Fantasy Horror lighthouse leviathan middle age

No One is so Fierce

By James Van Pelt
May 5, 2021 · 3,268 words · 12 minutes

Photo by William Bout via Unsplash.

From the author: I heard an idiot on a panel at a convention say, "No one writes about middle-aged women. They just aren't heroic." Even at the moment, people in the room murmured to themselves because the statement was both offensive and outrageous. But I, being who I am, also thought, "Challenge accepted." Besides, I already had a thought about a lighthouse and the woman who tended it.


I’m forty-nine, Jamie thought, and live with an ocean view. She paused on the quarter-mile long causeway to the Kingsmark Reef Lighthouse, shifting the heavy book bag from one shoulder to the other. Waves slid by on each side of the strip of rock and cement that connected the lighthouse property to the mainland. Nice day. A manageably cool breeze off the Pacific instead of the steady coat-cutter that kept all but the hardiest tourists from visiting. She’d heard Mark Twain said the coldest winter he’d ever spent was a summer in San Francisco, which was three-hundred and seventy miles south. Clearly he’d never visited Kingsmark Reef in early September.

The tide would cover the causeway in an hour. Already, higher waves lapped over, sending long ripples down the sidewalk. Water trickled off the rocks. Crabs scuttled away. A seagull hopped aside to let her pass, and the wind smelled like seaweed and icebergs. Wet shoes were a small inconvenience to not living in a sterile, urban studio apartment with noisy neighbors and drive-by shootings. Much better than stepping over trash spilled from broken bags in the alley. Better than Friday nights sitting at the Slap and Tickle, fending off married realtors whose wives didn’t know when their husbands got off work.

Jamie mounted the steps to the lighthouse door beneath a biblical verse inscribed in a corroded brass plaque. Predictions said the waves would rise tonight. An unseasonal Labor Day storm hundreds of miles away churned the ocean already and was coming this way. By morning, they’d close the beaches. Too early to be a true winter tempest, but a harbinger of the season to come.

The heavy metal door creaked open into the blockhouse the light tower rose from. She turned back. If she could have seen over the bluff, only her car covered with a tarp remained in the parking lot. She’d pulled the shutters over the visitor center and gift shop windows, giving the place a huddled and deserted look.

The lighthouse clung to a spit of land fifteen feet above sea level. Too dangerous for a boat to moor, the land bridge was her only route in and out, and was wet so often that algae slickened it. From a rock farther from shore, seals barked. A cormorant streaked low, skimming the water. If the storm lasted, she might be stuck inside for a week or more since waves would splash over the walkway even at low tide. She hoped for a big one, a long, violent, pounding storm that dumped rain so fast she could wade into the sea and not notice the difference, one that kicked waves into a froth and rattled the lighthouse’s foundation. The kind of storm primitive people would have attributed to vengeful gods. That’s what Jamie wanted. Give me a storm to raise leviathans, she thought.

The door creaked open. At one time, it might have been waterproof, but now during a storm the ground floor filled with water that slammed against the door and pushed through the cracks. The room drained slowly and smelled like a fishy vegetable tray gone bad.

Still, I’ve won the lottery, she thought. Most people never run away to the circus, despite their hopes. They don’t become firemen or astronauts or surgeons. They don’t get to raise the dream family, or their kids turn out bad. Not many fairy tale endings in the real world, but here she lived the fantasy. Jamie clanged the door shut, threw down the heavy bolt that held the ocean at bay, and hung up her raincoat. She breathed easily for the first time all day. Sitting in the gift shop stressed her more than it should. Mostly people came to the lighthouse were looking for someplace else, like St. George Reef Lighthouse, twenty miles down the coast, a much more scenic attraction, although it took a helicopter to get to it. Fussy parents with whiny children. College kids on a lark. Foreign tourists collecting post cards and those little silver spoons with tiny cameos of the site. Kingsmark Reef Lighthouse stood impressively above the water, but the park trail to it was poorly marked and there were no photogenic overlooks from the road to set it off. Steep stairs in six long flights led to the shore, and all those steps had to be climbed to bring a tourist back to the visitor center. The wind, too, sweeping off the frigid Pacific made it uninviting. Rocky spurs around the lighthouse shattered waves, creating a near constant salt-water mist that soaked coats and ruined cameras. It was a singularly uninviting place. Jamie loved it.

