The Curse of the Lighthouse
by Arthur Davis
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
I was familiar with the big bang, which occurred almost fourteen billion years ago, and the formation of our earth four billion years ago, and after that protolife or single-strand RNA molecules that are over three billion years old. I’ve studied viruses and genes that appeared on earth 3,900 million years ago and prokaryotic cells, which are smaller and simpler than eukaryotes. However, the possibility of a red-eyed, flesh-eating beast was just too far an anthropomorphic reach. There had to be a more unthreatening explanation.
“Maybe it’s just your imagination. Being isolated out here for so long has to make you a little disoriented.”
“They’ll find what’s left of you and bury the incident like all governments, when they’re confronted by something they don’t understand and that the public will fear.”
The line died. I returned the black receiver to the cradle and fell into bed. No matter how I sounded on the phone or playing out my skeptical internal monologue, I was listening to Louie’s warning, and particularly to his description of the beast.
Maybe it was the spirit of one of the Indians of the lost tribes of the northern woods. Tradition has it in many cultures that when someone dies an unnatural death their spirit can’t go to heaven, or wherever that particular culture says they are destined to rest, until the act of death itself is righted. The Beast from the Manan Narrows.
I finished dinner and treated myself to a jumbo chocolate cupcake. Hennison was coming back in two days. I would prepare a more elaborate list of desserts for myself. If I was going to be forced to extend my watch here, then at least I deserved a better, though fattening, standard of living.
News on the small radio broke my uneasy vigil. Joe Ferguson hit the 6,000th Dodger home run. Angels’ outfielder Bobby Valentine broke his leg trying to scale a wall to prevent a Dick Green home run during a 5-4 loss to the A’s. Russian party leader Brezhnev visited West Germany. If the Russian leader really wanted to make a contribution to mankind, he should spend a few weeks tending Highpoint.
Hennison arrived the next day. “Hey, how are you?” I asked, with images of chocolate frosted cupcakes dancing in my brain, as he tied off the stern line.
“I hope you got what you ordered here,” he said, bent to his task.
He finished securing the lines, stood up and turned to me. It wasn’t Dave Hennison. This man was young and green with indifference.
“What happened to Hennison?”
“Don’t know. Don’t rightly believe anyone does.”
I felt myself unraveling. “He just up and disappeared, did he?”
“How did you know?”
I stood on the short pier and noticed the stack of supplies was smaller than I anticipated. “You’re missing a few cartons aren’t you?”
Taking stock of the boxes at his feet, he said, “You got what you ordered.”
“I didn’t order anything.”
“Then how do you know you got short-shipped?”
“Because when Hennison brought me over, he left me with twice as many cartons. If that’s okay with you.”
“Hey, listen, pal, with everything that’s going on in town, you’re lucky you got anything at all.”
“I’ll remember that when I have to wipe my ass and all I have around is sandpaper and memories of your concern.”
He tucked his pants under his belt then glanced up at the top of the lighthouse as though it was impossible for him to conceive anyone would accept such a deprived existence. “I’m Brian Fellows. I just came out from Bangor to help. I do mostly statistical work in the weather station there. I don’t do well in the field.”
“First it was your predecessor and now Hennison. You have to admit that’s a little strange.”
“What happened to Hennison?” I asked, helping Fellows remove the last carton from the boat.
Fellows unfastened the bowline from the cleat and began to coil it around his arm. “Gone, like Louie McCorkle. Just up and left. No trace.”
“Has been for days. Bangor can’t reach him anywhere. No one knows where he is.”
“And that’s a problem?”
“In itself it wouldn’t be, but what with what happened to Hennison, it does seem curious.”
“You said he was missing.”
“He is,” he said, starting up the engine. A loud gasp and a plume of blue smoke belched from the ancient outboard. “One of the guides went over to his cabin and found it had been ransacked. Busted furniture and torn clothing everywhere and what looked like blood splattered on the walls.”
“Where does Hennison live?”
Fellows pointed to a small yellow dot of a cabin on the coastal fringe of Cutler. “Been there forever. He grew up around here. His relatives were supposed to have fought the damn Indians or something like that,” he said and moved off.
“Indians,” I echoed, before returning to the cabin.
The bloodstains needed to be identified, and I needed to contain my agitation. I broke open the supplies, the fresh fruit, the few pieces of steak, and a dozen potatoes. There was an unexpected loaf of delicious seven-grain bread that probably set the government back a tidy sum.
I spent the rest of the night huddled over Louie’s journals.
I awoke at four in the morning. The wind had picked up, as the reports said it would, accompanied by a sound that I recognized immediately. I could hear the guttural murmur again, as I had the night before. I got out of bed, grabbed a flashlight, and went up to the tower. I looked down at the surrounding grounds. The dilapidated lounge chair was on its side. It was made of heavy redwood and too much of a load to tumble over in this wind.
Nautical adventure, they said. Seafaring excitement, they said. They forgot to mention Indians.
I secured the door to the top of the tower and descended into the heart of the lighthouse, and listened. Nothing. What did burning red eyes look like at night?
I made it to bed, but didn’t fall asleep until three. I slept fitfully and rolled out of bed four hours later in a cold sweat. My body ached. I looked in the mirror. My eyes were laced with a glaze of fine red cobwebs. I was startled to see the reflection of a man years older than he was only yesterday.
