The Lightkeeper

Submitted into Contest #119 in response to: Set your story in a silent house by the sea.... view prompt

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Fiction Historical Fiction

The sea had tamed itself, for now. The incessant pounding of waves on the walls of the lighthouse had subsided, replaced with the far-off cries of gulls in the bay. The sun had risen, and until its last beam conceded to the inevitable night, the calm waters would stay. 

The lightkeeper extinguished the last lantern inside the tower with a swift exhale. There was no need for them until dusk. Her second task of the morning completed, she began making breakfast with what little she had left. The biweekly carton of supplies the village sent her was to arrive later that day, a temporary break from her repetitive schedule. The distance from shore wasn’t far-- only three miles, close enough that children were often the ones to deliver her rations. As her eggs sizzled in the frying pan, she riffled through scrap paper and tattered paperbacks for the novel that was lent to her by one of her delivery girls, Ethel. She had a quick mind and an even quicker wit, and she reminded the lightkeeper of herself twenty-odd years ago. Ethel wasn’t the one transporting her supplies most times, but she had the latest paperbacks ready every time to trade just in case. 

Her eyes were transfixed on the horizon, lost in thought, when a singed scent reached her nostrils, and the lightkeeper hastily removed the pan from the stove. She sighed. If these weren’t her last set of eggs until the afternoon, she would have no problem tossing the burned breakfast on the rocks for the gulls to find. Today, a mound of salt and pepper would have to do the trick. She transferred the sorry excuse for a meal onto a plate and curled up on the dilapidated armchair by the window to eat, a necessary part of her daily routine. This window faced east, toward the mainland, and while she was never the type to seek out the company other others before taking this position, the lightkeeper occasionally missed the predictable chaos of her home. 

It was 7:30 on a Saturday, and with that in mind, she could reasonably imagine the current state of the village. The children, ecstatic about their one day of freedom, were undoubtedly racing about the market in the square, each one begging their parents for a taste of whatever sweet the shopkeeper was selling this week. Mrs. Johanas was likely haggling the price of cod with Jack Pierson, even though she was destined to lose like always. The lightkeeper briefly debated what her own mother was up to that morning, before reminding herself that whoever brought her rations would arrive with a letter from her as well. She stood, going back to the dining table that now functioned almost exclusively as a desk, rummaging around once more until she located the letter she had written to her mother for the children to take back with them. The eggs eaten, she quickly scrubbed her plate and set it in the sun to dry before starting on the rest of her tasks. 

Her daily schedule consisted of a few chores that weren’t necessarily essential, but helped keep the boredom from setting in entirely. She was not a permanent keeper; the older man who typically kept this lighthouse had requested a summer off. He was a cousin of her mother, and, knowing how much his family missed him, she had offered to take his place for a few months so he could take shore leave. Although he excelled at the obvious requirements of the position, the general tidiness of the tower was another story. The amount of sediment that drifted inside the lighthouse was infuriating and made daily sweeping a must. With the summer almost gone and her muscle memory of the task impeccable, she polished the entire interior in less than an hour. That completed, there was little else for her to do until the boat arrived with essentials, and so she curled up once more on the chair for a quick nap. 

The lightkeeper awoke to rapid knocks on the door and animated chatter. The sun had peaked and began to fall westward. Blinking the sleep out of her eyes, she stood and opened the door, grateful for the excited, smiling faces that were waiting for her. 

“Miss Evans!” Ethel said, holding a small crate with one arm, a novel and a letter with the other. “Good afternoon!”

“Good afternoon to you, too,” the lightkeeper responded. Ethel was nearly eighteen, and thanks to her academically inclined and wealthy parents, she was set to leave for university any day now. She had worried she would miss her before she left, and was thankful Ethel had come with to deliver the last of her supplies before her time at the lighthouse was up.

“Hello, Miss Evans,” said her younger brother, James. Unusually strong for his age, he was her most frequent delivery boy. He held a larger carton with both hands, and the lightkeeper opened her door wider to let the two inside. James hefted the carton on the floor with a thud, and she winced. Loud noises were slightly frowned upon in the lighthouse, for they might attract unwanted visitors.

“Hello, James. What have you brought to me? I certainly hope you aren’t carrying my eggs,” she said, and he laughed sheepishly. 

“I don’t think so,” he responded. Ethel carefully set her crate on the floor next to it, with the novel and letter on top. The two assisted her in unloading the supplies, scarcely paying attention to the sun sinking toward the horizon. They filled her in on the village gossip, ranging from who had been in trouble that week at school to the missing chickens. It was so mundane, and the lightkeeper once again found herself missing the mainland. Even after the groceries were all put away, the siblings lingered, until the sun was nearly flush with the ocean to the west. 

At last, the lightkeeper noticed the time. “You should have left hours ago!” she exclaimed. “It’s far too late to travel home, not with the weather being as unpredictable as it has been.” She stifled a curse. The children’s mother would kill her the moment she stepped foot on land again if she sent them back now. 

