Leave The Light On
This story was written for Writing Battle's summer flash fiction contest, where it reached the final 16 in its group.
In the end, the solution was simple; break the poor woman’s heart.
I met her in my first week as the lighthouse keeper on an island just off the coast of Western Scotland. The perfect place for me at the time; beautiful like a goddess of the seas and yet as empty and desolate as my heart was in those days, having found myself a widower after my sweet Jane’s untimely demise. But the beauty of the place made my heart sink lower than any ship that met its cruel and cold fate on the rough seas beyond my new abode, for if my Jane had died here instead of in that damned dreary and heartless hospital, her passing might have been more peaceful.
A good night’s sleep had been denied to me since I’d last seen the face of my love, and this was further disrupted one night upon hearing a woman weeping.
Nothing more than the wind, I’d thought then, for the top of the lighthouse was prone to catching the worst of the gales that whispered – and sometimes screamed – distant admonitions. But lying in my bed I could think only that what I was hearing sounded so very much like how Jane had used to weep, which made for a compelling enough argument for me to investigate. I lit an oil lamp and carried it to my window. The rocky shore was the same as it had been during the day, only darker now. The glow of my lamp flickered at the discovery. A woman, dressed for a funeral, stared out into the tormented waves.
She made no acknowledgement of my desperate call to her, so I dressed and ran out of the lighthouse as swiftly as I could go, carrying the thickest blanket I could find in hope that it might bring the lady some warmth. More than once, my unsteady and quivering legs almost sent me hard into the rocks but finding my balance, I reached the woman – standing like a pillar unmoved by the rough waves – and vainly called out to her. I could clearly hear her weeping as I approached, her dewy eyes fixed upon the horizon as though searching for some lost and almost forgotten treasure. The night’s harsh chill piercing through my own thick coat, I remembered the blanket and offered it to her. It was here she turned to me, and my heart froze.
It was Jane. My Jane! Or so I had thought when first I’d set eyes upon her lovely but despondent face. But when she spoke to me, I realised with a strange mix of relief and despair that her voice was unfamiliar.
‘Leave the light on,’ she whispered, and then her black dress joined the bleak darkness around us, and she was gone.
I felt compelled then to wander the beach in search of this enigmatic lady, or else the sounds of her crying might have haunted my sleepless nights. As I spotted the sun begin to rise, I had almost given up all hope of finding her when my eyes settled upon something on the sands near the shoreline. When close enough, and with the help of the first radiant beams of sunlight, it was plain to see; the skeleton of someone long ago passed, lying face down on the beach, washed up by the sea.
Returning to my quarters and searching for paper to write a letter reporting the remains, I found several stacks of old reports from previous keepers, signed by those who had need of reading them and stored as a record in the lighthouse. But among these was a small notebook which had once belonged to a woman named Mary Colville. In the reading of it, it became clear it was a diary.
Jolted by the thought that I may have been an unwanted intruder within a person’s most secret of thoughts, I almost stopped reading. But one passage caught my eye, and for the life of me I could not stop.
My dearest has been missing for three weeks now. Set sail promising me he’d be home in just a few days. I spend my days and nights endlessly searching for his ship on the horizon, but still no sign. Perhaps he has lost his way, although I always thought he knew the ocean like the back of his hand. I can only pray, and I shall leave the light on.
The solution was simple. And thinking of my own poor Jane and how terrible it would be if she had been standing waiting for me to return to her, I knew a heart must be broken.
Night fell and I returned to the remains I’d found at the beach. Like the lady, I waited with fluid eyes searching the darkness, but nowhere could I see her. Eventually I tried calling out to her, but upon hearing my own voice accidentally call out for my dear departed Jane, I lost myself for a moment and began beating my frigid hands against all the hard rock they could find.
But finally, she appeared and stood silently, observing me with the same watery eyes that had been producing ghostly tears and painting the shores of this beach for countless years. And showing her the remains that the sea had mercifully washed up, the grief took her like a lover that refused to let go of her long lost yet rediscovered partner. The bones had not belonged in life to Mary, but to the very person she’d hoped with every fibre of her soul would one day safely return to her.
Then she looked at me, and she seemed to understand. Each of us had lost something precious, but perhaps now was time for us both to let go. Moments later, she vanished and I never saw her again. And I understood it was better to have known and accepted the harsh truth than to hopelessly search for bygone happiness forevermore.