A FOREST OF EYES
“I wouldn’t want to be there myself,” Ezekiel said into his beer. “It’s a lonely place, after all. Don’t get me wrong, mind you, I’ve got nothing but respect for your profession, but life as a keeper is a lonely thing.”
I told him I did not mind the isolation, in fact I welcomed it. Like himself, I spent most of my forty-six years pulling line on the sea, ground fishing for cod, haddock, and the like. It was an exhilarating life, but my injury would no longer let me sail, and if I could not sail, I would do the next best thing.
“And we ‘ppreciate it,” he said with a raise of his glass. We toasted, the clink of the glass echoing through the empty room.
“Meet Ol’ Tom yet?” he asked, referring to the keeper I was to replace for the next nine months. I had not, but was told he was a gruff sort.
Ezekiel scoffed. “Gruff ain’t the word for it. I can think of another, but the bless’d Mary wouldn’t approve. Getting away from that place will do him some good. He’s been too ornery of late, leastways that’s what Jack says.”
I asked how.
“Oh, mutterin’ to himself, barking orders about staying where he can see you, watching the land more than the sea. Going off his rocker, if you follow me.”
I took a drink and wondered how much of Old Tom’s oddities were a result of aging, or a byproduct of the job I was about to undertake. Not wanting to think on it, I asked about the town, its people and history.
“Oh, Marlow’s got its sights. Seen the old church?”
“And the docks?”
“Ah, well, that’s about it then.”
He ordered another beer. The tavern keeper, a grim, bearded man with a white eye, delivered the brew. I glanced up, noticing that while his good eye busied itself with wiping the counter, the other, glazed over with unseeing death, glared at me, a grim welcome to the town.
“Not much more to tell, sorry to say,” Ezekiel went on, scratching his stubble. “The church were built ‘round 1857, if I recollect proper. Homes and business afterward. Good fishin’ here. Lot of big whaling ships come to port, for supplies and what not, before heading out to the great blue sea. Aye, most folk just live off the sea. Mighty fine, noble business is fishin’, but there’s some that’s farmers out on the east side of town. Superstitious bunch, if you ask me.”
I pointed out that sailors were, by tradition, the most superstitious humans in existence.
Ezekiel waved a dismissive hand. “They think there’s something out in the woods, eatin’ animals.”
There was no shortage of wild animals willing to take advantage of a farmer’s livelihood. Half a dozen such beasts came to mind, but Ezekiel shook his head.
“No, something else. Something big. Big like a wolf.”
Perhaps it was wolf, I suggested. The old man shrugged.
“The farmers tend to their problems, I tend to mine.”
I thanked the old man for the talk, paid my tab, and left the tavern.
The streets of Marlow were quiet on that clear night. The sea air and the stink of newly caught fish thick in my nostrils. Overhead, millions of stars twinkled as the had for centuries, heavenly guides for tough men on the sundering seas.
I entered my lodgings, a rundown house where every room permeated with a salty air, and entered the dining area to look over the night’s menu. My stomach rumbled at the idea of cutting through a thick steak, juices dripping down the flanks, red and tender on the inside, but I was to be disappointed.
Tonight’s special: baked cod.
The inspector introduced me to Old Tom, an ancient mariner with a brilliant snow-white beard framing a face bronzed to crusted leather. He was dressed in a pair of dungarees flecked with white paint and black soot, a boot missing a shoelace, and the navy blue cap with its shining gold emblem of the Marlow Point Lighthouse, clean as the day it was issued.
I offered my hand to the keeper. He looked me over, grunted in clear disapproval, and beckoned us inside without a word of greeting.
In the antechamber we met a narrow spiral staircase. I gripped the wooden railing and followed the keeper, my bad knee protesting with each step. The staircase ended at the lower store.
“Food’s kept here,” Old Tom said, voice as harsh as the sea. “Comes once a month. Usually.”
The term ‘usually’ disturbed me. With no desire to be torn between duty and bodily needs, I asked the longest he had waited for resupply. He shrugged his shoulders.
“Two month. Maybe three. Winter’s hard out here. Best be prepared.”
“Jack is our man hired for supply runs,” the inspector explained. “He buys the goods according to the inventory sheet you provide. This is why an accurate count is crucial.”
I vowed to be as correct as possible and returned my attention to the aged keeper. He pointed a gnarled finger at a red fire bucket in the corner.
