The Sea of Ghosts
by Anna Zumbro
Liam did not know where the ghosts came from, or why, only that they had been finding their
way north since before he was born. The sea around the lighthouse, more spirit than water,
burned green with the light of a million souls. It blazed brighter than the auroras in the Arctic
There were two seasons for Liam and his father. In summer, the sun scarcely dipped below
the horizon before ascending again. Boats brought tourists who stumbled up the lighthouse steps,
catching their breath only long enough to snap a few pictures that Liam knew would never
capture the unearthly dazzle of the sea. In winter, the boy and his father lived alone in the dark
penumbra of the tower, while for twenty-three hours a day the powerful beam swept over the sea
of ghosts at the top of the world.
"Why do we run the lighthouse in winter when there are no boats?" Liam asked his father one
chilly day when he was eight.
"No guarantee there'll be no boats. No guarantee of anything. Might be sailors along with
more adventure in their hearts than sense. Besides," his father said, "the fellow here before me
said the lighthouse helps the ghosts find their way. Don't know if that's true, but I reckon I'll leave
that question to the departed."
Liam and his father never ate the seafood, which his father said tasted like death. They
subsisted on military rations ordered in bulk. Liam had been warned never to eat anything from
the sea, never to touch the water if he could help it.
His father moved closer to the wood-burning stove. The wind howled outside, and Liam
swore he could hear whispers of the dead creeping in through the cracks in the windows.
"Will they pull me in?" he asked.
"They'll not grab your body," his father said, "but your mind, they'll take it places it ought
not go." And he looked at the framed photograph on the bookshelf, the one of Liam's mother,
firelight glinting off the pane of glass. Liam did not remember her. He wanted to ask if his
mother was in the sea, if her voice was one of those he heard in the wind, but sensed his father
did not want to speak of her.
In Liam's thirteenth winter, a violent storm kept them inside for three days. It blanketed the
beach with debris, and Liam's father told him to use the hour of blue-gray light to look for
anything they could use. That was how he found the conch shell, peeking out from inside a
He crouched down and stared for a moment before reaching out. The seashell was as big as
his fist, a hard spiral opening into a curve of smooth coral pink. You can hear the ocean inside a
good shell, his father told him once. He raised it to listen.
"My name is Bonnie."
He jumped and dropped the shell, but it landed on the sand and did not break.
Bonnie. He'd never met anyone with that name, even though he spent hours combing through
the guestbook and studying the signatures of the tourists. He missed them, the new names and
new voices that came in the summer. So many people had told him he was lucky to live in such
an enchanted place. All he'd ever wanted was a friend who stayed.
He peered inside the pink curve, and thought he saw a glint of green at the point where his
eyes could no longer follow. A ghost. They didn't have to pull me in after all.
Trembling, he whispered, "I'm Liam."
Bonnie did not remember what year she died. She was twenty-one, she said, and engaged to
be married when the fever took her.
"He was tall, with a full beard. Do you have a beard?"
"Almost," Liam said, though his father had laughed the one time he asked for a razor.
"I was a beauty. Everyone said so at my funeral. Beautiful and clever and young. And I never
got to marry him. It wasn't fair." Her voice lilted, a song in a minor key.
The sky was dark again now, but the ghostly sea glowed bright and the white-capped waves
shimmered like stars. "You're still beautiful," he said.
That night, he slept with Bonnie's shell under his pillow, and dreamed of a girl in a long
From then on, they were never apart. Liam kept the shell in the cargo pocket of his overalls
so Bonnie could go everywhere with him, up to the top of the lighthouse and down the length of
the beach and in the boat when he rowed to port to pick up more rations. When his father grew
slower with age, Liam took over the summer tours, embellishing his speech with stories Bonnie
told him about the ghosts in the water.
"Do you miss your friends out there?" Liam asked her one day. "I could throw you back if
you want." For five years he had carried the shell without wondering if Bonnie wanted to return
to the sea. He tensed with guilt, as well as fear that she might say yes.
Bonnie laughed. "If I wanted to be out there, I wouldn't have stolen away to a seashell in the
"Why are you in there?"
