The Light at the Edge of the World

i. Ours is a small planet, about the size of our god’s fist. Everything is water and sand. If it weren’t for my lighthouse illuminating the oily sea, the entire world would be a dark, solid mass. If I screamed, my voice would sound like a whisper, and if I whispered, my voice would sound like nothing at all.

In such pure blackness/silence, one does not know one is alive.

I make up one half of the population.

And then there’s you.

ii. Ours is a lonely planet, too. This is no place for weak hearts.

iii. My god-given routine is simple. I wake up in my straw bed, drink seawater tea, and eat the pale flesh of glinting minnows that swim around my tiny island. I climb the winding staircase to the top of the lighthouse and activate its flashing beams. I return to the ground floor and lie in my straw mattress until I drift off.

I was illuminating the sea even before your boat appeared.

iv. The water was still one day. (‘One night’ would have been equally accurate, since there are no stars, moons, or suns to tell the time.)

The water was still, and then it wasn’t. I spotted the ripples first, up on my observatory, then saw the tip of your boat slicing through the sea.

I ran to the edge of my world and watched in disbelief as you circled the lighthouse three times before disappearing back where you came from. When you live in a lighthouse all by yourself, when you already know everything there is to know about everything there is, or so you thought, when one day/night you were darkness and then you weren’t, you don’t question your loneliness.

Until someone who isn’t you comes along.

v. You cannot leave your little walnut-shell boat, just like I cannot leave my little matchstick lighthouse. I don’t know how I know this, but I do. Just as I know that I wake up in my straw pallet the next day/night, to a beam of moonlight slanting through the window.

Like always, I switch on the light I now know was meant for you all along, to guide your boat safely around the jagged rock formations in the shallows.

With the light breaking the murk and the newly acquired silver-thread moon stitched across the sky, I observe you approach.

The moonlight illuminates your face, too. You are like me, but different. You look nothing like me, but similar.

When your boat circumnavigates my island, I stand at the edge of the beach where pale sand meets dark water and reach out toward you. You do the same, both arms outstretched to keep the flimsy boat from toppling over.

We stop just shy of touching each other, but it is something, everything.

vi. I fall into a new routine. I wake up and think of you. I gather seaweed to brew tea and conjure your face in my chipped teacup. I tend to the lighthouse’s mechanism and my chest flutters at the thought of your arrival.

We can still only stare at each other, but we never stop trying to touch fingertips.

The moon comes every night now, and each day is separate and distinct as I count down the hours until I see you again. I think you do too, although I can’t really know where you and your boat go when you leave here.

If there are other islands you visit. Other lighthouse keepers you gaze at and spread your twitching fingers toward.

vii. You’re not here. Night after night, I light up our world for you, but you’re not here. No ripples in the water, no boat slicing the ocean.

Nothingness again, dark and simple.

viii. I flash my lighthouse’s beams on and off for what feels like eons. I can’t tell. The moon hasn’t been back since you disappeared.

On. Off. On.

Where are you?

ix. The thought comes one day, as if in a dream. (I say ‘as if’, because I’ve stopped dreaming ever since you left.) I wake up, drink my tear-salty tea, head upward through the spiral staircase. But when I reach the top, I don’t activate the light beams. We’ve each been given a job, in our god-fist universe. I guard the lighthouse and you sail your boat. But what’s to keep me switching on the lighthouse now that you no longer sail toward me?

So I don’t.

The next day/night, the moon remains absent, but your boat is back, a blacker patch of dark, not circling me but still for once, anchored several yards away from my island. I can’t tell if you’re inside or not, but when I scramble to the lighthouse’s top, none of the light bulbs are working.

I did this and now you can’t find my lighthouse without crashing on the rocks around it. You can’t sail your boat if I don’t light my lighthouse.

I run to the wet-slick shore and jump and wave my arms, but you cannot see. I scream, but no sound comes out. So I do the only thing left to do in a broken, upside-down world.

I dive into the lukewarm water and swim toward you.

When I pull myself into the boat, I’m soggy and panting but intact. I fumble around for your hand while I blink the water away from my eyes, but there’s nothing here but barnacles and wood splinters.

The boat is empty.

The lighthouse floods with brightness then. It looks pretty from afar, a beacon shining in the darkness.

x. Now, I sail around our tiny planet, while you guard the lighthouse and show me the way. Our fingers teach each other shapes/signs. We still can’t leave our posts or touch each other, but our gazes connect under the moon’s watchful eye. 

And like the relentless pull of habit and duty, this can sometimes soothe the soul as well.

Originally titled “Lighthouse” and published in Asymmetry Fiction, May 2019. Reprinted here by permission of the author.