To The Lonely Seas And The Sky -- Part 5
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 18, '13
Liesl descended the stairs just as Ellie was returning to the kitchen via the front hall.
"How was the inspection?" Liesl asked, joining Ellie in the kitchen.
"About as one would expect." Ellie replied, taking the dishes to the wash basin, mixing the boiling water from the wood burning stove with the cold water in the basin and adding the lye soap. She tied her apron, pushed up the long sleeves of her dress and began to scrub. "I showed Mr. Nichols the lens and the lamp, and initially, he seemed pleased, then surprised, and then perplexed. He exhibited the same series of reactions in the same order at each point of the inspection." Ellie noted, her eyes flickering up to Liesl's, who stood beside her at the rinse basin.
"Ah," Liesl said, looking up as she tied her apron, understanding in her expression. "Could it be the gentleman was unconvinced that two women could maintain a light in such a clean and orderly fashion?"
"That was certainly the impression of his unwilling host." Ellie said, her sly smile catching to Liesl's lips.
"I suppose in due time, he'll be equally surprised that we can correctly predict the weather."
Ellie laughed. "You ought to have seen him look out over the lake, surmise that the rain--if there were in fact any rain in those dark, building clouds--was easily half a night away, and set out on his journey into the dunes." Ellie shook her head. "I know you've told tales of Mr. Nichols before, but I did not believe your description was without exaggeration until I encountered the man myself. How is a man of that nature still living?"
"Quite by accident, I'm sure. It is only by the grace of God that he, in a moment of 'genius', hasn't 'thought' himself into an untimely death."
Ellie could no longer contain herself as she recalled the interaction. She burst out laughing, the memories running fresh. "'Well, Mrs. Kappel, the life and endeavors of a lighthouse inspector are never easy'..." Ellie straightened her back, stared down her nose at her sister and spoke with the unmistakable pace and tone of the infamous lighthouse inspector.
Liesl joined in, following suit. “'It ought to be a pleasant stroll, what with the weather so agreeable for November'." She mimicked haughtily, her nose toward the ceiling.
Ellie and Liesl had stopped cleaning the dishes and had dissolved into laughter, clinging to the counters for support. Liesl was both surprised and delighted to see Ellie laugh so heartily. It had been many years since she had seen such a sincere expression of humor from her normally severe, stoic older sibling.
"Oh, what a pompous twit." Ellie wiped tears from her eyes and slipped her hands back in the dishwater.
"At very minimum, indeed, and from the very start." Liesl agreed, beginning to dry the dishes she had rinsed. "Samuel noticed during the first inspection with Mr. Nichols that he had barely asked any questions about the light and mechanisms. I'll have you know Mr. Nichols has no working knowledge of lighthouses at all--he was appointed to his post because his father is some politician in Chicago and familiar with the secretary of the treasury.
"Samuel, with only an honest desire to assist the new inspector, decided to go into some detail about the function of the light and the specifics of the keeper's routine in an effort to augment the new inspector's rather limited expertise. And augment, he certainly did! Samuel did all of that only to have Mr. Nichols ask him on his next visit the very questions Samuel had taught him the visit before. And you can rest assured that Mr. Nichols explained those questions to the minutest detail, as though Samuel were unfamiliar with the particulars of his own lighthouse."
"He didn't!" Ellie exclaimed. "And what did your husband say?"
"Samuel is not a man to be trifled with, especially after offering assistance. So Samuel answered his questions in great technical detail. He did so in a manner that went so far over the head of the flustered Mr. Nichols that the great inspector could not even summon a reply other than to nod and stick his nose in the air."
"A reflexive action, I'm sure. And I suppose Mr. Nichols has never bothered him since?" Ellie guessed, her mouth in a coy smile.
"Not so much as a condescending look. I tell you, that man must be thoroughly humiliated before he'll show an ounce of respect to someone other than himself." Liesl finished her story and then happened to glance outside. "When did it start raining?" She asked.
"Oh, perhaps fifteen minutes ago, just as I came inside from seeing Mr. Nichols off."
"We'll need to light the tower early. It'll be dark before sunset tonight." Liesl predicted. "When the dishes are finished, we ought to see to the light."
"We should complete them in due time. We hardly fed a crowd." Ellie said, back to scrubbing away in the wash basin. "How is Samuel?"
Liesl fell silent. Ellie looked up at her sister, her attention locked on her younger sibling.
"Liesl, is something wrong?" Ellie asked.
