Seventy years ago, there was an ocean. It is said that the ocean was vast, wondrous, and infinitely beautiful, and it was known to be kind or cruel to those that sailed its limitless expanse. It embodied a reservoir of life and death beyond the capricious fingers of mortality, a safety net spun above an otherwise chaotic impermanence, but its webs were fragile. The ocean could never escape the grasp of mortality itself. Those capricious fingers curled inward until all that remained was a barren, empty basin, remnants of Eden and a balance shattered.
I live on what used to be the coast of the Pacific Northwest.
Seventy years ago, a renowned chemical conglomerate led the global market in the mass production and distribution of refrigerants and aerosol propellants. Their products contained, among many ingredients, chlorofluorocarbons: organic compounds comprised of chlorine, fluorine, and a range of alkanes that served the world in pest control or vital coolants, and as such were a pivotal resource in the ever crucial agricultural industry. Simplistic integrity allowed us to know them as nothing more than another shorthand in the extensive list of materials we depended on to protect our food sources.
In time, we became aware of the effects that chlorofluorocarbons had on the environment. They were a poison, stifling and choking and gradually eating a hole through our abundant atmosphere. Those that were looking had taken notice and an attempt was made to phase them out of production in the year 1985 through an international treaty, but the decision was negated. There was big money in that business; the agricultural industry was heavily dependent on the ability to supply consumable resources, and aerosol pesticides were an effective countermeasure against potential crop death in the face of rising temperatures and bloating insect populations. The countries abundant with farmable land were not eager to risk one of their most powerful sources of income for what they predicted to be merely a frightening rumor, and so the market continued to drive its poison into the earth and air.
We always heard of how pleasant the water was on the coast. It was commonplace for beachgoers to laud over the warmth of the ocean that made it so delectable for swimming. As a child, this had been my way of life. Summer days in the yellow sand, collecting rubbery seaweed and erecting castles that wore on the wind, watching the dynamic curvature of the ocean as it breathed. What was transient had been the norm, and I was accustomed to witnessing the changes between tourists and seasons. I knew that my littoral habitat was one alive and changing, but far above our heads, the ozone layer was thinned to a ghostly veneer and it brought about a new evolution that none of us had anticipated.
We watched the ocean swell.
Where the cliff drops into a shallow slope, I envision tide against the rock; black as a void at night, or purple when the sun set on the edge of the water, or blue when the skies were clear. The waves would collide and give a salty spray to the air or relentlessly churn below. In its place is… silence. The day has eased into an orange evening and I am caught remembering as I stand on the ledge; here, I’ve chanced a few minutes outside to pretend to revisit the dilemma that ritually occupies my mind. Looming behind me is the lighthouse – an artifact of my family’s maritime culture that relented against the disposal of its initial purpose. There is a ridge of limescale on the wall where the water was at its highest. I once failed to scrub it away and it has escaped me since. I’d like to say that I fancy the thought of finally wiping it clean, but I long ago abandoned my fight against such relics of the ocean and have come to accept them simply as memories in and of themselves. The lighthouse lingers as a thing of sentiment.
The name attached to this property is my father’s own, and his father’s before him. I returned to tend to it when he no longer could, leaving my daughter to flourish in the city far from this wreckage. I haven’t left again since that day. Sometimes I forget the years, and sometimes I know exactly how many have passed; the lighthouse has a way of forgiving the ages as though it exists in a world of its own. Clinging to the old habits of wayfarers and wanderers has rendered us liminal, fleetingly obsolete until another finds us in the midst of their sojourn. Still, I know that I am to be the last here, and I cherish the tower for that. Once my time has passed, the earth will swallow the lighthouse and the final vestige of an ancient ocean. I stay here to safeguard all that I can while I still have a chance, and I wonder then if I should at least attempt to rend the lime from the concrete. The notion brings me to laughter.