“We can stay here the night? That may be safest, Miss Evans,” Ethel replied. There was a gleam of mischief in her eyes. Of course, she should have known. All summer the girl had expressed a desire to spend the night in the lighthouse, just for fun. Cunning as she was, she’d asked the lightkeeper every question she could about the novel she had recommended her, just to stall. With this being the last supply run before her mother’s cousin reclaimed his position, this was Ethel’s last chance. 

“Yes! Oh please let us stay, we promise we won’t bother you,” James, although likely not in on his sister’s scheme, was quick to offer support.

The lightkeeper sighed. There were plenty of spare quilts tucked away in a chest upstairs for the colder months, and the chairs had enough cushions to serve as makeshift mattresses. As long as they kept silent over the course of the night, this was the safest place for them until dawn. “I suppose,” she conceded. James gave a small cheer of triumph, while Ethel simply smiled. “But you must stay quiet all night, and you absolutely cannot look outside until the sun begins to rise, do you understand?” They nodded excitedly. “Good.” She sighed again. With extra mouths to feed for two meals, rations would be tighter than normal. 

The lightkeeper threw together a quick supper of eggs and toast, the easiest thing to stretch between three people. Despite its simplicity, the children ate with gusto, praising her entirely mediocre cooking skills. They even offered to help clean up, and she kept one eye on the sea as the sky steadily darkened. When the sunlight faded almost entirely, she set about lighting the lanterns around the lighthouse, saving the topmost lamp above the catwalk for last. 

Sending the children to bed was no easy task. They were bursting with energy, especially James, despite completing the grueling task that was rowing out to sea against the tide. Ethel begged to stay awake longer in order to reread part of a novel that she had borrowed in the months prior, and the lightkeeper nearly gave in. A sizable wave that crashed against the base of the tower brought her back to reality, and she swiftly shut down the notion, apologizing for the lantern that they would need to keep on throughout the night. With the two cozied up under piles of quilts, the lightkeeper returned to the main floor and retrieved the crossbow and makeshift quiver from beneath the floorboards, then back up to the catwalk. 

A light rain had started during her time inside, and she dug a cap out of her pocket to offer a bit more warmth, cursing all the while. Even a thin haze such as this made her job twice as difficult. With her vision slightly obscured, discerning the vile creatures creeping toward the lighthouse from the waves they hid within was near impossible without a sharp eye. Indeed, her first night as lightkeeper was a rude awakening. There was a violent storm, and the lightning strikes were her only source of light when the wind frequently blew out the lamp. Coupled with the fact she barely knew what she was getting into, the monsters of the deep had almost succeeded in climbing all the way up the rocks to the walls of the tower. Jagged claws at the foundation served as a cruel reminder of the incident. 

Her mother’s cousin had left instructions on how best to combat the monstrosities she now faced nightly. A crossbow usually did the trick-- the common creature was about the size of a person, and one shot was all that she needed. There was a harpoon hung on the wall of the staircase, which she had initially thought of as morbid decoration. This was reserved for the largest beasts, the likes of which she’d encountered once all summer. These were closer to the size of the lighthouse itself than her, and a simple shot from a crossbow would only enrage it. With James and Ethel in the house, she prayed tonight would not be her second battle with such a thing. 

A flicker of movement caught her eye to the right. Holding the crossbow at the ready, she turned her attention towards the spot only to find a stranded gull picking at the remains of a battered fish. She allowed her hold her loosen ever so slightly, until a ghastly hand broke the surface of the waves to snatch the bird and pull it under. She took aim and shot without thinking, a necessary reflex. There was a strangled cry from the creature, and the hand disappeared beneath the waves, leaving only a ruffled gull. The lightkeeper smiled in satisfaction. Each and every arrow that found its mark still ignited a warm feeling within her gut, a pride she had yet to lose. She briefly contemplated how dull her life would become upon returning to the village, unable to tell anyone of her victories at sea. Her friends, family, and neighbors were best left without the knowledge of what lurked below the surface of the waves. Another creature breached, this time providing a larger target with its entire upper torso in full view. She struck it down with ease and made a quick patrol of the entire catwalk, which fully wrapped around the zenith of the tower. Lucky she did so-- three more humanoid creatures were slinking their way up the rocks, faces contorted in a permanent scowl. 

Throughout the summer, she had allowed herself to wonder where they had come from. Were they another species? She had dismissed this explanation after the previous week, when she identified one of the beings as the man from a nearby town who had gone missing the winter before. The lightkeeper hadn’t slept much since, tossing and turning, the faces of those she could only assume to be drowned men and women haunting her each time she shut her eyes. Then there was the question of why her crossbow stopped them in their paths. Could the doomed dead die twice? It seemed so, and it hurt both head and soul to consider. Another creature’s hand emerged from the depths. She shot without thinking, before anything else could surface along with it. Among the gossip the children brought, there was also talk of a young boy named Joshua who had gone missing as well. She prayed she would not count him among her slain tonight. 

