A short story from: Coastal Maine in Words and Art: Gallery Fukurou’s Reflections by Maine Writers, 2019.
© Lynn Smith, 2019
Owls Head Light, photographic art by Yorozuya Yohaku
Stay away from that lighthouse,” she always said when we traveled up the coast to visit her. Her narrow eyes were distorted behind her horn-rimmed glasses, and she would sit in her recliner with her arms crossed in front of her huge bosom. She made me uncomfortable, and I don’t think my brother liked her, either. She smelled like menthol rub and cigarettes, and she was always eyeing me suspiciously. She knew I was fascinated by that lighthouse.
Mom would make small talk with her, while Dad fixed things around the house—he’d bleed the radiators and nail down loose corners of linoleum in the living room. Randy and I would go outside and pick wild blueberries. We’d wander around the back yard, tossing a softball or picking at the tarpaper siding until she yelled at us to stop. Later, we’d sit at the kitchen table, drinking Wyler’s lemonade and eating animal crackers, while we played crazy eights. I could see the lighthouse from the kitchen window; the top was visible above the tree line. I wanted to go up there in the worst way—wanted to survey my world from that mysterious tower.
I vividly remember the day I finally got my chance to explore the lighthouse. I was nine years old. I slipped away while they were installing a new mailbox at the end of the driveway. Dark clouds were gathering overhead as I ran up the hill. When I pulled on the heavy metal door, it opened with a loud squeak. The narrow winding stairs brought me to the lantern room, and I surveyed my world from the rounded glass. As I stood sentinel above those crashing waves—watching the darkening sky and the murky water slamming into the rocks below—I knew that the lighthouse belonged to me. I felt as large as the sea itself. I stayed much longer than I realized, pressing my fingers against the cold glass—mesmerized by the dark room and the dramatic scene before me.
When I returned to the house, my grandmother was waiting for me. She confronted me inside the back door. “Look what you’ve done,” she said. “I told you not to go!”
I tried to back away from her, but she grabbed my arm and pulled me close. Her fingernails dug into my skin. “That lighthouse is a dark place,” she hissed. “Darker than you know. Once that darkness gets into you, it doesn’t let you go!”
I pulled away from her and bolted outside. I ran straight for the car, and I jumped into the back seat. I stayed there until it was time to leave.
On the drive home, my mother explained my grandmother’s strange behavior. There had been a lighthouse keeper named Elias Pickett, who sometimes took care of my grandmother when she was a young girl. One day, the two of them were walking on the cliff, and the man dropped his pocket watch. Just as he picked it up and slipped it into his pocket, he lost his balance and tumbled off of the rocks, falling to his death in the water below. “It’s no wonder she wants nothing to do with that lighthouse,” my mother said.
I couldn’t stop thinking about her story that night. As I lay in bed, I tossed and turned. I was haunted by the image of a lost pocket watch glittering in the dark water—and then being carried out to sea.
Years later, when my grandmother was moved into an assisted-living facility, I went to the house with my mother to clean it out. My mother was in the kitchen, and I was in the back room emptying out the desk. I was rummaging in the bottom drawer, pulling out loose papers, dry pens and aspirin bottles, when my hand touched a smooth, round object. It was a man’s gold pocket watch, engraved with the initials “E. P.”
It felt like a beach stone cupped in the palm of my hand. I stared at it briefly, then stuffed it into a plastic garbage bag. My heart was pounding, as I knotted the top of the bag, then took it out to the dumpster in the driveway. I never told anyone about my discovery—and nobody ever found out about my grandmother’s lie or my complicity in a long-ago crime.
Were my actions an act of love—a granddaughter protecting her grandmother? I would be lying if I said they were. Rather, I can only say that my grandmother was right. She was right about the lighthouse. It was a dark place—dark in a way that was insidious and impossible to understand. Once that darkness seeped into you, it never let you go.
ABOUT THE BOOK:
Coastal Maine in Words and Art: Gallery Fukurou’s Reflections by Maine Writers, 2019 was published after a contest for writers to create stories to accompany art photography that depicted Rockland and the coast in its myriad situations, moods and emotions. This story was published in the book along with 27 others.
An overwhelming 88 stories were submitted for the contest. In the end seventeen writers were chosen. Their stories are told with depth, insight, candor, irony, wit and humor. Anyone who has every visited Maine’s coast will be able to relate to them. They’ve put humankind’s instinctive emotional connection with the sea into words.
The Maine Humanities Council provided a grant for our project that enabled the Solon Center to donate books to libraries across Maine. MHC is a statewide non-profit organization that uses the humanities, “as a tool for positive change in Maine communities.”