This short fictional story came to me through a writer's workshop I attended at Bard College several years ago when I was still teaching English and writing in Stamford public schools. At the workshop we were asked, several times, to go off into the wooded campus, find a comfortable place to sit, dream, and contemplate in hopes that an idea would arise.
I found this wonderful tree near a running brook and, upon closing my eyes, I was transported to the shores of Cape Cod at Nauset Light. The story came from my many memories of visiting this iconic lighthouse. I have read it to many people since those days in the late 1990s. I have read it to my students, to my three daughters, and every Christmastime to my dear friends at Yoga. This is where Hannah Lipman, founder of The Bethel Grapevine, first heard it.
Lighthouses, Mermaids, and Me
The snow, soft and gentle, began to blanket the rocks, wisps of wind stirring the flakes before they had a chance to settle. The ocean undulated, showing signs of losing her calm, the first hint of whitecaps barely visible behind the thickening curtain of white descending from above. The flash of the lighthouse sending a beam through this curtain at regular intervals out to sea-first red, then white, red, white, red-the familiar signal of my light.
I am the keeper of the light. In town my name has vanished over time, just “keeper of the light”. I live in the cozy house at the base of the light tower. Actually I don’t really know anyone in town anymore either; they have changed so over the years.
My father moved my family (himself, my mother, older sister, and me) into this same house 60 years ago, one year after he had accepted the position of light keeper. We had lived in a comfortable cottage in town. We knew everyone, but when the cranberry bog closed my father took the lighthouse job; nothing else was available. “Only temporary,” he assured us, “until the bog reopens”. It never did.
The lighthouse was located on a rocky shoal two miles—and a one hour boat ride in rough seas—from the town pier. The island was an ideal site for the light with the dangerous Cunningham Shoals just beyond. It was not, however, an ideal setting for two adolescents to live, though after a while we really did not seem to know any other life. I was nine, Ginny, my sister, eleven. A visit to the mainland for the two of us was extremely rare; visits were usually for supplies, no room for two kids. I guess we were lonely but we never knew for sure since we really didn’t have any friends to miss.
We spent seven years together on that island; seven birthdays, for each of us, seven New Years, seven solstices and seven equinoxes, seven Christmases-alone on that rocky isle. Together, until Ginny turned 18 and on her birthday, December 21, Winter Solstice, she greeted us with the news that she was leaving, going ashore with father to “find herself”. Father did not try to stop her, he knew. Mother protested in vain but Ginny’s mind was made up. Four months after Ginny left mother became ill; she never recovered, and she left us, father and me, to keep the light by ourselves. I still believe she died of a broken heart from the “loss” of Ginny. No Christmas after that was ever the same.
Father and I kept the light together for 30 years. I didn’t know anything else but this house and the light. Then one day father just got tired-he left me alone to tend the light. He and mother are buried on the island, together. I informed Ginny in a letter but she never responded, never came.
For the past 23 years I have been here by myself, with my light; by myself to celebrate my birthday, the Winter Solstice, and Christmas. Only my friends in the sea come to visit me when they need to come ashore.
I sit here on the crag staring at the snow, the waves, and the faithful beam of light directing ships away from the shoals, directing ships away from me. But I don’t feel lonely somehow; I feel this is my home, my world. This is where I want to be.
The Winter Solstice was yesterday. Ginny is 71 now, living in Boston with her grandchildren. My grandchildren are swimming around my island, watching over my light for me. I sometimes dream of our seven years together on the island, a family, getting ready for Christmas right after celebrating Ginny’s birthday. Here I am thinking of her birthday, getting ready for Christmas, making sure that my tree stays lit for all those who are sailing home for their Christmas. But I am not lonely, I have those memories and I have my light.
The snow is coming down much heavier now. The ocean seems to be getting agitated. Some would call her an angry sea but she isn’t angry, she doesn’t get angry, she has no need to. She is only excited; excited maybe because the days will be longer now; excited for another Christmas with me.
As I stare at the rock-strewn shoreline in front of me suddenly a figure appears on the edge. I try to clear my eyes; the wind and snow making them water. I look again, no; yes; it really is, a beautiful mermaid. This has never happened before. Again I shake my head, wipe my eyes and peer at the shape. It really is! She is beautiful, lines of innocence, untouched, unharmed. The snow gives the impression of placing her in a bubble, not landing on her. She is gently resting on the rock, looking back at me. Enveloped in the warmth of herself, she asks, “Why do you stare at me? Is it my beauty you cannot accept, my simpleness. Or are you not content with what your mind has created: I am here as you have placed me. Would you wish me to change? Beware; your first image will always be your truest. Leave me to bathe in the warmth of the snow. Come and join me upon this rock, come join your own image, become a part of your own imagination.”
As the seal slips back into the ocean I thank my imagination for this wonderful Christmas gift. I gaze a little longer at where she was, maybe wishing she would return, maybe just letting her image sink into my memory. Then the wind reminds me that it is time to return to my house, to my light. I must be sure my Christmas tree doesn’t dim this night with such a storm. Slowly I make my way up the trail, into the tower, up the stairs to the beam. All is well, I follow the beam out to the sea, it will light the way. Once more I glance at the rock where she appeared.
Merry Christmas my whimsical friend. Merry Christmas Ocean. Merry Christmas light. Merry Christmas to all.