The Lighthouse of Ajax Mountain
Yes, I know what the light up on the mountain is, and no, I wouldn’t shut it off even if I could. Nobody can except for one person, and—he’s not dead, but he’s not quite alive either, so far as I’ve been given to know. You call it a distraction, but I call it a wonder of the world.
Jake, you know his name. He was your uncle and my dearest friend after your cousin Gus—the only two people who took my dreams seriously. Enoch Argent, he owned that whole mountain where you see the light now—bought it from a timber company who bought it from the U.S. government, who’d confiscated it for National Forest in the '30s from Enoch’s great-grandfather. Enoch scooped it up soon as it was on the block cause he wanted himself and your aunt and cousin to settle down there like their ancestors had. A nice idea so it’s too bad it never happened that way—if it had I suppose that light wouldn’t need to be there now.
Sorry—my name’s Allison Branch. I didn’t know whether you’d heard of me. Your cousin Gus was my brother, or close enough.
You hadn’t seen Enoch since you were little? Enoch wasn’t striking to look at, really, except for spending all but the last few weeks of his life smiling. A sharp V of hair and a short-cropped beard, with small hands stronger than other any man’s I’ve known. He was only half past five feet tall but that didn’t bother him. All the famous cowboys were short. So were all the Founding Fathers except Washington and Jefferson, and—more importantly—so were most of the Greeks and Romans he loved reading about.
That’s right, the ancient kind. I know Ajax Mountain, Virginia is fifty miles southwest of the Middle of Nowhere. All that means—for most of us—is we like the quiet and to be left alone. No, that’s not a hint.
Enoch owned shelves full of the ancient stuff. I’d run across a few even when I was a kid, like Julius Caesar and such, but a few others twisted my tongue around. The Ptolemies, for instance. Or Diodorus Siculus, the historian. I used to say his name Die-odor-us, which always broke Enoch into roaring laughter, before he’d loan me one of Diodorus’ books. But the Ptolemies, they were the important ones.…
I’m getting ahead of myself. Enoch married the wife he wanted, your Aunt Miriam, and had your cousin, a fine boy named Augustus, though his dad didn’t mind the son calling himself Gus so other kids wouldn’t laugh at him. They bought the mountain and the creekside farm here on the bottomland and everything looked like it would be fine.
But Miriam took cancer while Gus was in the Army in Iraq; her death was slow like the creek along Enoch’s farm, and three months later Gus was killed by a roadside bomb as fast as a sandstorm hits. Or so we thought when Enoch buried Gus in the family graveyard out back of the house.
The day Enoch quit smiling was the day he started building the lighthouse.
Up on the mountain, there, where you see the light. No, I told you I can’t shut it off. It’s not there anymore, not the building. Just the light.
Hike up and look for yourself. But I’m trying to save you the trouble.
I told you Enoch had lots of books; pictures, too, and sculptures here and there. He named his breeding pair of Ossabaugh Island hogs Odysseus and Penelope, from the Odyssey. He was immersed in all this for six days after the news about Gus and during that time he never stepped foot off his farm. I’m shamed to admit this, but I’d figured he wanted some time to himself so I let him be for some weeks.
He smelled of wine when I found him but your uncle was a sociable sort when he drank, which was never much till then. He was thinner than his normal lanky self. He welcomed me warmly enough, though it was odd without his usual grin. He never stumbled; the more he drank the straighter he got, and his back was an iron rod when he led me into the house.
“Allison,” he greeted me. He always used my full name, the way I wanted, not any of the stupid or hurtful nicknames others did.
I saw the broken bust first, its head come away from its neck, right over there under the end table. I left it where Enoch did. It’s a Roman philosopher named Seneca. Enoch walked past it like it was invisible.
“How are you, Enoch?”
“Busy!” he told me, like a general declaring victory. “I want you to see what I’ve been building up on the mountain.”
“What is it?”
Normally here a mischievous grin would light up his face. Instead he looked stolid. “Something better seen than explained.”
* * *
We were nearly into spring by then, but that March came like a frigid lion and snow crunched under our boots while it lit our path. I hardly noticed; I was grieving for the living. I was nearly afraid he’d reveal a crypt he’d built for himself, ignoring the fact we’d already walked past the Argent ancestors.
Seeing it confirmed my fear since I didn’t know what else to make of it. It was a fieldstone tower perched on a small flat clearing of the hillside overlooking the farm, and was open-ended at the top, which was about fifty feet above me. I’d never seen anything like it except for a couple of old shot towers left over from before the Civil War; its real identity I’d never have guessed if you’d stuck me on that mountain for ten years.
