To The Lonely Seas And The Sky -- Part 7a
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.Ellie sat on the ledge in the lantern room, watching the approaching storm flash over the water. The lamp flickered gently, but the beam of light cast over the sinister water was strong and unfailing. She leaned against the storm pane, closing her eyes and feeling the heat of the lamp rising out of the lens.
Heat and blood and sweat and gunpowder, cries arising from the stretching field of once-green grass, now three bodies deep in the destruction of war--and heat, always the heat, the stench of a five-day-old death caught up in the rising temperatures of early July--
Ellie opened her eyes, grasping the side of the ledge and looking frantically about the lantern room. She took deep breaths, exhaling the smell of the battlefield from her nostrils as she reminded herself that she was nowhere near Pennsylvania. Not anymore.
Ellie sat perfectly still, daring not to blink again lest she invite the visions of that long-gone battlefield to return. But every second of consciousness was a hell that she hadn't known in over a decade--not since that day in early July when Mama had left the younger children with the neighbor and the two of them had departed for that God-forsaken place...
That July day was deceivingly pleasant in Baltimore. The weather was fair and mild, most unusual compared to the normally roasting temperatures of mid-summer. Ellie had been sitting outside the house on a barrel under the porch, watching Maidie, Johann and Liesl play while Mama worked inside. The incessant clattering of horses up and down the streets, the shouts of men working on the docks and the comings and goings of all colors of people had passed Ellie's day quickly until Mrs. DeFarge had come hurrying up to the door, her knitting trembling in her hands.
"Eleonora!" The dark-haired woman with the face of a mouse exclaimed, "Is your mother home?"
"She's inside, Mrs. DeFarge." Ellie had replied, feeling that familiar, instinctive mistrust of the middle-aged woman return.
With a huff and a dramatic sigh, Mrs. DeFarge had pushed open the door. "Caa-RIIII-naaa!" She trilled, her shrill voice shaking the rafters.
Ellie cringed as the greeting of their busybody downstairs neighbor echoed through the stairway. Her mother's sweet, melodic tone replied from above. "Good morrow, Thérèse. What news do you have?"
"Oh, Carina. Carina, my dear. There has been a battle in Pennsylvania, perhaps seventy miles from here, near some peasant-town called Gettysburg. Carina, the destruction is unprecedented, and the word is that the First Maryland Infantry was engaged in the battle. Oh, Carina! Carina? Carina!"
Ellie sat like a statue, listening to the sound of footsteps moving rapidly down the stairs. She knew something significant had happened. Something told her that within seconds, her life would forever be altered. She clung to those seconds, counted out in increments by footfall down the stairs. Five, four, three, two, one...
Carina von Erich burst out the front door, her eyes, fierce with purpose, falling on her eldest daughter. "Ellie, pack clothing for a few days. Prepare your sisters and brother to spend several nights with Mrs. Appleton. And when you've gathered your clothing, run down to Mr. Newton's stables and tell him we need his two fastest, strongest horses. We leave as soon as you return with them." Carina's eyes blazed, her skin pink with fervor.
"Y-yes, Mama." Ellie stammered, slipping to the ground from atop her barrel and running inside.
Ellie hurriedly packed her siblings' clothes, packed her own clothes and then ran down the street with urgency thumping in her chest. She knew not what had happened or why they were so quickly bound out of town, but Ellie knew instinctively that now was not the time to ask questions. She obeyed her mother's instructions to the letter, and when she returned to the house with the two towering steeds, her mother awaited her outside their front door.
Mrs. DeFarge was knitting, situated atop the barrel, her chubby feet inches off the ground as she shook her head. Her face, tear-streaked, was in constant motion as she muttered to herself from her perch. "All those men! Those poor dears...and in the heat and the mud and the smoke--"
"Thérèse!" Carina, who been standing and tapping her foot impatiently on the cobblestone, exploded. "Shut up! You sitting here blabbering about their miserable fates will not help them!"
Not even Mrs. DeFarge's lip quivered as she looked up at Carina in shock.
