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Authors: Iain Lawrence

Tags: #Fiction

The Lightkeeper's Daughter

BOOK: The Lightkeeper's Daughter
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For Sheila,
who drew the map that guided me to Lucy Island
and encouraged me from the beginning

chapter one

IN THE BOW OF THE SHIP, HIGH ABOVE THE sea, stands a girl of seventeen. She looks like a figurehead carved from wood, her arms never moving, her hair chiseled in place and painted with gold.

The ship carries her north at the speed of the wind, as though forever in a calm. The flags at the mast are twists of limp cloth, the smoke a gray column rising straight from the funnel. It’s the sea, not the ship, that appears to be moving. It bursts on the bow and roars down the sides in tumbling foam. It carries rafts of torn kelp and logs that tilt through the waves. Seagulls and auklets skitter away, but the girl stares only ahead.

At her side is her daughter, dressed all in red. Too small to see over the rail, she crouches instead on the deck, peering through the oval of the hawsehole. Her tiny hands are cupped on the metal, and she stares out between them, the way a cat watches from a windowsill. Wedged between her knees is a red plastic purse, its flap buttoned across a Barbie doll too long to fit inside. A frizzy head juts out from one end, a pair of pink feet from the other.

The sea marches past, bashing at the bow, flinging droplets of spray that skitter like beetles on the water. It surges below the girl standing there, now reaching toward her, now falling away as the ship, meeting a wave, rises to the crest. And far ahead a tiny bright cap appears on the skyline. A single white eye blinks at her over all the miles of water.

In a moment it’s gone, lost in the waves as the ship drops from the crest, as the foam at the bow billows toward her. But the girl watches and waits, and again it appears, the little red cap, the blink of the light. It’s what she’s been watching for ever since the
Darby
turned at the Kinahan Islands an hour ago. And at last she moves. She raises a hand and covers her mouth.

The island seems to rise from the sea like a surfacing whale. Trees and rocks appear, veiled in a silver of spindrift and mist. A tower forms below the red cap, at first so tiny and white that it makes the girl think of a gravestone. Then buildings emerge, red roofs and white walls. Squares of green lawn. Dark swaths of salal.

Each little piece fills the girl with a particular feeling, with a picture in her mind, or a smell or a sound. She was born on that island; she’s the lightkeeper’s daughter. Her name is Elizabeth McCrae, but all her life she’s been known as Squid.

“Tatiana, look,” she says. “That’s Lizzie Island there.”

The child doesn’t answer. She seldom speaks. Her little shoulders are bent, her head thrust forward. She’s always been small for her age, but now she looks tiny and fragile, closer to two than to three. Squid settles beside her, on the gray steel of the deck. She holds on to Tatiana as though the child might slide through the hole and into the sea.

Tatiana looks up, her eyes jiggling, all her teeth showing in her peculiar grin.

“You doing okay?” asks Squid.

Tatiana nods.

“We’re almost there. You’ll meet your grandma and your grandpa. They’ve got a boat with a glass bottom, and a little tractor that can pull you in a wagon.”

Squid wants to tell her everything: about Glory, the little winged horse; about Gomorrah and the wailing wall; about Alastair’s flute and the singing of whales. But Tatiana isn’t listening. The child has already turned back to the hawsehole, watching the water rush past the boat.

On the island, the wind feels brisk. It drives the waves against the shore and shreds them into spray. It gusts up the rocks and over the sodden lawn, where Murray McCrae, the lightkeeper, stands in his khaki shorts.


Darby
’s coming,” he says, making it sound as though he doesn’t care, as though he hasn’t been watching for the ship since dawn first came to Lizzie Island. In his hands he holds the things the sea has cast ashore: strands of kelp and bits of bark and sticks like old men’s fingers, warted with barnacle shells.

Six feet behind him, Hannah looks up and turns toward the sun. It’s well to the south so late in September, and it glares off the waves, off the rocks wet with spray. She squints, then puts her hands to her face and peers through the tunnel made by her fingers, the shape of a heart on the sea.

The
Darby
is far in the distance. A plume of brown smoke, a speck of red for the hull. Her daughter’s out there, an hour away.

Murray carries his sticks to the edge of the grass and heaves them back where they came from, over the cliff and down to the sea. He claps his hands together, then hitches up his shorts. “Better get hopping,” he says. “I’ve got things to do. Sand to carry.”

