The road that wound through the forest was barely wide enough for two cars to pass each other if one pulled over onto the shoulder. The evergreen forest glowed gold and emerald in the late afternoon sun. Eliza stared out the window and watched as the large, moss covered trees passed by in rapid succession. She wore her red winter hat to keep her strawberry blonde bangs out of her face, but it wasn’t working. Her crystal blue eyes searched between those towering trees for any animals that might be lurking alongside the road. The girl sighed, she hadn’t spotted a thing yet.
The old car chugged further along down the slightly overgrown gravel drive that led from the main road along the sea, up to the lighthouse. Eliza was disappointed when her mother insisted that they could not stop in the little seaside town like they often did on the trips to her grandfather’s lighthouse during the summer. She knew this trip was different. For one, her father had not come with them. He’d given Eliza a new slingshot to practice with while she was away, but told her he was going to have to miss this trip. The other difference: her mother had cried during the drive. Grandpa was sick and her mother was worried.
Eliza looked out the window as the tall evergreen trees passed by. The lighthouse sat up on the cliffs overlooking the sleepy fishing village. That meant they had to drive through the town and up into the forest to reach it. Eliza always loved the smell of the salty mist from the ocean mixed with the dense scent of the evergreen trees. Behind her on the car’s leather seat, the sun drew long golden lines of light between shadows. The repetition of light and dark played across the young girl’s face in an almost uniform pattern. Eliza yawned, feeling restless and lethargic.
Without looking, she reached out a hand searching for her trusty adventurer’s backpack that sat next to her on the back seat. She always kept it ready, just in case. You never knew when an adventure would sneak up and find you. Eliza wanted to always be ready. In her other hand she still held her new slingshot. She turned away from the window to inspect it more closely.
Her father had carved the whole thing from a single piece of antler. The handle and arms were carved intricately with spirals and pictograms of animals. Papa had told Eliza it was infused with magic and she believed him. Something so beautiful had to have at least a little intrinsic magic right?
“The woods are deep and dark Eliza,” he’d said. “You’ll have to practice everyday so that you become a crack shot. That way you can keep your mother safe while she looks after your grandfather. Do you understand?” She clutched the slingshot tightly to her chest. If her father had made it then it would most certainly keep her safe.
Finally they emerged from the forest out onto a large grassy clearing as the road sloped gently upward. Towards the top of the cliffs the lighthouse sat, sending out its light across the sea. The forest stopped just a few feet short of the metal and wood fence that Grandpa had built to keep the sheep and goats from wandering too far away from their shed. The car came to a stop in front of the whitewashed house built against the tall stone lighthouse. Grandpa came out the front door followed by a yappy, scruffy looking little sheep dog.
“Skadi!” Eliza shouted as she hopped out of the car. The little dog barked once, then ran towards Eliza. It leapt at her and Eliza caught Skadi in midair sending both of them tumbling back into the grass laughing and barking.
“Great, we just got here and already she’s going to be filthy,” Eliza’s mother said to Grandpa as they unloaded the trunk of the car. “I’ve got it Dad, you should be inside resting, not out here in the cold.”
“Bah!” The tall barrel-chested old man exclaimed. “I’m not dead yet! And even if I were, I wouldn’t let you carry all of this luggage inside on your own. I’d spirit it in!” He chuckled at his own joke. Eliza used to wonder why Grandpa always seemed to shout. She figured it had something to do with living so close to the sea and always listening to the waves crash against the foot of the cliff.
“Look Skadi,” Eliza said holding out her slingshot for the dog to sniff. “Papa made it for me. I’m going to use it to protect us.” The dog snapped at her, trying to get a bite out of the bone tool. Eliza yanked it out of reach just in time, popping the dog on the nose for trying. “No Skadi, this is not for dogs.” Eliza turned her attention to the adults. “Mama, can I go down to the pasture and shoot things?”
Eliza’s mother looked at the sun off on the horizon, before too long it would be dipping back down behind the treetop. “You can play for an hour, but I don’t want you late for dinner. You’d better come when I call now, or you’ll be doing chores all day tomorrow. Do you hear me little miss?”
