My mother and I walk through a grove of Canadian Hemlock after the rain. I’m three and collecting small egg-shaped cones. I rub their smooth light brown scales against my palms. Tree hugger, I run from tree to tree and embrace the conifers along the woodland brooks, nearing the gingerbread-style Victorian, where more hemlocks stand a few feet apart, forming a privacy hedge. I must be wandering from her, toward the house, because she calls after me afraid of what I don’t understand. “Don’t go there!” she cries. “Don’t go that way! Come back to me!” I run to her, away from the house and through the pyramid-shaped trees, past their graceful lacey leaves and tapering trunks. I run from the trees to the hemlock’s edge, where she’s waiting. She’s holding out her arms to embrace me. “Here, Laney, here,” she whispers. “Stay with me,” lifting me into her arms, holding me close, “Safe.” We hug and hug. She smells like hemlock.
I never see her again. I see her again. I don’t know. It’s the last time I see her or very near the last. I don’t know. I’m too young.
My biggest problem is not remembering her face. I close my eyes to see her, but her face is gone and my grandparents don’t have any photographs of her. They say they don’t have photographs of my father, either. They didn’t know him well. He left too soon. But what about my mother? They won’t tell me. And I stop asking. Questions upset Grandmother.
I have no memory of my father. His face, his voice, nothing.
Now the old hemlocks are being attacked by woolly adelgid. Grandfather sprays chemicals on the hedge as our privacy falls away, exposing the old gingerbread Victorian we live in, just the three of us. The hemlock hides the house from the road. On the other side of the house, the sea moves me, its expansive gray waters changing colors with the sunset and the dawn. Today, a houseboat putters along the edge of the water before the small-boat races entertain camper sailors who pitch tents on either side of the lock. Tommy lives there, but Grandfather has forbidden me to go there, because of the “drifters” and “grifters,” because of “what goes on near the water.”
Once a professional diver and an underwater welder, Grandfather was gone for months at a time before his retirement, working for the oil companies. Grandmother, a retired family-law attorney, stays inside the house making candles, sipping coffee, and doing yoga in rooms decorated with inherited macramé and Polish pottery.
Walking inside the living room, I find her tending the wispy green hanging plants, mostly ferns. “Do you remember what we said about curfew?” she asks when I catch her staring out the windows.
“Yeah?” I ask. “Why?”
“Beware of pretty boys,” Grandmother says. Has she has seen Tommy sneaking through the hemlock to find me? “Beauty doesn’t last long or lead to any good. Besides, pretty is as pretty—” “Whatever,” I say.
Curfew talk—our old song and dance. I’m almost seventeen and ready to leave. I’ve finally found someone I want to start a new life with, but Grandmother would never let me go. She lost my mother and doesn’t want to lose me, too. But it has been too long, far too long and too lonely here with my questions. I was only three when my grandparents became my parents. My grandparents are not that much older than my classmates’ parents. My grandparents give me everything I ever need or want. Except the truth. I ask questions, forbidden questions, questions I know better than to ask again. Why are they raising me? Where have my mother and father gone? Who was my father? Why doesn’t my mother come back home, to her own family? Where is she?
The gingerbread Victorian was built to weather snowy days, but today is a muggy summer afternoon, and the painted walls sweat. The windows are open, letting warmth breeze into all the rooms, except the cool temperature-controlled wine cellar tucked into the farthest corner of the basement. My grandparents hate air-conditioning, but they use it in that one room, where greenish bottles gleam.
When the sun goes down, they retreat into the wine cellar without me. I hear their laughter through the vents. I hear the pop of corks, the clink of delicate glasses, signaling another private party without me, giving me the perfect opportunity to escape with Tommy. My grandparents stay up late with their wine and then collapse together, happily drunken, only to awaken late and to assume I have gone swimming with other girls.
Tommy holds me gently and takes me with him every night on the sea, where we cuddle on his boat on the dark water. I want him to take his clothes off and swim naked, but he’s shy. I want to make love to him. I want him to stay my secret, so Grandmother doesn’t suspect him of encroaching upon the cherished hemlocks. Save Tommy, I have few friends, and I think I love him. An expert angler, he lives on what he catches. I like his reels and lures, the way he casts his nets. He fishes for black fish, blue fish, scup, flounder, cod, mackerel, weakfish, ocean catfish, smelt, and shark. After midnight, he anchors with me. In the fogbound morning, we wake to a fish fry or a fish boil with the people who camp along the shore.
Tonight, I watch light move over gentle waves while Tommy swims where low tide bares the pilings of the docks. Fully-clothed, he dives deep, treading where the distant lights of summer cottages glow. The summer people will never guess where we go at night and they will never know how the fog in winter settles over spruce and wild cranberries. Tommy’s boat is anchored in eighteen feet of water on a rocky bottom. I watch the shadow move in the lighthouse window and Tommy ties his boat to a mooring buoy and convinces me to search for the girl in the lighthouse.
