Early June. They wash in over the bridge and down to their huge cottages on East Beach and behind the Horseneck dunes. The Hotel Westport sheds its window boards and the music off the phonograph circles the wraparound porch. It sticks in the slats between the shingle wood, notes of new and unfamiliar jazz spilling down the front steps with women in sandal heels and long city dresses that slowly rise with the years toward the knee.
They swell like driftwood down Main Road and fill the pews of the Point Church on Sundays in July. They race swift teak boats with names like Anemone and Bonito from the Harbor Rocks to the bridge and back. They dance up huge white tents for parties on Saturday nights at the Gallows Pavilion, chauffeured clambakes at Remington's, and knicker barbecues on the west branch sandflats at low tide. They are faceless, the way light is faceless. Gone by the second week in September.
Elizabeth Gonne Lowe stays on. When her son, Charles, and her granddaughter, Eve, leave the town with the rest who return to their homes in the city, Elizabeth closes off the guest wing on the north side of the house. She arranges for groceries to be delivered once a week from Blackwood's store. She stuffs old towels underneath the doors that have warped and hires a local man to set a layer of storm glass on the exposed windows of the upstairs rooms.
Elizabeth does not fit in the corners with the people from town. They are Swamp Yankee-they come from old families that have been in Westport since King Philip's War. She was born in 1848 Ireland, three years after the blight arrived from North America, spread with the damp cold through the potato crop, and sucked the leaves and tubers black. She lived in Connemara, on the mainland next to Omey Island. Her father owned one hundred acres of land in barely a town called Skirdagh farther north in County Mayo. In 1856, he traded that land for some coins and a keg of salted meat, then packed his wife and children onto a cattle boat bound for Liverpool. From there, they boarded a ship to America. On the crossing, the six of them slept with their provisions on two pallet bunks. The youngest daughter died of the black fever and was buried in a sailcloth sack thrown overboard. When they landed in Boston, their skin was the color of heath and hung like washed linen on their bones.
They walked their way inland to Concord. Elizabeth and her older brother, Sean, grew sick on the handfuls of raspberries they tore from the briers on the side of the road. For six months, the family crowded into the attic room of an Irish-owned boardinghouse. Her father spread himself into whatever odd work he could find while her mother took shifts in the village bakeshop, sifting flour, cutting the steam out of bread, and coating the stiff loaves with a milk wash that soothed the roughened grain.
When Elizabeth was twenty-one, she met Henry Lowe, the only son of a prominent Transcendentalist. She married him the following summer under the grapevined trellis in his father's apple orchard. Lowe was a graduate student in zoology at Harvard, obsessed with the relationship between the migration of glaciers and obsolete fish. He shared the belief of his professor, Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz, that while climactic and geologic change could bring about extinction, each new species was a thought of God. He helped Agassiz start an experimental school for marine science on Penikese, the afterthought of an island off Cuttyhunk on the fringe of a deep rip shoal in Buzzards Bay. Less than a year later, Agassiz died. The Anderson School stayed open one more summer, and Henry Lowe lived on the island with his young wife. Three weeks before the school closed, they went out sailing. They followed a small flock of gulls trailing a catboat and sailed through a break in the coastline into a narrow switchback harbor. They docked at the tip of Westport Point and walked less than a mile up Main Road when Elizabeth fell in love with unanswered boulders lying in the middle of a field. She begged her husband for the tumble of land down to the river. Henry bought it for her, and she named it Skirdagh, after the town her father had sold for meat in the wake of the Great Famine.
They made love in the juniper woods and Elizabeth lay there afterward, her bare arms scathed in sunlight on the dark cool soil. She looked up toward the new pine shell of their house rising against the sky, the inside still damp with the smell of mason's glue and paint mixed from a base of linseed oil. She did not know then that in less than a year she would bear a son and her husband would leave to go in search of God among the ice floes. Henry would sail on the Jeannette with naval lieutenant George De Long to the Arctic Circle. They would prove the existence of the Wrangel landmass, they would discover the De Long Islands, and Henry Lowe would come to understand the secrets that live in a blue glacial flesh. He would hear the thoughts of God in the slow ticking of the ice. Two years into the voyage, the Jeannette sailed into a black lead that narrowed, and she was crushed between two sheets of moving ice. Her wreckage drifted for two hundred and fifty-four miles; the crew perished, among them Henry Lowe; and the journey of their wrecked hull came to be interpreted as evidence of predictable polar tides.
. . .
When the first snow dusts the sandhills on the far side of the river and her own footsteps begin to spook along behind her through the house, this is the past that Elizabeth Lowe thinks back on. She pulls the hand-knit afghans from the sea chest. She boils up a thick porridge on the stove, and when the salt wind drives in off the river and howls like a living thing along the edges of the sill, she folds herself into the house for the winter.
The end of summer, 1913. After the town had emptied itself of strangers and thinned to its slower blood, there was Maggie. Long bones and dark hands, living in the root cellar on a handful of juniper land behind the big house called Skirdagh that belonged to Elizabeth Lowe.
