The ocean inhaled. It rose toward a pale half moon that hung heavy and low in the dark sky. A line of foaming waves rolled back from the shore like a beckoning hand. The lighthouse pulsed in rhythmic beams of illumination.
Smooth, wet sand sprang to life under the beacon’s ray. A small bit of white appeared, half buried in the distance. It winked at me in the light, and I sighed. Another of the ocean’s tiny temptations. There was no way to resist.
I ran toward it, and the hair on my neck stood upright, making me aware of the pull of the tide. I snatched the small white shell from the sand and held my breath. The wave rolled against me and soaked the edge of my nightgown. Same as always, salt water burned my skin. The burning hurt, but it also hummed with a pulsing temptation. My mind went out to the dark depths of the ocean, cold and terrifying.
It would steal me away.
Maybe I wanted it to.
I lifted the edge of my nightgown and ran back to the beach, splashing through the surf as fast as I could to the safety of dry land. The heaving ocean was pearlescent under the low moon and the beacon, glittering like a fairy world full of beauty and remorseless power. I loved it as much as I feared it.
The shell felt cool in my hand. I wiped a clump of sand from its center with the wet edge of my nightgown and held it to my ear. Da said that no matter how far a shell traveled from the sea, it would always carry the song of the waves inside. Sam said it was nothing more than air.
I looked back toward the horizon. He was right on the other side of it, only a few miles out on the mainland, sleeping and dreaming of who knew what. I wondered, not for the first time, if he ever thought of me as I thought of him in the times between our seeing each other. Surely he had better things to think of, his mainland friends and school and plans for the world.
A seal cried out long and low. I shivered.
The keeper’s house stood on a hill overlooking the ocean. Although the windows looked dark and empty compared to the wide expanse of moonlight at my back, there was a warmth within that drew me across the beach and up the old wood steps. I climbed in through my bedroom window and dropped the shell with the rest of my collection on the little shelf Da made me for my birthday. Without bothering to light the kerosene lamp, I fished for my clothes on the dark floor of my room, slipped on an old work shirt, a hand-me-down from Sam, and then my usual overalls.
I sat on the edge of my bed and fought the need to sleep. I couldn’t stand to go into my lonely dreams, always the same, of the cold endless water. Not again.
Da said there was a big battle that raged in the sky every dawn and dusk. Night fought Day and Day battled Night and every clash must be to the death. The victor got to cut loose the sky, so when Day won, he would take his sword and cut off the dark to make room for the Sun.
Sam said there wasn’t any truth in that. He said the Earth turned in a circle around the Sun and that’s what made it night or day.
When I told Da Sam’s scientific version of Night and Day, he said I wasn’t really listening if I couldn’t see for myself that they were one and the same tale. Something dies so that something else can be born, over and over again in a circle. Night and Day didn’t really have to carry swords to make that true.
It was a long wait, but sword or not, Day won his struggle yet again. The sky glowed faintly, and a golden halo appeared along the edge of the world. I stepped out of our long, low stone house. The old wooden door, rough under my fingers, was so familiar and real that it was easy to put the night behind me. Chickens and goats in the yard chattered and griped for food. Across the yard, the red lighthouse door was open, and so was the door to the supply shed that stood next to the lighthouse. Yellow light glowed inside the shed, and Da’s shadow moved from one side to the other. I gave the baby goat a quick kiss on the nose and then ran to help him. Da met me at the door. A deep, sorrowful moan filled the air. I stopped and held my breath.
“Just the seals, Nula. Same as always. They are sure to be holding court on the far side of the island,” Da said.
“I know,” And I did know, because in all my sixteen years I had heard the sound many times, “But it does take the heart across you to hear them.”
Da turned away from me, back to his work. “Aye,” he said softly, almost like he was answering himself. “They do take the heart across you.”
Da’s accent was thick with Irish. It rose and fell like the albatross when he hunts. It set him even further apart from the flat, nasal New Englanders who lived a few miles west of our island.
I grabbed a metal pail from the shelf behind me, threw a scoop of soap flakes and a handful of rags in the bottom and ran back up the hill to the house. I filled the bucket with rainwater collected in the cistern and turned back toward the lighthouse.
I lugged the frothing, soapy water to the red door as fast as I could without spilling. Da hovered above me as he wound up the spiral staircase with the heavy five gallon oil can. It made a dull metallic chime as it hit the stairs between each of his steps. The last nine steps were the only straight ones, but they were much narrower than the rest. It was hard for Da to get his large shoulders through, even without the oil can. He grunted and grumbled in Gaelic, both of us pretending I couldn’t understand the foreign curses.
