Certain landlocked cities have lighthouses. On such rivers as the Rhine, the Seine, and the Saint Lawrence, lighthouses gave warning of dangerous areas. In London, the Trinity Buoy Wharf light is still in existence. This hexagonal, pale-brown brick structure is located in an area known as Container City. I remember my father telling me about these buildings when I was a child. To my ears, accustomed to the Spanish language, the word container, which I never completely understood, sounded warlike; I imagined gigantic metal constructions, improbably conical or spherical in shape. It never occurred to me that they would be like shoeboxes.
When I visited that shoebox city, the shipping containers, adapted to function as housing, reminded me of the futuristic cities of nineties movies and TV series. The lighthouse on the wharf looked out of place among the container architecture, yet, like all of its kind, it was experimental in origin. For a time the building was used to train lighthouse keepers, and later to trial the lanterns and lenses that would then be transferred to other lights. It was there that the scientist (and bookbinder) Michael Faraday worked on the fixtures for the South Foreland lighthouse in Kent. A tiny museum at the foot of the lighthouse offers a display of Faraday’s instruments and personal effects.
Today the Trinity Buoy Wharf light has no lantern. It doesn’t illume, but it can be heard because it now has a bell.
The lanterns of lighthouses are the bells of churches. As with light, sound waves can also announce and convene. And in this lighthouse there’s a bell that chimes ceaselessly. A bell that will sound for a millennium. It’s made up of many other bells that chime according to an algorithm designed by Jem Finer. Apparently one day, in almost a thousand years’ time, the music of the bells will come into a harmonic alignment, in a process that can be likened to the planets moving into alignment in the heavens.
On the Manhattan shore of the Hudson, there is also one remaining lighthouse: Jeffrey’s Hook, better known as the Little Red Lighthouse.
The city seems to peter out. The blocks of buildings disappear at a highway crossed by a footbridge, from which the only view is cars, trees, and the river. At the far end of the footbridge is a park that I visited with Lorena when we were together in New York for two weeks: my first since moving there, her last before returning to Mexico City. We shared her apartment in Washington Heights during the apex of the summer heat. I can’t remember how we first met. It’s as if she was always there with her delicate hands and hair that is in fact chestnut, but in my mind is red. It was the dog days, a time for goodbyes, even the summer sun was saying its farewell to New York. We were walking along a winding path of tunnels and drawbridges over the rail tracks, with a view of the George Washington Bridge, which crosses from Manhattan to New Jersey. The gray of its soldered-metal engineering stood out against the undergrowth in the park. The path was descending toward the river. From the shoreline, beyond rocks jutting through the surface of the water between scraps of sunlight, the south tip of Manhattan was visible. Below the great bridge was a small red lighthouse. A lighthouse at the end of the island, at the end of the river, which Antonio Muñoz Molina calls “the lighthouse at the end of the Hudson.”
I have no memory of how I knew of the existence of this building: I woke up one day recalling that there was a lighthouse under the George Washington Bridge, with no idea of who had told me, or if I’d read about it somewhere. I had to find it. Lorena hadn’t originally planned to accompany me; she was leaving the following day for Mexico, and was glad to be returning home, leaving behind the hard loneliness that life in this city can be. But we were only one stop away. We wondered how there could be a lighthouse so close to the bustle and reggaetón of Washington Heights, so close to the subway, the banks, and the accountants. I was already feeling fond of the neighborhood, with its custom of filling the Sunday sidewalks with chairs, chat, and dominos; the sopa de siete potencia (misspelling intentional) and the twenty-four-hour fruit stands, where other substances were probably also for sale.
The Hudson here is not in fact a river, but an arm of the ocean. It has been a fishing ground since the times when the Weckquaesgeek tribe inhabited its shores, and there used to be ships that sailed from Albany to the city or on to the Atlantic. Shipwrecks were so common on this stretch of water that a red pole had to be erected to signal the danger. And red was also the color of the lighthouse, constructed in 1880; a small structure, today almost invisible beneath the bridge. Its size, color, and green tip give it the appearance of a toy.
