Horla Fiction (April 2021)

 

THE LIGHTHOUSE

by ANNA DEH

No one bothered putting the town on a map. There wasn’t enough that set it apart from other lonely towns off the coast of Maine. You had to have been born here, or heard of it from word of mouth. The same grey faces and tired bodies limped from house to house, floating through their daily duties and trivialities, navigating through the constant presence of rolling fog. Days fade into one another under the monotony of gray skies and winter quiet, as if the fallen snow dusting the road and homes also trapped the voices and secrets of the town’s inhabitants.

Griffin limped down the one street in town, his left leg slightly longer than the right. He made sure to keep close to the dingy lamppost, the only nearby source of light, luring the cold and exhausted like moths to a flame. He finds comfort in how solid his footsteps sound against the grey cobblestone.

Griffin was getting ready to meet Howard, who worked alongside him at the town’s lighthouse. The townspeople called them “Guiders of Lost Souls” but Griffin doubted the title, wondering how someone as lost as himself could help guide others to safety and warmth. He shook his head of the thought, tired of guidance and introspection. He had no desire to solve any deep mysteries of the soul. He just wanted to get home. A day like all the others. 

As Griffin followed the pathway, he noticed an unusually boisterous cat following him. The fresh snow deeply embedded into the cat’s fur. The cat didn’t seem to mind, not bothering to shake it off or showing any signs of discomfort. Griffin decided to take the cat home. His children will love their new companion even if his wife opposes. The youngest daughter, and his secret favorite, had been asking for a feline companion for a while now and Griffin was tired of disappointing. He knew that if he continued to protest their desires, he’d only be promoting an

early rebellious streak in them. He wanted to keep his children the way they are now, forever. So earnest, honest and attentive, with the way all three of them sat at the door every night, waiting for him to come home. They never managed to sleep soundly in their beds unless everyone is there. Sometimes Griffin realized how much they act like parents, their own peace of mind so dependent on the well-being of the family. Griffin shook his head in worry, a boiling concern rising inside his curled body. They deserved the nice things, the happy ones that he as a father should be able to provide although his earnings allowed for so little. He only had to be a bit more creative and flexible, he concluded as he opened the door, grey tabby in his arms.

As he pushed his body against the door, Griffin felt the first bits of warmth from the fire and heard his children shout with glee. Joyous splendor filled Griffin’s heart as he opened his arms to his children. It’s a customary embrace that he never took for granted, wishing it could always be like this. 

Meanwhile, Howard slopped through the snow, his drunkenness and lack of attention made it difficult for him to find his way. Howard always found himself lost in the seemingly endless piles of snow and the deep darkness that clouded his mind, leading him astray. The snow was up to his knees, tripping him and making him land within a frosty pile. He wanted to get up, but his body surrendered and stuck itself to the terrain, unwilling. Moments like these made Howard wish he were a different person. The family man, honest and hardworking, like Griffin. There was a time when the two got along, but as Howard slipped deeper into his own despair, the failures and shortcomings only grew and the two spent most of their time fighting. Howard fell further from any hope of becoming morally sound again. He hated Griffin for being so much better than him. He couldn’t understand why he simply couldn’t be good too.

He laid there in the snow, partially hoping that this would be the time he would die in it. As he relished in his slowing breath and falling pulse, he felt his wife’s hands grasp his body and pull him out. He would have to try again tomorrow.

The night had reached its peak. It was time for Howard and Griffin to return to the lighthouse. With their nightly rituals completed and their families seen, they gathered their usual boat and made their way to the miniscule island. The snow had turned to rain, chilling their bones further as the pair ascended up the stairs, getting as comfortable as possible in their rigid posts.

They each brought a companion. For Griffin; a book, while Howard chose a flask. Howard glared at Griffin, thinking of how pretentious he was, flaunting his bulging brain and expanding vocabulary at Howard. They didn’t say much to each other usually. But Griffin couldn’t stay quiet this time. The town was suffering a slow death, with supplies dwindling by the day. Endless days and nights of storms had left them cut off from the world and all the necessities that came with it.

“I think I have an idea.” Griffin says to Howard as they looked out from the top of the lighthouse.

Howard nearly fell from his chair at the sudden ripple of words amidst the quiet. “You always got ideas. None have worked.” Howard’s droopy left eye twitched when he was angry and today, it seemed to pulse uncontrollably, with no hint of stopping or returning to a normal existence.

“One of us has to keep trying. Look. I was thinking we could send some messages in a bott—”

Howard’s booming laugh cut Griffin off, who sat puzzled, more irritable now.

