On a late-winter evening in 1983, while driving through fog along the Maine coast, recollections of old campfires began to drift into the March mist, and I thought of the Abnaki Indians of the Algonquin tribe who dwelt near Bangor a thousand years ago.
In the spring, after the planting of corn, the younger braves and squaws would leave the aged to watch over the crops and the children, and would take their birchbark canoes south for the summer. Down the Penobscot River they would travel to Blue Hill Bay on the western side of Mount Desert where my family’s house, built in part by my great-great-grandfather, Doane Hadlock Hubbard, still stands. It is called the Keep, and I do not know of all else it keeps, but some Indians came ashore to build lean-tos each summer, and a few of their graves are among us, although I do not believe they came to our island to die. Lazing in the rare joys of northern warmth, they must have shucked clams on the flats at low tide and fought and fornicated among the spruce and hemlock when the water was up. What they got drunk on I do not know, unless it was the musk of each other, but many a rocky beach in the first hollow behind the shore sports mounds of ancient clamshells, ground to powder by the centuries, a beach behind the beach to speak of ancient summer frolics. The ghosts of these Indians may no longer pass through our woods, but something of their old sorrows and pleasures joins the air. Mount Desert is more luminous than the rest of Maine.
Even guidebooks for tourists seek to describe this virtue: “The island of Mount Desert, fifteen miles in diameter, rises like a fabled city from the sea. The natives call it Acadia, beautiful and awesome.”
Beautiful and awesome. We have a fjord in the middle of Mount Desert, a spectacular four-mile passage by water between promontories on either side. It is the only true fjord on the Atlantic coast of North America, yet it is but a part of our rock-hewn splendor. Near the shore, peaks rise abruptly a thousand feet to afford sailing craft the illusion of great mountains, and our finest anchorage, Northeast Harbor, is in summer a dazzle of yachts.
Perhaps it is the nearness of our mountains to the sea, but silences are massive here, and summers have an allure not simple to describe. For one thing, we are not an island to attract people who follow the sun. We have almost no sand beach. The shore is pebble and clamshell strand, and twelve-foot tides inundate the rocks. Washed by incoming waves are barnacles and periwinkles, rockweed mussels, Irish moss, red seaweed, dulse. Sand dollars and whelks lie scattered in the throw of the surf. Kelp is everywhere and devil’s-apron often winds around one’s ankles. In the tide pools grow anemone and sponge. Starfish and sea urchins are near your toes. One walks with care over sharp stones. And the water is so cold that swimmers who did not spend childhood vacations in this icy sea can hardly bear it. I have lolled in the wild green above the reefs of the Caribbean and sailed over purple deeps in the Mediterranean, I have seen the inimitable mist of hot summer on the Chesapeake when all hues blend between the sky and the bay. I even like slate-brown rivers that rush through canyons in the West, but I love the piercing blue of Frenchman’s Bay and Blue Hill Bay, and the bottomless blue of the Eastern and Western Way surrounding Mount Desert—indeed, one’s affection for the island even shares the local accent. As decreed by the natives, one spells it Mount Desert, but the pronunciation is Mount Dessert. The view is as fine as sugar frosting to a New Englander’s eyes.
I speak in hyperbole, but then who cannot on recalling such summer beauties as the astonishing color of our rocks at water’s edge. They are apricot, then lavender, and pale green, yet in late afternoon they become purple over the whole, a dark royal violet is the color of the twilight shore seen from the sea. That is our island in August. Beach heather and wild rose grow near the salt marsh grass, and in our meadows white-throated sparrows spring from one decaying stump to another. The old hayfields smell of redtop and timothy, and wildflowers bloom. The northern blue violet and the starflower, the wood sorrel and the checkerberry, painted trillium and wild geranium, golden heather and Indian pipe grow in our bogs and fields and on the sunny slopes of our mountains in the seams between ledges of rock. Down by the marshes are swamp candles and jewelweed. Once, when I was a boy (for I studied the names of wildflowers then) I found the white-vein orchid in some swampy woods; it was greenish-white, and lovely, and as rare as the moon entering eclipse. For all its tourist traffic come July, Mount Desert is still possessed of a tender yet monumental silence.
