The Light in the House – A Short Story of Identity
I stood at the shore, the salty wind in my face. Breath in. Pause. Breath out.
Readjusting my back pack, I glanced up and down the coast. Miles and miles of opportunity stretched before me. I had been well-equipped and was sent off by people who loved me, and it was time to make my mark on the world – my sand castle, if you will.
I’d heard some speak of a road I should follow, but I was never very good at directions. When lefts and rights were given, I’d zone out and think of dolphins. And here I was, gazing at the horizon, straining my eyes for a porpoise that I was sure would come splashing out any moment.
I kicked off my shoes and began to run. It didn’t take me long to find my spot. The endless stretch of golden dust was warm against my bare feet. I spread out a blanket and flattened myself under the sun. Ahh, to be warm. To feel the tingling of heat spread across my skin. I sat up and squinted my eyes in all directions. This was it. Blue sparkling waves beckoned me to stay. I had found my home.
Building my castle was a challenging task, but I was well prepared. I had my shovels and pails and plastic molds. I even brought a little baby powder – I’d heard it helps you keep your hands clean as you build. My creation was impressive, and a few wanderers stopped to watch as I worked.
The right amount of water mixed with the dryness of the sand created a masterpiece, a work of art, really, if I do say so myself.
But by the day’s end, I tossed my sun kissed hair over my shoulders and evaluated my creation. I wasn’t satisfied. It wasn’t right. Something was missing. I looked up at the stars that glowed above. I knew that my castle had to be bigger. More dazzling. More inviting.
So day after day, I expanded my towers and enlarged my walls. The moat boasted a sea shell bridge that led to a life-sized door made of driftwood I’d collected along the shore.
Visitors were frequent now, stopping to admire the construction and design. They liked it! But I wasn’t done!
I wanted a place to sit and chat with all of my guests, so I collected branches and rocks and built a patio off the side of my castle. Tiki torches and a fire pit kept us laughing all through the night. I became an expert at mixing smoothies, and soon, friends came from other beaches to sit and enjoy my fire side stories. I even wrote a few of them down for my guests to take home.
I found joy in my new hobby, stringing together drift wood and shells to make wind chimes for my friends. I would think of what they liked and fashion a design especially for them. Oh, the surprise in their eyes when they opened their gifts! The dainty, twinkling music makers filled my heart with giddiness and pride.
My little oasis grew, and I was surrounded with people I loved. I strung hammocks along the coast and would play music while they rested from their travels.
At times, as I was cleaning up the coconut mugs, I would reflect on the new faces, wondering what had happened to some of my friends of the past, but the fresh friendships and experiences kept coming, and I didn’t dwell too much on the details. The sun was shining and the waves were lapping and I was happy.
But then, one evening, the clouds came in early and it began to rain. A few friends left, not wanting to get their clothes wet, but others stayed and helped me cover the patio chairs. I thought it would be an insignificant event, but the rain didn’t stop. And the winds picked up. And though a few stayed and helped me take down the hammocks, most of the folks found reasons to leave, and the place was getting pretty empty.
The fire in the pit and on the torches was quenched by the downpour. Dark clouds covered the moon, and though I could hardly see in the dark, I felt the ground under me shifting. In horror, I realized that the sand was being pulled out from under me. The waves that once sent friendly hellos began pummeling the walls of my home. The wind whipped my hair against my face and my dress was heavy, hanging with moisture. I tried desperately to fight against the pull of the ocean, securing the moat, and creating a place of safety, but it was no use. There was no way I could fix this on my own – and that’s what I was – on my own.
The storm raged on, and the castle didn’t hold up under the attack. It was gone. My life was gone.
The storm raged for days. I watched as my belongings washed out to sea, probably showing up on someone else’s shore. When the terror finally ended, I was left with nothing. My dreams, hopes, and plans had been washed away. Everything was gone.
But that wasn’t the hardest part.
When I looked around, I was completely alone.
Everyone was gone.
Where were all my friends? The people who had laughed by my side? Who’d splashed in my moat and eaten my shrimp scampi that I’d cooked over the stone grill? Where had they gone?
I had never felt so alone. So empty. I was sad. I was lonely. And I was confused.
Not having any tools to even begin rebuilding, or the heart to try, I walked aimlessly down the beach. Stopping by a coconut tree to rest, I overheard some travelers laughing behind me, unaware of my presence, though I doubt I was even recognizable in my misshapen state.
“It’s a shame, what happened to her,” one said.
“Well, she probably had it coming. Always thinking she was better than everyone.”
“Always had to be the best.”
I was just beginning to feel sorry for the person they were speaking of when someone came to her defense.
“I thought you were friends with her!”
“What? She was fun to hang out with, sure, but that’s about it.”
“Didn’t she give you a gift?”
“A gift? Well yes – if you mean that pile of sticks she called a wind chime.” They all began to laugh. “What a piece of junk!”
My heart stopped beating. They could only have meant me. They were talking about me! I held my breath, not wanting to move. They were walking away, and I could barely hear the end of their conversation.
