The only time I ever visited the Maine coast was during my senior year of high school. Honors English field trip up to Camden, to stay at an inn where the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay was discovered.
I lived in Standish, New York back then, north of Albany, a dusty mill town with three dive bars and one church. It stormed that April weekend, and we left before sunrise, on a mud-streaked Greyhound bus, all of us giddy with excitement to see the ocean. By noon, we were eating lobster rolls in the pelting sleet, and I remember watching the whitecaps, and boats tossing about in the harbor.
At the inn, each of us had our own room, painted in a blue and white palette, decorated with ship anchors and sea birds. My room was tucked away on the top floor, and appropriately masculine with a four-poster mahogany bed, sturdy oak desk and a fireplace.
Everything was spotless, just the way I liked it.
Still, you could never be too careful, so I wiped down all the surfaces with antiseptic wipes. I cleaned the doorknobs, the TV remote, the flush handle for the toilet. In the bathroom, I found a wet towel that housekeeping had forgotten to remove. And when I walked back into the bedroom, I noticed the ruffled bed skirt was lifted slightly on one side. When I checked under the bed to make sure it had been vacuumed, I discovered a small pillow centered beneath the mattress frame.
And a couple of old photos placed upon it.
Curious, I slid my arm under the bed and pulled them out.
The pillow was roundish, quilted in a faded flowered silk. The photos were tattered and water-stained. I could vaguely make out the faces of a blonde boy and a man, but it was evident they were both very good-looking. The laughing man was holding up the boy, who was probably four or five, with eyes as clear as lake water as he grinned for the camera.
I thought about bringing the items to the front desk and making a complaint to housekeeping. But I had to admit — they were interesting, evocative details that could be used in my writing.
So, I slid them back under the bed.
The beginning of the weekend was uneventful, even dull. We did a bit of sightseeing and shopping the first morning, spent the afternoon touring Millay’s childhood home in nearby Rockland. In the evening, we talked about her poetry. At the time, I really didn’t have much interest in poetry, or Millay for that matter. Though I was kind of jealous of Millay’s early discovery by a patron of the arts. I worked several nights and weekends stocking shelves at the Standish Drug Store and never seemed to have much time to write. Now that I had a few days off, I was anxious to find some quiet time. And starving for something to jolt my inspiration.
On the second night of the trip, something happened that did just that.
We were gathered at the long dinner table, all ten of us plus our teacher, sweet rodent-faced Mrs. Stevenson. Six girls, but only one of them — Diana — was almost hot: pink plumped lips and skinny jeans, but a complete, fucking narcissist so before I sat down, I whispered into her jeweled ear, it’s all lies, what they say about you! and smirked when I saw shock register on her face; and there was Mick and Wally with their legs touching, a popular couple who I fondly dubbed Milky, who spent most of the weekend practically oblivious to the rest of us.
That night, there was one extra seat at our long table, but no setting. When our crab cake appetizers arrived, a gaunt woman in a dark wool dress swept into the room.
She smelled like wet leaves. She sat down but didn’t acknowledge anyone.
We all stared. She had a long neck, delicate as bone china.
Mrs. Stevenson regarded her curiously, somewhat nervously, so I knew she was uninvited. She murmured something to the woman, who nodded after a few moments.
Mrs. Stevenson gestured to the waiter, making this odd, solemnly beautiful woman our guest. The woman pressed her lips into a tight smile. It took some effort.
I studied her all during dinner. Sculpted cheekbones, slender fingers, clean nails filed short. She picked at the salmon and chewed robotically. She scanned the room as if it were a distant landscape, then slid her gaze back to the safety of her plate. She ate very little, allowed herself only a few sips of seltzer.
After dinner, though, when Mrs. Stevenson started droning on about Millay’s bohemian days, contrasting it with her pastoral life in Austerlitz, New York, her literary significance, the woman’s eyes grew luminous. She became attentive, hands clasped together, listening as Mrs. Stevenson gushed about Millay’s intellectual sophistication and her gift as both a poet and playwright.
A few of us yawned, some fidgeted, anxious to get back to our phones, while I feigned interest, but honestly, Millay was a complete bore to me. I hated rhyming couplets, and everything I had read of Millay’s, even her sonnets, sounded infantile. To me, they were just a bunch of silly love poems. I could write so much better than that. I should be the one who was being celebrated tonight, not some old, long-dead female poet.
