Keeper of the Light
The edge of the world. Faith squinted, searching for that pencil thin line far off the Lake Superior shore where flat grey sky met flat grey water. She dug her toes into the cold sand and shook sand from the folds of her skirts. It had been grey since morning. The wind carried the musty scent of rain, and the clouds hung so low they almost touched the black tip of the pointed lighthouse roof.
“Do you see anything?” Willy asked, wiping his hands on his knickers. Her brother was supposed to be helping Faith polish the brass lanterns, but he was trying to tame gulls instead.
“No,” Faith answered. She listened to the rising wind and watched as Willy squatted on the stretch of sand beach between the lighthouse and the keeper's house. He held out a crust of bread, keeping his hand still as a stone. A gull landed and began to pace closer and closer. Then, with a quick stab, the bird grabbed the crust and flew off a few feet with his prize.
“Better hurry,” Faith said, wiping the last of the soot from her lantern chimney. “It’ll storm soon.” The familiar mixture of excitement and fear rose in her, and she shivered.
“I know,” Willy said, pointing. “Look at the birds.”
Faith watched the gulls swooping low over the white foam waves. “Papa said he could tell how bad a storm would be by the way the gulls flew,” she said.
“He could?” Willy turned his big questioning eyes from the birds to Faith. “Can you?” he asked. “Will it be bad tonight?”
She shook her head, wishing her father had explained it. But he never did, and now it was too late. It had been over five months since he’d drowned, and Faith had kept the lighthouse beacon burning every night since then on her own. She hadn’t missed even one hour of darkness. She had made a promise, and she meant to keep it.
“You better get your work done before it starts to rain. Mama will be furious if you get wet.” She tossed a cloth to Willy, who plopped down on the flat-topped boulder they used as both bench and worktable.
He made a face at her and pulled the other lantern to him. “She treats me like a baby,” he grumbled, “and she lets you do anything you want.”
“She just doesn’t want you to get sick again,” Faith said. “And she doesn’t let me do everything I want.”
Willy scrubbed the glass in silence while the wind blew wisps of his blond hair into his eyes. Then, “She told me we’re going to stay in town this winter after the locks close. She said it would be better for me.” He stopped polishing.
“I know,” Faith said, frowning. When she was younger, Mother used to take them to visit her family every year, but since Grandmother Burleigh had died, their trips to Token Creek had been rare and quickly over. Faith was glad; there were too many rules in town.
Her mother used to give her the same lecture each time the steamer pulled up to the dock at Token Creek. “Now remember,” she’d say, “Grandmother believes that children should be seen and not heard, Faith. You must learn to curb your tongue. And no running in the house. Grandmother expects you to be a lady.”
“Willy runs in the house.”
“Willy is a boy, and younger than you.” Her mother would straighten Willy’s sailor jacket and retie Faith’s hair-ribbons.
“Can we go outside then?” Faith had always asked.
“We’ll see,” her mother would answer. “Perhaps we can walk in the park in the evenings.”
But walking slowly down the grassy paths of the park in the town square, standing stiff and quiet while Mother spoke with strange women, that wasn’t what Faith had in mind. She was sure she would go mad if she had to spend all winter pretending to be a lady.
Faith looked at Willy as he cleaned his lantern. “Mama said we’ll get to go to a real school,” he said. He didn’t look all that happy about it.
“You’ll do fine.” Faith answered his worried look. “You’re the friendly one, remember?” She wasn’t so sure about herself. She couldn’t imagine being cooped up in a room for hours with thirty other children. All those eyes looking at her! Her hands shook just thinking about it.
“Being here all winter wouldn’t be the same, anyway,” Willy said, too loud. He took a sudden interest in one black smudge on the lantern glass. A tear trickled down his cheek, but he wiped it away with the polishing cloth.
Faith pretended not to see. She bit her lip and looked out at the lighthouse perched out on the rocks with the lake all around it, like a slender white finger pointing toward heaven. The red brick keeper’s house was nestled into the side of the pink sandstone bluff behind her, with the grey clapboard outbuildings clustered around it like chicks around a hen. The buildings looked tiny in comparison with the tall lighthouse. Faith had lived there since she was four, and except for one long winter in town she preferred not to think about, they’d stayed at the lighthouse even after the lake froze and shipping stopped for the winter. This would be the first winter Willy had ever spent away from the lighthouse. It would be the first winter either of them had spent without their father.
