By TODD HEARON
(And way up north they’re starting to recover
in Maine the undeniable remains
of a settlement you might be interested in seeing
you’re into that whole hushed-up-history thing….
—postcard from Tennessee
You’ll pull off the main road, Route 209, south of Phippsburg, where Google Maps tells you. It won’t be long until the pavement’s gone, dirt road bleeding off into thinner dirt road, the coastal woods around you more and more secluded, untouched, the stillness and silence cut only by the rattle-and-pop of your tires and undercarriage. Summer foison is in the woods and the thick roadside overgrowth oppressive. It leaps out urchin-fashion to snag your fenders and doors. Occasional capillaries, also dirt, appear from nowhere and feed into your passage; as you wind slowly deeper, you keep one eye to the rearview, making note which way you’ll steer to make it out. Time’s a lost thing, memory a maze. How long have you been puttering now? Trouble out here, nobody’s going to find you. Google Maps shows only a faint gray line extending vaguely westward through a cyberphoto block of green.
You come to a church, an unlikely clearing—first sign of human inhabitants in miles—and you’re reminded of similar-looking structures in the South: rag-tag roughshod cinder-block-and-corrugated-tin getups with the scraggly patch of sandburs and ailing grass out front. You’re surprised to find it Baptist (but then there are Maine Baptists), and with that overlay of memory you populate the scene: potbellied men in white shirtsleeves loading dishes at a potluck; peahennish wives, bouffants like cotton candy, furiously arranging plastic cups of tea. It’s 1973. It’s 1957. Pick a year, adjust the fashions. (1913: homburgs and houndstooth waistcoats; pinstriped blouses, boaters swathed with tulle. A century is elided in the seconds it has taken your car to come to a stop. And there they are.)
You won’t stop long. There’s something about this backwoods bottom, a clutch both moribund and vitally alive. There’s hardly a movement, not a sound, yet it feels to you the trees are hiding eyes. The two front windows of the church are dark, but not necessarily empty. That shot-up pickup abandoned around the side might be a ruse.
And besides, the church is at a fork where the dirt road joins a larger artery, paved. A glance at your cell phone says you must be close. You lift the brake and let the rental crawl along.
Blacks Landing. That’s the name of the road on your right where someone’s put up a white wooden sign with “MALAGA ISLAND →” painted shakily in black. Black’s Landing, you think. Who is Black? Or is it plural possessive, Blacks’? Or simply Blacks, no apostrophe, as in “Blacks landing. Watch out.” You consider the implication of each as you take a photo on your phone and swing the wheel hard right.
The road twists downhill towards the water, which you can’t yet see but now can smell, a muggy brininess in the pines. A few houses begin to appear, small, huddled close together, cluttered yards, boats propped on cinder blocks and tires. There are the expected stacks of lobster traps and festooned buoys, red and blue and white. A general sense of rundown anticlimax. And (again) the feeling of eyes as you turn down a road—really a lane—called Moses, come to the pebbly dead end, and park the car. There’s a restaurant—closed—called Anna’s, connecting to a barnlike structure with a boardwalk leading down to a dock on which sits, amid more clutter of traps, a hot-pink wooden chair. There’s a shabby one-room cabin to your right, for rent. The total absence of people, even animals, even gulls, feels strangely, if appropriately, purposeful.
But no, suddenly a loose, brindled hulk of a mongrel comes loping around the side of the restaurant, heading in your direction. You freeze—if he attacks, you’re done for—but he seems not to see you. He ambles past not two yards from where you’re standing, his big jowls slopping froth, the cataracts over his eyes like pewter coins, and disappears down shore.
And that’s the first you see of it. Malaga. So much closer, more immediate, and larger than you had imagined. Maybe a hundred yards offshore, a rise of pines, completely wooded but for a little bar of sand midlip where some lobsterman’s spare traps are piled. You make your way down to the rocks that jut like paws into the iron-gray bay, the water still, a mirror of the sky.
It’s the silence, the absences, you’ve come for—to pay tribute to?—yet now you’re here it’s the silence that unsettles. It was containable as a thought, as an expectation, but now it spills and overflows the mind, becoming something that you’re swimming in, sinking through, half-struggling up for air. You know the island’s story, much of it. You have the words you’ve read, your smattering of online sources. You’re no pro, no “investigative reporter.” You’ve no desire to knock on doors, interrogate the locals. You are here simply to bear witness, in the brief unmediated moment, to the vastness of what cannot be said—what has not been said, still, a century later. Those failings, those refusals are part of the silence you feel, looking out across the water.
And Malaga itself swims in it, a spruce-green lung that has for so long held its breath. It’s impossible not to try to see figures moving on the water’s other side. That little strip of sand, to see children climbing on the rocks, collecting shells and buttons, withdrawing back into the woods that swallow them. It’s the children that you’re looking for, strangely enough, not those ghostly others, fathers, mothers, absent now as maybe they were absent then in life, working the garden, plying the traps, mending nets, patching up a scow. It’s the children you see now, before the real glazes over and you don’t.
