infinity plus - sf, fantasy and horror fiction
infinity plus home pagefictionnon-fictionother stuffa to z

Lighthouse Summer

a novelette
by Paul Witcover

One night when I was ten, a year after the sea took my father, leaving us nothing to bury but what he had left behind on that treacherous morning of clear blue skies -- empty shoes, loose change, limp clothes haunting closets, and the memory of a smile that clove my heart like a beacon -- my mother woke me with the news that she had decided to marry Walter Hooper.

Framed by the weak light that spilled past my doorway from the hall, she perched on the edge of my bed as if afraid the mattress might prove as porous as quicksand. She breathed softly, waiting for me to reply to her announcement. But I was determined to say nothing, wanting to punish her for what seemed as much a betrayal of me as of my father.

"Mark...?"

I turned away, unable to forgive a weakness I could not fathom. I felt a touch on my shoulder, a shy pressure to which I returned a stony indifference, until it was withdrawn.

The weight of her lifted from the mattress, but my mother did not go. "I want you to know I don't love him," she whispered. "No man can take your father's place. But I have to do what's best for you, honey. I know your daddy understands. Mr. Hooper is a fine man. Your daddy respected him. He'll treat you right, as if you were his own. I promise."

I knew all about Mr. Hooper. He wasn't really an old man, but he seemed like one to me then: his skin rough and wrinkled, his movements slow and deliberate, even his words cautious. He smelled old. He'd been after my mother ever since my father died, fishing for her with the same dull persistence that he fished the waters off Cape Henlopen. He was a gentle man, lonely, a widower with no children who, insisting I call him Walter, would sit me down from time to time and show me how to tie knots my Boy Scout manual had never heard of, his thick, blunt fingers, usually so clumsy, threading the rope with a thoughtless grace I envied desperately. At that moment I wished him dead.

I heard my mother sigh. Her lips brushed my cheek, hot and wet with tears that rolled down my face and neck as if I were the one who was crying. I wanted to brush them away, but didn't dare move until she had left the room, closing the door softly behind her. Then, to my utter surprise, a storm of tears burst from my eyes. I pressed my face into the pillow and wept as if there were an ocean inside me trying to get out.

Mr. Hooper just about lived at our house after that. He was there when I went to bed, was seated at the table when I got up for breakfast. He walked gingerly, padding in his white socks as if expecting the floor to buckle at every step. His dull gray eyes were clouded with an immense reserve. He never looked directly at me, seeming to think me too fragile to bear his glance without bruising.

I got the feeling that I was interrupting something whenever I came upon Mr. Hooper and my mother. The silence that arose then had a dangerous edge, punctuated by sudden attempts at speech that, as often as not, ended in a silence worse than that which had preceded it.

School was out for the summer, and as soon as I was excused from the breakfast table I would take off for the old lighthouse on Cape Henlopen, an hour's walk across the dunes and up the beach. My mother had forbidden me to play there, afraid that the listing wreck, abandoned for more than fifty years, would topple at the slightest breeze into the ever-advancing sea. But that dilapidated tower, romantic and mysterious as the ruins of a storybook castle, exercised an irresistible allure, as if its long-extinguished lamp were still ablaze in a nest of mirrors, beckoning to me with one long finger of light.

From the observatory, which I reached by means of a rickety spiral staircase, I would gaze past the shattered windows over the sparkling water -- the keening of the wind loud in my ears, the tower swaying gently -- until my eyes could no longer distinguish the thin line separating sea and sky. There I could be alone with my fantasies of pirates and spaceships or, unable to forget the reality awaiting me at home, plot elaborate schemes of escape and revenge, even more fantastic. It was there that I met, one day in late July about a week after my mother had accepted Mr. Hooper's proposal, the Captain.

There had been a furious storm the night before, huge thunderheads sailing in like immense gray battleships that opened fire with all their guns once the sun went down. For hours we had huddled in candlelight, the power gone, the house shaking like a frightened animal under the barrage of thunder and lightning as rain pelted the roof with such force it seemed the sky had been ripped asunder.

Coming over the dunes that morning, the storm's detritus all around me, I stopped short in astonishment at the thin trail of smoke rising from behind the lighthouse to smudge the blue sky. In an instant, the stark and comforting solitude of the place was ruined, my last consolation torn away. I was a little frightened, but I was also angry -- curious, too -- and so I approached from the sea side, intending to circle around and spy on whoever had usurped my refuge. Gulls challenged me with mocking squawks I hoped would not betray my presence, pacing me obliquely, their cruel yellow eyes watching me sideways with a hunger that made me think of dinosaurs. To my left, the surf rolled in, precise as clockwork, crashing with a dull wallop and hissing up the sand.

The lighthouse loomed white as bone against the sky, perched at the edge of a precipice and tilted at an angle that seemed impossible to sustain. The foundation showed through the sand, an irregular mass of cement and rusty iron rods upon which scattered clumps of bleached-out grass had somehow found purchase. Tides had scooped a yawning cavern that threatened to undermine the structure. That close, the bulk of the tower obscured the smoke, and for a moment it seemed again as ancient and innocent as my imagination had made it.

Then the wind shifted. I smelled bluefish frying.

I crept around the tower, sliding in the sand that rose steeply to landward. I wondered who could be cooking here. There was no sign of a boat or jeep, no sounds of a party. It was slow going, but finally I was close enough to hear the sizzle and pop of the fire. I stuck my head out for a peek.

Sitting on a cinderblock before a small fire kindled from the splintered remains of the keeper's house, a shack that had been crushed over the years by the shifting sands as if slowly squeezed in a giant's fist, was the strangest man I had ever seen. His back was to me, but even so I could tell he was an old man by the stoop of his bony shoulders, upon which a faded and tattered shirt hung loosely, flapping like a scarecrow's garment. His head was sunk in the hollow between his shoulder blades, as if the hat he wore, a navy blue cap of the type favored by weekend sailors, were made of iron. I could hear him muttering to himself in a low, gruff voice like a man clearing his throat as, with one finger, he gingerly poked the contents of a pan suspended above the fire on a grill propped between two cinderblocks. He looked for all the world like the sole survivor of a shipwreck, marooned in the shadow of the very lighthouse responsible for his fate. So great was my astonishment that I forgot to remain hidden and stepped out for a clearer look.

