In the morning, he couldn’t eat the breakfast Ruth prepared for him. It was the date he was meant to leave and travel to the other Berkshire towns, but instead he sat on the porch steps thinking all day. He felt maddened by the crickets calling, by the faint watery air. He told himself he should go home where he belonged, get himself to Albany or Amherst and take the first train. At twilight he went back down to the river. There was the fisherman, Horace Kelly, filleting trout and tossing the fish into the smoker.
“Are you looking for something?” Horace said when he saw Ben Levy in his good shoes with his shirt buttoned to the collar and a set look on his face. “I think you made a wrong turn at Wall Street.”
“I came to talk to you about Susan.” Ben hadn’t planned to talk about her at all, but there it was. He’d said her name.
“Susan?” Horace Kelly said. “So she told you her name. Well, she’s right there.”
Ben looked around. There was no one.
“Right over there.” The fisherman pointed to a rope stretched from tree to tree. On it hung a burlap bag that twisted back and forth as if caught in the wind. But there was no wind. It was a still evening.
“Go on,” the fisherman urged with a laugh. “Tell her you want her to run off with you. That’s what you came here to say, right?”
“I don’t think this is funny,” Ben Levy stated.
“No,” Horace said. “You wouldn’t.”
Ben noticed Susan’s black coat and boots in a heap near the smoker. He looked at the fisherman, who’d gone back to filleting his catch. Ben went over to the burlap bag. He took it down and opened it. Inside was a black eel struggling to get out. Ben shut the bag.
“That’s her,” the fisherman said. “Still want her?”
Ben went to sit in a chair by the smoker.
“I caught her one night and I kept her,” Horace said.
Ben understood that he was sitting with a lunatic. He wondered if it was the fisherman and not his wife who’d been incarcerated up in Brattleboro.
“She was so beautiful I couldn’t throw her back,” the fisherman went on. “Even though she’s asked me to again and again. She says she has a husband, and that he’s waiting for her, and that she can only be true to him. I’ve caught thousands of eels, but I can’t catch him. I try every night because I know he’s right around here, trying to get her back. I’ve seen them talking. I’ve seen them do more than talk.”
Ben Levy had a fleeting thought of Jerome Avenue, and the one kind of tree that grew there. He thought about his mother sleeping on the couch, and his brother’s funeral, and the night he stopped writing his novel, and the drinks he’d had on the train up to Albany. He felt sick at heart.
“As for me, I’ve had enough of her,” the fisherman said. “I was thinking of cooking her. Throwing her into the smoker. But now you’ve come along. What would you give me in exchange for Susan?”
Ben Levy laughed despite the madness of the evening. “I have nothing, sir.”
“I doubt that,” the fisherman said, looking him over. “I’ll take your shoes.”
“My shoes for Susan?”
The fisherman nodded. Ben Levy slipped off his shoes. The fisherman got up, retrieved the burlap bag, and tossed it at Ben’s feet. Ben took it and made his way through the woods. He half imagined that the fisherman might shoot him in the back, or perhaps Susan had been hiding in the shack and would come running after him, but the woods were silent. He walked on, barefoot. The mud was cold, and the dark was sifting through the trees. When he got to the clearing where they’d met before, Ben went down to the water. New York City seemed like a dream, and this, the dark river and the burlap bag in his hands that he lifted into the water, was all so real. He opened the bag. At first nothing happened, then the eel swam out in a dark flash. It was a large eel, much larger than most, and there was another like it waiting in the shallows. Ben Levy watched them and then he walked on, back to Ruth Carson’s.
Ruth got him a pair of boots from the used clothing box at the church. Ben waited for seven days thinking Susan might return to him. He had Calen Jacob and the other boys in town search for her in all the secret hiding places they knew around the river, but they found nothing. He asked the pastor to send out a search party; he even had the sheriff called in from the next township, but in the end everyone agreed. The fisherman’s wife must have left the old man, hardly a surprise to anyone in Blackwell. She’d been young and beautiful. A man like Horace Kelly would never have been able to hold on to her for long.