“Land’s End Light”
by Stephen A. Roddewig
Spent waves died on the beach, dribbling into dark wet sand and salted pebbles, yet I stood unmoving in the wind. Autumn always brought the storms from the south, which coincided with my most dour moods. While the sea spat fury and the breeze whispered of the gale building over the horizon, only the scarf moved, whipping around my neck.
I watched the sea with envy for a while, pondering how a force could dwell on itself. It couldn’t. Waves have no free will. They exist, merging and breaking from each other, then they don’t, concluding a thousand-mile journey on some foreign shore.
Was there someone else standing on the other side of the horizon? I wondered. Whatever Pacific atoll first interrupted the line my sight drew would be a much livelier place than here, even if only birds and lizards ruled in the place of humans.
My shoulders shrugged as I turned my sluggish feet toward the path between the rocks. Well, what did you expect when you joined the Coast Guard? Light keepers for the southern coast of Alaska had run short of late, and the service had offered competitive pay to fill its obligations to navigation. I had leapt at the opportunity to escape the cramped bunk of a cutter, and now I found myself with all the space in the world.
As I paused on the steep path, legs hot from the climb, Land’s End Light rose before me. Nobody could tell me where the name had come from. White stone climbing for forty feet from a square base with shuttered windows on every face but south. A thousand storms had uncovered the black rocks I was scrabbling up, and another thousand had cut the careening path I followed. Only a fool would give that kind of ferocity an invitation inside.
Perhaps that had been the fate of the previous keeper. Sam Mickon had been all a keeper should be: stout, hardy of spirit, and stable of mind—or so the tender had told me on the 200-mile journey from Anchorage. On the last resupply voyage, they had found Land’s End abandoned. The emergency launch lay untouched, tethered and tarped at the base of the cliffs. The interior of the light station lay pristine, the lenses polished and the turning mechanism oiled. Pristine, that was, except the inner and outer door both stood open when the tender approached the light.
The Coast Guard had sent out Klaus Frieden, the commander from Anchorage, to perform an inquiry, but a pair of weeks and a storm had passed before he reached Land’s End. After combing the island, all his men had found was a pair of boot prints at the bottom of the cliffs, and they could only guess at the age of the marks. Then they turned their eyes to the lighthouse, where all lay cleaned and inventoried. It was the commander who first observed that the fuel tanks that lit the beacon had emptied.
“He left the beacon lit and spinnin’,” Jacob, the tender, had told me as we leaned over the railing of the steamer. “Almost as if he meant to desert but didn’t want to go derelict in his duty. But he wasn’t that kinda man.”
“If he meant to desert, why wouldn’t he take the boat?” I asked after dragging on my cigarette. “How else could he leave the island?”
“Steamers pass during the summers.” Jacob looked over into the waves. “Poachers come lookin’ for seals from time to time. Wherever Sam went, he took ‘is boots with ‘im, so they don’t know whether that print belonged to him or someone else. Mayhaps someone else took ‘is boots when they were done with ‘im.”
I had snorted at that—and snorted again between my heavy breaths now. Why come all the way to Land’s End to kill a man? A freak storm had done Sam in, most likely, and he was keeping watch over the light fifty feet out from the tideline. Despite my acquaintance with the cold, I shivered as a gust of wind raced up the fissure.
Ahead, the path smoothed and vanished into the withered grass stalks that clung to Land’s End, already browning in anticipation of the coming winter. Beyond the ring of whitecaps, the blue-black ocean stretched unbroken to all corners, save for a dark strip on the northeastern horizon. There lay the Alaskan mainland, the only landmark to throw any doubt on the name Land’s End.
Only a few Koniag villages dotted that shore, and I doubted that I would receive much hospitality—should I risk the freezing spray in the emergency launch to find out. They had “…not welcomed the construction on Land’s End,” I recalled the tender saying as I looked over toward the swath, an ice floe that never moved. But Jacob had said many things, and few seemed even remotely notable.