“Check ‘em every day.”
He turned and ascended a second set of stairs where we found another store. Here dry goods were kept. Paint, mortar, bricks, and a variety of maintenance tools were stacked in orderly rows on a metal shelf. The medical box Old Tom said to never use was complete with gauze, antiseptic, and morphine.
Another flight of stairs and we entered the kitchen. A pile of wood stacked in orderly columns rested near the stove, its steel pipe ran along the wall, disappearing into the ceiling above. I asked Tom if he got the wood from the forest.
“Don’t go into the wood. Nothing in there. You’ll only get lost.”
“The wood comes with the resupply,” the inspector said. “No need to fetch it yourself. Of course, use only what you need. No sense in wasting fuel.”
Another flight of stairs to the bedroom, which consisted of a single mattress atop a metal frame with neatly folded sheets, the only decor was the stovepipe running through the room. Letting my eye wander slowly about the dark, tiny dwelling, devoid of family portraits and memorabilia, I knew it to be the abode of a man isolated. There was nothing to this man’s life but lighthouse, sea, and duty.
Old Tom sneered as if guessing my thoughts.
“Light’s up there.”
The keeper opened a hatch admitting us into the light room. Above us roosted the great Fresnel lens, hidden beneath its linen bag like a hunting falcon waiting for release. All about us hung the ropes and weights which made the great machine rotate in place. But now, under the light of the sun, the weights hung still in space, gently undulating in preparation for another night’s work.
“Lens is already clean,” Old Tom said. “Use linen and nothing else. After it’s clean, bag it up like you see here and draw the curtains. At dusk, take off the bag, light the fire, and unlock the weights. Kerosene’s over there. Comes in twice a month. Should be plenty in case it don’t. Three buckets over there. Always keep water in ‘em. Clean the windows every morn, paint when needed, muck out the stove, and maintain the ground. Inventory lists are on that desk there.”
“The District Office expects regular correspondence,” the inspector noted as he gazed about the room. “I expect updates, as often as you can manage.”
I promised to do so.
“Otherwise, watch for ships and give help when need be. I’ll be back in the spring, so don’t think of leaving her,” Old Tom grunted, pointing a gnarled finger to the light hanging overhead, the bell of his sanctuary. “You just stick to yer duties. Give her constant and faithful attention, you hear? Constant and faithful attention.”
After shaking hands with the inspector and making many promises to Old Tom to give the lighthouse constant and faithful attention, I toured the structure on my own. I first went to the top, the stairs attacking my leg like with every step, and peered over the guard rail. From this perch atop a cliff overlooking the endless Atlantic, with the salt wind against my face and the sun upon my brow, I felt alive and free. Alone with nothing but the sea and the sky. Perfect isolation.
I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the grounds and looking out to the horizon, spyglass in hand. There were ships on the horizon, whalers judging from their masts. Perhaps they glanced toward my lighthouse as a daymark. Lame though I was, my heart was gladdened with a connection to the sea.
On the other side of the grounds was the forest. It was old growth, full of gnarled oaks with an underbrush of tough, green shrubs. I walked to its edge. The trees, competing for the sun’s attention, grew a canopy that choked out the light. Shadows danced on the forest floor. Even the wind seemed to die in that place.
There was a sound, a low moan just outside my hearing. I could not swear it, but it felt like an invitation, but an invitation to what I could not fathom. Then the wind picked up as if trying to force me into the forest’s shadows.
I left, perhaps a little quicker than I would like to admit, unable to shrug off the feeling of red eyes searching the forest floor.
At dusk I released the lens from its linen cage, gaping in quiet awe at its magnificence. A three-sided marvel of green glass cut in concentric circles half again as tall as myself. It had the appearance of a great glass eye, seeing in all directions at once. I placed a palm against it, trying to feel out the history it had seen. How many nights had this guiding sentinel stood, warning sailors upwards of twenty miles away of the danger ahead? Old Tom said it was a first-order lens, though I did not understand. All I saw was a feat of engineering bordering on the divine.
I checked the wick, saw it was in good condition, pumped the fuel, and lit the fire. The flame leapt up then steadied to a strong, pulsing red glow. I stared at the red flame for a long moment, admiring their rhythmic dance, appreciating the heart of the lighthouse. Climbing back to the light room floor, I unhitched the locks and set the weights in motion. They began their slow revolution around the room like dark stars behind the brilliant sun. The eye of the lighthouse was operational, the red fire translating into a beam of white brilliance. Now I was to watch and wait.
