Astronomical events are something of a big deal in Prism Bay, readers. I suppose I might have divined this from the dates Mrs. Sylvester chose for her residency (“from two weeks before the summer solstice until the last week prior to the autumnal equinox”), but I’d thought this simply an expression of personal eccentricity, rather than community-wide eccentricity. The summer solstice was itself cause for some hearty celebration in late June, occasioning a level of pomp and circumstance that in another town would have been reserved for the Fourth of July. (The Fourth is still a thing, readers, but it’s one thing of many.) They like a good party around here, and this summer there has been a special addition to the calendar: a complete lunar eclipse, or “blood moon”, right at the height of summer. The whole town turned out to celebrate—and readers, it was glorious.
I didn’t see much of the summer solstice festivities, mostly because I hadn’t expected them to be so huge. I mean, when was the last time you went to a summer solstice party? (And if you have, readers, I welcome any experience you can contribute. How do you dress? What do you bring? Brownies? Seven layer dip?) The idea of an eclipse party at least made sense to me—there’d been a solar eclipse last summer, I remembered, and it seemed half of Boston emptied onto the Common to collectively scorch their retinas. A lunar eclipse—even better—would be at night. And not just any night: a Friday night. This was some prime party material, readers. As I understood things, a blood moon festival in Prism Bay was half New Year’s Eve, half Mardi Gras—so no way I was missing this. Fortunately, I’d been invited to a dinner party right on the main strip by none other than Amy of Amy’s All-Hours Confectionary Kitchen.
Amy’s blood moon soirée was to be co-hosted with the antiques shop next door, Articles of Some Considerable History. As Prism Bay’s town center was to be the focal point of festivities, Amy’s All-Hours Confectionary Kitchen would be catering to the crowds, selling special treats such as moon pies and cakes of deepest darkness. Articles of Some Considerable History, meanwhile, would be closing early, to avoid the volatile mixing of fragile antiquities and tipsy festivalgoers. As it happened, Amy’s neighbor had a full two stories, and the second, which housed antique furniture and other large items, featured a banquet table sized to seat twelve. So while Articles of Some Considerable History would provide the space, Amy’s would provide the cooking facilities—and Amy herself as chef de cuisine.
I admire people who can cook, readers, but I am not much of a cook myself. If anything, I’m a liability in the kitchen. Still, I like to help where I can, and so when Amy of Amy’s All-Hours Confectionary Kitchen and Also This Blood Moon Party asked if I could help pick up ingredients for dinner, I was only too happy to agree. “You should be able to get almost everything at the market by Vagabond Farm,” Amy said. “Pippa’s a champ at finding the best stuff, so let her make the selections—unless you’re secretly a truffle sniffing pig or something.” I admitted I was not. “Just try and keep her on task—she has a tendency go a little overboard, especially at the meat counter,” Amy added. “And don’t let her steal anything, or eat half my produce on the way home.”
The day of the eclipse, I got up early. Figuring my role at the farmers’ market would mostly involve acting as beast of burden, I decided to take my car instead of the usual bike. I was just on my way out when Mrs. Sylvester appeared in the hall. Amy had, at my request, extended an invitation to the custodian of the Hemlocks, but Mrs. Sylvester had declined, as it seemed she declines all invitations. Today, though, she had a favor to ask for me. “I understand you will be going to the market at Vagabond Farm,” she said. “I wonder whether you might obtain certain items for me during your visit.” She handed me a long, narrow, curled sheaf of paper, bearing a carefully typed list.
“Of course,” I said, accepting the strip of paper. The things listed were mostly what we might call “seasonal” ingredients. “Are you sure you don’t want to come tonight? Amy’s a great cook.” I’d begun to worry about her a little, readers. Lately, Mrs. Sylvester seemed to have become even more reclusive than usual. She is certainly no pushover, no shrinking violet; if there is one thing I’ve tried to convey to you about her, readers, it is her elegant self-assurance. I’d begun to wonder, though, whether that characteristic poise only went as far as the edge of her property—if, maybe, Mrs. Sylvester suffered from social anxiety disorder, or agoraphobia, or something similar.
