tagRomanceThe Lighthouse

The Lighthouse


She was amused when semen started showing up in her art — semen as an image in her poems to describe the stars that spread over the ocean at night, or in her paintings in the thick paint she used to show the foam of the breakers that surged around the rocks at the base of the lighthouse. It wasn't that she was horny or that Seth didn't see to her needs. It was metaphysical semen, poetic, and she supposed it meant something about nature. Nature had come to obsess her ever since they moved out to this old lighthouse and converted it into a bed and breakfast, and it consumed her in a way that she couldn't discuss with Seth--as some vague yearning that went beyond anything she'd expected when they'd bought this place. Sometimes in the late afternoon she would walk off the little island on which their property stood, cross the bridge and head down the highway to a little point from which she could look back and watch as the setting sun colored the white-washed lighthouse pink and then orange. Against the slate gray of the sea and the darkening sky, it was phallic enough to be embarrassing but still lovely, and it made her smile even as it stirred and excited her with emotions she couldn't explain. At such times, she had no doubt that moving here had been a wise choice.

Seth wasn't inattentive, but the kind of attention she wanted now had changed into something she couldn't understand or describe, let alone express. She couldn't make sense of the paintings and poems she started producing, but they'd lost that clarity and innocence they'd had when she was working in the city and that troubled her. It had been her vision of an idyllic country life as expressed in her paintings that had driven them to buy this place and set up their eco-friendly inn, and the fact that her work had now became confused and muddy might merely be a sign of the move's lingering turmoil, but it troubled her.

Seth, on the other hand, adapted surprisingly well. After working for a big corporation in the city, he found the simple exigencies of dealing with nickels and dimes to be wonderfully purposeful and refreshing, and he threw himself into it with an ecologist's sense of mission and a capitalist's fervor. Julia helped him as much as she could throughout the winter, fixing up the outbuildings and finding suppliers for their all-organic kitchen, but now that spring was here and guest were starting to arrive she was once again free to pack up her easel and paints and climb the rocky bluffs on the mainland and paint at the verge of the dark forest, or sit by the ocean and try to capture the incessant sounds of the sea in a poem.

It bothered her that what she so often heard by the water's edge was not the slow, reassuring sounds of the sea, but a kind of hostile and derisive snarling. When she painted near the woods, the raw spring wind would toss the pines and make them rock with what seemed like secret and perhaps contemptuous laughter. This wasn't the gentle and benign natural paradise she'd assumed it would be, and she felt like a stranger.

Still, in the early dawn when she'd sneak out, or as the sun was setting and painting the rocks with orange and pink, she could feel her heart lift in her chest at this place they now called home. It was later in the day, when she would help Seth unload the organic produce and see to lunch and dinner that she felt this strange sense of menace and unease. The wind was always blowing, sometimes in, sometimes out, but always blowing, and at times it grew quite irritating, like a playful dog that doesn't know when to stop.

She was painting down near the sheltered cove that served them as a beach, and struggling as usual with the sea and sky (why couldn't they stay the same for even a second? They changed every time she looked away, as if it were a joke) when she finally gave up. Clouds were moving in from the east and ruining the light, and the pines on the bluff looked sleek and expectant, as if they knew something she didn't.

She turned around to face the cove itself and saw a boat tied up to the old rotting jetty and a man in rubber boots wandering among the tide pools on shore with a net in one hand and a bucket in the other. There were signs clearly posted on the jetty warning people off. It was dangerous, and he was clearly trespassing.

Julia laid her easel and paints down so the wind wouldn't take them and clambered down the rocks. This wasn't a tourist boat or anything nice, but some old converted lobster tender, squat and ugly, with signs of hard use all over it.

"Excuse me!" she yelled, cupping her hands to her mouth. "Excuse me, but that jetty isn't safe! And you're on private property!"

The man didn't seem to hear her, but in the course of scanning the rocks he saw her and gave her a friendly wave.

Julia turned her baseball cap around so the brim protected her eyes, and scrambled down the granite rocks. It was early spring and the stone was warm where the sun had touched them, but dead cold in shadow. The man walked over to meet her, smiling easily.

