September 2013 winner of the writerstype.com short story competition.
It was boredom that impelled her, that fateful day, to bottle her dreams and set them adrift on Heaven’s emerald sea. Gulls rose in piping alarm as she gingered her way to the boulder-strewn shore, laden with bottles and corks and delicate thoughts. There Aurora Brightly sat on a cushion of seapinks, beneath a violet sky, and set about the business of extracting dreams.
At first they cowered in the dark crevices of her mind and Aurora could capture not a one, but with a little time and tender coaxing she drew them forth, wriggling like tiny spiders caught up in their own filaments. Of these, four came coloured and complete and ready for bottling.
The first dream was a childhood fantasy of tinkle-bells and thistledown drifting on faerie winds, and when filled, the bottle seemed not to weigh a thing. Aurora launched it during a strong north-easterly, and watched as the outflowing tide swept it towards the blushing horizon.
The second came away soggy and pickled in brine; a sorrowful thing it was, and starving. The dream reminded Aurora of chill winter nights that made her skin prickle. This bottle was much heavier than the first and glugged through the watery dark, trailing a tail of bubbles.
The third dream was far more potent and held in it the heat of young love that quite set Aurora’s heart to racing. She fingered the vision into its bottle, and the glass grew hot in her palm. When she dropped it onto a cresting wave, the sea hissed its thanks and swallowed the little bottle whole. It washed up three days later upon the shingle at Rocky Bottom, some seventy leagues north of Pilgrim’s Rest, the lightkeeper there quite abashed by such titillating flotsam.
The fourth dream was the best of all, for it brimmed with endless summer and the tinkling laughter of children, but when Aurora laid it to floating upon a gentle ocean wave the mists gave a juddering gasp, and the wind died. There was stillness to the remainder of that day; thick and heavy, like the South Pacific before a cyclone.
Pilgrim’s Rest was just one of the haunts that peppered Heaven’s many waterways but, unlike the others, it commanded an unbroken view of the great beyond. So when the storm clouds swept in later that day, the Rest was first to spy them.
Black-bellied thunderheads rolled in from the east, and the sea heaved in welcome.
“There’s a bit o’ a swell coming in,” Aurora’s husband noted as he went about the meticulous polishing of lenses and brasses and lantern panes. As if in answer, the sea reared like a leviathan and the sky fractured. Rain spilled from the cracks, pounding the briny beast into a fury. Aurora dashed for the lighthouse just as a cross-swell crested the tower in a wall of salty foam.
The lightkeeper and his wife wasted no time in boarding windows and barring doors, and only when the Rest was secure did the couple pause to share a quivering dram. In silence, they passed the anxious hours while icicles grew from windowsills and puddles lay crystallising within lantern housings.
The storm wrought the greatest part of its havoc in those first fearful hours. The tower at Cutter’s Crag tumbled into the sea along with its lightkeeper, and all that remained of Rover’s Point was a pipe, a stocking, and a copy of Virgil’s Aeneid. Thirty of the finest fishing boats left coves and harbours that day, with near a hundred souls between them. Of these vessels, less than twelve would return, battered and broken, with torn sails and shattered hulls. Of the crewmen, a mere handful returned to tell the tale.
Many souls succumbed that night to the fury of the tourbillion, but the keepers at Pilgrim’s Rest were not among them.
For days the bodies came washing ashore at the Rest. Some lay broken and confused, poor things, wedged into the narrow inlets and straggling firths that puckered the broken shoreline. Others dithered thither and back, scratching their heads and mumbling in guttural tones while yet more milled in motley groups about the lighthouse walls. It was an arduous and unenviable task, the clearing of the dead, and the hours passed quickly beneath the searing sun.
A yacht beached the following morning, so far inshore that she could be boarded with ease. The craft was in full sail, and her name was Summer Wind.
“Belonged to some high-falooter, most like,” said the lightkeeper as he ran a hand along her boom. Brasses shone like gold against glossed mahogany timbers and Summer Wind wore silks the colour of sea-mist and spring sunsets. A bottle of black wine sat uncorked and intact upon the galley table; not a drop spilt, and two crystal goblets still waited to be filled.
“Such a beautiful waste,” said Aurora, wondering what had happened to the crew. It was as if Summer Wind had escaped the storm altogether. The only hint as to her mysterious grounding was that she favoured her port side. When the sea broke upon her prow a ghostly keening could be heard rising from the depths that set Aurora’s skin to creeping.
Now, Aurora knew of the cavernous combs that hollowed the islet’s foundations. She knew too that on stormy nights, when the tides surged high into these resounding spaces, one could hear the moan of receding waters and the rumble of boulders as they tumbled in the swirl. But this new sound was unaccountable weird and had to it a ring of mortal anguish. Haunted by visions of hapless sailors trapped in watery graves, Aurora and her lightkeeper duly went to investigate.
As they approached the mouth of one such cave Aurora paused and listened intently. After several minutes, the sound came again, and she detected a familiar tone to the agonised note.