“Quite sure,” Mrs. Sylvester answered with a thin smile. “Thank you, Mr. Black, but I have my own plans for the evening.” She seemed in fine fettle that day, I had to admit. Her long dress wasn’t exactly summery, but she looked comfortable in it. She was also wearing that pendant necklace, the one I’d found in my room. It had turned out to be a Sylvester family heirloom after all. When I got back after my visit to the Prism Bay Beach Club (the day of the Forest Wraiths, remember?), it had vanished from my desk—only to appear around Mrs. Sylvester’s neck the following morning.
Preparation for the festival was already well underway when I arrived in Prism Bay’s town center. Stalls for vendors and carnival-style amusements were going up along the boardwalk, and farther down I could see the little park beside the water decorated in red flowers. I noted with interest but not much surprise that the carnival games were not all throwing baseballs at milk bottles and popping balloons with darts. There was one stall, called “Throne of Consequences”, into which masked individuals were loading what appeared to be delicate glass spheres—like large light bulbs—filled with tarantulas, and another intriguingly labeled “Wrestle Your Doppelgänger”. I made a note to come back and have a look later, once the action was in full swing.
Pippa was waiting for me outside Amy’s All-Hours Confectionary Kitchen, the donut line even longer than usual this morning thanks to the profusion of workers along the boardwalk. “Hey!” she said, sliding into the passenger seat. “I found that book you told me about!”
“Oh,” I said, a bit embarrassed to recall the circumstances under which I had recommended it to her. “Great.”
“Turns out we had it all along. It was in the ‘local authors’ section.”
This was pleasant news, readers, though it did make me wonder how exactly Prism Bay Literary Merchants defined “local”. Maybe Mrs. Sylvester had let them know I would be staying at the Hemlocks and thus secured me honorary local status—since I wasn’t actually from Prism Bay, or even Maine for that matter.
“It was really great,” Pippa said. “Your next one, too. Under Seven Skies.”
This last bit of dialogue might come as something of a surprise to you, readers. It certainly surprised me—because Under Seven Skies isn’t supposed to be on the shelves yet, here or anywhere. Did Prism Bay Literary Merchants somehow acquire an advance reader copy? I’d be interested to know how, since even I didn’t have one yet. Maybe they had some connection with my publisher? Spies engaged in literary espionage smuggling copies from the printer?
“I can’t wait for the third one. I promised Amy we’d read Experiments with Alternate Currents of High Potential and High Frequency by Nikolai Tesla—you know, before the movie comes out—but I’m having a hard time resisting yours. I really want to find out what happens.”
I did not quite know what to say, readers. I was torn between asking who was making a movie based on Tesla’s electrical engineering research and whether Pippa actually meant she had a copy of my third book, which is not even finished, let alone published. Had the computer djinni that infiltrated my machine started disseminating my drafts across the Internet? It occurred to me that I’d first encountered that critter at Prism Bay Literary Merchants—could the hacker have been there with me the whole time, somewhere in the store?
I opened my mouth, unsure what would come out, but Pippa waved her arms frantically at me, shouting, “No spoilers! I want to find out for myself! Same goes for all your other books, so just watch your mouth, mister.”
The conversation was getting weirder by the moment, readers. Probably Pippa meant she didn’t want me spilling premises for future novels so she’d be able to enjoy them in their fully-realized, published form, but I couldn’t ignore one other possible way of interpreting what she’d said, which was that everything I had ever written or would write was already there in the “local authors” section of Prism Bay Literary Merchants. It seemed pretty unlikely for a number of space/time-related reasons, but I still felt a little superstitious chill, the sort you might get hearing someone make a very firm prediction about the time and place of your death.
I chose instead to ask about her readings in Nikolai Tesla, after which the conversation turned away from my future literary output, much to my relief. I was already nervous about this farmers’ market business. Generally I enjoy outdoor bazaars, especially where food is involved, but in Prism Bay I half expected to find the place sold actual farmers (the placing of that apostrophe in “farmers’ market” had begun to seem pretty important). But as we turned up the road toward Vagabond Farm, the sight awaiting us seemed to be a pretty traditional collection of local producers selling their wares—albeit a highly elaborate one, rambling across a multi-football-field-sized stretch of grass around a pristine little farmhouse and barn. Despite the relatively early hour, there was already a crowd, and the air was filled with voices—both human and animal—and heady, spicy smells.
