Wilom had to coax the young man into the boat. He cried the whole way, though he tried to disguise it. Wilom made a few attempts at encouraging conversation. The young man made no response except for a weak smile, but that was enough. He got off at the other side, and didn’t look back or wave goodbye.
The ferryman turned to Wilom. “Well done,” he said.
Wilom nodded, and turned back to the River. “Can I go see the lighthouse keeper again?” he asked.
The ferryman nodded slowly, and let Wilom out on the bank.
The lighthouse keeper was already on the bank, at the bottom of the stairs, ready to go out with his lantern. Wilom stopped short.
“Wilom,” the lighthouse keeper greeted him. “I’m just about to go on patrol. Was there something urgent?”
Wilom shook his head. “No, nothing urgent,” he said.
The lighthouse keeper looked him up and down. “What’s on your mind?” he asked.
“I said it’s nothing urgent.”
The lighthouse keeper pressed his lips together. “Would you like to come on patrol with me for a little while?” he asked.
Wilom was taken aback. “What, to the… to the unlighted parts of the River?”
The lighthouse keeper nodded. “It will only be brief. And rather less eventful than your last trip there, if I am any judge.”
Wilom’s curiosity got the better of him. He nodded.
The lighthouse keeper offered a hand and Wilom took it.
“To make sure I don’t run away?” he joked.
The lighthouse keeper shook his head sombrely. “Quite the opposite,” he said. They started walking down the beach together.
“So, tell me what’s on your mind, lad,” the lighthouse keeper said as they walked.
Wilom didn’t answer for a moment. He was too busy looking at the River. For now, it was still perfectly visible, just as inky blue as usual. But soon the mist encroached, and the lantern was the only source of light, until Wilom couldn’t see the water anymore, only the sand beneath their feet and the light of the lantern illuminating the lighthouse keeper’s face.
He wasn’t looking at Wilom. His head was moving slowly but deliberately around in front of them, like he was keeping an eye on street signs so that he could find his way in an unfamiliar town. Wilom was reminded of Vanda in the Caves.
“The ferryman isn’t telling me everything,” he said, carefully.
The lighthouse keeper never took his eyes off the path ahead. He said, “You told me you knew that.”
“I do. And I did. I don’t expect him to tell me everything. I mean, there’s lot of stuff I never told him. I just don’t know what questions I need to be asking.”
The lighthouse keeper’s mouth twitched in a brief smile before he returned to looking up and down the beach. “That’s always the trick, isn’t it? What do you want to know?”
Wilom raised a hand to brush at the mist coming towards his face. It was giving him the same slimy, crawling feeling as walking through cobwebs.
“I don’t know,” Wilom said.
“This knowledge that you feel is so important but cannot identify,” the lighthouse keeper said. “What would you do with it if you had it?”
Was that a joke, or an honest question? Wilom decided to bet on honest question. “I’d decide whether to stay and be a ferryman.”
“I see. Does that help you find the question?”
“Of course it doesn’t!” Wilom growled. The mist and the dark were starting to get to him – there was a chilled sensation growing inside his spine, and the lighthouse keeper and the ferryman were equally frustrating.
“My apologies then,” the lighthouse keeper said, without changing his demeanour at all.
“No, wait.” Wilom gathered himself. “I’m sorry.”
“Take your time,” the lighthouse keeper suggested. “And don’t be so afraid.”
Easier said than done. Wilom had never been particularly afraid of the dark, but the dark and the mist and the memory of the shades on the sides of the River were all combining into one mind-numbing ball of uneasiness.
The lighthouse keeper turned, and Wilom followed him. He didn’t know where they were going anymore, or even how far they’d gone. He didn’t even know what the lighthouse keeper was looking for.
Then the lighthouse keeper stopped.
“What?” Wilom asked.
“Nothing. We just need to go this way now.”
They continued walking, now directly away from the River. Wilom, trying to guess what the landscape around them looked like, flinched with every step in case they were about to walk into the cliff face.
The lighthouse keeper chuckled. “The cliff is not that close. Don’t worry.”
Wilom relaxed a little, but not much. The lantern light held steady, and the lighthouse keeper remained vigilant. Their little circle of light felt private, like nothing they said could be heard outside it.
“I have to decide whether or not to stay on the River,” Wilom said, half to himself. “The information I want would tell me whether or not to stay. Right?”
“I don’t know,” the lighthouse keeper said. “I don’t know what the information is that you’re looking for. But is it the decision that’s hanging over your head, or the knowledge you feel like you lack?”
“The decision,” Wilom decided. “I don’t mind secrets being kept from me.”
“I quite like it on the River,” Wilom said. “But I don’t know if I could stay there forever.”
“Then leave. You can always come back. I am, in fact, inclined to think it’s inevitable.”
Wilom tried to ignore the shiver that went down his back. “We had to be here when you said that, didn’t we?” he muttered.
“But you don’t entirely want to leave, do you?” the lighthouse keeper said. “Otherwise you would have done it already.”
