Hi folks. Over the previous centuries, the iconic lighthouse was a fixture along the coasts of North America and Europe. It was a lonely existence for the people who manned these life saving structures. This fictional story tells of one such person on the coast of Newfoundland.
The Lighthouse Keeper
Jennifer Leigh Crandall
John Ellis Morrissey sat by the warm wood stove with a wool blanket thrown across his knees, dozing as he listened to the storm outside. Soon he would have to rouse himself again to check the big light. On a stormy night John Ellis never really slept, he just caught a nap here and there as he could. When the storm passed he would rest.
“What do you think of a night like this Tommy?” he asked his only companion on this rocky island. The big Newfoundland dog just thumped his tail on the floor in answer. “Yes boy,” said John Ellis, “I couldn’t agree more.” The dog sighed with contentment and went back to sleep.
John Ellis rose and stretched, then climbed the stairs to the light tower high above. He did not even look out into the raging North Atlantic; he simply adjusted the light and returned to the fire. This was a pretty remote part of the world and there was little chance of any ships being out there at this time of the year. Ah well, the isolation pay was good and John Ellis preferred Tommy’s company to that of other men these days. With a sigh he settled himself back into his chair.
He was just starting to drift off when the dog’s head came up. Ears forward Tommy rose swiftly to his feet, head cocked slightly to the side. “What are you at Tommy?” asked John Ellis. “Is there one there?” The dog barked once. That bark sent John Ellis scrambling back up the stairs.
Sweeping the area with his binoculars, John Ellis spotted the yacht just as she was hurled onto the reef. A huge wave crashed over her side and he heard the crack of the timbers. John Ellis ran down the stairs and flung on his coat and boots. Tommy was already pawing at the door. Together they raced to the only patch of beach on the island.
The seas were making short work of the vessel as the companions arrived on the sand. The dog’s ears were up and he began to make whining sounds in his throat. “Can you hear anyone Tommy?” asked John Ellis above the wind. The dog barked once, his eyes never leaving the direction of the reef. “Git ‘un,” he ordered and the big dog shot into the raging surf, only to be tossed back by the first wave.
Tommy ran back up the beach, circled and sped straight into the sea again. This time he was swept under by the water. Tommy barked once as he surfaced, then set out for the reef with powerful strokes. John Ellis returned to the lighthouse to collect his blanket. He was back at the beach in time to greet Tommy and his cargo.
Tommy had a raven-haired child by the collar and was dragging her up the beach. She was limp and not moving. As John Ellis took the child into his arms Tommy returned to the sea. John Ellis turned the girl upside down and gently pounded her on the back. She coughed up sea water and groaned. He reversed her and wrapped her in the blanket. Gently he carried her back to the lighthouse. Placing her in his chair, he looked into her eyes. “Can you talk?” he asked. The child could not have been more than five. “What’s your name?” he asked.
“Angela,” she answered timidly.
“Well Angela, how many others on the boat?”
“Mommy and Daddy,” she answered between chattering teeth.
John Ellis went to a cupboard and pulled out a large towel which he handed to the little girl. Opening the door to a small room he indicated a wardrobe against the wall. “There will be something warm to fit you in there,” he said gently. “I’ll go back to help Tommy while you dry off here by the stove.” As the child opened the wardrobe door, a tear appeared in John Ellis Morrissey’s eye. Shaking that thought away he returned to the beach.
A woman lay on the beach coughing up sea water as he arrived. The dog was licking her face. “Tommy, let her be,” said John Ellis. “Is there another?” The dog barked and pranced toward the water again. “Git ‘un!” Tommy hurled himself back into the raging seas again, disappearing from sight.
“My baby,” sputtered the woman as she struggled to her feet.
“Safe in the lighthouse,” said John Ellis as he steadied her. He threw his heavy coat around her shoulders. As he did so there was a loud cracking sound from the reef. They spun around to see the yacht slipping beneath the waves. “Tommy,” bellowed John Ellis, but he got no answer. At his side the woman was screaming for Walter.
“Tommy,” shouted John Ellis leaping toward the water, as both the dog and his charge were hurled onto the sand by a huge wave. The undertow had nearly dragged them back into the sea before John Ellis caught man’s coat collar. Together he and the tired Newfoundland dog dragged the man to safety. In a few moments he had the man coughing and spitting water. “Go home and dry out Tommy,” he ordered, “we’ll be along in a moment.” The dog barked and vanished into the gloom.
“Angela, Margaret,” sputtered the man as he struggled to his feet. His wife was at his side in an instant, helping him to stand.
“The child is safe,” declared John Ellis, “and a sight warmer than we are. Come with me.” He took the woman by the arm and led her up the path where she had seen the dog disappear. As they entered the lighthouse, they saw Angela dressed in a flannel nightie with a woollen shawl around her shoulders. She was sitting on the floor beside the stove, sharing a peanut butter sandwich with Tommy. “Angela,” cried her mother as she ran to the child, “where did you get those clothes?”
“In here,” she answered pointing the way to the small room. “There is even some that will fit you Mommy,” she gave Tommy the last of the sandwich and led her mother to the wardrobe.
“Find clothes for yourself there too missus,” said John Ellis. “There is no one here who can wear them now.” He opened the door to the larger room and dug out some of his own clothes for the man. “Dry yourselves off now then warm up by the stove,” he said.
While the adults dried off and dressed themselves, they listened as John Ellis tucked Angela into the small bed in the other room. First he told her a story about Tommy then sang a lullaby in a language they could not understand. As they came to look, Angela was asleep with her tiny fist clutching a handful of Tommy’s ear. Tommy seemed quite content. “I know Tommy, I know,” said John Ellis sadly as he turned from the room.
“Whose clothes are these?” asked Margaret gently as she indicated what she had on.
“My wife’s,” answered John Ellis fighting back a tear. “The fever took her and the child two winters ago.” He turned toward the stairway to the light tower. “You two sleep in there,” he said gruffly pointing to the larger bed. He went up to the light without another word.
Margaret and Walter got little conversation from John Ellis over the three weeks they stayed with him. He and Tommy spent most of their waking hours with Angela. They told her tales of the sea and showed her all the places where the birds nested. Eventually the supply ship came and took them off the island.
“Come with us John Ellis,” said Walter. “Let another tend the light for a few years. Come live in town with us.”
“I can’t,” he replied softly, shaking the man’s hand. “Tommy and I belong here.” As the ship’s boat pulled from the shingle, they saw John Ellis and Tommy standing by the two tiny crosses near the lighthouse. He raised his hand and waved as the boat vanished around the point.
Jennifer Leigh Crandall
Copyright © September 1998