There Once Was a Man

Fiction by Kelcey Parker Ervick

 
Men wash up on the shore: dead, almost dead, hungry.

They all have stories. She thinks she has a story, too, even if she doesn’t yet know what it is. Surely it has to do with the light. Not the absence of darkness, but the pure sliver of light that beams from the lighthouse into a sea of darkness. She thinks of the night sky like this sometimes: a sea of darkness. But if the sky is a sea, does that make the wild sea a sky? In daylight she can see the sea, and she calls it the sky. The boats with their winged sails fly across the sky. She and her aunt live alone at the edge of the wet, wet sky, beneath a starlit sea. How did she get here?

There once was a man from Nantucket.

Let’s say his name was Arthur Gordon Pym. Let’s say he wrote a narrative of his adventures at sea. That he left out very little about the parts of the ship, the geography of the seas, the nature of his desperate and dehydrated dreams, the quantities and types of food available, the deaths of shipmates, the cannibalism, the encounters with savages, the cryptic markings on the chasm rocks, the escape, and the quality and texture of the air as he sailed toward the southernmost pole.

But he left out a lot of other things, this man from Nantucket. Let’s say that just before these adventures, Arthur Gordon Pym knew a girl. That he got her up in a certain way. Not knowing what to do about the girl and her situation, he found himself overcome with strange desires. He became consumed by “visions of shipwreck and famine; of death and captivity among barbarian hordes.” And so he left the girl and the situation, and he hopped on a ship, the Grampus. 

Be careful what you wish for, man from Nantucket.

Let’s say the girl he knew gave birth to a girl. That the girl he knew died giving birth to a baby girl, and that this daughter, orphaned, was turned over to her aunt. Let’s say that the aunt was a lighthouse keeper, one of the few women on the job.

Growing up at the edge of the sea, the girl reads. Not folk tales, which seem filled with motherless girls like her. No, she reads of adventures on land and sea. She reads of Gulliver, Robinson Crusoe, King Arthur, Robin Hood, and Don Quixote. Her aunt’s small house is filled with books that the men from the ships leave behind.

The girl imagines that the rocks that jut into the water are the bow of her ship, which she sails into the seas. That she is headed on a seafaring adventure. When boats appear, they are coming toward her ship for help, or to trade information. When supplies are low, she eyes her aunt’s thick arms and neck like: food. That is what adventurers do.

Then again: she is the savage, the native, the heathen. On the wall of the lighthouse, she uses a rock to scratch stories and stick figures. She speaks her own language, worships the all-powerful lighthouse.

Men wash up on the shore: dead, almost dead, hungry.

From her books she knows the men will measure her, take note of her clothing, and inquire about her gods. She will point to the lighthouse; she will bow down before it. They will tell her about their God, the one with the capital G. He is in threes: father, son, holy spirit. Omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient. Who is this amazing deity? she will ask. Where does he live? Why, he is everywhere, they will tell her. But I can’t see him, she will say, frightened, for this God is too much like her own father, whom she has also never seen. She will run to the top of the lighthouse and scream and scream.

The men stay for a night or two, until the weather clears, until the ship is repaired, until the next ship appears. She follows the men so she can take things from their pockets and satchels. A magnifying glass, a compass, a book, a bottle of something that burns her throat when she drinks. To be a girl is to be not quite unseen—for the men see her, tell jokes about her girlness, predict her bland future—but rather to be invisible. As they laugh and say how many children she will have, what sort of husband, she searches their bags and pockets. She knows they are wrong about her future.  

She spies scrimshaw. Confiscates it. Later she will rub her fingertips along the images on the whalebone, images of faces and fish, ships and seas she will never know. She steals a knife, which she keeps for the men who come too close, whose drunken eyes leer. She is not always so invisible. 

When there are no men, she spends her days listening to the conch shell for its messages and whispering her secrets back into its pearled depths. She catches fish, names them and eats them. Practice.

