We Keep the Lamps Lit
At the edge of the town of Moorwick was the lake. There was always mist on the lake. It didn’t matter if it was hot or cold, wet or dry: the fog always roiled fast across the surface like steam over a pot of soup. Sometimes it got into the town. When it came up out of the water it was still and heavy and you could feel it sticking to your skin.
But every once in a while, on a clear night when the moon was full, the mist parted and you could see the island.
It wasn’t a big island. Trees huddled on it close together, their branches tangled thick and quarrelsome. They were bony things, choked with weeds, and the cluster of them made the island dark, like a patch of midnight.
Then the mist would return, and the island would vanish.
In the town, there was a boy named George. His father was the lamplighter. Every night he went down to the edge of the lake where the water lapped at the docks, carrying an oil lantern and a long pole, lighting the lamps that went along the pavement one by one.
The first time George ever accompanied his father to light the lamps, it was raining. The waves were high, and the fishing boats rocked and swayed. George, quite safe under his raincoat and galoshes, was having a grand time jumping in puddles when his father shouted at him.
“George! Keep away from the water.”
George’s father was often barking at him, and George usually pretended he couldn’t hear. But on that night, George looked up and saw that his father’s expression was very serious. His weathered face was turned up to stare out over the lake, and George realized his father was afraid.
He had never seen his father afraid before.
As they walked home that night, he held his father’s hand.
“Dad,” he asked, “why do we light the lamps?”
His father was silent for a long moment. “We have to. We light all the lamps along the lakefront, every night before the first star appears in the sky.”
“Because, George. Just because.”
“Because of the island?”
His father nodded. And, once again, the fear passed over his face.
When they got home, George’s father opened the big wooden chest next to the door and put his lantern inside, along with his long pole, his box of matches, and his big coat. Then he stooped down and put his hands on George’s shoulders.
“One day when I am old, this chest will belong to you. Then you will be the lamplighter. When you are, you will learn that it is no good to be asking such things. The answers will keep you awake at night. Do what you are told, as I have done, as your grandfather did, and his father before him. That is the way of our family, George. We keep the lamps lit.”
George tried not to ask questions for a while after that. But the itching curiosity persisted. When he turned thirteen, he asked his father about the lamps again.
His father was not pleased.
“I think it would be better, George, if you applied your inquisitiveness to your studies.”
But George didn’t like his studies. The teachers at the Moorwick school were a wholly uninteresting bunch. They talked in a monotonous hum, and as they droned on George found he simply couldn’t keep his mind focused on literature and science and math. The things that interested him the most weren’t the kinds of things found in textbooks.
On several occasions, he tried asking his teachers about the lamps. Each time, they turned very pale and changed the subject.
The only teacher in all of Moorwick who was remotely interesting was old Mr. Mooney. He had a long, gray beard and glasses so thick and foggy that his eyes looked like they were behind a pair of clouds. Mr. Mooney was a grumbler. He would mutter under his breath, always unhappy about something, and if you pushed the right button he would burst like a broken sewer pipe, spilling out juicy, salacious bits of information.
George only asked Mr. Mooney about the lamps once. When he did, Mr. Mooney put down his book and stared at him. Then he shook his head and said through cracked lips:
“It’s the curse, George.”
After that, even he would say no more.
Over the next several years, George grew more and more frustrated. He began to be resentful every time he saw his father open the big wooden chest, as if locked away with that lantern and pole was a great and terrible secret, a secret everyone knew but him. He began to spend more time by the docks, studying the lamps in disgust, and soon he was going to the docks every day after school.
That was how he first met the fisherman’s daughter.
There were only a few fishermen in Moorwick. They were a sullen, grisly bunch who spent all day checking fish traps but never daring to venture too far out into the water. The rest of the town looked on them with mistrust, as if the mists had sunk deep into their skin and couldn’t be cleaned out.
The fisherman’s daughter also went down to the lake every day after school. She was always on the path ahead of George. She had long, black hair. It fell in tangles around her shoulders. She’d put it up in a ponytail when she got to the docks, and it would bounce behind her as she ran to meet her father’s boat, grabbing the rope from him and tying it in place. She would help her father unload the catch of the day, then swab out the boat with a wooden bucket. All of her movements were fast and light and full of vigor. Her name was Margot.
One day, George found himself thinking more about Margot than he thought about the lamps.
