In Light of Men

When the man woke in the morning he reached out to touch beside him and found his face pressed awkwardly against the splintering wood of the old oak desk. The bed was very small and he cursed. From the top of his sheets he peered out into his little room.

The little space was barely longer than the bed, and not much wider. The walls were dark and the wainscoting was chipped and broken in many places. Pressed between the wall and the cot was the small desk that was bare except for a notepad folded to a fresh page. To the right on the opposite wall there was a small portal-like window which was misted over with fog. It shone a tube of greylight into the dusky room.

Reasonably sure that he was not dreaming now but also hesitant to trust anything too much, the man sat up in bed. He stretched his wiry frame. The warmth from his sleep was slowly vanishing. The portal was rattling with gusts of the wind and when he put a hand up against the thin pane of the glass it came away icy cold. He shivered as though the cold were spreading from his fingers up his arms and down his spine like a contagion.

Halfawake everything was gray. His bed was gray and the socks on the bed were gray. He picked up the gray socks with the two red stripes that were folded on the woodfloor by the bed and felt their soft cotton warmth. It made him happy for a moment. He pulled them over his feet slowly and tugged them up as far they would go so that his shins and calves were covered. After he did this he pulled his flannels from the old wood chair by the desk and pulled them over his shorts. His legs felt good. It was good to have the flannels on. Then he pulled on two of the sweaters which he used as blankets. He put the green one on first and then the yellow one. He felt much better now that he had the sweaters on and was starting to wake up. Boots stood next to each other at the end of the bed and he slipped his feet into them. It was uncomfortable but it kept him warm.

He went out into the narrow hallway and up the winding black steps. The air was cold to breathe into his lungs as he made the climb. Kopenhagen was not up yet. The control room was empty. Through the panorama of the windows there was only grayness with a hint of dark to it that was not good for this time of the morning.

He looked in the well and checked the light. The flame danced on the walls as if responsive to some unknowable tune. He sighed. They could only watch. There was nothing they could do but watch.

In the back of the room the man began to fix himself breakfast. He turned on the burner and put a hotpan on and poured in egg substitute. Then he took some margarine from the half-refrigerator and scooped a small bit into the hotpan. Finally after he replaced the margarine he pulled out a creamer and dropped a few drops in. Then he stirred it together and watched it sizzle. The smell made his mouth water. There was a rustle from the steps and Kopenhagen came up the steps blearyeyed and stumbling.

“Morning.”

“Morning.”

“It’s not looking too good out there.”

“No it’s not.”

“I’d say we’ve got a storm coming ‘fore daybreak.”

“I’d say you’re right.”

“Want some breakfast?”

“Thanks.”

Kopenhagen was wiry in build much the same as the man was. Only beneath his black overcoat stretching against the fabric were bulging biceps which the man did not have. He had the shoulders, yes. But not the biceps. Not in the way Kopenhagen had them.

“Do you like to dip the bread in the egg-grease?”

“Why not,” Kopenhagen said agreeably.

“It is very good,” the man said.

The breakfast was very good. Kopenhagen also went to retrieve hot water from his room where he kept the automatic teapot, which was slowly wearing down. With the hot water they made the honey tea and also hot chocolate water mixed with creamer and sugar. For dessert they used the last of their jam to spread over the endpieces of the breadloaf. It was a very good breakfast.

“That’s a very good breakfast,” Kopenhagen said thickly, bringing up the mug of honeytea to his mouth while chewing the last of the breadloaf.

The man nodded and then he began to clean the dishes at the sink in the corner of the room. Kopenhagen spoke but over the faucet the man could not hear him.

“What?”

“I said how much water do you think is left?”

The man turned the faucet back on.

“Hopefully a lot,” he said. “Hopefully a lot.”

“I don’t think there’s very much left at all,” Kopenhagen said. “I’m willing to bet it’s gonna run out soon.”

“Well then it’s a good thing you’ve got no money to bet.”

“Did you check the light yet?”

“Yep.”

“Is it still on?”

“No. I let it go out.”

“You what?

The man did not answer him. Kopenhagen scrambled up from his chair to the well and slid open the latch. As he shut the water off he heard Kopenhagen’s exasperated sigh.

“It’s on just fine!” he said.

“Of course it is.”

“Why did you tell me you let it go off?”

“To get you to stop being so goddamned uptight about everything.”

Me being so goddamned uptight about everything? How am I so goddamned uptight about everything? You’re the one running around like we’re on some holy crusade…”

“What would qualify in your book as a holy crusade,” the man said, “If this doesn’t?”

Kopenhagen streamed on.

“…going about like a madman at that desk of yours. I mean breakfast? Really?”

“We are going to have a long day,” the man said. “I knew it when I woke up. We will need all of our strength.”

