“The Country of Arching Elms” by Michael Koh

I too, felt there was something about a town just inland off the shores of Maine, which rendered the rest of the cities in the United States unattractive and obtrusive. It may have been the simple fact that it was merely a vacation, that I was to stay in this town for little less than a week that made it so enchanting, giving way to gripping folklore and a curiousness for the town that seemed never to abate. The creaking Northeast houses, their shutters nailed forever open for the passerby to see, bits of ancient, towering elms wedged in-between shops, the main circle and its exhilarating statue and fountain, instilled a gayety within myself and my companion, who also enjoyed the fresh sea-tamed air circle around us as the nascent Maine sun bared its soul onto the couples here and fro. My companion felt the town to be a single entity; that the people were one with this rural seaside town, and felt at ease, and at home here. I proclaimed my love for this town that I had never set foot on until now, and my companion too proclaimed her love for the town.

***

Returning for the second time of the year, I noted that the town had not changed. Kennebunk had retained its quiet, unremarkable air, its giant elms with arching branches, the café where I had uttered my first ever New Englandism: “wicked good.” The man-made reservoir in which I had kayaked across with my companion following behind me, had changed little, if any. Ducks nested beside the water, reeds maintained their hold at the western end, and the houses that looked to the water had not yet been given another coat of paint. Trees still reigned over the Kennebunk sky and a car would occasionally pass, shaking shrubs with its shadows.

I met with an antiquarian while on a trip to visit old farmhouses in the neighborhood. Mr. Jewell had been a resident of Kennebunk since the early 1900’s and the farmhouse was given to him by his grandfather who was a veteran of the Spanish-American war. I stood in admiration of the ancient farmhouse and breathed the air that was once taken in by his grandfather. Mr. Jewell motioned to me with his good hand and walked into a room. There, he showed me his prized antiques: a civil war era cast-iron skillet, a toboggan from the late 19th century, a laminated, yellowing New York Times, brittle wicker chairs once used by his grandfather’s family, and a tin box that had held candy from a company that had defaulted on its loans before I was born. Mr. Jewell asked me if I was interested in any of these items. I apologized. He waved his hand, pacifying my apologetic gestures. “It’s antiquing season,” he said. I asked him what he meant. “People come to Kennebunk for one thing. Antiques. Haven’t you seen the antique stores all around the town? They go a couple miles down into Wells too. You’ve been there, haven’t you?” I told him I had not. “Ah,” he said. “Wells, although it’s smaller than Kennebunk, is a popular place. Go to Wells Beach, it’s where everyone goes.” I thanked Mr. Jewell and bought a small painting, which he practically gave to me for free. “It was only worth a nickel when I bought it,” he said.

I stood outside the farmhouse, gazing at the darkness beyond the cottage and the road that leads into the woods and to Wells, and I took a deep breath of the warm summer air that surrounded the enchanting town.

***

For days after, I made attempts to go to Wells, but my companion had insisted we stay in Kennebunk and make our way out to Sanford, where we would be able to rent a room in a cottage hidden behind a forest of trees and bushes. I resisted the idea, argued that it would cause trouble, that it was too far from stores and the beach, and the ocean, but it was all for naught. The room was rented for three full days.

I watched the sun rise and set while sitting by the window for two days. My companion had gone out to run errands and I had not gone with her for I had wanted to spite her, which now seems peculiar and childish. On the third day, I had enough of the solitude that was so thoroughly enjoyed by many and ventured out beyond the grounds in search of civilization.

Sanford held the amenities of a small town. City Hall was the center of the town like many other old towns and the buildings around it were the most ornate and distinguished out of all the buildings in Sanford. I sat on a bench and watched the clouds pass above me until someone tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I was lost. My eyes focused on a floral dress. The woman stood to the left of me, her hand on her straw hat, the air faint with her perfume. She looked at me as one does to a lost child. I politely answered her, revealing that I am a passing vacationer with time to spare. “Oh,” she said. I nodded and observed the infrequency of passing cars. The woman sat down next to me and asked me if I had seen the school. I told her I had not. “Ah,” she said. “It’s one of the oldest buildings in Maine – aside from City Hall.” I inquired as to where the school was located. “Come with me, I can take you there.” I hesitated. “Don’t worry,” she said. “It’s on the way to where I was headed anyway.” Unconvinced, yet enamored with curiosity, I followed her eastward and away from the fountain, the statue, and the buildings, into a neighborhood once inhabited by Englishmen and Frenchmen, the houses now empty of their old matronly culture, replaced by the American idea of Europe and American identity, all standing one-by-one in neat rows with neatly trimmed grass, and at the end of the road was a small hill, and at the top, a school, recently renovated to look more modern. “There it is,” she said triumphantly and I looked at her face, and saw a guise of moroseness. I asked her to come with me for a tour and she accepted without hesitation. I asked her if she had gone to this school. “I graduated a couple of years ago,” she said. I nodded in engagement. As we came up the hill, a bell rang, and students poured out of the building. Some looked at us as they ran by while others walked and stared. “It’s the last day of school,” she said. To them, it was the beginning of summer. For me, it was the beginning of the end. I stood beneath the awning of the entrance and gazed the treetops below, and beyond, the blinking rays of the sun on the withering waves of the Atlantic Ocean.


Profile: Michael Koh

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