It was a tradition with us. We would gather on the terrace in front of our offices every Midsummer Eve as the sun slowly went down into the sea and tell stories. Not the usual anecdotes about what happened to this or that mutual acquaintance but stories, in the truest sense of the word. Snippets of legends we had heard so long ago, we could hardly remember them properly, myths we adjusted for the occasion, dreams we thought would fit the eerie atmosphere, when the sun seemed to refuse to set and the world felt as if it had ground to a halt.
We became different people during those evenings. Usually, we were typical nine-to-five office workers, not revealing much about our personal lives except for conventional, socially acceptable snippets: significant others, children, vacation spots. We steered clear of deeper topics: fear and dreams hiding in the forgotten corners of our minds, how we saw the world, the songs we heard in the night. We could not mention those under the neon glow of office lights.
Yet for one night a year, we became something else—or maybe it was the only time we thought it would be safe to be entirely ourselves. The real us, who still remembered ancestral fears, who saw beyond the trappings of our modern existence into a darker, lonelier world, where forests and seas and stars were sacred and more than just objects in the background of our busy lives.
We took turns telling our stories. There was no particular order. Midsummer Eve did not ask for hierarchies. Or maybe there was a hierarchy but it was hidden from us. We could not understand it.
Then came the night Kaya told her story for the first time and we never got together again to share our tales on Midsummer Eve.
Kaya had always been an unknown element for us. She did not take part in usual office banter, the classic back-and-forth with which we occupied most of our breaks. She did her job and went home. We didn’t even know where she lived—well, someone in Human Resources probably did, her records had to be stored somewhere—but none of us had felt inclined to investigate further. Kaya was a good worker but otherwise invisible and we all had the feeling that that was what she wanted.
Until that year, Kaya had never taken part in our Midsummer ritual. One year, she made her excuses and said something had come up. Another time, she got a phone call in the middle of our outing and had to leave. All innocuous incidents. Not enough for us to suspect that she was avoiding the moment she would be asked to tell a story as the sun went down.
In truth, I don’t know why Kaya was there that evening or why she answered our challenge so readily. Perhaps she wanted to show us what real stories could do, how they could overturn reality and ruin the veil of safety between our imaginations and us. Maybe she knew too much and was tired of bearing the burden alone. Or maybe she had not meant to do it. Maybe she had no idea her story would have such an impact on us.
“It’s your turn, Kaya.”
Kaya looked at each of us in turn and for a moment we were afraid that she would refuse. But then her face changed and I could swear she was no longer only herself, as if there was someone else inhabiting her body, someone in a reckless, mischievous mood, willing to unleash chaos just for the sake of it.
“Look over there,” Kaya said, pointing up ahead. “What can you see there?”
As one, we followed Kaya’s finger.
“Water,” I said. “The sea.”
“I think I see a boat,” someone else announced.
Others nodded sagely. I didn’t because I couldn’t see any boat and I suspected everyone else was just playing along.
“The sun,” the new guy in marketing said. “You’re talking about the sun, aren’t you?”
“No, she’s talking about the gulls. Look at them, circling the horizon.”
“I think she’s talking about one gull in particular. It’s the closest one, right? The one with the black head?”
By now we were all pitching in, enjoying the game for its own sake, forgetting its main objective. Kaya was watching us with a faint smile as if we were children and she was an adult indulging us. Eventually, she shook her head.
“No—I meant none of those things. I was wondering if you could see the shadow on the water.”
We were silent. None of us wanted to say it but we all knew there was no shadow on the water.
“It’s alright,” Kaya said. “I know you can’t see it, yet. You will, once I finish my story.”
That should have been our warning. Our sign that we shouldn’t do this. That we should ask Kaya to stop. At that point, though, we didn’t care about warnings. We wanted to see the shadow on the water.
“My grandmother told me this story,” Kaya began. “She knew it from her own grandmother who had heard it from a fortune-teller, traveling with a circus. The fortune-teller had sworn it was true.”
We all nodded. Our stories often began like this. I am certain none of us thought there was any truth in such an introduction. Still, we allowed ourselves to believe it, if only for one night. In those brief hours, all stories had the possibility to be real. Even the most outrageous ones. Especially the most outrageous ones.
“The fortune-teller came from some exotic southern land,” Kaya went on. “She did not like our country. It was too cold, too dark. There were creatures she did not know whispering at every crossroad. And there was a shadow on the sea.”
She had not seen the shadow when she had first arrived. Then, one day, she overheard the sword-swallower mentioning a shadow. And then on, the shadow was always there on the sea, calling out to her but repelling her at the same time. She was surprised she had not noticed it from the beginning.
“What is that?” she asked one evening when she was sure she could not take it anymore.
