I was lying in bed, listening to the rain drumming against the metal roof of the old barn. It was not the sustained kind from clouds; an overhanging oak branch and lingering wind from an earlier storm created this downpour.
I suffer from a condition known as sleep apnea, where my breathing stops and starts abruptly while asleep. Since my recurring dream started several weeks ago, I have been awakened each night, gasping for breath at the same point.
In the dream, confused waves batter me from every direction, and when riding high on a swell, I can see massive wooden objects floating near—the broken pieces looking like parts of an old sailing ship.
The sky is a contradiction of angry storm clouds pressed low with shafts of light penetrating openings at higher elevations. The light illuminates a large wave above me, rendering its peak a translucent blue-green, its beauty in stark contrast to the tempest that grips me from below.
Something vast and dark looms in the distance, and sharp voices yell indistinguishable words swept away in the wind. The icy water pulls me down, trying to swallow me, and I struggle to keep my head above its slippery surface. In the troughs with swells mounding above me, I sense the hopelessness of my predicament. Forced underwater by a cresting wave, I see a shaft of sunlight slicing downward, disappearing into the abyss. The surface moves away from me, leaving only the silence and darkness of an unknown world below.
Then I wake up, and reality rushes in to reclaim my conscious state, pushing the dream into the recesses of my mind.
I rolled onto my side and saw the flat comforter and neatly aligned pillows where my wife Michelle usually lies, her undisturbed side of the bed was colored in layers of gray in the dim morning light.
She had left the day before on a company trip to Canada; their training was scheduled on the weekend so that all the managers were not absent from weekday operations. Her departure was not what I had hoped for, and her expression increased the hollow feeling in my stomach when she left.
The rain had brought a steep drop in temperature, and I felt the cold seeping into the barn – spreading itself low along the floorboards, puddling in corners, and anywhere loose-fitting enclosures provided an opportunity. We chose to leave the ceiling open with exposed rafters when renovating the structure. The design looked impressive and worked in warmer months but had proven difficult to heat during northern Maine winters.
I had hoped for an extended autumn, but the mercury that hovered just above 40 degrees outside the kitchen window promised darker days ahead.
A copper container used for holding split logs still held several pieces from the previous winter, and not yet willing to surrender to the idea that the season was over, I had built a fire rather than turning on the furnace for the first time.
During a weekend trip to Vermont, we had purchased the wood-burning stove from a craftsman; its exterior was covered in polished soapstone and radiated an even warmth for hours when heated. The well-seasoned wood caught quickly, and the fire’s yellow flames reflected across the kitchen floor—the light and smell of burning wood cheered up the room.
There were items strewn about the house like breadcrumbs from Michell’s departure. Empty hangers on her nightstand, a small suitcase pulled from her closet, and then abandoned, brightly colored new clothes tags with matching-colored strings discarded in the bathroom wastebasket, house shoes with collapsed backs tossed in the entry, and a half cup of coffee sitting near the edge of the kitchen island.
A week before Michelle’s training, I attended her company’s dinner party, and the scenes from the night had played on a continuous loop that I watched for the thousandth time.
The drive had been mostly quiet. The winding secondary highway took us through familiar villages where we had once hunted antiques and dined in local restaurants. When the sun dropped below the tree line, it produced a strobe effect like an old movie, only this light was a soft golden hue, and as I glanced at Michelle, I imagined her as a beautiful actress in her black dress and a simple string of pearls.
I turned off the secondary road onto a freshly paved private lane that brought us to the entrance of the Watkins estate. Tiered gardens flanked the intricately forged iron gates that had been left open. The road, shaded by forest, continued for another mile beyond the gates ending in an open space that revealed an ultra-modern home built of glass, metal, and exotic-looking wood. Its unusual design and severe angles looked like a ship had been moored in the middle of the forest.
“Try to have a good time tonight,” Michelle said as we walked from the car toward the entrance.
I looked at her with an expression of mock surprise.
Bruno Watkins, the host, met us at the door and seemed pleased to see us, or at least Michelle. “Welcome, welcome; thank you for coming,”
“Oh, I thought it was required,” Michelle said with a smile. Then, with a motion like a game show model, she announced, “this is my husband, Jack.”
Without waiting for a formal greeting, I said, “Bruno, your home makes such an architectural statement, and it’s blended so well with its surroundings.”
“I like your husband,” he said, looking at Michelle.
Michelle nodded with a look of approval.
“So, Jack, since you understand good design, would you like to see the place?”
Michelle left us to it and wandered off to join a group gathered around an open bar run by the catering company.