As if on cue, the strange woman suddenly stood, cleared her throat and began to recite from memory some of Millay’s sonnets. To this day, I can still hear the deep tolling bell of her voice:
Small chance, however, in a storm so black, A man will leave his friendly fire and snug For a drowned woman's sake, and bring her back To drip and scatter shells upon the rug. No one but Night, with tears on her dark face, Watches beside me in this windy place.
It was electric. Her tremulous voice, her haunted gray eyes, her thin arms clutching her sides as if to keep her ribs from breaking. She was that drowned woman, ruined by lost love, trying not to fall apart in front of us. Trembling, trying not to scatter her shells, her fragile bones.
And her perfect porcelain face, a counterpoint to her battered soul.
We were captivated.
I don’t know how long she spoke, maybe ten minutes, but it was the depth of her pain that drew us in. And it was a life-changing moment for me. For the first time, I recognized the embodiment of suffering. Yet, here she stood before us, somehow so beautiful and elegant. And ethereal. A fascinating study for my teen self who had published two short horror stories in our school literary magazine, Midnight Anthem, and fancied himself the next Stephen King. Now a thundering wave of great writers and poets crashed over me, and the synapse between the written word and emotional pain was something I knew I wanted to capture.
When the woman finished, we were speechless. Mrs. Stevenson quietly thanked the woman for her passionate recitation.
But she didn’t ask her to continue.
And no one applauded.
An uncomfortable silence filled the room. Still standing, the woman nervously tucked a lock of black hair behind her right ear. I noticed a single pearl earring and wondered if she even knew she wearing only one.
I took copious notes in my head. I wanted to remember every detail. Hard to tell her age. She could have been thirty or even older, her face scrubbed clean, thick lashes and brows framing those storm-gray eyes, a heart-shaped face.
And the earring. It was one of those grayish, fresh-water pearls, and it gleamed in the dim light.
I remember her eyes darting about the room, shyly seeking out some human connection, however small or fragile. When she saw me watching her, our eyes locked for a long moment, but I wrenched mine away.
Flustered, I rose abruptly and went outside to smoke a joint.
The street was empty. The wind was blowing so hard; I almost couldn’t light it. I zipped up my hoodie and walked to the harborside dock and watched two gulls struggle against the storm. The wet air smelled like seaweed and dead things.
A short while later, the woman appeared at my side. Startled, I flicked the joint into the harbor. She was tall, just a couple inches shorter than me. She leaned forward, her dark hair fluttering like bird wings about her thin shoulders, searching my face as if desperate to find someone she recognized.
“The rain is full of ghosts tonight,” she said.
I couldn’t speak. My heart was thudding so loud I thought she might hear it. She touched her ear lobe, fingered the pearl. She studied my face as she plucked it from her ear, handed it to me. “In my heart,” she said softly, “there stirs a quiet pain.” She pressed the earring firmly into my palm and closed my fingers around it using both of her hands.
She shivered, clad only in the wool dress and low heels. Her thin lips were chapped and I had a sudden urge to kiss them.
But those eyes! Even clouded with tears, they cut right through me, into me, sliding down my throat, into my liver, slipping around my spinal cord. I froze; my hands wet with sweat. I didn’t know what to say or do. She looked at me and knew everything about me.
Being in her presence was unsettling, exciting, all-consuming. Arousing. Was she seeing me as a fully mature young man? Did she want something in return?
I didn’t wait to find out. I didn’t even say goodbye. I abandoned her and fled across the deck and back into the inn.
My room, my refuge, perched on the third floor in the left wing – faced the harbor.
I went over to the window by the fire escape and peered out at the gathering dark.
The window panes were cold to the touch and it sent a shiver through me. Distant lights blinked in the harbor. At the horizon, a tiny scar of moon. No curtains, but I still had total privacy. The window was closed, but unlocked. I secured it and tried to relax. Then it occurred to me that a glowing fire would warm me up and calm me down and set the mood for my writing. It was a gas insert, so all I had to do was push a button and voila! – instant ambiance.
The wind started rattling against the window panes. As I began typing a new story, The Pearl Earring, I popped a few Benadryl and washed them down with several vodka nips I’d pilfered. The liquor stung my throat and sent a golden burn through my veins. But I still couldn’t relax – I was restless and anxious as I typed into my laptop.