"Sorry," she said as she dusted off her jeans. "But this is private property. Besides, that jetty's totally unsafe. No one's supposed to use it."

"Oh, I'm terribly sorry," he said. He had sandy hair and a clean, square jaw, and something about him made her believe he might be British. There was a kind of eager formality about him, and behind his yellow-tinted glasses, his eyes were honest and curious. He wore a thick, white fisherman's sweater that looked like he'd actually fished in it, and his green work-pants were rolled to the knees above a pair of thick rubber boots. "I'm Patrick Malone. I own Sea World Cannery back in Douglass? You must be from the lighthouse."

She knew there were abandoned canneries along the piers in town and their emptiness had given her and Seth a kind of grim satisfaction. She hadn't known that any still operated, but still, that didn't make him the enemy, not just yet. She saw no reason why not to shake his hand, so she did. "Yes," she said. "I own it. Me and my husband. I'm Julia Peavey. Seth's my husband"

"Glad to meet you, Julia." He seemed genuinely pleased. "I'd heard it had been bought, but this is the first time I've been out this year. I should have come around sooner to introduce myself, but I spend a lot of time in Boston these days. Don't get out to the factory as much as I'd like."

"Just what were you doing here, Mr. Malone? If you don't mind my asking."

"Oh, just puttering around, exploring." He lifted the bucket with some embarrassment, and Julia could see some dim creatures inside, moving with febrile urgency. They made her uneasy. "I like to get out on the water whenever I can, and your cove here is one of the few places where a little boat can still put in. Your tide pools here are excellent."

"Well, I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you not to do that anymore. The jetty's not safe, and the cove is for use by our guests."

"All right," he said. "Fair enough. I hear you're running something of an eco-tourism place, is that right? All unspoiled and natural?"

Julia braced herself. They'd run into a lot of this from the locals when they first bought the place and their plans became known, but most of the merchants accepted them, welcoming whatever business they could bring to this rust-bound town.

"That's right," she said. "Is that a problem?"

"No, no. Not at all. I'm all for preserving the environment and all that. I think it's wonderful. In fact, that's what I'm doing out here, poking around in the pools to see what's what. Do you know what a nudibranch is, Julia?"

She stepped back, realizing he was about to stick his hand in the bucket and pull out one of these creatures, no doubt some sort of slimy, mucousy thing, but he saw her reaction and he stopped.

"A theoretical nature lover, eh?" He smiled. "That's okay. Not many people appreciate a sea slug or a northern comb jelly, but that's what you've got here. Lovely little buggers. And back you go now." He poured the bucket out into a large pool, and Julia saw she'd been right to refuse. There were some quivery, viscid things in there, as if people had blown their nose into the bucket, from what she could see.

"Just what kind of cannery do you run, Mr. Malone?" she asked

"Oh, just pilchards. What you call sardines once they're all packed up."

"Sardines?" She just couldn't keep contemptuous edge out of her voice, but it didn't seem to bother him.

"The Pilchards swim a million strong, In the bottom of the sea. And as they swim they sing this song, "There is no me but we"

Know that song? Kids used to sing it when I was growing up, but most of them are disappearing now. The pilchards I mean, not the kids. In all of Douglass there's only five pilchard boats remaining. We only can a few months a year now. It's almost all gone."

"And yet you continue to fish?" she asked. "Wouldn't it make sense to give them a rest and let them reproduce?"

"We tried that," he said. "All through the nineties we slacked off to give them a chance, but they don't seem to want to come back. No one knows why. But hey, look, it's going to rain and get very cold. You'd better put your paints away."

She smiled. "So you saw me?"

"Oh yes. You were hard to miss. Water colors, right? I could tell from the way you worked."

Julia let him escort her up the rocks to where she'd left her stuff, and she watched him as he bent down and looked at some of her attempts. She could be very objective when it came to her painting, and she waited to hear what he'd say. He seemed to know what he was looking at.

"Very nice," he said politely.

"Be honest."

He laughed. "The rocks are fine, but you paint like you've never really seen the ocean or the sky. The water hasn't been like that all day. Last Sunday it was that color, but not since. But Jesus, come on! It's raining. Everything will be ruined."