What bothered her the most was that no one seemed to ever talk about the shadow on the sea. It was as if the thing was normal for them. As if every sea should have its shadow.
“That,” Bert, the sword-swallower, said. “That is the shadow of the lighthouse, of course. What else would it be?”
The fortune-teller frowned.
“I don’t see any lighthouse. How can it cast a shadow if it’s not there?”
Bert looked at her as if she was a child who had not learned the true ways of the world yet. It annoyed the fortune-teller to no end. She was at least ten years Bert’s senior.
“It’s the lighthouse of souls, Hilda. Of course you can’t see it.”
The fortune-teller’s name was actually Hadil, not Hilda but Bert had never been good at remembering names he had not heard around him since birth.
“A lighthouse of souls. What does that mean? Whose souls?”
“Mine. Theirs,” he added, jerking his head towards the rest of the troupe who were swaying drunkenly several paces away, completely oblivious to the conversation. “Now that you’ve noticed the shadow—yours.”
Hadil trembled. The words were like ice to her.
“You wouldn’t have seen the shadow otherwise. It only appears to those whose souls are already trapped inside.”
That night, Hadil dreamed about the lighthouse for the first time.
She first saw it as a column of smoke, swaying against the red horizon. Hadil was flying above it and as she got closer, the smoky column gained substance and turned into a tower of stone with a point of light at the top. Only the light was not yellow, as it should have been. It was green.
Hadil found herself descending quickly towards the lighthouse against her will. One moment she was seeing it from above, the next she was inside, standing at the foot of the spiral staircase that led up to the tower.
Hadil hesitated briefly. She did not know if she should go up or try to find a way out. Logic and the inclination for self-preservation whispered to her that she should remain on the ground floor and try to escape. But when she tried to follow that sound advice, Hadil found that her feet would not move. She could not go anywhere but up. Something was compelling her to climb the stairs.
Hadil had seen many things in her lifetime. She came from a long line of fortune tellers, witches and priests. Her kind could speak to gods and spirits of the earth often appeared in their dreams. Hadil herself had witnessed sacrifices to dark forest gods, ritual dances and initiation rites that took one to the blackest places. Wraiths had chased her and once she had even battled an ancient basilisk. She was not afraid of the unnatural. Ghosts and spooks were familiar to her.
Despite her knowledge, Hadil was sure she had never felt such strangeness and such malice as she did now, climbing the stairs to the lighthouse tower. The lighthouse of souls, Bert had called it, and Hadil could tell it was true. She could feel them—millions of imprisoned souls shadowing her, surrounding her, speaking of millennia of despair, begging to be set free.
Hadil’s heart was breaking. She could not stand to watch so many souls suffering. It did not matter that their owners were long dead or that they were alive and did not know what was happening to their souls inside the lighthouse. All that mattered was the suffering—Hadil had never been able to witness suffering without trying to help.
“Help how?” a voice that sounded like Bert’s hissed in her ear. “You’re trapped here like the rest of us. What could you possibly do to help?”
When Hadil woke up, she was back in her bed in the trailer she shared with the two ballerinas. They were both fast asleep but they now looked lifeless to Hadil. As if their souls no longer belonged to them.
Days passed, deceptively uneventful. Bert did not act as if he was aware that Hadil had encountered his soul in the lighthouse. But the more Hadil looked around, the more she realized everyone she knew had their souls imprisoned there. The lighthouse had claimed the entire town.
“This won’t do,” Hadil decided. “They have to be set free.”
It wasn’t just altruism. She could feel her own soul becoming tangled inside the lighthouse. She dreamed about it every night now. She had to find a way to break the spell before her own soul was completely claimed. Otherwise, there would be no escape.
Hadil searched the lighthouse from top to bottom. She discovered that the green light at the top of the tower came from the captured souls. But why was there a light there in the first place? What was it supposed to guide?
Apart from the souls, there seemed to be no one else at the lighthouse. Still, every night, Hadil was sure she could sense an absence. Something was about to arrive or had just left. Hadil never managed to encounter whatever it was but she suspected that creature was responsible for the missing souls. Maybe, if she dealt with the creature, she would be able to free the souls. She could make it give them up. Or, as a last resort, she could kill it, and that would release its hold on the souls.
Hadil knew things the people in those parts did not know. She knew spells that would keep her asleep for days without killing her. She could remain inside the lighthouse when the soul keeper came. She would be able to confront it.
“You are mad,” Bert told her. “Madder than I thought you can be and that’s saying something.”
“But you will help me,” Hadil insisted. “Bert, you would be helping yourself, too.”
She had come to Bert that morning and presented her plan: she was going to place herself in a three-day trance. Bert was to remain by her side and make sure nothing happened to her body in the real world. If she showed signs of distress, he was to try and wake her up.
