by Lauren E. Mitchell
The topmost room of the lighthouse is given over to the vast hot lamp that illuminates the sky from dusk until dawn. Below that is the watch-room, where the great cans of fuel for the lamp are arrayed around the walls, and the lighthouse keeper’s desk and chair sit facing out to sea. Her logbook is filled with precise small handwriting: observations on the weather, the stars, and the names of the ships that pass her tiny, rock-toothed island safely by.
Below that is the music room. Its door mostly stays closed; the blue paint is softened and faded by dust. There’s a saxophone and a clarinet and a cello. She can play none of them; her instrument was always the piano, but who brings a piano to a lighthouse? No, these are an artefact of those who came before her, and she keeps telling herself that she should clean the room out, but she never does.
Her bedroom comes next. It’s the only room where the windows are permanently shuttered, for her night runs from dawn until dusk and the sunlight not only permeates her eyelids, but overheats the room in the summer months. She has a big bed for just one person, spread with a handmade patchwork quilt, a thick warm one in the winter and a thin one, almost as thin as a sheet, in the summer. In summer she lies very still and has difficulty sleeping, thinking of the oil cans overhead, wondering if they will stay safe and sealed and not overheat and combust. In winter she curls into a ball under the quilt and sleeps soundly, the wail of the wind a curious lullaby. There’s a tiny wardrobe built in along one curve of the wall where she hangs her succession of plain white t-shirts and plain blue jeans. At one end there’s a thick windbreaker, but she’s grown used to the rain and the wind and rarely wears it. She does wear a shapeless woollen hat, though, not so much because of the weather as because her grandmother knitted it for her. It is the same rainbow clash of colours as the quilts.
The last room above ground level is the storage room, lined with racks of canned food, freeze-dried food, and other supplies designed to last as long as possible. The supply boat comes once every six weeks from the mainland with fresh fruit and vegetables; the lighthouse keeper makes them last as long as she can. It also brings letters from home, and she makes those last as well, averaging the pages out over the nights until the boat is due again, writing her replies as she reads through so that when the boat returns she has the envelopes ready.
The ground floor is almost empty. Though tiny, the island is not flat, but nonetheless the waves can still rise up to engulf the ground floor, and after losing two good pairs of boots to the water the lighthouse keeper has learned not to keep anything in it. Yet it is not entirely empty; an intricate mural, coloured square by square, marches around the walls, each square a month in the life of whoever tends the light. There is a neat white square between each succession of squares, with the name of the previous keeper and the dates of their keeping written in the centre. The current keeper has quite enjoyed filling out her squares with the paint kept in the storage room; hers are mostly pictures of the flowers and plants that cling tenaciously to cracks in the rock, unlike the merfolk and sea-monsters and shipwrecks that are dotted throughout the earlier rows of images. She has always admired life that survives in unlikely places.
She rises at dusk and sleeps not long after dawn; it’s one dawn long into her keepership when, going down to the shore to check her crab traps, she at last meets a merfolk.
They have pulled themself ashore from whatever undersea kingdom it is that they inhabit to lie on the little beach between the rock formations on the eastern side of the island, where the tide pools are biggest. Their head is pillowed on their arms, their hair a damp tangle of curls the same golden colour as the early morning waves burnished by the rising sun. Their skin is a lighter shade of pinked gold that could either be a tan or just the way that the sunrise hits their skin. At first she is afraid that they are dead, but as she cautiously steps closer she can see the rise and fall of their breathing. They’re lying on their stomach; their spine curves gracefully down and their hips flare out, but then there’s another inward curve and instead of splitting into two legs their lower extremities are fused together in a graceful, pearlescent tail. Their scales are patterned coral-red and anemone-orange, and the fin at the end of their tail shades from pink to purple like the inside of a pipi. They splash it lazily in the lapping waves. Her crab cages lie empty beside them.
There’s only one thing that she can think of to say, and that’s a simple, “Hello?” Her voice is rusty from disuse.
Their head snaps up from their arms and they look up at her, green eyes wide and fearful. They start to scrabble backwards on their elbows into the foam.
Surprisingly, they stop, rolling from their stomach to their back and sitting up. Their chest is caked with gritty sand that does little to cover the small smooth swells beneath it. Their neck is smooth save for two thin gill slits on either side of their throat, closed over as they sit on shore. A neatly braided beard hangs golden from their chin, threaded with shells and pearls. The beard extends up their cheeks as little more than damp fluff, meeting their hairline alongside ears with little seahorse frills. Another tuft of gold bristles over their upper lip.
“Hello,” they say carefully, and then, “I ate your crabs.”
She looks at the empty cages. “Oh.”
“I’m sorry,” they offer.
“I—it’s all right. I can catch more.” She tucks her hands into her pockets and watches their curious gaze rove over her jeans and boots. She can’t blame them for staring; she’s staring just as much, trying to focus on their tail rather than on anything else, like the triangular patch of darker scales she can’t help thinking of as being between their legs, though they have no legs.
“I’ve never seen you before.” She says it at the same time as the merfolk.