The only feature of the lighthouse’s main floor was a large, round wooden trapdoor to one side. A long metal bar that ran between two iron brackets anchored in stone held it shut. Jamie had opened it her first week on the job to reveal a well. The dark and silent water swirled slowly and rose and fell with the ocean swell. During a storm, water pounded against the trapdoor from below, like a monster’s fist, and squirted from the edges all around.

She mounted the spiral staircase. Since 1881 when the lighthouse was put into service, every metal surface, like the stairs and central stair pole had been scrubbed of corrosion, primed and repainted many times, but now the paint covered pits and ridges and other imperfections. Nothing in Kingsmark was smooth, not the metal nor the wood nor the stone. Even the heavy glass in the lantern room had grown wavy with time. In the hundred and forty years the lighthouse had stood, three keepers had died, two from waves crashing through the lantern room glass. If anyone doubted the sea’s power, they only had to look at the first death: a seventy-pound rock cannonballed through the glass, catching the lighthouse keeper in the chest.

Jamie had not seen a storm where the waves crashed that high, but Park Service Superintendent Tacket warned her about them. “In the old days, when the light had to be tended, the worse the weather, the more we needed a manned lighthouse. But now the whole operation is automated, and ships have GPS positioning. There’s no need to put anyone’s life in danger. Even the lighthouse keeper’s cottage is miserable in the winter. We have a deal with the Holiday Inn Express off the highway to put our keeper up. You don’t need to stay here during storms. I don’t want you to stay here.” He looked solemn and serious in his park ranger uniform. Sometimes he’d drop by the gift shop for a coffee. Tacket had worked for the park service for forty-five years, and they all showed on him. When he took off his hat, his wispy grey hair looked like an afterthought.

Jamie read everything she could find on lighthouses before she took the job. She told him, “The beacon is still an active guide to navigation, sir. GPS can fail. A ship in trouble needs visible markers.” She thought about Kingsmark Reef’s reputation. In 1871, a coastal steamer named the Sister Hibiscus tore out its bottom during a fall storm. Only eight people (and a pair of goats) survived of the one-hundred and sixty-one on board. “I don’t mind the weather. Have you seen this poster?” She held a framed image they sold in the gift shop of a man standing at the blockhouse door of a lighthouse, a huge wave crashing against and enveloping the tower above him. It seemed impossible that the wave wouldn’t engulf him and sweep him away. “My life was sort of like this before I got here. I’m staying.”

He’d given her a puzzled look.

Jamie mounted the circular stairs, keeping a hand on the center pole. In an hour, she wouldn’t be able to leave. When the storm hit, the waves would burst around the blockhouse base and overwhelm anything standing. Now, though, middle of the day, light streamed through the tower windows, tall gun slits filled with twelve-inch thick glass bricks. She didn’t need to turn on the lights. The second floor room held food, water, furnace and the kitchen. The third floor were the keepers living quarters, while the fourth floor contained electrical equipment to run the beacon and the radio. Eighty-nine feet from base to top, Kingsmark Reef was the second tallest lighthouse on the Oregon coast.

She checked her phone. No reception, which filled her with joy. No television in the lighthouse, no Internet. Only the radio. She dropped the book bag on her bed before rushing to the lantern room, a untraditionally large space, lantern in the middle, a circular bench against the wall facing in surrounded it, which was an addition in the late 1990s when the lighthouse became a tourist attraction. A mannequin dressed in a navy-blue wool, traditional double-breasted sack coat stood beside the lamp looking out to sea, his cap at a jaunty angle. When Jamie brought tour groups up, the lantern room could accommodate about a dozen. With the doors to the catwalk open, there was room for more, but for now, the lantern room was hers. Standing at the catwalk, she felt like a queen, like Thalassa, the Greek goddess who was the progenitor of fish, older than Poseidon even. She arched her back, pressed her belly against the rail and let the sun bathe her despite the cold breeze.

