By: Bryan Shawn Wang
Elliot Strait Lighthouse, 1890.
From the outset, Inspector Harkin made clear his feelings toward my new assistant keeper. “Mr. Alexander Woodson,” he said, “hails from a town some twenty-five miles west of Baltimore.” Harkin, a formal naval commander, had little patience for landsmen. He continued, “Young Mr. Woodson has no prior service with the Lighthouse Board. He claims experience in carpentry and painting, but his hands are smooth and his knowledge slight. As for his dependability and industriousness—well, I suspect they would match his skills, but given the brevity of his employment history, I can only pronounce his character untested.”
I resolved to delay judgment until I’d met the man myself. For Mr. Woodson had been appointed over Harkin’s objections, a development that attested to the strength of the young man’s connections and undoubtedly had further irritated Harkin, who held a categorical dislike for men of privilege. The inspector often lamented “the dandies who, having proved unfit for their family businesses, dabble in lighthouse work while drawing another man’s rightful salary, and all because a relative has the ear of some corrupt congressman.” I, on the other hand, having some distant connections myself through my mother’s side (too far removed to be of any benefit to me), viewed political influence as a mere extension of wealth, which I begrudged no man. One who admires the life of the privileged cannot logically disparage another for attaining it.
Neither did Woodson’s purported inexperience trouble me—in fact, I preferred inexperience to faulty habits. Many longtime keepers considered their positions sinecures, caring little about maintaining a proper light. My previous assistant had worked for ten years as principal keeper at Drum Island before reporting to me, but within a month I’d discovered him asleep while on duty and was forced to recommend his dismissal. The other assistants, too—all arrived with impeccable references, all departed having suffered lapses: sloppy logbooks, grime in their quarters, even carelessness with the lens. When I offered advice, they took offense and turned gruff and dour.
And they were men of ill-breeding and licentious tendencies—I expected this young new assistant would soon distinguish himself from those vulgar men with their vulgar ways. When Woodson arrived, I would naturally welcome the easing of my responsibilities (my last assistant had departed nearly a month ago), but even more I anticipated the company of “an aspiring gentleman with the airs to match,” as Harkin put it, although the inspector sneered while giving this pronouncement.
At sunrise on the day of Woodson’s scheduled appearance, I set my duties aside to keep watch for him. The morning was clear, and the balcony outside the lantern room commanded a view that extended well beyond the strait to the town on the mainland some three miles away. The sunlight glinted across the ragged water as I surveyed the morning traffic—watermen setting out in their crab boats, market vessels en route to Annapolis and Baltimore. There was no sign of Samuel Pritchard, who was to ferry Mr. Woodson out to the station in his skiff.
While I watched for Pritchard, a decent and reliable man, I wondered how Woodson would adapt to his new occupation. First, there was the relentlessness of the work. Darkness and weather represented formidable adversaries, at once without form or substance and yet indefatigable as the tide. And how would Woodson take to life in the lighthouse? Many found offshore stations far too lonely—boredom and solitude had driven more than one keeper insane. I hoped Woodson would find, at the very least, my companionship to his liking.
I chided myself. I was all nerves, like a bride on the way to the altar. I climbed back into the cupola and descended directly to the service room. There is no steadier craft than a man’s work for steering him clear of the dangers posed by idle reverie.
Upon reaching the service room, I found myself continuing down to the cottage, whereupon I entered the station office and reviewed the inspector’s announcement. Mr. Woodson’s three-month probationary appointment to acting assistant keeper at Elliot Strait Lighthouse, Chesapeake County, Maryland—and hence, my responsibility for his care, supervision, and evaluation—would commence upon his reporting for duty at the station on the fifteenth day of May in the year of Our Lord 1890 at seven o’clock in the morning.
I checked the calendar and logbook to confirm the date. What kind of accident had delayed Woodson? I left the office again, and it occurred to me that there might have been no accident. Perhaps Inspector Harkin had miscommunicated the arrival date. The inspector’s ordinary methods did not include subterfuge, but his disdain for the young man was evident. Perhaps he meant to exploit me in his campaign against Woodson: I would report the man for dereliction of duty, Harkin would have cause to dismiss him, and any retribution from Woodson’s connections would fall squarely upon me. Apparently, I would require some cunning myself to avoid trouble with the new assistant while remaining in the inspector’s good favor.
I returned upstairs to the service room, where I donned my apron. Woodson materialized beside me. This was but an apparition, naturally, an imaginary form that had gradually taken shape over the past two weeks, becoming more fully developed with each passing day, with finely wrought features, nearly tangible flesh. He cut a handsome figure, tall but slender and with excellent posture. His eyes betrayed youthful vigor and passion, his expression was at once humble and good-natured, and his manner suggested respect.
Pulling on my gloves, I murmured, “Always wear the linen apron and gloves when handling the lens. If the inspector were to find a scratch, he would deduct the cost of repairs from your salary.” The ethereal Woodson acknowledged my words with a deferential tilt of the head.
I mounted the wooden stairs to the lantern room. The morning sun had risen in full splendor, and I strode to the window and lifted my eyes heavenward.
“Surely,” I remarked to my phantom assistant, “our Creator fashioned nothing more wondrous than that celestial flame.” I opened the lens and removed the lamp. “And yet, even the sun takes its rest each night, and each night our lantern takes its place to illumine this corner of the world.”
Carrying the lamp down to the service room, I continued, “We are partners, the sun and the light keeper, and the knowledge that beside its radiance our light is but a flicker does not diminish the keeper any more than the divinity of our Father Himself diminishes the miracle of a human life, with its every flaw.”
I filled the font and trimmed the wick under the watchful eyes of my imaginary apprentice. “Precision, care, and efficiency,” I instructed. “Let routine accompany you through the days, and let pride in your work guide you.”
I carried the lamp back up to the lantern room, replaced it, and brushed the Fresnel lens. I wiped the lens with the linen cloth and the buff-skin. “Not a smudge or a trace of dust,” I said. “The lives of many men depend on our light.” I covered the lens and hung the curtains about the room, shutting out the sun.
