Maine has more islands than Polynesia, more than the Mediterranean, more than the Caribbean. Some are little more than ledges crowned by coarse vegetation that can withstand constant exposure to salt spray and wind. Others are large enough to host whole towns. The largest of them, Mount Desert Island, boasts four municipalities and a famous national park. But it is connected to the mainland by a bridge over a narrow tidal channel, and has not been a true island for more than a century. The bridge to Deer Isle was completed in 1939; the bridge to Beals, farther Down East, went up in 1958. These islands have effectively become part of the mainland. You can visit them without getting out of your car. A few of the other large islands are served by the state ferry service and, increasingly, by small aircraft. In the 1800s, when the sea still dominated the region’s economy, Maine had as many as 200 communities on offshore islands. By the beginning of the 21st century, fifteen remained.
The majority of Mane’s islands are mid-sized, too small to support communities but too large to leave to the seals and birds. Most are in private ownership, and occasionally one comes on the market for a million or more dollars. In recent decades, a hodgepodge of conservation groups has begun buying available islands to preserve them in their natural state, though it is impossible to characterize Maine’s islands as “wilderness” after centuries of logging, quarrying, fishing and sheep farming. Even the Native Americans used the islands for their resources, as ancient piles of shells and bone fishhooks attest.
Solomon Island, a sixty-acre double-dollop of land in the archipelago off the southern end of Deer Isle, came into the possession of a prominent Boston family in the 1930s. It was almost two islands, its nearly equal halves connected by a low isthmus between two stony beaches. The southern half had been left mostly to nature, though the family cleared trees that blew down over the winter and in this way maintained a constant source of firewood. On the other side of the island stood the main house and a handful of outbuildings amid cleared fields and gardens. The bifurcation of the island created a small natural harbor, where a permanent dock with a seasonal float had been built, next to a boathouse on the shore. All this could be seen by anyone passing by in a boat. Many of the nearby islands were similarly developed, summer retreats for East Coast families with time on their hands and money to burn.
The Greenoughs occupied the island for only a few weeks each summer. Malcolm Greenough Jr., the lawyer and family patriarch who had inherited the island upon the death of Malcolm Senior, was more accommodating than most absentee owners. He had signs put up welcoming kayakers and other visitors to the island, asking them only to keep to the southern half, to carry out their trash, and to leave no traces of their stay. The vast majority of visitors honored these simple requests. Inevitably, though, there would be those without honor who might build fires or defecate in the woods or try to break into the buildings. For this and other reasons, the family employed a live-in caretaker, who stayed on the island from late April to mid-November. The job required someone who didn’t need much contact with the outside world and did not want to live by a conventional schedule. The Greenoughs found such a person in Cyrus Nash.
Cyrus Nash did not own a cell phone or a computer. When the family needed to contact him, they used VHF radio, but that option wasn’t available to ordinary civilians. Pilar had finally found a fisherman in Stonington who agreed to deliver her hand-written message to the island. She had waited two weeks, and had almost given up hope when he had called her from a pay phone in Stonington, sounding gruff and hurried, and told her that if she could get out to the island during the next few days when the Greenoughs were back in Boston for a family wedding, he guessed he’d be willing to talk with her. If it was low tide, he said, she could find him down by the dock, where he was working at shoring up one of the pilings. Otherwise he would be up by the cluster of buildings, mowing lawns or cutting brush. “Bring beer,” was his only request.
The tide was high when she arrived at the point, but Jeremy said that was good, because as it went out the current would push them south, toward the island. A faint breeze rippled the water. The sailboat sat calmly on its mooring. Paul was outside, splitting firewood. The cabin showed evidence of occupation: scattered plastic toys on the lawn, beach towels hung out to dry, two cars parked in the grassy area where the driveway ended. But there were as yet no signs of activity.
“Hi, Paul,” she called as she got out of the car. “Where’s Jeremy?”
He stopped in mid-chop. “Still eating his cereal,” he replied. She thought she caught a hint of disdain in his voice. Paul didn’t respect anyone who slept past six in the morning. “Want me to go light a fire under him?”
“No, that’s okay, you’re busy. I’ll do it.” Paul grunted and the ax fell again, sending twin pieces of wood flying in opposite directions. It was just now eight o’clock. The woman at the store up the road hadn’t given her anything more than an arched eyebrow when she’d picked up a twelve-pack of bottled microbrew beer. Cans were easier to carry on the boat, but she thought it was better to err on the side of quality. She hoped it was enough.