Their laugh is truly bubbly. “I don’t usually come to shore here, but the crabs smelled good.” They diffidently brush some of the sand off their chest, utterly unselfconscious, and she can feel the beginnings of helpless arousal stirring in her. The sand catches in the downy hair that starts at their clavicle and arrows down between their breasts, petering out just above their navel. In places it glints red or orange instead of gold, like coral. She can’t keep from looking. ‘They’re harder to catch further out.’
“You don’t trap them?” She hunkers down, hands on her knees.
“Oh, we do, but the crabs are bigger.” They make a gesture encompassing a shell the size of a dinner plate, claws the size of their small hands, and wince. She thinks of steamed crab with hot butter, eaten in the topmost room looking out over the darkness, and knows that’s not how it is for them.
“How do you live down there?” she asks abruptly. “Isn’t it too cold and wet?”
They think for a moment and then shrug. “Not when you’re used to it. How do you live up here? Isn’t it too hot and dry?”
“Not when you’re used to it,” she says, and they share another laugh, as though this is a perfectly ordinary conversation. When they laugh the delicate flaps on the sides of their neck flutter a little. Then, when they brush more sand off their front, she sees the fine webbing between their fingers, stretching between the second knuckles. They catch her looking and lift their hand to press it against hers.
She expects clamminess, the cold of the deep sea, but instead their skin’s just pleasantly cool on her palm, like a drink of fresh water on a warm day. Their hand is smaller than hers but she can see from the muscling of their shoulders and upper arms that they possess a good deal of physical strength. They must need it, to be able to swim against the tide, against the pressure of the ocean.
For a moment their fingers intertwine, and then the merfolk pulls their hand away.
“I should go,” they say, and rolls adroitly sideways into the salty sea foam.
“Wait!” she calls after them. “Will I see you again?” But they have dived beneath the waves, vanished into the deep, a sunbeam gone into darkness.
She sighs, stands up, and picks up the crab traps to rebait and reset, if not for herself, then in the hopes of luring them to her shore again.
“You taste like the sea,” they say, lifting their mouth from her.
She hasn’t the breath to reply, lying half in and half out of the waves like a drowning sailor washed to shore, but it’s not her gasping mouth they’ve been applying theirs to. Her clothes are scattered somewhere above the high tide line. “Like oysters, or lost copper pennies.”
She still can’t respond. They laugh and slap their sunrise tail against the water, splashing them both. “You’re like a squeezed-out sponge.”
This draws a reaction from her at last; she rolls onto her side and begins to stroke their hair, carefully combing the ever-present tangles out with her fingers. She says nothing, but she knows that she does not want to be a sponge, simply soaking up their presence and the pleasure that they bring her. They nudge their head against her hand and she draws them closer. When they kiss she can taste herself in their mouth. She doesn’t know if she does taste like the sea, the way that they claim; it seems to her that the taste of the sea is what’s left in their mouth once every last trace of herself is gone.
One night, as the sun sinks below the horizon, she goes down to the water where they usually meet and they are not there. She waits as long as she can, but the lamp must be lit and there is no sign of them.
It’s only when she finally walks back up the shallow, seaweed-encrusted steps that she sees them. She doesn’t know how she missed seeing them on the way down, but perhaps she was hurrying, heedless of what was at her feet thanks to her anticipation of what would be on the beach.
They are huddled about halfway up the steps, skin gleaming coldly in the moonlight. The first thought that strikes her is how pale they are all over, how much of a contrast this is to their sunlight self.
The second thought, which should have been the first thought, is that they have legs.
Their feet and ankles are striped with blood. They are breathing normally, but the fine slits on the sides of their throat have vanished. She lifts them into her arms and then is torn whether to take them up to the lighthouse or back down to the sea. At last she chooses up, carries them step by step to the solid front door, which stands open, waiting for them. The mural stares at them with dozens of faces as they enter the ground floor room and she kicks the door shut behind them against the rising whistle of the wind.
She is still uncertain whether this is right or wrong, but she takes them up the spiral stairs anyway, stopping in the storage room to rinse the blood from their legs. They stir a little in her arms when the cold water hits their skin, but does not wake. She cannot see any cuts or wounds on their feet; there is no visible reason for the blood, but it is streaked a long way up their legs and her imagination fills in the details.
A cosy bed is a strange place for a merfolk, but it’s where she puts them, tucking the quilt around them and fluffing one of the pillows under their head. She feels guilty about leaving them there, but she has to tend the light; it is full dark now and the ships will be sailing regardless of whether she has a visitor. She goes up the last spirals of stairs, past the music room door, to the lamp room. The wind makes it chilly, but she ignores the cold, lighting the lamp and feeling the space heat instantly. It’s a rare night that she has to do anything but sit here, but she makes sure the fuel reservoir is well-filled and that there are no specks of dust on the lamp’s glass to block even the smallest ray of light. Once she has done all that she goes back downstairs to her bedroom.
They are sitting up against the pillows and watching the door. Their eyes are unfocused but retain their green clarity. Horribly, she thinks that their expression must match that of drowning victims in the seconds before death glazes their eyes right over. She opts not to share this comparison with them and just sits down beside them on the bed, reaching for their hand. Even the webs between their fingers have vanished; this transformation, whatever has caused it, is extraordinarily thorough.
