Coatue Conch

My pulse still quickens when I think about approaching a remote island or shore I’ve never set foot on before.  Long ago my friend Chris and I would take his dad’s boat across Common Flats to Monomoy, a bone of dunes and beaches stretching between Nantucket Sound and the Atlantic. We’d drop the anchor and swim ashore and cross the swales and mount a hillock, pausing to absorb the immensity of the ocean opening before us.  In those days, the wreck of the Pendleton angled out of the water toward the southern end of the island as if it had been thrown from the sky. The island also featured an abandoned lighthouse and a pervading sense of loneliness and spookiness. Then we’d head to the beach to body surf in the combers.  The closest I’ve come to re-experiencing that feeling lately was when we were on Nantucket two years ago and my son, wife, and I rented a Bristol skiff to cruise out to the Head of the Harbor. (Our daughter had chosen to shop in town instead.) The day was brilliantly sunny and hot and breezy. We buzzed to the shallows off Coatue, a briar-thin peninsula, its inner edge serrated with sandy points. We dropped the anchor between Five Fingered Point and Bass Point to take a swim. Only the roof peak of one weathered cottage appeared in the scrub down the beach. The dune grass waved in the wind. My wife and son choosing to stay aboard the skiff, I waded toward shore, the sand soft underfoot, the water warm and sparkling around my calves. Crisscrosses of squiggly sunlight played through the clear water. I spotted a conch shell on the shore. When I picked it up, the conch meat was still inside it, though a gull or another seabird had been working it loose and it slid out of the shell to plop into the water. At least it saved me the trouble of prying it out.  Standing on the shore in the ankle-deep water, the sun hot on my salt-stained back, my swimming trunks soaked but not cold, I got that pull to explore what was beyond the beach and the small grass-fringed bluff. Was a view of the neck of land and Nantucket Sound just a few steps away? Would I see an abandoned fort or the wreck of a pirate ship? What was waiting for me beyond?  Now the shell sits beside me on my table. At first its pungent, salty-and-sweet scent, emanating from its pinkish-orange cochlea, remained for weeks. As the scent thinned over time, I’d put the shell to my nose, and inhaling I would return to the ankle-deep water, the whisper of the wavelets, the magnetic effect of the unknown.

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