By Tara Fritz
I had never been so cold before.
I wanted to say it out loud, give voice to my restless thoughts, but I knew it would never be heard over the slap of water against the boat as it pitched with the waves. The wind cut through my thin coat; my skin ached with goosebumps. It was May of 1930, but the weather seemed not to have realized.
“Nearly there!” shouted the captain of our little rowboat, out of sight in my dark periphery. My brother, a smudge of black hair and shadowed eyes next to me, nodded to show that he had heard.
An hour ago, when the car first dropped us off as close to the shore of northern Maine as it could manage, the captain told us the best way to reach the lighthouse was by sea. The tower stood on a craggy extension of the mainland, but the rocky path was too treacherous for even the most able of men. So we sailed.
The ocean spray felt cool on my cheeks compared to the feverish nausea that rolled through me. I squeezed my eyes shut; with storm clouds darkening the sky, it hardly mattered to my limited vision whether or not my eyes were open. I clutched harder at the threadbare wool of my brother’s coat as we sailed on, trusting him to be my sight.
I didn’t open my eyes again until Sebastian tapped my wrist with his free hand. The world was nothing more than a dark blur to me, but at least the waves were steadier. A dock loomed in front of us; farther up on the rocky outpost was the lighthouse, standing tall against a backdrop of stormy clouds.
“I see you got them here in one piece.” The voice, one I had never heard before, came from the dock above us.
There was the slap of wet rope as the captain secured our vessel to a wooden pillar. “As safe as could be,” he responded to the man on the dock. “Think your girl here might be a little seasick.” He let out a laugh, a sharp sound that merged with the crack of the waves against the shore. I gripped my brother tighter, but Sebastian pulled his arm away and stood to help the captain with our suitcases. They landed with a resounding clunk on the dock, and the boat swayed with the loss of the weight. I clutched at the sides of the vessel, my fingernails digging into the weather-worn wood to steady myself.
“Lise,” my brother called down, “give me your hand.”
My breath caught in my throat as I stood. The boat rocked, and I threw out my hand in search of support; my brother latched onto my arm and deftly lifted me from the boat to the dock beside him.
“You must be Elisabeth.” I turned in the direction of the other man on the dock. He reached for my free hand, pressing it for a moment between his two rough palms.
“Yes,” I replied, voice hard with determination as I tried to gain my bearings. “But you can call me Lise.”
It was hard to tell in the growing darkness, but I thought he might have nodded. “And you must be her brother, Sebastian.” My hand was released so the two could, presumably, shake. “I’m your Uncle Robert. Welcome to Siren Point.”
He called a warning about the incoming storm down to our captain before taking a suitcase in each hand, leaving Sebastian to carry the other as I leaned on his free arm. We departed from the dock, taking off across an unsteady gravel path in the direction of the lighthouse and the small cottage tucked into its shadow.
“I assume,” said our uncle as he led us into the house, “that Elisabeth will want the ground floor bedroom.”
Before I could argue, Sebastian said, “Perfect. The stairs might be too much for her.”
It was as though I was deaf as well as partially blind. I clenched my jaw in anger, but no one seemed to notice. My bags were deposited at the door of my bedroom, and my brother’s arm was taken from mine as our uncle led him to the second floor. Alone, I stepped into the small room, trailing my hand along the wall, a reliable solidness. Outside, a wave crashed against the lighthouse; I felt the reverberations from my fingertips down to my toes as the tower shook, the house trembling with it.
“Might be a rough night.” Robert’s booming voice echoed down the stairs. “Weather’s been tough this spring so far—rain like you wouldn’t believe—which is why your old uncle needs your help around here. My last assistant took off when I couldn’t afford to pay him anymore.”
My hand brushed along the quilt on the bed, patchy and soft with use. The stairs creaked to indicate my brother and uncle’s return. A strike of lightning suddenly illuminated the room’s single window, a small, uncovered square. I waited, and listened. After a moment, a rumble of thunder answered.
