The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter


by Trent Hergenrader

trentTrent Hergenrader is currently a Ph.D. student in Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales and other fine publications. His stories have received honorable mentions in both The Year’s Best Science Fiction and The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror; his story “The Hodag” was reprinted in The Best Horror of the Year #1. He lives in Madison with his wife Amy, his dog Athena, and as of May 2009, his son Grey. Visit him online at:
http://www.trenthergenrader.com.

I remember my mother’s eyes most clearly. They were the color of wet sand and she could hold you with them, as if by a spell. She had a soft voice that she never raised. Her straight brown hair hung to her waist and flowed about her except for when the weather from the sea was foul; then she’d let me help wind it into a single braid that hung down her back, as thick as a sailor’s rope. She was a slender woman. My father looked like a mountain standing beside her. These things I remember best, but how much my imagination has bled into memory, I cannot say. The last saw of her, I was six years old, and seven long years have passed since she disappeared.

We lived at the tip of North Ronaldsay Island at the far end of the Orkneys with my father, who tends the lighthouse. Winds buffet the island year-round and the broken bones of long-forgotten ships litter the coastline. My father ascends the lighthouse of undressed stone and keeps the lamp turning during storms and throughout each night. He sees to his duties of keeping the gears properly greased and wound with a religious devotion. He’s never had time for a daughter.

Our only neighbors are the sheep herders tucked back among the hills, but most people live in Hollandstoun at the island’s southernmost end, a five-kilometer walk from the lighthouse. When my mother was still with us, my father organized monthly trips to town to restock our supplies. Mother would bundle me up and wedge me between her and my father on the wagon’s platform. I remember those trips being so long and bumpy, and how large and busy Hollandstoun seemed. For years now, I have walked that same distance to and from school. What a foolish child I must have seemed smiling and waving at everyone as we rolled into town, mistaking the stares for hospitality. I did I not know then that they were gawking at the recluse lighthouse keeper with his mad wife, hiding her face in her scarf. Nor did I realize that we only accompanied my father because he refused to leave my mother alone at the lighthouse.

My mother and I were each other’s only company. She kept me out from under my father’s feet by having me help tend her flowerboxes and seeing to a small vegetable garden. When we’d finished our work, we’d invent games using father’s whalebone chess pieces, or she would put me down for a nap while softly reading from a tattered copy of Robert Burns’ The Jolly Beggars. She sang beautiful songs in a language I did not understand as she combed knots from my tangle of hair. I fussed and whined about how I wanted my mother’s hair, smooth and brown, and instead had my father’s, coarse, red, and ugly and his pale white skin. My mother would gently shush me and whisper that I would always be my mother’s daughter.

My mother was not mad, no matter what those fools in town might say. They merely resented the fact that she was different, a foreigner in fact, which I learned one August afternoon shortly before she left us. The wind off the sea had died and the temperature soared for days on end. I remember my father’s pasty white back turning pink in the midday sun as he whitewashed our small house, sparing not a glance as my mother led me down to the rocky shoreline to cool off with a swim. The water was shockingly cold and I jerked my feet out as soon as they were submerged. My mother laughed from the water, her tanned body gracefully sliding through the waves, her hair fanning out behind her.

“Come Muriel,” she said extending her arms. “You must jump in quickly.” She took me under the arms and pulled me to her in the water. Once the initial frigid jolt passed, we bobbed between the rocks for what seemed like hours, laughing and splashing.

Afterwards, we sat on a boulder sunning ourselves as my mother combed my hair and softly sang. I heard her voice catch and turned to see tears in her eyes. I asked why she cried.

“Memories,” she said turning my chin away as she continued to comb.

“Of what?” I asked.

“Of my home,” she said.

“Isn’t this your home?” I asked.

“It is now, love,” she said. “But it wasn’t always. I grew up far away.”

“Where?”

“Far off,” she said and pointed out across the waves. “And often I miss it. It is a very beautiful place. You would like it very much.”

“Is father from there as well?”

“No, love,” she said with a sad laugh. “Your father has always been from here. There had been an accident at sea and I was hurt. I washed up here on these rocks and he brought me up to the lighthouse. When I got better, he married me. Then we had you.”

“Can we go there for a visit?” I had asked.

“It’s not so simple, my love. Now hush. Wave to the sea lions,” she said and motioned towards a half-dozen brown, slick heads broke the water’s surface just beyond the rocks, regarding us with their intelligent eyes. Mother said sailors often mistake them for humans because their cries sound like a human’s. We waved, and they seemed to salute us with their flippers as they dove back into the sea, and we laughed, and my mother wiped her cheeks.