She replied with silence.
One morning in early winter, Liam and his father sat on the deck of the lighthouse, watching
the northern lights dance in the cobalt sky. Wrapped in a worn quilt Liam's mother had made, the
old man sipped at his thermos and hummed.
"Loveliest place on earth," he said. "Loveliest and loneliest. Promise me that when the boats
return, you'll take one south to some place where the living outnumber the dead."
"What about you?" Liam asked.
His father gave him a sad smile. "You've been reading your science books. You ought to
know how water evaporates, condenses, and falls again as rain. Spirits have their cycle, too--see
how the aurora is the same green as the ghosts in the water. Shed no tears for me, lad."
He squeezed Liam's knee and said, "South. That's your adventure."
In bed, Liam placed Bonnie's shell on the pillow next to him. He asked her if she had ever
evaporated and rained, or gone up to the dancing aurora.
"Never have, never want to. They say you're free up there, something beyond life and death.
But it changes you. Death was enough change for me."
"So that's why you're in the shell," Liam said.
"I can't remember his name." Her voice was thick with sadness. "My bearded gentleman.
Imagine that, I can't even remember his name."
"Maybe he's out there."
The suggestion was met with a soft wail.
On the darkest day of the year, Liam's father did not get out of bed. He asked Liam to bring
him the photograph from the bookshelf.
"Bury me at sea." He clutched the picture of Liam's mother as he coughed, then wiped away
flecks of spit that landed on the glass. "The dead have one journey and the living have another.
Don't I know it. I've been journeying with the dead before my time. Don't make my mistake."
Liam met his father's gaze, and the shell felt heavy in his pocket.
He stayed long enough after his father's burial to find a young Russian couple to take over as
lightkeepers. In the spring he packed a suitcase and left with the first tour boat. Leaning over the
railing, he watched the water change from a wild luminous spectrum, sparkling with souls, to a
deep blue that reflected only the distant sun. His vision blurred. He couldn't keep the promise he
made his father not to cry.
Once calm, he took the shell from his pocket. "Where should we go?"
"Italy," Bonnie said. "We were to go to Italy after our wedding."
On their first night in Rome, he bought pizza from a small shop and ate outside, gazing up at
the Coliseum from across the street.
"I wish you could see this," Liam said, holding the shell to his ear as if he were talking on a
cell phone. "It's amazing. Older than anything. It's missing a lot of pieces."
"There are ghosts in the cracks of it," Bonnie said. "I feel them. They never found their way
to the water."
"You haven't either, really."
The shell released an offended puff of air.
Liam spent the next few days sleeping in hostels full of strangers. He tried to talk to them, to
run through his tour speech when they asked where he was from, but the words fizzled in his
throat. He became almost as quiet as Bonnie, who spoke less and less each day.
"I can put you in a water bottle if you want to look around," he offered in Florence.
"And if you drink the water? If you leave me by mistake?"
"I won't, I promise. You're missing out on everything. Just tell me what you want." As far as
Liam could tell, she only wanted to stay in her shell with thoughts of her eternal fiancé.
In the common room of his hostel in Florence, a girl named Kate offered him a glass of
spumante. She was from Australia, as far south as the lighthouse was north, and she took gleeful
offense at his description of the Arctic as "the top of the world." The bubbly liquid helped him
find his voice, and he liked the gleam in her eyes as she listened to his stories about the ghostly
"Where are you going next?" she asked.
Kate made a face, her freckles joining in a line across the bridge of her nose. "Oh no, it's
packed out with tourists in Venice. You've got to try the little old places that no one knows. You
should come with me."
But it was the crowded places that drew Liam, the places filled with sweat and life and souls
that he couldn't carry around in his pocket. He apologized to Kate and turned down the offer.
She shrugged, wrote her number in an old book from the hostel's lending shelf, and handed it
to him. "Hope you change your mind."
Bonnie did not break her silence until they were on the train. "There is nothing wrong with
Venice," she said. "We were going to go there on our honeymoon, Rome and Florence and
"And I won't even see it."
