The Curse of the Lighthouse
by Arthur Davis
part 1 of 2
“There are instructions for cleaning the mirrors and maintaining the motors. Remember, you have to report to the naval station in Bangor every six hours. Not that there’s much else to do around here. And you’ll want to read the government handbook Lighthouse Management series 333-5A from 1951. They told me to tell you that. Personally, I wouldn’t give a rat’s ass about crap like that if I were you.”
“What about everything else?”
He glanced about, as if he were surveying the space for the first time. “There is no everything else. It’s all common sense and caution.”
The control panel operating the lights, motor, and electrical system was simple to the point of primitive. “Caution?”
“You’re out here alone. The launch gets out weekly for your reports and to bring you food and supplies. Don’t expect strangers to come calling in the night, but still...” he began then trailed off.
“Never been on a lighthouse,” I said, still enthused with the assignment.
“Nothing special about a shack with a light on top of a tired old smokestack.”
“Did you know that The Pharos of Alexandria was the first lighthouse that we have a detailed record of? Thing was built in 280 B.C. It was 350 feet high and topped off by a wood fire. That was more than seven times the size of this one.”
“I didn’t study history, kid. If I had, I wouldn’t be out here.” He buttoned up his coat and started towards the waiting launch.
I stood on the rocky landing that led down to the pier. A man named Dave — I couldn’t get much out of him on the way over — stowed Louie’s duffel and loosened the stern line. Louie gave me a salutary wave without looking back as Dave throttled out of the inlet of Highpoint Island.
Nautical adventure, they said. Seafaring excitement, they said. I was hooked.
A gust of salty wind swept across my face. I stumbled back, making sure not to lose my footing on the large rocks that surrounded the sixty-two acre outcropping. I had an hour of light left before I officially started my three-week watch. I’d had worse assignments as a biologist for the Department of the Interior.
Louie had been guarding Manan Channel for five years. I probably couldn’t have managed alone for five months. Maybe his being at least twice my age had something to do with it.
The island had been used as a sanctuary: a place of worship and human sacrifice for the tribe that occupied the surrounding inlet. The tribe disappeared over a hundred forty years before when, according to legend, the sea rose up in one monstrous wave and swept the land of those who had offended their god. The few survivors fled north into what became Canada. The research didn’t explain what the tribe had done to deserve such terrible punishment.
I went into the other room of the cabin, a glorified shack, and unpacked the cartons of food that had been delivered by the launch. There were enough canned goods for a month, including a dozen steaks. There was some fresh fruit that would be gone in less than a week, and enough cookies and cake to put on the dozen pounds I had taken the last year to work off. There was an adequate supply of coffee, tea, and butter. I stowed my clothing and went through every cabinet and closet.
I tore two pages from the calendar on Louie’s desk until it read May 1973.
Highpoint Island, off the coast of northern Maine, was the furthest jot of land bordering the mouth to the Grand Manan Channel that led north to New Brunswick, Canada. Commercial and private ships plying the Atlantic Coast traversed the treacherous eight-mile strip of turbulence, knowing the Highpoint Lighthouse would guide them safely through the worst part of the channel.
Highpoint was three miles due east into the channel from the coast town of Cutler, Maine which was where Louie was spending his first night of his three-week furlough off the island.
Highpoint wasn’t quite as old as the great Pharos of Alexandria, which was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World. I would have liked to see that 14th-century edifice before it was destroyed by an earthquake. I once read that the Romans built lighthouses along the European coastline, and several still stand inside the walls of Dover Castle in England and at La Coruña, Spain.
I organized the kitchen and my bedding and logged into the green lighthouse journal. I signed in for the first time and noticed Louie’s last entry. It was uneven and ragged. Tracing the different entries up the page and back a week, then a month, Louie’s handwriting was dramatically different. I flipped back a year and was startled by how the recent entries had decomposed into one you might associate with a less stable soul.
I traced back the entries to February 23rd. The signature and daily entries were consistent up to then. Slowly at first, but by the beginning of March there was a marked change in his writing and signature.
The wind picked up, voicing its own particular displeasure. A chill enveloped the cabin. I was suddenly hungry. I pulled out a piece of chopped meat, fried up some onions, threw a potato on, and half an hour later sat down to dinner and a curious unease.
Louie McCorkle had made notations on a variety of interesting and nonessential subjects about the flora and fauna, the movement of private sailboats, and about Dave Hennison, the man employed to shuttle the launch. At one point last December, there was an odd entry about sounds from the sea.
I walked up the five stories to the top of the tower and checked the instrumentation. Most modern lighthouses had more data feedback, and all instrument panels were located in the watchman’s office at the base of the lighthouse rather than at the top, to insure access in case a violent storm compromised the structure itself. But Highpoint, in spite of its importance to the successful navigation to Manan Channel, hadn’t been upgraded since the early 1950s.
Originally, lighthouses were illuminated by wood, coal, or oil. In 1782, a Swiss scientist named Aimé Argand invented an oil lamp that remained the principal system for illuminating lighthouse beacons for over a century. A device using vaporized kerosene under pressure was replaced in 1921 by one that burned petroleum. The incandescent lamp came into use in the 1920s and remains in use today.
The mirrors that focused and concentrated the light — the very heart and soul of the edifice that gives each lighthouse its own distinct character — had also changed greatly since the first catoptric reflector was invented in 1777. That reflector consisted of hundreds of small mirror sections set in a plaster mold in the form of a parabolic curve. This was later replaced by parabolic silvered copper reflectors. The first revolving light, operated by clockwork, was installed at Carlsten, Sweden, in 1781.
I spent the rest of the night going through the manuals and secondary logs. There was nothing unusual, except the same difference in handwriting that began in mid-March.
