It took me some time to appreciate the smell of dead fish. When I arrived on Nantucket I was nineteen, claiming myself to be the niece of a businessman who was due to visit the island in search of a ship to sponsor. I took a room at the Try Pots inn, and there I met its proprietor, Hosea Hussey. Over a bowl of thin and gritty clam chowder, I told him I could make better. Perhaps this was overconfident, as I had never so much as touched a sea creature, but he said he would be pleased to see me try. When I told him the uncle and the ship were lies, Hosea laughed. We were married six days later on the deck of the whaler Deborah by a half-drunk minister who had stumbled over from the mainland some days earlier. Hosea wore an ill-fitting suit left to him, alongside the inn, by his late father; I, my yellow gown. As its skirts brushed the polished planks, they released the stench of whale oil, and I wondered if I should ever again smell the sea air without the smell of its inhabitants, deceased.
I spent the early days of our marriage learning to gut cod, to slice off their heads with a steady hand, to pry open the tiniest clams with the twist of a knife tip. It turned out I was good with chowder—and the previous cook had been bad with it, too generous with the water and moldering biscuits. I fried salt pork, softened the onions in its drippings, doubled the clams, skinned the cod, finished each batch with cream and butter. Soon we had to keep the pots on to cook day and night.
The cloud of chowder air released from the Try Pots’ kitchen filled the halls and rooms, leaked from the doors, hovered above the roof. Our room smelled of clam and cod—hearth and chair and headboard and sheets—and Hosea wore a sheen of scent in the pockets behind his ears, in the coarse, fair curls on his chest, in the soft skin on the insides of his thighs. Before long the smell worked its way into my own palms and knuckles. Some nights I would lift my hands to my face as I slept and wake at the shock, and once I wept over my pots as I wondered if I would ever again smell the sweetness of woodsmoke without the body of a fish above it. But time and love wear down sensitivities, and chowder is delicious.
We had two good years. Early one September morning when the inn was silent, Hosea woke me with a promise to return with something new. I kissed him goodbye, thinking only of our guests, who would soon begin streaming in for breakfast. As I milked the cow and put on the first pots of the day, I rearranged recipes in my head. Lobster might go well with basil, scallops a splash of white wine. What if it were mackerel, or some unknown fish? I planned to test Hosea’s gift in my midday chowders, yet he had not returned as I filled the bowls of the morning stragglers. Concern crept in, and I assured myself I had no need to worry. I could ease my own fear.
I was born with the strange power to peer into the minds of those near me and see their recent moments, memories fresh and soft as paint on a canvas not yet dried. I had rarely used this skill on Hosea, rarely needed to, so open was he to me. I searched for him that morning, expecting to arrive at an image of him lost in thought as he fished, letting his boat drift through the mist, a bit too far from shore. What I found was the echo of him clutching his chest and stumbling, his hand twisting in a rope as he fell, the sea filling his boat and lungs.
Back in my kitchen, I stopped looking toward the door.
I knew what the neighbors would whisper when they realized my husband was gone. I knew they would scoff if I insisted he had fallen ill on his boat and drowned. More likely, they would say, it was his marriage to an outsider, the ceaseless chowder, the inn without the thumping feet of children that drove him away. Perhaps he had snuck to the mainland, boarded a ship to Boston, hopped a whaler to Tahiti. They would not help me find him, though I would know the location of his bones.
That night, after the last weary, beer-logged lodger departed to his room, I chopped potatoes for the next morning’s chowder, rinsed the starch from my hands, and retrieved the skeleton of the day’s largest cod. Already I had picked the bones clean, and a dip in boiling water stripped the last bits away. As my thumbs pried apart the translucent vertebrae, I let my mind wander over the possibilities of life without Hosea. Nantucket was full of women widowed by the sea, left to keep shop with their mothers and sisters-in-law and cherub-cheeked children, but I could claim no kin on the island, and I would not claim the kin I had left. Hosea’s parents were long dead, and though his relations doted upon him, I knew they saw me as a trifle of his fancy at best, a trespasser at worst, either way easily swept aside. I had nothing of my own. I could drift elsewhere as I had drifted to Nantucket, call myself by a new name, craft myself a new story, find a new husband, a new kitchen, new pots. But I saw the silver scales embedded beneath my nails despite my scrubbing, the round white scar at the base of my finger from a slip as I split clams, the callus where the thin silver ring Hosea had given me rubbed against my skin as I milked the cow each morning and evening. I closed my eyes, and the everpresent briny steam of the kitchen filled my mouth, my throat. The smell of him. The smell of home.
It would not be long, I knew, before the whispers and suspicions became questions. A preacher would arrive, solemn-browed and white-knuckled, to wonder if I might need prayer. One of Hosea’s fleet of cousins would stop in for a chat, rejecting the chowder I set before him as he folded his hands and inquired about my obvious need for assistance. A creditor would come, asking for the man of the house though he knew he would never be home. The questions would not stop until they became actions, and I would lose all I had left.
As I slid the vertebrae onto a length of string and tied the cool bones around my throat, I formed my plan. Some years before, I had discovered how malleable memory could be. How, with sufficient will and enormous effort, I could suggest to someone that a recent moment was not quite as they remembered it. And I wondered whether, if I smudged the paint enough, I might be able to create a new picture.
