Wilom regretted letting Vanda talk him into see the ferryman, but he didn’t turn her away when she came to collect him. He’d meant what he said. Vanda shouldn’t need to bully him into facing his problems like an adult, and he needed very badly to be done with this particular problem.
Wilom took a moment to look over at the town. He realised that, for all the times he’d been back or near it, he’d never taken the time to look, except for when he left the River the first time. Then, he’d been shocked by the tall buildings. Now, he was surprised at how little it had changed. He couldn’t see Jali and Tanim’s house from here, but it would probably still be there. Another family might be living there now. Or perhaps another branch of his family — one of Jali and Tanim’s children who inherited the house.
Vanda said nothing as Wilom stood and thought, until he realised he was probably keeping her waiting.
“Sorry,” he said.
“No problem. Everything OK?”
“Fine. I just needed a moment.” Wilom turned towards the lighthouse. “There’ll be plenty of time for standing and gawking later. Maybe I should pay the town a proper visit sometime, when everything calms down.”
“Yeah,” Vanda said. “You can show me your old house and everything.”
“I could do that. I can show you where I used to feed chickens.”
Vanda smiled. “I forget you used to feed chickens.”
“I was a little shit,” Wilom said. “I rarely did anything else.”
Wilom left Vanda with the lighthouse keeper and made his way down to the ferryman on his own. The ferryman was waiting for him there, in the boat, same as always.
But this time, there was a young boy with him. He was sitting in Wilom’s old spot, and kept glancing from Wilom to the ferryman and back again.
A new apprentice.
“Good to see you again,” he said to the ferryman, and then to the boy, “Hinden? My name is Wilom.”
The boy nodded, and shook Wilom’s hand. “Good … good to meet you.”
“Hinden,” the ferryman said, “you know where the lighthouse keeper is. Go and have a cup of tea with him. Wilom and I won’t be long.”
The boy jumped out of the boat and hurried along the beach. Wilom sat down on the side of it and watched him go.
“Is he always that nervous?” he asked.
“Yes. And you were always that stubborn. How is the living world?”
“I’m learning a lot,” Wilom said. The ferryman was stalling for his sake, but he wanted to draw it out a little, to put off the moment when he was going to ruin everything. “Especially about getting in over my head.”
Wilom grinned, a little wryly. “Just like always — nothing’s ever quite what I expect.”
“I should think that applies to a large portion of humanity.”
“You’re not wrong. I have some other questions,” Wilom said before he could think about it too much.
“I know. But you also like pleasantries and small talk.”
“Yes,” Wilom said. “I guess I do. Listen — there’s something I don’t understand about all of this. You and the lighthouse keeper both take apprentices, yeah? That’s what Vanda is, technically.”
“That is correct.”
“But you’ve both said that we’re free not to follow you two if we don’t want to. We can go off, live lives, be normal people, never worry about the River again, until it comes time for us to cross it ourselves.”
“That is also correct.”
Wilom gathered himself “Then, this is what I don’t get: Why give us special powers? It doesn’t make any sense to have people just wandering around the world with supernatural abilities. I think …” he hesitated just a moment. “I think you actually expect us to come back and take up the jobs, no matter what you – or we – say.”
“You’ve gotten better at asking questions,” the ferryman said. “Yes. I do expect you to take a job on the River.”
“Right,” Wilom said. “But … how do you know?”
“If you were not likely to, your apprenticeship would not have lasted nearly as long as it did.”
“You’ve decided I’m likely to take up the responsibility, so you give me powers. What if I decide now not to take you up?”
“I couldn’t stop you. I can’t even leave the River. Are you planning to decide against it?”
“I told you when I left that I don’t want to be confined to the River. There’s a lot of good I can do for the living with the Ferryman’s Knowledge, even if you don’t think it’s that important. And I can continue doing it forever. Vanda and I have already guessed we’re basically immortal, or at least we live for a very long time.”
“That is all correct. So, you spend your time among the living, with your friends. I assume you have met and befriended all manner of people up there.”
“Do you live with others, or by yourself?”
“With a family. A brother and sister, and the sister’s daughter.”
“So, you live with them … how long? Ten years? Fifteen? Until they notice that you do not age?”
“I had planned to get my own house before that,” Wilom said.
“But you’ll want to stay friends with them, no doubt,” the ferryman said. “If you manage to stop them realising your secret, what of when they die?”
“Does it bother you that your time with the people coming across the river is short? I know they’ll die. It doesn’t stop the time with them being worthwhile.”
“An excellent answer. What of the war? How are you feeling about that?”
Wilom hesitated. “What do you mean?”
“A lot of people are dying. Does that bother you?”
“Everyone dies,” Wilom said.
“So, if the war happened to kill one of your friends?”
“What kind of a question is that?”
“A relevant one.”
“Are you trying to ask if I’d be sad? Of course I would!”
“But everyone dies. You just said you were at peace with that.”
Wilom hesitated. “That doesn’t mean it’s not …”
“You mourn for the years they never lived, correct?”
“I don’t understand why this is an issue. I’m allowed to accept something is a possibility and also not want it to happen.”
“And I would be disappointed if you would feel nothing if one of your best friends died.”
“Is that it?” Wilom asked.
“You seem to understand everything adequately. I won’t try to change your mind, if it is made up. You are free to make your own decisions. I would never assert otherwise.”
“Then … then I’m asking the wrong question,” Wilom said. “That’s not what I was getting at. You keep giving me the obvious answers, but not the full answers. What is it you think I’ll figure out in time? What don’t you think I have enough experience to have worked out for myself just yet?”