Several pages in and the story just wasn’t coming together. Lately, I really couldn’t seem to get anything decent down on paper. It was all shit! Even my writing teacher Mr. Prior had warned my work was falling flat at times. He announced during our previous class, “Joshua used the adjective ‘lugubrious’ to describe his character’s deep state of sadness. Why would you do that, Joshua, except to blow your own trumpet?” And the class actually laughed at me! It took of all my strength not to scream back at him, you fucking moron! My character is a Rhodes scholar! And then he declared, in front of the whole class, “You need to learn to harness your inner voice, Joshua. Your writing lacks authenticity.”
Prior was jealous. Obviously. But his stinging criticism had set me off kilter. Now I was questioning every word and I’d completely lost my flow. I needed another story ready in three days and so far, it was all crap!
I had to capture some magic in my writing. Some emotional pain! My head was spinning. It was so damn hot in the room! I stripped off my hoodie, my T-shirt. I kept envisioning the woman’s face, and it was making me angry and confused. And hard. And the wind kept hammering the window, clattering against the fire escape. I just couldn’t concentrate with so much noise! I pulled off my jeans and started to pace. The lights flickered. I felt dizzy and grasped onto the one of the bed posts to steady myself.
Then I remembered the pillow and photos under the bed. How inconsiderate of housekeeping to have left that stuff in my room! They probably never even vacuumed under there!
Frustrated, I pulled them out, staggered over to the fireplace and flicked the photos in, mesmerized as they curled into little fingers of ash.
And the pillow! So soft! Warm as a lover’s skin. As I caressed it and slipped it all over my body, I saw it wasn’t actually round; it was a misshapen heart. Delirious, I wrapped it around my manhood and harnessed my inner voice as the wind banged and howled and shrieked down the chimney.
A while later, I tossed the pillow into the fire. It smoked a bit, then made a dull popping sound before it eventually succumbed to the flames.
I fell onto the plush quilt, slipped down into the soft mattress and into a dead sleep.
I dreamed of capsized ships, bruised and battered bodies. Moist places where earthworms and other crawly things writhed. And in that dark, lonely place, my nose filled with the pungent mix of seaweed and dirt, I reached for the silken bones of the woman with haunted gray eyes.
I overslept and only had time for a quick shower that morning, scrubbing myself clean with balsam-scented soap, before packing my duffel bag and joining the others for breakfast.
My head was a concrete block. But despite all the weed, booze and Benadryl, I was starving. Practically drooling as I thought about wild blueberry pancakes drizzled with maple syrup.
Downstairs, a tense commotion. Muffled voices. Milky sat together glumly, picking at cold eggs. Two paramedics were talking to a visibly shaken Mrs. Stevenson. One put his arm around her as she squeaked; I wish I had known! She was scratching at her neck, her jawline, and her dry skin looked raw in the harsh light. A few silver strands had pulled loose from her bun. Some of the girls were huddled together, whispering and texting.
Diana shot me a cold, you’re-the-problem stare.
One of the detectives motioned to me, and led me over to a small table in an alcove. Through the window, two schooners bobbed in the harbor, their sails like flashing suns. It made my head throb even more.
“This won’t take long, Joshua,” the cop began, and when he introduced himself, I light-bulbed a plate of cookies. “Chip Oates.” A sliver of something green was caught between his two front teeth. I nodded, made a mental note. I could use that name.
“We had a…situation here last night and need to ask if you saw or heard anything.”
I told him no, recounting how I had gone to bed after writing for a while.
Oates paused, took a breath. “It’s about a woman, Alice Esker,” and I knew it was her; her name fit her perfectly. Fragile, but elegant. A candle burning low but not blowing out.
It also had a familiar ring to it. Alice Esker. “The woman at dinner?” and Oates nodded solemnly, jotting something in his notepad, waiting.
“Something happen to her?”
“Yeah, you could say that. She’s dead.”
“Oh, shit.” I gripped the table edge. “How?
He didn’t reply. Then: “You hear anything, son?” Oates studied my face, and I knew he was a man who could read either the truth or a lie there. “No sir,” I said, and turned toward the window, to watch gulls scream at the sea. “Just the storm. It was raging! I thought my window might break.” Dead?!
“We’ve been looking for Alice for weeks,” Oates explained, letting out a long sigh. He lowered his voice to a whisper and all I could make out was, “Nervous breakdown.”
“Oh,” I stammered, “th-that poor woman.”
