— In memory of John Marquette Peters
Salt stung, sun staggered, bellies full of whale song and the whispering of lost continents, the breakers roll in from the Atlantic. In the clamor of arrival and retreat, saltwater left behind soaks piss clam and crab-pocked sand, erases the timid footprints of terns, wets the feet of beach plum, juniper berry; sea rocket. It runs silent under stilted glass houses perched on the priceless shoulders of dunes, gathers itself for the long march toward summer lawns and village privets, grass courts and ladies’ tees.
The water moves north under railroad tracks, pastures and fields, under vineyards that roll in long, espaliered rows over the vanished farms of the North Fork. It reaches for rocky bluffs, pebbled Sound beaches, all the way to Plum Island, Falkner’s, Great Gull, Little Gull and The Thimbles. It laps at the landscaped grounds and golf courses of Fishers, greened by money and manicured to perfection. Along the way, it picks up rainwater, beetle carcasses, dung, dinosaur bones, snake skins, every poison ever sprayed on peaches eaten straight from the bushel on a hot day.
It bubbles and creeps, pools and seeps.
It carries with it old stories of Shinnecock, Matinecock. Sons and daughters of Aleuts who walked the ice bridge from Asia onto Long Island’s narrow estuary, formed after the Great Melt by flux and tumult, drift and sediment. Land of Tribute, they called it. They fertilized their corn and beans with fish heads, hunted in marshy grasses, forests teeming with fox and pheasant. They cast their nets into pristine ponds and bays, dipped their gourds and drank their fill. They would live to regret the peaceful welcome offered to the whites, the kindnesses that sealed their fate. In the water that lives forever, bits of flint, arrowheads, the bitter taste of betrayal.
Along the great sand cliffs and coves fringed with scrub pine, the water rises from deep below the arts and crafts bungalows that sprang up in the fields of farmers who fled the pogroms and found their fortunes in summer people. It issues up from private wells, clear, cold and quenching. It gushes out of beach pumps, primed with sand. Splashes down throats parched from sun and gritty sandwiches; cools blue-lipped children twitchy with play, rinses diapers, hands sticky with peanut butter, plums carried in straw beach bags.
Well water pours through pipes, clinks in cocktail glasses, wriggles in Jell-O molds, lurks in lobster bisque, sugared corn water, spaghetti pots. It flows through the walls of summer porches, cool white rooms laid with rattan rugs. It sleeps coiled in garden hoses, jittery anacondas hissing at dogs and barelegged children. It coaxes day lilies, sweet basil and mint out of the porous soil, washes sandy feet, bathing suits, hair, scrubs whitewalls, two-toned sedans with fins. Mixed with vinegar, it takes the sting out of napping in the sun, and on occasion, baptizes the innocent of their sins. It ices tea, percolates coffee, dilutes Kool-Aid, lemonade, gin and tonic, is swallowed, imbibed, sipped, slurped, swigged, gulped, chug-a-lugged, drunk, gurgled, gargled and sprayed.
It drips and drips until it takes on the hard stone of our lives.
No one asks what’s in it.
Somewhere in the fifties, along the high bluffs of the North Fork, a young couple, their daughter and infant son, drive a new Pontiac convertible down a gullied road unraveling against a glassy Sound. Under an unrelenting sun, backs bent, burlap bags slung over muscled black shoulders men and women fan across the fields, patting potatoes into long furrows.
A boy flies low in his crop duster. The girl waves and the boy waves back. He tips a wing and lets his payload drift gently down into her up-tilted face, open-mouthed smile. Neither knows the half-life of this innocent flirtation will last forever, that they will remember it in their DNA.
On the car radio, its radium dial glowing with post-war prosperity, Rosemary Clooney croons the evening breeze caressed the trees. A single raindrop hits the windshield, setting the future in motion.
Jax Peter Lowell is the author of two novels, one forthcoming. Her poems and stories have appeared or will soon appear in Poetry East, The Pinch, Bosque Press, Poetry Breakfast, The Examined Life, and Alimentum. In a parallel universe, she is the author of three bestselling books on living gluten free. A native New Yorker, child of North Fork summers, she lives and works in Philadelphia in (granddaddy of all ironies) a restored bread factory.