Believe it or not, there are those who question my existence. As if one would doubt that iron ore was once extracted from these hills in vast quantities, enough to fill immense ships to navigate dangerous waters, necessitating the tall houses lining the shores and the men, such as myself, who tended their lights.
Kerosene. The endless polishing of the brass Fresnel lens. You've been to the historic sites, you know the stories. And the foghorn, so loud it kept our families awake at night on those nights when it didn't stop blasting for more than a few minutes or so. The wives up all night, with their tea and their letters to sisters, not complaining so much as resigned to the hardship. And grieving, in their own way, the loss of lives out there on the waters we couldn't always keep safe. That was what life was all about in those days, hardships and perils of all sorts. We were so isolated, that was the beauty for the keepers and the struggle for the families. Marriage. To women and to our lamp.
And now you climb these steps. Steps I've mounted thousands of times. Sometimes it seemed like a hundred times a day. You look out the portholes and see what you want to see. A beautiful October day. Believe me, there were very few of those. There were more days than I could count of bone-crushing cold, when the wives took the children to Duluth or St. Paul. They wouldn't have been able to tolerate it otherwise. And we lived like the bachelors we were at heart until they returned, waiting until ice-out, when the ships were able to make it through on their journey, with their ore and their timber, the riches for a few men on Summit Avenue. I've never seen those houses but I've heard of them. I wouldn't mind haunting one of them.
But instead I'm here, in a place where people spend a night and then eat breakfast, all for the a fourth of the salary I earned in a year. Fresh fruit, eggs, raisin toast slathered with butter, thick slabs of ham. And the coffee. Some electrical contraption they make it in, nothing like the enamel pots we had, where you mixed in an egg to settle the grounds. No flapjacks. No wood-fired stove, baking the two dozen loaves every day that were our staple food, along with potatoes and rutabagas from the root cellar. We had tinned meat, sugar, salt, cornmeal, hardtack. Staples. But it was a poor man's diet. The wives put up crabapple jelly and pickled beets and green beans that sometimes went bad, the lids bulging like carbuncles, and blueberries, and there was always plenty of venison, the deer were practically tame. We almost felt bad hunting them.
In each of the rooms, my room and the assistant's and the children's, is a journal in which they write about seeing me standing by the window or knocking on the door or rapping on the steamer trunk, trying to escape. Sometimes they try to imitate my voice, my diction. And every once in awhile, some fool decides to climb the tower at midnight.
Like that one lady last week. Silly woman. No flashlight and she left her key there on the nightstand and her husband asleep and thought it would be enough to leave the door to the tower wide open. She thought she could get a good look through the portholes but the lamp they've put up there, it revolves but it doesn't shed much more than symbolic light, cancelled out the view. And so I decided to play a little game with here. First the sputtering as if from a bad fuse, and then pitch black.
She didn't scream. She thought the lights would come back on within a few seconds or so. Hah!
When she realized she was there all alone in the dark, she had the scare of her life. She nearly tumbled down the top flight of stairs as she groped in the dark. And then she made it down slowly, slowly, one flight at a time, there were about twice as many flights as she remembered. It was an hour before she made it to the bottom, she was gripping the railing so tightly and feeling with her feet. And dressed only in the fancy bathrobe and slippers that the guest house provided. And when she got to the bottom, the door had been locked behind her.
So first she knocked politely. Surely someone was still awake, they would hear her.
She knocked harder.
No one heard her, not the man across the hall in his ridiculous nightcap or the other couple or her husband, who'd had a little too much brandy to drink.
She was getting cold. It was a warm October but the nights were clear, they did not hold the heat.
She pounded more desperately. She began to yell. "Let me out! Somebody please let me out!"
She was beginning to think she would die there, or at least catch hypothermia. She wasn't wearing her watch, and even if she had been she would not have been able to see the hands. She could not even see her own hands, which were beginning to freeze. Fortunately for her, the luxurious bathrobe had pockets.
So what should I do? I thought. She was only inquisitive, she meant no harm. I wanted only to give here a little fright, not send her to the hospital with pneumonia.
So after two hours or so, when she was weeping, thinking they'd find her dead in the morning, she tried the lock again. And this time the door opened.
How could that happen? She was sure it had been locked.
But she was so grateful to go quietly downstairs to the kitchen, to make herself a cup of fancy Earl Gray tea with its scent of bergamot, to warm her hands over the electric kettle, that she didn't question it. She sat at the kitchen table and sipped her tea and soon the shivers went away. She set her cup in the sink and turned to go upstairs and back to bed when there I was in the doorway and she collapsed backwards with fright and then I was gone.
And in the morning, after a breakfast during which she was unusually quiet while the other guests were hearty, she and her husband were gone.
And she had written in the journal, Don't go up in the tower.