A twinkling in Enoch’s eye nearly belied his frown. “Touch it,” he said.
My neck craned back for a view of the apex. (That’s what he called it—never the top, but the apex.) But my fingers were cold; I couldn’t bear to bring them out of my coat pocket.
“You remember the Ptolemies, don’t you?” he asked suddenly.
“Rulers of Egypt, right? Built the Great Library of Alexandria.”
“The first Ptolemy received Egypt from his commanding officer, Alexander the Great, and each generation did what they could to improve the place, which meant science. Like the Library and its museums. And the Pharos—the biggest lighthouse in the world at the time, you could see its light thirty-five miles away. Mine isn’t anything glorious like the Pharos, but I hope it’ll do what it needs to.
“Touch it,” he repeated, more insistent. “It’s blessed.”
“By who?” I was twenty and full of all kinds of dumb.
“God Himself. When it was forty feet high a board slipped out from under me, and I fell right off. But I didn’t get nothing but a scratch. And forty’s always a number meaning a time of trial in the Bible, so that sealed it. It’s blessed.”
I finally laid my gloved fingertips on it and pulled them away, and Enoch looked satisfied enough.
“You building this for the boats down to the river, Enoch?”
He leaned against it and stared up at the apex looking worn out, then brushed aside a tuft of still-dark hair drooping from his widow’s peak. “No, Allison. I’m building it for Gus. He’s a long way from home, and I fear he may be lost somewhere betwixt here and there.”
“But Enoch … Gus is buried right down yonder by the house…”
Enoch’s head snapped away from me. “Go on into it, Allison. I want to take you to where the light’ll be made.”
* * *
The exterior was pretty—I’ve always been partial to fieldstone—but the inside looked like an old warehouse. The skeleton was built of cement blocks, and there were no stairs or floors yet, just an iron ladder mounted in the side stretching all the way up to planking at the apex.
I knew your uncle’s work, though, Jake, and I knew even if it wasn’t pretty it was solid. He was ten feet up the ladder before he looked down at me, giving me that single raised eyebrow the way he does, so I followed knowing the work was true—and besides, I owed Enoch a lot. I still do.
“It’s almost done,” he all but shouted when we were three quarters of the way up. The place had a sharp echo to it, the narrow walls shooting Enoch’s words to the ground like a gun barrel. It was a wind tunnel, too, with that big hole at the apex, so much so my loose hair never touched my neck.
“I’m waiting for lenses,” Enoch continued as he reached for the apex. “Fresnel lenses to amplify the light. But I’ll keep building till they arrive … are you all right?”
The iron bars were cold and my fingers were stiffening so bad I feared I’d lose my grip and tumble, but my cold fingers weren’t what made me shriek. Two ladder bolts broke loose in a spray of cement dust when Enoch heaved himself over the top, and then the two below them came loose, enough to make that section fall backward a couple of feet. Now my whole body was icy, and I grabbed one last quick look up at Enoch thinking it would be my last. The ladder gave way slowly but my frozen arms felt like stone blocks, and I didn’t reach the next section in time.
Enoch was still muscled in his fifties, and you can see I’m not much more than a slip. Enoch caught me and hauled me up so fast I barely knew what was happening even as my feet dangled in the air. I locked my grip on the boards’ edges, too terrified to move till I heard Enoch sobbing.
“I’m not hurt, Enoch,” I told him almost too quietly.
“This is my fault too,” he said, shaking his head. “I built it too quick. I didn’t want Gus to get lost forever before I could turn the light on.…”
“What are you talking about? Gus isn’t lost. He was a hero.” I nearly choked up myself; Gus was a brother. A brother I’d never let myself think of as dead after the funeral … until that moment. Tears poured down my stiff cheeks, and so I turned them from his sight.
“Allison, I couldn’t stand it otherwise. Gus shot himself. Rifle shot to the head. They didn’t even include him in the official casualty numbers.”
I was too stunned for a time to talk, then realized I’d better say something. “But that doesn’t.… You think it’s your fault?”
“I should’ve taught Gus better. I should’ve talked to him. I never.…”
Enoch let out a wail that only faded as he collapsed in my arms like an exhausted infant. I was up there for hours with him, saying nothing more about suicide, and I let Enoch talk about Gus all that time without any thought about the cold and how we could get down until the moon was right overhead.
