The Wreck

Devin Beggs


June 17, 1790

Today was an enriching day. I uncovered many useful treasures in the wreckage. I sit now at my desk, writing in this diary and resting from my long day of scavenging. 

The treasures sit behind me, neatly organized on the stone floor: musical instruments; cases of salt-beef and of wine and Irish whiskey and pipe-tobacco; rare books unspoiled by saltwater; stores of gunpowder; exquisite garments that remind me of clothes my wife and child wear; and best of all, fine tools plentiful whale-oil which will render my tasks of wick-trimming and light-keeping measurably easier.

Antonino will be along tomorrow to collect the items (the whale-oil excepted) for sale at auction. I have considered keeping one of the Spanish guitars for myself; but as summer wanes, for whom do I play? I am alone. My songs go unsung; my poems unread. Indeed, the only lyrics I write are in this diary.

The wreck occurred several leagues from my lighthouse, in a sharp outcrop of rocks just below the surf. In high tide, these rocks perch just below the surface, eager to split hulls. I have seen it happen. It is tragic, but there is nothing to be done. The ships are in God’s hands. In my experience, when a ship wrecks in that place, its passengers always swim to shore safely, but rarely do they have the time or presence of mind to collect their belongings.

There is always an interval between the passengers’ departure and the Sardinian government’s arrival to investigate the wreckage. That is my time to explore.

Let me assure you that exploration of shipwrecks has always been a victimless endeavor. I have never once found someone killed from a wreck on my coastline. Granted, some survivors sustain minor cuts and bruises, but they then depart in rowboats, leaving their lives below deck.

But there is something weighing on my mind, something I can confess to no one but these pages. Today I was enriched, and though I believed I would feel happiness, I did not. My exploration was a success; why should I not be happy? Because I miss Carmela so. I have been here at the lighthouse, alone, for almost a year, yet I have received no letters. She and my little Salvatore have not visited, and I fear when they do he will no longer recognize his father. My only visitors are Antonino and Father Paulino, though the latter is late with the foodstores and the sacraments this month. I fear for my wellbeing, both physical and spiritual.

Yet I have much to be proud of. Lighthouse-keeping, though solitary, is a noble profession, and I am an admirable steward of these Sardinian waters. As I sit here and tobacco leaves flutter from my pipe to the page, I swell with pride. My whiskey glass is empty; the only sign of the drink is the moisture-ring it left on these pages.

Oh, these pages! If Father Paulino happens upon me unannounced, I may be forced to burn them.

#

June 23, 1790

Antonino arrived yesterday to cart away most of the goods I had collected. I kept the whale-oil for fuel, of course, and for some reason I could not bring myself part with the clothes. Perhaps they remind me too much of my family. Carmela and Salvatore may surprise me yet with a visit, and I will surprise them in turn with these fine gifts. 

Regardless, Antonino will return next week, or perhaps the week after, with my share of the profits. With luck, by then I will have more goods for him to auction.

Again, I drink as I sit here writing. I no longer use the whiskey glass, for why should I dirty it? The bottles are plentiful. True, I am nearly out of pipe-tobacco, but there is no shortage of whiskey crates from last month’s wreckage.

I feel enough time has now elapsed I can prepare my next exploration without drawing suspicion from the Sardinian government. It would be justified, for I am running short of supplies. Father Paulino visits more and more infrequently of late. 

I must tell you of the profound loneliness of the lighthouse-keeper (if you could hear me sigh!). It is a loneliness that gnaws at your soul, that bites at you like cold ocean wind. I cannot tell you the lengths you would go to see an unfamiliar face, even if that face is huddled under blankets on the beach. Even if that face is twisted in sorrow at all it has lost. You have only to tell them it is your duty to climb aboard, to survey the wreckage, and that face will believe you.

You may wonder what part I play in the wrecks. This is what I do on a moonless evening:

First, I climb the stairs to take the bucket-lantern out of its perch. I descend the stairs, leaving the top of the lighthouse in darkness.

