An Indirect Sign of Light
An Indirect Sign of Light
by Lori Vander Maten
It began with a photo of my mother in front of a lighthouse - Gay Head Light - where she lived for a short time while her father was a Lighthouse Keeper. Why did this photo capture my attention and imagination? Because my youngest daughter looked just like her at the same age, a resemblance that prompted questions about her early life and what the genesis was of the woman she became, a woman who loved fiercely, but from behind an edifice built of pain, fear and, most probably, trauma of some sort.
This is a work of fiction, built upon a few true circumstances left to us, a story told from five perspectives spanning a period of almost 100 years. It begins in Sakonnet Lighthouse in Narragansett Bay in the great hurricane of 1938.
The sound of it was the one thing everyone could agree on. It was a symphony of such a terrifying sort that only the savagery of unrestrained nature could have composed it. The low bass of the churning water, released from its natural constraints, the high-pitched whine of a triumphant and inexhaustible wind, and the persistent, throaty surge of water crashing against the structure, waves upon metal upon stone like an out-of-tune organ, bellowing over and over again, created a cacophony of confusion that swallowed up all other sound completely. It was sound that didn’t surround a man, but swallowed him up and made him a part of its endless reverberations.
For the first few hours, Joseph tried to ignore the sound, setting his stoic New England mind to the task at hand. But after two (or was it three?) hours of it, he found himself unable to think about anything else. He stuffed his ears with rags, held his hands over them until the pressure made his eardrums fairly burst, all to no effect whatsoever. It came as quite a relief then, that six (or was it eight?) hours into it, the hideous chorus suddenly disappeared, and now, Joseph heard no sound at all. The only evidence of the maelstrom outside was the flood that consumed the lower levels of the lighthouse. And so he sat, suspended between ocean and heaven on his soggy bed, at once relieved and alarmed, waiting for the next shower from the waves that had begun crashing over the top of the 56 foot lighthouse sometime in the darkness of early afternoon, enveloping the tiny island (some would call it a rock) in suffocating blackness that could be overcome by neither candle nor lantern.
Joseph laughed. It wasn’t a laugh born of amusement, or courage or even fear. It came from a place his mind had never been before, a place he found peculiarly familiar and terrifying all at the same time. He thought it quite extraordinary that he had, by the power of his own mind, been able to block out the deafening noise of the hurricane raging outside, and in the midst of the storm, to finally have silence. He shouted at the tempest with the triumph of a Roman conqueror.
“Is that the best ya got, ya savage beast?”
Joseph half expected the raging demon outside to take exception to his defiance and toss the lighthouse into the sea, a petulant child pitching a fit over some imagined injury. When it didn’t, he laughed again. At least, he thought he did, though he couldn’t hear it. Instead, what he heard was music, the sound of a flute (or was it a clarinet? Or maybe a voice?) coming from behind him, faint yet clear, the most beautiful music he had ever heard. The haunting melody soothed his soul and awakened his senses with anticipation. He turned around, but saw nothing. The music grew louder, brushed past Joseph, and headed up the tower.
Joseph knew where it was going, and he knew he must follow, for music of this type is impossible to ignore or resist. If the thought that climbing to the top of the lighthouse during a hurricane was a foolhardy thing to do crossed his mind, he never said. He only knew that he was drawn to the melody like a babe is drawn to its mother. So when he reached the top of the tower and the music slipped outside, leaving him once again in silence, he did not hesitate. He opened the door and stepped out onto the landing and into the hurricane.
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