My childhood was spent in a cape house on Goose Creek in Southold. I lived under the barnacle-covered dock, in the trees, on the sandbars, and in a boat cabin. I was a sailor, a pirate, and an explorer. My imagination was my reality, where time did not exist – it was home. The neighborhood children would roam the quiet side streets, barefoot and wild, picking stones from their toes and walking across each other’s yards. Sometimes we would converge for nighttime games, other nights were spent in solitude in a confessional with nature. Our bodies smelled of salt and fire as our memories struggled to hold on in between the cracks of our skin. We showered outside under the oak trees and dried in the sun, laid out in our bathing suits, only to return to the creek hours later.
One day, I left my creek, my home, salt clinging to my neck as I closed the gate doors one last time. Chipped white paint and rusted hinges, caressed year after year by salted air, clung to the sleeve of my shirt saying, “Don’t go yet.” I shut the flood lights and stared over the dock and saw myself on the water’s edge. I saw my mother, her spirit left behind to guard the kingdom. I wanted to mourn, but instead felt myself smile. I felt warm. Decades under that same summer sky, endless memories, yet in that moment, I recalled my first.
I was two years old, with knotted gypsy hair and doe eyes that were guarded by long eyelashes and the nape of my mother’s neck. My skin was coated in salt and oils from the Mother creek and my mother’s hands. The first smell I ever remembered was coconut. My brother played as I sat in the grass of an infinite lawn. Cool green blades dusted me off while the sun left marks on my face. My eyes grew heavy. I crawled to my mother who lay in a chair, palms to the sun. Her legs were thin and long and rough, and smelled of coconuts. I wedged myself between her legs and rested my head on the belly that once held me, and sleep took me.
We were salty children. We were raised at the shore, feet soaked in brine; our mother taught us to trust the minnows that cleaned our toes while we squirmed and giggled. We built empires of sand and dried reeds that housed defiant crabs. We were the crabs. The water’s edge was our kingdom.
The creek was the cure-all. If we were cut, bruised, or sad, Nana would send us “into the drink” to marinade and heal. “It’s good for you,” she’d happily insist, although she never joined us. We would disappear under the dark water and come back up like bufflehead ducks while she watched from land. Loons would perch on dock pilings around us, contrasted black against the summer sun, water-soaked wings outstretched in patience. I saw Nana once dip into the creek, old and regal, as she appeared to wash the years off her soul, only to come back old and regal – and pure. She became sick, and the creek called, but she never did go back in. We missed her on the summer days to follow, when the sun faded and the humidity broke as if God himself took the cover off us. We sat on the shore, examined our scarred feet that lay infinitely beyond us, leathery from the sun; the sand seemed to grow over our bodies and made our skin our own homes.
At night we rested on the dock and watched the moon jellies glide underneath the water’s surface like Hades’ souls, aimless and uncontrolled. The delicate blue lights of the jellyfish mirrored the stars that hung above us, closer than usual over our creek. They illuminated our eyes, and we lay still on the dock as to not wake up Time. He sat behind the treeline for us, and he always came back around with a torch and baked the salt into our shoulders, left his mark on our faces and put knots in our hair.