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Today's Story by St. John Campbell

Artificial lights, city lights, only attract ships. I don't know why.

The shore

The keeper of the lighthouse took his indentured apprentice down to the beach for the first time yesterday.  Down the narrow path between the crags that looked like teeth from a tiger and through the jagged points resembled nothing so much as tusks.  The keeper showed his apprentice where they were, but did not bother telling him the signs that would help him remember … he would not have to come down here alone for many years.  Until then, it was better if he didn’t know how.  But he needed to know:  to understand the serious nature of the work his parents had sold him to.

It was not the rocks the apprentice stared at, of course, when he came below.  It was not even the wrecks of the ships, aging and rotting on the shore … there hadn’t been a shipwreck here in a hundred years, not since the maps had changed.  Instead, the young boy looked at the vast line of crab-like things with human eyes scattered along the shore … a dark red line of millions, their legs flailing and twisting and struggling for purchase in the ruddy sand.

The boy would be 13 now, or 14, though it didn’t really matter.  What mattered was the number of years he had been trained, which was nearly two.  Nearly two, and he was a quick study … though he did not understand.  Instead he gasped, and gaped, then tried to turn away – but his master would not let him.

“Yes, I know,” said the Keeper, holding the boy’s face forward.  “This shore is cursed.  Look at it carefully.  This is why we keep the lantern burning.”

The boy gasped in his master’s tight grip.  When he could get a breath, after he stopped struggling, he asked the only question:  “What are they?”

“I don’t know,” the Keeper said.  “Not for sure.  What my father said, though, is that they’re souls.”


“Human souls that have lost their way, gone too far from the shores they knew.  Wandered too deep into troubled waters, and didn’t know to stay away.  This is all that’s left.  And it’s ugly.”

“Can we help them?” the boy asked.  And it was a stupid question, but it was a good one, the kind the Keeper liked to hear.

“I’m not a doctor,” he said.  “I’m not a priest.  Do you know how?”

The boy considered:  he would have looked away, but the Keeper’s hands were still tight.  “We could move them?  Take them to town?”

The Keeper answered a bit too quickly, because that was the response he’d been expecting.  “If you go near them,” he said, “they’ll bite.”

“They bite?”

“They’re venomous.  Their eyes and their venom, that’s what they keep after getting so far lost.  That and, sometimes, their voices.  When we come at night you’ll hear them sing:  but that won’t be for many years.”

“Sing?”  The boy was lost now, too.

His master patted him on the back.  “Let’s go.”

He turned, too willingly, and then stopped. “ But …”

“All you need to understand,” the Keeper said, “is why we don’t want a ship to wreck here.  Only one ship can make this landing safely … the rest must be turned away, or crash ashore in this.  You need to know that.  You need to know why we don’t make mistakes.”

The boy was silent on the trip back up, back through the rocks like tusks, back through the crags like teeth.  He said nothing when the spray lashed salt water on his face.

He was given a hearty meal that night, fresh greens and pot pie, while the Keeper talked.  “The light must be natural,” he said.  “We must keep the lantern burning at night with the fire the sun lit in the day.  The artificial lights, the city lights, these only attract the ships.  Bring them closer.  I don’t know why.”

The Keeper’s wife, a voluptuous and quiet woman who had never given him a son, began to rinse dishes in the kitchen.  Later that night when the apprentice was in his room, pretending to sleep in his wool pajamas, she would open his door softly to look in.  He held his breath and didn’t move.

When the door closed and her ghostly footfalls down the steps were gone, the boy slipped out of bed, tied a bundle of his clothes together with some biscuits he’d snuck from the table, and stepped out of his room.  He held his breath as he walked down the steps, praying the cat would not scream.  He moved slowly as he opened the lighthouse door, praying the dog would not bark.

And then he ran as fast as he could, back towards the world he knew, far, far away, breaking the bargain his parents had made, promising never to come so close to these shores again and swearing never to let himself be so lost.


St. John Campbell is a pseudonym


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