The ferryman, for once, didn’t row them directly to the bank, but instead took them over towards the lighthouse. Wilom realised that the lighthouse keeper was waiting for them on the bank, holding something.
He glanced back at the ferryman, who didn’t seem to notice him. He opened his mouth to ask what was going on, but closed it. He couldn’t get the image of the lighthouse keeper dragging Vanda by the shoulder to the lighthouse out of his head. The way she’d slumped as she realised she wasn’t going to escape. He hadn’t seen her since then.
The lighthouse keeper was holding a pie and an apple, and he offered them to Wilom, just as if nothing had happened.
“Thanks,” Wilom said. He considered asking about Vanda, but he wasn’t sure how to phrase it, or what to say. Should he be so worried about her? Neither the lighthouse keeper nor the ferryman seemed to think anything was out of the ordinary, but Wilom was losing his faith that that meant everything was fine.
Wilom wasn’t hungry, but the pie and apple were gone in a matter of seconds. He’d forgotten how much he enjoyed the taste of food. The lighthouse keeper hadn’t bothered to bring anything for the ferryman, it seemed.
“And how have you been keeping up?” the lighthouse keeper asked.
“I’ve been well,” Wilom said, trying to discreetly lick apple juice off his hand and get rid of the stickiness.
“You’re happy with your apprenticeship, then?”
Wilom got the distinct feeling that the lighthouse keeper already knew about his decision not to go back to see his friends, and his uncle and aunt coming through, and probably about Vanda, too. It made him edgy, so he just said, “It’s not a bad way to spend the time. What about you?”
“I have also been well. Ferryman?”
“It has been passably entertaining.”
The lighthouse keeper chuckled. Wilom marked that conversation down as ‘definitely at his expense’.
“Lighthouse keeper? I’ve got a question.”
Wilom paused to collect his thoughts and think through how he wanted to ask this question. “I … ever since I came here, I’ve come across more and more things – the time thing, the shades – that it turns out you and the ferryman knew but never told me.”
“Yes,” the lighthouse keeper said. “That is true.”
He was so matter-of-fact about it that it made Wilom falter for a moment. “Well,” he said, “I have to ask – why did you offer me the apprenticeship?”
The lighthouse keeper looked to the ferryman, whose hood inclined. “Because it seemed to us that you would be an ideal candidate,” the ferryman said.
“Alright,” Wilom said. “I’m guessing that means someone who’d be willing to leave the living world behind forever, wouldn’t it?”
The ferryman nodded. The lighthouse keeper said, “That is one of the requirements, yes.”
“I’m sorry to ask, but I have to know. You didn’t advise me to go back to see everyone because you thought … you thought it might undo all the work you’d done separating me from them? Is that it?”
The lighthouse keeper started laughing.
The ferryman held up his hand, and the lighthouse keeper regained his composure with some effort.
“Hush, lighthouse keeper,” the ferryman said. “It is a reasonable question, and a worthy one to ask of anyone, not just us. No, we have never deliberately separated you from them. If you had wanted to go, you would have gone. I have had apprentices who never went back, and I have had apprentices who made weekly trips home until they got their own ferries. It is not important.”
“Really?” Was that another question he should have asked? Why hadn’t he thought to talk about all this long ago?
“Willing to leave the world behind eventually does not mean someone is ready to leave it when we meet them.”
“So, if I wanted to go back to the living world and then return …”
“I see no reason I would not allow that,” the ferryman said. “Though if I had a new apprentice by then, we would have to work out some arrangement.
“Really? You’d just spend all this time, then let me waste decades making you wait, and then take me back?”
The lighthouse keeper spread his arms. “Do we really look like we need to worry about wasted time?”
Wilom scratched the back of his head. “S’pose not. What else haven’t I asked about?”
“More than you can possibly comprehend,” the ferryman said. “Asking about the logistics of having children as an eternally young person bound to the River is a common one.”
Wilom shook his head. “No, thanks, I’m not sure I need to know about that one.”
The hood inclined. “Should you ever wish to know, you have only to ask.”
“So, what, you’re just going to wait until I ask the questions before you answer them?” Wilom asked.
“I’m surprised at you, Wilom,” the lighthouse keeper said. “Haven’t you guessed that asking questions is part of your training?” His voice was flippant, but Wilom got the sense that the joke was aimed, not at him, but at the ferryman. It still annoyed him, like they were only pretending to pay attention to him.
“Lighthouse keeper, hush,” the ferryman said again. “You are being unkind. Wilom, everything you need to know you have already been told or discovered. There are other things that you would probably like to know, but they are unimportant compared to the facts you already have.”
“Unimportant?” Wilom asked. “What do you mean unimportant?”
“Irrelevant to your current situation. Nothing more than intellectual curiosities.”
Wilom nodded slowly. “What if I asked you about those things?”
“When you ask me about them, I will tell you,” the ferryman said.
“Right,” Wilom said. “I suppose that’s the most anyone gets, isn’t it?”
“That is correct.”
“You say ‘when’.”
“You will ask them eventually. My apprentices always do.”
“Did they like the answers?”
“Nobody truly likes the answers they get on the River. But by the time they asked them, they were prepared.”
Wilom turned to the lighthouse keeper. “Thanks for the pie,” he said.
The lighthouse keeper chuckled. “I’m glad you enjoyed it.” He glanced up at the ferryman.
Wilom followed his gaze. The ferryman was looking down the bank.
“Duty,” he said. “It has been pleasant to see you again, lighthouse keeper.”
“And you, my friend. I will return when I can.”
The ferryman turned the boat and rowed off. When Wilom turned to wave goodbye, the lighthouse keeper was already gone.
This one should be easy, at least. He was an old man, and he didn’t look angry. No marks of blood or violence.
“Hey,” he said, approaching. “Are you ready to go?”
The old man sighed. “I suppose. Would have been nice to have a little longer, although you must hear that from everyone.”
“Well, close. Many are not quite so polite about it.” Wilom held his hand out. “Are you ready?”
“Yes. Yes, I think I am.”
The old man did not speak for most of the boat ride, content to watch the water and the mist. As he got out of the boat, he turned back and said, “I just want someone to know, I might have left some things undone back there, but I’m not sorry I have to leave now. It was bad luck to come down with the ‘flu, but I feel like I did everything I could despite that.”
The ferryman nodded.
Wilom wasn’t sure how to respond, so he nodded, too, then said, “Can I ask who you are?”
“I was a politician.”
The old man waved goodbye and disappeared into the mist.