Janet was ten when our town turned to poultry. Layers and broilers at first, but there was no profit in eggs and soon it was all just pluck and slaughter. She stood alongside line workers, barefoot in buckets of warm water to keep frostbite away. Infections festered in their hands, tendonitis set in from the repetitive evisceration of limp lumps of bird. She says she forgot ours was a harbor town until the water grew thick with chicken fat, slick from the offal, until feathers floated on the surface and rock bottom turned to mud in the belly of the bay. She lights a cigarette, shakes her head. Everyone who wanted had work, she says, as long as the ebbing tide carried the worst of our unsunk waste away.
In May we fill the village to celebrate the running of the alewives, eating fried dough and straining our bodies over the stone sides of the old fish ladder. Long before us, before the ladder, the Abenaki returned to these headwaters year after year. They waited out winter for the thaw, left the forest for the sea just as the fish turned toward fresh water to spawn, gathered alewives in baskets and picked berries on the riverbanks.
For thousands of years, a million or more of those migratory herring swam unhindered each season, up the rivers to ponds and streams. No festivals, no fanfare. Some returned to salt water to feed sea creatures in autumn, while others were gathered in nets, dried on beds of salt, hung from homemade frames in the sun, else stored in the slimy dark of barrels as they ripened into lobster bait or pulled through the surface in the paws of wild animals.
The paper mills built the dams that blocked the migration, left the alewives pooled at the bottom of their falls. Who could predict we’d feel the loss of a small fish in the land and on the sea and in the tense counting out of frayed bills to the grocer? And who can say who thought of the ladder first, conceived the way stone would force fish up the staggered falls? For two hundred years now, the herring push against the falling river from one tiered pool to the next, finding their way up, up, up, against shallow drops.
We come for the fish and for the festival; its pies and hand-tied nets, paintings inspired by the piscine drive to spawn, music played while the fish come in. At strange moments, we remember the Abenaki, all this dancing in praise of a borrowed animal on stolen land. We are new to fretting over ecosystems now that the mills are long-closed and we have survived the damage of their rise and fall.
A woman bends silver wire around polished gray stones into ichthyic form. She spreads dozens of the tiny tokens across a rented table beside the stretch of stream where the fish run frantic. For five dollars, a little girl chooses a hand-wrought charm with her mother. A memento. A flash of light to rest on the kitchen windowsill, to tap against a tin jewelry tray or worry between thumb and forefinger in the secret of a pocket. A reminder of how strong we once felt as we celebrated the safe passage of a species.
Three Things Pulled from Water in Spring
Take your bucket to the brackish gap where river meets bay on the cool April nights when you, in hand-me-down hip-boots, catch elvers in the moonrise with the brother who brings you along because you can estimate the weight of the catch and report its worth in new cars, because he loves how you turn to dollars those silver sliver eels running opposite the tide, then circling, circling his bucket.
On an unlikely warm day in late February a boy and his father break through a frozen-over lake, and those left behind are warned what water does to skin, what fish do to flesh, and hope there will be no bodies, wincing when, after the thaw, the thing that haunts them rises, unrecognizable, as if to mock their optimism and the notion that any part of death could be gentle, that their losses, too, would not wash up.
I return to church for the three hour spectacle of Easter Vigil each season, even though it’s been years since I tried to believe in God, to watch the converts circle the baptismal fount because I have always loved how that particular Mass starts in the dark with light slowly rising, how heads are held under holy water for the briefest of moments before those newest Catholics are handed towels and shuffled off for Communion while we all sing together that we will build the city of God, that our tears will be turned to dancing.