Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Ghost that Left the Lighthouse

Long ago, on a lonely lighthouse on a remote island, a wild autumn night ushered in a fierce storm. The beacon was lit, and the keeper, his wife, and their pet cat were safe and warm in their cozy little house at the bottom of the light tower. Reading occupied the man and woman, while the cat lay curled by the woodstove sleeping. What else was there for a lazy lighthouse cat to do but sleep?

The storm was horrific, with rolls of thunder, pelting rain, and gusts of wind. Periodically, the windows of the house flashed with lightning and rattled as the booming streaks split the air. The clamor surely drowned out all sounds, or so it seemed...

Abruptly, the wind died down and the rain eased up. The rumble of thunder and streaks of lightning seemed distant at that moment. The light station grew quiet....

Clomp, clomp, clomp!

The keeper and his wife looked up from their reading. The cat raised its head with curiosity, a bit perturbed to have its evening nap interrupted.

"Did you hear that, dear?" the lightkeeper's wife said. "What was that?"

The lightkeeper shrugged. "Might be the lantern door come loose and banging in the wind. I'll go check."

As he rose and headed for the tower door, the sound came again.

Clomp! Clomp! Clomp!

It sounded like footsteps...heavy, wet boots on the stairs in the great, tall tower above the house. Someone...or something...was coming down the stairs.

The keeper's wife looked alarmed. The cat flicked its ears in the direction of the lighthouse door.

Clomp, clomp, clomp!

The footsteps grew louder, and heavier, and closer.

Clomp, clomp, clomp!

As the footfall neared the base of the lighthouse, the cat rose from her rug by the stove and stared intently at the door leading to the tower stairs. What could be coming, she wondered.

The keeper and his wife wondered too, for there wasn't a soul on this wild part of the coast other than the residents of the lighthouse.

Clomp, clomp, clomp!

Without warning, the latch lifted on the lighthouse door with a metallic click, and the door swung slowly open with a protracted, screechy, wooden whine. Scccrrrrrcccchh!

The cat arched her back!

Clomp, clomp, clomp! went the footsteps loudly across the floor, but no feet were seen, no shoes, nor anyone to wear them.

Hissing and backing away from the phantom footfall, the cat's eyes seemed to follow the unseen intruder as it strode across the room.

Hiss!!!  Growl!!!

The cat's fur stood on end and her tail had increased three times in circumference. The keeper and his wife sat numb, their mouths agape and eyes wide.

Click! The latch on the front door of the house lifted under the power of invisible hands. The cat hissed again and spat at the door.

"What does Old Thomas see?" the wife asked, bringing her handkerchief to her mouth.

"I dunno," replied the keeper. "He's some mad though, isn't he?"

The keeper and his wife slowly rose from their chairs and watched as the front door swung wide to reveal the wild, stormy night. Lightning splintered the sky and thunder rolled, and the wind--which had seemed to calm only minutes earlier--pummeled the house and rattled the walls.

A rush of dry leaves swirled into the house just before the door slammed shut. Bang!

The muffled sound of quickly receding footsteps disappeared into the night.

The cat relaxed its indignant pose, twitched its tail with irritation at having been so rudely disturbed, and settled back on the rug, paws curled underneath its chest.  The keeper and his wife shrugged.

They went to the tower stairs and peered up the long, hollow, column of stone with its intricate spiral stairway. Nothing. No sound. No one.

They went to the front door, opened it, and looked long into the tempestuous and stygian night. Nothing. No sounds other than the wind and rain and grumbling thunder. No one in sight.

Closing the door, they chuckled nervously and returned to their chairs and books. Deep in the woodstove a burning log repositioned itself and crackled. The cat barely noticed, for it was already asleep again and dreaming of fat mice and bowls of milk from the light station cow.

As the night storm wore on, the keeper and his wife yawned, closed their books, and dozed. When the mantle clock chimed ten times, they rose to go to their warm bed.

"I'd better check the light first," the keeper said, and his wife nodded.

"Let's hope there'll be no more unseen visitors tonight," she replied with the hint of a smile.

Neither knew what to make of the strange footsteps, the animated doors, and the odd behavior of their cat. A lighthouse is a curious place at times, a haunt for restless spirits. Perhaps one such spirit had escaped his stormy purgatory this night and was now making his way to a quieter place.

This story is adapted from an anecdote told to me by the late James Gibbs, author of numerous maritime books, including West Coast lighthouse books. Gibbs said this was a popular story he had heard, in various versions, from several lighthouse keepers he interviewed. No one knew what lighthouse or lightkeeper had originated the yarn.

Coastal storms often are intense, and gusts of wind opening and closing doors is not uncommon at lighthouses. Metal stairways in lighthouses make all manner of odd sounds after dark. I'll add that cats were popular pets at lighthouses and they usually became incensed by visitors of any type, spirit or flesh. A little embroidering of the facts could easily produce a memorable tale like this one!

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