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Authors: Paulette Jiles

Lighthouse Island

BOOK: Lighthouse Island
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Chapter 1

he winds carried dust to every part of the great cities; left it on roofs and windowsills and uneven streets. It scoured glass to an iridescent glaze. The city covered the entire earth, if people think of the earth as “where I live.” At night the wind sang through the abandoned upper floors of buildings with a noise like oboes and this erratic music could be heard at street level where people walked in the heat to their work in offices and in the recycling dumps and the cement works, to work on the pumps that kept the water, contaminated with gypsum from Silurian seas, flowing through the pipes. In the interstadial spaces between the borders of gerrymanders, prisoners painfully attended the cactus fields and the soybean fields.

There was not enough pressure to move water any higher than four stories and so upper stories had to be abandoned and demolished and new, dust-leaking roofs built over the remains. Television reports on demolitions were very popular. The city covered mountains; houses were fastened to the steep places and they sprang up in four-story shells along abandoned watercourses and the sinks of vanished springs. The city plated the entire planet if you thought of the planet as “my neighborhood,” a place where nobody was ever left alone.

n a hot, dry afternoon a four-year-old girl was taken out into a crowded street by her parents and abandoned. It was in the Sissons Bend neighborhood. The girl knew by her parents' manner that something remarkable was about to happen, but she thought as they were walking along that it would have something to do with shoes or maybe a musical toy.

Her parents had given her a coin purse of red leather—in it were five coins—and a note, and another piece of paper on which were drawn the constellations of the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia's Chair, and the North Star. Her mother handed her the paper and said, Look to the North Star and we will always be there. You'll be lonely for a while but things will get better.

Then her parents disappeared in the crowded streets as if they had been teleported somewhere. The girl stood there without knowing what to do. A slow crawling fright rose inside her and it increased with every moment as passersby bumped into her and looked down at her briefly and then hurried on. The girl stared at the crowd as if she had been electrocuted with some kind of cunning electricity that could not be felt unless you moved and so she tried to stand still with the purse and the two papers in her hand but she was knocked down and then scrambled to her feet with gritty hands and stood carefully unmoving again.

The street was choked with people moving to new locations carrying children and bags of clothes and solar casserole pots and kerosene cans piled on carts that wove through and around the overloaded buses. The buses ground along in first gear and the little electric Buddy cars were loaded with three and four passengers and their roped suitcases. As far as anyone knew, the world had become nothing but city and the rains had failed for a century. They were on the move because the water faucets had gone dry in one distant part of the city but were rumored to be springing clear and full of pressure out of the standpipes in another. These were ordered migrations and agents in tracksuits paced alongside them. The man of the neighborhood watch saw the girl and frowned. He came toward her.

he was taken to an orphanage where she lived with other abandoned children like herself. She was given porridges and beet tops and a quart of water a day. She sat with the other children in front of a television in a battered wooden chassis. The blue light sucked up her attention like a pulmotor. After a week or so she went blind.

She could not see the eye doctor but he could see her and he lifted her chin and stared into her green-gray blind eyes, her auburn hair sliding in planes, and then said, this is going to sting. The day-care attendant said it was for a blood test. The doctor said he was sure it was vitamin A deficiency. Maybe she was especially sensitive to vitamin A deficiency or maybe she had been weaned too early and was raised on bulgur wheat and pastas. Before long, after the paperwork was approved, she would have a prescribed daily dosage of retinyl palmitate. But retinyl palmitate was synthesized from retinol and retinol had to be prepared and transported at very low temperatures in an oxygen-free atmosphere and the industrial unit that made it went through constant breakdowns in refrigeration, the gas-packing apparatus frequently blew its tubes, and delivery by truck was rarely on schedule owing to ruptured tires. In the meantime she must have animal foods. She should be served eggs and cod liver oil and milk. And so he went away.

An attendant patted her shoulder and said it wouldn't be too long before she could watch her favorite programs again and just that brief touch made the girl's heart grow full and she did not feel so desperate. The attendant's name was Shaniya. Shaniya thought of herself as a nurse-practitioner and often gave out medical information that was totally wrong. In this case she held forth on the fact that Raisa's eyes would be weak for the rest of her life. Raisa thought it might be from crying so much so she decided to try to stop crying.

Raisa could hear the television but she could not see it so she sat on the floor and listened intently to the voices because they might say something about what had happened to her mother or her father but in general they were the voices of walking palm trees and animated clocks and cabbages and bright, knowing children.

That's a clock that's talking, one of the girls said. Can't you tell?

She can't see, said another.

Their breath smelled like corn crisps and their fingers felt grimy and when they asked what her name was all she could do was to repeat what she heard her parents say: Raisa. But the way things had changed so quickly she wasn't sure.

She doesn't have any eyes, said a girl beside her.

Yes I do, said Raisa. I have eyes. She put her hands with their pale narrow fingers against her eyeballs and felt them trembling inside the sockets like small infant animals but it was a creepy feeling so she gripped both hands together in a knot and felt tears running in hot streams down her cheeks. They're right in there.

A girl beside her said, They're in there. The girl put her hands against Raisa's eyes. They're inside her head.

See, I told you, said Raisa.

Then why can't she see?

Raisa, why can't you see?

I don't know. Raisa searched for a reason and wiped her face on her skirt hem. Maybe my eyes aren't turned on. My mother is going to come and turn them on.

n the television there were things the others said were magic pencils, a happy spoon named Banji, and a spider, who danced to frenetic music. There were adventures with children who yelled at one another in unresonant voices. They argued about how to do something or which door led to the magic kingdom, or a place where some treasure lay. There it is! shouted an unspecified vegetable. The puppets Pepper Spray and Long Shot exchanged caustic remarks as they rifled a kitchen for cod cakes. Lucy Swiffer and the Space Shuttle Pirates rocketed to other worlds while Raisa came to understand that treasures lay in dark places, behind closed doors, that these doors were reached by perilous journeys through wastelands and clothes closets.

