Saturday, October 14, 2006

A tale retold

December at the Lighthouse

My uncle Ravichandran is an old man. He is almost sixty five. He has been a lighthouse keeper for more than thirty years. In a wild remote craggy, little island in the Indian Ocean. About four hours slow boat ride west, from the northernmost tip of Sumatra. The lighthouse is in an area known for its jagged rocks, shallow seas and unpredictable storms.

Uncle and his lighthouse had survived many huge storms. In particular he recalled one incident in the 1980s:

“I remember it was typhoon season. One of the worst storms in years hit us. Mountainous waves, thirty foot tall, came lashing and crashing against the walls and tower of the lighthouse. Can you imagine looking out the window and seeing a solid wall of water two storeys high roaring towards you? I scrambled to close all the windows and the doors. Crouching behind the doors, all my muscles taut and tense, I braced myself against the force and the power of the waves. When the waters hit, the noise sounded like the clap of ten thunders. The lighthouse shuddered and rocked under the impact”.

“It is a miracle the lighthouse is still standing,” I exclaimed.

“The lighthouse is constructed of stone and reinforced concrete. It has solid teak wood doors and its glass windows are an inch thick. It is built to last.” Uncle proudly told me.

But storms and huge angry waves are just one of the many tales uncle has to tell of the strange things he has seen in this remote corner of the Indian Ocean. But the strangest tale uncle had to tell, happened recently. In fact he only told me in December this year when I visited him. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I have yet to describe my uncle properly. Uncle is a stocky, well built man with strong bulky legs. He still has a full head of jet black hair. He has kind eyes but you almost never notice that because uncle hardly ever smiles or engages in idle chatter. Children tend to be frightened of him. But uncle is a hospitable fellow and he likes to invite friends and relatives over for a visit. At such times, he sits in his favourite chair in the corner of his living room and read. But from time to time he would join in the conversation with a shrew observation or an apt comment.

Uncle doesn’t talk much, but when he does, it pays to listen to him. You see, uncle despite his humble job is a thinker as well as a man skilled with his hands. He does all the repairs needed at his lighthouse. For recreation he reads and paints. For years an easel stood at a window in his living room with a blank piece of pure white art block paper on it.

One day, I asked him, “When will you start your masterpiece?”

“It is already finished” he teased. “It is a painting of two angels dancing in the snow”.

Uncle’s particular lighthouse was built fifty years ago. Shaped like an inverted ice cream cone, it towered 100 feet above the ground. It has an observation deck with a wide boardwalk. Iron bars encircled it for safety. On a clear day you can see for miles and miles across the Indian Ocean. Looking out at the vast empty expanse, you can easily pretend that you are the last of your kind. The only human being left on earth.

Apart from the great view, the unique thing about the lighthouse is that it also has a fog horn. The fog horn will only be sounded when a storm is brewing and it will continue blowing at five minute intervals until the storm is over. What does it sound like? Well it is a fog horn – designed so that its sound carries for miles over the open ocean and deep within. It has the most lonesome, forlorn, aching, yearning sound in the world.

Uncle knew that I loved lighthouses. So imagine my delight when I received an letter in the mail from him in October. It was an invitation to spend December at the lighthouse with him. I was thrilled beyond words. December was the month of storms, of wild winds and huge lashing waves. Perfect time of the year to visit his lighthouse.

I arrived at the lighthouse after a long but uneventful boat ride. For this time of the year, the weather was glorious. Breezy, mainly cloudless blue skies. The seas around the lighthouse were empty. No other islands in sight for miles around. Except

for the cries of sea birds whirling about in the sky above us, there were no other living creatures. Solitude and peace reign in this wild, windy, deserted place. Bustling, noisy Kuala Lumpur, my hometown seemed an eternity away. I took a deep breath and exulted in my surroundings.

But over the horizon, a hint of storm clouds. “O boy, looks like a storm is likely to build up during the night!” I thought to myself. What a delicious prospect especially as it is full moon tonight and I could see the waves in all its raging fury.

“Welcome, Mutusamy!” My uncle greeted me warmly. Although uncle seemed genuinely delighted to see me, he appeared edgy and not his usual self. But being a good host he soon settled me down in his simple bachelor lodgings. A shed attached to the foot of the lighthouse. Apart from some good quality book shelves, it is a simple living room cum dining room cum bedroom cum kitchen kind of structure. After all for nine tenths of the year, there is only one person at the lighthouse. I stored my things at a built in cabinet at the side of the upper bunk of the two level bunk bed.

“What’s for dinner?” I said brightly to my uncle.

As it turned out, dinner was nice. For starters, there was clam chowder (“in case you are wondering, uncle just opened a can!”), followed by crisply fried Ikan Kempong and nice sambal belachan to complement it. Vegetable curry and rice completed the meal. A bit eclectic taste wise I know but delicious nonetheless.

All through dinner, uncle kept looking at me.

“ Mutusamy…” he would start to say and then he would stop. He looked to be deep in thoughts.

Uncle had no appetite. He toyed with his food, and kept looking restlessly out the window. By now columns of cumulonimbus or storm clouds were beginning to cover the evening sky.

“Anything wrong uncle?”, I asked.

“Huh? Sorry. What did you say”? muttered my uncle in a distracted manner.

“Is everything alright?” I was getting worried. I had never seen my uncle behave this way before.

“No, no. nothing’s wrong”, uncle answered shortly and retreated into a tense silence for the rest of the meal.

After dinner, Uncle suggested that we go up the lighthouse tower. While he set up the light for the evening, and checked the fog horn ( by now there is a real possibility of a nasty storm brewing) I settled down in a nice easy chair and poured out two mugs of nice local coffee, sweetened with “Teaport” condensed milk, for ourselves. I was looking forward to reading Leo Tolstoy’s, “ War and Peace.”