As I returned downstairs and set about my other duties, the missing assistant continued to haunt me, and I periodically glanced out over the bay, searching in vain for Pritchard’s boat. I broke for lunch, retired to my quarters, and slid into a fitful slumber. My dreams were fraught with young Woodson, but I woke of course to an empty room. After a supper of cold beans and boiled crab, I climbed up to the cupola. I lit the lantern. With the glow of the lamp behind me and the sun slipping below the horizon, I surveyed the deserted bay one last time, and then steeled myself for another night watch alone.
Mr. Woodson arrived the following morning at half past seven. As Pritchard’s skiff neared the station, I climbed down from the cottage to the lighthouse platform to welcome the men and help tie up. Pritchard did not return my greeting. He pulled his boat grimly, and he wore an angry expression.
The assistant sat erect at the stern, hands folded in his lap, face averted from that of his escort. I noticed at once Woodson’s half-buttoned coat and the irreverent angle at which he wore his cap, but my focus quickly shifted to his face and frame. Although he remained seated while Pritchard shipped the oars, his short stature was apparent. He was a person of some bulk, however—an ungenerous man might have called him piggish. Nevertheless, I thought the boy (surely Woodson could claim no more than twenty years)—in the bright eyes, the proud set of his jaw, his fair complexion—bore a distinct resemblance to the vision I’d conjured up for him.
Woodson looked up now with a full grin, and he saluted me with mocking crispness that called to mind a schoolboy’s waggery.
I helped Pritchard secure the boat, and Woodson clapped his hands smartly. “That’ll do, gentlemen.” He rose and stepped onto the platform. With a quick jerk, he indicated the large trunk in the skiff. “Careful with the packer. It’s a heavy son of a gun.”
Pritchard scowled. Cursing, he dumped the luggage over the gunwale.
“Careful!” protested Woodson. “You’ll damage the leather!” As the young man struggled to right his trunk, Pritchard uttered another profanity.
I respected the old seaman, but with his manners and temper, he made an unbecoming representative of Elliot Strait. Brusquely, I untied the skiff and thanked Pritchard, bidding him a good day.
Pritchard took up the oars and pulled the boat around. “Good day, Mr. Cornwell.”
His eyes strayed briefly toward Woodson, who was still fiddling with his trunk. “And to you, boy,” Pritchard called, “I say good riddance.”
Woodson remained silent until Pritchard had rowed some distance from the station. Only then did the lad straighten his posture and face me.
I extended my hand. “Welcome to Elliot Strait.”
He clicked to attention and saluted again. “Alexander Hayward Woodson, reporting for duty, Captain. It’s a privilege to come aboard.”
I couldn’t help but smile at this lightsome behavior, which added to the impression (again I noted his height—he scarcely cleared my shoulder) of Woodson as more boy than man. Nevertheless, knowing the value of a firm hand as well as a supportive arm, I assumed a more serious expression and inquired about his tardiness.
Woodson appeared perplexed. Now, I thought, we would uncover the miscommunication from Inspector Harkin. I didn’t relish the thought of going against my superior, but there was no one else to defend the assistant from the inspector’s designs.
Woodson drew a pocket watch from his jacket and frowned. “That old crab could have rowed a little harder.”
“You’re a full day late, Mr. Woodson.”
He let slip the beginnings of a smirk. “Ah yes, that.” His grin broadened, and then I understood that there had been no miscommunication.
“To tell the truth,” said Woodson, “I didn’t believe the date of my arrival would matter much. Is not one day at a lighthouse the same as every other? Light the candle when the sun goes down; blow it out when day breaks again?”
“I beg your pardon—”
“It was my missus. We’d only traveled down from the city last Monday, and after such a trip—roads crookeder than a Monte Carlo croupier, threats of highwaymen, sightings of wild snakes—good God! After that harrowing journey, the missus demanded compensation, if you understand my meaning. I had marital duties to fulfill.”
I hesitated. Woodson seemed hardly old enough to pull on his trousers properly, and some woman had already laid claim to him, schooled him in the ways of marriage!
“I’ll note your explanation in my report,” I said.
Woodson’s smile drooped a little. “Please, sir,” he said. “We’ve been married . . . just three months, sir. Think of your own wife—”
We exchanged glances.
I had never married. The opposite sex mystified me, and regardless, the Board barred women and children from living at offshore stations. Why pursue something one couldn’t keep? Families sometimes manned coastal lighthouses (I’d been raised in a lighthouse in Southern Jersey), but Elliot Strait had no place for a woman.
“I see,” Woodson was saying. “So that’s how it is.”
I gripped the ladder that led to the cottage. “There’s work to be done, Mr. Woodson. We’ll begin after you’ve stowed your belongings.”
His smirk returned. “It’s not shared quarters, is it? Not that I would mind so very much, but I’m sure the missus wouldn’t look kindly on shared quarters.”
By the time Woodson emerged from his room, I’d finished preparing breakfast. Over the years I’d acquired some ease in the kitchen, with recipes passed on by assistants’ wives and village women who sought to aid their bachelor lighthouse keeper. I’d become practiced in the judicious use of spices and learned how to best mingle variety and the familiar. I had discovered that taste was as much a matter of the heart’s disposition as of the tongue: what the contented man savored could provoke curses and choking from the disgruntled.
I scraped a pair of salted croaker, still sizzling in butter, from the griddle and laid them one aside the other on a platter. I set the fish on the table along with ground black pepper, sliced onions, and several yeast powder cakes.
Woodson squinted at the meal. “I don’t suppose there’s anything else on the menu this morning, Captain?”
I frowned at the impertinence, but offered him the half of a roast that remained from the previous week. I’d covered the leftovers with thick gravy to prevent spoiling, but when I brought out the roast, we discovered maggots had already found it. I suggested skimming off the worms and reheating the meat.
He recoiled. “Good God!”
After a long moment, he reached for a biscuit.
As we set upon the breakfast, I asked him how he’d come about the job. He responded with a grin, wide and cocksure.
“A typographical error,” he said. “An advertisement in the newspaper called for someone to perform light housework. My wife was experiencing the lady troubles that morning and bade me inquire into the job after her. The next thing I know, they’ve dumped me in a boat with a madman at the oars, bound for a lighthouse in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay.”
He grinned. “Although I am impressed. It seems light housework would have proved far more demanding than what passes for work for you lighthouse keepers.”
