Saturday, June 15
Vail was up on a high stepladder, pruning a dead branch from a tree with a saw. He
said, "Good to get outside for a change. This is the first Saturday morning it hasn't rained
in...how long would you say?"
"More'n a month."
"Easy. Maybe two."
The blade bit into the tough wood of the elm. He put his shoulder into it and then
stopped. "Can you hold the ladder tighter, Dun?" He began sawing again, and again the ladder
He looked down. Dun had vanished. From the barn Vail could her hammer blows.
The legs of the ladder seemed firmly planted in the moist ground. "What the...?"
It was as though the earth had shrugged gently, like an animal twitching its hide. The
ladder swayed and Vail dropped the saw and held on with both hands, mouth open. Then he
scrambled down as fast as he could.
Not far from the ground, the toe of his boot must have slipped on a muddy rung.
Flailing out with his foot, he lurched drunkenly and fell. His lips parted of themselves and shaped
He broke the fall with his hands. Stunned, he lay with his eyes shut, big frame
outstretched, head pressed against the naked soil. Through his earth-fused ear he thought he
heard a tiny sound, like a grunt -- a small grunt, far away, and yet he sensed incredible power.
"Mr. Vail?" the voice implored.
He did not want to be interrupted He needed to remember, record the experience
indelibly. He squeezed his eyelids and flattened his ear to the ground.
"Son?" The voice lost its indecision. "Better get the missus."
Shuffling feet. Piano music that stopped, then a child's cry, a dog's bark, more
footsteps. Damn! He wanted to hear the earthsound again.
"Harry! Are you all right?"
Magic Fingers, he thought. You put a quarter into a slot in a motel room and the bed
vibrates. That's what the shaking was like. What was the grunt?
"Are you all right?" Kay demanded once more.
A tongue, wet, warm, furtive, touched his lips. Dog breath. Opening his eyes, he
could see his own bushy brows. He muttered, "Yes."
"Daddy's okay!" Mark shouted.
The old man stepped forward, hand outstretched, but Kay stopped him. "No. He
might be hurt. I'll call Dr. Bjerling."
Harry wiggled his fingers and toes and questioned the rest of his body. "I'm all right,"
he said, standing up to prove it.
"What happened?" his wife asked anxiously.
"I slipped coming down the ladder." He glanced at Dun.
The handyman mumbled, "Should have held the ladder for you. Shouldn't have gone
off." Watchful eyes blinked.
Harry reached out and shook the ladder which seemed stable enough. "Not your
fault, he said to Dun. He started for the stone house and stopped. "About the time I fell, did
either of you feel anything funny? Hear anything strange?"
Dun and Kay exchanged glances. Kay said, No."
"Why?" Kay said.
But he had been positioned up on a stepladder while Dun had been hammering and
Kay playing the piano. And Mark was only six.
In the kitchen, Kay cleaned dirt from his head and ear with a moist towel, while Mark
watched. Harry showed square teeth as he said, "Ouch!"
"You have a bump," Kay fussed as she touched his skull gently. "I hope you haven't
really hurt yourself. Have you a headache?"
"No," he lied. "Funny what happened up there."
"What's funny about falling down?"
"Before that. The ladder shook exactly as though there were..." He paused in
surprise at his own words. "...an earthquake."
"In Rhode Island?" Kay said with a small smile.
"I didn't say there was an earthquake. It just felt like one. It must have been the
"The saw stuck on a knot and the ladder shook when I pushed. Come to think of it,
sawing is something like an earthquake." Harry gazed solemnly at his son.
"I'll try. The saw scrapes on the wood. When the blade sticks, it cuts. In an
earthquake you have two big pieces of stone trying to push past each other. The stone slabs stick.
When the pressure gets too great they finally slip and the ground shakes. Buildings can fall
"With people in them, Daddy?"
"Sometimes." His big hand ruffled the child's red hair. "I'd better get moving." He started to rise, felt wobbly and had to sit again.
"You ought to check with Dr. Bjerling," Kay said, eyeing him. "People can fracture
their skulls and not know it for days."
Harry smiled and this time he gained his feet.
"Lie down for a minute, at least," Kay begged.
"I'm okay," he insisted.
The boy and the shelty went outside, while Kay returned the grand piano in the living
room. She played nicely, but a bit too heavily for the state of Vail's head. Also, the piano
sounded out of tune. He went to his study and closed the door.
The room was simple and small, containing an old couch, a desk with a swivel chair, a
filing cabinet. A bookshelf ran along one wall. Below it, Vail found books scattered on the floor.
Could Mark have reached the shelf from which they had fallen? He was into everything these
days. Or the cat. Judy sometimes jumped from the back of the armchair to the bookshelves,
where she perched, watching him work. Or the books might have been unbalanced. Still...
Vail replaced the books, took a few short steps to the desk and sat down, nerves
twitching. It was unreasonable to be upset and yet his eyes scanned the smaller collection of
shelves above his desk, the ones containing books on geology and seismology. He reached for a
volume but pulled back his hand. No, he warned himself, don't. That episode is over. Forget
about it -- you fell from the ladder. End of story.
But the room suddenly seemed constricting as a cell and he fled. Outside he stood
indecisively, unable to put the earthsound from his mind. It was a damp morning, cool for the
season. Bunches of clouds scudded in under a gray tarpaulin of sky. Shoulders hunched, he
started toward the sea.
