Ghost 47

Past Echo Park Campgrounds, past Drug-Free
School Zones and the El Dorado Motel, past
Science Plastics: Injection and Blow Mouldings---
Jake's Landing Road, off US 47, is not promising
at first. Just widened shoulders bulldozed
through scrub left to rot to the side, plus
a crabseller working out of a rusting Airstream trailer
and Martha in her Dried Herbs and Victoriana stand.
"Indian Artifacts, Old Bottles, and Collectibles,"
a sign says. Martha waves and seeing someone walking
points to another sign: "Welcome Birders."
Her place is spanking new and ready for summer,
with cedar shingles, rose trellises, and a door wreath
made of colored twigs and a bow. The road-widening gives out
100 yards farther, where the piney woods begin---
what sort of instructions were those dozers
following, anyway?---leaving authentic potholes
and, suddenly, silence.

Light sifts down
among the needles; the sweet smell of warm sap
slaps you broadside as summer. Now you can hear
distant chuggings and trills---can't tell whether
they're boats or birds, probably both---
plus the drone of trucks on 47 at your back.
More signs: "This is a State Forest New Jersey
Department of Environmental Protection
Public Use of This Forest is Subject to the
Following Regulations," including 13:1-26(2):
"Boisterousness or Other Objectionable Conduct
Will Not Be Permitted. Games are Restricted
to Those Areas So Designated by the Forest Superintendant."
Look: these pines are planted in rows and sprinkled about
are the sawed-off ghosts of a harvested forest,
now white as chalk.

A little farther ahead Jersey salt marsh
begins; its great open spaces flicker through
the forest shade. But first a surprise: a tiny graveyard
just off the road, its borders marked by logs.
Two gravestones tall and emaciated in the old style,
topped by a skull-smooth curve at the center and,
on either side, what looks like two bony shoulders
raised in shrugging. "In Memory Zenobia Ludlam,
Wife of Thomas Ludlam, Departed this Life
February 16 1824 Aged 62 years 4 months and
6 days." The letters are swollen and blurry,
easier to read if traced like braille. At the parents' feet,
three headstones for children, so small there's room
only for initials. Catkins cluster among new buds
in a bush to one side, puffing clouds of pollen
when poked---golddust poured into pores
of the fingertips. And now comes the smell of the sea,
equal parts salt, rot, and light.

Walking out
into the open, the road laid down on sand fill
straight as a rule, salt-marsh at low tide
opening out and away---the wind's picked up, and cirrus
fills the sky. A step off the road toward the marsh
makes the mudbanks quick with movement, watery
skitterings of whatever-they-are’s. And here's
a Witness Post: Do Not Disturb Survey Marker
USGS. The pines are in retreat, the marsh
advancing; skeletal spindles, now branchless,
stand at attention, rustling saltgrass at their feet.
Ahead the road widens to a parking lot and Jake's
boat slip. It's quiet today, just a county Mosquito
Commission truck and its empty boat trailer
(is he working, or fishing on duty?).
At the slip's edge a small river winds
through the marsh, current quick enough
to make you hold your breath, carrying nothing
but light, the end of the road, the sun's
diamantines dancing on the riptide.
Where does Jersey end and ocean begin?
This slip slips a boundary, slip-sliding away.
Four Air Force transport planes pass high to the west,
heading out on a night mission over the Atlantic.
Down at your feet wood shavings are scattered in the sand---
someone was whittling while waiting for a boat.
An ant marches with one of them locked in his
mandible, the shaving curling above his thorax
like a plume or a banner. What will he do
with such a thing?

Let your breath out smoothly.
Head on home again, home again, and carry
what you can.

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