“A dog..!” She called, and a dog it was; imprisoned, poor brute, in the slimy interior of the cave. It did not take much to lure the creature from his tomb, ravenous as he was, and before long the couple returned to their fire, a new friend in tow. They named him Salty, for the colour of his fur and the scent of brine that never quite left him, and grew to love the mongrel dearly. It was a lucky dog that found himself warming his paws by the fire that night, and a lucky couple it was to have found him. Indeed, the storm had rained upon Pilgrim’s Rest a curious bounty, but the strangest was yet to come.
Aurora was serving dinner when the tiny kitchen window filled with rosy light and a shadow passed before it. So startled was she that she dropped her favourite serving dish. It landed with a clatter, sluicing meat juices across the kitchen floor. Her husband came running, and Aurora relayed what she had seen. The lightkeeper puffed out his chest and went after the trespasser wearing just his breeches and one boot.
“Hullo there!” He called, using his hands as a funnel lest the wind snatch up his words before they could be heard. There was no answering call. The lightkeeper scratched his head, “Hanged if I can see a soul, Rorie.” He turned to go back inside and froze mid-step, staring at something above the door frame. “What in the name…”
Aurora shivered, “What is it?”
The lightkeeper crossed himself, “Devil’s work, is what it is.”
Aurora pushed her husband aside to find a ribbon of light looping the lighthouse in hissing spirals of red, striating the walls like a barber’s pole. Aurora put a finger to the fizzing cord, and at once remembered what it was to be alive. Joy welled in her eyes as she followed the light, like a moth does the moon, to the precipitous western shore where guano capped cliffs plunged into treacherous waters. The sea roiled where the ribbon passed through it, and light swayed in its currents like a quivering frond of sea grass. It was a terrible eerie sight and quite gave Aurora the shivers.
“Look,” said the lightkeeper, “over there.”
A figure flitted from place to place, trailing the other end of the ribbon which now webbed the islet’s rocky scape in a labyrinth of knots and whorls. Aurora called out a greeting for it seemed a polite thing to do, but the spirit ignored her and continued in its dance down to the shore.
Aurora was shocked to find not a fearful spectre, but a living, breathing boy. He regarded her through a haze of sanguine light that quite fuddled the eyes. It was this cloud that cultivated the ribbon. It converged upon a point at the boy’s back where fine threads could be seen feeding into the spectral tether. Aurora remembered another boy, on the morning his mother gave him birth on a cold kitchen floor. The umbilical cord wrapped tight around the infant’s neck, his face so blue as to look quite dead.
Aurora shivered and Salty whimpered, worrying at her ankles. ‘Fear not,’ he seemed to say and, trusting the old dog for his senses were keener than hers, Aurora picked her way across the rocks to join her unusual guest. The boy ignored her, so transfixed was he by a seal ghosting between the rafts of storm debris that bestrewed the frothing waters.
“Am I dead?” He asked, after quite some time.
“Best you come with me, lad,” Aurora said. “It’s bitter out here.”
The boy looked at her then, with eyes the colour of honey. A silvery scar bridged his nose, pulling at the freckles that gathered there. “My name’s Tom Rigby.”
Brittle and blue with butterfly skin, Tom looked a sickly child. He had a tickle too, and when he coughed, crimson droplets misted the air. Nevertheless, he had a healthy appetite and made short work of Aurora’s rhubarb pie. The lightkeeper sat across from the boy, mumbling into his coffee. Aurora stared, disbelieving, at the storm’s third gift. First the boat and then the dog, and now a living soul estranged from his mortal frame. Despite finding himself on death’s pallid shore, Tom remained tethered to life by way of a luminous leash that lay coiled at his feet like a ruby-scaled python.
“We have to send him back,” the lightkeeper said at last. “It’s not nat’rul, this.”
Aurora bristled. “You mean to toss him to the sea?”
Her husband removed his cap and smoothed his thinning hair. “Can’t see no other way to do it, Rorie. The sea’s where he came from. The sea’s where he should go.”
The lightkeeper’s wife despaired, for she harboured a dark secret. In that fourth and final bottle she had deposited a most secret wish: to have a child of her very own. Aurora Brightly had lived her first life without children, and she hungered still for motherhood. She looked again at the boy and her heart swelled. Aurora decided that night, when the boy lay abed and her husband was in his lightroom, to keep the child as she had kept the dog.
Morning came with a flock of terns on route to richer waters. A noisy lot of birds they were but mighty handsome, and active on the wing. Aurora often woke early to watch them hawking along the shallows in search of sand eels or other prey and this day she had risen earlier than most, whiling the quiet morning hours cooking and baking and cleaning and sprucing. She mended the nets that hung limp from the windows and polished the glass to sparkling. She darned her husband’s socks, sewed Tom a new jerkin, and anxiously waited for her new life to begin. When at last Tom Rigby emerged from his bed it was almost mid-morning, his breakfast quite ruined.
