A storm is brewing, readers. I haven’t figured out what kind of storm, exactly, but something is definitely headed this way. Everyone in town agrees. As a native New Englander, I’m used to the climate and its temperamental moods featuring prominently in popular discourse—gossip, almost, as if the weather were not so much a force of nature as a well-known and roguish local personality. Now scuttlebutt in Prism Bay indicates significant meteorological mischief afoot—except it isn’t the usual brand of mischief. This is something new, almost unrecognizable, like the rascally kids always hitting baseballs into your yard suddenly upgrading to securities fraud.
The first I heard of it was this past Sunday, during my weekly donut stop at Amy’s All-Hours Confectionary Kitchen. Recently, Amy has begun plying me with samples of her more adventurous flavors in an effort to help me branch out. My appreciation for the simple perfection of her glazed and chocolate donuts appeals to her as an artisan, but as an artist, she chafes at my adherence to convention. On this occasion, she was trying to talk me into sampling a clamato croissant or some such monstrosity when a customer—another regular, the old fisherman type I’ve been thinking of as the Old Salt—stopped by our table to ask if Amy’s would be open on Thursday and Friday. “It says ‘All-Hours’, doesn’t it?” was Amy’s answer.
When I asked what was happening Thursday and Friday, Amy and the Old Salt both looked at me in surprise. “Storm’s coming through,” said the Old Salt, the message accentuated by his very Mainer accent, in which “storm” became a two-syllable word (“stow-ahm”)—what seemed to me a worthy emphasis.
Amy nodded gravely. “How have you not heard this?” she asked. “It’s been all over town. The municipal weather diviners are predicting an ethereal vortex late next week—same with astrologers from the public observatory and the secret cloud council at Nightfall Caste—but it was pretty obvious to everyone already. Hasn’t your weather globe been going crazy?”
“I, um, don’t have a weather globe,” I said, brain whirring as I tried to commit what Amy had just said to memory for future consideration. I’d heard there was an observatory somewhere in town, and Nightfall Castle was another local summer residence—like the Hemlocks, if vastly larger and more castle-like. “Municipal weather diviners” was probably just a tongue-in-cheek way of referring to habitually inaccurate local meteorologists. As for weather globes, I assumed those were similar to the blown-glass barometers (also known as a Goethe’s device or weather glass) you could buy, for instance, at the Museum of Science in Boston. Or maybe these two were just messing with me, like “Manny”, the man of middle years who has been successful in business and claims his name is pronounced “[ten seconds of gargling water]”.
What interested me most of all was this “ethereal vortex”. I assumed it had to be some kind of regional term for a particularly bad storm, but what sort of storm? I knew of the “polar vortex”, a mess of cold air around the artic that occasionally blew southward to assault the people of New England with drastically sub-zero temperatures, but that was more of a winter phenomenon, as was the nor’easter, a pain-in-the-butt mess of snow and wind familiar to most denizens of the East Coat. In recent winters, I’d also heard talk of something called a “bomb cyclone”, but mostly assumed that was just the local news stations trying to freshen up a popular franchise. The more quintessentially summery extreme weather, meanwhile—tropical storms and hurricanes—usually doesn’t arrive until fall begins moving in. So maybe the “ethereal vortex” was something new—or anyway, new to me—a type of storm unique to this part of Maine. And I, readers, would have the chance to document it for everyone out there who, like me, had never experienced one.
“Usually happens a few times each season,” Amy said, when pressed for details. “Takes down a few trees, grounds a few boats, stirs up the sea monsters. Nothing too serious. We’re about due, anyway.”
“Ayuh,” agreed the Old Salt. “Over and done in a day or two.”
I listened with interest as the two locals discussed pronouncements from the town’s top authorities, the Prism Bay Selectmen and Board of Overseers, who had recently upgraded the storm from “mild” to “migraine inducing”. (When I asked what other levels of severity were possible, the answer I received was typically “summery”, and included such storm conditions as “demure”, “belligerent”, and “brain swapping”.) Prism Bay residents were instructed to prepare for loss of power and other services for up to a week, and to have a ready supply of food and water on hand, but Amy and the Old Salt agreed such measures, while prudent, were probably unnecessary. Amy still planned to take a few precautions for the sake her business, though, and as a loyal customer and friend I thought it only right to volunteer my help.
That evening, over dinner, I asked Mrs. Sylvester if she’d like any assistance getting the Hemlocks ready for the storm. I have a little experience in home maintenance, and it would be easy enough for me to board up the windows or strap down the roof, maybe check the gutters for clogs or take down a few dead tree branches that might fall and damage the house. There were some delicate-looking plants in the garden we might want to cover, and a few similarly fragile articles around the property—weather vanes and bird houses and sculptures I’d seen out on the grounds. But all Mrs. Sylvester said was, “The storm will not touch this place.”
