I am now in my second week at the Hemlocks on Prism Bay, dear readers, and so far as I can tell, Mrs. Sylvester and I are still the only ones in residence. I say “so far as I can tell” because the Hemlocks is large enough, and complex enough, that a professional football team could conceivably hold regular practice sessions here without my knowing anything about it.
Often, I have the impression that some rooms are rearranging themselves, even appearing and disappearing entirely, though on closer inspection it generally turns out some wall hanging or item of furniture has been moved in such a way as to subtly but significantly alter the room’s appearance. When these redecorations are actually occurring, and who exactly is performing them, I have yet to discover. Adding to the confusion, some rooms have more than one name, while others have none at all. The “conservatory”, for example, might refer either to what is also sometimes called the “greenhouse”, or to what is known as the “music room”. Readers, these are two very different rooms, and it is a little embarrassing to end up in the wrong one. When I asked Mrs. Sylvester exactly how many rooms are to be found at the Hemlocks, she merely smiled and said, “Many, Mr. Black.”
Mrs. Sylvester always refers to me as “Mr. Black” (which I get a kick out of), and prefers I call her “Mrs. Sylvester”—or, at least, she hasn’t invited me to call her anything else. She is, as I’ve said before and will surely say again, a remarkable woman, with many hidden rooms of her own, as it were. She is tall and slender, a tallness and slenderness she offsets with a wardrobe of voluminous dresses. I would call them old fashioned, except that I can’t quite pinpoint exactly which era of the past they would be from. It might be better to say her outfits are outside of fashion, or possibly in keeping with a fashion I don’t recognize or understand. There is, to my knowledge, no Mr. Sylvester, though I haven’t broached the subject explicitly. Mrs. Sylvester values her privacy, and even were I bold enough to ask her directly (and I’m not there yet, dear readers), I doubt I would get anything like a direct answer. (It would not surprise me one bit to hear the conversation go like this: “Is there a Mr. Sylvester?” “Many, Mr. Black.”)
If Mrs. Sylvester looks and acts vaguely like a character from Downton Abbey, however, she is most certainly not my faithful servant. Whatever the duties of a “house custodian” entail, it is not the same thing as being a butler or formal housekeeper. Mrs. Sylvester considers it her responsibility to ensure I am happy and comfortable during my stay, but there are times when I feel I’m more a curiosity than an actual guest—almost like a pet. Her air of good-natured indulgence often reminds me of the way someone might treat an adorable but clumsy puppy. Not that I’m complaining. Maybe there is a subtext here I don’t fully understand; perhaps Mrs. Sylvester is simply eccentric; whatever the reason for the faint amusement I’ve been detecting, it’s no reason to give up life in this amazing house (with free food!) in a lovely seaside town. Unless, that is, I’m being fattened up so she can feed me to G’lal the Devourer (he says with a nervous chuckle).
My first conversation with Mrs. Sylvester—at least, the first not carried out by post—has turned out to be pretty typical of our relationship thus far. You will remember, dear readers, that I reached the Hemlocks on Prism Bay, at the end of Five Fathom Drive, after a day of trials and tribulations, during which I was nearly run off the road, had my personal space invaded by an exceedingly strange man, and performed an arcane ritual—which might or might not have actually been successful—to win the favor of a mysterious and gluttonous being. At last, with dawn approaching, I arrived at my destination to discover a note directing me to my room and from there to breakfast promptly at 7:30 in the morning. At the time, I didn’t remark on Mrs. Sylvester’s boldness in leaving her door unlocked so late at night, but I did the next day, especially as it became more and more apparent she’d been in the house alone. Having known her now for almost two weeks, however, this doesn’t strike me as the least bit strange. I would be far more surprised to meet anyone who dared risk her displeasure by entering the Hemlocks uninvited.
Despite having slept less than three hours, I awoke refreshed, and had no trouble presenting myself in the dining room by 7:30, unless you count my trouble actually finding the dining room to begin with. I was expecting the house to be busy with morning traffic: my fellow residents discussing plans for the day, their children running about—all fitted with the recommended horn protectors, of course. I took special care with my outfit, aware I would be making a great many first impressions. When I descended the wide, wooden stairwell to the first floor, however, it was to an almost dreamlike quiet. The sun was out, and shone in a variety of colors through the foyer’s stained glass windows, and this multi-hued light, along with the dark wood throughout, gave the place a warm, inviting feel—it was just an invitation no one except me seemed to have accepted.
