After shaking hands with the inspector and making many promises to Old Tom to give the lighthouse constant and faithful attention, I toured the structure on my own. I first went to the top, the stairs attacking my leg like with every step, and peered over the guard rail. From this perch atop a cliff overlooking the endless Atlantic, with the salt wind against my face and the sun upon my brow, I felt alive and free. Alone with nothing but the sea and the sky. Perfect isolation.
I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering about the grounds and looking out to the horizon, spyglass in hand. There were ships on the horizon, whalers judging from their masts. Perhaps they glanced toward my lighthouse as a daymark. Lame though I was, my heart was gladdened with a connection to the sea.
After descending once again, I wen to the other side of the grounds, toward the forest. It was old growth, full of gnarled oaks with an underbrush of tough, green shrubs. I walked to its edge. The trees, competing for the sun’s attention, grew a canopy that choked the light out. Shadows danced on the forest floor. Even the wind seemed to die in that place.
There was a sound, a low moan just outside my hearing. I could not swear it, but it felt like an invitation, but an invitation to what I could not fathom. Then the wind picked up as if trying to force me into inside.
I left, perhaps a little quicker than I would like to admit, unable to shrug off the feeling of red eyes searching the forest floor.
At dusk I released the lens from its linen cage, gaping in quiet awe at its magnificence. A three-sided marvel of green glass cut in concentric circles half again as tall as myself. It had the appearance of a great glass eye, seeing in all directions at once. I placed a palm against it, trying to feel out the history it had seen. How many nights had this guiding sentinel stood, warning sailors upwards of twenty miles away of the danger ahead? Old Tom said it was a first-order lens, though I did not understand. All I saw was a feat of engineering bordering on the divine.
I checked the wick, saw it was in good condition, pumped the fuel, and lit the fire. The flame leapt up then steadied to a strong, pulsing red glow. I stared at the red flame for a long moment, admiring their rhythmic dance, appreciating the heart of the lighthouse. Climbing back to the light room floor, I unhitched the locks and set the weights in motion. They began their slow revolution around the room like dark stars behind the brilliant sun. The eye of the lighthouse was operational, the red fire translating into a beam of white brilliance. Now I was to watch and wait.
I spent most of the watch out on the railing, spy glass in hand, looking out over the inky sea and breathing in the summer air. With few clouds in the sky and all of God’s heaven open before me, I watched the great heroes of ancient days sail through the night. Orion on his eternal hunt for the great bear and his long-tailed offspring while the Great Sky River, spanned over all. Now, I had joined them, for the light I manned was no less crucial than the stars in the sky.
With the exception of spotting lighting from a distant storm, nothing exceptional happen that first night, nor for many nights to come. During high summer days, I spent my free time lounging in the shade of the back porch or trying my hand at fishing in the choppy waters, but duty kept me from too much relaxation. The lighthouse required constant vigilance, and the District Office demanded correspondence about times, dates, cataloged ships, maintenance inventory, food stuffs inventory, supply request list, notes of professional interest, and myriad issues associated with the upkeep of the lighthouse.
Toward the end of my first month, a young man driving a cart horse arrived, introducing himself as John “Jack” Cooper. Jack was a stout young man, strong of neck and character, contracted by the District Office to run supplies to all the lighthouses within a sixty mile radius of Marlow, a total of three. He shook my hand and asked how I was fairing. My smile was all the answer needed.
“Yeah, it seems fun,” Jack said, gazing up to the top of the tower. “But it sure is a lot of steps. Too bad you didn’t get assigned to Windy Point ‘round the other side of town. More cottage than lighthouse, that one.”
I admitted the difficulty with the stairs, but figured I could do with a little less weight.
“Well, it’s my job to make sure you don’t loose overmuch. Here,” he gestured to the back of the cart. “Got yer supplies for the month. Water, cured beef, cured ham, potatoes (lots of ‘em), vegetables (best to eat them quick), bread, tobacco, hard tack (save that for last), and this,” he produced a bottle of whiskey, holding it aloft like a hunting trophy. “Little present from the D.O., but don’t tell ‘em ‘bout it.” He handed it over with a wink. I nodded and accepted it with thanks.
We hauled the goods to the lower store. Afterward I offered him a drink of the fine liqueur, which he accepted with gratitude. We sat on the back porch, drinking out of the bottle and looking over the sea. We spoke of our past and our futures, but mostly enjoyed the present in which we lived. We finished the bottle just before sundown.
Jack stumbled into the cart, moaning like a sick child, taking deep breaths to collect his angry stomach. I urged him to be careful as the cliffs along the trail back were treacherous even in the daytime, but he just grinned, waving a farewell to me and my advice. With a groan of self-loathing coupled with an intense desire to curl up and sleep off the poison, I ascended the endless stairway to begin another long night of torturous duty, Old Tom’s words echoing through the structure with each arduous step:
Constant and faithful attention.