One summer evening, after the sailboat is anchored and the campfire lit, they watch the beam from the lighthouse at the end of the pier. They sit on the beach near the fire, the girl and her siblings, all five of them and her mother with curled brown hair and the father too. They put marshmallows and hotdogs on sticks for roasting as a beam of light sweeps over them. Her father says there is a ghost in the lighthouse. He thinks it is the ghost of a long drowned sailor – one that wakes every night to shine his beam. He may be an angry ghost or a forlorn ghost but a ghost, and hungry too – looking for children to eat.
There are so many things that want to harm them or eat them or take them away. Or so it seems, to her, the girl on the beach with her family. She had a habit of devouring children, the girl reads in one of her books. In another story children are left by their parents to wander the woods. A witch finds them and locks them in a cage. The children were starving and finally there is milk and bread which they eat up greedily. But the food is for their plumping – so they’ll be good for the roasting. Well that’s what the witch cries as she pokes at them to see if they’re fattened enough.
The girl finds many stories of this, children led deep into the forest, to hunt for berries or bundle sticks for firewood, only to be left behind for a witch to find. Sometimes the children are clever and put white pebbles in their pockets or crumbs to leave on the ground so they can find their way out of the woods, find their way back home.
The girl reads in another book about wolves chasing a sleigh through the Russian woods all white with snow. The wolves close in, lean emaciated creatures, with spittle flying, as a mother throws a baby off a sled. The girl stares at the picture with the story, at the swaddled baby in the mother’s arms, the wolves. She searches the mother’s face, the eyes, runs her finger along the straight line of the mother’s mouth, and studies the firm set of her lips.
Sometimes, when she runs with her friends in the woods, she thinks she hears moaning. The trees shaking in the wind, leaves all a flutter, but there is nothing. And after the leaves have fallen, sometimes, there is crying or talking maybe, the tinkling of glasses or silverware against porcelain, as if people were dining. There she is alone in the woods with a cold wind starting, and the clouds low and threatening snow. She knows the story about the kids that got lost and met the woman of woods. She’s all beautiful, with pale blue eyes. They think she will help them find their way but instead she leads them to a pond covered in ice – thin ice – you know – because it is just November. She tells them to follow the path across the pond. She says it will bring them home. But it dosen’t – the girl knows this and it puzzles her why the woman would do this, lead the children astray.
Children disappear. Before it was always far away, and long ago. This time she reads about the hungry people in a not so far away place and really not so very long ago, as far as these things go, not like in fairy tales. When the hunger ends many children were gone. Some starved, sure, but others? The parents, the mothers, the fathers, can’t explain.
Her father points to the lighthouse, to the moon shining right into the light house, shining right where the ghost is standing. She sees it, briefly. They all do, a sliver of a figure, seemingly hunched over in the moonlight. They scream, the kids. They see a something in the lighthouse and the moon behind and then it is gone, the moon and its light and whatever it was, covered by cloud. Gone is the ghost, her father says, gone from the lighthouse. And if not in the lighthouse then where could he be?
It is the latest book she reads that bothers her most. It’s not so much a story as a history, supposedly all factual and real – not like the witches in the woods. Maybe people were hungrier back then, in the mountains and the woods and in the villages, with famines and plagues and whatnot.
She imagines the snapping of the wolves’ jaws. How quickly they must devour a baby. She wonders how it is they decide. The woman on the sleigh, was it rash and regretted? And the others? How hungry? Can the children see it in their eyes? Is it whispers in another room, like in the fairy tales? She reads drowning was common, like puppies or kittens. And then? A roasting like the witches might?
She listens to water lapping the shore after they go to sleep in their tents, after they leave the fire; the girl and her siblings and her mother and her father. She stays awake a long time, thinking of the sailor and the beam of light. She thinks of how her father always loves to tell a scary story. How it makes her lay awake, thinking of things in the dark, in the moonlight, in the woods. She thinks of the woman throwing the baby to the wolves. She thinks of how they’ve gone deep into the woods, so many times, she and her siblings, her father and mother, to pick berries, to gather wood, to look for birds in the bushes.
She listens to the snoring. Could they? And she, if the wolves were chasing, if the winter was cruel, the food gone, what would she do? You know? It isn’t always sailboats, and hotdogs and campfires on the beach. Why, she wonders, does her father always have to tell a scary story?