The Starrs lived in the house local people called the Museum. Ernest Starr was a collector. He searched out rocks, seeds, minerals, animal skeletons. On his mantel there was a moose jaw and a rust-colored fox’s pelt. In his cabinet he kept a strange piece of rock that was always hot to the touch and another in which there was a hole caused by a four-inch piece of hail that Ernest himself had witnessed before the ice melted into a wash of greenish water there in his hands. He had specimens preserved in jars of salt and liked nothing more than to study the desiccated bodies of bats and birds. He was enthralled by the wonders of nature and took special delight in amassing information no one else had. Over the years he’d gathered a library of atlases, maps, and scientific books that were so rare, professors from Harvard College had come to view them.
The Starrs were an old family in town, with ancestors who were part of the founding expedition. Ernest had inherited the wheat fields beyond Band’s Meadow, as well as the leatherworks. He was a man in his forties, distracted, intelligent, the father of five. He employed several men to work at the farm and had only weeks earlier hired a new woman to come in to help with the laundry and meals. The housemaid lived among the ragtag settlement of horse traders from Virginia who had recently set up camp on the far side of the Eel River, but Ernest didn’t hold that against her. He was a fair and liberal man. The Starrs’ house was bustling, and Ernest had trained himself to read and study in the midst of extreme chaos. Doors slammed, children argued and laughed—none of that stopped him. When his wife, Rebecca, called everyone to lunch, he often ignored her. Rebecca would then have a tray brought to his study so he could go on working through meals. He was currently fascinated by moths and had been searching the mountains for elusive varieties. Set upon his desk there were glass bell jars and a small bottle of spirits that was used to stun the moths, which he could then pin and study.
On the day his daughter disappeared there was stew and molasses bread for lunch, with lemon sponge cake for dessert. He remembered that because he wrote it down in his dietary book, in which he recorded all of his meals. He thought such a diary might be of interest if he were ever diagnosed with an illness that might be related to diet. He worked all that morning in his study on the day of the storm, as the temperature outside dipped. It was the coldest June ever recorded, not just in the Commonwealth but all up and down the Atlantic Coast, as far west as Pennsylvania. There were no birds that year, for their eggs had frozen in their shells. Foxes and wolves had come down from the mountains, searching for food, drawing ever nearer to town. The eels in the river were sleepy because of the frigid water and were therefore easy to catch. Since many in town made their living from fashioning eelskin wallets and belts and shoes, and were employed at the Starrs’ leatherworks, there was a mob of fishermen down on the banks. People wore high boots and gloves as they rushed into the brackish water with their nets and hooks. It was a sea of eel flesh, the water roiling. Black thunderhead clouds were moving in from the west, a sign of worse weather to come.
No one realized Amy Starr was missing until it began to snow. Rebecca thought the drifting white drops fluttering into the yard were blossoms from the apple trees, then she remembered that the leaves on the fruit trees had been stunted from the spring drought. Apple blossoms had never formed. The little girl in question was six years old, a quiet, well-behaved child. She was the last to follow the birth of her brothers and sisters: Henry was ten; Olive, twelve; William, thirteen; and the eldest was sixteen-year-old Mary. By dinnertime the sky was black as coal. The falling snow was gaining muster, nearly six inches on the ground already when Amy’s absence became known. She didn’t show up at the table for dinner, even though she was usually the first to scramble onto her chair, her folded napkin neatly placed in her lap. No one could remember seeing her all day. Had she been at lunch? Had she been at play?
Rebecca rose from the table and looked through the rooms, growing increasingly worried. She called and called, but there was no reply. When she reached Ernest’s study, up on the third floor, her neck was flushed even though she was shivering. It had gotten progressively colder as she’d gone from room to room, and she took that as a bad sign. The hired woman, Sonia, had read her fortune that morning, using a pack of cards she kept tied up with a silk scarf. They had sat in the kitchen engrossed in the future while they were supposed to be paying attention to the preserved pears simmering in the kettle. Sonia had laid out her mistress’s fortune on the pine trestle table. One card was for love, another for luck. Sonia had put down a third card, then had quickly snatched it up again. “That one’s a mistake,” she said. But Rebecca had seen it. The card was death.