The Lighthouse started out as an exercise to write a story on a set theme within an hour .
Though it has since been edited, most of the story that follows was born within that hour, proving my subconscious has a lot to answer for!
You can find a free downloadable copy of this story at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/270678 or read the full story below…
It has been forty days since I last saw a boat, and that was my father’s wooden skiff casting out to sea. Before that, it had been at least forty days since either of us had seen another living soul.
The vessels from four ports pass by our strait, our lighthouse their only guide past the treacherous reefs and hidden rocks that guard the passageway. Before the lighthouse was built, the mariners’ sons would take turns sleeping up here on the exposed mound to feed the fires. It is said that when the fires would die in the gales, the sailors’ roars could be heard from the shore, miles away, their last thoughts as the rocks tore into their ships for their boys: alone in the dark of the storm. The saw-toothed crag leading up to our mound remains littered with the rusting debris of torn ships from the time before the lighthouse came.
I do not know when or how we came to be here, only that many have owed their lives to our lighthouse. But now, they do not come.
The lighthouse is powered by wind and light and needs no human hand to intervene, until something inside it breaks. A windmill, attached to the tower, turns almost constantly, the metal blades groaning in the wind: pushing cogs, turning wheels, pumping levers throughout the lighthouse, like some great mechanical clock. I know the rhythm as well as I know the pounding of my own heart, as if I, too, am part of its workings.
The motion of the blades does not power the bulbs, but pumps away the marsh of seawater that threatens to consume the soggy mound upon which our lighthouse sits.
The windmill arms can be angled to catch the wind or, when the gales come on too strongly, can be pulled back to lay dormant by means of a stubborn metal crank as large as my head. I had learnt how to wrench the crank before I was even taught to read, the blades screaming from within the squall as I tugged and urged the handle round, until my wrists felt twisted and stretched.
It is a difficult task, protecting the blades from breaking in the storms whilst still risking them as often as you dare: too long in a storm without the windmill turning the pump and the muddy land begins to bleed as it is smashed apart by the barrage of rain and the black waves, breaking closer and closer to our home.
It is the solar panels inside the windmill blades that hold the light. Like strange wooden petals, they soak up the sunbeams during the day. The light is stored, somehow, in the rusty generator on the lower floor. At night, the beams are returned across the water, lighting up the sea ten miles out. They strike the phosphorous rocks deep in the reef, so that their secret positions glow for all to see, shining under the water like wet fish in the sun. I look out each night now, at an empty sea, lit up for nobody but myself.
It has been forty days since Father set out in our little boat to find out what has happened to the people who used to come. I continue to tend the pump, polish the glass, and check the light every night, although nobody is here to see it now.
From inside, I cannot see much of the light shining out, but in my father’s absence, I begin to hear the generator humming, noticing it for the first time. It has sounded constantly my whole life, but it has always been in the background, like a nagging thought you try to ignore.
The only moments of true silence happen briefly when the bulb needs changing. As the generator holds its breath, we must work quickly, anxiously in the dreadful quiet, fearful for any ship flailing alone in the dark sea. At such times, only my father is usually allowed to touch the switch on the watchtower balcony that turns off the power to the bulb. It has been his responsibility alone since Mother left us. Now it is mine.
My electricity here could run on forever, as long as the sun and the wind remain, to hold at bay the waves and darkness. The solar energy allows us some power for cooking and warmth, but we hold the light so precious that we use only candlelight inside. It is strange to think that a lighthouse should contain no electric lights indoors.
As each of my last candles slowly burns, I grow closer to the impending darkness inside the lighthouse, but the light outside will shine on, even when everything is black within.
I turn the generator off only to change the bulb. Every time I touch the switch, I am reminded that this should be Father’s task.
I have only three bulbs left now, and my food, once brought by the trawler men, is running low. However, the pumps provide a supply of fresh water, pushed through a filter, up into the tall tap in the kitchen wall. The pump is often blocked by fish and other seafaring creatures. They thrash and twist inside the narrow pipes, until I carefully free them and drop them quickly back into bubbling water, after gently gutting them. There is, however, no food for loneliness.
It has been forty days since I last saw my father in that rickety boat, not really fit for sea. I look out at the swirling water around our little rock and see no one. I have never been shown the trick to getting out of the lighthouse. If there is a door – and there must be – I do not know where it is.
I remember only once being outside, walking along the razor-sharp rocks. There had been some great event that had pulled Father’s attention away from us and out to sea, and Mother had carried me through some unremembered passageway underground, and up into the open air.
