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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Note:  One of my older works that never made it out into the ether.  I find it much more difficult to write short stories than longer ones.  Enjoy. 


Lighthouse

            The fog rolled in from the sea early in the afternoon and turned the grounds of  Gull Island into a white soupy mess.  It muffled the waves that had brought it in, blinded the gulls, and made Peter’s wife wake him up early.

            “Peter, Peter,” she whispered in his ear.  “The fog’s come in.”

            Without a word, without conscious thought of what he was doing, Peter got up and stuffed his cold feet into his slippers and shuffled out of their bedroom.  He yawned as he mounted the stairs and placed his feet into the well-worn steps. 

            Three generations of Peter’s family had lived in this lighthouse.  Three generations had tended it faithfully, beaming the light over the waves.  Two generations before that, his family had lit the fires on the point.  Only when the weather was calm and bright, did they rest, knowing that the ships could see, the eyes on their bows scanning the horizon where the land treacherously began thrusting its fingers high into the air.  But when the sea was restless and the waves high and strong, Peter’s family was in the lighthouse, dusting the mirrors, polishing the windows, lighting the fire high, making sure the ships could see the light.

Peter headed up the high spiral staircase and into the round tower with its glass walls all around.  He lit a fire in the stove to warm the room and melt the mist gathering on the glass.  Everything had to be perfect and clean and clear.

            “Do you want your eggs scrambled or sunny-side?” Mrs. Peter yelled up the staircase.

            “Scrambled,” he yelled back.

            Their days were strangely backwards.  In the afternoon, when the light waned and the stars began showing, Mrs. Peter would get up to cook her husband his breakfast, eggs and potatoes and butter on fresh bread.  His lunch was taken at midnight, when the earth was most quiet and he could meditate on the silence.  Dinner was taken when the early rays of sunlight streamed in from the east, bringing with it the quickening of a new day.

            Shining dully from a layer of salt deposit, the mirrors reflected Peter’s face back at him.  He was pale from a lack of sun and creased from long exposure to the salty water and wind.    He had a permanent squint from long years of staring into foggy nights and a high forehead, somehow making his ears stick out.  His wife had told him sweetly that it happened because he was always straining his ears to hear the tolling of ship bells.  Yet despite the allotments that nature had given him, his face was not an unkind one.  The creases were the result of laughter and smiles as much as they were of wind and water.  It was only now in his old age that Peter rarely smiled.

            “Breakfast, Peter,” Mrs. Peter called and waited for her husband to descend and get dressed.

            “You’ve outdone yourself today,” Peter said over a bite of Mrs. Peter’s fresh bread.

            Mrs. Peter dimpled in pleasure.  She was most proud of her bread.  It had won the blue ribbon three years in a row, a new record for the island. 

            “Mayor Sommer rang for you earlier today,” she said.

            “What about?” 

            “He said he wanted to come and visit with you.  About the ship coming tonight.”

            “I know about it,” Peter said.  He was slightly offended.  After all, hadn’t his family been faithful keepers for years on years?  Part of that job had been always to be the first to know of a ship’s coming.   

            “I know,” said Mrs. Peter.  “But the town gets concerned sometimes.”

            “Oh the town,” he snorted scornfully.  “Knowing everyone’s and everybody’s business.  No less the lighthouse keeper’s and his wife’s.”

            “Now, now Peter,” his wife said.  “Do remember your heart.”

            He sighed.  “Aye, lass.”  He watched his wife as she made his coffee carefully and he said, “Did you think it would be so hard?  This life?”

            Mrs. Peter thought about it.  “Maybe for the first year.  I didn’t know the ships would be so big or would come so close.”

            “And now?” he asked.

            “How can life be hard with you?” she laughed and came up beside him to straighten his collar.

            Peter looked at his wife and her shriveled hands.  They had grown old without his noticing.  Softly he asked, “And the children?”

            Mrs. Peter stopped fussing with his collar to hug him tightly.  “I never blamed you that we had none,” she said fiercely. 