He noticed her walking to school in the morning with her puffy coat on. He noticed her in class, scribbling notes on her homework. He noticed her eating lunch with her friends at the picnic tables behind the schoolhouse.
And he began to notice other things: he noticed his fellow students whispering to each other in the hallway. He noticed them passing notes. He noticed them rolling their eyes in class. And he noticed, with the dawning realization of one waking up from a dream, that every other young person in Moorwick was just as frustrated about the lamps as he was.
“It’s so stupid,” said Chad Evans one day during lunch at the picnic tables. “It’s like someone has put a spell on them.”
George didn’t often make conversation with his classmates. But today he raised his head from his sandwich.
“Who do you think? Our parents.”
“You should know better than anybody, Georgie,” said Mike Moyer with a sneer. “Your old man’s the worst of ‘em all.”
Just then, a backpack slammed down into the seat across from Chad.
“What’re you guys talking about?”
It was Margot, her cheeks flushed and rosy from the brisk autumn air. Seeing her, George felt his own face grow hot.
“Hey, Margot,” he said. It came out as a pathetic croak.
“They’re all just scared,” Chad said. “Do you know what Mr. Mooney said? He said the curse is a myth.”
“Mr. Mooney?” said Mike. “He did not!”
“How do you know?” Margot asked.
“You know my dad owns the tavern, right? Last week was Mr. Mooney’s birthday, and he got raving drunk, started saying all sorts of stuff, about how the whole town is nothing but a bunch of cowards, how we’ve swallowed the lies of our parents and grandparents, how we’re all just—how did he say it?—‘enslaved to the tyranny of an ancient superstition.’ My dad got real angry with him, threw him out. I was sweeping up and heard the whole thing.”
“Enslaved by what?” said Mike. “What does that mean?”
“It means our parents are suckers,” said Chad. “And we will be too if we keep lighting those lamps.”
Then Mrs. Flora rang the bell and that was the end of that.
After school, George was walking home, deep in thought, when a voice called out to him.
“Hey George, wait up a minute!”
It was Margot.
“Are you going down to the lake?” she asked.
“Oh,” said George. “Yeah.”
“I’ll walk with you. You know we both go the same way after school?”
“Really?” said George. Walking next to her, he thought he could feel every nerve of his body. “I hadn’t noticed.”
She said nothing at that, but smiled a little. He blushed.
Then she said: “George, do you think they’re right?”
“Chad. Mr. Mooney. Do you think they’re right?”
George hesitated. “I don’t know.”
Margot was quiet for a moment. Then she said, “My father is the only one who checks the deepwater traps. The fog is pretty bad out on the lake, so the fishermen use buoys to navigate. There are a bunch of different routes with fish traps all along them. My father’s route takes him closer to the island than anybody. He hates it.” There was anger in her voice. “I’ve gone with him a bunch of times, ever since I was a little girl. I always ask him about the island. But he never tells me anything.”
George looked at her. The wind was blowing her hair in her eyes. “My dad never tells me anything, either.”
“Yeah. I figured.”
They arrived at the lake. The mists were thin and wispy, like drifting ghosts. On the walkway, the lampposts stood guard, and beyond them the fishing boats were just starting to come in. Margot began putting up her hair.
“Are you going to help your dad?” George asked.
She raised an eyebrow. “I thought you hadn’t noticed.”
“Oh, I mean…uh…”
She chuckled. “Thanks for walking with me.”
“Yeah. Any time, really.”
They stood together for a moment, watching the boats.
“I don’t think they’re ever going to tell us,” Margot said.
“No,” said George.
Margot picked up a rock from the walkway and tossed it into the water. It disappeared with a plunk. “We’re just going to have to find out for ourselves.”
“What do you mean?”
“We have to keep your father from lighting the lamps.”
He stared at her. “Are you crazy? He’ll never do it.”
“Not by choice, no.”
She looked at him then, and there was something bright and cunning in her expression. “There’s a kind of crustacean in the lake that has poison in it. I’ve seen them by the big rocks. If you fry them in oil the poison gets cooked out, but if you cut off their heads and drink the juices raw you can get sick.”
George’s mouth was open. Her gaze didn’t waver for a moment: her eyes were a chocolatey brown, rich and strong, and he could feel the heat of them on his face.
“How sick?” he asked.