I spent most of the watch out on the railing, spy glass in hand, looking out over the inky sea and breathing in the summer air. With few clouds in the sky and all of God’s heaven open before me, I watched the great heroes of ancient days sail through the night. Orion on his eternal hunt for the great bear and his long-tailed offspring while the Great Sky River, spanned over all. Now, I had joined them, for the light I manned was no less crucial than the stars in the sky.
With the exception of spotting lighting from a distant storm, nothing exceptional happen that first night, nor for many nights to come. During high summer days, I spent my free time lounging in the shade of the back porch or trying my hand at fishing in the choppy waters, but duty kept me from too much relaxation.
The lighthouse required constant vigilance, and the District Office demanded correspondence about times, dates, cataloged ships, maintenance inventory, food stuffs inventory, supply request lists, notes of professional interest, and myriad issues associated with the upkeep of the lighthouse.
Toward the end of my first month, a young man driving a cart horse arrived, introducing himself as John “Jack” Cooper. Jack was a stout young man, strong of neck and character, contracted by the District Office to run supplies to all the lighthouses within a sixty mile radius of Marlow, a total of three. He shook my hand and asked how I was fairing. My smile was all the answer needed.
“Yeah, it seems fun,” Jack said, gazing up to the top of the tower. “But it sure is a lot of steps. Too bad you didn’t get assigned to Windy Point ‘round the other side of town. More cottage than lighthouse, that one.”
I admitted the difficulty with the stairs, but figured I could do with a little less weight.
“Well, it’s my job to make sure you don’t loose overmuch. Here,” he gestured to the back of the cart. “Got yer supplies for the month. Water, cured beef, cured ham, potatoes (lots of ‘em), vegetables (best to eat them quick), bread, tobacco, hard tack (save that for last), and this,” he produced a bottle of whiskey, holding it aloft like a hunting trophy. “Little present from the D.O., but don’t tell ‘em ‘bout it.” He handed it over with a wink. I nodded and accepted it with thanks.
We hauled the goods to the lower store. Afterward I offered him a drink of the fine liqueur, which he accepted with gratitude. We sat on the back porch, drinking out of the bottle and looking over the sea. We spoke of our past and our futures, but mostly enjoyed the present in which we lived. We finished the bottle just before sundown.
Jack stumbled into the cart, moaning like a sick child, taking deep breaths to collect his angry stomach. I urged him to be careful as the cliffs along the trail back were treacherous even in the daytime, but he just grinned, waving a farewell to me and my advice. With a groan of self-loathing coupled with an intense desire to curl up and sleep off the poison, I ascended the endless stairway to begin another long night of torturous duty, Old Tom’s words echoing through the structure with each arduous step:
Constant and faithful attention.
The leaves exploded into brilliant hues of red and gold while the wind grew stronger and colder. My nightly vigilance atop the lighthouse was now in the company of a warm pipe and a winter coat. My stomach rumbled over the sea wind, and I regretted finishing the last of the jerked meats earlier that morning. If Jack failed to come this month, it would have to be potatoes and water until late November.
I sighed and paced around the railing.
Throughout the summer, the lad never failed to come. In fact, his arrival was the highlight of the month, and, though he no longer bore any Bacchanalian gifts, I enjoyed his company immensely. Perhaps I had grown accustomed to his punctuality forgetting Old Tom’s words of preparedness, and so resolved to be less indulgent with the food, to redouble my efforts as lighthouse keeper, and to ignore the hunger in my gut.
High on the wind, I heard it, some feral cry in the night, emanating from the forest of shadows behind me. I looked back, past the white eye of the lighthouse, and gazed deep into the tangled forest when I felt it, like a hand on my shoulder. Down in the woods, darting in and our of the moonlight was a large creature. Perhaps a raccoon or fox, or maybe even the creature Ezekiel had mentioned all those months ago. Hands trembling, I raised the spyglass to my eye and peered into the darkness.
Whatever it was kept to the larger shadows of the surrounding trees, its head low to the ground as if searching for something. I watched its erratic movements for several minutes, when, after consigning it to be only a dumb beast, it looked up, and, through the lens of the spyglass, saw me with red eyes of fire and rage.
