The quilt was a who’s who of the coast, each of us embroidering our name in red, our married names, and something else, it could be of our choosing, though still the parameters were implied. The object needed to be something simple, domestic—a basket, a flower, an egg. I chose a ship, an obvious thing, like the kind that flung themselves ashore rarely but momentously. It was my own way of being crass, defiant. This embroidered vessel might also have been the thing that could carry me off, not that I pictured it that way, but the lines could be read between. Crashes happened everywhere, not just the Pacific. Crashes happened even on lakes we heard, those placid things with sandy floors. News made its way slowly but intently, how one boat went down in flames, all the passengers laden with the money and jewels sewn into their clothes, drowning within sight of shore. I tried not to think of that.
“I’d have left everything behind,” I said, but no one agreed, or at least no one said so. Besides, it was the Pacific that beat itself against the shore near us, whose roar helped my husband sleep, though most nights he was up in the lighthouse. It was the Pacific battering against the crags and cliffs a few feet from our door. It was the Pacific we lit up. The who’s who was a small list, isolated as we were out on that jutting piece of unlikely land. Four families in total, four women, four men, and one child. But mostly it was just Charlotte and me.
We were almost birds. We flitted on the cliff-sides reckless with our arms outstretched at our sides. I shouldn’t say we. I dreamt nightly of the water that we were surrounded by in our waking hours. I wasn’t scared of the water the way Charlotte was. She never went near the edge, and she never came with me on my walks. I didn’t have a knack for quilting the way she did, a thing that was made obvious when the quilt was unveiled and everyone ohh-ed and clapped softly and it was folded back again and set over the back of Charlotte’s couch, which was my couch too. It was quite an unveiling that day, a real party, with all the local families, who’d traveled miles to be there. I should be proud to be among the who’s who, my husband said. I was the lighthouse keeper’s wife, it was my portrait they came to take for the paper, and I had to sit for so long in the tall rough grass, my solemn face there for the man to capture.
Later, our daughters, and then our granddaughters, and then even their granddaughters, held and coveted and argued over the cloth of that quilt I’m sure, as if it had meant a great deal to us, and they would finally display it under glass in this very lighthouse, the place that was our home. Maybe my portrait would even hang beside it. That’s how archeology happens, with any clues you can find.
My husband and I lived on the cliff with Charlotte and Jim. We lived the furthest west you could go. Jim was meant to assist mostly, but he was called lighthouse keeper too, out of respect and fairness. He did the backbreaking work while my husband did the more cerebral things, the calculations and the reminders, the life and death tasks. The Fresnel Lens had been hoisted to the top in pieces and in the dark seemed suspended there in nothing. It glowed golden but was green up close, even purple if the sun was right. It had come from further away than I could picture, a factory somewhere in France, a place where boats came from laden with unimaginable goods. I touched my embroidered boat like a Braille Code, I closed my eyes and saw the beats of light, touched my yellow thread.
Mostly Charlotte and I only saw each other and our husbands, but it was a man from town who told me about the nitrogen narcosis, a brutal and scientific thing that women shouldn’t be worrying themselves with. It makes you hallucinate as you sink deeper in the ocean. It happens out where the water is measured in miles instead of feet, when the bottom seems golden but it isn’t and is actually nearly endless, or might as well be.
I count myself lucky that I was the one to answer the door. Charlotte was on the floor, bent over something serious, her dark hair knotted up. I was getting up and down from the couch, pretending to forget tasks that took me to the kitchen, upstairs, even outside to see the white lighthouse against the white sky where nothing was happening yet in our daylight. So I was closest to the door when we heard the knock. No one ever came by unannounced. It took too long to get here. It always had to be planned. My heart leapt with fear and anticipation for whoever it was, and whatever news they might bring. And it was him. He asked about the water first, its temper, the last wreck. My name. What there might be for him to do here. I forget how nitrogen narcosis came up, it was a natural detail to come after wrecks, after drowning. He was trying to scare or impress me. Maybe he even meant to entice me, suggesting hallucination that way, the loss of one’s senses, and what happened then, senseless. He would do any kind of work at all, he said. Not just lighthouse work, but gardening or construction.
“We don’t have any work out here,” I told him, which was unfortunate and true.
