The lighthouse foghorn pierced the mist with its strident blast as the gulls wheeled, calling, overhead. The waters of the little bay rhythmically caressed the sands and the boats rocked gently at anchor. The little girl sat motionless on the rocky headland listening to the familiar sounds around her. They were the things that made up a large part of her life and she loved them. She loved the quietness, the birds and the ocean, the brilliant colours when the sun shone and the magic and fantasy when there was a mist.
Penny lived at the lighthouse with her father. It was just the two of them now since Penny’s mother had died the previous winter. Life was not exactly luxurious in the lighthouse and her mother’s delicate constitution had not enabled her to survive a particularly harsh winter. Penny’s father was inclined to blame himself for bringing his beautiful wife to such a lonely location. His daughter, although she missed her mother terribly, tried so hard to look after him and became a more than capable homemaker in a very short time. She was heartbreakingly like her mother, so that every time he looked at her he saw again the face of his beloved wife and cherished her even more.
A little girl in a desolate place should be lonely, but Penny loved the solitude. She knew the ways of all the seabirds and took great delight in watching as their chicks grew into adults and took their first tentative flights across the bay. Each year she made one or two of the families her special interest and if the power of thought could do it, she willed the chicks to survive the elements and the predators. The occasional seal took shelter in the bay and sometimes the odd penguin or two would make their nests amongst the rocks of the shoreline. She smiled as she watched the adults waddle up the path each day, like little old men out for the evening in their dinner suits. She watched with almost a parental pride as the fledglings took their first swim, just jumping in and darting like arrows through the water, not needing any lessons at all. It was a paradise.
But in the year of Penny’s thirteenth birthday that paradise was shattered. It was a misty day, such as she loved, the foghorn was sounding mournfully, when between the cries of the gulls she heard something different, something she had never heard before. At first it intrigued her, as she couldn’t work out what it could be. But as the sound was repeated, it chilled her to the bone. “Mmmrr-oooww,” and again, “Mmmrr-oooww”, deeper and more menacing than a cat’s yowl and yet strangely like it. She shivered in the suddenly cooler air, looking around to make sure all her friends were safe. There was nothing different, no movement that she could see, the rocks and grassy hummocks of the headland showed nothing other than vegetation. But the feeling she had was one of intense apprehension, bordering on terror. She gave a final anxious glance at her birds and set off up the path to the lighthouse and her father.
“Daddy, Daddy, have you heard it?” she called as she bounded through the door.
“Heard what, my love?”
“That dreadful yowl that sounds a bit like a cat but is too deep and horrible. It’s really scary, Dad. I’m worried if it’s a sort of cat thing that the birds will get killed.”
“Well, love, there’s not much you can do about that, but if it’s dangerous I don’t want you wandering off like you do. I mean it. Let me scout around before you go off again. I couldn’t bear it if anything happened to you. You’re all I’ve got now, you know.”
“I know, Daddy. If I can’t go out just yet can I go right up to the top with the light to see if I can see anything from there?”
“I guess so; but remember not to touch any of the mechanisms there or the light won’t work and then we will be in trouble.”
“Okay,” she said as she whisked up the stairs, leaving a ripple of air in her wake. He smiled to himself. So like her mother. She, too, had been just such an impetuous person, inclined to vivid imaginings. He wondered if this was another of them. Then he heard it! “Mmmrr-oooww!” What on earth could it be? He could see why his daughter was spooked by it. The deep growling resonated in his body, curdling his blood. It raised the hairs on the back of his neck! The sooner he found out what it was, the better for them both.
“Dad, did you hear that? That was it. Isn’t it absolutely ghastly?” Penny’s fearful voice floated down the stairs to him.
“Stay where you are, I’m going out there,” he yelled back at her. Penny peered through the gloom from her eyrie and could only just make out her father as he left the lighthouse, torch in hand. The yellow beam of light only pierced the mist by a few feet, making visibility very poor and the danger very high.
