I wrote this story and told it before the November festival of Martinmas which is a time when the year turns toward outer darkness and we are reminded of the importance of sharing the inner light of compassion.
Long ago when travel was by horse and lighting was by candle, a lighthouse keeper and his family lived on an island just off the coast.
It was a small island with only 20 families and it was connected to the mainland by a long, wooden bridge.
Patrick was 7 years old and his sister Josephine was ten. They went to school in a small schoolhouse on the island and they played with their friends and helped their family in many ways. Josephine was just old enough to polish the glass windows at the very top of the lighthouse. They had to be perfectly clear so the light would while brightly 20 miles out to sea. While she polished the outside windows, she saw her father polishing the lens of the light that was so big he could stand inside it. Patrick would be inside with her father, handing him polishing rags.
Most days the light ran at night and the most important job was keeping it filled with oil. Father and mother had to carry many 5 gallon cans of oil up the 200 steps every day to keep the light shining all night.
When there was a storm however, the light had to run all day and all night. Storms were a busy time for a lighthouse keeper and his family.
One day when Josephine and Patrick came home from school on a very cold day in early November, their mom asked them to bring a thermos of hot tea up to their father. When they reached the very top they found him staring out to sea with through a telescope. He said, “Look, a storm is approaching. ”
Josephine looked and saw big clouds in the distance. Patrick said,” we saw big waves crashing on the shore on our way home from school.”
Father said, “The storm will arrive with the high tide. This may be one of those storms that brings water into the village. We will be fine here in our sturdy home and our strong lighthouse on the high cliff, but I think everyone in the village should go to the mainland in case their homes are flooded.
“Children, go get your mother and ask her to go to the village and tell everyone to evacuate within the next couple of hours.”
As Mother and the children walked into the village the wind became stronger. The village was one long street with houses on each side. Mother said, I will tell the people on this side of the street and the two of you go together to the houses on the other side of the street.
They knocked on each door and told them about the storm they had seen coming their way. The villagers had done this before. Nothing needed to be explained to them for they all knew the wooden bridge was old, and that the next big storm could sweep it away. They knew too that some storms could bring water up the street and even flood their homes. This had not happened for many years, but one never knew what the next storm would bring.
By the time Mother and the children knocked on the last doors, some families had already hitched their horses to wagons and were clip clopping up the street and around the bend into the woods toward the bridge.
Patrick, Josephine and Mother faced into the wind as they walked back to the lighthouse. Now the wind had sleet in it. It froze onto the scarf that Patrick had pulled up over his mouth and nose.
Back at their home, high on the cliff, Mother told Patrick that it would be his job to keep their fires lit through the storm. He would have to sleep by the fireplace in the living room and also feed the wood stove in the kitchen. Josephine and Patrick went in and out, in and out to fill the big wooden box with firewood.
Mother said, Josephine, I think you are old enough to help me carry the oil to your father. He will not come down until the storm is over.
And so the long night began. Mother took out bread and cheese and apples and left them on the kitchen counter. They did not have time to stop for a proper meal, but each of them would stop to eat when they were hungry and had a moment. A kettle sat on the hot wood stove and Patrick kept it full of water for tea. It was Josephine’s job to bring food and hot tea to father.
The wind grew louder and louder. Josephine and mother made many trips through the storm to get oil to for the lamp and they climbed and climbed again and again. Mother and father took turns going out into the storm at the very top of the lighthouse on the little porch where Josephine polished the windows on sunny days. Only now the windows were covered with ice. They scraped the ice off so that the light could shine brightly and be seen by ships at sea to warn them to keep away from the rocks of the little island.
Meanwhile Patrick found himself trusted to care for the two fires. He had learned how to place logs on a fire without burning his hands, how to close the door of the stove to keep the fire inside, how to let the fire burn low, but not too low before adding another log.
All night long they worked. Mother and Father and Josephine did not sleep at all, but Patrick took little catnaps on the rug near the fire and Josephine woke him from time to time to remind him to check on the fire.
Josephine was so tired as she climbed the 200 steps. The sound of the wind could still be heard and the ice had turned to rain. They could not see the sun as it rose because of the heavy rain. As the sun rose behind the clouds it made the sky gray instead of black. Josephine felt more energy in her step even though she had not slept.
Mother said to Josephine, go and sleep, for there is no more ice and the windows will not need so much care. For a time, Josephine slept and then her mother slept and as the storm died down, mother stayed by the light while father slept.
And then, by noon, the storm was gone. The family gathered at the top of the lighthouse and, as the sun came out, they cheered.
Using the telescope, father looked at the village. He said, I think the water did not go into the houses. But look, the end of the bridge has broken and there are people there already working on it.
Mother walked into town and came back with the news that the bridge repair would be done by 8 pm and that the families could return to their homes in time to go to bed for the night.
By the time mother came home, it was growing dark. Father, who had slept briefly, had again lit the light and was on duty in the lighthouse.
Mother said, its supper for you two hard workers then off to bed. Josephine yawned. But Patrick looked thoughtful. His thoughts drifted to keeping the fires lit overnight. And then his eyes grew wide.
“I think all the fires in the village houses will be out by now,” he said.
Josephine and Patrick looked at each other and at the same time said, “Lets go light them.”
“Then everyone can come home to a warm house,” said Patrick.
Patrick , Josephine and mother walked into town. Mother carried a metal bucket full of coals from their own fire. Josephine and Patrick each carried big baskets of sticks for kindling.
They knew the doors of the houses would be unlocked for nobody on the island every locked a door.
And then, one house at a time, they carried coals and sticks and lit fires in every fire place. Mother would move on to the next house leaving one child behind to be sure the log they added from each familiy’s wood storage box would catch and begin to burn.
When they finished they stood at the end of the street looking back at the glow in the houses, the warmth and light they had given. The stars shone over them. They did not notice they were tired, for happiness filled them. And just as they reached the far end of the street to walk back to the lighthouse, they heard clip clop, clip clop, the sound of horses pulling carts.
They were too tired to stay and greet their friends. And, besides, father was at home and might need help. So they walked home silently through the night. Lanterns in hand. Full of the inner light of giving, grateful that the storm had not done much damage, grateful for all of their blessings.
Kim Allsup says her favorite aspect of her 25 years as a Waldorf school teacher was telling stories. She is the author of teaching memoir, A Gift of Wonder, A True Story Showing School as it Should Be