The ferryman walked for a long time, his gait quickened by excitement and the good, glad confirmation of things he remembered.
The first mountain was a grassy little brother of the giants in the distant range. He slowed his pace to listen to the tidal roll of the wind among the trees. Ah, it was good to see again that the cherished details of his chants had a real origin! The scattering of gold leaves across the path, the long-lashed cows that watched him with patient curiosity… a farmer and his family stopped to talk with him over their split-rail fence, offering a tin cup of milk brimming with cream. Yes, even the hospitality.
He slept in guest beds, hay lofts, and tiny inn rooms on his way up the mountain. The rest and the daily rejoicing gave him strength; all that he had ever known to be true of this place, he found moving and growing and flourishing around him.
But after the idyll of the first few days, on a path curving downward from the first peak, the bounds of the ferryman’s memory came to light. He bent to pick a scarlet wildflower, and started back with a pained cry. The dark-veined petals were as beautiful as he remembered them, but the slender stem bristled with fine silver spines. He recalled, vaguely, that he had made the same mistake before, which was no doubt why his admiration for this small beauty was tinged with a little reverence. He had forgotten.
On the second slope, the ferryman found the towns he had mentioned so fondly to his passengers. But the trails between them were not as clearly marked as he had thought. On many he was forced to forge and scrabble his way onward to the next town, with only a stranger’s general directions or a far-off, faint glow of houses to lead him.
At the last familiar village he paused, wondering if, after all, his old bones shouldn’t return to his own hearth and home to live out their remaining days in comfortable rhythm.
But the thought of the hearth and its last tired, unfed fire made the ferryman shake his head. No. He had set his face to the mountains, and to the mountains he would go.
After that day, he lost count of the trails and the days he’d walked. His mind was no longer on his progress, but on the steps immediately before him, and on the surroundings of each day. One afternoon a wood thrush alighted in the high, bare branches of a tree to sing, and something in the hushed scene set off an ache that moved him to tears; he could not say why. The known mingled with the new in this country, sharpening even familiar things to a point of wonder.
The fog that descended on the high mountains struck him the same way.
The ferryman was surprised to find it as he ventured upward, but it wasn’t like the smoky, cotton-like fog over the river; these were whole billows of obscuring white and gray through which he had to fight his path.
After the first hour in the thick mist, he felt true fear.
He didn’t know how much time passed as he wandered hidden in those heights. He began to talk out loud, but although the grandest words he had were the old ones he knew by heart from the river, these soon faded. “Come and see, come taste sweet fruit in season; come rove golden hills and be satisfied; here find purpose, here take joy…” Did he know his own purpose? Had he true joy? The verses slowed, grew cold on his tongue.
In the stillness, he became more afraid — more alive — more tender of heart than he had ever been in his life.
Night fell. The weary ferryman found a small hollow in the side of a rock, and made a bed from dry leaves and pine needles. He fell asleep wondering if he would wake to the same bleak view in the morning. He dared not wonder about any other days ahead.
But when he woke, he could feel that he was better fit to breathe the air. The bottoms of his feet were as thick now as the old rowing calluses on his hands, and his ears — sometimes he thought he heard wordless music in the mist, like soft strains from lands far away. They stirred in him a daring spark of hope, and he felt he could pass all his days in this lightless terrain if only he could be sure of hearing these echoes.
Such a guarantee wasn’t his to make — but even as his heart leapt and failed him by turns in all the hours that passed, the ferryman felt he ought to make an appeal. For he had a growing awareness of a presence besides his own here: something that flashed through the snatches of music, something that rooted the restlessness that had brought him to this place. With the sense of it closing in around him, the ferryman opened his dry mouth, and out of terror or deep relief or both, he uttered hoarsely:
The change was imperceptible at first.
The low wind picked up pine needles and sped them along the ground before the weary traveler raised his eyes. Then, within the span of a hundred of the ferryman’s breaths, came an unmistakable shift.
The fog lightened — lifted — cleared.
It rolled away upward towards the peak, and the ferryman blinked, disoriented by the brightness of daylight. His eyes stung as he pried them open.
How long had he been walking in the mist? There was no way to tell, but the thought was forgotten as he spied a shining ribbon in the low distance. His river.
He sprang to his feet. Home! Life! The ferryman did not fly over the paths — he was a sturdily built man — but he pounded down the lane and through a field now ripe for harvest, keeping his eye fixed on the silver water. Laughter swelled in his chest at the thought of his own cottage and his ferry and the ripe vegetables in his garden and the faces that would greet him from the far shore and… his feet suddenly slowed.
The ferryman turned to look back at the high mountains. Sun and fog danced close together over tree tops and far tundra, hinting at unexplored routes and distant melodies he had yet to hear.
There on the path, for the first time, the ferryman knew that he belonged in both places.
Yes; he was made for the mountain as well as the river. A full life would require the joy and challenge of making sense of the world for his ferry-passengers, as well as the uncertainty and ongoing discoveries he grasped alone (and yet not alone at all) up in the thin air. He didn’t know how such an arrangement would work, not yet — whether his voice would someday grow strong enough to carry to the river from the mountaintops, or whether his feet would gain the strength to run swiftly between the two — but for now, the realization was enough.
Days later, the ferryman stood by his river once again, filling his lungs with breath for a new call.
And when the words went out, with them went an unbidden tune — a changing melody that highlighted a different word or phrase with each iteration. The startled ferryman found he could not direct the music any more than he could move the mist, but he heard and noticed each verse as it pierced the river’s gloom.
His chants had turned to songs.
They carried a note that had never been in his speech before and would always mark it ever after. It was the same note that had been in the scent borne by the young boy, and which would find its way into the work and journeys of all who would rise and follow after: a note of broken awe, of reclaimed wonder —
of wild abandon.