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Authors: Katherine Hall Page

The Body in the Kelp

BOOK: The Body in the Kelp
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For my mother and father, Alice and William Page,
who first brought me to the island
The author would like to acknowledge the advice and encouragement of the First Monday Quilters of Lexington, Massachusetts.
There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath …
—
HERMAN MELVILLE
Matilda Prescott was sitting up in bed piecing a quilt.
It was after midnight, but she wasn't sleepy. She never seemed to get really sleepy anymore and only tumbled in and out of fitful naps. Not what you'd call an honest-to-goodness night's sleep. Catnaps.
The cat, meanwhile, was snoring away at the foot of the pine four-poster that had been Matilda's grandmother's marriage bed. Matilda contemplated him with mingled affection and exasperation. Darn cat.
She put in the last stitches and cut the thread, then reached for a pencil from the nightstand. At the edge of the quilt top she lightly printed: “M.L.P.” Matilda Louise Prescott. She'd always liked the way her name sounded. Solid. Then she added a few words. She'd embroider it in the morning.
The bedroom door opened a crack. Matilda glanced up briefly without surprise.
“Now what are you doing here at this hour? Oh, I know you're up and around. Don't think I don't know what's going on, but what do you have to come bothering me for? Just get out and leave me be. I'm sick to death of you. Sick to death of all of you.”
The door closed. An hour later it noiselessly opened again. Matilda didn't look up. She thought she must be falling asleep, but this wasn't sleep. She needed some air. She gasped for breath. Too many covers. She seemed to be tangled up in the quilt, but when she tried to pull it off, it wouldn't budge.
Sick to death.
 
Faith Fairchild and her husband, Tom, were sitting on the porch of the small Maine coastal farmhouse they had rented on Sanpere Island for the month of August. Tom was reading and Faith was doing nothing. The house was set high upon a granite ridge, and a broad meadow swept down to a cove. Across the water was a lobster pound, and Faith had grown accustomed to the putt-putt-putt of the lobster boats delivering their catch. When the wind was right, or wrong, they could smell the bait and fuel for the boats, a powerful combination; but somehow it seemed to go with the territory.
The farmhouse had long since been converted to summer occupancy and was filled with all the appropriate paraphernalia a rusticator might need: croquet and badminton sets, picnic gear, rain hats, sun hats, star charts, jigsaw puzzles, fishing poles, butterfly nets, board games, and bookcases crammed with slightly musty copies of Wodehouse, Jack London, Mary Roberts Rinehart, E. Phillips Oppenheim, plus all the paperbacks the family had ever acquired as well as those left behind by tenants and guests, everything from Jackie Collins to May Sarton. The adjacent barn hadn't seen a cow in more than fifty years, and it too was filled to the rafters with equipment for leisure-time activities: bikes, a Ping-Pong table, canoes, a kayak, gardening tools. Faith found it daunting even to look in there and unconsciously stood a little straighter whenever she entered the door. All this clean living—plunges into the arctic water at dawn followed by cold showers, no doubt—left her feeling vaguely uneasy.
As if Teddy Roosevelt's ruddy, hearty ghost was spying on her from behind one of the archery targets. Her plan for August had been something less strenuous in the Hamptons.
Tom, however, was delighted. This was exactly the way he and his family had spent their summers, and the rest of the year, on Massachusetts's South Shore. When the weather had been too bad for messing about with boats, rafts, or anything else that would float—and it had to be gale-force winds to discourage the little Fairchilds—they had holed up inside the house to play Monopoly for hours. Faith's idea of a good time as a child had been to stroll over to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and play hide-and-seek in the Egyptian wing, followed by hot chocolate at Rumpelmayer's. She loathed all board games, and the only card games she knew how to play were go fish and poker.
Still, she liked the farmhouse and her native curiosity—“dangerous curiosity” according to Tom—had prompted her to snoop around trying to piece together a picture of the Thorpe family who owned it but no longer used it.