Dawn came searing red, streaming through the small window and painting the backs of my eyelids with light. I had hardly slept, too frightened by the vibrations of the lighthouse as it rocked with the force of the storm’s waves. Even after the wind and rain had passed, sleep had evaded me.
The storm had left behind only a damp chill and a sharp breeze that whistled through the cracks in the old walls. After the sun rose, I heard my uncle’s footsteps passing the door again. His first trip by had been an hour earlier. Now, a second set of steps—my brother’s—accompanied his. The door that led to the lighthouse itself, at the end of the hall close to my bedroom, creaked when it opened. I traced the pattern on the quilt with my fingers and listened to their murmurs, their feet on the stairs. The ceiling turned from red to pink and then a vibrant gold as I counted seconds and stitches, waiting for them to return.
By the time the light turned pale and clear with the sun’s full rising, I hadn’t heard their steps on the stairs again. I rose out of bed and shuffled my bare feet along the wooden floorboards, hand trailing the wall for support, unsteady and unsure. I had taken no more than a few steps down the hallway when my brother caught up with me, a pail swinging from one hand as he reached out with the other to secure my forearm. “Careful, Lise,” he said, leading me along. “Did we wake you?”
“Not at all.” I maneuvered myself from my brother’s grasp the second I spied an armchair in the parlor at the end of the hall, situated perfectly in front of a window that looked out to the ocean. I sank into the chair, turning to find the window awash with blue, the sea hardly discernible from the sky.
Sebastian placed a shawl around my shoulders, then pressed his hand to the top of my head for a brief moment before he darted back down the hallway. I closed my eyes and found that the sky had left imprints of light on the backs of my eyelids.
The days passed by in a blur of similarity from then on. It wasn’t long before I no longer needed to steady myself on the walls, before I knew the ground floor so intimately that I could navigate it with my eyes closed. But the confines of the cottage soon became stifling. I was separated from the outside world by walls and windows at every point; at times, I longed to just open the front door and take a deep breath of the ocean air, but it rained often, each storm accompanied by a thick fog that sent Robert out to sound the foghorn.
At last, after a few days of clear skies and bright sun, I pleaded with my brother to take me outside. “Please. I can’t stand to be in this house anymore.”
It didn’t take much to convince him; Sebastian made sure my grip was tight around his arm before we set off. When he threw open the front door, I paused to take in a deep breath of the fresh air.
The sun was hot on the crown of my head as he led me along the gravel path toward the dock where we had arrived. We continued slowly along until the gravel turned to coarse sand and stones beneath the soles of my shoes. I took my gaze from the indistinct shape of the mainland on the horizon to the vague black rocks that rose around us, their jagged edges softened in my vision.
Many years of weathering had created a small beach between the ocean, the mainland, and the curve of the outcrop on which the lighthouse stood. I took in the landscape as wholly as I could: the harsh black rocks, the brown sand, the pale blue sky. The wind pulled at the hem of my dress as we ambled along, and I stopped often to breathe in the heavy scent of the ocean.
Soon there was a shout from the lighthouse, the deep timbre of my uncle’s voice carrying over the beach but not his words. Sebastian stopped and turned toward the tower. “He must need me for something,” he said, tugging on my arm with perhaps a little more force than he meant to. “We should go back.”
“You could leave me here,” I suggested, tilting my face to the sun as we made our way back through the sand and pebbles. “There’s nothing to harm me on the beach.”
Even though I couldn’t see his face, I knew by instinct that he was shaking his head. “Maybe another day.”
I pursed my lips in annoyance, but followed along at his guidance.
Another storm blew in that night. I lay awake watching the brilliant flashes of lightning, hearing the footsteps of my uncle and brother pass outside my door in tandem as they tended to the light in the fierce wind and rain, their muffled curses as part of the roof in the parlor began to leak in earnest.