Without turning, as though he had been aware of my presence all along and, what's more, been expecting me, the old man called out in a clear and friendly voice: "Well, Mr. Sharp. So you've got here at last. Come and eat with me."

I looked around wildly for Mr. Sharp, expecting to see him emerge at any second from the lighthouse. But there was just the two of us. The old man turned to face me. I braced myself as he stood, ready to run.

Though his legs straightened, his back seemed to grow more bowed, so that he was scarcely taller than when he had been seated. I saw now that he was dressed in the remnants of a uniform trimmed with gold braid. His blue cap had a silver anchor blazoned above the ragged brim; gold laurels festooned the flukes. Long wisps of white hair emerged from under the cap.

"Mr. Sharp," he said after a moment, his voice gone hard and petulant. "Have you been drinking again? Don't you recognize your old captain? Come here at once!"

I took a step forward. "I'm not Mr. Sharp, sir," I called.

"What impudence!" The Captain stamped his foot, then shook his head sadly. With a shrug of his shoulders, he turned away and reseated himself upon the cinderblock. "Go hungry if you like, Mr. Sharp. I don't care."

The breeze blew another whiff of the bluefish my way. Cautiously, I walked over to the fire, dragging a cinderblock to a spot directly across from the Captain. With the fire between us, I felt safe enough.

The Captain looked up with a knowing smile and chuckled. "You never could resist bluefish, Mr. Sharp."

"Yes, sir," I agreed. His gaze seemed fixed on a spot behind and above me; white as sea foam, his eyes were occluded by cataracts like encrustations of salt. It was a wonder he could see at all. He struck me then as a sad but comical figure, a cross between Popeye and Mr. Magoo, a fitting keeper for the blinded lighthouse at his back.

The fish was delicious, fried with scallions of a sort I had never tasted. As we ate, the Captain continued to address me as Mr. Sharp. I assumed that he was an old man reliving his past, an escapee perhaps from a seamen's rest home or mental institution. I soon lost all fear of him, entering into his fantasy as if it were one of my own.

"More fish, Mr. Sharp?"

"Aye-aye, sir."

Mostly he talked of things I could not understand, of ships and storms, of far-off lands and the strange people who inhabited them.

"Remember the Dorcas, Mr. Sharp? Now there was a fine ship! The finest to ever sail the seven seas!"

"That she was, sir."

He never mentioned his name to me; he was, and always would be, simply the Captain. Listening to him speak, alert for any allusions to his recent history, I got the impression that he had been at the lighthouse for years, invisible until now. He had certainly made himself at home -- when we finished eating, he took me inside. A hammock was strung in one corner, pots and pans hung from hooks in the walls, old books were stacked on a table in the center of the room, beside the spiral staircase leading up to the observatory. There were shelves lined with cans of soup and vegetables, a box stuffed with kindling and a sack filled with onions and potatoes. He had even hung rude curtains cut from burlap over the empty windows. I followed him up the stairs.

In the observatory, the Captain faced the open sea. The breeze feathered his white hair, and it was easy to imagine him on the bridge of the Dorcas, sailing bravely into unknown waters. He took a deep breath, then turned to me, seeming, as always, to be looking at someone creeping up behind my back. His sideways glance and hunched posture reminded me of the gulls that had paced me as I walked to the tower. He cocked his head at an even more unlikely angle, then pointed to his clouded eyes.

"Can't see worth a damn," he said matter-of-factly. "You can't sail with your nose, Mr. Sharp. Not even I can do that. So they retired me. Retired. And here I am, come to the very edge of land but still not afloat, no, even though this old lighthouse sways like a mast on gentle seas, even though the wind in my face makes me think I'm sailing. Well, there's no help for it. I'd hoped for something different once. Did you ever hear me speak the name of Willis?"

"No, sir," I answered.

He sighed, and seemed to grow older still. "Willis was a girl I knew long ago. Eyes the color of the sea. I don't mean blue, Mr. Sharp. No, not just blue but every color in the seven seas. The angry gray of sudden storms, the placid blue of calm waters ruffled by a fair breeze, the steaming, turgid yellow of tropical latitudes, the deep and murky green off the coast of Africa. We were to be married."

"Sir?"

"Are you married, Mr. Sharp? I can't recall."

"No, sir."

He nodded. "It's a luxury for young sailors but a comfort, I think, in our old age. Willis died before our wedding. Drowned at sea, like called to like. Though I didn't know it at the time, I was marrying her not for love but for her eyes, not for any present comfort but for my old age away from the sea, so that, in her eyes, something of the sea would be left to me." He sighed again. "Forgive me, Mr. Sharp. There's not much left for me now but memories and regrets. It was kind of you to come visit your old skipper. Will you be shipping out soon?"

"Not until September, sir," I said, thinking of school.

"Perhaps you will pay me another visit."

"I will, sir," I promised. With a tired salute, he turned back to the open window, his back bowed with the pressure of years and disappointments but his gaze steady for all that, sweeping the horizon as if in search of a distant, fabled shore.

In the days and weeks that followed, I visited the Captain as often as I could, bringing knickknacks from home I thought he might appreciate, old things of my father's I knew no one would miss: a rod and reel, an oil lamp, an oilskin slicker. I brought fresh water in soda bottles, used my allowance to buy him six-packs of Coca-Cola and fresh oranges. Although my mother suspected that I was disobeying her and playing at the lighthouse, she seemed unwilling to disturb the peace that reigned over our home, a peace as unstable as the lighthouse itself.

