a story by
C. C. Green
From childhood I had been no great lover of the company of others and so, for a long time, it had been my habit to spend vacation time indulging in the solitude of a calm and thinly populated corner of the coast. A retreat, you might say. A chance to get away from the people and things that, during the rest of the year, took up so much of my time.
So it was, then, that during one such Summer, after a particularly difficult year, I found myself walking coastal cliffs near the small village where I usually took up residence. At my usual slow pace, walking stick in hand, I ambled along a forgotten cliff-top as I took in familiar sights and sounds.
Reflected sunlight sparkled from the calm sea below. A clear sky, uninterrupted by cloud, merged at the horizon with the darker blue of the ocean. In the distance a flock of seagulls gave throat to their sadness as they wheeled.
Over the cliffs a gentle sea breeze blew, stirring the short grasses at my feet. Below, the waves, innocent as they undulated from sea to shore, broke against fractured rocks with unexpected ferocity, sending plumes of spray high into channels cut in the cliff face by millennia of patient assault.
As I surveyed these peaceful offerings, I stopped for a moment and shaded my eyes against the glare of the sun. As I looked out to sea, I saw the indistinct smudge of a ship resting lazily on the horizon as white tips appeared and disappeared.
On a whim, I decided to change my route and take the path along the cliff-top rather than, as was my original intention, to meander back to the heathers and gorse of the headland. The day was fine and the sea breeze an amicable companion.
A little way off there came into view a structure which, oddly, I had never noticed before. A lighthouse. I was struck by the sharp contrast it made with the bare and windswept panorama before me. It had been built precariously at the head of the cliffs, and was surrounded by a dry stone wall.
With nothing better to do and with no particular itinerary to fulfill, I thought to detour from the route I had set for myself and inspect the lighthouse. So, taking a worn path amongst the heathers and grasses, I started the half mile walk.
Just after midday, with the sun at its highest and most intense, I came to the stone wall that enclosed the lighthouse and thankfully rested on it. Putting my stick to one side and wiping perspiration from my brow, I gazed at the lonely and seemingly uninhabited outpost. A small but stout door presented itself at the base of the tower, while a few windows appeared to be randomly inset along its height. Clearly there was obvious need for such a building in this setting, but there was about the place a sense of abandonment, desertion. For a brief moment, this observation produced in me a sharp feeling of isolation. I felt utterly alone. Curious and half wishing to dispel this transitory but uncharacteristic sensation, I decided upon a closer inspection of the property.
The tower was cool to the touch and produced in me an immediate sense of the unyielding character of the structure as it stood unmoved though battered by storm and blanched by burning sun.
As I looked up, I marveled at the majestic pinnacle of the tower with the sun breaking through its glass. Then, for the briefest moment, a vague shape seemed to obscure the sun as if inside a body crossed and blocked the light. I squinted. The shape was gone. A seagull, I assumed, had flown across, or perhaps a trick of the light. My feeling of isolation and unease grew. I looked around me for some sign that another might be present, but I was met only by rocks, heather, and the stone wall. Feeling like a fool at being caught off guard by these sensations, I made up my mind to dispel my anxiety. Taking a step towards the door, I decided to knock and make the acquaintance of whomever I should find, if anyone were there at all.
I tapped on the weathered wood, but was greeted only by an echo. I waited. Inside, no foot falls followed, no sound that would suggest an occupant might have heard me at all. I knocked again, more loudly. I waited, but still there was no indication that I had been heard. Tentatively, I put my hand on the handle of the door. To my surprise, I felt an unexpected coldness. The tarnished metal of the latch gave an icy chill which seemed to be carried from inside the tower. I paused. Perhaps the door was locked? Perhaps this was an automated beacon which required no one to be in residence? Was my mind getting the better of me? Why was I finding reasons not to at least try the door? Ignoring the sensation of coldness in my fingers, I popped the latch smartly and the door opened. Half expecting to be confronted by the whine and labored creak of old and poorly lubricated hinges, I was greeted only by the scraping of wood over a stone floor as the door opened inward to the darkness of the room beyond. Listening again for any sign that an occupant may be aware of my presence, I stopped and craned forward. I could hear nothing except the sounds of waves breaking and wind whistling over the open doorway.
I could see only darkness penetrated here and there by the faint light from the small windows I had observed outside. Indistinct shapes crouched in the gloom, but there appeared to be no movement. In a weak attempt to penetrate the shadows, I narrowed my eyes but was unable distinguish any other features.
Moments passed and still there came no sign of a light keeper. Somewhat unsettled and ever less enthusiastic, I called out, hoping now that the lack of a response would negate my original plan of entering the tower. For a reply, I heard the creak of what I presumed to be another door, but nothing else.
Under the circumstances and with a growing concern that I might be trespassing, I reached for the handle with the intention of closing the door behind me. I heard a voice.
