At the Dark Lighthouse

lighthouse

Anne stood at the window of her bedroom, looking out into the night. There was still a light on in the curate’s cottage; if he was looking out he would be able to see her window.

She turned and adjusted the flow of gas to the mantles of the lights, making them as bright as she could. Then she returned to the window and closed the curtains slowly, then opened them again. Closed. Opened. Again and again. Surely he must see? Surely he must understand?

She’d had the dream again. It had woken her yet again in a flood of terror. There was never a night now when it didn’t recur.

She is standing on the cliff above a rocky shore. Her long hair, unbound, blows out in a long stream behind her. Waves lash high, filling the air with foam, and the wind screams. It is night, but behind the storm clouds, the moon glimmers from time to time. Out at sea, a ship pitches and heaves, all but one of its sails furled, as it struggles to keep its head turned to meet the waves.

The curate had come to visit again yesterday. For her part, Anne would not have let him in, but her mother greeted him politely, and so they had tea together. Anne had been silent except for when she must speak or else be openly rude. Her father, of course, was not there, was away at the factory, making yet more money. Her father would have thrown the curate out, or worse. Her father… her father knew how to be cruel.

As she watches the ship, it is driven closer and closer to the shore. In a panic, she looks up at the tall lighthouse. But all there is dark. There is no light! There is no warning for the imperiled vessel. She begins to run towards the tower.

She had begun to hate her father in her childhood. It had been slow coming. He was always busy at his business, and she did not see him very often. She was usually in bed before he returned, and still asleep by the time he left. Only on Sundays, when the family went to church together, the better to be seen in their private pew, did she see much of him. She soon learned to dread that holy day. After church, there was always some incident to arouse his wrath or his cruelty.

One Sunday, when she was only eleven, she had stumbled into the stone-lined washroom to find him drowning kittens, picking up the little mewling things one by one, then holding them underwater as they struggled, until no more bubbles came and the kitten was still. When she had realised what he was about, she had screamed and burst into tears, but he had just looked at her with a stony gaze. “No need for these,” he had said. “One cat is enough to catch the mice. Everything has to have a purpose, Anne. We’ll have no waste in this house.”

She fumbles open the door and runs into the body of the lighthouse. It is dark, but there is enough light from above for her to see the long, long spiral of the staircase. Lifting up her skirts, she begins to climb as fast as she can manage, her breath coming short, her panic rising. The staircase seems to go on forever.

It had been on a Sunday, of course, when she had first seen the curate. At church. Assisting the vicar at the service. He had looked across at her with his dark eyes, and held her gaze for a moment, a moment too long for decorum, perhaps. His face was thin, with a long straight nose, and he had dark hair, like her own. In women, it was unfashionable these days to be dark, but in a man it was attractive. Beneath his cleric’s black gown, he seemed a strong, well-built man. Then, blushing, she dropped her gaze, hoping her father had not noticed.

The curate first came to visit their house on the following week. She had been happy to see him then, before she understood the way it was to be. Her mother, always with an eye to what was expected by local society, welcomed the curate in and talked at length about local affairs. He had smiled at Anne, and she had smiled demurely back.

Up the stairs she runs, gasping, her legs an agony, every new step a torment. Up at last to the top of the tower, until she can see the lantern room above her. Staggering a little, she climbs the final flight of steps. Glass surrounds her, and she can look out on the storm-wracked sea. And from here she can see the ship, coming ever closer to the deadly rocks.

There had been some further visits by the curate over the next few weeks. Her father had been busy, and at first did not know about the visits. But when he discovered them, he had flown into a terrible rage, picking things up at random and smashing them on the floor. Her poor mother was in tears as a clock and one of her precious vases crashed down. But then he had taken control of himself.

“My daughter will not marry a penniless priest!” he had said grimly. “I’ve got better plans for you, my girl. If you marry at all, you’ll marry who I say you’ll marry, and when I say. If that black-frocked bastard comes here again, he’d better watch out.”

There had, of course, been no talk of marriage from the curate, no hint of it. Just the curate’s polite visits, a shared smile once in a while, that was all. Her father’s fury had been out of all proportion.

Why is there no light? Why does the glass not turn, and the warning beacon not sweep out? She runs down the steps again into the service room and sees where the great lamp and its wick can be reached. A packet of lucifers is there. She strikes and the lamp flares up. On the wall is a mechanism with a lever. She hauls at it and it moves. The lens begins to turn.

Anne could not understand why her mother still permitted the curate to come. Surely she saw the peril? But polite society dictated that the curate be received. To ban him would have caused comment. How could they ban the curate’s visits when the vicar and his wife were still welcomed?

So Anne tried to discourage the curate’s interest in her. But there was never a moment when she was alone with him to speak her mind. She was as silent as she could be, tried not to look at him. She knew that he had sensed the difference in her. Alas, he seemed to think that it was due to maidenly modesty, indicated an increased interest from her, not a lessened one. She found it hard indeed, when her heart had begun to yearn for him, not to look with longing at him in church from time to time. Despite her earnest efforts, her father noticed.

The beam swings out across the ragged sea. “Oh, keep away,” Anne cries in futile agony, “keep away!” Surely the ship must see? Perhaps it does, but it is too late now, too late. It cannot change course, cannot but be driven upon the stony teeth awaiting it. She cries out in horror as the ship comes closer and closer, and then, in an instant, is smashed all to pieces in a foaming cataclysm of timbers and brine.

One Sunday afternoon when her mother was out, her father seized her by the arm and dragged her into his study. Mounted on the wall was a gun, a shotgun. He pulled it from its mount, broke it open and showed her the cartridges inside, then snapped it shut.

“What’s mine is mine,” he said, holding the weapon at his side. “I don’t like other men craving what is mine. You are my property, no less than any machine in my factory. I don’t like the look of that fellow, don’t like his creeping ways. One day I shall find a way…” He fell silent, but by his grim smile she knew he was relishing some terrible deed. Had he enjoyed drowning those kittens? With an awful dread, she knew at last that he had.

She runs down the interminable spiral stair, down, down, down, until at last she can run out into the moonlit night, and down to the terrible shore. Timbers surge and smash against each other as the waves beat against them and force them further upon the rocks. Heedless of how she is becoming soaked, she struggles out against the waves. Something not a timber is floating there.

And so, dream-awoken, she stands now at her high window, hopelessly signalling with the curtains, her own dark lighthouse.

She reaches the floating thing, and knows it is a man. Sobbing, she pulls it toward the shore, half-tumbled by the waves, until at last she reaches a level place beyond the water’s reach. Falling to the shingle beside her burden, she stares up at the tormented clouds, then turns at last to look at what she has found.

Drowned and dead like one of those pathetic kittens, the curate’s face stares up at her.

 “Oh keep away,” she cries at the window, “oh, keep away!”

 

 

by David R Grigg

© Copyright David R Grigg 2012. All rights reserved.

Illustration adapted from a diagram in Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary (1890—1907), via Wikipedia .

David Grigg is the author of many short stories and two short novels for early teens. His books are for sale in our Bookstore.

 

This story was triggered by another challenge from Chuck Wendig, who asked us to base a story on one of several possible titles. As so often with my stories, it outgrew the flash fiction length and I couldn’t rein it in.
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