This story is provided in text and audio form free of charge to all, regardless of means, age, or geographical location, thanks to my patrons on Patreon. If you like this story and have the means to support its availability for others, please consider becoming a member here or making a one-time donation here. Thank you!
by Monica Byrne
Edited by Hugo and Nebula nominee C. C. Finlay.
First published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, January 2017.
What does a Lighthouse mean, when it is not by the sea?
—Phan Thj Khiem, Studies in Suffering
(University of Kansas Press, 2075)
Beth woke at the coldest hour, her mind ringing from a dream.
She lay with her head on her pillow, looking up at the ceiling, mottled with water stains the color of tea. She and Keiji had named them all—the many seas of their intimate geography.
She pushed back the blankets, eased her thick legs over the side of the bed, and pressed her fists into the mattress to stand up. On the rocking chair by the vanity, she found her dressing gown—made of flannel, patterned with crocuses—and tied it over her pajamas.
Outside, the moon shone bright as the sun, and the wind stung like ice water. But Beth was a native daughter. She liked the cold. She removed one slipper, then the other, and curled her feet into Kansas dirt. Globes of soil burst between her toes.
Later that morning, Beth made a breakfast of toast and eggs and looked through her mail. There was some paperwork from her estate lawyer. There was a newsletter from the Farmworkers’ Union advertising summer jobs, including at her own Miyake Farms. There was a card from Nell Greer, inviting her to another “home-cooked dinner” at their house.
This meant the Greers were angling for her land again. They didn’t bother to hide it much. The invitation was even printed on Greer Contractors company stationery. Beth tossed it aside with more force than she meant to, and its inertia made the whole pile swivel, and all of the letters ended up on the floor.
Beth stared at them.
The clock on the wall ticked in the silence.
She got up, carried her dish and cup over to the sink, washed each, dried each, and put each of them away.
She looked out the window. The acres of farmland receded to the horizon, farther than her eyes could see, stretching away like a rubber band that never got to snap.
The night before Keiji died, they did their evening routine, like it was any other evening.
They shared a study in the back of the house. In it was a star projector, three globes, and two overstuffed armchairs. They were travelers, though of the domestic sort. After their terrible honeymoon, they’d never left Kansas again.
But Keiji had become restless. That night, Beth was surprised to find him bent over a book of classical archaeology. He straightened up and blinked in greeting, and Beth could see the page: an artist’s rendering of the Lighthouse of Alexandria.
Oh, that old thing, she said.
You remember? he said.
I remember that it wasn’t there, she said.
Keiji nodded and looked down at the drawing again. Beth took a seat across from him, and they sat in silence. She knew they were both remembering themselves as teenagers in Egypt. The church folk had not looked kindly on it. First she marries a Jap, now she’s going to Arabia on honeymoon?
Jokes abounded. But it wasn’t funny. Nothing was funny when they got there and realized that, contrary to their foolish assumption, the Lighthouse no longer existed.
How long has it been gone? Keiji asked a young British soldier.
About seven hundred years, he said.
Beth could still remember the look on that young man’s face. Hilarity, incredulity, and pity. They must learn such things in school in England. But Beth and Keiji had never even thought to check whether the Lighthouse was still standing. They’d planned to climb to the top, look out across the sea, and imagine the Roman warships arriving, or the Chinese junk traders, or the great Ottoman fleet.
Beth and Keiji had been private, before. But when they returned from their honeymoon, they were even more so. Every night during fifty years of marriage, they held their study sessions, sometimes in silence and sometimes in conversation. They quizzed each other on dates and names and geography. They pored over books of ancient sculpture and marveled at all the things in the world that had been lost. They gifted each other with talk and quiet.
And so it was, on their last night together. Keiji set the archaeology book on the table, and they both looked at the drawing of the Lighthouse, in silence.
When I first laid eyes on the Lighthouse, it was as if a mallet had dropped vertically from my head to my toes, and I stood there, ringing. The Lighthouse was both Rooted and Reaching, the midpoint of all things. When I entered the courtyard, I felt I knew its contours and colonnades as if by memory—as if I had played there as a child and forgotten till now.
