Island of Light

 

Jesse F. Knight

 

Melinda had known for a long time that she wasn’t going to be a great violinist. In fact by the time she entered high school and played in the high school orchestra, she knew. Sitting beside Melinda was a violinist by the name of Amie Wing, and she displayed a dazzling technique that Melinda only dreamed of. For her audition to get into the orchestra, Amie played a Vivaldi concerto that left Melinda, and the high school orchestra teacher, breathless. Melinda discovered quickly that she couldn’t keep up with Amie, and she might as well not try. Still, if she worked hard, Melinda knew she could be competent. She could be a good violinist—not a great one, not a virtuoso, but good—and perhaps, she reasoned, that was enough.

In college, majoring in musicology, she played in the University Orchestra. Mr. Olsen, the conductor—he was fifty and had spindly white hair that flew in all directions like the froth from a thundering wave—kept telling them that the love of music was enough; not everyone could play in front of the orchestra, you know. And the way he said it, with a distant look in his eyes, told Melinda that he too didn’t believe it for a minute.

One afternoon, after school, while Melinda was preparing for her Junior recital, Mr. Olsen chatted with her, and with suddenly tearful eyes he admitted to having always wanted to be a composer. Almost shyly he showed Melinda a sonata he had written for unaccompanied violin.

"I’ll play it at my next recital,” Melinda said impulsively.

And there was such a joy on his heavy, mottled face that Melinda flushed warmly.

It was perhaps because of her willingness to play his sonata that Mr. Olsen, several months later, offered her a summer job.

“You know the Carr House, don’t you?”

“Up in Vermont?”

He nodded. “Its near Cornish. Around the turn of the century many artists and sculptors and writers and musicians made their summer homes up there.”

“I’ve heard of it.”

“Every spring the Board asks me for recommendations. They need guides at the Carr House to handle the influx of tourists during the summer.”

“But I don’t know anything about Robert Carr. I’ve listened to his music a few times, but that is the extent of it.”

“Don’t worry. They have a large training manual. It will tell you everything you need to know about Carr and more. I have a copy in my office I’ll loan you. Read it over a couple of times. The old gals up there are sturdy New England stock; they’ll want to interview you, quiz you to make sure they are getting their money’s worth. But it does pay well. And it is easy enough work. Take small groups through the house, point out this or that knickknack to them is about it.”

Melinda laughed, holding up a hand. “You don’t have to convince me. It sounds great. I was looking to earn some income this summer. Lessons are slim to none, and McDonald’s didn’t sound appetizing.”

“I’ll give them a call and give you a recommendation.”

A few days later a deadly serious Mrs. Habbid questioned her at length over the phone. Melinda must have been acceptable, for a week later she received a very official looking “Offer of Employment” to last from early June through the end of August.

The first day of June saw Melinda driving through Massachusetts. On the freeway, the dark green of the forest clashed with the metallic green of the signs pointing out the highway to Vermont. Sun slanted through the trees—long golden bow strings. The air was crisp as a Paganini etude and as heady. Melinda drove with her window down, letting the wind tangle in her hair like a human hand lifting her head for a kiss.

She was enjoying the drive so much she didn’t notice when she crossed over from Massachusetts to Vermont. Melinda turned off the freeway, onto a much smaller side road, then another that was gravelled. Evidently, the Carr House Foundation (Melinda pictured a group of steel-haired women sitting in a grim circle, their bony hands folded into tight fists—carefully, oh, so carefully—dispensing their funds) spent little in making the house accessible to the general public. Dust billowed behind her. The trees thickened on either side of the gravelled road—birches, oak and maple. The air was a pale liquid emerald.

Through the trees Melinda could see the house. In her mind, she recited the facts she had memorized from the book Mr. Olsen had given her. “Robert Carr grew tired of living in New York, tired of the constant interruptions of his work, and he decided to build a house for himself in the artists’ colony near Cornish, New Hampshire. On the Vermont side of the division between New Hampshire and Vermont, he found a site that deeply satisfied him. There was a trickling brook nearby and a thick grove of trees for seclusion. He built his house so that it was facing the superlative sunsets of New England.

