There was something about the lighthouse I saw every time I visited that tiny village of my ancestors that sent a shiver down my spine. Maybe it was the way it stood alone and unused on the top of a cliff; majestically looking down at the waves crashing against the treacherous rocks below it. Maybe it was the fact that some sort of ugly green vegetation had cropped up all around it in the form of shrubs and creepers; nature seemed to have accepted that stone grey tower as part of the cliff. She had reclaimed the land the lighthouse was built on.
But most of all, what haunted me about the lighthouse was the odd story my Grammy sometimes loved to narrate; when she was in an oddly pensive mood that is.
‘I was a beautiful teenage girl of sixteen when I first met your grandfather in the meadow where I often went to pluck flowers for the table as a religious chore. He was sitting under the trees, reading a serious book and he looked at me, his charming eyes and square jawed face full of determination and confidence. He used to scare me at first but he was gentle in his approach towards a poor shepherd’s daughter. He never showed of his affluence or knowledge around me though and it was very soon that we became best of friends. The chore I had enjoyed before for the sake of the flowers suddenly gained new dimensions.
Your grandfather was a very curious young man. He wanted to know everything about the world. This quiet new town where he had been sent to study and recover from a prolonged childhood illness bored him and the lighthouse I barely paid attention to piqued his immediate interest. He asked me dozens of questions about it but there was only so much I knew.
I knew the lighthouse was some fifty years old and had been built for the same reason lighthouses were usually built for; too many shipwrecks had bloodied the history of our neighbourhood in the years gone past. I knew Joseph, the eccentric old man who lived next to the lighthouse and operated it. He had an odd group of comrades; mostly old sailors who had chosen to associate their post-maritime lives with activities as close to their past as possible.
One day your grandfather came to meet me at the meadow and he was panting. He said, ‘Arianne I think there is something strange going on in the lighthouse. I always felt that way but now I think I have proof.’
I was scared and nervous to see him that way. Adventures scared me just as much as they excited him and anything out-of-the-ordinary was meant to be feared, I had been taught at home. The lighthouse was the one element of our tiny coastal village that the superstitious eluded and most elders refrained from mentioning around their children. But I had never learnt why.
However your grandfather was a brave man and was not to be put off.
He continued in a low voice, ‘I think there is something going on in there. Something sinister you know. When its dark you can hear voices outside, close to the lighthouse. And we know nobody is supposed to be there at night but Joseph up in the tower but I know something fishy is up!’
I couldn’t get your grandfather to stop talking about the lighthouse mystery and it scared me that he loved going out at night to find out all about it but there was nothing I could do except feel sick with worry that night.
I stayed up, looking at the lighthouse illuminated against the moonlight. I was warm in bed but very scared for your grandfather and I didn’t sleep a wink all night.
The next day I waited anxiously in our special meadow until your grandfather finally appeared. He was limping. I ran to support him but he grinned sheepishly.
‘A jolly good adventure I had last night Arianne!’ he spoke excitedly, his words tumbling over one another in his eagerness to talk. ‘I was out after everyone was asleep at home and I followed a lantern that I could distinguish beyond the along the lighthouse fence’s perimeter. It was properly bright last night because the moon was nearly full and the lighthouse was flashing out its usual signals so I presumed Joseph was up there, grumbling to himself and smoking his pipe like always. Whoever had the lantern was moving unusually fast considering the rocks were slippery because of the spray from the water. I tried my damndest to keep up with the light because I wanted to see who it was holding it and what they were doing. And then I heard some muffled noises ahead, like somebody talking or trying to talk through a gag. There were a lot of sounds, the sounds of a struggle I imagined…and all the while the light kept moving, getting faster and faster as it approached the sea. And it was then that I fell and twisted my ankle a little and I started to get scared so I turned and got back home as fast as I could. Only, when I was at the side gate leading straight up to my bedroom, I thought I saw the flash of that same lantern turn around the corner on the street opposite!’
I could sense the fear in your grandfather’s voice then but it was mingled with pride and excitement. I was new to the ways of young men back then and I did not know how most of them loved their share of harebrained schemes and ideas. And like all foolish young men, he too was determined to see his heroic acts through. So he told me he would keep going out every night until he figured the sounds out. No amount of begging or pleading on my part could convince him otherwise and he stubbornly turned down my request to let me accompany him. finally I gave up and returned home sadly, praying for his safety.
