We think of stories as belonging to people, but we leave our stories behind—in pieces and fragments—wherever we go. So that particular places, those still standing after a long time has passed, have collected within their walls a history of passing lives. Such places, themselves, become storied. Which is to say, they are in a way ensouled—given a life all their own.
Sutton Island is such a place, nestled amongst the Cranberry Isles off the coast of Maine. Here, there is history under every lifted corner, a net of stories enveloping place as thickly as the spider webs that cloak the footpaths. So much so that it’s difficult to know where to pick up a strand, where to follow. I am here for the second time, and like the first, I am overwhelmed by the urge to learn it all—everything, the entire tale. But there is not enough time for that. So I collect small details like the weathered fragments of sea glass plucked from the shore. Tiny treasures, that put together, begin to form a mosaic.
There are no roads or vehicles on Sutton, only a root-rutted trail that traverses the island’s three-mile circumference and a muddy central path branching from the landing dock to each of the handful of houses built here. Whatever you bring to or take from the island must be carried or wheeled in a cart. Not to mention, it must also make the sea-crossing between Sutton and Mount Desert Island, which relies upon a mailboat or water taxi, the weather, and the timing of the tides.
Yet, somehow, the homes here are filled with items large and small, collections gathered piece by piece over centuries. By a feat near-unimaginable, two Steinway grand pianos were moved from New York City to Odenwald House (now Windemere) on Sutton Island sometime in the late 1800s. In the hundred-plus years that followed their arrival, the pianos were subject to humid summers and ice-coated winters, drafty winds and the dripping of water through the roof above them. We call them The Sisters, and they’re the reason we’re here. My husband spent a month last summer resurrecting the pianos, salvaging the Sisters’ musicality from near-ruin, and two weeks this summer fine-tuning and continuing with restoration. The owners, Nadia and Alan, own both Windemere and the neighboring Talley House, which they have generously made our home during these visits.
The Talley House, like Windemere, feels as much a house as a museum. What is kept inside and preserved in lamplit rooms is time itself, and all the stories that have woven a tapestry through it. Some of those stories near-mythical, most are smaller than that—the size of ordinary lives, cumulative threads of color.
Each day, my husband goes to Windemere to commune with the Sisters, and I stay in the Talley House to work. Except I hardly ever end up working. Inevitably, I find myself wandering, corner to corner and shelf to shelf, and finding what stories whisper there. I can’t help but imagine everyone who has ever stayed here. Whose footsteps have echoed up the stairway, whose hands have been warmed at the fireplace, whose eyes were drawn like my own through the windows to the view of the constantly changing ocean.
But no matter where my meanderings take me, I eventually find myself at the foot of the fireplace that towers through the center of the house. Stretching floor to ceiling and spanning the entire hearth is a mural painted in 1933 by a visitor who, in the decades following his time on Sutton, would become one of the most influential textile and interior designers of the twentieth century: Alexander Girard, or Sandro as he was familiarly known.
The mural was restored last summer by Ernie McMullen, a local artist and retired college professor that my husband and I had taken classes from a decade ago. The restoration of the mural was not unlike the restoration of the pianos—a painstaking undertaking to resurrect a soul that nearly succumbed to time and the harsher elements of this remote geography. The mural is more than just a painting. Ernie, having deciphered the minutiae of brush strokes and details, reasons that it is a kind of coded love letter. Girard stayed at the Talley House with a woman who would eventually become his wife. A stolen summer for the two lovebirds who were “living in sin,” as Ernie likes to say with a chuckle.
In the center of Girard’s painting, a porthole-style circle with a ship’s wheel compass and a rendering of Sutton Island, complete with houses and paths. Framing the map, two vines with pink flowers, symmetrical except that the lefthand vine has thorns, while the right has none. Two identical ferns unfurl along the base of the vines and again at the top, where two birds with bunchberry in their beaks fly on either side of a star. Along the rim of the hearth, the year, 1933, with decorative leaf curls and pushpin flowers. And, if you peer closely, a series of symbols, written in tiny red ink, which at first glance look like Sanskrit but in fact are words in a language Girard invented when he was ten years old.
Ernie has no way of knowing what the message says, but he believes the symbology of each element of the painting represents the masculine and feminine coming together, entwining in body and spirit. Details aside, there is a general feeling that the painting provokes—one of wonder, of luscious reverence—that translates into not only a love letter to a woman, but a love letter to the island. The round map of Sutton, ribbons flying in the wind around the rim, feels a sort of magic portal that, once entered, transports a visitor through time itself.
Sandro, himself, must have felt transported as he painted it. Not only into the past, to a time when an anonymous team of men moved two grand pianos across seas and islands, but to the future too—to this time, when a young couple, like he and his to-be wife, came to Talley and sat together before the same roaring fire in the midst of a storm. The portal, an entry into loving—each other, the house, the island. A love affair with the stories that clamber up through time like pink-flowered vines.
Because, of course, the magic portal is not the map, not the mural. What transports us through time and whispers its stories is the house itself, and the island it is perched upon. The way the sunlight in the sky changes hue through the window, splashed over the water like spilled paint. The sound of the buoy bell telling the time—the hurry of a storm blowing in, the languid chime of a droll summer day, the symphony of the tides. The wild, salty air that pours over the day smelling of spruce and woodsmoke. The hollow-throated howling of loons, their throats gleaming like starlight. The warm glow that shines through the windows at night, golden as the eyes of the great horned owl watching over darkness.
Not every haunted house contains terror within its walls. Sometimes, the ghosts that pace there are earnest, hopeful, passionate. The ghost of Girard lingers, not in the darkened shadows of the attic but at the heart and hearth of the home. History is thick with stories, good and bad. Life a gathering of moments like pearls in the gloaming.
Sandro’s ghost sweeps through the Talley House like the kiss of salt mist off the dancing waves of Great Harbor, leaving love in its wake. Not because of willful naivety or blind optimism, but because what the island teaches is this, above all else: it is the very fragility of life that lends it beauty. The improbability of it all. The tremulous color, the passing dream. The way every sunset, no matter how many have passed, is a surprise. The gift of a sea-worn shell, rough edge opening to a pearl in the palm of your hand.