No, the next human face I would see wasn’t due in for another three weeks. The provisions came every two months until the ice smothered the channel. Then I’d be alone until the summer thaw.
Even the birds will be gone then, I thought, rounding the corner of the blockhouse that held up Land’s End Light. A colony of Common Murres had taken up on the northern shore, and they roused with a glorious racket every dawn. Maybe the storm will run them off. Then how will I wake myself?
The wind had picked up, snaking its way around the corners of the walls. Its call made me glance up, a moment before a murre slammed into my forehead. I ducked, cursing as the bird bumbled on toward the southern shore. They never perched on the tower.
Maybe I won’t miss them after all, I thought as I undid the exterior bolt of the iron door, turning the oiled hinges outward. Behind it, the oaken door faced me in varnished silence. Why would a man bother refinishing the door of the station he’s deserting?
Inside, the coals I had left smoldering in the stove kept the air lukewarm. I hung my cap on a hook, kicking open the chute and dropping another shovelful of coal into the iron maw. A kettle sat on top of the range, though the water had evaporated long ago. The coffee bag in the larder sat collecting dust.
Instead of warming my hands by the stove, I hung my coat beside my cap, settling down in the far corner of the dank room. The sunlight was flickering through the storm shutters as I flipped open the log. Each day, I had recorded the weather, fuel levels, and any ships sighted. Yet the pages didn’t open to the marked section where I had left off, they opened forward. I frowned at the unfamiliar handwriting, already chiding myself as I read on.
April 31, 1934 – Third fuel tank midway. Wind blowing at ten knots, no rainfall, air pressure steady. Will rebuild stove chimney today to prevent smoke leakage.
The entries carried on, documenting Sam’s transition from chimney repair to painting stairs to refinishing the inner door. Derelict in his duty? The man knew nothing but duty. I had read the passages a dozen times, but they contained no hidden message, no key to the mystery of Land’s End. Madness had claimed keepers in the past, but not with so little warning.
I felt like a stranger in this place after the care and attention my predecessor had shown. An impostor. Twice, when I rose to check the beacon at midnight, in the unmoving darkness behind the stone walls, I had sworn I was being watched.
I shook my head. The mystery kept my mind focused on more than the mundanity of tending the light, but it also served to sharpen my senses to the unusual. God had drawn a thin line between awareness and paranoia, I had found. If madness did claim Sam Mickon, I would do myself no favors by dwelling on it.
A long session manning the fuel pump drove off some of the lingering questions in my mind. I had moved enough oil to keep the beacon lit for the next twelve hours, as regulations demanded, but I doubted any ships would be able to admire my work tonight as the first ice pellets pinged off the shutters above.
The breeze had turned to a wail, probing the walls as I climbed the ladder and moved to the iron door. I pulled the lever, sliding the storm lock into place on top of the deadbolts, a final countermeasure against the unknown beyond.
The oak door came next to hold in heat against the gale. I shook my head, knowing I would still see my breath fogging the air before long. The stove could barely hold its own on the ground floor, the second floor lay empty half the year, and the beacon room had a special stove to keep the turning mechanism from freezing – and to keep ice off the glass panes.
I climbed the winding iron stairs, noting the flecks of frost on the railing as I rose to the beacon room. The wicks lit easily, and I adjusted the fuel line to keep the brazier at an optimal temperature. Fuel was more valuable than gold on this rock. With a twist of my hand, the mechanism started to tick, spinning the great Fresnel lens atop its mercury basin. Great white beams swept out into the gray chaos beyond.
Below the tower, the grass had already vanished, and the ice struck the panes a thousand times a minute where I stood. Those pellets foolish enough to stay melted away against the stove’s steady work. Meanwhile, the rest of the world started to freeze in the gale’s grip. Even the sea beyond showed flecks of white, retreating from sight as the sleet intensified.
