It’s a wonderful day today, and my wife Caroline is a naturally gleeful lady but today she’s beaming ear to ear! The children are running everywhere, ‘round and ‘round, up and down the stairs. The air is electric with excitement. The lighthouse boat came with supplies and with it came a big surprise. I received a letter from the Saint Andrews board of Lighthouse Commissioners, informing me that my request for a transfer has been approved. I’ve been appointed as the Lighthouse keeper at St. Andrews North Point. I’m not one to complain, but being the lightkeeper here at Machias Seal Island for the last 5 years has been hard. We’re so far away from everything. William was only 3 and Thomas 2 when we arrived, and Elizabeth was born a year later. Caroline is a hard worker, and without her help I know I couldn’t have managed. On top of helping me with the lighthouse she takes care of the children and teaches them. William and Thomas have learned to read and write and do arithmetic.
The Commission has been supportive in every way, even supplying us with books! One good thing about being isolated for the last 5 years is that we’ve been able to save my yearly salary of £40, paid in British gold sovereigns every year, and we’ve saved £200 in gold. The supply boat brings us everything we need, and the fish are abundant.
This Island is a barren rock, and our little family of 5 is all alone. There’s no one else to talk to. It’s so lonely that sometimes I find myself talking to the seals, and I’d swear they’re almost human. I remember old tales from Scotland about creatures called Selkies, who could change their form from a seal to a human, both males and females, and it’s not hard to imagine this when you get to know seals. As the myths go, the Selkies shed their sealskin when they arrive on land, it has to be between dusk and dawn, and only during the summer. If you take the selkie’s skin, they are bound to you and have to obey you, but they shall always long to return to the sea.
St. Andrews North Point, New Brunswick, Lighthouse Logbook Wednesday, June 1, 1842
Keeper John Pendleton
Today was my first day as keeper. The former lighthouse keeper has left it in bad condition. We shall have to paint the whole structure, inside and out, and make several repairs. The kitchen and living quarters need to be scrubbed down and painted. Several windows are broken in the light tower and need to be replaced. I wrote a letter to the St. Andrews Commission regarding the poor upkeep of the lighthouse and went into town to drop off the letter at the office. When I was in town, I stopped at the General Store to purchase a few things and made conversation with the townsfolk. There is something strange happening at the moment. Two young children have disappeared recently. Some think that it’s the Indians, others think not. The Passamaquoddy tribe has never been hostile to the settlers here. Many of them relocated to the USA when the settlers arrived, so there aren’t many of them. An old Indian was in the Store and spoke up, saying that it was the Apotamkin that was taking children. He explained that it’s an enormous sea serpent that lives in the bay and that eats people, especially small children. Even if this didn’t seem like a real possibility, I couldn’t help but think of my children right at that moment. They had asked me if they could swim and play on the beach this morning, and of course I let them. Only Elizabeth doesn’t know how to swim yet, and I know that her brothers always take good care of her. I wasn’t worried until the old Indian started talking about the beast. I did hurry home at that point to make sure that they were alright. Even if wasn’t the Apotamkin, one thing is sure, my children aren’t safe. There’s something amiss.
I don’t want to spoil Caroline’s joy for our new home, but I have to tell her about the news. Before I leave the house on our second day in Saint Andrews, I tell my children to stay away from the seashore and say that’s it’s because of pirates. The sun is rising on the bay as I leave the lighthouse. I’m returning to the General Store to get more things to make repairs when I meet an old Indian woman on the road. I greet her in Passamaquoddy as I’ve learned some of their language during the 5 years I spent on Machias Seal Island. One of the men who came regularly with the supply boat was a metis, half French and half Passamaquoddy and he taught me a few words. Most of their tribe speak both French and English, and my French is very good too, so sometimes we spoke in English, sometimes in French. In fact, ‘Machias’ is from their language, it means ‘bad little falls’, and it’s the name of a river.
“Tan kahk, it’s a lovely day!”
“Tan kahk, yes, Kisuhs is shining, but a bad thing is here.”
“Tell me more, what do you know about Apotamkin?”
“It’s athusoss ’samaqan, a snake that lives in the water. It is bigger than the biggest white pine tree. It eats people, mostly children. I heard of it when I was a child. It was gone for a long time. It’s back now.”
“How do you know it’s the Apotamkin?”
“We know. There is a medicine man in the forest.”
“What is your name grandmother?”
“Kcikakak, the blackbird.”