In the morning, I sat in the armchair with a cup of bitter coffee pressed between my palms, staring out at the rain-washed sky. My uncle announced that he would sail to the mainland for supplies—food, more coffee, and material to fix the roof. He left Sebastian to tend to his usual duties, which I easily could have told him was a mistake. By late morning, my brother had given in to his exhaustion and collapsed, asleep, in the second armchair. It was then that I took my chance.
I stole two biscuits from the plate beside the stove and crept out the door of the cottage, letting out a sigh of happiness as the sun reached out and touched my face like a blessing. Taking care with each placement of my feet, I took a few tentative steps down the gravel path. It was different without the support of my brother’s arm, but I felt infinitely more free, like a bird allowed to stretch its wings for the first time.
After several long minutes of small, wavering steps, I felt the gravel turn to sand. There, I stopped and slipped out of my shoes, relishing the feeling of the coarse sand under my feet. I ate a biscuit while I walked along the beach, the blue ocean spread out alongside me. The water that lapped at my toes was cold like winter, but the sun was so warm that I hardly noticed. As I walked, I hummed a mindless tune. The waves crashing against the shore served as my percussion; the seagulls overhead sang a harmony. I paused and let the song die in my throat, taking a deep breath of the ocean air, as much as my lungs could carry. Even though I stopped, the tune carried on, like someone, somewhere else, was singing, too. It might have been an echo, or a sound carried over from the mainland. Perhaps it was just the wind.
I kept walking, humming again, until I reached the end of the beach, only to find my course stopped by a row of jagged black rocks that made up the rest of the outcrop. Rather than turn back, I lowered myself into a sitting position on one of the wide, flat rocks that bordered the ocean, my feet dangling in the cold water as I ate the last biscuit.
The song began again, but I couldn’t tell if it was my own voice or someone else’s. When I looked down, there seemed to be something else there, in the water not far from my ankles, that I hadn’t seen before. The longer I looked, the more the image began to resolve itself: a woman. Her skin was the color of ashes, her hair dark like mine. The only feature that distinguished her from the rocks around us were her eyes, half-lidded and pale like crystals, looking up at me from the water as she lounged on the rock beside my knees. I could see her more clearly than I had seen anything in a long time.
“You have a lovely voice,” she told me. Her own voice sounded like mine, but sharper, like the slap of a wave against the rocks.
I didn’t respond for a moment, captured in her crystalline stare, still trying to determine if she was really there or just a projection of my own loneliness. I reached out one trembling hand as if to touch her, but stopped just short. “Are you real?” I whispered.
“As real as you want me to be, I suppose.” She smiled wide. Her teeth were sharpened to points.
“Are you real?”
I let my hand fall to my side, wanting to recoil from her strangeness. “I guess I am,” I replied. “My name is Lise. What’s yours?”
She didn’t answer, but cocked her head and leaned in to ask, “Tell me, have you ever gone to the top of the lighthouse?”
“Not once,” I said, turning to look at the dark tower that stood out stark against the bright sky. “I never dared.”
“I always wondered,” she replied wistfully, “what the world must look like from up there.”
I hummed a little in response. “I’m not sure that I’m the best person to ask,” I said, turning my gaze to sky, the sun a vague circle among the few hazy clouds. “I can’t see very well anymore.” I looked down at my hands, then, nothing more than pale shapes against the black rock. “I’m nineteen years old, you know, but I can hardly see two inches in front of my face. It’s like there’s a darkness closing in on me.”
A wave washed over her shoulders and over my ankles dangling in the water. She said nothing, but her expression showed her sorrow for me, like she understood.
“It’s why our parents sent my brother and me away,” I continued, unable to stop myself from unburdening my troubles on this fragment of my dreams. “Sebastian came to help our uncle at the lighthouse; I accompanied him because it was one less mouth for my parents to feed. And because it’s safer for me, isolated like this. Unable to wander.”
