My entire life, I’d known three people: Pa; Ma, before she’d died giving birth to a still baby when I was four; and the ferryman who brought us our supplies and rations each month. The world I was raised in would have been an empty one for anyone else, but, for me, it was full to bursting. Our island was populated by cliffs the wind loved to beat against, a savage sea, and the stretches of sand where the wild ponies dozed. And at the edge of the island was the lighthouse built from white stone. It had risen above me from my first memory, and its light acted as a stern warning to those that sailed past our desolate part of the world.
Each evening, Pa would walk with me along our island’s rocky coast, a lantern held in one hand and my fist secured in his other. He never told me what exactly we were looking for, but I found plenty to carry home in my pockets, anyway. Even at ten, I was collecting whatever I found: smooth pebbles, sea glass in countless colors, sometimes even a whole sand dollar. For me, it was full pockets, full heart. Whenever I found the rare conch shell, Pa would press it first to his ear, then to mine.
“Listen, Cora,” he said. “There’s no sweeter music in all the world. Even when I’m away from the sea, I can hear that tune in my dreams.”
I laughed at the thought of Pa anywhere but at our lighthouse or on Hestur Island. All the time I’d know him, I’d never once seen him leave. Why would anyone want to? The island had always felt like home, like magic, to me. This place was built of it, woven from magic like a tapestry. Nothing else could explain all the wildflowers bursting from the hillsides each spring or the soft sand I’d learned to walk upon or the light always keeping watch over us.
Pa held a hand to his heart at my laughter, doing his best to act solemn despite the hidden smile twitching at his lips. “I swear it. The mainland’s more than just a word. I’ve been to it. Even made memories there.”
I wrinkled my nose. “Any that mattered?”
Pa scooped up a piece of red sea glass I’d missed, wincing at his bent back. “Nope. All the important memories are right here.”
I took the sea glass from him and held it up to the sinking sun. With the last rays of light shining through it, the smooth glass burned ruby red in my hand, like a dying star. Once the sun had faded further, I tucked the glass into my pocket with everything else I’d collected.
I turned back to the lighthouse, its beam gaining brilliance against the darkening sky. “It’s nearly night. Aren’t we going to go back?”
Pa stepped over a large piece of driftwood and continued past me, further down the beach. “No, let’s keep walking. There’s something I need to show you.”
I frowned and watched him go. Pa wasn’t one for many rules. He had the simple ones, of course. No leaving dirty dishes, no wasting kerosene, no swimming too far out at sea. But the most important one had always been to stay inside after sunset. The island was too dangerous in the dark, Pa had insisted. Even if his own rule didn’t keep him from disappearing out into the shadows every night himself.
I skipped to catch up to Pa, scattering sand as I went. “Are you finally going to let me help with the lighthouse?” I’d been begging him for years to let me do more, more, more. That it was a family role was the one thing I’d gleaned from his stories told beside the fireplace or over the dinner table. Years before I’d learned to traipse across the island’s shore, Pa had taken over the lighthouse from his own pa. And from the first I’d learned of it, I’d yearned to do the same. “I can do it, you know. Everything.”
Pa laughed and I crossed my arms at his amusement. “I already let you help.”
“I want to do more. And I don’t want to let you be alone in the dark.”
“I’m never alone.” He gestured back at the lighthouse. “There’s always the light. But I will welcome more of your help.”
We kept walking as the sky grew as black as a razorbill’s wings. It was thrilling, walking along the shore after dark. My first time breaking the rule and there was a whole new facet of the island to see at night. I took it all in as I danced alongside Pa on raised toes. My hand stayed in his until he paused.
“Here.” Pa handed me the lantern. I lifted it high as he coughed into his closed fist. “I did want to wait until you were older to heap so much responsibility upon you.” The corner of Pa’s mouth twitched, his best attempt at a smile. “But fate’s done what it does best and forced my hand.”
Pa might have been hesitant to hand over more responsibilities, but I didn’t share his regrets. Instead, I held the lantern steady and waited beside him for whatever he wanted from me next. I would be a keeper, like him, like his pa. And I would protect this island and keep all who passed by it safe.
I smiled to myself. Maybe it was a good thing I was Pa’s only living child. Someone had to be keeper after him and a short, bony daughter wouldn’t likely have been anyone’s first choice. But then maybe Pa would have chosen me first, anyway. He’d always said I was born of this island, built of wild winds and seagulls’ cries and brine, rather than mere human flesh.
Pa was a poet, whether he was ever willing to admit it or not. The lighthouse, not me, was the usual recipient of his rhymes and uttered verses. Some days, it was ‘the guide for souls lost at sea’. Others, it was ‘the night’s burning beacon’. I just called it the lighthouse.
Pa was less eloquent that night as he wordlessly pointed me forward. I raised an eyebrow, but didn’t question him. I was too focused on the anticipation rising in me like the tide. Instead, I left Pa behind as I picked my way around a pair of tide pools and the brown boulders scattered across the higher parts of the beach. Pa’s lantern lit the way forward, and I hadn’t followed its light far before I paused.
There was a stranger on our island.
A pale sailor lay motionless on the sand, illuminated by the light I carried. His feet were bare and his faded blue uniform hung loosely on his bedraggled frame. The sea seemed to have spit him out onto the shore, but not before tossing him about a good bit in the waves.
Footsteps crunched in the sand behind me, and Pa’s steady hand found my shoulder. I was shaking, but told myself it was because of the night’s cold. Not because I’d never seen a stranger before.
Pa wasn’t as bothered by the interloper on our shore. Instead, he motioned me forward. “Don’t be afraid. This is what I wanted to show you tonight. Go on. Ask him his name.”
