Ghost Light

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  1. #1

    Ghost Light

    As the cab rumbled up the long drive, I saw the lighthouse standing stark against the brooding sky on this lonely, craggy stretch of coastline. Grandfather’s house, nestled at the base, looked as though it had grown out of the very stone of the cliffs.

    Grandfather… I hadn’t seen him since I was a boy. He’d frightened me, back then. I guess I’d been around 8 years old at the time, and he’d seemed impossibly tall and gaunt, towering over me, with his piercing blue eyes and nimbus of wild, white hair. He’d always been the family black sheep and no one had heard from him in years. I’d graduated college a few weeks previous with a degree in Humanities, and was in need of a vacation. I’d decided to make the journey to check on the old man.

    The cab’s tires crunched on the gravel as we came to a stop. I paid the driver and collected my bag. As I approached the porch, a murder of crows burst into the bruised sky in a cacophony of cawing and beating wings. The timbers of the place were black with the ravages of time and weather, and an air of desolation hung over everything. The sea was a sickly green in the gathering dusk, and I could hear the waves thundering against the rocks below.

    In the deepening shadows of the porch, I shook off a sense of unease. There was a lion’s head knocker oxidized to a green patina. I raised the thick ring and brought it down, the thud echoing through the house, and I waited. After a long interval, I tried the door. It opened, and I stepped inside, calling out, “Hello! Grandfather!?”

    Standing in the gloom, I listened for a long moment. All I could hear was the tick-tock of a massive, black grandfather clock in the sitting room, the pendulum larger than any I’d ever seen. In the dim light, I could make out pieces of furniture covered with sheets, and strewn across the floor in various states of assembly, there looked to be parts of a dozen enormous telescopes, the casings and tripods of walnut and brass. Bookshelves lined the walls, the contents disheveled and haphazardly arranged. Hoping I wouldn’t find the old man dead somewhere, I dropped my bag on a chair and walked deeper into the house toward a narrow hallway lit dimly with sconces. The ticking of the clock followed me. It was so loud, it sounded like a hammer.

    Presently, I came to a set of stairs leading downward. I could hear what sounded like the hum and jarring thud of machinery from below. I descended the stairs until I came to a stout oaken door. I opened it, and the smell of oil, the sight of a massive, horizontal machine with rotating gears, and the glaring brightness of the room, assaulted my senses. There, in the midst of it all, was my grandfather. His head jerked up as I entered the room, and he shouted over the machinery that took up most of the workshop, “Max! How are ya,’ lad?!”
    He was just as I remembered. He wore low boots, a pair of khaki work pants and a V-neck undershirt.

    “Hello, Grandfather!”

    He wove his way through all the machinery until he was close, peered down at me for a moment, and then extended a massive hand. As I shook his thorny paw, it felt as though mine were completely engulfed.

    “Grandfather, what is this?” I asked, gesturing to the gears.

    He grinned and waved at it dismissively. “Eh… Later! Later… Witches! Time! The stars!!”

    I looked into those laser blue eyes, and they seemed to shine with a crazed light. The trickle of unease returned.

    “Well, come on, then! It’s time for a little supper!” And with that, he began tramping up the stairs. The clock’s ticking dominated the room, along with the occasional slam of the machine in the basement. In the kitchen, he pulled out a platter of chicken from the refrigerator, hacked off two thick pieces of bread from a rough-looking loaf, and set it all down with a clatter in the narrow dining nook. He poured two glasses of whiskey, handed me one, and sat.

    As we ate, I filled him in on what the rest of the family was doing, what my plans were for the future, and other minutiae. Although he nodded or grunted occasionally, I could tell he really wasn’t very interested. Periodically, I would glimpse him looking at me with an almost appraising eye, as though he were sizing me up. He asked about my studies, and as I told him about some of the more esoteric things I’d worked on, his eyes lit up again with that crazed glow.

    After a time, we both grew silent, sipping our whiskey. He drew his pipe and a pouch of tobacco from his pockets, packed the pipe, and lit it with a match. His head wreathed in smoke, he sat back and peered at me.

    “I suppose you’re wondering what I’m doing down there in the basement.”

    I nodded and he continued, “Long before the lighthouse was ever built, a coven of witches used to meet on these cliffs.” He paused to draw on his pipe. “Legend has it that one night, in the middle of a great storm, the entire coven was destroyed. They all fell, or were blown from the cliffs, or,” he chuckled, “they flew away on their brooms! But, anyway, they vanished, and they were never seen again.”

    “That’s a wild story,” I said, “but maybe they just stopped meeting, or something.”

    “Unlikely, lad. I’ve found some writings, and as near as I can make out, they were playing around with some amazing things! They were trying to control time, or maybe the weather, through a mix of astronomy, ceremonial mumbo-jumbo, and I don’t know what-all. They all lived together in this very house, and they left behind quite a body of work; recipes, herbs, candles, fossils, journals, and whatnot. The strange thing is, they got close! They got close enough that…” he drew on his pipe and exhaled, “that I decided to carry on their work!”

    Scarcely daring to breathe, my mind reeled with all that he was telling me. I sipped at my whiskey and waited for him to continue. Carry on their work?

    “Anyway, the one book I’ve found, appears to be the second of two, and I’ve been able to decipher very little of it; never mind the fact that the paper is so old, it fairly crumbles in my hands! Once I waded through a lot of the nonsense, I was left with a bunch o’ diagrams which ended up being about the only truly useful thing I found in all of it. Little by little, I’ve been able to assemble this machine, but near as I can tell, they also made use of some kind of astrological stuff. I know there’s more to it. I’ve found references to a star chart, or maybe it’s some sort of instrument… Also, there was a picture of a crystal; a sort of diode, maybe…”

    I sipped my whiskey as the old man relit his pipe. “It sounds kind of like an astrolabe,” I offered, “And if it is, then one can probably be purchased.”

    I could hear the waves crashing louder, noting that the tide was coming in.

    “I thought of that, but what the diagrams show, looks different from what I’ve seen. I’ve been all through this house, torn the bookcases apart, hunted high and low, but there’s one place I haven’t been able to check.”

    With that, the old man perched his pipe on the edge of his plate and abruptly rose from the table, “Come on, lad!”