Jeremy spotted the beer when she entered the house. “Well, alright,” he said when he noticed the brand. “We’re going in style.”
“Don’t even think about it, Jeremy. This is for Cyrus.”
He laughed. “Nice way to break the ice. Don’t worry, there’s a bunch of swill beer in the cooler.” He nodded at the pile of stuff on the floor, which included two life jackets, two sets of rain gear, a canvas bag with a box of Triscuits peeking over the top, and a battered blue ice chest that had somehow survived since her childhood.
“Gretchen wants us to come over for supper when we get back,” Pilar said. “She said Joanie might come, too. I guess they both want to know what I find out.”
“Assuming there is, in fact, anything to find out.” Jeremy was dressed in shorts, barefoot, with a bright red L.L. Bean chamois shirt over a faded yellow tee shirt. He hadn’t made much of an effort to comb his long, gray hair. He’s gone native, she thought. Her older brother looked nothing like the put-together west coast academic she had sporadically seen over the past few years. Whatever the reason for it, she approved of the change.
“Are you ready?”
He lifted the bowl to his lips and sucked down the remainder of the milk. “As ready as I’ll ever be,” he said. “We should take advantage of the tide.” He walked the bowl to the sink, swished some water in it, and put it in the dishwasher. “You carry the lightweight stuff, I’ll carry the bag and cooler. There’s some warm clothes on the boat.”
Pilar sat in the stern as he rowed them out, admiring the ease with which he dipped the oars in the water, perpendicular at the beginning of each stroke, wasting little motion. “You get out on the water much in California?” she asked him.
“Hardly ever,” he said.
“You can still row, though.”
He laughed. “It’s like riding a bicycle.”
In a few minutes they were alongside the sailboat. She climbed aboard as Jeremy secured a line and began handing stuff to her.
Though some sailors considered it bad luck, Jeremy had changed the boat’s name, from the pedestrian Sea Breeze to Andromeda, after his daughter. The sloop was 22 feet long, with a cabin that even Pilar had to crouch down in. The wooden bench seats in the cockpit had been lovingly scraped and re-varnished, as had the gunwales. The fiberglass hull had been cleaned, caulked and re-painted. The little boat looked sharp. A small outboard engine hung off a bracket on the stern.
They decided, after some discussion, to leave the dinghy on the mooring. “It’ll just slow us down,” Jeremy said.
“But how do we land on the island?”
“There’s a dock,” he reminded her. “And the chart shows good water in there, even at low tide. I’m sure this Cyrus won’t mind us tying up.”
Pilar had no idea what Cyrus Nash would or would not mind, but she agreed to leave the dinghy behind, hoping it was a decision she would not come to regret.
“There’s wind enough to sail off the mooring, don’t you think?” Jeremy said, when everything was stowed.
“You’re the skipper.”
“Wind’s from the south,” he observed. “Which means we’ll have to tack on the way down there, but then we’ll run home. It’s picking up a bit.”
And so it was. The jib flapped in the freshening wind when he went forward and hanked it on. Pilar threaded the sheets through the pulleys on either side of the cockpit and tied a figure-eight knot at the end of each line. She’d done a little sailing herself, with a boyfriend a few years back, but she doubted she could have sailed the little sloop by herself. Jeremy raised the mainsail and told her to take the tiller as he went forward, held the jib out to one side, and cast off. He hustled back to the cockpit, adjusted the main and jib sheets, and just like that, they were sailing. The dinghy bobbed on the mooring behind them.
She steered Andromeda around the nearby islands and out into the bay. It was still early; several lobster boats were in sight but only one other sailboat, heeled over in the freshening wind, off the end of the long, low shoreline of Swan’s Island, toward the open ocean. Jeremy got out the chart and plotted a series of long tacks that would take them eventually to Solomon Island. The island was only seven miles away but directly upwind.