—Francis Mbachu, Midwestern Dreaming
(Sankofa Inc., 2191)
Nell and Nathan Greer, co-owners of Greer Contractors, sat across the kitchen table.
“Beth, we’re worried about you,” said Nell, her voice low and soft, like a wheedling loon.
“How’s that?” said Beth, not looking their way.
“It’s been about, oh, eighteen months since Kay passed on,” said Nathan.
Keiji, Beth corrected in her mind. His name was Keiji.
“You have no children and your brothers have also passed on. Beth, you’re sixty-nine years old. And here you are, sitting alone on five hundred acres. What are you going to do with it all?”
Beth held her coffee cup close and leveled her eyes at Nathan. “You folks sure are concerned,” she said.
The rebuke swung in the air like a scythe. Beth waited for it to slow, relishing the silence.
At last, she said, “I’m going to build.”
Nathan looked at Nell in alarm. “You’re going to build? Build what?”
Finally, Nathan said, “You’re not the joking type.”
“I don’t suppose you’ve lost your mind.”
“Beth, the nearest coastline is a thousand miles away.”
“I know that.”
Nathan went quiet. Outside the window on a branch, a raven cawed, and the sound curdled in the cold.
Nell asked, “Well, what do you want to build it for?”
Beth knew, but she didn’t want to tell them, so instead she said, “Couldn’t quite say.” She put down her coffee cup and used her hands to draw in the air. “But I can tell you it’s limestone, with a room at the top, faced in granite. And there’s a pretty good-sized courtyard, walled in. There’s a long ramp that leads up to a doorway. Then there are four tiers, like a wedding cake. First there’s a square tier at the bottom, and then an eight-sided tier rising up out of that, and then one circular tier, then another, more narrow, and . . . oh, a statue at the top.” She flapped her hand, as if to dismiss the sentimentality.
“What’s the statue?”
“Is that Indian?”
“He’s the Greek god of the sea.”
Nell and Nathan exchanged looks. They were trying to discern whether Beth was senile.
“Is this some kind of temple?”
“I told you. It’s a lighthouse.”
“And you want the body of it faced in limestone?”
“No, I want it pure limestone.”
“Pure limestone? How high is this lighthouse?”
She’d considered this as well. “Higher than the house.”
“So what, thirty feet?”
“Make it fifty. Got to top the weather vane.”
Nathan guffawed. “And granite facing for the top room, which would have to come from out of state. Beth, that could cost you your land and everything on it.”
She held up her coffee mug as if to toast him. “You almost figured it out.”
He sat back in his chair, stunned.
But Nell had caught on. “If we put in the order at the quarry by spring, we can get construction started,” she said, as if waking from a dream.
Nathan leaned forward, elbows on the table. “Now just hold on, the both of you,” he said. “Beth, you’re saying you want to sell all your land?”
“All but what this house is built on. And the lighthouse.”
“Five hundred acres?”
“Yes. To you. And then you’ll build for me.”
“But think this through, now. You want to forgo any concrete? Pure limestone and granite? You’d be willing to sell the lake and the duck pond, too? And the dairy? The greenhouse and the garden? Even the vineyard?”
Each place he named felt like a bolt to the chest, but all she said was, “Yes.”
Nathan turned to his wife, who pursed her lips at him as if to say, Do you understand now?
And he did. Now he understood the scope of the exchange and how much he was going to make. He started murmuring to Nell, who started taking notes. “We’ll need to get it all appraised, so call Jane. I guess we have to find some kind of artist to make that statue. And we’d better call Pete Stocker over in Kansas City, too, because we can’t contract everything. He’ll know people in the mirror business, if you want a proper lighthouse—Beth, what do you want to put up there? A big ol’ lens?”
But Beth had stopped listening. She was staring out the window, off into the cornfields, where in the summer, it was so easy to disappear.
On their wedding night, Keiji wrote her a poem.
Keiji, she said, This is prettier than anything I’ve ever read. Can I show it to Dad?
No, he said, looking heartbroken.
Beth knew she’d said something very wrong, but didn’t know what.
