The Lighthouse Lady [ by Shay Galloway ]
Her name was Shoshanna, but to us children she had always been known as the Lighthouse Lady. From the stories our mothers told, she’d been born in the lighthouse, cut off from the mainland by a gale of a storm, by the light of oil lamps and candles; mostly her mother bore her alone while the father ran up and down the stairs to tend the light at the top of the tower, because waves foamed high and threatened to destroy any boat coming to the harbor. Half the day, the lighthouse rose isolated from the sea, when high tide flooded the thin peninsula. During one of those high tides early in the Lighthouse Lady’s childhood, her mother died, something that came sudden, like a stroke or an aneurysm or a heart attack or a seizure—the details were lost in the grapevine of recountings over the years. It was said Shoshanna never spoke again after that day.
She hardly ever came to town, and did so even less once her father died; he’d been found dashed to pulp on the beach several miles down shore after a storm. I could never remember having seen her, even though the beach near the lighthouse was a favorite haunt for the town children. When the tide receded, the lighthouse jetty had the best tide pools where trembled pink-brown anemones and crusty starfish clung to the rocks. A crab would scuttle away from one child only to be caught by another and held in the air to have his clicking, segmented legs examined while he glowered at us without eyebrows before he grew a tiresome subject and was tossed back to the sea.
We were told never to go out on the jetty lest the tide rose and we were stranded. Though no mother ever told us to fear the Lighthouse Lady, their insistence we not be stranded with her made her out as a mythical being, akin to a witch or a siren. The rare times she came into town were short expeditions, but the events stirred whispers as though she were some apparition. The old widow would see her at the post office, and she would tell the trinket-shop’s owners, who would in turn whisper it to all the mothers who wandered in for an afternoon chat.
Generally the Lighthouse Lady’s needs were delivered by the few townsfolk who had regular reason to meet her face-to-face: the gas station owner who brought her gasoline for the generator and propane for her oven, the timberman who brought her firewood, the grocer, the postman, all men of the generation of her father. And all of them spoke softly, vaguely about the woman, like someone come from an interlude with an angel.
Like all the other children between the ages of seven and twelve, I’d congregate at the beach after school during warmer weather. I’d toss my knapsack and shoes on the edge of the beach and hop from tide-pool to tide-pool with the other children, poking at starfish and anemones, scrambling after crabs and chasing seagulls. At the age of ten, I was among the older children out on the beach, and after my steady four or five years on the beach, I had become less intrigued by the usual tide pools—the same ones I’d seen for years, with the same kids I’d been with day in and day out. One day I found myself following the shore along the lighthouse peninsula, hopping from one tide-pool to the next, always ahead of the other children, too far away to register their calls. I climbed down the rocks on the seaward side of the island to marvel at the pools yet untouched by the others, where the anemones, unaccustomed to our constant poking, didn't retreat from the approach of my shadow. I felt a tingling at my back, a sense that I was not alone in my surroundings, another being, apart from the anemones and starfish was near, and when I looked up at the lighthouse standing stalwart at the top of its rocky outcrop, I saw her.
She stood at the edge of the rockface, looking down at me from atop her cliff, the sun bright above her. Immediately I was struck by her appearance. She was younger than I’d expected; she could have been my own mother's age if not slightly younger, unmarred by the weathering of motherhood and marriage. She wore a long cream-colored skirt that flowed about her in the breeze, her blonde hair loose and whipping. The women of town all wore short, full skirts and kept their hair neatly pinned and plastered. But this woman stood plain-faced and natural-haired in a dress that surely had belonged to her mother.
She was looking at me and I at her, dazed in the unexpected appearance of the other. She was not at all like a witch, and perhaps only siren-like, if at all, in her beauty. Nothing about her was dangerous or threatening, just somber and silent. She smiled with only the corners of her mouth and motioned toward the jetty, where the rising tide was gradually swallowing the path back to the mainland, and I ran. My brother and sister waited for me at the top of the shore, my brother annoyed, snapping at me for nearly missing high tide. He mumbled that if I had been swept away in the tide, Mom would have his hide. Each of us grabbed one of our sister’s hands and trudged home.
I returned to the lighthouse island every day for over a week in hopes of catching another glimpse of her. Instead I found a treasure waiting for me among the squishy, crusty things of the sea: a chipped pearl earring with a broken clasp. I had no need for a pearl earring, much less a broken one, as I was not a girl nor a pirate, but I pocketed it anyway. I looked back at the lighthouse cottage as I made my way back to the mainland. A white shadow moved along one of the latticed windows and disappeared in the obscurity behind the glass.
That night when my mother tucked me in to bed, I asked her one question after another about the Lighthouse Lady. Did she know the Lighthouse Lady? Why did she live alone out there on the lighthouse island? Did she ever get married? Why didn’t she ever come into town? Of course, my mother inquired what had sparked my sudden interest in the woman at the lighthouse. In fear she’d be angry at the truth, I lied. “I was just wondering.” My mother’s look told me she knew I was keeping something from her, so I added, “She was standing outside the lighthouse—I think.”
“Don’t bother her, Lee.”