At the last minute, Lorena decided to come with me. We’d expected to find an abandoned building, a lighthouse vanquished by the bridge and highway, a ridiculous anachronism. Instead, the smallest lighthouse in the world (or at least that is how it seemed to me then) retains enormous dignity despite being dwarfed by the bridge. It felt much more on our scale, belonging to our universe.
Around 1942, the author Hildegarde Swift watched the bridge being erected over Jeffrey’s Hook, and wrote The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge, an illustrated children’s book whose main character is the lighthouse, saddened and oppressed by the construction. At the end of the story, readers discover that the bridge is its metal brother, and that the lighthouse gets to continue to fulfill its function of safeguarding boats.
When the authorities decided to sell the lighthouse, many of the children who had read The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge protested. They started petitions and even offered to collect money to buy it, to the point where the auction was cancelled. The property was transferred to the Parks Department in 1951 and the lighthouse fell into disuse. The lantern was not switched on again until 1979, when the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and restoration was undertaken. In 2002, the sixtieth anniversary of the publication of Hildegarde Swift’s book was celebrated by, for pure nostalgia, presenting the lighthouse with a new lens so that it could continue to illuminate the night. It was saved, not for its utility or even historical value, but for the symbolic and literary meanings it embodied. People refused to allow life to be so prosaic, were determined that reality should imitate fiction.
Weeks afterward I returned to the lighthouse, this time without Lorena (missing her, envious that she was back home). It was the one day of the month when the building is opened to allow girls and boys to climb to the observation deck. There it stood, demonstrating to those children that it is still indispensable, and gets along splendidly with modernity.
Other metropolises that are far from the sea, and whose rivers have dried up or been channeled underground, have their own kinds of lighthouses. Mexico City’s Torre Latinoamericana, for example, used to function as a lighthouse on the high seas for the citizens who had lost their way in the urban tides. In those days there was only one skyscraper on the labyrinthine streets of the city, a single tower from which Mexico City seemed to stretch out forever, like an ocean; just as from the Eiffel Tower, Paris can be viewed from one end to the other.
The Eiffel Tower is still the only lighthouse in Paris. No one would dare to move a stone of that city without first seeking authorization (authorization they should not be given). By contrast, buildings in Mexico City are demolished and others spring up by the minute, each one taller than the last. They compete among themselves as trees in the rainforest compete for sunlight. During my own lifetime the Hotel de México in the Colonia Nápoles, succeeded the Torre Latinoamericana as the point of reference in the distance. Whenever I was lost, I only had to see it to be sure of which direction to take. But new skyscrapers appear every day now, taller than the Hotel de México, blocking my view.
In Manhattan there are so many skyscrapers that none functions as a lighthouse. The whole stretch of land is so densely populated with tall metal structures that, at street level, their summits are invisible. For the Manhattan pedestrian, the lighthouse is perhaps more down to earth: Central Park, that enormous oasis, the meeting place from which one can set out in a new direction, is the point of orientation on the island.
The most beautiful pseudo-lighthouse I know of in a city is the eleventh-century Carfax Tower in the heart of Oxford. Its four faces are all that remain of St. Martin’s Church. On the front of the building is a clock, with male figures announcing the quarter hours. The name of the tower comes from the French carrefour, meaning crossroads. It’s said that for many years the place offered shelter and a point of reference to travelers, and it is still the building that every tour guide in the city recommends visiting. Planning regulations forbid building higher than the Carfax in that area of Oxford, and its summit offers a view of the whole of the city, its sea of spires and rooftops.
Lightships, or lightvessels, as they are sometimes called, deserve a fragment of their own here. The masts of certain Roman ships were hung with iron baskets in which fires burned throughout the night. Lightships were located in very deep or dangerous waters, where it was impossible to erect a stone structure. They also acted as stand-ins for coastal lighthouses under repair, in which case they carried a huge sign saying RELIEF.