I took small steps forward in the sand, tracking through the hoofprints the island’s herd of wild ponies had left streaked across the beach. When I reached the unmoving sailor, I took a deep breath, swallowing all the courage I could. Eventually, I stretched out a hand and grazed his shoulder with the tips of my fingers. The sailor stirred at my slight touch, but it took another nudge from me before he lifted his head. He looked my way with eyes as empty as the night.
I bit my lip and glanced back at Pa. Fortune follows fortitude, he repeated often enough to be a prayer. Whether he was telling himself or me, I was never quite sure. But his words were enough to convince me then.
I stuck out my free hand toward the sailor. “Who are you? What’s your name?”
“Irving.” The sailor slowly rose to sit on the sand and shook my hand as his eyes lifted up, up, up to the light shining above us. “Oh. It’s a lighthouse.”
I held onto the lantern as Pa joined us and helped lift the sailor to his feet. “Irving, welcome to Hestur Island,” he said. “The lighthouse I keep is what you saw, what brought you here. Now, if you’ll follow me, I’ll help you continue.”
Irving pursed his lips. “That’s it? Drown and move on?”
I looked between the two, curiosity singing loud to me as Pa stepped closer to the sailor. “I’m sorry. Some days the sea’s kind, some days it’s cruel. But you’re safe here now and there’s not far to go.”
“My line came loose in a storm. Figured I was dead as soon as I hit the water. Never learned to swim, ya know? At least I’m not still stuck there.” Irving lowered his head. “I had family back in Brighton. A wife. Two sons. There’s no way to say goodbye?”
Pa tugged at the graying strands of his beard. “Afraid not. There’s only going forward.”
Irving let the sea wash over his feet one last time before he stepped away from it and toward Pa.
Pa clapped his shoulder and murmured, “Good man. Come, follow me and it’ll all be done soon.”
Pa started forward, away from the shore and inland, to where a peak rose at the island’s center. I kept close to him, the way I often was, while Irving trudged along through the sand after us, his gaze focused on the ground.
“Who is that?” I whispered. “What does he mean ‘drown and move on’?”
Pa took the lantern from me and held it aloft to better light the path in front of us. “This is our job, too. The light warns ships about the rocks and shallow depths. But it’s also something for lost, drowned souls to anchor onto. Anyone who dies in the sea, they stay there disoriented and adrift. At least, until they find something to swim for, like moths drawn to a light.”
The shore. And the light. I glanced at them both as we walked. I’d liked to imagine for years that the island was strung though with thin strands of magic. Perhaps I hadn’t been so far from the truth. I had seen Irving myself. Touched him. He had been solid enough, but not entirely human. More like an echo of a person, standing there on the sand. And I’d never known Pa to lie to me before.
Pa lowered his voice. “How much time a drowned soul spends in the sea differs for each of them. And after they wash ashore here, I help guide them on to whatever comes next.”
“And what does come next?” The oldest human question that even a small child knew how to wonder about.
“No more questions, Cora.” Pa took great, heaving steps as the ground sloped. “Just watch.”
I trampled through overgrown meadow grass, doing my best to keep up with Pa. He led Irving and me until we were almost to the island’s center and the sea was a sounding afterthought. Here, the ground rose high enough that there was always mist, even on the days the sky was clear and bright, a seabird’s paradise.
At the mist’s edge, Pa shook Irving’s hand so firmly it looked final. “Sorry you’re going young. Sorry about your family. But there oughtn’t be any hardship beyond, so go on and enjoy it.”
Irving looked to the lighthouse, then to the mist again. He shoved his shoulders back, the same way I did whenever I was trying to be brave for Pa. Then, he eased his way into his mist on slow steps. Its silver, reaching tendrils shifted to cocoon the sailor, blocking him from sight. I bounced on the balls of my feet and waited for him to come back out. When he didn’t, I finally reached up and tapped Pa.
“Where’s he going?” I said.
Pa turned from the mist and used the lantern to guide us back to the lighthouse. “Where I guide all the others to. Someplace waits for them beyond the mist, but it’s not our business. We’re only here to make sure the drowned souls make it.” Pa frowned down at me, his thick eyebrows shoved together. “Don’t waste too much time wondering about what comes after. We’re still living, so it’s no use asking questions meant for the dead.”
“Is it just our island? How many souls?”
“Patience, Cora. A man can only answer so many questions in a night. I’m keeper on this island. Not others. I can’t speak for them. And ours is an ordinary place in every aspect but one.”
I jutted out my chin. Our island was not ordinary. Pa had been raised here too, so he should have known better. But he continued answering my questions, so I didn’t interrupt to tell him so.
“The souls are a secret we keep so they can have peace and not be hounded by mainlanders seeking them out. And there’s one to guide to the mist every week or two, but we must always be looking for them. That’s the way my pa did it, too. Found the souls here, figured out what to do, taught me the same. Now, I’m teaching you.”
“And the Lighthouse Board keeps the secret over on the mainland?”
Pa grunted and shook his head. “They’re good for paying us and sending rations. That’s about it. Think, Cora. We tell them, they decide we’re not in the right state of mind to stay here, and then there’s no proper keeper for the souls or the lighthouse.”
I pursed my lips. Pa rarely spoke kindly of the ‘meddlesome’ Lighthouse Board. The lantern flickered and Pa muttered something about the oil running low.
“Keepers don’t get much sleep, do they?” I said.
He chuckled and ruffled my hair. “It’s a hard life, but a good one.”
I made my decision then, with Pa at my side and the lighthouse gleaming ahead. Souls, island, all of it. I’d never been born for anything else.
I was fourteen the last time I remember getting a full night’s sleep and sixteen the first time I escorted a soul to the mist by myself. She had been an older woman with red hair and faint wrinkles around her eyes. Women’s souls were a rare find on the shore. I had taken this one away from the lighthouse, past the moor where the ponies grazed, and right to where the mist gathered so thickly I couldn’t see past it.
