You are reading Fiddleblack #8
It has been a long autumn indeed, and every sign portends a longer winter still. Captain Walls is still here in the keeper’s house; he seems to have taken up residence, and though I have hinted on numerous occasions that perhaps he might like to take his leave, that he is welcome to one of my horses and enough supplies to carry him inland as far as Raleigh if he likes, where he might contact someone who surely must be wondering about the condition of The Helen Ann, his wrecked schooner, he insists that “No, no, my good sir,” he is in no rush, provided I do not mind the company. How can I proclaim my true feelings, that I find him inscrutable and not a little bit frightening, without engendering the potential wrath that I suspect is contained within his breast?
Nay, I mistrust him completely, and suspect his landing on my shore—for I do think of it as my shore, the nearest lighthouse or sign of civilization being naught less than thirty miles by sea, possibly more by land—portends some manner of doom, though what I cannot say, nor can I provide specific evidence—facts—to support my suspicion, without going into the narrative of the whole, for only in the whole do the parts begin to make sense. It is the purpose of this diary, then, to recount the events that have brought me to this line of supernatural thinking. Though I am getting on in years, I would like to believe I may one day tell this tale in a tavern somewhere, by a warm fire and surrounded by men and good cheer, or over cigars following a dinner party, but I fear the worst. My condition is not well, and getting worse. Thus, the record of events that have led me here.
I moved to the Devil’s Bay Lighthouse in the spring of 1872, shortly after it opened to light on of the infamous dark spaces on the Carolina coastline. The initial keeper only stayed a few months, but he had no family and fell prey to the solitude. I had raised my family in a lighthouse around Norfolk, my wife’s people being from Richmond. But our sons have grown and left us; the eldest died at Cold Harbor, the middle has joined the Navy, and the youngest has moved to Richmond to pursue his legal studies with my wife’s brother. It being the two of us, and us not bound by schools or other obligations, I accepted the post at Devil’s Bay with the hope of building a retirement fund, and maybe returning to Richmond one day, or out to the mountains, where my people are from.
My wife died in the spring of a late-season ague. The Carolina coasts are not so far from Norfolk, a hundred miles, a hundred and fifty at most, but that distance creates a noticeable difference in the weather. Summers are muggy and wet. The winters are mild—I’ve seen snow only twice in the years I’ve lived here—but the cold lingers into the spring so that March is both damp and cold, and the night air carries with it all manner of illness. My wife was always one to step out in the evenings, for a walk along the beach. She loved the moon, the way it reflected in the waves. There is a draw to the sea that only those who have spent significant time near the water can understand. The black stretch of water leading off into the unknown, the waves pushing inward, the tides pulling out. You can stand on the water’s edge, and sand will cover your feet and the water will tug at you, a true siren’s call. The ocean at night is both beautiful and frightening, and my wife, I believe, enjoyed the strange pleasure that combination creates in the soul. But her evening walks in the spring finally caught up with her in March of this year. She picked up a cough and was never able to shake it. I held her hand to the last, then buried her the next day in a strip of sandy soil inland from the lighthouse, a ways back from the keeper’s house. There, a line of woods began, thick vines and live oaks. I’ve kept her grave cleared these months, but I’m afraid that once I’m gone, the vines will creep in and swallow her.
One night a few weeks ago—it may have been Thanksgiving, for I have not kept a calendar since Martha passed—some late-autumn wildflowers bloomed. I went out and picked a bouquet for her. They weren’t much, just pansies of some sort, mostly violet with a splash of bright yellow, her favorite color. I sat by her grave and spoke to her for the first time since her passing. I’d wept over her and had spoken to myself plenty, and to God, to be sure, but I hadn’t yet addressed her until that day in November. I could hear the sea at my back and saw nothing but an empty future before me and I told her so, and I believe she answered me in her way. A lot of men might not believe in the spirit life – old wives tales, they’d call it, haints and goblins – but I have no embarrassment about saying my wife’s spirit was near me, that I could smell her as I spoke to her and laid bare my heart for her design.
