To The Lonely Seas And The Sky -- Part 2
The fictional tale of lighthouse keepers in the 1880's, tending a Lake Michigan lighthouse. The characters in this story are completely fictional, while the lighthouse is quite real and still in use. The details of its function, while not necessarily specific to this exact light, are consistent with the general function of lighthouses in this era.
- 2 Published Oct 10, '13
Liesl poured herself some soup from the pot on the stove and brought it to the sturdy, unfinished wood table in the center of the room. The thin blue curtains luffed softly as the wind outside snuck around the corner of the house and into the room. White wooden cupboards and cabinets lined the walls around the kitchen. The visible wall was also painted white, the bright color serving to lighten the room whose sunlight was often eclipsed by the tower, which stood just northwest of the windows. A fireplace sat ready for evening in the corner, last night’s coals now turned to soot.
Liesl took a sip of the soup, grateful that her mother had provided the meal for the night. It was the warm, vegetable-filled stew that Mama had always made for the family. Liesl could remember eating that stew when they had first debarked in Baltimore, the family of six crowded into a one-bedroom apartment in the middle of the bustling city.
Baltimore had been a frightening place for Liesl and her three siblings, who had only ever known the peaceful existence of a small German village near the Austrian border. Nestled in the protective mountains, they ran through overgrown springtime fields, played in winter snow,and chased each other in summer’s gurgling creeks. In their young years, when Ellie was only six, they had crossed the Atlantic on the big, dark, hot ship. Liesl, all of five years old, had tried to be brave for the younger ones, but she was so sick for most of the voyage that she couldn’t imagine anything worse than what she had already experienced at sea. Baltimore would prove that notion wrong.
Mama’s naturally nurturing touch made the crowded, dingy, waterfront tenant apartment a home for the newly arrived family. She washed and mended the dirty, torn white curtains, swept the floors, enlisted a kitten to tend to the mice, and opened the windows to the west to let the evening sunshine cleanse the small apartment from outside in. Likewise, Papa fixed the broken front door, repaired the shutters on the exterior of the home, replaced the broken wooden flooring in the kitchen, and managed to bring in enough money as a day laborer to feed and clothe his family.
While the conditions improved inside, it took a few months before Liesl was used to the sound of carriages on cobblestone, the noise in the bustling ports across the street from their Fleet Street apartment, and the stench of the harbor water as it mingled with the overflow of the human population on the docks.
The big, rough men who worked on the docks scared her at first,but then one of them helped her retrieve the doll she had dropped in the middle of the street amidst carriage wheels and horse hooves. He smiled, his unshaven face and crooked teeth suddenly appearing friendly instead of hostile. "Me girl 'as a doll like this one, and I've learned that no girl should be wivvout 'er doll." He tipped his hat to Liesl and her mother and then disappeared into the moving crowd. Liesl had stood like a statue, her young mind trying to understand the contradiction she had just witnessed between her expectations and her experience. Mama had picked her up and murmured softly,“You see, daughter? Not everyone in this place is to be feared.”
While the strangers on the docks would remain a cause for caution, the ladies in their sweeping silk hoop-skirts fascinated Liesl. Their porcelain skin, lace parasols and shy,laughing lips were all that the 6-year-old aspired to become. She and her younger sister, Madeleine, would watch them from the street in front of their house. Many of them came to the docks to board ships for places far away—places much fancier than Liesl had ever known. They most often appeared with their arms around the arm of a gentleman dressed in black and a top hat. Liesl had never seen a man so dressed up.
One time, one of the women had seen Liesl and Maidie from across the street. Stopping traffic, the young woman had crossed the cobblestone and approached the little observers. Liesl drew herself up in excitement at meeting one of the fancy ladies. She clutched Maidie’s hand as her nearly 2-year-old sister pointed up at the woman and hid behind her sister, a smile on her face.
Her yellow hair was pulled up under a bonnet. Soft green eyes smiled demurely and her neck and back were gracefully straight. In a throaty voice Liesl could barely understand, she said, “Ave you gehls evehr been to Pari?”