“In 1903, at the age of 36, he moved into his new house. He called it one of his greatest sonatas. And indeed there is more than a little truth in that statement, for much of the house was built with his own two hands—the same sensitive hands that would dazzle audiences with his violin playing, the same sensitive hands that would carefully black in each note of the music he composed. He used those same two hands to do the plumbing, pour the concrete, and do the carpentry work. He even built the frame and raised the walls with the help of two local friends who he called ‘more sensitive than most conductors I know.’

“Contented, he lived in the house until his death in 1953. The only time he was away was for concert tours.

“It was here he wrote some of his greatest works—his Symphony in E-flat; the 12 Etudes, each named after some precious metal; his Variations on Some Gershwin Songs; the Seven New England Landscapes; and perhaps his crowning achievement, his Concerto for Solo Violin after Alkan.”

Up ahead a driveway met the road; there was a small sign with an arrow, indicating The Carr House. Melinda turned in. The driveway was long, “on purpose,” he said, laughing, “to give me warning.” Despite the fact that he had called the house “Island of Light,” to Carr’s neighbors it was always just the Carr House, and they ignored their eccentric neighbor’s extravagant gesture. “After Carr’s death, this shrine for violin lovers from around the world remained simply the Carr House, and that was how it is still known nearly fifty years later.”

Even from the outside, it was easy to see that the place was built by an individual to his own unique specifications. No New England cottage, this. There was a high tower at the right front corner of the house; the upper portion of the tower was totally enclosed with glass, “to see the infinite,” he said. It was a large house; “to hold my ego,” he had laughed when asked about it. Inside, she knew from the manual she had been given, the largest room in the house was the music room. “Music is the center of my life, why shouldn’t it be the center of my house, too?” There was a very small guestroom in the back portion of the house. “After all, I don’t want them growing too comfortable.” Carr had a tiny window from which he could look out when he heard someone coming up the long driveway. If he didn’t want to meet them, there was a side door he could slip out of. He would tramp into the forested countryside around his place until they grew tired of knocking.

Melinda pulled into the parking lot. It was big enough for perhaps a dozen or so cars, but that was all. A hint, perhaps, of how much traffic they could expect.

Turning off the motor, Melinda was struck by the deep and profound silence that immediately enveloped her. The silence gripped her by the throat. It was a pressure on her chest as she gasped for breath.

“Strange at first, isn’t it? Eerie,” said a woman, who stood at the back door, a steaming cup of coffee in her hand, “the silence, I mean.” Her red face perspired enough that she seemed to be melting like an enormous pink candle. She had large hands that had a sensitivity about them that expressed itself in the gentle manner she had of caressing the air, as if she were touching a ghost beside her. A day or two later, after she had become familiar with the woman, Melinda could see that Kate caressed the entire world in the same manner, gently sliding her fingertips along the woodwork at the edges of the doorways or touching tenderly the spines of books in the gift shop or grazing the back of one of the overstuffed chairs in the composing room.

Kate, it turned out, was the head of the guides, and she acted as something of the curator, living behind the Carr House year around, “even in the deepest of winter,” she said, “when the snowdrifts are shoulder high.”

That early June day she took Melinda by the arm and led her into the Carr House, into the Island of Light, as she called it.

“Did Mrs. Habbid grill you?” Kate asked Melinda.

"Till I thought she would ask me what kind of underwear Robert Carr had.”

Kate laughed. “You mean, she didn’t? In case that is on the next test, it was purple boxers with large white polka dots. Here let me show you around. I’m Kate.”

“And I’m Melinda,” she said, gazing about.

“After a few days you’ll find that being here will be second nature to you. . . . Let’s go in the back way.”