That October turned sour earlier than usual, and a gray pall settled over the island. A thick mist surrounded our peninsula so completely that we could hear the sea lapping against the rocks but could not see it. The lighthouse burned all hours of day and night. My father’s face grew more haggard and his temper frayed as the days stretched into weeks. The gears which turned the lamp needed to be rewound every four hours and a small mountain of empty kerosene cans formed beside the shed. Mother stroked my hair as we listened to my father slamming the shed door shut and screaming curses into the fog.

One gloomy afternoon, after weeks without a break in the weather, father called my mother to sit with him at the table. He’d bound the empty kerosene cans into the wagon, the horses tethered and at the ready. Through the crack of my bedroom door I listened to him speak to my mother as he drank from a bottle.

“Problem,” he said slowly and with a smile that had no trace of humor. “No more fuel. No fuel means no light. No light means ships crash and men die, and I won’t be having it. I’m going to town for more fuel, but you need to keep the light wound or it will stall. A stalled light’s no better than no light at all. If but only the girl could wind the gears herself, eh? Damn it all anyway, eh?” He took a long pull from the bottle.

“Act in good faith, my dear. Read your books. Play your games. Keep the lamp turning. I’ll be back soon, of that you can be sure.” His voice grew hard. “If I find anything in this house moved an inch, you’ll be quite sorry. That much I can say.”

He pounded the table with the bottle and made for the door without another word. My mother put her arm around me and from the window, we watched the mist swallow the rumbling wagon.

She waited until the clanking of the empty fuel cans faded in the distance, then knelt and gripped my shoulders. “Muriel, we’re going to play a fun game, but we must be quick and very careful. Your father has hidden something special of mine. He finds it amusing to keep it from me, but I want it back very badly. It’s a coat. A long coat that would reach my feet. It’s smooth and shiny, like nothing you’ve seen before. Will you help me find it, Muriel? Will you help your mother?”

I nodded but did not speak. “Thank you,” she said and held me. “We must be careful,” she whispered. “He cannot know. It must be our secret.”

I did not ask any questions but I knew it was no game. My mother’s face looked pinched even as she attempted a reassuring smile. One might think that it would take only a few hours to search such a small house, the small shed, and the lighthouse but herein lay my father’s cunning; the house alone had a half-dozen trunks, each adorned with a cast iron padlock. I watched as my mother inserted two needles into a lock and gently worked them back and forth, her face fixed in concentration. After several minutes, her eyebrows arched and I heard a tiny click. “Magic,” she whispered with a wink and the lock fell open.

The trunk contained nothing but moth-eaten pea jackets and some ratty blankets. She clicked the lock shut and set me to searching through the closets and drawers in the house as she began to work on the next trunk. Hours melted away. I searched the cabinets of the lighthouse, even the dank cellar by lantern, but found nothing.

Darkness gathered outside and I had exhausted everyplace I could search. I sat on the edge of the bed in silence and watched my mother working on the trunk she had pulled from the closet, her face tired and resigned. The trunks had produced nothing but more junk: old clothing, broken seafarer’s tools, ship logs with yellowed pages. I started when my mother cursed, the only time I had ever heard her do so. She put the tip of her finger in her mouth while, with her free hand, she tried to free the broken pin stuck fast in the lock. Just then we heard the whinny of a horse and I watched her shoulders fall.

“The game’s up, love,” she said with a sad smile. “Watch and tell me the moment you see him,” she said as she tried to coax out the pin. Streaming from the blackness, I heard a litany of curses. 

“Why has the lamp stopped?” my father bellowed. “I give you one job, woman, and—” The rest was a string of profanity. 

My mother’s face paled. “Go hide child, and don’t come out ’til he has gone,” she said hurrying to the window and taking my hand.

I scrambled beneath my parent’s bed just as the front door burst open. There was shouting and a slap and my mother cried out, then more shouting. I heard glass shatter, followed by my mother’s weeping. Tears filled my eyes and my nervous fingers began working a long thread hanging from the underside of the bed. As my father continued his tirade the thread worked free in my hand. My mother cried freely and my father was muttering in a low voice. My fingers picked at the mattress for another thread, and that was when I noticed the slight bulge. I pushed against it and felt the weight of something sewn up inside. I unfastened a half-dozen stitches and poked my finger through. I felt something soft and warm, like sheep’s wool but smooth. My mother began sobbing and I heard the front door slam shut as I tugged at the seam with both hands. A dark, silky object slid onto the floor before me, its surface shining even in the shadow of the bed. I kneaded my hands into its folds. I ran my hands over it, locating the opening and slipped my fingers inside. The inner padding felt warm, as though it had been resting on the hearth near the fire.