    The feeling of trepidation returning, I followed him to the living room, where he shoved telescope parts to the sides with his boots to clear a path, and came to a stop before the clock. He opened the pendulum cabinet and with some effort, stopped the great pendulum. He motioned, “See? You see, lad?!” I edged closer and looked into the cabinet. I could faintly make out what looked like a set of stairs, and looked back at him, brows raised.

    I can’t get in there; I’m just too big, but you! You could fit!”

    I looked at him, mouth agape, but he was already in the kitchen, rummaging recklessly through drawer after drawer, and I could hear him pulling things out in his frenzy, the contents spilling to the floor. From one, he pulled a large flashlight. He switched it on, but the light was weak and dim. He hammered it against his palm in vain. He swore softly, yanked out another drawer, dug around, and then slammed it shut. He pulled out another, riffling through it, until finally, he pulled out four batteries. He unscrewed the back of the light, dumped the old batteries onto the floor where they rolled crazily, and slid the new batteries into place. He turned the flashlight on again, and this time, the beam was bright and clear.

    “Ha!” he exclaimed, “Ha! Got it!” He chuckled, and I felt sure that he was close to dancing a jig, so excited he was. He shoved the flashlight into my hands and grabbing me under the arm, all but hoisted me to the clock cabinet. I had to admit that curiosity had gotten the better of me. I certainly hadn’t expected to see a set of stairs inside the pendulum housing.

    I shone the beam downward. There was a very steep set of narrow stairs that disappeared beyond the beam of the flashlight.

    “Well, go on, lad!” grandfather urged.

    I pushed one leg into the cabinet, rolling my shoulders to the side so I could enter. The huge pendulum rattled and banged deafeningly as I eased into the cabinet. I now stood entirely inside, facing a treacherous descent. I glanced back at my grandfather. Once again, his eyes were ablaze with that mad light and he motioned with his hand as if to say, Well, go on, then! and for an instant, I marveled at the series of events that had brought me to this point.

    Descending carefully, I found I had to angle sideways to keep my footing. The deeper I descended, the wider and colder the cavern became. I knew I was likely far beneath the basement, as the walls were hewn out of the same black rock as the cliffs. The sound of the ocean was now a steady roar, and I could feel the concussion of the waves buffeting the cliff face.

    Ahead of me, the beam illuminated a narrow landing, with the staircase taking a ninety-degree turn to the right. I stopped on the landing, wondering how much further the stairs went. As an experiment, I switched the flashlight off. The darkness was thorough. If I would have closed my eyes, the darkness wouldn’t have been any more complete. I switched the light on again.

    I continued downward and became aware of a faint glow. Again, I switched the flashlight off. In a depression behind the stairs was a pool of luminous seawater that gave off a greenish, aqua-colored glow that gently suffused the cavern with its light. I’d heard of bioluminescent plankton before, but this was the first time I’d ever seen it. The glow it gave off was almost ethereal. I turned the flashlight on again and continued my descent.

    Abruptly, the stairs came to an end and I found myself in a corridor with a floor wide enough for me to walk comfortably. As I progressed, the cavern continued to widen. The pounding of the waves made the whole cavern reverberate with each concussion. I moved forward until I entered a large room.

    The floor was level and clean of any debris. The walls were smoother, with iron torch mounts embedded into the rock. In the center of the room, there was a long, dark table with seven chairs around it, and looked to be either mahogany or ebony. At the back of the room, there was a small stone table; an altar? There was a bundle in the middle of it, wrapped in silk. I ran my hand over it and it felt smooth and cool. Maybe this was what the old man was wanting! I unknotted the fabric to reveal a book of sorts. It was obviously extremely old, with covers that had been tied with rough twine that wrapped around the binding. Along with the book, there was a brass disc with gears and handles, with what looked like Sumerian cuneiforms inscribed in it. The whole thing had a greenish patina to it. The astrolabe! I left the bundle on the altar so I could continue exploring the room.

    I examined the chairs, then knelt down and looked at the underside of the table. Obviously, all of it was handmade, but it revealed an amazing level of craftsmanship. I continued on, walking the perimeter until I ended up on the backside of the altar. There was a small alcove in the wall, and I saw what looked like large earthen jars. They reminded me of the organ containers found in the pyramids, and I grinned wryly. I sniffed at the contents and discovered that it was water. I put a finger in it and tentatively raised it to my lips. It tasted clean and cool. I also saw a bundle of torches wrapped in burlap that looked serviceable.

    I knelt down to study the writing on the altar’s base, when my knee came down on something hard. I shone the light to find that I’d rested my knee on an enormous green stone, oblong, and cut into a six-sided rod, about a foot in length. I hefted it and rested it on the altar. I wrapped everything up in the silk wrap and tied it off. The whole package was pretty heavy, but fortunately, the wrap was long enough that I could carry it like a satchel, so I tied it across my chest and headed out of the cavern. I stopped at the base of the stairs to catch my breath and reposition the bundle, then continued what felt like an eternal ascent. By the time I got to the clock cabinet, my legs and back were so fatigued, they felt like they were on fire.

    Grandfather seized me under the arm and helped me out of the cabinet. His eyes shone with a wild light as he saw the bundle over my shoulder. He carefully restarted the pendulum after setting the time.

    “What happened, lad?! What’d ya’ find?! Come on! Bring it over to the table!”

    I set the bundle on the table and sank into my chair. I raised my glass and finished off the rest of my whiskey, welcoming the way it burned as it went down. I could hear the wind rising and wondered if a storm was brewing.

    As I related the journey down the steps, the cavern, and all that had transpired, I could tell that the old man was only listening with half an ear. He was untying the knots of the cloth, and as he spread it open, he gazed in awe. He held the stone up and proclaimed, “The diode! You found the diode! Good lad!”

    He then pulled out the astrolabe, running his hands over it, peering at the inscribed characters. He carefully pulled out the ancient tome and looked at the cover. He looked at me, eyes burning feverishly, and smiled. There was something so terrible and horrifying in that smile. I chastised myself for thinking so. After all, he was my grandfather. Still, I felt a chill run through me.

    “Come on, lad!”

