Light

~ a short story

All there was left to do was watch the horizon.

Smells of brine wafted into his high seat. Grey-blue mists coalesced at the open windows of his keep, entering his space without invitation but with welcoming sense. There were no blinks from this man’s gaze, even as seawater traversed its way onto the lids and lenses of his eyes.

Using his gifts of far-seeing, Elton gazed the storm approaching Eastwatch. Still five clicks. He scanned over the crashing coastline at Medlin’s Shore. No sign yet. He finally rested his craning neck to look upon the port of Westfrond. Once more, late. The clouded overcast of this evening kept him charged. Having memorized the schedule, he knew implicitly of all arrivals and departures. All the threads of timing were running in the back of his head, constantly updating with any new visuals he met.

Elton took a deep breath, without averting. He was ready to submit himself to action, if the night required it. It always did in some capacity. He continued to carefully reference the maps, the scrying, the messages in the pool. The tools of his trade provided for him small advantages in his tireless workplace of farsight. The real work lay in the challenge of focus. If his attention strayed in a critical moment of inertia, it would spell doom in more ways than one. Lives would be lost, as they had before.

Everything was in order thus far, but he knew all too well how much could change in a flash.

~ art by Karl Blechen

The lighthouse was his home; it summoned within Elton a great responsibility. He felt it squarely on his lone shoulders. It lay there with unavoidable, and long embraced, constancy. Day in, day out — there he remained, vigilant. It was his job to prevent catastrophe, and he took it to heart, felt pride in it. A watcher on the shores of treacherous fate, he was responsible for many. The ships carried the lifeblood of the community. Their passage among these ports was imperative for the health of their simple trades; their passages carried the hopes of newcomers, and the dreams of their children.

The darkness, forever an enemy to his gifted sight, compelled him away from these thoughts. Recurringly, the night’s beckoning charged Elton away from those hopes and toward his duty.

The lack of light here on his island was no outer anomaly. He knew how much it spread every day. He tracked it alongside everything else. Resources dwindled without end; they were finite, just like the lighted shores of his homeland. Better than anyone, Elton could see how things were going, at this pace, without any resistance to its march. He understood more every day how little time they had left. It was for these reasons, and for some unspoken vow he’d made to himself long ago, that he would not rest until he absolutely had to.

A veteran of many nights in this very tower, he had earned his place. His eyes had secured the passage of wealthy merchants, powerful lords, high adventuring sailors of yore. Even foreign nations could rely on his overwatch. He left no vessel to the dark waves of fate. If he held in any reluctance, it was that fate itself would cast him to such a stationary role. Deep down, past duty, past necessities, he held an adventurer’s heart. He wished to ride the waves he watched, sailing alongside the captains that had come to depend on him. The subconscious truth was, Elton’s eyes were trained on the waves of his sea all night, but his heart lay within them. It appeared to be a twisted destiny for him, to endlessly search for his own soul in the crashing waves of shores near and far.

~

Elton’s sphere of influence ended where the storm was beginning to form. Just out over the horizon he could see it. The storm embraced his visage. Its ferocity is something to behold, Elton considered with admiration born of respect. Its waves carried certain death for every soul unaware. He had work to do. There were allied warships narrowly outrunning it, among others. Some unfortunate mariners and pleasure boats were in the vicinity, now being rightly rounded up by the warships to make their makeshift escape back to the shore. It fell to Elton to direct them across the most durable path to safety.

He configured the hand signs to his fellow watchmen at nearby towers, ancillary yet vital to his watch. The necessary information to be communicated — this storm would make landfall soon and there were lives on the line. Elton made a sign for each, included the count of the souls aboard. We have a massive storm inbound / We have a warship carrying valuable State resources and potentially invaluable intel from wherever it has come / We have civilian ships which are less capable of evac from the crucible of the storm. On the shore, preparations would be made to receive these ships and get them to safety before the storm made landfall. After making these communications, Elton would then need to guide the light across the waves in an effort to coordinate these ships’ passage across the increasingly perilous waters. Heading towards the shore, they would encounter potential pitfalls, in riptides and storm surges, and trailing roils out of the sea’s ride of the dark winds of the storm’s fury.