Last week, on a particularly clear and calm night, she’d stood in the same spot with a full moon heading toward the horizon. She gazed into the gleaming sea, awash with silver and bright glitters. A couple miles out, a freighter glided by, its deck lights flashing. She’d looked fruitlessly for mermaids, because the night was too perfect for them not to exist. Selkies too or Jonah’s whale or Melville’s. Anything could come to reality on a night such as that. Werewolves on the shore, perhaps, or Valkyrie descending from Valhalla.

The next day, she called her sister in Portland. “Give my renters notice and sell my house,” Jamie said. “Put a price on it that will move it in a hurry. Deposit the money in my account. I’ve filled out all the paperwork for you to do it, and I put it on my desk in my office. Take anything you want. Estate sell the rest.”

“What’s going on, Jamie. Are you in trouble?”

“Never been better.” Jamie hung up.

Was it being forty-nine? When she’d turned thirty, she wondered where her twenties had gone. Her diploma brought her a middle-management position, and her portfolio grew. Portland provided plenty of entertainment. She’d joined a book club, made friends, moved out of the apartment and bought a house, but when she looked back, her twenties felt too short and wasted.

The thirties looked the same with a little more body fat. Three affairs, all short-lived. Moved back to the city. Leased the house out as a real-estate investment. Saw a therapist for insomnia that turned out to be depression, and somehow limped into her forties. She commuted on the bus. One day last year, a teenager sat next to her, her hair done in green and purple spikes, a nose peg, a skull tattoo on her neck. Jamie balanced a briefcase on her lap wearing a light green pantsuit and beige jacket. Her shoes pinched, but they matched the belt. She’d spent the morning in a budget meeting and the afternoon at a values, vision and mission seminar. Tomorrow was her performance review with her manager, a pimply man fifteen years younger who she’d trained a decade ago. The spiky haired girl faced her and said, “Did you see yourself like this when you were my age?”

Wind pressed relentlessly from the west, snapping tops off waves, sapping the sun’s heat, but clouds covered the horizon, growing as she watched, pushing a storm swell. Translucent grey-green ridges, rich with seaweed shadows and fantastic shapes swept towards shore, shattered against the rocks. She couldn’t feel it yet in the guardrail, but when the tide rose, when the waves grew, they’d shake the tower.

Eight hours later, after the sun set, the wind’s muted caterwaul echoed in the living quarters. Jamie sat on the bed, quilt wrapped around her shoulders, reading a book. This is what she missed in her old life, the unrestricted indulgence in her senses, in her imagination, in the world shuddering and alive around her. She tried, oh she had tried. Hiking when she could get away. Vacations. Meditation. Prayer. But people surrounded her. Certainly not all bad. Jamie volunteered at the soup kitchen. She joined charities where she found the selfless who devoted their lives to helping others. People who were spiritual and inspirational, but they didn’t overwhelm the mundane work, the debts and taxes and indelicacies that came her way every day. The distractions and indiginities. She’d memorized Hamlet’s “to be or not to be speech” because Shakespeare captured the essence.

A solid boom echoed from below. Jamie laughed, dropped her book, then ran down the spiral stairs barefoot, the metal cold and sharp. She carried a lamp because the ground floor had no electrical lights—they’d short out when the sea invaded. The top stair overlooked the trapdoor in the floor. Ten feet across. Water dampened the dark stone, and a sucking sound came from the trapdoor’s circumference as the water retreated. A moment’s pause, as the air reversed, whistling before a solid water column rushing upward. Then a whump she felt in her chest. Water sprayed from the trapdoor’s edges. It leaked from the metal door that was her only exit. The ocean had come. If she loosened the trapdoor’s bar, the water would slam into the ceiling in a powerful spout. It wasn’t just the sea, though, trying to batter its way in. Denizens lived below, she was sure, which was the hope she couldn’t share with her workers, with her neighbors, with the spiky-haired teenager who had no idea who Jamie was. Wonders and monsters lurked in the world, Jamie was sure. They lived in the blank spaces people ignored, in the terrain they could not tolerate, in severe weather. As sure as she was sure of anything, Jamie knew terror and beauty in the leviathan, in hidden nature, multiplied and made grand.

