The Lamplighter

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Laura Magalas


The average light bulb in our house lasted six months. There were some exceptions, of course. Bulbs in lamps that were rarely lit, such as those that had their home in the guest bedroom, lasted longer. They were hardly ever on, as we hardly ever had guests to use them, save for the old sailing friend of my uncle’s here and there who was passing through.

Others lasted shorter amounts of time, such as the one that sat on the large oak desk in what was now my office, and was once my uncle’s library. I replaced the bulb in that desk lamp almost every three months, as my uncle had when he’d used it.

There was, however, one incredible exception. There was one bulb in our house that had never been replaced. At the end of the hall, above the front door, was a brass lighthouse. In that lighthouse was a bulb that my uncle had placed in it when he’d first mounted it to the wall. As long as my uncle lived, he’d never had to replace the bulb.

I’d though it was as ugly as sin the first time I saw it. I had been eight and had come home from school to see my uncle up a ladder, fluidly twisting a screwdriver in his hands.

“Whatcha doin?” I asked, shrugging off my heavy winter coat.

My Uncle Silo had been a tall man, thin with a well-built frame. The guys he had grown up with in the shipyards had called him Slim, an evident crack at his lack of appearing as strong as he was. I’d often heard the term “hidden strength” thrown around later in life, mostly in reference to an intellectual or emotional prowess that only emerged at certain times. With my uncle, it was true. I often suspected that pure lithium flowed through his veins, titanium deposits in his bone marrow. He didn’t show muscle, but he was strong. He was the sole reason I never in my life judged people by their appearance. He often wore an old cap, the kind that Jack Kerouac probably sat around smoking in. Kerouac would have worn it low like my uncle, just above the eyes so you could peer out at others from under the black fabric. His eyes had peered down at me like that from under the brim of his cap at the sound of my question.

“I’m putting up a lighthouse here, Eddie boy!” he’d said, putting down the screwdriver into the toolbox that sat on the top step, motioning to it with a proud thumb.

What my uncle poorly described as a lighthouse was a triangular lantern that had a lighthouse moulded on two of its three sides, the third used to secure it to the wall. It was a simple design as far as lighthouses went, with a triangular base that moved upward into another rectangle. The light was supposed to shine through this small opening in the fashioned brass mold, past small bars positioned across it to make it look like a window. A semi-circle that was presumed to be the dome was above it. I’d frowned at it.

He’d scratched at the little grey tufts of hair that peaked out from under the sides of his cap. “Something wrong, Eddie?”

I’d shrugged. “It’s not so special.”

My uncle had smiled, a mischievous twinkle in his eye. He’d held out a hand to me. “Pass me that bulb in the box, would you?”

I’d looked down at my feet to see a small cardboard box. I’d opened it and pulled out the white bulb. He’d taken it from me and carefully reached over the two conjoined lighthouses, sliding his hand behind and twisting it slowly. Finally, his hand had come back without a bulb attached, and he’d stepped down from the ladder.

It wasn’t until that night that I’d understood the twinkle in my uncle’s eye. Appearances were deceiving. The lighthouse had seemed like nothing in the daytime, just a couple of bent up pieces of faulty brass. But as I’d walked past the hallway that led to the front door, the brightness of the bulb caught my eye, and I’d turned.

The lighthouse was majestic. I stood in the hallway right now as I had when I was small, simply staring at it, glowing with ethereal light. The light shone out of the windows bright and beautiful, providing just enough illumination to protect the hallway from the night’s dark cloaking powers.

As I stood there admiring it, I heard my uncle’s voice echo in my head of what he’d said the first time I’d seen the lighthouse illuminated. “You know what a lighthouse is of course, don’t you Eddie? It was used to protect sailors and their ships on the water. A lamplighter would go up and light the lamp in the top of the tower. The light would show them where the rocks and crags were in the water, so they’d be safe. It would help guide them all home. All day and all night it stays on, just like it does in this house.”

I’d frowned up at the lighthouse. “You mean it never goes out?”

He’d looked down at me from under his cap and had given me a wink. “Well, maybe when all the sailors are safe. When all of the ships and sailors come home safe to the harbor, the lighthouse’s job is done. Only then will the lamplighter extinguish the flame.”

His voice faded from me as I heard the sharp ring of the phone in my ears. I turned to the sound, stunned for a moment from my memories and trying to get my bearings. I turned and headed for the kitchen. As I started to turn the corner, I was suddenly plunged into darkness.

I turned. The hallway was dark.

The lighthouse had gone out.

The phone stopped ringing. Time seemed to halt entirely.

I felt my chest lock, my gaze frozen in place. My eyes were still adjusting to the sudden loss of light. Even though I couldn’t see it, I knew it was still there. I half expected my uncle to come around the corner and comment on the lighthouse, and could I get him the ladder from the closet. I could almost feel his hand on my shoulder, when he’d placed it there a few weeks ago.

“You be sure to take good care of the house for me while I’m gone,” he’d said, his other hand clutching worn out handles on a bag that used to contain his fishing gear.