“Well that’s stupid! In these currents, it’ll get lost in the ocean.”

“Messages in a bottle float.” Griffin responded defensively before slumping into his chair, quiet and defeated.

“Sorta like a body.” Howards said casually, while lighting his cigar. He smiled softly, relishing in Griffin’s discomfort, which he made clear from his foggy expression and the furrowed lines that emerged on his forehead. He was like a robot that had been reset to factory settings, waiting to reboot and ready to forget all of the unpleasant matters from right before.

“Still. I say we try it. Can you go get the bottle? it should be right above from where we’re sitting. You’ll have no problem reaching it. And I’ll go down below for the paper.” Griffin got up and rushed down the stairs before Howard could oppose. As he descended, he wondered if he was being fair. The paper was so much easier to get to, waiting right below their feet. The glass bottle was out of reach for most bodies, no matter how much their fingers stretched, and Howard’s short, arthritis inflicted fingers made him more vulnerable than most. Griffin had intentionally spared himself from the more difficult task. He contemplated going back to help Howard, but brushed off his guilt and the feeling of incompetence that commonly swept over his mind. Howard never liked Griffin hovering over him, even if to help. Griffin decided that the best way he could help is by leaving Howard alone.

Howard took some time for himself once Griffin left. He enjoyed the few moments of solitude, so rare in Griffin’s presence. The water glistened a deep ebony, hints of snow lined the surface between the crashing waves. But Howard soon felt an overwhelming chill ripple through his body, forcing him to begin his task.

He grabbed the ladder against the wall, making sure to set it down carefully and securely. Then he began to climb. Only seconds passed before Howard saw the bottle on the top shelf. Seeing it so close caused his fingers to extend, his body pushing him further upward, stretching beyond its means. A strong gust of wind slapped Howard’s face, causing him to flinch. It all happened quickly. The breaking of Howard’s posture, the pull of gravity and how easily it tossed his heavy body over the railing.

That’s when Griffin heard a crash, it echoed and shook the lighthouse violently. Griffin didn’t have to see it for himself; his instincts told him exactly what had happened. He ran back up the stairs, each step sending sharp pain up his legs like a premonition. He grabbed the side handles, a helpful guide, giving him some sense of needed stability for his quivering, unreliable legs. Griffin reached the peak where he and Howard had sat just moments ago. One of the chairs had been knocked down and Howard’s cigar lay on the floor, still warm and bearing the smell of ash.

Griffin looked for Howard throughout the lighthouse, unwilling to admit that his body could be anywhere but inside its metal walls. Eventually Griffin had no place to look but out. His eyes scanned below, where they found Howard on the shore. His mangled limbs and limp body lay on the grey pebbles that encompassed the island, surrounding the land like a barricade from the outer world.

Howard was on his stomach, his face hidden, but the droplets of blood had already begun to pool. Griffin was losing time. He rolled Howard over, exposing the gashes on his face, caused by the few jagged pieces among the smooth rocks. Griffin never thought that this was all it took; the speed of a fall and some sharp pieces for such a lethal and grotesque result. He felt his own body recoil in repulsion at Howard’s state, whose eyes protruded heavily out of their sockets, undoubtedly from the fear that plagued him as he fell, aware that he would finally meet his end. Howard had wanted to die for so long, only as it was happening did he seem to change his mind. Nothing prepared anyone for a shocking death, not even the ones that house the most anger and resentment within themselves.

 Howard had been secretly afraid of heights, strategically choosing to sit far away from the lighthouse edge. He didn’t want to see the drop below. He never told Griffin about this fear and Griffin never told him that he knew.

Griffin felt anxious before the feeling of horror and disgust had even left him. What if he were to be blamed? They’ll say he pushed him. That the two never got along. Griffin cursed at himself, guilty for his selfishness, and bitter over how human nature revolved around survival. The grief and guilt could wait until the body was disposed of, when Griffin would be far away from his ill-fated partner.

But he couldn’t leave him. The townspeople knew that they were the only two people on this island. They’d bring up all the fights that hinted at violence, though most would have guessed Griffin would have ended up the murdered one—no, but this wasn’t murder, only an accident. Griffin could feel the sweat fall down his cheek, flowing down his face and onto the ground, mingling and pooling with Howard’s own, slowly decaying DNA. That would be evidence. It could be used against him. He may never see his family again. Howard would like that.

