Watch Hill, Fire Island

— Shelley Wong

We drift over the dunes to the swales,
forest & salt marsh, reaching the bay
in less than a mile. Along a jagged pine path,
I walk with Ranger Kelsey, who loves
the sassafras tree for its soft leaves
of one, two & three lobes like paw prints
or a child’s looped sketch. The tide breaks
in a slow echo as they explain
how salt prunes the treetops. I ask about
the thin, curved trees leaning at various
angles around us, which I privately name
the queer trees for their arcs & intertwining.
They have three names: Juneberry for timing,
the shad tree for blooming when the fish
are biting & service berry for emerging when
all the ice has melted back into the earth
so we can dig & bury our dead.
Kelsey distinguishes non-native plants
from invasive species, as some are
from elsewhere, but aren’t overgrowing.
Two white-tailed does sip fresh water
at the pond. There are too many deer
on the island as they have no natural
predators & tourists keep feeding them.
The does eye us & turn back into the tall grass.
Did you see all the ticks on their faces?
they ask & I flinch. We see the grass shift
& laugh at their languorous retreat.
A sour smell rises & Kelsey spots
a crushed deer carcass. I don’t say
how yesterday I came across a fawn
near the body. Its child, I imagined.
Kelsey tells tourists about wild blueberries
before & after they ripen—their own
private sweetness. They say dirty water
is healthy water & that the woodpecker
is careful to leave gaps between holes
to keep a tree alive. While we sleep,
horseshoe crabs emerge along the shore,
older than dinosaurs. Another tide cuts through:
after a hurricane, one island breach remains
for the ocean to renew the bay.

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