by Karyne Corum
Harbinger-something that precedes
and indicates the approach
of something or someone.
Lighthouses, like church bells, offer salvation to the lost and damned.
I was twelve years old when I saw my first lighthouse.
The Cape May light fell dark during World War II and was only reopened in 1988 to the public. It was thrilling to place my feet on steps not trod in over forty years. We reached the top and looked out across to where the mouth of the sea breathed life into the inlet.
My father told me then what it was like. Helpless in the fury of a mighty Atlantic storm, in his fishing boat, the Rose of Clare, to see the radiant beam one of these seaside sentinels. It cleaved through the dark, heaven sent, promising safe harbor.
Later, my father and I stood down near its base, taking one last look at the 157" foot white tower with its jaunty red cap that reared up above us.
A cool Atlantic wind on our faces, his calloused hand holding mine, and I was happy.
"Y'know, tis quite common for lighthouses to have a ghost." His brogue made his words roll and pitch softly.
I looked at him skeptically, but his face was solemn.
"After all," he went on thoughtfully, "a lonely job, isolated towers and the lighthouse keeper trapped on a small spit of land for years at a time. It can drive anyone to madness or murder."
He glanced up at the tower that loomed above us.
"Some killed themselves or others. And some never left."
After that I wanted to see them all. My father did the best he could. His job, fishing for bluefish in fierce Atlantic waters was a tough one. Being a fisherman was a family legacy, and the only way he knew how to put food on our table.
The long hours and harsh conditions did not leave alot of time for fun. Still, he would smile down at my pleading face and the next chance he had, we'd be off, lunches packed by my mother. Before we went I'd do all the reading I could on the lighthouse so I could play tour guide to my father who would listen attentively to ever word.
We visited over the next few years the Abesecon lighthouse, once known for its impressive gardens, the Barnegat Light, "Old Barney", designed by Civil War general George Meade long before his victory at Gettysburg. The Ship John Shoal lighthouse, founded on the wreck of a ship. Each one told a story that appealed to my imagination.
If there was no ghost story, we'd take turns making one up, trying to scare each other silly. I was fascinated with ghosts and if they really did exist. My father was born and raised in Ireland, a country that was rich in the lore of ghosts and other otherworldly inhabitants.
"But why would someone want to stay here? I mean, if Heaven is so wonderful?" I once asked him.
"That's the sad thing of it," he said with a strange smile. "But, sometimes, there are others. They come to tell us of what else waits beyond death. Heaven is not the only destination."
"Daddy, when it's my turn to go to Heaven, will you be there to take me?" I asked suddenly afraid.
He cupped my face with his palms, kissed me on my forehead and promised he'd always be there for me.
I wanted to know more, my curiosity peaked almost beyond endurance, but he only shook his head and refused to discuss it further. I was certain he would one day tell me more.
He never got the chance.
When I was 20, his fishing boat capsized during a mid winter storm that devastated the Jersey Shore.
All aboard were lost.
It was incomprehensible to me that he would leave me. All my life he'd been there, the solid, steadying presence of his love and support guiding me, and guarding me from harm. My mother was inconsolable and retreated into her grief completely.
We were adrift for years, distant from each other and from life.
I chose not to visit another lighthouse for almost twenty years. The very thought of one brought memories that ached like an old wound.
I first climbed the north tower of the Navesink Lighthouse on a Saturday afternoon. It was the only one he and I had never visited together. We were saving it for a special visit because right from the start it was my favorite. It had history, and a uniqueness that made it stand out from any others I had ever seen. Plus, it had ghost stories galore. Tales of accidental falls and even a death or two had raced up and down the Jersey shoreline like a wayward dinghy my entire life.
While considered one lighthouse, it is made up of two large castle-like towers, one square, and the other round. Each one rises two hundred feet above sea level and was first erected of split bluestone in 1828 giving them a eerie gothic appearance. I read that Joseph Lederle, the architect who designed the towers, was an avid chess player and designed them to resemble the chess's King and Queen. They did uncannily resemble oversized chess pieces, strategically placed there by giant hands.
Today only one tower is still open for visitors, its mighty lamp removed for safekeeping and stored in a large outer builder on the grounds.
Though originally named the Navesink Lightstation, it was quickly nicknamed the "Twin Lights", and for several decades they were the primary seacoast light for all of New York Harbor.
As I drove over the causeway bridge and looked up the sloping hill I could see the two stone towers that loomed above me.
Wandering through the display of artifacts, I saw the remnants of the Twin lights heyday, from a fog bell and a uniform jacket of the last keeper to a brass keeper's lamp and keepers logs dating back to the 1800's.
