“For instance, a raspberry pie after supper,” Ruth said.
Ben grinned. “Something like that.”
“I suppose you’ll want to talk to her as well.” Ben gave the old woman a look, not quite following. “The fisherman’s wife,” Ruth Carson said.
“I don’t know. I’ve still got quite a few on my list. There’s the fellow who runs the apple orchard that you told me about. There are the Partridge sisters. Then I have to travel to three other towns, and make my way over to Hadley to interview the pastor there before I pick up the train in Amherst and head back to New York, if I can get the train fare together.”
“You said you wanted a character,” Ruth Carson said. “Well, this woman is a mystery. No one knows where she came from or why she’s with that old man, Horace Kelly. If you find that out, maybe you’ll win your bet.”
Ben had told Ruth about the Plaza Hotel, and the other folklorists, and even about the half a novel in his knapsack. He talked more out here in Massachusetts than he ever had in New York. That evening he almost told her about his brother, but since he’d never been able to get past that particular story and didn’t know what he’d find on the other side if he ever did tell it, he held his tongue and ate raspberry pie instead. Another recipe for him to write down, one he might actually try someday, if he ever found blackcap raspberries while walking in the woods.
HE WENT DOWN to the river early Sunday morning with a lunch Ruth packed him just in case his wanderings lasted till nightfall. It was the end of August and the river was low, the green water murky and slow. When Ben spied the shack on the riverbank, he stopped in order to describe it in his notebook. The ground was boggy, so he took off his shoes and socks, slipped them into his rucksack, then rolled up his pants legs. Ben had never walked barefoot through mud before and he thoroughly enjoyed it. His feet were black in no time. There was a gray cloud spiraling up from the smokehouse, but all was quiet. He peered in the window of the shack—there was a bed, a woodstove, a rough-hewn table and chairs, along with some clothes hung up on a hook, and a braided rug on the floor.
After jotting down these details, Ben walked along the river for a while. He noticed a trail, not footsteps exactly, but some broken brush, so he followed along. He came to a spot that looked much like the bend in the river Miss Gale had described, where her pet lynx had been attacked. He put down his rucksack. Because he was alone, he took off his shirt and pants and folded them. Then he made his way down the bank, which was thick with ferns. He’d never gone swimming, but now he stepped into the water, wanting to experience the river. The shock of how cold it was surprised him and made him shout. He was glad none of the fellows he knew in New York City could see him, startled by a little cold water, standing in his underwear, his skin pale, his bare legs muddy. He went in a little farther. There were birds singing, but of course Ben Levy had no idea that they were meadowlarks. He didn’t know that the swirls of insects were blackflies or that the tiny mouselike creature running near the riverbank was a pygmy shrew, so light it could race across the water.
He heard a woman laugh, then turned to see the fisherman’s wife crouched down in her black coat, wearing her heavy mud-caked boots, her long black hair wound up. He was already knee-deep in the river, just about naked, looking only the more foolish for what little clothing he wore.
“I must look like an idiot,” he said, mortified.
She nodded, laughed again, said, “Yes.” She rose and walked toward him. “Careful. The mud there is deep.”
Ben Levy realized he was indeed stuck, as if he’d landed in quicksand. When he tried to move, he just sank in deeper. He let out a string of curses, and his pale skin turned red with embarrassment. The woman laughed again, then came to the edge of the water and reached out a hand. Ben gazed at her, puzzled. After all he’d heard, he had a moment of doubt.
“I won’t bite,” she said.
Ben Levy was surprised by how strong she was as she pulled him out, up toward the safety of the riverbank. He was slick with mud, a laughable fool, but she didn’t laugh again. He saw then how beautiful she was and how Calen Jacob might have mistaken her for a mythological creature when he’d spied her swimming in the river. Then and there Ben found himself envying Calen for what he’d seen.
“I think I’ve been looking for you,” he said.
“You shouldn’t be. I’m a married woman.” The fisherman’s wife smiled, but only a little.
“I’m a writer,” Ben told her. “I’m collecting folklore and oral histories.”