    He grabbed the diode and the brass instrument and began striding for the hallway. I leapt up, trotting after him. By the time I caught up, he was already winding his way around the gears of the machine. The machine let out another thud that nearly clacked my teeth together, sounding for all the world like it was trying to shake itself apart.

    The old man placed the astrolabe on the bench, examined the diode on one end and the other, and then bent down. He let out a grunt of effort, and then there was an audible click as the diode was fitted into place. At that moment, the machine seemed to run more smoothly. The constant hitching thud that it had previously emitted, was now gone.

    Grandfather straightened up, a broad grin on his face, and I found myself beaming in return, almost laughing. I still wasn’t sure what the machine was or what it did, but I knew that something momentous had just taken place, some major success, and it was gratifying.

    He opened the book, tenderly turning page after page, pausing to examine one page and another, until he’d nearly reached the end. He stopped and peered at one page in particular, glancing at the machinery, then back to the book again. He gave a satisfied nod and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. He turned to face me, his eyes ablaze, “Okay, lad! Can ya’ make any sense of this stuff?” he asked, gesturing to the ancient brass instrument. I threaded my way to the workbench, peered at the characters and dials of the astrolabe, and saw that there was a way to set the year, month, and day.

    I explained this to Grandfather, and he smiled broadly. When I asked what date and time he wanted it set to, he peered at his book, then hastily turned to the other volume, and then smiled at me again. “Turn it to today’s date, of course, lad! Say, midnight?”

    I turned the discs and rotated the dials to the date, then set the time for midnight. Grandfather held his hands out, and I handed it back to him. It looked like a toy in his huge hands. Holding it almost reverently, he waded into the middle of the machine and set it into some socket that I couldn’t see. There was a ratcheting sound, and then the machine went nearly silent, the hum fading to a soft, barely audible whir.

    “What time is it, lad?”

    I checked my watch. “Nearly eleven o’clock.”

    Grandfather nodded.

    We returned upstairs just in time to hear the massive clock sound the last of the eleventh hour, the echoes reverberating in the rafters. Grandfather poured us another glass of whiskey. We were seated, and he lit his pipe. Outside, the wind was becoming a gale. From the corner of my eye, I thought I saw lightning through the window, but the color seemed wrong, somehow. I rose and peered through the window to see that it wasn’t lightning at all, but a luminous cloud of flickering green light that hovered over of the rooftop, winding around the lighthouse tower in a lazy, ascending spiral.

    “Grandfather! That light!”

    He nodded, smiling. “Ghost light, lad. Some call it St. Elmo’s Fire… It happens a lot, here.” He grinned. “Maybe it’s the witches coming home!”
    I gave a wry grin, uneasy again, and sipped my whiskey. The wind and rain began to beat harder against the windows. Grandfather looked at me kindly and said, “Max, you’re a good lad. Thank you for your help.” His eyes were no longer fever bright. Instead, he looked a little drawn.

    Through the floor, I could feel the low throb of the machinery. My head began to nod as a wave of fatigue swept over me, my eyelids growing heavy and starting to close.

    I jerked awake. The clock showed ten minutes to midnight. Grandfather was no longer seated at the table. I had a terrible feeling of dread, and in a panic, I called, “Grandfather! Grandfather, where are you?!”

    I clattered down the stairs to the basement, calling for him. He wasn’t there. The machine had taken on a deeper tone. It sounded ominous, somehow. I ran back up the stairs, pausing in the living room. The rain was thrumming on the rooftop. I caught another glimpse of ghost light flickering through the window, and in that awful glow, something else caught my eye; Grandfather! He was standing on the balcony of the lighthouse, arms outstretched, face lifted to the sky, rain and wind tearing at his clothing, and he was illuminated in the sickly green of ghost light. I ran back to the stairs, unsure what to do; whether to race up to the tower and bring him back to the safety of the house, or run down to the basement and rip the guts out of the infernal machine that seemed to be at the heart of all of this insanity. I chose the latter. Bolting down the stairs, I skidded to a stop before the heavy door. I threw my weight against it, throwing it wide. Above the diode, I could see a green glow, similar to the ghost light. I ran through the narrow corridors of the machinery until I came to where the diode was mounted. I seized it with the intention of yanking it from the machine, but it was blazing hot and burned my hands. I could hear the sound of the machine growing louder, rising in pitch, as though it were spooling up. I could feel my palms beginning to blister, but considered yanking the astrolabe out the machine. I desperately began searching for it, but it was impossible to find in the sea of gears and cogs, and I hadn’t seen the exact location grandfather had placed it. I swore.

    Panicked, I bolted up the stairs as the clock began to pound midnight into the rafters. I could feel every hair on my body begin to tingle, and before I had a chance to react, the inside of the house and the land outside suddenly flashed into a blinding daylight. I fell against the window ledge just in time to see the biggest bolt of lightning I’ve ever seen, strike the lighthouse tower, forks splitting off and striking the chimney and rooftop. The soundwave threw me on my back, deafened by the thunderclap that rocked the house like an earthquake. I skidded across the floor, landing in the living room. The great, hulking grandfather clock teetered and almost impossibly slowly, toppled forward. I rolled away as it slammed down embedding itself halfway into the floor, the chimes clanging and crashing. The air was thick with the odor of ozone, and more ominously, smoke. I could hear flames crackling in the eaves. I tore open the front door to escape, just as the whole flaming inferno of the porch swung down, coming straight at me. With a yell, I slammed the door, momentarily at a loss, when I spied the gaping hole in the floor where the clock had been rooted.

    The heat of the fire began to pop the panes out of the windows and the fire was roaring, devouring the house like a raging beast, and that made up my mind. I scrambled and dove straight for the hole in the floor. I hit the stairs and tumbled down the first eight or nine steps before I was able to break my fall. I could feel the beginning of what were likely to be spectacular bruises, my arms and legs scraped up, my left ankle throbbing in a sickening way, but I kept going, half-stumbling my way down the stairs that were now illuminated by the surreal light of the flames overhead. Deeper and deeper I went until I hit the landing. The seawater behind the stairs was higher now, but the soft, bluish glow was oddly calming.

    I heaved a breath, discovering that I’d likely cracked a rib, and continued slowly, albeit painfully, downward. After the heat of the flames, the cool air of the cavern felt like a blessing.

