The Lighthouse on Bloody Shoals
By Alphonse Daudet
Translated by James F. Gaines
Last night I couldn’t sleep. The north wind was angry and the bellows of its great voice kept me awake until dawn. Roughly swinging its worn-out vanes that whistled in the breeze like the rigging of a ship, my old mill creaked all over. Tiles from the roof crazily flew off. In the distance, the clustered pines that covered the hillside waved around and rustled in the dark. You would have thought you were on the high seas…
It reminded me perfectly of the persistent insomnia I had experienced three years earlier, when I lived at the lighthouse on Bloody Shoals, down on the Corsican coast, at the mouth of the Gulf of Ajaccio.
Another pretty spot that I had found to dream in and to be alone.
Imagine a reddish island with a savage appearance, the lighthouse on one end and at the other an old Genoese defensive tower where, in my time, a sea eagle nested. Lower down at the water’s edge, a ruined quarantine station completely invaded by weeds. And then, ravines, scrubland, outcrops of rock, a few feral goats, Corsican ponies prancing with their manes in the wind. Finally, up at the top, amid a gyre of seabirds, the lighthouse keepers’ house with its terrace of white-washed stonework, where the keepers walked back and forth, a green door shaped like the entrance to a monastery, a squat iron tower, and above it all the huge facetted lantern that gleamed even in the daytime with the rays of the sun. That is the scene of the Bloody Shoals as I recalled them that night while listening to the moaning of the pines. That was the magic island where I sometimes shut myself up before I moved to the mill, when I needed fresh air and solitude.
What did I do there?
Just as little as I do here in Provence, but a lot less. When the northers or nor’easters weren’t blowing too badly, I went down to sit between two boulders at the water’s edge, surrounded by seagulls, blackbirds, and swallows, and I remained almost all day in a kind of listless stupor provided by the view of the sea. Don’t you also know that wonderful drunkenness of the soul? You don’t think, you don’t even dream. Everything breaks free from you, flies off, and scatters. You become the diving tern, the spume floating between a couple of breakers, the whitish trail of a boat heading out, the red-sailed skiff of the coral fishermen, a drop of seawater, a patch of fog, anything but yourself. How many glorious hours of somnolence and self-abandon I spent on that little island!
On the days when the wind was up and the water’s edge was unapproachable, I stayed in the courtyard of the quarantine compound, a little melancholy enclosure utterly saturated by the scent of rosemary and wormwood. There, leaning against an old wall, I left myself open to the soft sense of oblivion that floated with the dappled sun among the stone cells that opened on the courtyard like a circle of ancient monuments. From time to time there would be a sound of cracking wood and a wild nanny-goat would spring into view on its way to graze in the lee of the gale. As soon as she noticed me, she froze and stayed quiet and alert, horns to the sky, watching me with childlike eyes…
Around five o’clock, the lighthouse keepers would shout to me through a megaphone to come up for supper. Then I would take a narrow path through the brush that clung to the cliff side above the sea, as I slowly returned to the lighthouse, pausing at every step to gaze over that immense, glowing blue horizon that seemed to get bigger and bigger as I ascended.
It was homey up there. I can still see that pretty oak-paneled dining room with its great flagstones and a steaming bowl of bouillabaisse in the middle of the table. The door was opened wide onto the white terrace and the setting sun streamed in. The keepers were waiting for me to sit down to eat. There were three of them, one fellow from Marseille and two Corsicans, all short, bearded, with the same tanned, wrinkled face and the same village-made sheepskin jacket, but so unlike in temperament and pace. You could sense right away the difference in country lifestyles from the way those characters lived. The man from Marseille was lively and industrious, always up to some scheme, perpetually in movement as he rushed around the island from morning to night, gardening, fishing, collecting birds’ eggs, lurking in the underbrush to catch and milk some passing goat, and always putting some bouillabaisse or aioli on the burner. When the Corsicans, on the other hand, were not on duty, they took care to do nothing at all. They considered themselves Civil Servants and spent the daytime in the kitchen playing innumerable games of scopa, and only putting down their cards to light their pipes solemnly or to use the scissors to cut up tobacco leaves into their cupped hands. To sum it up, whether from Marseille or Corsica, all three were good old fellows, plain and straight-forward, and full of consideration for their boarder, whom they must have judged to be a very odd duck.
Just think of shutting yourself up in a lighthouse for fun! They found their own days quite long and were happy when it came their turn to go ashore. In the fine weather, this great privilege was accorded them once a month: ten days ashore for every thirty on the island, that was the rule. But when the change of seasons brought heavy weather, all rules were off. The gales blew, the waves battered the cliffs, and the Bloody Shoals were soaked with spray. The lighthouse keepers were entrapped for two or three months on end, sometimes in quite insufferable circumstances.