The girl grows and learns. She follows the aunt up, up, up the spiral steps, lugging buckets of whale oil, and torches the candles and polishes the lenses that cast the light into the darkness. The small flame magnified for miles. She practices each task and embraces the rhythm of up and down, light and darkness. She knows that others go to church to worship a capitalized God, but she enters her god and worships from within. When the aunt is gone, she carves more stories on its darkened walls.

The aunt doesn’t believe in God anymore, not since He took away her husband and son. This was before the girl arrived, but not long before, and the aunt has forever connected the girl’s arrival with their departures. Devoted Husband, it says on the larger tombstone behind the house. Beloved Son, reads the smaller one beside it, Died March 6, 1827. Lived 1 y. 2 m. 9 d. 

In the sand at the foot of the lighthouse, the girl uses a stick to compose predictions for her tombstone. She tries out a series of dates for her death. Her birthdate stays the same, a day in 1828, but her death date varies. Maybe it will be February 21, 1871. Or August 20, 1859. Or any of the thousands of days in between. Or after. Or even before. She tries out inscriptions: Orphan Girl. Castaway. Cannibal. She Kept the Light.

[In another version of the story, she would not spend her youth writing tombstone messages. She would have two parents and a sister to perform skits with. She would have her father’s last name, not her aunt’s husband’s name. She would go to school and become a teacher, or something.]

[In still another version, she would have been a boy. But actually that is not another version. That is another story altogether.]

Growing up, the daughter has two questions: Who is my mother? Who is my father? As to the former, the aunt says: My sister, God rest her soul. As to the latter, the aunt says nothing. The aunt slips up only once, without even knowing it, but that is all the daughter needs. The girl keeps the name of her father alight in her mind just as her aunt keeps the light on for the sailors. Pym. Pym. Pym.

The name is both foreign and familiar. There once was a man from Nantucket.

One night, the light burns out, a ship wrecks near their shore, and a man dies in the darkness. Did the aunt forget to add more oil? Did she do it on purpose? Either way, after that, the aunt turns. Becomes a different sort of aunt. She spends more time writing in the log book and increasingly leaves the lighthouse duties to the girl. The girl, who is beginning to think of herself as a woman, reads the aunt’s log. Instead of weather reports and accounts of the men who wash up, all is gloom: Nothing but sorrow, without and within. This is not a fit place for anyone to live in. Oh, what a place. All misery and darkness. This is such a dreary place to be in all alone.

All alone? If the aunt is all alone, that must make the girl all alone too. She climbs to the top of the lighthouse and screams.

From the top of the lighthouse, the girl who is beginning to think of herself as a woman looks out to the sea and thinks about her father. Pym. Familiar, foreign. She can’t place it. Nor can she dwell on it. The light is her duty now. The aunt is her duty now. If the light goes out the ships will run aground. Nights, she can’t sleep, thinking about the light. She peers out her window to make sure it still glows. When she does sleep, her dreams are of the light. It is always dimming, always receding. She can’t get to it in time. She cries out. Pym! 

The aunt is raving mad when the men wash up on the shore. One man is dead, another is almost dead, a third is very hungry.

The girl, upon seeing the third, finds herself, despite her breakfast of cooked eggs, suddenly hungry too. She is used to feeling love for the dead ones, whose puckered and bloated faces are like scrimshaw that tell stories of their now-finished lives. She occasionally feels love for the almost-dead ones, if only because they give her something to do other than lighthouse duties, such as bringing them water and blankets until the doctor arrives. But when they return from almost-death and can speak again, they smell rotten, and she cannot love them anymore.

Is it love she feels for the hungry man? It is her nineteenth summer, and she longs to feel real love for a living man. She tests the idea, but it fails. No, she feels hunger.

It is late at night when she makes herself alone with him. They are under the moon that shines like a light on the night’s dark sea. She cannot see that part of him, but she is hungry and she touches it. And when she does, she thinks of a lighthouse. Rising up between sea and sky, sky and sea. She lets go with her hand and then. She can feel the light in her darkness.

[In one version of the story this is how she comes to have her own daughter. How, even years later when the chickens have been washed into the sea by a strong storm and there are no more eggs for her or her daughter to eat, she never feels hunger again.]

