When Love Awaits
by Lynn A. Coleman
Let your light so shine before men,
that they may see your good works,
and glorify your Father which is in heaven.
Ocracoke, North Carolina, 1825
Sand particles bit into Fiona's cheeks. She forced herself to endure the pain, a sentry with a mission. The ever-graying horizon, swirling clouds, and lightning strikes could only mean one thing. . . "Hurri-cane's coming." Her words struggled to come out. A list, her father's training, surfaced in her mind. She ran back to the red brick lighthouse to begin her appointed task.
Battening down the storm shutters of the small house first, she then quickly assembled a basket of food and blankets to keep her through the night. The barrels of oil for the lamp were full and ready. She pulled out some wicks and wrapped them in an oilcloth. Dry wicks were essential during a storm, and if she read the clouds correctly, the small island of Ocracoke on the outer banks of North Carolina lay in the path of the hurricane. Her foul-weather gear, as well as her parents', hung on posts at ground level of the lighthouse. "Be prepared," echoed through her mind, her father's words a sharp reminder of how fast a storm could come upon them.
"Oh, Lord, keep Father and Mother safe." They were gathering supplies from the mainland and due back tomorrow. Hurricane season tended to begin in late June. This storm, two weeks early, obviously didn't keep track of calendarsand Fiona was alone.
Fiona's confidence in her ability to handle the light at nineteen years of age wasn't the problem. Her concern was this island. So low to the ground, so flat, an overgrown sandbar had been her first impression after arriving the previous year. But last year they never en-countered a hurricane--some minor squalls but nothing of a serious nature. How would the island fare? Would it be washed out to sea?
Fiona stopped in front of the mirror and stared at her windblown hair and reprimanded herself. "Lord, forgive me and my doubts. The island has been here since before the first settlers came from England. Surely it can withstand a severe blow. Give me peace and strength to maintain the light. Protect the sailors on the seas tonight. In Jesus' name, Amen."
She squared her shoulders, lifted her pack, and brought the supplies to the base of the lighthouse. Once inside, she climbed the circular stairs up to the first landing, then proceeded to the lantern housing. Fiona pulled out a cloth and wiped the suet off the parabolic reflector. The Argand lamp was a vast improvement over the Spider lamp they'd used at her father's previous station. This new lamp was smokeless, compared to the Spider that would send her out of the lantern housing with her eyes and nose burning from its acrid fumes.
She slipped off the cylinder glass chimney, trimmed the wick, and polished the glass clean before replacing it. Next she wiped the bull's-eye lens down.
Fiona stepped outside to work on the outer windows of the lantern housing. The wind whipped at her skirts as she scurried from windowpane to windowpane. Gray sky now enveloped the small island. She put down her cleaning rags and bucket and stepped back inside to fire up the lamps. Perhaps it was a bit early, but it would serve to warn both the local pilots, who sailed the vessels through the inlet to the mainland, and the fishermen. Although, she reckoned, the old salts were already well aware of the approaching storm.
With the lamps lit, she continued polishing the glass windows that housed the flame. Her father had left her in charge. The task of keeping the light, albeit a temporary one, hung on her shoulders. Her older siblings were grown and married with families of their own. Fiona in-tended to prove to her father, and to the world, that she could do this job as well as anyone.
Fiona liked the secluded life of a lighthouse keeper. Ocracoke seemed like a city to her with its couple hundred residents. Their last assignment had been a secluded island off the coast of Maine. No one lived on the island except for her family.
There they enjoyed peace and quiet, where a person could work from sunup to sundown and not have any worries. Oh, sure, there were times when the flour ran low, but fish and shellfish abounded. The wild berries from the island produced enough jams and jellies to keep her sweet tooth happy. Yes, she liked the simple life. The more people, the more bothersome life became.
Like the constant visiting of Mr. Ian Duncan. The man came by nearly every day, always talking with her father at great length. He wasn't even her father's age. His twenty-five years matched her older brother David's. Why he didn't stay in his own home every evening, Fiona would never understand. No, an isolated island where she could tend the light and keep men and ships alive called to her. Just as it had been for her father and brothers. Of course, a husband would be a nice companion someday, but she didn't see any prospects on the horizon worth filling that bill.
