Every group of people, every place, has it own economy of belonging, and in each new place, in order to show you’re not dangerous, you have to spend the local currency. Otherwise the locals may murder you, or refuse to feed you, or somehow shun you according to their custom. Every summer for about five summers, my younger brother worked at a hotel on an island off the New Hampshire coast, which you get to by taking a ferry from Portsmouth 10 miles out until the mainland appears as a sliver of land. Then, just as you think you’re headed for open ocean, the great white bulk of the island and its assorted clapboard outbuildings suddenly rise up, stretched across the rock of the island and its primrose thickets.
Star Island is only 44 acres big, which seems like a lot unless you know that on any given day in the summertime there can be 500 people swarming around it. Hundreds of visitors who are affiliated with the Unitarian church come weekly for conferences on spirituality that are held at the hotel, which is staffed by a hundred or so high school and college students. The island’s also a favorite picnic spot for daytrippers, who take the ferry out in the morning, receive a good whipping by the sun and sea wind, and go back in the afternoon.
On an island so small and so populated, it is difficult to get away. This is one of the first things I learned about the place. One strategy that the young staff employ to create barriers is to invent words and pronunciations that can be cuttingly exclusive. “Ducats” means money and sometimes you don’t use the plural, as in “fifty dollar.” Except you say “fitty,” for no reason except that someone came up with it and it stuck. “Pass the brown” gets you the ice tea at dinner, while “pass the red” gets you fruit punch. “Yellow” is lemonade. Someone on the crew that takes luggage and supplies off the ferry decided it was good to speak in a German accent. Everyone else affected a speech disorder that made them say words like “infirmary” and “incinerator” like “en fail mail lail” and “en cin el ail tail.” Each year this slang blooms like flowers, then dies away. Next year it was the same island and mostly new kids, and in the same soil the same needs bloom, but in different shapes.
I’ve tried to write about this place a dozen times since I first visited it 10 years ago, because it is the most charismatic place on the planet I know. But each attempt I’ve dropped–not because Star Island is so ineffable that it escapes language, but because I’ve never worked out if I’m writing to share or withhold. Do I want you to think you should get to Star Island quickly? That I’m cool because I went to Star Island, which is so cool, though you’ll never know? That what I write can capture the mood of the place? Here, have it, be satisfied. Or was it because I wanted you and me to look askance at the kids who thought they were cool in this place?
None of those, exactly. But yes, all of them. Why? Not because I’m a snob, but because that’s what Star Island inspires in people: A desire to keep the place all to yourself, to know what others don’t, and a desire that’s worth struggling with, when it doesn’t seem right. I’ve prowled the broad wooden porch of the hotel at night and wrapped myself in my jacket and listened to the slapping water and the foghorn and believed I was alone, my experience unique over all others, even though a dozen other people were sitting there doing the same thing. That was the way I felt after my first three days. Imagine what a summer does to you. Or if you were raised there, as some of the staff were.
One summer I had a girlfriend who worked out there, one of those who’d been raised on the island, who believed it to be hers and no one else’s, who withheld with such intensity that I think she considered burning down the hotel to be a fair strategy, even a moral one. Yet she shared the place with me. Whenever I visited, she showed me all the secret places, and gave me the island in ways I could carry in my heart like a secret lozenge.
So she brought me to the massive tanks of saltwater in the attics (stored in case of fire) to the musty crawlspaces under the hotel, up the fire escapes. We snuck into the kitchen and ate cereal from the bins, crouching low so no one could see us through the windows. Sometimes these places were forbidden; if you went, they’d fire you, no questions asked. One such place was the roof, where we could see the twirling lights of the ferris wheel on the gaudy beach on the mainland. She swore she’d seen ghosts rising in the cemetery, which to her was a message from the island. She was its steward.
We’d met at a party during the winter, then she came to visit me the same night a blizzard blew in and trapped us for a week. We drank whiskey and read and made love all with great seriousness, as if to keep in practice for a life we lived for real somewhere else. It was improvisational living, to keep us loose in the joints. Why we stopped doesn’t matter. But the snow melted and the roads cleared and we parted with equally great seriousness.
That summer I visited every few weeks. Whenever I got off the ferry, she greeted me at the pier, a sunburned girl with long black hair, her jeans dirty and salty. She was thinner than the last time I saw her, the hard work of the summer had burned off fat and made her strong. We hugged and walked off the pier to the hotel, past the wooden pavilion where the string quartets sometimes played, into the wide lobby and up the wooden stairs to her bedroom, where we took off our clothes, made love, and then talked for a while before she had to go back to work. I stayed in bed and listened to the honking of the gulls, the slapping of the water at the pier, and the wah-wah rasp of the captain’s voice over the ferry’s loudspeakers as the boat pulled away. I was here.
It was the next morning that I saw the seal. We’d eaten breakfast– oatmeal and coffee from cold plastic dishes. Then she went to work and I walked toward the eastern rocks on a rough path bordered by spruce and primrose, where no one walked or worked so early. Far ahead I could see the waves slapping the rocks.
I crossed the slabs of granite where the fractured arms of the rock ran down into still pools of clear water and then up out of them, and I clambered into the chasms of the rock where the arms of rock embraced clear pools lined with crushed shell and speckled with blue and purple seaweed. Sometimes there were flapped fronds of seaweed like slick combed hair on the dark slippery rocks.
And as I climbed out of one chasm and continued on, and came up over one of those ridges, I saw it, though I didn’t recognize it at first–I was hungover, and my mind wasn’t prepared to see carefully. First I saw motion, then the shape. A squat round body, dark, heaving itself over two rocks. Dark and wet. A seagull chick? A fish? Mermaid even crossed my mind as I crouched, moved closer. There I recognized it, a seal, it was a baby seal, not even two feet long, squirming over some rocks and disappearing. It knew I was there, and it knew what I was.
As I came over the next line of rocks down into a long, deep tidal pool, I saw how the seal had become trapped. The outgoing tide had stranded it in a slight valley, and no other seal was returning for it. I watched it swim the length of that pool for several minutes, back and forth, looking at me fretfully with each pass. It had gray fur with blue spots, shining in the water. At one point it hid behind a rock with its head sticking up and the black wedges of its nostrils heaving open and shut, and then swam the length of the pool again. It went under the surface, disappeared, came up behind a rock with seaweed draped on its head. A trick?
Even as I saw it I knew I would withhold it from her. I didn’t know if seals were rare, but it would be my secret knowledge, what I would never tell her or anyone else. I would take it away with me; it would be my secret about the island. Finally I left the seal, hoping the tide could lift it out, and the next day I walked to the pier and got on the ferry, where she stood and waved goodbye. It’s a charming custom they have at Star Island, to come down to the ferry and chant, “You will come back, you will come back.” Maybe you do, maybe you don’t, but it’s an electric moment when they’re telling you you’ll come back while they’re pushing the ferry away from the rock pier with long poles and throwing the ropes away. It’s not a lie. It’s the push and the pull of the truth. That’s how it works.
As the ferry pulled away I had to turn away, so I ducked out of the wind and lit a cigarette. When I finally looked back, the pier was too far away, too far to distinguish any faces.