I wandered through the rooms of the first floor, all of them richly furnished but still light and airy thanks to high ceilings and tall windows, feeling a bit like an intruder, waiting for someone to appear and ask what I was doing there—until finally I found a room with a long wooden table at its center, a place setting at either end. One had a card that read “Mr. Black” in a sweeping hand I’ve come to know as the work of Mrs. Sylvester, and as I stood examining this, feeling both impressed and unnerved, a voice from the far end of the room said, “Welcome, Mr. Black. I trust you had a comfortable evening.”
It was the much-anticipated Mrs. Sylvester. This I somehow knew, though she had yet to introduce herself. Her voice was surprisingly deep, formal but friendly, with the hint of an accent I couldn’t quite place. Nothing British, though that was what I’d imagined when reading her letters—possibly some echo of an old New England dialect.
“Yes, it was very comfortable, thank you,” I said, flustered, because I hadn’t heard her come in, though that’s something else I’m becoming accustomed to, both about the Hemlocks and Mrs. Sylvester herself—things around here move quietly. I think it’s the thick carpets.
“I am Mrs. Sylvester, custodian of the Hemlocks,” she said. “I apologize that I was not present to greet you last night.”
“Oh, sure, no problem,” I said, though I didn’t think she was actually sorry about it.
“Please have a seat. Your meal will arrive shortly.”
She made it sound as if this meal was some thinking entity with its own sense of action and initiative. I half expected to see a parade of sentient cookware marching in, like something out of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, but to my relief (and disappointment), the food arrived in the company of a perfectly normal human being: a cook, perhaps, bearing two trays. He set one in front of me, and the other before Mrs. Sylvester, who had taken her seat at the opposite end of the table. “Who was that?” I asked as the cook or server retreated from view.
What I meant was, “What was that man’s name, and what is his role in this house?” I was expecting an answer like “the cook” or “my nephew” or “Jeffrey”, but Mrs. Sylvester only smiled and said, “Who was who?” I didn’t quite know what to say to that, readers, so I decided it would be best just to turn my attention the meal itself.
The meal itself was, like every meal I’ve had at the Hemlocks since, simply wonderful. Poached eggs with sausage and shredded potatoes, toast, croissant (which I am fairly certain was homemade), grapefruit and sliced pineapple, and dang good coffee. Despite all the feasting of the night before, I was famished, and tucked in with gusto. Mrs. Sylvester, meanwhile, ate in such a way that her food vanished as if by sleight of hand: afterward, I couldn’t recall actually having seen her eat; it was just that, whenever I looked, her plate was a little emptier. I have come to imagine this as a technique learned at some very proper finishing school, where it is believed ladies should never be witnessed eating and students are therefore trained as veritable food ninjas.
As we ate—or, as I ate, and my host absorbed her breakfast by osmosis or teleportation—Mrs. Sylvester questioned me about my plans for the summer. My answer, that I hoped to make progress on my next book, seemed to amuse her. It was like she suspected me of having some other, secret project in the works, and of using my writing to avoid the question. “Well, I hope you have a very productive and profitable summer,” she said, as the cook-or-maybe-nephew-or-Jeffrey arrived to take our empty plates, replacing them with smaller versions bearing a single, artfully-proportioned cinnamon bun. “Please consider me a resource in all aspects of your stay.”
“Thank you,” I said, “that’s very kind of you. And let me say how grateful I am for the invitation to stay in your lovely house.”
Mrs. Sylvester answered with a gracious nod. “I expect certain aspects of our little summer community will seem unusual at first, even strange,” she said. “Often, it takes residents time to adjust to the pace of life here. I am sure that, by the time July and August arrive, you will feel right at home, but if there is anything I can do to aid in your work, or to make your stay here more comfortable, I hope you will not hesitate to ask.”