            A knocking on the door brought them out of this momentary tenderness.  When Mrs. Peter came to open it, Mayor Sommer abruptly pulled his silver headed cane back.  He had been using it to knock on the door. 

            “Hullo, Mrs. Peter,” Mayor Sommer said and tipped his hat to her.  “Is Mr. Peter up top?”

            “He’s right here, Mayor,” she said.  “How’s Mrs. Sommer?”

            “Booming and healthy.  She’s just had her fourth child you know.”

            “Don’t I know it,” Mrs. Peter said.  There were no traces of regret in her voice.  “You must be busy then. Coffee?”

            “Aye.  The older ones are a help. But here’s Peter,” he said as he spotted Peter sipping his coffee.  Peter was scowling.  He disliked the mayor speaking about his large brood so soon after his wife’s words. 


            “That’s me,” he said.

            “Now, Peter,” Mayor Sommer said.  “Your heart old lad.”

            So they spoke about his heart first.  Then Mayor Sommer remembered the jar of jelly in his pocket that Mrs. Sommer had sent and brought it out to the delight of Mrs. Peter.  Then they spoke about the sea and the dangers and rewards in the waves.  All the time Peter got stiffer and stiffer until finally he interrupted and spoke his mind.

            “Cut it, Sommer,” Peter said.  “You’ve come to talk about the ship.  I know it.  Talk.”

            Mayor Sommer laughed a booming laugh.  “That’s what I’ve always liked about you, Peter.  Forthright and to it.”

            “I know it’s coming.  Got the message yesterday.  Merchant class.”  He almost couldn’t resist adding that he had the job in his blood, passed down from generation to generation.

            “Aye, you do a fine job.  Never failed all these years.  We don’t know what we’d do without you here.”

            “I’m not dead yet, Mayor Sommer,” Peter said coldly.   

            “No you’re not,” Mayor Sommer said.  “But we worry.”

            “I’ve not grown soft either, if that’s what you’re implying.”

            “Of course not,” Mayor Sommer said.  “We just wonder who’ll take the lighthouse when you’re gone.  None of the new lads have volunteered.”

            “I’m sure there’s someone with the constitution to do what I do,” Peter said bitterly.

            The mayor reassured him profusely that there was none and there never could be one to do a more splendid job than he.  He had come only to see how an old friend was doing.  “And there is something else,” he said.

            “Well?”

            “I’ve a growing family, Peter,” Mayor Sommer said and his face turned serious.  “I depend on you for all of us.”

            Peter nodded.  “I know it,” he said. 

            “We’ve tried to bring business but it’s not working.  They’ve said that our population isn’t profitable enough.  They’ve said it for years,” Mayor Sommer said.

            “That’s because they haven’t tried,” Mrs. Peter suddenly spoke up.  She was rolling dough vigorously.  “Haven’t tried since Peter’s family came here.”

            “Aye,” said Mayor Sommer.  “And they go up the coast to Point Hill.  What’s the mainland got that we don’t?  But we show them.  Bastards.”

            “I know it,” Peter said again.  “Put your worries to rest.  We’ll bring that ship in tonight.”

            “I know you will,” he said standing up and swinging his cane.  “There won’t be another ship for at least thirteen months.  This one’s got to come.  Even the weather’s cooperating.”

            Peter and Mrs. Peter both got up to walk him to the door and Mayor Sommer laughed.  “Besides,” he added, “I’ve bought a new double barrel shot to celebrate.”

            “No time wasted, eh?” said Peter.

            “You only live once,” Mayor Sommer replied.

            “Are you sure you won’t stay until the roll is baked, Mayor?” Mrs. Peter said.  She looked out into the white blanket of fog.  “It’s a cold night and no moon.  Fog’s thicker than white chowder.  Coffee will bring some warmth to your bones.”

            “Much thanks,” said the Mayor.  “But I’ve got to go to my newest pup.  The boy’s got a set of lungs to wake the whole island.”

