This morning I went outside, my feet still in the old sneakers I wear as slippers, in deference to a dog who, at any given time, may leave a chewed bit of a stick in my path. It was not especially early but the air was dense, on the verge of a light sprinkle, and the grass that is always wet at daybreak had had no chance to dry.
There was out there a foghorn-like sound, too frequent to be the boat, an echoing I needed to investigate. It seemed an alarm of some sort by its frequency, and while the only alert I have makes a completely different noise one can never be too cautious – or too worrisome – and I had to make some effort to determine the source.
It was louder outside than in, and as I walked around the south end of the house I heard it fade and return with the rising and falling contour of the land between it and me, as happens with sound coming up from the beach or ocean. My concern that it was close allayed, my feet wet from the few yards I had walked, I retreated inside and went online to the best source of local information without making a call, social media, where the question of the morning, for the second day in a row, was the source of an unidentified noise.
Today it turned out to be only the fog horn on the end of the breakwater, stuck on rapid-repeat. It happened several years ago, blasting in weather foul and fair, but on its regular tempo, not the almost staccato beat I heard from my yard. No one much noticed until early summer hotel guests arrived; it is, after all, always foggy somewhere.
Perhaps the resolution of yesterday morning’s query “explosion?” made people more anxious than they would otherwise have been over some unidentified but persistent sound today.
The early morning boom yesterday, heard across the West Side, signaled, as has been widely reported, the demise of an 18th century house, an out-of-sight treasure, build of old wide wood, with a four-way central fireplace. It had been owned for decades by the same family, who showed themselves to be careful stewards.
But for them, and the owners I believe immediately before them, it could easily have joined a list of houses, mainly very old Cape Cods, that sat empty and unused and fell into ruin, then total collapse in the mid-twentieth century.
I had been to that house when I was a child, a day-guest of a family renting up the Mansion Road. They were, to my sheltered eyes, adventurous, and there were several of them, a mob to a little girl with one sibling, a brother at that, six years her senior. We rode around in a jeep, went to some beach on the far side of the island, and walked in to look at this empty “opportunity” the mother surely had had her eye on for some time.
We peered thought dirty windows and saw gloomy rooms, with old furniture and green vines, turned to roses in bloom in my memory, growing up through the floor. It was surely lacking water and electricity, unusual but not rare then. It was both romantic and eerie, not in the literal shadow of the ruins of the Allen place, a fire-blackened shell of what I was told had been a grand house by Block Island standards of the day, but nearby nonetheless. The road, I am sure, was lined by overgrown hedges which do seem to be in place in a 1952 aerial photograph of the area.
Those renters did buy the house, owned it for it bit, then, as the children grew older, moved to a spot closer to the water. Were it not for that single summer day I might not even realize there had been an active owner outside members of the present family.
Years ago, on a nice off-season afternoon, I went to the West Side with a very specific intent; to walk from the corner by the old church, down across the land that falls away to the sea.
They — “the great amorphous they” upon which we blame so much — had moved the access. It had happened a few years earlier, when a tract of land in an long dormant estate was subdivided. Gone was the way frozen in my mind, more a path than a road, with that hedge row on either side. It had been relocated, and extended, branching off to service new houses.
The landscape around the old Cape Cod had changed, the road that had gone to it had been moved to wind around it, defining it and creating an illusion even in brown winter of a green, grassy island. A few other old houses persisted, some almost intact, some with significant additions and alterations, but more than I had imagined, despite my vague following of such matters, had been built. Even the wreck of the Allen place had been removed, and something new sat in its place.
I did not get lost, in a precise sense, more I became disoriented in a way I could never quite explain, certain the bell tower of the old church was east of me when it was really north, because as much as I knew the road had been moved my brain refused to process the information. That one familiar house became my solid point of reference when I had reason to travel that way in years following. Someone today said she often walked “by that home, stopping along the way to enjoy its unique charm.”
Now, that bit of Block Island history, a dot on old maps, a line in recorded inventories, that house nestled on the edge of Franklin Swamp, below the church, out of sight from West Side Road, a treasured piece of history is gone.
It will live in our memories.