I recall that it was bright out there, the sky impossibly wide above my head.
Father was out of sight somewhere on the other side of the mound. A storm had just died down, and there was that particular relief in the air that comes just after a storm’s temper finally abates. Mother had put me down and was tearing across the rocks towards the sea, her bare feet slapping hard against the sharp stones, like the surf had ordered her to its side.
As I followed, I tripped, and the wet rocks bit into my hand, but she did not heed my cry. I lifted my chin from the ground and remember silently watching as an escape boat sailed slowly past my face. A pale arm hung from the side, obscuring part of the boat’s name: “H-pe.”
“Don’t look,” Mother had shouted back as she ran into the sea, straining to reach the boat’s mooring rope.
She began stumbling and crawling up the crag as she tried to pull the boat quickly up the wet stones, towards one of the larger fissures in the rocks. The soft wood on the bottom of the boat ground and frayed as she wildly dragged it towards the cove.
I did as she asked without question, looking instead at the debris that had washed up on shore. I recognised part of a long metal chain; a roughly hewn spanner; scraps of knotted string; shards of broken crates; twisted knives and splintered forks … the waves spat out the broken skeleton of the ship with the same force I would spit out the bones of a masticated fish.
Further out, the sea was dotted with hundreds of dark prunes floating in a purple-brown juice that spread slowly across the sea. I ran to the edge of the water and caught one, running back from the surf before the waves pulled my legs with them. The sweet pulp of the prune was so ripe that the juice stung my mouth. I looked around for more, but then Father appeared, suddenly grabbing hold of my arm. He snatched the half-eaten prune from my hand and held his palm out under my chin. I spat the rest from my mouth, looking at him sourly as the prune juice dribbled down my chin, but then he pointed out to sea.
“You see the red stain on the water? That was not made by prune juice.”
In the distance, a large ship could be heard screaming as the violent current dragged it, on its side, over the reef of serrated rocks. On the underside of the hull, along its backbone, I could see a jagged tear in the keel. The ship spun in the frenzied current, turning around so that we could see its wind-torn sails and the cracked mast that must have dragged it to its death.
By the time I looked away from the terrible sea, Mother was also standing at my side, holding some of the twisted forks in her hand.
“Where have you been?” Father said.
Mother held up the forks, as if they offered an explanation.
“You were out of sight,” he said. “I thought …”
“I’ll tell you later,” she replied uncertainly. When he would not look away from her, she added, “A body. She shouldn’t see.”
Father nodded, squeezing my hand even tighter, until I began to squirm in his grip.
“I told you. It’s not safe out here. Little ones, especially, should be watched at all times, lest they be taken from your side.”
As they took me back inside, I tried to see where the door was, but Mother pressed me close to her chest as though I might be torn from her if she let go, and then she took me straight upstairs. Down below, I heard a slam.
“That will keep out the ghosts,” Father said a moment later, as he came up the stairs, putting his keys back in his pocket.
When I eventually fell asleep, I dreamed of the lost sailors, their lurid, slimy hands groping along the sides of the tower for a way in. At the time, I was glad to be safe inside whilst the dead were shut outside, but now I feel it is I who is locked away from the living.
Now, as I sit inside my jail cell, the sounds from the lighthouse continue to grow louder with each passing second, until the ticking of the windmill becomes unbearable. In the darkness of the empty tower, it begins to sound like some clockwork monster from a fairy tale.
As I become aware of the lighthouse around me, it starts to feel less a part of me. I start to wonder if the twisting staircase is pulling the walls inwards a little bit each time I look away, squeezing the rooms smaller and tighter. I walk the length and height of the lighthouse now as if it were a prison cell, rather than my home, or as if I were a fly buzzing around a locked room: an unwanted thought inside the lighthouse’s mind that must be suppressed.
I wonder how I could never have been away from this place my whole life. Father tells me it is not safe outside. He tells me the sea could come and swallow me up from the surface of our little island if I were to walk along the inconstant land. It seems that he is right, as the sea has now swallowed up the whole world.
I search the confines of my cell, groping along the walls for openings or missed doors. There is no way out. I did not see how Father left: he had me polishing the light’s glass before the dark set in, so I was occupied when he made his way out to sea. I noticed his absence only when he was already just a small shadow in the middle of the water. He had said that he must leave someday to find out what had happened to the boats, but it is strange that he did not say goodbye, instead he only held up his hand as he noticed me frantically waving at him. It seemed, though, he were telling me to stay rather than saying farewell.