“Tragic. Lost her husband and young son in a fire. Both! Can you imagine! And her break with reality…well, it was profound,” Oates explained, and now his voice seemed like it was booming. “Guy found her in a fishing hut in Lincolnville couple weeks back, buried up to her neck in a twisted pile of ropes and buoys to stay warm.” He shook his head. “Real shame. Could’ve called us, should’ve called us, but we didn’t find out till days later.”
“But she…she didn’t seem that bad,” I offered. My mind flipped through several possible scenarios. Drowned? Hanged?
Oates coughed up something wet and spit into a handkerchief.
“I mean – she looked so, so clean,” I continued. “She didn’t seem like someone who didn’t have a place to stay.”
Oates nodded. “You’re right, son. She was trying to hang on.” He took a gulp of black coffee, set the mug back down. “Clever girl, that Alice. Famous, in fact. Wrote novels.”
“We believe she was staying right here, in this inn.”
A deadbolt slid across my brain. A stream of lava issued from my duodenum and spread into my throat. I swallowed the stinging swill.
“She didn’t have a key apparently, or any money, but she was staying here…hiding here, really. Upstairs,” he tilted his bald head toward the staircase. “We’ve got someone taking a look now.” As he kept on talking, my mind lowered the volume until I could barely hear his voice, and phrases wriggled out like loose worms…honeymooned here…should’ve known she’d come back and the enormity of the truth, the utter horror of it, hit me with full force.
My room…it was her room! Had she been sleeping…under my bed?!
And the pictures, the pillow…I just couldn’t go there. I tried to stand, but my legs wouldn’t work. In the background, the raging scream of a teakettle.
Oates kept on. “We’ve been piecing it together. She’d access the room from the fire escape. Apparently, according to folks we talked with this morning, she was making a lot of noise trying to get in last night.” He coughed again, a wet wheeze in his lungs.
“Just wondering how you didn’t hear her.”
Because I was messed up! And I’d locked the window! Oh GOD! She SAW?! This can’t be real. This can’t be real!
Oates looked weather-beaten. “It seems one of her shoes – well, the heel — we think it caught in the steel grating, and, poor thing, she must have lost her balance and…” his voice trailed off as I steadied my arms against the table.
Another detective thudded down the stairs and strode over to the alcove. “We found this,” he said and placed something on the table. It sounded like a small marble. It started to slide off the crooked surface, and I caught it just before it slipped off the edge. I set it back down. Oates said, “I’ll be darned. That yours?”
I took a closer look. It was Alice’s earring. It must have fallen out of my pocket when I pulled off my jeans. But, wait – it looked so different in slanted morning light. It wasn’t a pearl after all. It was a…what? A tooth? She wore a tooth in her ear?! And not just any tooth, it was small like a child’s…!
And then, I knew. I knew everything.
I launched myself up, only to pitch forward into a dead faint, fracturing my skull against the sharp edge of the table. Like a beetle with a broken carapace, my mind scuttled into a slippery crawl space, grateful for the black. But even in this deepest crevice, devoid of light, there was still no peace. Alice’s voice slipped into my ear like amber syrup, reciting Millay.
I can endure, and that the lifted dust Of man should settle to the earth again; But that a dream can die, will be a thrust Between my ribs forever of hot pain.
Vague shadowy shapes appeared and then a blinding shock of light as I lifted back into consciousness. Paramedics were waving pencil-lights into my eyes, Joshua, you’re going to be okay, we’re transporting you to Maine Medical, and everyone was crowded around me with looks of shock and concern. Mrs. Stevenson was patting my hand, oh dear boy, dear boy. And even Oates nodded sympathetically as he stuffed his notepad into his shirt pocket. Everyone cared about me more than Alice. She was gone now and no one in that room ever really knew her like I did. She sacrificed herself for me, perhaps intentionally, perhaps accidentally. But she opened her window of suffering to me and gave me a gift that I will never forget.
And I will always keep her secret safe.
That day was filled with sirens and sadness, but also with undeniable hope. And I knew I could shoulder the burden of Alice’s truth. I would transform her quiet, hot pain into extraordinary works of fiction.
I would make her proud.
Kate Bergquist holds a Master’s in Creative Writing from Rivier College in New Hampshire. Insurance agent by day, dark fiction writer by night, Kate’s work was twice nominated for Best New American Voices. An original dark thriller screenplay NO FORCIBLE ENTRY (co-written with Patricia Thorpe) was honored by Showtime, nominated for a Tony Cox award and won top honors at Scream Fest. She finds inspiration along the craggy Maine coast, where she lives with her husband and several old rescue dogs.