“Will it…could it kill…?”
“Not if I mix the dose right. But my dad says it can keep a grown man confined to his bed for a whole week.”
They stared at each other. A quiver of understanding went down their backs.
“Tonight,” said Margot. “We’ll go down to the rocks tonight.”
After George’s father had finished lighting the lamps and had gone home, they went down to the lake, up north of the docks, where the big boulders slid into the water by the forest of pine trees. They took off their shoes and socks and waded in the cold water with a big net. Margot’s feet were slender and nimble as she prodded with her toes among the stones, and George’s heart did somersaults whenever her arm brushed up against him.
When they were finished, they had a basket of little crayfish.
“When should we…?” George said.
“We’ll wait until a night when the mist is up on the shore. That way no one will be able to see that the lamps are dark.”
George nodded. His mouth was dry.
Margot took the basket from him. “Leave it to me.”
They had to wait a whole week. But the following Monday, the mists rolled up onto the land so thick and deep that the kids walking to school could barely see the road in front of them. At lunch that day, Margot sat next to George and passed him a little vial under the table. The liquid inside was clear like water.
“Tonight,” she said.
George nodded, pale.
George’s mother fried fish that night. It hissed and spat on the skillet. George set the table, and when he was finished he filled a glass of beer for his father. Then, when no one was looking, he took the vial out of his pocket.
The sun was dying behind the fog by the time George’s father was struck by the most horrible cramps. He lay in bed groaning with such pain that George could hardly move. Outside the window the last light was burning a deep red, making the sweat stand out on his father’s face like little droplets of fire.
George’s mother stood wringing her hands. “Bill…the lamps…”
“Get me…my coat…”
“Maybe I should do it…” said George’s mother. She tried to sound brave, but her voice quivered. “There’s not much time left.”
“No. I don’t want you near the lake. Get my coat…”
Then he cried out in pain, doubled over in the bed. George’s mother put a hand to her mouth.
George’s voice was hoarse: “I’ll do it.”
His parents looked at him.
“I have to learn eventually,” said George. “Let me do it.”
His father studied him for a long moment. His face was shining and wet with sweat. Then he nodded. “All right.”
George turned quickly to go, but as he did his father reached out and grabbed ahold of his wrist. George looked back with a start. His father’s eyes were wide.
“Quickly, George. Before the light of the first star.”
George swallowed. Then he hurried to the big chest by the door and swung open the great lid. Inside were the box of matches, the oil lantern, and the long pole. He took them and went outside.
But he did not go down to the water. Instead he followed the path a while, into the fog. He could see nothing but his feet ahead of him. Eventually he stopped. Overhead, the sky was darkening. Soon there would be stars. George began to run.
Not far from the docks was a broken-down old boathouse. Around back was a little cellar. George opened the door and climbed inside.
Margot was waiting. “Well?”
“He’s really sick.”
“He’ll be alright. Did you see anything?”
George shook his head.
“There’s never been fog this bad,” Margot said. “No one will even notice the lamps.”
George looked down at his father’s lantern, cold and dim on the floor. “No, they won’t.”
They lapsed into silence. Outside the boathouse, they could hear the gentle waves lapping at the docks and the sound of the breeze in the pine trees. It was very quiet.
They waited for a long time in the dark.
Finally, Margot said, “Has anything happened?”
George, who had been straining to take in every sound, shrugged.
“Do you think we should go check?” Margot asked.
George hesitated. “All right.”
They opened the cellar door.
The night was cold. The wind had picked up and was stirring the mist around. Above them, the stars were bright.
George and Margot walked through the town.
Nothing had changed. Lights glowed dim and happy in the houses, and in the tavern, Chad Evans was mopping the floor. They heard music. Mr. Mooney’s light was on in the old schoolhouse, where he sat grading papers.
“They were right,” George breathed.
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, a thrill of rebellion rushed through his insides, and was instantly swallowed by a profound sadness. It was like standing at a precipice and staring into an empty void. Tradition and belief had been overthrown, and he was drunk in the wake of their fall.
“Well,” he said to Margot. “Let me walk you home.”
But she tugged on his hand. “Not yet. Let’s go back to the cellar.”
He let her lead him back. He felt dirty and sick, his legs numb and his heart like lead. But she crackled with new energy. Behind her eyes was a wild look, a smile, almost malicious, pulling at her lips.