It seemed like everything that could possibly grow from the earth was gathered into this one place, if only you knew where to look. There were indeed plenty of “summery” items for sale, such as supposed bottles of “ocean shimmer” displayed next to the cumin and nutmeg, but such curiosities were almost lost amid the profusion of fruits and vegetables, the cheeses and freshly-cut flowers, potted plants, steaming-hot pies, homemade ice cream, creatures bleating and mooing and clucking. (Did I hear a lion’s roar or an elephant’s trumpeting somewhere amid the din? Maybe I just imagined it…) There was cider, both hard and soft, and locally brewed beer, and many things distilled. The collection of tall, longhaired folk around the mead stand was one of several surreal glimpses among the mostly mundane traffic—because seriously, readers, who drinks mead these days? That stuff is pretty gross.
Pippa was, as promised, a marvel at finding the best melon in a stack, or choosing the absolute most fragrant sprig of mint, but she was far better behaved than Amy had led me to expect. She might have sampled more grapes than was really politic without buying the bunch, and I’m ninety-percent sure she ate a raw egg from the carton of three-dozen we bought, but that was as far as her transgressions against polite social norms went, so far as I saw.
We had a lot to buy—most of it, I was relieved to see, pretty standard fare. Really, things didn’t start to get weird until I asked Pippa for help filling the shopping list Mrs. Sylvester had given me. I’d read it already, and thought there were a few pretty tall orders on there, but Pippa only gave it glance and said, “Oh, sure, most of this stuff should be around someplace.” She crinkled her nose, perhaps recognizing some particularly pungent ingredient. “What does she want all this stuff for?”
“No idea,” I said. “Actually, I was pretty surprised she didn’t have eye of newt on there, too.”
“Don’t worry, eye of newt’s easy,” Pippa said with a smile—then, probably seeing my face, “it’s just a creepy name for mustard seed.”
This is true, readers; I looked it up. In fact, pretty much all the ingredients mentioned in the witches’ famous “double, double, toil and trouble” song from Macbethare just different names for common plants. “Toe of frog” is buttercup; “wool of bat”—holly leaves. None of those were on Mrs. Sylvester’s list, but a few things that were: snakeroot, devil’s tongue, starflower, earth smoke, crow’s foot, sundrop, hearts bursting with love. Lamb’s tongue, too, and because we weren’t sure if Mrs. Sylvester wanted the plant (also known as English plantain) or, you know, the tongue of an actual lamb, we got both.
A few items, though, were most definitely not just common plants with unusual names. Bottled screams, for example, which came in several varieties (“surprise”, “terror”, “delight”, etc.) and appeared to be novelty items similar to the cans of “Irish air” my mother once brought home from Dublin. Also crystalized starlight, jellied mouse souls, and ashes from a burned church (“or any recognized house of worship”, said the list). Most spectacular of all were “hell crawlers”, which Pippa said were merely a temperamental variety of salamander, though to me they resembled glowing droplets of red-hot nickel. We found them in a rather seedy end of the market, at what looked like an artisanal smithy. They were about as big as “fun size” candy bars, and appeared—because of the heat, I suppose—to writhe in the tongs a burly, bearded fellow used to pull them from a live furnace.
It was while Pippa and I were waiting at the hell crawler stand that I finally confirmed something I’d suspected for some time. As we’d run hither and thither seeking out Mrs. Sylvester’s requests, I thought I’d noticed a figure scurrying stealthily in our wake. It was hard to tell for sure in the busier areas of the market, where someone was almost always walking behind you, but here, where the crowd was sparser, I was sure of it: we were being followed. Our pursuer had now taken up position behind a stall that apparently sold only rotting vegetables, and as Pippa accepted our insulated ceramic container of hell crawlers from the blacksmithy guy, I spun abruptly to look. Sure enough, a young woman was hiding there, peering at us over a stack of decomposing pumpkins.
“Hey Pippa,” I said. “Do you know that girl?”
Pippa turned, to where the girl still stood as if stunned, and broke into a radiant smile. “That’s Elle van der Geest, my best customer,” she said, and began to wave, calling, “Elle! Hey, Ellie, over here!”
It was the bookish young woman I’d met at Prism Bay Literary Merchants, readers. If Pippa was pleased to see her, however, young Elle was not at all glad to be seen. A look of sheer horror washed over her face, and after remaining frozen in place for perhaps five seconds, she dove into a nearby pile of overripe plums. “She’s really shy,” Pippa whispered, by way of explanation.