“Just through there,” I said as I gestured the woman forward. “I don’t know what happens after you step in, but good luck.”
She let out a light laugh. The sound surprised me, as it didn’t match the way she’d been walking earlier. Then, she had been like Atlas with the world, carrying sadness heavily on her shoulders. After thanking me for my help, the woman smiled and stepped into the mist. Then it was like she’d never been there at all, except for some slight stirring of the reaching, silver haze.
Most souls went easily, like she had. A few tried to stay, tried to fight against fate. But souls couldn’t stay on the island once they had finally washed ashore. They weakened on land until they either entered the mist or faded away, losing themselves entirely. Pa had been at my side the first time a soul had argued against entering the mist right away. But from then on, I had been able to handle the more unruly souls on my own. All it usually took was a good dose of convincing, or simply sitting and talking away their fears of the unknown.
A year after I started guiding souls on my own, a particularly bad bout of pneumonia took Pa. It had been the worst winter I could remember, only made more frigid and lifeless by his passing. Since Pa hadn’t drowned out among the waves, I buried him without a chance to see his soul and say a last goodbye. The dirt, the earth beneath our feet. This was home and familiar and what our souls knew. It was only those who were lost out at sea, in an unfamiliar world, that needed help and guidance.
It was Pa’s death that brought me a grief as vast as the sea but also the full realization of the life I’d striven for. I became the keeper of Hestur Island, its lighthouse, and its souls. Each night, I would light Pa’s old lantern and go wandering up and down the coast, collecting souls like sea glass and humming along to the tune of the crashing waves.
In my small corner of the world, I was alone. But, most of the time, I kept busy enough that the loneliness knocking on my windows couldn’t find a way inside. Some nights the wind did echo too loudly and the cottage next to the lighthouse was suffocating with its emptiness. Then, I would listen to the melodies sung by my ever-growing collections of shells and mutter to myself that, even without Pa, I was not alone here on the island.
There was the herd of wild ponies that I’d tried and failed to ride as a child. They would gather on the beach at dawn each morning and both they and the sun would greet me. I always kept my distance, like Pa had taught. We were to be observers of the island’s inhabitants and let nature choose its course without interfering, he said. But they were still my constant companions, along with the rough waves of the sea and the light I ensured never went out. I always had the light, and I told myself that would have to be enough.
The month after I turned twenty, I was standing on the island’s one small dock when the ferryman arrived with his usual rations and supplies. He had rowed in on a dinghy from his sloop anchored out in deeper waters. On the bench beside him was a lanky, blond man. An apprentice of the ferryman’s, I assumed. He was getting old, just as Pa had, and was likely to have retirement forced upon him soon.
The ferryman handed off a few crates to me, which I stacked beside my own dinghy moored to the other side of the dock. Besides the crates of supplies, the ferryman also passed over an unwanted parcel. I pursed my lips as the blond man climbed out of the boat. With unsteady legs more used to the sea than land, he clambered onto the dock. Onto my dock. Onto my island.
He stood with a hand shielding his eyes from the sun as he took in the island and the cliffs rising beyond us. The man gave a satisfied nod at the sight of it all. I ground my teeth, wanting nothing more than to chase him off the dock and out of sight. Or at the very least, shove him into the sea.
I tugged on a mask of cool politeness to help mask my sparking rage.
“Can I help you?” I said.
The man spread his feet and steadied himself as the waves swayed the dock. “I’m here to replace Douglas Timmons as the lighthouse keeper.”
My eyes narrowed as I readjusted my grip on a wooden crate of rations. “Hestur Island already has a keeper. Me.”
The ferryman never left his dinghy, but lifted a hand to get my attention. “The Lighthouse Board will keep on paying you, but felt more comfortable sending someone else out to help you with the upkeep of the light.”
Of course, the Lighthouse Board was being meddlesome again. They and my family both considered the lighthouse to be ours, which is where the disagreements had first begun.
My face twisted. “I was raised here. I doubt some naïve recruit will be any help.” I waved to the ferryman. “Take him back to the mainland, would you? I don’t need another keeper, so tell the Lighthouse Board to shove that idea up—”
“Please,” the man said. “The pay they offered me was more generous than any other job I could find and I have parents to support back on the mainland.”
My eyes met the man’s bright ones. They were the same color as the sea and I cursed myself for noticing. The ferryman said nothing, but offered me an encouraging smile. As much as I hated this, it would be a pain to fight the Lighthouse Board. Pa had never had any success with that while he’d been alive. It was difficult to argue against the orders of those that paid me and sent my rations. Coexist, it was.
My sigh was perhaps more dramatic than necessary. “Just promise me you won’t be a hindrance.”
The young man straightened the old, weathered cap he wore and stretched out a hand. Never mind that I didn’t exactly have a free one to offer him. “I promise I’m only here to make your job easier, ma’am. I’m Morgan Fisk.”
I repositioned the crate to rest on my hip and begrudgingly shook his hand. After that, I stepped aside and let him off the dock. Morgan grabbed a crate of his own to carry before stepping onto my island.
Back at the lighthouse, once the ferryman had sailed off, I hoisted a can of kerosene into Morgan’s arms. He grunted at its heft and gripped its handle in a tight fist.
“Run that up to the top,” I said. “I’ll unpack the rest of these crates.”
Morgan turned and entered through the lighthouse door, staggering under the kerosene’s weight. So far, the lone tolerable thing about him had been his saving me time by helping to carry crates from the dock. Or the way I could make him climb all the stairs with the kerosene instead of doing it myself. If Morgan was going to remain here, he might as well do the less pleasurable parts of the job.