Their eyes focus on her when she touches their hand. It’s a vast improvement over the vacant stare. They smile and touch their throat, and then their lips, and then shake their head.
“I don’t understand,” she says, but she is afraid that she does.
Their brow furrows in frustration and they repeat the gestures, this time with a rougher gesture across their lips. She doesn’t know what to say to their muteness and then it doesn’t matter anyway because they silence her unspoken words with a kiss, fervent and deep and needing-wanting-hungering.
They have always met in the shallows between their worlds; this is a chance to show them the comfort of her bed, instead of sand and stone.
“Should we do this? I don’t want to harm you,” she says.
They give her an impatient look, and guide her hand to their breast, and she loses all desire to protest when this is so clearly what they want. She sets about learning their body anew, touching and caressing those places that were closed and scaled and are now open: warm, wet, hard, soft. They make no sound but the arching of their back and the flexing of their muscles tell her all she needs to know, not to mention the way they gather her hair in their hand when she goes down on her belly between their legs, smiling up at them before lowering her face to them.
And now she knows the true taste of the sea. It is dark and secret and deep and she wants to throw herself into them and drown.
She lifts her mouth from them and then rises from the bed to unlatch the shutters, pulling them open. The light that flashes out across the sea powerfully illuminates the bedroom; she can be certain that it has not gone out.
But when she returns to the bed and to them, before long she can see nothing but them and their body entwined with hers. She can feel only the way that they move beneath her, above her, with her.
It is a long, long time before they sleep, curled together under the quilt. She latches the shutters again but she feels certain that the light will not go out, not on this night. The sound of the waves far below lulls them to sleep even in this strange place and she is not far behind them, listening to their breath, their chest rising and falling like the ebb and flow of the water.
As always she feels the dawn in her bones. Usually she is looking out to sea when the sun first peeks over the horizon, but not this time. She opens her eyes and slips out of bed to open the shutters again, letting the first light into the room, and then hurries quietly upstairs to turn out the lamp. She stands for a minute looking out; the sky is a leaden grey and the wind has whipped the waves into a frenzy, but despite this she is cheerful. They will find ways to communicate, and she will care for them, and she will no longer be alone. Solitude is a way of life that suits her, but it is growing harder to appreciate the longer that she knows them. She casts one last look at the ominous low clouds and then goes back down towards her bedroom.
As she passes the closed music room door, she heard the soft, mournful strains of a funeral march begin.
The clarinet is unbearably sweet-sounding. The saxophone should be too cheerful but somehow isn’t, sounding like the keening of the gulls that often circle the tower. The cello weaves the two together. And it is impossible for all three to be playing, because there is nobody in the lighthouse except for herself and the merfolk. Besides, how would a being of the sea know how to play any of the instruments?
She jerks the door open angrily and sees all three instruments sitting in their dusty cases, just as they always have.
A sudden fear seizes her, and not because she is the kind of woman given to believing in ghost stories or anything of that sort. She slams the door shut and pelts down the remaining stairs to her open bedroom door, but not fast enough to escape the resumption of the music, which is decidedly not music to her ears.
The quilt has fallen to the floor. They lie on the bed, their face once again too pale, shining tail slapping against the stone and shedding scales. She runs to their side, seeing the final seconds of the transformation completing itself; the gills open again on the sides of their neck.
They are harder to carry in this form, but she lifts them anyway, taking the stairs two at a time and kicking the door open against the wind. The steps down to the beach are slippery with wet seaweed and kelp thrown up by the tide; she takes them recklessly, painfully aware of the merfolk’s almost non-existent breathing.
She can’t get to the bottom of the steps; the waves have risen to the high tide mark and beyond, foam spuming up another yard beyond that. She is hesitant to just let them go into the maw of the sea when they are in this state, but is unsure what else to do.
The solid rock outcropping to her left catches her eye. She hastens back up the steps and walks out onto it. Every footstep is sure and steady despite how treacherous the surface is. She stands at the edge of the drop with them in her arms and looks down at the ocean roiling below.
If the merfolk are real, will the sea monsters be real as well?
They fall together in silence. The water opens to accept them both with barely a splash.
The supply boat comes when the waves die down and the island is safe to approach once more. It brings fresh crates of food, and a new lighthouse keeper.
She enters the lighthouse with trepidation and then feels it fade away as she sees the mural on the wall. While the man brings in the crates from the boat, she stands with her hands linked behind her back and looks at the paintings. The oldest ones are dull and dusty; she makes a mental note to wipe the walls down, maybe touch up some of the more chipped areas, when she’s got time. The newest ones are so fresh they could have been done yesterday, although the island has been abandoned for a week.
The last picture is a fascinating work of imagination; a merfolk and a woman, poised above the sea in mid-jump. Below the waves glitters a fabulous palace.
She wonders if she will ever find out what happened to the former lighthouse keeper and thinks it’s better if she doesn’t.
In the meantime, she has a lighthouse to tend… and a painting of her own to begin.
“Island, Ocean” (© Lauren E. Mitchell) was published in Issue 9 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.