He took her hand in his. Forgive me, he said. I haven’t explained. These poems are only for you. I ask that you never share them.
Beth did not understand, but she nodded, a young bride in blind faith.
Keiji pushed her hand over her heart and pressed it there. Please promise me, he said. I want you to read this poem and commit it here.
And then, he said, please burn it.
The first stones arrived in February.
Beth walked out onto the porch with her cup of coffee, in her crocus dressing gown, to watch the trucks drive up. Slabs of white limestone were strapped across the flatbeds.
Right behind them were two four-by-fours, full of workers who hopped out of the cabs in sweatshirts and jeans and called to each other in English and Spanish. Another vehicle followed, this one shaped like a hundred-foot giraffe with the crane as its neck and a tiny pulley-head. New vehicles kept arriving, one after the other. A mechanical menagerie. It was beginning.
Overwhelmed, Beth took a breath and went back into the house to change her clothes so she could meet the workers properly.
As she moved through the house, she murmured a poem of Keiji’s to herself.
It was the one from their fifth anniversary. A tense night. She’d cooked dinner for the whole family, including her three older brothers, who were always a little wary of Keiji. Roger, her oldest brother, pulled her aside in the kitchen.
Are you happy with him? he said. Because if you’re not, we’ll take care of you.
Beth folded her arms. What makes you think I’m not happy with him?
Well, hell, it can’t be easy living with a person from a whole other country. And one that has it in for Americans.
Beth gave him a look that made him take a step back.
Roger held up his hand. All right, I know what you’re about to say. I’ll shut up. But let me just tell you: it looks odd. He never thanks you. He never appreciates you. He never even seems to acknowledge you. I don’t know if this is a custom of his people or what, but it sure feels strange for my baby sister to be treated like she’s not there.
Beth stared at him. What he was saying might make sense—from outside the marriage. But how could she tell him how much Keiji adored her? How passionate he was? How extraordinary his love poems were—twelve of them, at last count, and all faithfully committed to memory? But she was forbidden to tell anyone about them.
That night, Keiji gave her a new poem with the usual command to memorize and then burn it.
Why? she said.
Keiji looked at her in surprise. Why what?
Why do we have to hide this? Everyone thinks we don’t love each other. That you’re just a mute and I’m just a serving maid. If I show this to people, they wouldn’t think that.
Keiji narrowed his eyes at her, looking very disappointed. Why do you care what others think?
Beth stared down at the poem. After a while, she said, I just don’t know that love has to be secret to be valuable.
It was May. The ground had softened in spring rains. At the construction site, wildflowers popped up in the soil.
Beth stood at the top of the new ramp with her fists on her hips. She looked ahead, off the edge, into the empty air where the lighthouse itself would stand. Down on the ground, she could see the Greers in matching hard hats. They were bent over a blueprint. Nell was pointing and gesturing. Nathan was nodding.
Beth turned toward her house. It was time for lunch. She could tell because the picnickers were back. There were families on quilts spread out, watching and chewing, and teenagers on truck hoods. Beth had resigned herself to it. She’d figured the construction was bound to attract the curious and the stupid alike.
As Beth approached the house, she saw a small, neat figure in a rocking chair on the porch. She drew closer. It was Dr. Anselm.
Beth sighed in her mind but made no other sign. Dr. Anselm was an old friend, and fragile, now.
“Afternoon, good Doctor,” she said, pulling off a canvas glove to shake his hand.
Dr. Anselm steadied himself up from the chair and shuffled forward to take her hand. “Bethany Handel!” he said. “How are you doing?”
“It’s Beth Miyake, Doc.” She shook his hand, then took his arm to support him.
“Well.” His blue eyes focused on something in the distance. “It’s always been Bethany Handel to me.”
Beth nodded. This exchange was well-worn. When they were young, Mike Anselm had gone sweet on her for awhile. Lovestruck looks exchanged at church, notes carried back and forth, and so on. But the romance blew away as soon as it had blown in. He married Georgia Presley, and then of course Beth got engaged to the field hand’s son Keiji, and all hell broke loose for about a year. Old news.