* * *
My last visit with Gus was something I tried hard to not remember, was something I never told Enoch, and the reason I helped with the lighthouse every chill night after the day job.
I don’t know if it really was the perfect summer day or my memory has just weaved it so to cut me, but it was the kind of not-too-hot warmth that fills you and makes you feel like you can do anything. Gus was leaving for boot camp the next day, and Enoch and Miriam invited me to their last dinner together. Dinner was six-thirty; the afternoon belonged to Gus and me.
I wish I could tell you, Jake, that your cousin was my only love, that he and I’d spent so much time growing up together we knew we were meant for each other. I wish I could say that. But I only thought of him that way in retrospect—after he was gone. If I did when he was still living here by Ajax Mountain, I hid it sharply, from myself especially.
I had lots of dates with other boys and near as many boyfriends. But Gus was the one I came to when I was angry or ecstatic, or my heart was broken or full to bursting, or wanted to tell something I couldn’t tell anyone else. The one who never judged me. In other words … the one I should have been with.
Gus, he understood me. It was horrible how badly I misunderstood myself.
Leaving Ajax Mountain for the first time in his life, that was when something flickered in his mind about me but, bless his heart, he had such a ham-fisted way of telling me. We stood side by side on the little bridge playing Pooh Sticks when he told me, “I love you, Allison.”
I snickered. “You’re just saying that 'cause I’m letting you win.”
He frowned and then turned to me, leaning against the railing as if he’d fall if left to his own legs. “Don’t joke, I’m not. I’ve been thinking about this since I enlisted. I love you, and I want to marry you, and I’d like you to come with me.”
“In that order?” I know now how stupid I sounded. How hurtful. But I still couldn’t get over the thought he was joking—I mean, if I never thought of him that way, how could he possibly think of me so?
He let out a deep breath. “Look, you don’t have to say anything now. But the more I think about it the more I’m sure I always felt this way. No other girl’s ever gotten to me the way you do.”
I snickered again, nervously. “Come on, Gus, you’re telling me all these years you’ve only been nice to me cause you loved me, is that it?” It started as a joke but in seconds flared to anger. “So, what, if you hadn’t, you would’ve never pretended to be my friend?”
“I’m not pretending!”
Of course I wasn’t angry at Gus at all, though in the moment I never once knew it. Your uncle could’ve told you in a heartbeat what an unruly temper I had, the kind that doesn’t think before lashing out.
“So what do you want from me?” I demanded. “This mean you’ll stop being my friend if you don’t get it?”
He tried protesting but I wasn’t hearing it. Except for one clumsy part in his justified frustration, “And haven’t I always called you Allison, like you wanted? Not Allie-cat, or Allie-pants.…”
“Don’t you ever call me those hateful things!”
“I wasn’t! I was just saying.…”
There I slapped him, and he was too stunned to say more. In my state of mind I counted that a victory and stalked back to the house. Enoch and Miriam, they could tell something was wrong with us—between us—but didn’t pry. Maybe they thought we were miserable over Gus leaving. They were right on that.
A while later I e-mailed Gus and asked him how he was doing, but, God forgive me, I didn’t say sorry. He didn’t write back except once to say he’d been in an accident but he and his buddies were all OK, and I took this to mean I was correct, and it solidified my righteous anger. When I didn’t talk to his grave after the service it wasn’t from anger, though; it was shame clear through me.
If I hadn’t been a friend enough to talk to Gus while he was alive and suffering through his service in Iraq, what right did I have now that he was dead? Especially since I was so uncertain he was resting.
* * *
All I had to do was say something about climbing down from the apex, and Enoch swung over and was already on the ladder. He guided me over the edge, then put his arm behind me as my wet palms eased me down, and the next thing I knew I was on a solid section, listening to Enoch murmuring recriminations against himself again.
While we sat on couches opposite the other, Enoch leaned into a hand covering his face. “It’s like this, Allison,” he said after what seemed like hours more. “You should know this—he was closer to you than anyone. He told you about his accident?”
“Said he was in one, in a Humvee, but he came out OK.”
Enoch started nodding, then shook his head so viciously I thought he’d snap his own neck. “What I guess he didn’t tell you was the accident was running over a little girl. He’d seen her on the side of the road cheering them, but she ran out…she was gone by the time he cradled her in his arms. This was three weeks after his mom died.”
He let out a long exhale. “After that—I didn’t want to see it. I should’ve talked to him about it, but was afraid I’d upset him. Upset him! He was already past that. When he intentionally ran a jeep into a guardrail they sent him back to Fort Bliss, and while he was there he cut himself.”