I crawled out from my hiding spot and found my mother across the room, kneeling, her hands pressed against her face. “Mother?” I whispered. I raised the coat.

She dashed over and caught me in her arms, covering my face in tears and kisses. “My darling,” she breathed. “Oh thank you, thank you,” she repeated. She stroked the lustrous brown coat and held it up, as though she couldn’t believe it was real. Outside, raindrops began beating the windows. “My sweet,” she said, holding my face as she stole a glance out the window. “I am going someplace little girls cannot follow, and I must go now before your father returns. Always remember that I love you, and I will come for when the time is right. Do you understand? Think of me often. I will always be near, watching.”

Tears streamed down my cheeks and I pleaded for her to stay. “There’s no time. He’ll be back as soon as he winds the lamp and I be gone. Try to sleep,” she said carrying me to my bed and sliding me between the sheets. I wrapped my arms around her neck and would not let go. She pulled my hands free and held me in those wide, brown eyes. “Muriel,” she whispered and I felt a calm suddenly wash over me. She cradled my face and kissed my forehead. “Close your eyes, Muriel my love,” she said and my head bowed. “Trust me. I will return.”

I heard the front door open and shut and I stayed in bed for a minute, maybe two. Then my wits flooded back to me. I threw off the covers and ran outside. The rain came down in sheets and, above, the shaft of light from the lighthouse had resumed its rotation. I could see no trace of my mother. I circled the house and saw nothing. My father emerged from the lighthouse and crossed the yard to the house, not seeing me. I ran down the muddy path towards Hollandstoun until it grew too dark and I got scared. Then I stopped and cried and cried as the rain soaked me through. There I stayed, the darkness broken only when the light from the lamp passed over me, until I was shaking with cold. She had gone. She had said to trust her, but I felt a great emptiness inside me. I fell into the mud and wept. 

When I could no longer stand the cold, I went home. The door squeaked as it swung open and I heard clambering as my father rose to his feet and filled the doorframe of the bedroom. Behind him, I could see the overturned bed, the underside of the mattress ripped open like the flesh of a gutted animal. His face sank when he saw me. “I thought she took you with her.” He said the words slowly, his tone neutral. We stared at each other in silence until he gripped his head in his hands and slumped to the floor.

I had so many questions, but none for him. I slipped off my wet clothes and climbed into my bed, shivering and afraid. I told myself to trust her, that she would return one day soon. For a long while, that was what I believed.

***

My father questioned me once about what had happened but I would not tell, saying I had been sleeping and, when I woke, my mother had gone. After this inquisition, he forbade me to mention my mother ever again. His repeated swatting of my backside taught me to give him wide berth and to find my own recreation. That first winter alone, I would curl up in a blanket that still held her smell and read the works of great Scottish writers taken from my the shelf. I whiled away long winter hours by spreading nautical maps on the floor and tracing coastlines of foreign shores, imagining where my mother may have gone. With no other children near, how was I to know that such behavior was unusual for a girl not yet seven years old?

With the coming of spring I assumed the chores of tending the garden and caring for the plants. Father assigned me the duty of polishing the brass in the lighthouse, from the long spiraling handrail that climbed to the tower to all the fixtures and hinges that encased the lamp. From the tower I could see the rolling green hills of North Ronaldsay to the south and the wide blue expanse of water in every other direction. I would take my time polishing the brass fittings and cleaning the glass, staring out across the sea.

By mid-summer, I spent much of my free time down along the shore watching the waves crash into foam. On warmer days, I slipped into the water and swam among the rocks. When father finally noticed my wet hair, he whipped for it and told me stay away from the water. That incident likely convinced him to send me to school. By the end of summer, I was walking south to Hollandstoun, leaving the lighthouse before dawn in time to make it before the bell. I made the trip twice each day in the sun, in the wind, in the rain. Wagons passed me on the road but none ever stopped to offer me a ride. Sometimes I caught the driver making a sign over his chest.

My father had told Headmaster Swain to keep me busy. My father said I knew my letters, but I believe the headmaster thought I was playing a game when I handed the reading primer back to him after only a quarter of an hour and asked if he had any Robert Burns. The headmaster chuckled and asked what I knew of Robert Burns. I recited Comin Thro’ the Rye and watched his mouth fall open.

