My children think I’m mad to come up here in winter, but this is the only place I could tell this story. They think the weather is too cold for me, and the light is so short this time of year. It’s true this isn’t a story I want to tell in darkness. It isn’t a story I want to tell at all, but neither do I want to take it with me.
If you approach Dundee, Maine, from inland by daylight, you see that you’re traveling through wide reaches of pasture strewn with boulders, some of them great gray hulks as big as a house. You can feel the action of some vast mass of glacier scraping and gouging across the land, scarring it and littering it with granite detritus. The thought of all that ice pressing against the land makes you understand the earth as warm, living, and indestructible. Changeable, certainly. It was certainly changed by the ice. But it’s the ice that’s gone, and grass blows around the boulders, and lichens, green and silver, grow on them somehow like warm vegetable skin over the rock. Even rock, cold compared to earth, is warm and living, compared to the ice.
For miles and miles, the nearer you draw to the sea, the more the road climbs; I always think it must have been hard on the horses. Finally you reach the shoulder of Butter Hill, and then you are tipped suddenly down the far slope into the town. My heart moves every time I see that tiny brave and lovely cluster of bare white houses against the blue of the bay.
The earliest settlers in Dundee didn’t come from inland; they came from the sea. It was far easier to sail downwind, even along that drowned coastline of mountains, whose peaks form the islands and ledges where boats land or founder, than to make your way by land. In many parts of the coast the islands were settled well before the mainland. This was particularly true of Great Spruce Bay, where Beal Island lies, a long tear-shaped mass in the middle of the bay, and where Dundee sits at the head of the innermost harbor.
Not much is known about the first settlement on Beat Island, except that a seventeenth-century hermit named Beat either chose it or was cast away there, and trapped and fished alone near the south end until, one winter, he broke his leg and died. Later, several families took root on the island and a tiny community grew near March Cove. Around 1760 a man named Crocker moved his wife and children from Beal onto the main to build a sawmill where the stream flows into the bay. The settlement there flourished and was sometimes called Crocker’s Cove, or sometimes Friends’ Cove, or Roundyville, after the early families who lived there. In the 1790s, the town elected to call the place Sunbury, and proudly sent Jacob Roundy down to Boston to file papers of incorporation (as Maine was then a territory of Massachusetts). When he got back, Roundy explained that the whole long way south on muleback he’d had a hymn tune in his head. The tune was Dundee and he’d decided this was a sign from God. “God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform: He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm” went the first verse. The sentiment was hard to quarrel with, though there were those who were spitting mad, especially Abner Crocker, who had to paint out the word SUNBURY on the sign he had made to mark the town line, and for years and years faint ghosts of the earlier letters showed through behind the word DUNDEE.
There are small but thriving island settlements on the coast of Maine, even now. On Swans, Isle au Haut, Frenchboro, Vinalhaven, the Cranberry Isles. But no one lives on Beal Island anymore. Where there were open meadows and pastures a hundred years ago, now are masses of black-green spruce and fir and Scotch pine, interrupted by alder scrub. Summer people go out there for picnics and such, and so do people from the town, and so did I sixty years ago, but I’ll never go again.
Traces of the town have disappeared almost completely, though it’s been gone so short a time. Yet the island has been marked and changed by human habitation, as Maine meadows inland were altered by ancient ice. Something remains of the lives that were lived there. When hearts swell and hearts break, the feelings that filled them find other homes than human bodies, as moss deprived of earth can live on rock.
When my children were little, they used to pester Kermit Horton, down at the post office, to tell about the night he was riding past Friends’ Comer and the ghost of a dead girl got right up behind him on his horse and rode with him from the spot where she died till he reached the graveyard. I’d heard Kermit tell that story quite a few times. When someone asked him who the girl was, and how she died, he usually said that no one knew, though once he told a summer visitor she’d been eaten by hogs.
I didn’t know Kermit when I was very little and made brief visits to my grandparents. But I remember him well from that summer Edith brought me and my brother back to Dundee. And I remember Bowdoin Leach. Bowdoin liked me; he always told me he had been fond of my mother. I was seventeen that year, and I needed the kindness. Bowdoin was bent with arthritis, but he was still running his blacksmith shop out in the shed behind his niece’s house. There were some who didn’t care to talk about Beal Island, where he had grown up. Bowdoin seemed to like to, if asked the right way.
The foregoing is excerpted from More Than You Know by Beth Gutcheon. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022