“Her lights were always so bright, shining in my eyes. So obnoxious.”
“I know, right? Do you think she’ll rebuild?”
“Rebuild what? Her pile of sand? If she does, the same thing is going to happen all over again. She’ll never learn. She’s just too…”
And that was all I could hear. I pulled my knees to my chest and squeezed my eyes shut. When I opened them, the reality hit me – everything I knew had been a lie. And I had never felt so empty.
I didn’t know where to go next. I was afraid to build another castle. No one would like it anyway. So I visited other castles on other shores. I smoothed out my hair, pinched my cheeks, and pretended that my world hadn’t completely washed away. I smiled and charmed and drank a daiquiri, and no one seemed to ask or care about my devastating loss. But there were moments when the sadness broke through, and I saw people back away. I read them differently now, though.
Everything looked different.
It was as though my sunglasses, which had been smudged with sunscreen, had been cleaned and I could see through them clearly. The reality was that no one wanted to be around someone whose life wasn’t perfect. And after a while, I didn’t want to pretend anymore. I just wanted to be alone.
I was tossed between competing emotions of jealousy, anger, and despair. I knew that it was my fault for building my home so close to the ocean. I knew that it was my fault for not reading the caution signs. I knew it was my fault for being so naïve and clueless. And those thoughts of condemnation battered me while I walked during the day and pummeled my dreams at night.
And the weather never regained its summery self. It was drizzly and cool, and the clouds never seemed to lift. The ocean was angry and brooding. I could never get warm.
While picking through a pile of seaweed that had tangled itself on the beach, I found my old backpack. The one I was wearing when I originally set out on my journey. I glanced inside. Most of my belongings had been swept away, but there was a paper inside, still wet from its ocean ride. I gingerly opened it flat on the sand, careful not to tear the seams, and discovered it was a map.
Oh yes! The map I’d been given long ago when I set out on the journey. I didn’t think I really needed to look at it much, but it had some pretty specific directions laid out for me. Not exactly where I needed to go, but more like a guide as to the best places to look.
Of course, it warned against building too close to the shore. I should have remembered that one. It would have come in handy. And there was that path, too, that I’d heard others talk about. I wasn’t far from that road. If I was quick, I could probably hike it in a day.
So I gently folded up the map, shook the sand out of my bag, and finger combed my hair. I had nowhere else to go but straight down the path.
Like I said, I wasn’t very good at directions, and I was often side tracked. I’d collect some pretty shells or stop to watch a crab dig a hole in the sand. It was night time when I arrived at a large, stone building, somewhere in the middle of my journey. The door was curved and lined with rocks. I lifted the knocker and made a heavy noise – one, two, three.
When the door began to move, I jumped backwards, not sure what to expect. A small figure stood in the entrance, silhouetted by the light coming from the inside.
“May I come in?” I asked.
The petite woman waved me in. She offered me a blanket, a mug of hot cocoa, and sat me by the roaring fire.
She was the first to speak. Her voice was shaky but kind. “We have had quite a bad spell of weather these last few days, haven’t we? Have hardly seen the sun.”
“Yes,” I agreed. I paused to watch the steam rise from my mug. “I haven’t felt warm in weeks.”
“And there are times when even the heat of the sun can’t warm an aching soul.”
What had she said? I looked into her eyes. They revealed a wisdom beyond my years. My heart, once pushed down in submission, crept immediately to my throat. I didn’t speak, afraid my voice would betray my emotions.
I took a labored breath, and tried to reply, but the words were stuck. I finally whispered over my mug, “You have no idea.” The tears brimmed along the edge and stung.
But she did know, and as we talked, she didn’t judge or critique – she listened. She comforted. She nodded her head in understanding.
I fell asleep on the couch, wrapped in that blanket of comfort. I’d found a place I could rest.
My sweet new friend showed me around the home. She said it wasn’t hers – she was just living in it for a while. When we reached the top, we climbed up a little ladder to a small circular room surrounded by windows. In the center was a light.
A light house! I’d heard of them, but I had never seen one up close. She taught me the controls and switches. She showed me the dangerous cliffs below and the rugged rocks to the side. She explained that when the tide was in, there were even more dangers of boats being run aground in the shallow areas. I shuddered to think of being in a boat during the storm that had wrecked my home.
Ruth told me stories of past rescues. Of the man and his wife who had lost their way. Of the child who had fallen off the boat and couldn’t find his parents. There was even an old sailor who couldn’t see and had forgotten how to steer his ship.
“He crashed it right up to the house!” Ruth said with a chuckle. “Sweet man, he was.”
“What ever happened to him?” I asked.
“Oh, he couldn’t stay,” Ruth explained. “I helped him repair his ship, and he went on his way.”
“But what about the others?” I asked. “Didn’t you want any of them to be here with you? So you wouldn’t be lonely?”
“Oh, I’m never lonely, dear. There are always people that the light brings my way. Some stay for a few weeks. The child stayed a few years. The couple who I helped ended up running their own light house. But then there are the others…”
Her voice faltered. I hesitated as well, not wanting to push her into saying something that was uncomfortable.
