The lighthouse keeper’s daughter
was sewing in the kitchen
of Lime Rock Light one winter morning,
watching through a window waves
of a southeast gale strike the shore
where her brother’s skiff was tied.
Three men were driving a sheep through town
when it bolted down Old Mill Wharf
and fell off the end. They ran
down the beach and launched the skiff.
A high wave hit, the skiff capsized,
and she was out the door and rowing
her lifeboat toward the struggling men,
who were still shouting at the sheep.
Laughing despite herself, she pulled them
one by one into her boat.
Back on shore, they thanked her much,
but mostly were concerned about
their boss’s valuable purebred sheep,
now drifting toward the harbor’s mouth.
She turned her dark eyes toward the men,
told them she would bring it back,
and spent the best part of an hour
feeling muscles pull the oars
to rescue a dull frightened beast
stinking of wool and wave.
Skillfully working the derrick controls,
he swung the motorboat away
from the lighthouse and lowered it
slowly until it touched the sea.
The sneaker wave that swept the launch
back toward the reef slammed up the rock
and crashed down on the launch, throwing
all five men into the sea
and sinking the station’s only boat.
In this current, they would drown
before long despite life-jackets.
Permenter ran inside and called
the Coast Guard on his radio.
Their closest boat was in Humboldt Bay,
but the commander phoned the keeper
of Crescent City Light, who then
went out to hire a good, fast boat.
The launch’s life raft was bobbing near
and Permenter saw two men drifting;
after two failures, he snagged the raft,
climbed down to the landing, and jumped.
He swam to the raft, then paddled
toward the two men he had seen;
both of them had managed to reach
the mooring buoy and clung to it.
The third man was unconscious when
Permenter pulled him aboard the raft,
the fourth was dead, and now he was
too exhausted to find the fifth.
Staying conscious was a struggle
in the maelstrom which held his raft
swirling and heaving beneath the granite
tower of Saint George Reef Light.
Only he and the two men clinging
to the mooring buoy survived;
the unconscious man died aboard
the rescue boat before they reached land.
The water on Matinicus Rock
was over her ankles when she ran
between waves to the chicken coop
and managed to rescue all but one,
carrying them back in a basket.
She hardly bolted the lighthouse door
when her little sister at the window
said, “Look! The worst sea is coming.”
In a moment it struck the walls.
Each high tide, the floor was flooded,
the woodstove fire sometimes put out,
but the lighthouse’s twin towers
stood firm, and Abbie did her work,
climbing the steps of both towers
all through each night to keep the lamps
burning. Her mother was too ill,
her sisters too young to help.
Some nights the rain turned to snow,
covering windows of both lanterns,
and Abbie had to walk outside
on the balconies to scrape them clean,
clutching the hand-grips in high winds.
The storm dragged on for a month before
her father the keeper could come back.
He heard footsteps in the dark
and wondered whether he was dreaming;
with five keepers and scant privacy
at offshore Tillamook Rock Light,
no keeper was allowed to enter
another’s room without permission.
“Who’s there?” he asked. The footsteps paused.
He heard no answer but the sounds
of waves and wind through the open porthole.
Now the footsteps came closer;
he felt a knife blade feather his throat.
Grabbing a pillow, he lunged across
the room, tripped over something, reached
for the light— and staring at him
was a huge goose with an injured wing.
He carried his confused assailant
outside to a sheltered place,
and from the cold wind hurried back
to his room, closed the porthole,
and climbed into bed, thinking what
a story he would tell at breakfast.
In the night it was hard to see
the pale cloth of a schooner wrecked
on the reef a half-mile offshore
from Hendrick’s Head Light, and harder
to see if any boats set off.
The keeper and his wife gathered
driftwood on the snowswept beach
and kindled a fire with lamp oil
to signal that land and help were near.
A bulky object rode the waves,
the mattress of a featherbed
with a small wooden box inside,
and in that was wrapped a baby girl.
The keeper picked her up and ran
back to the house, his wife running
behind and shouting advice;
they set her by the kitchen stove
and wrapped her again in dry blankets.
Was a featherbed that schooner’s
only seaworthy lifeboat?
The woman felt like pharaoh’s daughter
facing the mystery of Moses.
A snow-squall cut off sight when
the keeper went outside to signal
to the ship that the child was safe;
when it lifted, the ship was gone.
He went back inside to his wife
and the daughter they would adopt.
copyright © 1979 - 2005 Carl Miller
I wrote the lighthouse keeper poems January - May 1979.
Painting, “Coquille River Light”: 2002, watercolor and gray colored pencil on paper, 9 x 12 inches, detail about 6.8 x 9 inches.