The stone house stood on six acres of land. The trail led through an overgrown field
where farmers, and Indians before them, had planted corn -- occasionally Vail found arrowheads.
He hopped on the stepping stones over a stream known as Torturous Creek, swollen by recent
rains, and skirted a long brackish pond lined by sedges rustling faintly in the light breeze. Swans
paddled aimlessly. After the pond came a marsh, then a copse of trees and a small field, and
finally a ten-foot bluff that overlooked their rocky beach.
He waited until he reached a spot curtained by a grove of trees, aware how odd he
would look if seen from the house. Abruptly he dropped to the ground and placed one ear to it:
the earth was mute. He got up and continued until he reached the bluff, where he stood at the
base of a shallow coastal indentation. To his left down the coast, close to the sea, loomed
Demming Mansion, three stories high; on the right lay Shonkawa Point, the tip of Old Brompton
peninsula, where the village of Old Brompton was, on the far side of the cliffs. When the wind
drove in hard straight from the east the sea became rough here, but otherwise, partly protected,
the water was calm. Today a big surf ran.
On the edge of the bluff was a chairlike rock with arms and a back, in which he
sometimes sat immobile, watching the waves, studying their shapes, hypnotized by the unending
motion. He stared intently at the surf splattering the exposed rocks, turned his head so that his
ear was pressed against the stone slab, and listened once again.
All right, all right, think about it if you have to, just don't think about it too much.
The shaking he felt on the ladder was easy to explain; it was the earthsound that bothered him.
He must have imagined it as he lay in a daze, and yet he was not normally given to flights of
fancy. Supposing he had actually heard such a noise, what could it have been? The earth for Vail
was familiar terrain and he ticked off conceivable causes -- blasting, excavation, underground
water, deposits of natural gas struggling to reach the surface....None of these answers was
plausible. In the clearing and again on the stone chair, Vail had tested still another notion,
however unlikely -- that a mineral conduit of some kind could carry the vibrations of surf. This
idea too had to be discarded. Close as he was to the sea, he could barely feel it pulsate through
Had he then experienced a tiny tremor? Vail had been a seismologist at the California
Institute of Technology before he had quit academic life and moved east a decade earlier to
become a working geologist; he knew that noise sometimes accompanies quakes and that even
stable Rhode Island was not entirely free of seismic activity. He took a deep breath and tried to
remember the Modified Mercalli Scale of earthquake intensities as they affected human observers.
Slowly the categories came back:
Not felt except by a few under especially favorable circumstances.
Felt only by a few persons at rest, especially on upper floors of buildings.
Delicately suspended objects may swing.
And so on up to the maximum intensity:
Damage total. Waves seen on ground surfaces. Lines of sight and level are
distorted. Objects thrown upward into air.
Little earthquakes -- premonitory tremors, earthquake swarms -- could be precursor
of big ones, deadly ones....
Stop! The reels of his mind balked, refused to turn. Nor would his deepest self give
authorization to continue the profitless self-torture. When the memory he tried to keep buried
stirred, he forced it back, since it undermined his normal self-image. Because he had another,
secret image of himself, as shaken and helpless.
When Vail returned from the ocean, he found his son in the backyard poking a patch
of yellow mud that lay along a narrow strip. Dun had dug for a pipe to the studio. The mud was
"Mark! You're getting yourself filthy."
Kay appeared from the studio. "Where did that mud come from? It hasn't rained
"It will." Harry compressed his lips. "I guess the new pipe is leaking for some
reason. Is there water in the studio?"
She vanished and returned. "No."
"That's the answer then. Where's Dun."
"He left right after you did. He said he had something to do and seemed in a hurry."
"I'd better get him back. People will slip or track mud all over the house, and I don't
know anything about pipes." He surveyed the yellow patch. "It's funny -- Dun doesn't usually
They expected company that evening and Kay said, "If you're going to the village. I'll
give you a small list." She added anxiously, "Head all right?"
He sensed that the ache was there, dormantly. "Do until I get a new one."
Under a canopy of trees, Vail maneuvered his twenty-year-old Rolls Royce. The car,
which he kept in perfect condition, was rather an affectation -- it gave him a country squire look
he didn't deserve -- but he had so few airs, he thought, that one wouldn't matter. The long
driveway was filled with holes, exposing rocks sharp as drill bits. He would have the drive graded
and graveled when the rain stopped.
The Rolls Royce tuned onto Point Road, the only thoroughfare down the narrow
four-mile-long peninsula called Old Brompton Township. Between the stone house and the
village lay a half-mile section of empty land. Fred Demming owned it and would never sell. The
stretch was like a buffer zone between the rich summer people up the peninsula and the villagers,
whom none of the others wanted to know socially. The Vails were neither rich nor summer
people, since they lived on the peninsula year round, but socially they allied themselves with the
rich because the villagers were, well, impossible.
Nobody appeared to have counted how many people lived in Old Brompton Village --
or Shonkawa Village, as its inhabitants called it, using the Indian name. A hundred or so, Vail
guessed the descendants of the early settlers. Farming in the area had long since declined because
of the sandy, low-yield soil and the more enterprising local people had broken with the past and
moved away. Those who remained took a bare livelihood from the sea and from occasional work
for the summer people, who arrived in June and left after Labor Day. Except for a small general
store and a grubby, unfriendly bar, the village had no stores nor even the inevitable shore
restaurant. The few tourists that came turned round and departed.
