The Lighthouse by Sharon Frame Gay
There are those who find the song of a foghorn mournful and foreboding. To me, it was a lullaby. I have been a lighthouse keeper all my life. I was born in the keeper’s cottage in 1880, next to the tower that clings to a cliff in Maine. As a child, I was lulled to sleep by the rhythmic bursts of light and sound, bringing home the sailors like a wolf calling in her young after a Hunter’s Moon.
Father, and his father before him, maintained the lighthouse for over 70 years. My first memory was peering up the spiral staircase, watching my father high above me, polishing the massive searchlight that cast its beams out into the sea, a beacon of comfort. I longed to climb those stairs to see for myself what lay beyond the great expanse of water. It was stunning to discover when I reached the top rung that the ocean seemed to go on forever. A great swirling body of green thundered and crashed onto the cliff below, white foam spraying over the rocks like lace petticoats, dusting the shore in ever-changing patterns.
High atop the cliff, it seemed as though the rest of the world was lost, and our job was to find them. One can only imagine the despair as the storms struck, sending towering waves over a ship, turning and churning it like a toy boat, until it didn’t know port from starboard, bow from stern. Then, far in the distance, it heard the low-throated call of the foghorn, saw a thin beam of illumination piercing the darkness, and followed the sound and light to a safe harbor.
I grew leery of the cold Atlantic. Others saw it as a means of transportation, perhaps to warmer climes or exotic lands. I knew it as a great petulant monster, waiting to catch a sailor unaware and devour him, spitting his bones into the reef, his dreams into the great abyss.
Imagine my relief as a young boy to discover that behind the lighthouse, the land stretched out as far as the sea. The idea of grass, trees and mountains filled me with a joy that was unexplainable. I set my eyes toward the west and the Great Plains, where the only waves were grain.
The lighthouse had other plans. It enveloped me and clung like tentacles, coaxing me to linger beside the bay, firmly planted at the base of the old building. I grew into a man on this jetty of land, never venturing beyond the first set of hills that rose from shore.
It was only natural I took over for my father when his eyesight failed, after searching the sea for decades. It wasn’t until Father died, and Mother moved to Illinois to live with her sister, that loneliness struck me like a rogue wave. What was once a soothing aria, the foghorn sounded like a bleating goat on its way to slaughter, and the great light itself seemed puny and helpless, reaching across the waves into oblivion.
Had I not met her, I would have surely resigned my job and moved inland. Perhaps follow my mother to her side of the family, deeply ensconced on the prairie.
She came to me one summer day, sketchbook in hand. A beautiful girl perched on the rocks, drawing the handsome features of the lighthouse. There was something about the breeze ruffling her hair, and bare wet feet peeking out of the hem of a billowing skirt, that sent me out the door, pushing through my habitual shyness to approach her, offering a tour of the landmark.
Later, we sipped tea sitting on the floor beneath the spiral staircase. Her name was Isabel. I was enchanted. She smelled of saltwater and off-shore breezes. Ebony hair tangled about her face like seaweed, as Isabel spoke of the ancient Atlantic like an old friend. We talked of seals and latitudes, tides and pelicans, her green eyes glowing with delight. I felt my heart lift and spiral up toward the light, wishing the afternoon would never end. But alas, it did. She rose at high tide with promises to come back again. That night I barely slept, then spent every waking hour for days thinking of her, peering through the windows, searching.
When Isabel returned, summer had gone, and with it, any warmth. Autumn began to build, early snow spitting against the rocks and windows. She appeared at the cottage door as though she had never left, her hair damp, her skirt dripping. Again, we spent hours talking of the sea, of dreams. I knew without a doubt that this was the woman I wanted for all eternity. Her visits became more and more frequent, and we fell in love.