Panic took over. Griffin gathered Howard’s body, twisting his arms and legs back into their sockets, or as close as they could go. Griffin shut Howard’s eyes, feeling momentary relief. It was as if God had stopped watching him too, so now no one could witness his next actions. He placed Howard into a boat on shore, the same one the pair had used to get to the lighthouse for nearly thirty years. It was a tight fit, with Howard’s body dangling out of the cramped space, leaving Griffin to struggle further as he forced the delicate limbs within the confines, causing some bones to crack. Griffin untied the boat, realizing in this exact moment, how this was the end of everything he knew about his life. Griffin never told Howard, but he planned to change things, to fix their relationship even though it was usually Howard creating the rifts. With much effort and impenetrable resolve, maybe they could have become friends after all these years, transcending their indifferences. Now that was gone. It would only remain a hopeful thought that never grew into its potential, as pointless and trivial as a message in a bottle, battling against the stormy current.

It was time to push. The natural pull of the waves gathered Howard, welcoming him as if this is where he was always destined to end up. Tears escaped from Griffin’s eyes as Howard floated away, where the ocean shall hide him away forever. Covering Griffin’s shame.

A few days passed and Griffin couldn’t leave the island, feeling like he had been chained there, in a different way than his work ever commanded of him before. It was fear that made him stay. He hid in a shack next to the lighthouse that was never designed to be long term lodging with its few amenities; a bed and window. As Griffin lay in bed, cradling his body, he wondered if the waves could find him there, if they would be willing to sweep him away too.

He awoke on the third day to a cold and achy body, so cramped and stiff that it took him half an hour to leave the bed and return to a normal posture. He couldn’t decipher the days anymore. The sun had begun to set, soon parting the way to the same darkness as the night Griffin had been trying to forget. Griffin opened the window, attempting to eliminate the scent of his own nervous sweat and the room’s natural corrosion, closing his eyes as he did so, afraid that Howard’s face would be there through the window, staring back at him. He didn’t want to see those eyes again, frightened and frozen, tinged with blood from the seventy-metre fall.

Griffin often dreamt of Howard’s return. Angry and craving revenge, Howard plunged his fingers deep into Griffin’s eye sockets, gouging his eyes, claiming them as his own. An eye for an eye.

Griffin opened one of his eyes, slowly. No one was there, calming his paranoid mind at least for the moment. It was then that he looked farther, at the calm water, so different than how he remembered it. Amazed at how much it shifted from day to day. Today, there was no boat. No body. Griffin sighed, letting his shoulders slump. He saw a lone seagull on the dock. It pecked at an animal below, an unfortunate soul that must have been caught in the wood underneath. It pecked and prodded, trying to break off a piece of flesh. It put in considerable effort, to which it was rewarded; emerging with a small piece that Griffin couldn’t decipher at such a distance. The seagull dropped its bounty and flew off, finding it unsatisfying after all.

Griffin walked over to the dock, wanting to free the animal from its cruel fate of being picked over by the other, more fortunate souls of the world. Tossing it back in the water is the least he could do.

“You’re a large one.” Griffin said to the thing. A fish of sorts? With its slimy film and mangled features, tangled in the seaweed that tied it to the decaying wood. Griffin leaned over, careful to watch his own footing. The dock was icy. It was easy to slip, to land in the water. The daylight was nearly gone now, leaving Griffin to rely solely on the periodical flashes of light from the lighthouse. With every beam that looped around, new details emerged. There was hair. Skin. It was when Griffin saw it—one eye. The other pulled out by the seagull. Howard’s eye. His body, trapped in the railing, clinging itself to Griffin. Refusing to disappear.

A desperate Griffin pulled at the body, trying to free Howard and himself. When the body didn’t budge, Griffin pushed himself further, gnawing and ripping at Howard’s tangled arm. Exerted, Griffin fell to his knees.

“Please Howard. I’m sorry. I know it was my fault, that I shouldn’t have told you to get the bottle. It should have been me. I should have died.” Pleading with the dead, Griffin yelled at the body, the type of yell that was convoluted and hard to understand through an excess of tears.

Then Griffin slipped. For only actions dictated by outside forces could correct his wrongs now. The head hit the rocks below. As Griffin’s mind faded from the consciousness of life, he noticed one final flash of light that illuminated the one-eyed Howard. How his broken mouth seemed upturned, satisfied at last.

 

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Anna Deh is an emerging writer with a background in both creative and academic writing.  She graduated from San Jose State University in 2019 with a BA in English Literature. This is her first story publication. She resides in California with her two Maine Coon cats.

Title photo credit – Evgeni Tcherkasski via Unsplash

Horla standard disclaimer – image has no direct connection with the fiction