    In the darkness, I jarred my sprained ankle, expecting another stair, and instead, found myself on the path to the cavern room. I heaved a grateful sigh and pushed myself the rest of the way. I entered the room, sank to the floor, and rolled onto my back.

    “Grandfather…” I whispered, my chest aching with the guilty knowledge that I’d had a hand in his fate. I crawled to the alcove behind the altar, pulled myself to my feet, and cupping my hands, drank long and deep from one of the urns of water. I considered lighting one of the torches, but instead, pulled myself onto the table, buried my head in my arms, and fell into a fitful sleep full of machines and telescopes, ghost light and fires, witches, and crows.

    I awoke after what seemed like several hours, stiff and sore. I groaned and swung my feet off the table, my ribs aching and my ankle tender. Worse than those physical pains, was the memory of my grandfather. I sat with my head in my hands for a long time, feeling on the verge of tears, but they wouldn’t come. I finally lowered myself to the floor and drank some more water from one of the jars. With the help of some flint in the alcove, I lit one of the torches.

    I took a last glance at the room, then followed the passage to the stairs and began the long ascent, filled with trepidation at what I would find. As I rounded the corner of the landing, I could see daylight above me, so I extinguished the torch in the pool of seawater and forged ahead.

    I dragged myself out of the hole and stared in horror at the destruction around me. The only thing left of the house was the base of the chimney, some of the flooring, and the basic frame of the house. The clock was still there, but the heat had warped and burst all the mechanisms. Looking at it reminded me of the machine in the basement. I could see straight down through a gaping hole in the floor. Nothing of the machine remained, thankfully. Maybe the oil of the gears had something to do with it, or perhaps it was providence, but aside from the basic framework, twisted and warped beyond recognition now, there was truly nothing left of it.

    Picking my way over the ruined timbers of the porch, my mouth hung open in wonder; the lighthouse was gone, save for a white ring of stones marking the foundation. It reminded me of the ritual circles I’d seen in my Humanities courses… I shoved the thought from my mind.

    I crossed to the edge of the cliff where the lighthouse had stood. Most of it was scattered below, littering the side of the cliff, the stones shining white in the gentle waves of low tide. I stood for a long moment, thinking of my grandfather, before I turned and headed toward the road.

    A soft breeze was rising, ruffling my hair, herding the remaining clouds from last night’s storm out to the horizon. A murder of crows wheeled overhead, cawing, and flew away, heading inland. I sighed, stuffed my hands in my pockets, and started descending the hill in the direction of the town below, hoping I could hitch a ride.
    Last edited by Amnesiac; February 23rd, 2019 at 10:40 PM.

  2. #2
    Hi Amnesiac. This was really well done! I loved the story and your ability to heighten the tension was apparent. The only constructive comment I could make is that I think it should be longer. It seems a little rushed throughout, as if you had a word-count limit or something. There's also some basic knowledge of machinery that eluded me, but I found it a little odd that the MC knew so much, without giving a background for that knowledge. I think if you took the time to flesh out a lot of areas, such as -

    He’d always been the family black sheep and no one had heard from him in years.
    Why was he the "black sheep" of the family?

    All I could hear was the tick-tock of a massive, black grandfather clock in the sitting room, the pendulum larger than any I’d ever seen.
    When you say "massive," it might help to give dimensions, since he, at a future point, is able to actually fit inside the clock.

    Why would someone with a degree in Humanities know so much about diodes and astrolabes?

    I just think this could be an absolutely awesome piece with a little more information, especially about the two characters who reside here. The ending seems a little abrupt. I've read some flash fiction that ends with no real conclusion, but I would have liked to have known more specifically what had happened to his Grandfather.
    He was standing on the balcony of the lighthouse, arms outstretched, face lifted to the sky, rain and wind tearing at his clothing, and he was illuminated in the sickly green of ghost light.
    Maybe you could have your MC find something of his before he leaves? Maybe his pipe or something small like that? Just a thought. Otherwise really well done and very intense! Good job and keep going. Thanks for letting us read your work.
    When the night has come
    And the land is dark
    And the moon is the only light we'll see
    No, I won't be afraid, no I won't be afraid
    Just as long as you stand by me.


  3. #3
    He poured two of glasses of whiskey,
    Slight typo.

    You have some great images there, but at times it seemed a bit list like; I noticed it here first,

    The cab’s tires crunched on the gravel as we came to a stop. I paid the driver and collected my bag. As I approached the porch, a murder of crows burst into the bruised sky in a cacophony of cawing and beating wings. The timbers of the place were black with the ravages of time and weather, and an air of desolation hung over everything. The sea was a sickly green in the gathering dusk, and I could hear the waves thundering against the rocks below.

    Sorry, posted before I meant to...

    - can you see what I mean? It would be good if you could tie things together a bit, "A murder of crows burst into the bruised sky in a cacophony of cawing and beating wings, veering inland away from the sickly green sea that thundered against the rocks below, as I approached the porch." That sort of thing.
    Last edited by Olly Buckle; February 23rd, 2019 at 08:43 PM.
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  4. #4
    Thank you, Sue. Great questions. I've also thought that I should develop the grandfather's backstory a little more, particularly if I was going to turn this into a novel or novella.

    The question about the young man knowing about diodes -- It's definitely something I need to address; probably throw in a sentence or two describing some of the things he'd read/studied/heard lectures about, etc.

    As for the grandfather, I thought that the destruction of everything implied that he had, like the witches, either vanished or met his end in the lightning strike and ensuing destruction, but yes, your suggestion is very good, and I think it would help the young man's state of mind if he could take away some memento.

    Thank you for reading, and thank you for taking the time to critique this story, as well. I appreciate it very much!
    Her: I love my computer! All of my friends are in there!
    Me: Yeah, I was thinking the same thing about my freezer...
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  5. #5
    Wonderful! Thanks, Olly, for catching that typo. Just goes to show, no matter how many times I read my own work, I still miss things.

    I see what you mean about the listing. When I started writing this, I had no idea how long it was going to be, so I was compressing everything, trying to dash off a quick picture in the readers' minds. I can definitely go back and open things up a little.