In a moment he’s off on his little tractor, bulging above it like a circus bear. A rickety cart, rusted and squeaking, bounces behind him as he rattles down the boardwalk and into the forest.

Hannah goes the other way, over the trestle and up through the tower, out at the top to the platform that circles it. For nearly a week, a lone humpback whale has been feeding on the shallows off the island, and she looks for it now as she might watch from a porch for a friend passing by. The wind buffets at the long, dark dress of the lightkeeper’s wife, at the crimson scarf tied round her hair.

Once this was her favorite place, above the houses and the patch of emerald lawn. Ringed in by the railing, she was never frightened by the height, though she stood so high above the sea that the birds flew below her and the surf flickered white on the distant reefs of Devil Rock. Autumn, once, was her favorite time, a summer’s end when the whales and the birds stopped to rest on their southward migrations. But now the island is a prison, and the sea a wall around it. Autumn is the start of winter and the coming of the Undertaker. Even the wind makes her frightened.

She believes now that it has a voice. She has heard it often in the last three years—as a breath in the summer’s tall grass, as a whisper through the forest of moss-bearded trees. It has shouted her name in the storms that come from the south, when the gulls are flung through the sky like scraps of paper. She hasn’t told Murray any of this, but the voice on the wind is their son’s.

Yesterday he was there. When the storm was at its peak and the house rattled and shook, when the Canadian flag tore itself into streamers of red and white, she looked out and saw him in the flash of the light. He was gone in the darkness that followed: there and then gone. Poor Alastair—four years drowned—blown up from the sea in the storm.

Hannah shudders, remembering that, her vision of him. She moves back from the rail and leans on the glass. Though eighty feet above the sea, it’s stained with salt, remnants of last night’s storm. Hannah rubs at the white splotches with her hand, and then with the scarf, tearing it off to let her hair blow in tangles. Every five seconds, the light flashes in the cupola.

It’s a pathetic thing now, that light, a plastic dome on a little stick of a pole. The old lantern is long gone, the one that floated in its mercury bath, going round and around with a brilliance brighter than sunlight.

“Don’t look straight at it,” Murray told her the first time he took her up to the tower. “It could burn out your eyes,” he said. And for a week after that she went back and forth over the lawns with her eyes squinted, until Murray— laughing—told her how the beam passed far above. But it cast her shadow on the grass, a gray shape that leapt beside her as she walked. It flashed in through the windows and followed her down through the forest. It was like an enormous eye up there, watching her always. And she was glad when the new one came, though Murray hated it right from the start.

“Look at the bulbs,” he said. “The wee little bulbs.” He lifted off the plastic dome and she saw them underneath, half a dozen bulbs in a gizmo of metal and plastic. They were the size of Christmas tree lights.

“It’s the start of the end,” said Murray. “They’ll get rid of the keepers next, just you wait and see.” Then he reached out and loosened the bulb. A moment later the holder turned by itself. The old bulb swung down and a new one rose in its place with a whir and a click. She heard the little crackle as the filament glowed white-hot.

“Give it a year,” said Murray. “And we’ll get our walking papers then.”

Well, many years have passed and the walking papers still haven’t arrived. Murray dreads their coming, but Hannah looks forward to it.

She rubs at the salt, and the glass quivers under her hand when the humpback breathes. The sound comes to her like a bang of metal, and she turns her head in time to see a plume of spray shimmer in the sun, a cloud as thin as kettle steam. A dozen gulls tumble toward it, where the water is dark and swirling. Hannah searches among the rocks, in the channel where the water is gold and silver from the sand. She searches to the south, but she doesn’t find the whale.

Only the
Darby
is out there, bringing her daughter in a traveling smoke, like old Yahweh looming up from the desert. Puffs of spray rise from the bow, white flowers blooming, as though the ship is steaming through a field of dandelions. For a moment, Hannah wishes for the binoculars. They hang from a peg beside the door, next to a little brown envelope that Murray has glued there to hold his lens-cleaning papers. But the wish soon passes. They are big German binoculars that once peered from a U-boat, or so Murray told her. She’s afraid of them in a way, frightened that she might see the things they have seen if she holds them just so in her hands. And no, she decides, it would be wrong to watch for her daughter through lenses that have witnessed the drowning of men.

Below her, across the bridge and over the lawn, Murray’s tractor comes puttering back along the path. The engine coughs and stops. It’s his third day of hauling sand, two buckets at a time.