To those at sea, far and away in their deathly isolation, Elton continued calmly and resolutely, as he always did, by relating the commonly vital signal known to all seaman of the initiation of a guided evacuation. The warship captain would now be attuned, if he wasn’t already, to the whims of Elton’s lighthouse and its intricate movements across the waters. Elton’s position as surveyor of the sea, along with the warship captain’s experience in sailing and navigation would make this venture feasible. There were no assurances any would survive, but at least they’d have a chance and the crew knew it. Morale would surge into their arms and minds as they did everything they could to seize that chance.

Elton moved the light with ease, charting the safest possible path for the captain to follow. The nameless, shapeless captain so far down among the waves followed suit, filling out his role with ease. His experience showed itself upon the ripples between the waves and the shifts of the boats over them. Elton did not let this lift him just yet. Darkening clouds chased and the sea raged at the back of their sails. It will catch them. It won’t, Elton urged himself, accelerating his light’s path as if to indicate to the cap and crew that fate was riding them down.

The longer this collective migration of ships took, the more Elton witnessed the storm develop, and the more he realized the immensity of it. The cloud form gathered around the optics of his furthest farsight. It devoured the horizon with greed. It extended as far to the north and south that he could possibly see. Helplessly, Elton kept taking to the reality that while escape was still possible, it was not likely. He continued undaunted.

The smaller boats made their way to the shore while the galleon bulked with many more lives shook violently among the distant waves. Elton continued to light the fires at his back, willing the light’s strength and guidance all those weary and dreadful eyes staring up at him as their last hope. With his torch, lit with the energies from his own veritable soul, he was directing those invitees, foreign and domestic to their new and old homes, and toward new beginnings. The waves carried more than the wood and the goods, more than the people and whatever lives had brought them amidst this dire storm.

All the while, the dark lightning and thunder and wind and bellowing, howling hell coming from the storm worsened. Elton’s farsight locked him into struggle with the force of nature’s wrath now engulfing all prior experience.

As it wages along the horizon, Elton is given images within his mind’s eye of possible and impossible outcomes. With his vision gone, Elton witnesses death and salvation as one sight conjoined. Lightning reflects off the small pinpoints of black along his inner eyes, splitting the fates into two. The horizon lights up and dies down, a flurry of times that cannot be enlightens and terrifies Elton. The keeper tries to reconcile. The duel of duty and of his light-keeping clash. Thunderous crashes sweep toward his shore with monstrous, ear-shattering hate. Elton narrowly blocks it out and stays aright. He bears it out, the guiding light and the signaling to the captain’s ship nearly overtaken. Elton providences a bearing of the endless dance, with the grin of fate mirroring his look. At the end of it, the dark meets the light and the ships and sea in a culmination. Elton bears his stance atop the lighthouse, hoping against hope for his passage to hold all these souls.

~

The ships approach as the storm’s story concludes. Elton is blinded momentarily by the intensity of destiny, grateful for the grace of survival. But not forgetful of the moment and the remainder of his duty. He directs them onto docks. They connect in a haste as the serene post-fury tides rise. The survivors rejoice, strangers embrace strangers, the crew kisses the sandy beach.

Most of the boats make it to shore, held aloft by Elton’s directed gaze. Others were overtaken somewhere in the night, captured at their heels at the last. Every passenger safely returned offers their thanks. But they go unheard. Elton considers only the losses of light and life. He is forever injured for those that are forever seafaring. Those lives and those fates lie beyond his sight, never to see the shore. Of the light he garnered at his house this day, in the effort to evacuate these lives, that which was consumed by roiling cloud and wave is gone, never to return. Elton’s mantra of finitude unconsciously returns with a grimace.

Every modicum of it was worthy. Elton does not look back.

Soon after, Elton leaves for another coast. This time far to the southeast, where the light is weakest and his presence most direly needed. A new day, a new shift. Once again, Elton finds himself traveling soundlessly across the sea’s embrace, to another keep and another watch. Another duty. And another restless promise, to himself and to all peoples.

No matter to ever-gathering storms at the edge of our maps, or the tenebrous crawl of fate’s darkening hate, the lights along my shore must never go out. ~