Raisa had thick auburn hair that slipped out of its braids in slick tangles so that her hair was frequently pulled by older children. She could not fend them off. She smelled them in their jammed closeness, their odors of germicidal soap and peanuts. From time to time the television changed to a program about vacations or resorts. She sat suspended in front of the invisible screen where a booming, washing noise sounded.

What's that? she called. What is that?

The ocean.

What ocean? Where is it? Where?


Come to Lighthouse Island,
said the television.

hey were always thirsty and Raisa could hear the building's holding tanks being pumped full and bottles being filled at the tap downstairs, long before the other children. She heard the carts being stacked and put her hand to her mouth. Water time, she said. I can hear them.

I don't hear it, said another girl.

They're coming, said Raisa. I know. And then, just as she had said, the water cart came down the hallway.

Conversations among the attendants left her nervous. She had to puzzle out these words to stay alive. They argued about the food she was to be given and wasn't: the eggs and milk and liver. Adult workers weren't even getting eggs and milk and liver. One attendant said, Why hasn't she been sent to the dryers?

And Shaniya said, Give her a break. She's very functional. The retinyl stuff will be here one of these days. Please.

aisa liked being alone. She felt her way to a sofa and then crawled into the space behind it. They were being called to come and eat. The children went away. She heard a click and a short, crisp sound, like a quick burning, when the television was turned off. She put her fingertips against each other and fell into stillness. Solitude. In the distance she heard a deep, repeated thunder that rattled the windows in their frames and it seemed to come from a long way away, beyond the street noises. The windows were always open because it was so hot and she felt the puff of air after the explosions.

She hid in silence between the wall and the sofa and listened. The remote sounds of human life were like intricate figures in a textile made up of distant singing and a crowd walking and Buddy car horns and bus motors. She heard televisions from other windows, and pigeons. It was all absorbing and everything mattered in this poised delay where she lived, suspended in hope, which seemed to have located her in spite of everything, hope that her parents would come and for her sight to return.

The attendants were upset when they finally found her. Solitude was the same as hostility. Children were never left alone. Raisa sat and felt about for her plate, her spoon, and tried to eat and drink without spilling but the other children tipped her cup over and laughed and so she flung her grits wildly, hoping to hit them. She was always a mess and she had to be cleaned up. It made the attendants impatient.

wo other girls, June and Nancy, decided to become her protectors and were kind to her. They treated her like a doll. They put the morning and evening water bottles in her hand and said, There now, drink up! They braided her hair and tugged her around the rooms. One time they were given oranges and June and Nancy scrupulously divided an orange among the three of them, an act of generosity that restored Raisa's faith in humanity. They sat her in front of the television and told her what was happening with the sardonic spoons and the hero-children. When the news came on they were all silent and then bored.

For Raisa the stories were all broken and fragmented and incomplete. This kept her anxiously asking, And then what did they do? What are they doing now? They're not talking, what are they doing? So that she was left with nothing but missing links and stories that were mutilated and garbled because she couldn't see expressions or movements or understand what the music meant. She turned her left ear toward the television in hopes of hearing some kind of continuity that the others couldn't and then she turned her right ear toward the screen but nothing helped. It left her with a kind of despair that she could not put into words. She told herself,
It will get better. Life will get better

n winter they all left the day-care center and went some other place, some other building. June and Nancy had disappeared. The incessant thundering and street noises grew louder and closer. They were dressed in padded jackets and wrapped in blankets made of an abrasive material.
Step up, Raisa. Here, sit down, Raisa
. As they drove through the streets there was another sound from far below.

What's that? said Raisa.

What's what? She felt Shaniya turning to her.

There's a sound far down, she said. Underneath us. Raisa held on to Shaniya's arm because she was afraid she was being taken to someplace where she would be killed; the thought occurred to her in a kind of evaporating image. The vehicle had stopped to wait for something. Crowd noises outside. It was bitterly cold.

Those are the underground trains, said the attendant. My God, she can hear anything.

ife at the new place started up all over again, just the same. She had to begin again memorizing the number of steps into and out of rooms, into the sleeping area, the eating area, the toilets. She could hear the hissing steam boilers in the basement and the singing of the wind through telephone wires and electrical wires strung from building to building, and the sound of the thick crowds on the sidewalks outside. The television talked about new and deeper wells being drilled, collecting glacier water; it spoke of sex scandals in high places. Crowds applauded, there were dramatic conflicts between men and women in intense close-ups, more Pepper Spray and talking spoons and instructions on the use of solar casseroles.

She became despairing and anxious. They had left her parents behind. She thought of them as still standing at the intersection where they had abandoned her, the last place she had looked at with her terrified and seeing eyes. She thought of them weaving among the displaced crowds, restless and insubstantial. Raisa decided they had gone on, toward the northern stars. They had waited for her but she had not come. How could she? So her mother and father went on through outer space toward the Big Dipper. Her parents would never find her again.

Raisa took hold of Shaniya's hand and said, My mother and dad said if I looked up at the North Star they would be there. Am I not going to be blind someday? Raisa closed her hand around the jingle bell they had tied on her wrist so that everyone knew where she was. She always managed to find silent corners and closets. Happily alone among the mops.

Shaniya said, Well, we're trying to get you some medicine.

BOOK: Lighthouse Island
2.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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