Kate held open a screen door. “This is the kitchen,” she said. “We don’t allow any tourists back here, just the staff. If you want to make yourself a cup of coffee and take a break, this is the place to do it. You can eat your lunch here. Read a book. Whatever.” Kate chattered on, taking Melinda from room to room, showing her the parlor and the dining room and living room, Carr’s study, and of course the enormous music room with its high ceiling (“acoustics of a cathedral,” Carr murmured more than once). Kate showed Melinda the various in and outs—that is to say, the secrets old and large houses often have.

Curious, Melinda went to a staircase against the back wall. “What’s up there?” she wondered.

Kate said, “We don’t allow the public upstairs at all.”

Just then they heard a car pull into the driveway. “Time to get to work. I’ll show it to you later on,” said Kate gaily. “Just stand by me the first couple of times and watch. You’ll catch on quickly enough.”

About that time a family came in—a woman with a tight bun attached to the back of her head, pinched nostrils, and a black shapeless dress. She was followed by a bored husband, who kept whistling soft snatches of songs without melodies, and two even more bored children, who kept punching each other when their parents’ backs were turned.

Within a couple of days, Melinda learned how to conduct the tours herself. At first, she was worried that there would be dozens of questions that she couldn’t answer. But to her surprise there were few, if any, questions, and for those few she always had a ready answer. She began to relax in the job, and her presentation became polished. She could point out the 1737 Guarneri that had belonged to Ole Bull in the glass case on the table in the music room. She could lift her hand to indicate the woodcarvings in the corners of the music room or the painting by Parrish over the fireplace. She could reveal the hidden storage area in the study wall where Carr kept a supply of brandy, scotches, vodka and gin that he would bring back from foreign tours during the days of prohibition.

As the days passed, Melinda felt as if she started to catch glimpses of the real Carr, the one behind the flashing brilliance of his Concerto, behind the fast cars that he enjoyed driving at top speed, giving the local farmers apoplexy; she started to see the man behind those surface details that seemed to make him an eccentric. In a way, he was a part of New England, yet distinctly removed from it, as well. Melinda glimpsed Carr’s essential loneliness, that loneliness that all geniuses carry about with them like an invisible cloak.

After Melinda had been there a week, Kate said to her one morning during the quiet early hours, “Let me show you the upstairs.”

They ascended the staircase against the back wall. Melinda let her palm slide over the wood—a white pine, she knew, that Robert had shipped from Maine. The wood felt warm, as if it had gathered the early morning sun to its soul. To Melinda, the house always seemed filled with sunlight, which is what Robert had intended, why he had called his home Island of Light . . . just as Kate called it and Melinda, too. In the morning the sun shown in the northeast corner of the house, through large windows, setting the interior aflame. In the evening, at sunset, the shafts of sunlight, through the trees penetrated the western windows and stabbed the heart of the house.

Upstairs there was the bedroom that had been Robert’s. Also, there was a storeroom that held furniture and picture frames, and trunks filled with old clothes, concert tuxedos and heavy coats for winter. There was a small room that held many of Robert’s mementos, photographs with presidents, prime ministers, and kings, awards and medals and gifts he had been given. Here was a medal from Herbert Hoover. Beside it was a diamond pendent in the shape of a violin that the King of Sweden had given Carr. There, a sheet of music of hammered gold, with the notes in rubies and emeralds. Carr had been given it by a group of ecstatic miners in Virginia City.

“We hope to open this and the bedroom in a year or two, after we get things sorted out,” said Kate--although what things needed to be sorted out, Melinda couldn’t imagine; everything was laid out with extraordinary care. Melinda suspected it was just that Kate wished to keep parts of the house private, away from the prying, insensitively curious eyes of the public.

The room that captivated Melinda immediately was the tower. It was in the corner and Kate and Melinda had to climb a steep and circular staircase to get up to it. The tower was octagonal. There was little furniture. There was a rocking chair in the center of the room, and beside it small table with a tray and a decanter with two crystal glasses. The tower stood high above the house. Glass all around, the view was breathtaking, from the purple mountain in the distance to the green rolling hills at a nearer perspective. The room was so filled with light that the powerful illumination seemed like an actual presence. The honey-colored light dripped from the woodwork, washed like an enormous wave over the room, and splashed warmly against Melinda thighs. They were surrounded by light, inundated by it. There was no respite from the sun. Melinda was dazzled, blinded, and she had to rest her hand against the glass.

