Fiction by Ella Cashman

     At night he dreams of faceless people.
     They come and go, talking, but never to him. Their indistinct mutterings retreat. They don’t  stop, instead brushing past him, leaving warm traces across his skin. He chases after them, pleading for  them to ​look at him​. No matter how hard he focuses, their faces are shapeless blurs, as if he’s forgotten  to don his wire frame glasses.  
     During the day he stares out at the restless sea, watching the waves curl under themselves and  the fog roll in, concealing the wicked rocks along the coast. He looks at maps too—maps of the island  and maps of places he’ll never go—smoothed out tenderly before him, reducing the vast world to a  piece of paper. He tries to imagine what the places look like, what they smell like, who lives there, what  they were doing right now. Are they looking down at maps and wondering who is out there too?  Lale is the lighthouse keeper—burning the midnight oil. He cuts wicks, winds clockworks, and  polishes the ancient lens. He wipes his hands on his trousers. He runs his hands through his widow’s  peak. 
     The lighthouse beacon slices through the night, illuminating everything in its path like an  all-seeing eye. The nights are frigid and the wind off the water is unforgiving. When it rains, it comes  down in relenting sheets. He wraps himself in layers of clothing: a wool sweater, a flannel, a scarf,  before pulling on his rain slicker. He makes the pilgrimage on the well-worn path from his cottage to  the lighthouse every day to tend to the light, to guide boats away from him and toward their  destination of the mainland. He returns home to a stiff mattress and an empty house.  
     He used to have a cat, a scrawny tabby, and the closest thing to a companion he’s had on the  isolated island. Lale buried it behind the cottage under the apple tree years ago. Sometimes he still  expects to feel it rub up against his legs while he’s cooking or feel the weighted warmth of him at the  foot of the bed. 
     It is this profound loneliness that drove him to snuff out the lighthouse light. He’s plunged  into darkness, yet he closes his eyes, squeezes them shut knowing that what he’d done is unforgivable.  He looks for the face of God, the voice of God, the thumbnail of God... but there is nothing. 
     And when he lights the lighthouse wick, he sees nothing. The boat that had been there earlier  is gone. 
     Down the lighthouse spiral stairs, down the well-worn path, down to the rocky coastline  where the boat floats in a shipwreck ruin. But as he hoped, there is a form lying face down in the wet  sand.   
     Lale places a hand on the castaway’s back. For a moment all is still and quiet. With effort, Lale  picks up the man, cradling him in his arms. Once the man is laid comfortably on his bed, Lale coaxes a fire. 
     He removes the man’s wet shoes and socks and sets them to dry by the hearth. He does the same  with his wet clothes, stripping him down to his undergarments before covering him with the thick  wool blanket. 
     Lale takes care of the unconscious man, gently propping him up three times a day to pour  water and soup down his throat. When he finally awakes there are tears in his eyes. 
      “My crew?” is the first thing he asks and Lale shakes his head. The man weeps openly and Lale  leaves the bedroom, closing the door behind him. 
     Lale finds the man later, sitting at the base of the lighthouse—staring out across the horizon  turning a small stone over and over in his hand. The sky is a dull grey and the water inky. Lale stops  seven paces behind him, his footsteps announcing his presence. After some time the man speaks. 
     “Why did the light go out?” Lale tries to find his voice but it gets caught up in the back of his  throat and around his tongue. But he doesn’t need to say anything. They both know.
     “Do you have a boat?” 
     “No,” Lale says. “Not one that will make it to the mainland.” 
     “Let me see it,” he says. Lale points down to the base of the cliff to a rain-filled rowboat.  
     “I’ll make it work,” he says and Lale shakes his head.  
     “You can’t leave.”  
     “How do you mean?” 
     “You can come, but you can’t go. No matter what you try, you will always return.” The man looks at him in disbelief. “Don’t you think I would have left if I could?” Lale says. “Don’t you wonder  why I am all alone here, with no import of supplies or new clothes and tools? No one can come to the  island unless they plan to stay forever.”          “You didn’t let me have a choice,” the man spits.     
      “Neither did I,” Lale says softly. The man throws the stone out into the water and doesn’t stay  to watch the ripples.  
       Day after day, the man who calls himself Amos, tries everything he can to leave the island. Lale  can see him from his cottage climbing into the rowboat. He pushes it out to sea and rows in circles for  a bit, becomes confused, docks the boat where he found it, and is halfway back to the cottage before  clarity washes over him and he does it all over again.                                                                                                                                                       It is like watching a beetle trying to get up after falling on its back.

      After a week, Amos gives up and instead takes to shutting himself in the cottage. His pain and  grief obvious in the silence between them. Lale sits with his back against the bedroom door, talking to  Amos, not sure if he’s listening or even awake.               
       Lale talks about the gnarled carrots he harvested from the garden. About how it would soon be  cold enough to where they might see whales as they migrate. About how he regrets what he did. How  sorry he is. He asks Amos if he’d like to join him for the sunset but receives no answer. 
     The guilt and shame keeps Lale from sleeping. He spends nearly all his time in the lighthouse,  polishing and oiling the clockwork machinery over and over again as if keeping the light going could  change the past. 
      It is at the end of one of these restless nights, just as the sun is climbing up from the eastern  horizon, that Amos finds Lale hanging from the lighthouse gallery.
       He buries Lale under the apple tree, using his hands rather than the shovel to spread the dirt.  And at night,             he dreams of faceless people.

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