By Simi Landau
We call it Lindisfarne because we are the only ones who still know what that means.
We are like them, the monks copying manuscripts of old, or anyway we try to be. None of us are monks, of course—this time, like the last, some of the clergy were even in on it, the shredding and the bonfires, but they have the nerve to call us Vikings, as if by copying out what’s left we’re pillaging culture or raping the future. Or they would call us Vikings, if they hadn’t excised the worst pieces of history right out of the official History. A comparable analog, anyway. Considerably ruder, though.
Christopher Marlowe stands behind my chair and watches as, letter by letter in a thick felt-tip pen, I copy out Edward II. The edition I am copying is far more modern than he, and every so often he leans down and with a ghostly finger points to a word that modernization mistook and ruined. I wish he wouldn’t. It leaches the ink right off the brittle page, leaving thin outlines of letters behind. I wonder, if he stole enough letters, would he have a voice again, and would it matter, since he’d only be howling his own tragedies to people ignorant of their meanings. At least my way the copy survives.
But he bothers me, standing there, the dust motes of old paper filtering through him. “Go away,” I say, and he nods morosely, turning away from me with a knife in his hand. As he walks off he plunges the knife into his eye and instantly starts to fade away, back to where he came from. He’ll be back. It’s our thing.
Ours is a thankless job. No one outside cares. The ghosts of dead authors don’t help. They watch, silently, these writers whose words have been burned before and will be burned again. We forget Ben Jonson, add letters where they don’t belong, but we never forget fire.
I could have it worse than Kit Marlowe. He died instantly, as reported. Down the row from me, the last few weeks, have been Plato and Socrates. Every time they are banished Socrates sighs and downs a vial of hemlock. We go on our lunch then, as he seizes and thrashes and paralyzes and fades away. It takes some time.
Virginia Woolf keeps trying to steal our things to weigh her pockets down, but even when we succeed in stopping that she drowns again. Small favors: they are all silent. The world has declared they are to be voiceless.
Someone several rows away goes the Hemingway. We hope it is just Ernest again.
Until our ink runs out we’ll continue, because the words, even fragmentary and few as they are, will not run out. The ghosts certainly never will.
On their walk to work every morning, Bethany made Jackie stop at the gap in the boardwalk so she could stand on the beach. Some mornings they’d be a minute or three late, and the horn in the lighthouse would have already sounded, but Jackie had to wait for a few heartbeats while Bethany looked out at the lighthouse. Other mornings they’d wait, Bethany shifting uneasily on the soft sand until the horn had sounded and moaned away. They did not stop as they walked home. The horn didn’t sound then.
This morning Jackie waited as always, in the grey afterdawn gloom. Last night’s clouds were still heavy, but beginning to scud away. The long guttural complaint of the horn died away and the gulls could be heard again.
“Who’s up there, anyway?” Jackie said, casting a backwards glance at the lighthouse as Bethany rejoined her and they started off. “You know? Who do they get to be the, the keeper, or whatever he is?” It was a point of pride in the town that the lighthouse was nearly fully original, hardly electrified, not automated at all.
Bethany didn’t look back, and shrugged lightly. “I can’t imagine.”
Bethany leaned her forehead against Jackie’s door, hammering slowly with her balled fist. “Jackiiiiie,” she groaned, her eyes shut against the morning. “It’s too early to be this late. Come on.”
There was scuffling, and Jackie opened the door in her bathrobe and the pink hippopotamus slippers Bethany had given her her last birthday. “Well,” Bethany said. “You look like the hot death.”
“Callin’ in sick,” Jackie grumbled. “Hanging out by my toilet this AM.”
“Oh gag, stop breathing on me,” Bethany said.
“All right. Hydrate or something. I’ll try again tomorrow.”
“Yrrr,” Jackie said, and shut the door.
Bethany made the walk to the hotel alone. She arrived at the beach just as the horn in the lighthouse started to sound. She stood and listened, waiting for the sound to die away. Her eyes were fixed absently on the middle distance until a brief movement caught her eye. The lighthouse keeper? she wondered, scouring the smooth sides and small windows of the thing for the interloper. A seagull, she concluded as the cries of the birds clashed over the fading horn.
It took another moment, after the sound was completely washed away by the morning, for Bethany to realize that she had to go. Without Jackie’s presence behind her, without eyes pulling on her, the lighthouse seemed more important than the hotel today. But they were already a woman down, Bethany knew. Looking up to the windows one more time, Bethany pulled herself away, back onto the boardwalk, away from the lighthouse.
The next morning Bethany walked alone again. Jackie had the flu and would not be out of bed for the better part of the week, and again, today, Bethany could not feel a pull to walk away from the lighthouse. It was as if, without someone watching her, her behavior in the real world, the world where you have a job and you go to work so you can get paid and buy shoes, did not matter. The next morning it was worse. More than simply feeling no reason to leave the lighthouse, Bethany felt herself wanting to go closer. To walk down to where the water lapped the sand. Absolutely not, she told herself, I’ll track sand all over the hotel, and who cleans that up but me?
By the next morning, it was more than an idle desire. Something inside her was more than pulling—it was keening within her, crying out for a closer glimpse of the lighthouse. How else can you know who’s inside? it begged of her. She walked into the wet sand at the line of the tide, and only by running and the good nature of her supervisor was she not late that morning. And now, on Friday, Bethany stood, up to her knees in the cold waves, the white froth splashing up her blouse, into her eyes and mouth like tears.
There was a keening within her.
Not a thought even crossed her mind to look back. She waded as far as she could, and, just before her toes lost their hold on the shore, threw herself in. She was a fine swimmer, not exceptional, and her clothes weighed her down somewhat. She gasped at each swell, but like the job and the apartment behind her, it was as if her lungs had ceased to matter.
At least until she answered the question. Who is up there—who is the lighthouse keeper—who sounds the horn?
Weak-limbed and trembling, she eventually managed to pull herself onto the rocky beach of the lighthouse. Stumbling over herself and coughing up water, she climbed the winding stairs until she reached the top room, where the lighthouse keeper sounded the horn every morning. She opened the door, and no one was there. Bethany shut the door behind her and took note of the control for the light, and the long chain that would sound the horn. There was a clock, ticking lightly, the only indication of what had to happen when.
She sat down in front of the horn, and waited, and understood.
By the time Jackie returned to work, Bethany had been missing for four days. They asked her, of course, since the two had been very close. Jackie told them Bethany had not mentioned anything to her. No, the last times they’d been together, Bethany’s routine had not changed.
After all, Jackie reasoned to herself later, they always stopped to look at the lighthouse. She suspected she knew exactly where Bethany was, even when the bloated body washed ashore, and every morning, on her way to work, she stopped to look at the lighthouse, sure of who was looking back.
50 Words on Hell
What is hell, I asked.
He said, I believe the Crusader kings stands outside the gates of Jerusalem forever, never going in, never able to make peace for what they did.
When we die, he said, when all our sins are counted, we will stand outside the gates of Srebrenica.