Soon they were dipping the rail on each tack, spray flying over the bow. Pilar pulled on a sweater and windbreaker despite the day’s warmth. Jeremy nearly lost his baseball cap twice before replacing it with a bandanna. She let him take over the tiller when it became difficult to hold the boat off the wind. He cracked two cans of Bud Light, and she spilled half of hers onto the cockpit floor when they tacked. Jeremy just laughed and opened another one. “That’s why I drink cheap beer on the water,” he said. “Of course Gretchen tells me I should be drinking, well, water.”
Pilar laughed and brushed a wayward strand of hair from her mouth. She liked it out here. This was the real Maine: the drowned coast left behind by the glaciers, the thing for which the state was justifiably famous. What a shame that her father had died before he could teach her about boats and sailing. There were pictures of her, and of Joanie, in Elliot Sprauling’s sloop, but she had no memories of those times. She looked at Jeremy, grinning broadly as he sought to gain as much upwind distance to windward as he could, and thought that she had seldom seen the expression of joy on his face that she was seeing now. Why hadn’t Gretchen or Madison inherited the boating bug, as Jeremy obviously had? For Paul, the ocean was different – it had been his workplace. But he loved it, too. Yet she had rarely, in her childhood, been out on his lobster boat, and she had spent most of the years since high school Away. Most of the boating she had done had been with boyfriends in other places. She felt like she had missed an opportunity that had been in front of her all her life.
The islands off Stonington were impossible to distinguish without a chart, and even when Jeremy pointed them out to her, she had difficulty orienting herself. He pointed out the double-ended bulk of Solomon Island, still well to windward, as he threaded the boat through a narrow passage between a bold island whose spruce trees grew down to the very edge of a high granite cliff and a flat ledge on which a dozen or more seals had hauled themselves out to sun. The tide had dropped since their departure, exposing rocks that would have been invisible hours earlier, and she thought about the explorers who had to navigate this coast without the aid of charts and marker buoys. She wondered how many boats they had wrecked.
They were within sight of the dock on Solomon Island when Jeremy brought the boat around on another tack, and Pilar heard something snap. Looking up, she saw that one of the spreaders – the metal bars that stuck out perpendicularly from the mast about halfway up – had broken off and was dangling from the wire shroud that ran from the top of the mast to the chain plates imbedded in the hull. The shroud itself hung loose, like a broken guitar string. She knew enough about sailing to know this was not good.
She pointed upward.
“Fuck me.” He pushed the tiller to the center of the boat; the sails flapped.
“Here, take it,” he said. “Keep us into the wind. I’ve got take the sails down.”
She moved to obey, as he scrambled to the foredeck, released the jib halyard, and hauled down the sail, quickly securing it with a single piece of rope. He came back to the cockpit and lowered the main, bunching it on the boom and tying it out of the way.
“How’d that happen?” she asked him.
“I don’t know. It’s an old boat.”
“What do we do now?”
“We start the engine,” he said. “We can’t sail with it like that. The mast could come down.”
“Oh dear,” she heard herself say.
“We’ll go into the dock and see what we can do there,” he said. “I’m pretty sure we’ll have to motor home.” He was already behind her, lowering the engine bracket. He fiddled with a couple of knobs, and pulled the cord. The engine sputtered, but did not start. He pulled the cord again, with the same result. “Come on,” he muttered.
“Is it out of gas?” she asked, peering over her shoulder.
“No, it’s not out of gas. I topped it off last night.” He pulled the cord again, but the motor stubbornly refused to kick into life. He tried it again. “Start, you piece of shit,” he demanded. Another pull produced nothing but a dry cough, and a string of expletives from Jeremy.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Fuck if I know,” he spat. “I don’t know shit about outboard motors.”
The boat was drifting between islands. Pilar flashed on the dinghy, back on the mooring at the point. They had left the oars in it, too.
“Should we call someone?” she asked. She had her cell phone aboard, and assumed that he had his.
He yanked the cord several more times. Still nothing.
“Jeremy, what if we run aground on those rocks?” She pointed to a ledge that lay astern, in the direction they were drifting.
“We’ll drop anchor before that happens,” he said. “Then I guess we’ll call Paul. He can maybe call one of his fisherman friends to come rescue us.” He squinted up at the broken spreader. Pilar could only guess what he was thinking. He hated asking for help. Most men did. But this situation surely cried out for assistance.
