Book excerpt

The Woman at the Light

A Novel

Joanna Brady

St. Martin's Press

ONE
 
Wreckers’ Cay
May 13, 1839
 
 
It was fully three years after we first arrived on Wreckers’ Cay—almost to the day—that my husband vanished one May afternoon. I had just completed the children’s school lessons when it occurred to me that Martin was late coming home. He had sailed off earlier from the dock, smiling and waving lazily at our only son, Timothy, who was pouting at being left behind—that last wave a gesture forever etched in the chambers of my mind.
It was a remarkably ordinary day in the Florida Keys. The sea was calm, a blue-green so clear, it revealed the shadows of plants and darting marine life in its shallow waters. The steady wind was no more than a light tropical breeze, cooling our skin from the blistering sun. Martin was an experienced sailor, and catching our supper in the late afternoon was something he often did before igniting the lamps of the lighthouse tower just before sunset.
Located twenty-three miles from Key West, our desolate outpost at Wreckers’ Cay was a solitary place. We were the sole inhabitants of that tiny speck of land, tending the lighthouse with monotonous regularity. It was demanding work, and we had arrived there under duress. Yet we had soon grown accustomed to this island, a beautiful place to raise our young family.
But that day, minutes stretched into long, worrisome hours as my children and I waited and watched for him well into the night. Initially, I was angry. Had he just lost track of time? It meant that in addition to looking after the children and preparing dinner, I would now be responsible for lighting the lamps.
It was only later that my anger dissipated, and a nagging anxiety slowly began to take hold. As I kissed the children good night and the sun plunged below the horizon, a growing fear was quietly gnawing at my heart.
I slept little that night—Martin still had not returned. And the next morning, when our watchdog, Brandy, announced the arrival of our old friend Captain George Lee on his supply tender, the Outlander, my heart sank: Lee’s boat had Martin’s empty fishing skiff in tow.
The captain and his mate, Alfie Dillon, usually came on the fifteenth and at the end of each month, stopping on their way to and from Havana; they brought our food, mail, newspapers, and provisions from Key West. I was much relieved to see that they were slightly ahead of schedule on this occasion.
Just offshore, the captain called out to me: “Ahoy, Miss Emily!”
Alfie leaped from their boat to our dock. He said, “Tell Martin we found his fishin’ boat about a mile out to the west. Must have come loose and drifted out.”
I felt the blood drain from my face. Mutely, I shook my head as I watched Alfie secure their boat.
“Martin went fishing yesterday afternoon,” I finally said, “but he hasn’t returned.”
Their smiles faded. As men who spent much of their time at sea, fishing and salvaging vessels run aground, they were quick to intuit trouble.
“No storms about.” Alfie muttered, “No sign of Mr. Lowry anywheres we could see. Jes’ his boat. Must’ve hit an unmarked shoal.”
“But nobody knows the reef better than Martin. He would never have gone aground,” I protested.
The sky was blue and cloudless. We had not even had a rain shower for a couple of weeks. Silently, they looked out over the water, protecting their sun-crinkled eyes with weathered hands. They seemed to expect Martin to appear, as I had last night, a living mirage in the hazy heat of the early afternoon. The sun was high in the sky now, and it was hotter and even more humid than the previous day. Slicing through our silence, cicadas shrieked in the low-growing shrubs behind the house, and a chorus of bees hummed as they hovered near Martin’s mango trees, grazing over the burgeoning fruit.
Finally, the captain grumbled quietly, “We’re always tellin’ ’em at the department that the reef out here is poorly marked. They never pay us no mind. It’d cost them money to put in a few more lighthouses. And you know how close Superintendent Pendleton is with a dollar.”
He was silent for a moment. “Had to be somethin’ out there,” he said finally. “We’ll go back out a ways and see if we kin find anything.”
After quenching the lights in the tower after dawn, Timothy and I had already gone out together in our larger boat, the Pharos, while Martha looked after little Hannah, but our search had yielded nothing. The captain and his mate, with their better-equipped boat, might have better results. For the next few hours, as my children and I waited anxiously, they sailed out about a mile or two, circling the island a few times, dragging their nets in what proved to be a futile search. Finally, the two sailors returned, grim-faced and shaking their heads.
“Nothin’ out there,” Lee said gravely. He took my hand gently in his sunbaked, calloused one as I fought to hold back tears. The children were close by, so he quietly added, “Our condolences, Miss Emily.”
Alfie removed his cap and mumbled something similar.
I nodded numbly, scarcely able to answer.
Lee said, “Here now, we won’t give up, though. No ma’am. We’ll look around again in the mornin’. We’d have stayed out longer, but we wanted to git in before sunset; can’t see much after that.”
“Thank you,” I said, my voice barely above a whisper.
Optimist that I was, at the back of my mind the thought that they had not found Martin gave me a shred of hope. It meant he could still be alive.
Captain Lee and Alfie unloaded my provisions, with Timothy and Martha helping to carry food items from the dock to the cookhouse. Miscellaneous supplies and bulk foods, the men hauled to our storage building. Thinking to cheer me, my two Good Samaritans continued a patter of genial conversation.
“We got some coconut sweets in Havana for the young ’uns,” murmured Alfie quietly, out of earshot of the children. “No coffee this time, but we found some chocolate for you, and some tobacco for—” He realized his gaffe and stopped himself.
Some building materials Martin had requested were also part of their delivery. We needed fencing to keep our three goats from invading the vegetable patch—the garden, when fresh water flowed freely, was an invaluable source of food.
“Maybe next time we’re here—that is, if Martin ain’t back—we could put up the fence for you,” ventured Lee.
But I did not want to even entertain the thought that Martin might not return to build the fence.
