suddenly. “It doesn’t seem like there’s much to do.”
“There’s a lot of people,” Wilom said. “And they’re more interesting than I expected, actually.”
Tanim looked around. “An apprentice is usually expected to get a job in their trade,” he said, a little too casually.
“Yeah, I know,” Wilom said.
Tanim nodded, and neither of them pursued the question.
“Did you see Jali as she came through?” Tanim asked.
“Did she seem alright?”
“She talked as much as ever,” Wilom said. “But don’t worry. She took it well.”
“Good, good. We saw it coming a fair way, so perhaps that did help, after all.”
Wilom nodded again, wishing he knew what to say to break the silence that suddenly felt so awkward.
“Well, this looks like it’s my stop,” Tanim said, as the boat eased onto the bank.
“Say hi to Jali for me,” Wilom said.
Tanim stood there in the mist for a moment, looking around, then he turned back to Wilom with a sad smile. “I’ll see you again someday,” he said. “At least, I hope I do. I think I would have liked to know the new Wilom. You’re much happier.”
“Probably,” Wilom said.
Once Tanim was gone and the ferryman had turned back onto the River, Wilom put his hands behind his head and leaned back at the boat, looking up through the mist. Tanim had been much calmer than Jali, but then, he’d expected nothing less. He thought of his friends, and a pang went through him. He should have visited.
He should visit. Tell the ferryman right here and now, he was going for a little while, to go and see his friends before it was too late. He’d visit Alph and Gloves, and then maybe he’d see if his sister was alive. Perhaps his mother would be alive, too …
If he went up to see one of them, he’d go to see all of them. He knew that. But if he did that, would he want to come back down? It wasn’t lonely down here so long as he didn’t know what he was missing out on up above. But if he sat down to have dinner with Gloves and Alph, would he be able to return? Would that be a bad thing?
He could leave the River behind, he knew. He could do it in a heartbeat. But there was something indelible about the River. He realised he didn’t know how to live without it anymore. He couldn’t imagine going through daily life without the constant knowledge of the River hanging over him.
Being a ferryman felt so important. Even if he went up, even if he liked it better there … he was certain he’d always feel like he ought to be down here, like he ought to be helping the ferryman with his work.
Did the ferryman know he’d feel like this, too? Was that another question he hadn’t known to ask, but should have? A question the ferryman had expected him to ask when he was ready?
It was too hard to tell sometimes. He didn’t stop the ferryman, and he didn’t ask to go and visit anybody. He could live without them, but he wasn’t so sure he wanted to find out if he could live with them.