CROWN ISLAND CHAPTER ONE
April 3, 1971
To the people of Quarrytown Marie Wainwright was an enigma. She lived on Crown island alone, the last of her family, a celebrity who kept mostly to herself, but still a youthful and beautiful woman.
Peter Chello talked with her several times since he dropped out of the University, and each time she surprised him because of her warmth and her interest in his work. Others who worked on the island over the years found her mystifying and brusque. But since her husband and daughters had drowned, people became more charitable. They saw her now as more brave than distant. She had been dealt a cruel hand by the gods, and even those in Quarrytown with reason to feel resentful softened and spoke of her kindly.
When she hired him to replace her granite pier head and slate walkway, she sat him down in the Quarrytown Café and talked for more than an hour about the beauties of life on Crown Island, the way the light played on the water, the way the trees would soon be in bloom, the way the Granite Islands sat like a stately convoy reaching toward Long Island. There was poetry everywhere one looked, she said. And as they spoke Peter felt that she was not just talking with an employee, a stonemason from a family of stonemasons. She was talking with someone who understood the poetry of a beautiful vision. He knew just what she meant, but until now he'd never had anyone he could talk with about the beauty of the harbor.
On his first day, he nosed past Kidd's Island, around the rocks where cormorants sat at low tide, until he began the approach on the south side of Crown Island. Then he saw the white house large and solid, with a fine verandah, two brick chimneys, and a widow's walk between them. Not far from the dock sat the sailboat from which her husband and children were thrown. The Petrel had not been back in the water for years. He thought he'd never see it again.
He beached his skiff in the sand and examined the steps leading up from the pier, then went to the door, but no one answered. All he heard was muffled barking. Where could she be? He thought for a moment of the calamities in her life. She had written her first book, The White Wraith, about her parents' death in a plane crash and her second, On an Island of Hope, after her family died. What was she writing now?
Back at the pier someone was swimming in the dark water toward him. All he saw at first were splashes of white, but soon Marie turned her face to breathe and then reached for the lowest step. She emerged like Venus, dripping a tumult of water. She wore a stark white bathing suit and a white cap that she peeled off, shaking the excess water on the stones. Her dark hair flowed around her shoulders as she greeted him.
"I wanted to get my swim in," she said with a smile.
He hardly had the presence of mind to say hello. She was intensely beautiful in this morning light.
"There's a towel down there." She pointed toward the stone seat behind him. "You're very sweet to come out today," she said taking it from him. He watched her dry herself and wrap the towel around her shoulders. "I've been putting off fixing these stairs for years. I hope it's not too late."
"No," he said. "No, It's not too late. You need good Quarrytown Granite."
"I've always disliked this slate. Have you had your coffee break yet?"
"I don't usually . . . ."
"We'll need to discuss what I want," she said. "And I've not had my breakfast. I always swim first, and have breakfast later. You'll come up and have something with me while we talk."
"You swim every day?"
"When it's nice. I swim over to Parker Island or Extra Island, then I like to swim slowly home."
"It's dangerous out there. You could get run over."
"I've been doing it since I was a child."
He felt embarrassed but moved up toward the house with her. She dripped on the slate as she walked, and beads of water sat on her arms and legs. Her hair hung in clusters across her shoulders and he found himself excited by her closeness, the way she seemed so comfortable in her body, the way she touched his arm as she leaned on him.
"Maybe we could have a swim one day," she said. "You must be a strong swimmer."
When they reached the house Marie's dog stood wagging its tail by the door.
"That's Jasper," she said. "You'll like him. We name all our dogs Jasper. Do you think that odd? My grandfather started the tradition. You know how traditions are."
He wasn't sure what to say. The people he worked for sometimes gave him cookies or cupcakes or tomatoes to take home after a job, but none of them had ever asked him to sit and have coffee with them. Marie surprised him. He felt himself stirred just by being near her. How could anyone think she was weird? Packy Caserto told him that she was a weird lady and that he'd seen her at night standing out in front of her house in the moonlight wearing a white dress with a white scarf over her head.
"I guess coffee would be great," he said. "With milk. And one sugar." He started to put on his shirt while she moved from the cupboard to the coffee maker, and she waved her hand. "Don't bother. Relax. We'll get more done if you relax."
She took a man's shirt from a hanger by the back door, and left it loose as she moved about the kitchen. The coffee maker began to gurgle. "I'm not sure exactly how I want the walkway to be, but I know I want it changed."
He sat and watched her lean on the counter. She never took her eyes off him and in a moment he looked away. He tried not to think of the letter in his pocket.
"Okay." He examined her drawing. It was close to some of the ideas he had himself. She stood on tiptoe reaching for coffee mugs. Her legs were long and smooth. She turned and smiled at him. She placed a nut roll on the plate before him and poured coffee for both of them.
"How's your father?"
"He's in the wheelchair now. I'm not sure he'll be able to do the heavy work any more." "Is it permanent? The wheelchair?." "He's going to have a limp, but he'll walk again. He was almost killed in the quarry, you know." She nodded. They sat opposite one another. "Do you ever get lonely out here?"
"Yes. Sometimes. I talk to Jasper a lot."
"You're writing a new book."
"I should be. Have you read any of my books?"
"I just finished On an Island of Hope."
"Ah. Did you like it?"
"I really liked it."
"Thank you." She looked sad for a moment, but then she smiled again. "I'm in a strange period for me I think. The muse seems to have abandoned me."
She didn't say anything for a few minutes. The silence made him feel out of place. He looked around the room. The kitchen was yellow with glass-paned cabinets. Several skillets and copper pots hung above the stove. But apart from their own cups and plates there was no sign of anyone eating. Even the plate rack next to the sink was empty and the dishcloth beside it seemed dry and stiff. He couldn't help but wonder what her life here alone was like. He wished he could say something that would make him feel easier and less awkward.
"Do you miss college?"
"The University?" He thought a moment. It wouldn't be easy to explain his feelings. "I can go back," he said.
"Yes, but do you miss it now?"
"I guess," he said. But he knew he did miss it.
"It would be a shame not to go back. Especially if you like Classics. I loved school."
"Me too," he finally admitted. He tried not to think about it. His father kept saying he should go back, but Peter knew that Tom Chello was glad he was home. The business was not called Chello & Son for no reason. "I should go out and get to work," he said. "This was nice."
"I just wanted to be sure we were thinking alike on this project," she said. "I want to preserve the flowers, but I also want the walkway to be beautiful. Not just serviceable."
"No, I want that too. I want it to last as well as being beautiful. It's important."
She rose when he stood up. Her hair was dry and she fluffed it slightly. Her skin was warm and fresh looking. He realized he liked the way she smiled and the way she moved around the table as she walked him to the door. Jasper sat calmly near the stairs. "I'll be out in a little while myself. Take your time."
Peter went down to the walkway. The slates were set badly, eroding at the edges, crumbling and shattered in spots. Whoever did that work had no sense of aesthetics, no sense of craft. He walked down taking notes on the floral gardens as well as the trees that helped shade the path when the sun rose. The old pear trees needed pruning. When Senator Wainwright lived here, the walkway was wide and beautiful. Peter wanted it to be that way again. He looked back at the house and saw Marie smiling at him.