“In order to answer, I have a question I must ask you.”
“If you are so determined not to take up the mantle, why are you looking so desperately for reasons you will have to?”
Wilom paused. “I’m …”
“Or have I misunderstood?”
“I hate it when you do that,” Wilom muttered, looking down at the River water. “Just tell me when I’m being dense. Don’t give me a way to justify my way out of it.”
The ferryman waited patiently for him to answer.
“I don’t know,” Wilom said, transferring his gaze to the sand, and then to the blue horizon past the ferryman. “I couldn’t be a ferryman, but I feel like I have to do something. I can’t be a normal human, and being a ferryman is familiar. I’m running away from making a decision again. Because I feel trapped either way I turn. So, tell me why you think I’ll take the job, and at least then I can compare it to my own reasons.”
“Very well. In that case, you will likely live just fine for the next forty years or so. Perhaps more, since you seem to have such a good friendship with Vanda. But death is different for you than for other people. The hardest part of death is not dying for them. It is being unsure. Do you remember the children that came through here? Do you remember how scared they were? Do you remember the fearful adults, even those who had lived out eighty-year lifespans. Do you remember how rare it was to find people truly accepting of death?”
“From this side, it is easy. The worst has happened. But can you imagine, should disease or injury come, sitting by your friend’s daughter’s deathbed, and not being able to really comfort her? Even if you could tell her what you know, you could never convince her that it’s more than a theory offered by a friend for solace.”
“Yes,” Wilom said. “I already knew all of that.”
“Then, I must ask: how many people will you be able to watch die with fear in their eyes before you decide it will be better and less painful if you deal with them only after all the fear??”
Wilom hesitated. “I …”
The ferryman waited for Wilom to respond, and when he got no response, continued, “You will see, too, the same wars and the same soldiers dying the same deaths over and over again. Lending aid is a noble pursuit, but also a never-ending one. You could work for all your years and never change a thing. It will always come back to the same fears and the same uncertainties, even if you solve all other problems for them.”
Wilom felt every word from the ferryman ring true, and it was a little dizzying. “Thank you,” he said.
“There is one more thing.”
“Last time you were here, you were concerned that the Ferryman’s Knowledge would make you detached from people, unable to really connect with them? You will find that sooner or later, your long life will do the same. You will have stories that people no longer understand because the world has moved on. Haven’t you already lied to people yet about how you spent your youth? Who your family was? What you did as a child? You told them what you thought they needed to hear. Doesn’t that detach you as much as the Ferryman’s Knowledge ever could?”
Wilom suddenly felt cold all over. “Thank you,” he said again.
The ferryman’s hood inclined.
“It’s a lot to think about.”
“You have all the time you need.”
“I mean it, thank you.” Wilom smiled at the ferryman. “I appreciate you being honest with me. And … I want you to know, I guessed something else.”
The hood inclined, inviting Wilom to continue.
“I know why the secrecy. Why the emphasis on the right questions. It’s another test. You don’t want someone using the Ferryman’s Knowledge or the Pathways if they don’t know how to self-examine and question presented evidence. You and the lighthouse keeper, this is your way of training your apprentices not to use their powers without questioning them, or without good reason.
The ferryman’s hood never changed. He just said, “Yes. It is one of the ways.”
“I think … I think, then, I appreciate the lesson. I still don’t enjoy it. But I appreciate it.”
“I know, and you are welcome. I also think you should know that you are the most Wilom person I have ever met.”
Wilom tried for a weak smile. “All things considered, it could be worse.”
He climbed the stairs to find Vanda, Hinton and the lighthouse keeper just finishing a pot of tea together.
“That was quicker than I expected,” Vanda said. “All finished?”
“Yeah. Hinton, the ferryman needs you again.”
“Oh!” Hinton put his cup down. “Nice to meet you, Wilom.”
Wilom pushed his best friendly smile onto his face. “You, too. I’ll see you again soon — next time I come back to see the ferryman.”
The lighthouse keeper saw them to the bottom of the stairs, and Wilom took Vanda’s hand. She drew them into the Pathways.
“Bad news?” she asked.
Wilom hesitated. “I don’t think so,” he said. “Difficult to tell.”
“Can you explain?”
He opened his mouth and hesitated. “I’m going to try,” he said. “But give me a moment to work out how to say it.”
“Sure. I can wait.”
“Thanks.” He bit his lip.
How to say it …?
“He just … the ferryman brought home some truths,” Wilom said.
“That sounds like …” Vanda started, but didn’t finish the sentence.
“Like I’m thinking of taking the ferryman job?” Wilom asked.
“I was,” Wilom said. “The ferryman was right. I can’t just ignore everything forever. And things are going to get … a lot harder, personally. But then I remembered that the ferryman tends to think of things as one or the other, black and white. Not very deep, the lighthouse keeper said about him once. So, I decided that I’m going to find out what the other option is, and I’m going to take it.”
“That’s good,” Vanda said. “How do you feel?”
“I think maybe we reconciled a little,” Wilom said. “But … frustrated. Terrified. Free. Very, very uncomfortable.” He said the last with a chuckle, which Vanda joined, but a second delayed.
“What about you and the lighthouse keeper?” Wilom asked.
“Fine. Just … a bit of an argument. If you can call what he does arguing.”
“No,” Vanda said. “It’s fine. We needed to have it. Let’s just get home. I think we could both do with today being over.”