Atlantic Island Lighthouse

A young woman lives alone on an island in the Atlantic, tending a lighthouse.


1. Atlantic Island Lighthouse






It's an island. Rocky and isolated, ringed by smashing surf.


Thrust up out of the somber blue sea like a broken crown stripped of jewels and diadems, stony and white with patches of moss on the bare rock, and bristlecone pines twisted into anguished shapes by the relentless wind.


Somewhere. Sometime. Maybe only in the darkest dream. Just seeing it is harrowing.


In the North Atlantic. Yes. The stormy sea, the frantic gulls. It must be the North Atlantic.


The sea is freezing cold and stinks of salt. Brown ribbons of kelp drift onto the rocks and then the looming tide strips them away.


Gulls and petrels crying, squawking, letting out shrill and lonely screeches.


It has a lighthouse. From far off, it appears vacant. Yet every night a small oil lamp with a wick in it is lit inside, and the lenses beam a jet of illumination out into the mist and fog.


Who lights it? A woman.


She's young. She doesn't speak. Who is there to talk to?


Nobody at all.


Nobody but herself. And she's not interested in that conversation.


She walks the cliffs, the bare paths -- she's always wearing black, and is barefoot, and wrapped in a dark shawl.


She walks up and down the paths and stops on the highest cliff and gazes out to sea, shading her eyes with her right hand. Shading her eyes from the dazzle.


What's she looking for? A ship, maybe, with a black sail.


She eats the mussels she strips from the rocks at low tide, the clams she digs up bare-legged on the single sandy beach and drops into a tin bucket, in the sweltering hot sun when the only noises are surf and seagulls, and wind raging on the slick naked rocks.


She boils the kelp for a broth to simmer her clams in. This she eats once a day, before the sun goes down, usually sitting outside by her crude little brush and driftwood fire -- before the cold and the rising wind drive her inside.


Night. She strikes a match on the side of a blue matchbox, after shaking it carefully to hear the number of matches left inside it. Just twenty or so left, she thinks.


The match flares. She touches it to the wick of the little earthenware lamp. It catches, the flame clings -- blue-green at first -- and begins to burn yellow tinged with red.


She shakes out the dead match. Places it on the pine-wood table -- no, it isn't a table, really. She just uses it that way. It's a coffin, set on wooden struts.


A Greek cross is carved into the lid of the pine-wood coffin. Sometimes she traces it with her fingertips. It's stained black, black as a sail.


The coffin-lid bears many knife cuts, scorings and scratches and there are even splotches of blood where she once cut up a tuna.


She'd caught it in the sea. After she bashed its head with a rock, it went still -- and the skin turned iridescent, an oily rainbow, glittering so brightly she gasped, Ah!


Then the rainbow faded and it was just a dead fish.


She still dreams of this.


She was a child when she came here.


She doesn't remember anything else, just how little she was.


The blinding sea. Darkness. A starry sky, vast. Ah!


She learned to speak from her father. But then, after he died and she'd burnt his body in a driftwood pyre, she gradually forgot most of the words.


She lights the lamp and puts it inside the powerful lenses because that's what her father did.


Every night.


Say a prayer, he'd murmur. A prayer for those at peril on the seas.


And she'd bow her head.


And they'd pray together.


When the prayer was over, he'd put his warm, rough old hand on her sleek head.


She always liked his touch -- he was gentle and warm. He smelled of tobacco. When the tobacco ran out, he smelled only of salt and fish.


She watched his face disappear in the flames. She turned away and sank to her knees. The sticks were popping in the fire. The heat was intense.


The glow could probably be seen for miles out at sea. Miles of roaring darkness. Yet no ship appeared out of the mists at dawn the next day.


And, as she expected, no ship ever came. Looking out to sea, she saw nothing but the gulls, and the dazzle, and sometimes a bright mist.


Sometimes she saw dolphins leaping. They rolled out of the water and dived back in and were gone, leaving a trail of bright foam.


Soon the matches would all be burnt up. She lined the matches with the burnt tips along the mantlepiece.


She'd have to learn how to light a fire in other ways. Maybe she could use a lens of her father's wire-rimmed spectacles, the ones she'd taken off his face so gently after finding him dead on the beach, that afternoon.


Maybe she could catch a ray of sunlight through the lens and focus it on a little pile of tinder.


Yes. She'd have to keep the fire burning always. Keep hot coals buried under layers of ash, to start it more quickly. Blowing puffs of air to light the crackling strands of brush.


She'd live until she died. Doing the same every day.


This was all the life she had, or had ever had. She didn't compare it to anything, didn't resent her fate.


She only cried when she recalled her father's shadow on the whitewashed wall, his muttered prayers, his gentle hand, the warm smell of his shirts.

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