The greatest difficulty was in maintaining the stability of those vessels in tempestuous waters. It was Stevenson’s grandfather who invented the most popular means of achieving this: the mushroom anchor. The vessel on which Sir Walter Scott and Robert Stevenson traveled, the Pharos, was the first lightship in England.
In the 1930s, the earliest automatic lightships came into service; decades later solar power began to be used to recharge their batteries. With no crew and no keepers, they were ghost ships. Ignis fatui, fatuous lights, like the will-o’-the-wisps said to sometimes float on lakes or over the sea. Phantom, fiery, foolish Pharos vessels.
The lighthouse is always different, depending on the time and the position from which it’s viewed. There is the lighthouse in the distance, a diminutive life preserver. The lighthouse close at hand, where its size is imposing, revealing its origins as a temple, a tower, and a house of illumination. The lighthouse at different times of day: In the mornings, we see it surrounded by seagulls; at midday the sun dots it like an i, but in the evening, as the sun declines, they separate in a form of ritual farewell. At night, the lighthouse is a second, terrestrial moon. There is the lighthouse standing calmly beside the sea, and the lighthouse in a storm, a titan that resists and, in the words of Michelet, returns “fire with fire to the lightning bolts of the heavens.” And, finally, there is the lighthouse swathed in mist.
The world is a cornucopia of objects for the lover of lighthouses: plastic and metal models, prints and postcards. In Mexico City, there are also bakeries and hardware stores called El Faro, and Faros is a brand of cigarettes (prisoners condemned to death had the right to smoke one before facing the firing squad, from which comes the expression ya chupó faros, which literally translates as “he’s had his last drag of the lighthouse”). There are lantern stores in Chinatown and stands at son et lumière events that go by the name of Lighthouse, an interview show called The Pharos of Alexandria, lighthouse magnifying glasses, an art book entitled Your Lighthouse, a Christian sect in Los Angeles called the Lighthouse Church, and it’s the main element of a John Maus album cover. Its image and form attract us the way its light attracts ships.
Lying on the beach, Leopold Bloom remembers Grace Darling, the lady of the islands, the girl with her hair flying in the wind. In 1838, Grace was a young woman living with her parents in a lighthouse on the Farne Islands. One day a storm blew up, lasting longer than any other before it. Standing at the highest window with her spyglass, Grace spotted a ship, the Forfarshire, which the waves had thrown onto the rocks, splitting it in two. A number of survivors were huddled together, clinging to the wreckage, begging for help. The legend goes that Grace managed to convince her father that they must set out together to rescue the shipwrecked sailors. At the height of the storm, they rowed to the wreck and, while her father helped the survivors aboard, she kept the boat steady. They “tossed on the waves,” says Wordsworth in a poem he wrote in honor of Grace Darling, “to bring Hope to the hopeless, to the dying, life.”
—Translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney
Jazmina Barrera was born in Mexico City in 1988. She was a fellow at the Foundation for Mexican Letters. Her book of essays Cuerpo extraño (Foreign Body) was awarded the Latin American Voices prize from Literal Publishing in 2013. She has published her work in Nexos, Este País, Dossier, Vice, and more. She is the editor and cofounder of Ediciones Antílope. She lives in Mexico City.
Christina MacSweeney received the 2016 Valle Inclan prize for her translation of Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, and Among Strange Victims (Daniel Saldaña París) was a finalist in the 2017 Best Translated Book Award. Among the other authors she has translated are Elvira Navarro (A Working Woman), Verónica Gerber Bicecci (Empty Set; Migrant Words), and Julián Herbert (Tomb Song; The House of the Pain of Others). She is currently working on a second novel by Daniel Saldaña París, and her translations of short story collections by Elvira Navarro and Julián Herbert will be published in 2020.
“Jeffrey’s Hook” from On Lighthouses, by Jazmina Barrera, translated from Spanish by Christina MacSweeney. Published by Two Lines Press in May 2020, all rights reserved.