If one would ask how the monumental can ever be tender, I reply that such words recall us to the beautiful and awesome. So am I tempted, when caution deserts me, to describe my wife, Kittredge. Her white skin becomes luminous in any pale meadow; it also reflects the shadows of the rock. I see Kittredge sitting in such shadows on a summer day, and her eyes have the blue of the sea.
I have also been with her when she can seem as bleak as the March storms that strike this island. Now, in March, the fields are dun, and the snow, half-gone, will be stained in the morning with the stirring of the mud. In March, the afternoons are not golden but gray, and the rocks are rarely burnished by the sun. Certain precipices become as grim as the endless meditations of granite. At winter’s end, Mount Desert is like a miser’s fist; the dull shell of the sky meets a leaden sea. Depression sits over the hills. When my wife is depressed, no color stirs in my own heart, and her skin is not luminous but hooded in pallor. Except for snowy days, when island lights still dance off the frozen rock like candles on a high white cake, I do not like to live in late winter on Mount Desert. The sunless sky weighs over us, and a week can go by when we do not speak. That is loneliness kin to the despair of a convivial drinker who has not poured a glass for days. It is then that ghosts begin to visit the Keep. Our fine dwelling is hospitable to ghosts.
The house sits alone on an island, not ten acres of spread, just a stone’s throw—literally one long throw—off the western shore of Mount Desert. Called Doane, after my great-great-grandfather, it is subject, I suspect, to visitations. While islands, according to my wife, are supposed to be more acceptable to invisible spirits than to such peculiarly apparent manifests as ghosts, I think we break the rule.
Out on Bartlett’s Island, somewhat to the north of us, is the all-but-certified ghost of Snowman Dyer, an eccentric old fisherman. He died on Bartlett’s in 1870 under the roof of his spinster sister. Once, as a young man, he had bartered five lobsters for a small Greek tome that belonged to a classics scholar at Harvard. The work was the Oedipus Rex and it had an interlinear trot. The old fisherman, Snowman Dyer, was intrigued so much by Sophocles’ words in literal translation that he attempted to read the original Greek. Not knowing how to pronounce the alphabet, he contrived nonetheless a sound for each character. As he grew older, he grew bolder, and used to recite aloud from this unique tongue while wandering over the rocks. They say that to spend a night in the dead sister’s house will bring Snowman Dyer’s version of Greek to your ear, and the sounds are no more barbaric than the claps and groans of our weather. A corporate executive from Philadelphia, Bingham Baker, and his family now inhabit the house and seem to thrive on the ghost—at least, all the Bakers look pink-cheeked in church. I do not know if they hear the moan of winter in Snowman Dyer’s voice.
Old Snowman may be the ghost of Bartlett’s Island, but we have another on Doane, and he is not so agreeable. A sea captain named Augustus Farr, he owned and occupied our land two and a half centuries ago. There are allusions to his habits in an old sea-diary I have found in the library at Bar Harbor, and one voyage is cited “durying whych Farr ingaged in practize of piracie” and boarded a French frigate in the Caribbean, took its cargo of Cuban sugar, put the crew to sea in an open boat (except for those who would join him), and beheaded the commodore, who died in naked state because Farr had appropriated his uniform. Then Augustus was so bold in later years as to have himself buried on his northern island—now our island—in the Frenchman’s dress apparel.
I have never seen Augustus Farr, but I may have heard his voice. One night, not long ago, when alone in the Keep, I came out of a dream to find myself conversing with the wall. “No, leave,” I said boldly, “I do not know if you can make amends. Nor do I trust you.” When I recall this dream—if it was a dream—I shiver in a way I cannot repeat at other times. My flesh shifts on my back as if I am wearing a jacket of lizard skin. I hear my own voice again. I am not speaking to the plaster in front of me but to a room I feel able to see on the other side of the wall. There, I visualize a presence in a tattered uniform sitting on an oaken and much-scarred captain’s chair. An odor of corruption is in my nose. Out on the mud flats, or so I hear through the window—I do not dare to look—the sea is boiling. How can waters boil when the tide is out? I am still in my dream but watch a mouse streak along the floor, and feel the ghost of Augustus Farr on the other side of the wall. The hair stiffens on the back of my head as he descends the stairs to the cellar. I hear him going down to the Vault.