“I dreamt of my mother and father,” he said when Aurora asked how he had slept. “They were by my bedside pleading with me to wake up, which was odd because I was already awake.”
No-one spoke of Tom’s dream, that day or any other; for he dreamt it almost every night, and it terrified Aurora to her marrow. Tom’s parents wanted him back, but the lightkeeper’s wife was loath to let go. Had he not appeared only after she dreamed of him, sickly and pale and close to, if not quite through, the doors of death? Was not that testament enough to the brutality and neglect he must have endured in his short life? Aurora pictured a crone of a mother, a tyrant of a father, and convinced herself she was doing the right thing.
Short spring days stretched into long summer months beneath the golden sun, and routine returned to Pilgrim’s Rest. Tom’s health improved. His skin no longer showed its purple threads and his frame looked to fit him better. He spent his mornings with Aurora in the library, reading Keats and Dickens and Poe, and his afternoons with her husband, who glowed, despite himself, in the light of Tom’s affection. He taught Tom about flash-timing and ventilation, lenses, burners, and vaporisers, and how to keep them all clean, for cleanliness was next to Godliness, and imperative to the functioning of tower lamps.
That summer was generously long for the keepers at Pilgrim’s Rest, but winter was fast drawing near. There was no autumn out at sea, no trees to shed leaves upon its glistening surface. There was only the changing of the wind to mark this season’s passing while by and by the long dark quickened in its wake.
Aurora woke, one moonless November’s night, to a mysterious thump, thump, thumping from above. Concerned for the safety of her surrogate son, she ascended the stairs to Tom’s room and despaired at finding the boy not abed. She climbed to the chamber where her husband would be, surrounded, as ever, by his glowing burners. Perhaps she would find Tom nestled beside him, a storybook on his lap. Sadly it was not to be for when she crested the spiral stair Aurora beheld a gruesome sight.
Blood and feathers obscured a broken lantern pane, and birds of all kinds lay inert upon the lightroom floor. Thump, thump, thump! There they went again, Woodcock this time, three in succession, colliding with a second pane only to land on the grating outside. Aurora squealed in horror and flung open the balcony door lest more poor souls be dashed upon the glass.
The lightkeeper rose in alarm. “Shut the damn door woman or… watch out!”
Aurora dropped to her knees as a pair of sandpipers plunged through the door and into the foremost burner with a horrifying hiss of wilting feathers. The death rush resumed with a solitary storm petrel, and Aurora had to look away as another life succumbed in mid-flight. One after the other they came, and the lightkeeper’s wife wept for each. When she finally braved a glance, only one burner remained lit, casting ragged shadows across the bird-strewn floor. A flock of starlings crested the balcony railing and the lightkeeper made for the idling door, slamming it closed to a drumming of beaks and bones.
Aurora stood panting amongst the carnage. “What’s wrong with them?” She sobbed. “Why are they flocking to their doom?”
The lightkeeper softened to see her so, and took Aurora in his arms. “It is the light, gentle wife. The light draws them to their end.”
“Then snuff it out,” she cried, “lest I go mad!” The lightkeeper had no time for consoling for a shadow fell across them both, and a sound, like the rush of an ocean wave, filled the space between them.
“By Christ..!” He gasped. “Rorie, get down!”
Man and wife hit the floor as a tempest of glass and feathers tore through the lightroom at Pilgrim’s Rest, plunging the tower into total darkness.
Only then did Aurora remember Tom.
Of the three gifts that had washed ashore in the wake of that terrible storm, only the dog remains, though he is older now than a dog has any business being. Salty was there for Aurora in the days after Tom disappeared, again when the Baron came for Summer Wind, and every day since, in his own little way.
Some say the lightkeeper’s wife is a lonely one; her days spent whiling away the laggard hours on death’s pallid shore while her husband toils forever in the tower above. She helps when she can, in a hundred trivial ways, but the light is kept by the keepers, and her skills are basic and few. In the summer though, when the night is fleeting and the day is correspondingly long, the lightkeeper’s wife can apply herself to varied interests, like reading or embroidery. Or, perhaps, setting dream bottles adrift upon the sea.
Aurora knows it was neither fate nor bottled wish that brought Tom Rigby to the Rest. Like the birds, he had simply followed a light. Perhaps it was her love that had lured him so, perhaps she will never know, but one thing Aurora knows for sure, Tom Rigby was never hers to keep. Aurora had played her part willingly though, knowing what it would mean. After all, was that not the lot of a mother, to rear her brood and set them free? Time had healed Tom’s ailing body and love had healed his soul, and then, one cold winter’s night, Tom Rigby had gone home.
An epilogue to this tale was written some forty years later when, one stormy spring morning, with the wind blowing furiously and a heavy sea running, a schooner drove ashore at Pilgrim’s Rest. The logbook had been kept by a T. G. Rigby of Portsmouth, and the vessel’s name was Aurora’s Dream.
Of the souls that alighted upon the shore that day, only one was glad to be there. He bore a scar that bridged his nose, and his eyes were the colour of honey.