“I’m not. I won’t,” I said. “But why?”
“She’s very private. And she deserves her privacy.”
“But what if the Lighthouse Lady speaks to me?”
My mother laughed softly. “Oh, I doubt she will.” She kissed my head. “Just don’t go bothering her.”
But I went back to the island and I kept going back, each day finding new trinkets in the pools. Each time I left, I felt her gazing out from behind her windows. I finally decided to leave her something in return, a large piece of pale green sea glass from one of my first outings to the beach. As I passed her cottage, I waved at the seemingly empty window and pointed toward the tidepool where I’d deposited my gift. I ran away, my stomach knotting with the excitement of this odd acquaintance I was forming. I did my best to hide it from my mother. I pointedly did not ask her anything at all about the Lighthouse Lady.
In place of the sea glass I found an old coin. In place of a rough-hewn, lopsided popsicle stick boat was a small metallic tin boat. In our exchanges I gave up a lumpy clay pot, a rock painted like a dog’s head, and a ring from a Cracker Jack box. In return, I received a trove of small wonders—a driftwood doll and a small novelty spoon etched with the letter “E” among them. I was certain it was her depositing these gifts and not the tide, since they all seemed to be placed deliberately where I’d left my last item. I imagined her in the house surrounded by old trinkets, a warehouse of memories.
One day, I found nothing. I thought perhaps I had missed it, and kept searching through all the tide pools, all the nooks within the jagged rock. The day had started off a little windy, and the fluffy white clouds moved quickly across the sky, nothing more than usual. But storms on the coast can rise up out of nowhere. Before I realized what was happening, the sky had darkened, the rain had broken, and the wind had swollen the waves over the jetty.
Out on the shore, I could barely make out my brother jumping, waving his arms, most likely shouting at me. The other kids had long made for the safety of home, probably as soon as the rain started. With each minute, the rain thickened and the wind picked up, the waves foaming a little higher, beating the rocks in a rhythm that made my heart pulse hard and deep in my chest. The rocks had become slick, and I struggled to climb back to the top of the island, cutting my knees and palms and elbows open, my blood mixing with rainwater and ocean spray. I couldn’t wipe the water from my eyes fast enough, and tears poured from me as I clung to the rocks, waiting for the sea to drag me out to my death.
When I felt a tug at the back of my shirt, I knew for sure this was my last moment; the storm was plucking me from the stones to bury me in her angry gray depths. I tried to cling harder, burying my face in the rock, cutting my chin in the process. A sharp, wet slap on the top of my head prompted me to look up. The Lighthouse Lady was there, her face all at once calm and determined, her hair matted in chunks around her face and neck, one hand on my shirt, trying to pull me up, the other held out. I grabbed her hand and she heaved me over the edge. The two of us collapsed, and I felt a weariness rise in me stronger than the waves, but she pulled me up and close to her; she was warm beneath the skein of cold, wet cloth. She lugged me through the rain to her cottage.
Soon I was tucked in a warm, rough blanket on a worn sofa in front of a stone fireplace. My cuts and scrapes had been cleaned and bandaged and my wet clothes hung along the mantle, dripping dry. In their place, I wore an old flannel shirt, so large it went past my knees and the sleeves had to be rolled half a dozen time to reach my elbows. It smelled of dust and a lifetime in a closet. The briny scent of soup filled the cottage, and the fire popped and whispered while outside the waves roared and a cacophony of rain pelted the windows.
I hadn’t remembered getting changed or falling asleep, but I was then awake, taking in the wonders of the mystical lady’s cottage. It was nearly as I’d imagined: small trinkets placed here and there on shelves and tables without any rhyme or reason. On the mantle stood a framed, faded photo of a bearded man, beside him a girl wearing a cap much too big for her. A high-backed plush chair sat empty, facing the fire. A small table between chair and sofa held only a stack of books and one small frame. I reached for the frame. A young man stared out at me, not from a photograph. His face, his deep eyes and heavy brows, had been sketched and shaded in a likeness of the real being.
The Lighthouse Lady stood at the foot of the sofa, and I placed the picture back on the table, sheepish. She raised a shoulder, pulled her mouth to the side, like someone soon to say “Oh well.” She held out a bowl of soup and I took it, settling back against the pillows. She lingered on the picture a moment before sitting in her chair, fire-prod in hand.
“Did you draw that?”
She looked at me, smiled softly, and nodded—just a minute drop of her chin—before she turned back to the fire. The flames illuminated her with shifting yellow and orange hues. Up close, she looked tired but soft. While her skin smooth and tight, the edges of her eyes turned downward in a slight frown. She sat back, pulling her knit shawl around her shoulders, and stared into the fire as if I was not there. She was very thin, and sharp and smooth like the inside of a shell.
As my mother said, she did not speak to me, and some back part of my memory recalled whispers that she hadn’t uttered a word to anyone in years. The soup was good, oniony, beefy, hot. I sipped a few spoonfuls before I cleared my throat. Her eyes moved before the rest of her. She looked at me expectantly, politely. I stuttered a "Thank you," before I got up the courage to speak further. "Thank you for saving me."
