cw: self harm, animal cruelty, eating disorders, abandonment
The storm is beaching waves almost up to the lighthouse door. Mati stands at the window fogged by rain and sand. Her eyes dance over the purple, pummelled sky. The sea’s groans sound in unison with her stomach’s hollow growl. Almost four days have passed since she’s allowed herself to eat a full meal. For the most part she’s subsisting on black coffee and handfuls of pistachio nuts. When bad weather hits, the delivery driver often can’t make it through.
The previous keeper left packets of dried foods that remind Mati of astronauts’ meals. Abruptly an image comes to mind: her brother Igo wearing a cardboard space helmet wrapped in foil, herself cast as a marauding alien with their mother’s laddered stockings for tentacle arms. Now Mati raises her arms in a slow cephalopod flourish, baring her teeth at her streaked reflection.
When the storm has run itself to heaving shreds, Mati boils water and empties orange-tinted flakes into a bowl. The space food has a briny, savoury edge that may be meant to represent bacon.
Stomach contracting around the unaccustomed meal, she walks out into the drizzle. The wind lashes her dark hair around her. Its abrupt physical contact catches her off-guard. Her insides tighten as the hairs on her skin stand upright.
She wonders when the delivery driver will make it to her door again.
Harvesting limpets requires a stealth Mati relishes – if they sense her approach, they weld themselves to the rocks like the accumulation of some mineral. They’ll be tasty when grilled, once she’s pared off the black nub of intestines.
Foraging offers up bounty dashed overboard from ships. Once she found a copy of Moby Dick floundering in the shallows. Another time, a shipment of latex-free Durex arrived, pristine in foil wrappings. A stack of ballet shoes in assorted pastel shades found its way between two rocks, the satin slippers like sugared almonds secured between leaves of salt-spotted polythene. She spent an afternoon trying them on and flouncing around in makeshift, newspaper tutus.
The shoes lie on the shelves of her sitting room, arranged among shells she’s gathered and the curled copy of Moby Dick. Her eyes travel over them as she settles down with her coffee. She makes it strong and without milk in the gold-rimmed espresso cup and saucer that had been part of her mother’s own treasures. Whenever Mati sets the cup down in its saucer, she listens out for the clink as the surfaces collide. It makes her think of being small, with Igo smaller still, pretending the crockery was a pirate’s hoard. For some reason, their dad had liked to drink Ginjinha liqueur from the tiny cups, so they’d had the idea of swashbucklers quaffing rum from the delicate, gilded china.
Those memories ruffle the monotony of water gnawing on rock, gulls and kittiwakes harrying the wind. She glances up, glimpsing her reflection in the window. Transparency scrubs her face clean and transforms her to the ghost of a young girl.
That furious girl’s nearly gone, she thinks, pinching her lips narrow until she looks her age. Not that she’s old now, she tells herself. Pushing forty isn’t so very old.
Her morning checks are complete. The forecast is unexceptional. Clouds on the horizon low and level, heralding nothing.
Five months have passed and she hasn’t yet felt the urge to depart. Perhaps it’s because this is less a role than an embodiment. She once told the delivery driver that her main duty is to inhabit the space, ensure the air gets inhaled and exhaled and that the sea is seen, its tantrums acknowledged.
Sometimes she feels the lighthouse is less a warning than a lure; storm beckoner rather than a beacon.
“You should get a dog,” suggested the delivery driver, running a hand over the ruby birthmark that shows through thinning hair on his scalp. He’d driven his van up the beach, leaving tire tracks in the milky sand. “A dog would be company when the silence gets loud.”
When she can’t sleep, Mati wonders if he’s right. She lies in bed running her fingertips over the pattern of scars marking her thighs – dot dash, dot dash – until she drifts, only to be jolted awake by nightmares.
Fragments of the nightmares stalk her from task to task: the delusion of chicks cheeping on the periphery of hearing, a car engine’s roar when the nearest road is half a mile inland.
She’s certain that the warmth the lighthouse lamp emits is why she’s dreaming of the chicks. A teacher brought them into school one term when she was twelve. They’d been newly hatched in a tank with a heat lamp.