My father ordered me to return home as soon as school recessed for the day. I was to talk only to the headmaster, and only then about my schoolwork. Father said the other children would not like me and that other adults could not be trusted. As he had predicted, the people of Hollandstoun, young and old alike, wanted nothing to do with me. I sensed their fear, and in some cases, their anger, but it all seemed of little consequence. I heard my mothers words, “I will return,” repeated in my head like waves lapping on the beach, calming. I spent those years feeling awake but dreaming.

The years plodded along like my footfalls on the muddy strip that links the two ends of the island. In school, I struggled with my numbers but outpaced everyone but the headmaster when it came to reading. Two years hadn’t passed before I finished every book in the schoolhouse and Headmaster Swain began lending me books from his private library. I loved stories about travel and hence preferred The Odyssey to The Iliad, but enjoyed the verse of Ovid more than both combined. I effortlessly memorized long passages of his Metamorphoses; the poems felt like half-forgotten dreams. Headmaster Swain would have me stand before his desk and recite them while he stared out the window at the sea, a faraway look in his eye, while the other students struggled with their rudimentary primers.

The school only had thirteen other students and the adults couldn’t keep us apart forever. Headmaster Swain encouraged my integration with my peers, and through his insistence, the others grew used to my presence. The headmaster hovered about with his switch, gently tapping it in his palm to enforce civility at all times. Most students tasted Swain’s wrath at one time or another, but never me. I, however, was the cause of one.

It was after my tenth birthday. Swain held me after the final bell to discuss one book or another, and when I left the schoolhouse, I saw a group standing by the path. Leah Ware, one of the older girls, stood with Robert McCray, a jovial boy about my age who always had a joke at his lips, and a few of the younger girls who regarded Leah as royalty. Robert’s face was serious as he pleaded with her. “Come here, Muriel,” she called to me, ignoring him. “We’re playing a game. We ask each other one question and the person must swear to the truth. Understand?” I nodded and the two younger girls had wide grins. Robert turned his head.

“I’ll go first,” Leah said. “You know your mother was a witch, don’t you?”

The girls giggled into their hands and the next thing I realized Headmaster Swain was beside her, his face flushed. “Come with me,” his said and gripped Leah’s arm so firmly she cried out. “Go home children,” he said over his shoulder as he pulled Leah towards the schoolhouse. “Go home Muriel,” he said and shut the door. Moments later I heard the first of Leah’s yelps. That evening I went about my chores at the lighthouse in a daze. I did not believe them, for witches had green skin, black moles, and hair like straw. They hexed people, caused injury and misfortune. My mother was the most beautiful person I had ever seen and would never have hurt anyone before she left.

The following morning, Swain had Leah apologize to me and we watched her as she walked stiffly away. “Muriel, ignore whatever was said the other afternoon,” he said. “Some people on this island have idle minds filled with superstition. You would do well to forget it,” he said with a tight-lipped smile and ushered me into the schoolhouse. My classmates gave me wider berth for a month or so, as the headmaster’s blows had only served to remind them once again of the difference between us. Yet that same calm assuredness within me remained.

At home, the days passed in identical succession, punctuated only by the alteration of routine as necessitated by the change of seasons. Father manned the lighthouse and the tended the grounds, I did the laundry, the cooking, and the cleaning. I began spending more time in the lighthouse tower overlooking the sea or wandering among the rocks and crashing surf. I imagined I heard voices in the waves. Years passed, new students entered school and old ones graduated. I began to think my life would be like this forever. Those years, I never stopped believing my mother would return.

Then I turned thirteen and learned how quickly life can change.

***

It started one afternoon at the schoolhouse with a warm rush that quickly ran cold. A feeling of dread came over me as my dress grew wet where I sat. I slid my hand beneath my legs. My fingertips came back red. I fought back a wave of nausea and tried not to cry. I swallowed hard and suddenly felt very cold and hopelessly alone. In my head, I could not hear my mother’s voice.

After several minutes of sitting as still as I could, I closed my arithmetic book, slid from my bench, and told Headmaster Swain I had an urgent problem. His forehead creased and asked what was wrong. I repeated that I had a problem, and that’s when I heard the giggling from behind me. Swain frowned, turned me around, and whispered, “Oh dear.” I felt faint and he caught me with his arm around my shoulders. He motioned to the oldest boy in the room and said in a strangled voice, “Jacob, not a peep from anyone until I return, or it’s your head, boy,” he said wagging a finger, then pulled me out the door behind him.

