The Keeper of Light

In the near distance, with the sound of far-off thunder, the breaking surf pounded against the bluffs, the last remnant of a storm at sea. The weather was turning overcast and cool, and the air held a dampness that seeped through the uniforms of the two inspectors. A constant wind chilled them, despite the vigorous walk, which was a little more than two miles from Cape Cod Bay, where they had landed in a longboat from the Revenue Cutter Morris. By the time they had walked to the eastern shore, they were both glad for shelter and a rest.

As the two men approached the lighthouse, the sand plateaued into a heath covered with waving seagrass and occasional pasture thistles, as far as the eye could see in both directions. Patches of purple milkwort and indigo weed crawled over the ground. Not a tree stood in sight.

Ahead lay the wide Atlantic, which took on a violet hue today to match the sky.  In the distance, it turned silver and then dark blue where it met the sky. Several sailing ships were visible on the horizon, alone and separated by vast distances, but sharing the same sea.

Highland Light loomed before them, a tall cylinder of brick, painted white, and surmounted by a black iron cap, which showed streaks of rust down its sides. The keeper’s quarters, a one-story frame house, was attached to the north side. The roof of the house sagged, giving it a ramshackle appearance. The entire structure perched precariously on a sandy clay bank, only forty yards from the precipice, which dropped more than a hundred feet to the beach and roaring surf below. The lunate edge of the bank, worn ragged by torrents of driving rains, had been eaten away in great chunks of clay and sand, which had fallen to the base of the bluff.

The lighthouse keeper came to the door of his dwelling after Lieutenant Andrew Gunn’s first knock, which was brief, but insistent. The keeper was a slight man, with white hair, somewhat balding, and a full white beard. His careworn face grew inquisitive, but he remained silent while Gunn and Boatswain Thomas Nelson introduced themselves and their purpose. The keeper welcomed them in, told them his name was Leroy Fisk, and invited them to have something to eat, since the hour was close to noon. They accepted gratefully, and the keeper guided them through his little house to the kitchen, where he shared with them a small pot of simmering fish chowder, a loaf of bread, and some weak tea. They told each other stories of the sea.

As they finished eating, Fisk lit a briar pipe with a long match, clamped the stem between his teeth, and with the same match lit a small oil lamp, which smoked incessantly. Fisk motioned for them to follow. He escorted them outside and around to the door of the lighthouse.

The interior of the lighthouse measured about five paces in diameter. Just inside the door, a dozen casks of oil were stacked against the circular wall. An open, iron staircase spiraled upward into the dim light above. Cut into the wall about two thirds of the way up, a small, square window provided the only natural light. Above the doorway, Gunn noticed a long, jagged crack in the brickwork that extended from the door jamb at least twenty feet above them. The crack was as wide as his thumb at the bottom.

“Looks like trouble,” he said, pointing to the crack with his chin.

“I t’ink de foundation, she shifts,” replied Fisk, nodding in agreement. “Gets worse by de year. But she’s three-and-a-half feet t’ick at de base. I expect she’ll stand a little longer. Maybe, maybe not. Fellas been here many times before.”

Holding the lantern high, Fisk began climbing the staircase. Gunn noticed that he climbed slowly, with a pronounced limp.

“I am sorry to be so slow, gents. You will, of course, to forgive a frail, old man. I was a whaler when I was your age. Had a temper. Took a wild harpoon to de t’igh from a shipmate. Never been de same since.”

He continued the climb up the winding staircase, which rose some thirty feet above the floor. The smell of oil and lamp smoke hung heavy in the air, increasing as they ascended toward the lamp house. Fisk paused to open the trap door above his head, and disappeared through the opening. The others followed.

The room was clean and orderly, nothing out of place. The light itself, standing eight feet tall in the center of the room, comprised sixteen oil lamps, all facing outward, and arrayed in two horizontal circles, one above the other.

Overhead, soot covered the ceiling of the iron dome, but the lamps themselves shone spotless. From constant polishing, the silvering had worn off the copper reflectors, some of which were warped from the heat. All around the light, the large window panes were clean and clear, but three of them showed full-length cracks, probably due to the settling of the tower. Gunn took notes with a pencil and notebook retrieved from the inside pocket of his frock coat.

Picking up a bell-shaped, brass oil can, Fisk filled the fountain on each lamp in turn, counterclockwise. He talked softly as he worked, speaking of his solemn responsibility to keep mariners safe, having been one himself. That thought led to his complaint about the poor quality of the oil provided by the government. On cold days it would congeal, and he would have to heat it on the coal stove in the kitchen. When the weather turned frigid, the lamps burned too dimly. He worried that on cold, wintry nights, when sailors most needed the light, it did not shine as brightly for them. The oil sometimes even stopped flowing altogether, causing the light to go out. Then, he would have to reheat the oil and refill the lamps. But, that took time, and who knew how many lives had been lost? He shrugged. Eight hundred gallons a year at a dollar a gallon was a lot of money, but spending more to save even one life would be well worth it.

Gunn scribbled in his notebook.

The sky had grown dark. Off in the distance, a curtain of rain streamed down from the clouds to the sea, and Gunn could see both ends of the coming squall. Lightning flashed, and a low peal of thunder echoed across the water. They would likely get wet on the walk back to the bay.

Gunn led the way down the spiral staircase, with the others following. Fisk retrieved his lantern, pulled the trapdoor shut behind them, and they descended together to the base of the lighthouse.

“Had a dog once,” said Fisk on the way down, as he limped one step at a time, holding the lantern high so the others could see. “Followed me up dere one night last winter. Lost his feet and fell. Broke his neck, just like dat.” He snapped his fingers. They reached the bottom of the stairway and stopped to listen to Fisk’s story. “Next day, strangest t’ing. At sunrise, I come up to darken de light, and what do I see? T’ree suns on de horizon.” He held up three gnarled fingers. “T’ree suns. You eber see dat?”

“They call them sun dogs,” said Nelson. “I’ve heard of them, but never seen the like. Except maybe the mornin’ after tyin’ one on.” He grinned.

Fisk’s expression was dead serious. “Solhund, in Norwegian,” said Fisk. “Sun wolves. I do not drink, no more anyway. Strangest t’ing I eber did see. T’ink what you will. I know what I see.” Fisk’s quiet voice lilted up at the end, as he pointed a crooked finger to his eye. “In Norway, Solhund is de sign of de twilight of de gods … de, de end of days, you know, when de world is again a vast ødemarker – a desert, a wasteland.”

With that, he limped his way through the open door, and back outside. The other two looked at each other, not knowing what to make of the old man. Gunn raised an eyebrow, and then pressed on, following Fisk through the doorway. Nelson followed.

They said their goodbyes. Fisk told them he hoped their visit had been worthwhile. Gunn assured him it had, and thanked him for his hospitality. Accompanying them to the door of his cottage, the keeper turned to them.

“Soon,” he said. “Perhaps very soon.”

The keeper shrugged and walked back into his house.

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