This was my opening to set loose any of several questions then clamoring for expression. For example, Why had I been invited here, exactly? Mrs. Sylvester hadn’t mentioned any familiarity with my work, and seemed almost surprised to learn I was a writer. Or, maybe, Where are the other residents? Why have I never heard of the Hemlocks or Prism Bay? For that matter, How did she get my home address? Most of all, I wanted to know whether we would be getting an Internet connection anytime soon. In the moment, though, these questions all struck me as rude, and anyway I would have time to investigate later, so I decided on a question more directly relevant to my day. “I thought I would explore the area a little,” I said. “Are there any places I ought to see? Any local attractions I shouldn’t miss?”
Mrs. Sylvester smiled one of her subtle smiles and said, “Many, Mr. Black. Many.”
That first day, most of Mrs. Sylvester’s recommendations concerned the town and surrounding landscape. She outlined a tour that would take me past most of Prism Bay’s prominent landmarks and impressive sights, while avoiding areas she considered, and I quote, “dangerous or unsavory”. She also suggested I take one of the bicycles kept on hand for residents, rather than my car, pointing out that the purpose of this excursion was the journey, not the destination. I of course knew about the house bikes—they were mentioned in the fifty-or-so pages of Guidelines and General Information, and I narrowly avoided making a quip about certain other modes of transportation described therein, such as the carriage that could, on formal occasions, be hitched with winged horses. I didn’t think Mrs. Sylvester and I were familiar enough yet for me to be making jokes about her hospitality. I also didn’t mention that I hadn’t ridden a bicycle for some years, and that it would be of no help that my skills would surely come back, because I hadn’t been much good in the first place. She was the knowledgeable party here, and I decided to follow her recommendations. I would adjust to life in Prism Bay, and I would begin doing so by bike.
The bicycle was an old-fashioned affair but well maintained and comfortable (a description that would, I think, apply to much of the Hemlocks and its contents), and it performed well, both on the paved streets around town and along narrower dirt paths that would have confounded my automobile. Prism Bay is an aptly named place: when the sun is out, its waters are positively prismatic. The sun was out that day, readers, and it was glorious.
Like most ocean inlets on the coast of Maine, Prism Bay opens southward; the passage in is relatively narrow, and surrounded by high cliffs populated by large summer homes. There is a sort of East Egg / West Egg thing going on with the high headlands that face one another across the water, and while I doubt any quite approach the opulence of Jay Gatsby’s roaring twenties Long Island, some of the houses there are very impressive indeed. The Hemlocks, if anything, is one of the more modest examples (and, again unlike Gatsby, the western side is the more lavish, and the eastern is where your narrator resides). In between these two high bluffs, raised like the points of a crescent, the land dips closer to sea level, and the town center—where I drove through my first night in town—runs along a sandy beach. There is a little port area in the same vicinity, and what looks like a marina or yacht club. The bay is dotted with small islands and boats at mooring. It was all very majestic, and I made liberal use of my digital camera as the sights rolled by.
Inland from the town center is a collection of neighborhoods, not so different from what might be found in any small New England town, where most of Prism Bay’s permanent residents live. I wasn’t surprised to learn there was some distinction made between summer visitors and those who reside here year-round; it’s a trait common to resort towns the world over, the seasonal influx of affluent vacationers, bringing cash and commerce but also crowds and cacophony, and perhaps an uncomfortable glimpse at how great disparities in wealth can sometimes be. Having visited my share of such places, I was prepared to occasionally be looked at askance, obvious interloper that I was. I’m beginning to get the sense, however, that in Prism Bay the relationship between locals and summer people is somewhat more fraught than the norm.
My first experience of what it means to be a summer person in Prism Bay occurred at lunch that first day. By the time noon rolled around, I’d had about enough of fresh air and exercise, and decided to stop in at a little bistro in town Mrs. Sylvester had recommended as a local favorite. The crowd seemed sparse, especially for a Friday, but summer was only just getting started, and I had the sense they did a lot of seasonal business. I set up at the bar, ordered a beer, and struck up a conversation with the bartender, Hank, a local kid back from college for the summer. He seemed friendly enough, until I mentioned that I was staying at the Hemlocks, whereupon his face became several shades paler and he disappeared without explanation into a back room.
A few minutes later, he returned, looking visibly nervous. “It’s a pleasure to have you with us, Mr. Black,” he said, handing me a piece of laminated paper.
