“I wasn’t thinking about my best interest,” I said quietly.
Billy went away, but I stayed until dark. I didn’t want to have dinner with the family or speak to anyone, although that night Hannah slipped into my bed the way she used to when she was younger. We were a bit closer, but we were very different. I didn’t tell her to leave, but I turned to the wall. I spent more time at the library. I had decided I wanted to further my schooling, perhaps attend Smith College, and Hannah now came to the library with me. There was another baby in the house, and the Kellys seemed to have taken over. It was noisy and hectic even for Hannah. For me, it was like being in a madhouse where I was being driven out of my mind by all the diapers and dinners and laundry and people who meant something to each other but nothing to me.
When you read, the time flies by, and before I knew it I was fifteen, then sixteen, nearly a woman. I was tall, and I kept my hair cut short. People said I looked like Sara, but they were mistaken. Sara had been beautiful. All I had was the name she had given me, and Topsy. He was more than twenty by then, ancient. He had difficulty getting up but he still waited for me every day at four, still walked me back to the edge of the cemetery when I left. He never once set foot outside the gate. Never ventured onto the road. Sometimes the weather prevented me from bringing him his supper. During one bad storm I couldn’t get there for several days when the snowdrifts rose higher than our windows and doors. I was certain he’d be gone because of the circumstances, starved or buried alive. But when I finally managed to get out to the cemetery, Topsy was waiting. He’d found a den of sorts in an oak tree and had managed to make it through. He let me pet him now and then, and when I spoke, he turned his head in my direction, though I could tell he couldn’t see.
The burial crew found him at Sara’s grave one day that summer. Without bothering to ask permission from the town council, they buried him there, beside my sister. Everything was green. For me, this was the most beautiful time of the year in Berkshire County, before the leaves all turned color and dropped away. They say that dogs may dream, and when Topsy was old, his feet would move in his sleep. With his eyes closed he would often make a noise that sounded quite human, as if greeting someone in his dreams. At first it seemed that he believed Sara would return, but as the years went by I understood that his loyalty asked for no reward, and that love comes in unexpected forms. His wish was small, as hers had been—merely to be beside her. As for me, I already knew I would never get what I wanted.
THE FISHERMAN’S WIFE
THE FISHERMAN’S WIFE ARRIVED IN THE spring. She lived in a one-room house in a clearing beside the Eel River. One week the fisherman was gone, and the next he was back with his young beautiful wife, whose black hair was so long she would have stepped on it if she hadn’t arranged it atop her head with pins. She didn’t speak to anyone in town, or even raise her eyes if someone greeted her. No one knew her name or where she’d come from. In those days, no one asked.
Times were hard, and distractions weren’t easy to come by. Perhaps that was why the gossip began. A story can still entrance people even while the world is falling apart. The bank had closed down, and the banker’s family had been forced to move into a cottage behind the church; they kept up the grounds in exchange for shelter and food. The leather factory was abandoned, as were many of the mills along the river. In cities everywhere people were starving. In New York, hundreds of shacks had been set up in Central Park. In Albany, riots broke out when people grew hungry. The citizens of Blackwell, Massachusetts, were luckier than most. Many had their own gardens. They stitched their own clothes, owned their properties outright. Still, the disaster of the stock market crash had sifted down from the mighty to the everyday man. Everyone had been damaged: a bank account frozen or emptied, an order for apples canceled, a roof falling down, a son or daughter unable to finish school. Every day people could hear the low whistle of trains that passed through with carloads of orphans sent out west. The trains didn’t stop at Blackwell—only in Amherst and Albany—but stray individuals occasionally leapt from passenger cars when they spied a place where they imagined they might find welcome, even if it was only a stretch of woods or a meadow where they could set up camp. Soon there were so many outsiders that a resident of Blackwell no longer knew everyone for miles around. The pastor began to advise that people use caution when coming upon strangers. He suggested they lock their doors.
That was when people began to amuse themselves with tales of the fisherman and his wife. They did so over coffee and when coffee became too dear, over liberty tea, a cheap brew made of loosestrife. The fisherman’s wife wasn’t much more than twenty—on that everyone agreed—while the fisherman, Horace Kelly, was seventy at least, a man so cantankerous he’d fallen out with his own family and kept to himself. People speculated that the young woman had been desperate, somehow provoked into marrying the old man. Perhaps she’d been a servant or a motherless child. Perhaps Horace had rescued or kidnapped her. According to the most optimistic among them, the fisherman had saved her from some dreadful economic plight—her father had jumped from a ledge in New York City, as so many had done, or she’d come from the Midwest, where farms were failing daily. The doomsayers said it wouldn’t last.