Digest>Archives> Nov/Dec 2014

“Christmas Morning”

By Brian G. Walsh


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Photo by: Pam Britton

Standing outside on the ice-slicked lighthouse gallery, Robert Hawkins stared off into the point of infinity, just above the horizon, where night was slowly dissolving into day. Another night without sleep, to be followed by another sad day without light in the lighthouse keeper’s childless home.

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Photo by: Pam Britton

Christmas morning. But Christmas didn’t mean much to a husband and wife without children. And it was their burden to carry on as if it didn’t matter, when in fact it was the most important thing in their lives, the one thing they could not stop thinking about – but had stopped talking about. Christmas mourning.

Robert shivered, buttoned his collar as high as it went, and glanced left to right. The ocean was still dark, but shards of light from a waning moon stabbed at the angry sea. He heard a cat mewing somewhere, but couldn’t make out the direction. Sounds out here could deceive you, even lure you to a watery grave like some heartless siren determined to end your mortal days.

Then he heard it again. But it wasn’t a cat. It was human. A baby?

Robert looked more carefully now, eyes focused like a wolf’s. He had the urge to race down the tower to search, but he had to know which direction it came from. It could make the difference between life and death for the child. Who would be out here in late December, when the shipping lanes went into hibernation?

What kind of parents would bring a baby out to the lighthouse in this weather?

Perhaps the child was lost, having wandered off from its parents while they slept? Or perhaps its parents were injured, dying even now as he wasted time speculating.

He closed his eyes, willed himself to concentrate, but there was no sound other than the cold flush of the ocean’s waves. Without knowing which direction the sound had come from, he could search in vain for hours while the child perished. He opened his eyes, swept the landscape – a reflection of light! On the rocks below, something had been illuminated by a slice of moonlight.

He waited until the beacon from the lighthouse passed to get a better look. He squinted, rubbed the exhaustion of another sleepless night from his burning eyes and tried to focus.

Yes! There was definitely something there. It might be the wreckage of a rowboat.

Robert rushed back inside, quickly made his way down the spiral staircase as he had thousands of times before over the twenty years he’d worked here, first as assistant and then promoted to lighthouse keeper when the old man finally retired.

He descended steadily, but not too quickly. It wouldn’t do to fall and break something or even twist an ankle. A life depended upon him. He knew Sarah would be asleep, but he wouldn’t dare wake his wife, just in case the child was dead by the time he found it.

Robert reached the bottom of the tower and turned into the assistant keeper’s quarters, where his young helper had lived before resigning for a new job last week. A lighthouse keeper’s life was not for everybody. Robert quickly passed on through and out the door.

Outside, he stood looking at his own residence directly across from the tower. The Christmas tree inside was unlit, the angel at the top invisible. The entire house was dark. His wife of a decade was asleep inside, probably dreaming of the children she’d never get to share Christmas with. How many times can a heart be broken?

He looked off towards the area he’d seen the reflection. Over the years Sarah had claimed to hear a baby crying or a child shouting for help several times, sometimes when waking from a sound sleep, but other times she’d been wide awake.

The doctor said it had something to do with their never having had a baby, though they’d both wanted to raise a family and had tried everything they knew and everything others suggested. For whatever reason, they had not been blessed with a child. Robert and Sarah searched for some tangible reason, but couldn’t find one. They had no idea why they were cursed with a childless marriage.

Robert had begun to wonder if Sarah regretted marrying him. She had been but eighteen, and he thirty, but they were in love. Deeply in love. She was the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with, the woman he wanted to be the mother of his children.

Robert strode off towards the shore, eyes peeled to avoid rocks and other obstacles which could trip him up. He slowly got to the edge of the rocks and scanned the area, but there was nothing to see.

He carefully climbed over the rocks, nose pointed in the direction of that small swatch of light that was even now fading. He increased speed, hoping he’d get to the craft in time to save the child, if not its parents.

He made his way to within a few feet of the light, but there was nothing there. He walked right into it, turned in a complete circle. Nothing. It had been a mirage, a phantom.

And the baby crying?

It must have been his imagination feeding on his despair at not being able to have a child. He’d succumbed to whatever malady had afflicted his wife. He was seeing things and hearing things that weren’t there.

A child that didn’t exist. Their child. The one they never had.

Robert hanged his head, surrendering to despair. He had to be strong for Sarah. She was emotionally fragile, always had been. If he became subject to the same audio hallucination as she, how would they maintain their sanity?

But if he was imagining things, how could he expect to continue to function properly? Light keepers saw many strange things, but if he kept having the same hallucination over and over, how long would it be before he broke.

He carefully searched the area for some trace, anything to prove that he’d actually seen something, heard something cry out, even if it wasn’t human. Perhaps it had been a cat, after all. Or some other animal.

He trudged back to the lighthouse to search, just to be certain. He walked around the lighthouse, across the wide expanse of lawn, and then on back towards his own house.

He looked up at the lighthouse tower. The light was still rotating, working with fluid precision, unlike him. After Sarah, the lighthouse was the thing he loved most in this world, but it couldn’t take the place of a child.

Robert buried his face in his hands, shook his head vigorously. He could not bear to think he’d be tormented by the same phantoms as Sarah. How did she cope with it? How could he ask her, when that would just remind her of his failure as a husband to father her a child? His failure as a man.

He walked to the front entrance and stopped. Through the window he could see a light shining from his quarters. Sarah was awake.

He walked towards his house as if in a dream, not even realizing he was walking until he reached the door. He opened it slowly and stepped inside, still numb and distracted. He shuffled into the kitchen, where his wife turned from the stove to smile at him. He could smell coffee brewing.

How could he tell her? How could he explain that she’d made the biggest mistake of her life in marrying him?

“Merry Christmas, darling,” Sarah said. She stepped over to him and threw both arms around him, hugging him close and giving him a long, passionate kiss, the likes of which he hadn’t experienced in years.

Seeing the look in his eyes, she frowned, then made a mock gesture of wiping away his non-existent tears. Robert’s face was still a mask of tortured resignation.

“Sarah,” he began, his voice choking off. He cleared his throat. “I have a problem.”

Strangely, his wife smiled at him, nodding as if she hadn’t heard him. “Yes, you do have a problem, Robert.”

He stared at her. She kissed him again, not as passionately this time but with no less affection. She stepped back, twirled around and threw her head back, laughing.

“Merry Christmas, my dear husband,” she said, taking his hands in hers. She pulled him close with such strength it surprised Robert. “I didn’t want to tell you until I was sure.”

“I’m pregnant,” she whispered.

Robert’s eyes widened, his mouth fell open.

“Your problem is that you’re going to have to build another room onto the house,” Sarah said with undisguised glee. “We’re going to have a child.”

Robert stared at the Christmas tree in the corner of the room, his eyes searching from the presents on the floor to the top of the tree. The angel at the top stared back.

This story appeared in the Nov/Dec 2014 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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