The sun sank over the sound so that the orange light slashed across the water to create a puddle of fire before me, the sky a purple bruise betwixt the western blood and the eastern dark. I rose from the grave and lumbered to the lighthouse and up the steps. The last of the Carolina lighthouses, Devil’s Bay is on a scruffy, unoccupied bight, a long tentacle of land that stretches down from Virginia and guards the sandy lowlands of North Carolina. The nearest man is south in Bodie Island, forty knots by sea, or a three-day ride by land. Because of its remoteness, the Devil’s Bay lighthouse has not been painted. A wrought iron spiral staircase wends its way up the ten drafty stories of bare brick. You walk up by lantern-light, and heaven help you if a draft blows out the wick and you are forced to crouch against the stairs and fumble for a match in the dark or, if you haven’t a match, find your way down the pitch-dark chimney. That has happened to me only once. After winding the lamp for the last time one evening, I headed down the steps but hadn’t made it a third of the way to the bottom when the lantern blew out. I stopped, felt my pocket for matches I knew weren’t there, then gingerly dropped, one step at a time, the remaining way to the ground. The spiral staircase can make a man dizzy in daylight, steep as it is, and the image of that would-be plummet seared its way into the blackness that night. One misstep, thought I, and down I would go. What I hadn’t anticipated was that the ordinary noises of the night, the moaning wind and the hollow echo of bats reverberating inside the cylinder, amplified to the point where I was certain the devil himself were here to collect my soul and cart me to the underworld. Shadows follow you here, in Devil’s Bay.
That day, after tending my wife’s grave, I set out for my lighthouse duties. The evening had chilled to a frosty bite so I could see puffs of exhalated air. The chill radiated from the lighthouse bricks, but I nonetheless held close to the wall as I wound my way up. At the top I set the lantern down and reset the lighthouse’s lamp, which I did five times each winter night, and which I only had to do four times on the long summer days. The rotating lamp—they call it a Fresnel lamp—operates much like a grandfather clock and requires someone to rewind it, so to speak, every few hours. That is my job, to watch over what was once the Graveyard of the Atlantic. On ordinary nights I would reset the lamp and perhaps stay with the beacon to ensure all was well, a flash every five seconds to warn off captains lost at sea, fifteen miles outland, and then I might lie back and doze, or a play a game of patience with a deck of cards.
When I was first stationed here a few months after the lighthouse was opened, I had an assistant, a young Confederate veteran named Ezekiel, who seemed joyfully unaware that his name conjured the image of the valley of the dry bones. A bachelor, a sailor in search of a grand adventure, Ezekiel was not cut out for life as a light keeper, where each night is blissfully the same as the night before, hours of chess or cards or conversation. All night, every night. Sure, Martha and I tried to make a pleasant life of it, the three of us, but he disappeared one day, likely to the west in search of gold, and the Navy has not seen fit to serve me a replacement. Martha and I alone were able to manage as partners, twin light keepers also in charge of keeping each other’s company. But Martha too has alighted for another life, so I alone have lit the sandy shores of Devil’s Bay to warn off ships.
But tonight I abandoned my routine of cards and evening solitude and stepped onto the landing. Cold wind blasted against me, so cold it took my breath away for a moment, and I could feel the tower’s sway, a few feet in either direction, enough to make you marvel at the engineering.
The night was clear. The stars and the moon lit the sea as though it were merely a clouded afternoon. Breakers swelled in long roods, and waves crashed against the shore below me. I don’t know how much time passed as I stood there, gazing into the unknown, the sky black beyond the pale haze of starlight, the sea shadowed like a ruffled blanket, and the shadows rippled as though something very much alive moved beneath the surface. The dark chasm of the sea stirred my very soul and I felt an ache in my very bones.
I grasped the rail and leaned into the wind, held tight to the cold iron. The wind tossed my hair and my clothes. I held fast and felt an almost magnetic pulse pulling against me. I tightened my grip as though waiting for a revelation to be presented to me.
Instead of the voice of God calling my name—Edwin!—I looked south and saw a schooner wrecked against the shore. The sight of that ship pulled me out of my reverie. I gasped and turned inside.
With the lantern in hand I tumbled the ten flights to the ground and scurried out of the lighthouse, ran past my quarters and beyond the compound itself, through brush and brambles and onto the shoreline.
The schooner was a hundred yards down, and as I approached I saw it was lodged on a sandbar. At seventy feet long, the ship was made from some exotic dark wood that shimmered in the moonlight. The hull seemed in fair shape, the keel and ribs intact, the twin masts rose straight as pillars, but the sails were down, the rigging a tangled mess. The Helen Ann was stenciled near the bow, a name I’d never heard in my years as a sailor, though there was no shortage of sealers and whaleships and one-time slave ships sailing futilely throughout the Atlantic. Perhaps she was one more come to the Graveyard to rest. At the stern two ropes hung from the transom, some yawl no doubt unmoored in the great gray swells of the lawless sea.