I regularly pull up the basket hanging from the balcony that the fishermen used to load with supplies, but it is still as empty as before. In return for our keeping the lighthouse, the people who used our passage would give us gifts of food, clothing, equipment, and the replacement bulbs in their large wooden crates. Their trawlers would creep towards us warily when the waters seemed calm. I remember a kindly man, who would come regularly, once gave me a book. This was long after Mother had gone, and Father was counting the bulbs at the time. The fisherman slid the volume into the basket among the other gifts.
The book was large, bigger than my schoolbooks or the ledgers that Father keeps. It had a thick binding and much writing and drawings inside. Many of the pictures I recognised from tales my mother had told me. However, one that I was not familiar with made me pause.
The picture showed a lady with long blonde hair at the top of a tall white tower. The turret was smooth, except for the window at the top, which she looked out from. There was no door or other opening, although I did not register that fact on my first viewing, only her long hair: so like my mother’s. It shone from the page like the ink were filled with sunshine. It flowed from the window in a plait, and at the bottom, a man in silly puffed-up britches tried to climb it.
My father, on seeing the book, was delighted at first and thumbed through the pages, recounting some of the tales that I was familiar with. However, when he reached my favourite picture, his thumb gripped the page until it tore. He stared blackly at the image for a long moment before slamming the book shut and fastening it with a piece of old twine, winding and wrapping it round and round and round, again and again and again. He tied the string in three tight overhand knots and took the book out of the room without looking at me. I never did see that book again, and when I asked after it later, he seemed not to remember it at all.
The event made me think about my mother. I remember seeing her that last night, far out to sea, adrift in a small boat. I remember wondering where she had got the boat from and how she had got out of the lighthouse without Father’s key. She, too, had not been outside since the day of the shipwreck.
The night was a calm one, allowing her a good prevailing southwest breeze, but I felt the growing resentment of a northwest crosswind pushing at my hood and knew it would not be long before it lost its temper and overpowered the gentle wind.
As the winds began to fight, Mother stared about herself wildly as she tried to navigate the boat, her frightened eyes lit up by the lighthouse’s glare.
She was shouting something at me, but I could not hear. I came towards the edge of the balcony to catch her words and gripped the railing, bracing myself against the battling winds, but I still could not make them out. I pulled back my hood, exposing my ears to the force of the wind, but still, I could not hear anything but its roar. The inside of my ears began to swell and close over. My hair lashed around my face, trying to bind my eyes.
I called for Father to help her. He came up to the balcony and stood next to me, glaring down at her for some time as she struggled with the skiff before saying to me, in a cold, trembling voice that carried low under the wind, “Child, go down and get another bulb as I feel this one is about to go. We cannot have a bulb blowing right now.”
I looked at him, silently begging him to do more, but what could he do?
“Yes, Father,” I said, fighting the storm to reach the staircase.
Wind-blind, I crashed into the wall, bruising my shoulder against something sharp. Pushing my body hard against the side, I groped my way to the door, my eyes streaming.
I rushed helter-skelter down the three flights of stairs to reach the bulb cupboard. There were many bulbs in the cupboard back then, so I quickly ripped the planks from the top of one of the wooden crates, lifting out the large bulb and carefully wrapping my arms around it. The bulb was heavy and almost too large for my small arms. I gripped it as hard as I could without breaking its glass orb.
As I reached the first set of steps, I realised that I could not hear the engines turning, only the clamour of my own heart frantically beating out each second that I did not return with the bulb. Despite the urgency, I stopped – holding my breath to listen, wondering why the engine also held its breath.
I nudged open the pump room door with my elbow, the bulb growing slippery in my moist palms as I descended the stairway. My heart was punching at my insides to stop wasting time, but as I went down into the damp dim cellar, I saw that the motor was still whirring comfortingly.
I eyed it with suspicion for signs that it had, just now, sprung back to action when it heard me on the stairwell, as when Mother would quickly pick up her chalk and continue with my lesson when Father came through the room, but it did not splutter or hesitate.
I rushed back up the stairway and returned to Father with the new bulb. He was staring out to sea: the empty sea. The light still scrutinised the ocean, but there was no sign of the boat.
Father stood at the top of the stairs, just out of reach of the tempest, staring intensely into the blazing beacon.
“Father,” I said, still wrestling to keep the bulb in my arms. “Where did she go?”
“She made it, girl,” he said, his sigh as heavy as the wind. I noticed that his hands were trembling.
