And at last I see the light, And it’s like the fog has lifted. And at last I see the light, And it’s like the sky is new. And it’s warm and real and bright, And the world has somehow shifted. All at once everything is different, Now that I see you.
Today is the 340th anniversary of the determination of the speed of light:
By timing the eclipses of the Jupiter moon Io, Rømer estimated that light would take about 22 minutes to travel a distance equal to the diameter of Earth’s orbit around the Sun. This would give light a velocity of about 220,000 kilometres per second in SI units, about 26% lower than the true value of 299,792 km/s.
The lighthouse was a castle. It was a scrap of impossibility balanced on the edge of reality. It was a fortress, and a safe house, and an island. Most importantly, it was her home.
The huge rocks of the island’s base rose out of the water like they were scared of getting wet, contorting into strange shapes, their crags seeming to form upset expressions and stony cringes at the waves that rolled and splashed beneath them. If they had been people, they would have fussy and stuffy and terrified of stains. She wasn’t sure, to be honest, that they had never been people. The island didn’t deal in certainty.
It had been storming the night she arrived. The grayness of the sky had gone on forever, like the horizon didn’t exist anymore, and she felt sick from the hugeness of it and the tilting of the small boat on the waves. She’d sailed herself there, once upon a time. She no longer remembered from where.
Once upon a time. These were not words that belonged on the lighthouse’s island. They were words for the beginning of the story, and the island didn’t deal in beginnings.
This is the ending, she said to herself, as she stood at the top of the lighthouse, a million miles, it seemed, into the gray sky. The lantern light that sputtered and glowed there was to mark the end of the story, to show you the way to the final lines in the dark.
But then she shook her head, blinking those thoughts away. It was only a lighthouse to light the way for ships during the storms, such as the storm she had arrived in, heavy and dark and filled with lightning the way a jewelry box was filled with silver. It didn’t matter that she had never glimpsed a single ship on the steel-gray waves of the ocean this open balcony looked out over, or that she no longer knew which way she had sailed from to find this place.
It was only a lighthouse, and lighthouses lit the way.
She pulled her knitted gray sweater tighter and descended the twining steps down the tower. The thick pads of her gloves ran down the peeling metal railing with a shushing sound, but her cold, bare fingers were silent, and her old leather boots barely made a sound on the steps. Most days she never talked at all, though sometimes she sang a little and listened the sighing, creaking wind blowing in response. She could almost hear the fussy, stuffy rocks muttering about her lack of pitch in the distance, though they always stopped before she could hear them clearly.
Only one sound was constant, and that was the rushing of the waters crashing on the rocks and the sandy beach on the other side of the island. The ocean here and everywhere (and nowhere) was vengeful and strong and cold, and to dip your toes into it was to invite the waves to simply take you with it when it pulled away. The island didn’t deal in warmth. You had to make your own.
Steam was rising as thickly from her mug as spray from the ocean when she heard the yell. She stirred the tea one more time, and heard it again. She didn’t rush. There was more than enough time here. She poured another cup to cool while she was out and wrapped a scarf around her neck and hair and stomped her boots three times on the threshold before she stepped out, to remind the lighthouse to behave itself. It never misbehaved, but it didn’t hurt to stomp a little anyway.
Down to the sand, crunchy with salt and ice, down to where the shallows of the ocean swept across the beach and swirled at the hair of the girl lying there. The lighthouse keeper looked at her. Hard to tell, with her long skirts, whether she had legs or a tail. She unwrapped her scarf and put it around the girl’s neck, though being soaked and shivering wouldn’t be fixed with one scarf. Still, one bit of warmth when everything was terrible and dark made more a difference than body heat. She didn’t remember where she’d learned that.
The island didn’t deal in memory. You left something behind when you stayed there, left it in the ocean or the storm or perhaps the shore you left behind. You learned that, or you left.
She gathered up the half-drowned girl and carried her back over sand and salt and ice to the little kitchen at the bottom of the lighthouse. The fire crackled, dim in the storm that was brewing up past the nonexistent horizon, and the windows shook in the walls as the old worn wood shutters creaked sadly. It was almost warm enough, and a couple of stories would fix it up. Over the glowing embers and tea and thunder-growling, the lighthouse keeper brought out her stories like showing off jewels and dropped them into the girl’s lap as she sat and dried and warmed and fell half-asleep in the rickety chair. Some of the stories were hers — or had been given to her, or stolen by her, she could not remember — some of them were not hers, but she didn’t know who had told them to her, or whether she thought of them on the spot. At some point, the un-drowned girl would get around to telling hers. When she was awake again, and warm enough, and ready.
The island’s trade was stories. The whole place glowed with them, seethed with them, lived with them, and the lighthouse’s lantern shone through it all, soft and resolute. Calling for stories and their tellers to come home, for the storms to howl the stories they knew and for the rocks to hold them safe in their depths. Calling out that the end was the natural home of all stories, and that the distant shores of beginning could be returned to later. Now was the time for the telling.