Dinner that night was near silent. I alternated between glaring at my tablemate and swallowing under-seasoned stew. Despite all my requests, the ferryman never arrived with nearly as many spices as I preferred to cook with.
Morgan chuckled as he scraped his bowl clean with a tarnished spoon. He’d left his nervous politeness behind on the dock. “I’m the only other person for miles. If you insist on hating me, it’s going to be a very lonely life.”
“I’ve done lonely. It doesn’t bother me.” I stared at the chair Morgan occupied. Not long ago, Pa had sat there filling the room with light and life. Some part of me had wanted the chair in use again, but not by somebody else.
Morgan tapped his fingers against the wooden table. “I didn’t say you would be the only lonely one.”
Not willing to have this conversation, I rose and hurried my used dishes over to the sink. Years of following Pa’s rules hadn’t been forgotten, and so I washed my bowl and spoon while standing with my back to Morgan.
The silence I’d come to know suddenly felt strange with someone else in the room. I didn’t face Morgan again until I’d wiped my dishes dry and placed them in the cupboard above.
“I don’t hate you,” I said. “I just wish you weren’t here.”
His brows furrowed. “And there’s supposed to be a whole lot of difference in that?”
“Make yourself useful on the island. Then maybe I’ll change my mind.”
I shrugged on a long woolen coat and grabbed Pa’s old lantern. Morgan placed his own dishes in the sink before joining me at the door.
I shook my head. “Stay here and make sure the light keeps shining.”
“Where are you going, then?”
“I’m going to look for…” The souls were certainly not Morgan’s secret to learn so soon. The Lord alone knew whether he would be a danger to them or could even properly keep a secret. “The lighthouse keeps ships clear of the rocky waters here, but the far side of the island can sometimes be a magnet for wrecks. I walk that part each night to make sure there’s no trouble.”
Morgan nodded, fully accepting the way I’d masked the truth of this place. “Stay safe,” he said. “I’ll keep everything here in working order.”
“Don’t wait up.” I opened the cottage door and stepped through it. “I might be gone a while.”
The night was cold, and I found no souls on the shore. When I was done wandering the coast, I yanked my coat tighter around myself and let the lighthouse’s beam pull me back home. I trudged back up to the cottage, already thinking about the fire I’d light. But when I was nearly at the door, a candle flickering in the window made me pause. Morgan must have put it there while I was gone.
I entered the cottage and yanked the door shut behind me, sealing out the frigid wind that had battered me the whole time I’d been gone. Morgan sat in an armchair, half-asleep and trying to read by a single lamp.
I hung my coat on a peg by the door. “Why the candle? We don’t need one in the window and we can’t waste light like that.”
“I thought it might be a good signal.” Morgan closed his book and set it on a side table. “If you’re going to be out walking after dark often, then I’ll keep it lit if I’m here and awake. That way you’ll know whether to be quiet or not. Or if you need to look for me.”
I laughed. “Are you a light sleeper?”
“You won’t stay that way.”
But his candle in the window did end up becoming a habit of ours. A silent message saying, I’m here, I’m home, I’m waiting. And while I’d first let him do it because it wasn’t worth the fight, I eventually grew to look forward to seeing it. I’d come home from the shore each night and there it was; a little lighthouse of our own gleaming against the windowpane. Meanwhile, the rare dark window meant I was alone for the night. I learned to despise the sight of it.
After so many days of silence, it took me time to adjust to the sudden influx of sound and song the new keeper had brought with him. There was someone else on the island and it wasn’t Pa. But Morgan took to island life like a bird to flight, never complaining of the long hours nor the lighthouse’s many chores. The constant roar of the sea in the distance was now often punctuated by Morgan’s voice. He liked to talk and enjoyed singing even more. Old folk songs, ballads, shanties. He would utter them all while he worked.
I’d be at the lighthouse’s peak, sweeping the dust and sand from the floor or clearing the grime from the windows when Morgan would hunt me down. Years spent nigh on alone had made me comfortable with my own company, but the mainlander abhorred the silence and repeated every thought that passed through his head.
While we worked on repainting the cottage a bright, pure white, Morgan recounted all his summers spent painting fences and buildings on the farm where he’d been raised.
“No wonder your paintwork looks so good,” I said once he’d finished. My half of the cottage was functionally white, but Morgan’s was all broad, smooth strokes and no streaks. His height made the difference, I told myself.
“Years of practice.” Morgan gestured upward. “Like you with that towering lighthouse.”
I dropped my paintbrush and wiped paint from my fingers. “Good, I’ll let you finish painting the entire cottage then.”
At his protests, I laughed and picked up the brush again. Morgan’s hands weren’t so steady and sure the following days as I showed him how to trim wicks and refill the lamp’s oil and all the other daily tasks. He’d been here long enough and been enough of a help that I didn’t mind teaching him more. Or answering his countless questions about the lighthouse and myself.
“And you’ve lived here your whole life?”
“Don’t you want to visit the mainland? At least once?”
“What’s your favorite part of the island?”
I paused, for the first time having to think about how to answer one of Morgan’s questions. My attention left his hands, the ones I’d been guiding through trimming the wick. Instead, I met his eyes.
The souls. The words nearly flew from my lips, but I pressed them together to shut in any sound.
“The wild ponies,” I said instead.
It was those same wild ponies that stole Morgan away from me weeks later. I roused right as dawn was breaking over the shore, ready to dampen the lighthouse’s beam. But the cottage was empty, and when I called for Morgan to help, there was no answer.
Finding him again didn’t take much time. I checked the lighthouse for Morgan as soon as I stepped from the cottage and sealed the door shut behind me. But it was on the shore that I found him, the echo of his voice carried my way by the wind.