The next morning, when the first lodger arrived in the public room, I looked into his mind and saw him dropping into Hosea’s office, expecting to find the proprietor. I greeted him with the reminder that Mr. Hussey had gone away on business and would return soon. When one of Hosea’s old friends visited at midday, reporting that Hosea had invited him, I reshaped our conversation so that he remembered asking when my husband would return, to which I replied that Hosea was expected any day. The next week, Hosea’s cousin Peter Coffin arrived from New Bedford for a visit—and four bowls of cod, all in a row—and I explained Hosea’s business trip once more. Peter’s memory of walking in, assured he would find his cousin, became a memory of knowing, bitterly, he would find only me.
Again and again, through days and months, I nudged more memories with the same tale. Those I told it to spread it to others, until enough people believed the lie was the truth and the whispers ebbed. It did not feel so much like a lie, at times. I still wore Hosea’s ring, left his books open on his desk, awoke at night sure I had heard him breathing. Sometimes I, too, almost thought he would walk back through the door someday. I wanted to believe I had changed the story, that the painting of my life on Nantucket now hung on my wall in unchangeable form: I at the inn, Hosea forever on the edge of returning. Yet I came to see I had wrought something far more fragile, an illusion etched on a pane of glass.
A crack appeared on the day the young sailors arrived, two years after Hosea’s death. Mr. Davidson, a regular for ale and chowder most evenings at the Try Pots, tugged me to him by the sleeve of my gown and whispered with sour breath that if Mr. Hussey was so lax as to leave his nice things lying about in the open, he might take one for himself. I yanked the mug from Mr. Davidson’s hand and hauled him out the front door by his sleeve. It struck me as my fingers twisted into the fabric that it was not Mr. Davidson’s usual checked work shirt, streaked with fish blood, but his Sunday woollen, rich purple. For all his brutish indelicacy, I feared he had higher intentions. Perhaps he was beginning to see through my illusion, to guess Hosea was never coming back—and so I had to ensure his thoughts on the subject ended that evening.
I meant to march him out into the street, but two figures stood in the moonlight just outside the door. A pale young man, nearly a boy, gaped at the massive pots Hosea had hung to signal the inn’s name. His tall, dark companion tipped his hat my way before turning his face to the dim street, as if to avoid interrupting either my business or his friend’s reverie. I kept Mr. Davidson to the porch, where in the dampened red glow of the lantern I hissed between my teeth that he had no claim on me or anything else in Mr. Hussey’s house.
Soused and sheepish, he folded into himself. “I was just trying to say to you . . .” he mumbled.
“You have nothing to say to me other than clam or cod, Mr. Davidson,” I said. “You’ll have nothing else of mine. Now get along with you.”
He shuffled his feet and ran a hand through his thinning hair, and I realized he’d left his hat at his table. I was about to insist upon fetching it myself when the young man who’d been entranced by the pots suddenly strode toward us, the clamshell pavement crackling beneath his boots. He cleared his throat and said, “I see we have found the Try Pots, then.”
He stepped into the lantern light as Mr. Davidson slunk out of it. A skiff of beard shaded his round cheeks, but deep furrows crossed his forehead and gathered in the corners of his amber eyes, which darted about, examining everything around him as he talked. He wore the outfit of a sailor, yet when he clasped my hand in his, I felt the soft, unmarred skin of a boy from the city. He had perhaps never sailed, other than across the Nantucket Sound, though surely he had spent many hours reading and thinking about it. He said I should call him Ishmael. His friend stood patiently as Ishmael chattered about lodging and supper and “the best-kept hotel in all Nantucket,” and I beckoned them to follow me into the public room. The sooner the young men sat down, the sooner I could return to making certain Mr. Davidson was firmly under my illusion.
I paused to retrieve Davidson’s hat at the table I had forced him to abandon. Ishmael took my action to be an invitation and sat down, staring for a moment at the dregs at the bottom of Mr. Davidson’s bowl and the damp spot on the table from the ale I’d caused him to spill. Ishmael’s companion, whom he introduced as Queequeg, took the opposite seat, and I saw him clearly—the thick, black lines and crosses that patterned his face, trailed down his neck, disappeared into his collar, flowed back out across the backs of his large, brown hands. As I stared, he clicked his teeth, drawing my attention back to his face. He tilted his chin toward Ishmael, who sat rubbing his hands together as he glanced about the room. Supper first.
“Well, gentlemen, would you prefer clam chowder, or cod?” I said.
Ishmael continued to study the room with a sweet smile, saying nothing.
I cleared my throat. “Clam or cod?”
He blinked and shook his head, sending his dark curls waving. “What’s that about cods, ma’am?”
I gathered up Mr. Davidson’s dishes. “Would you like clam,” I said, slower, crisper, “or cod?”
Ishmael rambled on about clams, chuckling at his own jokes. I noticed a movement in the doorway and spotted Mr. Davidson, still looking for his hat but apparently now understanding that he ought not step back into the public room that night. My patience with men was spent for the evening.
“Clam for two,” I shouted to Betty, the taciturn widow I’d hired to help me serve. I tossed the hat to Mr. Davidson, and stepped into the kitchen to deposit the dishes.
I presented my new guests with two steaming bowls of clam chowder. Ishmael’s expression, so full of restlessness and distraction before, shifted to a smile, softening the lines on his face as he closed his eyes and breathed in the salty steam.
“I confess I’d missed your meaning at first, Mrs. Hussey,” he said. “Clam or cod chowder, of course! The mystery is solved.”
“I suppose so,” I said. I turned for the kitchen but felt a tug to linger a moment, uncertain of what I was about to offer, yet unable to stop myself. “Call me Evangeline.”
From Wild and Distant Seas by Tara Karr Roberts. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton. Copyright © 2024 by Tara Karr Roberts.