To me, it seemed rather obvious Elle van der Geest had been stalking us. I could guess why: she had made a point of warning me off of Pippa, and now here the two of us were, together, at a farmers’ market no less. Possibly this bookish young woman had proprietary feelings of some sort for our distractingly good-looking bookseller, and did not want Pippa’s attentions usurped by skeevy dudes like me. Not that there was much chance of me stealing Pippa’s affection; she was not much into dudes, skeevy or otherwise—or, if she was, she was much more into Amy of Amy’s All-Hours Confectionary Kitchen. Young Elle had no obvious way of knowing this, however, especially with Pippa and me gallivanting among the produce like characters in a rom-com. I mean, honestly, I knew how this looked. We’d even bought a baguette.
Although it was childish and rather unkind of me, I decided, just for the moment, to encourage Elle’s misconception. My pride had been stung by her implication that I had no shot with Pippa—even if this was, strictly speaking, the exact truth. So while Pippa settled the jar of hell crawlers into her basket, I glanced back toward the place I guessed Elle would still be watching—and was, sure enough, down among the squashed plumbs, like a soldier ducking machinegun fire—and gave her a sly little how-do-you-like-me-now grin. It had the desired effect, readers: the bookish young woman’s eyes widened in a way that suggested she was seriously reconsidering my ability to woo foxy booksellers.
Overall, the trip to Vagabond Farm was an immense success: we got everything on Mrs. Sylvester’s list, and everything we needed for dinner, and I made fraudulent claims of romantic conquest for the purpose of impressing a teenager I hardly even knew. Amy was thrilled with our work, but I must say Mrs. Sylvester didn’t seem particularly grateful. After I dropped off Pippa and the goods at Amy’s, I went back to the Hemlocks to change and trade my car for the usual bike, and to deliver Mrs. Sylvester’s shipment of mysterious ingredients. I expected to be praised in a wry, vaguely condescending way, as one might a dog who has learned a difficult new trick, but all she said was, “Yes, Mr. Black. This will do nicely. This will do very nicely.” She didn’t even mention the hell crawlers, which had cost me fifty bucks and a lock of my hair (“one lock of a science fiction writer’s hair” was right there on the little blackboard listing the stall’s prices). But, as I reminded myself, I’d been staying at her house all summer for free—a bargain even at a hundred jars of hell crawlers. And I still felt sorry that she’d be missing all the fun.
It was fun, readers, lots and lots of fun. There were about a dozen guests in all, what Amy affectionately called her “summer family”—a group in which I was very flattered to be included. The man of middle years who has been successful in business was there, and after a little more gin than was probably good for me, I tried to get him to tell me his actual name. “You couldn’t pronounce it,” he said with a grin. I did not believe him, readers. I try not to stereotype, but the man of middle years who has been successful in business does not look like a person whose name I cannot pronounce. He looks like a John, or a Henry, or an Arthur, or a Richard. When I persisted, he decided to have some fun with me. He took a big gulp of water and proceeded to gargle for ten seconds or so. “That’s my name,” he said when he was finished, and handed me the glass. “Go ahead, give it a shot.” I thought I made a pretty decent attempt, but the man of middle years who has been successful in business declared my accent to be way off. At last he told me I could call him “Manny” if I wanted, which I thought was a joke until I heard other people addressing him in the same way.
The dinner was lovely, and expertly prepared, with a great many courses, each perfectly paired with wine or beer or, yes, mead (far tastier stuff than I remembered). The windows were open to the night, allowing sounds from the celebration outside to punctuate the conversation. After dessert, we gathered by the windows to watch the parade on the street below. It was an elaborate, astonishingly high-production affair, readers, featuring floats in the shape of fantastical creatures and processions of local organizations, probably similar to the Shriners or Elks or Rotary Club, or those brotherhoods in Spain you see during Easter marching around in what look like (but which are most definitely not) Klansman robes.
I tried to sketch a few for you, readers, but I don’t think my art skills were much helped by the extended cocktail hour and all that very good wine. As the Earth’s shadow washed over the sky and the moon began to turn red, a group of crimson-robed figures appeared, floating through the streets and among the crowd. “Here come the Moon Wraiths, ladies and gents,” I announced. I thought I was being clever, but Amy, who was standing at the window with me, laughed and said, “Yeah, just stay out of their way and you’ll be fine.”