“ It’s just that you know we’re not going to last much longer in here and you act like…well you act like we are. I say we get the hell out of here while we still can.”

The man paused midshuffle. Turned partway to consider Kopenhagen.

“You want to leave, you can leave. I can’t ask you to stay here. Not for this. There might still be time for you to go back. Sampson and Ackley are good men. They have enough supplies. You will be able to live with them for a very long time.”

Kopenhagen looked from the floor to the man and then back to the floor again.

“Hell. I ain’t going nowhere. You and me both know that.”

“I guess we do.”

The man sat in his chair and slid it over the cold flatrock floor to the counter with the black machine and papers. Kopenhagen watched him while he shuffled some of the papers and flicked a switch. The black machine began to whir.

“Oh don’t get that look. I didn’t mean nothing by it.”

“Okay.”

“Okay.”

“What are you working on?”

“My project.”

“The same one.”

“Yes.”

“You’re not going to tell me today, are you?”

“No.”

 

The morning wore on very slowly. They were in a state of constant waiting. After breakfast Kopenhagen began to walk back and forth over the flatrock. It was normal behavior for him but this day the man sensed something more agitated in his pacing.

The fog grew thicker and darker and it was well before noon when it became so dark that the man had trouble seeing the words on the pages in front of him.

Kopenhagen was sleeping in his chair with arms folded over his chest. The man had tried to concentrate on the papers but he could not. It was bad, the waiting. It was swallowing everything. It grew with the darkness.

He thought about perhaps trying to read his book for a little while but decided against it. Instead he too sat back in his chair. He thought to take a nap, like Kopenhagen. He liked to nap for a short time to refresh himself sometimes. Not as much as Kopenhagen, no. But sometimes.

As he thought this there was a sudden booming crack and the whole room shook. With a whoosh the patter of rain began, growing from a tip-tap to a furious downfall in only a few seconds. Kopenhagen was up with a start.

“The hell?”

“Storm’s started.”

“The light?”

“Relax.”

The light?”

In the gray Kopenhagen leapt across the room to the well and checked the latch again.

“Don’t look at me like that,” he said as he moved away from the well. “Don’t. That is why we’re here, you know. Otherwise what is the point of all this? Otherwise why? Why?”

The man did not say anything but only stood over the counter and looked out the panorama into the darkening gray. The wind whistled audibly over the patter of the rain and the room shook again with another crack and bang. Kopenhagen held his arms out to the walls to steady himself. Inside the room it grew a little darker.

 

They were at the controls later. Kopenhagen was taking notes. The man sat back in his chair with his book. Kopenhagen pushed his notes away suddenly and turned to him.

“Hey.”

“Hey.”

“Do you ever get to thinking?”

“About what?”

“About how we might not be the only ones? You know. Me and you and Sampson and Ackley. Maybe the computer made a mistake when we came down.”

“Isn’t that the point of this whole deal? Aren’t we relying on that very hypothetical circumstance?”

“No, I mean what if the computer made a big mistake when we crashed. What if there are a lot more?”

“Well the more the merrier, right?”

“Well then we’d be up here for nothing, wouldn’t we?”

“Now why the hell are you bringing that up?”

“I hate to. It’s just the food’s runnin’ out. The water’s runnin’ out. We’d have to go out – and I mean out – to get anything more. And you know that ain’t happening.”

The man set down his book on his chest.

“I don’t like to talk about that right now, Kopenhagen.”

“Well. I have to talk about it. See I’m gonna go nuts if I don’t. I need to talk about it.”

The man did not speak.

“I ain’t like you. I can’t just sit there reading. I got…I got a life to live, man.”

“No one’s gonna have any ‘life to live’,” the man said, “If we don’t do this.”

“Christ, man,” Kopenhagen turned away. “Don’t you think…don’t you think you might just be taking this whole ‘save the world’ thing a little too far?”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“I mean they can’t be all gone. They just can’t.”

The man just shook his head and gave a curt laugh.

“Well. Suppose you’re wrong. Suppose even the one in a million chance that you’re wrong and the computer is right. Isn’t it worth every second we spend here? Just to be sure?”

“And you’re okay with that? You’re okay with giving up your life never knowing if the sacrifice was needed? You’re okay with letting the world forget you ever existed?”

“I’m not in this for the fame, Kopenhagen.”

Kopenhagen streamed on without pausing.

“And even saying there really were only two other survivors, like the computer said. Even saying that. What are the chances they get here? What are the chances that they are fertile females?”

“You should’ve stayed back with Sampson and Ackley,” the man said. “I don’t know what you thought you were doing coming here with me when you are obviously already so hopeless.”

“I’d say I have reason to be pretty goddamn hopeless! I mean we can’t even light a goddamn fire, for chrissakes! We can’t light anything! All we have is that one flame. For chrissakes, man.”