Even the phrasing of the entries is strange. My inner monologue rang with doubt.
The further I read, the more frequently notations were scrawled rather than written. A notation in the journal on April 7th was more distressing. “Dave came over with the launch at 13:45. He had the devil’s look about him.”
I checked the store shed out back. There was an adequate supply of fuel and water and other mechanical aids, including the most modern first-aid packet. Everything was in order against the inventory journal.
By the third day, I was familiar with the routine and thoroughly enjoying the unhurried experience. What I had anticipated as boring and tedious was a welcome refrain from the lack of focus of my life.
At thirty-one years old, I had managed to achieve a level of employment that seemed more like therapy than actual career. With a master’s degree in biology, I had gone to work for the Department of the Interior straight out of college. I was quickly assigned to surveys along the Alaska pipeline, then to analyzing feeding grounds of blue and humpback whales off the southern coast of California. I had spent two years mapping the logging damage done to the environment in the southern Great Lakes region.
I enjoyed the tedium and the hours spent polishing the maze of reflecting mirrors. I was satisfied that those who came after me would never make them shine with such a dependable glow. I took pride in keeping Highpoint as well maintained in its decrepitude as it had been in its youth.
Working in a lighthouse, you are quickly aware of the signature of the elements. I learned the trick of opening myself up to everything around me as I had in Alaska, California, and Montana. I listened to the wind scream and whistle. I catalogued the movement of the sun, the sway of the waters and waves, the elegant cloud flow of birds that migrated out to sea each morning with the trawlers and returned just as spent, though probably more heartened by their journey, at nightfall.
Then there were less natural sounds. The first was a distant whistle that found me late one afternoon as I clocked a storm’s movement up the coast. I stepped out from the stairwell. The sounds that swirled around me as I stood on the catwalk enjoying the storm spray did not subside. They followed me into the tower and down the stairs and into my small room and then into the bathroom and stared back at me in my mirror. Louie’s mirror. The one he had used before I believe something got into his head and gyrated about like a frantic worm until it exploded, poisoning his brain with fear, and compromising his reason.
The growling whistle in my head died down later that night, but its distant echo stayed with me long after the storm spent itself out along the New Brunswick coast. I phoned in my readings and later received a call from the district station manager. He had just returned from vacation and wanted to welcome me to the post. He asked me to remain on station for another four weeks. My acceptance was polite and perfunctory.
The following evening I was informed that Louis McCorkle was not going to return to Highpoint. Not in a few weeks or in a few months. When I questioned why, I was told that he had some personal issues.
I climbed back to the tower. It was getting dark outside.
After a few minutes, from the sound between the stony shore of Cutler, Maine, and the lighthouse came a familiar and faint, high-pitched whine. At first, I thought it was mechanical but quickly came to believe that the undulations and changes in the frequency had a very human, if not animal, origin. It sounded like a plaintive whine, a siren’s song to lure sailors onto the jagged, rocky shoals that lined Manan Channel.
The sound found me, and stayed for hours every night after sundown. I was trying to focus in on the sound when the phone rang downstairs. Slowly, almost begrudgingly, I made my way downstairs already knowing that, because it rang for such a long time, the caller must know that there was value in waiting. I lifted the receiver and was greeted by a familiar, though distant voice.
“Are you okay?”
“I heard they’re making you stay on for me. Sorry about that.”
I could hear Louie strain for his next sentence, the one he had wanted to call me about since he was relieved of his duties and before that, his senses.
“Have you heard something different? Just not normal?”
“Every night as the sun sets, coming from between Cutler and the island?”
“You have no idea how many times I wanted to pick up the phone and call you. I wanted to know, I wanted someone to tell me I was not the only one.”
“But I’m not, you see.”
“And you aren’t afraid?”
“No.” Even then, I knew it wasn’t as true as I made it out to be.
“I was alone on that pile for so long it didn’t take much to set me off.”
“It makes the same sound. It doesn’t get any louder or closer.”
I wasn’t prepared for the certainty in his voice. “Louie, what do you know about it?”
“I know it’s evil. It feeds on human flesh.”
Louie would have made a great camp counselor. The one who enjoyed telling rattling scary ghost stories to young campers around the campfire. “How come it didn’t attack you?”
“I don’t know. I really don’t.”
“But you know it lives off of human flesh?”
“Don’t ask me how I know.”
“I wouldn’t,” I offered, because all Louie was going to tell me was that he didn’t know how he knew, just that he was sure of it.
“You think I’m crazy. The old fool finally went over the edge.”
“Louie, I don’t even really know you.”
“Let me turn down the television,” he said and disappeared from the phone. I heard the sound of liquid being poured into a deep glass. I heard him take a drink. His voice was fused with renewed confidence. “You have to get out of there.”
“Then you called to warn me?”
“I’ve been having nightmares.”
“From the alcohol?”
“I’ve seen it. It’s over eight feet tall, with blood-red eyes.”
That I hadn’t expected. Claiming to be witness to the abnormal with descriptive detail is a far cry from expressing man’s demon-driven imagination.
“You have to get out of there. I would have warned you sooner but I knew no one would believe me.”
There was a genuine urgency in his voice. He was convinced I was in danger. “I’m a biologist. I study life-forms.”
“It doesn’t walk like we do.”
I guessed that Louie was well into his first bottle of the night. “How does it walk?”
“I don’t know how to describe it, but I’ve seen them.”
“So, there’s more than one?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You said ‘them’.”
“You don’t believe me?”
“I believe you believe you saw something that frightened you and you’re frightened for me. I appreciate that. Really.”
“Before your watch is over, you will believe me.”
Copyright © 2014 by Arthur Davis