"I can describe it to you."
"Can you?" It was a challenge, not a request. When he arrived at the Piazza San Marco, he
kept her shell tucked away and his descriptions to himself.
But he missed her, and while viewing the city from a sleek black gondola, his annoyance
vanished. Bonnie should experience this. He took the shell out of his pocket. Letting his arm
hang over the edge of the boat, he held the tip of the conch just below the surface of the water.
He heard a faint noise that might have been laughter, and smiled.
His fingers relaxed, and the shell slipped away.
"What -- no, stop! Fermi, per favore!" Liam jumped up, pointing to the water. The gondolier
said something he didn't understand, and the boat glided on.
That night, Liam paced around the empty hostel room. Even the box fan whirred with
Bonnie's wistful lilt. His footsteps creaked over the soft patter of raindrops on the window.
Bonnie was fine, she had to be. She had haunted a seashell beneath the frigid ocean for far longer
than she had haunted his pocket, his pillow, and the rooms of his imagination.
He searched again through his suitcase as if he might find her there and discover that he'd
never taken the shell onto the canal in the first place. He wanted to keep her with him. Keep her
Beneath a pair of trousers was the book Kate gave him, a collection of poetry. He leafed
through it and thought about calling her, just to hear a friendly voice.
The word ghosts stopped his turning at a sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay. He murmured a
few lines of the poem.
But the rain is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh upon the glass and listen for reply.
Bonnie was scared of becoming rain. She was still out there in the canals, Liam knew,
frightened and alone. He shoved his feet into his shoes, not bothering to tie the laces, and ran
outside brandishing a plastic water bottle.
"Bonnie!" he shouted at the canal. His voice echoed along the stones and faded into the wind.
"Bonnie, come back to me!"
He dropped to his stomach on the small wooden dock and reached down with the bottle. The
water shimmered inches away. Too far. Because of his father's warnings about the sea, Liam had
never learned to swim. He lowered himself over the edge and slid into the cool water, treading
with his legs and wrapping one arm around a mooring post while trying to hold the bottle still
just beneath the surface with his other hand.
"I'll find you another shell," he said. He slipped a little, lost his grip on the mooring post, and
kicked and panted as he struggled to regain it. One of his untied shoes drifted off his foot and fell
away from him. He pleaded, "Please. Come back to me, Bonnie."
"And what if you drink me?"
Liam startled at her voice and almost lost his grip on the bottle. The plastic dented as he
squeezed tighter and raised it to eye level. In the center of the cloudy water was a dazzling green
light shot through with streaks of pink and flickers of white. The light spiraled and swirled like a
tiny galaxy. For brief moments, it rippled into other forms: a hand, an eye, a shy smile.
"I always knew you were beautiful," Liam said.
"I always knew you were lying about the beard," Bonnie replied.
Her voice sounded different coming from the bottle. But it was hers. "Oh, Bonnie. I'm sorry I
dropped your shell. I'll never leave you again."
"Liam, Liam," she whispered, like the rush of waves against sand. The shimmer in the bottle
turned pink and blue with uncertain streaks of gray. "Venice is lovely. So much better than I
imagined. And the sky--I'd almost forgotten what that was."
The rain churned the dark canal all around Liam. One or two drops found their way into the
bottle's mouth and set Bonnie's colors trembling.
"Stay with me, Bonnie," Liam said.
"I've stayed too long already," she said. "It's all right, Liam. Whatever waits for me, I'm
ready. Let me go again."
Liam opened his mouth to reply, but the rain touched his eyelids and slid into his eyes. In the
blur and haze, it pulsed and shimmered green. A different voice, but one no less familiar to him,
rasped in his ear, "South."
Liam heaved, kicking against the mooring post, his feet slipping. He was suddenly aware of
the ache in his limbs and the cold that made his teeth chatter. In her bottle, the spiral of Bonnie's
light curled upward, coyly nudging the mouth, blurring the water line into an incandescent mist.
Unwilling to speak, he raised the bottle to his lips and kissed it. The light within flashed and
Then he lowered the bottle into the water and let Bonnie go.