I’m afraid to find her, but I don’t say why. I’m lucky to have a view of the lighthouse outside my bedroom window. When I was a child, I stared at it every night. Ever since I was just a little girl, when I woke in the morning, I saw it emerge from the mist over the water. The lighthouse meant home to me, the great stone lighthouse that’s been sending out its golden beam over the waters since 1892, guiding merchants to the old shipbuilding port, now a playground for the rich. On a clear night, the light can be seen twelve miles away.
Tommy insists there’s a homeless runaway living in the lighthouse and then the view from my window is never the same. Who called her Lighthouse Girl first? I imagine her looking out, seeing me seeing her, watching me looking for her.
The raw coast Tommy and I love most has no harbors. We sail ashore to camp near wild flowers and seabirds sleeping. Some nights, we sleep on wild flowers scenting tattered blankets, the soft shawls taken from his boat after he tosses nets onto the water dragging.
What his nets capture: plastic bottles, weeds like hair, eels, blue fish, long, silver fish shining in moonlight, and a woman’s gown, shredded and bleached pink like sundown. On the gown, slashes gape near a bloodstain, as if the woman who wore it had been stabbed.
The gown looks expensive—a clue. There’s a rich side and a poor side to these waters. On one shore, the rich own private art galleries and clubs with lighted tennis courts in gated neighborhoods. On the other side, people camp in makeshift tent communities. My grandparents’ house sits on a pier, in between the rich side and the poor side. The lighthouse is at the center of it all.
A school of fish surfaces, jumping high as Tommy steers his boat toward a mansion with a pavilion over the water, a place where musicians play. His long hair whips in the wind as he unleashes the sail. A trespasser, Tommy owns the night, and this is more than the rich people in mansions overlooking these waters will ever have. If he were a girl, he would be the best-looking girl in school.
In his boat tonight, Tommy tells me a terrible story. I listen carefully, focusing on every detail and getting closer to him, as close as I can get without touching. He’s handsome the way some teenage boys are, his skin still soft and smooth, his face frozen on the edge of manhood. I realize why I love kissing him. He’s what Grandmother called him: beautiful.
I think he’s my age, but I can’t tell, and he never answers the same way when I ask how old he is, where his parents are, where his family is living, why he is so alone, and where he comes from. He doesn’t like to talk about himself, and this makes me love him more. “I’m Tommy Goggins,” he says. “That’s all you need to know. I’m Tommy Goggins, and I love you.” He’s slight and hasn’t gotten a beard yet. I love stroking his smooth face when we kiss, but he’s shy and won’t kiss much or long. His lips are soft, so soft. I want to kiss and kiss him, but he pushes me away. He’s always looking for excuses to avoid getting too close, physically. I’ve never known anyone as modest as he. This makes me want him more. He won’t get naked with me and he wants me to keep my clothes on, even when swimming. I suppose I love Tommy and maybe he loves me, but the only thing he wants to talk about when he holds me on his boat is Lighthouse Girl. Sometimes, I’m afraid he loves her. At first, I thought he was only telling tales to get me to stop kissing him beneath the fog and the blankets covering us on the boat. Now, as the boat drifts closer to the old lighthouse, I think he’s invented her to scare me, to keep me from cuddling closer to him. I don’t dare confess I began seeing her silhouette in the lighthouse’s golden beam after I started sneaking out of my grandparents’ house at night to be with him on the water.
Each night before I sneak away to be with Tommy, I spy the lighthouse from my bedroom window and the little boat lights twinkling on the black water. Some nights, the mist turns to fog lingering like lace over the waves. An invitation, the night softly veiled and waiting.
No one understands Tommy, what he’s doing at night on the boat. I shiver when he asks me to braid his long dark hair.
I don’t like to think about what he says, don’t believe when he says the girl in the lighthouse ran away from home and is hiding in the lighthouse. The things her family did to her are so horrific she’s afraid to speak to anyone or to come out of hiding. In case they might find her and take her back home again. “When she’s not in the lighthouse, she’s inside the tunnels of the cave,” he says. I know the cave he’s talking about. It’s the cave we often swim toward, where rumored tunnels stretch under the pavilion of the old mansions.
“Want a tour?” Tommy asks, pointing at the cave.
He ties his boat to a private dock. It’s dark, so dark. He cuts off the engine and the lights. We shouldn’t be doing what we’re doing, but I do it anyway. Trespassers, we leap from the boat to the dock, darting toward the pavilion, Tommy holding my hand, pulling me along, pulling me to jump into the dark waters.
And then we’re swimming in our clothes and shoes.
How can I refuse him? Light sparkles on the dark water and in his eyes as we swim toward the cliff beneath the mansions’ pavilion to the entrance of the cave. He says the rich use hidden tunnels to travel from gallery to gallery, from mansion to mansion. I have never been. Tommy says he has.