“Don’t worry,” said the woman. Her voice was calming like the back-and-forth motion of the waves. “You will not be unhappy here. I will be your friend.”
A low-slung cloud passed over the sun, casting a shadow over the morning. “I would like that,” I said with a smile. Another wave brushed my calves, and I trembled with the chill.
Someone called my name, the sound carrying on the wind along the beach. I looked in the direction of the lighthouse, but it took a moment before I could discern my brother running along the shore.
“What are you doing out here?” he gasped, breathless, as he neared me.
“I was—oh.” I looked down to my friend, only to find that she had vanished. I glanced up at my brother again, wide-eyed. “Did you see her? That woman?”
“What do you mean?” Sebastian’s face gathered shadows as his brow wrinkled.
“She was there.” I pointed at the water. “Just a second ago.”
“You’re seeing apparitions.” Sebastian grabbed roughly for my arm. Thoughts elsewhere, confused at the sudden disappearance of whoever I had been talking to, I let myself be pulled along. “You terrified me,” said Sebastian as he led me back in the direction of the lighthouse. “I thought you had fallen to your death, or…”
I let him trail off into grimmer imaginings. A sudden wave washed onto the sand and over my feet and I shivered, trying desperately to remember what was real. My sodden skirts dragged along behind me, heavy like an anchor.
“No more running off,” said Sebastian. “And no more talking to things that aren’t there.”
My brother hardly left me out of his sight after that, even shirking some of his duties to make sure I was exactly where he had left me ten minutes before. The weather mirrored his efforts, confining me to the house with a steady drizzle that lasted for three days. The clouds that rolled in cast the cottage in a perpetual night. I wondered where the woman was and if she was safe from the storms. I wondered if she was even real, or if she had just been a figment of my imagination. I could see her eyes in my dreams sometimes, pale and burning like the lighthouse lamp.
I spent the evenings in much the same place as my days: the armchair by the window, with a blanket folded over my lap and the shawl wrapped around my shoulders to ward off the unseasonal chill. I wished desperately that I could read, but even in daylight my eyes were not strong enough. I asked my brother to read to me after the lighthouse lamp was lit. When Sebastian was too tired, Robert would read aloud from his keeper’s log book instead.
“Lise,” my brother said to me one quiet night, setting down his pen, “what should I tell Mother about you?”
I shut my eyes against the dark world, hearing the patter of rain on the window. I thought of the last time I had felt more than wooden floorboards beneath my feet, the last time I had felt warm.
“Tell her,” I replied slowly, pressing my forehead to the cool window, “that I am doing fine.”
Each morning I listened to the sound of my uncle and brother’s footsteps as they walked up the stairs of the lighthouse to snuff out the light. One particular morning I heard their steps returning, trudging back upstairs to their bedrooms. It had been a sleepless, difficult week, thanks to the rainstorms and the dangerous conditions they had brought with them. That day, unlike the others, had dawned sunny and clear.
As soon as the house had settled, I shook off my covers and stepped into the hallway, taking care to avoid the creaky floorboard outside my door. The door to the cottage beckoned to me, but at the other end of the hall, another door presented itself: the door to the lighthouse. I strained my ears to hear any sound from upstairs, but all was silent except for the crash of the waves on the distant shore. Now was as perfect a time as any to make good on my promise to my strange new friend.
The door opened with the lightest press of my fingers. The tower was dark, save for the meager sunlight that streamed in through the small windows. I shuffled forward, wary of the uneven floorboards that threatened to send me sprawling until my outstretched hand came into contact with the metal railing of the stairs.
First one step, then another. The iron stairs were a heavy weight beneath my feet as I took a deep breath and sought the next step, my fingers aching from gripping the railing so hard. I couldn’t look down, too afraid to see the darkness below; I kept my eyes on the endless stairs above me, twisting away to nothingness. As I climbed, I counted.