One display containing the Fresnel lens that used to sit in the North Tower stated that the Twin Lights beam had once reached as far out to sea as seventy miles. The average range of most light houses was barely 22 miles.
There were only a few other visitors besides myself and one harried looking woman in the official uniform of the New Jersey Park Services. I wanted to ask her about the stories, but she disappeared behind a heavy rope that was hung with a No Admittance sign.
In the lobby near the door, I lingered over the array of literature relating to either the Twin lights, her sister lighthouses, and other New Jersey folklore. Behind the glass topped counter that held miniature lighthouses, keychains and hand drawn sketches of the lighthouse for purchase, a bored teenage boy read a Batman comic and sipped from a can of Mountain Dew.
No one else was around.
I cleared my throat and smiled.
The boy looked up and yawned slightly.
"Can I help you?" His eyes, despite the caffeine saturated soda, were half-lidded with boredom.
"Are there any ghost stories about the Twin Lights?"
He flipped the front cover of the comic book back and forth slowly.
"Maybe." He eyed me up, teenager to adult. "Are you a reporter?"
"No. Just curious."
He glanced around, then dropped his voice to a low whisper.
"There is one. Mad Mary. She's an evil spirit that haunts the North Tower. She likes to roam up and down the Tower stairs after dark scaring anyone she finds." They say that she's murdered three people over the last hundred years. Their broken bodies are always found up in the lamp room, necks all twisted, eyes wide open in terror. They've kept it covered up because no one here wants to admit there is a ghost. They just say it's because there is no lighting on the tower stairs and that those people were trespassing, but I know better. I've seen- "
We both jumped and looked up to see the same harried woman in Park Ranger garb standing there.
"Oh, hi Mrs. Roberts."
She shook her head disapprovingly at the boy who looked slightly defiant.
"I don't mind him telling the story. It's the story he tells that's wrong. Defaming the poor woman, as if this were one of those terrible slasher movies he's always going to see. Teenagers." She sniffed slightly.
Over her shoulder I could see Danny roll his eyes.
"There's nothing evil about Mad Mary or rather Mary Coyle. The story goes that when Mary's husband Thomas, an assistant keeper here, died from pneumonia, she decided to return home to her native Ireland. On her last night here, she climbed to the lamp room of the North Tower, and threw herself 200 feet to her death. It appears she'd gone mad with grief. Over the years, people have claimed to see her in the stairwell, just as night is falling."
"The figure of a woman hurrying up the stairs, or they hear footsteps coming up the stairs behind them when no one's there."
She gave an apologetic laugh. "It sounds very dramatic, doesn't it? But I don't believe in ghosts, do you?"
I didn't respond. The truth was, I didn't know.
"Is the tower still open?" My eyes strayed to the door. It was wooden, with a wide rectangular pane of glass set in the middle.
"Yes, but you must be down before dark. The tower will be closed then." Her tone sounded almost frightened.
I gave her a questioning look.
"There aren't any lights on those stairs." She offered by way of explanation with a small tight smile. Behind her back, Danny stared at me and nodded slightly.
"I have a flashlight." I held up my mini maglight to show them.
Mrs. Roberts looked skeptical but merely motioned towards the tower.
I pushed open the battered door as rusted hinges protested loudly.
"Make sure Mad Mary doesn't get you." The boy warned only half-jokingly.
I hesitated for a brief moment then went on. The door squealed and closed behind me with a heavy whoosh of air.
I slowly climbed the winding metal staircase, made up of short sets of stairs between each landing. The brick walls had slits cut a foot across and two feet high in ascending spaces which revealed fleeting glimpses of a sunset streaked sky as I passed by.
Near the top, I went through a pair of iron doors. One was propped open to allow access up above. The headroom between the landing and stairs at this point hung so low I had to duck to keep from banging my head on the floor of the room above.
I entered a small room, pausing a second to catch my breath. The room was circular and smelled of damp salty air.
To my right was one last set of stairs, so narrow they reminded me of a fire escape. I climbed them carefully almost having to turn sideways to do so.
No more second helpings for you. I couldn't help thinking.
When I reached the top, I entered the lantern room itself. Overhead a round grid of rusted iron only let in the sighs of sea air and was securely padlocked.
I stared up through the small openings to where the lamp used to sit. From my reading, I knew the last time the lantern was lit was in 1949. Now it was just an empty socket.
Straight across from me a rectangular opening only five feet tall and barely three feet wide led out onto the narrow walkway that encircled the tower. Overhead a series of curving iron bars kept people from falling to the jagged rocks below.
The view was worth the climb.