The sun is falling, and my old skin no longer burns with the encroaching dark. Before I return inside, I look once more to the basin. The sky is separated by a rigid horizon. This is the same horizon that I have witnessed for an eternity, but I find myself squinting at a distant disparity I cannot recognize. Adjusting my glasses yields no result, and for the first time, I am floored by the change that I used to know so well. It offers me the relief of a mild curiosity, if only for a moment. I’m sure that it’s nothing of importance.
Fifty five years ago, I had to leave my home. The little brick house built next to the tower was partially underwater. My father chose to stay to man the lighthouse; he tethered a boat to the rail and we watched him move his belongings up flights of spiral stairs. We left the fish tank to keep him company. Everyone else I knew migrated inland as the ocean swallowed the coast. From the safety of the city, we listened to our world fall apart.
Blinding ultraviolet rays bled through our crippled ozone blanket, so we cowered under our roofs, feared the sun, and only walked when it was dark. We thought we were blessed when the weather drew more clouds over our heads, until the day we realized they would never leave. The rain fell. Those of us that prayed – and there were becoming so many of us – believed our end was near. That we would shrivel or that the ocean would boil. There were talks of arks and apocalypses, and mad men wielding schematics that crushed sane men underfoot. Stockpiling necessities had turned into a battle of who came first, and then a war of who deserved better. We turned ourselves savage in desperation to survive.
A world away, scientists were watching the Gulf Stream dismantle itself. The ocean was breaking down beneath the weight of an environment that grew too hot, even in our attempts to coax it back to normal; the world’s climate had become indifferent and primal, advancing without us as though to say “Look what has happened, now neither of us can stop it.”
Each day it takes a little longer to climb those spiral stairs, and my bones ache for the worn chair that sits at the west-facing window. There I watch the red sun slowly sink into the basin, cradled by swathes of pink and fiery clouds. An image that evokes love and tranquility, I suppose. It draws my hand towards a pristinely framed photograph. I stand with my daughter, smiling as she boasts her newly gifted diploma beneath the artificial lighting of the recreational hall hosting her graduation ceremony. We were inside that day in June.
An envelope is nestled beneath the frame. This morning, a brave courier had made the journey from the city to this desiccated harbor to deliver it to me, and I know that this parcel is one of importance for it comes from a place alive with hope and ignorance. It is perhaps my only chance to indulge in a future still not lost. Her handwriting is my own.
The letter reads as a rosy ballad from a kingdom far or an age long lost in time. I travel over each word and deliver it in her voice, recalling the subtle lilt of childish wonder she still carried when last I had seen her. She speaks of her own daughter and son, their accomplishments in and outside of schooling, how they revere tales of the lighthouse and other such figments of antiquity. I’ve not met them, but each letter comes with a glossy new photo tenderly swaddled in its folds, and I see both myself and her in them – more her – I smile, thinking of how to make room on the wall for two new additions.
But I am jarred from the dream. A splash accompanies a wet thump on the floorboards. My fish has thrust itself from the confines of aquaria, so I rise to aid my troubled companion. This is not the first time it has vaulted itself from the water, and I doubt it will be the last. I suspect with some remorse that it is searching for its lost ocean. I return the fish to its tank and through the glass I meet its vacant stare, hungry, unknowing, so driven by instinct that it would abandon the only source of comfort it has. If I could return it to the home it once knew, I would.
Thirty years ago, someone measured the temperature of the ocean and found that it was cooling. The poles became immersed in ice. The swell of water that flooded the lighthouse began to creep away, and we so foolishly mistook it as a sign that the world was repairing itself. But there was irreversible damage to the global currents that once swept tempered surges along their rightful paths and the cold spread from the North and South, unchecked by prevailing winds or warming draughts. After years of heat and years of rain, we saw a new era: snow.