They went down into the cellar, and the darkness sealed them in.
“Don’t you know what this means?” she said, her voice an excited whisper. “We’re free.”
“Free,” he said.
“We can do what we want. Be what we want. We don’t have to stay in Moorwick or carry on its traditions or be afraid of the island. There is no curse. We are unchained.”
She was leaning forward, and he could taste her breath in the darkness. It was warm, and smelled like strawberries. His blood moved faster, yet he felt cold.
Her eyes glittered.
“George,” she said, “Don’t you want to kiss me?”
He stared at her. He had wanted nothing more for months. But now everything felt dead. Numbly, automatically, he leaned forward.
There was a shriek.
It came from across the lake.
The wild light in Margot’s eyes vanished, and her breath stopped.
“What was that?”
They held very still.
And then, through the mists, over the long, dark water, they came.
From their place in the cellar, George and Margot could hear them. At first they thought it was the wind, disturbing the boats, making the waves rise. But it grew stronger: a pumping, beating, vibrating sound.
Many, many wings.
Then the shriek came again, and it was joined by others. Dozens of shrieks, full of hunger. George and Margot clamped their hands over their ears.
Then, all over Moorwick, people started screaming.
From the cellar, George and Margot heard the uproar. They heard wood splinter and glass break. They heard gunshots. And over all of it they heard the pulsing wings and the piercing shrieks.
Margot’s fingers dug like claws in George’s arm.
“George! George hurry, we were wrong, you have to light the lamps George, quick!”
“It’s too late!” wailed George, throwing open the cellar door. “It’s too late!”
But he was already running. He ran down the path, towards the town, towards his parents’ house. Up ahead, he could see nothing: all over town, the lights were off, as if the mists had snuffed them all out.
When he got to his house, he saw them.
They were huge. Hideous. The swarm of them filled the sky, dropping like locusts, tearing up roofs and smashing down doors. Wings like leather, satin stretched across a collection of rattling bones. A great abdomen, hairy, eight-legged, bloated and gorged, tail like a scorpion, beak like an eagle, eyes like bees. Twisted things, unspeakable things.
They carried the townspeople alive in their jaws.
One of the beasts was on the roof of his house. George ran up to it, waving and shouting, but the monster beat its mighty wings and took to the sky.
His parents were hanging from its beak.
“Stop!” bellowed George. “Let them go!”
But the thing didn’t listen. It rose up and up, rejoining the swarm. All over the town, the creatures returned to the air with their prizes. They had pillaged the town, left it in wreckage and plucked it clean, and with roars of triumph they were off again into the dark sky. George chased after them, tears rushing down his cheeks. He chased them until he came back to the docks, to the pavement where his father had faithfully lit the lanterns every night for decades, lanterns that now stood cold and impotent and sad. He chased them all the way up to the railing, where he stood sobbing as the monsters disappeared over the lake.
He stood there for a long time, listening to the screams of all the townspeople of Moorwick rising up into the night.
“This is all our fault.”
Margot stood behind him, hugging herself in the wind.
“We shouldn’t have done it.” Her face was streaked and wet.
George just stared at her. Then he turned to peer back at the water.
Without a word, he ran back to the boathouse. The cellar door was open. Inside was the lantern, pole, and box of matches. He grabbed them and ran back to the docks, fumbling with the matches, lighting the oil inside the lantern as he went.
“What are you doing?” asked Margot when he got back to the walkway.
George didn’t respond. He just dipped the long pole in the lantern flame and, one by one, started lighting the lamps, tears stinging his eyes.
“George,” said Margot. “It’s too late for that. We were wrong. It’s over.”
“You don’t know. They might still be alive.”
She was quiet at that. She watched him as he went down the line. The lamps sprang up like little fires in the darkness, casting warm pools of yellow over the walkway. When he was finished, he stood back, wiping his eyes.
Margot was standing in her father’s fishing boat. She had her rope in hand.
George jumped into the boat. Margot untethered the rope, and together they plunged into the mists.
If Margot hadn’t been a fisherman’s daughter, they never would have made it. Through the dark she steered them, checking her compass, following the orange buoys that rose up to mark the fish traps. Her eyebrows were scrunched and her jaw was like stone. Buoy by buoy they went, deeper and deeper into the mist.