“Hello!” I called. “Anyone there?”
I hadn’t expected a response. Waves crashed against the hull, and somewhere aboard a loose hinge groaned in time with the ship’s undulations.
“Hello!” I called again.
“You there,” said a voice from behind me.
I spun and encountered a man limping up the beach toward me. The ragged sailor wore a captain’s hat, though his clothes were worn and weather-beaten. Captain Walls—for this is who now stopped before me, I would soon learn—stood over six feet and carried a saber on his left hip, which jangled as he limped.
“You there,” he said, his voice a dry, throaty rumble. “Are ye the light keeper?”
“I am,” said I. “When did you come ashore?”
“No more than an hour ago. Hard to say once the sun goes down and the night stains the land.”
“The lamp’s been on all evening,” I said, and indeed the lamp flashed still, its metered flare both a beacon of civilization and a warning to beware.
“Oh, I’ve no doubt, kind sir, but you see it’s been just me aboard The Helen Ann, and I must have drifted off.”
“Only you? What about your crew?”
“Lost in the rigging during a gale some time ago.”
When the captain didn’t elaborate, I said, “Well, if you’ve no one else aboard, you’re welcome to return with me to the lighthouse. I’ve got to tend to the lamp, but there’s plenty of quarters for you to rest and clean up. Tomorrow I can loan you a mare. The nearest town is Elizabeth City, a seventy-mile ride because you have to get to the other side of the sound. They’d have the closest telegraph. Are you with the Navy?”
“No, we were a sealer vessel out of New Bedford. I’d be much obliged for your hospitality, and for the use of your mare. Are you sure I wouldn’t be putting you out? Or your missus?”
“No, my missus has passed.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Is it just you here?”
“No assistant? No one?”
“Not for seventy miles inland, or fifty miles down the coast.”
“My God, man, and I thought a ship was a lonesome place to be.” He gazed about us, the pallid sea to the east and dark trees to the west. “But I’d take the sea any day over the land. Land is a terrifying place.”
“That it is,” I said.
As we bushwhacked our way to the lighthouse compound, I explained how I had quarters beside the lighthouse, a stick style home meant for two families. It had the steep gabled roofs you associate with this style, but the lighthouse board didn’t see fit to adorn it with trusses or any kind of decorative half-timbering. A plain white house perched on a desolate patch of land, well suited for the gray swells of the sea and the lonesome moan of the wind through the lighthouse chamber itself.
“Why, this is a fine house,” he said as we approached.
“I’m afraid I haven’t kept it up as well as I could have, not since my misses passed.”
“I’m much obliged to have a bed for the night and a roof over my head.”
Inside the house, in the lanternlight, I got my first real look at Captain Walls. He had a scar down his left cheek, and the skin on his jaw was rough and square. No trace of a beard, as though he’d shaved just before he wrecked on my shore. His eyes were green, and lines feathered out from his eyes to his cheek, cut deep in his ruddy skin. A full shock of black hair covered his head, parted with a dapper slick wave, and I could see he must have been quite handsome before the sea had its way with him. He looked to be two score and change, though he could have been an old thirty-five or a very young sixty, and he stood with a military air about him, the kind of aristocratic presence one associates with the great generals. I would later learn he had in fact fought for the Confederacy, though he would always be vague about the specifics. “The Navy has taken me from Norfolk to Anchorage and everywhere in between,” he said during one of our dinners, which would become our routine.
But here I’ve gotten ahead of myself. That first day I did not realize he would set up on a near-permanent basis with me, with seemingly no intent of ever riding on to Elizabeth City to telegraph the owners of The Helen Ann with news of her misfortune. That first day I merely showed him to the guest room—Ezekiel’s former quarters—and bade him goodnight.
“I’m sorry to be a poor host, but the lighthouse.”
“Of course, of course,” said he. “We don’t want any more ships wrecked upon your shore.”
And sure enough, I saw the light had winked out. The lamp had to be tended to every few hours, and though my encounter with Captain Walls had passed quickly, I realized I had no inkling of the time. I hurried up the steps to relight the lamp.