He’d come miles from town along the unmarked dirt roads to find us, though we were easy to find since we were the edge. He hadn’t told me his name and I didn’t ask because I had no use for it. I imagined the hallucinations of this narcosis as a soft pink gauze, a hypnotism like petals sewn on something, or braided into the hair of a drowning woman.
“It’s not exactly like that, Agnes,” the stranger said though I could tell he was charmed by my imagination. I don’t know what boldness kept us both there at the door. I don’t know what boldness had me describing my interpretations of this thing he had inexplicably just shared with me. I was inversely as much a stranger as him.
“There was a wreck last week actually,” I said, which was true. The fog had come in hard as usual, and neither Jim nor Pete had seen the lights until it was too late. How startling it must have been for those aboard to see us, their protectors, our land, as they slammed to shore. The tide took everything out again just as quickly, and nothing, I mean no one, had been recovered. Charlotte stayed up at night weeping, calculating the dead. I waited for them, for their totems, to wash ashore. It was the first wreck since I’d moved here, and a part of me had obviously been waiting. We were here because these things happened, after all. We were proof that accidents occurred, that protection was needed, and didn’t always make a difference.
“I heard about it,” the stranger said. “It’s why I came. I thought your men might need extra hands.”
Right now Jim and Pete were out in the Watch Room, Charlotte somewhere inside the damp darkness of the house. The men were inconsolable, obsessed, staying up there all hours, even in day-lit fog, carting the oil up the spiraling stairs, wasting it really, sleepless. I was married only a year and I didn’t mind the inappropriateness of the stranger saying my first name instead of Mrs. Harrison, as he should have, as it was a title I held feebly, ambivalently. I was only twenty. He was rough, possibly even dangerous, though I doubted it, with a dark jacket and big hands. He wore dark work pants and his jacket was threadbare but sturdy. I had a startled and brief daydream of what my life would have been like if I was with a man like him instead of living here in this crashing, isolated place. He was different from my husband in the obvious ways of a man who uses his mind more than his body, or in this case, the opposite. He’d like the cliff-edge as much as me, I was sure, he would be able to walk just as far. I considered his broad shoulders, the gray pallor of his hard jaw, the tenor of his inarticulate, absorbing voice.
“How do you know what it’s like?” I asked. I let the door fall more closed behind my back. I was flirting with him. “I mean, the nitrogen narcosis. You haven’t experienced it have you?”
“We live near the ocean don’t we?”
“We do,” I said.
He stood a moment longer. “Well, I thank you for your time,” he said. He considered the striking white column of the lighthouse behind our house. He looked above me at it. The lighthouse jutted up into the sky with defiant purpose. There was science and precision involved in what Jim and Pete did, but also luck, also brute force, the will of nature. Their mistakes were deadly ones, some entirely unavoidable. I couldn’t bear to think of that type of responsibility. Instead, most days, I took my long walks away from that stoic bolt of a building. I walked through the high bluffs, the wild grass, down to the sand eventually, after miles. The tides slid toward me and away. What a precarious edge of a volatile world we lived on. Those further inland probably forgot danger in a way we never could. I wondered if that was what had drawn this stranger out to us. His dark shadow hit the doorframe and slid along the wall. I moved so that the shadow of my dress fluttered closer toward his dark shape there, overlapped briefly, fluttered back. I felt a sharp pull in my lungs and had to take a breath.
“I should be going,” he said.
“I sure am sorry we couldn’t help,” I said.
“I appreciate it,” he said and I stood there for awhile before I went back inside, watching him walk away from me. If he’d come with a horse he must have tied it back in the trees. But maybe he’d walked. I hadn’t asked him where he was going to next and I imagined him moving his way up the coast, lighthouse to lighthouse, until he got somewhere so cold the ocean froze and there was no need for that guiding swoop of light, that beam over the dark water. He’d be good in those sorts of conditions and survive well.
Back inside Charlotte was still kneeling over her task in the dimly lit living room, but I could tell she was curious.
“Where were you Agnes?” she asked, her lips pressed around a needle. I imagined the delicate horror of her swallowing it, her heart deflating with a tiny pop.
“Out in the garden,” I said.
“Who was it?”
