To The Lonely Seas And The Sky -- Part 9
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.Anxiety thumped in Ellie’s chest as she stood completely still in the dark hallway, trying to make out the silhouette of a person standing on the front step. In a sudden illumination of lightning, she saw a figure huddled close to the door, a coat pulled over their head as the rain blew sideways, mixing with the sand. The knocking continued, growing louder and more frantic by the second.
Liesl’s approaching footsteps stopped just behind Ellie’s right shoulder. Her mind raced with confusion. Of all the times for Samuel to be confined to bed... “Who could that possibly be?” She whispered, her hair standing on end.
In the dark, they women met each other's eyes and exclaimed in perfect unison, “Mr. Nichols!”
Ellie flew down the hallway, through the screen door onto the enclosed porch and toward the heavy outer door. Flipping the latch, she braced herself as she pulled the door open and a soaking wet lighthouse inspector fell into the shelter of the porch.
“By thunder, I thought you two would never hear me!” A damp but energized Mr. Nichols exclaimed, leaning against the wall as he caught his breath.
Ellie pushed the door closed, applying all of her weight against a particularly stiff gust of wind. She had just clicked the latch back into place when Liesl met her sister and guest at the porch, having retrieved the lantern from the kitchen.
In the candlelight, Mr. Nichols' condition seemed even more dramatic: his hair dripped pathetically, his face streaked with rainwater. Every inch of his clothing was saturated, a puddle quickly growing below his feet on the floor. As he struggled to catch his breath and maintain his composure, Ellie and Liesl knew they’d never forget the sight of the obnoxiously proud man about to eat his words as he watered their porch.
“Run into a bit of rain, did you?” Ellie asked casually.
“A bit! Madam, I was a sailor in the Navy for six years, and in all of my days, I can say with confidence that I have never seen so much water!” Mr. Nichols declared, flicking his hand across his short, dark hair and sending a spray of mist into the air.
“Well do take your coat off, Mr. Nichols, and we’ll show you to the wood burning stove before you catch your death of cold.” Liesl said, standing on tiptoe to take the coat from Mr. Nichols’ shoulders as Ellie guided him up the stairs and into the kitchen.
“Oh, how misleading is a coastline sky! At the look of things now, one would never guess that when I departed your light, it was but a warm, breezy November evening, not a hint of rain to be seen…” Mr. Nichols lamented as he took Liesl’s chair by the fire, shivering against the cold.
Ellie and Liesl rolled their eyes in disbelief behind his back as he sat, Ellie fetching a blanket from the hallway cabinet and returning immediately to the kitchen.
“You know what they say, Mr. Nichols. If you don’t like the weather in Michigan, wait a few minutes. It’s bound to change.” Liesl replied, pouring him a cup of coffee from the pot on the stove as Ellie spread the blanket around his shoulders.
“Indeed, had I known that sooner, perhaps I’d have accepted your offer to stay the night at first pass.” Mr. Nichols mused, clutching the blanket around his back.
Ellie couldn’t believe the arrogance of their ungrateful guest as he sat at their fire in her sister’s chair, safe in the shelter of the light. You’d think no one had mentioned to him that the sky promised a storm, that the wind was heavy with rain and that his venture to the village was ill-advised, she marveled as he continued to blame everything but himself for his plight.
“Well, Mr. Nichols, I think the real victory is that you made it to the lighthouse safely, weather notwithstanding.” Ellie said, Liesl casting a confused look in her direction. Ellie smiled coyly, leaned down to meet their guest’s eyes and pointed out the window. “The storm is quite merciful compared to the Indians who tend to roam the dunes at night.”
Mr. Nichols’ face instantly paled, his lips thinning and his eyes growing wide. “I—uh… Indians, madam?” He asked, attempting to maintain his bravado despite the fear that was apparent in his demeanor.
Liesl instantly caught on, joining her sister on the other side of Mr. Nichols’ chair. “Why, yes, sir. I’m surprised you weren’t warned by the service! We’ve had quite a bit of difficulty here of late with rogue bands of Chippewa. The village of Hamlin sleeps with shotguns under their pillows and the local law remains engaged in a bitter struggle to bring the violence to a halt before loss of life ensues.”
As Mr. Nichols gazed in fear out the kitchen window at the wild shoreline which he now believed to be teeming with invisible natives, Ellie and Liesl exchanged amused smiles over his head. Liesl nodded her approval at Ellie, the nonverbal message crystal clear: Impressively done.