My mother and Mr. Hooper were to be married at the end of September, and even though they were planning a simple ceremony, performed by a Justice of the Peace, there was much that needed to be done. They had no patience with my sullen and resentful presence, and though they knew that they would have to deal with it before the wedding, they preferred to postpone the day of reckoning as long as possible. That suited me just fine.

Arriving at the lighthouse, I would call out: "Mr. Sharp reporting for duty, sir! Permission to come aboard."

The Captain would poke his head out the door or peer down from the observatory. "Granted, Mr. Sharp. What have you brought today?"

And I would present him with some candles, or some kitchen matches, or some milk. Best of all he like citrus fruits, which he accepted with a wide smile: "Scurvy, you know. Can't be too careful."

We spent whole days wandering the beach like Robinson Crusoe and Friday. It was as if we truly were marooned on a deserted island, for though I constantly worried that someone would stumble across the Captain and take him away, return him to the home or institution from which he had escaped and in so doing rob me of my best and only friend, we never saw another soul, not even so much as a sail or plume of smoke on the horizon. If airplanes passed overhead, we did not notice them; our eyes were fixed on the sand, where we found the strangest things washed up: coconuts, shattered ceramic dishes that we painstakingly glued back together, bits of colored glass, smooth as opals, that were warm to the touch and glowed in the dark like fireflies.

Once we found a dead fish like nothing I had ever seen. It was the size of a small dog, its bloated body covered with dark quills, its mouth gaping widely to reveal row upon row of needle-sharp teeth. The Captain insisted that we bury it. "Poison," he said, and shivered as if at an unpleasant memory.

The Captain was the most marvelous fisherman I had ever seen. He made his own lures, which he never failed to spit on before casting. Thus primed, it took scarcely any time at all for a fish to strike. Suddenly the rod -- my father's -- would bend, the line taut and glistening in the sun as the Captain, laughing, his spine bent to an even greater degree than the rod he held, waded into the surf to claim his prize.

  

About the middle of September, the Captain began to prepare the lighthouse for winter even though we were in the midst of a heat wave that had stretched unbroken since the end of August -- long, scorching, rainless days the likes of which no one could remember, nights dry and endless as deserts of black sand. Meanwhile thunderheads kept rolling in, turning the sky the color of the Captain's eyes. Behind that dense curtain, opaque as quartz, the best the sun could manage was a wan yellow light. After sunset, green flickerings ran through the sky like a fever. The petulant rumblings of thunder never ceased for an instant. People were irritable, glancing up nervously every few seconds even as they made jokes about the weather or placed bets on when the first drop of rain would fall. At home, my mother and Mr. Hooper seemed to feel the weather was a bad omen for their marriage. For the first time, they argued in front of me, and I began to have hopes that the wedding, now two weeks away, would be called off.

School had started weeks before, but I had yet to attend a single class. Carrying my books under one arm, I marched off to the bus every morning only to cut across the dunes once I was out of sight, running as though Mr. Hooper were after me. When I reached the lighthouse, breathless, the Captain would be hard at work installing shutters he had hammered together with nails I had brought from the hardware store or patching the roof above the observatory with shingles pulled from the wreckage of the keeper's house. Side by side we worked through the day, stopping only to eat a meal of fruit and whatever fish the Captain had caught that morning. Then, when it was time for school to let out, I would say goodbye and head back home.

Looking back, it seems amazing that I got away with this careless deception for as long as I did ... though certainly no more amazing than the fact that, until the very end, no one discovered the Captain was living at the lighthouse. It was as if the lighthouse protected us, casting its blinding light into the eyes of anyone who chanced to look our way. But I suppose even then I knew it could not go on forever. And, sure enough, one Friday afternoon my mother was waiting for me in the kitchen with Mr. Hooper.

I let the screen door slam behind me, my usual greeting dying on my lips at the sight of their stern, disappointed faces. Though my heart quailed, I managed a weak, uncertain smile.

My mother and Mr. Hooper were seated at the kitchen table, a pitcher of iced tea between them. For a moment no one moved, the only sound a low growl of thunder that seemed to come from deep in the earth. Then, as if arriving at a sudden decision, my mother stood, the sound of her chair scraping across the floor as shrill as fingernails down a blackboard. I winced and took a half-step towards the door.

"How was school today?" My mother's voice was icy calm. Her hands smoothed the front of her dress.

How much did she know? I glanced at Mr. Hooper, hoping to find some clue there, but his wrinkled face wore a pained expression that told me nothing good. I shrugged. "Okay."

I had not thought my mother could move so fast. In an instant she had me by the arm. My books crashed to the floor. I squirmed to free myself, but she only squeezed tighter. "How dare you lie to me," she said.

I was on the verge of tears, more from the sound of her voice and the look in her eyes than the pain of her grip.

"Mr. Rowan called today. The principal. He said you haven't been to class once since school started. Not once! Do you have any idea how that makes me look? Do you?"

She shook me with each question. I did not know how to answer.

"No, you don't care about me. Only about yourself. You know this isn't an easy time, but do you try to help out? Do you make the slightest effort to be a help to me? You don't raise so much as your little finger! What's gotten into you, Mark? Answer me!"

I was afraid that if I opened my mouth I would start to cry. The best I could manage was, "I don't know."

"'I don't know.' And where have you been playing hooky every day? Do you know that? You damn well better! Down by the lighthouse?"

"No," I said.

"You're lying." And then my mother hit me for the first -- and only -- time in her life. It came out of nowhere, a slap that left the side of my face burning. I could hold back the tears no longer.

"Mary!" I heard Mr. Hooper's chair scrape back.

"Stay out of this, Walter," she warned. Then she addressed me, her hand raised as if about to deliver another slap. I saw that she was crying as much as I was. "For the last time, have you been playing hooky down by the lighthouse? I want the truth now."