Ah, it was heaven to bring true love home to the lighthouse as my bride. I dreamt of our future on this spit of land high above the churning water. We lay in the darkness each night as the searchlight probed the sea, content in each other’s arms until daybreak. Isabel often brought chowder to the lighthouse in the middle of the day. We sat together looking out at the ocean, exclaiming when dolphins danced across the waves, watching the ships with great interest as they roiled and rolled along the horizon. Isabel helped me polish the lens, watched as I filled out the log. Then she nestled in my lap as I kept watch over the sea, holding her as though she were my lifeline. For the first time in years, I no longer wrestled with thoughts of leaving the lighthouse and heading inland.
On warm days, Isabel sat outside in a small chair with pastels and paper, drawing the great Atlantic, the lighthouse, and the brave little flowers that set up life between the rugged rocks. She wore a wide-brimmed hat that fluttered in the breeze, her face hidden in shadows. Sometimes Isabel looked up and found me staring down at her, and blew kisses. I caught them to my heart, pretending to swoon. Then she’d rise from the rocks and skip lightly up the path to the lighthouse and into my arms.
My young wife smelled of sunshine and wind. I sank my lips into the base of her throat, then lifted her up, hurried down the path to the tiny cottage and our humble bed. I poured myself into her, and her to me, following the tide.
Years went by. I was a happy man. However, I noticed from time to time when Isabel climbed the spiral stairs that she gazed out at the ocean with a look of longing. It tugged at my heart and filled me with apprehension. She sometimes turned and glanced at me sadly. Then a sweet smile formed on her lips. But her eyes were stormy and distracted. She became distant. At night, I often found sand in the bed, and I shifted from side to side, avoiding the grit, wrapping myself deeper in damp blankets.
Isabel’s hair grew down her back astonishingly fast, tumbling and twisting as she walked, tiny shells and bits of flotsam tangled in the tendrils. Even in winter she wore no shoes, her footprints leaving damp trails on the lighthouse floor as she paced in circles. At times I found her near the cliff, her back to the howling north wind, eyes closed as though dreaming. Often, I woke in the middle of the night and found her missing. She returned to bed before dawn, smelling of the sea, her body slipping next to mine when the sparrows began to sing. When she kissed me, her lips tasted salty as she traced my chest with her mouth.
Isabel grew pale as the November sky, hands chafed with cold. Even holding them between mine, blowing into them, they remained stiff and icy. I begged her to see a doctor. She had never left the lighthouse. I could not abandon my post to accompany her, so I drew a map to town. Isabel started out one morning, leaving a trail of seawater along the cobbled path.
Hours went by. My worries increased with each passing moment. I wondered why she was gone so long, what the doctor had told her. I tried to busy myself, pulling up the last of the summer’s vegetables and stowing them in the cellar, grooming the garden, all the time looking for Isabel. Clouds scudded in, and with them, a fierce wind and shards of pelting rain. On the horizon, waves gathered and tumbled toward land.
I climbed the steps to tend the searchlight. It was then that I spotted Isabel, sitting on the rocks like she had so many years ago. The wind was whipping at her hair and tearing at her clothes. I made haste to polish the great lens, then hurried down the stairs. The north wind shrieked and gnawed at the building, sending a shudder through my soul as I struggled with the door and hurried out into the coming storm.
When I reached the cliff, she was gone. Her tattered cloak lay abandoned on the rocks, heavy with wet sand. I cried her name over and over again, screaming into the wind in cadence with the foghorn. There was no sign of her.
In desperation, I left my post for the first time in my life in the middle of a squall. Wrapping my coat around me, I hastened down the rocky path into town. I scuttled along the sidewalks like a frightened crab, feeling off-balance away from the churning waters. Up ahead was the old brick building where the doctor hung his shingle.
It was a relief to find a light still on in the office, and I crashed through the door, the wind slamming it behind me, startling the young lady at the desk. I babbled with fear and apprehension, asking about my wife. She excused herself for a moment, then reappeared with the doctor in tow.
I told him who I was, and that Isabel had been here earlier in the day. Isabel must have been frightened and concerned after her visit because she had now gone missing.
He stared at me thoughtfully, then said “Mr. Beckwith, you’ve been the lighthouse keeper all these years. You have seldom come into town. I had no idea you were married, have never seen your wife, nor met anybody else who might live in the lighthouse.”