Now both of them were old news, too. Dr. Anselm was stooped and skinny. Beth was taller by several inches, and commanded the space around her with her sloping river-shelf of bosom, her body wide and strong as a pillar.
“I was just about to have lunch, Doc,” she said. “Care to join me?”
“Oh!” He looked surprised, as if he hadn’t planned to come around lunchtime for just that reason. “I certainly will, Bethany. I haven’t eaten anything since my morning fruit, which these days is a banana, which I think is good for me . . .”
He talked on as Beth led him into the kitchen. With her help, he pulled out a chair and sat down in it, more by way of falling than sitting. Beth set out bowls of warm potato soup, tomato sandwiches, and cups of milk. She settled across from him and picked up her spoon.
But Dr. Anselm did not pick up his spoon.
Beth, noticing, lowered her own spoon and waited for him to speak.
“I’m concerned about you, Bethany,” he said in a loud voice, as if volume counted as courage.
Beth nodded, but broke eye contact and sipped her soup. “What are you concerned about?”
Dr. Anselm made a noise of exasperation. He was looking beyond the porch, to the sun-bright fields outside. “About your health!” he said. “I don’t know how much you know, about people in the town talking—” he waved his fingers as if to mimic loose lips “—but they all think you’re crazy. And I said to them, you know, I’ve known this gal for sixty-odd years now and she’s no dummy. She knew what she was doing when she married Kay—everyone thought it was just the craziest thing to do, and now look at all the young kids doing it, marrying every which color, ten ways to Sunday. And she and Kay knew what they were doing when they inherited Art Handel’s land. They took it, they bought the Stiptik farm, they added it on, they dug a pond and planted a garden and built up the dairy, and they became worth a whole heck of a lot more than anyone else in this town.”
Beth nodded. She knew he’d stood up for her, and paid for it.
Dr. Anselm pressed on. “So I would just like to come out here and prove myself right, you know,” he said, making a show of getting back to his sandwich. He took off the top slice of bread and rearranged the tomatoes and put it back again.
Beth sat back in her chair. “Thanks for coming, Doc,” she said as Dr. Anselm finally brought the sandwich to his mouth. “I appreciate it. I know a lot of people don’t understand what I’m doing.”
Dr. Anselm had a mouthful and was now chewing, his eyes bright and focused on her. There was affection in his gaze. Beth saw it, recognized it, and put it away quickly, a gift she was embarrassed to receive.
“I just had this dream—” She stopped, and restarted. “This idea, from way back . . .” She stopped again. There were no words in her mind to follow that. The sudden generosity of heart was now gone without a trace. She didn’t want to tell Dr. Anselm about her studies with Keiji, about the poems he’d written for her, about all of the evenings of quiet, happy repose, balancing books on their knees, engaged in sparse conversation. The counties of Kansas, the islands of Japan. Their country of two.
Dr. Anselm reached across the table and placed a spotted hand on hers. “You must miss him,” he said.
Beth’s mind went blank. She stared at nothing.
“God knows,” he continued, leaning in, “I miss Georgie still, every day, and that’s been what—twenty years? And you just lost him not even two years ago.”
Beth was aware that her breathing was shorter, more shallow, like an animal in captivity.
“Bethany . . . ?”
Her vision began to go dark. Black specks danced around the periphery, closing in. Thousands of little black runners, thousands of little black arms pumping . . .
Beth coughed, and blinked, to recenter herself. She withdrew her hand and sat up in her chair. “Yep, well.” The words hung in the air, transparent, meaningless. She focused on her soup.
Beth threw down her spoon so hard that it bounced and knocked over her cup. “Why do you want to know?”
Dr. Anselm stared at her. He didn’t answer. Milk dripped onto the floor.
After a few seconds, Beth got a washcloth, sopped up the mess, and dropped it into the sink. She rejoined him at the table and picked up her spoon. He picked up his sandwich. They ate in silence.
The area’s number-one attraction is, of course, the eccentric Lighthouse. The top tier was sealed off by the first major earthquake but, still, a visit is mandatory, more so because it may be underwater soon. You can climb to the top of the stairs and see the encroaching sea.