My troubles began the next morning. At the last hour before dawn I tended the lamp and returned to the house and went to bed. I woke after eight hours of slumber, expecting that Captain Walls would have hitched up a mare and headed out. Instead that afternoon I found him in the yard, reading Darwin under a live oak.
“This man believes in the transmutation of species, not through divine intervention but through causeless chance,” he said when I approached. The day was mild and sunny, no relic from last night’s gloom. We could be old friends, school chums or neighbors, meeting by chance in the common ground, so easy was the captain’s pose.
“I thought you might have already headed inland,” I said. “I’m sure you’ll want to send a telegraph about your ship.”
“Are you a Christian man, Mr. Forrester?”
“Must be hard, out here in the wild, with no church or community. No preacher to guide you through the dark nights.”
“I was raised to believe that when God’s light shines in your soul, you can carry that light into the wilderness and it will stay with you until you return.”
“Then you’re a true Christian. Were you a sailor before you became a light keeper?”
“I was. Before the war.”
“The sea changes a man, teaches him things he couldn’t learn otherwise. Not even in battle. I had that sense about you last night, that you had put in your time on the open water, with no society to hold you up. Builds character. Teaches a man independence. For months at a time you’re dependent on your crew and the construction of your vessel, but it’s up to you to maintain your bearings and not come unstrung. I can imagine a wild place such as this takes a robust character to survive.”
“That’s true,” I said. “Some men wouldn’t be cut out for it, but I was never a society man. I prefer the solitude.”
“Well then, I’m all the more grateful for your hospitality.”
“Oh, it’s no trouble. You’re welcome here. I’d never turn away a man in need.”
“In that case, I do have a favor, from one Christian to another. I could use a few more days of quarter—I’ll be glad to pay you, of course, and to help out with your lighthouse duties if you’ll let me. But you see, I was out on the water for several months, and I haven’t seemed to have found my land legs. A few days will help me rest up and get acclimated to solid ground again before I ride the seventy miles to town.”
“Of course, Captain. You’re welcome to stay as long as you need. I’ve got more than enough provisions, and some company would be welcome.” Even as I said this, however, I felt a strange foreboding. It would not have occurred to me to ask, What do I know about this man? Can I trust his story? First, because he was a distressed American sailor, and he was right about the way the sea changes a man. It makes you independent, yes, but you also learn the art of dependency, for one misstep among your fellow sailors and the ship sinks. You learn to trust your mates, and your captain, and that trust extends to your fellow man. But I also would not have questioned him because this was not the 1700s. The old days of piracy were behind us. Yes, there were strange races on the sea, and you would have to be a fool to underestimate the darkness that resides within the human breast, but Captain Walls was an American, and a Christian, and a sailor, and that common ground was enough.
“Very well.” He marked his place in the book and stood to shake my hand. “What can I do?”
“For now, you’re welcome to keep reading, or I can show you how the lamp operates. My work doesn’t begin until sundown.”
And so it began. Captain Walls adapted his schedule to mine. We’d take dinner together, and he would join me in the lighthouse station for a few rounds of chess. We were equally matched, we found to our mutual surprise. Along about midnight he would call it a night and turn in, leaving me to tend the lamp until dawn. I would sleep the morning away and when I woke I always found him underneath the live oak with some book or another, which would lead us into ruminative conversations about art or philosophy or science, things beyond my purview as a light keeper but which interested me greatly. Captain Walls was a smart man indeed, and not once during that time did I ever pause to ask why he was here. Did he really crash against the shore, or was he hiding out from someone? Would anyone come looking for him? And how long did he intend to stay?
After a few weeks—perhaps three—we had dinner together and we laid bare our histories, mine more straightforward than his: born in 1820 in Appalachian foothills, I grew up hearing about the sea, that wide flat plain of water that wrapped its way around all horizons. I joined the Navy at seventeen and sailed around the world twice over, then met a woman in Norfolk, whom I later married and settled down with. Her people were of old Richmond stock, unenthusiastic that she had married a grizzled sailor on leave, and even less enthusiastic that we made a life for ourselves tending a lighthouse in Virginia. Unlike the dark corner of North Carolina, Norfolk was a veritable metropolis, and my duties there were much less lonesome than the sole mission of the lamp in Devil’s Bay. In Norfolk, I passed many years caring for the grounds in daylight, to keep up appearances for the throngs of visitors.
Martha and I had three boys, one of whom has died and two of whom I have not seen in some time.
