Red Sky at Night
by Libby Faucette
We all must stay on the paths.
Here, in the shadow places, when twilight creeps over the dunes and flows silent across the sand, this is the time we all must stay on the paths. They are tricky things, twisting and charcoal-gray, there in the dark and gone again with the endless, sighing wind. Bare feet walk slowly here; to run is to leave yourself prey to the stubble and shells beneath the sand. And so she walked, her eyes on the horizon, although her mind whispered hurry, hurry.
Red sky at night, do you see?
Red sky at night, little girl — and the tide comes soon.
Her path curved between two pale dunes, like the cleft between rounded breasts. Sea oats waved along the ridge, bidding her to quicken her pace as much as she dared. Over the river and through the woods, but the river was a sea of salt and tears stretching to the smoky sky, and the woods were the gnarled and wind-twisted oaks that lined the distant ridge. Brooding sentinels, these, forever watching the dunes change their shape with every shift in the wind.
Red was her name, this rare wild thing, this girl on the path to twilight. Red had been her father’s name — a good man, long since dead, now buried in the crowded churchyard. Red, named for a man but nearly a woman, a long-legged girl with tangled hair that streamed behind her like a night-blood battle flag. An old army sack hung on one shoulder and bounced at her hip, clinking and crinkling with plastic wrap and containers and brown paper bags. She steadied it as she let her long legs stretch and eat up the dunes. She was running at last, running to beat the devil that came on the heels of sundown, running until the dunes parted and the lonely beach gave up its secret — a tall brick lighthouse, rising above the sandscape like a final warning.
Stark and pale, with whitewashed walls, its windows and light framed in black, it seemed of a piece with the shoreline, its scrubbed white steps blending with the sand that bedded a yard of salt-choked scrub. Another graveyard, home of those washed ashore, leaned in gray silence beside the lighthouse and behind a split-rail fence. Her destination in sight, Red sped up, her legs flashing in the ruddy light. She started up the steps that led to the lighthouse door — only to stumble to a stop when she realized someone else was sprawled there.
A stranger half-reclined on the top step. He was rolling a cigarette. He lifted his head, his idle gaze roaming her from top to toes. He had fiercely dark eyes in a brown-leather face. Black hair spilled over his brow and lay across one shoulder. A sailor, she thought, with his striped shirt and trousers faded from the sea, his black boots with their broken laces. Then their eyes met — her own wide and startled by this apparition where no ghost should rightly be.
“You live here, girl?” His voice rasped at her across the sand.
She shook her head once and curled a tight hand around the strap of the bag at her side.
“My grandmother,” she said. “She’s the lighthouse keeper.”
The man looked at the door of the lighthouse, then he looked at her again, the faintest smile twisting one corner of his mouth. “I don’t think anyone’s home. I knocked a few times. No one answered.” He waved his cigarette. “I figured I was in for a wait.”
“She’s a little hard of hearing.” Red eased the weight of the bag on her shoulder and started back up the steps. She frowned a little, as mounting the steps drew her eye-level with the man seated there. “Did you come from the village?” she asked.
“No.” The word was queerly flat, as if he would give her nothing more.
Red stared at him, a hint of unease creeping gently along her spine. Perhaps he saw it in her face, for he cleared his throat and looked away — toward the end of the world, half-hidden beyond the dunes.
“I come from yonder,” he added gruffly. “My boat is on the bar.”
“Did you run aground?”
“No — ”
(red sky and the tide)
“ — I have a message for the keeper, that’s all.”
“She must not be home.” Red lifted her head and shielded her eyes, although the sun had long since sunk behind the lighthouse and that ridge of storm-twisted trees. Long shadows were now growing beneath them. The twilight spoke in whispers behind the graveyard fence. She searched the heights of the lighthouse, the gray windows that marched the walls.
“You’re free to wait,” she added, looking at the man again. “I have something to leave, though. Excuse me.”
His lips curled in that question-mark smile. He did not move when she started back up the steps. She had to look at him directly, almost challenging, before he finally rose and lazily stepped aside. The porch was small; she had to pass very close as she climbed the shallow steps.
He smelled like salt and the wind off the marshes. Like secrets. She could not help looking at him as she passed, so close she could have reached up and cupped his stubbled cheek.
She knew it would have rasped beneath her fingers.
“Mind if I come with you?” he asked. His deep voice startled her; she had been sure he would keep his silence. She looked quickly between him and the door.
“I’m not trying to frighten you — ” he added.
(oh, but you did)
“ — but if she’s not answering … ” He shrugged, apologetic now. “She’s old, yeah?”
Her grandmother was old, and night was coming on fast. The sky was streaked with blood beyond the dunes, above the whispering call of the tide. Dread had settled close and warm around her heart, and she now knew why. It was not this man — this strange-eyed sailor who had come with his message for the lighthouse keeper. She was seeing harm where there was none. But no keeper would be gone from the light, from their post, with nightfall coming on.
She knocked once. The sound echoed, hollow, reverberating inside with that quality particular to empty and forgotten places. She imagined the things that lay in the hall beyond — the garden bench against the wall, the hooks with their coats, the rubber boots beneath them — as ghosts that had already started to fade in the dark. Conscious of the sailor’s presence behind her — and now secretly glad for it — she opened the door on well-oiled, soundless hinges.
The last light and her shadow spilled into the room beyond. Her grandmother’s furniture was where it was supposed to be. A jacket on its hook stirred in the breeze sneaking past the door.
“She lives upstairs?”
Yes. And not in the keeper’s house. Red nodded dumbly and started past the garden bench. She began climbing the wrought-iron spiral, her hand trailing along its painted rail. The bag she carried bumped against her hip and thigh. Behind her, the sailor’s boots rang on the iron risers. He was climbing, too, their twin shadows wavering and thin on the curving wall.