The herd of wild ponies was there on the stretch of sand like they were every morning. Morgan knelt among them, right next to a mare lying on her side. My silent steps hurried along as I made my way through the sand. I reached Morgan and knelt beside him on the ground the lowering tide had left damp.
Wheeling birds called overhead, their cries nearly as shrill as the whinny the mare released. Morgan spoke to her, calm and quiet, slower than I’d ever heard him before. I remained still beside him, there if he needed the help but otherwise a motionless observer.
It was second nature observing, like Pa had taught. But for the first time, I went against it. Morgan was already fighting for this foal to live. I found myself desiring the same for his sake. Together, we urged the mare on as I knelt beside him.
Many days, with the souls, death was all I saw. I grew tired of witnessing it sometimes. Now, I sat back on my heels and tucked away a loose strand of hair. Nature could choose its own course, its decided deaths, another day. Today, I wanted this foal to live.
I scuttled backward a few minutes later as Morgan lunged for the foal who’d finally emerged from the panting mare. With hands that refused to shake, he eased the foal’s head free and cleared its nostrils. The mare heaved to her feet and nickered at her baby. And as she licked him clean, the foal took his first breath of sea air.
I gasped with joy and tugged at Morgan’s arm. “He’s breathing. Will he be alright?”
He leaned back on his heels and nodded. “Should be. But I want to stay awhile to make sure mare and foal are both steady.”
I stared at Morgan while he watched the ponies keenly. He knelt in the sand with dirty hands and not a single care other than the ponies’, the island’s, wellbeing. And it felt good to see something breathe and live, not be guided to the mist and sent away. There was more life on the island now, with Morgan’s help. Perhaps it hadn’t been such a cruel fate the day he had stepped onto my dock. Perhaps he would be good for the island. Every part of it.
“How did you know what to do?” I said. “Or even to come down to the herd at all?”
Morgan stepped a few paces away to wash his hands off in the saltwater. His mouth quirked and he smiled back at me. “Grew up on a farm, remember? I’ve delivered countless foals. I heard the mare’s whinnies when I woke this morning and rushed down to help.” He knelt beside me again. “Want to name the foal?”
I shook my head. “They’re the island’s. Not ours.”
Morgan leaned over and kissed my cheek, nearly making me jump. “Good point. Thank you for your help.”
I’d expected to hate his touch. But I hadn’t. Not at all.
Inching closer together, we watched at the edge of the herd in silence as the foal took his first steps on long, uncertain legs. He learned to walk on that shore, just as I had years ago. From his smile and straight back, I could see that Morgan took pride in watching the foal walk; the foal he had acted to save and protect.
At that moment, I decided. Finally, I would trust him with the island’s most precious secret, its shipwrecked souls. That night, I took Morgan with me from the cottage and used the lantern to light our way. Down at the beach, I stayed back and ushered him on ahead toward the one soul we found. Better to show him, rather than try to explain first. Morgan was cautious, curious, as he stepped closer to the soul. I recognized those tentative steps. They were the same ones I’d taken as a child when Pa had first shown me a soul.
We walked the man from the shore to the mist, both the lighthouse and my lantern illuminating the final steps he took. Morgan stood behind me as I directed the soul into the mist. He was silent the whole way back to the cottage, an irregularity for Morgan. He didn’t speak again, and only to ask a few questions, until we were seated at the kitchen table, each with a tin cup of coffee. Bitter stuff, but a necessity for ever-tired lighthouse keepers.
Morgan’s voice was unsteady, quizzical, and he kept looking down at his coffee rather than meet my eyes. Perhaps it had all been easier for a young girl to accept. So, I showed him this side of the island slowly, steadily, again and again. Morgan would walk the shore each night with me and, in the three weeks that followed, we guided four more souls to the mist. With each one, Morgan spoke more, touched their hands, and lost the hesitant look in his eyes. And eventually, it must have seemed less like a strange dream and more like the reality we shared. Funny how sometimes the two collided.
After the fourth soul, we sat in the kitchen with coffee again, something that had become habit by then.
“The souls, they really do come, don’t they?” Morgan muttered, more to himself than me.
I crossed my legs and rested my hands on the table. I’d give him time for all this. As much as he needed. As many souls as it took.
Finally, Morgan looked up at me. “I hope that man can find peace,” he said. His mind, like mine, must still have been focused on the soul we’d said goodbye to. It had been more hesitant than usual to leave this place.
“They do in the mist,” I said. “I think.” I swallowed some of my coffee. Pa and the souls themselves had never given me a reason to believe otherwise.
Morgan nodded and, while we sat there, I placed my hand on top of his so they both rested atop the worn table. The nearby candle in the window didn’t give off much light, but it was enough to see by. Smiling, Morgan curled his calloused fingers around mine and we stayed that way until long after our coffee was finished. After that night, it was like he’d finally decided his role for himself, as he didn’t hesitate with the souls any longer.
We spent our days and nights working at the lighthouse and guiding souls. Occasionally hand-in-hand, but always together. Daylight hours were for climbing up and down countless stairs and doing the necessary chores. After stars were threaded into the sky’s dark tapestry each night, we walked the beach, sharing a lantern between us. The lighthouse’s bright, burning beam never flickered or went out, nor did our candle in the window. And somewhere in between all that, we found time to splash each other in the surf and learned to share kisses that tasted of salt and sea air.
Our world was a steady one of light and life and long, working days. The lighthouse kept me strong and Morgan kept my heart light. We found we were good at forming our own small family. Each for the other, we were solid ground and familiar, comforting sea breeze and a shining light in the dark.