The gloom of the mist turned into the darkness of night and still Penny’s father had not come home. She was really worried about him. If it weren’t for the strange growls that still continued at intervals, still raising the hair on her neck and arms and filling her with dread, she would have been tempted to disobey her father and set out in search of him. She thought, instead, of when he would return, tired, cold and no doubt hungry, and made her way downstairs to the kitchen. Once she smelled the onions frying she realized just how hungry she was and cooked chops and some vegetables for herself as well. She tidied up, left her father’s plate ready for him to heat up when he came in and went up to her room to bed.
The morning came with bright sunlight, no trace of the dull weather of the day before. She hummed to herself as she dressed and thought of how she would berate her father for the fright he had given her when she met him at the breakfast table. But Penny found the dinner plate just as she had left it the previous night. Her breath caught in her throat as the realization hit her that her father had not come home and was still out on the headland. All thoughts of breakfast were forgotten. She rushed out, banging the door behind her.
“Dad, Dad. Where are you?” she called. “Dad, Dad!” She ran along the path, pausing at intervals to check the rocks and banks for signs of him.
“Dad,” she called again, worry making her voice sharp and high-pitched. Penny rounded the bend in the path and stopped short. There before her, spread-eagled, her father lay at an angle, unmoving. Blood oozed from a wound where his head had struck a rock, his face so pale Penny’s heart almost stopped beating. She felt his pulse and was relieved to find it still there, but he was so very cold. Gently she felt his limbs, but could find nothing to worry about.
“Dad,” she said anxiously, “can you hear me? Please, please answer me.” She saw his eyelids flutter and then slowly open. “Oh Dad, thank goodness. Are you OK? Can you move? You gave me such a fright. Say something Dad.”
“I will if you give me half a chance. I think I’m OK, but I’m so cold. Just let me get up and we’ll go home. Oooh! My head! What happened to me?” he asked as he drew his hand away from the side of his head and saw the blood.
“Well, all I know is that you left the lighthouse to look for that thing and didn’t come back. I very nearly came out to look for you, but the growling was still happening and you did say to stay put, so I stayed. But Dad, you were out here all night!”
“I’m very glad you didn’t come out or it might have been the two of us lying wounded. I remember going out, I remember coming along the path and I remember thinking that I wished the torch would penetrate the darkness more. After that I’m not sure. I think the growl was quite close, but after that, nothing. Penny, I am so cold. Let’s get inside so I can have a hot bath.”
After soaking the cold from his body and patching up the wound on his head, he went downstairs to a belated breakfast. The mystery of the events of the night needed to be solved, so he shut himself up with the light to sort through it all. He had to service the machinery anyway so it was a good excuse to shut Penny out and have the solitude in which to think. He puzzled over it in his mind, but it didn’t matter which way he considered it, he couldn’t begin to imagine what made that noise. It was so unlike anything he had heard, even the cat’s growl that Penny likened it to wasn’t quite right. Then to wake up with his daughter crouching over him, with no memory of what happened to him: that was even more worrying. He went over and over the events, but could come to no satisfactory conclusion.
“Hey Dad, I’ve found something out. Let me in to show it to you,” Penny called. With a sigh, he opened the door for her.
“Look at this. It’s an old book about the area that Mum had in the bookcase. It says there were hauntings at the lighthouse years ago, and listen to this, ‘the keeper of the lighthouse was plagued by the menacing growls and roars of a phantom beast which no one was unfortunate enough to see. The sounds made by this phantom were such as to send anybody hearing them, scurrying to their home for safety. The keeper said, when asked, that, “it was the most terrifying sound I have ever heard in my life.” In recent times, however, the beast has not been heard at all.’ Dad, do you think the beast has come back?”
“You know, Penny, I’d quite forgotten that book. Your Mum was the one interested in the old tales, not me. Does it say anything else that might relate to the beast?”
“Not that I can see, but I’ll leave it out on the table for you to look at later. Dad, can I go out and watch the birds now? It’s still sunny and we haven’t heard anything since last night.”
“Ok love, but only for a little while. If the mist comes in you come straight back, you hear me?”