She watched as he lifted the outboard bracket and took the cover off the engine. He prodded around with his fingers, but she could tell by the expression on his face that he had no clue how to get it working again. The spreader had broken off near the mast. She could see the jagged end of the hollow piece of metal protruding from the boot that held it in place. The other end flapped in the breeze. She looked around and saw that they were in no imminent danger of running onto the rocks, but that they were drifting farther from Solomon Island.
But what was that? She squinted in the sunlight, and saw that someone was approaching them from the direction of the island, in a small skiff. She waved her arms over her head and shouted “Hey!” to get his attention. Jeremy looked up as the skiff drew alongside them.
“Need help?” The man in the small boat sported dark, shoulder-length hair going to gray billowing from beneath a faded and paint-spattered Red Sox cap. His handlebar moustache almost entirely concealed his mouth. The skiff was battered and filthy, filled with plastic gas containers, beer cans, odd bits of rope in varying lengths and thicknesses, and other pieces of junk she couldn’t readily identify. He idled the engine a few feet away from them, and glanced casually upward at the broken spreader.
Jeremy replaced the engine cover. “Won’t start,” he called back.
The man pulled the skiff beside the boat and handed Jeremy a line. “Mind if I take a look?”
“By all means,” Jeremy said.
The man climbed aboard as Jeremy tied his line to a deck cleat. The stranger tried the engine once, then removed the cover and looked inside, just as Jeremy had. But Pilar had the impression that this man knew what he was looking for. After a minute of poking and prodding, punctuated by a few more false starts, he said, “It’s either a clogged fuel line, or some kind of ignition problem. You got a line? I’ll tow you into the dock and we’ll take a look.” He nodded toward the island.
Jeremy disappeared into the cabin and re-emerged with a coil of rope. He walked with it to the foredeck and cleated off one end. “Saw you take your sails down and figured you might be in trouble,” the man said to Pilar. She noted the deep crow’s feet around the stranger’s eyes, and saw too that his hands were rough and calloused and that the fingernail on one index finger was black underneath, as if he had hit it with a hammer. He glanced back up at the spreader. “Guess I was right.”
Jeremy came aft with the other end of the line. She watched as the man took it from Jeremy, climbed back into the skiff, and tied it to a metal ring at the corner of the small boat’s stern.
“Are you… Cyrus?” she asked him.
He looked at her. His eyes were dark brown and expressionless. When he didn’t answer right away, she said, “I’m Pilar Sprauling. I sent you a note. We talked on the phone.”
His thick moustache twitched into something resembling a smile. “About the Ellsworth hospital,” he said.
“Right. This is my brother Jeremy.”
Cyrus Nash dipped his chin in a barely perceptible nod. His eyes returned to hers. “We’ll talk on shore,” he said, “after we get your boat fixed.”
Briefly, he told Jeremy to get on the tiller and installed Pilar on the foredeck to watch that the line didn’t go slack and snag in the propeller. She admired the way he took charge without any show of asserting authority. In a few minutes they were tied up at the dock on Solomon Island.
A motorized dory, as neat as the skiff was messy, lay tied on one side of the float. A small sailboat, shorter than Andromeda and without a cabin, floated on a nearby mooring. The tide now was halfway out, exposing the pilings that supported the dock, made of thick crisscrossed logs filled with rocks, the smallest of which were roughly the size of a human head.
“I’ll be right back,” he told them. “Got to get a couple of things.”
He ascended the ramp and ambled down the dock and disappeared into a side door of the barnlike building beside it. “He seems like a man of few words,” Jeremy said to her when they were alone. “I hope you get some information out of him.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in any of that stuff,” she said.
“I don’t. I’ll just be happy if he can help us fix the boat.”
“Sorry to put you through all this,” she said. “I should’ve just paid a fisherman to bring me out.”
“And I should have checked the rigging, instead of spending all that time on painting and stuff,” Jeremy said.
Footsteps cut short their conversation. Cyrus carried a large plastic bucket filled with assorted pieces of metal in one hand, and some sort of power tool with a circular saw blade on the end in the other. He set both down at the bottom of the ramp, looked up at the broken spreader, and then at Pilar.
“Somebody’s got to get up there,” he said. “And you’re the lightest.”
“What? Up the mast?”
He nodded. “You got a chair, or a harness or anything?”
Pilar looked at Jeremy, who shook his head.