“Oh dear, oh dear,” he muttered as we crossed the school yard. In the daylight, my tears began to spill. Swain pulled me along to a house three doors down and rapped on the door. His shoe tapped on the cobblestone as he waited, holding me against him. The door opened revealing an older woman with a round, full face. Her smile dropped and she stepped back when she recognized us. “Mrs. Stewart,” Swain said, “I humbly entreat you to help me.” He turned me around to show my backside and I heard Mrs. Stewart gasp. I nearly was sick on her doorstep.

With her hand over her mouth she said, “Of course, Mr. Swain,” and drew me inside with a look of apprehension. She ushered me to the toilet where she handed me a short stack of towels and said she’d return after drawing some warm water. Her face had turned a bright red and she shut the door behind her, leaving me alone in the small room. At that moment, something inside me gave way and I sobbed without restraint. I felt embarrassed and ashamed under the weight of all those eyes, and for the first time ever I felt like a fool. My mother had left and would come back. Lies told to a scared little girl. She had weighed her love for me versus her fear of my father, and fear won out. I knew my cries could be heard echoing throughout the house but I did not care. Finally, with my head throbbing, my reservoir of tears ran dry.

Mrs. Stewart knocked and entered, a portrait of forced composure. She politely asked me to remove my garments. As I complied, she wetted some towels and explained to me about a woman’s monthly time. As I rinsed my thighs she worked on the red stain on my gray wool dress. Mrs. Stewart drew some rags from a shelf and explained their application, how long I should use them, and what signs I may look for in the future to avoid another accident of this kind. She held my hair so I could rinse my face.

She let out an enormous sigh followed by a small, uncomfortable laugh. Her eyes softened as she studied me. “You poor girl,” she said softly and brushed my hair behind my ear. She seemed deep in thought. “You’re just a poor, lonely girl, living all alone out at that lighthouse with no mother, aren’t you? You’ve such lovely red hair,” she said brushing back another strand. “Hiding such a sweet face. You’re just a poor girl like any other, aren’t you? How dreadful we must seem,” she said, and then suddenly caught me in a crushing hug.

After several seconds, I separated myself from her with some difficulty. I thanked her and collected the things she’d given me. The sickness rushed back to me now I and wanted to be gone, out of the tiny room and away. Mrs. Stewart clutched at my hand as she followed me to the door, extending an open invitation to stay anytime I liked. I ran the whole way home and went immediately to bed, hiding from my father. I dreamed of drowning in a black ocean with no shore, alone but for the mocking calls of gulls. I woke to find my pillow wet with tears.

No one mentioned the incident the next day, but I noticed Swain’s glare sweeping the room with an unusual intensity. As if on orders, no student so much as glanced at me, but Swain’s eyes never seemed to leave me. He stared at me, working his hands, looking away anytime I glanced up. After school recessed for the day, Swain waited for the others to vacate the classroom then drew me aside. “Muriel,” he said, again holding me by the shoulders. “I have a most special idea. You’ve finished off my private library and there’s nothing else in this ramshackle school, but I have so much more to show you. I wish to escort you to the University in Edinburgh. There, I and the other scholars of that esteemed institution may hone your unique talents. Your future lies far from the shores of this small isle, my child! I will write my brother to find us accommodations near the university. We can escape together!” he said with a tight laugh and, with that, held my chin and brushed his lips against my forehead. I pulled away, repulsed, and he gave a nervous laugh and blotted his forehead with his handkerchief. “Do not tell your father,” he said in a husky voice. “I can hire a boat in the morning, alas no sooner. Tonight you return home, and tomorrow we shall begin our grand adventure.” Swain took my hand, kissed my cheek, then disappeared inside the schoolhouse without another glance.

I walked back to the lighthouse in a daze, my hand frozen to my cheek, wondering what to do. I considered this chance to escape the island, but with Swain? The prospect mortified me. But who else could help me? I began to think that if I did not seize the opportunity, I might be doomed to live in the lighthouse forever. A rumble from above startled me, and I looked across the water at the wedge-shaped black clouds bearing down on the island. The wind began to blow and I drew up my hood and quickened up my pace.

The squall began in earnest well before I reached home and drenched me through, my woolen clothes heavy with water. I slipped in the mud twice after strong gusts and the yellow beam of the lighthouse always seemed a far ways off no matter how far I walked. As the wind died the rain increased, coming in large drops that felt like hundreds of tapping fingers.