Turning to the hatch, I paused as a flash caught my eye. Not any vibrant colors – the opposite. Black, I thought, scanning for another sight as gray continued to swarm in all its fury. Nothing showed itself, and I shrugged. Probably one of the murres.
Outside the stone walls, the wind howled, and the ice slashed, but I slept on. I must have, because when I next awoke, the noise of the storm had changed. Not changed, I realized as my senses returned to my numb ears. Something else has joined.
It came again, a single rock, hoarse and throaty against the alto of the gale. Moments passed, then a second call came from above my head. I started to climb the tower, peering out the window slits that faced north, but nothing revealed itself on the glistening roof. Finally, the light and the warmth of the beacon room swallowed me, and I had full view of the light station.
The lens passed behind me. I looked down, circling from north to east to south. My eyes spotted a shape, then the light filled my peripherals. Blinking, I looked down and gained sight of the caller.
Blacker than the dark around it, it stood in the full wrath of the gale, wings spread, yet the ice never seemed to touch its feathers. Bottomless eyes turned. I felt a strange ripple in the pit of my stomach, and I looked to ensure that I hadn’t brushed against the stove. Turning back, I found the crow was now looking up. Forty feet below, it stared up at me.
Something thunked inside the tower. It took a second for my mind to register the sound of the window shutters. Instead of the constant rattling, the noise had come all at once. Almost like-
A second impact from behind made me leap. I scooted around the beacon, peering out into the gale. On the slick roof, a black and white shape lay twitching. A murre. I looked up, scrambling backward as a second slammed into the glass pane. A singular crack shone where my face had been.
It’s just two seabirds, I told myself as my breath started to shorten, and a crow. The gale’s blowing them against the walls. But what was a land bird doing on Land’s End?
A crash drew my eyes back down. I slid down the staircase, watching the snowflakes floating past me toward the warmth of the beacon room. As the second floor came into view, I found the source. The window on the northwest corner had smashed in, leaving broken glass scattered across the floorboards. But what caused it?
A single movement drew my eyes as the ice and snow swarmed in behind. Crumpled against the sheets, the murre bled onto my pillow, its feet still twitching. The sinking feeling returned to my stomach, the same that had greeted me in the cold darkness those nights past. But it was not a dead keeper that watched me.
It stood in the window, unblinking as I turned. Twenty feet separated us, but the crow’s eyes seemed to swallow the shadows around me, pulling closer.
“What are you?” I asked, fighting my pounding heart. The words sounded weak. “What do you want?”
It did not answer, and yet I waited as if it would. Instead, the crow dipped its beak. The windows started to clatter, one after the other. To my left, the first shutters crunched, the sickening sound of wood giving way to a force far more powerful.
My hands had gone numb. Braving the crow’s gaze, I dashed for the stairs, sliding down the railing before it could move. The black eyes only watched as I descended, their uncanny effects wearing away as I met the warmth of the stove.
For a moment, a pall of calm returned. On the first floor, the storm and the cold remained outside. But no amount of warmth could make me forget what I had seen. In moments, they would break through above me, and my mind could only guess at what they would do.
And what can I do? My eyes flicked to the radio beside the log book, but any help would take days to arrive. And help against what? The hatch to the store room stood between me and that corner, but I would only buy hours as I slowly froze below the ground. The lighthouse held no hunting rifles, no shotguns full of birdshot. Instead, I ripped open the emergency cabinet and grabbed the closest thing I could find: a flare gun. I stuffed the spare cartridges into my jacket.
They can’t reach me here, I told myself, stoking the oil lamp. The crow can’t enter this place. I felt my heart rate lowering as I gripped the flare gun tighter.
Then it went off as the storm door wrenched against its deadbolts. Cursing, I stamped out the flare before it set the floorboards ablaze. My hand reached for the inner door, then paused. I breathed in, then swung the oak aside.
My heart leapt to my throat. A massive bubble had formed in the iron, the hinges shattered beside it. Snow squeezed in from the left side. Only the storm lock had held.
