Excerpt The Lightkeeper
April 13, 2016
Mira (March 2002)
Originally published in 1997
Washington Territory 1876
On Sunday, something washed up on shore.
The morning had dawned like all the others—a chill haze with the feeble sun behind it, iron-colored swells gathering muscle far offshore, then hurling themselves against the huddled sharp rocks of Cape Disappointment. The rising sun looked like a wound trying to break through the clouds.
All this Jesse Morgan saw from the catwalk high on the lighthouse, where he had gone to extinguish the sperm-oil lamp and start the daily chore of trimming wicks and cleaning lenses.
But it caught him, the sight down on the strand. He wasn’t certain what made him pause, turn, stare. He supposed he had always looked but rarely paid attention. If he gazed too long at the gray-bearded waves slapping the fine brown sand or exploding against the rocks, there was a danger that he would remember what the sea had taken from him.
Most days, he didn’t look. Didn’t think. Didn’t feel. Today he felt a disturbance in the air, like the breath of an invisible stranger on the back of his neck. One moment he was getting out his linseed oil and polishing cloths; the next he was standing in the bitter wind. Watching.
He experienced a sensation so subtle he would never quite understand what made him go to the iron rail, hold tight with one hand and lean out over the edge to look past the jut of land, beyond the square-jawed cliffs, down onto the storm-swept beach.
A mass of seaweed. Strands of golden-brown kelp shrouding an elongated shape. For all he knew it could be no more than a tangle of weeds or perhaps a dead seal, an old one whose whiskers had whitenedand whose teeth had dulled.
Animals, unlike people, knew better than to live too long.
As Jesse stood staring at the shape on the beach, he felt…something. A dull knife-twist of…what? Not pain. Nor interest.
Inevitability. Destiny. Even as the foolish thought passed through his mind, his booted feet clattered down the iron spiral of stairs. He left the lighthouse and plunged along the flinty walkway.
He didn’t have to watch his step as he followed the winding, rocky path to the desolate strand. He had made the short trek a thousand times and more.
What surprised him was that he was running. Jesse Morgan had not been in a hurry for years. Yet his body had never forgotten the feeling of pumping thighs and of lungs filling until the sharpness hovered between pain and pleasure. But once he reached the object on the strand, he halted. Stock-still and afraid.
Jesse Morgan had been afraid for a very long time, though no one ever would have guessed it.
To the people of Ilwaco, to the two thousand souls who lived there year-round and the extra thousand or so who migrated to the shore for the summer, Jesse Morgan was as solid and rugged and uncompromising as the sea cliffs over which he brooded in his lighthouse.
People thought him strong, fearless. He had fooled them, though. Fooled them all.
He was only 34, but he felt ancient. Now he stood alone, and the fear scorched him. He did not understand why. Until he saw something familiar within the heap of seaweed in front of him.
Oh, God. Oh, sweet Jesus. He plunged to his knees, the chill of the sodden sand seeping through his trousers, his hands trying to decide, without consulting his head, where to start. He hesitated, awkward as a bridegroom on his wedding night, about to part the final veil that draped the sweet mystery of his bride.
The strands of kelp were spongy and cold to the touch. Clinging thick and stubborn to—
To what? He encountered a piece of fine-grained wood. Smoothed, planed, varnished. Part of a ship. A section of mast or bowsprit with rope lashed to it, the tarred ends trailing.
Stop, he told himself, already anticipating what he would find. The old horror, still raw after all these years, reared up inside him.
Stop now. He could stand and turn his back this moment, could climb the path, wend his way through the woods and rouse Palina and Magnus. Send the assistant lightkeepers to investigate.
But his hands, still the eager, persistent hands of a bridegroom, kept digging and pulling at the slimy shroud, digging and pulling, finding more and more of the mast, the broken-off end, the—
A foot. Bare. Cold as ice. The toenails like tiny seashells.
He drew a harsh breath. His hands kept working, the movement frantic, a rhythm pumped by his own pounding heart.
A slim calf. No, skinny. Skinny and dotted with freckles, stark against the lifeless ivory skin.
Jesse was swearing through gritted teeth. Fluent phrases spat past a clenched jaw. He used to talk to God. Now he swore to no one in particular.
Each passing second stood apart in time, crystallized by the knowledge he had been fleeing for years. He had come to the very ends of the earth to escape the past.
He could not escape it. Couldn’t help thinking of it. Of what the sea had stolen from him.
And of what the sea had brought him today. A woman, of course. That put the final twist of cruel irony on it.
He quickly moved upward, uncovered the face. And almost wished he hadn’t, for when he saw her, he knew why he had felt so compelled to run.
An angel had died on his beach this morning. Never mind that her halo was fashioned of kelp and endless tangled strands of dark red hair. Never mind the constellation of freckles scattered across her cheeks and nose.
This face, this pale face with its lavender bow of lips, was the one sculpted by every artist who had ever tried to turn marble to poetry. The face envisioned by hopeful dreamers who believed in miracles.
But she was dead, back in the realm of angels where she belonged, where she never should have left in the first place.
Jesse didn’t want to touch her, but his hands did. His idiot bridegroom’s hands. They took her by the shoulder and tugged gently, at the same time rolling the mast to which she was still tied. He saw her fully now, head to toe.
She was pregnant. Rage charged like a thunderbolt through him. It was not enough that a beautiful young woman had been taken. But the sweet, round swell of her stomach, that dark mystery, that whispered promise, had been claimed, too. Two lives had been snuffed out by the merciless breath of the wind, by the wall-size waves, by the uncaring sea.
This was the start, Jesse thought as he unbound the ropes and gathered her in his arms, of a journey he had no desire to undertake.
The corpse flopped forward like a rag doll. A cold hand clutched at Jesse’s arm. He reared back, leaving her on the seeping brown sand.
She moaned and coughed out seawater. Jesse Morgan, who rarely smiled, suddenly grinned from ear to ear. “I’ll be damned,” he said, ripping off his mackintosh. “You’re alive.”
He settled the plaid wool coat around her shoulders and picked her up in his arms.
“I’m…alive,” she echoed in the faintest of whispers. “I suppose,” she added, her head drooping forward, “that’s something.”