“She is out of sight already?” I asked. “Father, did the motors fail? I thought I heard them stop.”
“No, girl,” he said, his voice higher than usual. “They worked just fine. Your mother is needed on the shore, and we will have to manage without her for a while. But you have brought a new bulb already. Good girl. You see, we’ll do just fine without her.”
“When will she return?” I said. He looked at me with an odd, haunted look on his face, but said nothing.
I did not ask many questions. I do not know why, but his empty look said not to, and I was afraid of the answer he might give if I pressed too hard. Since then, though, he has never looked at the switch on the balcony that turns off the lighthouse beacon unless we needed to turn it off to change the bulbs.
I sometimes go over the events of that night in my mind when the wind is particularly angry and we must stop the windmill. At such times, without the creaking of the blades, the whine of the solar engine seems even louder. In these storms, I sometimes think there was nothing that night. Silence. Emptiness. Just like the engine had stopped for a moment and the light had gone out when Mother needed it most. But if it had turned off, how had it then turned back on, unless Father had turned it on himself? At other times, I wonder if only my reason has failed.
It has been forty-one nights since my father left and, after another bulb blew last night, I am down to just two. For some time now, the waters have been rising, their advance upon my haven an almost imperceptible ripple closer every day. It is only in these last few weeks that the windmill has failed to pump the island free of the encroaching swamp. Our little jetty is almost submerged under the growing tide. If Father were to return now, he would have trouble mooring the boat. If he does not arrive soon, there will be nothing to tie it to at all.
The water filter has been suffocated by sand; the tap only gasps for air when I turn it on, and I can do nothing to alleviate its suffering. I have an emergency supply of rations – a small amount of stale water and dried fish – but the forty days so far have been hard enough to swallow. I do not relish forty more of even worse fare.
I do not miss Father. That is the strange thing. I cannot picture us both fitting inside here anymore. But I feel inconsolably lonely, just the same, now that nobody is watching. I pace the lighthouse as I was not able to in Father’s presence, winding up and down the three flights of stairs, round and round like a piece of twine, until I am dizzy and the walls twist in on me.
I have explored all the cupboards and cubbyholes that are usually out of bounds and have found nothing of interest. I have not found a circle of my mother’s hair lopped off and hidden underneath his pillow; I have not found my fairy-tale book mutilated and buried beneath the floorboards; I have not found anything of real value. There is only me and my life here and two bulbs.
I look out to sea now less and less. Only at night do I stand on the balcony and contemplate the desolate undulating of the waves. I wonder now at my life in the lighthouse. I always saw our home as a beacon, guiding people towards us, but now I wonder if it is not a warning, keeping them away.
It has been forty-two nights since I was left to keep the lighthouse, and I have only one bulb left. It was my fault. I had forgotten to wipe the lantern during the day and so went up there in the dark to quickly clean the glass pane.
There was a faint mizzle in the air, making everything slimy. I turned my face away from the intense glare as I placed the damp cloth to the glass. As I looked out to sea, I saw a dark hand coming from the distant swell, growing larger and larger as it reached towards me. I pressed myself against the wall as the hand came near. Everything went suddenly black, and I feared the shadowed hand was gripped around my eyes. I remained still for a long, long moment.
But it was not the hand that pinned me to the wall – only fear.
Coming to my senses and finding myself unharmed, the terror loosened its hold. I felt my way back through the thick darkness to the glass pane and touched its clammy surface, sure now that the bulb was dead and that any approaching boat would quickly meet the same fate if the light did not return soon.
In the darkness, I imagined I could hear the disapproving whispers of the shipwrecked sailors. I could feel the fog, like a thick wet shiver, growing more substantial around me as the seamen came closer, hissing in my ear with their salty breath. Make haste.
I floundered in the dark, my hands groping along the soggy walls for the way back to the staircase. Then, a low, mournful wail broke out from the lighthouse, so deep and melancholy it made me jump with an unknown guilt. I felt the lighthouse was calling out to Father of my negligent care.
My mind fumbled to place the sound, but then, as the lighthouse cried out again, I remembered. I should have expected it: the dampness in the air must have pushed the automated foghorn into action. It howled again around my head, like a terrible reprimand vibrating through my soul.
I swept down the stairs, blowing out candles with my skirts in my rush to reach the bulb cupboard, thinking only of any lost sailors alone in the dark mist.
The foghorn keened once more: another thirty seconds in the gloom without light.