Only telling myself that whatever could bend iron would break through regardless convinced me to lift the lever. The door fell backward with a single thud, lying broken at my feet. Outside, a dozen murres lay in a heap, their feet all splayed to the sky. Nowhere is safe, my mind repeated as I stared at the dead birds. Nowhere is safe.
Suddenly, the mystery of Sam Mickon was a mystery no more. With an iron sense of duty, the first sign of danger to the light’s operation would have driven him to safeguard it however necessary. He had undone the doors, abandoning the safety of the blockhouse to lead the threat away from the beacon.
Then what, I thought as I stepped over the iron door. What happened to him then? The sleet lashed my face as I looked backwards, but the storm obscured all but the slim space directly around and above my head. Farther still, yellow light swept toward the west, my only bearing as I took a few more steps and lost sight of the walls in the gray. Squinting against the gloom and the gale, I watched for black shapes.
The cold was quick to seep beneath my jacket and underlayers, followed by the melting ice dripping down my neck. Had Sam simply frozen to death? Or had he been carried off by a hundred talons?
The raucous cries of murres slipped through the air. My feet started to move quicker as the noise grew, but they had the wind of the storm at their backs. Freezing to death was too plain, I realized as I turned. A hundred black shapes bore down, their white chests blending with the storm—floating heads with beaks aimed at my chest.
The night turned red amid their ranks, scattering the phalanx with the sudden light and heat. I felt a slight calm at the sight of the flare flying true. But the streak had left me half-blind like my foes, and I did not spy the dipping ground until my feet started sliding.
The ice had taken enough hold to escort me all the way to the beach. I lay on the ground at the bottom of the slide, shaking my head. No murres flew above, and I scrambled to my feet as the first beads of moisture began to seep up through my jacket. Before me, the waves had frozen, extending the shoreline, but only a fool would attempt to walk on them. With the cliffs at my side, the sand and stones were infinitely safer than the exposed hilltop where I had faced the flock. I flipped the final cartridge into the back of the flare gun.
I started to wander to keep the feeling in my feet. I circled the island toward the south, keeping careful note of where the beach ended and the sea began. The ice had covered both equally, and one wrong step would mean a soaked foot and the end of my short tale.
I made it for half a mile without incident. Then I stumbled. Blaming the numbness that had started to adopt my left foot, I turned back to inspect the rock. Instead, blue and white met my sight. The blue of a Coast Guard jacket. The white of a face preserved beneath the sea and cast out. My breath came in streams of fog as I knelt beside the body, searching the features crusted with ice.
How should I know this man? My mind reasoned, yet the thudding of my heart told me all I needed to know. The filmed eyes seemed to look up at me in recollection.
Not at me. The blinking yellow specter passed in the gray above. He never abandoned his watch.
A croak sent me to my feet. Spinning, I stumbled over the body again, scrambling back on hands and feet as the crow hopped across the frozen sand. I stood, pulling the flare gun from my jacket. The bird paused at the sight, tilting its head.
One good shot would set it ablaze, I told myself behind my shivering hand. But I saw no fear in its eyes, and after everything I had seen, I could not bring myself to believe it would die. And if I should miss…
All the stomach for fighting went out of me as the crow hopped atop Sam and started to peck at his eyes.
Carried on by my pounding heart, I caught sight of the emergency launch emerging from the squall, and for a single moment I considered untying its moorings. Then what, I thought as the air returned from my lungs to my mind. Launch in a storm? I could die by sea, by storm, or by bird, but no other outcomes came to mind.
I realized, slowly, that the lighthouse was the only place that could prolong any of these eventualities. God only knew what would await me there, but the fading daggers in my toes and fingers decided my course.
My limbs felt heavier as I ascended the hill, yet no flocks reared out of the night to meet me. Instead, the storm had started to relent, leaving an awful silence across the hilltop as I made my way toward the beacon’s periodic flashes. Finally, the white walls of Land End’s Light returned from the gray gloom.
