Winter 2003
Volume 3, Number 1

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The Lighthouse Keeper’s Wife
My husband, as a child in bed, watched
the lighthouse—lit by an orange bulb
from some old string of Christmas
lights—and imagined himself a miniature
man, climbing the tiny steps, slippery
from the spray, chiseled
in a rock slab base. Then he’d enter
the door, arched like a cathedral
entrance. He told me this

on our wedding night, on the balcony
of the Getaway Motel in Indianapolis,
as we stared, below us, at stammering
neon lights. A year later
we moved to the Atlantic Coast
and he found a job as lighthouse keeper.
Year after year, he climbed the spiral
staircase while I followed. At first,
I imagined ships were coming and squinted
toward the ocean’s edge. One had purple
sails and a cargo of parakeets, violin
music that cried like a human voice.

But never was I lonely, though for days
we saw no one but ourselves and both of us
started collecting things: scallop shells,
broken coral, pieces of bottle glass
rubbed into polished stones. Looking through them
was like peering through stained glass windows, only
these were a softer shade. Not everything

was easy. Once, when my husband left for town,
the fog bell broke, and I pulled for hours on strands
of unbraided rope, once every fifteen seconds, until
my blistered palms broke open. Several times
the wind blew small boats against our shore
and we stumbled through icy, frothy waves to catch
their sides and lead them in. What we noticed first

was how our hands were getting smaller
in relation to the fish and how the waves were growing,
curling higher, more exuberantly, like the sky
in a Van Gogh painting. The light from our windows
was another clue: it shone so slim upon the water,
the shape of electric eels. After half a century,

the Coast Guard installed a computerized light and fog bell.
They scooped us up, like fish in a plastic bag,
and drove us to a Home in Indianapolis.
But we had become too small to fit the human world.
My husband couldn’t reach the doorknob, and even stretching
I wasn’t tall enough to see, above the window ledge, the buildings
clouding the horizon. The day my husband died, I climbed
into the lighthouse we kept beside our bed. I’ve bolted
all the windows and warm my hands—the blood veins branching
like violet sea fans—over the electric flame.

—Shari Miller Wagner, Carmel, Indiana, is a prize-winning poet with an MFA in creative writing from Indiana University. Her poems have been published in a variety of literary magazines, including Indiana Review and Black Warrior Review as well as Southern Poetry Review, in which "The Lighthouse Keeper's Wife" was first published.

       

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