One Step at a Time

By Mary Bok | Sep 11, 2010
Photo by: Lynda Clancy

Please note: The following story contains images and actions that are not necessarily true to life, as I have lived it. All of it did, however, appear to me in a dream that I had several years ago, and I use it here to tell the story.


It might otherwise have been a perfectly normal day. That being summer on our little island and all, except that we were the only family living there at the time and the only other inhabitant was the rather grumpy Mr. Dietz, who tended the light house on the point, way over on the other side of the island. I guess he'd been after my dad to mow the field outside his house for a while and was beginning to get kind of uppity about it, if you ask me. He had come over to the house earlier that morning to put some pressure on my dad to get to it because the grass was too high now, and the hay would be no good for nothing if he waited any longer. Dad tried to shut the man up, to no avail, and the whole conversation ended with Mr. Dietz slapping Dad with an insulting joke about his "getting around to it" attitude. He said something like: "You're about as likely to 'get around to it,' as that young daughter of yours is apt to get her horse up to the top of my light house just for a look around!"

Well, sir, that got my attention, let me tell you!

Right at that very moment, I was lying in my bed beside the half-opened window that looked down on the yard, right where those two were having their little talk, and I could hear every word they had to say about the matter. I didn't think much of Mr. Dietz's insulting tone to my father, and I knew there was maybe only one way I could let the ugly old steam head know about it. I couldn't see any call for him to be talking so rude to my dad — none at all.  And, besides that, I believed my horse, we called him Big King, was the cleverest animal alive, and just might call the old grouch's bluff,  if I had my way with him.

After I got myself some breakfast and a cup of coffee, I lit out to the barn, telling my Ma I was going for a ride and would be back by lunch time. That was fine with her. She was going to be making pickles and said she didn't need any help, so it was fine if I went off for a while.

King whinnied when he heard the barn door slide open, and I looked into his stall door. I gave him his grain and a fork or two of fresh hay and then I began to shovel out the mess in his stall. By the time I was done, so was he, and I brushed him down until he shone like silver. I decided to go bareback this particular morning. The sun was bright and it was already getting pretty hot. No sense getting out all my tack. I'd only have to spend half the afternoon cleaning it from all the sweat King would probably lather up, so I'd just buckle on his simple bridle when we were ready to go. I led him out of the barn and down into the yard, where there was a split rail fence from which I could easily climb up onto the old boy's back. Then, we were off down the lane under the shade of the maples that were so well-leafed out that year. It was nearly dark as I rode along in the shadows, but in the shade was a sweet coolness in the air that was a welcomed change to be savored for as long as it lasted.

At the bottom of the hill, I urged King off to the right, up the bank, and onto the path that led through the thick woods at the center of the island. That path was a short cut to the light house and I wanted to be sure to get there before Mr. Grumpiness got back from doing his errands on the mainland. The pine woods were more still and dark than the lane, and we ambled along, enjoying every sight and sound the morning had to offer. Even though we were quite a ways from the shore on either side of the island, I could hear the muffled push and pull of the waves on the rocky shore as the tide shifted and began to rise. There was a little wind that whispered in the branches of the pine woods and squirrels chattered and squeaked as we passed far below their cozy nests high up in the taller trees. A small doe darted out of the brush on the side of the path, and behind her, a tiny, spindly legged fawn, whose large, startled eyes stared at us as if we were some kind of foreign monster that threatened his very life. I laughed at that baby thing and patted King's neck to calm him lest the deer gave him an alarm. He nodded his old head and kept on walking along the path. As we approached the field at the far end of the island, the woods got suddenly lighter. The waves on the beach were clearer now and, a way off in the distance, I could hear a gong buoy  warning anyone bright enough to listen, of the outcropping of ledge just beyond the point, my father called "Dead Man's Surprise."

I could see the light house now and noticed that Mr. Dietz's pickup truck was not parked in the yard. He had not returned, and that suited me just fine. This was not meant to be what you'd call a "social visit."

I urged King on to a slow trot across that field and couldn't help but notice that the grass really was pretty high. You really couldn't blame Mr. Dietz for getting a little cranky about getting that field mowed. But I wasn't going to say a word to my Dad about the matter, partly because I didn't especially want him to know I'd been over here, snooping around and getting into some kind of mischief. He wouldn't be pleased to know about that at all  and would likely have some harsh words for me if he found out.

So I swung my leg over Old King's wide, strong rump and slid down his side to the grassy surface under foot. I cut myself a switch from a clump of young willow shoots growing in the ditch beside the driveway. I wouldn't need the switch to discipline Old King, but only to encourage him in small ways and I was pretty sure he wouldn't mind.

We approached the lighthouse cautiously, quietly, trying not to make even the tiniest sound. I climbed up the granite steps on the outside of the building, to open the plain, slatted door that swung to and fro in the wind. I hooked it open with the hook that held the door firm, and checked the width of the door frame, to see how close a fit King's soft rump might be.

