Wild Nights!Stories About the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway
EccoCopyright © 2008 Joyce Carol Oates
All right reserved.ISBN: 978-0-06-143479-2
Chapter One 7 October 1849.
Ah, waking!-my soul filled with hope! on this, my first on the fabled Light-House at Viña de Mar-I am thrilled to make my first entry into my Diary as agreed upon with my patron Dr. Bertram Shaw. As regularly as I can keep the Diary, I will-that is my vow made to Dr. Shaw, as to myself-tho' there is no predicting what may happen to a man so entirely alone as I am-one must be clear-minded about this-I may become ill, or worse ...
So far I seem to be in very good spirits, and eager to begin my Light-House duties. My soul, long depressed by a multitude of factors, has miraculously revived in this bracing spring air at latitude 33°S, longitude 11°W in the South Pacific Ocean, some two hundred miles west of the rock-bound coast of Chile, north of Valparaíso; at the realization of being-at last, after the smotherings of Philadelphia society, and the mixed reception given to my lectures on the Poetic Principle, in Richmond-thoroughly alone.
May it be noted for the record: after the melancholia of these two years, since the tragic & unexpected death of my beloved wife V., & the accumulated opprobrium of my enemies, not least an admitted excess of "debauched" behavior on my part, there has been not the slightest diminution of my rational judgment. None!
This fine day, I have much to rejoice in, having climbed to the pinnacle of the tower, with good-hearted Mercury leaping & panting before me; gazing out to sea, shading my dazzled eyes; all but overcome by the majesty of these great spaces, not only the ever-shifting lava-like waters of the great Pacific, but the yet more wondrous sky above, that seems not a singular sky but numerous skies, of numerous astonishing cloud-formations stitched together like skins! Sky, sea, earth: ah, vibrant with life! The lantern (to be lit just before dusk) is of a wondrous size quite unlike any mere domestic lantern I have seen, weighing perhaps 50 pounds. Seeing it, & drawing reverent fingers across it, I am filled with a strange sort of zest, & eager for my duties to begin. "How could any of you have doubted me," I protest, to the prim-browed gentlemen of the Philadelphia Society, "I will prove you mistaken. Posterity, be my judge!"
One man has managed the Light-House at Viña de Mar from time to time in its history, tho' two is the preferred number, & I am certainly capable of such simple operations & responsibilities as Keeper of the Light entails, I would hope! Thanks to the generosity of Dr. Shaw, I am well outfitted with supplies to last through the upcoming six months, as the Light-House is an impressively sturdy bulwark to withstand virtually all onslaughts of weather in this temperate zone not unlike the waters of the Atlantic east of Cape Hatteras. "So long as you return to 'rescue' me, before the southern winter begins," I joked with the captain of the Ariel; a burly dark-browed Spaniard who laughed heartily at my wit, replying in heavily accented English he would sail into the waters of Hades itself if the recompense was deemed sufficient; as, given Dr. Shaw's fortune, it would appear to be.
8 October 1849. This day-my second upon the Light-House-I make my second entry into the Diary with yet more resolution & certainty of purpose than the first. For last night's sleep, while fitful, owing to the winds that never cease to insinuate themselves into the cracks & crevices of the Light-House, was the most restful in many months. I believe that I have cast off totally the morbid hallucination, or delusion that, on a rain-lashed street in a city not familiar to me, I slipped, fell, cracked my head upon sharp paving stones, and died. (Yes, it is too ludicrous: Mercury barks as if laughing at his master's fanciful thoughts.)
Yesterday evening, with much enthusiasm, in the waning hours of the lengthy day, my canine companion and I climbed to the great lantern, & proceeded as required; ah! there is indeed wind at this height, that sucked away our breath like invisible harpies, but we withstood the assault; I took great pleasure in striking the first match, & bringing it to the tongue-like wick so soaked in a flammable liquid, it seemed virtually to breathe in the flame from my fingers. "Now, that is done. I declare myself Keeper of the Light at Viña de Mar: that all ships be warned of the treacherous rocks of the coast." Laughing then aloud, for sheer nervous happiness; as Mercury barked excitedly, in confirmation.
With this, any phantom doubts I might have entertained of being abandoned to the elements, were put immediately to rest; for I acknowledge, I am one of those individuals of a somewhat fantastical & nervous disposition, who entertains worries where there are none, as my late beloved V. observed of me, yet who does not sufficiently worry of what is. "In this, you are not unlike all men, from our esteemed 'leaders' downward," V. gently chided. (V. took but fond note of my character, never criticizing it; between us, who were related by cousinly blood as by matrimony, & by a like predilection for the great Gothic works of E. T. A. Hoffmann, Heinrich von Kleist, & Jean Paul Richter, there fluidly passed at all times as if we shared an identical bloodstream a kindred humor & wryness of sympathy undetectable to the crass individuals who surrounded us.)
But-why dwell upon these distracting thoughts, since I am here, & in good health & spirits, eager to begin what posterity will perhaps come to call The Diary of the Fabled Light-House at Viña de Mar, a document to set beside such celebrated investigations into the human psyche as the Meditations of René Descartes, the Pensées of Blaise Pascal, Les rêveries du promeneur solitaire of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, & the sixty-five volumes of Jean Paul Richter.