Salt Stain

by Zoe F. Gilbert
At first I missed corners. Dust rolls round in ever-increasing balls until they snag on a table leg or encounter a drip from a spray-soaked window. Salt creeps in crystalline spirals. Cobwebs are precarious, anchored across arcs, but a cobweb here must be as tough as the nets the fishermen fix along the shore.

In a lighthouse at night, up in the lightroom, you existing for one second out of four, a speck caught in a giant’s torch beam.

You are never alone there. You, closest to the limelight, the moon eye, are the envy of thousands – I may say tens of thousands – of unrequited night flyers. At each flash through a given pane, you may witness a crowd of small bodies hurled against the glass. The panes are drifted with moth dust, edges thick with wings, legs, tributes left to the light. The spiders, crouched in their reinforced swags, are fat. Bats feast and fall away, dazed with their own gluttony.

On one of my first nights, still and stuffy above the languid sea, I opened the window and crept back down the curve of stair to my teacup and toast. Leaving the light to its work, I dozed in the warmth. By morning the lightroom was dark, felted in with overlapping wings, the bulbs turning invisible in their now opaque casing.

All day I scraped and scrubbed in a livid, living cloud. All week I swept forsaken bodies from the floor. Never open the window in a lighthouse at night.

Now I’ve grown accustomed to my cornerless life. I’ve sheared the edges from a few things, to better fit the space. I can slide three storeys of spiral staircase without getting dizzy.

I’ve grown accustomed also to a night landscape that flashes, landmarks that come and go, come and go. The boats I dream of never come, but after all that’s what I’m here for. I hadn’t considered that I would take for a home a place that is designed to repel travellers, and that sits inevitably at the furthest point. There are no outskirts beyond me, no lonelier neighbour. Seafarers spot me and turn away in haste.

So when you came, I was not ready. The spare teacup had been redeployed as a soap dish by then. I hoped you didn’t taste it when you slurped there, in the only chair.

I didn’t mind your brand of company; I am used to silence. I enjoyed making my own story out of you and your changes, even if I had to remake it as time passed. Being alone so long had set my mind to filling emptiness.

To begin with, I surmised fatigue. You had travelled, your eyes were dark with weariness, it was natural you would pass the hours bound in blankets, wedged against the round of my wall, in the quiet, out of the draft. Sometimes tiredness kills the appetite. Who am I to prescribe when a person should eat, wash, talk, sleep? My own habits strayed from the conventional some time ago.

After several days of inertia, my only triumph to wedge that teacup between your stiff hands, I romanticised an ascetic: a meditating wanderer who wisely chose a lighthouse for its stolid solitude, its bare aesthetic. You would stand in the wind and sea spray like my whitewashed tower, and be at peace within.

But your eyes, still dark, did not suggest peace, but a kind of emptiness. You, or something that sustained you, was lost.

You spilled your teacup one night. When the wet patch dried it left a white, crystalline edge, like a fine frill. I thought nothing of it. So much is salt-stained here.

On the first of September, you foxed me again. The mussels had been growing huge on the rocks. My mouth watered each low tide at the sight of them, little pouches of succulence. The first harvest is made sweetest by that wait. Call it superstition but I won’t touch them until there’s an ‘r’ in the month. You almost laughed, I think, when I explained, but your mouth was full of mussel flesh by then, chewing and swallowing all at once. Gobbling, I’d call it. Your eyes shone until you fell asleep, a shell clutched in your fingers. Maybe it was the first deep sleep, but you called out that night, sad-sounding wails that drifted up to my bed. I wondered again what you had lost.

Round and round we went. Your silence was never awkward; I took it for pride, or imputed feelings rather as I had to a pet as a child. Something greater than domestic or social concerns, something larger than me and my helter-skelter home, held you there, in your white-crusted blanket.

Then one evening, close to dusk, when I had dawdled in the heather and the late sun, I was in such a hurry to reach the lightroom and set the beam in its revolutions that I dashed right past your space by the wall.

You stood at the lightroom window, pressed up against the glass. I don’t hear the sea sound anymore but I noticed it then, the gentle wish-washing of waves raking pebbles. The moon was a day past full, lighting the frilled crests in lines along the shore and promising a spring tide. In the darkest hours the water would reach its highest, lapping against the foundation stones of my tower.

I started the light and stood beside you until the first moths fluttered into view. Your eyes tracked them in their erratic paths, batting the glass, dropping, hauling up again. I’ve seen it so many times that I no longer marvel, nor wince at their self-destructive love. They make no more sense to me than I to them. But I could see why it might keep you there, eyes sweeping the sky with the beam, so I descended to my teacup, my rug, and soon slept.

There were moths in my hair when I woke. Brown bodies furred the stairs, caught on my socks as I quickened my steps up to the fuzzy gloom of the lightroom. The window stood open, one rectangle of grey light showing where your blanket lay crumpled on the wing-carpeted floor.

Spring tides draw the water in closest, but they drag it furthest away. I sit in the only chair, staring at the empty space by the wall and the salt stain beside it. Later, when I get up, when the rocks and pebbles and finally the sand are exposed all the way out into the bay, I will take my tool bag with me to the lightroom. When I have scraped and scrubbed and swept, I will seal that window shut.
Zoe F Gilbert lives in London, UK, half the time and the world of her current novel the other. She blogs about art, philosophy and creative writing and is currently being distracted from writing by making bad pottery.

© 2011, Zoe F. Gilbert