It wasn’t just Catherine’s bones but everything else that seemed to be crumbling apart that year. I was fifteen when Kelly-Anne first showed up—right before we found out Catherine was sick.
Catherine saw the little black Saab through the kitchen window and said, “Oh, shit,” and then she said to Jenny, “I was going to tell you,” and then Kelly-Anne knocked on the door and we let her in.
Kelly-Anne was a post-doctoral researcher over at the college and she specialized in regional folk art curation. She told us she was in the process of opening the grounds—our yard, our woods, our pond—to the public.
“Excuse me?” Jenny said to Catherine. “What is she talking about?”
Catherine lit a cigarette and didn’t look at anyone.
“Hello,” Jenny said. “Do we have to leave this house?”
It turned out that Charles Langley hadn’t had the entire right to sell the house to Catherine.
Catherine smiled in a helpless, unhappy way. “He said it would never come to anything,” she said.
“Well,” Kelly-Anne replied, “it has.” She turned to the rest of us. “I want to reassure you that nothing about your living in the house will change, nothing about your access to the grounds. You can come and go as you like, just as before.”
“Wait,” Jenny said, arms crossed. “Don’t you have to buy us out, or something?”
Kelly-Anne looked at Catherine.
“They did,” Catherine said. “They are.”
“They pay us to maintain the property.”
Everyone started to say something.
“Listen,” Catherine said. “It’s still our house, all right? It’s always been our house. We own it.”
“Just not what’s around it.”
“Why don’t you think of it as a public service,” Kelly-Ann suggested. “As sharing.”
“You don’t own something if you have to work to keep it,” Jenny said to Catherine. “If you’ve secretly been working to keep it.”
“That’s not what—"
“In order for your mother to own the house,” Kelly-Anne cut in, “she had to consent to act in stewardship of the grounds, because of Langley’s considerable debt to the school. It’s not just the property he gave as collateral—it was all of his work.”
Kelly-Anne frowned. “The art. His artwork.”
In the woods there were things that seemed like what she was talking about—art—and things that didn’t seem like they were supposed to be anything. Pieces of things broken off, hidden by leaves and dirt. There was a kind of tower, and a rotted altar inside, with dull metal cups and candlesticks on it; a big horse made of scrap wood. In the yard by the glass shed there was a dog and fish playing checkers. In the trees there were three VW buses and one mint-colored Airstream full of wood and metal and sheets of plastic; an old plinky piano and a detached cast-iron woodstove. Hank kept some tools in one of the buses and he used them to cut the grass and keep the path clear. Sometimes he would cut back branches or haul them away for us after a storm brought them down.
Through the woods a little, out in the middle of the pond, there was an island, and in the bright green stagnant water beside the island there shone a rounded, iridescent piece of the moon.
“I don’t get it,” said Jenny. “Why would anyone live here, if living in the house meant you had to be a—an employee?”
Kelly-Anne shrugged. “It’s not a bad deal.”
Catherine laughed, nodding.
Kelly-Anne held up her file and said, “I have copies of the deed, if anyone wants to read it.”
Jenny took one. After a moment she said to Catherine, “He sold it to you for a dollar?”
“Before we talk about your individual roles,” Kelly-Anne went on, “I should let you know that for the next few months there’ll be some major preservation work underway—all the pieces will have to be re-finished, mounted properly—”
Kelly-Anne’s face made a blank expression. “To protect them,” she said. “So they can last forever.”
The moon fragment was made of resin and white stone. It was designed in such a way to hold and reflect light, so that light appeared as if it emanated from the sculpture itself. The moon fragment was not one of the sculptures that Kelly-Anne would refer to as “of the place.” Pieces “of the place” were made of wood and plastic, or bright-colored rope, and corrugated tin and tires that washed up when the ice melted. Things you would find on earth.
Kelly-Anne put up a little box near the front of the house with a plexiglass door that visitors could open to get pamphlets she’d made about the life and work of Charles Langley.
The pamphlets showed a photo of Charles Langley standing in the yard—our yard—with the bay partly frozen in the background, the evergreen trees on the islands out there like jagged black teeth. He wears a heavy coat, holds up a hand to shield his eyes as he squints into the sun.
Langley was inspired by Maine’s natural habitat, which endures the long cold winter and so successfully revives itself each spring, said the pamphlet, written by Kelly-Anne, who moved into the house once her post-doc was finished.
