Wilom started to grow tired of waiting for the ferryman to say something. Being in the boat was starting to chafe. Not the job – Duty – itself; there was never any difference in that. But he and the ferryman seemed to have hit a sort of rut. Their silences were nothing like the companionable silences they used to have, the silent understanding that there was nothing they really needed to say. Now, they seemed stale. The big unanswered question of whether Wilom would leave or stay hung between them and Wilom couldn’t talk without feeling like he was deliberately avoiding the topic. The ferryman’s manner didn’t change, but Wilom was sure he felt it too.
Several times, Wilom very nearly worked up the courage to give an answer one way or the other. He would make his decision, turn to the ferryman, open his mouth, and then say something entirely different.
He could not stay. He would never be happy – he would never be satisfied. He couldn’t keep the living world out of his mind, especially not when soldiers and villagers from small border towns kept coming through. The ferryman’s duty stretched before him forever, and it made him feel dizzy.
But on the other hand, he couldn’t leave, either. He would have failed. This was the only thing in his life he’d ever stuck with, the only thing he’d had the patience for. Back in the living world, would he move on? Or go back to his old habits? Besides, after the lighthouse keeper and the ferryman had such faith in him, and spent so much time teaching him? What sort of person would just throw all that away?
No. He could do neither. So he remained in his apprenticeship, in the boat, and grew slowly more and more miserable.
He wished Vanda would come back. He wished he had someone else to talk to. Someone who wasn’t the lighthouse keeper and who definitely wasn’t the ferryman, but knew what was going on nonetheless. It had been a long time since she last came through. Perhaps she had managed to stay for good this time.
He remembered the thrill of running down the bank with her, and for a moment he felt guilty again. That was the old him. The stupid decisions, the thrill-seeking. That was back when he was … irresponsible. An idiot. But he couldn’t stop thinking about it. And he couldn’t stop thinking about the people he’d never been back to see. He shook his head. No regrets, he reminded himself. He’d come here to get away from the things he regretted.
His heart sank. Regret. Of all his emotions, regret was the worst.
He glanced back at the ferryman, took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
There was always a simple answer, right?
When the boat touched the shore, Wilom stepped out of it, and turned to face the ferryman.
“I’m leaving,” he said.
The ferryman just nodded.
“I’m sorry,” Wilom said. “I’ll just … I realised I’ll regret it if I don’t.”
“I forgive you. You aren’t ready,” the ferryman said calmly. It was not an accusation. The ferryman seemed to have no disappointment on the subject. It was everything Wilom had expected, and nothing that he felt.
The lighthouse keeper was suddenly also on the beach, and Wilom turned to him.
“I’m sorry,” he said again.
The lighthouse keeper smiled and said, “Don’t you remember me telling you that we are not people who have to worry about wasted time?”
Wilom nodded. “I remember. But still …”
“Would you like to return some day?” the ferryman asked.
“Yes!” Wilom said. “This is the only thing I’m any good at. And I like it. I’m just not … prepared for it. I mean, I appreciate everything, but I need to do something else for a while.”
The hood dipped and raised. “I hope I will see you again soon,” the ferryman said.
He couldn’t mean what Wilom thought he meant by that. “Really?”
“Yes. You should come and visit. You do, after all, know where to find me.”
Had that been … a joke? Wilom grinned. “Yeah, that’d be good. Definitely!” Was it just his imagination, or was the ferryman was talking to him like he talked to the lighthouse keeper
The hood dipped and raised again.
The lighthouse keeper turned to Wilom. “Shall we get moving?”
Wilom nodded. “Yes. Just take me to the lighthouse door. I’d like to walk from there.”
“If you like.” The lighthouse keeper nodded to the ferryman.
“I’ll see you again,” Wilom said. “Hopefully more than once.”
“I would like that.”
Wilom followed the lighthouse keeper down the beach, towards the door in the cliff, and back home.