An island barely attached to the mainland, like a loose tooth on a thread, is called a peninsula. On this small peninsula, there is a lighthouse, a tall grey one that swings its light at night over the small town by the sea. It stops ships from smashing into the rock that is so awkwardly positioned in the middle of the bay. It makes the night a little less dark, and the vast land- scape and the wide ocean a little less vast and wide.
In the house beside the tower, Augustus the lighthouse keeper lives with his daughter. They have a small garden and a little rocky beach, where something or other is always washing ashore. They often used to sit there all evening, with the light turning in circles far above their heads. Augustus would make a fire, and small boats sailed up from the harbour, carrying a crew of pirates. They came to sit around the fire and eat grilled fish and sing all night long. They would sing drinking and eating songs, sad songs and longing songs, and terrifying songs too, songs about the Secrets of the Sea, which made the girl both happy and scared, and so she would usually climb up onto her mother’s lap.
But no pirates come sailing along any more, and her father has stopped making fires.
By the time dusk falls, the lamp must be lit. It is always the girl who lights it. Every night, she climbs the sixty-one steps, opens the rusty little door that covers the lens, lights the wick, winds up the mechanism that turns the lamp, shuts the door, and the job is done.
It was hard work when she was younger, but now her arms have grown strong and her legs can easily climb up and down the steps twice a day. Three times if she forgets the matches. That happens sometimes, and then her father always grumbles at her.
“It’s almost dark and the lamp’s not lit! What if a ship is lost, child? What if it runs aground on the rocks and it’s all my fault? No – all your fault! Hurry up! Climb those stairs! Or should I just do it myself? I’m going to…” He’s already getting up out of his chair.
“I’m on my way,” the girl mutters, taking the matches from the drawer. The box rattles quietly. There’s only one match left. Must buy more matches tomorrow, she thinks. Don’t forget.
The girl knows though, that remembering can be difficult. She always has so much inside her head: songs, stories, things she has to learn, things she wants to forget but that keep coming back. When she needs to remember something, she often for- gets it, but she always remembers whatever she wants to forget. As she climbs the stairs, she comes up with a little trick. What was it she wanted to remember? Oh yes. In her mind, she picks up a matchbox and then places it on a table in the middle of her head – with a little lamp shining onto the box, so that it will be the first thing she sees when she wakes up tomorrow morning. Or so she hopes. What kind of lamp? One with a shade of green enamel with a worn golden edge. Her mother used to have a lamp like that by her bedside. But that is one of the things she would prefer to forget.
Think of another lamp, Lampie, she tells herself. Because that’s her name. Lampie. Her real name is Emilia. But that had been her mother’s name too. And her father had always found it annoying when two people looked up as he called out the name and then, later, he never wanted to hear that name again. So he calls her Lampie instead.
“You’re not the brightest of lights though, are you, Lampie?” he always says whenever she forgets something or trips over, usually when she is carrying something like hot soup.
Lampie climbs upstairs with the last match. She has to be very careful. It must not go out before the lamp is lit, because then… Shipwrecks and an angry father. She is not sure which would be worse.
She twists the wick and fluffs it up, so that it will light properly. Then she takes the match out of the box and gives it a stern look.
“Do your best! I mean it! Or I’ll…” Or she’ll what? What would a match think was the worst threat of all? Being blown out? Snapped in two? No, she knows what it is.
“Or I’ll throw you into the sea,” she whispers. “And you’ll be so wet that you’ll never burn again.” Until it washes ashore, of course. On a hot beach somewhere, where it will dry out in the sun and…
“Lampie!” Her father’s voice is so loud, even though it is coming from sixty-one steps below. “The light! NOW!”
Usually he has been asleep for ages by this time of day, snoring away in his chair. But not tonight. She strikes the match. A tiny, useless spark. And again. This time there is a proper flame and the smell of sulphur. That’s good. She cups her other hand around the match and brings it to the wick. Come on! The flame hesitates a little, before growing bigger.
“Flame, flame, burn hot and quick. Drink the oil and eat the wick!” she quietly sings to herself, as she looks into the bright light. She could feel a bit of a knot in her stomach before, but it is starting to loosen now.
Close the door, wind up the mechanism, done. “Matches, matches, must buy matches,” she sings as she walks back down the stairs. Must remember to buy matches.
But still, she forgets.
Excerpt published with permission from Pushkin Press
Lampie and the Children of the Sea
Translated from the Dutch by Laura Watkinson
2019, Pushkin Press