She cleared her throat, “And then there’s you! Can I show you more of the light house?”
I took her up on her offer. The cozy kitchen, the quaint dining room, the quilt that hung in the entry way. It was as comforting as chicken noodle soup when you’ve been sick with a cold.
I enjoyed my stay with Ruth. For a bit it was just the two of us, and I was selfishly irritated when she opened her door to another traveler. He was rude and arrogant, and he criticized her coffee and made fun of her out dated furnishings.
In the kitchen, when we were alone, I spoke my mind. “He has no right to treat you this way, Ruth! You have been nothing but kind, and he is stomping over your kindness! You should kick him out – send him packing. He’s such a–”
“No,” she said, interrupting my tirade. “I will not send him away. I will show kindness and love.”
“What?” I stammered. She seemed to be rebuking me. Me! It was that man who needed to be scolded. “You don’t understand people, Ruth. They say one thing and mean another. They only take from you and never give back. He’ll forget all about you. You’re just letting him use you, Ruth!”
“Everything I have has been given to me, child. Freely given. Even though I was completely ungrateful and undeserving. So you see why I want to show the same kindness to others.”
“Well, he’s never going to appreciate it,” I huffed, turning away.
“What you say is true.” She paused, and I turned, surprised that she agreed. She patted my hand gently. “But I am not responsible for how the gift is handled. I just know I’m supposed to give.”
He wasn’t the only ungrateful visitor we had during my stay.
One stormy night, I was helping with the light, and I aimed it to help a sailor pass a rocky section of the water. Instead of waving and smiling, he frowned and cursed at me! I couldn’t understand him through the wind. I called down to Ruth who was below.
“What is he saying?” I yelled, struggling against the weight of the lamp.
“He wants you to turn off the light,” she replied.
“What?” I asked. “Why? I’m trying to help.”
She had climbed up the ladder and was standing beside me now.
“Some think they can figure it out on their own. Not everyone wants the light.” And she was right. He wasn’t the only one upset about the light.
A couple had washed overboard during a real tempest. They were clinging to a log, trying to stay afloat, and I could see from above that a lifeboat was just within their reach. But though I tried, I couldn’t get them to let go of their log. They didn’t understand the danger.
“Some people think they’re doing just fine, and they don’t see the danger of their choices.”
I lowered my head. That had been me – not seeing the danger signs all around me. In fact, I vaguely remembered some side comments from folks passing by about high and low tides, but I didn’t want to listen.
Then Ruth gave me some advice. “I’ve learned it’s best to not shine the light directly into their eyes like that. A more gentle approach is better.” And she showed me how to use the wider wash to illuminate the danger, rather than a harsh pointed beam. It worked. Shining in their eyes just made them angry. But with the gentler light, it guided them to the lifeboat. They turned and waved as they sailed away.
The days passed quickly when I stayed with Ruth. Her home was always a safe haven for people who were traveling by or caught in danger. Also, she was often visited by friends and loved ones who enjoyed her company. She always had a kind heart and an encouraging word. She was right. She was never lonely.
“I had thought that this would be a desolate place, Ruth,” I admitted one night over a cup of tea. “But you’ve filled it with life!”
“I haven’t filled it at all,” she said. “God is the one who fills my home. I just love those He brings my way.”
Of course I believed in God. I knew He existed. But in that time I spent with Ruth, I saw Him, lived out in her life. She was a light, pointing me to Him.
I was changing. And I knew it was almost time for a change in location as well.
It was a calm, sunny day when Ruth saw me looking over my map.
“That’s a very nice path,” she said, motioning to the one I’d been tracing with my finger.
I smiled. “It’s the best path of all because it led me to you!”
Ruth gave me a hug, and then squeezed my shoulder in a knowing way. “But the path doesn’t end here, does it?”
I looked down at the paper and followed the path, passing the light house, and beyond.
“I’m going to miss you,” I said as a tear fell down my cheek. I didn’t even bother to wipe it away.
“This isn’t goodbye forever. It’s just for now,” she assured me.
“But I don’t even know what will be waiting for me when I get there. I don’t know where the path leads.” I folded my arms, and a chill lit through my spine.
“I never know what each day holds,” Ruth reminded me, “but it isn’t my job to know. It’s my job to follow.”
Leaving Ruth was the hardest thing I’d ever done. I left all that was safe and known and comfortable. I could have stayed there with her, forever. We could have rescued the world together. But I know that wasn’t my path.
So with a bag full of food and supplies graciously given by my friend, I left.
And now, I stand at the top of my own light house, the salty wind in my face, atop a silver rock that is surrounded by golden sand. A sea shell wind chime hangs in the doorway. This beacon was waiting for me, built especially for me, and designed for me to do what I have been called to do. I didn’t have to construct my own castle to prove who I was to the world. I can rest here, in the home that was freely given to me. I still make great smoothies and can spin a tale like you’ve never heard, but I’m different. I’m here to serve those the light brings my way, and I can give freely, because I have been given so much.