Nina stared deeply and fervently into the peaceful sea that served as an escape from the peeling walls and rusting pipes that defined the atmosphere of the room in which she was locked. Within the rustic frame, the painting of the ship on the horizon continued to slowly degrade in the moist air that encapsulated the room, it felt like the oxygen was being pilfered in an attempt to get her to break. Nina raced to the door to make it be known that she was still angry, banging on the creaky wooden door that slowly conceded to her force and pushed forward with a mighty groan.
It was too easy. The screaming had stopped, the room was clear, yet the emptiness of the next room lay heavy, daunting, she was to re-enter the world as a low-class citizen having been robbed of her dignity for the past few years. With her face shrouded by her unkempt long raven hair and hidden by the side of her palm, Nina seemed emboldened to sneak out of the sanitarium. She didn't belong there, all these years she had lived a lie, never admitting what she had truly done or what had been done to her. Adrenaline coursed through her veins as she swiftly escaped her confinement and bypassed all the sites where guards usually stood watch. A whistling draft coursed through the long halls of the sanitarium, she felt a chill in her bones; the hollow silence broke the second Nina coughed. Her bronchitis came back every winter, and her mother's old shawl was not warm enough. The cough reverberated within the somber walls and echoed loudly, but nothing and no one echoed back. She was free.
Upon exiting the sanitarium, she realized she was surrounded by a barbed wire fence, at the center of this tornado of wires and confinement was the old church that had been turned into an asylum for ex-wives, dissenters, and other "threatening" individuals that the State determined were easy targets for disenfranchisement. Glistening with pride of her suave escape, she looked out into the endless highways beyond the wires. She imagined how she would traipse along the highways until a kind Samaritan would drive her to her ultimate destination- home. The dark and dingy environment that had housed her, had also robbed her of her agency, the once brightly lit flame of independence had dimmed, and Nina was afraid she would never reclaim her role. Her thoughts raced, her senses were razor sharp, but her ultimate destination seemed to recede into a hazy and distant memory the more she pushed ahead.
She shivered but chose not to mind the ever-growing numbness creeping through her limbs, this wasn't the first time she had faced off with the Russian Medvezhyi Island and the raging seas that dominated the view from the offshore lighthouse. As she managed to make it to the other side of the port, hurrying to make it to the Observatory for the grand view, she felt the calm before the storm. Nina didn't just live to survive, she wished to thrive. It wasn't enough to get out of the asylum, she needed closure. The plan was simple: Nina would reach the top of the lighthouse, look out into the sea, and find her daughter.
Her daughter, Tanya, would approach the lighthouse towers in her quest for navigational support, which would allow Nina to use the light signals to guide Tanya to her. Nina was not adept at dispensing sailing instructions, but the lighthouse was the only plan she had to fall back on. Her daughter would have to be arriving any day. Hazards such as rocks and shoals were the usual types of warnings from the Medvezhyi Island lighthouse, allowing less sophisticated fishing vessels and such to get proper guidance. Her daughter could certainly navigate through this, it wasn't too much to expect, she assumed. Night befell the island, days were short, and darkness dominated the shores. The details did not matter, only the ultimate goal, she needed to reunite with the one person who was truly hers and who loved her unconditionally. More than ever before, she wanted to be vindicated, validated, and mended; she wanted to be a mother again.
She willed herself more energy to climb every rung of the first ladder to make it from the rocks to the first floor that led to the staircase within the lighthouse. There was no time to sleep.
On the first floor, she saw the first bad sign. A small puppy was sleeping along the edge of the staircase leading to the next floor. Though it had no sign of trauma, Nina noticed it was motionless. The helpless puppy was no longer alive. It felt like a sign, but she didn't know what it signified in her fate. In order to get to the next floor, she would have had to push the puppy aside and move forward, but she swayed from side to side to avoid facing the macabre interruption in her quest, it was cold, and the place was dank and eerie. She felt like there was a presence beyond what she could see, and that signs were predicting worse things to come. Who could have that poor wretch trusted that it ended up alone and dead in a cold abandoned lighthouse? It was robbed of its innocence, dignity, and ability to love. Nina's thoughts raced, and she struggled to clear her mind. Nothing would deter her from finding her loyal daughter who would brave the sea and collect her mother from this deserted island. She did not even bother to take the time to conduct a burial or even say a prayer for the puppy. Instead, she jumped over it and found herself on the second floor.
The second level of the dingy lighthouse contained a vision like she had never seen before. An Acephali was stationed like a guard, with his smiling expression plastered on his chest, the mythological creature bore no head to speak of. The Acephali stood motionless, facing in the direction of any that dared to find themselves on the second floor of the abandoned lighthouse. Nina heard a screeching so ghastly that it made her jump until she realized she was the one screaming, and whether it was the hunger, the cold, the weakness, or the fear, she fainted. Her head fell hard on the stone with a loud "gmph", barely avoiding a fatal blow, she endured. Nina bellowed in pain for a good five hours as memories came surging back. Flashbacks pursued her; a broken vase, her daughter's pout and a hopelessness that swarmed in her head and radiated to the small of her back shocked her into a flurry of tears as she fell into a sad repose.