“Thank you for bringing me up here,” said Melinda.

“I—I don’t bring everyone up here. You’re the only one. You really care about him; I can tell. You’re not like the other guides who think of this as just another summer job.”

“No, I’m not like the others,” Melinda murmured. Then she added, “This, I think, is the essence of Robert Carr.”

Kate nodded. “This is where he would go when he was troubled and wanted serenity. In the long summer twilights, he would sit up here and sip wine and watch the light wane from white to emerald to deep blue and think about . . .” Her voice drifted off.

Think about what? Melinda wondered, too. Perhaps an upcoming performance. Or perhaps something more profound—his music, other great composers from the past. Did he ever sit up here, she wondered, and ponder his own mortality or immortality?

As the days passed Melinda found her life falling into a pattern. With the exception of Mondays, when the House was closed, each day Melinda drove out of the small village where she had rented a room. Despite what her teacher had told her was an influx of tourists during the summer, the visitors to the Carr House were not overwhelming, so Melinda and Kate and two other girls were all that were necessary to take care of the visitors that came to the Carr House. They rarely had more than a dozen visitors at a time.

Gradually Melinda drifted into going out to the Carr House on Mondays, too, when the house was closed.

Her landlady in town asked, “You love it there so much that you must go there on your day off, too?”

The statement astonished Melinda as she thought about it a moment. “I do,” she admitted, “yes, I do,” more emphatically.

At times, on those Mondays, she would talk with Kate. Sometimes they would walk in the woods surrounding the house. Often times they simply sat on the steps and listened to the birds in the forest or bees humming in the sleepy afternoons. Or they would go up to the tower and gaze over the landscape. Conversation hardly seemed necessary at such times.

Sometimes, when alone, Melinda simply wandered through the house, touching the various objects tenderly. Telling Kate she would lock up, Melinda began to spend time alone in the tower, rocking in the rocking chair. She listened to Robert’s music.

One day in mid-August Melinda winced to realize that she would be returning to college in a couple of weeks. It struck her with the same suddenness that the silence had assaulted her early that summer—she would miss the House desperately. It would be almost like missing Robert himself, his personality permeated the rooms of the house so much.

Towards the end of August Melinda was preparing to return to college. What, she wondered, had she ever seen in school, anyway? What would she do after graduation? Become a high school orchestra teacher? Give private lessons? It all seemed too odious. The years stretched in front of her in utter and unending boredom.

Melinda and Kate were in the tower sharing a bottle of white zinfandel—a farewell gift that Kate had brought for them.

“I will miss this place,” said Melinda, gazing around the sun-lit room.

Kate took a sip of the wine. “I know what you mean. I felt the same way the first summer I worked here. I was so happy the next year when they offered me the job of curator.”

Melinda murmured softly.

Putting down her glass, Kate said, “I’ll get us a bite to eat—some cheese and crackers, perhaps. Wine has a way of going to my head.”

Melinda was gazing out the window, a bit wistfully, when she heard a scream, then a gray, squishy sound that thumped down the stairs. Melinda raced down the steep spiral staircase two steps at a time. Kate’s body was sprawled grotesquely on the floor. Her large blonde head was bent to the side; a bloodstain had already started to blossom as if she had slid a huge poppy into her hair.

Melinda lifted Kate’s head.

Kate murmured, “So, this is how I am rewarded for my faithfulness. I should be jealous, I suppose, but . . . you will do well, Melinda. I’m sure of it. Besides, it is Robert’s choice.”

Melinda, tears in her eyes, couldn’t comprehend why she said it, but say it she did: “There were only two crystal glasses in the tower, you understand. You see, don’t you?”

She couldn’t nod. “I understand,” Kate whispered.

Frightened and bewildered, Melinda called Mrs. Habbid.