I stumbled back in fright, taking deep breaths of the pure air. Shaking away my sudden bewilderment, I returned for a second look, but the creature was gone.
I gripped the railing, panting and sweating in the cold wind, trying to force the image of those crimson eyes away from my thoughts.
I locked the door that night.
On a cold November morning, the inspector came.
I met him in my service dress and saluted. He acknowledged and began his tour. He investigated each room, looking for cleanliness, inventory accuracy, and maintenance of the lighthouse. He asked about the food stores. I replied that Jack had not seen me in two months, but he assured the boy would be around before noon. We continued up the stairs to the light room. He uncovered the lens, ran a delicate finger along one of the rings, wiped a cloth on the windows and floors looking for dust, and ensured the fire buckets were in their proper place.
After asking if I lacked anything, to which I jokingly replied a steak, he awarded me the Efficiency Star, pinning it on my coat. I could wear it for a one year, when he would return for another inspection. I thanked him and saluted. Then he turned to leave.
I had always found the footing on the stairs hazardous, but had grown accustomed to their little quirks, avoiding certain stairs that creaked overmuch. One stair, the third from the top between the second and first store, I stepped over as a matter of habit. The Inspector, however, had no such habit and when he applied his weight to the stair, it broke. His foot fell through, and he lost his grip on the rail to come toppling forward. I cried out, trying to grab him, but he tumbled down the stairs while I stood at the top, stupefied.
After an eternal moment of falling to the floor below, the inspector lay silent, blood dripping down his face, breath coming out in erratic rasps. Collecting my wits, I raced down. The man’s leg was clearly broken at the ankle, having been caught between the shattered stair and his forward momentum and his head was injured from where it struck the wall. I asked if he was well, with no response.
With all the care I could manage, I stretched him out on the floor, offering gentle words. Then I ran upstairs, opened the medicine box, and withdrew the morphine, sweating with terror. More than fear of losing my position, of prosecution and imprisonment, of having a man die in my care, I feared losing my connection to the sea. I back to the inspector and administered the medicine. His bloodshot eyes opened, glazed over with fading pain and the unnatural sleep off the opiate. He grabbing my lapel with all the strength of a sleepy child, his thumb pressed over the embroidered K.
He slumped to the floor, miles away from the pain, a thin rivulet of blood trickling down his forehead, its metallic smell thick in my nose. I wet my lips, wild anticipation beating in time with my quickening heart. With almost tender care, I rubbed my thumb against his skin, collecting the sweat and blood, feeling his shallow breathing bristle against the hairs on my hand, and studied the crimson smear with deep fascination before gingerly licking it off.
Jack arrived at dusk. I admonished him for his tardiness as we unloaded the cart. With great care, we hauled the unconscious inspector down the spiral stairs and into the waiting cart. Before Jack left I inquired if he might bring me a steak.
“Fine time to think of food,” he said, snapping the reins. “I’ll see what I can do.”
I stood there among the dried meat and potatoes and watched them go. I doubted the boy would ever bring me my steak.
It snowed that night. A light dusting but still enough gnaw my bones raw, but duty commanded I be on the rail inclement weather or no, so I stood there, wrapped in my rain coat, grinding my pipe between my teeth with all my frustration.
The Marlow postman delivered a letter that day stating the inspector had been delivered to a hospital in Boston. I implored the postman to forward any word from the District Office posthaste, trying to make him understand how I fretted, but received only a non-committal shrug. Were the people of this town truly this ignorant? The inspector should have known the step was faulty, it was ultimately his lighthouse after all. I knew it was faulty after a few short days, but how many times had the man walked the floors in his blind stupidity?
And where was that idiot Jack?
I paced the railing, muttering and lamenting my choices, cursing the town and its people. My stomach roiled. I had half a mind to abandon the lighthouse, go into the town, and sink my teeth into a steak to deliver me from these dreadful cravings, when a distant howl, lifted by the sea wind, rose into the air, grabbed me by the heart. Fearing to find the the beast that made the awful noise, I glanced up, and was struck blind by the lighthouse’s white eye. I shielded my own eyes, the hot flash branded into my soul, and collapsed to the railing, squinting against the pain. When I opened them again, I saw only red.
The eye was right. I mustn’t abandon my post.
Constant and faithful attention.