Putting the ghastly scene on the second floor out of her mind, without pondering its significance, Nina rushed to the third level where the lighthouse keepers would usually prepare food. She searched for bread, old or new it did not matter anymore, she grabbed the first sliver of what looked like a layer of cheese, and desperately stuffed it into her mouth. The leathery texture made Nina chew much longer than any kind of cheese would require, she took the elongated slice out of her mouth and stared at it for a few minutes. Upon realizing what she had swallowed, she raced to the sink and proceeded to throw up. She had tried to chew… an old piece of skin. What Selkie had decided to shed their skin and transform on this creepy island? She knew supernatural forces must have been at play here, and it was evident that places like this were harboring oddities, allowing them to thrive in the nether regions of the world that no one wanted to visit. She felt disgusted and vomited for what seemed like an eternity. She cringed with disbelief, she was privy to the deepest and darkest conspiracies, and now she was holding loose skin from a metamorphosis as proof. It was old, the creature must have shed a while ago, and gone on with their lives, or maybe a terrible accident and they did not shed entirely? Hence the small piece of skin may have been left behind without the rest to prove a solid complete transformation. Surely, this thing must have become too weak to fulfill their hopes and dreams to become somebody! She whispered. With a lack of empathy, as cold as her decaying limbs, she focused on the hunt for triumph.
Nina did not hesitate; the lives of other wretched creatures did not matter to her. She marched up to the lighthouse keeper's bedroom. Emptiness and gloom, she found a girl sleeping on the bed. Behold! Someone else would be here to keep her company! Nina inched closer to the girl, the girl cried out in anguish upon hearing Nina enter the room and flew off the bed. It was another vision. Nina felt haunted and persecuted by her own hallucinations, it was a vision straight out of a lore of Acheri. Acheris, creepy demonic-looking tormented souls shapeshifting into victims who had faced abuse and neglect, were some of the types of creatures that Nina had read about avidly when she was a child exploring mythological creatures. Her time of atonement had come, but she hid in plain sight.
After braving the lighthouse floors with the trials of myth and mystery, Nina had finally reached the lightroom. She was surrounded by glass windows covered in patches of dirt that hindered any decent view of the seas. The lightroom, corrupted as though it had overindulged in its terror, was beset with glistening raindrops on the dirty windows that magnified the ugliness within its walls. Nina was submerged entirely in its revolting subconscious, it emulated the unrest outside, and neither her nor the creatures could escape.
It was time to keep watch. The longer she stood, she shook with fear, trauma, and the cold that slowly crawled to her core. The building quivered as the high waves hit the breakwater in a fury, attempting to punish the island for harboring creatures so foul. A grotesque layer of silt drenched the outskirts of the lighthouse, blackened silt that covered the scornful minefield of dangerous self-reflection. Like a mirror it beckoned to be seen and, like a neurosis, it lured the victim to stare in horror and get trapped in its pool of dis-ease.
With a singular and divisive sound of the horn that traversed the thick air surrounding the lighthouse, Nina saw the ship on the horizon. Alas! Her daughter had come for her. She felt harmony restored, hope gushed through her veins, and she remembered her heroic plan to reunite with her daughter and make up for lost time. Nina fumbled with the light, it wouldn't bend to her will and she began to panic. With mighty force, she hurled herself across the silt and rocks, propelling in the water with strength and determination almost reaching the ship that seemed to stop moving. As she swam towards the ship, the waves splashed against the dark waters in defiance and Nina felt overwhelmed. She kept her nose up high, breathing as deeply as possible for she could run out of air at any moment. The seas resisted, fate did not comply, and suddenly, the ship was out of sight. Tanya dove into the water yelling "Mama!" and waded closer to her mother, rejoicing in unison they embraced and then the vision dissipated.
For that sweet moment, Nina held her daughter in her arms again and all was right with the world. She felt a sense of accomplishment, for a quick second she felt whole again. It passed her by just as quickly, as the trials and tribulations fate had hurled at her feet did not achieve to open her mind. O sweet mirage, she was not prepared. As the water levels rose, she found herself completely alone, amidst a storm which churned across the ocean, fueling a rise out of Poseidon and instigating Nina's growing unrest, rocking the cozy crib of delusion.
Though neither Nina nor I will ever know what would have happened if Nina had heeded the trials, if she simply opened her mind to the pain of the betrayed puppy, anger of the neglected Acheri, disempowerment of the Acephali and Selkie’s failure to thrive, maybe fate would acquiesce.
In the meantime, the creaky door is undisturbed, the sanitarium remains heavily guarded, and the degree of verisimilitude of Tanya's tombstone is, for now, undisputed.
I am an aspiring writer and epidemiologist. When I am not writing my own poems and short stories, I am working on a new book, reading about epidemiologic discoveries, and learning new languages. Follow me on IG @tatevosian.tamara Thank you