Liesl and Maidie exchanged looks and then shook their heads in unison.
“Uell then, ere is a piece of Pari for you.” She said, taking out two clean, folded silk handkerchiefs and handing them to the children.
“Ariane, make haste! The ship departs, and I shan’t miss it for your date with two street urchins.” The gentleman whose arm had helped her off the carriage called to her from across the busy street. He exhaled audibly and clutched his white gloves impatiently.
“Au revoir, mademoiselles.” The young woman smiled, her soft pink cheeks dimpling.
“Auf weidersehen, fraulein!” Liesl had called after her. Maidie opened and closed a gleeful, chubby hand.
The woman blew the girls a kiss and disappeared across the street and into the crowd. Liesl and Maidieran inside, where they told their Mama the entire story at least ten times.
Indeed, Liesl was just brave enough to step outside without her mother when her father was conscripted into service.
Liesl had been angry at the temporary loss of her father. Her mother had been furious. “We left Germany for the promise of life in America, Everard.” Her mother had lamented to her father, whose broad shoulders slumped in defeat. “And they take you from us anyway!” From that point on, it had simply been an incoherent rambling of Spanish.
But her father had been lucky, Liesl reminisced as she sipped the warm stew. Her father had come home, completely unharmed. In the months that he was gone, she had come to know many children whose fathers left and never returned, or who returned injured, never to be the same again.
When he did return, her normally unflappable father was adamant. “No more of the city.” He had told her and her brother, Johann. “We’re going to move far away, where there is only clean air, green trees and blue skies.”
And two months later, they did. In the wilderness of West Michigan, the family started again, carving out an existence in the forest with axes and hammers and shovels. Father became a lumberjack in the small but growing community of German immigrants, many of whom had left the same province in Germany that her family had left behind. He built a warm, sturdy home with the help of their neighbors, and that was where she had stayed until she was seventeen. Until she met him...
“Pray you’ve saved the stew, sister.” Ellie entered the kitchen, loosening the strings of her apron and tossing it over the back of her chair.
“It’s warming on the wood burning stove. Might you add a log? It’s surely burned down by now.” Liesl replied.
“It is starting to look cold.” Ellie opened the door to the stove with her apron and quickly tossed in a log. “Was Maidie with Mama?” She asked, referring to their younger sister. Madeleine was younger than Liesl by five years and Ellie by eight.
“No, she wasn’t.”
“I’m hardly surprised. She’s probably in town tonight, gallivanting at the dance at the mayor’s mansion, dressed up in bows and ribbons and such.” Ellie scoffed.
Ellie had never been intrigued by the silk skirts and lace bonnets as Maidie and Liesl had. She had always enjoyed being outside, working with her hands. Mama had always said that her pretty Eleonora was all German, much to her father’s delight.
Liesl glimpsed her sister’s skirt around the table, and her suspicions were confirmed—Ellie was once more without a petticoat. She rolled her eyes. Try though Mama had,Ellie had never grown accustomed to the bustles, ribbons and trim that hersisters adored.
“She’s a young lady, Ellie.” Liesl defended Madeleine mildly. “She’s entitled to a bit of excitement. You remember that much, I’m sure.”
“Barely. That was nearly eight years ago. My excitement consisted of marrying a man who left for the sea two days into our honeymoon and has scarcely been home since.”
“Where has your husband been these past few months?” Liesl asked, genuinely curious.
Ellie snorted. “I certainly couldn’t tell you specifically—all of his journeys seem to blur together. He’s somewhere in Asia—perhaps China or India or what have you. He won’t be home until spring. He’s much more in love with the sea than he’s ever been with me.” She replied tartly, glancing out the window at the rolling lake. She shook her head darkly. “A woman oughtn’t compete with it, I tell you.”
“Perhaps not, but you knew who he was when you married, Ellie. You knew he wouldn’t stay here when you married.”