All I could think of was protecting the Captain. "No," I sobbed.

The anger seemed to drain out of her all at once with my denial. Her hand dropped, and she turned me loose.

Suddenly Mr. Hooper was there, one arm around my mother's waist. "Your mother loves you, Mark," he said.

"She doesn't love you, Walter," I sneered. "She told me so."

He stiffened at that. Anger rekindled in my mother's face. "You ungrateful ... Go to your room. Now!"

I ran past them, glad to escape. I slammed the door to my room and threw myself down on the bed, crying with shame and rage. I knew I had said something terrible, and though a part of me regretted it, another part gloated at the wound I had inflicted in them both. Faintly, from the kitchen, I heard Mr. Hooper and my mother shouting. I listened for a while, straining to make out the words, which grew more and more indistinguishable from the thunder, until I realized, with a start, that I had fallen asleep and woken in the middle of a storm.

There was a plate of cold rice and chicken on the night table beside my bed. A glass of tepid milk. Outside my window lightning flashed with manic intensity, illuminating a world of wind and water in which there was no up, down or sideways. The house shivered with each crash of thunder, and I thought fearfully of the Captain, riding out this tempest in the battered lighthouse. I pictured him in the observatory, his face hard into the wind, my father's oilskin slicker flapping about his crooked body like a tent come loose from its moorings. There he stood, immovable as a rock, gripping the window ledge as if sailing the lighthouse straight into the teeth of the storm.

When I woke the next morning, the sky outside my window was thick with clouds the color of ugly bruises. Thunder sounded muffled and peevish in the stuffy air. No breeze blew. It felt like a lull between battles. There was no calm, no peace, no sense of relief. Just a feeling of helplessness that swelled with each growl of thunder and flash of lightning until I could not bear to be alone another second.

Without bothering to change out of the clothes in which I had fallen asleep, I hurried into the kitchen, where, as usual, I expected to find my mother and Mr. Hooper. It was company I hungered for, not breakfast, and despite all that had happened I knew that the pressure of the impending storm would not seem so crushing and fearsome with them to share it.

But they were not in the kitchen. There was a note on the table from my mother. She and Mr. Hooper had gone out. They would be back by afternoon, when, as she put it, "we need to have a talk, the three of us." She told me to stay home, as the storm might break at any moment.

It was only then that I remembered the Captain. A terrible foreboding gripped my heart, and for an instant I pictured him lying broken and bloody among the stones of the tumbled tower, calling out in a weak voice for his faithful Mr. Sharp. Scarcely pausing to grab an apple and glance at the clock above the sink -- it was almost ten -- I rushed headlong out the door.

As I ran toward the lighthouse, the carnage of the storm lay everywhere around me. Trees had blown over. Parts of people's roofs had been carried away then deposited on the dunes as though the rest of the house were still attached, submerged beneath the sand. Here and there I encountered the mangled forms of gulls and, once, a huge black bird I did not recognize, whose leathery wings, even in their ruined state, stretched farther than I could stretch my arms. I stopped for a minute, marveling, then ran on.

Coming over the last dune, I saw the lighthouse standing upright as if by force of will alone. Its base all but destroyed, the tower slumped seaward with a curve reminiscent of the Captain's crooked posture. The slightest breeze, it seemed, would serve to send the whole structure crashing into the surf. It swayed perilously even as I watched. There wasn't a minute to lose. I ran up the beach, shouting for the Captain at the top of my lungs.

Then I saw the Captain himself hurrying down the beach to meet me. My father's oilskin slicker flapped around him like the wings of a huge, dark bird. Lost within its deep folds, he seemed hardly to touch the sand at all, as if a sudden wind had swept him up, blowing him along.

He came to a stop before me, one hand hugging the slicker to his body, the other holding his cap in place. Long strands of white hair whipped about his face, causing him to squint more than usual as he peered up at me with a sidelong glance that, as always, seemed directed somewhere behind and above me.

"She's come back to me, Mr. Sharp," he said excitedly. His clouded eyes shone with a diffuse yellow light, as if a flash of lightning had been trapped there, ricocheting back and forth with ever-waning intensity inside a cluster of crystals.

I took no notice of his words, speaking at almost the same time in a voice as excited as his own. "It's not safe here anymore, Captain. You've got to clear out, come home with me."

"She's sound as a rock," the Captain declared over a roar of thunder. "I'd as soon abandon a child."

"But the storm..."

"Bah! We've seen worse, eh Mr. Sharp? Remember that time rounding the Cape of Good Hope? Or in sixty-seven, the typhoon in the China Sea? Besides, I can't leave now. Didn't you hear? She's come back to me!"

For the first time, I registered what he was saying. "She?"

"Why, man, it's Willis I'm speaking of! Who else?"

It took a moment for me to place the name. Then my jaw dropped. "You mean..."

He nodded furiously, then seized my arm in a grip that put my mother's to shame, pulling me toward the lighthouse as he related what had happened.

"It was late last night. The height of the storm. I was in the observatory, looking out into that maelstrom for any sign of a ship in distress. I could see nothing, but I felt ships out there, whole crews bravely struggling for their lives as the world came to pieces around them, afraid and lonely but determined to live and, failing that, to die like men. What I wouldn't have given then for oil enough to light the old lamp! We know, you and I, how welcome is even the most feeble flicker of light from shore on a stormy night, when hope and despair alike have been washed overboard. It's a sight that steadies the shakiest heart like a slug of brandy and warms the coldest limbs like a roaring fire in a friendly hearth. But there was no oil, and the lamp itself was useless, the mirrors smashed and scattered. There was nothing I could do but watch with my useless eyes and ... I won't say pray, but something very like a prayer was burning in my heart.

"The lighthouse was bending like a stalk of grass, but I had faith in her, Mr. Sharp. Sound as a rock she is! Besides, I wasn't about to give up my last command, abandon ship, not with so much depending on me. I felt that if I turned away for even a second, unseen ships would founder. And you know very well that nothing can make me leave the bridge in a storm.