"I don't know." Liesl admitted, drying a bowl and setting it on the counter. "The wound doesn't seem to be healing, Ellie." She confided, shaking her head. "I've been doing the treatments every day, just as the doctor said, but he seems to be getting worse. The pain hasn't relented, his function hasn't seemed to return, and he sleeps so much..."
"He's sleeping because of the medicine." Ellie replied, shaking her hands off over the water and drying them on her apron. "Has he tried to walk?"
"He was out of bed two days ago when the doctor came to check on him, but his pain is so intense that he cannot get out of bed without the medicine. The medicine in turn makes him so drowsy that he cannot walk. I don't know how to help him." Liesl said, stacking the bowls and placing them in the cabinet over her head. "Perhaps when I go to see him again, you can come with me?" She asked, turning to her sister with hope in her eyes. Liesl knew Samuel wouldn't like it, but she had a sense that something wasn't right.
Ellie tried not to show her true reaction to the suggestion. "I...if you need me to, I suppose...but you know, I'm sure he would want you to look to him first."
Liesl nodded, almost thankful that Ellie had politely declined. "You're right. It isn't anything I can't handle."
It was Ellie's turn to feel regret. Samuel was, after all, her brother-in-law, and the wound he had sustained was by no means minimal. "But you know, if something really is wrong, I can take a look."
Liesl smiled at Ellie. "I'm sure he's on the mend. But if I feel he needs another set of eyes on him, I'll not hesitate. I'm probably just impatient to have my husband back, especially in lieu of an assistant keeper."
Ellie nodded, exhaling in relief. "Has the Lighthouse Service indicated that they intend to send you an assistant anytime soon?"
Liesl shook her head. "Unfortunately, no. They seem to think Samuel and myself capable of handling the light, which is normally true, but in situations like these, it certainly never hurts to have another keeper. And while we can maintain the light and the foghorn between us, there isn't much time for anything else. An assistant would mean there was another eye to watch the light, another hand to trim the wick and clean the lens--perhaps Samuel and I could go into town some evening or eat dinner in Hamlin with Mama and Father. But as it is now, we are bound to this light without exception."
"It is an important duty, Liesl. You and Samuel ought to be proud." Ellie said as she and Liesl finished putting away the dishes.
"We are quite proud, myself especially of Samuel." Liesl said, a bit resentful at Ellie's implication. "But to go so long without reprieve...it's been three years now without a full night's sleep for Samuel. He doesn't complain, but especially after having completed his duties for the past week, I understand the strain that is constantly upon him."
Ellie looked empathetically at her sister, relenting in her tone. "It would be nice to see you in Hamlin every now and again. Surely everyone needs a break from duty on occasion."
"We can only hope that the Service will eventually see it that way." Liesl said, the two of them closing the cabinets.
Ellie retrieved the lantern from the end of the counter, removed the candle and lit it in the wood burning stove. Replacing the candle in the lantern, she joined Liesl at the doorway. They moved together through the living room, into the small storage room and through the 14-foot brick hallway that connected the main house and the light.
The spiral staircase, a black, wrought-iron pathway into the sky, wound around the solid central column and up the interior of the tower. The steps were not solid iron but instead had been casted in a vine-like pattern. Liesl wondered at the practicality of such a decision as the porous nature of the staircase occasionally caused a person lagging a landing or two below to receive a dusting of sand, courtesy of bottom of the lead climber's shoes.
Ellie led up the 130-steps to the top, holding the lantern ahead. She moved easily up the stairs, a fact that was entirely due to her decision that morning to forego a petticoat once again. Liesl followed close behind, maneuvering her skirt as she had become accustomed on the narrow staircase. Years of practice made Liesl almost as adept at navigating the tower steps as her less conventional older sister.
Twenty steps from the top, the solid metal floor of the watch room appeared overhead, the hatch open as usual. Ellie and Liesl barely had to duck to clear their heads before emerging into the circular room. A small table and chair sat near one of the four portholes that lent daylight to the workspace. The keeper's log, still open from the Liesl's morning report, lay on the table. Samuel could often be found here, recording the weather and details of his workday.
A staircase of ten steps in the watch room led up through yet another floor via hatch to the service room. Within the room itself, extra supplies such as glass chimneys for the lamp and cans of extra kerosene neatly lined the walls. In the center of the room rested the base of the large, fixed Argand lamp that produced the lifesaving beam. From the service room, a narrow doorway led outside to the balcony that surrounded the tower.
And if one gazed up from the service room floor, they found themselves staring straight into the heart of the lantern room and the third-order Fresnel lens that resided in its center, 10 feet overhead.
