Crossing over from golden New Hampshire into the state of Maine, Marietta rolled the car windows down. All four of them. She’d been lucky with the weather the whole way up. Skies the exact colour of the blue crayons that bore their name. The air smelled just as she’d imagined it would. Spicy and clean. Salt spray. Autumn leaves. She’d driven slower than those behind her would have wished, letting them pass her at will, finding the indignant expressions on their faces amusing. She wanted to look at the sea. Except for the occasional August week on the panhandle when she was little, she’d never seen much of the ocean. And just as she’d expected, Florida oceans bore no resemblance to the wildly nonchalant waters now smacking the rocks by the road beside her; rising up, racing out. Florida seas seemed to know they were only there to show tourists a good time. Here they seemed more than decorative; these were waters to take seriously.
Turning off Highway 1 Marietta drove past fields that stretched across to the pink horizon, rarely seeing a house, never spotting a person. Scarlet maples and emerald firs, as dramatically lush as theatre curtains, lined both sides of the road as it began to descend downwards, inching closer and closer to the sea. Marietta breathed in the unfamiliar scents, sweeter than any perfume captured in glass.
The village of Hancock consisted of seven shops which formed parallel lines on either side of a narrow road that dove like a gannet straight down to blue water. Marietta drove slowly down the small hill, her sun-tired eyes scanning the shops till she found the one she was looking for. Peter James and Sons, General Store. Corrine James, wife of Peter’s second son, Mark, was supposed to be holding the keys to her new cottage. Corrine had handled the sale for an owner Marietta had never spoken with. Thinking about that now as she pulled her little blue Toyota into the parking place in front of the store, it dawned on her that she didn’t even know the owner’s name. It had just been listed as “Owner” on the contract she’d sighed on her kitchen table and mailed back with her check. It hadn’t struck her as particularly strange at the time, but now, as she stood on the sidewalk stretching her tired back and looking around, it did a bit. Jasper had always made Marietta read the fine print on any contract they’d signed. Who does that?
She locked the car and turned round to look down the deeply sloping street. The sky was darkening into colours straight from the paint box of Maxfield Parrish. Indigo and teal, deep and soft as old velvet, streaked with a splashing of fairytale pink. Marietta sighed. It was all just as she’d imagined, each new sight was an affirmation of her decision.
Turning to her left she faced the store she’d been seeking. From the look of things, James and Sons was pretty much a one stop shop. The windows held everything from a display of artfully arranged kitchen and baking utensils: wooden spoons, fat, shiny tea kettles, and an assortment of large red pots that seemed to call out their desire to be filled to the brim with hearty soups and stews. There were stacks of plaid blankets, knitted hot water bottle covers, flannel shirts and fair isle sweaters, all speaking louder than any weatherman about the likelihood for a harsh winter. Here and there, grinning malevolently at passersby sat the bright orange jack-o-lanterns that seemed to populate the windows of most New England establishments this week before Halloween.
The bell above the wooden door jangled as Marietta stepped inside. The last rays of the setting sun fell through the half open shutters the covered the windows, painting ribbons of gold on the old plank floors. Dust motes danced in the light. A forest fragrance threaded the air, like the inside of a cedar chest.
“Hello?”, Marietta thought her voice sounded weak. She cleared her throat and tried again. “Hello! Is anyone there?”
Sounds came from the back of the store: a drawer closing, some papers ruffling, then a chair scraping back as someone got up. The footsteps were brisk as they came towards her, heels clicking on the old pine floors. A few seconds later, Marietta saw a tall, thin woman emerge into the setting sunlight.
In her grade school days, Marietta’s family had owned a mynah bird named Mr. Smith. Sleek and dark, with eyes like ebony beads, he’d sat for years in a Victorian birdcage in the sunroom, observing the family with a resentful, nearly sinister, air. She’d hated passing by that bird’s cage, though her brother Macon seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time with the thing. The family found out the reason for Macon’s inexplicable devotion one springtime afternoon, when Mr. Smith began yelling out unspeakable words during a Sunday dinner, each expletive worse than the last, and each uttered in the unmistakable Southern drawl of her brother. Mr. Smith was gone the next day.