Bleak against the slate sky, the village appeared after a bend, almost as though
whoever laid out the road had wished to keep the place out of sight. The buildings consisted of
shacks and old trailers set on cinder blocks, and everything needed paint. Vail could imagine how
the town green, which testified to the village's self-image, had once looked, with grass and trees
and a proud cannon from the War of 1812. Now filled with abandoned vehicles, torn fishing nets,
stripped machinery, staved-in boats, old lumber and weeds, the square was nothing more than a
dump that happened to be in the middle of town.
On the square appeared a faded white church, the village's only vaguely presentable
building. Too large for the present population, it had no minister and so Dun, as deacon,
performed the services. The church, the old man said, housed a valuable old Aeolian-Skinner pipe
organ and Vail took his word for it, having never been inside. Like the others who lived above
the buffer zone, the Vails were not churchgoers and the place was always kept locked except on
Sunday mornings. Nobody from up the peninsula ever attended services.
The town looked deserted except for Sam Wilbore, a tall, long-haired, athletic-
looking youth who stood on the ramshackle pier, a pile of flat white stones beside him. He
reached down, took a stone and launched it across the bay, where it skipped a half dozen times on
the water. When Vail parked the car and got out, Wilbore turned suddenly to reveal a face in
which hardness mixed with craft and stupidity. It seemed surprised.
Uncomfortable with most of the villagers and especially with the Wilbore clan, Vail
made himself say, "Where is everybody?"
Wilbore hesitated as if uncertain whether to respond at all. "Church."
"Memorial service," Wilbore mumbled. He turned his back and launched another
Vail's eyes, following the trajectory, saw a distant column of smoke, barely discernible
against the overcast horizon. "What's that?" he asked.
Wilbore said over his shoulder, "Tank farm blew up near Newport."
"Anyone hurt?" The kid shrugged. An idea jabbed at Vail's brain. "What time did it
"'Bout an hour ago."
"An hour!" That was when he had fallen from the ladder. He calculated: the storage
tanks were about five miles across the water, too far for shock waves to have traveled through the
ledgerock below.. He said, "Thanks."
The Wilbore General Store was locked: Mrs. Wilbore, Sam's mother, must be in
church, toward which, Vail noticed, the boy now sauntered, leaving the village to Vail. Try as he
might, he could not rid his mind of the earthsound and the suspicion that went with it; if there had
been a tremor, mightn't it have left clues. He began to prowl the street looking for cracks in the
pavement -- broken windowpanes, fallen objects – but found nothing unusual. As he approached
the church he heard the bleat of the pipe organ; the music suddenly stopped and the villagers
In their plain-colored clothes, they regarded him with blank eyes, as if he were a
curiosity. Such strange folk, he reflected, from another culture almost, in some other time. How
little he had learned about them in the three years he had lived in Old Brompton; but afer all, they
kept to themselves.
"Looking for something, Mr. Vail?" Dun inquired, appearing from the throng. Vail
explained about the mud and the leaking pipe. Creases deepened in Dun's weathered face.
"Wonder what went wrong. Go right over." Vail regarded the liverish sky. "With all this rain, Dun, maybe you should build us an ark."
Vail returned to the store. Mrs. Wilbore was a tall strongly built woman with short
dark hair and a lined, stony face, the face of someone who never changed her mind. As long as
the Vails had lived here he had tolerated her vague chill, her taut refusal to smile, his own
discomfort when their gazes met. Invariably, he wondered what went on behind the red-rimmed
eyes. There were several possibilities. Conveniently overlooking the fact that her store did not
carry meat, she might be piqued because the Vails did their major shopping elsewhere. His vocal
objections to the driving habits of her teenage sons, Sam and Cy, might have annoyed her. The
boys tooled down Point Road day and night, honking, tailgating, driving fast and someday, he
told Mrs. Wilbore, somebody would get hurt or killed, but she wouldn't listen. Also, perhaps, she
lumped him with the rich summer people whom the villagers appeared to resent and envy. But
Vail believed what really bothered Mrs. Wilbore was his purchase of the stone house from her
spinster sister-in-law, for Mrs. Wilbore had been cold from the start. Vail had questioned Dun
about her, but the old man failed to enlighten him.
In the back of the store, Vail almost tripped on a can, then saw that several cans had
fallen from a stack against the wall. Some cereal boxes were down from a high shelf. Putting his
purchases on the counter, he said to Mrs. Wilbore, "Some things have fallen down in the back of
the store. Just thought I'd tell you."
She stared at him bleakly and began punching the register. "Oh?"
"Mrs. Wilbore, this might sound silly to you, but do you remember hearing the cans
"I'm trying to find out when they fell."
"No idea Mr. Vail."
"Or why they fell?"
"Somebody must have knocked them down." Her glance included him among the
suspects. "That'll be six twenty-seven."
Absently, Vail produced six dollars and fished in his pockets for change, coming up
with a quarter, which he placed on the country.
"Six twenty-seven," she repeated without touching the money.
He blinked, felt a surge of annoyance, found a ten dollar bill in his wallet and handed
it over silently. Mrs. Wilbore made change without speaking. He swung the box under his arm
and left the store hurriedly.
Two cents! Two cents! And the way she overcharges! He'd see to it they shopped
there even less often. Feeling demeaned, he slipped too easily into what happened next.
Cy and Sam Wilbore leaned against the fender of the carefully polished Rolls. Cy was
about eighteen and Sam about two years younger; both were almost as tall as Vail but lean,
without his heft. They had dark hair and pointed faces like their mothers', with the same narrow,
congenitally red-rimmed eyes. Vail said, "Get off the car."