One night, like always, Morgan and I were walking along the shore, searching for souls. We had found none so far and were debating returning to the cottage when cries for help caught my attention. I lifted my head and tugged on Morgan’s arm. At my pointing, we both fixed our gaze on the ship foundering out on the rocks. Even with the light’s warning, it had strayed too close to the shore. The rough waves and sharp rocks had met their prey wholeheartedly, leaving the ship in poor, wrecked shape.
After we sighted the ship, Morgan and I both hurried to our lone dinghy moored to the dock. Each of us with an oar in hand, we rowed out past breaking waves to the ship. I spent so much time guiding drowned souls that sometimes it felt like I overlooked the other part of my job: keeping living souls from drowning in the first place. I tightened my grip on the oar and leaned forward to row a little faster.
When we reached the ship, it had become stuck between two large rocks jutting out from the sea. The ship’s surviving occupants had all gathered on the highest, least water-logged point. With both oars, Morgan and I kept the dinghy steady enough to maneuver around rocks and reach the soaking men.
“We’re from the lighthouse,” I called to them, hoping they could hear me above the wind. “We’re here to take you back to shore.”
Morgan surveyed the terrified faces of the men. “It’s going to be tight, but I think one trip will make it.”
I nodded. I turned away from Morgan as we tried to get the dinghy as close to the men as we could. Rather than risk our own dinghy being beaten against the ship by the waves, we kept it a few paces away. The men who were able to swim made it over and we hauled them aboard.
“Keep the dinghy nearby,” I told Morgan before diving into the water.
I swam for the rest of the men, dragging each back to the dinghy and keeping their heads above the waves. The sea was cold and rough, but I’d grown up swimming in it. Eventually, I made it to the dinghy with the last of the ship’s survivors. We left the wreck behind as I took my oar back and began paddling again.
The dinghy was heavier and more difficult to maneuver, but we made progress as Morgan and I continued to take strokes through the seawater. I groaned from the effort rowing took as we made it to the first of the breaking waves. Rather than aim for the dock, we headed for the expanse of shore, just trying to get everyone back to land.
One of the men crammed to the side was thrown over the dinghy’s edge as a particularly rough wave knocked the boat. I cursed as I watched him go. Just when I’d been starting to dry off.
Before I could dive in after the man, Morgan had pulled off his own jacket and jumped into the sea. “You’ve already had your turn,” he called to me. “Just get those men back to shore. I’ll get this one.”
I smiled my thanks. I was already shivering, so it was a blessing not having to dive back into the water.
“Take that oar and help me,” I said, gesturing to one of the less pale-looking men.
Another round of hard rowing brought the dinghy close to shore. As it ground against the sandy bottom, I jumped out. Others followed and we pulled the dinghy fully onto dry land where it would be safe from the rising tide.
I shoved back a strand of dripping hair and turned to the sea, expecting to see Morgan swimming back right behind me. But even with no lantern, I couldn’t see any man adrift in the sea. I ran to the edge of the waves and scanned the dark sea through narrowed eyes. Even calling Morgan’s name brought no answer.
With no sign of him, I ran back into the sea itself. I swam out to where I’d seen him last and dove down, searching for him countless times. I looked for him among the waves until I had no breath left. Both Morgan and the man he had gone to rescue were gone, stolen away by the sea.
I returned to the shore once I was gasping for breath and my arms were refusing to take another stroke. Wordlessly, I led the rescued sailors back to the cottage. They sat gathered in front of the fireplace and wrapped in every blanket and towel I could find. We made the food and water stretch, and after another five days, the ferryman arrived for the month. When he left, he took the sailors with him and I was alone again with only the candle burning in the window.
I lit it again, night after night, while the cruel sea sang its song outside my dark, empty home. My work stayed the same, night and day, but this time there was no hand in mine and no light in my life. Summer eventually left and took the last of its blazing warmth with it.
Day after day passed, each filled with pacing and waiting and walking the shore for hours. Many nights, I debated aloud with myself in my empty cottage. My drowned love would return to me, to my shore. And it had quickly occurred to me that though I would guide him into the mist, there was nothing keeping me from following him in. Except that I had a duty here, a role to fulfill. There was no leaving this island so easily.
But there would be peace in the mist, with Morgan, and I wouldn’t be keeping the souls and the lighthouse alone anymore. This island doesn’t need to remain your charge, a voice would sometimes repeat in my head. But that voice was not me, no matter how many times I tried to convince myself that it was.
It took time, too much time, but eventually, the night I’d been waiting for arrived. I had been walking barefoot through the sand with my lantern held aloft while the wind whipped my hair about. Then there he was, lying on his side in front of me with ocean foam stuck in his hair. Like an apology from the sea, saying, Here, look, I gave him back to you.
I set my lantern down and ran to him. Tears dripped from my face and mixed with the saltwater at my feet.
“Morgan.” I wiped away tears with the back of my rough hand. “You came home.”
He stood, appearing as solid as the other souls had and sharing their lost, empty eyes too. But as his gaze focused on me, Morgan’s lost look faded in a way that had never happened with the others. His footsteps were silent as he closed the last bit of distance between us.
He, his soul, pressed his lips to mine and while there was no longer any warmth there, he still tasted of salt and summer.
Morgan was home, for a moment, for as long as I could have him. He’d either enter the mist and be lost to me then, or he would stay and fade away until there wasn’t a whisper of him left on the island. This was all that we had. A quick, final goodbye. It was more than I’d had with Pa, though, and I was grateful for it.
Morgan and I walked silently back to the cottage together. My lantern’s light kept many of the shadows away, but some forced their way between us anyway. We strode slowly together, Morgan’s hand gripping mine so tightly it seemed he wouldn’t ever let go again.
He smiled when he first glimpsed the candle shining in the window. “You kept the light on for me.”
I squeezed his hand and leaned my head against his shoulder. “Always.” Another stray tear fell. “Morgan, what happened?”
