Before taking off, Axl and Beatrice must get permission to take certain things with them, like communally owned blankets and water flasks. Between the time it takes to gather supplies and the long wait for good weather, it takes a while for them to begin their journey. When they do, however, they stay close together out of fear of the monsters that inhabit the bog and forests. Beatrice leads the way because she knows how to get to the nearest Saxon town. She continually calls back to Axl to make sure he’s close behind her and hasn’t been taken by an ogre or other monster. Without roads to guide them, the journey can be dangerous and the two don’t talk often because they pay a lot of attention to their steps, making sure they don’t twist an ankle or trip over anything.
As they travel through the Great Plain, known for being a hotspot for ogres and wolves, all Axl and Beatrice worry about are the monsters, not bandits or running into hostile armies. This emphasizes that the people in the land are at peace with one another, something that is further demonstrated by the fact that they, Britons, are going to stay at a Saxon town overnight and are confident that they can do this without any fights about differences in culture, religion, and lifestyle. Beatrice continually checks on Axl, demonstrating her concern for his well-being and fear of losing him.
After reaching the end of the Great Plain, Axl and Beatrice rest in a safe corner and talk about meeting their son again. Beatrice dreamed of their son the night before and tries to describe his face, but Axl says he can’t remember their son’s face and assumes it is “the work of this mist” that gathers in the area and makes people forget. Still, Axl believes either he or Beatrice will remember the details of their son’s life at some point and Beatrice encourages him to try.
Axl and Beatrice maintain a firm belief that the love they feel in this moment for their son will help guide them to him. Still, it is disconcerting for both of them that they do not remember his face, which testifies to the power the mist has of making people forget even the most important parts of their lives.
After resting, Axl and Beatrice prepare to continue walking. Beatrice gives Axl some smooth stones to carry as a charm to keep them safe. She also warns Axl to be careful walking around a hill where a giant is buried and that they should not talk to any strangers they see walking. Axl agrees with this, and they start walking. The path is difficult and muddy from past rain, so they stay very close to each other and keep an eye on the sky for fear of more rain. They stop to rest by a brook one more time, but Axl notices the sky starting to darken. He is prepared to stay beneath a thick tree to stay dry, but Beatrice says there’s an abandoned villa ahead that they can reach and take shelter in before it rains. Axl agrees to go there and they hurry on.
The stones that Beatrice insists she and Axl carry and the fact that they need to be very cautious while they walk around the buried giant reveals how superstitious and afraid they are of hidden dangers in their country. Although they don’t fear other people, Axl and Beatrice do fear what the country itself is hiding.
It starts to rain shortly before Axl and Beatrice reach the villa, which “must have been splendid enough in Roman days,” but is now decaying and largely obscured by foliage. Axl calls in to see if anyone is there and they walk in believing it’s empty when he doesn’t receive a reply. Only after walking through some ruined rooms do Axl and Beatrice arrive in a safe shelter, but they notice a “small, bird-like old woman” holding a rabbit and a tall man standing as far away from the woman as he can. Looking at his coat and shoes, Axl realizes he must be a sailor or fisherman. The man is staring at a wall silently, but looks up when Axl and Beatrice come in. Axl and Beatrice find a dry seat and the four people sit silently together, listening to the rain and thunder.
The existence of this apparently “splendid” villa means that there was a time, back when the Romans lived in England, when there were a greater number of rich and powerful people who built grand houses to show off their power and wealth. Now, however, the villa is in ruins and covered in plants, which means that it has been a really long time since the days of these grand families. This harkens back to when the narrator describes how hard it would be for a traveler to find a castle. Furthermore, this villa and its condition brings up the question of why the Romans left and provides evidence of past turmoil.