The sun was fading in a glorious display colors streaking the sky in russet and gold. Down below, spilling out haphazardly from the apron of earth and rock at the tower's base was a wide sprawl of houses and shops.
Beyond that, turbulent gray-green swells and whitecaps battered the snaking rocky expanse of a stout seawall.
A brisk wind tugged at my jacket which might explain why the walkway was empty, save for me. I listened to the wind and gulls, my eyes unconsciously searching the horizon for a boat that wouldn't be there.
Soon a rapidly sinking sun warned me that night would fall and the tower would close.
I left the walkway and re-entered the round room, already deepening into gloomy shadow. I had managed to carefully climb down the narrow stairs to the first landing when I saw the woman.
She stood with her back to me appearing to gaze out an eyehole. I wondered if I had encountered some fanatical history buff since her long ankle-length heavy dress out of place with modern fashion.
"The sea is a beautiful sight, don't you agree?" She spoke over her shoulder.
"It is." I agreed.
"The sea is a beautiful but demanding mistress. She lures many to forsake all they hold dear, only to bring nothing but heartache and sorrow."
Her comment was a bit morbid. I started again toward the stairs, but her next words stopped me.
"I can tell you about Mary."
The woman turned to face me, her pale face barely visible in the gathering twilight. Something about her was creepy and it made me want to keep moving though I did not, out of politeness.
"Something terrible happened in this tower."
Okay, she had me hooked.
"There was a man who'd desired Mary from the first day she and her husband arrived at the Twin Lights.
"He behaved foolishly, but he cared not. All he could think of was having her. Men," she spat disdainfully, "are always ruled by their baser natures."
The woman shifted, her skirt rustling softly.
"Who was this man?"
"The Head Keeper, Edward Bracken, a married man of fifteen years. It was his lust that led to what happened." The woman's voice shook with anger.
I waited, caught up with the story.
"On the last night, the keepers and their wives had a farewell party for Mary. There was drinking and music, many of the townsfolk attended. Mary left early, anxious to get some sleep.
She'd no sooner lain down in her bed when she heard his footsteps in the hall."
The woman stepped closer to me.
It was hard not to back away.
"She ran from her room and into the north tower. There in the darkness of the lower landing she hid, hoping he would give up and go away."
I felt unease race up my spine.
"Closer and closer he came. There was nowhere to go but up. So she ran up the tower steps desperate to escape. Until she reached the walkway."
A sly wind slipped down the stairs from above us and crept under my jacket raising goose bumps on my skin.
I shivered, but it was not from the cold.
The woman's gaze dropped to the stairs that led below. "He came on knowing there was no escape. Mary prayed to God. But God was not with her that night."
Outside the tower, from far down below, there was a faint muffled roar of a car engine starting up, and a dog began to bark loudly. They were noises from my world, the normal world. I felt disconnected from them.
"What must have gone through her mind as she stood there, trapped and desperate."
The hairs on my neck stood straight up
Nothing penetrated the silence of the small dark room now.
Then, a sound from down below.
Footsteps on the stairs.
"Someone's coming." The woman muttered.
"It must be the Park Ranger." I said more to convince myself than her. Common sense struggled to assert itself through the spell she'd cast.
The steps were heavy, the tread ringing out clearly on the iron steps.
"Are you sure?" The woman whispered hoarsely.
I wasn't sure at all and I found it hard to breathe.
"It's him girl, we'd better run, up the tower, quickly!" She flew up the stairs.
I scrambled up behind her until we spilled out onto walkway.
A luminous full moon cast the night world around us in an unnatural light.
"Would you know what really happened to Mary?" Her voice taunted me as she stood before me.
I could only nod.
"He came out of the tower, and she flew at him. Took him by surprise and managed to get past him to the stairs. He grabbed her and she lost her balance, then fell onto the landing below."
The image was horrifying.
"That's where I found her. Whimpering in pain, like a pitiful, wounded animal." Her voice was calm, almost serene.
Realization tingled through my limbs and I realized what it was I truly faced there.
"Stupid man, he couldn't do such a simple thing. I knew how to fix his mistake though."
The glitter of cruelty in her eyes numbed me as a rabbit before a cobra.
"So we dragged her up to the lamp room, opened the windows and with a quick toss Mary went to join her Thomas." The woman ended on a gloating laugh.
"And no one suspected what you'd done?" I tried to keep my voice steady. She was a ghost, nothing more than a shadow of a past life, she could not hurt me.
The thought brought me no comfort.
"Ah child, my husband was a well respected man. Hand picked by the Governor himself to run this station." She boasted proudly.