            Mrs. Peter laughed.  “Thank Mrs. Sommer for my jelly.”

            “I will.  At the meeting-hall tonight,” said Mayor Sommer.  “Do you want me to ring you when we’re ready?”

            “No,” said Peter.  “I’ll ring you when the ship is here.”

            “Good night to you then,” Mayor Sommer said and tipping his hat soon disappeared into the fog. 

            That night Mrs. Peter insisted on staying up with Peter and they sat side by side on the single bench in the lighthouse tower.  Before them, the light blazed, cutting into the fog.

            “You should rest,” he said.

            “Nonsense,” she replied, pulling her knees up to keep warm.  “I can’t always sleep while my husband stays the night. And besides, I couldn’t sleep with all the excitement.”

            “It will be cold tonight,” he said. 

            “Aye,” she replied.  “I’ve put an extra shawl with my basket and a heavy coat for you.”

            “You’ve got the baskets ready?”

            “I’ve been married to you for twenty years,” she said.  “I’m always prepared.”

            “I know it,” he said.  “But what if I fail?”

            “You never have, you never will,” she said with a finality to end the discussion.

            In the silence that followed, thoughts of the morning came back to Peter. 

            “Do you ever regret this?” he asked.

            “We do what we do to live,” she said. 

            “I know it,” he began. 

            Suddenly he sat up stiffly beside her, leaning his head sideways, his ears to the wind. 

“What is it?” Mrs. Peter asked.

Peter put a finger to his lips and smiled.  Then he stood up and covered the light.  After several minutes, he removed the heavy lens and replaced it with another and uncovered the light.  The beam shot out again.  This time it seemed fainter somehow, more narrow.  They waited several minutes and then Mrs. Peter heard it, the faint uneven tolling of ship bells out in the sea. 

“Ring the Mayor,” Peter said quietly.

Mrs. Peter did as she was told, walking slowly and trying to contain her excitement.  Every ship they brought in always brought the same feelings in the gut, like having had a bad fish but in a pleasant way. 

“What number, please?” the operator on the line asked.

“Mayor Sommer,” said Mrs. Peter.

“He’s at the meeting hall with the others,” said the operator.  “I’ll patch you through, Mrs. Peter.”

“Thank you, dear,” Mrs. Peter said.  “And have a good night.”

There was a click and “Hello?” Mayor Sommer answered.  In the background were a babble of voices and the high wailing cry of a child.

“Ship’s almost here, Mayor,” said Mrs. Peter.  “Peter thought I should ring you.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Peter,” Mayor Sommer replied.  “We’ll be right down.”

When Mrs. Peter came back up to join Peter, she saw that he had changed lenses twice since she was gone.  The light now looked bent, a trick of the mirrors that Mrs. Peter had never learned.  The ship bells were closer now, urgent.  She watched quietly as Peter covered the light and switched lenses.  When he uncovered the light for the last time, the sudden flood revealed the looming mass of a ship, passing them by in a desperate swerve to the side.  There was the horrible cracking of timber against rock and the shouts of men, the sound muffled in the fog.  The violence ran a shudder through the lighthouse walls but Peter had been ready and had his feet braced.   

Calmly, Mrs. Peter went to get the baskets as Peter covered the light and put it out.  In the dim grounds below he could see the first shapes of people emerging from the fog.  At the very front was the Mayor, his wife missing.  He carried two baskets in one hand to make up the difference and his new rifle in the other.  Behind him the others came carrying lanterns and torches, the light reflecting off their pitchforks and rifles and knives, igniting the fog from the inside like a glowing cloud. 

“Shall we go down, love?” Peter asked using an endearment he hadn’t used in years.

Mrs. Peter smiled at her husband and handed him a basket and his old rifle.  She had never doubted him.  He smiled back gratefully and hand in hand they descended the lighthouse steps to join the others.  Already the rifles were being fired, their sound strangely sharp even through the walls. 

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