Once the rain “settle[s] to a steady fall,” the old woman greets Axl and Beatrice and asks where they’re going. Axl tells her they’re going to their son’s village but will seek shelter at a nearby Saxon village for the night. Suddenly, the woman grabs a rusted knife and puts it against the rabbit’s throat. Just then, Axl notices old bloodstains all over the floor and asks the woman to break its neck rather than cut it open while it’s still alive. The man turns around and asks Axl and Beatrice to hear him out. He says he’s “a humble boatman” and works hard, and this is one of his rare spells of free time. The house they are in used to be his family’s and he enjoys reminiscing there, but the woman always shows up there, insults him, and kills a small animal. The boatman asks Axl and Beatrice to convince the woman to leave. Silence fills the room.
Although Axl and Beatrice struggle with remembering the past, the fact that the boatman says he likes to remember his childhood in the villa means that he does not share the same struggle, or at least not to the same extent as other people. The old woman, however, disrupts his ability to reminisce by darkening the villa (quite literally by covering the floor in blood) and making it a place of bloodshed and violence. This shows that even though the land is largely at peace, there are still serious conflicts going on.
Watching the woman stroke the rabbit, Beatrice asks her not to cut open the animal and to instead let Axl help her kill it cleanly. Beatrice scolds the woman for harassing the boatman, but Axl tells her to get the woman’s side of the story before rushing to judgment. The woman agrees and tells them that the boatman is the reason she’s separated from her husband. The boatman was supposed to take them to a mysterious island together but insisted on bringing her husband first and promised to come back for her. Although she waited while the boatman took her husband to the island, upon returning the boatman ignored her calls and pleas for him to take her there, too, as promised. The boatman instead gave her a rabbit, thinking she’d like it for her dinner. Since then, she’s brought him a rabbit each year. The boatman insists that he was only trying to be kind by giving her the rabbit, which he had intended for his own supper.
Although the boatman had seemed innocent and as if he were an undeserving victim of a deranged woman’s anger, the woman’s account makes it clear that her actions are not without justification. By not sharing the details of his shared past with the woman, the boatman had, in a sense, rewritten history and cast himself as a faultless character. The truth, however, turns out to be far more complicated and makes it clear that neither person is entirely right or wrong in this situation. Both the amount of blood and the accounts of both the old woman and the boatman indicate that this situation has happened again and again over a number of years, which shows how dedicated the woman is to the memory off her lost husband and the love she has for him.
Beatrice tells the boatman it was cruel of him to separate the married couple, but the boatman tells her that the island they wanted to go to is “no ordinary one.” Even though it must be heavily populated by now, those who go to the island can spend all day walking around and never run into another person. The boatman says he had been willing to bring the woman, but she no longer wanted to go once she heard that she wouldn’t be with her husband there. The woman argues that the boatman is telling half-truths, that married couples who go together can stay together instead of being alone. The boatman agrees but says it’s “rare” that a couple is permitted to go there together. It requires “an unusually strong bond of love between them” and they don’t even have to be married. It is the boatman’s job to decide whether or not a couple is truly bound by this kind of love; the old woman and her husband were not, and she knows it.
This is the first time that Beatrice and Axl are told what the island is like and how to get there, and it is, therefore, the first time they seriously begin to consider whether their love is strong enough that they would be allowed to go to the island together. The fact that the woman could have gone to the island but chose not to when she knew she couldn’t go with her husband shows that her primary concern wasn’t just getting to the island, but also not being alone there. The boatman, from her perspective, was condemning her to an eternity of isolation and loneliness by not bringing her with her husband.
Although the old woman is invited to argue against this point, she remains silent. Axl tells the woman she can walk with him and Beatrice for part of the way and talk if she likes, but that she needs to leave the boatman in peace. The woman doesn’t answer, but silently stands up, walks to an opening, and releases the rabbit. She turns around and says that the “strangers” have made her lose her appetite for the moment, then steps out and walks away. The boatman thanks Axl and Beatrice for helping him get rid of the old woman for the time being.
The old woman chooses not to argue with the boatman about whether or not she loved her husband, which reveals that she knows the love between her and her husband was not genuine and reaffirms that her anger is directed at the prospect of being alone and not at losing a loved one. Confronted with this reality, the woman is able to accept the truth and walk away, leaving the boatman in peace for the moment.
