Horace Kelly fished for rainbow trout and salmon that were often seventeen inches long, as much as three pounds, but he was mostly known as one of the best eel-men in the county. It was said that in his lifetime he’d caught over a million eels, setting off at twilight, wrestling his catch into burlap bags since eels often clung to a man’s arm in a battle of muscle and slime. Because of Kelly there were far fewer eels in the river than there’d been in the old days, back when the spring thaw meant thousands of them roiling in the water, turning the river black.
The fisherman’s wife went door-to-door selling fish that was smoked in a stone oven. She wore a smock over her dress, a black scarf, laced-up boots. She nodded when asked a question, or shrugged if the answer was unknown. She had the price for fish written down on little cards, but if a customer didn’t have enough money, she took what they had and made do. On smoke-days the scent of fish lingered over town. There were wisps of dove-colored clouds rising up from the oven, and occasionally a rain of black scales drifted across the yards. Because people’s savings had been lost in the bank run and cash was short, they soon began to trade whatever they had in exchange for fish—a basket of apples, fresh strawberries, a clutch of brown eggs from the henhouse. When times grew even worse, they offered whatever treasures they had: silver teaspoons, a turquoise brooch, even a leather-bound copy of Great Expectations, which Horace Kelly threw into the smokehouse fire as kindling.
A year went by and circumstances worsened. There was a flurry of crime. Clothes were stolen off washing lines. Gardens were raided. Someone broke into the shuttered Blackwell History Museum and pilfered whatever they thought could be sold for quick cash. The Jack Straw Tavern, closed during Prohibition, reopened, but some passing tramps set a fire and there was serious damage. People began to feel that anything might happen. The futures they had expected had been rewritten by some greater hand, and no one had the slightest idea of what fate might bring next.
The stories about the fisherman and his wife grew stranger. In June, two young women saw the fisherman’s wife crouched down at the riverbank. When they looked more closely, they noticed she was feeding bread to an eel that ate from her hand like one of the collie dogs in town. The eel, the women reported, was unusually large. The fisherman’s wife had laughed as she fed him, which disproved some people’s theory that she was a deaf-mute. She had rested her hand on the eel’s back, in a motion so intimate it startled both young women, who glanced away.
Soon afterward some boys in town, forced to fish on a regular basis to put food on their families’ tables, spied the fisherman’s wife in another strange situation, waist-deep in the river. At first they thought she was a log, or, in the case of the banker’s son, Calen Jacob, who was fanciful and bookish, a mermaid. The fisherman’s wife bolted when she realized the boys were there, swimming like a fish herself, head underwater, long black hair tumbling down her naked back. Several of the boys had dreams about her after that, and a few dreamt about her their whole lives long, returning to that moment at the river even when they were old men who hadn’t caught a fish in decades. After that, the fisherman’s wife was often sighted at the river late at night, wading in the water. People went to look for her the way they’d scan the sky when there was the promise of shooting stars. On more than one occasion she’d been caught talking to the eels the way another woman might speak to a child or a pet.
By August there were travelers on the roads all through the Berkshires—honest men searching for work, thieves looking for a window that had been left open, mothers with children to feed—many of whom had already lost their faith. A group set up a camp in Band’s Meadow. Shacks were thrown together with planks and old nails collected from the railroad tracks. Bonfires burned through the night. Mrs. Jacob at the church went around collecting what little food there was for the needy. When she called on the cabin by the river, the fisherman’s wife contributed more than anyone else. Whole smoked fish. Shad that were filleted and ready to cook. The fisherman’s wife didn’t speak as she packed the fish into a basket. Instead, she held a finger to her lips to make her message clear: the fisherman was not to know there had been a donation.
Most people did what they could for the lost and forgotten. Women gathered in the evening to sew and knit clothes for the dozens of children who were suddenly members of the community. The church pews were full on Sundays, perhaps because the pastor gave out apples and bread at the end of every sermon. He vowed that faith in the future would see the town through, although some people wondered if the country could withstand such strife, let alone their little village. From a distance, Blackwell looked the same, but the closer a person came, the more changes he noticed. Fences were falling down. Men sat on chairs outside the meetinghouse, idle, with no ready work available. Collie dogs clustered in the shade. Before long the collies began to hunt rabbits in a pack, and on at least one occasion they were so hungry these gentle shepherds took down a small deer near the pond. They came home to their owners with blood on their muzzles and coats.