It seemed a pretty cavalier attitude, and also very unlike the Mrs. Sylvester I knew. I could not imagine the person I met my first morning in Prism Bay, self-possessed and elegant and dryly intelligent, using such curt and guttural tones. She might have refused my help—I’d even have said it was likely—but politely. “Thank you, Mr. Black, but I assure you, we are quite adequately prepared,” would have been a bit more her style. Here was further evidence that Mrs. Sylvester was not herself—and hadn’t been, really, since before the Blood Moon Festival. Still, it was her house. I let her know I would be available upon request, and made plans to privately stock up on bottled water, Pop-Tarts, and Hot Pockets.
In the morning, I rode to the Town Center prepared for a full day of manual labor. Amy was already at work, nailing plywood sheets to the window frames of her All-Hours Confectionary Kitchen. Spray-painted across the front of these was the message, “Yes We’re Open But Ring Bell Because Vortex”. I assumed the plywood came from some local construction site, because beneath the black paint of Amy’s message it was covered in elaborate graffiti. “Nothing’s getting through that,” I said, observing her work.
“Dang straight,” she agreed. “Help me with this other one.” So I held another sheet of plywood steady while Amy nailed it in place. My handyman skills were already feeling unnecessary: she had a nail gun and air compressor and everything. With the shop’s exterior protected, Amy and I began carrying in tables and chairs from the small outdoor patio. The things were wrought iron, nice for enjoying an outdoor donut or kouign-amann or dragon’s breath bun, but a real hassle to move.
Pippa, who had already helped close down Prism Bay Literary Merchants, was inside, taping the windows to help prevent the glass from shattering should graffiti-strewn plywood prove insufficient protection. When the last abominably heavy metal chair had been stacked, she directed me to a cardboard box on the counter and asked, “Can you put those out for me?”
The box was full of small glass jars, filled with what appeared to be tangled fishing line and mounted with string. The way they were stored—somewhat carelessly coiled up—reminded me of Christmas lights, suggestive of regular if infrequent use. By now I’d learned that seeking an explanation for unusual practices in Prism Bay was an exercise in confusion and frustration, so I just asked where Pippa wanted me to put the things. “Anywhere not out in the open—in cabinets, draws, tight corners, that sort of thing,” she said, and laughed. “What is this, your first ethereal vortex?”
The question was intended as a joke, I guess, because when I answered that this was indeed my first ethereal vortex, Pippa only smiled and told me to find the box of silver bells and hang those too. Amy, meanwhile, had just finished nailing a horseshoe over the main entrance. “Did you remember to get the new nazar I wanted?” she asked Pippa.
“They were all out,” Pippa said, “but Mr. Smith at the hardware store said you could borrow his. I left it on the counter.”
It was the nazar that helped me figure out a bit of what was going on—and when I did, I was glad I hadn’t asked. For those of you who have never seen one, a nazar is an amulet shaped like an eye, featuring in several cultures as a talisman against evil. The fact that enough people in Prism Bay were putting them up that the hardware store would be sold out (or, for that matter, would stock them in the first place) told me there was some kind of local spiritual tradition associated with storms. That wasn’t so surprising, really—maritime cultures, constantly faced with the uncertainty of the sea, can be notoriously superstitious. Maybe some of that had lingered on from Prism Bay’s early history as a whaling town or clamming town or kraken-hunting town or whatever.
Once I understood something of the context, the day became a lot less weird. I helped find a good place for the borrowed nazar, hung silver bells in doorways, tied red strings around doorknobs. Many of the precautions seemed wholly fanciful to me, but a few appeared to have a practical basis as well, such as placing bunches of dried chili peppers around the kitchen. I could imagine hordes of rats and mice, driven from underground lairs by the storm, being particularly drawn to a bakery’s stores of flour and sugar and butter, only to end up with a nasty surprise when they bit into one of those peppers.
Less readily explained was the arrival of Amy’s neighbors from Articles of Some Considerable History, carrying a duffel bag full of baseball bats and machetes. “We had extra,” they said. “Do you need any?”
They seemed to be expecting looting and rioting, or possibly an attack of the walking dead. When I asked what all the weaponry was for, Pippa and Amy both grinned at me. “What isn’t it for? Absolutely everything comes out during a vortex,” Pippa said. “Better to have this stuff and not need them than need it and not have it,” Amy added sensibly.
By the time we stopped for the lunch of baguette sandwiches Amy had generously provided, the store was thoroughly sealed against the forces of weather and ill luck both. Outside, the wind was picking up, and the usually calm waters of Prism Bay were beginning to ripple with turbulence. A procession of boats was on its way out to sea, maybe hoping to get away from the storm’s track, while other vessels were lined up along the docks, having sails and rigging stripped and tied down. On the street beside the boardwalk, an effort was underway to raise a sandbag wall against incursions by the sea, and when we had finished eating, Amy, Pippa and I joined in.
Overall, it was a positive experience, readers—the local community coming together for mutual aid and reassurance—but there was one rather awkward encounter late in the day. As I was at work stacking sandbags, I was approached by none other than Elle van der Geest, the bookish young woman from Prism Bay Literary Merchants. “Excuse me, sir,” she said, very politely, “would you mind carrying something for me?”
“I’d be happy to, Elle,” I replied, pleased for this opportunity to make up for my behavior at the farmers’ market, which—as you know, readers—I had since come to view with embarrassment and regret. “Lead the way.”