“Kcikakak, can you take me to him, the medicine man?” I’m a curious person by nature, and most of all, I’m afraid for my beloved children.
She nods her head and I follow her for about an hour through the birches, cedar trees, and pines. We arrive in a clearing where there’s a small cone shaped wigwam made of birchbark, and she motions for me to keep a distance as she approaches the entrance. She speaks in their language, then enters. After some time, she immerges and beckons for me to come.
I’m struck by a strong smell of burning herbs as I venture into the wigwam. Wearing only a breechcloth, a hoary old man is sitting cross-legged at the back on a bear’s skin, his piercing eyes scrutinizing me through a cloud of smoke. His dark face is marked by deep furrows and his long white hair flows down over his shoulders and touches the ground. There’s a large piece of birchbark laid out in front of him with a drawing engraved into it.
“This is Wapi Kamkamoss, White Owl, he sees and hears what we do not.”
“Tan kahk White Owl”
“Tan kahk, Light Keeper, Yes, you are the one. I am waiting for you to come. Sit. We must talk.” He motions to another bear hide across from him.
I’m taken aback, how does he know who I am? I “Kcikakak told me that you know about Apotamkin the water serpent. Please tell me what you know.”
“We smoke first.” He lights a long pipe, draws on it, and passes it to me. I oblige, and draw on the pipe in turn. It is not tobacco in the pipe, it smells and tastes sweet. It makes me somewhat dizzy. And after a few turns I motion that it’s enough.
An old scaggy finger points to the drawing on the ground between us. It’s a pictogram that tells a story. The first picture shows a serpent-like fanged beast under water. The next image has two dead children being devoured by the beast. Following that, there is a man in black European attire with a hat standing next to a lighthouse. A woman, two boys, and a girl are also depicted. It’s me! My heart is pounding as I break into a cold sweat. The next drawing is of Indians dancing around a fire. In the penultimate image I am with a woman who seems to be shedding a garment with a seal’s head on top like a hood. In the last etching the man is throwing a spear harpoon at the sea serpent.
He tells the story as he points to the pictograms. “Kci Niwesq, the Great Spirit, has sent you, Light Keeper, to kill Apotamkin. It can only be you, but you will have help from a lumpeguin, a spirit of the water. Our tribe will call her with magic. She will come to you as a grey seal. The lumpeguins can change their form into human form. She will take off her seal skin, and you must take it and keep it. The lumpeguin will have to obey you then. You will tell her to bring Apotamkin to you. She will tempt the serpent to follow her with a promise of a hundred human babies to eat. Apotamkin knows that the lumpeguins have magic power to multiply, and will fall into your trap. With the help of Kci Niwesq and the water spirit you will kill the serpent with a harpoon.”
The spirit of the water is a selkie! Could it be that the mythical creature really exists? My mind is as hazy as the smoke in the air. Perhaps all of this was made up? Perhaps the Indian man in the General Store told White Owl about me yesterday and they made up the whole story. But wait! It was I who asked old Blackbird to lead me to the medicine man! It is all too incredible. White Owl notices my baffled look. He reaches behind his back and picks up what seems to be a long pole wrapped in buckskin. He unties the straps that bind it and draws out a harpoon spear. There are strange symbols and another pictogram with myself carved into its wooden handle. Impossible for this craft to have been done since my arrival yesterday. He holds it out to me.
“This is big magic. You will kill Apotamkin. Out tribe will call the water spirit to come this night. The water spirits only come when the sun goes away.” As he extends the harpoon towards me, our eyes meet, and his regard speaks all the gravity of the hunt I am charged with. There is no escaping my destiny. Caroline, William, Thomas, and little Elizabeth are etched on the birchbark. It is for them that I shall kill the beast. I take the harpoon with both hands. He hands me the birchbark story after rolling it into a scroll and then the buckskin to wrap up the spear. “You must keep the story; it is strong magic. We will take you back to the lighthouse now. Face the sea tonight at the last light and the water spirit will come to you.”
He calls out and a strapping dark young man enters the wigwam. “This is Mokosewi Nipawset, Black Moon. He will go with you and stay close to the lighthouse. Do not fear Light Keeper, Kci Niwesq the Great Spirit is with you. You are protected.”
“I shall do what has to be done, God willing.” I am determined. I have understood for a long time now that what the Indians refer to as the Great Spirit is what we refer to as God. It is the All-Powerful invisible Creator. They are one and the same entity.