“Law is a good career for a man,” the Captain said of my youngest, the legal apprentice in Richmond. He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. “And in the Navy a man can see the world, as you know,” he said of my middle child. “Nothing more noble than serving one’s country.”
“Maybe. But my eldest served his country and died at Cold Harbor.”
“Kith and kin over country.”
“The union wasn’t our country,” I said. I have a tendency to defend the Confederacy and all it stood for, when in fact my people in Appalachia were ambiguous at best. I had no slaves, nor a cause against our northern kin. Martha’s family, however, were noble southerners who believed in God and Dixie. Therefore, Martha and I believed in God and Dixie.
“I was in the Confederate Navy for a time during the war. Perhaps I met your son.”
“He was in the cavalry, not the Navy.”
“Perhaps I met him by chance when I was ashore. I’ve met many soldiers in my day.”
I looked at the captain. “Where were you stationed?”
“Oh, here and there. The war was a bloody thing, and I was called to battles all over. Tell me about your son.”
“His name was Samuel. He was close with Martha’s family—they only lived in Richmond—and knew the South had been preparing for war. He’d only just turned seventeen in ’62 when he ran off to join Lee’s army. Made it two years and then bad luck caught up to him at Cold Harbor.” I paused, thinking about the way luck works, how the wheel spins for each of us. Luck has always been with me. I’ve tended my lamps and raised my family the best I knew how. Here I am, near sixty, a widower and estranged from my living sons, my eldest progeny forgotten in a Confederate cemetery. Cold Harbor. It was a massacre against Grant’s army, my son one of a few Confederate dead. “What more is there to say?” I finished.
“A terrible thing. It goes against the natural order of things, for a son to die before his father. Happened to many a family in the war. I hated to be a part of it, God’s plan.” He took the Lord’s name with utter disgust, and though I too had questioned the Lord’s wisdom I nonetheless shivered. The captain spoke with the contempt you reserve for those closest to you, for when they fail.
“Do you have children?”
“The sea is my family,” he said.
Later that night, after the captain had left me to my post, I played a few rounds of patience, matching queens to kings and jacks to queens. Then, on impulse, I stood and once again stepped out of the station and onto the landing, where just a few nights ago I had felt the magnetic pulse and the pull of the sea. I peered down at the schooner, still lodged in its place, the waves breaking over its hull, the rigging nothing more than a castellated shadow against the glistening sea.
I took hold of the rail, as I had done the night of the captain’s wreck, and looked up at the sky. A cirrus cloud zipped across the face of the moon, faint and feather-thin. Winter was upon us. Early yet, still only December. Though the days were temperate here, the nights grew cold and brittle. I was about to return inside when the steady ebb and flow was interrupted by a scratching. I peered back at the schooner and strained my eyes and ears. Nothing but shadows. Then the scratching again, a kind of low hum and thud, hum and thud, no tune or tempo I could fathom from natural causes. Almost as though something alive were scurrying through the ship, aft to stern and back again.
Though I saw nothing but shadows, and mistrusted my ears from this distance—for, looking back on it, I could not have possibly heard even the yell from a man on the ground from my perch on the landing—but the night plays tricks on your senses and convinces you of the impossible. As I had when I’d first seen the wrecked ship, I spiraled down the steps. By the time I reached the bottom, I was breathing heavily and felt something like a star in my chest. I ignored it and frog-hopped through the brambles to the shore. From the ground I heard nothing at first, but then from the ship I once again heard a rattle that sounded like shackles from within.
I took hold of some ropes and pulled myself onto The Helen Ann. The cold ropes dug into my palms and the star in my chest pulsed, and the ache spread to my shoulders. Aboard, I rested my hands on my knees and caught my breath. Up close I could see that the ship, a deep mahogany in color, may even have been constructed from some type of teak. The wood had an oily sheen that caught the light. Though hull and floor were in beautiful shape, the masts were splintered. The drooping sails flipped in the wind like loose laundry, and the rigging formed a deadly web. On one of the wires hung a darkly stained shirt and on another hung a ragged hunk of something, which could have been meat or perhaps just some tatter torn from the mainsail. The schooner’s cabin was in severe disrepair. Decaying boards clacked in the wind, held by rusty nails. A large wave broke against the keel and the schooner shifted, and as it did it groaned something awful.
The sound of chains had ceased. I heard nothing beyond what you would expect from a broken ship stranded on the banks of some remote outpost, a darkened Carolina bay. I rubbed my sore hands together to warm them from the encroaching frost.