This gibe was an old one, and I was well acquainted with the general prejudices against our profession, but I bristled nonetheless. Woodson would learn soon enough the many tasks required to maintain a lighthouse in proper order. First, however, he needed to appreciate the serious nature of our work. I informed him that hundreds, if not thousands, of vessels engaged in maritime trade in the Chesapeake. I provided a brief discourse on the topography of the Bay, how its vast area belied its relative shallowness, and described in particular the shoals around the strait, which, just a few decades prior, had claimed at least one shipwreck every year. “Mariners depend on every star in the constellation of Chesapeake lighthouses,” I declared, rising and collecting the dishes. “And though the pay is modest, the view is near Heaven itself—”
“And the preponderance of leisure time—” Woodson broke in.
I glowered. “I wouldn’t trade the responsibilities or the satisfaction for anything.”
Woodson rose and unbuttoned his jacket. “I meant no offense, sir.” He slung the jacket over his chair.
I plucked up the coat and brushed the crumbs from its sleeves. “You’re on duty, Mr. Woodson. Lighthouse regulations require personnel to remain in uniform while in service.”
As he snatched the jacket and slipped it back on, I withheld further comment. In good time, I thought. The sea shapes even the rockiest shoreline in good time. The snappish quality of Woodson’s voice, his cheeky smile, the mischievous glint in his eye—in another man any of these traits might have galled me, but I realized that his was an arrogance borne of youth, which thereby implied malleability. Here was an opportunity, I thought, a challenge to lay my hands upon him as if he were so much clay and mold him as I desired.
We began the morning with a tour. Although I did not belabor the point, I could not help remarking on the building’s cozy design. Like other screw-pile lighthouses on the Bay, Elliot Strait exhibited a handsome architecture and a modest but perfectly functional height that I greatly preferred to the obscene Caisson towers the Board had begun to erect throughout the region.
I led Woodson through the station’s main cottage level, whose hexagonal floor plan comprised four equal-sized and interconnecting rooms. Proceeding clockwise from the kitchen, we walked past the alcoves that served as pantry and coal closet and on into the office. I thumbed through the logbook, explaining how to record station upkeep, weather, and other lighthouse business. I showed him receipts for lamp oil and tallies of oil usage, records of other miscellaneous expenditures, and observations of shipping traffic.
Woodson scoffed. “A tedious amount of recordkeeping. I sympathize with you, sir.”
“The Board,” I responded, “expects completeness, timeliness, and good penmanship.” An ill-kept notebook was grounds for formal discipline from the inspector, and a light keeper’s records were often relied upon by maritime authorities in salvage suits and the like. Intending to impart the gravity of the endeavor, I tried to meet his eye.
Woodson, however, had turned his attention to the books upon the wall shelf. “Man alive! It’s Willy Shakespeare!”
The steamship tender, which brought us supplies and, on occasion, Inspector Harkin or one of his subordinates on an unannounced examination, also housed a floating library from which the keepers could borrow in order to fend off boredom and to improve themselves. My previous assistants had uniformly bemoaned the quality of the library. “Classics!” they would cry. “Does the Board think us a pair of English scholars?” Their pleasures were taken from dime novels and other less sophisticated ilk. I, on the other hand, rather liked perusing those old works, a preference inherited from my mother, who believed that the refinement of the man led to the advancement of mankind. Despite her efforts at educating me, however, my comprehension was incomplete. Shakespeare, in particular, at once intrigued and baffled me.
“Hello, old friend.” Woodson selected one of the comedies. “ ‘As imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen turns them into shapes, and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.’ ”
I stared at him, delighting in the cadence of his reading and the richness of his voice, the reverence with which he treated the language. So this was refinement and culture. So this was the playground of the privileged, the avenue of the advanced man.
Straightaway, I offered Woodson the freedom to browse among my shelves. He nodded distractedly; he was already moving on. “And where does that door lead?”
“My quarters,” I said, leaving the door unopened. “And, of course, your bedroom lies beyond.” I turned him around and headed toward the stairs.
We went up to the service room, where I resumed Woodson’s practical education. Instructing him to pay close attention, I displayed the cans of oil for the lamp, the measures and the funnels and the carriers. There was reassurance in these tools, every one with a proper use, care, and storage place, each stamped with the Lighthouse Service tag. I showed him the lantern wicks, the cloths for polishing the lens and the brasswork, the oil for the clockwork and carriage rollers, and the two sets of fire buckets, filled respectively with water and with sand.
I handed Woodson a linen apron and a pair of gloves and urged him to treat the lens with care. “If the inspector were to find the lens scratched,” I said, “he would deduct the cost of repairs from your salary.”
Woodson snorted. “In that case, I will handle the lens as infrequently as possible.”
“If you follow my instructions,” I assured him, “you will have no trouble.”
We climbed up to the lantern room. Sunshine filtered through the drawn curtains. As Woodson marveled at the great lens, I demonstrated how to handle, clean, and polish the glass. I launched a rudimentary lecture on the optics of Fresnel lenses.
“Yes, yes,” interrupted Woodson. “Apertures and focal lengths and all that other drivel they put such stock in at the university. What a horrid bore.”
I frowned, and he immediately amended his speech. “But I beg you, Captain,” he said. “Continue. As Prospero would to lowly Caliban: ‘Teach me how to name the bigger light, and how the less, that burn by day and night.’ ”
Once again, the quality and the exactitude of his words struck me dumb. The sun and the moon, I realized. Good Willy Shakespeare’s Prospero had taught Caliban to better understand the sun and the moon. I paused as the sense of additional meanings came to me. Woodson was making reference to another light—the light we would share as keeper and assistant—and at the same time, the language he had chosen held its own glow. It was an overture: I could teach him to operate the light station, and he would illuminate the workings of poetry. The practical and the aesthetic. The hull and the figurehead. We were both creatures of lack and gift, and we could make one another whole.
I informed Woodson that that would be all for the morning and turned stiffly away.
