She was born into a storm that rocked the lighthouse and her mother with the same fierce intensity, an intensity that could have felt like rage, that almost had the keeper, that most rational of men, believing in the old angry gods. While the third man slept, the keeper and his second attended all night to the faltering light, knowing it was nights like this they were made for, when ships could sink, when rocks were made invisible by waves breaking everywhere at once, without rhythm, when the only certainty was chaos.
In the dwelling at the base of the tower, the women laboured, the young mother, the old mother, and the girl. It should have been an easy birth, it was not the first, the child had been kicking well, the head was engaged, and the old mother was famous for her skill in birthing. The young mother—she had a name, but names became irrelevant that night—had known herself blessed to be stationed on the Black Rock with this old mother. The girl had never seen a birth before and was hungry to learn, and the younger children were sleeping.
It started well. Though fierce, it middled well. But when it came to the final push, the cord was wrapped tight around the child’s neck and the old mother could do nothing to free the newborn from the waiting arms of death.
After the old mother had poured water on the baby’s head and said the words and given her a name, Sarah, the girl washed the cooling body of the baby, while the old mother washed the weeping mother. When both were clean and the bedroom was silent except for the roar of the sea, they waited for one of the men to come down from the tower. They did not go to them, nor wake the sleeping third, did not take them from the task of tending to the damaged lantern, from watching for waves fierce enough to break the glass, from watching for ships in trouble. After an hour, the keeper, the old mother’s husband, came down the spiralling stair, his boots weary on the metal steps, into the kitchen of the dwelling house. The old mother went to him and spoke quietly in his ear. He sighed but did not speak, and climbed the stair again.
Then the old mother woke the third man, and he climbed the tower and the father came down. The old mother led him into the bedroom and quietly closed the door. She led the girl into the kitchen and sat her down and made tea with the water that had been boiling all night on the range. She said to the girl: Ask. Now is the time to ask. The girl thought of many questions, but asked only one: Why? And the old woman said: Because we are held in the arms of the sea, all of us, every human life, and sometimes the sea gives, and sometimes the sea takes away. And she saw that the girl understood.
Outside they heard the storm grow one degree less fierce, and then the old mother cut the bread and told the girl to bring the cured ham from the store. Soon she heard her husband’s steps again, and he sat to eat before sleeping. Then she softly opened the bedroom door to bring food into the young mother and her husband, but they were sleeping too, wrapped in each other’s arms, the tiny baby in the wooden cradle her father had carved, flawless.
In the morning, the father rose and asked the keeper for wood to make a coffin, and paint to make it white. The girl heard the sounds of sawing and hammering, and wondered that each stroke of the hammer could sound like a tear, and that she could hear it at all over the sound of the sea. And when the baby was laid in the coffin and the coffin was closed, they brought the younger children to see and to quietly touch and learn.
Then they waited for the storm to grow quiet so that a boat could come from the mainland to take the baby to the burial ground, because there was no earth on the rock. The keeper had sent a message: Send a boat, we have had a death. But no boat could cross the sound that day, or the next, or if it could, it could not dock safely at the Black Rock.
It was the young mother who said: We know what we must do. The keeper went to boil the pitch and together with the father he painted the white coffin black, sealing in the first faint smell of death. And the next morning the same, the keeper boiled the pitch and the two men, one young, one old, painted the little coffin in darkening stripes. And quietly through the night and day, each in turn, the young mother, the old mother and the girl, sat with the small decaying body wrapped in its sheath of darkness. The old mother took the night shift and told the old stories of her people; the young mother sang the lullabies she would never sing to her living child; and the girl in her turn told the child about the sea, not only its wild storms and the way the dwellings seemed to shake, but also of the days when the sun shone and the seals lay on the rocks, blissful, like fat sunbathing babies with tiny hands.
The next morning the message from the shore was the same, and the keeper boiled the pitch and the father painted the coffin darker still, a matt coal blackness that reflected no light. The young mother and the old mother and the girl told the same stories, sang the same lullabies, day after day and yet another day, until the sixth day when the message came from the mainland: We are on our way, be ready.
The young mother stepped carefully into the boat, the girl by her side. Her husband, who could not leave his station, passed the tiny coffin into her outstretched arms. The mainland men watched in silence, with quiet awe, this woman and this man whose grief had been transfigured by time and by a storm. Straight from the pier she carried the coffin, pitch black and slightly sticky, into the burial ground where the priest and the girl and the mainland men, their caps in their awkward hands, watched as she laid the coffin into the earth, as tenderly and tearlessly as any mother laying her child down to rest for the night, flawless in her cradle.