I arrived home soaked, muddy, and shivering. My father glanced up from his whittling at the kitchen table when I entered. I pushed the tea kettle near the fire but said nothing as I retired to my room. I stripped off my soiled garments, leaving them piled in a puddle as I dried off and wrapped a wool blanket around me. I felt eyes on me and I turned to see my father standing in the doorway, a steaming mug in his hand, staring at me, his face expressionless.

I shivered and covered my bare shoulders. “I’ll take that in the kitchen, please,” I said and pulled my wet knot of hair from my back. He didn’t stir. He kept looking at me with that blank stare. I turned away and wrapped my hair in a towel but I could still feel him behind me. “Please,” I said, but when I turned again, he had gone. I trembled again as I slipped on my nightshirt and, over that, a sweater. The chill I felt did not abate.

When I entered the kitchen, my father shoved a chair away from the table with his foot and motioned for me to sit. He stared at me while I sipped my tea and I nervously combed my hair with my fingers. He rolled the whittling knife on the table top by its hilt like a rolling pin. “Why are you staring?” I asked at last, refusing to meet his eyes.

He was long in answering. “I never realized how much you look like your mother,” he said setting the knife on its point. The silence grew stifling. I could not breathe.

The front door burst open and a frigid wind blew through the house, and the fright nearly made me fall off my chair. Father rose from his chair and strode to the door banging on its hinges when he stopped, peered outside, and gave a cry. “There’s a fire in the tower! To the well, girl! Start pumping!” he shouted as he bolted back to the kitchen and began filling two pots with water from the basin.

I ran outside and with the rain beating down on me, I pumped water as I watched the shadows of flickering yellow light on the roof of the tower. Flames licked out the open windows. “Muriel,” my father called from the top, the wind snatching at his words. “More water! Quickly!”

After I made countless trips from the well to the tower, he at last conquered the fire and together we surveyed the damage. The tower’s interior had been well scorched and the paint had peeled from the walls, but the lamp itself remained unharmed. There was no sign as to how the fire had started. Carefully, father rekindled the flame and set the lamp in motion. In silence, we watched its slow revolution. He shook his head. “Get a bucket and a mop,” he said exhaustedly, not looking at me.

Before I went into the shed, I heard banging and saw the house’s front door clapping against the frame again in the wind. I had been certain that I had shut it behind me as I left. I closed the door and then opened it again to inspect the latch. That’s when I saw the footprints.

Wet, slender footprints on the floorboards leading inside the house and in the reverse direction, going back out again. In the dim lamplight of the house’s interior, I traced the trail to where they entered my room. I pushed my door open with unfeeling fingers. The footprints disappeared to the far side of my bed and I could see the outline of a shape under the bed covers. I drew back the sheet.

There, lying full-length in my bed like a person, was my mother’s coat.

It was shiny and silky to the touch just as I remembered but I realized it wasn’t my mother’s coat after all; it was smaller and not the same deep brown hue. I moved to one side to afford better light and my breath caught in my throat. The coat was a rich auburn.

I heard a creak and looked up to see my father again staring from the doorway. I threw the sheet over the bed and he glanced down. “Do we now keep the mop in here, Muriel?” he asked. The words rolled thickly from his mouth, as if he was drunk. He looked at the mattress, then at me.

I shook my head. “I was just going to change,” I said, holding the soaked sweater from my body. “I’ll be out in a moment. Please.”

He regarded me for a long moment, then turned to go. I heard the front door open and shut. I waited until I was sure he’d gone, then snatched the coat and ran out into the storm. I peered at the ground for more footprints, but the night was black except for the yellow shaft of light coming from the tower. I bit off the urge to cry out for fear my father would hear. I circled the house twice and found nothing.

“Muriel?” I heard my father’s voice against the wind.

I clutched the coat in my hand and raced down to the rocks. There was no light to see but my feet knew the way. Cold spray blew off the black waves and stung my face. I called out tentatively and heard nothing against the gale. Tears came to my eyes and I pounded my legs with my fists in frustration. I heard my father’s voice float down to me. I knew he would soon come down from the tower to look for me.

Overhead, the lighthouse’s single beam of light swept the sky, engulfed by the night. The wind howled in my ears and I could taste the salt of the sea on my lips. Frigid raindrops pelted my skin. Above, my father shouts crew louder. The freezing sea water bit at my bare feet.
In my hand, the shimmering auburn coat felt warm and dry.

THE END