“We can do it with a couple loops of line,” he said. “What you got to do is take both pieces off, and bring ’em down here so I can measure ’em.” He looked at Jeremy. “I think I can make you a new one that’ll hold you for a while.”
“What about the motor?” Jeremy asked him.
“First things first,” said Cyrus Nash, fixing him with a dark-eyed stare. “You don’t want your mast to snap in half, do you?”
“No, I guess not,” Jeremy muttered.
Once again, Cyrus took charge. Borrowing another line from Jeremy, he fashioned two loops and instructed Pilar to put her legs through them. From his skiff he produced a toolbox, and found a pair of needle-nosed pliers, a jackknife, and a small hammer. He wrapped a length of the rope around Pilar’s waist and tied off a smaller loop just in front of the button of her jeans. He gave it a small tug, pulling her toward him. She stumbled, and put her hand on his shoulder to steady herself.
“That’ll work,” he said, ignoring the brief physical contact. He told Jeremy to remove the halyard from the mainsail, and, taking it from him, clipped it to the small loop he had made. Holding the other end of the line, he instructed Pilar to lean back against the rope around her legs and waist. It held her weight easily. He told her to place her feet against the mast as he hauled her up, as though she were climbing a wall. She nodded and prepared herself. Though she had never been up the mast of a sailboat before, she implicitly trusted him. Holding the tools in one hand and the halyard attached to her makeshift harness in the other, she allowed him to hoist her into position. It was a small boat, and the spreaders were only about a dozen feet above the deck, but she did not look down. Strangely, she felt no fear, though she had never liked heights.
Cyrus Nash calmly called out instructions from below, as she cut through the tape around the base of the broken spreader, pulled out the cotter pin, and pried the broken piece of metal loose with the pliers. She then unwrapped the other end from the loose wire shroud, which involved removing a plastic cover and then unwinding a piece of wire that secured it. It was interesting to see how this part of the sailboat was put together. When she was done, she held both ends of the broken spreader. “Don’t drop them,” Cyrus said, as he lowered her back to the deck.
She stepped out of the rope loops and he took the two pieces of metal from her. He laid them end to end in the cockpit. “Got a tape measure?” he asked Jeremy.
“I don’t know. I’ll look.” He went below and came back up with the boat’s small tool kit. “I thought there was one in here,” he said, after several seconds of futile rummaging.
“Never mind. I’ll eyeball it.” Cyrus produced a piece of metal pipe and held it against the short end of the broken spreader, checking to see that they were the same diameter. “I can cut you piece the right length,” he said. “Won’t be able to pin it in, but you keep that shroud good and tight, it ought to hold it in place ’til you can get it replaced.”
“Will it get us home okay?” Jeremy asked.
Cyrus looked at him a moment, then laughed. “I’d be more worried about the other one,” he said. He showed him the broken end. “See that? Metal fatigue. How long’s that other one been in there?”
“I don’t know,” Jeremy muttered. “It’s an old boat.”
From somewhere, Cyrus produced a pair of protective glasses. He laid the broken spreader out on the dock and placed the piece against it. He marked off the correct length with a nail he just happened to have in his pocket. Pilar was again impressed that he seemed to have everything he needed at hand.
Cyrus had Jeremy put his foot on the bar to hold it in place while he took up the strange cutting tool. “I adapted this from a weed whacker,” he said. He pulled the cord, and the small engine coughed into life. A touch of the trigger set the circular blade spinning.
“Watch your eyes,” he said.
Pilar looked away, like she did when she was getting a shot at the doctor’s office. The blade whined, and a moment later, a second, intact piece of metal lay on the dock beside the two broken halves of the first. He shut off the whacker/saw.
“Wow,” she said.
But Cyrus had already moved on to the next task: removing the end piece from the broken spreader. One end of this piece plugged into the hollow tube; the other end was grooved to fit around the shroud in a way that it could slide up and down. Pilar had removed the wire that held it in place when she had been up in the rope harness. She watched now as Cyrus struggled to remove the piece. Finally he said he was going to put it in a vise in the shed and would be right back.
“He’s awfully handy, isn’t he?” she said to Jeremy when he had gone. “I guess if something had to break, we’re lucky it happened here.”