The children entertained the Governor with a hymn when he made his visit to the island in 1911. They’d been instructed by the missionaries recently arrived from the mainland, who brought them food, clothing, built the little school. Progressive, humanitarian, animated as much by the vogue for social reform as by a zeal to save lost souls. But the souls of the “shiftless race of half-breed blacks and whites” had already been forfeited by the State. The Governor seemed much impressed with the island children’s singing; later suggested burning down their shacks “with all of their filth.” *
To the south from where you sit, another island—Horse—fronts what still may be Sebasco Estates, a turn-of-the-century resort popular among Maine’s fashionable ladies. Horse Island’s what you’re straining now to see, obscured by the curvature of coast and fogs of time. 1794. A black man, a freed slave named Benjamin Darling, purchased the island for fifteen pounds and set up home. You consider the implications of this. Three granddaughters, it’s said, with the triadic ring of a folktale, sailed to nearby Malaga some years afterwards and settled. There, by 1880, according to your sources, a small community had cropped up, yes, blacks and whites—Irish, Scots, Portuguese—“half-breeds,” racially mixed. The islanders kept mostly to themselves or splintered off to find occasional employment on the mainland. Utopia? Hardly. Fisherfamilies, dooryard gardeners, a dry hardscrabble life. But, as the remaining photographs attest, a life.
The ladies of Sebasco Estates, on leisurely excursions around the bay, reportedly were scandalized as their boat rounded the island’s northern tip, spying the Malagaite washerwomen standing in the tide bare-kneed, long skirts and aprons hiked and tucked into their waists.
You’ll recall the sign as you crossed over the state border: WELCOME TO MAINE “VACATIONLAND.” This is when that started. The dwindling fishing industry, shipyards emptying out, the ailing little towns. Burgeoning real estate and big-boom tourism. Placards and brochures: “COME HOME TO MAINE.” Whole coastlines bought up. Waterfront resorts! Waterfront hotels!
“PICTURESQUE VIEWS. NICE PEOPLE.”
You remember the regional papers, an article in Harper’s from the time: “QUEER FOLK OF THE MAINE COAST.” “Trespasses upon consanguinity.” All the “lamentable effects.” The rumors. Living in caves. With concubines! Malaga had “a King.”
You recall the wildfire interest in eugenics. The gradations, intricate distinctions. “MORON” : “IDIOT” : “PERVERT.” The forced sterilizations. Amid the frenzy, eight islanders abducted (how many of them children?), institutionalized in the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded, where they lived out the rest of their lives. Those who remained made unwitting wards of the State.
When the official arrived for his annual inspection, the islanders, “like animals,” had hid.
(They were brought—the apprehended—into a vestibule, males culled to the left, females to the right, the single infant taken from his mother. Modern, gas-lighted corridors led toward the promise of clean sheets. Cold baths. Surgical surfaces. In their hair the lingering tincture of the sea. Shoes in the doorway in a tidy line. Clothes discarded in a pile, marked for burning.)
The eviction notice came next year. The State’s intention: a scouring by fire. But on that fateful morning, July 1, 1912, when the evacuation team touched ground, they found the island empty. The houses disassembled, carted off. No trace of a body to be seen. Only the missionaries’ school and a little plot of graves they ordered
dug up, the remains of seventeen corpses deposited in five State-issued coffins, shipped to the mainland, reinterred unnamed at the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded
A century’s ellipsis. And the island, uninhabited to this day. If the State’s intention was development, it never happened. The islanders and their descendants, now scattered throughout the mainland, for years refused to talk. Better without memory? “Malagaite” an insult. Those refusals also are part of the silence of this scene.
Recent excavations tell something of the story, in the tactile language of lost things. A rusted fishing hook. A chipped straight razor. Shard of a teacup. A bright blue bead.
A heart-shaped padlock, barnacle-encrusted.
Piles of buttons. A toothless key.
Malaga, it’s thought, like the other islands situated around the mouth of the New Meadows River and into eastern Casco Bay, was populated a thousand years ago by migrant fishing communities. Of them, as always, what is there to say? Today it’s owned by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust. You can land a small boat at the shell-littered northern tip and walk the one-mile scenic loop through the spruce and fir forests, around the small salt marsh and pond, the meadows overgrown with poison ivy. You can stand on that little strip of sand you’ve imagined and look back across the water, wondering about those shadowy others who looked back long ago. The mainland must have seemed a bulwark banked with promise and hostility, unthinkable passages, unimaginable permutations. The roads spidering into it must have seemed a matrix of infinite confusions to an island sensibility grounded in worn paths, familiar homely rhythms. And always the ringed lapping of the sea, like a necklace of white shells or bone. You can picture a figure sitting there across the water, where the boardwalk comes down, beside that smoldering smudge of pink. A tourist like you, earnest, curious, come to inspect the sordid storied scene. Give him time, eventually he’ll rise and drive away, his phone full of pictures, a digital record of his pilgrimage. Soon, as ever, the old solitude swims in, filling every fissure in the rocks, along the white strand peppered with broken pottery and buttons, like remains of a language you no longer need to use.
In September 2010, Maine’s Governor Baldacci visited Malaga (the first governor to do so since Governor Plaisted’s visit in 1911) to issue a formal apology to the descendants of Benjamin Darling and other evicted families. The process of reparation and acknowledgement went further in 2012 when, at the opening of the exhibit “Malaga Island: Fragmented Lives” at the Maine State Museum, Governor LePage said to those present: “To the descendants, I will tell you as a governor … we apologize for this hardship we have caused you. We did similar things to the Native Americans here. And, frankly, ten years after Malaga Island was destroyed, the largest Ku Klux Klan rally in the history of the United States was right here in Maine, against the French Catholics coming down here from Quebec. So, we understand. We have been part of it as well.” Malaga Island has since been named one of the Maine Freedom Trails’ significant places.
*Italicized passages represent the voice of journalistic commentary, composed of quotations and anecdotes remembered from the author’s research.
Todd Hearon is the author of two collections of poems, Strange Land and No Other Gods. He’s currently serving as Dartmouth’s poet-in-residence at The Frost Place in Franconia, New Hampshire.