Thirteen-year-olds who wood-wander, as a general rule, are either mad, sad, existentially conflicted or boy scouts. Kirk was probably a mixture of several of these but also wasn’t the self-aware type. So, after a passive-aggressive conversation with Gwenolyn Harris—Dad had recently proposed, and she hung around the house like the summer wasps—he pocketed some headphones and charted a course for whatever was behind the garden wall; it happened to be a lot of trees.
He shuffled from the left foot to the right, kicking at leaves and trying to spot the tops of evergreens. Against the gray clouds, their branches look like poisoned veins under a microscope—umph— until he fell over a root. Gwenolyn wasn’t there to make faces at him for cursing. The smell of decomposing pine needle hit the back of his nose, woody and pungent. It wasn’t unpleasant until he started thinking about bugs. Didn’t hornet make nests in the ground? Oh, gosh, ticks. Dad had never liked bugs either. He didn’t even care for the ladybugs that got inside the windows of his Corvette. Gwen used to make fun of them both for it.
Kirk got back to his feet, armed with a spindly branch as long as his arm. Whap, whap, he swiped the weapon against tiny pine saplings and thick weeds. Take that Gwen. Take that. And that. The saplings didn’t provide resistance, so he moved onto the trees. Thud, Whack. The giants accepted Gwen’s punishment with patience.
He tried to mix up his footwork. Left in front of right. Right in front of left. He feinted and jabbed. His stick was Excalibur reborn, conquering the enemies of the realm, routing the traitors, and extracting their pitiful pledges of allegiance. But as his foe wouldn’t shriek, beg, or give up her engagement ring and accept banishment, he lost interest after a few minutes.
It only took half an hour for the sun to set past the tops of the trees. The faint smell of salt was in the air, but Kirk didn’t notice. He was busy crashing through the underbrush yelling, “Bitchy, snitchy Gwen” in differently pitched voices. In that state, it was lucky he stopped at the cliff edge at all.
He’d never looked at the Atlantic from so high up. It didn’t look like the touristy postcards he sent his Mom. The waves were green and inky, like one of Gwenolyn’s workout shakes. The spray speckled Kirk’s face, and he tasted the salt on his lips. He spread his arms DiCaprio-style: “I’m king of the world!” The words were swept out to sea by a wind swell. Invigorated by the goosebumps on his legs, he broke into a scuffling run along the top of the cliff.
The lighthouse snuck up on him almost as fast as the Atlantic Ocean. If you’d asked him about it, he would say, well, it’s not like the thing was on. If you’d pressed him, he would have quickly changed the subject and told you about the way it stood against the sky and made you feel extra small. The adjoining house had seen better days, its off-white walls overgrown by creeping plants, moss, and lichen. The shutters might have been cherry red years ago.
It wasn’t quite dark enough to tell if lights were in inside, so he approached slowly. Kirk never got along well with neighbors. Then again, an overgrown lighthouse didn’t fit his definition of a neighbor.
Then he saw the woman. She was a brunette like Gwenolyn, but a little rounder, not so tall. He didn’t notice her clothes, but couldn’t miss the ax she swung. Up, up and over her head, then down with a crack. A substantial pile of split logs had gathered around her feet.
Kirk didn’t know why he kept approaching as she kept chopping. He didn’t know why she didn’t notice his approach. He was only a few yards away when she spoke: “You here for the lighting?” Kirk stopped and put his fists in his pockets. She tossed another log on the chopping block.
“Though it’d just be me here. Usually is.”
Kirk only met adults at Dad’s house parties, and even then Dad did all the talking. He scratched the back of his leg with the stick. Somehow he’d held onto it all this time.
“I’m. I don’t know what that is. I’m just kind of—” he realized that exploring might sound kid-ish. “—hiking. Around.”
“You’re young-looking. Parents gonna arrest me or something if they find you? Cause I will throw your trespassing ass under the bus.” She swung the ax again. “I never saw you in my life.”
The wind picked up and Kirk shifted his weight. “I live around. It’s fine.” She straightened and put the tool over her right shoulder, left hand on her hip, eyes pointed at the sky.
“What are you doing out here in this weather?”
Kirk glanced up at the darkening but otherwise serene sky.
“You’re cold. I can see that.”
Kirk felt fine. But when she dropped the ax onto the wood pile and turned towards the house, his explorer’s interest was piqued. Also, he knew for sure that Gwen wouldn’t have liked this woman. So he kind of trusted her.