It was only a drizzle really and Julia thought it odd that he should be alarmed, but almost as soon as he said it a gust of wind came up filled with cold, drenching rain, and the paintings were soaked before she could the box open.

"You should come by, Mr. Malone—"

"Patrick," he corrected.

"Patrick. Come by for dinner, on the house. Just phone first. We really should try to meet our neighbors. We've just been so busy."

Julia stood with her shoulders hunched up to keep the rain off her neck, but Patrick seemed not to notice it at all. He stood there smiling with the water streaming off his hair as if he were in his natural element. "Why thank you," he said. "I'd like that. Maybe I will."

He handed her the soggy paintings, slid down the rocks and turned and waved again. Julia collected her things but the whole block of paper was ruined. It was raining furiously and gusting, and the wind tried to rip her kit from her hands. She finally got everything together and as she began to trudge back to the lighthouse, she looked back and saw him back by the tide pools, totally unconcerned with the rain, his net at the ready, gazing into the water. The wet sweater clung to his fine, broad shoulders and his hair was plastered to his neck. The rain didn't bother him at all. She thought he must be mad.


The spring came bright and hard. When it didn't rain, the light was dazzling, and the grounds around the lighthouse—the woods and sea and even the rocks—seemed to hum with a kind of urgent impatience. Julia took her paints up into the old lighthouse itself where she had her dream studio. The light itself had been removed, but the windows gave a remarkable view of the surroundings, and maybe that was the problem. What she could see made any painting seem small and silly, and she spent most of the time leaning on the railing watching the ocean change colors under the clouds that raced with the constant wind. The grandeur and hurry of the sky spoke to something in her heart, something that wasn't as innocently pretty as she'd hoped it would be—a restlessness, almost a savagery.

She'd hoped she'd find a peace and tranquility at the lighthouse that would enable her to concentrate on her work and clarify things for her, but that didn't seem to happen. Rather than becoming clearer and easier to understand, things seemed to grow more nebulous and confused and she found herself spending more time just staring and listening, as if things were trying to speak to her. Rather than feeling more at one with her environment, she became aware of how separate she was. The sight of Patrick standing comfortably in the rain haunted her until she realized that she envied him. She wanted to feel that kind of comfort too.

The strange thing was, the more she felt detached and adrift, the more Seth seemed to get focused and involved. There were times when he reminded her of a puppet of some kind—a marionette. He'd always been very thin (sometimes she thought that stingy was a better word) but obsessed as he was now with the business end of the bed and breakfast, his movements took on a particular herky-jerky aspect, as if things were always pulling him around—reaching for the phone, clomping through the kitchen, arched over the desk at night going over invoices and his incessant spread-sheet budgets and projections.

She only seemed to be in the way when she tried to help, so she started doing the town errands, leaving him free to manage the place. She came to feel pretentious in her LL Beans and North Face clothes, so she started dressing down, like the townspeople she met. On this day, with the water calm and an almost summer-like smell coming off the rocks from the heat of the sun, she felt a need to adorn herself. She went into her bedroom and put on makeup, the first time she'd done that since they'd moved here.

Douglass was a sad town and dying, but in a leisurely, picturesque way. There was space and emptiness there, and that emptiness tugged at her now as she parked at the little post office by the docks to get the mail. Across from her, the long, red brick wall of a cannery basked in the weak spring sunlight, and Julia sat there looking at it for a long time as if it had something to tell her. The long rows of perfectly placed bricks had an almost hypnotic placidity and the light filled her with a kind of familiar sadness. Then there was the sound of men's voices and a commotion as some sort of machinery roared noisily to life down at the end of the pier. She jerked herself from her reverie and realized people were working—a trawler had come in, and above the commotion she heard Patrick's voice. Curious, she got out of the car and walked down the pier.

A gang of men was unloading the catch from the trawler, some in boots and slickers, others in flannel shirts or tee-shirts, all standing around joking and yelling. Patrick was in the middle of them, standing in a kind of vat or trough on the dock in hip boots, slicker and a yellow hardhat, holding a rake and shouting orders. A big, wide, flexible hose ran from a big machine on the dock and down into the hold of the boat, the other end emerging into the trough in which Patrick stood, which appeared to be a kind of spillway, running back into the darkness of the cannery. Julia watched as a man hit a switch and the roar of the machine changed pitch. The hose jerked and twitched like a snake, and then a stream of fish and seawater gushed from the end and spilled into the trough, rushing and foaming around Patrick's legs as he stood there shoveling them in with the rake.