We received a letter from my father. He was growing ill; life escaped him as it escaped all of us. In his last moments I went to him, minding my daughter that the journey might have been too hazardous. I found him on the exposed cliff upon which the lighthouse sat, no longer underwater as I remembered it to be. He took my hand and told me that the ocean and its wanderers needed their guiding light. That, through our evanescent existence, they needed somebody to remember. I obliged him, so struck with childhood nostalgia as I watched the waves chop and cut their glistening points across that undulating sphere. We went inside before the radiation had its chance to poison us, and when we went out again, I buried him.
On a brisk, dark day in my newfound solitude, I caught a small fish and took it from the sea to the lighthouse. I cleaned the aquarium and asked of it to keep my company as I guarded its home. I watch the fish every day as I have since then through the lens of glass, reminded of its subtle acceptance of fate. The defective, superficial ideal, stolen by an ultimate hand.
Over the years, the ocean retreated miles away. The water turned to clouds, turned to precipitation, turned to snow and marooned itself too far from the coast. Days between rainfalls became weeks and then months and the earth slowly wilted from green to brown and white. The anarchy that grew from the death of the world had subdued itself as we realized that there was no hand of God come to pluck us from this sinful Eden. We had few options, to die ourselves or to persist and cultivate what remained of the soil, so we persisted. We chose to fester in our toxic garden as the rest of the animals looked on. I was left with my fish and the lighthouse alone.
The sanguine glow of the day is gone, replaced by the warmth of candlelight flickering across the floorboards. The new photos are pinned to the wall and I have stored the letter among its likeness on the shelves. I am almost ready to retire to bed when I hear that familiar wet thump.
The fish has beached itself again.
I fret that the frequency with which it throws itself from the water will bring about its untimely end. I meet my companion in the sparse pool of water it has left dripping on the floor and catch my reflection in its glassy eye, and I come to realize perhaps for the first time that the fish can see me too, no longer from behind the lens of water and glass but in final clarity. We are suspended in the momentary stillness. Slowly, the shining scales shift a bar of light across the skin as its gills flare and it gapes in the air; so frozen in time, having crystallized its desire into a dangerous bastille far from sanctuary. It was stripped the path to its rightful home when it had its chance and now it knows it can never go back. I realize that I have looked the same.
Something in the distance groans, taking my eyes from the fish to the window. A shadow has amassed in the night beyond my notice. I can feel it now beneath my feet, tremors of gargantuan steps, like nothing I’d ever felt before. I quickly return the fish to the aquarium for the final time and crouch by the window, watching.
Moonlight catches on a gleaming, black carapace.
The ground trembles.
I count six appendages, long and spindly between their waxy joints. Two more arms curl against what I can only describe as its upper thorax. A tenth pair of powerful legs, thick like pillars, propels the creature towards my lighthouse.
Manifested from the darkness… a monster. It’s come from the inky night and the dusty wasteland. From the stagnant, saline pond yet to evaporate under the irradiated sun. From the cancer we imparted on this earth.
The ground trembles.
Ever closer the creature lurches until its silhouette eclipses the sky. I fall into the briny penumbra that ebbs across the wall, shaking, hiding by the top level window beneath its line of vision. A massive eye still shifts my way, gleaming archaic, bronze and titanic. It can see me for what I am, a pest, the ultimate hand that curled its fingers over the reservoir. It passes me by. The beast does not vie for my quiet watchtower on the coast of what once was. Instead it staggers in a direction far from this wreckage, to vanish into the simmering distance where lights yet pollute the sky.
I am drawn to the window, only to peer back to the changed horizon. It has adopted a jagged, shifting topography, and a thousand more eyes that see me, no longer obscured by the lens of glass and water.
I fear they’ve come seeking their lost ocean.
This piece is part of a short story collection by Madison Trupp. View it on her website here: madisontrupp.com/writing/lost-…
Visuals by Madison Trupp. Credits: Chrysomela danieloooo faestock STOCKPorcelaine CelticStrm-Stock Esmeralda-stock
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