As I was falling asleep I heard Kelly-Anne behind me ask, “You know Roswell?”
She had a hand on my waist, but it was warm in the room, and we kept the covers thrown back with a little space between us.
“No,” I said.
“It’s a town in New Mexico,” said Kelly-Anne. “There was a weather balloon crash there in 1947. Then about ten years ago people started saying it wasn’t a weather balloon, it was a UFO. They said it crashed there and the government covered up the whole thing. So now people go there from all over the country. They buy stuff at gift shops, eat in the restaurants, go to museums to learn about UFOs and space or whatever. Guess who makes money from all that?”
I didn’t say anything.
“The people of Roswell,” Kelly-Anne said. “There’s nothing there—no jobs, nothing—just this story about the UFO, about aliens. But because of the story, the people who live there make enough money to keep living there.”
I sighed and didn’t say anything.
“How about this,” she went on. “There are Buddhist temples in Japan, okay, where you go and you buy charms made by the monks. They bless a piece of paper and put it in a little pouch, and people buy it. No one’s getting rich off selling charms, they just need the money to keep the temple going. To live. You see what I mean?”
“But I’m not a monk,” I said. “I’m a regular person.”
Kelly-Anne sighed. “I know how you feel. I know what it’s like not to own things. Even who you are. But Francis—I think you’re lucky. You have a place to live. You get to be a part of something important.”
“But what if I’m never free?”
“For what? To do what? What is it that you want? Truly, I’m asking.”
“I don’t know.”
She made circles on the back of my neck lightly with her fingernail for a long time, till I felt like I might be asleep, and she wasn’t touching me anymore, and the only thing touching me now was a memory of what it felt like to have a body dreaming close to mine.
One night about an hour after close I noticed there was still a car parked out front, a Subaru station wagon with Michigan plates. I checked the guest book and saw the only person from Michigan that day was “Edie Johannsen.” I walked around the house and when I didn’t see her I plugged the extension cord back in and the lights in the woods came on, illuminating the wood-plank path and the sculptures in the trees.
When the path reached the pond it opened up and you could see the sky. All around the pond were small dark orchids that looked like insects. I found Edie sitting in a patch of these, staring out at the moon fragment. The pond was nice when the wind was up. At dusk the mosquitos would settle on you in clouds but the wind would send them away. Tonight it was like that, and the sky was clear. You could see the Milky Way like smoke floating behind the stars.
When I came up behind Edie she said, without turning, “I’m sorry, I’ll leave in just a minute.”
But she didn’t. She kept looking out.
“Can’t see it from here,” she said. “The little town. The white flowers.”
The piece was a miniature that Charles Langley had made of the place his mother was born—an island called Borneo that no longer existed, or it did exist, but as a nature preserve, not as a place where anyone could live. The miniature showed what used to be there: a stone barn and a handful of small pinewood cabins, shielded inside a plexiglass display box. You would only know it was there if you went out to the island yourself, which visitors were forbidden to do.
The box was also there to keep the flowers safe. They were an endangered species, called Viceroy. They were more like mushrooms than flowers, the way they grew together from a single underground root system, but the flowering parts were delicate and white, very pretty.
I asked Edie how she knew about it. She said she came out here once with her daughter, all the way from California. At some point during their visit, the daughter had disappeared. Edie had looked in the woods and all around the pond before she finally saw her daughter standing on the island, covered in bright green algae, waving.
The island was her daughter’s favorite part of the Art House, Edie said. She had loved how small and hidden it was. “I think children really relate to that,” she said. “Obscurity, I mean.”
I pointed my flashlight at the island, seeing if I could get it to shine off the plexiglass. Eventually I turned it off and let my eyes adjust to the darkness. Edie turned and looked at me over her shoulder. The moon was still low in the sky but it was bright enough that we could see one another, as if we sat together in a dimly lit room.
“You look very strange,” Edie said. “But not in a bad way. You look as if you’re not one thing or another. Like your eyes belong in a different face.”
I nodded. “Well,” I said. “Take your time. I like to shut off all the lights by ten or so.”
Edie seemed perplexed that I hadn’t responded directly to what she’d said. Why bother? Maybe she was right. What every person might be is a secret kept by other people. You can never know what they know, because you can never see yourself, even in the light of day, even when you’re looking in the mirror. It’s funny how when you live alone there are no secrets anymore, and nowhere to disappear to, because you are always already disappearing, and you live like smoke among the things they say will last forever.