“You run this— the lighthouse?”
She turned half-way back and stuck her tongue in her bottom lip. “Sorta.”
The inside didn’t look quite as bad as Kirk expected. First room was the kitchen. The furniture was mostly wood, a couple of chairs next to a table that might have sat eight. Dad would have knocked the table top with his big knuckles, is this Mahogany? You like Mahogany don’t you, Gwen? Christmas lights hung from the ceiling.
“You’re Amy’s guest, kid. Sit wherever.”
She slid him a cup down the table.” All I got’s some Jack, this stuff, and a crate of New Moon brew in the bottles down there. The water pump works, but I wouldn’t trust what comes out of it.” Kirk had snuck sips out of his parent’s wine glasses years ago. What would they think about Jack and New Moon? Kind of doubted his parents would ever end up running into Amy. And she didn’t seem like the kind to snitch. “I’ll just have one of those bottles.” Heaving himself onto the table, he took the chance to survey his host. What he’d thought was plain brown hair was lit up with blonder bits. It fell in her face and every minute or so she’d wipe it back with a wrist. She wore baggy jeans and a man’s work coat over flannel. Her hands were covered in thin, gray gloves. The left one shook slightly, and she clenched and unclenched it during their silence—which, after a few sips from her bottle, she broke:
“You, ah, ever seen a lighting?”
“Nope. Never visited lighthouses before.”
“It’s something…” She trailed off and wiped the hair out of her face. Kirk heard her mutter, “Been so cold out here.”
Kirk swung his feet. “You lived here all your life?”
“No. Grew up south.” She swigged from what was left in the bottle. “Cold there too.”
“Did your Dad or something run this place? Did he teach you how to light it?”
“Daddy can’t teach worth nothing.”
Amy turned around and started gathering containers out of the cupboards.
“My Dad’s not too good at that either. He usually just does things himself and gets it right the first time.” But she wasn’t listening to her little guest anymore. The muttering got louder.
“Cold, cold, so damn cold.”
She picked up the can. “It seems you’re my only guest for the occasion. So would you do me the honor?” Kirk realized she wanted him to take the container.
She shook her hands like she was scattering seeds or something. He imitated and shook the container. It smelled strongly of lavender and something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Liquid sloshed out one end.
“Oh crap, sorry.”
“No, no that’s just right. Now keep moving it around. Don’t miss a spot.”
Soon they each had containers and buckets and were drenching the room. Kirk started getting into it, his eyes only watering a little from the thick scent. He was laughing. “Amy, do you always wash the place before the lighting?”
She emptied her bucket on the moldy curtains. “It’ll be clean and pure as your baptism day, right soon. Now, help me bring these logs in.”
They went outside, and Kirk noticed there was a lot more wood around than the pile she’d just been working on. Logs and stumps had been split and stacked in columns around the house. Amy laid a few pieces in his arms, gently, regally, like a knighthood. They made the most satisfying sound tumbling down onto the kitchen floor.
Amy wiped her face and put her hands back on her hips: “Alright. We’re ready.”
Kirk looked around for the door to the stairs—or an elevator or dumbwaiter or whatever lighthouse people used to get up there. But Amy hurried right back out the kitchen door. He followed the woman, just in time to see her ripping off the gray gloves. Her face twitched or maybe she was laughing. The gloves she stuck on the end of a thick stick.
“What’s, what’s that?” Kirk hadn’t been expecting a weird ritual. Out of the men’s work coat, she slipped a bottle of liquid and doused the gloves. Kirk saw the lighter too late.
Before Kirk could make a move she had thrown the home-made torch into the kitchen door.
For a few seconds, he thought it might have gone out before it hit the ground. Then a wave of light flared up in front of them. Amy grabbed his hand and shuffled them both to the tree-line.
“Amy, your house. The lighthouse.” Kirk knew he should be freaking out, running away, maybe calling 911. But all he could do was stand there, the heat buffeting his cheeks.
Amy didn’t turn her head, just made a soft, extended shushing sound and slowly held her hands out in front of her. Kirk hadn’t noticed how pink and wrinkly they were. He glanced at her face. Her eyes were closed, and the corners of her mouth had turned up slightly.
The sun had set, but the lighthouse raged against the dark horizon.
~ Ann Ferris Caston