    Thank you so much for taking the time to read my work and to offer a critique. Much appreciated!

  6. #6

    Ghost Light (Rewrite)

    I've added some backstory to the grandfather, corrected some awkward sentences, and added some hopefully interesting bits to the end.

    Thank you for your patience and kind assistance. I very much appreciate it. I've been working on this thing non-stop, today.


    As the cab rumbled up the long drive, I saw the lighthouse standing stark against the brooding sky on this lonely, craggy stretch of coastline. Grandfather’s house, nestled at the base, looked as though it had grown out of the very stone of the cliffs.

    Grandfather… I hadn’t seen him since I was a boy. He’d frightened me, back then. I guess I’d been around 8 years old at the time, and he’d seemed impossibly tall and gaunt, towering over me, with his piercing blue eyes and nimbus of wild, iron-gray hair. He’d always been the family black sheep and no one had heard from him in years.

    I’d graduated college a few weeks previous with degrees in humanities and anthropology and was in need of a vacation, so I’d made the journey to check on the old man.

    The story told to me by my uncle, my father’s older brother, was that after my grandmother died in her early twenties, Grandfather went a little crazy. He’d left my father and his brother with an aunt and uncle, and spent years in the Merchant Marines. Tiring of life at sea, he’d come home for a brief visit, but soon found the cottage and lighthouse on an especially inhospitable section of coast. He’d lived like a hermit ever since, refusing contact with anyone, and eventually the family all but forgot about him. His story became the stuff of family legend…

    I was shaken from my reverie by the cab’s tires crunching on the gravel drive, as we came to a stop. I paid the driver and collected my bag. As I approached the porch, a murder of crows burst into the bruised sky in a cacophony of cawing and beating wings. The timbers of the place were black with the ravages of time and weather, and an air of desolation hung over everything. The sea was a sickly green in the gathering dusk, and I could hear the waves thundering against the rocks below.

    In the deep shadows of the porch, I shook off a sense of unease. There was a lion’s head knocker oxidized to a green patina and I raised the thick ring and brought it down, the thud echoing through the house. After a long interval, I tried the door. It opened, and I stepped inside, calling out, “Hello! Grandfather!?”

    Standing in the gloom, I listened for a long moment. All I could hear was the tick-tock of a massive, black grandfather clock in the sitting room, the pendulum larger than any I’d ever seen, the height of the cabinet itself lost in the gloom of the high rafters. In the dim light, I could make out pieces of furniture covered with sheets, and strewn across the floor in various states of assembly, there looked to be the parts of a dozen enormous telescopes, the casings and tripods of walnut and brass. Bookshelves lined the walls, the contents disheveled and haphazardly arranged. Hoping I wouldn’t find the old man dead somewhere, I dropped my bag on a chair and walked deeper into the house toward a narrow hallway lit with sconces. The ticking of the clock followed me. It was so loud, it sounded like a hammer.

    Presently, I came to a set of stairs leading downward. I could hear what sounded like the hum and jarring thud of machinery from below. I descended the stairs until I came to a stout oaken door. I opened it and the smell of oil, the sight of a massive horizontal machine with rotating gears, and the glaring brightness of the room, assaulted my senses. There, in the midst of it all, was my grandfather. His head jerked up as I entered the room, and I worried that he would be angry at the intrusion and throw me out. Instead, he shouted over the machinery that took up most of the workshop, “Max! How are ya,’ lad?!”

    He was just as I remembered, except that his wild hair had gone stark white. He wore work boots, a pair of khaki work pants, and a V-neck undershirt.

    “Hello, Grandfather!”

    He wove his way through all the machinery until he was close, peered down at me for a moment, and then extended a massive hand. As I shook his thorny paw, it felt as though mine were completely engulfed.

    “Grandfather, what is this?” I asked, gesturing to the gears.

    He grinned and waved at it dismissively. “Eh… Later! Later… Witches! Time! The stars!!”

    I looked into those laser blue eyes, and they seemed to shine with a crazed light. The trickle of unease returned.
    “Well, come on, then! It’s time for a little supper!” And with that, he began tramping up the stairs. The clock’s ticking dominated the room, along with the occasional slam of the machine in the basement. In the kitchen, he pulled out a platter of chicken from the refrigerator, hacked off two thick pieces of bread from a rough-looking loaf, and set it all down with a clatter in the narrow dining nook. He poured two glasses of whiskey, handed me one, and sat.

    As we ate, I filled him in on what the rest of the family was doing, what my plans were for the future, and other minutiae. Although he nodded or grunted occasionally, I could tell he really wasn’t very interested. Periodically, I would glimpse him looking at me with an almost appraising eye, as though he were sizing me up. He asked about my studies, and as I told him about some of the more esoteric things I’d worked on, his eyes lit up again with that crazed glow.

    After a time, we both grew silent, sipping our whiskey. He drew his pipe and a pouch of tobacco from his pockets, packed the pipe, and lit it with a match. His head wreathed in smoke, he sat back and peered at me. “I suppose you’re wondering what I’m doing down there in the basement.”

    I nodded and he continued, “Long before the lighthouse was ever built, a coven of witches used to meet on these cliffs.” He paused to draw on his pipe. “Legend has it that one night, in the midst of a great storm, the entire coven was destroyed. They all fell, or were blown from the cliffs, or,” he chuckled, “they flew away on their brooms! But, anyway, they vanished, and they were never seen or heard from again.”

    “That’s a wild story,” I said, “but maybe they just stopped meeting, or something.”

    “Unlikely, lad. I’ve found some writings, and as near as I can make out, they were playing around with some amazing things! They were trying to control time, or maybe the weather, through a mix of astronomy, ceremonial mumbo-jumbo, and I don’t know what-all. They all lived together in this very house, and they left behind quite a body of work; recipes, herbs, candles, fossils, journals, and whatnot. The strange thing is, they got close! They got close enough that…” he drew on his pipe and exhaled, “that I decided to carry on their work!”

    Scarcely daring to breathe, my mind reeled with all that he was telling me. I sipped at my whiskey and waited for him to continue. Carry on their work?