Then, out of the fog, there it was: tree limbs reaching out like grasping hands.
The boat ran aground in a tangle of roots and gravel. The skeleton trees towered over them, hushed, their canopies forming a thick blanket of shadow. Everything was quiet.
“Do you think…?” said George.
“Shh!” said Margot.
The wind was going through the trees.
“The lantern, George. Light the lantern.”
George’s fingers were shaking. Stooping down in the rickety old boat, George struck a match. The oil burned bright and hot.
“The pole, too,” said Margot. “Hand it to me.”
Two little pinpricks of light, they stepped out onto the shore and into the pitch black. The air was cold, and fallen branches crunched under their feet. As they went, the trees seemed to draw back: the yellow warmth was foreign to them.
“Look,” whispered George.
Ahead, in the center of the island, was a cave. Its entrance was carpeted with rotted leaves, and from the opening wafted a smell like dead fish.
George and Margot looked at each other.
Then they went inside.
The path went down, winding deeper into the heart of the island. George and Margot huddled close together, holding hands, their lights throwing long shadows up on the walls of the tunnel.
When they thought they could stand it no longer, the tunnel opened up into a cavern. It was almost as large as the island itself. There was water dripping from the ceiling, and the ground was covered in bones.
And in the center of the cave, all hanging tangled together in a giant web, were the townspeople. Their limbs jutted out of the sinewy mass at odd angles, and they hung suspended in the air, covered in slimy, silvery threads.
They were weeping.
“They’re alive,” breathed George in relief.
“George,” said Margot.
She wasn’t looking at the web. George turned.
There they were.
Like black flies, they clung to the walls. Spawn from the darkest depths of the earth, things of darkness and despair, encircling the cave, crawling across the ceiling, enormous abdomens sagging, scorpion tails swishing.
The monsters were watching them.
Like whip-cracks in the air, dozens of bat-wings unfurled.
Margot raised the flaming pole. “Stay back!”
The things shrieked as one. The piercing sounds echoed off the cave walls. George and Margot gritted their teeth but held their ground.
“I said,” Margot repeated, “Stay back!”
The things stayed on the walls. They hissed and spat, clicking their beaks. But they stayed on the walls.
“The light,” said George. “They don’t like the light…”
Hundreds of beady eyes glittered in the darkness.
Slowly, careful to keep the fire burning, George and Margot approached the web. Chad Evans, hanging upside down from a sticky strand of filament, saw them first. His eyes widened.
It took a long time to cut everyone down. They worked tirelessly, freeing the townspeople one by one. When one person was cut loose, they joined in the work, pulling the goopy substance apart. Soon they had the momentum. While the townspeople clawed their way to freedom, George and Margot held aloft the little lights in the darkness, the creatures watching from the walls.
When they were loose, Margot’s parents’ embraced her, sobbing. George’s mother was still and quiet, holding her husband, who was unconscious from fear and poison. Perspiration stood out on his head. George put a tender hand on his chest, hot tears in his eyes.
“I’m sorry, Dad. I’m so sorry.”
Behind them stood Mr. Mooney, staring at the monsters, dumbstruck.
“I’ve been drinking too much, that’s all…”
For the rest of the night, Margot shuttled the townspeople back and forth across the lake. George stayed with those left behind on the shore, holding the lantern in the direction of the cave.
But nothing stirred.
Many years passed. The students graduated from school. Margot was given a fishing route of her own, far out in the deep water. George waited for her every day by the docks, and when she came in he helped her bring in the day’s catch. Three years later, they were married.
In town, Chad Evans took over his father’s tavern. Mike Moyer became a school teacher. Old Mr. Mooney, bitterer than ever, left Moorwick and published a paper about the hallucinogenic effects of alcohol. It was very well received.
As for George, he has a son of his own now. Every night after dinner, before the first star comes into the sky, he opens a big wooden chest and takes out his lantern, his pole, and his box of matches. And, holding his son’s hand, he goes down to the water, where the mist is thick and the fishing boats sway by the docks.
“One day,” he tells his son, “When I am old, this lantern and pole and box of matches will belong to you. Then you will be the lamplighter. Every night, before the light of the first star, you will light the lamps one by one, as I have done, and as your grandfather did, and his father before him. That is the way of our family: we keep the monsters at bay. We keep the lamps lit.”
Story by Matt Mills