He kissed the top of my head. “The man who fell out of the dinghy. He was too scared and wouldn’t stop fighting against me. And the waves were strong. Eventually, we both grew too exhausted, I suppose. I’m just glad you’re alright.”
I turned to face him. Not without him, I wasn’t. Not fully. For a moment, I thought again about walking into the mist with Morgan. I wouldn’t be facing the dark and the loneliness anymore that way. But that idea left me as I cast my gaze out over the savage, singing sea and the moor where the wild ponies grazed and the lighthouse shining above it all. This island, these souls, needed me. I’d taken it all on years ago, chose it again every day, and I couldn’t abandon it all now. Not even for Morgan. But I couldn’t let him go into the mist thinking I wouldn’t be alright.
I surveyed Morgan as the sea breeze whipped around my loose strands of hair. “Thank you for the time you gave me. But don’t worry about me now. I’ll be fine. I promise.”
I’d done lonely before. Surely, I could do lonely again.
Morgan’s eyes shone as bright as the light overhead. “I don’t know if I can wait… there. The mist. But I’ll try. If I can.”
We exchanged no more words, only held onto each other tightly as we crossed the dark, windswept island. Our pace was slow but still we reached the end of us. In the distance, the sea serenaded us as we approached where the mist rested up upon the hillside.
“I’ll keep the candle in the window,” I said. “Stay safe wherever you go.”
“I’d stay right here if I could choose.”
I nodded right before Morgan leaned down to kiss me. He murmured his final goodbye so quietly I almost missed it. Morgan walked into the mist with his head lifted. He strode alone while I stood back, wiping tears from my face. And when he was gone, I stared after him into the mist, seeing nothing more than silver and light.
Though he’d gone, Morgan stayed with me in ways I hadn’t expected. I was reminded of him each time I saw the black foal he’d helped deliver. The foal splashed through the surf on the shore each morning, growing ever stronger and taller. Soon he wouldn’t need his mama anymore and would be mating himself. And every day, I made two cups of coffee, one for Morgan and one for me. It was a habit that wouldn’t die. One I couldn’t bring myself to let fade away.
The island refused to go back to its original silence. While I worked, I hummed to myself all the old folk songs Morgan had brought over from the mainland. He’d taught me many while he’d been here. Some nights by the sea, I swore I could still hear his voice on the wind.
His leaving had shattered me, but I slowly stitched the scraps of myself back together. I’d said my goodbye, decided to stay, and took each day as it came, one breath at a time. Eventually, the breathing got easier. And a few weeks later, just when I was getting used to the empty cottage, I discovered Morgan had left one last piece of himself on the island. One last gift from the dead to the living, set to arrive when the island became spring’s canvas and wildflowers covered the hills again.
It was a girl I gave birth to one morning, right when the sun was dawning on the horizon. I’d never felt so grateful, knowing I was past the woes of pregnancy. I’d climbed a lot of stairs and managed as best I could with the lighthouse. For several weeks, I’d debated having another keeper sent out to help. But Morgan had been a stroke of fortune. I might not be that lucky again. No, I trusted only myself with the souls.
I smiled down at the small girl I held in my arms. Well, perhaps there was one more here I would trust with the souls and the island. But for now, she rested, her hands curled into fists and her eyes closed. From her first cry, she had chased away all the shadows left behind after Morgan’s death. My own small sun. My light.
I clutched my daughter tighter as the slope I walked on steepened and meandered further uphill. She was wrapped in the gray blanket I’d knitted for her, and dozed as I crossed the island. It wasn’t a far walk, but with the baby, I traveled slowly and kept stopping to pick wildflowers. White, yellow, blue. I added them all to the bouquets I gathered as I wove my way along the island’s sloping side.
Further inland, I reached the place where I’d buried Pa. A wooden cross I’d made with my own hands from driftwood marked the place. A second was now rooted in the dirt beside the first, wind-battered one.
I set down the twin wildflower bouquets, each placed against a driftwood cross. With my daughter secured in my arms, I stood between the crosses with the mist at my back and the sea humming its wild song ahead.
“Ellen,” I murmured, at last finding a name as my gaze came to rest on the lighthouse. Morgan’s daughter with my mother’s name. It was one way I could think to further merge our families, to make a place for both of us on the island.
“Ellen, this is all in your blood.” I closed my eyes and let the sun kiss my face. “I hope one day you’ll be a fine keeper.”
Ellen grew like I had, raised under the sun and the stars and the lighthouse’s shining beam. She had Morgan’s eyes, a blue as pure as the sea. And it was the sea’s shore she ran along so often, chasing seagulls and echoing their cries.
“Show me your pockets,” was what I repeated nearly every day as I stood with a hand against the door, refusing to let Ellen go out until she obeyed. And often I caught the bread or rolls she’d been sneaking out to feed the birds on the beach.
“Please,” she’d plead. “They’re hungry.”
“They already have food to eat. We need the bread.”
Occasionally, I’d let Ellen feed the birds what she snuck from the dinner table. But with supplies and rations lasting us just until the ferryman next came, I couldn’t allow it to become a daily habit.
Ellen’s crooked smile was near-constant. I thought I’d been raised half-feral, but it was a fight to get the girl inside at all. She refused to wear shoes most of the time and insisted on keeping her hair shorn so it wouldn’t get in the way. Every spring, she’d weave dozens of wildflower crowns and try to get the wild ponies to wear them. Lord knows the child would have been happier if I’d locked her out of the cottage and sent her to live with the herd.
Like Morgan, she adored music and songs. She collected them, like I had done with whatever I’d found on the beach when I was young. I taught Ellen all the songs I knew and the ones I’d learned from Morgan. The ferryman gave her others and the rest she stole from the island’s songbirds or made up on her own.
