A man flicked at his match irritatedly. “What?”
“Give me a light.”
“You still have your pipe?”
“Does it bother you?”
The man settled deeper into his layer of fur coating. The neck of the match snapped, and he reached into the matchbox to draw another. Thick brown gloves adorned his fingers, so that he fumbled to grasp at the slender sticks. “No.”
The tiny hish of the flame grated against the silence, like the hish of wind in the eaves on a springtime morn. William reached out his pipe to the flame and back to his mouth, the little match the only light in the darkness, and drew in a lungful of breath to dispel a hazy veil of smoke.
Outside the lighthouse, the snow shored up against every crevice. The distant howling of the wind in the blizzard bore down upon the men’s ears in turbulent discord, a constant din that had kept them half-awake for already three days and three nights. High upon a cliff on the bay of Nova Scotia, nobody was bound to find them, or venture unto the cliffside, till the springtime, come a month. William leaned back in his chair, staring listlessly as his smoke rings drifted up to the ceiling, and Matthias gave a loud sniff.
“Did you have your checkup with the doctor?”
“I don’t need it.”
“Everybody needs checkups. You moved your entire family from Berlin to get treated. Has the cold air done you some good?”
“You don’t need to joke.”
“I’m not joking. I simply ask.”
William fell silent for a moment. “The smoking helps.”
“Apparently the smoke builds up in your lungs like a black tar and then suffocates you.”
“Where did you read that?”
“A medicine journal. They’ve been publishing many after the war.”
“About the chemical gas, and the amputees.” Matthias grunted. “I don’t remember.”
“Fine.” William let another puff of smoke fly from his mouth. The men sat, listening to the wind, reverberating through the keeper’s stead and up the spire of the lighthouse. They had blockaded the windows with wood and iron to keep out the cold, using instead the flickering lightbulbs along the ceiling to navigate their way. To conserve the electricity they had agreed to use the lights only when they had to make the journey up to the lighthouse, to occasionally light a beam for any lost men at sea that might blow the horn of a steamship. And sometimes the ships came, despite the icy waters and tormented currents.
Matthias sniffed again and put away the matchbox. “You stay here. I’m going to check on the rations.”
“Alright. Bring some back.”
“Fine. It won’t be much.”
After another ten minutes, Matthias returned with bottled ale and crackers. They shared the meal, licking crumbs off their fingers and draining the bottle for any spare drops of alcohol. Then they settled into their beds, trying to keep warm under layers of coats and thick blankets.
Finally, William slept.
William… William. William. Wake up. Wake up. Wake up—
William jerked upright in bed. “Matthias? Matthias?”
The other man sat bent in a chair. His haggard, dark-ringed eyes lifted. “What?”
“Were you calling me?”
Matthias sat straight. “Why would I be calling you?”
“I don’t know.”
After some moments had passed, William stood up, shuffling his feet along the floor. “I can’t find my shoes.”
“They were on your feet the night before.”
“But now they aren’t.” William’s hands began to shake. “Where are they? Where could they—they possibly be?”
“Calm down,” Matthias said, standing. “It’s coming back. See, I told you to see the doctor. He would have given you medicine.”
“It was gone, for a very long time, and then I thought it was gone permanently.”
“Fine.” Matthias settled back into his chair. “Turn on the lights. You might find them.”
William switched on the lights at the corner of the room and shuffled along the passageway from the keeper’s stead to the lighthouse. Outside the wind raged, and William could imagine soft flakes of snow thickening and spinning wildly, beating against the walls of the house. He started on the steps of the spiral stairway, and nearly bumped his head into something dangling from one of the rungs.
He pulled down his shoes, first by the sole, and then by the lace. He stood there for a moment, a pearl of sweat on his brow, and then he descended the steps quickly.
“Matthias,” he shouted. “Why the hell would you string up my shoes? Is this about yesterday? Do you think I am a fool?”
The other man looked shocked. “They were up on the stairs? How did they get there? Did you put them there?”