[In another version of the story, this is how she comes to leave the lighthouse. She calls her hunger love, and she follows the hungry man to the city, where she loves and hungers for her husband and children in quiet desperation; where, nights, she dreams of the light and stormy seas.]

In this version, the hungry man grows satiated by meals eaten with the babbling aunt, nights with the girl. But the girl’s hunger only grows. She begins to fear it will never be satisfied. She wants the man, but he is not enough. She wants him to ask about her god, to learn her language, interpret her carvings.

Instead she says: Take me with you. Take me on an adventure at sea. I want shipwreck and famine, death and captivity!

The man laughs, and it is only then that she realizes she is nothing but a girl. Not even a savage. She has never been a savage, just a girl who nurses men back to life. Just a girl who keeps the light bright so the men can go on their adventures. 

Still: the girl fears her hunger, her own savage nature. Maybe she will eat him.

One night she speaks the name of her father. Pym? the hungry man says. Pym, she says. Of Nantucket? he says. She doesn’t know. I’ve heard his tale, he says. He has a tale? Tell me!

But the hungry man doesn’t remember exactly. Something about mutiny and cannibals. Did he go to the center of the earth? the hungry man wonders aloud, gnawing on a chicken bone, but can’t quite recollect. Is he alive? she asks, clutching the man’s collar. The hungry man can’t recall.

January 24, 1848. Hurricane Pym. Devoted daughter.

Whale oil costs more each day, and there are rumors of gold in California. The hungry man boards a ship, sets off on a new adventure. This is how the girl comes to understand the world and its workings. Men come, men go. Women stay put, women go mad. There once was a man, but now he is gone. This is something her mother could have told her if her mother had lived. Women give birth, women die.

After the man leaves, the girl paces and paces. He has a tale, he has a tale. If he has a tale, maybe she has a tale, maybe he wrote about her. Maybe he is alive; maybe she will find him. Inside the house, she takes one book after another from her aunt’s shelves, tears them in two, tosses them in the fire. The aunt cries out. Where is it, the girl says. Where?

And then she sees it: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Had it been there all along?    

The seas cease, the birds silence, the aunt dissolves into nothing.

The girl reads.

Let’s say you’re a man from Nantucket and you’ve been at sea for months. You didn’t have to go to sea at all; adventure just seemed more appealing. No one writes stories about a life at home with a woman and child. But that was before you saw your best friend die and had hunger so strong that you ate the flesh of your sacrificed shipmate. Now you’re floating on a canoe, headed toward the South Pole where you’ve heard tell of an entrance to an inner world and a superior society, and although this sounds fantastic, as in impossible and improbable, you have just seen your two dozen shipmates swallowed by a trap set in the earth by savages, and you barely made it off the island alive, and you are with Peters, the only other survivor, and a native named Nu-Nu who is now dead in your canoe, and you’re desperate enough to believe in the wildest story. 

Now let’s say you are a girl reading this story about a man from Nantucket, and all you can think is: Papa? Is that what I would call you? And: Afterward, in all those years, did you try to find me, Papa?

But her father’s story ends before it is actually over (like everything, everything), and no one knows if he made it to the center of the earth, and it doesn’t matter anyway because by then she knows he did not write about her, did not try to find her, probably never thought about her or her mother at all, and she feels the clay of her heart harden. She sets down the book to tend the light. These are the only things she can rely on: darkness, herself. When she returns to the chair and reads in the epilogue about the death of Pym, she is not surprised, and is only slightly moved to know he was alive for the first decade of her life.

The girl is woman now, mentally and emotionally. She has long been a woman physically. She logs her days: the storms, the ships that wreck, the household maintenance, the crabs torn apart by gulls. Sometimes she adds something else in the log, something that has nothing to do with the weather or ship traffic, but there is no one to notice it. She comes to understand her father’s writing, her aunt’s writing, even the inscrutable symbols of the savages in her father’s book: some things get written down, some omitted, some forgotten; others are kept deep within. Etched in sand, scratched on scrimshaw.

There once was a man from Nantucket. This is the story of his forgotten daughter.

