One would not normally expect to find a lighthouse in a forest. Rugged coastlines, where ships more frequently run aground, where the smell of sand and brine hangs heavy in the air, the waves sing their eternal song, where the winds are free and the sky open and endless – this is the natural habitat of the lighthouse.
There are few ships in the forest. There are, however, many travellers likely to run aground, especially in this forest. It is not a friendly forest – no sweetly singing birds, no squirrels darting from branch to branch, no gentle winds or sweet-smelling earth, no drifts of red and orange and gold leaves to kick when autumn falls.
This forest is foul and rotten. The stench of decay rises from the ground, the only song is the rattle of bare tree limbs in the wind, the ground is wet and white with mould no matter the weather, and the only living creatures are those that pass through.
This forest is a graveyard.
There are bodies buried beneath the reddish soil. Some died where they fell, exhausted and heartsick and unable to continue on. Others were pulled down, roots tangling about their legs and dragging them beneath the soft, slimy soil. Some made the mistake of stopping to rest, falling asleep, never to wake. This forest is hungry and seeks to devour anyone who lingers too long or treads too loudly. Its twigs reach like grasping hands and its thorns cut like knives, and the unwary may find themselves with wounds which go down to the bone. Sometimes, the hands of the dead rise, bones poking up through the ground, surfacing whenever they are restless, and sometimes when it rains. The road through the forest is a muddy path picked out by two parallel lines of red stones and winds its way through the dense trees. If a traveller is lucky, and begins their journey at dawn, they will reach the far side of the forest before dusk. If they are even luckier than that, and quiet and careful, if they tread lightly and breath softly and do not stop or slow, they may pass through without dead hands reaching for them or the soil sucking at their feet or the trees waylaying them with tangles of roots and vicious thorns.
Most are not that lucky.
The road is fraught with danger, but it is the only road. Deaths and disappearances are so common that everyone knows someone who went into the forest and never came out. There are always those who fail to understand the danger, who don’t realise how long and arduous the journey is, who overestimate their own abilities or actively seek to challenge the forest and, of course, there are always those who are simply unlucky.
The lighthouse is the only hope for the unwary, arrogant or unlucky. Standing halfway along the road, its light cuts through the dark and can be seen for miles around, through the whole forest and beyond. Its once-white stone is darkened with weather and age, speckled with moss and mould. The balcony around the top has rusted and bled down the sides, staining the stone bloody. It sleeps during the day and wakes at night, opening its great eye and, as dusk falls, floods the forest with light which guides every traveller on their way. There are beds and a warm fire, food and water, and supplies to tend to any injuries.
The forest has never tried to eat me.
I have walked the road many times, in the day and the night and, even when I have left the road and wandered its depths, the forest always left me alone. When I walk through the forest, no hands have ever grasped at my ankles, no branches reach for me, no thorns cut me and I never lost my way, no matter how far I wandered.
This is how I knew I was destined for the lighthouse.
I don’t know if the forest and the lighthouse have an agreement, if the lighthouse protects me, or if the forest chose me for the lighthouse. It doesn’t really matter – whatever the reason, the duties of the lighthouse keeper are mine.
My days are simple, and repetitive. I clean and cook and collect firewood. There is always plenty of deadwood in the forest and there is a well inside the lighthouse. It is not safe to eat anything that grows here, and anyone who does so dies a slow and painful death. Whilst I am protected, I am no fool and unwilling to risk it. I often find food left at the edge of the forest where a stone wall and gate marks the place where the world ends and the forest begins. I don’t know where it comes from but there is always enough for me, and any travellers who may knock at the door. Each day, I clean the lantern and the clockwork mechanism which keeps it rotating. I make sure there is enough oil to keep it burning through the night – with the food there is always oil for the lantern – and wind the clockwork.
When dusk falls, I light the lantern and sit in the watch room below, keeping eyes and ears open for travellers. When they come, and I always hear them – running footsteps, terrified breaths, pained cries – before I see them, I will unlock the door and bid them enter. I offer food, care for wounds, and safety.
When the sun rises, I sleep.
Once a month, I walk the length of the road from one side of the forest to the other. I check the road remains picked out by red stones so no one who wanders from it can claim to have lost their way. Anyone who leaves the road does so by their own choice.
I take a spade with me and, if I find one of the lost who didn’t make it, I bury them where they fell and murmur a few words over their grave. It is easier than moving them. I cannot move them alone and no one will come into the forest to help me, nor would I allow it. Travellers may not appreciate the dangers until they enter, but the locals know better. I always check the dead, look for any sign of who they were and who might be looking for them. If I find a name, I write it in the lighthouse keeper’s logbook. If not, I’ll write what I know – what they look like, what they were wearing, any scars, tattoos, jewellery – anything that might identify them to anyone who comes looking for them. And sometimes someone does and sometimes they find their way to the lighthouse and sometimes they lose their way too. The lighthouse is there to aid travellers and provide a safe haven in the darkness, but only if a traveller finds it – and chooses to enter.
Not everyone does.
If someone has come looking for one of the lost, I will show them the logbook and try to find their loved one. If I can, and if they wish, I’ll take them to the gravesite, for I know where all the bodies are buried.
I write in the logbook but not everyday or even every week – only when something happens, when a traveller arrives, or someone is lost. I do not know how long I have been the lighthouse keeper. Years, I think, though I am unsure how many or how many more it will be.
I am slower than I was and the work tires me faster. It is harder to stay awake through the night and I sleep longer than I once did. My hair shows a little silver and there are crow’s feet around my eyes but I am not old. Rather, I fear, the solitude and the never-ending malice of the forest have taken their toll on me. The lighthouse gives little, and demands much.
I wonder how much longer it will be, and how the end will come. When I first came to the lighthouse, there was no one here. It was clean and the beds were made and the supplies were fully stocked and there was a fire burning, but there was no one here. I never met my predecessor, although I knew them by sight and reputation. I know how it was when I came here – I woke one morning and, somehow knowing it was time, packed a bag and made my way to the lighthouse.
But how it will end – I know not.
When I can no longer fulfil my duties, will the lighthouse bar its door against me and leave me, alone and afraid, in the dark until something comes to end me? Will I one day travel the road through the forest and find dead hands grasping for me, or find those vicious thorns no longer turn their edges from my flesh? Will I walk into the forest one day and lie down to sleep, and never wake? I do not know, and that often keeps me from sleeping. I lie awake and I wonder, and I do not sleep.
All I know is that, for now, I am the lighthouse keeper and it is my duty to keep the lantern lit.
Sarah Jayne Tanner is an author from Herefordshire in the UK, and has lived in South West Wales for over ten years. She started making up stories at a young age, and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She has had several short stories published, including in Welsh short-story magazine Gwyllion, with Noctivagant Press and a couple of anthologies, including the anthology Chimera published by Parthian Books, and her debut novel, Defiance, is available on Amazon Kindle. She is currently studying for a PhD in Creative Writing, loves dogs, and enjoys walking, baking and knitting. She spends most of her waking moments either reading and writing, or thinking about reading and writing.
photo by Thomas Griesbeck and Thái An (via unsplash)