This story is by Braeden LaRoche and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Three men sat around the table, light from the kerosene lamp at its middle gleaming in the pewter and making the men’s faces orange and trenched with shadow. Across the dark window looking out into the night, the light was threaded in a lattice of raindrops moving with the wind that rattled the glass panes in their holds. Besides that sound there was a ticking of the clock, and besides that silence.
Next to the men’s oilskins on the wall was hung a mirror that reflected to one of the seated men a door that stood ajar behind him and the trunk of darkness that gap formed. Eyes fixed on the mirror, he could have been a wax statue, and the other men too if their eyes did not wander the small room and occasionally meet.
Moving nothing but his dry lips, the man watching the mirror whispered sharply to the others. “Look.”
They stood carefully, the floorboards creaking as they moved behind the seated man.
“D’ye not see it? See those crazy eyes and the heavy dark fur of a horse’s mane? The Devil, by God, and he’ll take us all.”
They watched the mirror for a minute described by the ticking of the clock. Then the seated man stood and moved towards the door.
“Donald–” one of the others began, his voice an abrupt penetration to the silence followed by the sound of the door closing, then nothing. Donald stood with his hand on the knob for a moment before stepping away.
The man who had spoken moved to the window.
“We need to leave,” said Donald.
“And go out there? Ye’re off yer rocker,” said the man who had yet to speak.
“Aye, but James, it’s in here, not out there. Out there’s just some rain; ye can handle some rain, eh?”
“But where d’ye think it came from?” asked James, who stood ghostly pale and still behind the chair. “If it was there at all, I’m not sure, but by the fear ye’ve struck in my heart, I’ll believe ye.”
Donald was silent for some time in response.
The man by the window watched, through the warm reflections and phosphorescent beads, the island sloping down in the rain to its foot at the west landing, where the sea raged against the black rock of the bluffs. From the floor above, the lighthouse’s beam swept out across that rain-misted dark, lighting the low bellies of the clouds.
“What say ye, Thomas?”
“There’s a ship out there.”
“Eh? Tha’s not possible.” Donald moved to the window and squinted into the darkness. “I think I might see it yet. Could that be the relief? In this weather?”
“It’s our salvation and it’s been weeks coming. I wouldn’e question a blessing.”
Donald and Thomas took their oilskins, and one a lantern, and descended into the dark stairwell, lit by faintly burning wall sconces. James continued to watch the closed door for a moment before following hurriedly in his shirtsleeves.
At the bottom of the stairwell, the men opened the door to the outside and were met with a rush of wind carrying with it a spray of rain. James shivered. They left the lighthouse and began down the track towards the west landing.
As they walked, the bright beam made the sky pulse periodically like a sluggish heartbeat, in contrast to the men’s beating frail but quick in their chests against the encroaching cold. The light was scattered by the falling rain to glint along the slick metal of the track and in the grass matted by the bittering wind, which tore at Thomas and wrenched the lantern from his hands. It fell and shattered a meter off and was quickly guttered.
In the enveloping darkness, the men appeared in occasional silhouette, their oilskins pulled tightly about as they bore headlong against the wind, then with it, then against again at random. And James in his thin clothes plastered to his skin by the rain, racked with shivers and falling behind the others, singular in a cold and vacuous domain where forces moral and immortal vyed around him and the wind raced along the sea and raced along the sky, the ceiling of that hollow.
Sloping down to their right was a sharp inlet, a geo, cut into the island. Waves tumbled over each other as they surged up it, that water gathering in a cave at the geo’s inland head before being jettisoned out again, crashing along the steep bluffs in its return to the sea and sending spray over the landing.
The men on their steady seaward descent, James some meters behind. The rain about him was like a shroud, seeming alive as it moved with the winds. Even when the light made its pass, he could not see the men in front of him. With numb feet like wood in his drenched shoes, he followed the feeling of the track’s sleeper boards and continued ahead; then, quaking with the cold, he began to cough, and he collapsed.
He tried to rise with phantom arms, fingers immovable and curled into fists. All he could feel of himself was a keening pulse of pain behind his ears and the mad rattling of his heart. He found himself looking behind now, up through the blear of the rain at the turning light in a veil of clouds dimming it, the dark threatening to suck it away by some invisible vortex.
Donald and Thomas turned back and barely saw James crouched behind on the track.
“Come on, get moving, we’ve got to get to the boat!” shouted Thomas. “Ye’re a fool to have gone without yer oilskins.”
Donald was looking out to the water. “There’sna damn boat.”
“You just can’t see it for the rain and waves– come on, come on, James!”
Thomas ran back up the track and grabbed James by the arm, hauling him slowly along as he shook violently.
The three men reached the landing together, James steadied between the two as they braced themselves against the wind driving straight at them off the water. The sea raged against the stone, white spray arcing up and onto the bleak array of crates and barrels and coils of chains.
“A boat… ye’re outta yer head. There’s nothing here!” Donald’s voice was drowned by the surf and the wind.
“I said there’sna boat here! And if there’d been, it would’ve been smashed to pieces.”
“You say there’sna boat? There’s a thousand boats! D’ye not see them? There’s five thousand boats– heaven’s whole legion of saviors. Off of these boats the color of liver, angels with white wings! The king and his men; they’ll take us from here–”
Out from the geo rushed a massive tide, rearing slick and black and scaled with the thornlike peaks of waves like a monumental serpent, turning and turning over itself, a surge of the world’s thick and dark blood.
“We’ll leave this accursed night behind, find calm seas. God’ll be over all again–”
The massive wave loomed, an obelisk bridging the earth and the sky, and it crashed over the west landing with a force that bent the iron railings, tore at concrete, and carried off with it into the sea the crates and the barrels and the three men, stolen into the heaving chaos of that outer dark.
And the night carried on. The waters rushed in and out of the geo, and with day the storm lifted and the seas were calm, and the vacant-eyed fish and the blind worms feasted.