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Hidden Beneath
Author: Barbara Ross



Five years ago



Virginia Merrill, always called Ginny, stood on a boulder jutting out into Busman’s Harbor. Though the days were long, the summer sun had already started its slow descent and a light breeze tickled the back of her neck above her wet suit. Ginny wiggled her shoulders in response. The water would be much colder than the June air.

She turned around on the rock to take in the rest of Chipmunk Island, a sight that always calmed her. Below her was a stony beach and, behind that, a wooden staircase. Twelve steps—she knew each one—climbed to her lawn. From there, on the other side of a boardwalk, a flagstone walk led to her house. It was a large, light gray Victorian, but rustic, a true Maine summer home.

Ginny’s house was one of the few on Chipmunk Island with direct water access. Though the hundred homes that ringed the island all had water views, most sat along bluffs high enough to prevent the residents from climbing down to the sea. Those souls hardy enough to brave the cold water bathed from the sandy common beach by the marina. A surprising number never swam in the harbor at all, preferring to gaze out at it or glide over it in their boats.

Feeling calmer already, Ginny put on her neon-pink bathing cap, looking with dismay at the wrinkles on the back of her hand as she lowered it in front of her face. I am getting old, she thought, not for the first time.

A closed cafe curtain twitched in Kitty Brooks’s kitchen window. Kitty and her husband were Ginny’s nearest neighbors to the north. Ginny pictured Kitty’s moue of disapproval. Kitty didn’t think Ginny’s late-afternoon swims from Chipmunk Island to Dinkum’s Light, across the busy summer harbor, were safe. None of the members of the Wednesday Club thought Ginny’s swims were safe. No resident of the island thought they were safe. Even residents of the town of Busman’s Harbor stopped Ginny on the street or called out from their boats to express their concern.

Ginny ignored them. These daily swims were her routine, the constant that wove together all her summers on Chipmunk Island from the time she was capable of completing the half mile distance each way. She loved her tradition, the assurance it gave her each summer. I’m still me.

Ginny’s bright bathing cap was her one concession to the boat traffic in the harbor. What was beneath her in the water was another problem. Though the placement of the lobster traps and buoys changed every year, she’d been swimming for two weeks this summer and had found a safe route.

Enough loitering. Ginny squared her shoulders and dove off the boulder into a pool she knew would be deep enough no matter the tide. The chilly water took her breath away, but she began to swim, very competently, an efficient and elegant crawl. She moved around the jutting rocks of her property and swam along the southern end of the island, staying close to the shore, toward the place where she would start across the harbor to the lighthouse. As always, the water brought her pleasure. The sounds and sights of the harbor reassured her that life continued all around her; different, forever changed perhaps, and yet much as it ever was.




Present day



I steered our Boston Whaler around Westclaw Point and through the mouth of Busman’s Harbor, glancing back at Mom to see how she was doing. She sat on the bench near the stern, her dark sunglasses pushed up slightly by the pinch in her nose as she frowned. We wouldn’t normally have chatted in the boat. The motor, sea, and wind all competed with the sound of our voices, requiring us to shout. But she’d been acting strangely all day, strangely ever since news of Ginny Merrill’s memorial service had reached us. “You okay?” I bellowed, though I knew what she would answer.

“Fine.” A pleasant smile appeared and disappeared just as quickly.

Along the east side of the harbor, I spotted our tour boat, the Jacquie II, bringing guests out to Morrow Island for the luncheon seating at the Snowden Family Clambake. On board, Captain George pointed out the sights and sounds of the harbor over the boat’s sound system. Mom heard him, too, and turned her head toward the sound. My late father had named the boat, and its predecessor, Jacquie, for her. It was an inside joke. No one who knew my mother would ever call her by any nickname. She was Jacqueline to one and all.

Dad had been gone for eleven years, claimed by cancer in a long, wasting death, a battle to the end, as was his way. Lately, Mom had been “keeping company” with Captain George. I grinned at the old-fashioned expression, though I couldn’t think of a better one to describe their relationship.

Before the start of the Snowden Family Clambake’s season this spring, Mom and I had moved into Windsholme, the newly renovated mansion on Morrow Island that had been in my mother’s family for a hundred and forty years. The move had deprived George and Mom of the time they’d spent together in past tourist seasons, when she’d commuted daily on the boat from her house in Busman’s Harbor to her job at the clambake. Now, during the hours when he waited to return the tourists to the harbor, I often found the captain hanging around the clambake gift shop, where Mom worked. They were like a couple of teenagers standing for hours by their lockers, never running out of things to say. I had teased them once or twice, but it hadn’t gone well, so I’d given it up.

The Jacquie II slipped by on our port side, a hundred feet away, headed in the other direction. I turned my attention to Chipmunk Island, growing ever larger straight ahead.

The island was called Chipmunk not because the little mammals were abundant there, but because it had a chipmunk’s shape when viewed from the air. The small marina where we’d leave the Whaler was around the other side, facing Busman’s Harbor. As we came up on the island, I steered around the chipmunk’s tail, giving it a wide berth, careful of the rocks.

In the marina, a helpful resident in colorful Bermuda shorts indicated where we should tie up when I told him our business. He lent a hand to Mom and then to me as we climbed out of the boat. Mom was in a simple, black linen dress. I wore a navy pencil skirt and a sleeveless blouse in a lighter blue. Not exactly the best clothes for climbing out of a boat at low tide, but we were headed to a memorial service, after all.

I started to ask the man for directions, but Mom interrupted. “I know where we’re going. Thanks.” Mom set off confidently. I followed her up a short track from the dock to the start of a wooden boardwalk.

I wasn’t sure why we were here. I couldn’t remember having met Ginny Merrill once, even during my childhood. We were at the start of our short, brutally busy season at the Snowden Family Clambake, fully booked for lunch and dinner. Mom and I had to find substitutes to fill our clambake jobs, something not easy to do this early in the summer, when we weren’t yet fully staffed. But Mom had insisted she must go, and she had asked me to accompany her. My mother was generous with my sister and me, asking for little in return. I’d felt I had to say yes. Now that I was on the island, I was growing more intrigued.

Mom charged ahead, up the steep track that led from the dock onto a boardwalk, which was also on an incline. She hurried on, as if we were late, which we were not.

“You know the way?” I asked. I’d never heard my mother speak of visiting Chipmunk Island, ever.

Mom nodded, not slowing. “Like the back of my hand. I visited Ginny’s house all the time when I was a teenager.”

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