    “Anyway, the one book I’ve found, appears to be the second of two, and I’ve been able to decipher very little of it; never mind the fact that the paper is so old, it fairly crumbles in my hands! Once I waded through a lot of the nonsense, I was left with a bunch o’ diagrams which ended up being about the only truly useful thing I found in all of it. Little by little, I’ve been able to assemble this machine, but near as I can tell, they also made use of some kind of astrological stuff. I know there’s more to it. I’ve found references to a star chart, or maybe it’s some sort of instrument… Also, there was a picture of a crystal; a sort of diode, maybe…”

    I sipped my whiskey as the old man relit his pipe. “It sounds kind of like an astrolabe,” I offered, recalling an astronomy course I’d taken. “And if it is, then one can probably be purchased.” I could hear the waves crashing louder, noting that the tide was coming in.

    “I thought of that, but what the diagrams show, looks different from anything I’ve seen. I’ve been all through this house, torn the bookcases apart, and hunted high and low, but there’s one place I haven’t been able to check.”
    With that, the old man perched his pipe on the edge of his plate and abruptly rose from the table, “Come on, lad!”

    The feeling of trepidation returning, I followed him to the living room, where he shoved telescope parts to the sides with his boots to clear a path, and came to a stop before the clock. He opened the pendulum cabinet, and with some effort, stopped the great pendulum. He motioned to the open cabinet. “See? You see, lad?!”

    I edged closer and looked in. I could faintly make out what looked like a set of stairs, and looked back at him, brows raised.

    I can’t get in there; I’m just too big, but you! You could fit!”

    I looked at him, mouth agape, but he was already in the kitchen, rummaging recklessly through drawer after drawer, and I could hear him pulling things out in his frenzy, the contents spilling to the floor. From one, he pulled a large flashlight. He switched it on, but the light was weak and dim. He hammered it against his palm in vain. He swore softly, yanked out another drawer, dug around, and then slammed it shut. He pulled out another, riffling through it, until finally, he pulled out four batteries. He unscrewed the back of the light, dumped the old batteries onto the floor where they rolled crazily, and slid the new batteries into place. He turned the flashlight on again, and this time, the beam was bright and clear. “Ha!” he exclaimed, “Ha! Got it!” He chuckled, and I felt sure that he was close to dancing a jig, so excited he was. He shoved the flashlight into my hands and grabbing me under the arm, all but hoisted me to the clock cabinet. I had to admit that curiosity had gotten the better of me. I certainly hadn’t expected to see a set of stairs inside the pendulum housing.

    I shone the beam downward. There was a very steep set of narrow stairs that disappeared beyond the beam of the flashlight.

    “Well, go on, lad!” Grandfather urged.

    I pushed one leg into the cabinet, rolled my shoulders to the side, and squeezed my way through the opening. The huge pendulum rattled and banged deafeningly. I now stood entirely inside, facing a treacherous descent. I glanced back at my grandfather. Once again, his eyes were ablaze with that mad light and he motioned with his hand as if to say, get on with it! and for an instant, I marveled at the series of events that had brought me to this point.

    Descending carefully, I found I had to angle sideways to keep my footing. The deeper I descended, the wider and colder the cavern became. I knew I was likely far beneath the basement, as the walls were hewn out of the same black rock as the cliffs. The sound of the ocean was now a steady roar, and I could feel the waves buffeting the cliff face.

    Ahead of me, the beam illuminated a narrow landing, the staircase taking a ninety-degree turn to the right. I stopped on the landing, wondering how much further the stairs went. As an experiment, I switched the flashlight off. The darkness was thorough. If I closed my eyes, the darkness wouldn’t have been any more complete. I switched the light on again.

    I continued downward and became aware of a faint glow. Again, I switched the flashlight off. In a depression behind the stairs was a pool of luminous seawater that gave off a greenish, aqua-colored glow that gently suffused the cavern with its light. I’d heard of bioluminescent plankton before, but this was the first time I’d ever seen it. The glow it gave off was almost ethereal. I turned the flashlight on again and continued my descent.
    Abruptly, the stairs came to an end and I found myself in a corridor with a floor wide enough for me to walk comfortably. As I progressed, the cavern continued to widen. The pounding of the waves made the whole cavern reverberate with each concussion. I moved forward until I entered a large room.

    The floor was level and clean of any debris. The walls were smoother, with iron torch mounts embedded into the rock. In the center of the room, there was a long, dark table with seven chairs around it, and looked to be either mahogany, teak, or maybe ebony... At the back of the room, there was a small stone table; an altar? There was a bundle in the middle of it, wrapped in silk. I ran my hand over it and it felt smooth and cool. Maybe this was what the old man was wanting! I unknotted the fabric to reveal a book of sorts. It was obviously extremely old, with covers that had been tied with rough twine that wrapped around the binding. Along with the book, there was a brass plate with two discs with gears, and the frame had what looked like Sumerian cuneiforms inscribed in it. The whole thing had a greenish patina to it. The astrolabe! I left the bundle on the altar so I could continue exploring the room.

    I examined the chairs, then knelt down and looked at the underside of the table. Obviously, all of it was handmade, but it revealed an amazing level of craftsmanship. I continued on, walking the perimeter until I ended up on the backside of the altar. There was a small alcove in the wall, and I saw what looked like large earthen jars. They reminded me of the organ containers found in the pyramids, and I grinned wryly. I sniffed at the contents and discovered that it was water. I put a finger in it and tentatively raised it to my lips. It tasted clean and cool. I also saw a bundle of torches, wrapped in burlap, that looked serviceable.

    I knelt down to study the writing on the altar’s base, when my knee came down on something hard. I shone the light to find that I’d rested my knee on an enormous green stone, oblong, and cut into a six-sided rod, about a foot in length. I hefted it and rested it on the altar. After rubbing the grime off of it, it glowed with a dull light.
    Deciding that if it wasn’t important, it was at least interesting, and I decided to take it with me. I wrapped everything up in the silk wrap and tied it off. The whole package was pretty heavy, but fortunately, the wrap was long enough that I could carry it like a satchel, so I tied it across my chest and headed out of the cavern. I stopped at the base of the stairs to catch my breath and reposition the bundle, then continued what felt like an eternal ascent. By the time I got to the clock cabinet, my legs and back were so fatigued, they felt like they were on fire.

