Happy birthday, Tobias Carroll! Carroll is also an inaugural Big Other Literary Citizenship Awardee. Celebrate by reading this Carroll fiction we published in 2019!
No surprise Trina had spent half her inheritance on something abandoned. Years before, she’d exchanged chains of emails with Grace about government surplus spaces placed for auction: cabins and fire stations and lighthouses, some of these spaces on lakes, on islands, on edges of oceans. In the end, Grace had found a cut-rate cabin to use as a kind of retreat. Ignoring warnings of rising waters, feeling above mere practicality, Trina bought a place by the ocean: a lighthouse on an island three miles from the coastline.
A year after the wreck, Trina was still dealing with the “devouring,” family and friends wondering if she had it in her, whether the stresses of sudden shifts in dynamic, in composition, in emotion would be too much for her. Why had she chosen a hermit’s life anyway? A shut-in at thirty-two! Intensely private, almost impassive, the empty rituals of so-called real life and so-called social media hardly a thought.
The lighthouse was on a small island. The lighthouse was the small island. There was a living space, a miniscule kitchen, and an alcove that comfortably fit a small bed. There was a dock for her boat. There were radios and a phone. Isolated but visible. Remote but unremoved. All she needed.
Once a fortnight or so, she’d boat the distance to the closest town: New Felton, a once prosperous fishing town whittled down by time. Gulls flocking over the docks, she tied the boat to her rented slip, walked down the docks’ long boards and onto the mainland. It was a short walk from the docks to the local post office, where she maintained a box. It was a shorter walk to a deli. You could get far on a diet of eggs and bread, and gourmet beans, the one luxury she afforded herself. An even shorter walk to the bar where she’d sometimes have a drink to remind the locals she was still alive.
There was also the accordion, which she’d take out and play out there on the island most nights, play along with the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks, its bellows breathing in and out, keeping time with the waters washing up on the rocks, advancing and receding from her depending on the day, the season, the moon high above her.
There were several more accordions in a storage space in the town adjacent to New Felton. The one she played daily was inexpensive enough to risk sacrificing to sea spray and salt.
There was the pickup band she sometimes heard at the bar on her rare nights out. Banjo, acoustic guitar, minimal drum kit. They weren’t bad. Plenty of room for accordion, she thought one night, one beer too far. She was on good terms with two-thirds of the band, the heart of this ersatz ensemble, but she never brought up playing with them. She wasn’t entirely sure why. She was Trina, the one with the lighthouse, the one you’d see every week and a half, the one who’d sometimes spend the night in one of the bar’s rented rooms, the one who’d sometimes sleep with someone she’d met at the bar, betraying the notion she was devoid of desire.
The ruins washed up on her island one early spring morning. Still brisk out, Trina wearing a coat, she saw a massive boot, carved from driftwood, years if not decades under water visible. Familiar in its smoothness but still startling. An implacable artifact. These were the words she used, thought. Implacable? But there was something about it. It was relentless. Made assertions. Demands. She’d always toss detritus back into the sea but this, this was something to keep.
She propped it against a table in her living space. The mid-century table inherited ages ago displayed since her first apartment after college. A desk sat in one corner of the room; on the other was a table where a handful of books sat, their company graced by maritime maps. Atop this was a radio, the one she used for news and music and, occasionally, local sports. There was another one, kept far from the door, with which she could transmit. If a storm was brewing, she wanted to know about it, and be able to respond as best she could.
She also had a backup boat and an array of preserved foods in case inclement weather interrupted her trips to and from shore. Trina had friends and paramours on the shore, but none of them had ever come out here. It was her space, hers alone.
Was the boot part of a suit of armor? Meticulously carved from a block of wood and carefully sanded down into something smooth? Wearing this would cause extreme pain, though. Had a woodworker in Cape Verde thrown their handiwork into the currents? Cursory research revealed nothing. She mentioned it one night at the bar, saying something about driftwood you could wear like armor. “Sir Gawain” someone responded, “the sea-green knight.” She was sure the guy had it wrong.
