After several increasingly hazy walks home, Wilom had to concede that the unease in the back of his mind was probably, finally, worth the trip to the ferryman.
He hitchhiked most of the way back to the coast, leaving Friday morning and arriving late on Saturday evening. He passed his own town and headed straight for the lighthouse.
The lighthouse keeper arrived at the bottom of the stairs, lantern already lit. “Ah, Wilom,” he said. “Nice to see you again. I have some errands to run, but shall I take you to the ferryman?”
“Uh … sure. Thanks.”
The lighthouse keeper led him downstairs and out the base of the cliff, and pointed him in the right direction.
“Come back up this way,” he said. “It would be nice to have a chat before you leave.”
Wilom, on a sudden whim, took off his shoes and left them at the side of the cliff. He wiggled his toes, feeling the not-sand squish under his feet. Soon, he saw the boat coming for him.
The hood turned to face him, then the rest of the cloak.
“Hello,” Wilom said. “Good to see you again.”
“I am glad you decided to visit,” the ferryman said. “Have you been enjoying yourself?”
“Well enough,” Wilom said. “How have you been?”
“I am the same as always.”
“I’ll take that as a ‘good’,” Wilom said.
The hood turned up the bank. Wilom knew that gesture.
“There’s someone there, isn’t there?”
“I, ah … I need to talk to you about something,” Wilom said.
The ferryman gestured to the boat. Wilom grinned. “I’ll walk down the shore,” he said, “Then I’ll meet you..”
The ferryman nodded.
Wilom didn’t even have to search to find Tano Matison.
“Hello,” he said.
“Oh, thank goodness,” Tano said. “I was starting to think I was stuck here.”
“Not stuck. Are you ready to go?” The old phrases sprang back into his mouth like he’d never left the River.
“I, uh …”
If you need a little time,” Wilom said, “that’s alright.”
“Is something bothering you?”
The man glanced at the cliffs. “No. Or rather, nothing you can help with.”
“There isn’t a way back, if that’s what you mean,” Wilom said.
“I suspected so.”
Wilom looked over his shoulder. “But if you like, I’ll take a message for you.”
Tano immediately looked interested. “You’re … wait, if there’s no way back …?”
“Not normally,” Wilom said. “But I’m not precisely normal. Tell me where to take the message, and who to.”
“To Naise Matison, in Hyston. Tell him … tell him the new coil wouldn’t have mattered, because the problem wasn’t in the radiator. So he’s not to worry, because it wasn’t his fault.”
Wilom nodded. “I’ll get the message to him. Now, are you ready?”
“Yeah. Yeah, let’s go.”
Wilom climbed into the boat with Tano, and took up his old place at the front. The trip passed amicably, and Tano thanked them as he left.
“So, then,” the ferryman said, as he turned the boat around. “You had something you needed to discuss?”
“That man’s name was Tano Matison,” Wilom said. “He was almost twenty. He was more worried about his brother feeling guilty than himself being dead, because he was worried that his accident would affect his brother’s ability to run their mechanic’s shop. He didn’t tell me that. I also know when someone’s at the door a good half a minute before it opens.”
“Well done,” the ferryman said. “You’ve been practicing.”
“I call it the Ferryman’s Knowledge,” Wilom said. “But I don’t know what you call it.”
“That’s a very good name.”
“Is it what you call it?”
“I do not call it anything. Your name is a good one.”
Wilom didn’t know why he’d expected anything different.
“I was wondering when you would start to use it. It is a side effect of the job, after all.”
“I, um. I figured, thanks. I was wondering — how do I use it?”
“You already are. If you require further instruction, you will have to come back to the River and become a ferryman.”
“But … wait, that’s not fair! Vanda uses what she learned from the lighthouse keeper! Why can’t I have that?”
The hood turned to face Wilom. “I do not know what deal she made. But if she is using those powers, then she must have made a deal. I do not know all the particulars of the lighthouse keeper’s job, just as it would be counterproductive for him to know all the particulars of mine. I am sure that how he deals with his apprentices is his own affair.”
Wilom leaned back against the boat. He had a feeling he and Vanda would have a lot to talk about when he saw her next.
“Can I make a deal with you?” he asked.
“Will you become a ferryman?”
“If you would like to, you are free to come back and learn at any time.”
“I don’t … um. Not yet.”
“Is that the only deal available?” Wilom tried desperately to think of what he should say. What was the right question to ask? Or, what would the ferryman say was the right question?
They touched on the bank. “Was there anything else?” the ferryman asked.
Wilom concealed a sigh. “No,” he said. “Nothing for the moment.”
The hood tipped to the side. Wilom waved and headed back to the lighthouse. He slipped his shoes back on and knocked on the part of the cliff where he assumed the door was.
The lighthouse keeper opened the door two feet to his right.
“Not quite,” he said.