“Oh, just someone who was lost. He was aiming for further north.” And before I knew it I had a secret and I’d told a lie. It was such an unlikely thing to be able to do out here. It was just the four of us and the likelihood of secrets was so slim. I immediately felt protective and close to mine, could picture it like a glowing disc of light somewhere in my torso. Not a heart, but something translucent and delicate, like glass. The stories that Charlotte and I relayed over our indoor tasks and our lukewarm cups of tea were not secrets exactly, as our husbands would not have cared to know or been that shocked to hear them. Charlotte told me about growing up in San Francisco, the closest city, reachable mostly only by sea, weaving down the coast for at least a day, a thing I’d never done. I told her about the farm further inland, about my brothers and sisters and the chores that only stopped at dark. But this was a secret, the arrival of this man and how I’d sent him away, but still kept him too long there. Those tangible items were not exactly the secret, rather the secret was the dark hum that began now at my knees and moved its way up. The secret was what I snuck away to do that night, my back to the wooden door of the bathroom, my nightgown pulled up over my knees.
“Well did you get something we can throw in the soup?” Charlotte asked.
“Um.” I dropped my hands hard into my apron and pulled out a small flaking onion covered in dirt. I lifted it up for her inspection but she wasn’t even looking at me. She was absorbed again.
“Have you heard of nitrogen narcosis?” I asked.
“It happens when you swim too deep. Or drown I guess. Or maybe when you dive on purpose, but go too far.”
“On purpose?” Charlotte said. “Why would anyone do something like that on purpose?”
“I don’t know, exactly. To see,” I said.
“Oh Agnes, you get morbid things in your head don’t you?” Charlotte said. But she was the one meditating on those floating people, wondering what separated her fate from theirs. I knew nothing did, but I didn’t tell her. We faithfully inhabited an unwelcome place. We were alone.
There was an important difference between purposefully and accidentally being that deep under the water. I suddenly couldn’t remember anything the man had said really, any of his specifics. Just his serious face and the way he looked at me, like he was wary of being too close to me, but simultaneously unaware of the space between us. And I wondered if under the water I might see him, or him with some flaming skull, or him wrapped in that quilt I couldn’t really sew, or him in some other fate that hadn’t befallen me, where I was his wife, wandering with him. It made me want to dive.
It was in the following weeks that I trained my eye on the furthest parts of the water, the stretches of it far out, the places before the horizon became just a line, and my eyes could still comprehend the depth of field. I saw myself bobbing out there. I saw all the magical things underneath my feet. I saw the shipwrecks that were lost too far out to salvage anything, their miscalculations the opposite of those we so often saw against the rocks. One morning on a walk I found a tiny red dress soaked through. Another morning a coin, with markings I didn’t recognize. Things were making their way to shore from the wreck. I walked far. I studied the scraggly violet and golden against rock, I walked into the thick fog that held fast to shore.
Charlotte was going to have babies, not me. I could tell this for many reasons. Some of the reasons were a desire to do so. Others were that I could tell my body wasn’t capable. If someone could cut me open or see inside me they might just see a tangle of lace ribbon, or an infinite outer space darkness. They might see total darkness. When news got to us of babies being born I felt what I can only describe as an uneasiness, a hope that it would never happen to me, a superstitious twinge. I saw the spark and workings of Charlotte’s eyes and brain and I looked away so she wouldn’t see the lack of it in mine. I didn’t keep the tiny red dress for that reason, because I hoped to dry it out and slide it onto a daughter that would have my eyes and Pete’s forehead. But I did keep it.
Our brains are funny creatures, protecting and sabotaging us in equal measure. I don’t know if it was the tiny red dress or not, but I started to think about how I might get out to that furthest point of water, and then dive deep like the stranger had described. I didn’t really consider that a little girl had died out there, though perhaps she had. I’d been a little girl once. There was a pale yellow and gray photo to prove this. I stood very stiff and intent wearing a dress that looked like an elaborate cake. I imagined a woman finding it washed ashore somewhere, not knowing me at all, of my existence. Charlotte told me stories of the earthquakes of San Francisco, voracious and changeable things that could reach us here as well, though I’d never really felt one. I daydreamed some combination of earthquake and drowning. I wanted my brain to do what only the deepest water could do to it, crack it open and show me something else, a hallucinatory bolt.