“I’m surprised you’re asking me to do this,” Bert went on. “I was sure you didn’t like me.”
That much was true. Hadil, however, had learned a long time ago that not liking someone did not necessarily have to mean not trusting them. She trusted Bert more than she had trusted anyone else in her life.
“You will help me,” she repeated, and it was not phrased as a question—they both knew that that’s what Bert would do.
Bert lifted his hand and touched Hadil’s shoulder briefly.
“I wish I was coming with you.”
Hadil wondered if Bert also dreamed of the lighthouse.
“We both have a part in this. Yours is here. Mine is in the lighthouse.”
“Do you know what to do?” Bert asked.
Hadil nodded curtly.
“Find the person who is holding the souls and convince them to free us—one way or another.”
Hadil prepared a potion and whispered secret words over it. She lay down and repeated a few other words that her grandmother had taught her long ago when they were hiding from a sand-spirit. She was aware of Bert watching her uneasily but she did not say anything. Bert was never going to understand her ways but he would still obey her instructions.
She found the lighthouse instantly. She was once more on the spiral staircase. Her soul was struggling like a captive moth against one of the windows, as if suspecting there was the possibility it could be freed. Bert’s soul was next to hers.
“Don’t worry,” Hadil told them. “After tonight we will all be free.”
She climbed the stairs. Sensing her determination, several souls followed her. They formed a protective barrier between Hadil and the lighthouse. Hadil smiled, wondering if she knew any of them. The only souls she could recognize were Bert’s and her own.
The room at the top of the tower was the same as ever. The green lamp threw trembling shadows on the floor as hundreds of corrupted souls swayed around the lamp. Only the most damaged souls powered the light. Hadil doubted she could save those. But she could put an end to the indignity they were forced to suffer. That would have to be enough.
Hadil did not know how long she waited for the dreadful presence to enter the tower. It felt too long. Her potion would only last three days. Then, she would wake up, whether she encountered the enemy or not. She was beginning to think she had gone about this all wrong. The keeper of souls would only come when her dream self was not there. He would wait for her to wake up and all this would have been for nothing.
After a while, when she was ready to give up hope, Hadil heard heavy footsteps on the spiral staircase. She tensed. Souls were light. You could not hear them as they moved. This could not be another dreamer, either. Not many would have managed to get up the stairs before they woke up. This was it, then. Their captor was finally on his way.
In those moments, as she listened to the lumbering footsteps, Hadil wondered what she would see. She imagined green slimy creatures dragged out from the sea, or misbegotten monsters, half-human, half-beast, with claws and fangs and yellow eyes. She thought of a gigantic spider scuttling towards the green light to feed on the souls.
What entered the room was a dwarf, much shorter than Hadil. Its shadow was gigantic in the light of the candle he was holding but the creature itself was small and wizened. He looked as if he was barely holding himself together. Hadil suspected he would have crumbled into a million pieces, had it not been for the souls keeping him alive.
The dwarf’s skin was white to the point of being translucent; his sunken eyes were green and empty. He himself didn’t have a soul, Hadil realized. Whether he kept it imprisoned in the lighthouse with the others or he had lost it some other way, it was hard to tell. Nor did it matter. He was the enemy, and Hadil could not have sympathy for the enemy.
The dwarf did not notice Hadil at first. He shuffled to the window and looked outside. The sea was restless. The dwarf rubbed his hands together, grinning.
“Yes,” he whispered. “Good. More souls for me. Storms always bring more souls. Good.”
Hadil stepped forward.
“Why do you need the souls?”
The dwarf froze, although his shadow still shivered and swayed. Some of the souls disentangled themselves from him and fluttered towards Hadil. Others remained bound to him, unable to break free. Slowly, the creature turned around and Hadil sensed that if she looked too long at him, she would be trapped inside the lighthouse forever.
“You should not be here,” the dwarf hissed. “Everyone wakes when I come.”
He was jabbing his finger at her while he spoke, although he was not touching her yet. Hadil stood her ground.
“Well, I am still here. And that means only one thing. I want you to free the souls.”
The dwarf tilted his head.
“Which souls?” he asked mockingly.
Hadil took a step forward.
“All souls. Every single one.”
She reached out and her hand fastened around the dwarf’s arm. The touch made her shudder. The skin did not feel like that of a living being but like some strange thing at the bottom of a muddy lake, slippery and sinuous. The strong stench of seaweed made her choke.
“You will give us what I ask for,” she said, speaking clearly, her voice steady. “Every soul you have taken, you will set them free.”
The dwarf creature stood still for a long time as if Hadil’s words had turned him to stone. He had not encountered defiance in his prey before.