It was an amazing sight, almost bacchanalian. Thousands, millions of little fish, a river of glistening silver, spilling out of the hose in a stream of frothing water, bouncing and swimming past Patrick and into the innards of the factory like a river of life. Patrick was bare-chested under the slicker, and beaming with joy as he worked, and the men were all happy and laughing as well, joking and calling out, and Julia realized this was a celebration, an occasion for joy.

There was a loud, hollow sucking sound and the engine roared anew as one bin was emptied and the tube was redirected by unseen hands below decks and sucked up another batch of fish and water from the hold, sending them gushing in another river of silver and white and green. Julia stood there in wonder. Such profligacy of life was amazing and thrilling in a vague and almost shameful kind of way.

Patrick saw her and gave her a wide smile. She couldn't hear what he yelled over the roar of the pump, but from the way he spread his arms and smiled like the lord of all he surveyed, she knew he was welcoming her to his world and mocking himself as some sort of master of sardines. He looked genuinely pleased to see her and his enthusiasm made her smile.

Another gush of fish and foam but Patrick ignored it, walking heavily to the side of the trough and clambering out. He stopped to shout some instructions in another man's ear, then pointed to Julia and stripped off the slicker and hardhat and climbed out of the waders. He fetched a flannel shirt from a bollard on the dock and came over, putting it on as he smiled broadly. He pointed to his ear, showing her it was too loud to talk, took her arm and walked her away from the roar of the pumps.

"It's good to see you, Julia," he said. "What brings you to town?"

"I was just at the post office and I heard this commotion. Is this your place?"

"Yes," he said, not without pride. "This is the Malone Empire, my kingdom by the sea. Built in 1911 by a Malone and in the family ever since. Want to see it?"

"No, really, I can't stay. I just heard the noise and..." Julia's eyes were captured again by the wall, the endless. hypnotic repetition of the bricks.

Patrick was buttoning up his shirt. He seemed to sense what she was looking at and said, "Kind of like life, isn't it?"

"I beg your pardon?" She looked at him to find him smiling at her.

"That wall. When I used to work here on summer break from college, I decided that wall was like my life—flat, featureless, each brick like another day. I was quite the poet back then."

"Oh," she smiled self-consciously. "I must be more urban than I thought. The bricks look like home to me."

He laughed. "Come on in. We're neighbors now. You should see how the other half lives. Ever see a cannery?"

She hadn't, and she really had no desire to. Her car was right there, but for some reason she let him lead her over to a weathered door in the wall and into the building, up some concrete stairs and through another door until they emerged on a catwalk above the plant—rows of shadowy machines and boilers and conveyers, clanking and hissing as they processed the stream of fish she'd just seen unloaded, tended by figures in yellow and orange slickers.

"It doesn't smell," she said, raising her voice to be heard. "I thought it would smell."

He laughed again. "No. Not when they're fresh. Everything's clean and sterile for the most part. All mostly automated too. They come in at that end, and then they'll come out there, in cans. Ever have fresh pilchard?"

Julia shook her head. She was aware of being in a kind of slaughterhouse, albeit one for fish, but she felt no sense of horror or death. There was more of a feeling of purpose and excitement, as if a harvest was being gathered in.

Patrick studied her face. "You're a vegetarian, I suppose. A vegan?"

"Vegetarian yes," she said. "But not that strict. Seth is, but I eat chicken on occasion, and dairy."


She smiled. "It will kill our business if this gets out, but no. I don't like fish. Never have."

"Ever have fresh? I mean, really fresh?"

She shrugged dismissively, embarrassed to be answering that question in such a place.

"Come on," he said. "I'll show you our quality control department."

He led her back along the catwalk, and Julia was transfixed by the thrumming machinery and hissing steam. Occasionally she could see the fish going by on conveyers between gleaming stainless steel walls, and she wondered why she wasn't more upset.

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