Digest>Archives> October 2002

The Ghosts That Were Not

By Jim Merkel


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Photo by: Michael Francis Barry

“Here’s a letter for your mother from your father,” said Mr. Murphy, the mailman, right outside the door of our house on Cherokee Street in St. Louis. “Can you give it to her for me?”

“Yes, sir,” I said, taking it in my hand.

“What does your father think about being an assistant lighthouse keeper on an island in Lake Superior?”

“He likes it,” I said. “I’m going to like it, too. Mother grew up at a lighthouse on the east side of Lake Michigan. She’s always wanted to live at a lighthouse on an island.”

“It appears you’ll get your wish,” he said, smiling. He strolled away and I excitedly gave the letter to Mother. She ripped it open and started to read it to my sister, Abbie, and myself.

April 18, 1928

My dearest Louise and children:

It’s beautiful here. You’ll love sitting near the sea caves on the island’s northern end, looking out into the distance. It’s our dream come true.

I learned something curious about Black Island. Some say the Indians named this place “Black Island” because they thought there were evil spirits and ghosts here. But we know better. With our heads bowed in prayer and the Good Book in our hand, evil spirits must hide when we come. There are no ghosts, only spirits sent to lead us astray. As the Bible said, “God hath not given us the spirit of fear.”

My love to you all,


“Mother, are there spirits on Black Island? Are their ghosts?” I asked.

“Ghosts and goblins!” Abbie said, ending with a sinister laugh. “They’re hiding under your bed, waiting for you.”

“Stop teasing your brother!” Mother said. “You heard what your father said. There are no ghosts, only spirits sent by Satan.”

“I’m sorry brother,” said Abbie, smiling in a way that made me doubt her sincerity.

The letter set me to worry the next few days, and caused at least a couple of nightmares, with Abbie reminding me about the evil spirits when Mother wasn’t around. But as the time drew closer for us to leave St. Louis, and Abbie found other ways to tease me, I felt better.

The day before we left, Mr. Murphy handed me another letter from Papa. I brought it inside and started to walk to the kitchen, where Mother was packing china. But then I spied my favorite book in a trunk, the one about pirates and sailors, which Papa always read to me. Before you could say, “Keep the light burning!” I was sitting down with the book open, and the letter in the trunk.

“George, where are you?” Mother said. “Come here. I need you.”

“Yes, Mother.” I closed the book and returned it to the trunk, on top of the still-unopened letter.

In another hour, Mother closed the trunk, fastening the lock with a snap. In another day, we were on a train headed to Port Clare, the little port town where we would reunite with Papa. There we met Papa and Keeper Albert McClatchy, a grumpy old man who helped Papa load luggage onto our motor launch for the trip to our new home. Before long, we were passing in front of the island, gazing at the lighthouse and the two brick houses used by the keepers. What impressed me the most were the brownish-yellow sea caves undercutting the island.

“See those caves?” Papa cried, above the noise of the motor. “Those are-”

“Brown! Get here right now.” Mr. McClatchy said. “I need your help.”

Hearing that, Papa jumped up quickly and came to Mr. McClatchy’s aid.

Soon we were on the island, where Jake, the second assistant keeper, met us and helped Papa and Mr. McClatchy unload our belongings.

The rest of the day, Mother, Abbie and I were on our own, as Papa went on with his duties. Before sundown, he came in for supper briefly and kissed us goodbye, as he headed out for his watch. A storm would soon be upon us, he informed us. There were problems with the new diesel-powered fog whistle and he wouldn’t be back until morning.

Mother prepared our beds, and soon it was time for sleep. When we crawled in and she kissed us good night, the storm seemed like nothing we had ever experienced.

Around midnight, I began to think about the letter from Papa, and wonder if those Indians had been correct. Suddenly, I heard cries such as I have never heard, like the howls of a tortured dog.

I heard them again, louder, but this time they seemed more like screams for help from beyond. They matched the wind that now was pushing the curtains aside. They came in with every wave crashing into the caves.


I had heard enough. I jumped out of the bed and ran out of my room and into the room where Mother slept in a big double bed. I bounded up on that bed and under the covers next to Mother.


It was Abbie, who had run out of her room and jumped under the covers just ahead of me.

“Abbie, George, there’s enough room under the covers for both of you.”

“What is it Mother?” Abbie asked. Even in the dark, I knew my sister was shaking.

“Are these demons or ghosts, Mother?” I asked. “Are these spirits sent to lead us astray?”

“I don’t know, George,” Mother said. “All I know is God knows what they are, and He will protect us from them.”

“I want to go home,” I said.

“Why did you bring us here?” Abbie said.

Again came the wails. All of us, Mother included, were under the covers.

“Jesus in heaven, protect us.” said Mother, squeezing both of us tightly. “Take away our fear. Let us know what this is.”