The first soul she met, she chose to sing to. When I first brought her to the beach after dark, Ellen was younger than I’d been. But I wanted her to have the chance to grow with the souls, to know them before she was ever tasked with their care and guidance.
Ever fearless, she’d gone right up to the drowned woman. With her head cocked and one hand on her hip, Ellen had said, “What’s your name?”
“I’m Ellen.” She jabbed a finger toward where I stood holding a lantern. “That’s Ma. This is Hestur Island.”
After gently explaining to the two how the soul had come to be here and what came next, I led Lillian to the mist. Ellen had been humming while we walked, and after a few minutes, Lillian turned to her.
“Will you sing louder?” She stepped around long blades of grass fluttering in the wind. “Music’s always been a comfort to me.”
Ellen smiled her consent and raised her voice. After that, the lilt of her song often cut through the dark. I tried to insist on Ellen staying at the cottage to sleep, but once she knew about the souls, there was no fighting her. She’d join me and bring her song with her, more often than not. The souls loved it. They loved her.
A thousand sunsets came and went. My daughter took to carrying kerosene herself. Her eyes grew bright, her legs grew strong, and her hands grew steady and sure. Morgan’s child, my child, and I loved her more each time the sun rose. We guided souls together, she and I, side by side, until the night I stumbled.
I’d slipped on a stone slick from rain. It went clattering down the hill and I scraped my knees, landing on them rather than my hands. My best attempt at keeping the lantern’s glass from shattering.
“Ma!” Ellen was at my side the moment the stone had gone clattering. She was stronger than me by then, taller too, and it was no trouble for her to pull me back up. The soul we’d been guiding stood nearby, watching everything without a word.
“Sorry,” I said, coughing into my fist. After that, it took me a minute to get my breath back.
Ellen furrowed her brows as she looked me over. “Why don’t you wait here? I’ll finish the walk to the mist while you rest and then I’ll be back.”
I wouldn’t have accepted her offer if my legs hadn’t been hurting from the fall. Ellen left with the lantern and the soul. I found a boulder and crossed my legs to rest atop it. My daughter’s first time escorting a soul to the mist and I hadn’t even planned for it.
“I’m sorry,” I repeated to her as we traveled back to the cottage later. “I should still be able to shoulder the task.”
“Ma, there’s no need to be Atlas. I’ve wanted this for years.”
I turned away so she wouldn’t see the tears that fell. I’d repeated the same thing to Pa many times.
“I’m afraid it’s the bloodline,” I said. “Pa had weak lungs and a bad back. It seems I might be afflicted too.”
“Maybe it’s duty, not illness, that’s inherited.” Ellen twisted her head and shot me that crooked grin. “Lighthouse keeper isn’t an easy life. Fifty years of that, anyone would be the same.”
Her words and the realization they’d brought silenced me until we made it back to the lighthouse.
“I don’t regret it, you know,” I said.
Ellen helped me out of my coat before pulling me close. “I never thought you did. Don’t think I will either.”
“You could go to the mainland. Live there awhile. The Lighthouse Board can send another keeper.”
Ellen stepped back and shook her head. “No, it’s our island. Our lighthouse. And we’re the ones to guide the souls.”
I started brewing coffee for two, the way I had for years. “I don’t want to leave you here alone.”
“I won’t be alone. Not on this island.” Ellen took the tin cup I offered her. “Besides, I had you for years longer than my pa did.” She took a long sip. “I hope he’s waiting, like he said he would.”
I gave her a thin smile. “Me too.”
We sat finishing our coffee as a candle flickered in the window, keeping the dark at bay.
I stayed with Ellen until the first snow of that year. Life had caught up to me quicker than I’d ever expected. I was nearly as pale as the snow itself and had trouble making it to the top of the lighthouse anymore. In the end, it had been Ellen’s urging that convinced me. Go to the mist while I could still walk there and decide my fate for myself. After a lifetime of walking to the mist’s edge, it almost felt right to walk in myself rather than being lowered down into the dirt.
My island and its souls were being left to the best possible hands. I’d seen to it myself. And maybe, just maybe, my old love would be on the other side of it all.
I left Ellen my lantern, my coat, and my love. She guided me like she would have any old soul, somehow not shedding a tear once.
“I love you, Ma,” she said simply, like it was the clearest of facts.
I put my arms around her and didn’t let go for a long, long time. My daughter, my girl, with eyes like the sea and a voice to rival its own tune.
“You are my light.” I kissed the top of her head. “And you will be an excellent keeper. This island, these souls, are blessed to have you here.”
It was Ellen who broke away first. She led me the last few steps, the same way we’d done for so many other souls. And then I entered the mist. It was peace and it was light and it was a joy fluttering in my heart like a seabird. It was a joy to rival what I’d known and found all those years on the island. A joy that embalmed me until I forgot all else.
Each morning, dawn rises on Hestur Island, painting over the stars with its fragile, pastel shades as the sea sings on below. In the place where the souls wash ashore at night, a herd of wild ponies gathers to watch as a new day is born. On the herd’s edge, two bays with coats wet from sea spray stand and nuzzle each other.
The woman who guides the souls and keeps the lighthouse knows the herd well. She was raised with them, among them, nearly a wild pony herself in her youth. She doesn’t recognize the two newcomers and notices them the first morning they appear. It’s as if the sea sent the pair of bays itself, the way they appeared out of nowhere, out of the night.
The woman smiles to herself and goes back to her work. Soon, the two ponies become as much a part of the island as the mist and the shore and the cliffs. Like they were there from its very formation when it rose up out of the sea. Day after day, the island persists and so do they.
On the shore each morning, the two ponies stand, pressed close together as light appears on the horizon, right in the place where the sky meets the sea.