“Thanks, but I already have a menu,” I said, because that was what he’d just given me, despite having already delivered a similar laminated sheet along with my beer.
“That’s the seasonal menu,” said Hank the uneasy barkeep, without further explanation.
Readers, I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a restaurant with more than one menu. I have—mostly Chinese restaurants that feature both traditional dishes and more typically “American” fare, such as General Tso’s chicken and crab rangoons. Some places will offer you both menus up front, but at others, certain snap judgments will be made, often based on the appearance of the customer receiving the menu. Such judgments appear to have been made here, dear readers. I think Hank the uneasy barkeep initially took me for a local, and only gave me the seasonal menu upon learning I was visiting from elsewhere. (Also, I hadn’t told him my name; he must have discovered I was “Mr. Black” in the course of whatever happened in that back room.)
The first menu was pretty standard fare: your garden and Caesar salads, your onion soups and turkey chilis, your chicken wraps, your burgers, your fish and chips. The seasonal menu, meanwhile, was ridiculous. A few selections that stuck in my memory: squeezed slug chowder, essence of early summer soup, fairy circle mushroom salad dusted with late spring frost, Hank’s memory of where he left his keys, braised barbecue manticore tail with pickles (careful: spicy!), devil bunny ragout, dreams of lost teeth (locally sourced and freshly harvested), goat blood (1 pt.).
I thought about asking Hank the uneasy barkeep if he was the same Hank whose memories I could order for lunch, but sensed such a joke would not be taken well. Plainly this menu had been written along a similar theme to the fifty-or-so pages of Guidelines and General Information I’d been sent prior to my arrival—maybe even by the same person. It seemed this bistro, in addition to serving normal food, was also some kind of theme restaurant—but only for the benefit of Prism Bay’s summer visitors. I wondered if this was a town-wide gimmick, perhaps even municipally mandated to support the seasonal tourist trade. Or maybe it was just this one restaurant. Either way, I could see why Hank would be upset about the whole thing. He was just trying to earn money for books, food, and beer, and here he was, being called upon to serve these rather silly novelty dishes, and possibly even to play a part in their presentation. Would he have to squeeze the slugs by hand for my entertainment? Dust the winter frost (probably just flaky sea salt) over the fairy mushrooms?
I sympathized with poor Hank. I really did. I myself have worked in what might charitably be called a theme restaurant, where I was compelled to dress as, among other things, a budget off-brand version of the Red Power Ranger. But I still ordered a bowl of essence of early summer soup as a prelude to my more traditional fish and chips. Sorry, Hank—I just couldn’t resist. At least I didn’t eat your memories.
I was expecting some hokey play on cream of broccoli or something like that, but readers, what I got was an astonishingly accurate fit to the description. My essence of early summer soup was clear, like a broth, and pale green, and it tasted just as I’d expect early summer to taste: like new vegetables and slightly under-ripe fruit, with a not unpleasant undertone of freshly cut grass. Readers, I’d never had anything like it. I was a little hesitant to say anything to Hank, but at last I told him how much I liked it, and was glad I did, because he seemed relieved, and even returned to some of the familiarity he’d shown before I mentioned my residency at the Hemlocks.
Meanwhile, I set myself to getting a proper photograph of the soup—one that would display the faint pink sheen that could be seen whenever my spoon broke the surface. Sharing this experience with the Internet was, of course, every bit as important as the experience itself, because, as we all know, if you can’t brag about something to your friends and distant acquaintances, it might as well not have happened. When I had snapped my photo and opened the file to ready it for upload, however, I made a disturbing discovery: the picture was completely out of focus. I took another photo, one that included my recently arrived fish and chips, with the same results. In fact, every picture I had taken that day was blurry to the point of illegibility.
Something is wrong with my camera, readers, and I am much vexed about it. I know I came to Prism Bay to work on my next book, to develop creatively as an artist, to live the contemplative life of the mind, but seriously, what’s the point if I don’t have pictures? This is a problem I intend to solve, readers, believe you me. I’ll have more for you next time. Until then, I hope you, too, have the chance to taste the essence of early summer, whether in liquid form or otherwise. Cheerio!