The Fresnel lens, imported from France, was one of the most beautiful things Liesl had ever seen. It was barrel-shaped, slightly tapered at both top and bottom, with convex glass circling its middle. Above and below the glass, smaller, rounded pieces of glass and mirror sat at strategic angles. The pieces above the center glass slanted up and the pieces below the center glass slanted down. Those pieces helped to concentrate the light, focusing the majority of the beam out over the lake instead of allowing it to scatter and escape into the lantern room.
The light itself, which rose out of the floor of the service room into the center of the lens, was fixed—non-rotating—and white. Opaque metal plates lined the wall in the back of the lantern room, further preventing the light from escaping over the land. The Fresnel lens then captured and concentrated the light, sending it out the glass storm panes nineteen miles over the shadowy, shifting waters of the lake.
Ellie climbed the narrow staircase that hugged the wall of the service room and into the lantern room, moving deftly along the thin ledge that circled the rim of the room and the Fresnel lens.
Cleaned without disrupting the function of the light twice throughout the night and then thoroughly each morning after the light was extinguished, the Fresnel lens and interior lamp seemed to acquire an impossible amount of soot after only a single night's use. Liesl used to wonder what kept Samuel so long in the tower until she began to fulfill his duties. She quickly realized that the “big chandelier”, as she had initially called the Fresnel lens, was like any other beauty: demanding and requiring constant maintenance, lest it cease to function.
Liesl lingered in the service room doorway that led to the balcony, looking out over the lake. The rain had temporarily ceased, but the deep blue color of the sky indicated that the potential for precipitation was still present in the form of a dense fog hanging just under the clouds. Further out, rain fell in an inky black curtain over the water, the defined edges of the shower clear to the observer at a distance.
“Shall I light it now, Liesl?” Ellie called from the lantern room above.
Liesl looked out at the sky once more, nodding. “With a storm brewing, yes. I believe an early lighting tonight is warranted.” She worked her way around the wall of the service room, adjusting the vents in the sides of the tower.
The vents allowed air to rush into the service room from outside. The function of the airflow was twofold: it first prevented the storm panes from fogging and dimming the beam cast over the lake. Secondly, the correct adjustment of the vents created a pressure difference, resulting in a wind stream that moved up from the service room into the lantern room and out the top of the tower through the ball vent at the roof’s peak. That airflow flushed the fumes of the burning lantern out the top of the lighthouse and decreased the temperature of the lantern room. The vents in the service room were adjusted based on the wind direction each night.
As Liesl adjusted the vents, the service room below began to glow softly. She looked above, where Ellie sat near the lens along the ledge of the lantern room. The flame of the lantern was flickering awake, its beam reaching over the mysterious, misty water.
Ellie continued to watch the lamp, the lantern room engulfed in light. Below, she could see Liesl in the shadows amidst the multitude of prism rainbows cast by the glass pieces of the lens. Unconsciously, a smile formed on Ellie’s face as the lamp progressively brightened, the flame burned steadily, and the beacon once again blazed to mark the dangerous shoals of Big Sable Point.
Liesl stared across the surface of the waves, haunted by the realization that lighthouse keepers all along the coastline from Lake Erie to Lake Michigan were lighting the night in a wave of radiance, ushering in the falling darkness together while hundreds of miles apart. From east to west with the setting sun, she could see it as if from above: pinpoints of light appeared, washing across the shoreline in bold defiance of the night. It was the idea of such a concerted unity despite great distance, the effort of thousands for the benefit of mariners that held her astounded gaze to the sea until—
Lightning flashed out over the deep, thunder resounding seconds later. The commanding rumble warned of the danger that shortly approached—the danger that was already threatening the sea-borne ships. And then, another sound—
Ellie looked up from the lamp. What was…?
Liesl moved from the balcony door to the hatch in the service room floor. It had been faint, but she knew what she had heard. “Samuel?” She called down the stairs as she disappeared into the dim tower.
“Liesl, take the lantern.” Ellie called, fearing that any attempt to descend the stairs in the dark would result in further tragedy.
Liesl reappeared and, standing on her tiptoes, reached up to take the lantern from Ellie. “If you need help…” Ellie reminded her sister, her eyes unwavering.
Liesl nodded. “I’m sure it’ll be fine. He needs more medication. Besides, you must tend the lamp for the first half hour.” She reminded her sister.
“Stay with him until then. I’ll stay with the light.”
A nod between the sisters preceded Liesl’s parting, her footsteps echoing on the tower stairs mingling with the growing growl of approaching thunder.Last edit by Joe V on Oct 29, '13
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