Next, I carry the lantern, a pole, some tools, and a store of whale-oil outside. I put these items in my cart and wheel it down to the lonely beach. I have never seen another soul there, not before a wreck. Tonight will be no different.

The last time, my stomach growled. I remember this because the beach was so quiet that evening. Low wind and high tide is always a sign that it will storm. When I looked up at the lighthouse it looked so strange, unilluminated as the sun began to set over the water, stinging my eyes by sending long shimmers across the water.

But you don’t need to hear about all that. There is more to my preparations.

It is not enough to snuff out the lamp atop the lighthouse. Yes, that will cause ships to wreck, but I must also steer them to the right place, the place where high tide conceals craggy rocks beneath the surf. I steer the ships to this spot by placing a decoy lamp up high. Experienced sailors know to look for a lighthouse in these waters. When they see my lantern on a moonless night, they believe it belongs to my lighthouse, and correct course accordingly. That is when they find themselves in dangerous waters.

So I clamber up high on the rocks before the tide rises to strand me, and I perch my bucket-lantern on the end of the pole. It is a tall metal pole with a spike at its base. With the sandy beach far beneath me, I hammer the base of the pole to wedge it into a crevasse where the rocks meet. 

I will have no alibi if anyone happens upon me and questions me, but there is never a chance of that. These waters are so remote.

I light the lantern.

All I must do then is trim the wicks, maintain the level of whale-oil in my fraudulent lighthouse, and wait for the next ship to wreck.

I return to the lighthouse to wait.

There are now two whiskey bottles left. I wish I knew where it all went.

#

June 24, 1790

Waiting these days consists of having another drink, smoking my pipe, and thinking of my wife and child. I do not pray for them, because I do not pray anymore. God, if he is there, has not answered me yet, nor have I heard from Carmela and Salvatore. I do not expect I will. I have given up hope. All I have to be grateful for is the sweetness of this whiskey.

No. No, I must be honest. After all, and no one else will ever read this. I have found many treasures among the wreckage, but a case of Irish whiskey was not among them. In truth, I have been imbibing of the communion wine Father Paulino stocked the lighthouse with. His intent was for me to give myself communion every Sunday—but which day is Sunday? I used to keep a calendar, but tracking the date only intensified the feeling of imprisonment I feel here in the lighthouse. I kept to the schedule at first, but can I be blamed for celebrating communion daily instead of weekly?

#

June 26, 1790

You will not believe what happened today.

Yes, there was another wreck, but that was expected. That is not the strange part. I climbed aboard the wreckage, as I do every time, and went below deck to search for treasures.

The hold was half-filled with water, but the water level had stopped rising. In the dark of the hold were dozens of people, stiff and unmoving. I froze, and my heart skipped. The light from my bucket-lamp danced around the hold and its sooty, oily smell filled the space. I held my breath, but the people did not move. I called out to them, but they did not answer. Those below the water level had of course drowned, but why did the rest remain motionless? I soon learned why.

They were manikins.

It was a merchant ship, filled with precious weavings and garments and tapestries and beautiful clothes of all colors. Some manikins were naked, but most were adorned in ostentatious finery. Next to each other were a feminine manikin in a flowing purple dress of exquisite beauty, and a boy manikin in a suit of silk brocade.

For a long time, I did not move. I watched this pair, a mother and son, and after a time, I invited them to stay with me. It is not so strange. I am not superstitious. But their color, their posture, their tastes are all indisputably flawless.

The two manikins are with me in the lighthouse now. We have plenty of food, and no one is looking for them. The merchants may wonder why their ship never arrived in port, until they get word that it was wrecked off the coast of Sardinia. I have no doubt they will write it off as a sunk cost. They will fashion new manikins. They will weave new tapestries.

I will not lose sleep waiting for a letter from Carmela. But neither will I be lonely again.

I share with the manikins a meal of communion wafers and wine, for we celebrate an answer to prayer.

#


Devin Beggs is a designer and content strategist living in Sunnyvale, CA. He studied English literature in college, and the works of Flannery O’Connor, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, Ted Chiang, and many others inspired him to write short fiction. His work is forthcoming in Frontier Tales.