Beatrice observes that the house must have been magnificent in its prime and the boatman agrees, saying that he’s just happy it’s still standing and that it has survived past wars. As the boatman talks about these wars, Axl suddenly grabs Beatrice’s arm and tells her that hearing these descriptions makes it seem like he is “the one remembering things here.” Axl attributes this to foolishness, however, and Beatrice expresses her anxiety to leave the place, so they get their stuff together and prepare to leave.
The boatman’s story about the villa he lived in as a child surviving past wars indicates that these wars were actually pretty recent. This is further proven by the fact that Axl has such a visceral reaction to hearing stories of battles and feels like he’s “remembering things,” too; it means that Axl, too, may have had some part in the wars or been affected by them in some way.
The boatman wishes Axl and Beatrice a safe journey as they walk away, but suddenly Beatrice stops and asks the boatman if he’ll answer a question she has. Beatrice expresses curiosity about how he determines which couples can go to the island together and asks him how he questions them. The boatman tells her that it’s strange that they’ve met at all because “by rights” they shouldn’t have. Still, he agrees to answer her question because they helped get the old woman to leave him alone.
Beatrice’s decision to ask the boatman about the questions he asks couples who want to go to the island together indicates that she herself is beginning to think of going there and is assuming that Axl would want to go with her. It also means she wants to be prepared to face the boatman’s questions so they can go together, which also means she’s worried that the love between her and Axl wouldn’t be strong enough on its own without preparation.
The boatman explains that he separates the couple and asks them each what their most cherished memories of each other are, and the truth soon reveals itself. Beatrice asks if this is hard to do and the boatman says it is, but that with experience he’s gotten really good at quickly deciphering the truth. Where most couples “claim to be bonded by love,” boatmen recognize “resentment, anger, even hatred. Or a great barrenness.” True love, according to the boatman, is rare. Beatrice thanks him for the answer and she and Axl leave.
The boatman’s description of the hidden resentment and anger between even the seemingly happiest couples furthers the message that the characters in this story need to learn to look below the surface and do some digging to arrive at the truth. This, however, is complicated by the fact that everyone struggles with memory issues and can’t completely trust their own minds. This also plants the idea in Beatrice’s mind that the love between her and Axl may be illusory, something which can only be affirmed by getting their memories back.
As Axl and Beatrice make their way back to the road, Beatrice tells him that she’s afraid. When Axl asks why, Beatrice tells him about the time she discussed the mist that makes people forget with a strange woman whose husband had also been taken to the island. The woman had asked Beatrice how she and Axl could ever get to the island if they couldn’t remember their lives together. Axl reassures Beatrice that they will be fine because they have no plans to go to the island, but Beatrice asks what will happen if their “love withers before [they have] a chance even to think of going to such a place?”
Beatrice is worried that the reality of the love between her and Axl is contingent on retrieving their lost memories. Without their happy memories, she worries that they won’t be able to maintain their current happiness, which indicates that, even with that happiness, she senses something beneath the surface that prevents them from truly being bonded by the kind of love that is required to go to the island together.
Again, Axl comforts Beatrice and assures her that their love is very strong, but Beatrice is worried about the fact that they can’t remember the details of their marriage and she worries that, without their memories, love will “fade and die.” Axl says God would never let that happen, but he still feels a pang of fear. Axl tells Beatrice that their memories aren’t lost, “just mislaid somewhere on account of this wretched mist” and they’ll remember everything when they find their son. Beatrice says she hopes that’s true and they prepare to continue their journey.
It’s not just Beatrice who is worried about the love between her and Axl; Axl, too, shares a sense that not everything is right between them and that the love he feels for her and the happiness they share is not as deep as they would like it to be. However, he also clearly believes that they can remember again, shown by his description of their memories as simply “mislaid” and not irretrievably lost.