When I turned, Captain Walls stood before me.
“Evening, Mr. Forrester.”
“Captain,” I said. He leaned against the foremast with his arms crossed, his saber at his side.
“She was a fine ship,” he said. “These boards are hewn from African teak.” He stomped. “Expensive wood, paid for by men with expensive tastes.”
“I thought you’d gone to bed.”
“I went on, but I couldn’t sleep. I still haven’t found my land legs yet and the sea beckons.”
“I thought I heard something aboard the schooner.”
“’Twas I, my good man, just I.”
He straightened away from the mast and began to approach me, one hand on his saber, his face shadowed by his hat. His comment about land legs might have played with my perception, because aboard The Helen Ann he appeared to stand straighter than he did on land, and his limp had disappeared. Here he was a powerful presence, something almost demonic about him so that if you were a mere sailor the shadow of your captain would always be upon you. God help a rebellious spirit.
Just then the beacon missed its flash. Five seconds went by. Ten. Fifteen.
The captain turned and looked up at the lighthouse.
“The lamp has stopped.”
“So it has,” he said. “You better go take care of that.”
“Good night,” I said.
He grunted, and stepped back for me to pass. I rappelled off the schooner and headed back to my post, leaving the captain to tend his ship.
When I woke the next afternoon I could still feel an ache in the back of my shoulder, as though the star in my chest had been nothing more than a slowly overstretched muscle. I rubbed my neck and shoulders and tried to work the kink loose.
The captain was not in his usual spot beneath the live oak. When I saw the vacant lawn, I searched the house, then went to the barn to see if he’d finally hitched up the mare and headed inland. The horses were still there, their dull faces gazing at me like glass figures. I wondered if perhaps the captain were again aboard The Helen Ann, or if he’d even debarked since I’d seen him last. I dared not find out.
The day was a mite cool, as if the evening’s frost had not dissipated, so I stayed in and read from the captain’s Darwin, which he’d left lying on a table. “Variation Under Domestication.” Though I am a Christian man, I’ve never been one to shy away from biological observations. Certain religious zealots had attacked Mr. Darwin as being a heathen, as trying to destroy the spiritual foundation of our society. But he proclaims himself a naturalist, one who is simply making observations. Look at plants we’ve domesticated, see the variety, and ask why. Men have been asking why since the dawn of civilization, and, unlike certain preachers, or the writers of the gospels, Mr. Darwin has not had the advantage of divine revelation. If God doesn’t come out of the clouds and tell you what to write, you’re left to your own devices. How can we fault a man for that? If there is a fault, doesn’t it lie with God for allowing such words to be written without His guiding hand?
At dusk there was still no sign of the captain so I trudged to the lighthouse’s peak and tended to the lamp. As with last night, I tried a few rounds of patience but my mind was restless. Where had the captain gone? What was he up to? My chest tightened and I rose and paced the station, then stepped onto the rail. Tonight was even colder than the last. The winter wind howled about me and as I looked down at the darkness I noticed, as if for the first time, how all the trees were bare and the landscape had the saturnine air about it, which would instill a sense of terror among even the most reasonable of men. Below me, I saw a figure in the gloom. The captain walked across the beach and into the woods, not far from the lighthouse compound. I called out to him: “Captain! Captain Walls!”
But the figure, if he heard me, chose instead to vanish into the shadows.
Had I remained in my perch, I wonder now if the rest would have unfolded as it had. Would I have grown ill, and become captive to the torment of the captain? Would I have placed my soul at such hazard? It is too late to answer these questions. All I know is that I saw the captain from the air and, as I had done twice before, I raced down the steps of the lighthouse to catch him. The first had been concern over a wrecked ship, the second had been eerie sounds from the wreckage, and this last was for—What? To catch up with the captain who now roamed the lighthouse compound like a haunting spirit in search of something just out of grasp. I had no solace to offer him, but felt in vain that mere company could do him well.
Outside the tower I looked around for the captain, but what I beheld in his stead nearly drove me to my grave then and there. My wife, my Martha, stood at the forest’s edge, not ten yards from the stone with which I’d marked her grave. She was younger now than when she’d passed, in the bloom of life before the shadow of middle age had settled upon either of us. Her skin was like porcelain, almost translucent in the glow of starlight. She stood with her back to me, but I would recognize her anywhere, from any angle, and my heart ached with the sight of her because in that first glimpse she became real again. These many months her memory had blurred so that all I had was a mere icon in my mind—this is Martha, this is what she meant to me—but that image was not the corporeal Martha any more than the memory of my eldest son. So much gets lost over time, like a stone gradually beaten by a mountain creek, once jagged, now worn smooth.