Enoch rubbed his face with both hands, exhaled again. “Then … they sent him back to Iraq. He locked himself in a latrine with his rifle until his CO talked him out. Once Gus was out, they gave him back his rifle, and inside of a minute he was dead.”
“They sent him back?” I whispered. “Knowing he … what he suffered?”
Enoch rubbed his mouth with his knuckles. “They sent him back. Then they sent him home with a flag. Nobody official would tell me what happened—I had to track down one of his buddies to find out. I tried to find out who gave the OK to send him back, and they won’t tell me. I tried to find out … a lot of things, and I’ve been blocked every time.”
“Can you sue the government? The army?”
“I could, but it would take … more than I’ve got.” Enoch jumped to his feet and looked about to pace, then steeled himself. “But that’s not where things are now, Allison. It’s my fault too. A father should know something is a-kilter. I should’ve had the nerve to ask. But then—when he came home … that wasn’t my Augustus that went down into the ground.”
“Of course it wasn’t,” I told him, scraping for anything helpful. “It was just a shell. Even I know that, Enoch. The real Gus—”
“Is thousands of miles away. His soul—I think it’s stuck in Iraq and can’t find its way home. Because he killed himself.”
Then I finally realized it. “That’s why you built the lighthouse.”
He knuckle-rubbed his face again. “Sounds stupid, doesn’t it? But … I don’t know. The Bible says suicide is a mortal sin. But the ancients thought there could be such a thing as an honorable death. Like Seneca.” His toes nudged the broken bust on the floor. “He was a rich man and lived in luxury while writing philosophy. But when Nero ordered Seneca to kill himself—well, the old man proved everything he’d written was true about himself. He died an honorable death to save his family from Nero’s wrath.”
“Gus thought it was justice for the girl’s death, maybe? God knows he was tender-hearted,” I said, ignoring the bile filling my throat while I thought, Far more than I ever was. “He would’ve been wracked with guilt, plus grief from Miriam passing.”
“He loved you, Allison. You know that?”
I looked away even though Enoch wasn’t facing me. The senseless, petty anger I’d aimed at Gus choked away into tiny pieces that dissolved faster than mist under sunlight.
“Maybe there’s something in between, like Purgatory, if the Catholics are right,” Enoch said. “Maybe Gus can still find his way home.”
“He will if I help you finish the Pharos,” I told him.
“Don’t call it that! The Pharos was four hundred feet high. It had molten lead poured in with the stone to hold up against the waves and it stood fifteen hundred years. Mine’s not so grand. It’s just a lighthouse.”
“It’s grand,” I said, “if it helps lead Gus home.”
* * *
And so we worked on it for weeks, Enoch and me, every night except when the rain was pouring—and once we built the housing for the light we worked then, too. Through the first warming of spring I almost came to believe.
When I wasn’t laying cement blocks or fieldstone or electrical wire or hammering nails I spent a sizeable amount of time staring out over the edge of the apex, which had gained another twenty feet since I first saw it—staring for I don’t know what, but maybe thinking I could see Gus’s spirit walking back home in his smart uniform with his green bag tossed over his shoulder. That was all. Enoch spent a lot of time watching the ground too.
Of course we never saw such a thing, but we reasoned this was 'cause the light wasn’t lit yet. Working became a meditation for me, a chant with every stone laid, a renewal—especially after a bad day at the job. The harder my day and the more tired I was when I came to Enoch’s each evening, the more ready I was to build.
By seventy-five feet Enoch said the ground wouldn’t be safe to lay stone much higher, and about the same time the Fresnel lenses arrived.
Enoch rigged up a pulley-wheel system we used to haul each lens and pane of glass, all packed in wood and stuffing, slowly and slowly up to the apex. I helped him mount the lenses with my own hands. We put both hands on the lamp switch and threw it together.
Every night we waited the ladder seemed to get a little bit taller, the rungs a little farther apart, my arms a little weaker. Enoch would already be up there every evening I came by, never saying much. Sometimes reporters would come by, and I’d chase them off. Most times Enoch and I stood at the railing overlooking the farm, or turning our gaze to the mountain itself, while the trees filled their leaves back in—a few more each day, gradually blocking out the light.
“I just wanted to make my family’s lives better,” Enoch said suddenly that last night. “Like the Ptolemies, only more. Provide what they needed, show them how to help themselves, make sure they both had everything in life they wanted. But I should’ve been a father and a husband, not a scholar.”