"All at once, illuminated by a flash of lightning, I saw a body afloat in the surf. Pale white and gleaming like a fallen sliver of the moon, it was there for an instant then gone, swallowed up in the storm, the night. At first I thought it was just these old eyes playing another one of their damned tricks, lending substance to shadow, life to a drifting log. But then I saw it again, rolling in the trough between two waves, a body for sure but limp, lifeless, swept close to shore by some chance but already being pulled back out to sea.

"Without pausing to think of those ships depending on my vigilance, I ran from the observatory, nearly tumbling down the stairs in my haste. I burst out the door, into the thick of the storm. I knew at once that I hadn't a chance in hell of spotting the body again, much less retrieving it. The idea that it was still alive didn't even occur to me. Still, because it was a human being I had seen, for the sake of my conscience I didn't want to give up so easily. I made my way down to the edge of the beach. Long tendrils of sea foam snaked about my ankles, seeking to draw me in, until I didn't dare take another step.

"Just then, in a flicker of lightning, I saw her. Her shape rose from the frothy waters in one smooth motion, a wave swelling into flesh. Clothed only in foam, she hung limply on the crest, her body seeming to dance as the wave skimmed her over the water with a catboat's grace. She collapsed at my feet. I knelt beside her. Her eyelids fluttered. She gazed up at me, barely conscious. It was then that I recognized her."

By this time we had reached the lighthouse. The Captain paused in his narrative to usher me inside, then resumed after pulling the door shut behind him, pacing wildly back and forth as he spoke. I listened as before, understanding little of what he told me in his strangely stilted language but held spellbound by the passion in his voice. Every so often the lighthouse shifted with a groan the Captain ignored but which sent me edging closer to the door.

"I think I have told you once, Mr. Sharp, of Willis' eyes. How they contained all the moods of the seven seas, aye, and other seas besides. Every sea that ever existed or will exist, every sea dreamed of by man or fish. I had long ago forgotten her body, but her eyes ... how could I forget them, with the sea itself continually before me? The body in my arms belonged to a stranger for all I knew or cared, but the moment I looked into her eyes I knew that, by some miracle, perhaps in answer to my prayer, Willis had come back to me. How didn't matter, or why, just the fact that she was there, in my arms again. I saw once more the oceans of my youth! Though my ruined eyes could not longer plumb the depths they once had, I floated on the surface of her eyes like a weary gull, content to rest there. I said her name, shouted it above the roar of the storm, but she recoiled as if repelled by my countenance. Had I changed so much that she no longer knew me? Well, even so, what did that matter now that she was mine again? I picked her up -- she had lost consciousness again -- and carried her into the lighthouse. Since then I haven't left her side for a moment, Mr. Sharp, until I saw you coming."

I looked around anxiously. "Where...?"

The Captain pointed to the ceiling. "Have no fear, Mr. Sharp! You shall see her!"

There was nothing I wanted more. It seemed obvious that the Captain had rescued some poor, half-drowned woman, then assigned her a familiar identity just as he had done with me. The difficult part, I foresaw, would be to get her away from him, to get them both out of the lighthouse, which trembled beneath my feet, underscoring the urgency of action. I decided to humor him. "Don't you think, sir, that after all she's been through, Willis might be better off in a hospital?"

The Captain scuttled up to me as if I had disobeyed a direct order. I shrank back, afraid of him for the first time since that day three months earlier when he had addressed me from the fire. "She won't leave me again, I swear it! I won't share her with anyone! Not with doctors, not with you, Mr. Sharp!"

I spoke quickly, swallowing my fear, trying to salvage the situation. "I'm sorry, sir. I felt it was my duty as first mate to point out every option. Of course, I'll abide by your wishes."

That seemed to calm him. He nodded stiffly. "Quite right, Mr. Sharp. Quite right. It's only -- well, you understand. You'll be an old man too one day ... before you know it. Take my advice: find yourself a girl like Willis and hold on tight, as if she were the only thing between you and drowning!"

At that, he invited me up the stairs to see Willis for myself. As we climbed, I ventured to mention once more my fear that the lighthouse would buckle when the brewing storm finally broke. The Captain slapped the railing and replied, "No need to worry, Mr. Sharp. She's solid as a rock. I'd stake my life on it."

"And Willis'?" I asked.

He stopped, peering down at me suspiciously. It was strange to see the Captain from that twisted angle; I was used to looking down at him, and in the reversal of our usual positions I sensed that I had been fooling myself about the Captain's essential harmlessness.

"Mr. Sharp," he said in a clipped voice. "Your concern has already been noted. I forbid you to bring up the subject again. Is that understood?"

"Aye, sir," I said sadly, as if the end of summer had come not with the start of school but only now, with the Captain's harsh words. Dimly, I realized that this game I had been playing for months of Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe was no game, was in fact the realest thing I had ever done in my life. At that moment, I stopped thinking of myself as Mr. Sharp.

I don't remember what exactly I expected to find in the observatory. Probably I envisaged a poor, bedraggled girl wrapped in blankets, shivering with cold and fear, her eyes containing not oceans but simple tears. No doubt I pictured her hopeful look as I entered, my nod that would silently assure her that everything was going to be all right. If I had stopped playing one game, it was only to take up another; such is life for a ten-year-old ... and not just a ten-year-old.

The staircase spiraled up through the observatory floor. The first thing I saw as my head emerged was a naked woman gazing out through an open shutter at the storm-tossed sea. Though her back was to us, her slumped shoulders and bowed head conveyed an impression of sadness and resignation. She wore her hair in a thick braid that coiled about her neck like a collar of dark leather. It flared into a hood around her head, accentuating her mournful aspect. A dull gray blanket lay about her ankles.