Mati forces herself to unpick the memory, thinking their barely-there mass into her hands, feathers vibrating with the shiver of miniature heartbeats, the feeble pinch of clawed feet against her palms.
The delivery driver is an extra knot in the lace of her days. She almost always invites him to stay for coffee, and he almost always says yes. When the delivery includes pastéis de nata, she persuades him to share one with her and observes how his tongue collects stray crumbs from his lips while her half of the custard tart lies untouched. As they drink their coffee, he tells her news of the outside world, which she tunes out, listening instead to the rise and fall of his voice.
She isn’t lonely, she tells herself; she just misses the comfort of physical contact – a pair of lungs breathing close to her own.
A storm swoops in fast one afternoon while he talks. Gusts whip clouds and waves alike into a stampede. Rain slams the lighthouse walls, whirling around them.
He returns seconds after leaving, already drenched. “It isn’t safe to drive back.”
She decides that the weather is her collaborator, perhaps his too.
His skin tastes of salt, flesh hot and pulsing with vigour. Unclothed, he’s sprung with dark, curled hairs. She sees him noticing her thinness, dismay flitting over his face before he enfolds her in an embrace.
Later, he ambles his lips over her scars until she feels he’s reading her like braille.
In the morning, he’s lying with his back to her. The flesh of him hangs loose, wrinkled in places.
“I have a wife, and children,” he tells her when he stirs. His eyes look through her, resolute. “This can’t happen again.”
Mati shrugs, pulls on a shirt over vest and shorts, and begins with her morning’s jobs. She first tidies the areas that have been made messy through their lovemaking, and then goes to clean and check the lamp.
He trudges up the stairs after her to the lantern room, his eyes trailing her movements.
Polishing and maintaining the lighthouse lamp requires a pleasing amount of concentration as she examines each connection for wear and damage; rubs and soothes the panes.
Afterwards, she runs down to the beach, where little waves are breaking. Disquiet swirls around her core. She blames it on the delivery driver. But she’d guessed he was married, hadn’t she? She can’t decide whether she’s annoyed with him or herself.
She wonders if his children include a daughter he looks at as though she is the world.
Driftwood clutters the shore – marine monsters with perching seagulls for eyes.
A faint yowl soars above the sighs of the hungover sea. She follows it to a rock pool where something huddles, half submerged. It’s no bigger than a baby, cloaked in weed.
As she nears, the thing cries weakly, unfurling small, webbed hands.
Her breath lodges in her throat.
She slides both hands into the pool, one under the creature’s rump, one supporting the head. Weakly, it thrashes a tapering tail.
“A merbaby,” she murmurs, but as she lifts it her awe capsizes. Not a mertail after all – a plastic ring from a six-pack of beer binds the rear limbs. She lays the creature on her shirt in the sand and saws with her limpet knife until the hoop snaps.
The kelp is knotted to tawny patterned fur – dot dash, dot dash – a coded message.
Not a merbaby, something feline with flaps of skin between each toe. A memory bobs up from a passage skimmed in a book. Fishing cat.
“What you got?” The delivery driver stands over them so his body blocks the sun.
She holds the creature close, shielding it. A tiny heart vibrates next to her own. The cat mewls, pink mouth open wide.
“You’ll want fish for that. I’ll bring tinned sardines next time I come,” he says. “Warm it if you want it to live.”
He stomps off towards the van. She fancies she smells the tang of his semen waft towards her on the breeze that’s all that remains of the storm.
Mati hurries into the lighthouse. She remembers the chicks at school and carries the cat to the lantern room, grabbing two towels on the way. With one she gently rubs the animal dry; the other forms a nest in the chair where she sits to fill in the lighthouse logbook.
She places the chair in the path of the lamp’s gaze and switches it on, breaking the sunset to sunrise policy.
But this is an emergency, she tells herself, clear-headed with purpose. She’s always felt gratified by being useful. My good, sensible girl, her father had always called her, approval brimming in his smile. He’d looked at her as though she was the world.