I dropped my pail on the plank floor of the lantern room and wrung the rags out to attack the windows. Before I put the rag to glass, I greeted the vast water below me, as I had every morning of my life.
Unlike the dark world of my dreams, in daylight the sea from my bird’s eye view was vibrant and ever changing. Sometimes the sea consumes her color in her own emotion. Tranquil blue for a day when she is happy with the world she is wrapped around, or frustrated gray when she rages and threatens to destroy the fragile beings in her embrace.
But days like this one were the best, when the sea let her colors spread out the way they wanted. Sparkling light blues and greens where the water was deep, with little white caps of foam that came and went along the surface. Just below me was my favorite. Dark granite rocks reached from the base of the lighthouse into the sea like the arthritic hand of an old woman. I loved the way waves churned and sprayed between those gnarled fingers. Nathanial and Sam brought four bottles of green olives to us once. They were the closest I ever came to tasting the color of the water that danced within our rocky shore.
The glass lens of the beacon reflected the ocean’s green hues. It took up most of the space in the lantern room and turned slow and sure, like a woman who knows her new clothes are worth a good look. It was hard to believe men had built something so beautiful and exacting, as fine-looking as it was life-saving. To think that a human mind had made up such a thing, to know a human hand put it all together, well, I was in awe of it. Even just to wash the windows made me proud of my little part. The man who invented that lens died before he knew he’d changed the world. I thought that was sad, but Da said when you put your mind or your sweat into something long enough, it became a part of you and you of it. He could think of no finer bit of immortality than to live on as a piece of the beacon that brought men home.
I went back out to the yard to collect eggs while Da rewound the clockwork. With four eggs in my apron pocket, I climbed back up to the house and cracked them into an iron skillet. When they began to sizzle, I stirred the pot of oats and started water to boil for coffee.
The old door moaned when Da pushed it open and stepped inside. He pulled off his cap and dropped it next to him at the table. I flipped the eggs out of the pan onto plates and then took my place across from Da. The pock marked oak table smelled of linseed oil. The only sound in the room was the scraping of our forks against our plates and the dull ring of my spoon as I swirled goat’s milk into my coffee. It was a silent room, but it wasn’t uncomfortable to sit quiet with Da. I pulled back the empty chair where I had stashed a book, thumbing through to the page where I left off.
“You went through that one fast.” Da said.
“Oh, it was an easy read,” I shrugged. “Sam borrowed it from Mrs. O’Malley for me. I have to give it back when they come today.”
Da stood up with his plate and mug. He took them to wash in a bucket of water on the counter.
I turned back to my page, where the mermaid lamented, “…Oh if he could only know that! I have given away my voice forever, to be with him.” I snorted. She might have thought that through better.
“What book is this?” Da leaned over my shoulder.
“The Little Mermaid and Other Tales.” It’s by Hans Christian Anderson. I think he’s Danish. Mrs. O’Malley thought I might like it.”
“I wasn’t aware that the Danish were so humorous.”
“Oh, it’s just a bit dramatic is all. It’s about a little mermaid who wants to be human so that she can love a prince and have an immortal soul.”
“What becomes of her?”
I was surprised Da was so interested in my story.
“Well, I haven’t quite finished, but it doesn’t look good for her. A sea witch took her voice in exchange for legs so she isn’t really able to tell the prince she’s the one who saved him. He thinks another girl did. If he marries someone else, the Little Mermaid will die and fade away into sea foam.”
“Sea foam?” Da patted his breast pocket in search of his tobacco pouch and looked out the window. “Is that really the worst of fates?”
“She won’t have an immortal soul.”
“There is a great deal of soul in the ocean if you ask me.” I felt Da over my shoulder scanning the words on the page.
“Not a bad little tale.” He patted my shoulder. “You still won’t go to the school? I could handle things here on my own.”
“Oh, no you couldn’t Da. Besides, I like how things are. I don’t want to go off to school at my age. Sam brings me anything interesting.”
“You shouldn’t have to lean on him for your learning.”
“I don’t lean on him, Da, I just trust him to sort through the boring stuff for me.” I smiled up at him, but he didn’t smile back.
“There is more to life than you can experience on this little island.”
“I know that.” I held up my book and waved it in front of him. “I’ve read it in plenty of books, but I’m still quite content to give myself time.”
Da patted me on the shoulder. “Time,” he said with a grunt.
I turned back to my book and thought nothing more of it. I had time in abundance. What did it matter to me?