Diligence did not prove among Woodson’s natural virtues, and his initial progress was plodding. He left soot and oil spatters on the lamp housing, trimmed the wick too short, spoiled an entire batch of whitewash when he misweighed the ground rice. I redoubled my efforts to train him. Together we reviewed every facet of lighthouse operation, and I composed lectures to complement the Board’s printed Instructions to Light-Keepers. Even the most basic tasks—the correct way to hang the lantern room curtains, for instance—I reduced to written steps that a simpleton could manage: Note the hooks above the window casing. There is one hook for every eyelet in the curtain. Hang each curtain panel on its six hooks. The seams on the curtains are to face inward. Proceed around the cupola until every window has been covered.
Under this attention, Woodson’s apparent enthusiasm for the job bourgeoned, supplanting his initial condescension toward “light housework.”
“Captain,” he declared, “the precision with which you strike even a simple match kindles a feeling of inspiration at my very core.”
He possessed a rapacious curiosity and posed questions more numerous, varied, and esoteric by the day—the provenance and the composition of a particular polish, for example, and who had first formulated it, how long it could age, in which climate. These discussions could run on for hours, leaving me little time to prepare the meals and keep the cottage tidy. (Woodson seemed heedless of dust, crumbs, and scuff-marks alike.)
I didn’t complain. When Inspector Harkin wrote, asking for a preliminary report, I responded that Woodson was an exemplary keeper, and we were getting along most adequately. All true: I could make an example of him, and his company more than counterbalanced the inconveniences. He was a different sort of assistant, whose worth one measured not in the number of hours he kept watch, or his facility with the feather duster or paintbrush, but in the rapidity with which time passed in his presence, the wit of his banter, the graciousness with which he noted my interest in Shakespeare. With neither scorn nor mirth, he would offer at unexpected times a choice speech, a quatrain, or a concluding couplet.
“ ‘Lo, in the orient,’ ” he said, as we watched the sun rise one morning, “ ‘the gracious light lifts up his burning head, each under eye doth homage to his new-appearing sight.’ ”
I heard the rhyme, but could not grasp the reason. “Under eye?”
“Earthly eye, Captain. In his seventh sonnet, the Bard tells how every eye on earth looks in awe at the rising sun.”
“Surely,” I ventured, “the Creator fashioned nothing more wondrous than that celestial flame.”
His simple nod spread to the corners of my spirit and raised it high as a banner in the wind. “Aye,” he said. “Our light is but a flicker beside the sun, as wretched by comparison as a mere mortal cowering before the so-called Lord of Lords.”
I felt a longing to clap my arms around the man. He’d arrived just days ago, and already Time had distorted, as if viewed through some peculiar spyglass. The years before Woodson’s arrival contracted to a brief remembrance of dull and insignificant events while the arc of the present lengthened and gleamed. In those few hours we shared each day (Woodson had assumed the overnight shift), we took our meals together and worked alongside each other. I taught him the rudiments of such pastimes as woodcarving, cribbage, and model building, although he clearly preferred his own pursuits. He was an amateur naturalist and an aspiring poet—“Yet another occasion for Father’s pride,” he observed. Perhaps he meant this ironically, but he did not elaborate. Anyway, when I encountered him on the gallery, sketching some creature he’d dredged up in a crab pot, or composing a bit of verse, I didn’t disturb him. Time seemed to stretch beyond the present, glittering with possibility and seemingly without end.
At the beginning of June, Woodson requested permission to go ashore.
“It’s the missus,” he said. “Those marital duties, you remember—it’s a prick in the pocket, but there’s nothing else for it. It’s got to be done.”
I’d nearly obliterated Mrs. Alexander Woodson from my mind. Since his arrival, Woodson hadn’t once mentioned his spouse. He’d sent no message, had never asked that his lover be granted visitation. I fought off a swell of jealousy, trying to consider the matter unselfishly. Every day Woodson spent in my company he withheld from his own lawful wife. It was only right that he go ashore and perform his other “duties.”
“How long of a leave do you propose?” I asked.
“Two days should suffice, sir.”
“Two days?” I reminded him that regulations permitted eight days each month. (A count that I myself never reached—I left the station only when necessary, visiting town every week or so for supplies and the mail. Everything else I received from the tender, or made myself, or made do without.)
Woodson now looked unsure. “Perhaps three.”
“I’ll grant you four days, Woodson.”
He bowed. “Thank you, Captain.”
As he prepared to depart the following morning, I maintained a composed, almost cheerful manner. I helped him lower the station boat from the davit, turning the winch with a quick, resolute hand. I marched down to the platform and held the craft steady as the lad stepped in. I bade him farewell.
I returned to the cottage and put a kettle of whitewash on the burner. When it was ready, I took the pail upstairs and set to painting the lantern gallery balustrade. Woodson will return soon enough, I thought, tapping my brush against the bucket. I painted the first post, finishing with a flourish, and without a pause, I moved on to the next baluster. I’d gotten along well enough without Woodson before. I guessed now I could suffer his absence just fine.
That evening, the assistant’s ghostly doppelganger attended me once again. The creature had altered to accommodate Woodson’s unkempt uniform, his stocky frame, his playful demeanor.
I led the boy to the office and seized a volume of Shakespeare’s verse. The apparition smiled.
My fingers flipped at once to the seventh sonnet, with the lines about the gracious light lifting up his burning head. I read aloud, my voice echoing through the chamber, and Woodson nodded in approval. I thumbed forward to Sonnet 13 and Sonnet 14, and together we looked over the opening of Sonnet 18.
I closed the book, perceiving the sudden convergence of art and reality as the metered syllables of the various poems fell to the beat of my emotions. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate. Why, the poet might as well have been me, and Woodson the young friend he was addressing. Get thou a son, I ordered the phantasm. Eternalize thy sweet semblance. Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom.
My understanding of the poems as a collection slipped free of the dull carapace of my former ignorance, assuming a new and vibrant texture, drawn in lines sharp and precise. The younger, handsome, aristocratic friend, who controlled the poet’s passion and pen, who seemed at once master and muse. Yes, I thought, opening the book again. Woodson, fair as any mother’s child. Master, muse, apprentice, son. He was all of these, and more.