As a twelve-year-old, she’d fought hard to be the first pupil charged with caring for the chicks overnight. It was only weeks after her father left. Perhaps that’s why she was awarded the privilege.
She allows herself to relive the jolt of the door’s slam shocking her awake, echoed by the car engine’s growl. Her confusion tasted sharp tangled with dread that curdled to rage.
They’d barely seen him after that.
She can still conjure the pride that throbbed in her chest as she installed the tank and heat lamp in her room. It was the day of the Festas do Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres. Streets were strewn with flowers and there were carnival stalls in Ponta Delgada’s town square. Mati went down with her friends, thrilling at the throng of people; the rhythm of synthesised music numbing her bewilderment.
That evening she’d returned to her bedroom with candyfloss still coating her tongue. Her brother was in there, flat on his stomach with the chicks cheeping around him.
It was a vision of such serenity that envy spiked inside Mati, coiled through with nausea. The chicks loved her brother as they would never love her, as everyone loved her brother and no one had loved her but their father.
And even he had not loved Mati enough to stay.
“You’ll hurt them, Igo!” she’d shouted, and continued yelling until he’d returned each chick to the tank, wide-eyed and tearful.
Her mother came in as Igo fled.
“What was that, Matilde? Why such anger?”
She hadn’t been able to answer.
Her mother gazed at her with such disappointment that Mati’s insides ached.
Her father had only ever regarded her with love. Now he was gone. Upending her world so it felt as unfamiliar as another planet. Only she’d become the alien, forever wrongfooted and out of place.
“Your brother’s a good boy.” Her mother stood framed in the bedroom doorway, arms folded. “Why can’t you be a better sister?”
Mati watched her walk away, and then unplugged the heat lamp and sobbed herself to sleep.
The chicks didn’t survive the night.
After that morning when he’d peeped into her room to discover the heap of downy corpses, her brother turned inwards.
When she passed Igo’s bedroom and glimpsed him sawing his forearm with a knife far too blunt for his aim, Mati had rolled her eyes, burying her fear. Without saying a word, she walked into the bathroom, locked the door and cut a neat slice into the top of her thigh with their dad’s abandoned razor blade.
The relief had been instantaneous – at once her anguish bubbled up and out as a glimmer of arterial red she could wipe away.
Before dawn unstitches the green-grey-blue of sky and sea, Mati wakes to find the cat pacing the lantern room.
The cat stares as she polishes the cooling lens, long whiskers shining, and then races her down the winding stairs.
While Mati meanders from one rockpool to another, foraging and harvesting limpets, the cat has bigger prey in mind.
It drags the first bluefish it catches to her feet, presenting with an insistent mew. Scales glint as the fish gasps. Mati kneels, pretending to bite and chew, and then moves aside, allowing the cat its turn.
Later, Mati fries cat-caught bluefish and limpets for herself. She serves the cat a dish of raw morsels. They sit together, each chewing quietly and listening to the sea.
Mati allows contentment to steal through her like warmth, like light.
She thinks of her brother Igo and the years that have passed without contact. She can see herself remaining here at the lighthouse long enough for it to be worth sending him her address.
Mati imagines his amazement at seeing her scrawl on the envelope, his wonder at her incarnation as lighthouse keeper. Controlling the lamp. Protecting ships from harm.
It’s as though she’s found her place in the world.
She stays awake until the moon is halfway up the sky, enjoying the cat’s inquisitive exploration of her home. When she curls in the chair bathed by the lamp’s rays, the cat jumps into her lap.
With her hands tangled in the cat’s dappled fur, Mati drifts into a dreamless sleep.
The wind rises and falls outside; another storm is on its way.
About The Author
Judy Darley is a British author who can’t stop writing about the fallibilities of the human mind. Her words have been published in the UK, Canada, US, New Zealand and India. Judy is the author of short fiction collections Sky Light Rain (Valley Press) and Remember Me to the Bees (Tangent Books). Her third collection, The Stairs are a Snowcapped Mountain, will be published by Reflex Press in 2022.
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