The Lighthouse Keeper of Aspinwall by Henryk Sienkiewicz

Henryk Sienkiewicz

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This story is also known as “Latarnik” (I think) the Polish word for lighthouse keeper.

Near the Isthmus of Panama a lighthouse keeper dies, and a replacement must be found quickly. The only candidate to present himself is the 70-year old “Yankee” (by way of Poland) named Skavinski. Why does he want the job? He has spent his life wandering the world and yet never quite achieving his dreams and is ready to rest. He tells his potential employer, “This place is one of those which I have wished for most ardently. I am old, I need rest. I need to say to myself, ’Here you will remain. This is your port.’”

Though the man who hires him is a little skeptical about his fitness for the job due to his age, he gains the position nonetheless, and it is everything he thought it would be. He grows “intoxicated with happiness.” He becomes finely tuned to the natural rhythm of the island where the lighthouse sits.

“At last it seems to him that the heavens, the water, his rock, the tower, the golden sandbanks, and the swollen sails, the sea-mews, the ebb and flow of the tide – all form a mighty unity, one enormous mysterious soul; that he is sinking in that mystery, and feels the soul which lives and lulls itself.”

He is still an aging man, though, and of course is not immune to the fears and anxieties that operate on one who is growing old.

“Sailors assert that sometimes when the sea is greatly roused, something from out the midst of night and darkness calls them by name. If the infinity of sea may call out thus, perhaps when a man is growing old, calls come to him, too, from another infinity still darker and more deeply mysterious; and the more he is wearied by life the dearer those calls are to him. But to hear them quiet is needed.”

Near the end of the story, when Skavinski has discovered “a rest so great that it nearly resembles half-death.” The reader is greeted with a one-sentence paragraph: “But the awakening came.” I must admit my reading pace accelerated for the final four pages, eager to learn what this awakening was and what effect it would have on him.

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I had not heard of Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916) before assigning this story to the ten of diamonds for my 2013 annual reading project. I found it in my Great Short Stories of the World anthology, which presents the stories in order of the nationality of their author. Sienkiewicz also wrote the novel Quo Vadis. I haven’t read it but am familiar with that title from the 1951 Hollywood movie of the same name.

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What a great story this was! It’s available free online. Would you like to read it?

I’ve often joked that the ideal job for me would be that of a lighthouse keeper (as long as the lighthouse had Internet access, of course!). I actually enjoy solitude and prefer it most of the time. I’ve also visited several lighthouses in my day, the most famous being the great lighthouse at Cape Hatteras in North Carolina (pictured below after its painstaking relocation in 1999). What about you? Have you read Sienkiewicz or other Polish authors? Have you, too, ever dreamt of being a lighthouse keeper?

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See my “deck” of short story selections here. Diamonds are my suit for authors I had not read previously.

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1 Comment

  1. Dale said,

    July 21, 2013 at 9:32 am

    Jay, I’m going to have to read this one, soon! I don’t think I can wait until next year’s DMI. Thanks for the great suggestion! I need to find this collection.

    -Dale

    Like


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