Woke

“I am a fish.”

The words were spoken with such certainty as to deny any argument to the contrary.

“How did you come to that conclusion?” I asked, trying to be conciliatory.

His dorsal fanned, which led me to guess that he was annoyed, although I couldn’t be sure. Given his assertion, I wondered if I could be sure of anything at all anymore. This must a dream. Then again, I couldn’t be sure of that, either.

His response was matter-of-fact, but his voice carried a piqued note. “I have always been a fish. We all came from the sea, of course. It’s science, you see.”

“I see. Well, how is it that you breathe air, then?” I was curious, truly. I wanted to offer a light-hearted line about being a fish out of water, but thought better of it. He seemed easily offended.

“I’m not breathing air. Don’t you know that we are surrounded by water? The world is changing. Wake up and smell the kelp.” His annoyance was quite evident now. He did little to hide it.

“If that is the case, then as a man, I must hold my breath to survive,” I said, just as matter-of-factly.

His mouth gaped twice, three times. “I suppose that’s true.”

“But, I can’t hold it for long, or else I would suffocate and drown. Not to mention that doing so would end our conversation. Do you see?”

“Well, then. That’s your problem, isn’t it?”

He had a point.

Discretion being the better part of something that seemed no longer relevant, I was just about to concede the argument, or at least bring it to a hasty close, when I awoke to the distant sound of mermaids, singing each to the other, though not to me.

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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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An excerpt from Southern Transit, a Novel

CutterService

–Boston, June 2, 1854

They wanted blood, no mistake, and he found it hard to blame them. The crowd’s roar seemed almost inhuman—a howl as unrelenting as a raging storm at sea.

A well-aimed brick proved their resolve. It shattered the last unbroken window on the ground floor of the courthouse and landed nearby, not a foot from where Third Lieutenant Andrew Gunn crouched inside.

After four hours of slinging rocks, bricks, and epithets at the building, the mob outside had not tired, still threatening to storm the doors of the courthouse, as they had the night before. In fact, their number had grown by half since the last time he’d checked.

Mid-afternoon shadows cast a penumbra over the courtyard, shrouding the crowd in partial twilight. He scanned their livid faces, fearing—among other equally horrid things—that he might recognize a neighbor, maybe a friend or two among them.

Not likely, though, was it? Even before the trial, his few real friends could have weathered a squall in a leaky skiff and, if need be, allowed room in the boat for a wet cat. After today, there might be more room for the cat. No thanks to the verdict.

He ducked below the window sill, as the most reliable man among his band of thirty edged up and knelt beside him.

“Kettle’s about to boil over, Mr. Gunn.” Boatswain Thomas Nelson took a swig from a canteen, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and offered to share. “Them people evidently don’t take too kindly to the notion of sending runaway slaves back to their masters. They ain’t likely to just pick up and go home quiet.”

“Now, whatever gave you that idea, Bos’n?” Gunn drank deeply from the canteen. The tepid water tasted of their ship’s dank scuttlebutt, but it was the only refreshment to pass over his tongue since his morning tea.

Nelson screwed up his mouth into a wry smile and shrugged. “Call it a hunch, sir.”

Gunn drank again, too fast, coughed and passed the canteen back. Part of him, perhaps the best part, wanted to be out there among the protesters. But there was nothing for it at the moment.

“Yeah, well, truth be told, I don’t blame them. I’m not real fond of the idea, myself.”

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