The beginning of a chronicle: On the Bay, Chapter I
Meredith Taylor woke up in the blue-colored room; because the day before had been mild, she had whimsically left the window open... but the sea-night air had turned unromantically chill, and such a fog had settled over the bay so that not only were the gardens and grasses dewy, but even her quilt was damp. The gauzy curtains looked like ghosts floating on the breeze... the ocean was a queenly gray-blue... and Meredith could hear the lonely cry of the gulls, the knock of the docks and the clang of the early-morning boats. She lay there and wished with all her might that the forces of the universe would close the window for her.
As that did not work - she shivered compulsively, steeled herself, lept out of bed, scurried across the cold bare floor like a crab, and shut it.
Several minutes later, the blithe and blonde-haired girl tripped downstairs, expecting to smell savory fishcakes browning on the skillet for her family’s breakfast - but when she got down, no fragrance at all wafted from the kitchen. She went in, and it was empty; no one seemed to be around, and the skillet hung, black and clean and unused, on the wall by the fireplace - not greasy over the stovetop.
Suddenly Meredith heard a voice coming from the closed pantry.
“There, now, little one. You’re a fancy one. No waves will get you! Don’t be nipping at me! I’ve got you. No waves will get you.”
Merry went to open the door right away without trepidation, for the voice sounded warm, and reassuring, and downright welcoming. She was taken aback, however, to see a boy, standing at the end of the copious pantry, by the window - wide open and letting in the newly-arisen sunshine and the scent of the dewy lilac bush - and by the counter, pouring out milk into a small dish for a gray cat that was frisking at his heels. He put the glass bottle down suddenly with an indignant clank when he heard the door open, and looked up - startled, blinking twice. He was the most beautiful boy Meredith had ever seen: a year older than herself, perhaps, with uncut golden hair curling over his ears, bleached and crisped and dried by the heat - a sunburned face - irregular features - the skin peeling off his nose - perfectly crooked teeth - and two eyes that were kind of squinty - and one of them smaller than the other.
His countenance clouded and darkened when he saw that it was a girl standing there, looking at him, and his eyes narrowed. Somehow Meredith was not abashed; he had the physiognomy of someone who ought to be frank and merry, and so she stepped forward with (much unwarranted!) confidence. “I am Meredith Taylor,” she said, her hand warmly extended - for rudeness had been coaxed out of her at a young age through the obligated observation of Yankee charity. “I’m the granddaughter of Mr. and Mrs. Baker, and I’m staying here a week with my family,” as if she had less of a right to be there than he did, or as if she were entering his own little house in the pantry, as an unlooked-for guest that must explain herself; rather than snapping, “Who are you and what are you doing here?’ as perhaps was justified by the boy’s startling presence: he might be an intruder, for the little she knew at the moment.
She had approached him with this openness not only because of country hospitality, but also because Meredith had not at all reached an age to be shy or self-conscious around boys; in that realm her heart slept, and had not been awoken by any sweet touch of womanhood - like the hand of the sun touching the modest and retiring buds in the spring and calling them to ripen into flower. No, the romantic dimension of her soul was quiet and undisturbed and thus largely ignored by her sensible mind, and she experienced no painful embarrassment around young men - but candidly looked upon them all as equal comrades, just as she viewed her female friends.
Despite her tranquil and straightforward disposition, Meredith was jarred and thrown back by the boy’s continued silence. He had turned and looked down at his milk again, without a name or a "how do you do'! Annoyance, anger, and impatience beat up in her heart - but she thrust them back down, and thought she would try to reach him by presently saying cheerfully, “Oh! is that a kitty? It looks wet, poor thing,” and went up to pet it - entirely out of a kind attempt at the boy, for Meredith was inexcusably frightened of cats. But as she was going for the dreadful, wet fur, she was immediately and severely rebuffed again as the boy swept down, intercepted the cat out of reach of her hand, and stood up, holding the animal under one arm, its white-socked paws thrust out every which way in a panic at being thus captured, and, with the milk bowl in his other hand, stonily walked out, properly through the door - though he may have come in the window, like as not - as if he owned the place.
Meredith just watched, open-mouthed, in shock. She had never been treated like that before in her life. Indignant anger swelled up in her. She had done nothing to deserve that rejection! She had tried to be kind!