I called out to her, but in an instant she disappeared, or rather she faded into the woods as though a shadow winked her into nonexistence. I ran to the woods, tripped on a root, rose again with my knees sore. A coughing fit struck me, but I tried to stifle it and called out to Martha again.
At her grave, the vines had taken root. Dead for the winter, bare wood snaked over the stone and tentacled its way over the land that held her body. Or what once held her body.
“Martha!” I said again as I dashed into the woods. Leaves crunched beneath my feet. I ran until my lungs seared and finally knocked the wind out of me. I leaned over and heaved and coughed and braced my hand against a tree.
Around me the woods were all dark, the limbs black spindles against the charcoal sky. I spun, but could see nothing around me. No Martha, no Captain Walls, no lighthouse lamp. Lost in the thick of it I began to weep, and I cried out for help. “Anyone!” I called. “Where are you?” The woods were still and quiet. The star in my chest returned with a pang, and it seemed to explode and sent a jolt along my shoulder and down my arm and across my chest. I coughed and leaned against the tree and the world spun.
The rest of that night is a blur. From somewhere in the gloom, Captain Walls found me and led me back to the house, where he put me to bed. By then I was flushed with a fever and shook with chills. If we spoke I do not remember it, though I do remember pining for Martha, who had always taken care of me when I was ill. I never appreciated her enough, for it wasn’t until she was gone and I was fallen and in need that I truly saw the grace she had given me. I do not know how long I lay in bed, quivering with chills and night sweats, my entire body wracked with a sickness. But I awoke one day at sunset from the knife of orange light that signified the close of day. Wracked with thirst, I arose and shuffled downstairs for a draught of water. I drank my fill, then returned to bed. From the window I saw the captain walking across the way to the lighthouse. Whatever his intentions, I understood he had no intention of leaving me.
Then, what could have been later that night or the next—for these last days have all been like a dream—I awoke in darkness to the sound of howling from the sea. I clambered out of bed and dressed hurriedly, following some impulse from a nightmare, and like a somnambulist I scuttled over to The Helen Ann. Lord knows why I was drawn to her—instinct, intuition, insanity. Still half-asleep, I reached the ship and caught my breath before boarding her. The night was cold. This could be Christmas, this could be New Year’s. I’ve lost track of time, but dry winter’s air stirred me awake. I shook the cobwebs out of my mind and was about to turn back when I heard a clank aboard the ship. Then again: clank, clank. The sound of a blacksmith forging steel. Clank, clank.
I reached for the rigging and tugged myself aboard. Phlegm loosened in my chest and I was suddenly very tired and very thirsty. I heaved myself aboard and was immediately struck dumb by the sight of Captain Walls.
He stood shirtless by a forge, lit coals and a flame and an anvil. He held a pair of manacles in a pair of tongs, a hammer by his side. Beside him I felt brittle and aged, for he towered over the forge with the sturdiness of a mountain bluff, and his hulking form seemed to radiate life. His saber was in the fire, but what struck me was that he’d slashed his forearm and was dripping blood onto the heated steel. As I looked on, he set down the tongs and the manacles. He pulled the saber from the fire and pressed the hot blade to his bleeding arm without a flinch.
He turned to me, still holding the blade to his arm, and said, “Get out of here, Edwin. This is not the place for you.”
His face was black with soot and his hair was stringy and fell into his eyes, which were black sockets. The flames leapt around him and cast his body in ghoulish tones.
From behind him, a low moan rose from the cabin. A choir of indeterminate voices. The rattle of chains. The captain turned his head a few degrees, then pulled the saber from his arm and rose to face me.
I cleared my throat. “What is that?” I asked. My voice was hoarse, these the first words I had spoken in days. “Who’s down there?”
“No one is here but you and I.”
“Someone is below deck.”
“This ship is haunted, Edwin.”
He placed his saber back in its sheath and examined his arm. The blood had dried and turned black and where the gash had been was now a scar. “This ship, The Helen Ann,” he said. “She’s haunted.”
From below came the low moaning and more rattling.