Our dinners took on unnatural and inappropriate lengths of silence the better we got to know each other. Though that is the opposite of what you might expect, it made sense. Eventually, and inevitably, Charlotte was going to have a baby, and the drawn out waiting of this occasion added to our silent evenings. I don’t know what happiness depends on, but I think people choose things and hope it’s true. Like babies or husbands or staying young, or things that don’t really give you what you need at all. The closest I can come to having what I need as I walk along the beach in the afternoon is to say my own name inside my head. Agnes. I say it and this space opens up somewhere in the center of me, the part of me that changes and never changes alike. I don’t mean my own name in a selfish way, but rather as an offering up of the understanding that in some ways I am letters, space, skin, light, and nothing else. Charlotte is happy, I think. Our husbands are ghosts. Sometimes when I know they are outside, out toward the water, I walk up to the top of the lighthouse. I can see even further up there than I can on the vantages of my walks. I can see how far away I am from anything. I can imagine town on the other edge of the dark green tree tops. Pete tells me the trees are at least 1500 years old, something I understand and believe.
“We need to go into town,” Jim said that night at dinner, and because the fall season meant less fog, and because Charlotte was far enough along, it was him and I who were going to go in the morning. I pretended to be neither too disappointed nor excited about this, but I imagined finding the stranger there. Town wasn’t big enough to hide him if he was still around. I didn’t know what I might say or even if he would feel it appropriate to talk to me in a different context. What else was happening in the country? What journeys were being undertaken? I wondered even if he might have come from the east coast, a place that might as well have been France.
It was almost a half-day to get there and Jim and I had very little discuss. I rode behind him, relishing the heat that increased as we made our way inland, a sensation of air on skin that reminded me of childhood in a memory-less way, beyond the intact quality of memory, and into the viscera of smell and taste and pure feeling. For that reason I had nothing to say about it to him, or even to myself really. I just knew this was the air of my 12 year old self, her skin and the warmth she felt. I missed her a little bit. We rode further. My family was too far to visit often and I didn’t want to visit really anyway. I could have more if I’d wanted. Pete would have accompanied me. Those dinners would have been louder, but not better, than those I’d come to find commonplace as an adult woman. Each family forms its personality, its habits. Pete and I would never have a family though he whispered to me of the son he might be an exceptional father to, just as he’d had an exceptional father. I wondered how he could feel so sure of such things, and found his confidence to be a failing, a way that would make him a bad father, unsuspecting of the near inevitable trial a son would bring. Just as my mother was born to have so many children, I was born to have none. It was OK. I would help Charlotte, take her daughter’s hand and walk out into the garden. I would admit things to her that no one else would, and I would help her understand. When they wanted more children or a bigger place perhaps Pete and I would have to build a small house to the side of the large one we now shared and we would live happily there. The ships would wreck and wreck and wreck and every now and then our fancy light would warn them away, and on certain nights, we all would rest safely.
“Agnes, let’s take a short break here,” Jim suggested. After he tethered his horse to the tree, he helped me down. I took his hand and slid and jumped. He held on longer than I wanted him too. He peered at me darkly.
“Pregnancy makes women very unattractive, Agnes, wouldn’t you agree?” he asked. My boots and the hem of my long white dress were coated in dust. I wanted to go to the edge of the pond and stick my hands in the dark brown water. I wanted Jim to let go of my hand. Once I’d had a dream that Jim and Pete were both in love with me but only Jim wanted me to choose. When I didn’t choose him he flooded the house with water that was a shimmering white. Jim and Pete seemed to have the unspoken respect most men had for each other. Pete was smaller, but had a quicker temper. I couldn’t imagine that Jim would want to anger him.
“Charlotte is doing a brave thing,” I said.
“Indeed she is. It changes a marriage though, I would say.” He still hadn’t dropped my hand and so I pulled gently to see if he might just let go. He did and I stepped back once. Twice.
“That’s between you two, I would imagine,” I said.