—A. MacAvoy, Old Kansas Historical Society, 2340
September was dwindling. The embers of summer were fading to grey.
Beth stood at her kitchen window in her dressing gown. The lighthouse was rising. A tower of stone. Shaped like a wedding cake. Construction workers circled its base. Every morning, she found herself gazing at it, like she was trying to stretch her mind around it, to let it in, to let it push out other things.
Suddenly her view was obscured by a woman on the porch: blonde bob, business suit. Sally Pickett from the Farmers’ Bank.
Beth went to the door and pulled it open. “Hello there.”
Sally jerked to one side as a way of greeting. Her eyes were bright green from colored contact lenses. “Good afternoon, Mrs. Miyake, how are you?”
“I’m doing all right,” Beth said. She looked into Sally’s lizard eyes. “Caught me a bit early, though. I’ll put on some coffee and find some decent clothes.”
“Oh, sure, Mrs. Miyake, take your time, I don’t mind at all, you just do . . . what you . . . need.” Sally’s words spilled out. As usual, Beth thought, she was ill-suited to any unscripted situation.
When Beth came down the stairs again, she saw Sally sitting at the kitchen table with coffee, shuffling through papers mindlessly, like a stuck machine. But as soon as Beth appeared, she was all sunshine again.
“Quite a . . .” Sally gestured out in the direction of the lighthouse. “What a lot of . . .” She faltered, as Beth did not meet her eyes. Beth saw her computing that pleasantries would do no good here. So instead she launched into her field script.
“Mrs. Miyake, you probably know why I am here. Almost all of your land and assets, including the dairy, have been transferred to Greer Contractors in exchange for their work on your . . . your project, but they’ve spoken with me, and unfortunately—”
“They want to take more.”
Sally looked uncomfortable. “They don’t want to take more, Mrs. Miyake, but the financial reality of the situation has become clear. The cost of this project is more than we projected when we first met with you. And as your case manager, I need to be honest with you.”
Beth raised her eyebrows. “Well, Sally, give me the worst. Am I going to lose my house?”
Sally shuffled papers and fumbled with words. “Well... ah, if we do a few things here and there, and if you give up on the granite facing, which seems to be a big—”
“Am I going to lose my house?”
Sally stopped, both hands suspended in midair, clutching papers. She rested them on the table before she spoke.
“Mmm.” Beth continued to gaze toward the lighthouse, as if considering. Then she got up to rinse dishes in the sink.
“Mrs. Miyake? We do need to talk about this.” Beth heard papers flapping. “I have the forms right here—you can sign them if you want to and get it over with, but if you want to talk about it first, that’s what I’m here for.”
Beth turned off the faucet, wiped her hands on a dish towel, and sat down. “Show me where to sign,” she said.
Sally spread her arms in exasperation. But Beth did not move. So Sally pointed to a line at the bottom of a long form. “Here. But Mrs. Miyake . . .”
“Where will you go?”
Beth signed the paper, straightened up, and then flicked the end of the pen toward the lighthouse.
“There?” asked Sally, faintly.
“You got it, kiddo.”
Beth rose and went into the study and closed the door, leaving Sally in the kitchen, alone.
Beth sat down in the study. Her brain felt like wobbling mercury, in danger of spilling.
She traced the old sketch of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, lying open and untouched on the table for two years, now.
In her mind, Keiji sat across from her, the book balanced on his legs.
Alexandria, he said. Who built it?
Alexander founded it, but after he died, Ptolemy came back and finished it and built the Lighthouse.
Keiji nodded. Why there?
Because Alexander loved the place. He would have wanted to be buried there. Ptolemy loved Alexander, so he commissioned a monument to him, to show his love.
Keiji sat back in his chair, looking out toward the window. I wonder, he said.
You wonder what?
What a lighthouse is for.
It shows you where the danger is. It’s to warn away oncoming ships so they don’t wreck themselves on the rocks.
But it is also there to light the way, to guide you in. To show you the way to safety.
Hmm. Beth considered. I guess it depends on the sailor.
Keiji drew a line, from his heart, forward into empty space. Yes—the meaning of the signal depends on the receiver. Should I go away, or come closer? Will I dash myself on the rocks, or find safe harbor?