Neither boy moved. "'Fraid we'll scratch your fancy buggy, Mr. Vail?" Cy Wilbore
said. He asked his brother, "Sam, you got a burr on your ass?"
"Why have a look," Sam clowned. He bent and turned the seat of his Levis toward
Cy Wilbore leaned over and looked. "No burr." He settled back on the fender.
"You kids are too much," Vail said, his deep voice tight with anger.
Cy Wilbore laughed. "Lose something? Saw you poking around."
"Well, it's a free country."
"Yeah? Never know it from all you rich folks' signs that say 'Private Property -- Keep
"I didn't put them up," said Vail, who didn't have one, though the summer people all
did as a way of keeping outsiders off the beaches. He was losing his temper and he surveyed the
peeling shacks and the town square deliberately. "Though, considering the looks of this place, I
can see why people do."
Cy's face twisted. He extended his middle finger and made an X on the hood of the
Rolls. "Fuck you," he said distinctly.
The ache jerked in Vai's head like a muscle spasm. " Get off the car! " he roared.
Neither boy budged. He lunged, grabbed their necks and with all his two hundred pounds behind
him, lifted them from the Rolls and threw them on the ground. Sam Wilbore lay gasping for
breath while Cy got to his feet and backed away, the whiteness of his face exaggerating the red
rims of his eyes.
Vail jumped into the car and drove off. He hit his driveway too fast and the Rolls
shuddered in the holes. The dog barked as he sat in the car trying to calm himself. Even after a
decade in New England Vail still thought of himself as a Californian -- easygoing, essentially
unflappable -- as opposed to Easterners, who in his stereotype were tense and erratic. As he
considered the scene in the village, he wondered if he had become a hysterical Easterner, too.
Surely there must have been a better way to handle the Wilbore kids.
The barking persisted and Vail, himself again, left the car, "Shut up, Punch. Don't you
ever know it's me?" he growled playfully as he picked up the dog by its long bush tail, an act to
which Punch never seemed to object though others had. He put the groceries in the kitchen and
went to the backyard where Dun was digging an oblong trench. "I'll give you a hand, Dun," he
Kay's face appeared in the doorway of the studio. "Oh no you don't. No physical
exercise until we're absolutely sure there's nothing wrong with that head of yours."
"No problem, son. Ground's soft. Almost finished already."
Vail joined his wife in the studio. Over the winter, the renovation of the stone house
finished at last, Dun had converted part of the barn -- a small building probably used once for
holding corn -- into a studio for Kay. In what had been the storage room, Dun installed
insulation, wiring, new flooring, plasterboard walls, a lavatory, spotlights in the ceiling and,
because a skylight would have been too expensive, a picture window that overlooked the massive
gray rock in the backyard. Neat and cozy, the studio would replace the cramped bedroom she
had used before. If the past few summers were any guide, between, now and Labor Day Kay
would gradually sell off her winter's worth of acrylics and watercolors to the summer people,
earning enough to pay for her paints, canvases and frames plus the yearly upkeep of her mare,
Brioche. Vail hoped that the studio would help keep Kay busy during the long winters, which
were hard on her, especially the last one, with Mark in first grade and himself away frequently on
business trips. She sometimes complained of being lonely, nervous, depressed, and waited eagerly
for spring when the skunk cabbage, marsh marigolds, dogtooth violets and shadbush blossoms
told her that the summer people were on the way like a rescue mission. Unlike Harry, Kay was
During the morning Kay had been hanging her pictures and for the first time the
studio looked like one. Harry said, "Terrific."
"Isn't it? Thank you -- it's a wonderful present." She kissed him. "Like the
He inspected the pictures in their clear plastic frames: perhaps because of his
geological training, he often displayed a better spatial sense than she did. He said, "They're all at a slight angle."
"Angle?" She stepped back.
"Look at the frames in relation to the floor."
"You're right. How spooky. I'd have sworn I had them straight. Well, what about
the layout?" she repeated.
He pointed to a picture. "That's too high. It ought to go there -- to the left of the
one of the boulder."
"Will you change it?"
A hammer and picture hooks lay on the table. He put in a new hook and took down
the picture. He stared at it. As time passed Kay's work had constantly become more literal -- this
painting was almost photographic. It showed part of a wall of the stone house. "Have I seen this
"It's new. I just painted it. Like it?"
"Yes, I do. It's just that..." Something seemed wrong -- some minor detail he could
not quite extract from the pattern of stones and mortar. Dun entered the studio and Vail's head
"Found the problem, Mr. Vail. Care to come outside?"
Vail followed the short, spare figure. It had started to drizzle. Dun pointed at the
trench he had dug and said, "Leak in the coupling. Guess I messed up." He kicked the ground
playfully and his smile revealed small brown teeth. "Fix it now before the rain gets too bad."
"What about the hole?"
"Put a piece of plywood over her so nobody falls in and finish up tomorrow."
Vail looked away from the open trench. "Okay," he said.
Vail was shaving in the bathroom when Kay said, "You'd better hurry."
"They never come on time." He combed his hair, slipped on clothes and said, "Your
turn to step on it."
"I'm ready," she said from her dressing table. She inserted the other earring through
her ear, did a final flourish with her comb and stood up to be appraised and to appraise, cocking
her head as she studied her husband.