An inch of water caressed the floor like oil, then flowed back toward the trapdoor. The powerful entrance demand would come again. A “let me in” that could not be denied. Jamie didn’t feel forty-nine while sitting on the stairs, shivering in the stone ocean cold broadcasting from the brick walls. Back she went, to when she was seven, laying in bed on a turbulent night, as tree shadows waved on the wall, where the open closet door hid horrors, when her hands and feet retreated under the cover, pulled tight in, like a child-sized armadillo, locking out the claws, teeth, tentacles and spines. Scary, yes, but also huge and glorious and limitless.

The sea, now, would be churning and wild. Jamie mounted the stairs toward the lantern room, like an acolyte or penitent, lamp in one hand. If she’d been the keeper a hundred years earlier, she would have spent the afternoon buffing the reflector, cleaning smoke residue from the lamp lens, trimming the wick, checking the whale oil or kerosene or carbide supply. She would have adjusted the vents to provide a steady draw for the flame, and wound the clockwork to rotate the beam through the night. Now, though, the lamp was electric. It still flashed forth as a beam, three quick rotations followed by three slow ones, the lighthouse’s signature pattern, not only warning of the rocks, but also telling ships where they were. This was her first ocean storm, the reason Kingsmark Reef Lighthouse existed, a beacon sending light into the darkness, warning mariners of rocks that poked up like massive megalodon teeth waiting to rip the flimsy hulls asunder. She shielded her eyes. No rain in the storm yet, only wind. Jamie put a raincoat over her nightshirt. She needed more clothes, but she wanted to see, she needed to see what was out there.

The wind pulled the door hard against her grip, and now the full throated roar of the provoked ocean pummeled her, dampened her face and soaked her hair. The light swept by, throwing her shadow out to sea, then moving on like a vast, foggy sword. This wasn’t a January storm, not the kind of waves that knocked down lighthouses or picked up rocks to throw through the lantern room, but it was her first one. The Sister Hibiscus sank during a September storm, maybe no worse than this one. There could be ghosts, she thought, and for a second she heard voices calling for help in the ocean’s cacophony before losing them in the grinding clash between waves and reef. The mist dancing light stabbed toward the sea again.

She wasn’t a middle-management drone, clinging to her desk and employees, serving her bosses’ whims. Companies couldn’t reach her here with targeted advertising, nor could politicians chart her leanings. Standing at the rail, she reveled in the cold baptism of salt spray, of the heady gusts that tugged at her coat. When the light went round again, two bright spots reflected back to her from far at sea, and by the next light, they were closer and larger and twice of a height of the lantern room. Jamie leaned toward the shape coming toward her, vast, cyclopean, leather-winged, a face filled with tentacles dipping from the clouds and then hidden within them, and then another behind it just as big, waves breaking harmlessly against them. The first one reached out; its hand grasped the lighthouse just below her feet, shaking the structure. Revealed in the light, its skin was obscenely lumpy, and then the lumps were not lumps, but clinging man-sized creatures, water and seaweed streaming from them. Hysterical with joy, Jamie remembered the inscription above the lighthouse door, “No one is so fierce that dare stir him up: who then is able to stand before me?” She’d thought it meant the sea.

I’ve seen the leviathan, she thought. I’m not that poor woman who’d sat in her apartment night after night, afraid that an empty wine class, a torn paystub, a lifeless daily commute were all the world offered. She felt the ocean’s cold in her feet, on her bare legs that seemed as solid now and as slick as marble. Ocean trickled on her face. She licked at its salt on her lips. If the tentacled creature looked down at her, even noticed her, she knew she would go mad—she was nearly mad now—but it would not be Jamie who would be lost. That sad person died long ago.

Its skin was so close, she could mount the rail, leap onto it, but the beings who already had attached themselves looked hungry. In the arcing brightness and acetylene shadows, they stared at her, ready to render her to her bones, and she was jealous of them.

Then the hand moved on. The giant turned to walk along the shore. Light shone on it, slid away, and when the light returned, it revealed only an ocean at war with the wind and rocks. The woman who had been Jamie laughed at the fullness of the world.

I am the keeper, she thought. I tend the light at night, and all beings who visit are welcome. I am ageless.

 

This story originally appeared in Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror.


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James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."