I picked up the phone. There was no tone. There was no tone on my second, third and fourth try. I got dressed, ran up to the tower, and skirted the catwalk searching the grounds below. The lawn was deserted. The redwood lawn chair lay where it had been tossed. A weather front enveloped the land and ocean in every direction. Sighting through the portable telescope mounted on the catwalk railing took me to the edge of the mainland in fair weather. It would be useless today.
My mind was chocked with dark, frightful images, and impossible ideas on how to signal for help. I suddenly realized there was no boat. It was a damned island. How could there not be a rowboat?
Every specimen I had ever hovered over in a dozen laboratories quickly melded into one giant undulating, fang-bearing gray mass. I threw bits and pieces of my life into my bag as though the launch was going to leave at any moment. I swelled with anxiety, trying to count the hours to dusk and the return of the beast.
I imagined vengeance in its eyes, steam pouring off its hot, glistening skin. I could see it staring down at me, pausing before it tore the flesh from my bones. I could feel my body fall limp, my muscles failing, the voice taken from my lips by a terror that could not be repeated.
A loud bang ripped from the tower. The motor that whirred day and night was silent. The light from the tower vanished. The glass reflector panels were lifeless. Highpoint Lighthouse had gone dark.
I looked down over the railing, then towards the mainland where Brian Fellows was awakening to his unpleasant assignment and the police were working to identify the stains found in Dave Hennison’s house. I grasped the telescope and peered out to sea. The horizon remained thick with a layer of fog, making navigation dangerous.
I tried to find the small yellow dot Brian Fellows had pointed to yesterday. I finally located it and the smudge of a black and white police car with two red flashing domes on the roof parked in front of the house.
I slowly swung the telescope down from the horizon until the furthest edge of Highpoint Island came into view only a couple of hundred yards away.
Then I saw it. Two red dots cresting just over the edge of the rock embankment some fifty or sixty yards away. I adjusted the magnification of the lens until it came into focus. Air whistled from my lungs.
The broad, asymmetrical lump of a head distended from a broader amorphous base of what could only be described as crumpled dark gray flesh. The two eyes — what else could you call them? — were closer to the top of the head than was normal for stereoscopic vision. Red and unwavering, they stared directly back into mine.
I stood away from the telescope. Until someone noticed the lighthouse was dark, I would stand alone and die alone.
I considered lighting a fire then realized it would take too long to assemble so much refuse and time to generate enough of a flame, and there was no guarantee anybody would recognize it for what it was or come quickly enough to save me.
Except for a rusted metal shovel in the storeroom, there wasn’t anything I could wield against the beast. Then it struck me. How did the animal know how to sever the electrical lines? I lifted the telescope from its moorings. It wasn’t a sword, as much as a cumbersome club.
I grabbed a life preserver nestled under Louie’s desk. I had only one chance and, cold water or not, at least I wouldn’t drown with the life preserver strapped to my pounding chest.
The beast had severed the lines where they entered the water near the eastern side of the island, where it was hiding. It was waiting for me to stumble into its trap.
I opened the door and made my way out onto the center of the lawn with the telescope locked in my grasp. I caught sight of something moving behind the stone wall. At first, it was only a fragment, then more of a dark round shape. I gripped the telescope, no longer feeling the cold brass in the numbness of my fingers.
For the first time in my life, I was infused with a strange mix of courage and foolheartedness. Curiosity drove me half the distance to the east side of the stone wall where I knew the animal was hiding.
Waves beat up against the wall and splattered onto the dirt perimeter that separated the stone wall from the grass.
I swung sharply around the instant I heard the tattered throb of the motor launch. It was only a few hundred yards off the pier. I turned back to the stone bulkhead. There was no doubt what was waiting there for me.
Even with the telescope in my hand and Brian who, if he weighed a hundred and fifty pounds at my side, we were both in great danger. I ran for the pier. Brian didn’t even tie-off but shouted something and waved me closer.
“I have to get you back. The police identified the bloodstains. They belong to Hennison. His body was found hours ago not far from his cabin. It was torn to shreds. They want to question you.”
The launch bounced a couple of times up against the pier. I jumped aboard. I turned around and peered through my telescope, but with the launch rolling underfoot I could no longer pinpoint the exact spot where I had last seen the head of the beast.
The FBI was brought in, because a federal employee had been murdered. Specialists studied the severed power lines. I refused to return to the island, insisting something out there was responsible for the murder of Dave Hennison and disappearance of Louie McCorkle. The investigation went on for months.
I went so far as to suggest that two agents be assigned to the lighthouse. I was replaced as soon as the fog lifted and given a severe reprimand for not returning to my post. I deserved every word.
Another agent was assigned. He vanished at the end of the summer, though not before uncovering a cache of religious and tribal artifacts buried in a shallow pit under Hennison’s cabin, along with a notebook that detailed the extent of Hennison’s trafficking. For some time after that, I successfully convinced myself that the creature was not simply a life-force but was there to protect the island. Though from what, I was uncertain. I have since given up that theory, though not for any sound reason.
The lighthouse became fully computerized some years back and remotely operated from Bangor.
Plagued by insomnia and racked with guilt, I soon left the Department. I’ve been teaching biology to junior high school students in Phoenix, Arizona these last two decades. They’re often bored with the subject and show little interest in pursuing it as a career.
I only wish I could tell them there are other, far less dangerous occupations.
Copyright © 2014 by Arthur Davis