"When he declared it a suicide who would dare to question his word? I knew what she was about, wicked girl. Tempting my husband with her young body and sinful looks."
Down in the tower, the footsteps drew closer.
"It's just someone coming to tell us that the tower is closing." My voice lacks any conviction.
The woman reached out for me with grasping hands, and I stumbled back towards the doorway.
"Are you sure?" She laughed softly.
I yanked my head around for a quick look behind me.
The yawning dark mouth of the tower entrance stood just a few feet away now. Inside its depths the footsteps kept climbing up and up.
Behind me, her voice, insidious and mocking, floated on the night air to my ears.
"Did you think you were the first to come seeking the truth? Ah no, my dear, there were a few others who found it. Mores the pity for them."
I turn back to the woman, only to find I am alone on the walkway.
I should have felt relief. Instead, I felt a strange menace building around me.
"It's nothing. Nothing more than a couple of murderous ghosts." I muttered, and hysterical laughter welled up in me. I bit down on my lower lip to keep from letting any sound out.
The footsteps sounded close enough to be in the top room of the tower now. Just then they came to an abrupt halt.
I swallowed hard as I hesitated on the edge of the doorway. Long minutes passed but I could see nothing.
"Run girl, run like hell." The woman's coarse whisper slithered into my ears.
My limbs shook almost uncontrollably with fear. Every primal instinct warned me not to enter that room.
But through that doorway lay my only salvation.
As I peered into it, I can suddenly make out what seems to be three shadows. They are so black that they stand out even in the darkness. They are still and watchful as if waiting for something.
I scrabble in my pocket for my maglight and switch it on. The small narrow beam reveals only an empty chamber.
Nothing to have caused those shadows.
Nothing living that is.
Terror burns the back of my throat like smoke.
I hear the rustle of a heavy skirt behind me and I frantically stumble forward.
I immediately feel an oppressive weight swell around me, suffocating me. I gasped harshly, trying to breathe.
I groped blindly for the thin railing, my fingers clawed through empty air again and again. At last, they grasped cold metal, and I hurried to descend the cramped staircase on unsteady legs. I no longer care about the shapes who wait within all I can only think of is escape.
As I am about to take my next step, as icy fingers grasp my ankle and force me to stop and look back.
I stare in horror at the ghastly vision below me. A woman crawled on the ground behind me, her one hand clutching my ankle, her other still reaching for me. Her neck twisted grotesquely and her dark red hair wrapped around her face and shoulders in long knotted tendrils.
I am frozen with horror.
"Please… don't…leave…me… …so….alone…" she moans.
Her other hand is almost on my other leg before I realize the danger I am in, so close to the edge.
"Stay….here…stay…" her voice is at once threatening and cajoling.
I tug my leg but her grip is firm. I pull harder and twist away desperately. I begin to tumble down the stairs as my sweaty palms slipped on the railing.
I was able to slow my descent, but couldn't prevent missing the last two steps as I went crashing to the floor below landing in a heap. Sharp pain blazes through me and I am lost to it for what seems like the longest moments of my life. A haze descends as I lay there, attempting to gather myself and flee.
From where I lie I can see Mary's deformed body begin to slither slowly down the stairs towards me.
The room, already dark, seemed to grow even darker, as if something were stealing whatever light was left.
"But, sometimes, there are others. They come to tell us of what else waits beyond death. Heaven is not the only destination."
Inside me a child's voice cried out as if from a nightmare and in response comes a comforting, presence. It fills me like the first warmth of summer.
I cannot tell how it is that I am able to rise and continue my flight, but I do.
On and on, down and around, despite the darkness my steps are sure and my path is clear.
At last I reached the bottom and threw myself at the wooden door, shoving at it in a blind panic. It squealed open and smacked the wall with a hard thump as I collapse in a heap at the bottom of the tower steps, unable to move another step.
Lights burned brightly where Danny and Mrs. Roberts stand in conversation.
They turn at look at the open door but instead of the expected response of assistance, instead I hear.
"I didn't think it was that windy tonight. I'd better close that door and lock it for the night."
As Mrs. Roberts speaks the words she looks straight through me.
I struggle to comprehend but cannot. I scream out in anguish.
Help me. Please help me. Don't leave me.
No sound emerges from my mouth.
I watch in horror as Mrs. Roberts pulls the door closed and locks it leaving me in the darkness.
I want to cry, to scream but I can do nothing. I feel nothing.
No pain, no floor beneath me, no air on my skin.
When I would have struggled and fought against the reality of it, instead I feel, rather than hear, my father beside me as he guides me up the stairs, past my body lying there with a broken neck and upwards out into the night.
My father always kept his promises.
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