“Don’t say things in the name of Christ. It makes you sound even more selfish than you really are.”

“Oh, so now he’s Mr. Religion! Now, when he finally realizes he’s going to die!”

“We’re both gonna die, Kopenhagen. I just don’t have any delusions about what happens after that. Which is precisely why I can realize just how selfish you are.”

“You son of a bitch.”

Kopenhagen stood up with a flourish and his frame seemed to tower over the little room. The man just shook his head. For a moment he was sure Kopenhagen was going to rush him and he braced himself. But after a moment the larger man collapsed back down into his chair and sat there, heaving wordlessly. His short breaths echoed across the silent room.

“You damn American,” he said. “You damn filthy American.”

“You damn German. You damn filthy German. What damn filthy German way of doing things is this.”

The glass groaned under the weight of the wind.

“We’re going to have to batten down the hatches,” the man said.

“Then we’ll be in the pitchblack.”

“We won’t have a choice.”

“Anything’s better than the pitchblack.”

“Losing the flame is not better than the pitchblack.”

“No. No I guess it’s not.”

“So we’re agreed then?”

“I wouldn’t say that.”

“Kopenhagen.”

“Just tell me to do what I gotta do.”

“Okay.”

 

Later when all the windows had been boarded up they sat in the dark on the cold flatrock floor leaning back against the control panel. The man was scribbling on some papers just inches from his nose.

“Goddamnit,” he was saying. “Goddamnit. Goddamn all of it.”

“See now, that’s just a hypocrisy.”

“What are you on about?”

“We always used to think of nature as hellish when a storm like this blew up. But when we saw the sky and the mountains suddenly it was godlike. I mean, they’re one and the same. Didn’t make too much sense, did it? I mean God couldn’t be good and bad, and hell couldn’t be bad and good.”

“Nice use of the past tense there, buddy. And I don’t know what world you live in but in mine it doesn’t pay much to believe in things like heavens and hells and gods and devils.”

Kopenhagen went silent for a time. The man went back to cursing the papers.

“You honestly don’t think there’s a place for guys like you and me?” Kopenhagen broke in suddenly. “You know. Guys who have done something good.”

“Yes,” said the man. “That place is called peace of mind.”

“I was thinkin’ of heaven.”

The man kicked off from his chair to slide down to the end of the panel.

“I wasn’t.”

Outside the storm raged on and knocked against the glass.

 

He awoke in the ruins of the storm. He could hardly breathe through the dust. The fog was thicker than ever. Kopenhagen was gone. The ruins of the lighthouse were invisible in the dusty clouds.

As his vision cleared he stepped over the uneven ground and probed through the rubble and found the light, in its indestructible case. His face burned and his head throbbed. He reached a tentative hand to his cheek and felt a thick layer of dried blood.

His head was spinning. He took a deep breath of the sour air and wondered vaguely how much time he had left. The fog was still thick, and a light drizzle teetered down over the broken remnants of the lighthouse.

There were splatters of blood across the wreckage shining red against the gray colorlessness of the day. He found Kopenhagen dead under a thick piece of flatrock. His eyes were wide open and his expression looked as though he were determining what to have with his egg breakfast. For a moment he stood there holding the great rock up and looking out into the steaming mist and heaving with the effort and letting the lactic acid move slowly through him with every liquid drumbeat of his heart. He stood there until his fingers began to bleed from holding the cold and grimy stone and his shoulders were quivering with fatigue and then he laid the stone back down over Kopenhagen so that it covered him from head to toe.

From the ruins he cobbled together a small post, no taller than himself. Atop it he placed the light. He carried it away from the wreckage to a flat spot of ashen soil a distance away. Then he hammered it into the ground.

He found himself drained from his brief task. He had been outside for too long. The air was no good. It left a sting in his lungs with each breath. His eyes burned when the wind blew up and he sat down against the post to rest for a time.

Slowly he began to pass in and out of consciousness and amidst his delirium he imagined that there had always been a time which he mourned for. It was hard to place but he thought of the passing latefall with bare trees and orange multicolored days that had a good bite to them. When the cold was something friendly. Something just strong enough to huddle everyone together in grinning and teethchattering circles of warmth.

He settled into the dirt. Above him the light shone atop the small post he had fashioned. He would remain there for a while, he decided. With the light.

In the distance he could hear howls, otherworldly howls that screamed through the fog and pierced his ears and echoed against the gray-fogged hills looming on the horizon. But through the howls he could hear screams too, screams which felt as familiar and true to him as the soft caress of a girl’s hand or the good ache which came to the chest after a hard effort. Screams which wrenched him back from the netherplaces of his mind and tied him firmly to the broken earth beneath him.

He heaved unsteadily to his feet, and with a yank of the lightpost, made off in the direction of the sound.

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