Emily Millikan works in private health care and nonprofit administration. Originally from Indiana, she now lives north of Boston. She finds her writing community in Image Journal's Glen Workshops.
The sky is twice as big today for the clouds, as big as two skies, too much sky to count. And the land is a heavy festival of green. At Back Beach the ocean smells like a lake, and at Front Beach what breezes come from the water are laden with sunscreen before they reach the sidewalk. I see a woman dancing by the water, her ears plugged and wires attached to a black box at her waist. She dances slow and thoughtful, a pointed toe, an outstretched arm along the line of sand, beckoning into some middle place between land and sky. From a distance, with her soft green shirt and black capris and the thick dark braid down her back, she looks like my cousin Carmen who lives deep in the mountains of California.
It is damp and warm enough that not long after I reach town I shed my jacket and then my hoodie and push my sleeves up. Two Crystal Transport buses are parked at the triangle intersection in downtown Rockport, filling up half the road from Ray Moore’s Fish Shack nearly to the Village Silversmith. Older couples hold hands and glance at me and smile and hi softly as we pass. The footpath to the headlands, paved but lumpy, narrow as a boy’s hips, is littered with tree-confetti, and the weeds that look like thin green wheat bob their heads over into the path, brushing my knees. When I step out onto the rocks the whole of the promontory is empty, no teenagers’ chatter wafting up from the Teeth, only, a moment later, the murmer of three quiet tourists in black with big quiet black cameras. They come from behind me and I hear them before I see them. We ignore each other. I stay on the side opposite Rockport, looking out over the water and the few houses on the shoreline to the south. For a few minutes my mind is drenched with what keeps me up at night, and these things blind me from behind my eyeballs. Just before I leave I remember to be present with the sky and the water, to see them. Both remain when I walk away and pick over the rocks toward the dark opening in the woods. Whenever I walk on the headlands I think of no particular path, instead let my feet decide which small rocks will form a path to and from the view, let my eyes decide when my feet should stop moving and stand me to look.
On the way back the birds swoop low to the rocks below me at Back Beach, mostly underwater now at high tide. It still smells like lake, the musty scent of swan droppings and duck droppings and rotting boards. It’s the smell of the lake next door to my late grandparents' house in Indiana. Both the front lake and the back lake there belong to their neighbors, Betty and the late Jack (Back ‘n’ Jetty, my dad calls them). My mother swam in both when she was young, but we only swam in the back.
I was with my ex-boyfriend the last time I walked back to the lake. We were looking for someplace to be alone: kissing was one of the few pleasures left, since every time we talked we’d argue, or if we weren’t arguing we were talking with a strained politeness that made conversation neither intimate nor interesting. But it was a poor use for that property; if you were looking for somewhere to sit in peace it offered little. The swans were nesting that time of year and chased us away from every bench before ten minutes had passed.
No, swimming was the proper use for Back and Jetty’s lake-at-the-back. My sister and brother and cousin and I would fly there from our grandparents' porch, cold in wet bathing suits, through the gap in the pine trees like a wide green door between our grandparents' land and theirs, pounding up the brick path in bare feet, slowing down at the A-frame lake house with its roof pointed like an arrowhead. We'd slow down rounding the house and look out at the roofed lake-gazebo, then the big pipes that surrounded the diving board, padding warily through the stubbly grass because the swans, we all knew, could kill you. Then we’d follow a waist-high brick wall until it gapped, step through to sand, and tiptoe over the green swan-droppings to find a clean place on the wall for our towels. The water was warm and murky, deep brown-green with lake slime and seaweed and swan waste. Slippery on the bottom, depending. You could pee in that lake a foot from shore and no one would know the difference.
The swans eyed us from across the water, sometimes swinging over in a loop for drive-by surveillance just close enough to scare us onto the shore, but not close enough to keep us there.
We’d get ourselves wet and then take turns on the rope swing, which was the cosmic center and purpose of the lake’s existence. The rope swing hung from a high wooden pole, how high in feet I don’t know but high enough that the top seemed immeasurably far, a skyscraper. We only ever touched as high as the top knot. The bottom knot was tied just above the enormous frayed end, and the knots continued up the rope, a forearm’s length between each, up to the topmost knots which were spaced closer together as the danger of using them increased.
For we did not swing on the rope from shore, no sirree. The rope swing was partnered eternally with high metal stairs climbing up to air, the first step anchored in the sand.
The great wooden pole looked like a fishing line, rooted in the bushes at the side of the beach and angling out over the water. The rope hung straight, just within reach if one stood at the toes’ edge of the swan-dirtied sand and snagged it with a little finger, pulled it up and back with a little slack in the line to the first step… the second step… the third step…
I'd work my way up, swinging out first from the fifth or sixth step so that jumping off into the water was more a matter of wading. But finally I’d reach the top step and the top knot, and then the very top platform of the stairs with just hot Indiana wind behind me and the heavy rope tugging in front. I’d let go of the rope on the way back to shore; I was never much of a swimmer and didn’t like falling from such a height, out over the water where it began to get deep. But I’d go to the top of the steps. We called the steps “the ladder,” though it was supported at the back; and the point of swinging from the top of the ladder, anyway, was not jumping into the lake. Not for me. For me it was the swing out through nothing, the view from on high.
When we were tired of swimming, our hands raw and red, we’d dry off and then go jump on the big trampoline in the clearing. My mother had told us more than once about her cousin who had broken her arm jumping on that very same trampoline: what limb I’ve forgotten, but a terrific and memorable break. The apex of each jump where anything might go wrong was filled with a kind of holy and delightful terror. Sometimes it overcame me, and I stopped jumping to watch.
I was always more of an indoor-reader in the summer than an outdoor-swimmer, and I put on my wet bathing suit with reluctance. When I got older I stopped putting on my bathing suit at all, and I’d walk with my mother and aunts to look at Jack and Betty’s sculpted gardens. Their backyard was used for weddings or receptions; couples took pictures in the gazebo or out at the tiny waterfall behind the lake. Many of our family pictures were taken there. As we walked we’d bend to smell each new bed or pot of flowers, or the ones flourishing the brightest, or with the strongest smells.
Here too I smell those same flowers: petals white, I imagine, though both here and at Jack and Betty’s the flowers were of all colors. But they smell white, a heavy white as if magnolias were the sum of all blossom. All green moist things make light in themselves under the woods, and the air is like a mild green tea, soft.
After work tonight the hill outside my house smells like the Smoky Mountains, or maybe all the woods I have ever known. These places are transposed so easily. The place I live becomes a foreign land bordered by the countries I remember, the countries my senses understand, the landscapes where I am awake. This is new country and I am often asleep in it, so that it remains foreign yet a while.