Marietta now felt she was in the presence of that mynah bird once again, so great was the resemblance between the woman standing before her and Mr. Smith. She could feel herself once again being scrutinized by two small dark eyes peering out from a face that was tiny and tight. The woman was dressed in a black woolen skirt that fell just below her knees. Black stockings, black pumps, black turtleneck sweater. A fairly extravagant shawl the colour of fire was draped around her neck, its points nearly reaching the hem of her skirt. She was an arresting figure. Marietta swallowed.
“Hello. I’m Marietta Cline. Here to pick up the keys to the cottage on Sea Street. I’m the new owner.”
The woman’s tiny eyes widened as much as they could given the paucity of their size and she smiled. “Ah. Yes. I’ve been expecting you. Come back to the office, won’t you. I’ve got everything ready for you there.”
She turned on a black heel and headed back into the shop at a clip. Marietta followed.
In total contrast with the homespun shop in front, the office Marietta entered was unexpectedly bright and contemporary. All straight lines and right angles. A razor sharp sofa sat idling along a large picture window that took full advantage of the day’s remaining sunlight and an impressively large, and obviously well-tended, white orchid sat atop a glass table so clear and clean it could have doubled as a mirror. The only colour came from a perfectly arranged stack of brightly-hued file folders lying atop the shiny black desk.
“Here we go”, said the woman, briskly. “I’m Corrine James, by the way. Seems I already know you, but we’ve never met face to face, have we? Only on the phone. Yes. I’m Mark James’ wife. Well, I was. Been his widow now for a few years. Still not quite used to that. I’m sorry about your husband. Accident, was it? Well, at least I was prepared a bit. Mark was sick for a good while. Let’s see….”. She lifted a hot pink file from the stack on her desk. It amused Marietta to see she’d been assigned that colour.
“Yes, here we are. I think everything’s all in order. Here are the keys. The house is furnished, you know. And I think you’ll be pleased with how fully furnished it is, too. Nothing missing in that cottage, I can tell you.” She looked up suddenly, peering into Marietta’s face with almost medical focus. “Have you ever lived alone?”, she asked.
Taken aback, Marietta said, “Well, not completely. My husband went out of town occasionally. Well, once a year. Fishing trips with his two best friends. I stayed by myself then. I did just fine.” She wondered why she felt the need to reassure this stranger about her abilities to handle her newly single situation.
“Of course. Of course. You’ll be fine, I’m sure. Here’s the directions to the cottage. You won’t need them. Just head down to the sea and turn right. Follow that till the road starts to climb. You’ll see a turn off to the left in about a mile. That’s your road. The cottage is about a half mile down. Pretty place.”
She placed the keys and the folder in Marietta’s hand and gave her an oddly searching smile. “I am correct in assuming you found nothing in the contract to give you pause?”
“Well, no. I didn’t.” Marietta could almost see Jasper’s disapproving face. “It all was pretty straight forward, I guess. The cottage is mine now anyway, right?” She laughed in what she hoped was a carefree, confident manner.
Corrine James stared at her for a long while before she spoke, turning Marietta’s slight defensiveness into irritation. “Remember your dream of living by the sea”, she said. “You have what you’ve always wanted now. You can be content forever, if you wish to be.” Corrine James turned back to her desk. and, feeling as though she’d been dismissed from the principal’s office with a warning, Marietta turned to go.
As its name indicated, Sea Street ran parallel to the rocky coastline of the Atlantic Ocean, now glimmering in the dying rays of the sun. Large clapboard houses stood like sentries along its west side, their windows staring out at the incoming tides, perhaps recalling the bygone days when sea captains dwelled within them, eager to return to the sea. These statuesque structures became fewer and fewer as Marietta left the village behind her and soon the road began climbing up towards the sunset, its last rays so bright she almost missed the turnoff. Backing up a bit, Marietta pointed her car off to the left and began bumping along an obviously rarely traveled track, holding tightly to the steering wheel with her eyes straight ahead. The road fell off dramatically on the left side. Though she didn’t dare look, she could hear the sea crashing below and was glad of last bits of remaining light. When road began to level a bit, Marietta could see its end just ahead. She stopped the car. Looking up to the right, on the crest of a hill, there it was. Old stone, old wood. Wide windows, wide porches. The cottage by the sea she’d always wanted. Now her very own home. Marietta’s heart soared as she pulled into the drive.
To Be Continued ... Chapter Three- Thursday Midnight....