Perhaps I had overindulged over Thanksgiving, or perhaps I hadn’t honored Old Tom’s advice as diligently as I thought, for by mid-December, I had little to eat.
Hands in pockets, ignoring the angry protests of my empty belly, I chewed my pipe and watched for lights on the black sea. I wished to see a ship. Wished to see it dashed on the rocks, its cargo and crew spilling across the land. A great feast for my roaring stomach.
But there was nothing. Nothing but the wind, the lighthouse, and the blackness of the night.
Then, over the endless shrieking of the wind I heard it. A scream. Out beyond the rocks, in a thicket of trees not two hundred yards away, then a silence filled with the thundering of my heart. Nothing more than wind in the rocks, I told myself, though I believed not a word. Then I heard it again. A wailing scream. The sound of a man dying in great pain.
Still I did not move, but only listened to wails of pain as if to a dirge. Then there was the scream. A scream of bloodlust, of invitation, the scream the forest summoning me into its shadows. The pipe fell from my trembling lips, clattering on the steel railing. I swallowed, recalling my duties to the lighthouse and that of a man. I could not listen to sounds of pain without giving succor, even if just words.
I hobbled down the steps and burst through the door, grabbing a lantern along the way. Ignoring the terror welling in my breast, I plunged into the forest, knowing that if a beast truly stalked these woods, the screams would surely have called it. I stopped to listen, hearing nothing but the wind in the canopy and seeing nothing but unearthly shadows dancing in the lantern light.
There was nothing, I concluded, my breath steaming in the chill air. Nothing but strained nerves and an empty stomach playing childish jokes with my mind. Or perhaps the beast was luring me to its lair.
I should have turned back, back to the lighthouse to bar the door between myself and the terrible night, but duty mandated I render help to all in need. Voice trembling with fear and cold, I called out, though my words were swallowed by the hungry forest. Silence. I called again. Silence. I pulled in breath for one final shout when I heard a voice.
Far off, muffled as if spoken through a pillow, the plea sent a shiver up my spine colder than any winter breath. I pulled my jacket to my chin, calling back. Through murmurs, coughs, and cries of agony, I followed the voice through the darkness, visions of Dante descending into the blackness of hell filling my every thought.
My lantern light fell on the rocky cliff, the roar of the sea keen in my ears, the salt spray licking my face, warning me to stay away, to leave this hallow place and to never return. I shouted into the wind, and the wind shouted back words from the rocks below. Focusing my lantern, I made out the wreckage of a cart, the twisted carcass of a horse, and a man’s leg protruding from the boulders, as if mere detritus from the sea.
It was Jack, fool that he was, to be sure, for no one else would dare take the forest path in winter darkness with frost on the rocks and the icy wind blowing hard in the face. I shouted to him, then began my descent with easy steps down the slippery rock face, at times gripping the crags with all my strength, at times sliding own my backside, but always gritting my teeth against the pain in my leg. It seemed the leg would return me to the sea, in one manner or another.
Sweating despite the cold, I reached the ruin and surveyed the damage. The cart was destroyed beyond repair, the horse’s neck broken, its head twisted in an obscene, unnatural angle, and poor Jack, arms and legs mangled, splintered bone bursting through skin, struggled to breathe through cracked ribs. I knelt, my light shining on his bloody face, and stared, torn between disgust and fascination, then asked how he was.
“How do you think I feel?” he spat.
I asked what I could do to make it better.
“Get a doctor. Get some medicine. Get me off this cliff!”
Of course, I could do none of those things. The closest doctor was more than thirty miles away and the morphine was gone. Realizing I could offer nothing more than consolation, I placed a gentle palm on his shoulder, watching him cry as he slowly accepted the cruel fate God had assigned him. As I stared into those wet eyes wide with terror, I recalled a day long ago when my father placed a similar palm on my shoulder. The smell of blood, thick as a cloud of flies, filled my nostrils when we found the dog, belly ripped open, entrails spilled out in a grotesque pile, still very much alive. It was then I learned there were times when ending a life was accepted when extended from a heart of compassion.
I squeezed Jake’s arm and passed through his blood soaked hair, vowing ease the pain.
“Don’t leave me,” he said.
I assured him I wouldn’t.
From high above, atop the black cliffs, a howl that could only come from the jaws of hell, roared down the winds and into my ears.