I thought I saw Elle’s eyes narrow with suspicion—possibly at hearing me use her name, since we hadn’t been formally introduced. Maybe it was the shyness Pippa had mentioned, but if so, Elle got over it quickly enough. She hurried ahead of me down the street, so swiftly that I had to jog to keep up—only to stop abruptly among a few boxes of rigging and miscellaneous buoys left ashore by some of the boats. I began to ask Elle if these were what needed carrying, but got only as far as “Are these—” before she spun around and threw a handful of something directly into my face.
I staggered back, blinded and sputtering, eyes, nose, and mouth choked with a dry, powdery substance, and at the same time, Elle let out a yell and—I’m pretty sure—punched me in the chest. “Elle!” I heard someone shout, a man—I could tell that much at least. “Elle! What in the world do you think you’re doing?”
“I told you!” Elle shouted back. “I told you—just look at him!”
“How did you expect him to react? You just threw crushed crab shells in his eyes,” said the man. “Sir, are you all right?” he asked, much closer to me now. I felt a steadying hand on my arm.
By this point, I had cleared enough of the powdery stuff from my face to see and breathe properly again, and I discovered the person beside me to be a tall fellow with steel-gray hair and the sort of weathered face one gets from a lot of outdoor leisure—skiing, sailing, that sort of thing. “Yes,” I said, “I’m fine, thank you.”
“I don’t know what’s gotten into Elle,” the man said.
“You should be asking what’s gotten into him!” Elle yelled, pointing so that there could be no mistaking the subject or her invective.
“She’s usually very well behaved,” said the man. “She certainly doesn’t make a habit of going around assaulting strangers.”
I almost said, I believe you mentioned it was powdered crab, not salt, but restrained myself. I, at least, did have some idea about young Elle’s motivation. It seemed obvious enough that this bookish young woman was reacting violently to my fraudulent insinuations of romantic involvement with Pippa. Whatever Elle’s feelings for Pippa—whether big-sisterly idolization, schoolgirl crush, or something entirely different—my boorish, dishonest behavior had trampled them, and now I was facing the consequences. “Yes, well, we all act out of character now and then,” I told the man. “I’m Patrick, by the way. Patrick Black.”
“Hector van der Geest, Elle’s father,” he replied, extending a hand to shake despite the fact that I was still covered in crab crumblings. “And believe me, Elle will notbe getting away with this behavior. Can I at least pay to have your clothes cleaned?”
“No, it’s fine,” I said. “They’re work clothes. They’re meant to get dirty.”
“Well, I’m very sorry about this, Mr. Black,” he said. “And I’m sure Elle is, too,” he added, raising his voice to include Elle in our conversation. “Isn’t that right, Elle?” Still standing some distance away, Elle nodded silently, eyes on her feet. This was not enough for Mr. van der Geest. “I want you to apologize to Mr. Black, then go straight home,” he said. “Your sisters and I will finish up here.”
Again, Elle nodded, and came forward, head still bowed. “I’m very sorry, Mr. Black,” she said to her boots. “What I did was inappropriate, and I humbly ask your forgiveness.”
“That’s all right, Elle, really,” I said. “These things happen.”
Elle glanced over her shoulder and, seeing her father was now out of earshot, glared at me. “I know what you’re up to,” she said, her voice low but no longer meek in the least. “I know what you’re doing and I’m going to stop you.”
It was a rather unnerving turn of events, and an odd way to reference my presumed relationship with Pippa, but I was glad for the opportunity to set the record straight. “Listen, Elle,” I said, “I think there’s been a bit of a misunderstanding. Whatever you saw at the farmers’ market, it isn’t what you’re imagining. There’s nothing going on, really.”
“You must think I’m an idiot,” Elle hissed. “Maybe you’ve got everyone else fooled, but not me. You’re going down, jerk.” And with that, she turned on her heel and strode away, looking equal parts awkward, determined, and furious.
I, meanwhile, looked like I was covered in powdered crab shells. I brushed at my shirt and jeans, trying to remove as much of the stuff as I could, and while thusly engaged I found a small strip of paper stuck to my shirt, right about where Elle had punched me. It was filled with some kind of weird writing—probably a local version of a “kick me” sign, I decided. I pocketed it for later examination, and at the same time noticed something on the ground: a colorful design drawn onto the pavement. It looked like elaborate street art, possibly left over from the Blood Moon Festival, and I assumed that’s what it was; the only really odd thing was that I happened to be standing directly in the center of it, right where I’d been when Elle launched her attack.
Fortunately, I was still in fine shape to fill and stack sandbags, because we had a long way to go before the waterfront was fully fortified. Amy and Pippa got a good laugh out of my be-crabbed state, which I explained away as a simple accident. We were out there until dark, but it was worth the effort: the local businesses of Prism Bay’s Town Center are ready for the coming storm—this “ethereal vortex”, whatever that turns out to be.
Hopefully I’ll be able to tell you next time, readers. The skies of Prism Bay were dark and growling today as I set forth for Starbucks to deliver you this post. The storm approaches, readers—wish me luck!