Jeremy seemed sort of glum about the whole thing. “Let’s hope he can get the engine running, too,” he said. She suppressed her annoyance. A stranger was helping her brother repair his boat, on the spur of the moment and without being asked, and all he could think of was what Cyrus could do for him next. This was not the reason they had come to the island, but Jeremy had apparently forgotten that.
Cyrus returned, holding the liberated end piece, which he hammered into the replacement spreader. “Got to haul you up again,” he said. And was that the hint of a smile behind the handlebar moustache? She couldn’t tell.
“I don’t mind,” she said.
She wired the new spreader into place as Cyrus again instructed from below. When he lowered her, he helped her out of the ropes, taking her hand briefly as she stepped out of them. Then he showed Jeremy how to tighten the rig so that the makeshift spreader would stay in place. Jeremy mumbled his thanks. “Can I pay you something?” he said.
Pilar enjoyed the look Cyrus gave him in response, halfway between a scowl and a scornful grin. “Hell, no,” he said. “You did bring beer, didn’t you?”
“Oh, shit, I almost forgot.” Pilar ducked into the boat’s cabin and came up with the twelve-pack. She handed Cyrus a cold bottle. He produced an opener on a key ring and took a long pull.
“Thank you – that is some good,” he said. He sat down on the end of the ramp and took another healthy swallow, nearly draining the bottle.
“You were thirsty,” Pilar observed.
“Oh, I don’t really drink the first one,” he said. “More like pour it.” He finished the beer and handed her the bottle. “Now, let’s have a look at that engine. Then we’ll have a couple more and talk about that hospital.”
Pilar knew even less about outboard engines than Jeremy did, but she watched as Cyrus removed a small rubber tube, blew out some black gunk into the water, replaced it, and squirted the whole assembly with WD-40. It didn’t start right away, and it sputtered a bit when it did, but after twenty minutes or so, Cyrus had it so that it would run in neutral without cutting out. The caretaker wiped his hands on a filthy rag, threw it back amid the debris in his skiff, and pronounced the job done. He told Jeremy he should take the engine in for servicing sometime soon, that the fuel line needed to be cleaned and the fuel filter changed, and that a new spark plug and a change of engine oil wouldn’t be bad ideas, either. Jeremy nodded and said “uh-huh,” and “thank you” and not much more.
“So,” said Cyrus Nash, “how about we go up to the house? There’s some chairs we can sit out in out front, and work on these.” He hefted the twelve-pack. “No one here but us,” he called over his shoulder. “Might as well enjoy the view.”
He led them along a dirt road large enough to accommodate the island’s one vehicle, an ancient gray Jeep parked alongside a small house at the base of the hill on which the main house stood. Pilar wondered how it had gotten here, for she had seen no landing ramp. The main house was a long, low structure with white wooden shingles and a red tile roof. It didn’t have to be imposing because it sat on top of a hill. Cyrus led them around the other side to a sitting area with a picnic table and four Adirondack chairs, each one of which had been painted a different bright color. The view was sweeping. Pilar could see the rounded top of Blue Hill in the distance to the north, and the hills of Mount Desert Island, but closer to them the panorama was of small islands and ledges and the lobster boats and the few sailboats – more than there had been earlier this morning – plying the passages between them.
“This is beautiful,” she said. “If I lived out here, I’d do nothing but paint seascapes.”
Cyrus Nash acknowledged the observation with a nod. “This is where cocktail hour happens when the family’s here,” he said. “I like to come out here when they’re gone. Otherwise I keep to my side of the island, unless something up here needs doing.”
“Where do you sleep?” Pilar asked him.
“Got a bunk and a kitchenette built into the boathouse,” he said. “Plus a bathroom with a shower. All I need. There’s a woodstove in there, too. They set me up pretty good.”
He plunked down into the red chair, opened three beers, and waved his arm for them to join him. Pilar took the bright yellow chair nearest him, and Jeremy sat in a dark blue chair on her other side. For a few moments they sipped beer in silence and took it all in.
Pilar spoke first. “You used to work for a newspaper,” she said. “Why’d you give it up?”
Cyrus Nash waved his beer bottle at the panorama in front of him. “For all this, you mean? Wasn’t a hard choice.”
“Do you still write?”
“Look around,” he said. “There’s no TV out here, no internet, no social life of unless I go to Stonington, and there’s not much there, either. Of course I still write.”
“Are you published?”