I led my horse down to the water and let Jim do whatever he needed to do on this short stop. I let go of the reigns and knelt down to the pond water, warm and safe compared to my ocean. It didn’t hold the hallucinations that the stranger had spoken of. I tilted toward its surface. I looked back up and didn’t see Jim. For a fleeting moment I strangely hoped that he’d left me. But soon we were back on the road and arrived in town in the late afternoon light. Most of the shops were open and people were on the street. We walked further into town. Jim was in charge of getting whatever he and Pete needed, and I had a short list from Charlotte folded into my pocket. We would split up for only a short time, when I imagined Jim would also get a drink and I would have to amuse myself by lingering at one of the shops, picking up something extra. Most likely the bar would be the place that the stranger might be, if he were anywhere, but I couldn’t go with Jim, and it was probably not a great idea to go alone, though if I was steely enough they would pour me a glass of whiskey and maybe suspect I was a runaway or a prostitute and I didn’t mind being mistaken for either of those things.
First I stopped to pick up thread. I got two spools of red, for the dress and for a part of the quilt that needed reinforcement. I got black, white, and brown. I piled them on the counter and the woman wrapped them up for me, not asking me where I was from. Back outside, the sun was sliding down, and I heard the noise of the bar, the door open to the street. I walked by slow and stopped near the door. It was too bright where I stood and the dark inside just looked dark. I remembered Jim’s hard hand around mine, the ugly things he’d said about Charlotte, and what Charlotte’s fears were, or if she was just happy now. I stepped further toward the door and heard Jim’s distinct voice, mid-story, loud, the silence of those listening, the punctuation of laughter. I would be interrupting, and I didn’t want to remind him of myself. I slid back from the door and continued back toward where we’d left the horses. This was only the second time I’d come into town with him. It might get too late, too dark. We might stay. We hadn’t last time, but there were rooms to be rented, or even if Jim made friends at the bar there might be an offer. I leaned against the tree with my packages in my arms. I felt the empty air of the town.
“Mrs. Harrison,” the stranger might say, surprised to see me. I don’t know where he’d take me. We were hours from ocean water. I could ask him to take me somewhere, even further. Jim would look for me awhile, for how long, before setting off back toward the lighthouse. I catalogued the clothes that the stranger had been wearing, the rough texture of them that I hadn’t touched, even briefly. But the streets were dim now and empty. Windows were lighting up, slow pops and burns, one after another. I felt lonely for Charlotte, for her kind silence, her distraction, her clarity. The expanse of the world seemed great, the harshness of the country impassable and cruel. At least my shared house and the lighthouse of our husband’s was somewhere distinct, and mine. I had never disliked the place really, hadn’t felt trapped just because I longed for the water. That longing for the depths would no doubt wash over anyone that close to it all the time. Even the stranger felt that pull in the moments he stood on my doorstep as if I was made of salt water and dangerous undercurrents. Many paths wove down from the cliffs to the water, and the impassable ones were the most intriguing, veiling rocky pockets of frothing water, gray and merciless. One spot I’d been trying to find a way down to ever since my wedding day. I’d changed out of lace into cotton and gotten halfway down, as I had every subsequent day. But never all the way. One thing I’d learned in that year was that the earth was just as dangerous as the water. I loved them both equally but with love that felt very different, with different stakes.
“Mrs. Harrison,” he said. And when I focused through the dusk he was there, just as I’d imagined, as if my imagining had made it so, and I felt a wash of power, and then fierce attraction, an embarrassing flush, and then vertigo.
“Why hello,” I said and I held out my hand and he took it. He looked uncomfortable, like he didn’t know what to do…where to bring the top of it, the ridge of my knuckles, the hard bone underneath them. I hoped he might bring it to his mouth, a far too old fashioned and gentlemanly a thing for a man like him to do, and sure enough he dropped it down.
“You haven’t moved on yet?” I asked hoping my voice was even. It sounded even but I was burning up, diamond splats in the air each time I blinked, blue-lined and silver, and the stranger’s face there as vivid as if I was a victim of his nitrogen narcosis after all, here in the inland air. And maybe I was.
“A few days here,” he said. “What brings you into town? Is Mr. Harrison with you?”
“He isn’t. Um, he had to stay behind with Charlotte. She is expecting. It’s me and Mr. Garmouth. We came into town for supplies. You know, probably the last trip before winter.” I fiddled with my spools of thread, a trivial and feminine thing that wouldn’t do much against the winter months, temperate as it was here, without snow, without harsh winds. But still, winter.
“Is there anything I can help you with?”
“I’m really fine, thank you.”