One hundred and eighty-five steps. When I emerged at the top of the tower, my hands were trembling, and I pressed them to my chest to still them. There wasn’t much I was able to see, not from such a height. I could faintly hear the wind as it rattled through the cracks in the windows, but even the sound of the ocean had faded into the distance. All I could see was blue—blue ocean, blue sky.
I walked to the other side of the tower and chanced to look down. Below me stretched the rocky island; the beach was a patch of brown, and far beyond was the mainland, a hazy green blur on the horizon line.
The lamp in the center of the tower was extinguished; the glass of the lens was cold when I pressed my palms to it. I shivered, wishing I had brought the shawl with me, but my breath hitched in fear as I thought of returning down the stairs. The descent was a large, gaping hole in the top of the tower; I couldn’t see the second step, let alone the first. Now that I had climbed, it seemed I would be at the top for a while.
Sebastian was the one to find me. His voice echoed at the bottom of the stairs, calling my name, but I didn’t answer; something like pride kept me from shouting out. I turned my gaze to the blue horizon line and waited. A minute passed before I heard his heavy footsteps on the stairs, saw his dark head rising above the opening.
“I thought—” His voice sounded choked. I was in his arms in an instant, breathing hard against his thin shirt. “I thought you—”
“I wanted to see,” I said into the curve of his neck. His grip on me was almost painful. “For once, I wanted to see.”
He said nothing, but I could feel his frown etched into my shoulder. I felt as though, somehow, I had disappointed him. He carried me back down the stairs, each step slow and deliberate so that we wouldn’t fall. “I would send you back home,” he said, voice low, as he set me down onto my bed, “if I thought that would help. Maybe it would.”
I didn’t answer. He didn’t elaborate. The door clicked shut behind him, soft but insistent. When I closed my eyes, all I could see was an imprint of blue.
“You’re worrying your brother,” my uncle said, helping me to a chair as I ventured from my room later that night. The setting sun had painted swaths of reds and golds across my ceiling hours ago; I had padded out into the dark hallway once the growling of my stomach became impossible to bear. Robert set a bowl of lukewarm stew and one hard slice of home-baked bread on a tray on my lap.
I ate in silence for a while before I set down my spoon and asked tentatively, “Have you ever seen a woman on the beach?”
There was a clatter as my uncle’s pen fell to the floor. I heard the log book shut with a decisive snap, and then he asked, “What do you mean?”
My gaze did not drift from the window. I couldn’t see his face, but I could picture his expression from just the wavering in his voice—fear, confusion. I went on to explain, “I talked to her. I don’t know where she came from, but she seemed so real.” I paused, weighing my next words. “I don’t know who she is. She came to me. I don’t even know her name.”
If Sebastian had heard me say it, he would have called it nonsense. “It was probably nothing,” said my uncle, but he placed his words carefully. “Only there’s a reason they call it Siren Point.”
I frowned. “And what does that mean?”
“It means—” He stood, joints popping, and then the pressure of the tray in my lap was gone as he took it. “Most of it is superstitious nonsense. There was a woman on the mainland a century ago who drowned on her wedding day. But it’s only a legend. Your brother would say that you had an overactive imagination.”
“But you’re not my brother.” I paused, considering my next words. “Are you superstitious, Uncle Robert?”
“No,” he said, and I could hear his footsteps disappearing down the hall to go check on the light.
“But like you, I have an imagination.”
My brother lingered over me like a shadow from then on, hovering like our mother did when I stopped being able to see my needlework even by lamplight.
“I’ll be damned if I leave you alone again for long,” Sebastian said when I snapped at him. In the armchair, I wrapped the shawl tighter around my shoulders and ignored him.
A week later, he pressed a piece of paper into my hands. “I know you can’t read this,” he said, voice hard, “but it’s a letter from Mother. I wrote to tell her that you should go home. She’s sending a car at the earliest convenience.”