I blushed, but could not look away. Until then, my only knowledge of women's bodies had come from pictures passed hurriedly around the school bathroom or playground. Compared to those women, posed in positions that, though exciting, seemed somehow wrong, cold and manipulative and imbued with a cynicism that made me feel ashamed of my interest, Willis -- for I had already begun to think of her by that name -- was like a vision of purity, and my shame in viewing her came from another source entirely: I was ashamed not of myself, but for her, intruded upon in this way by the Captain and me.

The Captain motioned for me to come up, making no move to cover Willis. The room was lit by the oil lamp I had brought the Captain. A strange, mottled light, shot through with pale yellows and ugly greens, drifted through the open window whenever lightning flashed. The woman seemed unaware of -- or disinterested in -- our presence, gazing out the window as if yearning to throw herself back into the sea. Her wrists, I suddenly noticed, were bound by lengths of rope to the rusted iron railing that was set into the wall beneath the windows. She had room to turn or sit, but no more.

I turned angrily to the Captain, but before I could say a word he put a finger to his lips to shush me and motioned toward Willis with his head, inviting me to approach her. A peaceful look had spread over his features. He seemed to be asleep, enjoying a pleasant dream. I realized he was seeing something quite different from what I was, that he was, in fact, gazing back into the past, clothing the naked woman before him in the vestments of a bygone age just as he called her by the name of a girl long dead.

Time moved slowly in that room, as if the Captain's dream were reaching out to snare me in its thick folds. The rumble of thunder seemed strangely protracted, stretching into a continuous snarl. I couldn't speak, could barely summon the strength to cross the floor and, picking up the blanket, drape it gently around Willis' smooth white shoulders.

She jumped at my touch and whirled to face me, the blanket clutched to her throat, the rope taut at her wrists, her cowl of dark hair flaring around her head like a cobra's hood. Yet I believe I was far more startled than she. For though her body was that of a woman, her face was like nothing I had ever seen or imagined, and I knew with an instinct as swift and sure as any in my life before or since that I was in the presence of something utterly alien, unhuman.

Paralyzed with fear, I could stare, struggling to make sense out of what I was seeing, to explain it all away. Not that she was ugly or monstrous -- no, my fear stemmed rather from the overwhelming strangeness of her beauty, like a landscape too vast and exotic to be taken in by the eyes, by any of the senses alone or together, a beauty comprehensible only in bits and pieces, and even then but imperfectly.

Her white skin was lustrous as an opal, yet I knew, without daring to stroke it, that it would feel soft as a dolphin's belly beneath my hand. The plane of her face was absolutely flat. I saw no eyes, no nose, only lips that were wide and thin, colored a deep blue and stretching ... I would say from ear to ear, but she had no ears, at least none that I could see. Instead, where her ears should have been, long, fleshy strips ran down her slender neck to culminate just above her shoulders. Dark red, almost purple in color, they fluttered like gills with each breath she took, flashing glimpses between their folds of a pink so bright that I thought at first I was gazing into a wound. I started to look away, unsettled by the sight, then froze, hypnotized by a glitter like sunlight skipping off water. Willis was opening her eyes.

The flesh above her mouth drew upward, revealing eyes as wide and round as portholes in a ship. For once, the Captain had seen correctly. I felt as if I were gazing through those windows at an ocean that stretched on forever, without shore or horizon. And then, abruptly, I found myself on the other side of her eyes, in the water itself, buoyed up gently just as the Captain had described. Whatever fear was in me vanished then. A sense of peace and well-being swelled my heart that is impossible to convey, like what a baby must experience while floating in the infinite sea of its mother's womb. I was surrounded not by water, but love. Above me, great birds circled lazily in the blue sky. One or two swept low, their wings grazing the water and sending up huge plumes of spray, as if hunting for fish. Yet I knew they posed no danger, that I was not in this strange world as much as it was in me.

Wonderful as it was to float there, I was not satisfied. I wanted to go deeper, to touch bottom if I could. The Captain's scabrous eyes kept him on the surface, but I had no such handicap. I was already jealous of Willis and did not want to share her with anyone. The thought that the Captain, in his own mind, was perhaps treading water beside me was unbearable. I would dive to depths he could not hope to reach.

My descent was effortless and seemed without end, a slow downward spiral past fish the likes of which I had never seen, some shaped so absurdly I had to laugh, others instilling a terror no shark could hope to match, still others gazing at me through eyes that brimmed with sad intelligence, like cows grown wise. I never needed to draw a breath. Soon the water turned dark as night. Fish drifted by like ghosts shedding a weak glow while far below I seemed to see thousands of shimmering lights, bright as a field of stars.

The feeling of love deepened in me, tinged with an urgency that I associated with thoughts of home and safety, of my mother waiting anxiously for my return and I as anxious to reach her. I realized dimly that Willis was attempting to communicate something to me that I was understanding only partly, if at all. But I knew one thing perfectly: if I could just reach those lights, everything would become clear.

But something was behind me, something large and terrifying. And fast ... much faster than I. Soon it would overtake me. Panic welled up in me, Willis' on top of my own. I couldn't tell any longer whether she was in my body or I was in hers. Just then, without warning, it broke upon me like an undersea storm.

There was no time to react. Tumbled head over heels, I was pulled away from the lights, away from home. Everything was blackness. I (or, if you prefer, Willis -- the distinction was meaningless at the time) felt as if I were being sucked into other oceans by the power of the storm, being drawn from one end of the seven seas to the other, across a distance so great I feared I would never be able to find my way home.

And then, in the midst of the darkness, I saw a single light. It shone bravely for an instant, cleaving the water to kindle a spark of hope in my breast, then winked out. But it was back again almost at once. I swam for it with all my strength, my heart beating to the rhythm of its bright pulse. But the storm was too fierce, the currents too strong. I was swept past the light. I saw it recede behind me, then all at once I burst into the air. A wave raised me high. For a second, I thought I glimpsed the stark, defiant outline of the lighthouse against the angry sky. Then I was flung down.