Beth let his words sink in.
Finally she dipped into a sagging pocket of her dressing gown and drew out a sheet of paper. Got this one memorized, she said.
Keiji stood and, from an upper shelf, pulled down a bronze urn. The bowl of it was blackened. They pushed the poem down into it. Beth reached across the desk and picked up a blue lacquered lighter that they used only for this purpose. She lit the paper, then watched as it became like a live thing, curling in the oncoming surf of the fire, and writhing in its wake.
Keiji, she said.
He looked up at her. Her bright-eyed husband.
Bethany, he said, inviting her to speak.
If you ever die, before me, she said, looking down into the bronze bowl. She couldn’t finish.
You’re a strong one, said Keiji. Strong as earth.
He reached out and gripped her arm, humming, squeezing in one place and then another, as if to transfer strength to her.
Strong as water. My wife.
Strong as water, my wife—
Beth came back to the present.
That was the first line of the last poem he had ever written for her, which lay curled and unburned in the bronze urn. She did not want to burn it, even though she knew Keiji would have wanted her to if he were alive.
But he was dead.
Tumbled blocks of stone upon the
bed, under tides the river-
bed, mother river cover
over, close the lids of learn’ed
dead, done and lost to all
—Ayesha Rawlings, “Midwest”
(Tesseract: A Journal of New Poetry, January 2415)
The first snowstorm of the year was settling in.
Beth stopped at the foot of the ramp and tipped her head back, looking up to the top of the lighthouse, straining her eyes, but she couldn’t see the statue of Poseidon. Only the faint butter glow of her own room.
She ascended the ramp, carrying bagfuls of supplies. The wind picked up and rose to a scream, pushing her body to the edge, but she struggled forward. Once she was through the doorway, everything became quiet, as if she’d flipped a switch. She turned around to look behind her. The snow was blowing sideways, and in the distance, the house lay silent, its windows now dark, taped, and ready for demolition. It was not hers anymore.
She got a better grip on her bags and walked forward.
White candles burned inside hurricane lamps, set in alcoves in the wall, lighting the way ahead. Her footsteps were loud in the vaulted space. Every echo took a beat to return. As she passed each candle, she bent and blew it out. Darkness followed her.
Her apartment was in the top tier of the tower. From outside, the tier appeared circular; but the room inside was shaped like an octagon and faced with rose-colored granite, with round windows at every point of the compass. There was a narrow bed with a single pillow, and a stack of woolen blankets at its foot. A composting toilet, just off the stairwell. A gas range with a cast-iron pan on the burner. Cupboards full of food. An oak desk, and surrounding it, her globes, maps, and books. Next to it were half-built bookshelves, with lumber and tools nearby.
The place was good. Her new home. Her last home.
Beth set down her bags and unpacked. The last thing she drew out was a brown parcel that she’d picked up from the engraver’s shop, by special order. She sat down at her desk, cut away the strings, sliced open the edges, opened the flaps, and drew close her wastebasket to hold all the shipping fluff. Once she’d cleared enough away, the tools emerged one by one.
She laid them out on her desk as if setting the table for a Thanksgiving meal, and then, folding her hands as if saying grace, she closed her eyes and recited every poem she had memorized in fifty years of marriage.
When she opened her eyes again, the snow was falling even harder outside her windows, blowing first one way then the other in erratic pulses. But Beth was warm and dry. She put on some water for instant coffee, sat down again, and eyed the narrow iron stairway across the room, which led up to a trapdoor in the ceiling. The great hearth—the light of the Lighthouse—was in the room above.
Tomorrow her work on the walls would begin. But tonight she would set the fire above, and keep her first watch—for what would go away to sea, and what would come in to harbor.
The first of the ruins was lifted at 7:44am, from a depth of twenty feet. Up it came, a monstrous, rosy slab of granite, like a goddess inert, patient with our grappling ropes. But when we laid it down on the deck, one of the sailors cried out and pointed, and a crowd came running to see. There were words in the stone.
—T. Y. Falion, The Recovery (2702)
back to Fiction