Vail was a muscular man a little over six feet tall, with a round, friendly face, pea-
green eyes and a complexion ruddied from the outdoors. He wore an old tweed jacket over a
sport shirt, cavalry twill trousers, brown suede shoes. "You have your own look, God knows,
and what a look! When the weather gets warmer you'll wear the new summer blazer I bought
you," she said firmly. She turned to scrutinize herself in the full-length mirror. "Anyway, it's how I look that matters."
Kay was thirty-four, three years younger than Vail. Like him, she had reddish hair
and ruddy skin. But she was eight inches shorter and not much more than half his weight.
Somehow the leap of her breasts from a thin ribcage seemed structurally sound. Her lean nervous
hands fingered her pearls. "I'm wearing a new bra," she went on, "a bra that isn't a bra. Do my nipples show?" She turned to face him.
She seemed disconcerted. "I don't want them to show. They're for your eyes only.
"You don't really show -- there's just the suggestion. It's what you want," he said.
They were still as they examined each other's faces. "You're a good strong man,
Harry Vail," she said. "I'm lucky to have you. We have a fine life."
"Yes," he said. "We have everything anybody could want, just about. We're awfully
"It's true." She became subdued. "I just wish the rain would stop. It's like summer
hasn't started yet, and the winter was so long." She looked brighter. "The real summer will start soon."
"We'll go on a trip next winter, I promise."
"That's what you said last winter and the winter before. It always costs too much. I
wish we had as much money as our friends."
"The Demmings and the Pollidors? Well, I guess they'd be even unhappier without
"Stop that. I hate it when you sound superior. Smug even. I think you actually
enjoy being middle class."
"We're the backbone of the country," he said with a round smile. "And I'm not smug.
We're perfect, that's all."
"Oh, I don't know. You're overweight and I have a mole on my behind."
"I'm going to say good night to Mark." His gaze slid past her to the window. "Look,
it's stopped raining. See how lucky we are?"
She pressed her body to his. "Do I look nice. Answer me."
The Pollidors, who had a relative as a house guest, and the Demmings, were the Vails'
closest neighbors on the peninsula. As Harry predicted, all were late. Kay fluttered around the
living room patting the couch cushions, changing positions of ashtrays, pouring birdseed in the
brass cage, rearranging flowers that stood on the grand piano. Harry put wood in the fire and lit
it. Smoke billowed. Using tongs that hung on a metal plate screwed in the wall, he pushed the
logs deeper into the fireplace; smoke continued to pour into the room. "Christ," he said, "the flue is shut. I don't remember closing it."
"I didn't," she said, "so you must have."
"I could say exactly the same thing," he retorted.
"Better open the window," she said and he did, with effort. The smoke cleared.
When the shelty's high-pitched barks telegraphed guests, Big Ben, the grandfather
clock, said 9:30. "Shhh, Punch," Kay scolded as she opened the door. "Darlings!"
Polly Pollidor entered first, talking as usual. A short, pretty woman in her late thirties
or early forties, with shoulder-length brown hair and a straight profile, Polly contrived to look
simple and expensive at the same time. Her forehead was split down the middle by a sharp
vertical frown line which she tried to hid with makeup. Polly and her husband Bill had married
young and recently celebrated their twentieth anniversary. They had no children. Polly was an
heiress from a manufacturing family. She was saying to Kay, holding her arm, "My dear, don't
you look glamorous! How do you keep your hair so nice in all this damp? Me, I look like a wet
mop, and not a hairdresser in Old Brompton. I swear I'll import one from New York. Not that it
will do any good with all this rain. Have you seen the like? I hear it's the beginning of a new age,
with the ice cap melting, the seas expanding, the continents drifting around like rafts. Pretty soon
Old Brompton will be under water and we'll have to move -- or grow gills. Why, the peninsula's
half submerged already. Torturous Creek is close to overflowing...."
Bill Pollidor stood behind her. A balding man in his middle forties with a narrow,
shell-like head and blue veins webbing his cheeks and the sides of his nose, he was a New York
lawyer. He spent most of the summer in Old Brompton, conducting his business by phone and
getting drunk every night. Not gently, he tapped his wife's shoulder and said, "You're forgetting
Polly said quickly, "This is Jeffrey Carmichael. We've been in love for years, even
though he's my first cousin."
In a tartan blazer and white sandals, Carmichael stepped forward, hand outstretched.
A handsome man about Vail's age, he walked on the balls of his feet like a sprinter ready to run in
any direction. His brown eyes looked inquisitive. He was a televison reporter for one of the
networks and his wife had recently left him, Polly had told the Vails. He needed warmth and
reassurance, she said.
"We've seen you on the tube, of course!" Kay told him.
"Always glad to hear that," Carmichael said with a bright smile under his mustache.
As they entered the living room from the foyer he exclaimed, "What a lovely place!"
Kay looked pleased. "When we fixed it up we tried to keep it pretty much as it was."
"You were right." He glanced quickly at the Pollidors, who had done the opposite
the year before, gutting their old farmhouse and converting it into a modern dwelling with glass
walls and high ceilings. "Not that starting over isn't all right, too!" He examined the beams
nestling in white plaster, the marble fireplace, the old peanut vendor's cart on sturdy wheels,
which Kay had converted into a br. "What a good idea!" He pointed at the brass birdcage.
"That's a pretty bird. What kind is it?"