I spent another night in anxious fear and returned early to the meadow but your grandfather never showed up. I waited until midday and then ran until I reached his house at the other end of the village where I learnt that he had taken ill and had had to be rushed back to see his doctor in the city.
I did not hear from him for a few months and then I received a letter; the first of our long-lasting correspondence since.’
And from within the hidden recesses of her memorabilia, my grammy would then show me that first letter grandfather had ever written to her; the very reason she had started to learn reading and writing in the first place:
My dearest Arianne,
I know my sudden departure must have been the cause of grief and anxiety to you especially since I never got to narrating the culmination of my story to you. I know I was made to leave in a hurry; the truth is my need for adventure led me into something inexplicable and after all this time, I felt the need to share this with you alone and never talk of it again to anyone else.
Well you see the night after I twisted my ankle, I went back to the cliff again. I felt like I was very close to something dangerous and being on that edge thrilled me. So I climbed all the way up there even though I was beginning to dread the whole episode a little after my misadventure from the previous night.
However that full moon night, there was complete and utter silence in the vicinity of the lighthouse. I could sense Joseph at the top of the tower and the lights still flashed as always; sometimes his shadow flitted across the window. I waited in the damp for nearly an hour and then decided to boldly enter the perimeters of the lighthouse.
I crossed over the fence with ease and trudged up to the door, which was latched from within but a little pushing did the trick. I entered a small hallway lit up with a single dark candle. The stairway wound up through the tower above me and a haunting light from Joseph’s tower fell created eerie shadows along my path.
Still I was brave enough to begin ascending until about midway up the tricky circular stairs; I started to hear Joseph’s voice from above (I knew it was him because I had seen him doing his shopping at the village once or twice and had observed him in proximity). His words were an unmistakable chant of some sort and i hesitated, scared but then braved my heart and continued climbing.
When I reached the top I saw a door left ajar and through the crack I noticed the crooked figure of the eccentric lighthouse keeper pouring over some book; his eyesight was weak I could tell but he was chanting words I could not understand, for they were neither English nor French.
Suddenly he seemed to sense my present for he turned and looked directly at me with those sharp green eyes; there was something within him I could make no sense of, it seemed unreal and it seemed not to belong to him. I started to back off towards the stairs and then he said one word menacingly and I will never forget that image of him, drawn straight up and looking unnaturally pale in the lamp glow as he said it: ‘Flee’.
I turned and ran down the spiralling stairway, nearly tripping on more than one occasion but never stopping to turn. I was scared out of my wits and had no idea what was going on. I could still hear Joseph as I ran, his chants had become deeper and mysterious, like the cries of an old gypsy woman I had once seen. But I managed to reach the bottom and ran out of that door like a man being followed by a ghost, which perhaps I was. I ran to the fence and jumped over it and still kept running, though the rocks slowed me down. I was halfway down, when I saw the same lantern again, this time it was following me. I panicked and sprinted harder but the light seemed to keep up easily, it seemed to be getting closer all the time.
I managed to run all the way into my lane when suddenly the light was upon me. I never knew what it was; just that it blinded my eyes and an image flashed before me; a pale white hand reaching out for me before I found myself fall down in a faint. That is where I was found early next morning, running a high fever which took weeks to come down whilst I lay in bed, half-delirious and unaware of my surroundings. And then I began recovering and I couldn’t stop thinking about you. And so yesterday when I felt strong enough to write, I began to pen this letter for you because you are the only one who should know this. And nobody will ever get this tale out of me henceforth.
Arianne, I can’t stop worrying about you, so close to that evil lighthouse and its evil caretaker. I do not wish to unravel the mystery associated with my misadventure. Real or imagined, I wish to forget it and I want you to stay away from it too. But someday I will come to get you out of there.
Lovingly until then,
True to his word, my grandfather never talked about this tale to anyone and he came back to get Grammy out of there.
Grammy on the other hand, chose to share with us the tale that marked the beginning of her new life with grandfather…for it meant everything to her that he came back for her, despite the fears etched in his mind.
For my part, I delved into the history of that little village and found a few stories of shipwrecks and ghosts but the truth was, we would never be certain whether there was a real ghost, or just the caretaker Joseph’s paranoia or whether grandfather’s childhood illness had been the cause of some hallucinations.
But none of this changes the fact that the lighthouse continues to be a source of spooky wonder in my life and will always be; for perhaps it is the reason I exist anyway.