One night, a week after Woodson had returned to the station from his leave, I woke in darkness. It was an absence of light more complete than I’d ever experienced before. I jolted awake. Had I lost my sight? I groped toward the window, where the soft roll of the ocean reached my ears and the salt air was in my nostrils and on my tongue and the evening’s warmth enveloped me like a blanket—and yet my eyes took in nothing, only a terrifying black void—until at last I spotted the tiny wink of stars overhead against the moonless heaven. I lowered my gaze and made out the dim form of the gallery railing before me, and the window frame, and now my own hand passing before my eyes.
My relief, however, quickly fled before the realization that Woodson had allowed the station lantern to go dark.
I lit a lamp and rushed from my room. When had the light gone out? How many ships had passed in the meantime? I hurried through the office and the kitchen and, after a moment’s hesitation, threw open the door to Woodson’s quarters. All was dark. I clambered upstairs, envisioning more appalling scenarios. What if I had woken to the commotion of a ship wrecked upon the shoals or—Heaven forbid—colliding with the station? What cargo might have been lost, what expenses suffered, what lives ruined, or taken?
In the service room, I found Woodson seated at the desk with his head fallen forward. The lad did not stir even as I held the lamp near him and let my hand hover above his shoulder.
I prepared a reprimand, the kind of lecture that makes a man at the same time it breaks him. I would lead Woodson upstairs into the cupola and allow him to contemplate the darkened lens. As we corrected his error, I would inform him that for twenty-two years, my record and reputation had gleamed. I had earned the first efficiency star ever awarded by the Board, and even now the Fifth District Inspector’s Pennant fluttered above Elliot Strait. The light would shine again, but not before twenty-two spotless years had been indelibly tainted. Inspector Harkin would take us to task for this neglect.
I noticed then the quill resting in Woodson’s fingers, the inkpot still open beside his lamp. I leaned in close, so close I could smell his sweat and see the oil glistening in his hair, could hear the gasp and sigh of his breathing. Pinned beneath his hand lay a sheet of paper. A poem. A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted / Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion.
Woodson had been copying Shakespeare’s twentieth sonnet. It was the very poem that I’d been puzzling over for the past week. I bent closer, and among the crevices of his splayed fingers I made out more lines; what was obscured, I could recite. A man in hue, all hues in his controlling / Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth. My feelings for the boy reared up, fairly burst forth as I imagined a nascent bond between us. Trembling, I read on. And for a woman wert thou first created / Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting / And by addition me of thee defeated / By adding one thing to my purpose nothing. It was no coincidence that Woodson and I were studying the same sonnet. He and I were of a kind, and that kind was not common at all. Lack and gift. But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure / Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.
The glow from Woodson’s lamp prompted me to remember my duty. Softly, I ascended to the cupola, opened the lens, and retrieved the lantern. The master-mistress of my passion. In the service room, I amended the wick and added more oil. Woodson slept on. She pricked thee out for women’s pleasure. How had I not seen the meaning? Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure. I ascended again and relit the lantern and returned straightaway to my own quarters.
Love—aye, now I could label it, Love—swept over me in a massive wave. It was no longer a casual affection that I felt for Woodson, but a tumultuous madness that had whelmed me, tossed me this way and that, and was now dragging me ever farther from the shores of my familiar bachelor’s life.
He commanded my singular attention. I directed him to varnish the service room floor, and then found myself insisting on working alongside him. “For expedience’s sake,” I explained. Each afternoon, I kept supper warm until he stirred from his quarters. To eat alone seemed a grim torment. Even when slumber threatened to part us, I contrived to attend him. I woke often during the night to creep upstairs and watch him at work, pen in hand, book open before him.
Woodson, by comparison, was a sound sleeper, and I discovered that within minutes after he turned in each morning, I could enter his quarters undetected. At first, I dared not linger long, and I kept a pretext ready—I would claim to be searching for the rouge, or the rotten stone (Woodson was often misplacing items). Soon, however, I was sitting for extended intervals beside him, imagining the company of this man throughout my days at this station. I ached with this longing, felt it pull at me with a force so wrenching I feared it might eviscerate me.
Woodson acted more amiably than ever. He gripped my elbow when I praised a sketch of his, patted me on the cheek when I purchased a side of salted pork from town. As we went about the chores, he praised me effusively, remarking on how my expertise caused his heart to quicken and his blood to boil.
Once, when I offered him an early reprieve from a fog watch, he called me “Darling.”
Nevertheless, whenever I dared believe I had achieved a unique standing in his affection, there came the reminder that he had already pledged his love.
I granted his every request to visit town—a few days here, several there. I wondered whether his wife was of the possessive sort. Did she nag him for the paucity of attention he paid her? Or did she simply delight in their shared moments? Did Woodson truly love her in return? The frequency of his visits suggested his devotion, but devotion and passion are often separate directions on the heart’s compass. More than once, I overheard him mutter about pettiness and envy, and how the whole of the female race could find their hope in Hades. Fantasizing that the marriage was but a sham, I refused to inquire after the woman whenever I went ashore, and I was grateful that Woodson never requested that she come visit us.
During his absences, I tended whatever responsibilities had gone neglected. I cleaned and repaired apparatuses, straightened the common areas, updated the records. I recommitted myself to Shakespeare, studying the sonnets anew. I absorbed Sonnet 57 until its lines seemed as essential to my being as breath and blood. Think not the bitterness of absence sour, I thought, looking out toward town. So true a fool is love.
At the beginning of July, Woodson left the station for a full week, and I decided to spruce up the boy’s quarters. It was a task of no small proportion. Being his slave, what should I do but tend upon the times of his desires? I have no precious time at all to spend, till he requires.
I attacked first his scattered clothes, airing the garments and brushing and mending where needed. For his conjugal visit, Woodson had worn an outfit suitable for a posh social engagement. Dare not question with jealous thought where he may be, or his affairs suppose. I swept the room and dusted it, and when I’d finished, I repaired the paint on the floorboards and the walls. Like a sad slave, stay and think of naught save how happy he makes those. I laundered the bedclothes and remade the bed, tightening the sheets and smoothing them out.
I turned to Woodson’s papers. At first, I simply stacked and bound them, with barely a glance at their contents. When I stepped back, however, and scrutinized the desk with an inspector’s eye, the sheaf appeared much too disorderly.
I would have to sort the papers.