…As usual, her self-justification did not last long and she turned to inward questioning. - Was she innocent? Did she deserve his treatment?
She objectively concluded that, no, she did not, and she could not consider what had elicited it, unless the boy really wasn’t suppose to be there, and was guilty, or he was supposed to be there, and was angry to have been caught in a tender moment…and by a strange female his age.
Still, it did not account for the utter blackness in his gaze, staring at her as if his pupils were looking out from hellfire itself. . .when she knew, instinctively (or believed she knew, young eleven-year old reader-of-faces as she was) that he owned a countenance that, through birthright, should have been exquisitely happy and joyful. She could not have convinced herself, humble as she was, that she was the cause, that she herself had earned a look of such agony and hate, unless it was by merit of the fact that she simply belonged to the race of human beings.
Meredith roused herself from her thoughts and ran to the kitchen window to look out into the backyard - peeking, of course, from behind the frilly curtains (for it would have been abject humiliation to have been caught), where she saw the boy, as she thought she would, jauntily walking down the hill like a sailor to the sea. With the cat still affectionately dangled from his arm, but his back ramrod straight, as if he owned a steel bar instead of a spine and knew someone might be watching him, he eventually disappeared behind a veil of scrubby Cape trees, and Merry lost sight of him. It was no loss to her: she turned and fondly wished never to see him again; she felt offended and insulted to her dregs and her sensitive heart was very, very hurt.
With such interesting sentiments she took the skillet down.
Meredith could not cook anything but scrambled eggs; she whipped up a batch of them, frothy with what was left-over of the milk the boy had stolen for the scrawny wet cat, when Grandmother and Grandfather walked in the door, and Mother came downstairs almost simultaneously.
“Why, Meredith!” commented Mother gently, holding Meredith's most recent baby brother in her arms, still dressed in his cambric nightshirt. “I didn’t expect you to be up this early, on vacation!”
“Is it early?” queried Meredith.
“Look at the clock.” Grandmother nodded towards the wall upon which also hung the match-tin, scrub-brushes, and potholders.
It was 6:45!
“I saw no sunrise,” said Merry incredulously.
“There was none,” laughed Grandfather, putting his hat on the hook. “It was cloudy this morning. Mm, those eggs smell good.”
“I have some ham in the icebox,” said Grandmother, plucking off her gloves and settling right down to work.
“Here, let me help,” said Mother, but she was interrupted with,
“No, no, dear; you just sit and rest with the baby. You’re on holiday.”
“I’d rather cook, if you want to hold Zeke,” said Mother, knowing how much Grandmother would enjoy that.
Grandmother's arms did ache to hold a baby, and they kind of twitched in that direction, so she dropped her resistance and waylaid her step to the icebox, with a, “Fiddlesticks, ‘would I',” and went with her arms out. The baby nested in her encircled hold, sensing that female embrace had carried nine competently before him.
As Meredith and her mother went to work, Grandfather sat down at the table with his wife and - never having learned the art of sitting still and doing nothing - took a bridle down from behind the door and examined its broken throatlatch for the fortieth time. He had brought it in the other night to see if he could fix it, with no results, but it was better to him than being idle, especially in a room full of women. He needed to constantly tinker with things, so he didn’t have to think much; he was unlike Mr. Taylor’s father - Meredith’s "country" grandfather - who could sit and watch a bluebird build a nest from the front porch for three hours in an afternoon. There are all different sorts to make up the world, but I have a hunch that man is perhaps more at peace with himself.
Merry roused the fire for her mother, and Mrs. Taylor stuck her hand in the oven to see if it was the proper 350 degrees. Meredith longed to ask her grandmother and grandfather where they had been, but she was brought up in a world where eleven-year olds did not presume to pry into the secret world of adults and demand to know their every coming and going, if the said adults did not choose to initiate the communication themselves.
The truth was, her grandparents would have easily supplied her the rudimentary information for which she was too piously reluctant to seek; they merely had not thought it would interest her. But as such was the case, the familial talk dwindled awkwardly.
Meredith’s mother had been dutifully trying to maintain conversation, but when the predictable downpour of baby-centered gushings had abated, silence reigned king of the kitchen. For you see, despite all those years Mrs. Taylor had spent with her parents in the same house, she had never learned how to really communicate with them. Barriers had been erected, even more stringent than the ones Meredith lived with, that were socially set in place to mark an unjustifiable divide between taller and shorter people: and they had been in place for too long for Mrs. Taylor to learn to ease and relax them now, when the world finally considered the three adult humans as equals. Her reserve with her parents, especially her father, had never really subsided; and her love for her mother was very deep - and very silent.