"Nobody ever asks me that," Kay said warmly. "It's called a green singing finch. It's
supposed to have a nice voice, except this one doesn't seem to know how to sing. It never has,
"Maybe it needs another finch to sing to," Jeff said, wrinkling his eyes. He nodded
toward a row of squat jugs with painted faces and three-cornered hats that gleamed on a lighted
glass shelf above the bar cart. "What are those?"
"I picked them up at an auction. They're real antiques," Kay explained. "They're
called Toby jugs after one Toby Philpot who is a character in a poem, I think. The faces are all
different but they're modeled after an eighteenth-century Englishman whose name I've forgotten.
He's supposed to have drunk two thousand gallons of beer without eating."
"Bill Pollidor could do that," Polly chuckled. "Oh, you won't believe what Bill's done.
He bought a bar with a computer! It was supposed to come today from New York -- but it
didn't, which will ruin Bill's weekend. Wait till you hear what it cost!"
Pollidor broke in. "It can be programmed to make a hundred kinds of drinks, if you
provide the liquor. I wonder if it ever gets drunk."
Harry laughed and took the drink orders while Carmichael asked Kay, "Are there
many stone houses around here?"
"No. We have the only one on the peninsula."
"You must be very special. How old is the house?"
"That's a bit of a mystery," Kay said volubly. "Around here they documented the
pedigree of the houses very well until just after the Civil War when the archivists suddenly got
lazy. Some say records got destroyed in a fire, but we can't seem to find out exactly when the
house was built or who built it. The woman we bought it from three years ago -- funny little
thing, she was -- wanted the money in cash, all of it. Fortunately I had a small inheritance from
my father and Harry his savings. The woman vanished as soon as the deal was made. We know
the family, the Wilbores, but they're not very, well, communicative. Anyway, the builder must
have been a Wilbore because most of the property on the peninsula has stayed in the same families
except those that were forced to sell when farming went bad. The house is definitely post-Civil
War and it was certainly a farmhouse, like most of the old houses here, since it stands at the end
of a long drive and farmers always built at the center of their fields, right, Harry? Harry believes
the house must be built on the foundations of another house, because it's a good location."
"Why did this particular farmer use stone?" Carmichael inquired.
"Who knows?" Kay said. "Maybe he wanted to show off a little, but my bet is that
the stone gave him a feeling of stability, of security." Under Jeff's stare she blushed beneath her
freckles. "You do ask a lot of questions."
Carmichael replied gaily, "Of course! It's my business." As if to prove it, he asked,
"Where did the stone come from? Or is that a mystery, too?"
"Yes, that's a mystery, too," Kay confessed with a sigh. "The stone looks local
because it's the same color as the seacliffs, but it couldn't have come from there because the cliffs
are crumbly, or something. But Harry can't find a quarry anywhere on the peninsula. Stone is
Harry's thing. He's a geologist, you know."
"I was told. Are you also interested in geology?"
"Me?" Kay cried. "What do I know about science? My thing is people. People are a
lot more interesting than rocks, though Harry doesn't think so. He's fascinated by the earth, aren't
you, honey? He believes it's alive."
"Alive" Carmichael's mustache turned toward his host.
Just then Punch exploded like a string of firecrackers and the door opened. Wende
Demming's low voice said, "Surprise, surprise. It's us."
Each Demming rated a superlative.
Fred had money, much of it inherited. With extensive real estate in Boston and
elsewhere, including the peninsula, Demming was surely the richest man in affluent Old
Brompton, but he seemed to have paid a price. His hands shook as though from a mild palsy; his
gruff face looked older than his fifty years and he wore thick glasses. Remote in manner, he was
no longer interested in wealth, only the uses of it, like power, and women, in the person of his
Wende was a former beauty queen and still reigned as one in Old Brompton. Twenty
years younger than her husband, tall, small-boned, she had a narrow waist and long, supple legs.
Her face white-skinned, blue-eyed, oval, looked fragile, deceptively. Wende was an immensely
competitive woman who delighted in being a general at games. Sometimes she would glance at
her own breasts, arms, fingernails or legs with a little onanistic smile; she was capable, she had
joked, of becoming aroused simply by inspecting herself in the mirror. She was not entirely
happy, however, she once confessed to Kay, who had a way of bringing people out. There was
some deep need in her that Fred failed to satisfy and sometimes, impetuously, she would depart in
her cream-colored Mercedes convertible for several days at a time. In Vail's judgment, Wende
didn't want to grow up.
He brought the newcomers into the circle, introduced them to Carmichael and made
drinks, including a fresh one for Pollidor.
Kay was silent Harry saw, and understood. She had kept them from the new studio
for tonight's unveiling and now she was eager to show it. "Come see the new studio," he said.
Chattering, they trooped across the lawn toward the square of light from the picture
window. Harry had to push hard on the door to open it. "I thought you were going to straighten
the pictures, Kay," he said as they filed in.
"I thought I did," she said. "I guess I didn't."
To all but Jeff Carmichael the scenes on the walls were familiar, yet in a sense they
were new to the summer people too, since they depicted winter in Old Brompton, when they were
not there. The brackish pond with a lone swan huddled in the sedges; the jutting block of granite
behind the house that looked like a giant gravestone; a single deer by the little house in the
woods; the big elm in the backyard, soaring black and desolate with the little clay bell hanging
from a branch.
"Kay, you've changed your style!" Polly exclaimed.
Kay smiled gratefully as she straightened another picture. "I'm trying to be more
realistic, that's all."