I stood where I had been standing minutes or was it hours earlier, as if the wave had tossed me right out of Willis' eyes. Tears were running down her face, and she was gazing at me with an imploring look that, despite her alien appearance, was as human as her tears. I was crying too. Beside me, the Captain stared into Willis' eyes with a dazed, enraptured look, rocked on peaceful swells. Baby noises came from his mouth. Then Willis turned away.

The Captain staggered. He would have fallen had I not grasped his arm. He leaned against me then shook free, mumbling curses like a drunken man dragged out of a doorway. But an instant later he was his old self again, squinting up at me suspiciously through his clouded eyes as he wiped his mouth on the ragged sleeve of his jacket. "It's time you were going, Mr. Sharp," he said.

Descending, my mind was awhirl with the images Willis had placed there. The emotions I had shared with her were so strong that I felt them as mine, though tailored to fit my own situation. I had to get home, had to see my mother. Nothing else mattered, not even Willis, bound to the observatory railing like Rapunzel in the stories my mother had read to me in the fairy tale days when my father was still alive.

As I left the lighthouse, the Captain called to me from the foot of the stairs. "You won't tell a soul, will you, Mr. Sharp?"

"No, sir," I said, already running.

"She's our secret!" he yelled behind me.

But even in the grips of this alien compulsion laid upon me like a magic spell, I knew that I could not share Willis with anyone, least of all the Captain. As I ran across the dunes under the lowering sky, passing once again the smashed carcass of the strange bird -- a bird I now recognized -- I was thinking of how I could steal her, hide her away from the Captain and everyone else, so that the oceans of her eyes would be mine alone to sail.

My mother and Mr. Hooper were still out when I arrived home. I paced the kitchen, unable to relax, eaten up by worry, by a longing so intense and desperate it seemed impossible to believe that the familiar sight of my mother could assuage it. Yet despite my preoccupation, a part of me realized that my suffering was but a shadow of what Willis was suffering in the observatory, looking out over the heaving ocean toward the home she had left behind, a home as close as the space between two heartbeats yet farther away than all the miles that ever were. I wondered if she had a family there. Perhaps she was married, with children of her own, children who missed their mother as badly as I missed mine ... as badly as I missed my father.

I ran outside as soon as I heard the car drive up, barely waiting for my mother to step out before throwing myself into her arms. She flinched, then hugged me close. I breathed in the smell of her, never wanting to let go. Yet the longing imparted to me by Willis did not lessen one bit. If anything, it grew, until I felt her sadness, her loneliness, more keenly than ever.

Finally my mother pushed me gently away. She was looking at me with tenderness, yet also with concern, and she reached out one hand to smooth my hair while the other touched my arm. I was acutely aware of Mr. Hooper, still in the car, watching with a bemused expression. It was all too much. I burst into tears.

"Whatever is the matter, Mark?" my mother asked, hugging me to her again.

I shook my head, unable to say a word. Even if I could have spoken, what would I have told her? And even if she had believed me, what could she have done? The Captain had been right to call Willis our secret. She was that and more: she was my responsibility as well. I understood that now. And so, though I hated to admit it, was the Captain.

All that day the skies rumbled ominously, yet the storm expected every second did not break. That evening, at dinner, Mr. Hooper mentioned that we might be evacuated further inland as a precaution. I listened in horror, as if to a death sentence passed on Willis and the Captain. Later, lying in bed, I could not sleep. Beneath the sounds of thunder, I heard Willis calling to me in her silent way. Strange images, invested with a nostalgic allure, danced in my mind like the notes of an irresistible song, and I pictured her facing away from the sea, her wide eyes open and shining inland, beaming her plea into the darkest reaches of my selfish and cowardly heart.

Finally, I could resist no longer. I climbed out of bed, got dressed, and slipped through my bedroom window. I crept past my mother's window, in which a light still burned, then began to sprint across the dunes.

The air felt supercharged, crackling around me with the pent-up energies of the storm. Just as I came in sight of the lighthouse, a tremendous crash of thunder seemed to split the sky; a flash of lightning turned the world inside out as hailstones the size of mothballs began to fall, their wicked sting goading me on.

When I burst into the lighthouse, the Captain was nowhere to be seen. The floor was pitching like the deck of a ship at sea. Held in place by a pool of hardened wax, a single candle guttered upon the Captain's table, bathing the room in a murky, undersea glow. Hailstones thudded against the closed shutters with a deafening clatter. A sudden crash sounded above my head. Stumbling to the stairs, I climbed as fast as I could.

Entering the observatory, I was just in time to see, in the soft orange light of the oil lamp, the Captain pick himself up and launch himself at Willis with a hoarse bellow. She lashed out with her fist, catching him on the side of the head. He dropped back a step, weaving like a boxer, then fell heavily to the floor. He lay there unmoving, but Willis did not seem to notice. Instead, she began tearing with her tiny sharp teeth at the ropes that bound her wrists. I hung back for a second, afraid the Captain would get up. When he did not, I went to his side and quickly slipped his scaling knife from his belt, where he always wore it. His lip was bloodied, and his left eye was swollen almost completely shut.

When I stood, Willis was facing me, her hands held out, wrists up, in a gesture of supplication. I hesitated, not wanting to lose her. She shook her arms impatiently. I stepped forward, raising the knife to cut her free.

It was then that I made the mistake of looking into Willis' eyes. They did not suck me in as they had before. Instead, she seemed to be regarding me from far away, from a distance I had crossed once but could not hope to cross again. A part of me was with her there, and I knew that I would never get it back no matter how long and hard I searched for it or how patiently I awaited its return. I saw, too, reflected in her eyes like the future in a crystal ball, the journey she was determined to take, putting herself once more at the mercy of the storm, hoping that it would carry her back across the seven seas but knowing just the same how slender her chances were. I did not want this knowledge, but it could not be refused. There was nothing I could say to make her stay, nothing I could do but help her go. I cut her loose.