I traced my fingers over the slight indents in the paper before I crumpled it in my hand, then handed the letter back to him. “I’m not leaving.” I could hardly speak. “It’s my decision to make—not yours.”
He shook his head. “Mother will send another letter before long to tell us when the car will arrive. I’m sorry, Lise. I didn’t want to do this, but you made me.”
“I didn’t make you do a thing.” I stood and knocked him out of the way, taking off in the direction of my room as fast as I dared; my feet were used to the floorboards now, their curves and edges. I made sure to slam the door.
I closed my eyes and sank onto the mattress, hands tracing over the stitches of the quilt. From outside the window, I thought I heard a faint song. My remaining days at the lighthouse were limited, but if I knew one thing at all, it was that I had to see my friend again. Robert’s story lingered in my mind as I lay in bed until the early hours of the morning, waiting for the darkness to fade. As the world began to lighten around me, I slipped out from beneath my sheets, shivering as my feet met the floorboards.
I stumbled along the gravel path until I felt sand beneath my bare feet. There was a limit to how much time I had; I concentrated only on reaching the rocks at the end of the shore. As I moved, I hummed a song; when I heard it echoed back to me, I smiled.
“I thought you would never come back, my friend,” the woman said as I settled onto the rock next to her. “I was waiting.”
I took a moment to catch my breath, and my emotions caught up with me, too. A tear slipped down my cheek and fell onto the back of my hand. “I’m being sent away.”
“What do you mean?” She blinked up at me with eyes wide like full moons.
“My brother,” I replied, “thinks it will be better if I go home.”
“You can’t leave.” She seemed suddenly angry. “Who is your brother to tell you what to do?”
“He doesn’t know what it’s like.” Even through the haze of tears in my eyes, I could see the sharpness of her face, like a vision, a dream. “He trusts my eyes even less than I do.”
But the woman was shaking her head. “You don’t need to trust your eyes,” she said. “You need to trust yourself.”
“I don’t want to go,” I admitted. “I don’t want to leave the lighthouse.”
“Come with me.” She seemed to swell up, leaning toward me on the rock. “You don’t have to go anywhere you don’t want to go. You can stay here forever.”
“But I have no choice. My mother is sending a car.”
“The ocean will take you.” Her words were lilting, like a song. A sudden light broke around us, red and gentle—the sun, finally rising above the horizon. “Come with me. I’ll take care of you. Forever.” The sunrise had set her eyes on fire, the paleness turned red. “What are you really leaving behind?”
I couldn’t seem look away from her face. “A brother who doesn’t understand you. An uncle who doesn’t know you. Parents who didn’t want you. I want you, my friend. Think of how great we could be.”
Before I knew it the solid surface of the rock was gone and I was waist-deep in the ocean. I couldn’t feel the cold. “I could be like you.” I repeated distantly. I couldn’t see her anymore, but I knew she was lingering. Time rushed by and slowed down all at once. I felt the song in my chest, in my lungs, reverberating to the soles of my feet. “It was blue,” I told her, wherever she was. A wave brushed over my hips as I walked deeper, eyes trained on the horizon line. “From the top of the lighthouse. It was all blue.”
There was no answer. For a moment, I thought I heard a shout from the beach, a simple syllable—Lise. But I didn’t turn around. My eyes were fixed on the horizon.
About the Author:
Tara Fritz is a senior at Saint Francis University in Loretto, Pennsylvania. She is majoring in English and minoring in French, Women’s Studies, and Social Responsibility, and is planning on attending an MFA program in Creative Writing after graduating in May. She’s currently lucky enough to be studying abroad for the second time in the south of France while editing her thesis (a novel) and doing some travel writing. Her works have also been published in The Vehicle (Eastern Illinois University) and The Mochila Review (Missouri Western University); her most recent publication is a short story titled “Unbury Your Saints” in the 2017 issue of Brainchild Magazine, the literary magazine of the Mid-East Honors Association.