"Do you exhibit in New York?" Jeff asked.
"I wish I did! No, I'm just an amateur. Painting's therapy for me. It keeps me from
going crazy when Harry's away on business and our son's in school."
"Pretty good for an amateur," Jeff said. He pointed to the picture of the little house.
Wende answered, "It’s a playhouse Fred built for his children when they were small.
It's like a real house in miniature, with a little kitchen and living room with tiny furniture. It's in
the woods, right where the Pollidors, the Vails' and our property all meet." She added lightly,
"His kids by his first wife."
"You didn't need to tell me," Jeff said. His gaze rested on Wende's clear face a little
longer than necessary. "What's that big rock? I haven't seen anything like it around here."
"It's a hunk of granite in the backyard," Harry explained. "You're right -- there's
nothing like it around here. Nearest granite that shade of gray is probably thirty miles to the
south. It was carried here when the last glacier receded and dumped when it melted. That was
about 10,000 B.C. Can you imagine the power involved? It weighs tons."
"I guess Mother Nature hasn't got the stuff she used to have," Jeff observed. "She's
all worn out, here in the East anyway."
"Oh, I don't know. The trouble is, tucked away in our cities we're losing the feel of
the earth. If Mother Nature gets in a bad mood, we don't know what to do. And things can
"What things?" Jeff demanded.
Harry shrugged. "Hurricanes, floods, droughts... earthquakes."
"Earthquakes? When has there been an earthquake anywhere but out West?"
"You can get tremors anywhere."
Jeff said impatiently, "Sure, sure. But I mean a real earthquake"
"A tremor, even a tiny one, is an earthquake. As for severity, one in early Salem was
strong enough to knock down chimneys. There was a good-sized earthquake in Boston last
century and a serious quake in Charleston, South Carolina, about 1875. A tremendous
earthquake hit the Midwest in 1811 and 1812. Some said the Mississippi actually flowed
backward for a brief time. The Indians under Tecumseh took it as a divine sign and rose against
"Well, that's a long while back," Jeff argued.
"By what standards? Ours, maybe, but by the earth's it was just a second ago. You
never know what Mother Nature is up to."
"Oh yes, you think the earth is alive, your wife said."
"The earth isn't exactly alive, but in many ways it's like a living organism. The crust
would be its skin, rocks its bones, veins of metal its nerves, water its blood. And it does have a
heart -- its core. There's movement under the earth, just as living things move, and it changes,
too, as living things change."
They moved to the next watercolor, the one Harry had rehung, depicting the stone
wall of the house. He stared at the stone mosaic intently. "Kay," he said, "I thought this was your realistic year."
"It is. Why?"
He had been aware before of a peculiar detail in the painting. Now, inspecting the
canvas closely, he saw that Kay had painted a tiny crack, like a series of diagonal W's in the stones near the roof of the house. "There's no crack like that. Not in our house."
She glanced at him. "Of course there is."
"I'm sure it wasn’t there when we bought the house. Where is it?"
"On the wall outside Mark's room." Kay smiled with her mouth, not her eyes and said
"Maybe you don't get to that side of the house much. Maybe you've forgotten."
He shook his head. "When did you finish the picture?"
"This morning." She turned to the others and said kiddingly, "Harry fell today and
whacked his head. It's affected his memory, which is usually sharp."
"Nothing's wrong with my memory," he insisted.
She sucked in her thin cheeks. "Well, darling," she said sweetly, "you can see the
crack for yourself tomorrow. And ask Dun if it hasn't always been there."
She turned to leave the studio, but Harry insisted, "Kay, didn't we take pictures of the
house and ground with your Polaroid when we bought the place?"
"I don't remember."
"Try. I'm sure we did."
"Maybe we did at that. We were going to make a 'before and after' album but never
got around to it. Why do you ask?"
He said, trying to keep his voice even, "Where are the photos?"
"How should I know?"
The others had stopped speaking. "I just asked if you remembered that's all," he said.
Kay said to the others, "Shall we go?"
"You work is really improving, Kay," Polly Pollidor was saying. "You ought to think
about a New York show. Why, the awful stuff they're selling in the galleries these days, and the
prices! It's scandalous...."
Vail remained in the studio to turn off the lights after the group had found its way to
the house, but even after the voices faded he stood by the picture window thinking about the
crack. Why couldn't he quite bring himself to believe her? And if by some dreadful chance he
was right, the implication of a new crack could be serious. It could mean that the house was
shifting in subsoil turned to treacle by the unprecedented rains. He told himself to stop imagining
About to leave the studio, he heard the mare champ in her stall on the other side of
the barn and, almost simultaneously, Punch's staccato bark. He turned again to the picture
window. Usually he put the Rolls in the barn, but this time, preoccupied when he returned from
the village, he had left it outside. It stood behind the Demmings' and Pollidors' cars on the edge
of the pool of light. His eyes probed the darkness. Did he detect movement behind the Rolls, the
white of a hand, a retreating figure?
He went outside. Clouds curtained the sky and the dark behind the Rolls was almost
Vail turned off the studio lights, closed the door and returned to the house. Heads
raised a little too quickly when he entered the living room. Kay said, "Why did Punch bark?"
"Wild animal -- deer, fox, owl. Happens all the time," he said for the benefit of
Carmichael, the newcomer.
"Sure it wasn't a prowler?" Kay asked.
"Didn't see anybody." He looked at her. "Why?"
