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My house is old, and rambling, and in some disrepair, and I think that it is faintly haunted: a cold spot forming inexplicably on the stairway, a scuttling in the hall. Then of course there is the matter of the enigmatic portrait, whose mystery I had not yet managed to resolve on that bright April morning when, after living cheerfully and peacefully in the house for over a year, I found a body in the storeroom.
Coming upon a body is an experience, like childbirth or a head-on collision, that takes the breath out of a person. I went back through the passageway between the kitchen and the small, unheated room where in spring I kept dog food and dahlia bulbs, and where apparently I now stored corpses.
"Ellie," I said, "there's a dead man out there on the floor."
Ellie White looked up from the kitchen workbench where she was planting pepper seeds, sprinkling a few into each little soil-filled peat pot, to be set out later in the cold frame. Ellie has coppery hair cut short around a thin, serious face lightly dusted with freckles; her pale blue eyes are so intense that even through her glasses, her gaze makes you feel your X-ray is being taken.
Her index finger paused in the act of tamping soil onto a pepper seed. "Who?" she asked.
Sometimes I think Ellie has formaldehyde in her veins. For instance, when I moved to Maine I thought sill work meant painting them, and if you have ever restored an elderly house you will understand the depths of my innocence; sill work is slightly less radical than tearing the house down and starting over entirely, and almost as expensive, and if you don't do it the old house ends up at the bottom of the cellar-hole.
Ellie, upon hearing that this was what my old house needed, merely remarked how lucky I was that I could pay for it, because she knew of another woman whose house had needed sill work, too, and that woman was now living in the cellar-hole. Ellie's comment shut me up pretty quickly, as she had intended, and I resigned myself to getting the job done in spring, but along about March I'd discovered that sill work was only the beginning. There was also the poignant little problem of the rot-raddled floor joists, and of the support beams holding up the floor joists.
Or rather, not holding them up. "I don't know who. He's lying facedown in the corner where everything sags. I should have had that floor jacked up last autumn."
Ellie was wearing denim coveralls, a bright yellow turtleneck with jade-green turtles satin-stitched onto it, and shiny green gardening clogs over thick, yellow socks. On anyone else the outfit would have been hilarious, but Ellie is so tall and slender that she could wear a painter's drop cloth, possibly with a couple of frayed dishrags belted around it, and still look just like a Paris runway model.
"I don't think the floor is the issue here," she said.
"That's because it's not your floor. The only thing holding that floor up now is habit, and when the homicide detectives and the medical examiner and I don't know who all else start tramping in and out of there, then that floor is going to ..."
She was looking at me as if I'd just arrived from Mars. "Jacobia," she said, "I don't know what kind of law enforcement you got used to, back in the big city where you come from."
She picked up the telephone, dialed George Valentine's number, and let it ring. "But in case you haven't noticed, you're not in New York anymore. You're in Eastport, Maine, three hours from Bangor and a heck of a lot farther from anywhere else, and the only person tramping in and out of that storeroom is going to be George. That is, if he ever answers his phone. He was over at my house earlier, but I don't know where he is now."
Of course it was George's number. In Eastport, George was it: if you had a fire, or a flood, or a skunk in the crawlspace, George was the man you wanted, which was lucky since the rest were out on fishing boats: dragging for scallops, hauling lobster pots, or collecting sea urchins, depending upon the season.
"I'm going out there," Ellie said, after George had picked up at last and promised to be right over.
People in Eastport do not think the telephone grows naturally out of the tympanic membrane, and some of them will actually decide whether to answer it or not based on what sort of news they are expecting. But George always answered his telephone sooner or later on account of being the clam warden, on call to make sure diggers had valid clam licenses, chase poachers out of forbidden clam areas, and spot-check the clams themselves with his two-inch metal claim ring, through which a legally harvestable bivalve must not be able to pass.
"I think," Ellie added, "we should make sure the man is really dead."
This struck me as pointless, since an ice pick in the cranium promised little in the way of future prospects. But Ellie was determined; it was part of her downeast Maine heritage, like being able to navigate in the fog or knowing how to dress out a deer.
"It might be he's only wounded," Ellie said. "It might be we can still do something for him."
Right, and it might be that next we could multiply some loaves and fishes. When she had gone I ran a glass of water and stood there by the sink, pondering whether to drink it or not. Just breathing in and out suddenly seemed to require a series of massive, separately considered decisions, as if each small action of mine had abruptly become huge compared to all the ones the dead man was not taking.
Outside my kitchen window a flock of cedar waxwings descended on the crabapple tree and began devouring frozen fruit, their short, metallic cries creating a happy clamor. A shower of snow as fine as salt fell around them, whitening the snow already lying on the ground, so their lime-green feathers and candy-corn beaks stood out as brightly as paint drops.
Down at the breakwater, the big ship Star Verlanger sounded her massive horn and cast off, loaded with paper pulp, and the dockworkers jumped in their pickup trucks and headed for a well-earned bottle of Narragansett beer, no bottle of which the dead man would be enjoying. I wondered if his absence would be noticed, or if he was from away. Whichever; by tonight, news of his death would be all over town.
That was what I thought when the whole thing began. But back then, I didn't know the half of it.
* * *
My name is Jacobia Tiptree, and my ex-husband says I am insane. I have proved this, he says, by giving up a perfectly charming little townhouse on the upper east side of Manhattancomplete with doorman, elevator, and building superintendentfor a huge antique structure every centimeter of which needs paint, plaster, or the underpinnings required to hold up both. The roof leaks, the gutters dangle, and the bricks in the chimneys are quietly turning to sand; when the wind blows hard, which it does very often here, the windows rattle as if they are trying to jump out of their frames, and if you put a marble down on the kitchen floor it will probably roll forever.
I found the place on a warm August day when the garden was clotted with raspberries and zinnias, poppies and Michaelmas daisies whose blooms were wide as saucers. I was coming back from Halifax and the kind of contentious stockholders' meeting that sets one to wondering how early man ever found his way out of the cave, and why, considering his natural tendencies, he didn't stay there, when on impulse I drove over the long, curving causeway connecting Moose Island with the U.S. mainland.
I bought my lunch of a sandwich and coffee at the IGA, and walked all over town before sitting down on the green-painted front steps of a big old white house whose bare windows showed a shimmeringly vacant interior. In front of the house I stood on tiptoe and peered in, watching a patch of sunshine move slowly across a pale maple floor that was badly in need of refinishing. Someone had torn the carpeting down from the stairs; the risers looked wormy with old nail holes.
I noted with surprise how certain I felt, how calm. Later I found my way to a tiny storefront real-estate office on Water Street, overlooking Passamaquoddy Bay, and that evening when I drove back to the mainland, the house belonged to me.
What were you thinking of? my ex-husband asked, and so did my relatives and friends. Even my son Sam looked doubtful, although at sixteen he had begun looking doubtful about everything. With a brain surgeon for a father and a money expert for a mother, he was unhappily aware of the problem of living up to all the brilliant genes he had supposedly inherited.
The trouble was, Sam's brains were not of the quick, flashy variety so popular with Ivy League admissions committees. He was the type who could take one look at a broken washing machine, come back from the appliance store with a part that cost five dollars, and a little while later the washing machine would be fixed. He could do the same with an ailing cat, or the gizmo that makes (or doesn't make) a doorbell ring. What he couldn't do was explain how to fix the washing machine, or what sort of attention to give the cat; his perceptions were visceral and immediate, not filtered by words and numbers. They weren't particularly quantifiable, either, unless you happened to have a broken washing machine.