The boys huddled in closer by the campfire, the light flickering off the badges and brass buttons of their scouting uniforms. A cool breeze was blowing in off the sea, but that was not why they sought the comfort of the fire. It was the lighthouse keeper’s tale which chilled their bones.
“For weeks the ship fled the ghostly fog, and the damned pirate vessel that sailed within it,” the old man continued. His beard was long and gray, reaching almost to his knees, and it danced like a cobweb in the breeze as he spoke. “They could only catch glimpses of it here and there, but they could hear it, hear the creaking of her rotten timbers, hear the flapping of her tattered shrouds.”
“What are ‘shrouds’?” asked one boy, his face smudged with melted chocolate and marshmallow from a s’mores.
“The sails,” replied another boy. “Quiet.”
“Ah, but the quiet was the worst,” said the lighthouse keeper. “It was in the still of night when the damned crew would board the merchant vessel, killing at will any living sailors they came across. Sometimes these men simply vanished, as if taken by the night. Others were found, their bodies maimed and mangled, drowned or dead of terror. It always happened quietly, without any noise, save for a terrible scream.”
Several of the boys gasped. The one with the smudged face popped another marshmallow on the end of a stick and held it over the fire to roast.
“But the apparitions had a weakness,” said the lighthouse keeper. He extended a hand over the flames, as if entreating it to rise higher. “They did not like the light. Those living sailors with the brightest lanterns remained safe from attack.”
“I’d keep a lantern with me all the time!” shouted one of scouts. “That way no ghost could get me.” There were murmurs and nods of agreement from several of the other boys.
The lighthouse keeper smiled. “But light is fickle and the fog thick, and all it takes is a single wrong wind to put it out.” As if on cue the wind picked up, dimming the campfire down the logs before allowing it to spring back up. The boys huddled in even closer.
“Finally, the ship came across something that might save it, something that might drive away the ghostly ship: the light from a lighthouse, stronger than any fog.” He paused, letting an unspoken question from his audience hang in the air. “This lighthouse.” The lighthouse keeper looked up towards the summit of the tower, the great lantern at its pinnacle turning in steady rotation. The brilliant white beam illuminated a fog bank in the distance.”
“Hard they sailed, seizing the wind as best they could, pursued by their ghostly foes, seeking the shelter of that which could save them. Bit by bit they gained distance, but in their haste, the fools forgot to watch for a simpler danger: the rocky shoals hereabouts. Their ship ran aground upon them, and with that, their damned pursuers had them.”
Several of the boys gasped. “What happened?” asked the one with the chocolate smudges. His marshmallow was a nice toasty brown, glowing the color of the fire’s embers.
“They died, every last man. Drown, slaughtered, and other fates too horrible to mention. I’ll never forget the sound of it.” He paused, leaning in to look more closely at the boys. In the firelight the contours of his face resembled a skull. “That wreck lies off our shores still, claimed by the sea. But they say one of those doomed souls now haunts this very lighthouse, cursed to doom others as revenge for his fate.”
His tale finished, the lighthouse keeper leaned back. In the tower above him the great light turned, its beam shining on a fog bank which had crept ever closer, the tendrils curling around their campsite, commingling with the smoke of their fire.
“Nothing could happen to us,” said the boy with the smudges. “We’ve got the lighthouse.”
The lighthouse keeper smiled. “Aye, you do. But remember: light it fickle, and it takes only a single wrong wind to blow it out.” With that he leaned forward and blew on the campfire, and it went out, as though the old man’s breath had been a hurricane.
The boys gasped and looked up. The lighthouse lantern continued one last implacable rotation, the fog coiled around it on all sides. Than it, too, blinked out. The only light was a glowing marshmallow.
They boys went quiet, save for a susurrus of unease.
There was a sound of creaking timber, of cloth flapping on the wind.