    Grandfather seized me under the arm and helped me out of the cabinet. His eyes shone with a wild light as he saw the bundle over my shoulder. He carefully restarted the pendulum after setting the time.
    “What happened, lad?! What’d ya’ find?! Come on! Bring it over to the table!”

    I set the bundle on the table and sank into my chair. I raised my glass and finished off the rest of my whiskey, welcoming the way it burned as it went down. I could hear the wind rising and wondered if a storm was brewing.
    As I related the journey and all that had transpired, I could tell that the old man was only listening with half an ear. He was untying the knots of the cloth, and as he spread it open, he gazed in awe. He held the stone up and proclaimed, “The diode! You found the diode! Good lad!”

    He then pulled out the astrolabe, running his hands over it, peering at the inscribed characters. He carefully pulled out the ancient tome and looked at the cover. He looked at me, eyes burning feverishly, and smiled. There was something so terrible and horrifying in that smile. I chastised myself for thinking so. After all, he was my grandfather. Still, I felt a chill run through me.

    “Come on, lad!”

    He grabbed the diode and the brass instrument and began striding for the hallway. I leapt up, trotting after him. By the time I caught up, he was already winding his way around the gears of the machine. The machine let out another thud that nearly clacked my teeth together, sounding for all the world like it was trying to shake itself apart.

    The old man placed the astrolabe on the bench, examined the diode on one end and the other, and then bent down. He let out a grunt of effort, and then there was an audible click as the diode was fitted into place. At that moment, the machine seemed to run more smoothly. The constant hitching thud that it had previously emitted, was now gone.

    Grandfather straightened up, a wide grin on his face, and I found myself beaming in return, almost laughing. I still wasn’t sure what the machine was or what it did, but I knew that something momentous had just taken place, some major success, and it was gratifying.

    He opened the book, tenderly turning page after page, pausing to examine one page and another, until he’d nearly reached the end. He stopped and peered at one page in particular, glancing at the machinery, then back to the book again. He gave a satisfied nod and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. He turned to face me, his eyes ablaze, “Okay, lad! Can ya’ make any sense of this stuff?” he asked, gesturing to the ancient brass instrument. I threaded my way to the workbench, peered at the characters and dials of the astrolabe, and saw that there was a way to set the year, month, and day.

    I explained this to Grandfather, and he smiled broadly. When I asked what he wanted it set to, he peered at his book, then hastily turned to the other volume, and then smiled at me again. “Turn it to today’s date, of course! Say, midnight?”

    I turned the discs and rotated the dials to the date, then set the time for midnight. Grandfather held his hands out, and I handed it back to him. It looked like a toy in his huge hands. Holding it almost reverently, he waded into the middle of the machine and set it into some socket that I couldn’t see. There was a ratcheting sound, and then the machine went nearly silent, the hum fading to a soft, barely audible whir.

    “What time is it, lad?”

    I checked my watch. “Nearly eleven o’clock.”

    Grandfather nodded.

    We returned upstairs just in time to hear the massive clock sound the last of the eleventh hour, the echoes reverberating in the rafters. Grandfather poured us another glass of whiskey. We were seated, and he lit his pipe. Outside, the wind was becoming a gale. From the corner of my eye, I thought I saw lightning through the window, but the color seemed wrong, somehow. I rose and peered through the window to see that it wasn’t lightning at all, but a luminous cloud of flickering green light that hovered over of the rooftop, winding around the lighthouse tower in a lazy, ascending spiral.

    “Grandfather! That light!”

    He nodded, smiling. “Ghost light, lad. Some call it St. Elmo’s Fire… It happens a lot, here.” He grinned. “Maybe it’s the witches coming home!”

    I gave a wry grin, uneasy again, and sipped my whiskey. The wind and rain began to beat harder against the windows.

    After a long moment, Grandfather looked at me kindly and said, “Max, you’re a good lad. Thank you for your help.” His eyes were no longer fever bright. Instead, he looked a little drawn.

    Through the floor, I could feel the low throb of the machinery. My head began to nod as a wave of fatigue swept over me, my eyelids growing heavy and starting to close.

    I jerked awake. The clock showed ten minutes to midnight. Grandfather was no longer seated at the table. I had a terrible feeling of dread, and in a panic, I called, “Grandfather! Grandfather, where are you?!”

    I clattered down the stairs to the basement, calling for him. He wasn’t there. The machine had taken on a deeper tone. It sounded ominous, somehow. I ran back up the stairs, pausing in the living room, the rain thrumming loudly on the rooftop. I caught another glimpse of ghost light flickering through the window, and in that awful glow, something else caught my eye; Grandfather! He was standing on the balcony of the lighthouse, arms outstretched, face lifted to the sky, rain and wind tearing at his clothing, and he was illuminated in the sickly green of the ghost light.

    I ran back to the stairs, unsure what to do; whether to race up to the tower and bring him back to the safety of the house, or run down to the basement and rip the guts out of the infernal machine that seemed to be at the heart of all of this insanity. I chose the latter. Bolting down the stairs, I skidded to a stop before the heavy door. I threw my weight against it, throwing it wide. Above the diode, I could see a green glow, similar to the ghost light. I ran through the narrow corridors of the machinery until I came to where the diode was mounted. I seized it with the intention of yanking it from the machine, but it was blazing hot and burned my hands. I could hear the sound of the machine growing louder, rising in pitch, as though it were spooling up. I could feel my palms beginning to blister, but considered yanking the astrolabe out the machine. I desperately began searching for it, but it was impossible to find in the sea of gears and cogs, and I hadn’t seen the exact location grandfather had placed it. I swore.

    Panicked, I bolted up the stairs, thinking to race up to the tower and grab the old man, as the clock began to pound midnight into the walls and rafters. I could feel every hair on my body begin to tingle and before I had a chance to react, the inside of the house, and the land outside, suddenly flashed blinding white. I fell against the window ledge just in time to see the biggest bolt of lightning I’d ever seen, strike the lighthouse tower, forks splitting off and striking the chimney and rooftop. The shockwave threw me on my back, deafened by the ensuing thunderclap that rocked the house like an earthquake. I skidded across the floor, landing in the living room. The great hulking grandfather clock teetered and, almost impossibly slowly, began to topple forward. I rolled away as it slammed down, embedding itself halfway into the floor, chimes clanging and crashing.

