The Archipelago: a short story in three parts | Part II: The Lighthouse Keeper and the Northern Island

May 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Archipelago: a short story in three parts

Part II: The Lighthouse Keeper and the Northern Island

… continued from Part I

‘So, would you like to play chess?’ asked the lighthouse keeper.

It was clear to brother Luke that the man kneeling before him was dying. His complexion bore a waxy, yellowish pallor and a network of blackish-blue veins formed disturbing, delicate webs on his exposed skin. These veins spread across and beneath a complex design of blue-green swirling tattoos. The man’s ears hung in tatters, fringed by a regular series of precise incisions, all of equal length and spacing, that had been made into the flesh. The monk knelt opposite the lighthouse keeper on a thick, comfortable, richly woven carpet of wool. The carpet was decorated with the same motifs as those that covered the lighthouse keeper’s body. Out of the tower’s western porthole window he could see the darkness of the arriving storm. The sound of crashing waves and distant thunder reached his ears.

In between them was a low table on which was laid a chess set made of walrus tooth and whale ivory; intricately carved, time-worn pieces shaped in the form of bearded men bearing shields and ancient weapons.

‘The gods of the silk road were happy to share accommodation’, said the lighthouse keeper.

Brother Luke said nothing.

‘By which I mean that you are welcome to sleep on my floor while the storm passes through. I have plenty of food too… and not much appetite.’ The lighthouse keeper coughed, a hollow, rasping cough, and then stood up to spit out of the porthole.

He continued to stand there for a few moments, with his back to the monk then returned with a strained smile.

He then gestured to brother Luke to make the first move.

It had taken him the best part of a day to row from the Eastern Island. The freshening wind bore occasional squalls of rain and sent the surface of the ocean into shuddering spasms of light. The wind felt threatening and he soon became aware of a sombre accumulation of cloud that was building to the west. He stood up in the coracle and, shielding his eyes, scanned the horizon for signs of land. The lighthouse was plainly visible, a tiny grey splinter sticking up from the sea. Though clearly some distance away, it seemed the safest thing to head for and, according to Brother Luke’s rudimentary map, it was only a short diversion from his intended destination. Eventually, after much backbreaking toil, the lighthouse building rose above him from the rocky platform of the skerry; a cylinder of smooth white quartzite blocks that tapered delicately from base to top. The pillar was crowned with a rusting mass of iron. A tattered crown of thorns.

Brother Luke was aware from his map that beneath these blackening waters lay the remains of hundreds of ships. And, with a shudder, he thought of the bodies of the navigators that must be down there in those immense, chilling depths; far from any light, far from the comfort of their homes. The frantic wind drew his attention to the west. In the distance he could now see faint flashes of lightning illuminating the clouds. He pulled the coracle onto the rock platform and knocked loudly at the door. It soon opened and a strange figure stepped out to meet him. The man wore faded robes that must once have shone with bright colours, and a headdress of dusty plumage.

‘Welcome brother’, the man said, ‘I suggest that you bring your boat inside.’

This was the man that now played chess with brother Luke. They played a long, skilful game as the storm raged around the lighthouse, throwing vast waves up to the porthole windows of the room that they kneeled in, 50 feet or so above the rock of the skerry. Occasional gouts of water entered the glassless portholes but they never reached the centre of the circular chamber. Eventually the candles burned low and it was clear that the lighthouse keeper needed rest. Brother Luke took his arm and helped him to his cot before returning to the carpet where he now rested his head. It felt strangely comforting to hear the sea making its futile attempts at attrition of the lighthouse, which conveyed dull vibrations from the detonating surf.

When he rose the following morning the storm had abated. Looking together out into the grey light from the northern porthole window, they could see that the swell had subsided into a light chop. They could also dimly make out the Northern Island emerging from a light shroud of mist. Circling seagulls brayed like donkeys around the lighthouse…

Before saying farewell the lighthouse keeper cast five astragaloi or knucklebones onto the air. For a fleeting moment they were suspended in a perfect diamond against the walls of the lighthouse. Then they fell; when they had landed, he examined them carefully from above. ‘I am afraid that you have a very lonely journey ahead, my friend’, he said in a low, melancholy tone.

With these words in mind, brother Luke now rowed closer to the Northern Island. He could see that it was a near perfect dome of orange granite besmeared with chalky guano from the hordes of seabirds that mobbed in the sky. Then, as he drew closer still, he discerned a hundred or so gently drifting coracles. They were of a longer and narrower design than his own and clearly intended to carry a number of passengers. As he grew closer he could see that all of the leather-skinned vessels were empty. He drew alongside one and awkwardly stepped inside.

A note, scrawled in bone black ink lay at the bottom of the boat.

On it was written the following message: ‘Do not set foot on the island, there is plague’.

To be continued …

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