“I suppose I did.”Ellie sighed, breaking her wistful stare at the beach and fixing her sharp eyes on Liesl. “And that’s all the more a lesson to our fair sister. The man she marries will be that same man forever, and trying to change him will be no more effective than trying to change the direction of the wind or the color of the sky.” Ellie sat down at the table with her stew.
For all of her bitterness, Liesl knew Ellie was correct in her assessment. She watched her older sister, her young face lined beyond her age, sip her stew quietly.
Ellie’s life as the oldest had been more difficult than that of any of her younger siblings. Old enough to understand the stresses of the trans-Atlantic move, the War Between the States and the eventual migration north, Ellie was no stranger to hardship. Her marriage to Corbin Taylor had not lessened her burden. But Ellie,more so than her siblings, seemed to be built to manage the strain. She carried herself with dignity, pride, and the work ethic of ten men. Surprisingly strong for her size, she rarely asked for assistance in any of her chores. For that reason and many more, Liesl had been grateful when Ellie had offered to assist at the lighthouse until her husband was back on his feet.
A knock interrupted the silence at the kitchen table. Ellie was on her feet before Liesl could put down her spoon. Her shoes clicked down the wooden steps to the door.
“Mr. Nichols,”Ellie’s voice wandered back to the kitchen, false cheer permeating her tone.
Liesl’s gaze shot up from her soup and she put down her spoon. Not today!
Glancing about the kitchen and then realizing in a fright that her uncombed hair was completely down, Liesl put aside her concern for appearances and hurried to the door behind her sister.
Ellie was already bringing the gentleman in through the front hall.
“Mr.Nichols! We weren’t expecting you,sir. Please come in. Join us for stew.” Liesl offered, catching Ellie’s eye roll behind Mr. Nichols’ back.
The tall, unsmiling man with thinning gray hair raised his eyebrows at the request. “Well, that’s very kind of you, Mrs. Kappel. I should like a bite to eat.” He said grandly, speaking with that familiar air of superiority, his chin thrust out authoritatively as he followed the women to the kitchen.
He always sounds like he’s making a speech—and in front of no small crowd, either, Ellie thought as she entered the kitchen behind Liesl.
“We were quite certain that the storms would keep you in town for several days.” Liesl continued, hurrying to the stove and picking up another bowl from the counter.
She turned to face the table, where Ellie was slyly pulling the chair out for Mr. Nichols. Liesl’s eyes widened, warning her sister that now was not the time for tricks. But the mischievous side of Ellie was well aware of their visitor’s importance, so obligingly, she slid the chair under Mr. Nichols’s waiting behind, raised an eyebrow and tensed her lower lip. The message was clear: You, dear sister, are no fun.
“Well, Mrs.Kappel, the life and endeavors of a lighthouse inspector are never easy. I insisted that the superstitious captain sail today, as it seems the weather had quite cleared and the wind was fair. Peculiar fellows, those captains." Mr. Nichols said, his eyes widening in delight as Liesl set his stew before him.
Ellie stifled a laugh from behind Mr. Nichols, who was too busy testing his stew to notice. Liesl shot her another look. Ellie shrugged, her blue eyes wide with innocence.
“Certainly,sir. We are happy to accommodate you for the evening.” Liesl said.
“You needn’t concern yourself with that, Mrs. Kappel.” Mr. Nichols insisted. “I intend to complete my rounds here and depart immediately for the village.”
Both sisters paused in their tracks, exchanging incredulous glances.
“I fear that maybe ill-advised, Mr. Nichols.” Ellie sat down across the table and resumed her stew, trying to hide her amusement. “The weather this evening promises to be rough, if not outright inclement. Were you to leave for town now,you still surely wouldn’t escape the barrage of weather that approaches from over the lake.”
“Nonsense, my dear woman.” Mr. Nichols dismissed her concern with the wave of a hand. Ellie bristled noticeably. “I’ve brought my walking boots and I intend to commence upon the excursion to Hamlin tonight. I’ll complete my trip to Ludington by carriage in the morning. Itought be a pleasant stroll, what with the weather so agreeable for November.”