“Lighthouse Girl swims into the cave,” he whispers, “and walks the tunnels at night.”
Swimming with Tommy, I shiver. Two gray whales surface in the distance. The girl is an owl soaring from hemlock to hemlock. Some nights. Other nights, she’s a cat hanging on a tree. I don’t want to surprise her but I find it hard to stay away.
I don’t want to scare her or to catch her like a fish in a net. Watching for her, waiting for her is like waiting for whales to surface from the waters, a privilege like grace. I’ve felt her presence often, and yet have only seen shadows I’ve perhaps mistaken for her. Sensing Lighthouse Girl is akin to faith, as if she were more mythical creature than girl.
Arriving at the cave, we find a rock to hold onto, so we can stop swimming for a while and rest, to catch our breath.
Tommy holds my hand in his, but our grasps keep slipping, and I’m afraid he’s letting go.
“What happened to her? What really happened?” I ask Tommy, again and again, demanding to know.
He answers and I’m sad, the mystery slipping away, the need to find her, though, only growing.
We let go of the rocks and start swimming, again. The cave is so near now. It only takes a few minutes of swimming before we’re crawling toward the rocky entrance, clawing and scraping our way up the jagged edge of the cliff. Now, I’m glad we’re wearing clothes and shoes because the rocks are rough.
Finally, we’re inside the cave, but it’s so dark and I’m frightened but Tommy pulls me deeper into the cave.
A beam of light from the lighthouse moves across the water inside the cave, where our wet shoes slosh through the wake. Tommy’s whispering something and I imagine Lighthouse Girl as he described her, what I wanted to know but didn’t want to hear: filthy, pregnant, tied up in the dark or chained to a pipe or locked in a closet, hidden away, imprisoned as punishment for getting into trouble, starved, beaten, forgotten. Tommy says the girl broke her chain after the baby was born, and this is how she becomes Lighthouse Girl. I keep thinking I see her everywhere we go at night.
What would it be like to find her or to be found by her? Deep inside the cave, a hollow in the tunnel is shaped like the mouth of a giant fish open to catch water. Tommy and I crawl inside the damp dank dark tunnel littered with fish bones and eroded stone. I want to ask him why we’re searching for her. I want to ask him why he keeps telling me about her. What is she to him? The last ray of light is snuffed out, and I feel him moving closer to me in the dark, but it’s so dark I can’t see him anymore. I reach out to touch his body and it doesn’t feel the way I thought it would feel and suddenly I know I have found her.
In one version of this story, she is my mother who has been hiding in plain sight, watching over me in terror all during my childhood when I thought I was growing up without her. She was always there, in the lighthouse I watched from my bedroom window.
In another version of this story, the Lighthouse Girl is Tommy. Or rather, Tommy is her. There is no Tommy, or rather there is no her because she has made herself into Tommy to be near me, to make love to me, to become the boy I need her to be. He is kissing me and kissing me, as the girl hidden inside him fades away with each kiss. I’m terrified because his mouth is not his mouth, and her mouth becomes his mouth.
She is my friend, and she is a girl from school who is invisible to me, who went away, who watched me from a distance. She was lonely like me and also needed love like I needed it. Though it tastes like Tommy’s mouth, I know it’s hers. She whispers to me that she’s afraid, that she needs me to go with her deeper inside the cave, and now I am afraid to go with her. I am also afraid to leave her because I sense she needs me, and we are touching each other, and it feels good. She is naked and undressing me and kissing me. Deeper, deeper, deeper, we go into the darkness of the tunnels.
In the third and final version of this story, she is my mother and she is Tommy. What happens in the cave changes me forever. I go in one person and come out another. I still don’t understand what happens in the dark near a sound like wrens trilling, echoing in the tunnels where I first hear her voice. She’s just right there with me with the faraway sound of a powerboat cutting the distant wake. I feel her beside me, where Tommy had been, and at first, I think Tommy is gone, just gone. “Tommy?” I whisper. “Tommy, where are you?” I keep calling him and calling him. The girl’s voice is whispering softly in my ear. I’m trying to push her away, but she keeps getting closer, closer, until her lips are pressed to my ear, tickling me the way Tommy always does when he whispers to me. She’s speaking so fast in such soft tones I can’t understand what she’s saying. I realize she’s naked beside me, shivering against me, clutching me. I feel her soft, smooth, wet skin, her small breasts trembling like the water. She moves my hands to her breasts and holds them there. I don’t know why.
Aimee Parkison is the author of Refrigerated Music for a Gleaming Woman, winner of the FC2 Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize. Her other works include Woman with Dark Horses, The Innocent Party, The Petals of Your Eyes, Sister Séance, and Girl Zoo (co-authored with Carol Guess). Parkison has been published in numerous literary journals and is full Professor of English in the Creative Writing Program at Oklahoma State University.