“You back away from me,” I said.
“Edwin, I’ve tried to keep you away. I never meant for you to see me wrecked and come down to help me, and though I’ve appreciated your hospitality I tried to warn you away from the ship the other night.”
“So this is why you’ve not gone on for help. You’re keeping slaves below deck.”
“It’s not what you’re thinking,” he said.
“Then who’s down there? You’ve got a pair of manacles at your feet, and people are calling for help—”
“No one’s calling for help. Listen to them!”
I stopped. The low moan had quieted, still perceptible but now reduced to something that could be mistaken for wind. I knew this hum, the hum of wind through the lighthouse tower. The rattle of chains now a mere clacking.
“She was a transport schooner during the war,” he said. “In the early years my crew and I patrolled the Atlantic, reporting on Union movements. Then we began attacking Union ships, looting them for weapons and gold and killing the crew. By the end of the war we were hiring ourselves out for prison transport. We’d stack dying soldiers below deck, cart them into the ocean and dump them overboard.”
“Why would you do that?”
“How many troops died in prison camps during the war? Where were they to be buried? There were thousands of dead Union troops who all needed a plot of soil. Easier just to dump them in the vast Atlantic.”
I was stunned as the truth became revealed to me. Captain Walls operated a death ship, like Charon, carting souls across the River Styx. The devil himself may as well have stood before me, here to collect for some past sin. The phlegm in my chest stirred. I grew faint.
“That’s why, when I first arrived here, I wondered if I’d ever met your son. I met many troops in my travels during the war. Many a depraved man looking for an expedient way to clean up the mess.”
“Samuel would never abide by that.”
“You’d be surprised,” he said. He put on his shirt and picked up the manacles from the ground, stretched them taut. A fit of coughing struck me and I leaned against the rail.
“And those?” I asked when I caught my breath. “Are they for me?”
“What have I done?”
“You’ve been living in bad faith out here,” he said.
“How would you know?”
“You’ve cut yourself off from everyone. You dragged your wife—your poor bride—away from her home and her children and set up camp in a desolate outpost. Take a look around you,” he yelled. “You’re in a wild land with a wild sea, and yet you’re clinging to some kind of domestication. Tend to the lamp. Make tea. It’s a false life, Edwin, and it’s time to give it up. You should have leapt that night.”
“The night you saw my ship. You were out on the ledge, about to jump. You’ve bought yourself some more time, but now it’s time to come with me.”
“I’ll be glad to,” I muttered. I leaned over the rail and below me waves churned against the hull. My fever was returning and in the swirling murk below me I saw the glisten of starlight. I wavered, nearly tumbled. I closed my eyes and let the world fade out.
Did last night really happen?
I am a sick man, and not to be trusted. I’ve passed today wracked with a fever-haze, with phlegm rattling in my chest and a certainty in my bones that I do not have much time. Though I would someday like to return to civilization, some warm tavern where perhaps I could share a draught with my son, the lawyer, and make amends for dragging myself and Martha to this God-forsaken outpost, I fear the worst.
I have not seen Captain Walls since that night on the ship. I awoke this morning in my bed, uncertain if the lost hours had been a mere dream. But in my bones I know it was real, and I have not left my quarters lest I run into him while I am in this weakened state.
Am I a hostage? A supply wagon should be arriving with the new year. Could be tomorrow, could be next week. If I am still here I shall return to the city with them, find a doctor, heal and catch a train to Richmond. Perhaps by the time they arrive Captain Walls will have moved on, the test of my fortitude complete. I know not how he knew I was on the ledge the night of his arrival, nor, even if he had seen me from the ship, how he knew truths about my heart and my intentions that I myself was not aware of. Maybe that is good evidence for last night being just a fantasy, brought about by my brain fever. But if all happened the way my mind perceived it, I am in trouble.
The day has been long and now, at its close, I lie here still and wait. It has been some time since I saw Captain Walls in the daylight. Since my sickness came on I have only seen him in the night. Yet I know he is out there, waiting, as I grow weaker. On The Helen Ann, his demons howl in anticipation, the manacles forged with his blood ready to tie me down for my long journey home. I can see them: my assistant Ezekiel, Martha, my son Samuel—long dead at Cold Harbor—the nameless faces of my forebears. They have all formed a long procession before me and are inviting me onward to the long home. I shall join them soon.
Jon Sealy is a freelance writer in Richmond, Virginia.