On the first day she asked him, “Why can’t the child just play at the beach?”

“They like their sand in boxes,” he said. “Cats and babies, you know.” He shrugged. “Och, they’re pretty much the same.”

He’s never had a cat; he’s never met Tatiana.

“And see?” he said. “I’ve made some toys for the lassie.”

They’re lovely things, built of chunky wood that’s red and yellow. There’s a boat just like the
Darby,
with a crane to lift tiny chests from the deck. There’s a sailboat and a freighter, and a flat-topped ferry with three funny-looking cars that drive aboard on sliding ramps.

“What sort of cars are those?” she asked.

“Och, I don’t know,” he said. “I was thinking of DeSotos.”

Now Hannah smiles to herself. Murray hasn’t seen a car in nearly twenty-five years.

She watches, from her height, as he lifts the buckets one at a time from the wagon and empties them into the sandbox. He stoops to one knee and smooths out the pile, sifting through it for clamshells and stones and bits of glass, which he drops in a bucket to put back on the beach. His hand moves, his fingers open, and the sound of the things hitting the bucket reaches her long after, when he’s already sifting again. Then he glances up, past the little shed he’s built around the sandbox, and he stands with the buckets in his hands.

He’s keeping a watch on the
Darby,
Hannah can see, as he bustles around, pretending not to care. He carries his buckets to the tractor, and glances to the south. He puts them into the wagon and glances again. Then off he goes to the big house, to watch from the windows, she thinks. And, sure enough, he doesn’t appear again until the ship is turning toward the channel.

The smoke from the funnel now streams to the side, and the white strip of foam at the bow thins to a sliver as the
Darby
slows for the run toward shore. Hannah can see people on the deck, but she can’t make out her daughter. She waves, both arms going wildly from side to side, the long scarf flapping from her fingers.

The whistle shrieks. Two shrill blasts.

She follows the ship around the tower, smiling and crying. Close up it’s enormous, ugly now, streaked with trickles of rust. The smoke blows around her, warm and oily.

She tugs at the door at the top of the tower. The wind pushes against it, then slams it behind her as she slips through the gap. She clatters down the stairs and out the bottom, across the trestle from crag to island, down the path that Murray built to keep footprints off the lawn.

He’s already busy with the winch when she comes up beside him. The derrick is swung out, the hook dangling above the sea. He’s peering down from his platform, watching the
Darby
pick up the mooring buoy. Men in orange life jackets move across the deck, launching the workboat, stacking boxes by the rail.

And there’s Squid! She looks so tall, so beautiful, standing at the gap in the rail, leaning on the little fence of painted chain. It’s almost a shock to Hannah to see her daughter as a woman. She’d been expecting the same girl she’d last seen in a little house in Prince Rupert. But Tatiana! Hannah frowns:
Oh, what is Squid thinking?
she wonders. In her solid red clothes, the child looks like one of the figures on Murray’s whirligigs.

“Och, look at the pair of them,” says Murray. “How old is Tatiana now?”

“Don’t worry,” says Hannah. “She’s not too old to play in the sand.”

Murray seems nervous. He scratches his arm, then raises a knee and scratches his leg. His skin is burned to a rosy pink below the hem of his shorts. Every inch of him is mottled with freckles and covered in a thin bright sheen of coppery hairs.

“I should have put on trousers,” he says.

“You’re fine,” Hannah tells him.

Squid has never come to the island this way. She has never seen it from the height of the
Darby
’s deck. Now it seems smaller than she remembers, the trees crowding more closely around the houses and the lawns. The tower has shrunk. The islets and reefs that had stretched on forever now huddle close by.

“Squid?” A Coast Guard crewman touches her arm. He stands almost astride Tatiana, as though the child isn’t there. “You’ll have to move down the deck,” he says. “We’re tying to the buoy, okay?”

He’s old, she thinks. Maybe forty. There is white in his hair, like chalk scribbled on a blackboard. If she knew him before, she doesn’t remember. “Okay,” she says. “Sure.” But she stays in the bow as the
Darby
passes the tower, until she sees her mother up there, waving like a madwoman, with a red scarf as long as the wind sock. Then she hears a laugh from one of the men and, embarrassed, looks down at her daughter. “Come on, Tat. Let’s go.”

BOOK: The Lightkeeper's Daughter
12.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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