Many of the pages contained brief notes of an impersonal nature, handwritten in Woodson’s imprecise scrawl. There were sketches, too, of songbirds and wildflowers, and verse concerning similar subjects. I saw nothing at all that would indicate the degree to which Woodson contemplated our friendship until I opened the desk drawer to file the papers, whereupon I discovered a folio of hand-copied sonnets, penned in an elegant script. “ ‘So true a fool is love,’ ” I murmured, as I read over the dedication: To the keeper of my deepest yearning—may your light endure for so long as these lines may please our eyes, ears, hearts, and souls.
I said it again: “ ‘So true a fool is love.’ ”
Woodson returned from that weeklong hiatus in a curious mood, harried and distracted to no end. He shut himself up in his quarters, refusing supper, and that evening, I caught him weeping in the lantern room. No value in this world, he was saying. A man of no value.
I asked if there was anything I could provide. He directed me to leave off attempts to assuage his grief. “Of what use,” he asked, “is a drop of brine to a man dying of thirst?”
I did not press him further, but the bitterness of his reproach remained with me through the night, dissipating only when, the next morning, the steamship tender brought a surprise visit from Inspector Harkin.
I knocked on Woodson’s door and gently ordered him into uniform.
“Full dress!” he grumbled. The day was terrifically hot, the sun already bearing down on the bay with a divine might. But when I apprised Woodson of the Inspector’s arrival, his disposition instantly and fully transformed, and a moment later, he was in dress uniform, burnished and professional. We hurried downstairs to the platform to greet Harkin.
“I’ll come right to the point, Mr. Cornwell.” The inspector ignored Woodson and his salute. “Several ship captains reported the light out at your station on the night of June 14. Were you aware of this situation?”
“No, sir!” Woodson’s voice was sharp. “We run a tight ship here, Admiral. Shipshape, spicky span, niminy piminy.”
Unsmiling, Harkin said, “Mr. Woodson, you are still the first assistant of this station and, as such, are to follow the directions of the principal keeper and his superiors, and I order you now to keep your dang trap shut.”
Harkin’s glare was unremitting. I remained impassive, trying to demonstrate for Woodson the face of efficient compliance.
“Mr. Cornwell?” asked the inspector.
“Yes, sir,” I answered. “The lamp was out on the night of June 14.”
“I will remind you that an abandoned light is a dismissible offense.”
“Yet you made no report of it.”
“No, sir.” In truth, I hadn’t recorded the incident in the logbook either, or confronted Woodson about it. I’d somehow concealed the mistake even from myself.
The inspector looked hard at me. “Who was on duty that night?”
I hesitated for just a moment. “I was on duty, sir.”
“You! Shall I check the station’s logbook?”
“The records show Mr. Woodson was to keep watch,” I said, “but the fault was mine. Earlier in the day, Mr. Woodson had asked to be excused from duty for illness. I consented, but he continued to work that afternoon without further complaint. By that evening, I’d forgotten both his condition and his request and retired to my quarters. Mr. Woodson attended the lamp that night, but owing to his illness, fell asleep. The blame belongs to me.”
Harkin’s incredulity was plain. “You’ve never made so serious a mistake.”
“No, sir. We should have stayed in better communication that day.”
“You’ve had no difficulty communicating with your assistants prior to this.”
“No, sir.” I glanced at Woodson, who wore the faintest trace of a smile. “Nor since. As I noted in my report, Woodson is an exemplary keeper.”
“Yes,” said Harkin. “I read your report.” He put his hands on the ladder railing and began to climb up to the cottage. “I will observe firsthand what kind of example Mr. Woodson sets. Would you grant me the courtesy of a tour of the station?”
Harkin conducted a cursory inspection of the common areas, flipping quickly through the paperwork and striding from the office to the kitchen to the stairs. On the second level, I nearly panicked, seeing that Woodson had forgotten to cover the windows up in the cupola. The sun blazed in at an angle that approached the lens; we would have to hang the curtains soon or we were liable to have a fire. We remained in the service room only briefly, however, and did not go upstairs, and Inspector Harkin failed to note the omission.
Apparently intent on finding fault with Woodson, and Woodson alone, Harkin concentrated his examination on the assistant’s quarters. He scrutinized the finish on the furniture and the paint on the trim. He opened the drawers of the bureau and slid a gloved finger along the sides and bottom of each compartment. He opened the closet and evaluated the shine on Woodson’s shoes, inspected the buttons and seams of his lighthouse garmenture. All was in first class shape, however, the product of my work from the previous week.
Harkin then put Woodson himself to the test, querying the boy over the schedule and procedures for upkeep of the illuminating apparatus, the fog bell and its clockwork machinery, the building’s exterior. My breath caught. It had been some weeks since we’d reviewed many of these subjects, and Woodson had rarely put his education into practice.
“How does the fog bell at this station toll?” asked the inspector.
“As any other bell tolls, sir. By means of a clapper striking the cup.”
Harkin’s disdain was vicious. “Mr. Woodson, by what pattern does an approaching ship recognize the toll of Elliot Strait’s fog bell?”
My assistant scratched his head, and I nearly blurted the answer myself. But then Woodson smirked and said, “Thrice every thirty seconds, Admiral.”
The inspector did not pause. “In the preparation of whitewash, with every half bushel of unslaked lime, how many pounds of ground rice are necessary?”
Woodson winked at me before answering, “Three pounds, sir.”
“What is the standard ration of beef for this station?”
“One pound a week,” said Woodson. He coughed and muttered, “Which is to say, about three pounds short.”
Harkin ignored him. “With what compound do you treat the rainwater?”
“With chalk, sir, to purify it.”
At length Harkin declared the inspection complete. He’d found not a single deficiency. He had a private word with Woodson, and then he requested a meeting with me. We retreated to the station office.
“Well done, Mr. Cornwell. You’ve fashioned a respectable keeper from little more than a bumbling idiot.” Harkin’s expression lightened. “Perhaps that reflects the undemanding nature of our profession.”
I frowned at the slight to both Woodson and myself. “We work well together, sir.”
The inspector said, “You’ll soon have the opportunity to try your hand with another assistant.”
“A second assistant, sir?” We had no need for a second assistant at Elliot Strait, and no room, either.
“Not a second assistant,” said Harkin. “A replacement.”