I’d given him a big smile. “I’ll try my best.”

“That’s my boy,” he’d said as the front door opened. An old friend whose name had escaped me leaned in, a large coat to best the frigid winter outside wrapped around him tightly. “Let’s go, Slim.”

He’d slid on his parka and turned to his friend. “All right, Pat,” he’d said as my gaze had drifted to the illuminated lighthouse above his head, now glowing brighter with each passing moment in the early dimming, wintry evening light. First appearances had been deceiving, all right. And to think I’d thought it ugly at first.

“She’s a beauty,” I’d found myself saying aloud, coming back to reality upon hearing the sound of my voice.

Pat had gone and so had my uncle’s bag. My uncle had smiled at me and looked over his shoulder at the lighthouse. “It’s not so special,” he’d said with a smile and a wink, “but you be sure to take care of it.”

I’d nodded. “I’ll be sure to keep it lit until you get back safe, I promise.”

“Good boy.” After a warm embrace and a promise of our reuniting soon, he had been gone, venturing out into the snow that swung on the wind, and as the door closed behind him, I had stood by myself. I stood by myself again now, only this time, I stood in near-darkness. Time seemed to start again.

The light in the lighthouse was still out. My eyes adjusted a little more now, and I could make out shapes in the hall, slowly becoming illuminated by the rising moon. As I debated whether or not I should attempt to replace the bulb, I heard the ring of the phone again. This time, I made my way to the kitchen and successfully answered.

“Hello?”

“Eddie?”

“Yeah, who’s this?”

“Eddie, it’s Pat. Slim’s friend. I tried calling before.”

“Sorry about that. What can I do for you?”

He sounded like he was shifting his weight on the other end. “I was wondering if you’d heard from your uncle. He took off a day or so ago, said he had somethin’ to do, and I ain’t heard from him since. Not that I’m worried or nothin’, it’s just— it ain’t like him to be gone this long. You know what I mean?”

I frowned. “No, I haven’t heard anything. He hasn’t called me.”

He made a request and I obliged and said I would call him at the number he provided if I heard anything from my uncle. I had only taken two steps after ending Pat’s call when the phone rang again, seeming louder than before. Being closer this time, I grabbed it on the first ring.

“Hello?”

“Eddie?”

I knew the voice, but its return after a long absence made my heart clench. The last time I had heard it was from another room.

“I don’t know what to do,” the voice had said.

“I’ll tell you what to do,” my Uncle Silo had answered, “You leave him here with me, and you go. Hell, he’s spent half of his twelve years of life here with me anyway. Won’t be that much of a change for him.”

“But I don’t want to put you out.”

“Baby sister, you know damn well that what I just said is what you were hoping I’d say. Now I’ve said it, so you go on now. You go and get yourself fixed up. You’re in no condition any more to care for that boy. When you’re ready, you send word and I’ll come down and see that you’re better.”

The voice had let out a sob, just as it did now on the other end of the phone in response to my questioning tone. “Mom?”

She let out another short sob. “I’m so sorry, Eddie.”

“Mom, what’s wrong? What’s the matter?”

“It’s all… my fault, Eddie, my fault. He was— he was coming here,” she somehow managed to choke out.

I took a step, the cordless phone tightly pressed against my ear. “Mom, it’s okay. What’s wrong?”

I heard her voice crack on the other end. “Eddie… Eddie, there’s— Eddie, there’s been an accident.”

She attempted to stumble over the details, but I didn’t hear her after the next group of words she managed to struggle out. “Eddie… your Uncle Silo… He’s dead, Eddie. I’m so sorry.”

I turned to look down the barely illuminated hall, swimming now in shades of blue from the curtains filtering the moon. I saw it clearly from where I stood. The lighthouse, no longer lit, now seemed to have sunk to the bottom of the ocean as waves and shadows of blue and grey drifted across it. A ship gone down with its captain.

A lighthouse gone out with its lamplighter.

“Eddie? Eddie!” My mother’s voice said, growing frantic. “Are you okay? I’m sorry I had to be— to be the one to tell you.”

“No no, it’s okay… Actually, you didn’t,” I found myself saying, my eyes never leaving the end of the hall. I watched my Uncle Silo again ascending the ladder, ready to put into the lighthouse the only light it would ever need in his lifetime, throwing me a familiar smile. I suddenly warmed. “Don’t worry Mom… he’s safe.”

I heard her pause on the other end of the phone. “How— how do you know that? How can you be so sure?”

I watched as my younger self carefully reached up and handed him the bulb. “Because he already told me.”

“Who did?”

I watched again as he headed out the door for the last time, out into the swirling snow, his retreating back slowly fading and disappearing among the flakes. I felt a tear slide down my cheek.

“The lamplighter, Mom, the lamplighter told me.”

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Laura Magalas is currently working on her Honors B.A. in English. She enjoys writing in her spare time and tends to daydream excessively. E-mail: atellix[at]hotmail.com

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