The moon, a small sliver of its full self, reached its pinnacle and then began its descent. The rain had traveled elsewhere after an hour or so, thankfully, and the slightly warmer temperature its departure brought about seemed to drive the creatures off. A typical night saw at least forty; by the time the moon kissed the western horizon she had only counted thirty-six. Now, as the sun began to tease its reappearance, it was time for her least favorite task. The lightkeeper slung the crossbow over one shoulder and the quiver over the other, before returning inside and to the base of the lighthouse, ensuring that James and Ethel were still fast asleep on the way. 

The decaying bodies of the creatures would quickly attract seagulls, which, in turn, would attract more creatures the following night. The easiest way to stop the unfavorable cycle was to push the corpses back into the sea. After pulling on leather gloves, the lightkeeper began the grueling task of sending the creatures back to their watery graves. Although she desperately tried not to look at their faces, she often failed, and silently said a prayer each time the features were not those of a child. As she hauled the final body back to the waterline-- this creature in particular had given her an unexpected challenge, nearly reaching the halfway mark between the water and the base of the lighthouse-- there were footsteps across the rocks behind her. 

“Miss Evans?” Ethel asked, unable to keep her voice from shaking. 

“Ethel,” the lightkeeper responded, taking a purposeful breath to calm her nerves. “I did not realize you were awake.” She continued taking the body toward the sea. 

“Only for a few minutes. There’s no curtains inside, so the sun woke me,” she said. Ethel’s eyes were firmly locked on to the creature she was holding, and her overall complexion was swiftly turning to a sickly shade of green. 

“Ah. I apologize, I should have realized you would be up soon.” She reached the waves at last, but hesitated before giving the creatures its final heave into the sea. Ethel continued staring. “Would you like to help me?” 

Ethel took a few steps forward, paused, and then took a few more until she stood a foot away. “What-- what is this? Did you kill him?” Upon closer inspection, the creatures looked far less human. Their skin was grey, almost purple, and various parts were missing-- ears, chunks of their arms or legs, even entire fingers or eyes. Something was always slightly off. A limb was too long, or too short. There was an extra nose, occasionally, and some had too many pupils trapped in their ghastly eyes. “I watched you last night. I saw them climbing out of the water, but I pretended to sleep when you came back down.” 

“I did kill him,” the lightkeeper admitted. Ethel fell silent. “But in a way, I saved him, too. They die twice, I suppose you could say. But this time, he finally gets to rest. Would you like to help me?” 

Ethel nodded, and took hold of the creature’s arms, while the lightkeeper lifted its legs. Together, they carried him the rest of the way to the sea, where he sank almost instantly. Neither spoke for a moment. 

“Do you do this every night?” 

“Every night,” she replied. “But somebody has to. When I leave in two weeks, it will be Mr. Smitz’s job again. Shall we go wake your brother?” Ethel nodded. “And Ethel-- kindly refrain from telling anyone about this. For one thing, we wouldn’t want to give anyone a fright. And for another, they would never believe you.” Ethel nodded again. “Let’s get you some breakfast and send you on your way before your mother throws a fit.”

“It’s likely too late for that, Miss Evans,” Ethel admitted. The lightkeeper laughed. 

“So be it then. Well, you make sure to tell her I did my best to keep you two safe.”

“I know, I will,” Ethel promised. The lightkeeper started toward the tower’s entrance, and after a brief look back at the sea, Ethel followed. Once inside, the two made rounds of the lighthouse to extinguish the lanterns one by one, and the lightkeeper made another meal of eggs and toast while Ethel woke her brother. The two ate in silence, letting James fill the air with talk of his schoolwork and other things. After breakfast, the lightkeeper shooed them away immediately, already fearful of the wrath she’d earn from their mother the minute she set foot on shore again. 

As she watched the two row back toward the mainland, Ethel seated purposefully in the center of the boat, she couldn’t help but feel saddened by her own fast-approaching departure. Here, it was her, the sun, and the things that lurked beneath. It was slightly simpler this way, and perhaps in the coming weeks, she would miss the maddening repetition of her life here. The waters were calm, and the gulls swarmed in the distance. Satisfied, she returned inside, looking forward to a novel and a much-needed nap.

November 07, 2021 05:06

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4 comments

Mercy Ineke
20:54 Nov 18, 2021

Great story. Your story line is so peaceful and beautiful.

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19:38 Nov 19, 2021

Thank you!

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K. Antonio
20:25 Nov 07, 2021

I really enjoyed the pacing of the story! There were monsters or I guess zombies, and a character shooting at them from a lighthouse, but in the end it was a tale about leaving, and even a bit about being an adult. The blend of normalcy in the MC's daily life with that of a monstrous nightly uprising was really interesting. I almost thought that this story was going to be something very slice-of-life, in a way it was that, but it also played with great elements of urban fantasy. It was unique, but at the end I like how the narrator bring...

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23:31 Nov 07, 2021

Thank you so much! I'm glad I got you to slow down-- I struggle with that too sometimes.

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