Quickly, the strange sounds ended. There was nothing but the wind and the waves bringing a peace more powerful than our fear and the beams from the lighthouse where Papa toiled. Soon we were asleep.

But only until the alarm clock sounded, announcing it was only half an hour until dawn, when the light would go out, and Papa would come in to eat. We scurried to put on our clothes and set the table, while Mother rushed to find food for breakfast.

We finished just in time, after Papa ended his watch, walked down the spiral staircase of the light tower and over to the house he called our quarters.

Instead of getting hugs, Papa came face to face with two frightened children and a wife with a look that said she wanted to know what had happened.

“Papa, it was awful!” I said.

“We heard ghosts and goblins and spirits!” said Abbie.

“Sam,” Mother said. “There was a dreadful sound coming in our window during and after the storm. What was that?”

“Didn’t you get my letter?” Papa said.

“Letter?” Mother said.

“The letter I wrote explaining it. That’s just the noise that comes from the caves and blowholes when the water and the wind go in and out fast after the end of a storm. Like during the storm last night. That explains that legend about Indians thinking there were evil spirits on them. It’s not spirits. It’s acoustics. That’s what I tried to point out when we were in front of the island, but Mr. McClatchy interrupted me before I could say anything.”

Acoustics? It sounded so sensible. I suddenly was angry at myself for making a fuss over nothing. But I thought, it was worth it to see Abbie so scared.

“Sam, I know this is another one of your tricks to teach the children a lesson,” Mother said, her hands on her waist. “I don’t appreciate it one bit.”

“Louise, I know I’ve done that before, but not this time,” he said. “I don’t know why you didn’t get my letter.”

The damage was done. After breakfast, Papa went back to the lighthouse to clean off the Fresnel lens. Then he went to bed, to sleep until 4 p.m., but without the gentle kiss he always could expect from Mother.

Mother released us to explore the island, while she unpacked the trucks. But a short time later, she called us back.

When we returned, she was sitting on the steps of the porch of our house.

“Abbie, George, do you recognize this?” Mother asked, showing us a letter she found in a trunk, under a book about pirates and sailors.

It came back to me. That was the letter Mr. Murphy handed me the day before we left St. Louis. I told Mother I had fully intended to deliver it to her, but the book about pirates and sailors distracted me, so, well, I didn’t quite give it to her.

“George, you’re just like your father!” said Mother, just before she put her head in her hands and started to cry.

I’d heard that lots of times before. But I never thought it was a bad thing.

We sat with her until she stopped crying. Then she read us the words of that letter, in which Papa wrote about strange noises on the island, and how they came from the sea caves.

“I’ve ruined this reunion by accusing Sam of all kinds of untruths, when the truth is it was all because George here forgot to deliver a letter,” Mother said. Then her eyes brightened. “I have a plan,” she said.

She went to the kitchen, looked over the supplies, and commenced to make a supply of Papa’s favorite cookies. She told us to put on our best Sunday clothes, got into some of her own, and put on the coffee pot.

At 4 p.m., we stood at the closed door of the room where Papa slept, with cookies and coffee in hand, and knocked.

“Time to get up dear,” Mother said.

No answer. We opened the bedroom door and discovered the room was empty.

“Can we come in?” I heard Mr. McClatchy, the keeper, call to us from the door.

We turned to look, and saw Papa holding a tray of cookies, and Mr. McClatchy a pitcher of dark liquid.

“These are my special cookies and punch, which I make for visitors who come to our island,” Mr. McClatchy told us. “Sam here told me he had a misunderstanding with his family. I decided this would help him make his amends.”

“Oh darling, children, I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you earlier,” Papa said to us.

“No,” said Mother, as she walked to the kitchen and brought out her own supply of cookies. “I’m so sorry I didn’t trust you!”

Everybody started apologizing to everybody. It turned into a regular party, with all the cookies and punch around, and with Mr. McClatchy telling us stories about the old days when he was an assistant lighthouse keeper in Maine. When he was finished, the keeper said he’d take the first watch, which allowed Mother and Papa to take us for a walk, just as the sun set.

On our walk throught the pink lady’s slippers and cotton grass at the northern edge of the island, I breathed in air cleaner than I ever had known. There was none of the smoke that filled the city on most days and none of the crowds.

“Children,” Mother said. “Your Papa and I had a talk. We’ve decided we’ll stay here a month. If you don’t like it then, we’ll go back.”

“That’s all right Mother,” Abbie said. “We want to stay.”

“And you George?” Papa said.

“I don’t ever want to be anywhere else.”

As we watched the sunset, I pondered the events ahead. Over time, I grew to love the sounds from the blow holes. Sometimes I imagined them coming from a distant concert hall or an angel in worship. Whatever happened, I was not afraid. As Papa had said, God has not given us the spirit of fear. And no matter how big the distraction, I always delivered the mail.

This story appeared in the October 2002 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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