By Douglas W. Milliken with Cat Bates
A boy with a rowboat articulates his summer by ferrying tourists between two islands. From Monhegan’s sandy beach bound by towering cliffs to the high grassy knuckle of Manana. Sculling over blue-green waves, he makes a fast five bucks each trip. And too, it’s fun for him: What boy does not dream of captaining his own little ship at sea?
There is no uniformity to the tourists he ferries over. Some are solo, often men who grew up here on this toothy coast, whose lives have dictated they move somewhere far from home. Those are the quiet trips. There are families from distant cities, giddy and agog at the simple act of crossing above water in a paint-peeling wooden skiff. There are anxious young couples, eager to be alone on an unpeopled island. The boy takes them all.
One family in particular, the boy remembers. A mother and father and very young daughter. Dressed too nice to be locals. Their accent an absence of accent. The family’s plan is to take a leisurely walk through the high grassy dome of Manana while the boy waits for them by the slip, stretched out in the boat’s belly and reading a book on mice. Everyone agrees: This is a good plan. Through the crossing, the mother is quiet and also looks tired, as if their vacation contains some built-in strain. The daughter is two maybe and mews like a cat: the indistinct sounds of an animal contented. The father, meanwhile, is a babbling cartoon, narrating their brief passage through the harbor like it’s a sporting event, like a great moment in history. He shouts and gesticulates. He mistakes every buoy for a loon. For the boy, the crossing is the longest fifteen minutes of his life. For the mother, it likely feels longer.
What’s clear is this: Throughout his own childhood, the father spent his summers on Monhegan. Running kites along the high cliffs. Watching for seals in the harbor. They’ve become a kind of dream-like jewel, his memories of Monhegan summers. And now he can share that jewel with his wife, with his daughter. This is his first return to the islands as an adult. His excitement boils over, over boils.
The boy does his best to suffer the man’s exuberance in silence. It’s obnoxious, he thinks, to so blatantly be a tourist, a summer person, a visitor. He has not quite realized: His relationship to this place might very well someday be identical to the man’s.
From her pocket, the mother produces a hank of cloth, lightly dabs the sweat from her own and her daughter’s face. The boy can tell: This kerchief was once part of a dress. Her husband points at a seagull and coos.
To distract himself from the sound and gestures of the father’s unending monologue, the boy falls into meditating on the simple perfection of his old skiff’s groaning oarlocks. There’s the beauty of the object, sure, its gentle swoops almost like a horseshoe, both hard and masculine as a grappling fist yet elegant as the bell of a woman’s swinging hips. But there is also the pure utility of the thing: Every aspect of its design is to accomplish a task and accomplish it well. Its beauty a by-product of its specialization. No ornament needed. It is perfect.
It’s likely because of this adoring meditation that the boy loses one oarlock overboard. His attention is not on his task. Drawing the skiff alongside Manana’s slip—at low tide, just a long ramp bearded in sea-moss and long ribbons of kelp—the boy raises the oars to stow beneath the bench seats, hears the splash of the popped-free lock, and too late knows exactly what he’s lost.
An oarlock is designed to do one job well. Without it, that job is impossible.
The family, oblivious, clambers out onto the slip. The boy looks over the boat’s flaking lip into the water’s fluent blue. It’s only maybe three feet deep here. But he cannot see bottom. So he cannot see the lock.
The boy knows he has time before he’ll officially have stranded them out on Manana. While the family takes its long walk through the grass, he can dunk into the water, grasp at the sandy bottom, seek out what he has lost. But what if he cannot find the lock on his own? What if the family helps him? What if he asks them for help? The child, being a child, is both peripheral to and at the center of the problem—unable to assist, her presence raises the stakes—but what if the father finds the oarlock, redeeming his previous obnoxious behavior by becoming the hero of the day? What if it’s the mother, tired, harried, the first-time visitor proving her dominion over this place?
What if no one finds it?
The boy looks from the disguising water to the family on the slip, reveals—in his posture, in his eyes—his embarrassment and danger and need. Up the slip, the upward tide lips. The family validates him by looking back.
If each moment is discrete and unrepeatable—is, by accomplishing itself just the one way, only ever meant to be that one way—does that mean each moment is perfect? Its form indistinguishable from its function. Executing its one job well.
If your job is to find: What do you find?
Four people row to an island, each seeking one thing but arriving at something else.
“A Fluent Blue” originally appeared as part of a multimedia jewelry/textile/text collaboration with the artist Cat Bates, whose own childhood experiences on Monhegan and Manana were instrumental in the writing of this story. You can learn mor