A short story of the ferryman and the lighthouse keeper.
The ferryman pushed away from the bank and began to row. He was used by now to the lack of noise and the feel of the water against his oar, but he was still not used to having his own boat. No senior ferryman to speak to on the way back, nobody to ask if he had questions.
Nevertheless, though his first job had been difficult, it had gone well. He could choose to believe that he had made the right decision when he ended his apprenticeship.
The bank loomed. He nosed the boat up onto the sand and looked for his next passenger.
The young man he was supposed to pick up was walking away from him.
The ferryman got out of the boat and followed him. He did not need to hurry to catch up – the young man was walking slowly and calmly – much calmer than the ferryman was used to, from those fleeing the boat.
“Excuse me,” the ferryman said.
The young man turned to look at him. “Oh!” He brushed his brown hair away from where it had gotten caught in his mouth. His face was long and angular, with high cheekbones and a sharp nose. He thrust his hand out towards the ferryman. “Pleasure to meet you!”
Peculiar. But the ferryman had learned that the peculiar happened frequently enough, given time. He shook the young man’s hand.
“Pleasure to meet you,” the ferryman said. “Are you ready to come with me?”
The young man shook his head. “No, I won’t be going that way, but thank you. Would you like to come with me, perhaps?”
The ferryman couldn’t help it. A look of puzzlement crept across his face. He tried to stamp it out – it was not appropriate for a ferryman to be puzzled, but he was too late to quash it entirely.
The young man laughed out loud. “Cup of tea, perhaps?” he asked. “I’ve got quite a variety.”
“I should not leave the River,” the ferryman said. It was the only sensible objection he could come up with in his surprise.
“Oh, I understand. I forgot, sorry. You could tell me your name, at least. That way we’re properly introduced.”
The ferryman shook his head. “Please just call me the ferryman,” he said.
“The ferryman? That’s a job, not a name.”
“I suppose you wouldn’t get called much else, would you?”
The young man chuckled. “Well, you may call me whatever you want.”
“Surely you have a name.”
“Surely you have one.”
“Do you resent me not giving you a real name?” The ferryman didn’t think that was the case – the young man’s tone was far too jovial. But he asked anyway, just in case he was wrong.
“No. I only find it curious.”
The ferryman felt a familiar tug on his mind. He turned automatically down the bank.
“There is someone there,” he said. “You really must not be here to cross the river.”
“I did say.”
“I apologise for not believing you, then.”
The young man chuckled at him again, walked towards the cliffs, and disappeared.
The ferryman arrived back on the bank. There was nobody to collect, but the young man was sitting, waiting for him with a steaming pot of tea.
“You never came, so I brought the tea to you,” he said.
The ferryman sat down on the bank next to the young man and accepted the mug of tea that was offered to him.
“You might, if you wished, call me the lighthouse keeper,” the young man said.
“I see. Thank you.”
The lighthouse keeper sipped his tea. “I thought so,” he said.
“What did you think?”
“You just accept things as they come, don’t you? I don’t think you would have minded if I’d never given you a name to call me by.”
“Truly, no,” the ferryman said. “I don’t see why that’s a problem. Everything comes or does not, no matter whether we expect it or want it or try to prevent it. My Duty rather requires me to be content with that.”
The lighthouse keeper shook his head. “Yours, maybe. Mine doesn’t.”
The ferryman was about to respond, but he felt a familiar tug on his mind, and automatically turned to it. “Speaking of Duty,” he said.
“I know, I know,” the lighthouse keeper said.
“Thank you for the tea,” the ferryman said.
“You’re welcome. Shall I come back sometime?”
The ferryman shrugged. “If you wish.”
“When my daughter comes through here, you’ll tell her I sent my love, won’t you?”
The ferryman nodded. “I will.” He did not tell the woman that her daughter might not come past this part of the River. He didn’t know if he would ever be able to fulfil his promise, or if she or her daughter would ever know whether he did or not. But he promised anyway, because it would make her feel better if he did. It was the only part of his Duty that had never truly sat well with him.
When he returned to the other bank and the lighthouse keeper was waiting for him, rather than another person to take across, the ferryman found himself rather glad.
He got out of the boat and sat down with the lighthouse keeper.
“You look as though you could use some cheering up today,” the lighthouse keeper said, handing him a mug of tea.
“Thank you. Does it really seem that way?”
“Well, you look marginally more sombre than when I last saw you.”
The ferryman shrugged. “Perhaps,” he said.
The lighthouse keeper gave him a long look.
“I don’t particularly want to talk about it,” the ferryman said. “It is sometimes difficult to do the job. It is … difficult to be both open and closed at the same time.”
The ferryman stopped talking and the lighthouse keeper took a sip of his tea.
“I understand,” he said, after a long moment. “I speak to a lot of lost people, and it can be difficult sometimes. They all seem to make the same choices.”
The ferryman nodded. “Yes. And yet …”
“Indeed,” the lighthouse keeper said. “And yet.”
The silence, this time, was a little more companionable.
The ferryman looked up. “Duty calls,” he said.
“Never time to finish your tea,” the lighthouse keeper sighed, taking back the mug.
The ferryman stood up and paused. “I have a request,” he said. “You return to the living world when you go to your lighthouse, correct?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“Perhaps, then,” the ferryman said, “you might get something for me next time you go?”
“I suppose I could try,” the lighthouse keeper said with a grin.
“A cloak. With a hood. A large hood.”
The lighthouse keeper’s grin faded, and he nodded. “Yes,” he said. “I can do that.”
The next time the lighthouse keeper came to see the ferryman, he did not bring tea.
“You never seem to finish a mug,” he said. “So I brought a sandwich instead. I thought you might take it with you if we got cut off again.”
The ferryman nodded and accepted the sandwich and the cloak. “Thank you.”
The ferryman put the cloak on, and unwrapped the sandwich from its paper.
The lighthouse keeper watched him eat with a smile on his face for a short while, then he asked, “How is the cloak?”
The ferryman lowered his head over the sandwich, and smiled, and though it was a nice expression, it made him feel a little protected to know that the lighthouse keeper couldn’t see it.
“It’s perfect,” he said. “Thank you.”
“Are you ready?”
The woman got onto the boat and sat near the prow, leaning out over the River as the boat slipped over the water.
“I have something to tell you,” the ferryman said.
The woman looked back. “What is it?”
“Your mother came past. She asked for me to send you her love, when I saw you.”
The woman smiled gently. “Thank you. I’m glad you remembered.”
“Of course I remembered,” the ferryman said. “I remember everything.”
And for once, it seemed wholly and entirely the right thing to say.