But Penny was gone before he even finished the sentence. There was one thing she had to do. She wanted to look around the area where she had found her father, to see if she could find any clues as to what had happened to him. She came to the bend in the path and although the sun had been shining all morning, it had not dried up the ground completely, so that Penny could make out where she had stood in horror at the scene before her. She could see the prints of the toes of her shoes and her knees as she knelt beside her father, and could still see the blood from his head wound on the rock at the side of the path. But what had made him fall? There didn’t seem to be any sign of a struggle. There were only her father’s footprints, along with her own, that came to an abrupt end with his fall.
She slowly went further along the path, looking intently at the damp ground and grassy borders, examining them for any clue whatsoever. Suddenly she stopped and gave a gasp of terrified shock. There, in the damp earth of the path, were two prints that didn’t belong to her or her father. In fact, she doubted that they were human; half paw, half foot, and so large that two of her feet would have fitted within one of the prints, end to end. As she stood there, mentally measuring her footprints against those before her, she heard her father calling and became aware that the mist was rolling in from the sea again. There was no way she was going to be caught out there in the mist with the possibility of meeting the owner of those prints! She took to her heels and covered the distance to the lighthouse in record time.
“Good. There you are. The weather report has just come in and we are in for a really dirty night. By the way, I have two things to tell you about our beast. Firstly, according to your book, if you had read further on, the keeper of the lighthouse, all those years ago, was scared by a hoax. Apparently…”
“But Dad, I saw something.”
“No, let me finish Penny. Apparently there were smugglers in the area and they used a sort of loud hailer to magnify the noise to scare people away when they were running their goods. So, you see, it’s all rubbish about a beast. And secondly, on the TV they are saying there has been a huge jewel robbery and that the perpetrators have been seen in this locality. When you think about it, this coast is just right for stashing ill-gotten gains to be retrieved later, as the smugglers of old well knew. Maybe that’s why we hear the beast again; to keep us all indoors. Now, homework for you, you have school tomorrow.”
“But Dad, I really did see something. You ought to come and look.”
“Now Penny, that’s enough! Do your homework, because I bet you haven’t touched it all weekend.”
She was sullenly stomping up the stairs, when halfway up, she heard the growl once more. She went cold just thinking about her father out there with such an animal on the previous night. Her mind at once pictured those massive footprints and she shivered with dread to think what kind of beast could possibly belong to them. Homework suddenly became a very attractive option.
Whilst wrestling with a knotty maths problem, half her mind was on the possible happenings outside. In the distance and coming closer, she could hear the whir of a helicopter’s rotors. Then the shrill of policemen’s whistles accompanied by shouts and the sound of running feet. She looked out of the window, but the mist was so thick there really wasn’t much point. She couldn’t see more than about three feet in front of the lighthouse door. Then she was aware that the helicopter was taking off again and rushed down the stairs when she heard her father call to her.
“Penny, come down here. We’re on TV! The police have arrested two men for the robbery.”
There on the TV were the Chief Inspector and two men handcuffed together. The helicopter was in the background and off to the side was the lighthouse. The Chief Inspector was explaining that the men had managed a very sophisticated robbery and hidden the jewels in a cave not very far from the lighthouse. It had taken the police some time to track them down and it was only because someone had noticed and unfamiliar boat in the bay that they had been able to catch them at all.
“Well, there you are Penny! I bet we don’t hear anything of your beast now.”
“Who knows, Dad? But there are a couple of things that still haven’t been solved.”
“Well, what made you fall over out there on the path the other night? And I found some very strange prints near there as well. You really ought to come out and see Dad. They were huge.”
“I probably just tripped. Are you sure you weren’t imagining the prints Pen?”
“Dad, I couldn’t imagine these. I wouldn’t want to anyway.”
“Well, if it will keep you happy, I’ll get the torch and we’ll go and see.”
Penny’s father thought that her overactive imagination had been at work and that now the police had arrested the criminals, the whole episode would be found to be as ephemeral as the mist itself.
Off they set, the path shown in the torchlight as a pale ribbon beneath their feet. They rounded the bend and Penny retraced her steps of the morning, only to find the police had obliterated all the prints with their own hefty boots. Penny was devastated. How was she going to convince her father now? Then, for the first time, she was very pleased to hear that low menacing sound: “Mmmrr-oooww,” and again, “Mmmrr-oooww.”
The Australian Literature Review