"No problem!" I said to myself and patted the old boy's neck. He stopped when he came to the first granite step and shook his head and snorted at me. I reached into my pocket for a lump of sugar I swiped from my mother's bowl on our kitchen table. I snapped it in half and offered one piece to the horse. He nibbled it quickly and then crunched the sweet crystals with pleasure and then sniffed at my pocket for a second helping.

"Nooo-o-o not yet, old boy  I'm gonna need the rest of ‘em for later. You'll see."

But by then, he was standing directly in front of the first step and I gently urged him along, tapping his fore leg, low to the hoof to step up onto the first step. He did so, a little uncertainly, and when he brought his other fore foot to the step, I offered him another half lump of sugar.

We were on our way! I felt a wave of pride and a ripple of thrill as I urged him on to the second step:  tap-tap-tap, one hoof. Then tap-tap-tap the other hoof, another piece of sugar, and then it soon was about time to think about the hind feet. Tap-tap-tap with the willow switch and then, just like the old pro that he is, he moved that rear hoof forward towards the step,  then up onto the smooth, firm surface and then the other hoof. I was there, waiting with my hand in my pocket, fingering another lump of sugar. And so it went, until I could see there were but three more steps to the door of the lighthouse. Then, one step at a time, we both moved through the portal into the building. I was feeling very excited by this time, and filled with that energy. I tap-tap-taped his way forward to the spiral stair case that rimmed the lighthouse wall. Could he do it? I thought in a small moment of apprehension, could I do it? I thought in an even deeper moment and the answer I heard from my heart of hearts was "Sure ! That horse will do anything I ask of him, any fool knew that! So on we went, first the front right hoof, tap-tap-tap, lump of sugar, then the left hoof, tap-tap-tap and a lump of sugar.

Then the right hind hoof,tap-tap-tap and a slice of apple, tap-tap-tap and a half lump of sugar. Little by little. One step at a time, and every step was a thrill. Who would ever believe what was happening here in this light house? Who? If I told them, they wouldn't listen to me, but if Mr. Dietz told them, they would. I had the idea he might be proud to tell the story to all his cronies down at the hardware store. He liked to go down there of a morning and drink the coffee they brewed up for the regulars, so they'd stand around and talk and share the day's gossip and stories. "This one will be a plum," I thought to myself. He's gonna love it, in spite of himself.

But will he get the point? I wondered. Will he ever guess that this was meant to show him that he was dead wrong about what he said to my Dad about being so slow to get that stupid field mowed? Well, if he doesn't get the point, I'll just have to tell him, that's all. I'll just set him straight, not to be rude or anything like that. He's just got to learn that he can't talk that way to decent people. Any fool knows that, except one, that I can think of.

By now, I was sweating like my horse. It was amazingly hot in that spiral tower. And the sweat was running down my face and under my arms and own across my chest and belly. When I stretched as tall as I could, to give myself the advantage of a slightly larger fanning space, I noticed there was a narrow window slit in the wall about five steps ahead of me. It must have been about four inches wide and mayb 16 inches tall and allowed a long slice of bright light into the dim mustiness of the tower. I could plainly see that there was no casing, glass or wire screening covering the window, and guessed that there might be a tiny stream of air coming in with the light. I said a little prayer to whatever higher power might possibly have been listening at that moment and then took the next step, tap-tap-tap, half a lump of sugar and a nice friendly pat on the old boy's neck. Then another and a third. I was so close now I could almost reach out to the small opening in the wall, almost, but not quite. After the next step, I could lean way forward enough to see out through that slit, down across the slope of field to the pebbly shore and the long expanse of ocean beyond. Way out on the water, I could see a pair of sail boats tacking down the length of Penobscot Bay and a little further out, a long barge, loaded right to the railings, moved silently northward towards Searsport.

"Delivering oil," I guessed out loud, but what really took my notice, was what appeared to be a glass of icy water with a sliver of lemon floating on the top of a chunk of ice. "Probably just a hallucination," I thought, as I took a deep breath meant to bring me to my senses and made ready to take the next two steps. Tap-tap-tap, slice of apple, pat-pat-pat. "Good boy" and then another step.

The thought of that water was such an exciting possibility. I could hardly breathe and I marvelled that anything could hold such a thrilling deliciousness in its very suggestion!! How on earth did it get there on that little shelf? There on the side of that tall, white wall. Who in the world might have put it there? Could anyone have guessed someone was inside the light house tower? Surely there had been no one around when I arrived and I certainly hadn't heard the deisel-y roar of Mr. Dietz's truck since I started this long climb. Besides, even if he had taken notice of our presence, or suspected any sort of shennanigans as he was pulling off, he would have said something or shouted something or in some godforsaken way, let me know I'd been discovered. And done his best to humiliate my very being and trim my courage down to size. I knew him well enough for that. One more step to the window, deep breath, tap-tap- tap. To the right, step, tap-tap-tap to the left, pat-pat-pat, lump of sugar, big hug around the slippery, wet neck and then a long step to brace myself against the wall so I could reach the window ledge and the glass of water. A long, clean stretch and there it was in the palm of my hand, icy cold glass , wet with condensation, the faint smell of lemon, the sharp feel of sudden cold against hot, sweaty skin.

