“Ferryman?” Wilom asked, as the bank drew close.
“Would it be alright if I got out of the boat for a little while? I want to go for a walk, and I’d like to talk to the lighthouse keeper if I could.”
“That is fine,” the ferryman said. The boat arrived at the bank, and Wilom stepped out, heading in the direction of the lighthouse. It felt very, very strange to be walking away from whoever was on the bank.
He walked along the stone cliff to find the door to the lighthouse. After a few minutes of fruitless patting on the rock, he finally decided just to call.
The door opened, two feet to his right. He ran a hand through his hair and walked over to it.
The lighthouse keeper led him up the stairs and asked him to pick a tea.
Wilom looked through them briefly, still unable to shake the feeling that the choice of tea was some sort of test.
He picked out a plain black tea without embellishment, and the lighthouse keeper gave no indication of whether he approved or disapproved of the choice.
Wilom sat down in the chair he subconsciously marked as ‘his’ while the lighthouse keeper brewed the tea. It only took a few minutes; the lighthouse keeper’s kettle, just like last time, had “only just boiled, just give me a moment to steep the tea”.
The lighthouse keeper put the cup in his hand, and he blew on it before taking a sip. He refrained from commenting on the quality or flavour, as he wasn’t sure he had anything meaningful to say about it.
“You wish to talk to me, I think,” the lighthouse keeper said.
Wilom nodded. “I wanted to ask about Vanda,” he said.
“Ah,” the lighthouse keeper said.
“Is she alright?”
“I honestly don’t know,” the lighthouse keeper said. “But she was just fine when she left the lighthouse after your adventure.”
Wilom let out his breath slowly, pretending to blow on his tea. He might have expected the lighthouse keeper to hurt her, but he didn’t think the lighthouse keeper would lie to him about it. Dodge the question maybe, not lie.
“What did you want with her?” Wilom asked.
The lighthouse keeper raised the teacup to his lips and replaced it gently on the saucer. “Just to talk, like I said,” he said.
“About her coming back all the time? Did you forbid her from doing it again?”
“I expect there is not a power in this world that could ‘forbid’ Vanda from doing anything she had set her mind to. But we had a discussion about how some courses of action are more and less wise than others, and we came to a sort of middle ground, I suppose.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It isn’t my place to tell you exactly what was discussed,” the lighthouse keeper said.
Wilom nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “Alright.”
The lighthouse keeper eyed him up and down, and said, “You have one last question.”
“I do,” Wilom said. “But you won’t be able to answer it.”
“Ah. And how do you know that?”
“You just said it wasn’t your place to discuss what was said,” Wilom said.
“I said it wasn’t my place to discuss exactly what was said. You’ll never know whether I’m willing to answer your question if you don’t ask it.”
Wilom knew an invitation when he heard one. “I wanted to ask whether she was your apprentice, like I’m the ferryman’s apprentice.”
The lighthouse keeper nodded slowly, then said. “Then I can answer your question, and the answer is no.”
Wilom frowned. “Do you take apprentices?”
“Occasionally. Several of them over the years. Not nearly so many as the ferryman, however.”
“I see,” Wilom said. He took a large gulp of tea. “I thought so. I mean, you’ve got a duty same as him.”
The lighthouse keeper considered that for a long time, then said, “Yes and no. My ‘duty’ is a lot less Capital-D than his is.”
“Take it as a very roundabout way of saying that the ferryman takes things a lot more seriously than I do.”
Wilom nodded. “If you say so. But I knew that already. And telling me to ‘take it as’ something means that’s not quite true, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, I’m sure you did. Permit me to answer your question with a question: what do you think of the job?”
Wilom tapped the side of his cup with a fingernail. “You know, the ferryman’s learned not to ask that question.”
“I’m not as polite as the ferryman. What do you think of the job?”
Wilom shrugged. “It’s not bad.” The question grated on him. The ferryman had asked it only twice, and after that had left him to his own deliberations on the topic.
“Good to know that you haven’t changed much from our first meeting.”
“I could say the same,” Wilom said.
The lighthouse keeper laughed. “But in some ways you have. In time you might even turn sullenness into a kind of charm. Though I think when that happens, it’s called ‘reticence’.”
Wilom shrugged. “I’m not sure it matters,” he said.
“Oh?” The lighthouse keeper seemed to have taken far more from that sentence than Wilom intended.
Wilom didn’t say anything.
“I see,” the lighthouse keeper said. “Well, Vanda will likely come by you again, if I know her at all. I expect you’re looking forward to seeing her again.”
Wilom nodded. “Yes,” he said. “Is that … a bad thing?”
“To have friends? You find them where you can down here,” the lighthouse keeper said. “I had wondered, since you came all this way away from the River just to ask me about her.”
“I was a little worried after the manner in which she disappeared,” Wilom said.
“Ah, the bit of drama on the River bank,” the lighthouse keeper said. “My apologies.”
“No harm done,” Wilom said, but he still couldn’t quite bring himself to trust the lighthouse keeper and his intentions. Something about the pleasant, sincere and somewhat bland apology made him suspicious.
“You had best get back to the ferryman, I think,” the lighthouse keeper said. “He will be starting to miss you.”
Wilom frowned. “Are you being serious? Or is that a joke at his expense?”
The lighthouse keeper shrugged. “Can’t it be both?”
Wilom was fairly sure that it couldn’t, but he let the lighthouse keeper lead him down the stairs. The lighthouse keeper brought his lantern with him, and his cloak. At the bottom of the stairs, he locked and tested the door, with movements so practiced they almost looked ritualistic.
“I’m going this way,” he said, and started walking away from the part of the bank that Wilom was familiar with, out into the darkness.
Wilom shuddered, and walked back to where the ferryman was waiting for him.
“Did you get the answers you were looking for?” the ferryman asked.
“No,” Wilom admitted. “At least, not all of them. But I did get a few.”
“Are you pleased with that outcome?”
“I am content with it.”
The hood tilted in approval, and Wilom walked down the bank to collect the next soul.
When they were alone in the boat again, Wilom turned the conversation over and over in his mind. The lighthouse keeper hadn’t been honest with him, that was for sure. Vanda wasn’t dead, he could be sure of that, but …
The ferryman, he couldn’t imagine punishing someone with something permanent … couldn’t see him punishing anybody with anything, really. But the lighthouse keeper? He was less sure about the lighthouse keeper.
No. The ferryman was right. You didn’t take a job like these ones without being caring … compassionate …
But then, the lighthouse keeper’s job was very different, wasn’t it? The ferryman never said anything about the qualities needed for that job.
He shook his head. He was working himself up for no reason. He had no reason to distrust the lighthouse keeper.
But he did nevertheless.