“What can you do to me, desert daughter?” he challenged. “I am from a world different from yours. My laws are different laws.”
Hadil shook her head.
“No law can accept the stealing of souls. My soul does not belong to you. None of these souls do. And I am here to get them back.”
The dwarf’s laughter sounded like the crack of dry branches consumed by fire. Hadil shivered but did not release him.
“Even if you free the souls and dispose of me, there are more of us in the world. At the right time, another will take my place. The lighthouse can never be destroyed. It will always be there, and it will always pull souls to it.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Hadil said. “Because my soul will be free and so will everyone else’s that is here now. As for what comes after, those people in the future will have to attend to it themselves.
She abruptly let go of her opponent, flinging him backwards. The dwarf staggered but remained on his feet.
And suddenly, he was not a dwarf anymore but a tall, slender creature, so dark it could have come from the caverns beneath the earth where no sun had ever reached. This was something older than Hadil and her desert, than sea or land, or life as Hadil knew it.
Hadil sprang at the creature but it knocked her down. She got back on her feet. Her next blow caused her enemy to stagger, moving closer to the window.
The fight between Hadil and the soul-stealing dwarf was a summer hailstorm and a winter blizzard. It was the sea engulfing the shore and the forest fire swallowing ancient trees, the sky tumbling over the unsuspecting world. The dwarf was skilled and had the strength of a dozen men. But Hadil had her will and her stubbornness, and she was not going to give in to some thieving upstart.
The battle lasted two days and two nights—Bert would tell Hadil this later, when she woke up. She had no idea of the passage of time while she was fighting. All she knew was that moment when her life hung in the balance and the fate of so many souls depended on her victory.
On the third night, Hadil’s strength was fading. She had fallen and the dwarf was now standing above her in the shape of an eagle beating its gray wings and striking at Hadil with its beak. Hadil tried her best to keep him from plucking out her eyes. She pulled out her small knife and struck at the beast.
She could not injure him but she did force him to turn again into a dwarf. Hadil watched as he staggered backwards and noticed how close he was to the open window.
Hadil gathered her failing strength and got up. She was shaking and her limbs were barely obeying her anymore. The time had come to put an end to this. She launched herself at the dwarf who slipped and fell out of the window.
Hadil fell against the edge, panting. The desperate cry of her enemy echoed in her ears.
“I killed him,” Hadil thought and the notion struck at her heart.
The creature had stolen her soul and the souls of so many others. It had to be stopped. He certainly would not have hesitated to kill Hadil. Still, none of these arguments could make Hadil feel any better.
As she knelt there with her entire world overturning, she suddenly felt a warm touch on her face. It was her own soul, come to comfort her. Hadil smiled.
“Hello. It has been a while, hasn’t it?”
She became aware of the other souls, some coming to greet her, others fading back to their owners. She watched as they flew, leaving a golden trail behind. There would be many shooting stars above the sea that night.
Hadil opened her eyes to find herself back in her trailer. Bert was leaning over her. He was crying.
“Hadil,” he whispered when he saw she was awake.
It was the first time that he had bothered to say her real name and the syllables sounded sweet and bright on his lips. Hadil frowned, noticing the glint behind his eyes.
“You gave me back my soul,” Bert reminded her.
She watched the new softness in his features and decided she could like him with a soul.
“You did it,” Bert went on. “You fought the darkness and won.”
Hadil shuddered, remembering the wretched creature and what had happened to it.
“Is the lighthouse still there?”
Bert shook his head.
“I can see no shadow on the sea now. No one can.”
“It’s only temporary, though,” Hadil said, thinking about what the dwarf had told her.
The shadow and the lighthouse would be back again. Bert did not seem too bothered by that, though. He embraced Hadil and she could feel that he was hugging her with his newly-returned soul. The soul that Hadil had given back to him. Maybe that was enough. Maybe the future did not have to be her responsibility after all.
Kaya finished her story. At first, we congratulated her. It was a good story: light versus darkness and good winning, at least for a while. What was not to like? Then, we remembered that “for a while” part and realized that Kaya had claimed she had been told it was a true story. That night, we all saw the shadow on the water.
I do not know which one of us dreamt of the lighthouse first or was the first to discover their soul was now imprisoned there. We did not talk about such things at the office. They belonged to our Midsummer festivities and we never held one of those since that night.
Kaya left soon after. She did not hand over her notice or turn in her office equipment. She simply vanished. One evening, she went home and did not come in the next morning.
We wondered, of course. Did she go to confront the stealer of souls from the lighthouse as Hadil had? Or, since she had been the one to point the shadow of the lighthouse, was she its keeper? Was she the one who now held our souls?