Ellie was once again trying to keep herself from bursting into laughter as the pompous Mr.Nichols naively insisted upon his “pleasant stroll” to Hamlin. Had he seen the sky on his way here? She wondered. No wonder he’s an inspector and not a keeper. He wouldn’t last a night!
“Well, if that is your intent, then you are certainly welcome to it, Mr. Nichols.” Liesl said carefully, trying not to provoke her sister further. If he wants to spend the evening drenched, huddled beneath a tree, that’s his prerogative,she decided, washing her hands of all responsibility.
“Enough about myself,ladies. How has this fine light been functioning?” Mr. Nichols asked as he swallowed a large piece of vegetable.
“It has been mechanically sound since our last visit from the previous inspector. Our oil supplies remain sufficient and I cannot foresee a problem with fuel until we are scheduled to receive our next shipment—”
“Mrs. Kappel, I have most certainly enjoyed our conversation, but where, pray tell, is the keeper? Surely your husband isn’t in the tower this early. He ought to tend to this business.” Mr. Nichols interrupted.
Liesl flushed with anger at his dismissal of her knowledge. “My husband, Mr. Nichols, is confined to bed.” She replied more sharply than she had intended. “Perhaps you haven’t yet heard of the storm last week that dashed two ships across our shoals? I tended the light,” She emphasized, “and my husband went to assist the meager number of gentlemen at the lifesaving station as they were struggling to retrieve souls from their doomed ships. He was on a boat that capsized and cracked,severely damaging both of his legs.”
“My God!” Mr.Nichols exclaimed. “My apologies, Mrs. Kappel. I have not received word from the Lighthouse Service in some weeks, and my attention to the news in town was admittedly cursory. I pray his legs aren’t permanently ruined?”
“That is not the opinion of the physician, thankfully. It appears his legs were not broken, but the wounds are deep and the damage to the tissue is quite complete.”
“The poor fellow! He is fortunate that he didn’t drown.” Mr. Nichols observed.
Chills swept over Liesl at the mention of such a fate. It was a disaster averted that had certainly occurred to her, but she hadn’t dared speak it out loud, nor had any other kind visitor who had stopped in to see to the keeper’s condition. But Mr. Nichols was far too vain to be kind, and Liesl had very nearly had enough of his company.
“Liesl, you ought look in on Samuel. Bring him some stew. Mr. Nichols and myself can complete the inspection.” Ellie said,sensing her sister’s discomfort and stepping in with iron in her gaze.
Liesl recognized the tone in her sister’s voice—it was the same one she had heard just before Ellie pummeled a boy who had been picking on Liesl shortly after they arrived in Baltimore. Ellie had been so small that no one believed the petite young lady had laid out a boy who was a head taller than her. But Ellie had been adamant about her actions, even in the face of punishment. It was a side of her personality with which her siblings were well-acquainted.
Mr. Nichols and Ellie exchanged a glance, the imposing gentleman sizing up the small woman. “Yes, I think that would be well-advised.” He agreed, uncertainty in his eyes. He shifted his weight to one side on his chair.
“Excuse me, then,Mr. Nichols. I wish you a safe return to civilization.” She said as she moved to the stove and poured another bowl of soup.
Just then, a hoarse voice called from upstairs. “Liesl…? Liesl?”
“In a moment,darling.” She replied, picking up the bowl and moving carefully up the stairs with the steaming liquid. She moved deftly up the wooden staircase,turned the sharp corner on the landing and completed the climb until she had reached her room, straight ahead down the short hallway. Drawing a deep breath for strength, Liesl squared her shoulders and used her hip to push open the heavy wooden door.
http://www.lighthousefriends.com/light.asp?ID=196Last edit by tnbutterfly on Oct 10, '13
Exorcising my writer's block, one demon at a time.
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