His voice softened as he explained. “Mr. Woodson has applied for the principal keeper position at the Dewey Point Lighthouse.”
Harkin nodded. “I thought it utter audacity. As you are aware, I harbored misgivings about Mr. Woodson from the start. He seemed a dilettante at best, and at worst—well, a danger. His application for Dewey Point, however, was forwarded straight from the office of the Secretary of the Treasury. As it turns out, Mr. Woodson’s uncle is an intimate of the Secretary.”
I stepped back, dazed. So Woodson did indeed have connections—and just as those connections had once brought him within my ken, dangling him before me, they now threatened to yank him away.
“After receiving his application,” continued the inspector, “I read your report of Mr. Woodson’s performance here at Elliot Strait. Although your praise tempered my opinion of him, I was not yet fully persuaded. And then I learned of the incident on June 14. I decided to postpone my recommendation on Mr. Woodson’s appointment until I’d investigated the matter and assessed his abilities myself.”
I stared at Harkin, my tongue useless.
“Principal Keeper Cornwell,” said Harkin, “given the strength of your commendations and my findings today of his adequacy, I cannot but accede to Mr. Woodson’s promotion to Dewey Point. He departs in two weeks’ time.”
I stood dumbly on the main gallery, watching the steamship tender depart. In my bewilderment, I had not made a single comment with respect to the promotion. Why in heaven’s good name would Woodson request a transfer to Dewey Point? Was he even capable of operating that lighthouse himself? At that small station, he would have no superior to amend his deficiencies, not even the benefit of an assistant. Unlike at Elliot Strait, Woodson would be utterly alone.
I began to pace the balcony, ruminating on the idea of a self-imposed solitude. Might there be a hidden reason? What if Woodson had not charted a course to Dewey Point so much as navigated an escape from Elliot Strait? But our post was a prized one within the district: the building’s construction was recent and sound, the maintenance manageable, the conditions relatively mild for the Chesapeake. As for our personal relationship—I had treated him kindly, almost lovingly, with a favoritism not typically bestowed upon a subordinate. I had believed our attachment as tight as that which cleaves a man to his wife.
And here I stopped. I scanned the water, noting how the tender had passed from sight. A lone skiff floated upon the bay.
What if my fondness for Woodson had, in some unintended fashion, frightened him off? Or what if his own feelings for me had startled him? He was a married man, and therefore presumably committed to the ideals and values of a conventional life. Did our behavior toward one another at any time smack of impropriety?
I looked up again. The small boat I’d spotted on the water bore a single occupant whose clumsiness with the oars was apparent. The boat traveled in a ragged line, its progress across the bay torturously slow. Its destination, however, was clear. We were to host another guest at the lighthouse this morning.
I summoned Woodson from his quarters. Vowing to confront him later about Dewey Point, I now simply directed his attention to the skiff.
Seeing the figure in the boat, Woodson blanched. “The fool will drown himself!” he exclaimed.
I followed Woodson downstairs to the platform. He waved frantically at the boat. As it reached the dock, I moored it, and the man inside stepped out.
They didn’t exchange a word, but it was obvious that Woodson and this fellow were acquainted. Cousins, I thought, or perhaps brothers, although the newcomer was as dark as Woodson was fair, lanky beside Woodson’s stout frame. Could this be one of the relatives of influence, one of those scheming men who had abetted, perhaps even encouraged, Woodson’s departure? I resolved to act in strict accord with lighthouse procedure.
The two men took hold of one another in the manner of long-lost comrades, an embrace almost discomfiting in its duration.
“Piper, you fool,” Woodson said, when they had finally separated. “Playing at sailor! I could not fathom the idea of losing you.”
“Though a thousand oceans separate us,” the visitor declared, “I would not stay away.”
Woodson paused. “Then you have changed your mind?”
“The lady is no longer your concern, nor is she mine. I will follow you to wherever the sun sets, my dear Woodsie.”
The two men made as if to embrace again, but I stepped forward, interposing myself between them. Woodson glanced darkly at me before making introductions. The man’s name was William Piper. Most certainly a cousin, I thought.
I inquired into the nature of Mr. Piper’s business, noting that unofficial lighthouse visitors were to register with station personnel before entering the property.
Mr. Piper directed his gaze toward me. “My business, Mr. Cornwell, is to reclaim this precious flower. I trust you have not abused him.”
I understood that the man was referring to Woodson. I kept my tone steady. “How I treat my assistant is not any of your concern.”
“It certainly is my concern.” Piper drew closer to me, and his voice grew aggressive. “My blossom wilts at the touch of a vulgar hand.”
Woodson looked amused. “Piper,” he said, “go easy. There’s nothing to fear from an old empty sack.”
I set my gaze on both of them. “Let me remind you that I am the principal keeper at this station.”
Woodson giggled. “Piper here is my keeper.”
“And Woodson mine.”
I began to understand that these two men were not cousins. I pointed, my finger traveling first to Woodson, and then to Piper, and back to Woodson again. “Then you are—” I could not speak the word, and the men turned to me and grinned and nodded.
“But your wife!” I cried to Woodson.
His laughter was loud and coarse. “My wife! Did you really take seriously my joking about a wife?”
“The trips ashore,” I said. “The marital duties . . .” Woodson continued to laugh, and the chaste scene of quiet domesticity with which I had contented myself during many absences dissolved, leaving the grotesque image of these two men cavorting, embracing, taking their pleasure with one another.
“You sicken me, Woodson.”
“Sicken you, Captain? Do you deny your own fancies?” Woodson laughed again, imperious in his immorality. “You cooked for me, you cleaned for me—did you do those things out of a sense of duty? Was it your duty to rifle through my personals, to cling to me every waking hour, to stare at me while you believed me unconscious? What, do you deny your actions? Your desires? Do you deny yourself?”
I reeled as I retraced the shape of my feelings for Woodson. I had thought to care for him, to enjoy his company, to love him. Had that fondness, so genuine and pure, distorted so? When I spoke to him, when I watched him, when I touched him, did my desires travel farther? Did they cross some consummate boundary? A sodomite. The little nancy had made me out as a sodomite.
“Oh, what a price for my commendation!” Woodson was saying. “How glad I am to be finished with that transaction.”
He turned to Piper. “Can you guess who stands before you?”