“Here’s what happened, to me, sir,” Old Bartoldi recounted one evening at supper time, “Here’s what happened to me five years ago at this very table where we now find ourselves. One winter evening, just like tonight, there were two of us here at the light, me and a buddy called Chico. The others were ashore, sick or on leave, I don’t remember. We were just finishing a nice, quiet supper when all at once, my friend stops eating, looks at me for an instant with strange eyes, and poof!, he falls face down on the table. I came around and shook him and called out, ‘Chico! Chico!’ No good, he was dead. You can just imagine my feelings. For more than an hour I trembled stupidly there, staring at the corpse. Then, suddenly, an idea popped into my head, “What about the light!” I barely had time to scramble upstairs to light the lantern. It was already dark. Well, sir, what a night! The sea and the wind did not have their natural voices at all. It seemed to me that someone was continually calling to me from the stairwell. I became feverish and damned thirsty, but wild horses could not have dragged me down those steps. I was too afraid of that corpse. However, as dawn broke, I got up a little courage. I carried my friend to his bed, pulled up his sheets, dashed off a quick prayer, and then raced to the semaphore flags.”
“Unfortunately, the sea was too rough. I signaled and signaled, to no avail. Nobody came. There I was for three days in the lighthouse with the earthly remains of my friend Chico and God only knew how long it would last. I hoped to keep him near me until a boat arrived, but after three days it became unbearable. What to do? Take him outside? Bury him? The ground was nothing but bedrock and there are so many crows on the island. It would be a shame to abandon a Christian soul to their greedy beaks. Then I thought about bringing him down to the quarantine station. That sad chore took a whole afternoon, and I can tell you it took a ton of courage. Look, sir, even today, when I go along that side of the island on a windy afternoon, I can feel the weight of that dead man on my shoulders,”
Poor Old Bartoldi. Beads of sweat ran down his forehead at the mere thought of it.
Thus we spent our meals in long conversation: the lighthouse, the sea, tales of shipwrecks, stories of Corsican bandits. Then, as the sun went down, the keeper on first shift lit his hand lantern, took up his pipe, his canteen, and a fat volume of Plutarch with a red ribbon marker that constituted the entire library of the Bloody Shoals, and disappeared into the shadows. After a few seconds everyone in the building could hear a fracas of chains, pulleys, and ponderous counterweights being hauled up into position.
As for myself, I went out onto the terrace and took a seat. The sun, already very low, dropped more and more quickly toward the sea, pulling the whole horizon along with it. The breeze grew colder and the whole island turned purple. In the nearby sky a massive bird glided slowly by, the sea eagle on its way home to the nest in the Genoese tower. Little by little the twilight thickened and soon one could only see the curls of white foam around the edge of the island. Suddenly, above my head, a ray of light shot out. The lantern of the lighthouse had been lit. Leaving the rest of the island itself in shadow, the beam projected its soft light far off onto the sea. I was lost in the dark beneath those great swaths of light that scarcely trickled down as they swept overhead. But the wind was freshening and it was time to go inside. Feeling my way, I closed the heavy door and bolted it, then located the little iron stairway that shook and squeaked under my weight, and came finally to the cabin at the top of the lighthouse. Here, there was certainly a great deal of light!
Think of a gigantic Carcel lamp with six rows of wicks, around which revolved the panes of the lantern, half filled with huge crystal lenses and the other half opening onto fixed sheets of glass that kept the lamp sheltered from any wind. I was stunned as I entered. Glittering reflections of copper, zinc, and tin, and those curved crystal panels that spun in great bluish circles, all those mirrors and the clanking of polished clockwork made me dizzy for a minute. Yet, my eyes gradually got used to it and I came and sat down at the foot of the lamp next to the keeper who was reading his Plutarch out loud so as not to fall asleep.
Outside, a great pit of darkness. On the little balcony that wound around the lantern, the wind tore by, howling like a madman. The lighthouse creaked and the sea groaned. On the point of the island, on the rugged boulders, the breakers exploded like cannon fire. Every so often an invisible finger would tap on the glass. Some night bird attracted by the light had bashed itself into the glass panels. Inside the hot, glittering lantern, the only perceptible noises were the guttering of the flames, the dripping of oil, the chains inching along, and a monotonous voice chanting out the life of Demetrius of Phaleria.
At midnight, the keeper stood up, cast a last glance over his wicks, and we went downstairs. On the way down, we met our companion who held the second watch. He was rubbing his eyes on his way up. We handed him the canteen and the Plutarch. Then, before getting into our beds, we crossed the lower room cluttered with chains, barrels of lamp oil, ropes, and there, in the circle cast by the little portable lantern, the keeper completed his shift by writing in the heavy log book that always sat open: Midnight. Heavy seas. Storm approaching. Ship coming in.