Startled by this apparent answer to my call, I froze. A voice. Faint and indistinct, but definitely a voice. Immediately I experienced a resurgence of uneasiness to which I been prey before. I was sure that eyes now observed me from both inside and outside the building. I felt isolated and vulnerable. I tensed and, for a moment, I was conflicted between the urgent need to look to behind me and the necessity of directing my attention to the shadows in front of me. I stepped back and hastily cast a glance over my shoulder to the scene outside. All was as it had been before. Perhaps it was the very stillness of the place that unnerved me?
Composing myself and shaking off this thought, I was abruptly struck by a new predicament. My instinct was to retreat. To leave the lighthouse behind me and return to the village. On the other hand, not to now enter the building after a perceptible response from the resident would, doubtless, produce further difficulties. Particularly since I had opened the door unbidden and called out. Assessing this dilemma, I reminded myself again, although with less conviction, of the irrationality of my previous behavior, and in so doing I decided upon a course of action. Warily, I entered the tower and shut the door behind me. The scent of salt water and the odor of disuse rose to welcome me. With gradual adjustment to the gloom and the pale glow of light coming down from above, I was able to make out old ropes, chains, and tackle piled upon the floor. A rusty bucket on its side, weather-beaten wooden crates, corroded tools of various shapes and sizes, an aging table against a wall and upon it a neglected oil lamp. Carelessly thrown on the ground below this was a heavy but shabby coat of some dark material. Rising before me into the heights of the tower was a wrought iron spiral staircase which appeared not to have seen paint for many a year. Still there appeared to be no evidence of an inhabitant. I called out again, louder this time. No answer. Steadily, I made my way around the objects strewn across the floor. I heard only the crunching sound my boots made as they ground the dust and dirt underfoot. Stepping into a patch of light, I took the handrail of the staircase and looked upward.
The spiral of steps climbed out of sight into the upper reaches. Placing a foot on the first stair, I measured its resistance and ability to take my weight. Despite a scrape of metal and a vibrating clang, it seemed that the structure would not collapse. Heartened by this observation, I began to ascend. Listening all the time for an occupant, I heard nothing but echoes of my footsteps.
Gradually I climbed to the second story of the building, and once again surveyed the scene before me. Much as it had been below, there appeared to be no contemporary signs of habitation. The room, however, or landing, was perceptibly smaller than the first floor room, reflecting the narrowing of the tower as it rose.
A murky window allowed sunlight from the outside world to enter. Particles of dust disturbed by my entrance glinted in the air around me. An old moth-eaten upholstered chair stood tattered next to a low, worn table. Aging, grimy pages from a yellowed newspaper lay at intervals upon the stone floor. A dull tin cup, its contents long since drunk or evaporated, stood on the table as did an empty, wax encrusted candlestick.
The look of the place was confusing. The room below was obviously used for storage, and perhaps necessary financial accounting. Here, though, instead of a chair and table, I expected to find an oil heater, oil buckets, things used in the maintenance of the light. In looking over the unusual items I found there, my earlier apprehension began, once more, to overcome me. There was something about the place that didn’t work. Something that was so plain I should have noticed it straight away, but what was it? It was not the cold air and moldy atmosphere, nor the nature of the objects before me. Nor was it the arresting stillness of the place, nor the silence that pierced my senses. The place looked abandoned, but something nagged at the back of my mind. Something I had seen. Something so obvious it hid in plain sight.
I looked at the floor and staircase that continued to rise above me. There were no foot prints, other than my own, to be seen. No impressions of any kind in the accumulated dust. Then it was clear to me. Nothing could have entered here. Everything was covered in a thick layer of dust untouched for who knows how long. What then of the voice I believed I had heard? What of the creaking door and the shadow I had seen above?
I froze as the weight of my discovery amplified my anxiety. In an effort to rationalize my fears and suppress a rapidly rising panic, I began to address each of these questions. The shadow? A gull flying near the peak of the tower. The creaking door? The sound of an old and disused building settling. The faint and distant voice from within? This had merely been some trick of my mind. Yet, the sound had given the distinct impression of a voice, unintelligible though it had been. Try as I might, I was unable to ignore the conviction that the sound I had heard was, indeed, a voice. And if what I had heard was a voice, could I also now trust the reliability of my reasoning with regard to the other phenomena?
Despite the chill of the air, I began to perspire as I turned the thoughts over and over in my mind. Still I came back to where I had started. The voice.
As if reading the turmoil of my thoughts, there came again the sound of a rusty door hinge above me. I jumped. Then came a further muffled utterance. Louder to be sure, but with the same formless and indefinite quality, whispering something I was unable to decipher. Rendered inert by the chaos of my thoughts and this sudden onslaught of ambiguous noise, I found myself unable react. I stood transfixed, as if waiting for the passage of time itself to make a decision for me.
My skin began to crawl. I felt as though I were being studied—as if I were being observed as each imagined terror carefully chose its method of attack.
To retrace my footsteps was to reenter the gloom below and run headlong into the arms of what my mind now told me was surely waiting for me. On the other hand, to advance and continue climbing the stairs was to meet the source of the sounds I had heard above.
With my imagination summoning up faceless beasts lurking both above and below, preventing both advance and retreat, I was rapidly overtaken by a another fear shouting to be heard above the scream of the others. Standing still and waiting, I thought, might also cause me to fall victim to whatever anonymous horrors stalked the darkness.