“What do you do?” Bruno asked.
“I am a technical writer; a lonely pursuit, not much of a conversation starter, and has little or no job satisfaction, but other than that, it’s great.”
Bruno laughed and nodded that he understood.
“The home as I drove up reminded me of the bow of a large ship; I was wondering if that was an intentional part of your design. I asked.
“No, it had more to do with how to fit the structure on the building site my wife had picked. The architects had to work within those parameters, if you know what I mean,” he said with an exasperated expression.
I could tell Bruno had been an active participant in the design of his unusual home by his enthusiastic explanation of details a casual observer would have never noticed. He became particularly animated when describing his challenges with installing the rooftop basketball court and running track. The home had a lot of features that leaned toward fitness and an active lifestyle, two things I did not get the impression that Bruno embraced.
After seeing the home, we ended up at the main staircase overlooking the party.
“Go join the festivities,” Bruno said; I will be down shortly.
As I descended the stairs mostly unnoticed, I spotted Michelle in a small group on the far side of the room; she was checked out of the conversation and was gazing across the room with an intimately familiar expression.
As I watched her, voices in the room merged into an undistinguishable hum, and objects and people around me blurred until she was the only person I saw. The moment’s intimacy shattered when she saw me approaching; she looked confused and unsure.
The barn felt claustrophobic, and I needed a distraction. There was an exhibition at the museum of art in the city that had started on Friday—promising beautiful Landscapes by Dutch Masters of the 17th century.
When I arrived in the early afternoon, the downtown was mostly devoid of people, with most restaurants and shops open only on weekdays when offices were filled with workers.
The temperature downtown hovered near 40, and the wind out of the north gave the day a raw feel. Wet leaves pressed flat against the street, and sidewalks held fast in the frequent gusts. Thick gray clouds cast a weak light that drained the city of its color, unifying it in a drab sameness.
The exhibition had attracted a small crowd, and I saw couples and groups standing inside the expansive lobby. The glass exterior of the museum, brightly lit from within, was the only inviting oasis in an otherwise abandoned-looking city. I soon lost myself in the calming pastoral scenes and, for a short while, found relief from the anxiety that plagued my waking hours. The exhibition was smaller than I had hoped, and I finished in less than an hour.
The exhibition admission included entry into the museum’s permanent collection, and though I had been through it in the past, I was in no hurry to leave.
The permanent collection housed on the second floor consisted of a dozen rooms with offset entry and exits, giving the space the feel of a maze. I could hear people’s voices in the rooms; the nonstructural walls open at the top allowed sound to travel throughout, but I never crossed paths with anyone as I walked between exhibits.
Turning left out of a room filled with large abstract art, I entered a long hallway that doubled as a gallery for sculptures. The length of the space provided a conduit to five other rooms, two on either side and one at the opposite end.
Each gallery, controlled by motion detectors, switched overhead lights on when visitors entered; the task lights on the artwork always remained on. The painting with the backdrop of a darkened room at the end of the hallway looked like a lighted screen from a distance. The oil on canvas image was of a large seascape I couldn’t remember ever seeing before. As I approached, the intricately carved frame covered in gold leaf shimmered in its brilliance.
Trance-like, I could not avert my eyes from the curving swirl of the brush strokes; the scene seemed animated, conveying a sense of tragedy and beauty. Standing only inches from the painting filled my peripheral vision, and I could nearly smell the salt air and hear the panicked voices. Small wooden fishing boats with rescuers looked dangerously close to wrecking against the jagged shoreline in the rough seas.
Remnants of a broken ship were barely visible in the shadows of the high cliffs, large mast pieces floated in the foreground, and gulls swooped low near the wave’s crests. The mountainous terrain behind the small fishing village soared to great heights; its ruggedness spoke of the island’s desolation.
Slowly the painting revealed itself to me, and as I stared into its commotion, I realized that revelation was my dream. The towering mountain of rock, the dark object I could not make out beyond the low clouds, the sharp voices of men in fishing boats attempting a rescue. I believe if it were possible to widen the view, I would have found a sailor struggling to survive near the frame’s bottom edge.
The temperature had been falling steadily since mid-afternoon; I could see the barn, which sat on a slight ridge from a distance and looked dark and unwelcoming in the failing light. The waist-high cord grass in the fields rolled like waves pushed by the wind out of the north.
I turned onto the gravel road that served as an easement for the original farmhouse and saw Tom, the owner, walking back from the mailbox. Tom was an awkward man in his late sixties who lived alone and would be the last person in his family to own the land that had been passed down for generations. He had no interest in farming and planned to subdivide the 300 acres and sell it to developers.