“No need. Come back up. Would you like another pot of tea?”
A pot of tea sounded like exactly what he needed. “Sure. I think it’s your choice this time.”
Upstairs, Wilom waited while the ferryman boiled the jug and went about the motions of making tea. The conversation with the ferryman rankled – was the ferryman being intentionally obtuse? Or was Wilom being particularly dense?
He waited to speak to the lighthouse keeper until the mug was in his hand. It seemed rude to interrupt the process.
“Any news?” he asked, first.
“Nothing of note,” the lighthouse keeper said.
“If it’s not a presumptuous question…”
The lighthouse keeper interrupted with a short chuckle. “All questions are presumptuous,” he said. “But ask anyway — I don’t mind.”
“It’s about Vanda,” Wilom said. “She said you taught her some tricks. I think I picked up a few things from the ferryman, myself, which is what I went to ask about.”
The lighthouse keeper sat down and sipped the tea as he listened.
“I asked the ferryman if he could teach me a few things,” Wilom said. “But he said I’d need to agree to becoming a ferryman myself. Vanda said you’re teaching her, but she isn’t becoming a lighthouse keeper. I was wondering … what deal did she make?”
The lighthouse keeper sipped his tea, and lowered the mug.
“She and I did make a deal,” he said. “The terms of it are somewhat complicated, though.”
“Yeah,” Wilom said. “I tried to ask about an alternate deal with the ferryman, but he refused.”
The lighthouse keeper smiled into his mug. “That is unsurprising.”
“I didn’t want to take that deal,” Wilom said.
“The deal I made with Vanda,” the lighthouse keeper said, “involved far looser terms than the ferryman would agree to, I think. But then, he does tend to think only of the River.”
“But that’s the job the Ferryman’s Knowledge is tailored for,” Wilom said. “Right?”
The lighthouse keeper looked at him over the rim of the mug.
“Ah, I mean … well, I had to call it something.”
“Indeed. Tell me, though. If you had learned how to write, would you be fit only for a job as a journalist? If you had a talent for matching colours, would you be only suited for a job as a tailor? You are not a ferryman, yet those talents have come in useful, haven’t they?”
Wilom sat back in his chair. “Yeah,” he said. “But that’s not what they’re designed for. My finding homes for people displaced by the war hasn’t got a lot to do with the ferryman. And it doesn’t benefit him. I do understand why he’s not willing to teach me.”
The lighthouse keeper put his mug down on the table. “Yes, I understand your point.”
“And?” Wilom asked.
“You’re talking around me, not to me,” Wilom said.
“Our deal is complicated. Favours given, favours exchanged. You should know us by now.”
Wilom put his mug down. “I’m not getting the entire picture, but that’s probably just because I’m thick.”
“Possibly. But don’t feel bad. You were trained by the ferryman, after all.”
“So you keep reminding me,” Wilom said. “Thanks for clearing that up. I should probably get travelling, if I’m to get back.”
“No need,” the lighthouse keeper said. “I’ll take you most of the way. And for the record, you don’t need to be that polite. I expect I cleared up precisely nothing for you, rather intentionally.”
“Thanks for the tea, anyway. Do you mind if I stop at Hyston? I promised I’d take a message.”
“That would be fine. To whom?”
“Naise Matison,” Wilom said. “From his dead brother.”
“It’s against the rules,” the lighthouse keeper said, “to take messages back and forth from the dead.”
“Are you going to stop me?”
“No, I just thought you should know. Come with me.”
Vanda had good control over her travelling, but Wilom soon realised the vast gulf of experience between her and the lighthouse keeper. They arrived directly outside Naise Matison’s door. Vanda never had that kind of precision.
Wilom walked up and knocked.
A woman opened it. She was dressed in grey and white. Mourning.
“I’m very sorry to interrupt,” he said. “Is Naise Matison here?”
She nodded. “He’s here. Who is this?”
“A friend of Tano’s. My name is Wilom.”
She hesitated. “Alright.”
She closed the door behind her. Wilom heard her footsteps retreating, then the sound of voices. It was only a couple moments before the door opened again.
“Yes. My wife said you were a friend of my brother’s, but … I don’t think he ever mentioned you.”
“I only met him very recently. Sorry to disturb you. He gave me a message for you.”
“What did he say?”
“He said that you shouldn’t worry. The problem wasn’t the radiator, so the new coil wouldn’t have mattered.”
Naise’s face remained stony. “When did he say that?”
“Very recently, and he was very insistent I get the message to you. Thanks for your time. Have a very pleasant evening.” He turned and left.
“Hey, wait!” Naise called after him.
“That’s all he wanted me to say.”
“Where the hell did you meet him?”
“On a river, once.” Wilom left after that. He should have sent a letter.
Thankfully, Naise didn’t say anything else. Wilom heard the door close, slowly, and with only a gentle click of the handle.