“You pretend to be stupid!” William screamed. “You think I will fall for that. You think I will—!”
“Calm down, you fool,” Matthias snarled. “Nobody touched your shoes. Only you could have put them there.” His voice seemed to soften. “Did you ever sleepwalk?”
William slumped down on his bed, suddenly dull. “Only in the first few weeks. After the armistice. Mathilde would complain about it, sometimes.”
“What would happen?”
“The jams, in the kitchen. They would be smashed out on the floor.”
“I don’t know. I don’t remember.”
They sat in silence, for a little bit, until Matthias offered again to get the rations. They ate, making small talk about the wives, the children, William’s little boy. The wind wailed outside, a high-pitched shriek through the storm, but William slept anyway.
The hunger came, like a gnawing rat, on the next day. It had always been there, but this time it was stronger, like a stranglehold upon their bodies. They tried to ignore it, keeping their strength for small bouts of conversation, speaking the bare minimum. A few hours passed, and Matthias offered to get the rations, but William assured him that he would go instead.
He set off down the hall without turning on the lights, instead with only a lantern flame. The bulbs had been dying of late; it didn’t matter anyhow, if there were still matches. William began up the stairs, deciding to light a beam for a ship the men might have heard during the night, when a whispering reached his ears.
He looked around, but there was nothing. The spiraling stairway was shrouded in darkness.
The Americans are hiding in the brush. Look! Their rifles point at you.
William spun around to discern the invisible threat, but there was only the lighthouse, familiar and dark and all the same.
They will shoot you. They are aiming at you. They mean to kill you.
He let out a startled cry, gripping at the lantern, realizing too late that his hold on it had slipped. Was he going crazy? His shoes, the voices. His sleepwalking, his paranoia. Everything that had come after the war. He shivered to his bones. Was he going crazy?
The lantern landed with a thump upon the stairs. Slowly, it gained momentum, until it rolled away almost faster than his eyes could follow it. It did not go far, because not a ways down the stairs, it stopped. Against someone’s shoe.
“Hey. Pick up the body.”
A cluster of men dragged a stiff figure from the lighthouse stead. Outside, the grass had become vibrant green. The spring air was fresh, and cooled away some of the smell of rot from the corpse.
A man standing outside by his car looked astonished to see the body. He rushed over, bending over the dead man, and said disbelievingly, “I know this man. He was my patient.”
“Just need you to determine the time and manner of death,” the inspector said, sounding bored.
“He was German. An immigrant.” The doctor unwound a strip of gauze from his bag. “He came here with his wife. Oh, poor Mathilde. And their little boy. How terrible.”
“Lots of dried blood,” one of the men said.
“Yes.” The doctor looked closely at the corpse. “A smashed skull. Where did you find him?”
“Bottom of the lighthouse steps. Quite a drop, if you ask me.”
“Trapped in that place all winter. Terrible, truly. He didn’t take his prescription before he left. He might’ve gone crazy, jumped off the stairs… anyone would have. In such a circumstance.”
The inspector checked his watch impatiently. “Time of death?”
“This man has been dead for weeks. The rigor mortis has all but turned him to stone. And the pooling of blood, here. The purple hue is incredibly dark. His skin is practically falling away.”
“So why do you think he did it? Because he went crazy?”
“It’s very likely.”
“We found some boxes at the top,” one of the men said. “Used for food, maybe. Smelled like ale. And some sleeping pills.”
“The lighthouse should’ve had rations to last anybody months up there. Were they full?”
“No sir. Completely empty. Scraped out as if they had gold.”
“Ah,” the doctor said. “How odd.”
“We only found one other thing,” one of the men spoke. “A brown glove. All stained up. That was just it. It don’t really have any explanation, I suppose.”
The doctor rose, picking up his suitcase. “Start with the funeral preparations. Make sure that Mathilde is the first to know.” He sighed, looking up at the sky. “And for such a beautiful spring. How truly terrible.”