“Yes Mama!” Eliza shouted over her shoulder, already running back down the gravel road at a breakneck pace. Skadi was running right after her, keeping up despite having much, much shorter legs. Her mother sighed, shaking her head, then grabbed the last of their luggage and carried it into the house.
Down in the lower pastures, the short squat sheep watched the pair as Eliza set up four cans along the crumbling stone wall that had once marked the edge of the pasture. Before Eliza was born, Grandpa had cut back the forest with the help of men from the village and built a new fence further down the hill. She loaded one of her cat’s-eye marbles into the sling, taking aim, and fire! Three out of four times the tin can flipped off into space with a very satisfying tin-y ping which caused Skadi to bark. More than once she had to chase off the occasional goat who tried to make a snack out of her make-shift targets.
It wasn’t too long before Eliza heard Mama calling for her. “Dinner must be ready,” she told the Swedish vallhund who just cocked his head sideways, appearing confused, before smiling a big tongued smile. They began the much slower climb up the hill to the lighthouse. Shadows of the forest began to grow across the lower pasture as the sun fell behind the tall dark trees.
By the time they reached the house, a few of the brighter stars had began to wink out over the sea. Eliza looked back behind her and smiled as the western sun blazed a bright ruby gold. Skadi ran inside as she opened the front door and Eliza followed. Inside the stone-floored entryway she took off her gloves and boots and set them aside, before making sure to hang up her coat and scarf on the same peg. Halfway down the hall, she realized she was still wearing her knit red hat with the puff-ball on top. Not wanting to waste time before supper, she sprinted back to the entryway, and placed her hat on the peg with her coat and scarf. Running out of time, she ran back toward the kitchen, slowing her pace just a few steps before she entered.
Grandpa was already sitting at the well-worn wooden table in the white tiled kitchen. He sat in his usual spot in the corner next to the wall with a good view of the side door and the bluish-grey sea beyond. Mama said that Grandpa had been a sailor when she was a very little girl and that he’d even been a captain before he’d taken the job at the lighthouse. He missed Mama very much when he was on his ship, but he never forgot about the sea either. So when the Grandma’s father was due to retire, Grandpa couldn’t pass up the opportunity to stay home with his wife and little daughter and watch out over the sea.
“There’s my brave little soldier,” he said with a chuckle as Eliza rounded the corner and entered the kitchen. He saluted her and Eliza returned the gesture. “Kill anything we can eat?” he asked with a wide toothy smile.
Eliza giggled. “No Grandpa! I only shoot cans. And bad guys,” she added.
“Sit down Eliza,” Mama said, placing a large white casserole dish full of fish and vegetables on the center of the table. To Eliza it smelt awful and she turned her nose up in disgust. “Hush now you silly girl! You love fish and potatoes. Did you clean you hands?”
“Yes,” Eliza lied. Her mother wasn’t buying it for a second.
“Go wash up and come back hungry. I’ll be sure Grandpa saves you all the peas,” she teased. Eliza stalked off to the hall bathroom defeated.
The grownups ate their dinner with very serious conversation. Eliza did not understand a lot of it, she mostly just pushed her peas around on her plate trying to decide what arrangement made it seem like she’d eaten the most vegetables.
“He’s a good man Anna, give him time, he’ll come around. It wasn’t always easy for your mother and I you know.”
“Yes Dad, but you were out at sea, not on a business trip.”
“I don’t really see the difference dear.”
Eliza looked up from her plate, content that she’d hidden enough peas and eaten enough carrots to satisfy her mother. “May I be excused?” she asked.
Her mother turned to her, inspecting her plate like a drill sergeant on dress parade. Finally, Mama nodded. “Clean your plate off into the garbage and be sure to run some water over it. You can leave it in the sink, I’ll do dishes tonight.”
“Thank you for dinner, Mama,” Eliza said with a toothy grin before doing as she was instructed. The girl turned back to the table. “Grandpa, can I look out your telescope?”
Wisely, Grandpa looked to his daughter who just smiled and nodded. “Sure Poppet! Bundle up and get it all set, I’ll be up in a few minutes to look with you,” the old man said and patted Eliza on the head.