Underneath the cellar, it was originally a dugout built by my father after the Second World War when he still owned the Keep. He prided himself on being the first American to take in the consequences of Hiroshima. “Everybody needs a place where he can get under it all,” said my father, Cal Hubbard, two years before he sold our property to his second cousin, Kittredge’s father, Rodman Knowles Gardiner, who in turn gave it over to Kittredge on her first marriage. In the time Rodman Gardiner had it, however, he decided to go my father one further and was the first man, so far as I know, in this part of Maine to have a cinder-block fallout shelter complete with canned goods, bunks, kitchen, ventilation fans, and at the entrance, two corridors set at right angles to one another. What that ninety-degree turn has to do with keeping off nuclear radiation I cannot say, but there were curious fashions in early fallout shelters. It is still there for us; a family embarrassment. Up in Maine you are not supposed to protect your life that much.
I despised the shelter. I let it molder. The foam rubber of the bunk mattresses has gone to powder. The stone floor is covered with nothing less than an old slime. The electric light bulbs, long burned out, are corroded in their sockets.
Let this not give too false an idea of the Keep. The floor of the Vault—so the fallout shelter came inevitably to be named—is ten feet below the main cellar, which is, itself, a large, clean, stone chamber. The main floor and second story and full attic of the Keep are kept in reasonable order by a Maine woman who comes in every day the weather permits when we are there, and once a week when we are gone. It is only the Vault that is left untended. That is my fault. I cannot bear to let anyone go down to it. If I open the door, a mad dank odor comes up from below. It is no rarity for subcellars to be dank, but the odor of madness is another matter.
On the night when I emerged from my dream to encounter Augustus Farr, on that night when I became convinced I was not dreaming and heard him descending the stairs, I got up from bed and attempted to follow. This was not an act of bravery so much as a product of endless conditioning in the special art of converting one’s worst fears to fortitude. My father told me once when I was an adolescent, “If you are afraid, don’t hesitate. Get right into the trouble if that is the honest course.” It was a hypothesis on the art of courage that I had to refine considerably in bureaucratic wars where patience was the card to play, but I knew when fear proved paralyzing that one had sometimes to force a move or let one’s soul pay up. The honest course on encountering a ghost was clear: Follow him.
I tried. My feet as cold as a winter corpse, I started down the stairs. That was no dream. In front of me, doors slammed in a fury. “I will not return until I do,” I thought I heard a voice cry. By the time I descended to the first cellar, my resolve had run out. At the entrance to the Vault a presence as malevolent as any dark creature of the sea seemed to be waiting below. My courage was now not large enough to take my legs down the last ten steps. I stood there unmoving, as if some part of honor would be safeguarded if I did not flee, but stood in place to accept the wrath of whatever it was. I will say it. I lived in the intangible embrace of that malevolence. Then, Augustus—I assume it was Augustus— withdrew into the depths of the Vault and I felt free to retreat. I went back to my bed. I slept as if drugged by the most powerful of tranquilizers. Since that time I have not gone to the Vault nor has Augustus come to me.
Nonetheless, the Keep was altered by his visitation. Possessions get broken now at an alarming rate, and I have seen ashtrays slide off tables. It is never so dramatic as in the films. Rather, it is sly. You cannot say to a certainty that your coat sleeve did not brush the object nor that the old floor does not have a tilt. It could all have happened through natural causes, or just about. Dealing with such phenomena is like trying to ascertain the facts when talking to a consummate liar. Things keep turning into other things. The wind outside our windows seemed quicker than ever to show its cardinal points: sinister, or saintly, soft or shocking. I never listened to the wind so much as after the visit of Augustus Farr, and the sound of oars would come to me although no boatman was visible. Still, I could hear oarlocks groaning, and bells rang out from chapels on the main island where, so far as I knew, no towers stood to hold the bells. I would listen to the gate swinging in a high wind and plaster falling behind the laths. Small beetles with shells as hard as 12-gauge shot came out of the sills. Every time I went through my books in the library, I could swear a few had moved, but of course the cleaning woman often passed through, or Kittredge, or even myself. No matter. Like a chill pool in a warm hall, Farr was about.
