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Cupola

Story by Jiksun Cheung (Read author interview) July 6, 2020

Art by Insung Yoon

The sea breeze whips at my bathrobe and whistles beneath the floorboards of the front porch. Something seems off again, but I can’t put my finger on it. Millie says the isolation will do that to you.

Behind me, the glass dome of Hak Island Lighthouse glints in the autumn haze. The dome is called the cupola, as I’ve learned since we first moved in as caretakers. Millie says the word originally meant a burying vault.

I look out on the sea. Somewhere through the white, luminescent fog, across the jade black water is our old lives. I can’t see it now, but on clearer days, I can make out the silhouettes of high rises, like barnacles on the back of a slumbering beast.

We could be there now, if we’d never come here.

I hear a cry from inside.

Millie, you in here? I ask, as the door to the spare room creaks open.

The mid-morning light filters through the window illuminating a face that’s a facsimile of who she once was. She’s on the floor surrounded by heavy black plastic bags. The one in her lap is partly open and I see the pastel flowers of soft onesies swirling inside. A pair of furry grey rabbit ears hangs out of the bag beside her; all I can think of is a black boa that had just swallowed its prey.

I can’t do it, she says.

I make a space next to her. There are no tears now; they’ve long dried up.

I keep—imagining her things in a landfill.

She’s gone, Millie, let her go.

I can’t.

Out of the third bag, the curved plastic pole of the musical mobile sticks out like a fishing rod. I hear the faint tinkling of ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’.

I lean over to cradle her shoulders, and as I do this, my arms pass through her and she disintegrates into the ether. It’s silent in the empty spare room. The soft glow of the sun is gone, paint is peeling from the ceiling, and I remember faintly that something is off.

I hear the clatter of plates in the kitchen.

Making a pork bone broth, she says as I enter. She tastes it with a ladle and then waddles between the stove and the pantry with her hand on the small of her back.

So she’ll have nice strong bones, she says.

I tell her how radiant she looks and she smiles at me as if to say—please.

I’m thinking of planting something beside the choy sum patch, she says. What do you think of a longan tree?

That’d be nice.

You can teach her to water the choy sum, she says.

I think I’ll do that the day after she learns to walk.

I look out the kitchen window and I’m taken aback because the longan tree, fully grown, is rustling in the evening breeze, the branches bare of any fruit. The choy sum patch is barren, overgrown with wild grass.

I turn back and the kitchen is dark. Millie is gone. The smooth round bulge in her belly and the aroma of boiling broth are but a distant memory. The air is damp and musty, the cabinets empty. I try to recall her voice, but the lighthouse is silent, and in the back of my mind I’m sure that something is off, something is not right.

I press my palms desperately against my eyelids, feeling the pressure mounting behind the sockets until somewhere in the darkness I catch a glimpse of a dazzling white light.

The cupola.

I grab the flashlight from the wall and sprint up the steps of the lighthouse, around and around I go, until I hear the rhythmic pulsing of the spinning lantern above.

When I climb out of the hatch, the lantern room is devoid of light, not even the stars visible through the glass, and finally, I remember. The bulb had blown. How long ago had that been? The lighthouse had gone dark and I am alone on this godforsaken island.

The lantern spins like an empty beating heart.

I take out the spare bulb and flip the switch.

The lantern emits a sigh and slowly, slowly, the pulsing grinds to a stop. The quiet in the room seems to engulf everything but the beating in my chest.

I remove the lantern casing, unscrew the blown bulb, insert the spare. I punch the switch and step back as the lantern begins to spin again. I close my eyes and count backwards— five, four, three, two.

The flash of light is so bright that even with my eyes closed it feels no different than staring into the sun. I turn away and shield my eyes and realize that I am done here.

As I step outside the cupola, the wind is godlike, lashing across the narrow gallery in great driving gusts. On the horizon, I catch a glimpse of the city’s twinkling lights before they are again swallowed up by the fog. I test the ledge with my foot, and then mount it like a gibbet, clutching the rail.

Heavy swell thunders against the craggy rocks below and spills over the small jetty.

I blink back the tears and try to remember.

I hold Millie’s hand tight as she takes her first hesitant step off the bobbing sampan. We’re smiling. Together, we look up at Hak Island Lighthouse, a lone sentry over the South China Seas, unsure of what the future holds for us.

To new beginnings, she says, squeezing my hand.

To new beginnings.

About the Author

Jiksun Cheung is a short fiction writer from Hong Kong. His work is published or is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, wigleaf, Atticus Review, The Molotov Cocktail, Arsenika, and elsewhere. He was a SmokeLong Quarterly Flash Fiction Award finalist, and has been nominated for Best Microfiction and The Shirley Jackson Award. He and his wife share their home with two boisterous toddlers and enough playdough to last a lifetime. Find him on Twitter @JiksunCheung and jiksun.com.

About the Artist

Insung Yoon is a photographer from Gunsan, South Korea.

This story appeared in Issue Sixty-Eight — The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction 2020 of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Sixty-Eight — The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction 2020
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The SmokeLong Quarterly Comedy Prize 2021!

This competition is no longer accepting entries. Watch for the long list coming soon! The four winners of the competition will be featured in Issue 74 of SmokeLong Quarterly coming out near the end of December.