No more tramping through the snowy woods, checking the traps. No more evenings by the fire, listening while Willy practiced reading and she worked the arithmetic problems her mother set for her. No more geography lessons at the dining room table with the huge yellowed map of the world spread out in front of them.
“Anyway, December is months away,” she said, trying to sound cheerful. “And we’ll come back in the spring.”
“Not if they find a new keeper,” Willy pointed out. His pale face looked almost white in the dim afternoon light.
Faith sat down beside him on the boulder. “They haven’t found one yet,” she said. “I’ve been watching the mail. Mama’s had lots of letters from her friends in Token Creek, but not even one with the Lighthouse Board’s return address.” Maybe her wish would come true after all, she thought for the thousandth time. Maybe they wouldn’t find a new keeper.
She closed her eyes and listened to the low thunder of the waves on the beach. In her mind she saw her father in his dark blue keeper’s uniform, arms outstretched to the lake and the gulls. For an instant she thought she heard him laugh. Her eyes blinked open, and her heart thumped loud in her ears.
But the beach was empty. She kicked at the sand. He wasn’t going to come back, she told herself. Ever. “Bring your lantern when you’re done,” she instructed Willy. “I’m going to light the beacon.” She headed for the house.
“Storm’s coming, Mama,” she called, banging the kitchen door behind her as she came into the house. The sweet smell of cooking onions made her mouth water.
“Another one?” Her mother used a corner of her apron to slide the hot skillet to the back of the big black cookstove. “It seems we can’t even see the last of one storm before another blows in.”
Faith heard her sigh. Even before Papa died her mother had not shared their love for stormy weather. And now she hated it. “Where’s Willy?” she said.
“He’s polishing his lantern. He’ll come in a minute,” Faith answered, tired of the now familiar anxiety in her mother’s voice. “Stop worrying so much.”
Her mother’s shoulders stiffened. “Don’t talk back, Faith. It’s dangerous for your brother to be out in a storm.”
“I wasn’t talking back.” Faith put the lantern down on the bare wooden worktable. “I was just trying to tell you there isn’t any danger yet.”
Her mother interrupted her. “You must learn to show respect for your elders.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Faith answered, gritting her teeth. She went to the window, pushed back the yellow curtains and looked out at the stark and empty beach, at the clean white sand and the dark water streaked with white foam waves. The purple grey clouds were building up into huge fantastic shapes. “Mama?” She put her finger on the cold glass. “Can’t you see how beautiful the lake is?”
But her mother wouldn’t even look out the window. She rubbed her arms with her hands. “It swallows up everything around it,” she muttered. “It’s angry and dangerous.”
“We’ll be safe enough,” Faith answered. “The sailors are the ones in danger.”
“No.” Her mother spun around. “That’s what your father thought, and he died for it. I will not lose you, as well.”
“You used to like it,” Faith said, clenching her fists. “When Papa was alive you loved the lake.”
“I never loved it,” she answered, staring out at the water.
Faith wanted to shake her. “Don’t you remember how you and Papa walked on the beach? You even liked wading.” She was almost as tall as her mother, and now she stood in front of her, eye to eye. “It hasn’t been that long, Mother. How could you forget?”
They stared at each other for a long moment. Then her mother let her hands drop to her sides. “You have no idea how I really felt,” she said. She shoved a piece of kindling into the firebox on the stove and let the heavy lid fall back with a hollow clang.
Faith could stand it no longer. She grabbed up the tin of thick fish oil and set it on the back of the stove to warm. She knew better than anyone that it had to be thin and watery before it could burn properly in the lighthouse lamps. “I’m going to polish the lens,” she said. She picked up a soft cotton cloth from the pile they kept folded on the dresser by the door and slipped her feet into her father’s old galoshes.
She wrapped herself in a heavy wool cloak just as Willy came bursting through the door. “The storm’s coming fast,” he cried, handing Faith the lantern.
“Thanks,” she shouted over the roar of the wind. “You can bring me the oil when it’s warmed through.”
“Take it now.” Her mother’s voice stopped them both. “I will not have him out on the walkway in this weather.”
Faith turned in the doorway. “Then I’ll come back for it,” she snapped. If the oil wasn’t warm enough, it would clog in the mechanism and the light would go out. She’d made that mistake once. She would never make it again. She banged the door closed, and headed for the lighthouse.