Her grandmother burned a light on the first landing. Always. That light was out — and in its absence, Red felt her first real thrill of fear. Her hand tightened on the railing. “This is wrong,” she whispered, but while he stopped behind her, the sailor made no reply.
Something thumped overhead.
Red flinched. She tilted her head back and searched the darkness above them. Her ears strained for some sound, some indication that all was well — that the noise was one of a thousand domestic thumps and bangs — but the sound was not repeated. A sudden image flashed through her mind and galvanized her — her grandmother sprawled on the floor above, mute with pain and trying to claw her way upright. Red all but sprang up the stairs then, taking them two at a time. She did not listen for the sailor behind her; it no longer mattered if he kept up or not. It only mattered that she get to the top and find that everything was still all right —
“Gramma!” she shouted.
She reached the midpoint landing; the old woman’s quarters were beyond the stairs. It was a small space — the living room that doubled as bedroom; the kitchenette; the bathroom, its door still ajar. Red started toward it — her grandmother had to be there — when the strange, dragging thump came from above once more. It echoed down the spiral stairs.
Red spun and burst back through the doorway. She spared a glance down the well of the stairs, but of the sailor there was no sign. Far below, the outside door remained open; she could see the fast-fading shadows of the sea oats nodding in the evening wind. She wondered if he had gone for help — it’s what she would have done, faced with the same — and there was relief in that, even as her heart seized in her chest and her stomach twisted in knots. My grandmother is dead, she thought, suddenly sure in her desperation. It was a heart attack, or a stroke.
Red braced herself for the inevitable sight of her grandmother slumped beside the lamp, her fluffy gray hair stirring in the wind, one pale hand dangling over the walk. Skeletal fingers, tissue-paper skin, seventy feet or more between her fingertips and the ground…
She reached the last landing and found the door to the balcony locked. She cast about for the trapdoor that gave access to the lamp house instead. It was fastened with a simple barrel latch, and her numb fingers had already fumbled it loose before she realized that her grandmother couldn’t be in there — the door was latched from the outside. The thought hit her like a soft, clammy slap, even as she poked her head through the trap and glanced around the lamp room, with its walk of iron grate that circled the massive, slowly revolving light.
It was the smell that hit her first, coppery and cloying.
Red caught her breath. Her other arm went slack, the bag of food she had carried from the village sliding off her shoulder by its own weight and thumping to the floor at last. It was echoed by another thump — the same sound she had heard downstairs. One of the lamp house windows was open; an errant wind sucked it back and released it to thump again.
On the far side of the lamp, however, there was something lying in shadow.
The lamp glided around again. A spit of white swept the wizened figure sprawled across the walk. The fluffy gray hair was stirred by a breeze — the one from the open window. Her hand did not dangle into space but lay curled like a small, dead spider, and as the lamp made its slow, ponderous circle, bathing her in light before drawing away, Red saw the blood staining her grandmother’s palm, the blood that had dried black beneath her ragged nails.
Her own hands were cold and bloodless as she pressed them to the grate. She drew her legs up and squeezed through the trap before stumbling slowly toward the body on the floor.
“Gramma,” she whispered.
From behind her came a single, clotted sound.
Steel curled around her ankles. There was no resisting that pull, no time to think. Darkness yanked her off her feet and she slammed to the grated walkway, her body making the iron shudder and ring. The breath fled from her lungs in a painful shove. The person behind her — man? thing? — landed on her back, its mouth full of panting liquid breaths that smelled of heaviness and shit and heat. A hand gripped the back of her head and shoved her cheek against the walk. The weight of its body bore her down until she could no longer find breath to scream.
Her eyes bugged in the darkness as bright, hot pain sheeted down her back.
Her hips were lifted from the grate. She was flung, shaken like a rabbit in a large dog’s mouth as her clothes were shredded and torn along her back like so much tissue paper. Cool air struck her naked buttocks and licked between her thighs. She gave voice to a low, choking cry — all she could manage with her face pinned to the floor — and then only hair and heat remained.
The man-thing grunted, an explosion of breath, and impaled her.
She could not scream. Pain ruled the world and silenced her, leaving her gasping for a breath that would not come. Her fingers curled through the holes in the floor grate, clinging for life, for sanity, for the shifting dunes beneath a red sky where things like this did not happen. A ragged, rasping growl thundered in her ear. Hot breath stirred her hair, her cheek. Her body jerked forward and back. New pain came, new fire in a ring of blades sinking into her shoulder. She did scream then. She screamed as a mouthful of meat tore free. Screamed until —
(what big teeth you have)
— the snarling thing tore out her throat.
The man’s boots clocked his steps as he walked from the lighthouse and into the thickening night. He nearly blended with that twilight gray himself. The stripes of his sun-bleached shirt showed up against the darkness like the swipe of a paintbrush, while the rest of him stayed as shadowed as the long dusk creeping over the sand.
Behind him, the lighthouse door swung forward, coaxed by the wind, and thumped back against the brick. Beach grass sighed and rattled on the dunes. Fire hinted at the horizon, its bloodstained fingers dragging down the veil of the world.
He looked at the sky, and probed the corner of his mouth with his tongue. He tasted salt and copper there, a life as rich as the ocean calling from just beyond the dunes. That call moved him forward. It brought him down off the steps and back along the shell-littered path.
He walked with purpose, but he did not hurry. Hours or more would pass before the others came to the lighthouse, chasing after daughters and mothers and things that shouldn’t happen to decent people. By then he would be gone, riding the night tide into the dark.
His black eyes lifted to that hint of blood riding low on the far horizon.
His steps quickened.
Red sky at night, he thought, and the tide comes soon.
Copyright © Libby Faucette (2017). All rights reserved.