I glanced up, looking for red eyes and glistening fangs, but saw nothing. Looking back at Jack, I knew I could not keep him there, as carrion for beasts, but as I looked on his pained face, neither could I commit his body to the sea. A compulsion washed over me as clear as the salt spray of the sea.
I stood, passing my hand over my face to shut out the world, listening to my quickening heart. The smell of hot blood, thick in the air, a metallic taste no rain or wind could cleanse, then heard a gurgling, like bubbles escaping viscous liquid.
I opened my eyes and looked at Jack’s prostrate form. Long, sharp fingers gripped round Jack’s open throat, hot blood pouring down his shirt front, steam billowing from the wound. I froze, unable to move as the beast sunk its teeth into the boy’s neck again and again, tearing flesh and muscle, crunching bone and cartilage. The beast moaned with almost erotic pleasure with each unholy swallow. It stopped, craning its head toward me, as if noticing my presence for the first time.
Its lips drew back, revealing rows of fangs stained with blood. Crimson droplets fell like rain to the ground, staining the earth black, its eyes glowing with a familiar light, the red fire summoning me.
Scrambling up the slope, feet slipping on wet rocks, numb hands desperate for stable purchase, I ran.
A low howl of bloodlust and fury erupted in my ears, making my head ring, but I pressed on, ignoring the order to stop, and crested the cliff onto the forest path. I did not need to look to know it was behind me, bounding up the cliff with little effort.
I burst out of the woods, my knee screaming in pain, my eyes wide with fear. Ahead was the lighthouse, a tall dark shadow amid the night. Where was the light?
My feet hit stone. I was out of the forest, but the beast was only a half second behind. Hot breath behind my ear. A clawed hand reaching out to grab me.
There it was! The beacon still alight!
Hope remained. I took the stairs three at a time, ignoring the fire in my leg, and flung the door wide, wincing at the pain I knew must come.
But there was nothing. No beast leaping to tear out my throat. No sound but the wind over the sea and the hammering of my heart, no movement but nightly shadows dancing amid the trees. I stepped through the door and barred it, before slumping to the ground and passing my hands through my wet hair. With face and hands covered in hot blood, I cried until morning.
I woke sometime after dawn from nightmares wet heat and frosty air. Stumbling to my feet on sore legs, I trudged up to the washroom to scrub the sweat from my hair and the dark stains from my hands. I stared into the cracked mirror, seeing a patchy beard flecked with gray, cheeks sunken with exhaustion and hunger, eyes of black coal in a blue sky; the face of an old man I did not know.
My knee ached, as if commanding me to leave this place, to return to the sea, to wade out into its surrendering waters and stay there forever. I shook the pain aside, remembering the many duties still before me. I needed to find Jack and bury the rest of his corpse, go to town to report the tragedy, collect more supplies, but, above all, I must attend the lighthouse with constant and faithful attention.
With a groan of resignation, I stood, barely feeling the cold through my numbed skin. I donned my service dress, work clothes being covered in the filth and stink from the previous night, adjusted the cap with what dignity I had left, and ascended the stairs to the light room.
Swinging the trapdoor open on protesting hinges, I saw the weights move about the light room like gears of a great clock, while the fire behind the Fresnel lens in its perch above burned bright.
I locked the weights and shut off the kerosene, stopping the lens and quenching its flame. Unwilling just yet to look at the eye, I mopped the floor, checked the fire buckets, and scrubbed the windows, anything to delay the inevitable, but my final chore must be done, and would be done as promised.
Grabbing a clean rag, I climbed the metal steps, letting the railing guide me to the lens. There I stood, hand frozen mid-air, not daring to touch it, unable to look away from the infinite gaze of that clear, green glass.
The lens swirled in a spiral before my eyes, as if pulling me deeper and deeper into the dreadful depths of my own soul. I stopped breathing, but could hear the hideous drumbeat of my heart as it tried to burst out of my chest. The swirling slowly resolved into the mangled shape of Jack’s corpse, laying on the cliff, covered in flies and carrion birds, his gapping throat pooled with seawater. I looked down on him, hands trembling with deep-seated anticipation, dry lips moistening with carnal delight, teeth inching down, down toward my meal ripe for the feasting.
The vision ended, leaving me staring at nothing more than green glass, but the palpable taste of blood and flesh was clear in my mind. I took in a deep breath, smelling the salt air and feeling the ache in my knee.