    The air was thick with the odor of ozone, and more ominously, smoke. I could hear flames crackling in the eaves. I tore open the front door to escape, just as the whole flaming inferno of the porch swung down, coming straight at me. With a yell, I slammed the door, momentarily at a loss, when I spied the gaping hole in the floor where the clock had been rooted.

    The heat of the flames began to pop the panes out of the windows, and the roar of the fire devouring the house made my mind up for me. I scrambled and dove straight for the hole in the floor. I hit the stairs and tumbled down the first eight or nine steps before I was able to break my fall. I could feel the beginning of what were likely to be spectacular bruises, my arms and legs scraped up and my left ankle throbbing in a sickening way. I forced myself to keep going, half-stumbling my way down the stairs that were now illuminated by the surreal light of the flames overhead. Deeper and deeper I went until I hit the landing. The seawater behind the stairs was higher now, but the soft, bluish glow was oddly calming.

    I heaved a breath, discovering that I’d likely cracked a rib, and continued slowly, albeit painfully, downward. After the heat of the flames, the cool air of the cavern felt like a blessing.

    In the darkness, I jarred my sprained ankle, expecting another stair, and instead, found myself on the path to the cavern room. I heaved a grateful sigh and pushed myself the rest of the way. I entered the room, sank to the floor, and rolled onto my back.

    “Grandfather…” I whispered, my chest aching with the guilty knowledge that I’d had a hand in his fate. I crawled to the alcove behind the altar, pulled myself to my feet, and cupping my hands, drank long and deep from one of the urns. I considered lighting one of the torches, but instead, pulled myself onto the table, buried my head in my arms, and fell into a fitful sleep full of machines and telescopes, ghost light, fires, and witches morphing into crows.

    I awoke after what seemed like several hours, stiff and sore. I groaned and swung my feet off the table, my ribs aching and my ankle tender. Worse than those physical pains, was the memory of my grandfather. I sat with my head in my hands for a long time, on the verge of tears, but they wouldn’t come. I finally lowered myself to the floor and drank some more water from one of the jars. With the help of a flint in the alcove, I lit one of the torches.

    I took a last glance at the room, then followed the passage to the stairs, and began the long ascent, dreading what I would find. As I rounded the corner of the landing, I could see daylight above me, so I extinguished the torch in the pool of seawater and kept climbing.

    I dragged myself out of the hole and stared in horror at the destruction. The only thing left of the house was the base of the chimney, some of the flooring, and the skeleton of the house. The clock was still there, but the heat had warped and burst all the mechanisms. Looking at it reminded me of the machine in the basement, which I could see through a gaping hole in the floor. Nothing of it remained, thankfully. Maybe the oil of the gears had something to do with it, or perhaps it was providence, but aside from the basic framework, twisted and warped beyond recognition now, there was truly nothing left of it.

    Picking my way over the ruined timbers of the porch, my mouth hung open in wonder; the lighthouse was gone, save for a white ring of stones marking the foundation. It reminded me of the ritual circles I’d seen in my studies… I shoved the thought from my mind. Atop one of the stones was a huge raven, so black it shone blue in the bright sun. I listlessly tossed a pebble at it and said, “Get outta’ here! Go!”

    The raven merely sidestepped the thrown pebble, and cocking its head to the side, regarded me with a fearless, steady gaze that made my skin prickle… He then launched himself and flapped slowly toward the sea. I watched him until he rounded the corner of the cliff and was gone from sight.

    I crossed to the edge of the cliff where the lighthouse had stood. Most of it was scattered below, littering the side of the cliff, the stones shining white in the gentle waves of low tide. I stood for a long moment, thinking of my grandfather, before I turned and headed toward the road. As I walked away from the ruins of the lighthouse, something on the ground caught my eye; Grandfather’s pipe! I held it in my hand and then tucked it into my pocket.

    A soft breeze was rising, ruffling my hair and herding the remaining clouds from last night’s storm out to the horizon. A murder of crows wheeled overhead, circled twice, and cawing, flew away, heading inland. I sighed, stuffed my hands in my pockets, and started descending the hill in the direction of the town below, hoping to hitch a ride.
    Her: I love my computer! All of my friends are in there!
    Me: Yeah, I was thinking the same thing about my freezer...
    Her: What?
    Me: What?

  7. #7
    (What is protocol, here? Do I delete the original and post the edited one in its place? I don't want readers to have to stumble over the original, and then be too weary to read the one I've since edited...)
    Her: I love my computer! All of my friends are in there!
    Me: Yeah, I was thinking the same thing about my freezer...
    Her: What?
    Me: What?

  8. #8
    Amnesiac! Good job you! I really like the changes and think this is a winner.

    (What is protocol, here? Do I delete the original and post the edited one in its place? I don't want readers to have to stumble over the original, and then be too weary to read the one I've since edited...)
    I think you did just the right thing. If you erased the original and replaced it, those who already read the original would have no way of knowing of the re-write. This works great - for me at least. I loved it! I can't wait to see more.
    When the night has come
    And the land is dark
    And the moon is the only light we'll see
    No, I won't be afraid, no I won't be afraid
    Just as long as you stand by me.


  9. #9
    Thank you soooo much, Sue! I appreciate your help and encouragement.
    Her: I love my computer! All of my friends are in there!
    Me: Yeah, I was thinking the same thing about my freezer...
    Her: What?
    Me: What?

  10. #10
    Hello Amnesiac!

    I really enjoyed your story. It was very easy to visualize everything that was happening as I was reading. When the he stepped down into the basement I was imagining stepping into the engine room of a diesel powered ship or submarine. I definitely found myself wanting to know what he would find when he walked into town, and what year it might have been.

    Once thing I believe wanted to know more about was the machinery and how the protagonist was able to set the time for his grandfather. You did elude to some details but I think it could be elaborated on.

    Anyway, I am an extremely novice writer and my first feedback so I hope it is of some use. I do love to read though so I wanted to at least point out what I wanted to read more about in your story. Overall it is great and I think expanding it will only make it better.

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