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Holly Michelsen



It’s August. The sky hangs over the lake. There is no wind. The evergreens stand at every point along the lake’s shoreline. The surface is wrinkled like the back of an old woman’s papery hand; the color, like the iridescent neck of a pigeon. The clouds look like white jellybeans melting in the blue flame of the sky. The air shimmers. The lake and the sky and the trees and the air and I could all be described as expressionless.

I have to remind myself to look out across the lake rather than stare at my feet on the metal dock. I have to remind myself to look at the lake because I am afraid I will stop remembering it as soon as I leave it. It’s happened many times before—my memory is fickle in that way; I get this from my father—so I take great care to remember now.

My father swishes backward into the lakewater with an audible chill. The expanse of it all makes him appear far away, although he is right in front of me. The evergreens seem to grow taller.

He says that the water tastes the same as it did when he swam here forty years ago. This makes me feel dreadful. I smile.

I’m afraid I will know how he feels—if in forty years I’ll have memories forced upon me like water forced up my nose after jumping into the same lake. Real memories, not just a recitation of facts, not just an amalgam of other family member’s recollections that I’ve poorly stitched together and placed myself in the center of, not just an empty nodding of my head plastered with a phony thoughtful gaze so that the conversation can continue and I can hear more about these memories that are supposed to be mine.

I pick my eyes up from the dock and look out across the lake again.

If the lake were a room it would be caked with dust, musty as all hell, stacked to the ceiling with things that people left here for good keeping but have now rusted and lay unremembered. It would be filled with things that were loved and left there out of love—but abandoned, still—so that new people could find them and love them anew. If you walked into this room you would not feel sad.

A quick sound of splashing water resurfaces me. My father points to an eagle in the sky returning to its nest to feed its hatchlings. “Look,” he says. We watch together. I remind myself to remember this.

All that can be heard is the sound of thousands of insects chittering as one. I know—without knowing—that this is exactly how it sounded when my father was a child here and that it will be exactly how it sounds when I am gone. When I listen for too long I feel like I will be swallowed whole by guilt that I can hardly explain. I see my father swimming in this lake and I am seeing time crushed onto itself like a tin can.

This is real memory—a full-bodied possession of the senses, nostalgia gone sour as soon as it lands on the tongue. It’s one thing to be able to recall the lake, but it’s another thing entirely to taste the water and become rigid with the knowledge of forty years passed.

The eagle leaves its nest once more and once more we watch it fly. I make special note of this so that I may experience the full weight of this gut-punch memory when the time comes.

The sky hangs over the lake. The water looks like a mirror but it’s too murky to reflect my face. He says that the water tastes the same as it did when he swam here forty years ago and I don’t know how he can stand it.

I sat on my heels in the sand with my sister making sand-pies and sand-meatballs. We were young and hidden around a corner from Grandma’s beach house. My mother kneeled with us in the sand to look at our pseudoedible creations and we invited her into our world. We wanted to be praised and she praised us. This was when my mother felt most like my mother. The sun was setting over the ocean, and the sand and she and my sister and I were softly glowing; around this corner, we were three haloed angels. The waves lapped upon the shore in front of us, our backs were to the barnacled wave breaker, and we were pressed tightly together between the sand and the setting sky; these were four walls. Then, there was the sound of splitting wood and a chilling bellow. I remember my mother telling my sister and I to stay there in the instant before she was running through the sand and disappearing around the corner. We were young and hidden and scared, so we stayed for a while before we slowly got up and abandoned our sand pies and sand meatballs to make our way to the beach house deck; twilight, with the tide way out and our feet cold in the damp sand.

Holly Michelsen is a psychology & English double major in her last semester at SUNY Geneseo, where her love of poetry and creative nonfiction has grown immensely. She pulls inspiration from writers such as Alice Fulton, Annie Dillard, Bob Dylan, & anyone who manages to string words together with enviable competency.

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