“Your heart is good, Enoch,” I told him. “Gus and Miriam, they loved you like nothing else. I know. And so do I.”
That seemed to hurt him more than if I’d said nothing. “I just want to know Gus is safe. Then I could go. For all I care—all I hope, Allison—God could lift me off this Earth right now. Just like him my father named me after, in Genesis. I’ve walked my years here. I’ll be ready to go once I know about Gus.”
He regarded me with a face so full of grief I almost didn’t recognize him. “But it’s too late, isn’t it? I failed again. Gus won’t make it home.”
“Don’t say that!” I almost yelled. “He’ll find his way, light or no. He always knew his way back here.”
A long pause where our attention was drawn in every rustle of the leaves, every skittering of animals below. Finally Gus told me, “Maybe you were right, Allison. Maybe Gus thought it was a punishment for the innocent life he took. Maybe God will name it an honorable death. I do.”
I thought, If you come back I’ll be here waiting, Gus. If you miss the light, follow the sound of my voice.…
My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a car pulling past the farmhouse and towards the creek. “More reporters,” I growled, though Enoch hardly noticed. “I’ll send them off. I’ll be right back, Enoch.”
This time it was a reporter from Roanoke, the nearest city, and he was with loudmouth John Meeler from down the road. “Enoch’s not talking to anybody,” I said, trying to sound polite since this reporter had never been out before—some had already tried three or four times. “Give me your number, and I’ll call you when he’s ready.”
“He only wants a few minutes,” John Meeler said. “Enoch owes me—”
“Nothing this would repay. You leave Enoch be, hear?”
But the reporter persisted until I finally turned my back and stalked off, ignoring John Meeler calling names after me. It was near half-an-hour later before I got back up to the apex, and when I saw Enoch his hands were outstretched, and his eyes were closed in a head tilted back, and I might’ve thought he was praying except he still wore no smile.
Then the light blinded me.
A dazzling white like I’d never seen before came all at once and burned into my vision till I could see nothing else for a moment after it faded. But fade it did, eventually, and the first thing I noticed was that the lighthouse lamp was off. And Enoch was gone.
That last time with him up top was the last time I ever saw him, but I’d like to think Enoch got his wish. That Gus found his way home, and at that instant God carried Enoch away. Lifted him up, so Enoch’s not dead, but he’s no longer with us, either.
Yes, Jake, I’m absolutely certain your cousin made it home. I feel him every moment I’m here.
* * *
I’m sure you’ve heard the rumors. John Meeler claims when he and that reporter were driving out he saw Enoch jump, and so the reporter said too. That’s bull. And your Daddy, when he came out here and saw the lighthouse, he said a lens had slipped and was pointed towards where I’d stood, and that’s why I was blinded.
Maybe that’s so, and maybe it isn’t, but I figure God can dazzle me any way He chooses. And your Daddy had no explanation for how the power to the Pharos went out at the instant Enoch was taken, when it was cut to nothing else.
Besides, I was left with a small miracle of my own. I knew the Pharos inside and out, especially out—I used to just walk circles around it with my hand laid up against the fieldstone so I could feel it as I walked. Every evening before I’d climb up, the start of my meditations. But I never saw, until I climbed down that last time after God lifted up Enoch, the granite plaque he’d mounted on the side overlooking the farmhouse.
The one right there, on yonder table. The one with the two quotes:
ENOCH JACOB ARGENT, THE SON OF JACOB ARGENT,
DEDICATED THIS TO GOD ON BEHALF OF THE SOUL-FARING.
Then in tiny letters under it,
As it is with a play, so it is with life—what matters is not how long the acting lasts, but how good it is.
~Lucius Annaeus Seneca
The plaque sat perched against an old oak like I was meant to find it. I found it again after your Daddy bought this land and pulled down the Pharos.
Yes, your Daddy’s got no more use for such things than he does this farm. But I’m hoping you’re different, Jacob. When your Daddy put the farm up for sale, I took the money Enoch left me as a down payment, then every loan I could and every penny from anyone in my family and friends and church who’d loan it to me for the monthly payments, and bought it from him. For Enoch, and surely for Gus, but mostly in trust for you.
It’s yours if you want it, Jacob. All you have to do is say the word.
In fact I think this is why that light is still shining up on the mountain. It was waiting for you to find your way home, too.
Now come walk with me, and I’ll show you the place, every inch I’ve been lucky enough to soul-fare my whole life.