There was a photograph album in the attic that affirmed her conviction that their shoulders were broad, calves sturdy, and haircuts terrible. They also seemed to have a penchant for wearing each other's clothes, or maybe they just bought them in lots. In any case, most of the garments were tan, and to say that L.L. Bean would have been
haute couture
describes them sufficiently. Nevertheless Faith had grown fond of the family and given them names she thought they would like—good Yankee names like Elizabeth, John, and Marian.
That Faith was here, five hours north of Boston, not two hours east of Manhattan, whiling away her time in this fashion, was due entirely to the blandishments of her neighbor and friend, Pix Miller, who had been coming to Sanpere since childhood. Pix painted such a vivid picture of deep-blue seas and murmuring pines that Faith agreed to try it. The fact that Pix also guaranteed a baby-sitter for two-year-old Benjamin Fairchild in the shape of her teenage daughter, Samantha, tipped the balance. At present Faith would have summered in Hoboken if someone had
offered a baby-sitter along with it. They didn't call them “terrible twos” for nothing.
So, having made absolutely sure there was a bridge in good working order to the mainland, she packed her bug spray along with the Guerlain and prepared to “rough it.” Pix was delighted. “You'll see. We'll have fun. There's always so much going on.”
Staring at the absolutely calm water and flat horizon from the porch, Faith sincerely doubted that. Yet, although she wouldn't exactly say she was having fun, she was having something close to it. And Pix was right about one thing: Penobscot Bay was beautiful.
Plus there was the food—lobster, mussels, clams, fresh fish, and a small farmer's market on Saturdays with great vegetables and a goat cheese made by Mrs. Carlan that rivaled anything Zabar's stocked.
Faith's interest in food was personal and professional. She had risen to fame and fortune as the founder of a Manhattan catering firm, Have Faith, giving up the Big Apple for the bucolic orchards of New England when she fell head over heels in love with Tom Fairchild and married him soon afterward. Faith had a tendency to act precipitously. Tom, who was the village parson in Aleford, Massachusetts, did not. But this was a special case. A very special case.
Faith had managed to make life in the small town a bit more interesting by giving birth to Benjamin, finding a parishioner's corpse in Aleford's belfry, and getting locked in the killer's preserves cabinet—pretty much in that order.
Lately, when she was not chasing after Benjamin, conscientiously trying to help him reach his third birthday intact, she had been expanding the Have Faith product line—jams, jellies, chutneys, sauces. She was also thinking of starting up the catering business again in Boston, with the same name since Tom didn't seem to think it would rock the pews too much.
Faith was no stranger to the ministry. Her father and grandfather were both men of the cloth, and she had had an insider's view of parish life from childhood. The last thing she had ever
thought she would do was stretch her sojourn inside the goldfish bowl into adulthood. But in some cases the heart knows no reason.
Tom was naively insistent that it was possible to have a private life in a small parish and urged Faith to feel free to go her own way and voice her opinions. Although when Faith's remark to someone in the Stop and Save that she thought skinny-dipping was more wholesome than ogling the centerfold in Playboy came back to him as the minister's wife advocating mixed nude bathing, he was momentarily thrown.
At present, well out of the public eye, Tom was reading a Wodehouse and chuckling out loud. He was steadily working through all of them, and Faith had noticed some distinctly odd expressions in his speech lately, as well as an ever-so-faint British accent. She had become accustomed to his habit of sprinkling his conversation with his own versions of French expressions picked up in one blissful sophomore year in Paris, and it appeared these would soon be joined by those of France's hereditary enemies across the Channel. Faith both hoped and feared Tom was going to be eccentric in old age. They had both turned thirty in the spring, not thirtysomething, just plain thirty, and Faith was thinking a lot about age these days.
The wild roses that grew up over the porch filled the air with an intoxicating fragrance. A single gull flew across the sky, then dove straight in to the dark green water.
Faith had had enough scenery. She jumped up.
“What ho, Thomas, you old curmudgeon. How about a spot of footwook? It's absolutely ripping out and I must fetch the chip off the old escutcheon from Pix's abode.”
Tom, deep in a fantasy of his own personal Jeeves, wrenched his attention away from the book and focused on his wife. She had cut her blond hair short for the summer, and it suited her. Some women have a tendency to look like fourteen-year-old boys when they do this, especially when dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt as Faith was; yet no one would ever mistake her for anything but what she was—a beautiful, sexy, healthy, and, at the
moment, restless woman. He recognized the signs and abandoned his book with a tinge of regret. He was not above guilt induction.