Willis leaped to the window ledge and, kicking open the shutter, dove. The hail had turned to a heavy rain, and as I peered out a flash of lightning gave me a glimpse of her in the surf, a flicker of white in the dark and furious sea gone at once and forever. I was tempted to follow, dragged behind by an invisible thread.

And perhaps I would have jumped, following not just Willis but my father as well, had the Captain not grabbed me from behind. He yanked me away from the window, spun me around and threw me to the floor, plucking the knife from my hand. His wounded face contorted into a mask of rage, the Captain advanced upon me, brandishing the knife. "Mutiny, Mr. Sharp! Mutiny, you damned traitor! How dare you steal my Willis? I'll see you dead, do you hear? I'll cut you up and feed you to the sharks!"

The Captain was interrupted as the lighthouse sagged in a sickening lurch that sent him sprawling, arms spinning in an effort to save his balance. I stayed on the ground, crawling toward the stairs. "Come on, Captain! She's going over!"

He had fetched up against a wall. "That's a lie! She's solid as a rock and you know it!"

There was no reasoning with him. Following my example, the Captain dropped to his knees and began to crawl after me, pulling himself along the sloping floor by digging in with the point of his knife. "You'll not escape me, traitor!" he called. "I'll see you dead!"

The tower gave another lurch. I slid back towards the Captain, who, thanks to his knife, did not lose any ground.

"Now I've got you!" he cackled.

I scrambled away, barely keeping clear. One more lurch would deliver me into his grasp. The stairs seemed miles away. My strength was exhausted.

And then I heard my name shouted from below. "Here I am!" I yelled back. "Up here! Help!"

It was Mr. Hooper. My mother had sent him after me upon discovering my empty bed, sure that I had gone to the lighthouse. His wrinkled face popped into view not a moment too soon; the Captain was almost upon me.

Mr. Hooper pulled me out of danger. "Who are you?" he demanded of the Captain. "Don't you know this old lighthouse is about to collapse?"

"So it's you, Roberts!" the Captain cried, quick as ever to recognize a perfect stranger. "I'll get you yet!" He raised the knife to hurl at us, but lost his balance and tumbled against the far wall. The knife flew from his hand in a loopy arc, and smashed into the oil lamp. In a second there was a wall of fire between us.

The lighthouse shuddered again. Mr Hooper started down the spiral staircase. I fought in his grasp: "No! We can't leave the Captain!"

"We'll be lucky to save ourselves," Mr. Hooper replied, tightening his grip.

"You don't understand..."

I slumped against him, exhausted. He carried me out of the lighthouse, into the stinging rain, then set me on my feet. He still held me by the hand, afraid I might try to dash back inside. But I had no stomach for that. The lighthouse was blazing like a torch. I watched anxiously for the Captain. Then Mr. Hooper said, as if to himself: "He's not coming out."

I knew he was right. I felt numb, drained. In a way it seemed fitting that the Captain perish with his last command. Yet I grieved for him just the same, despite his attempts to kill me. Like Willis, he would take a part of me with him.

Together under stormy skies, Mr. Hooper and I watched the lighthouse tremble, tilt, then topple in a slow arc. It hit the water with a roar, sending up a tower of spray and steam and sparks that faded gradually into the rainy night. Soon there was nothing to mark where the lighthouse had stood but an empty space, and even that, I knew, would be gone by morning. We turned around, still holding hands, and began the long walk home.

I'm an old man myself now, older than the Captain. I think of him often, and of his advice to me. Find a girl like Willis and hold on tight, he said. I spent my whole life searching and ended up here, on another beach, beside another ocean, as alone as when I started. That empty space where the lighthouse stood; it's been in my heart ever since.

The Captain's body was never recovered, and though I told my story a hundred times, described him again and again, he was never identified. Sometimes I think that he came from a place like Willis' home, only not so far away, not so different. For years, after every storm, I returned to Cape Henlopen, but nothing strange ever washed ashore. When the lighthouse fell, a gate clanged shut.

My mother and Mr. Hooper were married as planned. Though there were problems at first, he wove himself into our lives, and ours into his, with a grace as surprising to behold as his clumsy fingers at work on an intricate knot. When Mr. Hooper ... Walter ... died twenty-one years later at the age of seventy-three, not even his death could unravel that knot. My mother never remarried, and while I still lived in that part of the country I visited his grave twice a year -- twice more than I visited the empty resting place of my other father, who, as the years went by, I came to remember less and less.

Each evening now I pause in my writing to watch the sun set over the Pacific. Bisected by the horizon, the sun glows like an orange ember, sending a russet beam across the water as if from a great lighthouse in the west. Sometimes I linger until the night opens up, clear and infinite as a saint's eye, rich in stars, and I think about the field of lights that Willis was trying so hard to reach and wonder if she made it home. And then I think perhaps there are other gates that lead across the seven seas, gates that are not blown wide by the gusting winds of storms but that swing open gently with a man's last breath. If that is so, if a light shines out in the dark time of my death, when hope and despair alike have been washed overboard, I will follow it over seven thousand seas.

Over seas without number.


© Paul Witcover 1991, 2005.
This story was first published in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, April 1991.

Waking Beauty by Paul WitcoverDracula : Book One by Paul WitcoverTumbling After by Paul Witcover
Order online using these links and infinity plus will benefit:
...Paul Witcover titles at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.

Elsewhere in infinity plus:

Elsewhere on the web:


Let us know what you think of infinity plus - e-mail us at:
sf@infinityplus.co.uk

support this site - buy books through these links:
amazon.com (US) | amazon.co.uk (UK)


top of page
[ home page | fiction | non-fiction | other stuff | A to Z ]
[ infinity plus bookshop | search infinity plus ]