“Aside from a few newspaper stories nobody remembers – well, almost nobody – no. I’m almost sixty years old. The world doesn’t care what I have to say. I do it for myself.”
“Why’d you write about the hospital?”
Cyrus took a long swig of his beer before answering. “Because my editor, rest his soul, told me to.”
“Do you still have the article?”
“Yeah, somewhere. There’s a battered old file cabinet down in the boathouse, where I keep all my stuff.”
“What do you do when you’re not on the island?” Jeremy put in. “During the winter, I mean.”
“Oh, a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Usually go someplace warm. Mexico, the Caribbean. Been all over the place. Always end up back in Maine, though. I like it here.”
“I’d like to see it,” Pilar said. “The story you wrote, about the elevator.”
“I could probably dig it out, if you’ve got some time.” He took another pull from the beer bottle. “I don’t have what you’d call an organized filing system.”
“Where you from, Cyrus?” Jeremy asked.
“Originally, you mean? Boston. I’m a Masshole. Haven’t lived there in years, though. Too crowded. I favor out-of-the-way places.”
“Tell me about the hospital,” Pilar said, attempting to steer the conversation back to the business she had come to discuss.
Cyrus tipped the last of his beer into his mouth and casually tossed the empty bottle on the grass at his feet. “Got another one of these handy?” he said.
Pilar handed him a fresh bottle. “So tell me, Cyrus – do you think the hospital is haunted?”
Cyrus drank off half the beer in two measured pulls before replying. “I don’t have an opinion one way or the other,” he said.
“Come on,” she said. “Matthew Richardson seems to think you know more about it than anyone.”
He laughed and looked into the bottle. Then he lifted his eyes to meet hers. “Did Matt tell you that nine of ten stories about the supernatural turn out to be bogus? Probably more. People often see what they want to see – like dead relatives, for example.” He punctuated this statement with another long sip of beer, nearly draining the bottle.
“Nine out of ten,” she said. “That still leaves a lot of stories.”
“Yep.” Cyrus Nash finished off the beer, and waved to Pilar for a fresh one, which she quickly supplied.
“I’ll take another one, too,” Jeremy said. “While you two are spinning your fantasies.”
“Jeremy doesn’t believe in ghosts,” she said.
“Neither did I,” Cyrus said, “until I met one.”
“Our father is a ghost,” Jeremy scoffed. “You expect me to believe that?”
Cyrus shook his head. “That I don’t know about,” he said. “If he is, he never showed himself to me. No, the ghost I met was years ago, in California. So I know that they exist. But all I know about whatever’s in that elevator is what I’ve heard from other people.”
“Like what?” Pilar said. She was moderately interested in the ghost he’d met in California, but she wanted to hear about her father more. And she could tell that Jeremy was growing impatient. The tide had bottomed out and had risen about a foot on the rocks below them while they had been sitting here. She knew Jeremy wanted to use the tide to get back to the point, and she had caught his glances at the advancing water.
“Where in California?” Jeremy asked.
“In a little town you’ve never heard of, in the mountains east of L.A.”
“Jeremy lives in San Diego,” Pilar said. She didn’t want the conversation to veer off track. “But tell me more about the ghost in the elevator.”
“Okay,” Cyrus said, after another swallow, “that elevator was put in where an old stairwell used to be, when they built the new wing back in 1977. That much was easy to find out. And that stairwell…”
“Was where our father fell to his death,” Pilar finished for him.
Cyrus nodded. Pilar glanced over at Jeremy. She saw that he was no longer looking at the tide, but paying close attention to their host.
“Wow,” Pilar said. “I had no idea that elevator was on the exact spot where Dad died. Did you know that, Jeremy?”
“No,” her brother said.
She turned back to Cyrus. “And how did you find out about the elevator?”
“Like I said, my editor was big into anything having to do with spirits and the supernatural. He knew about the hospital somehow – I think his wife worked on the fringes of the medical profession and had heard about it through the grapevine, despite the efforts of management to hush it up.”
“Like my brother’s girlfriend,” Pilar said. “My younger brother. Everett. His girlfriend’s a scrub tech who used to work there. She’s the one who told us that the hospital was haunted.”
Jeremy snorted. “It makes a good story,” he said. “But that’s all it is.”
“You must have checked out the elevator,” Pilar said to Cyrus, ignoring Jeremy. “When you were researching the story, I mean. Did anything happen?”