“This is my only vacation, you know, Faith.”
Tom was leaving Benjamin and Faith for three weeks while he went to work as one of the invited speakers at what Faith referred to as Spiritual Summer Camp. In fact, it was a series of retreats sponsored by the denomination. The Fairchilds had spent the long car trip from Boston thinking up workshop titles: “Job: Paranoid or Persecuted?”; “Muscular Christianity: Implants or Exercise?”; “Matthew and John: Who Really Told It Like It Was?” and so on. Tom would actually be speaking and leading discussions around the theme “When Good People Do Nothing,” which covered everything from the plight of the homeless to the role of the church under Fascism. Faith thought it would be more interesting to speculate about good people doing bad things, but Tom pointed out it was often the same and this way he could fit in more topics. Since no forces on earth, or in heaven, would have dragged her to one of these noble gatherings, she felt she was not in a position to argue.
“Come on, Tom, don't tell me you won't have plenty of idle moments, and it's not as if a resort on a lake in New Hampshire is exactly a penal colony. Besides, you need the exercise. You're getting fat.”
Tom hurled himself out of the wicker chair and grabbed Faith. “Take that back!” he cried, gently twisting her arm behind her back and trying to kiss her at the same time. “And if I am, which I'm not, it's your fault for cooking so well.”
Having gotten him out of his chair, Faith went inside for a hat and some sun block. She had no intention of looking like tanned shoe leather by Labor Day.
“Shore or woods?” Tom asked, following her. You could reach the Millers' cottage either by a faint path through the pines or by scrambling over the rocks by the water.
“I don't care—which do you want?” Faith replied.
“Woods, my dear, every time.” Tom smiled wickedly. Soon after they had been married, Faith had happily discovered Tom's love of the outdoors, or rather love in the outdoors. Fresh
air and/or open spaces were an instant aphrodisiac for him, and they had happened upon a soft carpet of moss about halfway to Pix's that was definitely beginning to show signs of wear. They started off hand in hand and Faith imagined they must look something like an overgrown Hansel and Gretel. Tom was in cutoffs, not lederhosen, but she quickly glanced behind her anyway for the bread crumbs as they left the brilliant sunshine for the cool shadows of the forest. The path was visible and there were no birds in sight.
Faith hadn't thought much about what Maine would look like, except she knew there would be a lot of water, rocks, and picturesque fishing villages. She was a city girl and proud of it.
Yet these ancient trees, draped in veils of gray moss and growing so close together they almost blotted out the sky, filled her with awe. So did the quiet. The pine needles cushioned their steps, and a twig cracking far away was all they heard, aside from an occasional rustle as some creature passed by. It was like a church. The time-honored simile, a cathedral. Maybe that was why Tom enjoyed making love here so much: Everything came together, so to speak. She decided to tell him this great insight, but not now—they had reached the carpet. “With my body I thee worship,” she murmured.
Later, looking over at his peaceful face, eyes half closed gazing up at the dusty motes in the shafts of sunlight streaming down, she decided not to break the mood. What eventually did break it was insects—ants and the whine of a mosquito. That was the trouble with nature. It looked so good, but once you were out in. it, there were all these hidden drawbacks. It was so natural. Faith had never found that to be the case with Fifth Avenue for example, or Madison.
Tom slapped his arm.
“Merde!
These little buggers are eating me alive. Come on, Faith, let's get going.”
They pulled on their clothes quickly and were soon approaching the cottage. Pix's family had been coming to the island for thousands of years and fortunately her husband, Sam, was a fervent convert. They had bought the land just after they got married, then built a small wooden summer house that sprawled out
in several directions as various little Millers arrived. The oldest boy, Mark, was working as a sailing instructor farther up the coast, in a camp where ten-year-old Danny was currently a camper. Samantha, fifteen, preferred to stay on the island. Sam had taken off two weeks from his law practice in July and was returning at the end of the month.
BOOK: The Body in the Kelp
9.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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