Wilom nodded. “I’m not too sure about this Duty thing,” he admitted. “I just feel like I’m signing a contract without reading it first.”
“You’ve read all of the contract,” the lighthouse keeper assured him. “There’s not much to the ferryman that’s hidden, for all that he doesn’t talk about himself. There’s no depth to him.”
“No shades – he’s all one colour. If you understand my meaning”
The lighthouse keeper stopped all of a sudden and let go of Wilom’s hand. Wilom made a wild grab for it back, purely on instinct, but the lighthouse keeper put his hand on Wilom’s shoulder.
“Steady,” he said.
He started to kneel and Wilom hurried to follow suit, anxious to keep all of himself within the tiny pool of light.
As they knelt down, a figure became visible, sitting on the almost-sand. Wilom couldn’t tell how old the figure was, only that it was shivering.
Wilom resisted the urge to say something to the figure. This wasn’t his part of the River. Who knew what the rules were here.
The lighthouse keeper reached out to the shaking arm and brushed it lightly.
The figure looked up, panic in its eyes.
It barely looked human. Its eyes were huge, its hair looked like it was starting to fall out. Its limbs were long and spindly, and on its face, what wasn’t eyes was pinched and gaunt.
The lighthouse keeper held out his hand to the figure, who looked at him but did not take his hand.
Wilom looked between the figure and the lighthouse keeper.
The figure took the lighthouse keeper’s hand. It put its head down and drew in a deep, shuddering breath. And then it stood up. It was much taller than the lighthouse keeper, and it hunched over him to keep holding onto his hand. The lighthouse keeper stood with it, and Wilom hurried to follow.
The lighthouse keeper handed Wilom the lantern, never looking away from the figure’s eyes.
Wilom took the lantern without looking at it, also unable to look away from the huge, spindly thing holding the lighthouse keeper’s hand so gently, and with such long fingers.
“Stay here,” the lighthouse keeper said, and walked away from the lantern light.
Wilom took a step towards him. “Wait!”
Wilom’s heart jumped into his throat as lighthouse keeper and figure, still keeping their eyes fixed on each other, walked into the darkness.
Wilom clenched the handle on the lantern until his fingers hurt and his palms stung from his fingernails. His chest clenched and burned and he wrapped his free arm around his chest, certain that everything around him could hear his heart hammering.
The light shook and he gripped it tighter, terrified of shaking so much he dropped it.
When the lighthouse keeper returned, Wilom screamed. He clapped a hand over his mouth.
The lighthouse keeper winced, and held his hand out for the lantern. “Goodness, boy,” he said. “I would have thought living with the ferryman would have given you a stronger constitution.”
“Sorry,” Wilom mumbled and handed him the lantern back. “Was that a shade?”
The lighthouse keeper shook his head. “Not quite,” he said. “It’s complicated.”
He dropped the lantern a little lower, and then Wilom realised that he was holding something, a small light, cupped in his hand.
“Just a little gift,” the lighthouse keeper said. “A bargain, if you will.” He held his elbow out and Wilom wrapped his arm around it. The lighthouse keeper started walking down the beach again.
And then there was the door in the stone wall, within half a minute.
The lighthouse keeper nudged Wilom, who let go of his arm.
“Thank you,” Wilom said.
“You’re quite welcome.”
“What will you do with the light? Is it … what is it?”
“He and I are going to have a little chat,” the lighthouse keeper said. “And then he will have to make a decision, too.”
The lighthouse keeper smiled. “This is the bargain. Safe passage.”
“Is that a dead person?” Wilom asked.
“No,” the lighthouse keeper said.
“A shade?” Wilom guessed.
Wilom threw up his hands. “Alright, I won’t ask.”
“Best you don’t,” the lighthouse keeper said.
He walked towards the door. Wilom thought quickly. He felt like there was something he was missing, something he should be asking or saying, and if he didn’t ask now, he might not get another chance.
“Wait,” he said, and the lighthouse keeper stopped, about to push open the door with his lantern hand.
“What you’re doing now … it’s against the rules, isn’t it?”
“No,” the lighthouse keeper said. “It isn’t.”
He went to open the door, and then paused. He looked back at Wilom with an expression that was halfway between amused and pitying.
“You are very like the ferryman,” he said. “The ferryman and I do not follow the same rules. So yes, this would be against the rules for him. But not for me.”
Wilom nodded. “Thank you again,” he said.
He went back to the ferryman, where the boat was waiting for him.
“Did you find out what you wanted to know?” the ferryman asked.
“No. But I found out some other things.”
The ferryman nodded. “Duty,” he said, and nodded down the beach.
“I know,” Wilom said, and started off. Then he stopped and turned back.
“I just want to say one thing before I go.”
The hood turned fully to face him.
“I don’t understand any of this,” Wilom said. “Not you, not the lighthouse keeper, not the River or the shades. Not what I have to do, or what you want me to do, or what I want to do. I just want you to know – I don’t understand.”
The ferryman’s hood did not move. There was no response from inside it.
“That’s all,” Wilom said, and walked away.