Had I ever in my whole life felt anything so thrilling? So beautiful? So beloved? I lifted the glass to my lips and let a big gulp pour into my hot, dry mouth. By then I was standing on the step directly in front of the window slit and could feel the breath of cool air blowing in off the bay. It felt shocking and made the surface of my skin prickle with goose bumps under the sticky surface of my sweat.  I took another sip of water and poured a little into my cupped hand so as to offer Old King at least a little taste. He licked my palms dry, seeming to savor the cool treat before he swallowed.

I looked straight up into the peak of the light house tower to see how much further King and I had to go and I counted eight more steps from where we stood, from where the little window let in its long shaft of sun.  At the top of the eighth step, there appeared to be a sort of landing with a wire fence around it, making an entrance to the lamp room itself. Even though I had never been to the top of the light house before, I knew that the lighthouse's light was made up of a whole system of related lenses —highly polished glass discs that magnified and directed a beam of light generated by a relatively small bulb at its center and that the care and maintenance of all those lenses were critical to the strength of the life-saving beams that would be sent out into the night once the sun went down and the day was over.

Suddenly I wanted to see that whole mysterious wonder. I wanted to see it badly. I clucked loudly to jar King awake from daze. I reached for my willow wand, and we were on our way again. As Old King raised his fullness up and over the last step and through the gate that opened off the landing, I stretched across the last gap in the stair well, and pulled myself up to the railings on either side of the gate. I could see out those big windows now. I could see forever, the field, the bay, the mountains on the mainland, the sky, so blue, with a whole flock of soft, white clouds cavorting in the wind.

It was just about then that I heard a muffled but familiar voice, apparently reaching out to me. "Oh Mary! There you are. I've been expecting you'd show up sooner or later. How was your trip? Are you going to tell me that you actually did bring your rickety old nag with you? I can hardly believe such a preposterous story. But your friends at the hardware store all told me that you would probably do it. Tell me. Did you? Where is that old plug, for God's sake?"

I was so stunned to hear Mr. Dietz's whining voice, laced with his breathy sarcasm and insults, that, at first, I couldn't reply. A peculiar silence strung out between us, like a line of wet laundry set out to dry in the sun. I waited for him to speak again, but I also looked around to see where Old King actually was. Apparently, Mr. Dietz and I saw him at the exact same time because I heard him gasp in horror as he watched my beloved horse raise his voluminous tail and let loose a belly full of steaming, moist, ripe smelling, horse manure in a tidy pile right there on the light house landing. This clearly was an event I had not envisioned, one that I was in no way prepared to deal with and one that I felt completely unable to talk my way out of.  There was my horse, three stories up aboveground level, in the company of my most unwilling, unsuspecting host, on a visit that was imagined by nobody in particular except possibly by a few elderly gossips at the hardware store.

Mr. Dietz stepped toward me and drew himself up to his legendary height, taking a deep, full breath and glaring down at me, as I observed the entire scene before me, and noticed, of a sudden, that my knees were shaking and that I suddenly had to somehow or other, find a bathroom, myself!

"Well, young lady, I see that you and your horse have, in fact, arrived. And I see that he has made his presence completely known. Now. I am here to tell you, my young friend, that you and you alone will be responsible for cleaning up the unspeakable mess he has left on my floor. You will find a snow shovel and a large galvanized bucket in my garage on the wall beside my work bench. You can carry the bucket out to the compost pile just to the northeast corner of my garden there just beyond the house and I expect you to complete the task and wash the floor beneath it, before sundown. Do I make myself clear? And then, I expect you and your beloved horse will make the trip back down those stairs you've taken such pains to come up and that that will be the end of all this foolishness! Once I see that you have gotten started on your return journey, I'll phone your father so that he and your mother won't worry when you fail to show up for your dinner. Will that suit you?"

"Yes, thank you, sir." I managed somehow to squeak out into the sweat smelling silence. "And thank you, also, for the glass of water I imagine you must have left for me on the window ledge beside the stairs."

And, with that, I ran down the long spiral stair case, to find the shovel and bucket and began to clean up the landing. Then I counted out the number of half lumps of sugar I had left, in hopes there would be enough to make the return trip. All at the same time, I dreaded to find out what my father would have to say when he heard Mr. Dietz's version of the story. I doubted that he would be pleased, especially when the details were designed to explain why I would not be home before dark. "Oh well," I thought to myself. "One step at a time, I guess, is the only way to get there. One step at a time."


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