Of sound and reasonable temperament, I have concluded that Keeper Henry would prefer me dead.
Silence beckons the four of us at the dinner table—a shoddy fixture of driftwood, crooked nails, and splinters—as we sup again upon carrot and chicken stew, a staple of those servicing Tillamook Rock Lighthouse. In 1879, builders took 500 days to complete its quarrelsome construction, and although fifteen years later, keepers still dutifully man the lighthouse, it is the feral rock that rules them. Islanded 1.2 miles into sea, imprisoned by drowning waters, keepers serve three months on, two weeks off—three months of vengeful waves and vegetative days, before thirteen nights of glorified sleeplessness ashore. But rarely does a man fulfill his sentence, here; this malevolent rock to drag away his sanity first.
Terrible Tilly, the lighthouse be called. And terrible she truly is.
Henry sits afore me in the keeper’s quarters, his eyes tracing my pewter spoon from bowl to lip. A month and two weeks back, he, Elmore, and I were ferried out aboard the Thomas Corwin, a small cutter for the U.S. Revenue-Marines. The summoning from our prior lighthouses had been abrupt: us to fill the roles of three who had mysteriously absconded from their duties. Now, ’tis true we all knew of Tilly, her wicked tales between keepers spread, but seeing her myself … even the twisted tide seemed reluctant of her shores.
Like the barbed vertebrae of a sea monster, the rock stabbed upward from endless depths. A corpse of an island, a deformity of basalt, and yet, atop her apex sat our lighthouse, a haughty gesture that the sea owned nothing unconquerable to man.
At the time, I’d assumed a rowboat would complete our journey (a remark that earned snorts from the deckhands), and instead, we used a breeches buoy—a five-inch line secured between our ship and Tilly. Harnessed to that wire, the sailors delivered us across the black and icy waters, where Headkeeper Lewis, towels and coffee ready, uttered his solemn greeting. But even after I had named my bedding, stored my belongings, and warmed myself before the fire, the image of our ship departing, that sense of forgotten loneliness, etched coldness in my bones. I believe (yes, in hindsight I think this right) that Henry felt that coldness, too. But as men do hate those who reflect their own fears, he formed a bitterness toward me. Until the chance of three days prior, though, it had only been this faint distaste. Now, however, every meal he watches me as though he fears I know a secret he’d not fancy I reveal.
Which, as of three days prior, he knows I do.
Above us, the nighttime rain patters the roof; our spoons clink their bowls. The silence is not unnatural, but tonight, we all feel what crouches in the quiet. The static and the cold. The jealous sky preparing to abuse his wanton sea. This undivided room (100 feet from the lighthouse proper) is our quarters, the squat building where we eat, sleep, and rehash conversations with senile futility. At one time, there had been a board and checkers for backgammon, but half the pieces looked as though someone had tried to eat them.
Like all things novel, my first week upon the rock was fine. The sea, the solitude, the distance from the world. But man’s soul has quiet cravings he doesn’t hear until alone. And by that second week—the constant holler of the foghorn, that gleaming town just beyond my eyelashes—the days begin to peel hangnails from your mind. Every three hours, Tilly’s lamp needs feeding. Every morning, Henry recites his prayers. Elmore always gnawing on his nails. Lewis who regulates our food. Nothing but the moss outside grows green. Nowhere can you go without the sound of waves. All of us but Headkeeper Lewis feel it, that gradual constriction of your spine, a steel cable spun around your bones and squeezing, squeezing the marrow from their tips. The best elixir, then, is to forget—forget your home, forget your loves, forget yourself. I, with my imagination now so exercised and hale, could nearly make myself believe that if I jumped, I could stay there. For if you focused on the rock, let its crags and swells inside you, it was a boat straight to the lunatic asylum. Stories—as keepers liked to whisper—claimed one man had crushed up glass and poured it in a comrade’s food. Another soul, in stark desperation, had tried to swim away after bashing his head bloody against the lighthouse walls. And if you believed all tales told in darkness, one man, presumed to run away when on the mainland, had hidden in the storage area, eating his own flesh to keep alive.