The neighing of some of the island's wild ponies brought Fiona to the present. They were beautiful creatures. No one seemed to know where they came from, but she loved watching them race down the shore at nightfall. One pony in particular she had a genuine fondness for, a chestnut with white boots in front and a white stripe that ran down his nose and pointed up to the top of his head. He would now take food from her hand. The next step would be in putting a bit and bridle over him. Fiona smiled. Perhaps this island did have its own charm, and perhaps she could get used to so many people.
Finished with the windows, she slipped back inside the lantern housing and down the circular staircase. She opened the door at the base of the lighthouse, only to find Ian Duncan huffing and puffing.
"Aye, Lass, ye lit the light? 'Tis goin' to be a bad one." He raked his hand through a full head of dark mahogany hair, settling it back in place.
"Appears to be quite a blow." She didn't have time for small talk, and patience was her father's gift, not hers.
"Would ye be needin' some help?"
"No, thank you. I've taken care of everything. Just have to wait it out now."
"I'd be happy to stay an' lend a hand. Yer father--"
Fiona cut him off. "I'm quite capable of tending the light. I've been doing it since I could walk."
Ian took a step back. "I'm sorry, Miss Stemple, I was simply offerin' a hand."
Fiona gave him a single nod and trekked toward the marsh. Who does that man think he is, anyway? He spends nearly every night chewing Father's ear off, and he thinks
he knows how to handle a light during a hurricane? Did
he think he needed to hang around because she was
a woman, and no one expected a woman to be able to handle the duties of a lighthouse keeper? In either event, her words were spoken angrily, she realized, and she'd need to spend some time on her knees.
Ian watched Fiona traipse down the small footpath to the shore, no doubt to check the skiff and make certain the life rings and ropes were in order. Her gentle frame did not blend with her not-so-gentle personality. "Fiona's fine on the eyes, Lord, but hard on the ears," he mumbled as he headed back to Pilot Town.
The one-room shack he'd rented from an old pilot fancied well to his purse, but he counted the days when he could purchase some land and build his own home. The weathered gray boards seemed to darken as the storm approached.
Seagulls hovered over the harbor. Many seemed to be flying toward the mainland. The old saying, Seabirds hovering on land is a sign of bad weather, rang in his mind. He'd seen the warnings all afternoon. The other shipbuilders couldnšt stop talking about it. The last few hours had been spent battening down the hatches of the boatyard.
Ian shook his head and looked down at his hands. He was a builder, a craftsmen, forced to live in this humble shanty. "Lord, I know there be a reason. But there are times a man needs to show the woman he cares for who he really be."
Ian's heart ached. Would Fiona ever see him as a man? Evening after evening he'd gone over to the Stem-ples' home, hoping, praying for a moment alone with Fiona. But she seemed to dislike him so. Finally he gave up trying to have some time with her, hoping she'd at least get used to his presence.
Nothing, not one glimmer of hope. Richard spoke so fondly of the lass, but after all these many months, could it be just a father's blindness to his own flesh and blood? Had Ian let his heart be swayed by a beautiful woman with golden hair the color of beach grass, with eyes so blue they sparkled like the sun dancing on a crystal lake? Aye, the woman be beautiful, but her heart. . .
Her heart be a stone.
Ian flopped on his single bunk bed. This shack would provide little shelter from a severe storm. He pulled out from under his bunk a cast-iron padlocked box. Inside were his personal papers and every cent he'd earned since he'd come to the small island. In reality he had enough for the land. He'd held off purchasing it, waiting on Fiona.
He slid the box back under his bunk and headed for O'Neal's house, where a man could buy a hot meal. The small chimney in the shack provided the heat for a man in the winter and he could cook some in there, but Ian missed his large clan from Scotland and all the more so at mealtime.
Ian pushed his chair back from the table, his belly full, and groaned, his head spinning from the talk of the men. Some of the old salts speculated a hurricane was brewing. Some talked about heading to the lighthouse if winds were too strong, because the shacks were unsafe. Word passed that everyone needed to get their gear and bunk up in some of the larger homes. Ian finished off his hot tea and returned to his shack. He packed his clothing in his duffel--his tools were at the shipyard--and pulled the cast-iron box out once again.