“Oh, what shall we do, what shall we do for a curator now?” she wailed. “Oh, never mind, that isn’t your issue. Listen, dear, I will see that an ambulance is dispatched immediately. I will be there shortly.”

Melinda nodded numbly into the phone and hung up. She stood away from the body, gazing at it in horror. Finally, it—no, it wasn’t an “it”, it was Kate, big-boned, melting Kate—disappeared into an ambulance. Mrs. Habbid appeared at the same time, gray and flustered.

“Oh, what shall we do for a curator now?” she wailed a second time. “Here it is autumn. We’ll never find anyone before winter. And the house has to be looked after to make sure the pipes don’t freeze and . . . .”

“Why,” said Melinda, quite simply, “I shall be the curator.”

Mrs. Habbid stopped babbling and looked at her curiously, then echoed her words. “Why, I think you will do just fine.”

So by sheer, sheer coincidence (or was it?), Melinda became the curator of the Carr House.

Not that the job required very much—Melinda often thought she was more the caretaker than curator of the house. She didn’t bother to notify the University that she wasn’t attending the Fall semester; she merely didn’t show up. One day Professor Olsen called.

“What are you doing up there?” he asked.

“I’m the curator, the curator of the Carr House.”

“What about your studies?

“What about them?”

“Aren’t you going to finish?”

“Someday.”

“When?”

And his voice seemed very far away, and Melinda was very tired of answering his tiresome questions.

“I don’t know, someday.”

“Listen, Melinda.”

“I’m sorry. The connection isn’t very good. The line is breaking up. I’ll call you later.”

But of course she didn’t. Instead, she floated through the cool draughts of the house, feeling like a fish gliding about a limpid Caribbean ocean.

She spent little time in the small house in back that was the curator’s living quarters. Most of the time she lived in the Island of Light, strolling about the silent, yet echoey house.

One evening a storm blew up. The wind howled and rattled the windows. Thunder growled across the horizon.

“Now, now,” Melinda said. “There’s no need to roar so.”

Then she laughed as an explosion of thunder erupted. “You’re right, of course. If you don’t roar, they would bother you endlessly.”

She listened.

“Of course, of course, you need your solitude. How well I understand that. When has greatness ever been created save in the soul of the individual, isn’t that what you said?”

The number of people visiting the historic site rapidly diminished as school reopened, tourists stopped vacationing, and it became cooler. It was in the high glory of the New England autumn now. The trees blazed with color, and Melinda often sat in the tower and watched the wind pluck leaves from the maples and oaks and birches. She thought, occasionally, she spotted the darkness of a human being strolling among the autumn leaves, but she couldn’t be quite sure. “It reminds me a bit of your sonata, that sad Adagio, ” she said to the forest.

Over a sandwich down in the kitchen, she might say, “You know, Robert, that etude you called “Palladium,” almost seems molten to me, like the sun in the house.”

In the gift shop were several CDs—the Symphony and a selection of encore pieces and a piano trio and more—that were played in the house during the hours that tourists visited. Melinda began to play them all day and all night long, too. At times, she would stand before the window, before the sunset, and conduct the orchestra playing on the CD. At other times, she was the violinist. And knowing all of Carr’s secret thoughts about the concerto, about his nuances and inflections, she could play it with breathtaking bravura and conduct it with insight and sensitivity.

Melinda took to sleeping in the upstairs bedroom, Robert’s room. She lay in the large bed with the deep blue bedspread, feeling the dark circulate over her skin like a black pond in which she might be floating. Sometimes she would wake in the middle of the night to see the silver blue light floating through the window. The transparently serene Largo from the string quartet was echoing, floating softly through the house, through the midnight air. For an instant, with her eyes opening from sleep, Melinda thought she caught a glimpse of a hand—a fine, sensitive, strong hand with long slender fingers—resting on the edge of the bed. Was there someone gazing at her?

Yet another time when she woke, “Robert,” she called out, “are you still awake? Are you still working on the concerto? Don’t let it devil you. Come to bed now. It will fall into place soon enough.”