Cyrus shook his head. “I never experienced anything myself. But a couple of the nurses who were willing to talk to me said they’d seen the lights go off suddenly, or had it go back and forth between the same two floors without anybody pushing a button.”
“Sounds like something’s wrong with the electronics,” Jeremy said.
“Well, I called the elevator company, and they said they’d been out to test it and couldn’t find anything wrong. This was ten years ago, mind you. But it was in good working order then.”
“Jeremy, you’ve had funny things happen to you in that elevator,” Pilar said. “And Maddie got stuck in there last month. Maybe Cyrus didn’t experience anything because he’s not a Sprauling.”
“How would that explain the nurses?” Jeremy said.
She frowned and thought about this. Maybe the ghost – or whatever it was – only manifested to those who’d had a relationship to Elliot Sprauling, professional or familial. Maybe the movements and strange behavior of the elevator were attempts at communication, as though their dead father were trying to tell them something.
But all she said to Jeremy was, “I don’t know.”
“So our father died from a fall in the stairwell, and years later, they installed a funky elevator in the same place,” Jeremy said. “It doesn’t prove anything.”
“But you talked to some of the nurses,” Pilar said to Cyrus.
“As many as would talk to me,” he replied. “I tried to talk to the older ones first, those who’d been there a long time and might have known your father. Most of them wouldn’t say anything on the record. It was hard even to get his name. Finally I pinned somebody down on the date and the time of year, and looked up the original news story at the Ellsworth library.”
“October 1971,” Jeremy murmured. “I was fourteen.”
“I was six,” Pilar said. “It’s like, my earliest memory.”
Silence fell over them for a moment, until Cyrus said softly, “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” Pilar told him. “It was a long time ago. We’ve all long since picked ourselves up and gone on with our lives.”
“Speaking of that, we should get going soon,” Jeremy said, pointedly looking at his watch, and then out at the water. “That tide’s not going to wait.”
“But I want to hear more,” Pilar said.
“I gotta get the boat back,” Jeremy said. “I’d like to get in before dark. Which won’t happen if we don’t leave soon.”
Pilar thought he was exaggerating – Cyrus had fixed the motor, after all – but Jeremy said the boat could move faster under sail with the tide than it could with the little engine pushing against it. They argued back and forth until Cyrus said, “I could run you into Stonington later, in the skiff, if you’ve got someone who can pick you up.”
“We’re supposed to have dinner at Gretchen’s,” Jeremy reminded her.
“What time’s she expecting us?”
“She said seven-ish.”
“Plenty of time,” Cyrus said.
“It’s after three,” Jeremy said. “Even if we leave now, we won’t be in until five, maybe five-thirty.”
“Hell, I can get you to Stonington in ten, fifteen minutes,” Cyrus said.
“Jeremy, why don’t you take the boat back, and drive my car around and pick me up?” Pilar didn’t want to leave the island yet. She wanted to talk to Cyrus alone, away from her brother’s skepticism.
Cyrus met her eyes and nodded. Again, she thought she saw the hint of a smile behind the forest of facial hair.
When they got back to the dock, Jeremy started the small engine without difficulty. He thanked Cyrus several times for his help, then raised the mainsail and sailed off the dock. The wind had slackened a bit but he still had plenty to get home. They stood a small distance apart and watched him go.
When he disappeared behind an island, Cyrus asked her if she would like a ten-cent tour of the boathouse where he lived. He owned a collection of paperback books, a CD player and an assortment of disks, an acoustic guitar, a few dishes and clothes, and not much else. “I like to keep things simple,” he explained. A battered wooden desk in one corner was piled high with file fodders and spiral notebooks; an equally weathered two-drawer file cabinet that had once been red stood beside it. He didn’t show her any of his writing, and she didn’t ask.
Afterwards as they walked the southern end of the island, he told her of some off-the-record conversations he’d had with people at the hospital in the course of his research. He couldn’t print most of it, he said, because they had made him promise not to, and he told Pilar that if he shared it with her, she could not write about it, either. She agreed.
By the time the tide turned and she rode with him to Stonington in his skiff amid the beer cans and tools, Pilar knew two things. She would see the enigmatic Cyrus Nash again. And she would continue to search for the truth about her father.