I goggled at him. I was astonished that he would say this! Isabel has been a part of my life, the lighthouse, for years!
“Doctor, there’s a mistake! Perhaps she didn’t seek you out today. Is there another doctor here in town? Might she have seen somebody else?”
Again, he stared at me, then said, “Mr. Beckwith, please sit down. You’re clearly agitated. I’m concerned. Let’s summon the local police, to assist you.”
I crumpled into a chair, head in hands, praying.
The police were no help either. They listened to my story, shaking their heads in wonder. They too said they thought I had lived a life of solitude in the lighthouse. The sun was setting quickly, so we hurried home, and hastened to search the rocks and shoreline to no avail. I showed them Isabel’s tattered cloak and the men examined it.
“Mr. Beckwith, this cloak is very old. There is a name sewn inside, but not that of your wife. It’s your mother’s name.”
Again, I was taken aback. “She likely used my mother’s cloak! I don’t understand why she wore it. Perhaps it was on a peg and she borrowed it. Let us not waste time.”
The police officers looked at me with some suspicion then, and suggested that they search the lighthouse and cottage for further clues. I felt violated as they poked and prodded their way through my home, opening drawers and cabinets, touching my things, my books. They climbed the winding stairs to the searchlight, peering out the windows into the ocean, foreboding and thrashing. All they found were tiny shells and bits of seaweed in my bed, along with the gritty sand, and a thin, damp blanket that had fallen to the floor.
“Mr. Beckwith, we have always thought you lived alone. Might we venture to say perhaps you are confused and that you only thought there was a lady here?”
I was insulted and hysterical. “Please believe me,” I screamed, over and over again. I pulled at my hair and sobbed uncontrollably, knees buckling as I fell to the floor in anguish. They helped me up, then out of my beloved lighthouse, and away to a hospital further inland. I repeated my story again and again for some months, until finally, the words grew tired on my lips. I slowly accepted that Isabel was lost forever, and gave in to grief.
It was a chilly day in February when the hospital released me. The nurse patted my hand gently, reminding me to take the packet of small pills that were nestled in my coat pocket.
The lighthouse stood on the cliff, just as I left it, though the great searchlight had burned out and the foghorn disconnected. I wondered how the sailors found their way home from the sea while I was gone. I worried that the foghorn would now sound raspy and out of sorts.
The door to the tiny keeper’s cottage was ajar. Leaves had found their way into the kitchen, skittering along the wood planks, huddled up by the stove like wayfarers. The cabinets were splayed open, picked clean, perhaps by passing wanderers with nowhere to sleep. The silence was deafening. Without the foghorn, the lighthouse was an empty space, cold and forgotten. I walked toward the lighthouse with a sense of foreboding. The door, loose on its hinges, gave way in my hand. I stepped inside and peered around. Outside, the wind was picking up, causing the old building to creak and moan.
Near the stairs, there lay a single small shell, as though placed there. I picked it up and held it to my heart, my lips, tasting the ocean, and her. The shell vibrated slightly in my hand, as though returning my kiss. The waves were treacherous that night, pounding on the sea wall like angry fists as I returned to the simple cottage and lit a lantern. I set the shell on the window ledge beneath the waning moon, and crept into my solitary bed. The next morning when I arose, the shell was gone.
Years have gone by. Every day I climb the spiral stairs, searching for signs of my love. I beg the waves to throw Isabel back onto shore. The foghorn cries out in anguish through the lonely nights, and the light is swallowed up by the undulating darkness of the sea.
Sharon Frame Gay grew up a child of the highway, playing by the side of the road. Her work has been internationally published in anthologies and literary magazines, including Chicken Soup For The Soul, Typehouse, Fiction on the Web, Lowestoft Chronicle, Thrice Fiction, Crannog Magazine, and others. Her work has won prizes at Women on Writing, Rope and Wire Magazine, The Writing District and Owl Hollow Press. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee. She is found on Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter.