Cruising northward along the sea-side highway in your rented convertible, your thoughts are trivial and transient, touching upon the things you've left behind in a literal and figurative sense. Despite its largely pristine beauty, dotted sparsely by melodramatically islandish snack shops and souvenir junk huts, one figure stands out in bold contrast: a lighthouse. Soon noticing a signpost indicating its being open to the public, you indulge a whim and pull into its parking lot.
Although a neglected affair, little more than gravel strewn over stamped-down beach sand, you find it well supplied with cars. Soon one fewer, as a tow truck is soon to haul one away. At the lighthouse's base, you find a simple mechanized gate and turnstile that offers only a card reader slot for an interface. After giving its prominence a few stern yanks to test for a skimmer, you insert a credit card whose emblem matches one of the harshly weathered icons above the slot, hoping that the obliterated figures above it were indicating a price of 50 cents and not 50 dollars. Whatever the fee, after ejecting a receipt that you stuff carelessly into your pocket, a delighted hum welcomes you to enter as the door draws itself open and the turnstile lets you pass.
Within, you are underwhelmed by what you find; inky darkness punctuated by a spiral staircase and occasional beams of daylight entering through small windows along the way. Faint voices echo down. Beside the first steps in a fine wooden chair, you meet a young boy holding in his hand a small eggshell and a tiny bird that must have hatched from it. Hidden behind a brand new ball-cap, you don't get much of a look at his face as you near to pass by. Noticing you, he pauses the feeding of his bird with an eyedropper.
"Are you going up alone?" the boy asks you with a tone more matter-of-fact than curious.
One step from the stairs amid reaching for the outer handrail, you pause. "Yeah. Why?"
He touches the smallest amount of meal from his eye dropper to the beak of his bird. "Most people take a bird up with them. I'm waiting for mine to be ready. But you can go up anyway. Sometimes people find a bird on their way, some take one from somebody else who isn't going up anymore, and some just want to know what it's like to look out from the top. But I think it's kind of a waste not to have a bird when you get there."
Squinting your left eye and turning to face slightly away, you admit, "I'm on vacation; I'll do it for the experience."
Gripping the rail and taking your first steps upward, the boy wishes you good luck.
Rounding the body of the tower from within, at regular intervals you come to find a window in the brickwork and take a moment to gaze out. Spaced with a mathematically precise imprecision, each offers a slightly different view in angle as well as altitude. They also offer passage for the birds of which the boy spoke; all small but of diverse plumage, tits and finches—or at least birds that you think are like those kinds—dart in and out. The woodworking supporting the stairs also supports a few nests and you wonder if the boy was nursing one that fell or was abandoned; surely the latter, as already you're quite far from the ground. Looking up to judge the proportion, you notice that only a few more turns remain before the stairs merge into a platform. Curious, you return to your journey and ascend four more twists, the last revealing a sign hanging from the platform, illuminated by a light bulb. The sign seems to be deliberately blank.
From the stairs you emerge and find a large room, questionably large because it seems too wide for the lighthouse's frame, even at its base. Perhaps an illusion of perspective, you consider, as it has portals to a walkway encircling the level. The voices you heard during your ascent are now attributed to their owners, and Lo! there are many here. A few indeed have birds with them, all small, and somewhat feisty. Notably, many are fuzzy yellow chickens, let to scurry around the deck. They are picked up by the tourists, petted and sometimes spoken to in adoring tones for a moment, before being replaced to run about some more. Of the flighted birds, many are working their wings but can't get aloft. Their holders are typically seated near the lighthouse's wall, inside and trying to encourage their birds to take a first short flight, and a few intrepid owners are on the walkway. A risky venture, you soon learn, hearing a young woman scream and seconds later seeing her running inside, tears streaming down her flush red cheeks, to bolt down the stairs futilely.
Across the way, the stairs begin again.
Leaving the first floor behind, you continue on in a familiar way; stair after stair leading to window after window. At each you pause and enjoy the view. The views are more splendid with each, although you notice that the windows are a little smaller, now. Still, the little birds come in and out, sometimes forcing you to lean back from the window as one of them darts inside on a course that threatens to pass through your face. It is not only the windows that have changed, you realize halfway up this section, but also the steps. They've become a little narrower and rise a little higher each time.
The next lobby you enter is no different from the first in arrangement, and although smaller than the previous one it still looks a little too large. Here you meet a smaller number of tourists, many with members of the parrot family. All the many Pollies want, and receive, crackers, and a few offer repartee as amusing as bawdy. The sense of naivete and anticipation you felt on the first level is replaced here with jovial satisfaction. Offered to partake of the buffet, you fix some cheese, crackers, and cubed fruits for yourself and take a seat for a time, listening to the birds chatter away. However, it isn't long before you feel the conversations merge into a steady din and escape to the walkway. Out there, a young man in garb that just barely suggested being out of place and time looks out over the ocean with a golden conure on his shoulder.
Hoping to make conversation with the man and not his bird, you come within a few yards, lean upon the railing as he does, and ask, "It's a nice view—about halfway up, is this?"
"Yeah," replies the man, who begins nervously tapping his fingertips against the rail.
"Do you think it's better from the top?"
He reaches across himself, presenting his finger to his parrot, which steps onto it. Swinging his arm and yelling, "Yhaaa!" he forces to flight his bird, which quickly flaps away, upward and around, disappearing behind the line where the body of the lighthouse and the sea and land distantly beyond meet. "I hope so, because that's where she'll be waiting for me." The man left the railing and re-entered the lobby. After taking a moment to take in the scenery in solitude, you return to the lobby. The man is no longer there and after some effort to draw attention to your question, you get one of the revelers to admit that maybe he went up the stairs.
So do you.
Across the woodwork that makes up the ceiling of the second lobby, you notice quite conspicuously a dense layer of padding—feathers and down, actually—too many to be discarded by the birds that visit this tower to be sure. Again the windows grow smaller and the steps more treacherous. As if the effort of climbing the tower weren't enough, the steps are becoming irregularly spaced, making the relatively broad landings before the windows into destinations of their own, rather than intermissions along the climb. Still the little birds visit the tower, and yourself, and too concerned with the climb you let one ride upon your shoulder for a while, although neglected and bored it leaves you after a little while.
Stepping onto the floor of the third lobby feels like entering home, even though you've never been here before. It's occupied by a few people, but more are on the balcony than within. Few have much to say, but all have great birds on their gloves; falcons and eagles, mostly. Most look at you with dismissive glances, although not cold ones. Attracted by his bird, a strange one with many colors of feathers and a more lithe build than the muscular predators of the others, you approach one and ask, "What's up with this place?"
However casually worded and ambiguous your question, the fellow replies, "It's where we do what we do. Or, are you wondering why the lower floors are more populated?"
"Yeah. Well, I guess it could be the way the stairs get replaced by fence slats after a while."
The man stroked his quetzal's feathers. "It's the stuffing at the bottom that gets most people. They figure there wouldn't be padding unless you're gonna fall, and then they figure if you slip through you're gonna get clobbered by the previous twists before you get to the stuffing, so they figure they'd rather not risk it. But there's really nothing to it, you just have to decide you're going to make climbing the stairs what you're doing, not just a chore along the way to doing what you're doing."
A woman leaving the lobby steps between you and the man with the colorful bird, extends her gloved arm, and whistles powerfully enough to make both his and your ears ring. Seconds later, a fierce bird lands upon her glove and flexes his wings intimidatingly as he turns around upon it. She gives him a couple firm strokes and a word of praise.
"Think you're ready for the final climb?" the man with the quetzal asks of her.
"No, but we're going for it anyway. I didn't come this far to stop now." She bids him goodbye and turning to return inside, she hesitates. "You've come this far alone?"
Realizing what sort of company these people first think of, you admit, "Yeah. Some of the birds coming through the windows were with me for a moment or two sometimes, but…" you really weren't sure what to do with one had you somehow convinced one to be yours.
"Perhaps yours is waiting for you at the top," she suggests with a smile as she leaves you behind.
"I guess you should be on your way, too," says the man as he offers something apparently delicious to his bird. "But don't expect to meet her on your way. The last part of the climb you have to do on your own."
He seems to specifically dismiss you with what is supposed to be a wave goodbye, and you ask, "What do you mean, on your own? Without a bird?"
"Nonsense, your bird is part of you, found and taken in, or found and taken out. But still, part. On your own, I mean, nobody else can help you climb the final flights."
Returning to the lobby, you find the upward stairs protected by another turnstile. This machine is not activated by a credit card, however. Its glowing red eye you take as a suggestion and rightfully so you learn as presenting the code of black and white squares on your receipt to it grants you admission. Passing through, you ascend once more.
No padding softens this platform of rough hewn planks. The stairs continue as they did for a time, but figuring yourself a third the way up this segment, they are not stairs anymore. You are sweating nervously as every step is a broad span from one narrow beam to another, sometimes spaced so wide you fear you could become stuck straddling the gap. A few of the stairs are half broken-away, across their length or their breadth, and even the havens of the window observation platforms are a challenge, one requiring you to pull yourself up over a better-than-waist-high climb. Even the birds look vicious as they carelessly flit from stair to stair—truly perch to perch—watching you with judging eyes.
But then, at what must be the last window, a treacherous relief. You try to gaze through it but it's much too high and what little you can see through it is obscured by a screen of some sort. Beyond the landing, the final stairs look clean, sturdy. Yet, you test each one carefully for fear it may give way.
Only when you step upon the floor of the watch room do you feel safe to tread carelessly. The room shows signs of regular occupation, but you find nobody there. Up into the service room you ascend and then on the gallery deck, you find an old man seated in a horribly weathered chair. His breathing alone seems to be enough to make its wood creak. You call for his attention and you have it, as he lets down from his eyes his binoculars and with great effort, rises to meet you. Only as you observe this that you notice that the sun has set and the moon is merely the greatest of a few lights in the sky, their number sure to soon increase to become a multitude.
"Welcome," he blurts out once he finds his feet and an awkward balance, "We've been waiting for you. I admit, I lost hope, but I don't think you'll blame me." He shuffles by you and you follow, into the lighthouse again, where on a hook he finds a ball cap, bleached to the palest of tints but still rooting for the home team. Donning it and tugging its bill low over his eyes, he apologizes for having none for you before leading you up the lighthouse's ultimate, smallest flight of stairs.
You guard your eyes with your left hand as best you can against the glow of the lamp, but can't help but suffer it as the lighthouse keeper calls you to approach it. Opening a door made of lens glass, he reaches inside. The light mostly shut up in his hands, save the orange glow of his translucent flesh surrounding the shadows of his finger's bones, he offers it to you. "She could grow to glow brighter, but every day she waits is a day nobody else can see her."
Fearing its intense light, you carefully receive from him something soft, warm, and gentle. He gestures you toward the widow's walk and points toward the sky where the moon rose not long ago. "Set her free."
Mimicking his clarifying gesture, you extend your arms out and timidly rotate the upper of your two hands to reveal a canary, now not blinding you as you gaze upon it, yet illuminating you, the keeper, and all about you, casting a sparkling glow on the ocean wherever the waves ripple just right. With a slight boost from your palm, she takes flight, once around the lighthouse before entering the sky over the ocean, becoming another star among the many slowly emerging from the darkness that reclaims the sky from the set sun. You follow her as she courses about, till her star passes before—or behind?—the moon, and track of her is lost.
Turning around, you see the old man slowly descending the stairs. You follow him as he seems to straighten up some articles on a small table, and ask him, "What happens now? There's no light in the lighthouse."
"Not in this one, not right now. But there will be, next time somebody brings a bird with them."
Feeling a strange sense of guilt, having released his albeit at his request, you ask, "Should I go get one?"
He laughs. "In my opinion, and that of the others who have visited this lighthouse, everybody should get one, even if they never climb with it. But there's a little problem. You're up here now, and you know those stairs are a hard way down. I'm going to go the easy way, if you don't mind." He removes his ball cap, places it upon your head, and smiles. Now, the elderly man approaches the gallery deck. "Some folk worry about taking the plunge, but it's the closest you'll ever get to flying like they do." Pulling a pin from one side of a railing section, the other being attached with a hinge, he lifts it up to clear his way and with an excited holler and an energy beyond what his body should be able to muster, he leaps off, diving into the ocean below, missing the ledge of the stony foundation of the lighthouse by what could be nothing more than a few meters.
Securing the railing again, you look below for signs of his emerging from the water, but amid the crashing waves you see no evidence. Stepping back, you glance at the stairway, knowing what treachery that path offers, and deliberate on which path to take.
A scraping sound nearby catches your attention. A golden conure now perches on a rail.