She bowed her head. All the questions I had for her! Who was the man in the photo with the little girl? How long had I been there? Was there a telephone I could call my mother and tell her I was alright? Who was the man in the drawing? But I knew I'd get no answers; I'd have to guess at them on my own. So I cleared my throat again and said, "Thank you for all the gifts...they're very vice." At this, she brightened, her smile more than just a rise at the corners of her mouth. She motioned toward the mantle, and I then noticed all the things I had left for her, the sea glass and the lop-sided boat included.
"Is that your father in that picture up there?" I finally got the gumption to say. She nodded and tapped her chest. Yes, and her. "Do you have to go up and take care of the light?" She shook her head and pointed out the south-facing window. Of course. A mile or two down the coast, there had been a new, modern lighthouse installed in my toddler years. This old lighthouse was really only used during the worst of storms.
I finished my soup and she stood to take the bowl from me. "What is your name?" I asked. She looked at me, her head tilted over her shoulder. I got the impression she knew very well what we called her; amusement played in her green eyes. She held up her finger and took the bowl to the kitchen. She shuffled around, exhuming a piece of paper and a pencil from the clutter on the countertop. She returned and held the paper to me. The writing was neat, elegant even. Shoshanna. I read it out slowly and glanced at her. She nodded.
"What's his name?" I said, pointing to the framed sketch. She did not answer. She stared through the dark rain-lashed window. Pulling her shawl tight, she went back to her chair and stared into the fire. I understood the questioning was over. The heat of the fire and the warmth of the soup in my stomach made me sleepy as the windows darkened. The rain and the waves crashed far away in rhythm and I drifted from consciousness.
I dreamed of the Lighthouse Lady, saw her walking out past the lighthouse, straight over the ocean to fade into the white horizon. I dreamed of the man in the sketch standing on a boat's prow, holding to the rigging. I dreamed of cockles and seals and tin boats and lighthouse beams illuminating fog.
I woke to Shoshanna's hand pressing gently on my shoulder, pulling me back from the mist of dreams. She jerked her hand toward the window; outside, a white-gray fog had replaced the storm. It was morning, early. She tapped me on the back like my mother did when she wanted me to move. She held out a pair of galoshes and an old jacket. My wet clothes had been taken from the mantle and tied up in a linen bag. I pulled on the jacket and boots and took up the sack. Outside the cozy cottage, the air was cold but fresh with the after-breath of storm.
I helped Shoshanna flip a small row-boat and push it into the water. She rowed us back to shore, the fog swirling around us, both masking and amplifying the seagulls and the water against the shore. With each row, the free locks of her hair undulated, became denser as the mist soaked into the strands. When the boat nudged sand, I expected her to hold it while I jumped out and ran home, but she hopped out and pulled it inland, out of the water's reach. She placed her hand on the top of my head and motioned for me to lead the way.
I told her she didn't have to walk me all the way home, but she waved her hand through the fog. She'd make sure I made it home safely, and that my parents were assured I had not inconvenienced her. I opened the front door to my family, still in their bedclothes, sitting around the parlor, my mother wringing a handkerchief. They had been waiting for the police to arrive and tell them my body had been found. She jumped at my arrival, my father came to the door; they thanked Shoshanna with tears of relief in their eyes. My mother babbled and she clutched my face "What did I tell you? What did I tell you?" Shoshanna waved away their thanks. With one last chin tilt in my direction, she left.
Being caught in the storm scared me from venturing too far down the jetty on my own after, but my story spread quickly among the other children, who bombarded me with questions and revered me as a pilgrim returned from a journey to a far-off land. But I was resistant to speak of her to them, and I often answered my peers' questions with shrugs. Why I felt I could not tell them, I don't know.
I never went out to the island again. Over the years, I continued to look out at the lighthouse whenever I could see it. Sometimes she was out there, staring out at the fog thickening on the gray sea. Maybe she's waiting for a lover long gone, dead in a shipwreck, stranded in Fiji. He's a whaler, chasing his white whale and has promised to come for her. He's the mist and she hugs her arms to herself as though they are his, because his kiss is cold. It's the kiss of a seal-man.
He's a seal that can only come to land after dusk, in the mist, his seal-skin melting away or shed on the rocks and he comes to her naked and wet like a newborn. She cannot go with him because she is not a seal, and if he stays, his skin will dry and he'll become stiff and crusty like beached kelp.
And she would never really die, she'd walk out onto the mist, her white skirt swirling around her ankles. She'd take off her boots and leave them on the rocks and just walk out onto the fog like Jesus and Peter and she'd keep walking until her dress melted away and she was clothed in fog. She'd melt into the fog and join her seal husband beyond the reach of the lighthouse's beam.
Shay Galloway studied creative writing at Utah State University and received her Bachelor’s degree in 2012. She received her MFA from Roosevelt University in 2017. Her work has been featured in several journals and sites including Literary Mama, The Lindenwood Review, The Nasiona, and You Might Need to Hear This. Her debut novel, The Valley of Sage and Juniper was released March 2023 with Running Wild/RIZE Press. She currently teaches college English and resides in Washington with her husband and son.