With the sun down behind the trees, the night air was chilly. On the lighthouse’s widow’s walk the sea wind whipped around the tall tower, only adding to the night’s bite. The salty air buffeted Eliza. It tried desperately to sneak in under her cap and down her sleeves to give her goosebumps. She had the ornate brass telescope all set up before the familiar sound of clomp clomp clack came ringing up from the metal stairway. She turned to see Grandpa climbing up the last few steps, using the railing to steady himself and his cane to help hold him upright. For as long as Eliza had known, Grandpa had always used a cane but never seemed to actually need it. Now though, Eliza noticed how he held it steady just in front of his leg.
“Are you alright Grandpa?” she asked, concerned.
“Yes, yes Poppet. Your Grandpa is just tired, that’s all. I think your mother packed a bunch of rocks in those suitcases you brought instead of clothes,” he joked. The old man made his way over to the railing and sat down on the wooden chair Eliza had brought from inside for him. Hanging the cane on the guardrail, Grandpa reached into his coat and pulled out a long-necked pipe made of bright red mahogany. He packed it with a musty, cinnamon smelling tobacco and lit it using a box of matches he always kept in his breast pocket. Flicking his wrist to extinguish the match’s flame, he removed the pipe from his lips and looked up at the starry night sky. “Now then, show me what you see, Eliza.”
“I can see Orion the hunter,” Eliza said pointing with one mittened hand. “That’s his belt there.”
“Good, good. Do you see his quarry? What of the big bear and the little bear?” Grandpa asked, puffing away on his pipe.
“There, and there,” she said pointing. She squatted down beside the old man and looked through the telescope. “I think I found Mars, Grandpa!”
The old man just patted her head and stared out over the sea.
The two of them stayed out there a while in relative silence; Eliza looking up at the night sky through the lens of the antique telescope and Grandpa looking out across the sea through the lens of years living along the coast. Grandpa was as much a man of the sea as he was a man of the hills and forest that surrounded his lighthouse home. Even up here, so high above the waves, they could still hear the call of the sea as the tide rolled in, crashing against the base of the cliffs.
“Do you know the story of this lighthouse, Eliza dear?” Grandpa eventually asked, breaking the silence.
The girl looked up into the blue-grey eyes of her grandfather, looking away from the telescope. This sounded like the type of setup that meant Grandpa was about to tell a very excellent story. The only thing Eliza loved more than adventures were Grandpa’s stories of adventures. She shook her head no.
“It all began long before you, long before me, and even long before your great-great-great-grandfather,” Grandpa started. Eliza knew the start of a good story when she heard one and sat down cross-legged on the walkway, her back to the smooth wall of the lighthouse.
“Back in those days, giants and elves and fairies were a common occurrence. So common in fact that they started to be a nuisance for the people of the village down there by the sea. Every fortnight or so it seemed some sea giant would come lumbering ashore in the dead of night, lose his way, and come stomping through the village kicking over houses and just generally making a real mess of things. The chieftain back in those days was a very smart man. He asked everyone in the village if they knew a way to keep the giants from stomping ashore where they lived.
“Everyone had an opinion on how best to go about this of course but no one seemed to be able to agree on the best course of action. That is, until a young girl came forward. She said when she awoke in the middle of the night, she would light the very stump of a candle so that she could navigate her way through the darkened house. ‘What if,’ she asked, ‘we lit a candle for the giants? That way they could see their way and wouldn’t need to step on our town?’ The townsfolk discussed this idea and soon everyone agreed, they needed to create a light so that the giants would not accidentally come stomping through their town to and from the sea.”
Grandpa took a long drag on his pipe and blew little smoke rings as best he could with the sea breeze blowing like it was. Eliza patiently waited for him to continue his story.
“The wise old chief came up with a solution. The villagers would gather trees and pile them up on the grassy cliff that overlooked the village. They selected one of their own to live atop the hill and tend the flame ensuring that every night as the sun set, a blaze would go up on top of that hill and guide the giants away from the village and towards the forest beyond. Since then, someone in your Grandma’s family has always tended this lighthouse. Making sure that no more giants walk into the village and stomp all over things.” He finished with a chuckle and a warm smile.