Ellie smiled and lowered her eyes and chin in the facial equivalent of a curtsey. Thank you.
Liesl moved her left hand slightly away from her chest and bowed her head a few millimeters, raising her eyebrows in silent suggestion. After you, dear sister.
Ellie shook her head and then graciously repeated the gesture. No, after you.
Liesl smiled and rolled her eyes toward the ceiling, then resumed her serious expression and reignited the conversation with Mr. Nichols.
“You didn’t see any of them, did you, sir?” Liesl leaned down confidentially, Ellie following suit on the other side of his chair.
Mr. Nichols’ attention abruptly shifting from the window to his hostesses. “See them?" He asked, looking between the sisters. "I—well, I didn’t see any of them, no…” He said, his voice hushing. “Why?”
“Well,” Liesl paused in thought, “I suppose that’ll have to suffice. They haven’t made so much as a peep here at the light. We’ve been going about our business in the hopes that our quiet operation won’t attract attention.”
“I’m sure it will be safe tonight, sister. After all, they seem more attracted to town than anything else.” Ellie surmised, both sisters standing up straight again as the conversation came to a conclusion.
“Oh, but you needn’t worry, Mr. Nichols. You’ll be perfectly safe here overnight until the storm has passed. Now if you’ll excuse us, Ellie and I must check the light again.” Liesl said, leaving Mr. Nichols’ side and retrieving the lantern from the table.
“Do keep warm. We’ll return soon.” Ellie said, meeting Liesl at the door. Both sisters sent the uncertain inspector warm, beaming smiles.
Mr. Nichols nodded unsurely, his eyes darting back to the window as the wind slammed into the glass pane. He startled and closed his eyes, shivered, and lifted his chin as he returned his gaze to the fire.
But as Ellie and Liesl turned into the darkness of the main hallway, mischievous smiles just breaking across their lips, a noise outside brought them to an abrupt halt. The rising wind suddenly peaked at a howl, whistling in an eerie scream from somewhere nearby.
Chills overtook Ellie as she listened, gazing up at the ceiling. “What in the…?” She asked, glancing at Liesl.
Liesl spoke without hesitation. “It’s the wind direction. When it does that, it’s between the house and tower. Come, Ellie. We must—”
And then, from outside, they saw it—the light from the tower, dimly visible on the rooftops of the outbuildings beyond the front door, flickered.
Liesl jumped as if hit with lightning. “Make haste, Ellie! To the light!” She exclaimed, gathering her skirt and running into the hallway.
A scramble of boots and skirts ensued as the women ran through the connecting hallway, their heels clicking on the brick floor and up the metal staircase into the sky. Liesl led the way, the lantern lighting the ascending steps.
As they climbed, the tower audibly groaned in the face of straight-line winds, shifting slightly under their feet as it withstood the rage of the storm. Ellie’s hand slipped over the railing, wet with condensation. A few times, Liesl felt her boots falter on the damp metal stairs, but with years of practice, she kept her footing. The 120 steps to the top never felt so long, the women watching breathlessly as the beam flickered over the lake beyond the portholes at each landing.
Breathlessly, Ellie and Liesl burst into the service room, the women gathering around the lamp, which wavered and spit unstably. Liesl picked up the tools from along the wall, trimming the wick and shielding the flame as best she could as the wind played with the fire.
“Adjust the vents, Ell!” Liesl said, desperately attempting to keep the light alive. “Close the vents more on the west side and open them on the east side!”
Ellie immediately did as Liesl said, and as the windward west vents shut and the leeward east vents opened, the light noticeably stabilized. Glancing up, Ellie confirmed that the panes overhead had not fogged. Liesl had just set down her tools as Ellie returned to the lamp, the two of them watching in tense silence. The wind still shrieked outside and lightning flashed in powerful display, but the light within burned strong.
Liesl let out a relieved sigh. Ellie relaxed in turn, knowing that if Liesl was content, the danger had passed.
Liesl and Ellie wordlessly climbed the service room steps into the lantern room, standing on the ledge around the back of the Fresnel lens. Over the sea, the lens cast its beam, betraying thick, heavy clouds that hung low in the atmosphere. The glass in the room shuddered as the wind whipped once again, but the light did not waver.