My body unlocked and spurred on by this new dread, groping again and again for the least perilous course of action, I finally reasoned, irrationally—for I had no rationale left to me—that I could only continue to climb the stairs and confront whatever lay in wait for me.
Timidly I took another step, and then another. I sensed movement in the shadows. In answer, I climbed faster and with less care, quickly closing the distance between myself and the next landing for fear that whatever it was I had seen or thought I had seen might catch me at my heels.
As I climbed, the air grew colder. The odor of salt water and the rotting stench of neglect began to claw at me. The light afforded by the upper windows created dramatic divisions between illumination and shade, sharply silhouetting what few objects came into view.
I climbed past ever smaller and darker levels, each showing less evidence of use than the one previous. At last my ascent was halted by the termination of the spiral stair in one last tiny room. My breathing was labored, my legs weak from exertion. I took a quick look down the stair, expecting to see some cloaked phantom or slavering ghoul close behind me. There was nothing save thin billows of dust thrown up in my wake. I turned again, fearing the now greater threat of this perhaps not so empty room presenting itself to me. A door led out to the balcony while a set of smaller steps climbed up to the service room.
Holding my breath, I strained to hear any noise that might offer some explanation for the horrid images in my mind, or at least provide me with a location upon which to bring to bear my now acutely heightened senses. I could hear nothing but the beating of my own heart. Absurdly, in the same way that a child believes that hiding under the bedclothes will protect him from the creatures of his nightmares, I let the breath in my lungs out in a slow whisper through pursed lips, for fear that I might give away my position with a loud exhalation. As I did so, I became aware of a faint mist before me, the chill air making my breath tangible before it evaporated. Again I narrowed my eyes and attempted to pierce the gloom, but with no better result than before. I surveyed what I could of the chamber, my vision darting from one small patch of light to another, acutely aware that what was visible to me was only a tiny fraction of the whole.
Barely perceptible against the wall across from me stood a silhouette. Unformed and shapeless, I got the impression of a figure menacing by its very stillness. Abruptly, there came a sound from the shadows. A soft, barely perceptible sound like cloth rubbing cloth, suggesting movement. I stumbled backwards, my throat clenched. I began to tremble uncontrollably. Then I saw the silhouette move.
The same weak voice. A slight, ephemeral sound. I shrieked as I made sense of the previously indiscernible words. My name had been called! Whatever was there had spoken my name! As if to emphasize this appeal, there came into the afforded light an extended hand. Grey and wrinkled, the outstretched fingers beckoned as if summoning me. I screamed. The sound hung in the cold air like a shroud. The voice, louder and more urgent now, called my name once more. The hand gestured more aggressively.
Impatience saturated the air as the plaintive request became an order. The figure began to shuffle forward. In a weak effort to demonstrate that I was, however feebly, armed, I lifted my hand in defense. My walking stick, however, was not with me. In a frenzy such at that which accompanies feverish and, to a greater extent, futile action, I looked about me. My stick was neither on the stair nor at my feet. Instead, I discerned its gnarled, weather-beaten form on the floor before me! It lay perhaps half the distance between myself and the phantom. Dust covered its shaft while faint green tinges of patina displayed its comely autograph on the brass handle and tip.
No, this surely could not be my possession! It lay at a remoteness that did not correspond to my entry into the room. It could not be mine! And yet, its brass horse-head handle, unusual because I had borrowed it from the handle of a discarded brass fire poker, immediately announced it as familiar. In a flash of memory that befitted a clearer and more sober mind, I recalled that I had placed my stick to one side when entering the tower.
Without the corporeal, if ineffectual, defense of the walking stick, I could only stumble back onto the stairs, turning to race away from the horror before me. As I plunged downward, I imagined that cold, wet fingers would surely grasp at me and take my life.
At each turn, shadows rose up and clutched at me; with each retraced step my name was screeched from above.
The clang of metal steps under my feet resounded with the ululation that was the calling of my name. At each landing, the small windows grew darker. At length, only feeble illumination remained. With a last effort, I hurled myself at the closed door, but I was unable to open it!
I turned to see the phantom slowly, ponderously alight from the final stair. Its form was now more visible than before. I could now see the tattered remnants of its habiliments. On its feet was the rotting residuum of a once stout pair of boots. The thing made its way toward me, hands now extended as if in supplication. I fell to the ground and looked into the face of the spectre that was to be my doom.
Its face, such as it was, came close to mine. Its cold breath nauseated me. The remains of the creature’s clothing I now recognized to be my own, the boots as those that were on my own feet. I closed my eyes against the repellant figure, and my mind against the terrifying evidence of my own eyes.
In a whisper laced with sorrow and anger, the phantom cried my name! The thing with my face called my name again!
From taught, colorless lips it warned, it implored, it pleaded, it beseeched me as if knowing that any entreaty would serve no purpose.
“Do not walk the cliffs!” it cried. “Do not walk the cliffs alone!”
Quos Deus vult perdere, prius dementat.