Easing the car alongside him, I lowered the passenger window and called, “Hey, Tom.”
Tom, a tall man, placed a hand on the car’s roof and stooped down so he could see me. “Hello, Jack; looks like we’re in for some weather.”
“Yeah? I have been out of the loop; what are they saying?”
“Supposed to get pretty nasty tonight, and through about noon tomorrow, lots of wind and rain, maybe snow.” Tom looked up at the clouds after the mention of snow as if taking his own reading on the matter. He looked back at me and asked, “Where’s the missus? Haven’t seen her around much.”
“Her job has been keeping her late; it’s usually dark when she gets home most days.” It didn’t sound convincing when I heard it out loud. “She’s up in St. John this weekend for training,” I added, feeling an additional need to justify her absence.
“St. John, huh? Tom looked concerned, “the storm will be whipping up that bay; They’ll probably shut down the ferries; I wouldn’t want to be on that water in a storm.” He said mostly to himself. Then as an afterthought, he said, “You should check your generator; power will probably go out before the night is over.”
“Thanks, I will,” I said as I lifted the brake slightly and heard the crunch of gravel as the car inched forward.
Tom slapped the roof twice to let me know I was good to go.
Inside, I turned the thermostat to heat and could smell the burnt dust that had accumulated on the unit in the off-season. I stirred the ashes in the wood-burning stove in the kitchen for signs of life, but the earlier fire had gone cold.
Outside the back door, I opened the small wooden enclosure that housed the generator and looked the unit over. I had no idea how to tell if it was working; it had always just come on whenever we lost power.
My office was dark, except for a small pool of white light illuminating my laptop. I turned the wall-mounted TV to the weather channel and set the volume to low. After several other segments, the station shifted to a map of the eastern US, where a nor’easter was bearing down. It was a vast area that included New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, The Bay of Fundy, New Hampshire, and Maine. The weatherman said the system was early for the season and that people in its path could expect gale-force winds, freezing rain, and significant snowfall depending on their location.
I found historical text about the oil painting from a Google search. I had made a mental note of the artist, Edward Moran, from a small brass plate attached to the frame. The painting was titled “Grand Manan” and was dated 1859.
Art historians believe the subject to be the wreck of Lord Ashburton, a three-masted sailing ship trying to reach the port of St. John. A violent nor’easter had blown it back down the Bay of Fundy, where it wrecked against the jagged shoreline of Grand Manan Island during the winter of 1857. All three masts were carried away in heavy seas as the ship broke up on the rocks. The captain and most of the crew of 28 men drowned. Of the ten that reached the island, two froze to death at night before villagers could mount a rescue in the morning.
It was around 7:30 PM when the power went out, and as if to validate Tom’s concern, the generator failed to switch on, casting the interior into darkness and shutting down the furnace. My memories of looking beneath car hoods at tangles of wires and incomprehensible engine parts kept me from attempting to troubleshoot.
The winds had grown more violent, and I could feel the north-facing walls vibrate against the assault. The sound of the wind was like the whine of a small engine revved too high that let up before its breaking point.
I searched the kitchen for hurricane candles and found several, and I used mason jar lids as bases to set them throughout the house. The flickering light projected large shadows on the walls that captured the gloominess of the storm.
The rain came in intervals and, driven by the wind, struck the barn in a nearly horizontal trajectory. The thunder, a low hollow rumble, sounded like heavy furniture slowly being dragged across an attic floor.
I saw a porch light from Tom’s farmhouse that flickered between the swaying pines that formed a windbreak around his home. I was tempted to abandon the cold and isolation of the barn and brave the trek toward the light.
By 10:00 PM, the inside temperature had dropped to 51 degrees; I searched through a coat closet for something warmer to wear, but when I smelled Michelle’s perfume, I closed the door. Returning to the kitchen, where the candle burned out, I had to feel my way through the darkness. There was a bottle of bourbon and tumblers in the cupboard above the stove, and retrieving them, I poured a half-full glass neat. I drank it fast; the warmth going down provided temporary comfort.
There was an itinerary I had seen on the counter earlier, and I slid my hand across its surface until I found the paper. I took the bottle, tumbler, and sheet into the living room, where the candle still burned; holding the sheet close to the light, I entered the hotel number into my phone.
“St John Marriot,” a pleasant voice answered.
“Michelle Drake, please.”
“One moment.” Classical hold music played until the pleasant voice returned.
“Michelle Drake checked out this morning.”
“Sir, are you still there?”