“It seems the Witch of November has chosen tonight to pay us her first visit of the season.” Liesl murmured, her gaze focused on the dark water.
“So it would seem,” Ellie agreed, the familiar term used by sailors to describe the ferocious autumn storms plunging her into a memory long-forgotten.
Years ago, Ellie had left her cabin in Hamlin for the small downtown. She walked the river to the small cluster of shops in the village square, the scent of freshly cooked bread wafting down the street from the bakery. The sun, unusually bright on that breezy autumn morning, shone down on the river, reflecting off the water and into the forest. The air was crisp with the scent of fallen leaves and the residents of the small village were already present in the streets, everyone eager to spend what may be the last warm day of the year tending to tasks outdoors.
The general store was crowded with customers. Ellie found what she needed quickly, paid for her items, and stepped onto the front porch with a relieved sigh, happy to be free of the pushy gathering indoors.
Directly before her, two tall Chippewa Indians stood on the front porch steps under the awning, talking with Mr. Schwarz, the store owner. Mr. Schwarz was known for selling Chippewa goods in his store, a service that benefited both the people of Hamlin and the tribe that lived north of the village. Both men wore deerskin shirts and pants decorated with bright, intricately sewn bead patterns. Their long, black hair fell in partial braids with feathers interwoven. Fringes fell from their sleeves and colorful necklaces adorned their chests.
The first Chippewa, a young brave, was one that Ellie recognized. He wore arrows and a bow slung over his back, but despite the show of weaponry, Ahanu smiled more than any other Chippewa Ellie had ever met. And as Ahanu’s eyes fell on her, that same smile came to his lips in greeting. He placed a hand on the shoulder of his companion, an elderly Chippewa man whom Ellie did not recognize. At closer glance, Ellie noticed that the old man's dark, black hair was streaked with silver and gray.
“Good day, Ellie Taylor.” Ahanu said, translating into Chippewa for the other man.
Mr. Schwarz, following Ahanu's eyes, noticed Ellie. “Ah, indeed! Good day, Mrs. Taylor. Always a pleasure.” He tipped his hat.
Ellie nodded and dipped her chin to her chest. “Gentlemen, the pleasure is mine.”
“Likewise, Ellie. This is my father, Keme. He wanted to see this place where our goods are sold to the white men. And more importantly, he wanted to meet Mr. Schwarz, the man who sees that our children survive the winter.” Ahanu said, smiling at Mr. Schwarz, who nodded graciously.
"A mutually beneficial relationship, indeed, and one that I hope will last a long time." Mr. Schwarz smiled at his guests.
“Well, how wonderful that you were both able to make the journey. A pleasure.” Ellie said.
Ahanu leaned over and translated for his father, whose weathered face creased with welcoming. So that's where Ahanu gets his smile, Ellie realized, immediately taking to the older Chippewa.
Keme spoke, his warm eyes settling watchfully on Ellie.
“He says he is happy to meet you as well. I have told him of you and your family and he has long wanted to meet the girl with blue eyes like the lake after a storm.” Ahanu smiled as he translated.
Ellie blushed. “Well, I suppose should he ever find himself in Germany, he may not know what to do with himself.”
Ahanu laughed and translated, a smile coming over Keme’s face yet again.
“Is your husband in town, Ellie?” Ahanu asked. Corbin and Ahanu had met the last time Corbin had been home. The two of them had met in the street one afternoon, and after making a particularly beneficial trade, they had become friends. Whenever Ahanu stopped through the village, he always asked if Corbin was home. Accustomed to disappointment, Ahanu’s expression didn’t change as Ellie informed him that Corbin was still away.
“I'm afraid he's not here. He’s been gone for nearly eight months now.” Ellie informed him.
Ahanu nodded, translating the conversation for his father. But before Ahanu could reply to Ellie, Keme spoke again, lifting a finger and pointing at Ellie. His deep charcoal eyes darkened, concern evident in his features.
Ellie looked between father and son, but Keme’s eyes never left Ellie’s face. He stopped talking, gazing at her studiously.
“What does your father say, Ahanu?” Ellie asked.
“He says…" Ahanu hesitated, his eyes shifting downward uncomfortably. He did not know Ellie well, but he knew her husband well enough to know that their relationship was strained. "He says that he can see your sadness. Your eyes told him of it before you spoke of your husband.” Ahanu met her gaze with sincerity. “He says that something has stolen your happiness, and he knows now it is the great water. The great water takes many, and some, it does not return.” Ahanu's eyes wandered from Ellie in the direction of the Lake.