Gulls and tides. Sometimes you just want quiet. Inside, the house is cold. Sometimes she reads aloud when the aunt, in a moment of lucidity, requests it.  She reads The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. It always ends the same, with her father sailing toward the South Pole where he sees the large, shrouded white figure. The girl makes up her own final lines in her father’s voice: “And as I gazed at the figure, I knew it was the woman I left behind, holding our daughter in her arms. At last I was returning to them.”

But that, she knows, is her own version of the story, not his.

Meanwhile, men still wash up on the shore: dead, almost dead, hungry. The girl keeps a pilfered gun strapped to her leg.

One day there is a Negro. He washes up on the shore alone with a broken boat. He is gaunt, hunched over, and she does not know at first if he is dead, almost dead, or hungry. It is 1851. She knows she should turn him in. She knows she shouldn’t. In her father’s book, the dark-skinned men are called savages. The new law calls them fugitives.

[In one version of the story, she tricks him into staying long enough that she can alert officials of the nearby town and turn him in. She collects a reward and wonders what to do with it.]

But this is not that version, and this is not her father’s book. For when she looks into the man’s eyes, with the lighthouse reflecting in them, she understands that he is on an adventure. She gives him food and points him toward the city she’s never seen. He thanks her with a voice from the faraway seas, as deep as the skies. 

The aunt dies. The girl digs the grave herself, writes in the fresh earth with a stick—just one word, AUNT—and stabs the stick in the ground.

Some days she thinks of the Negro and hopes he got where he was going. Some days she thinks where he was going might also be bad for him, that he will encounter savages. She wonders whether there is anywhere on this earth he can go.

Other days she thinks of the hungry man, who devoured her so long ago.

There once was a man. She should have eaten him.

Her father had not written about her, not in his famous narrative, anyway. She wishes the savages had killed him with the rest. Then he wouldn’t have written anything at all.

Often she wonders, what if she didn’t light the light? All the men in the world would wash up on her dark shore. She would set a trap and kill them all.

March 6, 1900. Eater of men.

The older she gets, the more she thinks of her girlhood when she believed she was a savage. She makes mandalas out of shells in the sand. Or forms the shells into large letters, words for the birds to carry into the clouds.

She puts a message in a bottle, tosses the bottle in the sea. The waves roll it back to her. The sky is the sea, the sea is the sky.

In the log book she makes up words, phrases, even letters. She sketches symbols like the savages in her father’s story.

Let’s say it’s your job to decipher, to tell the story of the woman who kept the light. Surely she has one.

May 7, 2075. Oldest Woman in the World.

Tonight there are such gales. The gales will bring more men: dead, almost dead, hungry. But for now, no one arrives, and supplies are running low. She can’t see any stars. The entire world is house, tower, sand, sea. She takes her father’s book and climbs to the top of the lighthouse. She lights the wick, tears out a page of the book, and touches it to the flame. She dips another page in whale oil and lights it, startled by its fury. She lights another. The fiery pages gather at her feet, and, although she is burning the evidence, wants it turned to ash, there is something she can no longer ignore. For years she has believed the book was her father’s story, but now, as its pages catch the hem of her dress on fire, she confronts an idea she has resisted for years: that her father never existed at all.

That there never was a man from Nantucket. That he was only ever a story.

And if that is true (for it is), what does that make her?

Alone at the top of the fiery lighthouse, she screams and screams.   

Somewhere in the distant sea, there is a man on a ship who sees an unusually bright light on the shore. It fills him with hunger.

Kelcey Parker Ervick spent many summers visiting her grandparents in Barnegat, NJ, gazing out at Old Barney, the distinctive red and white lighthouse across the bay. Details and journal entries are taken from Women Who Kept the Lights: An Illustrated History of Female Lighthouse Keepers by Mary Louise Clifford and J. Candace Clifford. Kelcey lives in South Bend, Indiana, an hour away from Michigan City Lighthouse, where Harriet Colfax kept the light for 43 years. She would like to acknowledge Edgar Allan Poe as the real author of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.