Blackwood never said where he thought Maggie came from. He'd be scrubbing down the fish counter at the wharf store and he'd listen to the silt they talked about her that churned up in spurts like mud off the bottom in surf. He watched how eventually they grew tired of it, and so she settled into them, the way ballast gravel settles in the belly of a cod and eventually grows to become a part of the fish. After the first few winters, no one seemed to remember that
she had come from anywhere but the land by Skirdagh's root cellar. She was as much a part of the air as the salt and the iodine reek off the flats.
Blackwood says nothing, but he knows things about her: that she reads faces in smoke and talks eggs out of infertile hens. He has seen her catch the sun in her hands when it is red and deep in one socket of the sky. She can see storms in the clouds four days away. Her fingers are long and brown; he has watched them picking through the gingham in his store. They are the kinds of hands that twist like soft roots through soil. He knows that six days of every week she works for Elizabeth Lowe, tending the old woman's needs.
When Maggie is still young, she will trade him baskets of peas, yellow crookneck squash, carrots, beets, and parsley. She smells of butter. In summer, she wears galoshes and a straw hat with a tremendous brim that shelters her face.
Every day at noon, she walks down Thanksgiving Lane, past the wharf across the bridge to the dunes with a basket she has woven out of reed. Blackwood will take his horse sometimes down the rut path to Cummings Brook. He will see her cutting alder bark and the leaves off white violet. He will see her in the garden as he passes by on his way to Central Village. From the road, she seems small, as if she could easily fit into one of his hands. When he gets home late in the afternoon, he will make love to his wife on the wood shelf in the pantry while Maggie wades behind his lids, bare-legged, through the tomato vines, her dress tied up around her knees.
He knows that she can down a fever with bayberry tallow, cut the sleep from chamomile and gut oil out of corn. She can talk skunk cabbage up through the ice and draw the first trout into the creek to spawn, but she is the kind of woman who would blow her nose on a man's shirt when he wasn't looking, capsize his boat if she stepped on it.
In winter, when the town has lost itself in snow, a pod of men will gather in the back room of Blackwood's store with a coal stove and half a dozen boys. They sit on nail kegs and barter stories back and forth the way they trade coffee for pelts and sugar for a mess of eels. They mend their nets in the telling with needles they have filed out of wood. Maggie watches the endless loop of twine around the funnel ring, the pulling of knots in each corner of a link. She sits outside their circle, beyond reach of the kerosene lamp, so to them, her face is a floating mass of shadow and her eyes two chips of flint. She is sixteen and not quite one of them. Not quite real.
She listens to Asa MacKenzie's stories of how his grandfather hunted corpse whales off a ship that was locked in Baffin Bay; how the men waited for a month on the deck as the pack ice moved them south until one day the ship's ribs split and they left her sinking and walked three hundred miles out of the passage on a mass of moving ice. She listens to Carlton Wilkes's story of how his uncle's seal boat capsized in a storm off Newfoundland and seven of the crew floated for two weeks on a raft with a makeshift sail. Four died of starvation, and the three that lived bled one another to survive and drank the blood out of a shoe. She listens to Blackwood tell his own story of how he washed up on Gooseberry Island and was nudged awake by a screaming herd of Spud Mason's sheep trapped on the neck by the flood tide. When he woke, stripped and with six of his toes eaten black by the cold, he had only one memory and a pocketknife strapped to his wrist.
She watches Blackwood more closely than she watches the others. She watches how his fingers weave his nets the way she culls knowing from the smooth underbark of an elm. His hands are tremendous and scarred from years of hauling lines; the middle finger of his right, broken and at odd angles from the rest; the little finger of the left, a stump bitten off by a bluefish. His hands move, swift in the orange mid-light, with the needle like a matchstick between them. She can see how his stories are born out of the mending and she thinks about the place she came from-a thin land of heat and huge surf where the fruit she loved had orange flesh and grew from a nut tree with a name in her language that was the same as the word for woman.
The stories of the men settle into her, and when they are drunk on the clear moon juice that Caleb Mason has brought from the still between his ponds, she leaves them and walks with full arms back up the road. She carries their stories back to her root cellar. Some she grinds in the tin bowl like seeds. Some she buries with the herring bones
in the earth of her garden. A few she will hang upside down in the back room among the dwarf marsh elder, the soft kelp, and sage. Blackwood's story she will crack open between her teeth, scrape the meat out of its shell. As she chews the grit in her mouth, she remembers that she did not take the memory that washed up with him in the mass of sheep and manure on the Gooseberry stones, but when she was a child, she split the body of a coconut apart to thieve its milk. Even then, she loved the taste of what was stolen.
She lives in the town for a good six months before they see her. She thins herself into the trees and crawls between rocks like an idea before its time, which takes up no space, and then as if out of nowhere, explodes into the mind.
From the Hardcover edition.