“Yes, sorry, thank you.”
“Is there anything else I can help you with?”
“No, no, that was all.”
“Thank you for calling St John Marriott; goodbye.”
I poured another half glass and entered the number on the bottom sheet that listed Jennifer Kelly as the coordinator. The call went to voicemail.
“Jennifer, this is Jack Drake, Michelle’s husband; I was worried about her driving home in this weather; what is the status of the training?”
Ending the call, I tossed the phone onto the desk, where it slid across and hung precariously over the far edge.
At 1:30 AM, the bottle was missing a third of its amber content. It was sitting next to an empty tumbler on my desk. The candle had managed to survive, and its flame, viewed through the bottle, had multiplied into several that reflected against the old wavy glass panes. I had wrapped myself in a blanket from the bed and was sitting in my desk chair, feeling sufficiently numb, drifting between unconsciousness and sleep.
I had sensed a change in the storm, the wind still intermittently emitted its high pitch whine, but the in-between time had an unusual quietness. I struggled to my feet, and the room looked slightly askew. I held the edge of the desk until it had righted itself and then made my way to the window.
Pressing my face against the cold glass, I saw what had caused the quiet within the storm. Snow was falling with an intensity I had rarely seen. The giant flakes swirled in every conceivable direction, and every inch of the property was covered in white.
The dawn brought only a slight brightening of the eastern skies, and with the wind somewhat diminished, the heavy snow mainly fell vertically. Any remaining warmth had leaked from the home hours before, and the blanket I had wrapped myself in had proven inadequate for retaining body heat. I shivered as I tried to navigate my situation within the haze of a hangover.
I dressed in layers and managed a few things into the suitcase in the middle of our bedroom floor. When I opened the front door, a snow drift that had accumulated against it fell across the entry floor. There wasn’t a noticeable temperature difference between the interior and outside, and I left the door open as I stepped into a sea of white.
The snow had obscured the shape of my car, and a coating of ice underneath it had encased the body. I pounded against the ice with gloved fists and pulled the door handle a dozen times before breaking the seal. The interior was like being deep within a snow cave, with perfectly still sub-freezing air and the silence of a tomb. After I started the engine, I leaned in toward the vents and impatiently waited for warmth.
It took 30 minutes to generate enough heat to loosen the ice, and as it thawed, large sheets slid from the metal and shattered like crystal glasses.
My phone from the passenger seat flashed from an incoming call, and I let it go to voicemail.
I carefully drove the quarter mile to the main road and stopped at the intersection. A plow had been through at some point during the night, and the cleared highway had accumulated several additional inches since it had passed.
I punched the voicemail message and listened.
“Jack, this is Jennifer Kelly; I was surprised to get your message; we canceled the training yesterday right after the first-morning session, so everyone had time to get back before the storm. Have you not heard from Michelle? Call me if there is anything I can do.”
I looked into the rearview mirror and saw that my tire tracks were rapidly filling and would eventually be smoothed over as if they had never existed. The barn on its ridge, viewed through the veil of falling snow, had lost contrast and its softened lines and blurred edges faded against the horizon.
The weather continued to improve, and the snow line receded until it was undistinguishable, approaching the coast. When I arrived in the small fishing village, the sun had finally broken through, and the orderly white houses with red roofs lining the water’s edge presented an idyllic scene against the cobalt blue waters.
Driving up the coast, a few miles beyond the village, I turned on Sharps Point Road, which led to an Inn built on a rocky outcropping in the 1850s. The restaurant inside the Inn offered incredible views of the rugged Main coastline.
I was not surprised to see Michelle’s car in the half-full parking lot, it was the off-season, and though the Inn remained open for guests, it mainly catered to locals with its restaurant serving hearty breakfasts and fresh seafood lunches and dinners.
Entering the lobby with its exposed heavy timber construction and the enormous central stone fireplace was like revisiting an old friend. The fireplace formed a natural screen between the entrance and dining room. A wall of windows in the dining room perfectly framed the seascape, and the light reflecting off the rippled surface danced on its tongue and groove pine ceiling.
Standing near the fireplace, I spotted Michelle along the bank of windows sitting alone at a table for two. I watched her for several minutes as my internal conflict threatened to tear me apart. Her profile was so familiar, yet she might as well have been a stranger at that moment. She sat still with a faraway expression that evoked a profound sadness within me.
Making my way back through the lobby and out to my car, I was convinced it was the right thing. I could prolong the inevitable, hold on to a life raft in the turbulent waters, but ultimately drown. I had a premonition as I drove away that I survived.