I lifted out the penultimate bulb. The smooth orb jumped around in my hands, wanting to be back in its box. I let the bulb rest in the crook of my arm like a baby, careful not to disturb it, as I stumbled back up the staircases in the dim light.
The foghorn yelled at me again to hurry.
The remaining candlelight inside was of little use, but I found the power switch for the lamp on the top of the staircase.
The horn’s persistent bawl reminded me that it had now been two minutes since the bulb had failed.
I pushed the switch to turn off the power to the light filament, but the motor started up immediately. The lighthouse shone once more. There had been nothing wrong with the bulb at all.
For long moments, I stared at the switch accusingly – flicking the power on and off, ignoring the objections of the foghorn. It worked fine. It must have been turned off just now somehow, though I could not see how the button could have been knocked off by even the strongest wind. Some guilty hand must have been at work here unless the lighthouse had acted of its own accord.
Whatever the cause, the light now burned a hole through the fog that rolled silently in across the sea in a white floury haze.
I gave the misty lamp a quick wipe with my palm, but the giant hand came at me again out of the gathering murk. I threw my back against the wall again, narrowly avoiding the power switch. As I moved away from the light, the hand vanished, and I realised it had been my hand whose shadow had been cast across the sea when I had pressed it against the light. But then, if the daemon-hand had been my own shadow, why had everything gone dark as I moved away from the light? I looked again at the switch to my side. I had barely missed knocking into it just now. And when I first saw the hand, what had I done then …? I had backed into the wall. Was it possible that I could … and not even realise? I regarded the switch for some time … wondering.
I pressed my back tentatively against the switch, and I heard the motor stop again as the lamp snapped off.
I must have turned the switch off.
The bulb fell from my grip, smashing in the darkness. I fumbled for the switch again, quickly turning the beacon back on. Wondering …
I must have turned the switch off. It had to be so. There was only me up there. There was only me this time.
But last time …
Last time there were two of us, one who had crashed into the wall on the way down the stairs hard enough to bruise her shoulder … and another, who had stayed to watch his wife desert him in a strange boat, with the switch within arm’s reach.
Father must have turned the light back on either way. But off? There was no way I could know which one of us was to blame, but Father must know who it was.
The idea was too big for my head. I looked instead into the obscuring fog.
I thought I saw something in the haze: a shadow rearing up from within the mist. It grew larger.
Forming out of nothing, I saw the ghostly shape of a vessel emerging from the fog. I squinted into the darkness but could not see what sort it was, nor even judge its size.
The light twitched and spluttered as the spectre came closer, and instinctively I made a step towards the stairs to break out the last bulb.
The boat came nearer, and I saw a figure fighting to keep hold of two splintering oars. The figure stared up at me frantically as it navigated through the eerie gleam of the malevolent rocks lurking just beneath the water’s skin.
The lamp blinked off and then on again.
As the boat came closer, I made out Father’s face, full of fear, as he looked up at the lighthouse. Everything around him had turned a bright white, as the fog painted out everything else in the world but us two: the boat and the lighthouse. There was no water … no rocks … no rift … there was nothing in front of us or behind – the oblivion of fog swallowed everything.
I remembered Mother telling me, on nights like this, that from the outside, it would look like our tower was wrapped inside a pure white cloud, as if we were not part of this world at all. She looked sad when she said this, though I never understood why.
The bulb blinked again. I looked at the switch at the top of the stairway, wondering …
It has been forty-three days since Father left me here to watch the lighthouse, with only my memories to keep me company. I look out now as his boat creeps closer. I imagine that the light is a stream of golden hair, flowing over to him so that he can reach me. Maybe he brings news of my mother, happily settled somewhere on shore. Perhaps he has answers to the troubles that have washed up in my mind whilst he has been away, but what answer could he bring that I could bear to hear? Possibly, he comes to save me from the drowning lighthouse. Forty-three nights – but now I fear he comes too soon.
When he comes, I will have to ask him which one of us turned off the light on Mother.
The light coaxes him on, the bulb guttering badly now, so that Father’s boat comes closer to me in flashes of dark and light, good and bad, him or me.
I take a step backwards, thinking of the last bulb. Father puts his hand up towards the light, towards me, though, again, the meaning is lost in the inscrutable gloom. I am not sure if he can even make me out, or if he sees only the lighthouse’s bright white eye. Maybe they are the same thing: the lighthouse and myself. I take another step backwards, towards the door, towards the wall, towards the bulb, towards the switch.
I hear nothing now but the pounding of my own heart as we close our eyes against the darkness.
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