Uncle sat down opposite me and busied himself lighting up his pipe. He seemed nervous and dropped his pipe several times. It took him quite a while before he had his pipe going to his satisfaction. Finally sweet aromatic tobacco smoke filled the room. Smoking his pipe calmed him down. Uncle had no book with him. Instead I could see from his manner that unlike dinner time, my uncle was now eager to talk.

“ How unusual”, I thought. Normally we will just sit reading quietly into the night.

“You know, being so isolated from the mainland, sometimes you get to see some pretty unusual things” was how my uncle started the conversation. “Especially at this time of the year” he continued. Needless to say he had my full attention.

“Go on” was all I could think of to say to him.

“Sometime last year, in fact exactly a year ago, at about midnight, with a glorious full moon, I saw something I have never seen before in my thirty years as a lighthouse keeper. ” He paused and glanced at me.

“ Go on” I said.

Well, the winds were getting to be gale force, huge black clouds threaten to envelop the full moon and I thought to myself, “I better sound the fog horn tonight as well”. An hour later the rains came. It poured for a solid two hours before tapering off. When I thought that the storm had all but spent itself I went up again to turn off the fog horn. As I reach out to turn it off, I just happen to glance out the window. Guess what I saw?

“Go ON!, I almost screamed at him.

“The seas around the lighthouse already turbulent because of the storm were frothing and churning with thousands and thousands of fish. Seldom seen fishes which normally are bottom dwellers were at the surface and fishes which were natural enemies were swimming next to one another. “

He turned to me, “ Mutusamy, do you understand what I just said? It is as if the wolf is laying down with the lamb”. “And that is not all”, uncle continued. “ The fishes seemed gripped by something outside themselves. The strange thing was that all the fish were looking up at the lighthouse as if they were paying homage or worship of some kind! When morning came, all the fishes were gone”. I was tempted to think that it was all my imagination”.

At this moment, the storm that was threatening all day broke. The heavens opened and water poured down. Lighting flashed and lit up the dark skies for miles. Revealing enormous waves! A shudder ran through me. It was not a night to be lost at sea.

The professional in my uncle kicked into gear and he unthinkingly stood up and turn the fog horn on.

I sat stunned and overwhelmed by what my uncle had just shared. Meanwhile the storm raged all around us – a fury of wind, waves, light and thunder. At five minutes interval, the foghorn sounded – a desolate voice calling through the night.

At last the storm abated, the clouds parted and the light of the full moon shone through. Uncle Ravichandran and I looked at each other. Then at the same time, both of us rushed to the tower’s windows.

Just like last December, the surface of the sea were again teeming with fishes. Every square inch of water was filled with jostling, squirming, wriggling sea creatures. All with their heads up, eyes gleaming and staring up at the lighthouse, just as uncle had described it.

“Quiet!” Uncle whispered urgently to me.” Do you hear it?” I strained my ear and I thought I heard something. It seemed like a faint distant echo of the fog horn. Uncle adjusted the foghorn so that it now sounded every minute.

Sure enough. Each time the fog horn sounded. There was a echo. And the echo seemed to sound nearer and nearer. Finally there was no mistaking it. It was no longer an echo, but an answering call. The unidentified call was just as lonesome, as lost and as achingly yearning as that of the lighthouse’s foghorn, but it was deeper, more powerful, more masculine.

We stood rooted to our spot. My heart was racing and my head pounded with fear and excitement. What was going on?

The teeming seas parted. A path seemed to open up among the fishes. Their heads were now turned opposite to that of the lighthouse. The fishes’ eyes seem to gleam even more brightly now. As I strained my eyes I saw the shape of a “loch ness” like creature coming slowly but surely through the path.

Soon I could clearly make up the creature. It was huge. It had a long, serpent like neck. Its massive body was the length of a blue whale. And the sound coming out of its mouth was the clear call of the foghorn! An overwhelming stench of something ancient and decaying filled the night air. It smelled like a primordial long lost forgotten swamp. And the creature was heading straight for the lighthouse.

“Switch off the lights and the foghorn” I yelled hysterically at Uncle. “it’s our only chance!”. But uncle had the presence of mind to switch them off already. We both dived beneath the coffee table and in desperation prayed, “Lord have mercy on our souls”.

The creature came upon the lighthouse. Over and over again, the fog horn- like cry sounded. After a while it seemed to me as if the creature’s cry changed. The longing turned to confusion and then anger. It was as if the creature had gone mad with anguish and torment. It attacked the lighthouse and it was like the storm breaking upon us again – a ferocity of sound, thunder, and earth shaking, tower toppling violence! The creature roared with rage and its fog-horn like voice reverberated menacingly throughout the night.

How we survived the night we never knew. But gradually, chaos, confusion, madness, gave way to quiet, calmness and stillness.! As we timidly crawled to the windows, the creature was gone. So too the fishes. The only evidence we have that what we have seen and heard was not a figment of our imaginations, was that the lighthouse tower was covered with green slime which reeked for weeks.

Moving on. This is what happened according to my uncle.

The creature must be the last of its kind in the world. How long it lay on the ocean floor grieving and pining its loss, who knows. One day, the faint echo of one its kind, the fairer species, broke through its troubled sleep and roused it from its slumber. Could it be that there is another of its kind left in the world?

Slowly, ever so slowly it began its ascend to the surface. One foot a day, thirty feet a month. Until at last it was at the surface and could hear clearly the voice of what it thought, was one of its own. The ancient high king of sea creatures carrying with it the weight and woes and hopes of its long years swam on. It raised its cry , as if to say, “ I am coming, wait for me, don’t go away”. Would its yearning at last be fulfilled and the ache of its heart healed?

Alas, it was not to be.

Would the creature come back? We would have to wait till next year to find out.

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