With the red moon growing ever darker, our little company descended to the street and joined the festivities. It was quite the party, readers, a jubilant and more than a little creepy whirl of motion and color (the color in question generally being red). I didn’t get a chance to play the carnival games, most of which were completely overrun with young people, though I did watch a few and will freely admit I probably wouldn’t have done very well, even if I wasn’t already a little tipsy. Many had obscure and complicated rules, and a few looked downright dangerous—far more violent than the mere massacre of metal ducks by air rifle.
One such game appeared to involve throwing bladed weapons at diving birds of prey—scaled-down metal models, anyway, though the booth did feature a lot of realistic screeching sound effects. A large crowd had gathered around, though as it was mostly made up of adolescent boys I could easily see over their heads to what was happening at the booth, where a stout young gentleman was really laying into those metal birds. I don’t think he missed a single one, though afterward I couldn’t quite remember where he’d actually gotten all those knives and hatchets.
“Holy crap,” said one young man standing in front of me. “That Tyler kid is scary.”
“What a spaz,” opined another young man of the same group. “Dude is a total psycho,” commented a third.
The Tyler in question, I’m quite sure, was Tyler the well-armed young gentleman from the Prism Bay Beach Club. I hadn’t recognized him without his catcher’s mask. I remembered him as being very polite, if somewhat overindulged by the adults around him, but here, readers, he did look like sort of a psycho—the kind of kid who might bring a crossbow to school for show and tell, and be the subject of tactful but serious meetings in which teachers would be asked to observe him for signs of violent or antisocial behavior.
It seemed the whole town was out that night, readers—with the exception of Mrs. Sylvester, anyway. I even saw Mimi, the young woman formerly of the explicit t-shirt, now wearing a party dress, carrying her shoes in one hand, and crying. It was an upsetting sight, readers, but I wasn’t sure how I could help. Generally speaking, teenage women in fragile emotional states do not appreciate being approached by mildly intoxicated older men they barely know, even if those mildly intoxicated older men have nothing but the best intentions. Since I was with Amy at the time—the whole dinner party was making its way to the little park at the far end of the town center—I pointed Mimi out and asked, “Hey, does that girl look OK to you?”
Amy, a bit blurrily, glanced in Mimi’s direction. “Oh yeah, she’ll be fine,” she said. “Have you even been to middle school? If it isn’t the worst night of someone’slife, it isn’t a party. Amiright?” She raised her hand for a high-five, and by the time I had reciprocated—she was my host, and it was only polite—Mimi had vanished.
We watched the eclipse’s darkest moment, the Earth’s shadow submerging the moon in red so deep it was nearly black, from the seaside park. There was a huge crowd, and everyone cheered and kissed like the ball had just dropped in Times Square. Over the bay, the sky lit up with fireworks launched from what seemed like every possible direction: boats on the water and houses on both sides of the bay. I glanced toward the Hemlocks, thinking of Mrs. Sylvester all alone, and thought I saw a flash of light up there, too, almost like a bolt of lighting. So maybe she wasn’t so lonely after all—maybe she was having a little celebration of her own.
I got back late—or early, I suppose—and there didn’t seem to be anyone around, so I snuck up to bed, making a note to wish Mrs. Sylvester a happy Blood Moon Festival in the morning. I couldn’t wait to write everything down for you, dear readers, but first I needed some sleep.
It’s a shame eclipse parties like this aren’t more of a thing, wouldn’t you say? I plan to make it a tradition of my own, on those rare occasions there is an eclipse around which I can party. One piece of the whole event did seem a little off to me, though. As I was at Starbucks today, getting ready to post this week’s entry, I did a little web search on the eclipse, just to see whether anyone else was having a party even close to what I saw in Prism Bay, and it turns out the eclipse should not have been visible from Maine—or, for that matter, anywhere in North America. The ideal viewing location was, like, Iran. It makes me wonder whether what I saw wasn’t really an eclipse, but a cloud covering the moon, maybe just some drifting smog. It’s sort of disappointing, I’ve got to admit, but I won’t let that overshadow (or “eclipse”, ha-ha, get it) the memory of such a wonderful night.
It’s turning out to be one heck of summer, readers. Until next time!