Not wishing to look back but not daring to look away, I let the eye take me again.
A party of men carrying lanterns and torches as they thundered through forest shadows, calling out for a voice they would never hear. One man broke off from the group, wandered deep into the forest, and there, hidden in the darkest shadows, I would take him, clubbing him to bloody pulp before dragging him away.
Meat for the winter.
I gasped for breath, the cold salt air of the bountiful sea on this cold, clear winter morning, filling my lungs. Blood rushing in my ears, diminishing all sounds to distant whispers, heart pounding in my chest, I gripped the railing, felt the sweat bead on my forehead, then, with a scream of tortured agony, looked back to the eye.
Melting snow, growing grass, sunshine through blue skies, yet the warmth of spring provided no comfort for the hunger gnawing inside. The sound of boots crunching in the last of the forest snow, and I, silent as a cat, bounded through the foliage to see, through twigs bursting with budding leaves, Old Tom. The beast in me growled with delight as the old man walked toward the lighthouse.
The smell of oak and pine mixed with sweet salt air, the tingle of water from crashing waves coating bare forearms, the familiar sights and sounds welcomed him home.
Old Tom walked along the familiar path through the forest, sighing with relief when he saw his home standing tall and proud on cliffs of black rock bordering the sea. For the last nine months, he worried about the fate of his home after leaving it to that young man. After all, with just one look, he could tell there was something wrong about him. Something in his eyes turned Tom’s stomach, but it seemed that all his worry was unneeded.
He gave the structure a quick inspection as he approached. The glass seemed clean enough, at least from this distance, the walls had no vertical cracks through a few horizontal ones had grown from another bout with the winter freeze (nothing a little mortar couldn’t fix), but where was the fresh coat of paint? Hadn’t he told the man to be constant and faithful?
Not bothering to knock, he entered the stuffy lighthouse, leaving the door open to let the cool air in, and called out for the keeper. No answer. Scowling, Old Tom ascended the spiral stairs, rubbing his hand along the railing, appreciating every groove in the wood and every knob of discoloration.
Old Tom stood in the first store, a blank, bewildered stare all the expression he could muster. The first store was empty, filled with a distinct odor of rotten potatoes.
When was the last time Jack had come?
He called out once again, receiving only silence as an answer.
His grumbles burst into a curse when he saw the broken stair and the second floor in a similar disheveled state. Used tools, an empty medicine box, inventories incomplete. Tom ground his teeth, flinging the medicine box aside, shouting out his anger.
He stormed up the steps, past the kitchen with its cold and sooted stove, past the bedroom with its layer of dust coating neatly folded sheets, and flung open the trapdoor to the light room. The weights hung still, the lens safe beneath its linen cage.
Old Tom uncovered the lens, gave it a fastidious examination, then turned to the rest of the room. Nothing was amiss. There was kerosene in the pump, water in the buckets, a shine on the windows, but where was the keeper?
At the desk he found half complete inventory sheets, records of ships, and a handful hastily scribbled papers. Old Tom read the first page. It looked like a memoir, or a confession. He read the next page, then the next, then sat down to read it all, a growing feeling of dread welling up in his heart.
He finished the last sentence, wondered if he had, turning the page over, but finding nothing. A gust of wind rocked the windows and Old Tom jumped in his seat as the door to to the lighthouse far below slammed shut, distant echoes climbing up the stairs like stealthy feet. He swallowed his fear and waited, but there was nothing to hear but steady creaking of the lighthouse and the pounding of his heart.
He exhaled, chasing away the shadow of fear with half-hearted laughter, but his voice faded as he looked up at the lens, which seemed to look down on him like a great eye. He shivered and descended the steps, stepping over the broken stair, casting his weary eye over the shadows in the stores, and placed a wrinkled hand on the entrance door. With a grunt, he shoved it open.
In rushed sunlight and cool air. There was nothing to see but a New England spring, nothing to hear but birdsong and breaking waves. The forest was green with rejuvenated, but pocketed with more shadow than he could remember.
His heart quickened, eyes widening at the sight of two pinpoints of red, like glowing coals, shining from the darkest shadows of the forest, but when he tried to focus his gaze, they were gone as if never there.
He swallowed, shook his head for being a fool, and barred the door between him and the forest with its watching eyes.