“The most superlative sampling of human flesh?”
“Perhaps that.” Woodson took hold of Piper’s hands. “As well as the next principal keeper of Dewey Point Lighthouse.”
“You have not one-tenth the expertise needed to operate Dewey Point!” I shouted. “That station will rot under your watch!”
“My opinion of this business,” replied Woodson, “remains the same as when I arrived. One lights the lamp at sunset and blows it out at dawn. Even my father would believe me capable of that.”
I stared at the fainéant. It was not training that he lacked. I’d trained him fully and well, as we had demonstrated to Harkin. It was the proper attitude that was missing—how could anyone amend such an attitude as this?
Quietly, I said, “Pack your things, Mr. Woodson. Leave the station. You are no longer my responsibility.”
Woodson said, “I will leave tonight. Mr. Piper and I have business to conduct now, and following that, I will need my rest.” He was grinning again. “This afternoon, Captain, I’d prefer for my slumber to go undisturbed.”
“Come, Woodsie!” Piper bounded up the ladder to the cottage. “We’ll celebrate!”
Woodson hurried after him. “I have a present for you, Piper!”
“ ‘Who could refrain that had a heart to love, and in that heart courage to make his love known?’ ”
Laughing, the men disappeared into the building.
As Woodson and Piper conducted their repugnant business, I began to see the right in things. Woodson cared not a whit for me and never had, and for my part, that sweet affection I’d once felt for him had now curdled, and I considered him with nothing but distaste.
It was not the nut-gathering that horrified me, I told myself. What Woodson did with Piper was an abhorrent act, unnatural and ungodly—it sullied me to even imagine engaging in such behavior myself. But what I deplored, what I resented, what I feared, was the assault on my profession. Where I had once envisioned innocence and promise, I now beheld a smug little imp who had by trickery and deceit devised for himself a life of leisure, undeserved pay, and shirked responsibilities. For Woodson to serve as principal keeper at Dewey Point! Harkin would, in all probability, recognize his deficiencies in short order, which of course would underscore the inaccuracy of my commendation. But how much worse if those deficiencies remained undetected! I had put so much at risk—the upkeep and operation of Dewey Point, the good name of the Lighthouse Service, the lives of seamen.
The moans and exhortations from the assistant’s quarters finally quieted. I retired to the office and started a letter to Inspector Harkin. Dear Sir, I hereby rescind my previous review of Mr. Woodson’s performance. Things were in an awful muddle now. Harkin had already issued a warning for the incident on June 14 and removed the Inspector’s Pennant. This confession would certainly debase me further. Time and again, in matters great and small, Mr. Woodson has exhibited a slapdash manner, a frightful tendency toward disorganization and squalor, and bald incompetence. This correction, I realized, would never reach the inspector before he recommended Woodson’s promotion to the Lighthouse Board. He couldn’t very well reverse his own decision without looking foolish. I regret any confusion that my earlier report has caused and humbly submit to any additional interrogation or discipline that you deem appropriate. What more could I do? Regardless of the consequences, I had a duty to fulfill, a duty too long neglected. I can offer no reasonable excuse . . .
Here I set my pen down. I had no justification for my actions. I had created this monstrosity; it was my labors that had formed it, my industry that had compensated for its indolence, my excuses that had concealed its flaws, my love that had blinded me and others to its true nature. I had no reasonable excuse.
I struck a match and set the flame to the corner of my inadequate letter. What more could I do? The paper blackened and shriveled. I tossed the burning page into the fire bucket.
I’d found the bucket empty the other day—Woodson had forgotten to fill it—and I now thought on Woodson’s innumerable lapses. This morning, for instance, when he had failed to hang the curtains in the lantern room. That was just one of a dozen violations that he might commit between the rising and the setting of the sun.
The curtains!—we had not hung the curtains! I hurried from the office and rushed up to the cupola.
The sunlight streamed in through the windows of the lantern room, the brilliant rays falling directly onto the lens. More than one keeper had lost his station when he’d forgotten to cover the windows. The lens would focus the rays of sunlight, amplify them and direct the resultant beam to the lantern at its core. The oil in the lamp would heat and eventually ignite.
I opened the lens. What more could I do? I thought again on Woodson in the arms of his lover, haughty and teasing. Woodson, who had countless times demonstrated the willful negligence whose ultimate reward could only be calamity.
I closed the lens again, leaving the lamp inside.
Downstairs, the cottage was quiet. I lingered outside Woodson’s door for a moment, but heard nothing.
When I returned upstairs, the lamp had exploded. The wooden pedestal for the lens had begun to smolder, and the lantern room had begun to fill with smoke. I retreated to the service room and watched as the fire grew, the blazing maw partaking of the walls and the floorboards of the cupola, and now engulfing the passage of the lantern stairs, devouring the finish and the paint and the timber. As the intensity of heat and smoke threatened to consume me, too, I hurried back downstairs to the cottage.
Before Woodson’s door, I stopped once again. “Woodson,” I called softly. There was no answer. I whispered it now: “Woodsie!”
I imagined the two men behind the door, spent, sleeping side by side in the quarters I had kept, in the bed I had prepared. Unbidden, my passion for Woodson rose again and filled me until I swelled with it, an appalling turgidness that demanded release.
I turned away. I wasn’t some kind of perverted sodomite.
The smoke poured into the main level of the cottage, and the sight of it billowing forth from the stairway, the choking stench of burning wood, the crackle of the flames, the rush of hot air stinging my eyes, forced me from the cottage.
Outside, I circled the gallery. With a furious heave, I released the winch, and the boat dropped from the davit to the water, knocking against the platform below.
I had left them Piper’s boat, I would tell the examiners. If only the pair had been alert, rather than shut up in Woodson’s room, engaging in God only knows what ghastly business. It was only suspicion, but I wondered if Woodson suffered from a most peculiar predilection. In any case, I myself was fortunate to escape the fire, which, they should understand, had directly resulted from Woodson’s lapse.
I turned my attention for a moment to the marvelous flames above, which had reached the lantern balcony and were crawling steadily down the sides of the station. A tremendous cry escaped me as I hurried down to the substructure and climbed into the boat, and with strokes increasingly certain, pulled away from the vanishing lighthouse.
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