I bid farewell to White Owl and grandmother Blackbird, and Black Moon leads me to the bank of the Saint Croix River, where there is a birchbark canoe waiting tethered to a pole. We paddle downstream, staying close to the bank, until we reach the lighthouse at the southern end of the peninsula. I ask him to come in, but he refuses, staying outside. It’s late morning when I enter. The children run to meet me. “Daddy, Daddy, we want to go swimming!” William begs and the other two chime in “Yes, let’s swim! It’s so sunny and warm!”
“Tomorrow you can go swimming, I promise, if the pirates are gone. Run along and play now. Stay in the lighthouse. Don’t go outside or the pirates might get you.”
Caroline has noticed the birchbark scroll and the wrapped-up harpoon spear and her eyes are questioning. “Let’s go to our bedroom, the children shouldn’t see this.” I whisper in her ear. Once in the intimacy of our room, I unfold the scroll first and place it between us. I tell her about my entire morning from the moment I met Grandmother Blackbird on the road into town. She sits listening intently, hardly breathing, and the worry in her eyes swells more and more until it becomes like a giant wave. When I finish telling the story I unwrap the harpoon. Seeing the engraving on the handle, she has to believe, like I, in this incredible turn of destiny.
This day has certainly been the longest day of my life. It seemed as if the sun would never set. I couldn’t do anything. Caroline and I just held hands and talked all day, her encouraging words giving me strength and courage for the fight that awaits me with the night to come. At the last light of the day, I am standing on the shore facing the sea. I can faintly hear drums and singing coming from the forest behind me in the night and it bolsters my courage. A lone grey seal swims up to the shore, and as it touches land it transforms before my eyes, casting off its pelt as one would shed a coat, and carrying it in her right hand. Before me stands a woman like none I have ever seen. Long black hair flows freely, falling around her naked form and waving gently in the warm summer breeze. Her hue is as white and as brilliant as crystal and her eyes are the azure of the summer sky. She is otherworldly indeed. I understand now why selkies are said to be irresistibly charming. She comes to me speaking my own tongue, which startles me even though she’s a magical creature.
“I have been summoned to meet you, Light Keeper. You are a handsome man indeed, and I am pleased to have come.”
As the nymph slides up to face me my desire mounts to an almost unbearable peak, but the birchbark scroll is rolled and tucked into the inner breast pocket of my frock coat, close to my heart. Caroline and the children are carved into its magic, and this saves me from enchantment. They are with me. I shall not let them down. As the lumpeguin puts her arms around my neck, I push her away gently while seizing her sealskin coat. It is in my possession. She must obey me.
“Indeed, charming lady of the sea, I am in need of your help. A great danger and misfortune has come upon the people of this land, and it is my destiny to rid us of this danger. As a spirit of the sea, you must know of the serpent Apotamkin.”
“Yes, I know the beast. It is horrible, and I stay far away from it. I can smell its foul odor as far away as a seal can swim in a day. He is indeed not far from here.”
“I’m afraid that for one time you will have to approach it. God willing, you will never have to smell its horrid reek again. All that I need you to do is to lure it to this very spot, where I shall put an end to its heinous and baneful life. Apotamkin surely knows that you have magic powers. Promise him a hundred human babies to feast upon if he follows you. You shall have the reward of knowing that you helped to rid these waters of this hell born creature.”
“I am with you, and I shall do it gladly. Please restitute my coat Light Keeper, you do not need it for me to obey you.”
Something tells me not to trust her. I have the upper hand and I shall keep it.
“I shall gladly put your coat around your body when Apotamkin lies lifeless. Go now, and make haste.”
When Apotamkin rises out of the water, my spear is in hand and its power surges throughout my whole body. The stench is overwhelming so I wrap the sealskin around my mouth and nose to keep from fainting. He has understood the trap he has fallen into and is lunging towards me in vehement anger. My aim is crucial, but God is with me, and my spear finds its home in the heart of the beast. Apotamkin shall no longer threaten the lives of our children. To my surprise, the dead serpent dissolves into dust and is washed away by the waves.
The lady of the sea tells me that this is because Apotamkin was countless years old. She puts on her coat, transforms back into a grey seal, and returns to her abode. I return to keep the lighthouse with my loved ones. My adventure shall only be known to the Passamaquoddy people. What would my people think if I were to tell them my story? Indeed, they would surely believe me to be moonstruck.