“Could you please take the lamp fuel over to the oil house?” I asked. Alfie set to moving it there immediately as I went through the motions of preparing a meal for us all. My two eldest, Martha, almost nine, and Timothy, about to turn eight, were old enough to share my anxiety, yet still young enough to be optimistic and cheerful about their father’s speedy return. While acting as though nothing was wrong, I prepared dinner; I could not bring myself yet to tell them my worst fears.
Normally, the captain and his mate did not linger, but this time they offered to remain overnight. “We’ll stay over and help with the lights,” Lee said. “And have another look on the reef in the morning.”
Over the years, Martin and I had grown accustomed to the light. We’d learned to sleep lightly enough to be aware of its caressing beam as it glimmered through our bedroom window. A blazing flame in our lighthouse lamp meant life and safety for vessels at sea. I was so used to the beacon after three years on Wreckers’ Cay that when the light went out that night under the captain’s watch, the dark cried out to me immediately. I awoke in terror, lit my lantern, and raced up the stairs of the lighthouse.
There I found a sleepy Captain Lee fussing with the wicks, confused and startled by my ghostly apparition. I had to direct his labors and instruct him anew on the proper way to trim the wicks and relight the lamps to keep them burning. Remembering how long it had taken Martin and me to learn the intricacies of working in the tower, I could easily forgive the captain’s ineptitude at the light.
I showed him again how to log in the oil consumption for accounting to the Department of the Treasury, and to note weather conditions as the ships passed, lanterns twinkling, on their way through the channel. The coral reef on which our island was located extended about six miles out to sea, and sailing vessels making their way through channels beyond it were now numerous. The busy straits handled most traffic to and from the United States and the Caribbean Sea, as well as ships from the states on the Gulf of Mexico heading north up the East Coast.
When we had managed to relight the lamps, I said, “Come down with me to the cookhouse and I’ll make us some tea.”
“Why thank ye kindly, Miss Emily. I’d not say no to that.”
I stole a glance at him in the lamplight. He looked so much older and more tired than in those early days when I’d first met him and Martin in my native New Orleans, ten years ago. I noticed he was growing quite bald on top, and his remaining ginger hair was streaked with gray.
Captain Lee had been a widower for about a year. His wife had left the captain her family home on Eaton Street in Key West, a fine inheritance. Yet grief had undoubtedly taken its toll on his once-handsome features, for though he was still tall and firmly built, his wrinkles had deepened, carving crevices in his weather-beaten skin.
“Martin was a fine man,” the captain said to me now as he stirred sugar into his tea. His native Massachusetts accent was still a bit harsh to my southern ear. Not yet convinced that we should be talking about my husband in the past, I said nothing.
“He was one of my best crewmen on the wrecks. Not a lazy bone in the man’s body.”
“No. He’s a very hard worker,” I agreed, switching to the present tense.
“He done wonders with this place out here,” he said, glancing through the window of the cookhouse. “All them trees. Hard to believe how one man could’ve planted ’em all.”
“Yes,” I said, nodding. The bleak, unfinished look of Wreckers’ Cay, scarred and barren from a hurricane when Martin and I had first arrived, flashed through my mind. Martin had indeed done much here, just as he had at the lovely home in Key West we had been forced to leave behind.
I saw Lee’s eyes rest on Martin’s bottle of rum on a pantry shelf.
“Would you care for a drop, Captain George?” I asked.
He brightened. “Well, now, if you’re twistin’ my arm…”
I poured him a generous shot and placed the bottle in front of him. He downed his drink, then reached for the bottle to pour himself at least a tot. Wiping his mouth on his sleeve, he said, “You’ll probably miss this house now that you’ll be goin’ back to Key West.”
“I’ve no immediate plans to return.”
He looked up, surprised. “You’re not thinkin’ of stayin’?”
“We don’t know for sure that Martin is dead.”
“But if he is, how would you manage out here?”
It was the question I’d been asking myself all day.
I stood up and cleared our cups from the table. “I’m very tired, Captain George. You’ll forgive me if I take leave of you. The lights are fine now that we’ve trimmed the wicks. Pray, go back to your boat and get some sleep. Don’t waken Alfie. If there are any more problems, I’m sure I can deal with them.”
He nodded and bade me a good night. As I swept past him, heading toward the house, I saw him reaching again for the rum.
*   *   *
Preparing the men’s breakfast the next morning a thought struck me. If Martin’s body were to wash up on the beach, what would I do?
I waited till the children were out of earshot. “Do you suppose I could ask you one more thing? Could you dig a grave for me?”
They stared at me, surprised at my sangfroid.
“There won’t be much left of Mr. Lowry, not after the sharks and barracudas…” began Alfie. He paused, then selected a shovel from Martin’s implements. “You’ll want to bury ’im right away, I’m sayin’ … so the children won’t see.…”
I saw Captain Lee elbow Alfie in the ribs. “Beg your pardon for speakin’ plainly, ma’am.”
The theory that continued to visit my thoughts was that a mako or tiger shark might have attacked Martin’s boat—perhaps lured by his baitfish. If Martin had reached into the water to retrieve something he’d dropped, he could have easily been wrenched into the sea. But I tried to push such thoughts from my mind.
I served the men a hearty breakfast with fresh eggs Martha and little Hannah had gathered at the chicken coop, some Cuban pork Martin had previously smoked, a large bowl of grits, and biscuits fresh from the oven.
Then, quietly, without alerting the children to what they were doing, they dug the grave not far from the beach, where a body was most likely to wash up from the south.


 
Copyright © 2012 by Joanna Brady
JOANNA BRADY's novel was inspired by Key West’s colorful history and its female lighthouse keepers in the 19th century. She divides her time between Key West and a stone cottage in a medieval village in the Southwest of France.