The iron door lay where it had fallen, but I recognized little else. The oil lamp had died, and the darkness had invaded in its absence. Every window had smashed inwards, the table and chairs had been turned over. In the midst of the carnage, the logbook lay, its pages torn apart. Most of them, I realized, picking up the leather from the ice-flecked floorboards. All of my entries remained, but every trace of Sam Mickon’s handwriting had vanished.
Still, I supposed that Sam had had his own vengeance. Despite the talon marks, the stove chimney remained solid. The inner door had escaped any harm. Jacob, Klaus Frieden: they had all read the signs wrong. Sam hadn’t deserted. Sam hadn’t gone mad. He had followed his duty to the last breath. Keep the light lit at all costs.
A new pall of cold fell over the room. I knew who stood in the doorway before I even heard the shifting of its wings. This time, it was not the bottomless eyes, but the strip of cloth it held that drew my focus. The beak opened, dropping the blue and gold emblem. Its eyes flicked from the Coast Guard insignia to me, then it seized the strip between beak and talons and tore it in two.
For a moment, neither I nor the bird moved. Then, when my mind finally determined that this wasn’t a hallucination from the cold, I realized the intention, clear from the start, but lost on watchers too blind to messages beyond their accepted world.
“I understand now,” I told the crow.
My mind spun as I stepped toward the storeroom hatch. It would betray the Coast Guard. It would betray Sam’s final actions. It would betray the duty to which we had both sworn our lives. Yet I slid the hatch open, descended the ladder, and opened the valve to the closest fuel tank all the same.
If I do not, then this night will repeat. Another will die. My finger finally tightened around the trigger. The flare arced through the blackness of the tank, ricocheted off the cylinder, and landed in the reservoir.
When I reached the top of the ladder, the crow had vanished. No murres flew beyond as I passed through the door, flames already crawling up between the floorboards. I turned, watching as the fire broke free of the storeroom, scaling through the first floor, then the second. Below, the heat bathed my face, melting the ice in all directions. The shattered windows kept the flames stoked as they raced up the fuel lines into the tower.
The heat had melted the mortar around the bricks, and the whole blockhouse bowed inward beneath the weight of the tower. Finally, the structure gave way, the light flashing one final time before the beacon disappeared into the crater of the storeroom.
Despite the temporary reprieve, the cold returned to my boots and gloves. I stood for a moment, surveying the ashes and cinders amid the bricks. Then I turned, making for the shore. The emergency launch lay where Sam and I had both left it. I undid the right corner of the tarp, enough to crawl beneath the boat hull. There I huddled, waiting for the cold to embrace me for the final time.
That was where the Koniag found me the next morning.
The three natives carried me into their canoe and took me across the channel to their village. For many days, I lay in one of their skin huts. The family that resided there kept the fire stoked night and day and fed me from their hunts.
One night, I saw one of the women sketching images upon a sheet of bark. A black shape caught my eye by instinct, and I pointed to the crow she had drawn. She smiled, and later showed me the finished sheet. A crow, a great fire, and a crow spreading its wings into the dawn. Only the fire figured into the tale I told Jacob when he arrived on The Egret to find Land’s End lacking tower and keeper.
A fuel line had sprung a leak in the wall by the stove on the first floor, I recounted. By the time I realized the source of the smell, the heat of the iron had provided the spark.
To Frieden and Jacob, the world remained all the same. Their only surprise came when I declined a post transfer to “someplace warmer” off the coast of Texas. After all I had seen, the cramped hull of a Coast Guard cutter was all I needed.
Stephen A. Roddewig is a technical writer and web developer from Virginia (USA). He was named a finalist in the Summer 2021 Owl Canyon Press Hackathon, and his work has been featured in Abyss & Apex, ArtAscent, Bourgeon, and Gardy Loo. When not writing, he enjoys collecting records and running races.