The woman on the beach looked stunned, half-dazed. She stood unsteadily and looked up at him with the expression of someone who wasn’t really seeing what her eyes were pointing at.
Wilom knelt down a respectful distance away, and didn’t stare at her. People often came to the River like that, especially those who had died violently.
“Mngh,” she said.
Wilom took this as his cue to look over. “Hello,” he said.
Her eyes were beginning to focus. She looked out over the River, then back at Wilom, chafing her arms as if against a chill.
“How are you feeling?” Wilom asked.
She shook her head. “Dizzy,” she said.
“It’ll pass in a few moments.”
“Am I dead?” she asked.
“Yes, I’m afraid so,” Wilom said.
She looked at him, horrified, and Wilom realised that she’d been joking.
“Sorry,” he said, silently cursing his lack of thought.
She shook her head. “I … don’t know what to say.”
“No need to say anything,” Wilom said. “Are you ready to go?”
She nodded, numbly, and reached out her hand to take his outstretched palm. They stood up together. She put her free hand to her head, and he waited until she had recovered to start walking towards the boat.
“I remember the crowd,” she mumbled, mostly to herself.
“Crowds are more dangerous than most people realise,” Wilom said. “Here’s the boat.” He helped her in, and climbed in after her, ready to steady her if she needed it as the ferryman pushed the boat away from the bank.
“It wasn’t just a crowd,” she said. “It was … we were protesting. A politician … he died, but it wasn’t just old age and illness like all the news said. He was the only one stopping the war. So … that’s right … we were protesting. They were slow about instating his replacement … it was deliberate, definitely deliberate. So we were protesting. And then …”
Wilom nodded again.
She stopped talking. “A fight started. I don’t know how I died.” She chafed her arms again. “That’s so strange. I imagined a lot of things about death, but it never crossed my mind that I might not know how I died.”
“It’s fairly common,” Wilom said. “Especially in the confusion of a crowd.”
She nodded. “Well, I suppose it doesn’t make very much difference down here.”
Wilom shook his head, trying not to let it show on his face how much the phrase ‘it doesn’t make very much difference down here’ was starting to bother him. “It doesn’t, very much,” he said. “Here’s the bank. Good luck – and safe travel.”
She nodded, and got out of the boat.
Wilom watched her go, then watched the ferryman as he poled them back over.
“A protest?” he asked.
“Wasn’t there that politician who came through recently, who died of ‘flu? Do you think it might be the same person?”
“It may have been. But it is impossible to tell.”
“Right.” He rested his elbow on the gunwale and leaned his chin on his hand. “It seems like everything is pretty difficult up there right now,” he said.
“It could be. Or it could just be a few events.”
“A politician dying? Hangings for information trading? How many people have come through mentioning war now?” Wilom asked. “How are they just a few events?”
“These are not large things yet,” the ferryman said. “Whether they grow to be large things in the future is a different matter, but just at the moment, these are not large, disruptive events.”
“People are dying!”
The ferryman’s hood turned to Wilom, and he hesitated. “I … guess that’s a bit of a stupid thing to say.”
“It is not a stupid thing to say,” the ferryman said. “Only perhaps not accurate.”
Wilom stopped talking, and looked down at the River.
After a moment, a thought occurred to him. “What would be an accurate description, in your opinion?”
“In my opinion, it is accurate that people are dying for reasons that are both different than usual, and not of natural causes. And that upsets you.”
Wilom nodded. “It does. Is that bad?”
“You care,” the ferryman said. “It is necessary.”
“So, you feel bad about the idea of a war, too, then?” Wilom pressed. “I mean, you always say that you care, and if being upset when people die is caring, then …”
“It is different,” the ferryman said. “I care, and I feel sympathy. I do not feel bad.”
Wilom nodded slowly. “Thank you,” he said.
“You are welcome.”
“You’re not going to ask why?”
“You are welcome to everything that I have given or expressed, so what does it matter which one you are thanking me for?”
“Well, I want to tell you,” Wilom said. “Thank you for always answering me honestly.”
Wilom wondered if he sensed just a little change in the tone of the voice from under the hood, a little pride or satisfaction. Even, perhaps, a little fondness? No, he was kidding himself. He had no doubt the ferryman felt all of those things, but he doubted he’d ever hear them in the ferryman’s voice.