Two days later, another artifact washed ashore near her quarters. Wooden, too, but seemingly older than the first. A bridge over the nose, holes for eyes: a helmet. Impulsively setting it atop her own head, she discovered it was designed for someone with a much larger head than hers. Cleaning it, she set it atop the same trunk as the boot and left it there. Some nights, she’d look at the two, studying the grain of each. One night, bored, she tried turning graphite lines into something evoking these two forms. She went through six false starts.
Trina was a better observer of the seas than she was an artist. She’d sit there, quietly hacking away at paper with a pencil, enervated by the rush of the experience, sometimes moving outside for a few minutes or for longer, depending on the weather.
She never asked anyone about the driftwood when she was on shore.
She googled the phrase “driftwood armor,” and her screen filled with Ren Faire things for sale on Etsy, nothing resembling the things that washed up on her shores. These items were precise, designed, inexorably fresh, the detritus occupying her room worn down, partly dissolved. She couldn’t imagine wearing them.
Had they come from the same suit of armor? The helmet was for a body much larger than hers, but the boot seemed like it could fit her. Odds were good, though, the two had never been meant for one body.
Four years passed before she discovered another piece.
Her routine was brutal: ten days on the lighthouse, two ashore, back to ten at the lighthouse, and so on. Fearing she’d lose her voice, she sang. Ashore, she’d sometimes hear stories of other isolated others, how they eventually seemed to forget how to have a conversation. Trina was a talker. Maybe that was her superpower. Maybe she was just lucky.
Docking her boat in the waning hours of a spring morning, she saw it bobbing off the shores of the lighthouse. She’d taken it for a length of pipe at first. Later, indoors, her mind snapped back to the drifting object. Stepping back outside, savoring the warm light and the water’s calm, she grabbed it, held it up to the light, feeling like she’d received a message, from an old friend who’d gone silent for years.
She’d been researching boats when a glut of objects washed ashore, the years and weather having weathered away the first boat. Afternoons practicing yoga, the one form of physical exertion that lent itself to her space. Nights looking at ads and brochures from small rooms in the middle of the water. Mornings waking with stiffness in her arms and legs. Days aging, like her boats, like her objects. Stepping outside into a warm spring morning, she saw something dark bumping against her dock. Another boot. A duplicate! Larger than the older boot, a notion confirmed after comparing them to each other.
Two months later, a glove washed ashore. Six months after that, a breastplate. Another helm two nights before year’s end. A month into the new year, a pair of mismatched gloves swatted against the lighthouse dock. Bringing the last of these in, Trina wondered if she should find somewhere else to place these items. No mere curiosity now, but a burden, perhaps. Should she show them to someone? No one came to mind, though, only a flood of faces she’d seen at the bar.
Months and months of Grace making noises about a visit. A retreat of sorts, a resort or ski lodge or something, where they could relax, luxuriate. Trina was having none of it, saying Grace could come stay with her at the lighthouse in the middle of the waters, Grace subsequently suggesting an opulent hotel twenty miles from New Felton. Grace even offered to pay for the stay, Trina still refusing. The lighthouse could comfortably fit two for a few days. And it was “a place like nowhere else.”
Docking her boat, Trina marched toward the bar. Missing these walks, she rubbed her shoulder, the stiffness feeling like bits of it were being pinned down. Aging was a fucking sham.
Arriving at the bar, Trina saw her cousin, a small suitcase beside her. When had they last seen each other? Their family hadn’t been one for holidays or large gatherings. Had it really been a decade or more? Christ, a decade! No, more than that.
One of her boat trips back to the island found her wondering about her final crossing. Would she find herself too ill or broken-down to make the trip back? Would she die alone on the island? Would someone on the mainland finally notice and boat to the lighthouse and find her remains?
In the end, the rising waters submerged these thoughts, the scrap of rock on which the lighthouse stood becoming less and less visible. The waters would rise and rise, above the first floor, above the second, rendering the lighthouse uninhabitable, a ruin.
She had a year before the worst of it.
She would call her sister the next time she was on the mainland. She would make arrangements. She would say goodbye to this home.
The armor would go with her, wherever she landed.
Would more objects arrive before she was gone, before the lighthouse, before everything was gone? She played to the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks, her accordion inhaling, exhaling, keeping time with the advancing and receding waters, the moon high above her.