Ellie tried to smile. “Corbin will likely be home soon. He wrote last month and said that a shipment bound for Ludington will give him two weeks’ reprieve at home sometime in November before he returns to sea.”
Ahanu's expression changed without explanation into one of apprehension, but he translated to Keme nonetheless.
Keme’s eyes widened, darkening in worry as he listened to Ahanu. Well-worn creases deepened on his forehead and around his lips as his mouth pulled into a frown. His reply came quickly, a finger raised as his voice lowered, the old man’s gravelly tone confident and foreboding.
“My father wants to know if Corbin might plan instead to return in the spring.” Ahanu asked carefully, knowing that Ellie might not take well to the suggestion that Corbin further delay his journey home.
“He will almost certainly return in the beginning of November and depart again at mid-month.” Ellie replied, curious as to the cause of the Chippewas' apprehension.
Ahanu translated, but Keme’s gaze was locked onto Ellie’s. He heard his son but did not acknowledge him.
As Ahanu fell silent, Keme drew in a breath. “Your sailor…tell. Write and tell. I have seen your ships--big with white sails. They are big, much bigger than canoe. But canoe or ship, do not sail Michigami in November.” Keme spoke haltingly, but his tone conveyed an urgency that transcended the language barrier.
Caught up in fervor, Keme switched back to his native Chippewa, Ahanu struggling to keep up with the translation. Wisdom borne out of centuries of tradition fell from Keme's lips, and as he spoke, he could only hope that the young woman with longing in her eyes and emptiness in her smile was listening.
"Ellie, in our language, the great water that your people call Lake Michigan is called Michigami." Ahanu said, pausing between sentences to listen to his father. "Many of your explorers believe that means "stinking water", but it is not true." Ahanu's eyes flashed in unremitting intensity. "We call it "bad water", but not because it is bad to drink or smell.
The storms on the great waters in the autumn months are dangerous. We have heard your sailors call the gales "the Witch of November", and it is a fitting name. The spirits stir the sea, and many times, we have lost entire parties of braves crossing the waters in those months. Storms rise up from the sky without warning and the great water takes all who rest on her surface. That is why our people do not cross until the winter is over."
Keme paused and took a step toward Ellie, placing his hands over hers. He spoke again in Chippewa, compassion and fear mingling in his eyes.
"Father says you must write Corbin and tell him to delay his travel home. He must not sail the great water in November, Ellie." Ahanu said, his normally smiling eyes morose. "Michigami is beautiful but cruel, and she does not give up those who she takes in November."
Ellie shifted her weight as she stood on the thin ledge around the lens. That year, Corbin had both returned home and set out to sea again in November, just as planned. While Ellie was far from superstitious, she knew the stories told by the Chippewa were certainly not fable as some believed. Even the early Europeans who had sailed the dangerously shallow waters of Lake Michigan had confirmed her lust for the blood of sailors who dared traverse her the depths in autumn.
Lightning once again brought Ellie out of the haze of memory and back to the present. "I suppose we oughtn't leave our honored guest for too long." Ellie mused, glancing at Liesl, who stood entranced by the view of the lake in the storm.
Liesl smirked. "I suppose not, lest he find himself besieged on all sides by hostile Chippewa." She replied, laughing in spite of herself. "I shall never know how you find it within yourself to think of such fanciful stories with so little provocation, but moreover, I certainly shall never know how you manage to tell them with such conviction."
"All the motivation I need is sitting downstairs at your stove." Ellie replied, picking up her dress and moving around the ledge to the stairs. "I'll tend to our trembling tenant, dear sister, if you should like to take the first watch."
"Splendid. And Ellie, do take the lantern this time. You may have the eyes of a cat, but even you cannot presume to navigate that slippery stairway safely in the dark." Liesl called as Ellie disappeared below the lens.
"Speak for yourself, Liesl. The lantern remains below you. I shall wait for you in the kitchen." Ellie's voice echoed back up at Liesl over the storm.
Liesl had the urge to demand that Ellie return for the lantern, but she knew it was no use. Sighing, Liesl sat on the ledge, shaking her head. Slow and sure, sister. She thought, leaning her head against the metal pane. The last thing we need tonight is to add to the number of injured in our midst.Last edit by Joe V on Nov 27, '13