We stood there beside the tree and the horses and there wasn’t much reason he would be able to stand beside me much longer that made any sense unless I gave him some reason, an invitation, a question, a request. I felt very young and like I hadn’t talked to very many men in my life. My brothers, my father, then Pete, then Jim, now this man. He seemed old, sturdy, wild but steadfast. He’d done nothing to make me feel any way. It was that I imagined him swimming, in some warmer climate, somewhere where the oceans were warm and forgiving. It was that I imagined him at all when I knew that women didn’t imagine extra men, men other than the ones they’d chosen. I was sure Charlotte didn’t. As I was feeling sure of this a startled notion occurred to me, that her baby was Pete’s, that every fact I knew of my life was wrong, that everyone was far more secret and complicated and impolite than they’d ever show. Instead of disturbing me, I rather held to this notion, to the idea that I might say anything now to keep this man beside me.
“My sister drowned,” he said. He might have read my thoughts. He might have known that by confiding in me he might stay. If Jim interrupted us it would be easy to say that he’d been telling me this tragic story, that I hadn’t felt it right to stop him and ask him to leave.
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
“It was a long time ago when we were very young. We were on a ship coming up from the south. It took many days and there was a storm. I know I couldn’t have saved her now. But as a child I didn’t know that. I dove into the water and I sank so deep. She was taken so fast. No one could have gotten to her.”
“Is that why you wanted to work at the lighthouse?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “A lighthouse wouldn’t have saved us. We were too far from shore either way.”
“All it can do is warn.”
“It helps at times.”
“Of course. It’s a remarkable development. That Fresnel fellow. It’s an achievement of beauty.”
I remembered the afternoon I stood on the windy patch of grass and watched them hoist each elaborate piece high. It was an achievement of beauty. There were men, artists in Europe, who were painting great works, something called Romanticism, a word I liked, something too fancy and irrelevant to discuss at dinner. But the stranger was right, the lighthouse lens seemed far more important, full of the light of God practically, a haven as it was, and however they had discovered the logic of its spin, how it might blink and warn.
“I’m sorry. Such a thing to live with,” I said.
I thought of my sister, one of them, who’d died young. It was always drowning. A well or even a still puddle of water, like our neighbor to the south. I didn’t say this though, this common thread of ours, water pulled into a lung, of how the unknowing kept you up at night. We can’t imagine any of those last watery breaths as we continue to breath the air. I could see the pink of them behind this stranger’s jacket, behind his ribs, these moth wings that took his air in for him, and every bit of him seemed wildly precious to me. I felt as if I couldn’t be asked to ever lose him, as surely I would have to do in just minutes. I thought of inventions, of the lens certainly, but also of balloons, how we could push air into them and watch them inflate, buy them for pennies at the circus as people in San Francisco were able to do according to Charlotte. What else awaited us? It seemed endless. Such ridiculous minutia, and so vital. Each new development of this rough terrain, each ship we guided safely home, each person able to disembark, each child born.
“It’s alright. I’m not sure why I told you. I’m sorry to take up your time. I’m sure you have to be somewhere. I’m sure you are expected.”
“I’m not expected,” I said and I felt a thrill of boldness. These were the seconds that my life would revolve around, the thing I would remember while I walked the garden paths, while I made my way on afternoons to the part of the beach I’d never reach. I nearly told him about the moment with Jim at the pond. I nearly hoped he might kill him for what his words and hard grip on my hand had implied.
I could tell my boldness made him nervous, but didn’t make him actually turn to leave.
“Perhaps we could walk around town while you wait for your escort to return then?” he asked.
He didn’t hold his arm out, but we moved out from under the tree into the empty town, locked up early, and I felt a lifting sense of freedom I’d never felt before, an anxiety nearly, that pulled my bones upward, that moved my feet in their walking, that infused my skin and clothes and eyes, and so each thing was changed. There was so much I’d always dared not mention, each ingredient of thought. Mostly in this life you fear being misunderstood, taken in some way you didn’t intend, deemed something you aren’t. In that way, I’ve kept silent. But with this stranger, that silence felt lifted and the uproar of myself clamored in sweetly. I forgot my life, the sweep of history, my death, how little it all meant.
“I wish when you leave you could write me letters to tell me of where you are, places I won’t ever be able to see,” I said. He nodded.
“You could come too,” he said. A bird landed heavy on the branch before us and it bobbed. I thought of how fast lights come through the fog, but of how slow a crash happens.