Merry was holding her tongue, but for reasons of conquering her antsy, childish curiosity. She was most of the time as observant of propriety nearly as much as her mother, but she had a warmer, more open personality in her favor, so she soon broke the silence herself with a babbling relating of the boy she had met a half-hour before - which truly was a subject quite in her right to convey.
She tried to make the telling colorful, and Meredith had an artistic way of storytelling that was, to give her credit, convincing and lively. “He may have been an invader,” she said solemnly, feeling that familiar rush and tingle of excitement at her own words. She was in her element, claiming the attention of the whole kitchen. “He acted guilty and skittish and didn’t speak to me…but walked right out! I wondered, thinking back, if I was in any danger…but at the time I didn’t think any wrong of going up and speaking to him.” She wanted to cause a little worry in the adults - not much, but enough for self-entertainment. “He stole your milk, Grandmother. And I don’t know, but he may have even come in through an open window,” she finished impressively.
To her disappointment, not even the palest shade of panic erupted at the conclusion of her telling. In fact, Mother even said indulgently, “What a tale,” and smiled gently in amusement.
Grandmother also perversely gave a laugh, and immediately stripped her granddaughter’s epic of its glamour, by stating, “No, no, dear. That was no robber; though, for goodness’ sakes, that bottle was pure cream, first skimmings of the morning! Trust a boy not to tell the difference, and pour it out like gold for a mangy thing. He was Evan Burdock…at least, I hope he was…and he was staying here four days before you arrived. In fact, we went to pick up his aunt and uncle from the six o’clock train this morning. That’s where we were out so early. I’m sorry if it made you nervous.”
Meredith was embarrassed to see her adventure whittled down to safe facts. She felt childish, and proclaimed heatedly as a last ditch attempt at self-importance, “Well, I hope I never see him again!” She felt hugely daring as she said it, but a second later regretted it, for it sounded more theatrical outloud in that humdrum kitchen than it did in her head.
“You won’t,” grinned Grandfather with assurance. “They’re taking him to Maine."
“I don’t even know that aunt and uncle, but on the boy’s mother side, they are my relatives…” Grandmother commenced talking to Mother about family history, and Meredith sadly reflected on her perpetual inability to achieve true heroine-status in any experience she had.
“…cousins, many times removed. My great-great grandmother Grady’s nephews and so on. We kept in contact because that’s what you do over there; blood is thicker than water. It’s not so true here.” Grandmother always called the country in which she was natively born, “over there.” “Let me see if I can figure out the descendents for you…I think the Burdocks are your - obviously maternal - cousins, ten or nine times removed, and…”
There was nothing to fascinate Meredith here. Meredith liked thieves and outlaws and orphans and terror and (a little) violence. She could hardly fantasize about a train ride to Maine. She had been sure the boy had had deeper - and more romantic - issues than…meeting an aunt and uncle. What about his eyes? …But, with no substantive nourishment, her captivation with the morning drama naturally died out over the next few days. She had sandcastles to build and races to run on the beach. Meredith was fashioned to be particularly sensitive to human pathos - and that capacity would only grow as she matured - but at the moment, she needed more sensational material to sustain her interest.
“Still,” mused Grandmother, in irrelevant conclusion to her lengthy discourse on family history, “I wish he could have gone with Hamish, his older brother. I don’t see why he could not. He’s going to New Hampshire. It would be so much better for him.” And without another word on the subject of the boy, in the present or near future, they all settled down to eat their eggs and ham.
It was providential that the girl had not learned the true - rather intriguing, and sometimes tragic - details of Evan Burdock’s life, for she would have then been in very grave danger of objectifying a human being, and forcing him to live inside her imagination as a play puppet to amuse her sentimentality. As it were, she shoved him aside without a thought - and was saved from committing a serious offense of utilitarianism against humanity with the knife of her artistic personality. At the moment, her ability for empathy - manifested now too frequently in a shallow want for thrills, even if they fed off of pity for other’s suffering - was not yet developed enough to truly sympathize with real sorrow.