Yet, for all this, the Keep was not spoiled. A ghostly presence is not always dire. Kittredge and I, being childless, had space to let in so large a house. Farr was a mighty diversion, not unequal to living with a drunk or a crazy brother. If he remains as a phantom I cannot swear I have seen, still I would speak of ghosts as real. Some ghosts may be real.
embarking a year later, in March of 1984, on an overnight flight from Kennedy Airport, New York, to London, with a connection to Sheremetyevo Airport, Moscow, I kept reading and rereading the dozen pages of typescript that described my former home on Doane Island in Maine. I did not dare to cease. I was in a state of anxiety that gave promise of growing unmanageable. Those dozen pages were the first chapter of what I had come to call the Omega manuscript. I had another, an Alpha manuscript, which once took up twelve inches in a locked file cabinet next to my desk at the Keep, a work that could boast of more than two thousand typewritten pages, but it was formidably indiscreet, and so I had committed its bulk to microfilm, and consigned the original sheets to a shredder. The Alpha manuscript was with me now, all two thousand frames of microfilm on two hundred strips of ten frames each which, laid by sets into glassine sleeves, were packed snugly within an eight-by-eleven-inch manila envelope. I had concealed this slim, even elegant, package, not a quarter of an inch thick, in a recess of a special piece of luggage I had owned for years, said medium-sized suitcase now riding in the cargo hold of the British Airways plane that was taking me on the first leg, New York to London, of my flight to Moscow. I would not see it until I was ready to unpack the bag in Russia.
My other manuscript, however, the Omega, a moderate one hundred and eighty pages, so recently written that I had not converted it to microfilm, still existed as typescript in the attaché case beneath my seat. If I had spent the first hundred minutes of this trip in limbo, which is to say, there in the middle of Economy, dreading my arrival in London, my change of planes, and, most certainly, my eventual terminus in Moscow, I felt unable to explain to myself why I had embarked in the first place. Like an insect rendered immobile by a whiff of poison spray, I sat in my chair tilted back all three inches of rearward slant available to the Economy tourist and read the first fourteen pages of the Omega manuscript one more time. I was in that half-stupor where one’s legs are too massive to move. All the while, nerves jumped like light-up buttons in an electronic game. Nausea was my neighbor.
Due for arrival in London in another few hours, I felt obliged to read the rest of Omega, all of one hundred and sixty-six pages of typescript, after which I would tear up the sheets and flush away as many of them as the limited means of the British Airways crapper on this aircraft would be able to gulp into itself, then save the rest for the sturdier gullets in the men’s room attached to the Transit Lounge at Heathrow. Visualizing the whirl of these shreds and strips of paper revolving into the hound’s gurgle of a near-to-choking bowl came close to carrying me off on the good ship vertigo.
My anxiety was from pain of loss. I had spent my last year working on Omega. It was all I had to show for a twelve-month of inner turmoil. If I had reread Omega a hundred times during the months of advancing its chapters, page by slow and daily page, I would now be reading such work for a last time. I was saying good-bye to a manuscript which, in the past year, had accompanied me through hints and recollections of some of the worst episodes of my life. Soon, in but a few hours more, I would have to dispose of the contents, yes, paragraph ripped through the middle after paragraph, these pages, drawn and quartered, flushed into sewer pipes. If I dared not get drunk, I did order a Scotch from the stewardess, and swallowed it at a gulp while offering a toast to the last of Omega.
Excerpted from Harlot's Ghost by Norman Mailer. Copyright © 1992 by Norman Mailer. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.