"Polly says there have been robberies on the peninsula recently. And Bill thinks he's
seen people walking in the woods."
"I wouldn't take that too seriously. He sees a lot of things after he's had a couple,"
Polly said lightly.
"Listen," said Pollidor, "you were the one who insisted I install the burglar alarm."
"No sense in taking chances."
"A burglar alarm?" Kay said. "But who would hear it?"
"That doesn't matter. The important thing is that thieves think that people can hear it,
or that it's hooked up to a police station. That's what the man who installed it today told me.
What a joke, because it runs on batteries and isn't hooked up to anything. Another joke is the
"What's wrong with them?" Jeff asked.
"Them? We have exactly one cop, and he's practically senile."
"Police, burglar alarms," Kay said, her face showing concern. "But who would be in
"The village idiots, who else?" Pollidor shouted. "I hope they keep their distance,
because if they don't, bang! bang!" He extended his left arm and place his right fist to his cheek, as though sighting.
Jeff broke in. "Who are these villagers"
Demming leaned forward and spat out one word: "Fools!"
"I don't get it."
Demming replied, "You have to know the situation. The so-called summer people
like myself own much of the land on the peninsula but by no means all. The locals come from
farming families and, though they no longer farm, they still own land -- quite a bit of it. On the
theory that the price of land will rise, some time ago they made a collective decision to hang on,
not to sell until the price went higher. And it was a good idea, so far as it went. The price of land
"They why don't they sell?"
"The fact that the price rises confirms their expectations that it will rise still more.
And so it will, slowly, again confirming their view. If the price of land dropped, they would sell at
once, but it won't drop, and so we have the status quo. They will always hope for a still higher
price, and we do our best to preserve the expectation."
Demming waved his cane. "Some of us -- I don't mean the Vails here; they're a little
naive about such things -- have influence on the town council."
"Run it, you mean," Bill Pollidor said.
Demming ignored him and went on, "We see to it that the zoning laws are so strict
you can't put a vegetable stand on the road, and that real estate taxes stay dirt cheap so as not to
strain the locals' pocketbooks. The summer people pretty much finance the town, through various
"Harry and Kay bartered glances. Carmichael exclaimed, "So!"
"And from time to time," Demming continued, "blind offers to purchase the villagers'
lands are made through us. The price is always high enough to be interesting and low enough to
be turned down."
Jeff said, "But surely there comes a time when someone wants to sell. How do they
keep each other in line? Social pressure?"
"Oh, it's a matter of a handful of families, really. Any one of them who thinks of
selling faces ostracism. They did it in the case of the Wilbore woman who sold to the Vails here.
She vanished immediately after and hasn't been heard from since. Forced to move away, I
suppose. That was the last land sold in these parts -- three years ago. They haven't forgiven Vail
yet just for buying the property."
Harry whirled as something crashed at the bar. Bill Pollidor had lurched against it,
upsetting a bottle. "'s okay," he said, righting it.
Polly said quickly, "They're practically like an Indian tribe, clinging to their old ways!"
"She's right," Kay remarked "They are like the Indians. The village is almost a
reservation and in it they're dying off. I just hope they don't come back to haunt us, too."
"Haunt us?" Harry asked.
Kay said wanly, "A few weeks ago Mrs. Wilbore got talkative for a change and she
told me that people hereabouts used to believe that Indian ghosts haunt the peninsula, seeking
revenge on the early settlers who squeezed them off their lands. Eventually the whole tribe died
of starvation." She shivered slightly.
Polly chirped, "It would be just like the villagers to believe in ghosts."
"A surprising number of people do in one form or another," Jeff remarked. "They
don't admit it because they're afraid they'll sound foolish."
He happened to glance at Kay who said quickly, "Not me! I don't believe in ghosts."
Said Jeff, tilting his mustache, "Did I say you did?"
Kay faltered. "Well, no. But...."
"Anyway, it's how you die that counts -- not what comes after. Don't we all pick our
own form of death in a way? I mean, don't we willingly choose our death zones? Say, I know a
game...." Jeff stopped speaking, as if he had thought better of what he was about to say.
"Let's come back to life," Kay said. "Who's hungry? I have sandwiches in the dining
They cleaned up in silence after the others had gone. Kay said finally, "have a good
"What did you think of Jeff"
"Kind of a know-it-all."
"Wende liked him. I hope nothing's starting, for Fred's sake. Say, the tap water's
running brown. I wonder why."
"Water from the pond must be getting in the well -- it's happened before."
"I hated all that talk about ghosts." She straightened up from the dishwasher and
looked at him. "You weren't yourself tonight, the way you carried on about the silly old crack. It
was embarrassing Harry."
"Was it? Would you be embarrassed if the house fell down?"
"Mortarfied," she joked. "Harry, I just don't understand why the crack bothers you
"It's just that I don't remember seeing it. I'd still like to look at those photos."
"All right!" she snapped and set down a pot with a bang. "I'll look for them in the
morning. In the meantime try to remember the crack is in your head! I'm going to bed."
"I'll put the cars in the barn."
He took a flashlight from the hall closed and went outdoors, rounding the house until
he stood below Mark's window, where he shone the light, seeing nothing except tangled patterns
of shadow and stone. He put both cars in the barn and started back to the house when the light
picked up the whitish oblong shape on the lawn.
He stopped still, wrestling with his emotions. Something inside him demanded that he
look beneath, into the open hole, into the earth. No, no, he argued helplessly, but it did not lie