“I like that story Grandpa,” Eliza said once it was clear the story had ended. “I think I could be like that little girl. Saving the whole village.”
A cold gust of wind blew just then, freezing both Eliza and Grandpa to the bone. The young girl sneezed, but Grandpa began to cough: a dry raspy cough that sounded very bad to Eliza. Grandpa didn’t stop coughing. Mama must have heard from inside because she soon appeared, chiding Grandpa for not going to bed and staying outside in the cold. While Mama never said anything to Eliza directly, she could tell Mama was mad.
Mama threw a large quilt around Grandpa’s shoulders and helped him back inside the lighthouse. She called for Eliza to grab Grandpa’s cane and bring it in after them. Retrieving the cane, Eliza followed Mama and Grandpa down the circular metal staircase back toward Grandpa’s large room on the second story. He continued to cough that scary cough as they descended.
Mama took him inside his bedroom and put him down to bed. Eliza saw the worry on Mama’s face when she left the room, gently closing the door behind her. Even through the door Grandpa could be heard, still coughing.. “Is Grandpa ok?” Eliza asked, trying to fight back tears as she worried for the old man.
“Yes Eliza,” Mama sighed. She looked very tired just then.”He needs to sleep. I’m going to go make him some peppermint tea. Would you like some?”
“Yes, please,” Eliza answered, taking off her mitten and rubbing at her eyes. She watched as Mama descended the rest of the stairs towards the kitchen. Eliza then turned and ran to her favorite place in the lighthouse, tears welling up in her eyes, stinging.
The study was on the second story and sat next to Grandpa’s room, both sharing the same view of the sea. The room was dark except for the bit of moonlight that flooded in through the big bay window where the wooden reading bench sat. Grandpa always kept a couple of pillows and blankets there since it was a prime napping location. Tonight Eliza dove under them and sobbed. Grandpa was sick and Mama was unhappy. Eliza wanted to protect them but she did not know how. As she cried, she looked out over the sea. That always seemed to calm her down. Out in the distance she could see white flashes as a storm rolled inland.
She didn’t remember falling asleep, but she did.
Eliza awoke with a start to the sound of booming thunder and flashing lightning. On the end table beside her sat a now cold cup of peppermint tea. She gave the tea a sip to test it, but found the flavor was not as good cold. There was another boom, but this time she hadn’t noticed the telltale flash of lightning. Then another boom rattled the windows without a flash. How could there be thunder without lightning? she wondered. Climbing out from under the blankets, Eliza turned to the window one last time before she headed to her room.
That’s when she saw it. Rising up out of the waves was some sort of terrible monster. No, not a monster. As it grew taller and drew closer to shore, she began to notice vaguely familiar characteristics. The creature was massive, and yet, somehow human and covered in seaweed. “A giant!” Eliza gasped, her own voice catching in her throat.
It was in that very instance that Eliza knew exactly what she needed to do. She needed to go see a giant up close. Then she would have a story for Grandpa! Eliza took off down the stairs to the first level of the lighthouse and ran to her bedroom. In her head, Eliza ran through her mental checklist.
She would need her adventurer’s backpack, of course. Slingshot and pouch of glass marbles, you never could be too safe when it came to personal defense. Hat, mittens, scarf... the night would be pretty chilly what with the storm and all. Lastly, she grabbed her jacket and laced up her hiking boots before opening the front door wide, ready for adventure.
As Eliza ran down the hill towards the lower pasture she could see the giant off in the distance making its way towards the tall treeline of the forest. The rain was still coming down even as the thunder clouds moved off inland. Several times running down the slick grassy slope Eliza nearly tripped and tumbled down the hill. Somehow though, she managed to stay upright and as the land leveled out into the lower pasture, the girl did not stop her frantic pace. The goats and sheep of the lower pasture seemed to care little about the giant, they simply huddled together in the boat shed trying their best not to be rained on. She ran past the huddled animals and in one fluid motion vaulted over the small stone wall. The only obstacle to give her pause on her mad dash after the giant was the barbwire fence just a few hundred feet from the treeline. This Eliza had to climb over at one of the wooden posts and take care not to get snagged on one of the metal barbs. Once over, she ran off into the woods.