In late November the first snows started to fall. In the beginning they were tiny white beads, tick-tick-ticking against the windows. That evening the beads turned to giant, thick flakes and the flakes covered the landscape. The sky was heavy with clouds, and it snowed for several days. Then one evening the snow finally stopped, and the next morning the sun chimed brilliantly over the glistening white snowscape. The lower half of the windows in the tower were opaque with frost, but after several brilliant days the frost gradually disappeared. Still, some mornings she would wake up to see the glass frosted again, as if a wintery ghost had breathed on the window during the night.

Snow was banked against the trees, filling the bows and the limbs. As far as she could see the countryside was now buried under several feet of snow. At times it was so bright the light hurt her eyes.

Melinda could no longer leave the house, so she called down to the grocery store in the village and had them deliver groceries to the driveway. When she heard them honk, she donned one of the heavy winter coats that she had found in a trunk in an upstairs room—one of Robert’s old coats—and tromped down to the end of the driveway.

The air was like a sharp knife in her lungs. She gasped with the exertion of bringing the several boxes up the driveway. But finally she was finished.

Back in the house she felt the fur with her cheek, imagining it as the touch of a caressing hand. The flakes melted in the fur, so she could not tell if it was snow or tears. Looking down from the tower, she wondered, were there two sets of footprints in the snow? The footprints glowed like amethysts, gems scattered about the snow. But after the next snowfall the steps disappeared altogether, so she couldn’t tell if there were two sets or one.

She spent most of her time in the high tower now, gazing over the landscape. She would follow the flow of shadow and light as the sun mounted and then descended the western sky. It was as if the landscape were a living thing. Twilights now, though short, were intensely blue, so blue a person—a woman perhaps, a young woman—could actually reach into them. Melinda would rock-rock-rock in the chair in the middle of the room, sipping wine, gazing over the wintery landscape, and talking with Robert.

“I know, I know. There are all kinds of fortissimos; some are even large,” she said, laughing. “And crescendos—let’s not even discuss that subject!”

And when she rose to go to bed the rocking chair continue to rock long after she had left it.

Finally, one fine winter twilight . . . .

“Haven’t I waited long enough?” she heard.

“Yes, yes, of course you have, Darling.”

“Then come to me; come to me now.”

“Whatever you say,” Melinda whispered.

She stood and walked from room to room, from the tower to the memorabilia room to the bedroom and back to the tower. She retrieved the diamond pendent shaped like a violin and pinned it to her blouse. She checked in a mirror in the bedroom, fluffing her hair to give it volume, making sure her lipstick was flawless. “Will this outfit do, do you think?” she asked, turning and looking at herself from different angles.

She grazed the bed with her fingertips, feeling the impression where her body lay night after night.

In the glass tower, Melinda walked forward with even, unhesitating steps, holding out her arms, walked into the twilight. In the distance she heard the sound of breaking glass as she stepped into space. The sound was like bells, bells in a symphony. The shards glittered bluely against the snow, beside her, as Melinda floated down-down-down to where Robert waited patiently below.

 
 
 
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Author Bio

Jesse F. Knight has published ghost stories in a number of publications, and he has many more scheduled for the future. His ghostly fiction has appeared, or will appear, in All Hallows, Enigmatic Tales, Lichgate, Roadworks, Yawning Vortex, Nocturne, and in the widely acclaimed anthology Midnight Never Comes.

Online, he has had stories in Dark Planet and Enigmatic Tales. His fiction has received Honorable Mention in the Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. Besides his ghost stories, his short fiction appears in a variety of magazines both online and in print.

Mr. Knight lives in Vancouver, WA, from where he travels a great deal and writes a great deal.

 

 

Other stories by Jesse F. Knight
Vindication
The Logic of Dreams

 


 

 
 
 

"Island of Light" Copyright © 2000 Jesse F. Knight. All rights reserved. Published by permission of the author.
 
This page last updated 10-18-00.

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