"G'd evening, sir. Y' seem mighty calm for one about to cross th' river."
"I do not fear the river. In fact, I've been wanting to meet you for a very long time. Shall we?"
In which a man dies, and strikes up friendly conversation with the Watcher about life.
WATER RIPPLED ON the lake as the oars passed through the water and pushed the small boat forward. Fish darted up to the surface of the water as insects darted across its surface, splashing around the boat. Moonlight shone on the water, giving it a mystical appearance. The boat wobbled, and the older man steering it leaned forward by force of habit to reach for the large stick a lantern was attached to to steady himself. When the boat was stable again, he reached for the oars and continued his slow journey to the far shore of the lake. The only sounds he heard were the movements of the water and the rhythmic chirping of insects around him, including a cricket that was a common stowaway on his boat.
The shore was only a line in the distance. Something about the familiar sight of the lake reminded the scruffy, bearded man of his past life, -- a time in his memory that he disliked to dwell on for longer than necessary -- so he whistled an old tune they sang often in his youth to fill the near silence of his profession. When he had started off, the lack of outside noise that wasn’t insects or moving water was strange and terrifying to him, so he had taken to talking to himself to fill the silence. Of course, eventually he had gotten used to it and now it gave him a feeling of serenity, which was almost unfitting. Yet, he still remembered the myriad songs they had sung in his life before he became known as the old watcher on the river.
His destination came into view after many minutes of whistling and humming the songs of the old days. He wondered out loud if they still made music like that up there, or if the current generations had completely lost the ability to make a good song. One that would rile up a crowd in a bar and get them all dancing and singing. It really didn’t make a difference to him whether they had or not, since he would most likely never hear another song, but it was still something interesting to know. Was music as good as it used to be or had it become a shadow of what it once was?
He was so close to the shore that he could clearly see what awaited him on the other side. The two things that stuck out to him first were the Docks and the Weeping Willow. The Docks had been there for as long as anyone could remember -- which was the beginning of time. Nobody had come to cut down trees and build a dock in the middle of nowhere, but when they first arrived, the Docks were the first thing they saw. For years they remained unused, but when Mother joined them, she quickly found use for them. Hence, his tedious yet calming line of work. The Weeping Willow was an interesting story, yet he could never remember it when he was looking at the massive tree. Sometimes he wondered if it was an enchantment put on it, so that the tree’s story could never be recounted in its presence.
The third thing the Watcher noticed on the shore was the figure of a person sitting on the Docks, with their legs over the side and their feet almost touching the water. He wasn’t completely sure what to make of the sight, considering the fact that most people he picked up from the Docks were either extremely disoriented or unnecessarily angry at some higher force that they didn’t understand. He told himself that maybe this person had already gone through one of those stages and was just trying to calm themselves down.
Yet, when he was close enough to the Docks to talk to his next passenger, he saw that it was a man who appeared to be in his late twenties or early thirties. The passenger’s hair was longer than the usual male passengers and he was wearing a dress shirt and jeans. There seemed to be nothing strange about him other than his calmness, and there was nothing overly striking or attractive about his figure or dress. All-in-all, he seemed to be a completely average person. The one thing that did stick out about the man was the warm smile on his face when he looked up to see the boat. The Watcher would have shuddered if he wasn't used to things that frightened or unnerved him. An occupational hazard, as he always said.
“G’d evening, sir,” the old man said respectfully, bowing slightly. He was the Watcher, so he had the option to disrespect the passengers; there was nothing that told him he couldn’t. However, he felt that to do so was pure cruelty, as they had most likely been through enough already. The passenger pushed himself up and stood on top of the Docks, nodding in silent appreciation.
“Good evening, Watcher,” the passenger responded with the same tone when the boat was next to the Docks.
“I expect yer gonna cross th’ river,” the Watcher said, as a lighthearted joke. Of course the man was crossing the river. There was no other reason for him to be on the Docks, unless he was one of those crazy people who wanted to sit under the Willow for the rest of their life. Those were the kind of people that the Watcher hated. They made his job much harder.
“Of course,” the man responded, almost grinning from ear to ear. He reached into his pockets, procured two silver coins, and handed them to the old man with a sort of anticipation gleaming in his eyes that the Watcher had never seen before. “My fare.”
It had been many years since the old man had actually been given the once required fare to cross the river, so of course, he froze when given the coins. Many years before, it was required to have a fare of two silver coins to cross the river, and those who didn’t have the fare were those who still wandered the forest around the lake today. Maybe they had even found the end of the forest and made a settlement somewhere in a desert or a mountain. Either way, the way it went was no fare, no ride.
But that was many years ago. Times change, and people eventually stopped believing that this place was actually real, so they stopped giving people their fares. Thankfully, Mother was smart and caught on very quickly that the time had come for the fares to become obsolete. Instead, the passengers would use something that they had cherished in their past life -- like a promise ring, a pendant necklace, or a pen -- as their fare to cross, but nobody had prepared him for what to do in the off chance that someone actually brought him the old fare. The Watcher decided that Mother would understand if he accepted the old fare instead of the new one.
“Is everything alright?” the passenger asked, his eyebrows furrowed and his lips a slight frown. No doubt he was worried by the Watcher’s silence.
“All’s well, sir. Yer just givin’ me a rough time with these here coins,” the Watcher admitted, then pocketed the coins and chuckled. “An old man like me ne’er sees any o’ these down ‘ere nowadays. But, a fare’s a fare, so give me yer hand and I’ll help ye on.”
The man let out a sigh of relief and ran his fingers through his hair. The Watcher noticed with heightened curiosity that even though the man’s smile was genuinely happy, his hands were shaking. He held the lantern post and reached out for the passenger’s arm. The man surprisingly got on the boat with relative ease and sat down with that same smile on his face.
It gave the Watcher a bad feeling. Sure, maybe he had been on a lot of boats in his lifetime, but even that couldn’t explain why he man was so calm. He began to wonder whether he truly belonged here, or if he was another deluded man thinking he could bribe Mother with stories of his devotion. The last time that happened it didn’t end well.
“What is your name, if you don’t mind me asking?” the passenger asked as the Watcher took the oars and pushed the boat away from the Docks.
“They call me th’ Watcher, but ye already knew that, didn’t ye?” the old man replied with amusement, slowly easing back in to the rhythm of the oars. “But m’ name was Ichabod in the old days.”
“Ichabod? Interesting,” the passenger mumbled. “Well, Ichabod, it is quite a pleasure to finally meet you. My name is Ickett.”
Ichabod laughed. It was a short, loud chuckle that sounded like he had heard the funniest joke that week. “Ickett? Now there’s a name ye don’t hear e’ery day!”
“Yes, I know. My parents were quite into finding strange names on the internet from other cultures that interested them,” Ickett admitted with pride in his voice.
“Well, that’s all nice, sir, but yer mighty calm for one about to cross th’ river,” Ichabod remarked once his laughter had subsided. He had finally turned the boat around to face the other side of the lake, which opened out to the river.
Ickett didn’t at all seemed phased by Ichabod’s suspicious observation. In fact, he seemed pleased that the Watcher had noticed his demeanour. The man leaned back slightly and said, “I do not fear the river, Ichabod.”
Ichabod was not reassured by this in the slightest and it only strengthened his worry about Ickett being deluded. Without turning back to face his passenger, he continued to steer the boat.
“Whate’er ye’ve heard, the journey across th’ river is not as short as ye think it might be. We’re goin’ t’ be here for a while,” he warned.
Ickett did not seem bothered by this either. “So be it. It’s been awhile since I’ve been able to have a nice, long conversation with someone. So, shall we?