Ellie froze, as did the looming forms of the powerful creatures behind her. She paused in the street, gazing up at a woman whose face was set in stony determination, whom she hardly recognized as her mother. Not an ounce of emotion showed through those frozen features, which were typically lit up in warmth and honesty.
"Good girl, Ellie. Now come." Carina took the reins of the largest horse, threw their luggage into saddlebags on the back, and settled into the saddle.
Ellie pulled herself onto the second horse, her feet finding their way into the stirrups as she took the reins. "Where are we bound, Mama?" She asked, finally summoning the bravery to question her circumstances.
Carina's face softened. She moved her horse alongside Ellie's, leaning in confidentially so that the lingering Mrs. DeFarge could not hear her. "Ellie, there has been a battle. Your father's regiment was there. We are to leave immediately to find him and offer what assistance we might to the unfortunate men who remain. Do you understand, daughter?" She asked, soothing back her daughter's untamed hair.
Ellie nodded, not truly understanding anything beyond what her instincts told her. "Yes, Mama."
And with that, they were off. Soon, they had left the scenes of the crowded city behind them, and Ellie was quite pleased to find that green fields and rolling hills lay outside the choked streets of Baltimore. It had been years since she had seen the rise and fall of the land as she was accustomed to in her native Germany, and the fresh, sweet scent of summer on the wind nearly made her forget their purpose.
They rode for two days, staying overnight in a room at a boarding house in a small city on the trail. Ellie soaked in the quaint beauty of the town, the rise of the church steeple into the perfect sky and the tall oak trees growing in the square, once again nearly forgetting what grim business brought her and her mother to the quintessential village. But by the next morning, she would never forget.
Approaching Gettysburg on the second day of their journey, the smoke rising in the distance warned of the unfathomable macabre that lay straight ahead. They drew closer and a horrible stench hit them like a wall, nearly sending Ellie off her horse. Ellie and Carina drew their handkerchiefs over their noses and pressed on. Ellie couldn't imagine what could possibly be worse until they began to see them--the bodies of men, old and young, piled in fields, strewn over fences, trapped in barns--scattered across the landscape.
As they moved through the outskirts of the battlefield and approached its center, the horses stepped carefully, moving slowly over the mutilated bodies of the dead and dying. The moans rose like an unholy chorus over the countryside. Mass graves--some partially dug, others in the process of being filled--dotted the fields as farmers attempted in vain to clean up the carnage left behind in the ravages of war. Fields of burned, ruined crops smoked into the sunlight, as if sending up a final, desperate cry for help. Ellie could barely open her eyes, for she knew that to do so was to feed the fuel of her nightmares. Eventually, she closed her eyes and held her breath as long as she could before she had to suck in more of the raunchy, rotten air, trusting her horse to follow her mother through the wreckage. While blinding her vision temporarily seemed to help, Ellie could not cover her ears, and she knew that the sounds she heard rising off that field would never leave her.
When she felt her horse stop, she opened her eyes once more to the horrors that lay in all directions. They stood before a two-story farmhouse, riddled with bullet and cannon holes. Men lay in rows in the front and side yards, some of them moving uncomfortably in the heat, and others suspiciously still. Surrounding the ordered structure of the yards, the battlefield resumed, the bodies lying in twisted disarray. Flies buzzed all around, the sound of their presence enough to turn Ellie's stomach.
Mama dismounted and took the narrow path in between the bodies to the front door. As she moved, a hand reached up, grasping for the hem of her skirt.
Ellie startled and screamed, clasping a hand desperately over her mouth.
Carina paused, turned and looked her daughter in the eye. "None of that, Eleonora. You must be brave, daughter. Now is the time to be brave." Carina turned on her heel and marched into the house.
Ellie closed her eyes again, summoning all her strength not to break down into tears at the ghastly scenes and sounds around her. When her mother reappeared and helped her off the horse, Ellie hoped she might feel relief, but something deep in the pit of her rolling stomach told her that the nightmare had just begun.Last edit by Joe V on Oct 29, '13