Fiona's brick house would endure the storm, but she'd be in the lighthouse. Perhaps she wouldn't mind him bedding down in her house. Then again, it would probably anger her more. He prayed her Christian charity would grace him and any others who'd happen upon the home as a safe haven. Richard had told many stories of sailors being rescued and how his family would put them up until they found passage on another vessel.
He wasn't a sailor, but he did build ships. Ian grinned. Which storm would be worse, the one raising her heels at sea or the beguiling figure that had turned a reasonable manšs head since the moment he first laid eyes on her?
Ian cinched the strap of the duffel and fought the wind, heading into the direct assault of the approaching storm.
The front door of the lightkeeper's home was unlocked. Ian plopped his duffel and his strongbox in a corner near the fireplace. Wind and rain drummed the roof of the small home. He contemplated lighting a small fire but decided to wait until later. "Fiona must still be in the lighthouse." Ian drew in a deep breath through clenched teeth. "Better to confront her now than later."
"Fiona!" Ian yelled as he approached the lighthouse. The rain pelted his cheeks. Grains of sand and debris stung as they bit into his exposed skin.
"Fiona!" he hollered again.
Ian pounded on the door at the base of the lighthouse. Grasping the cast-iron latch, he paused momentarily between knocks. Should he just walk in? Would it invoke her wrath once again?
He opted to bang the door. It rattled in its doorjamb. "Fiona!" he bellowed. No response. Working at the top of the light, she'd never hear him over this storm. "Wrath be hanged," he muttered and pushed the door open.
"I'll be right down," Fiona called.
She'd obviously heard the door open. "Fiona, 'tis me, Ian Duncan." Before she could protest, he added, "I'd be indebted to ye if ye let me stay in yer home until the storm passes."
"Don't you have. . . ?" Fiona's eyebrows raised, and she amended her response. "Do you live in. . . ?"
"Yes, I have a small pilot's shack in Pilot Town. The lot of us is seekin' temporary shelter in the larger homes."
"I understand. You may stay."
"Thank ye, Fiona. I'd be honored to lend a hand, if I may. Seems only fittin' for a man to earn his keep."
Fiona's delicate shoulders relaxed. Lord, she does have a tender side.
"There's not much to be done at the moment. I need to watch the horizon. Other than that, I just have to keep the lens and reflector clean of suet and the flame fueled."
"Whatever ye need. I can cook up a pot of fish chowder. Can't cook much, but I know how to make a grand fish chowder," Ian offered.
"That would be wonderful. Thank you, Mr. Duncan. Do you suppose others might come from Pilot Town then?"
" 'Tis possible, depends on how bad the storm is."
"I'm fairly certain it's a hurricane and a large one. This is just the outer edge. The real force of the storm is hours away."
Ian sobered for a moment. Medium-sized trees swayed wildly from the constant battering of the wind. "Do ye have all the oil ye need?"
"I'm fine for the night, but I'll need more from the storeroom in the morning."
Ian nodded. He realized she expected this storm to last more than through the night, and she'd have to keep the light burning through the next day. She'd need rest. He'd need rest. Richard Stemple had shown him how to load the oil into the lanterns. He could help. But he saw in Fiona's rich blue eyes determination to prove her abilities.
"I'll fix a large pot of chowder." Ian tipped his hat and slipped out the strong oak door.
Fiona had never met a man who willingly would cook before. Of course, she hadn't met that many men. Well, that wasn't exactly true. Most of the people she'd had contact with over the years were men. Sea captains, sailors, and her brothers. As for cooking, she and mother shared that chore. She supposed sailors could cook, but the way they praised her mother's cooking, the cooks on board the ships couldn't be all that great.
Fiona crinkled her nose. Would Ian's cooking be
the same? Something to fill the stomach, but not much pleasure in the experience of it going down? She didn't have time to consider the question. Fiona marched back up the circular stairway to the lantern housing and watched the horizon. "Dear Lord, I pray no ships will run aground." From the ever-darkening horizon and the growing intensity of the surf, Fiona knew the storm's potential impact. And alone with oars she'd never make it out far enough to rescue anyone. All indications were that her small craft would end up at the bottom of
the ocean floor, never reaching her destination.