TEACH A MAN TO FISH
An original Short Story by John Conway
Clement Wiley stood in the rain by the riverbank and cried.
He knew he was in a serious predicament and he feared the consequences of what he had done, not so much because of the hardships that his action would bring upon him, but because of the perilous situation in which it had placed his family.
Wiley lived with his wife Lottie and two young children in Cushetunk, a loosely defined settlement along the Delaware River in colonial New York. He had left a small but comfortable home in eastern Connecticut just two short years before because he wanted to own a parcel of land and to farm it, and he was now regretting that decision.
Moreover, he realized now, standing in the cold late April rain, that he had twice gone against his wife’s wishes, and both times his actions had not turned out well. Leaving Connecticut for the wilderness of the upper reaches of the Delaware River was one thing. His wife had resisted the idea, arguing that the little family was secure in the little home they rented in Preston, and insisting that the journey and the frontier life would be far too strenuous for their two small children, Verity, who was then seven, and Alden, who was five.
But he had insisted, and despite Lottie’s protestations, he had packed up the little family and their meager belongings and made the trip to join some of his former neighbors and relatives along the Delaware River. As a dutiful wife, Lottie had readied the children and come along, but it was obvious to him that she was not happy with the idea.
There had been setbacks, and sickness, and tough times over the past two years, and with the distance to their nearest neighbors nearly a half-day’s travel, isolation. Many times, Lottie had asked if they could return to Connecticut, and each time Wiley had refused, steadfast in his belief that he was making what would be a better life for all of them. Eventually.
He had worked hard, had cleared a portion of their land, built a cabin, tilled a garden, planted and harvested beans and squash, raised chickens and hunted deer and wild turkeys, and the family had thus far survived. But he wasn’t fooling himself; Wiley knew there was much hard work ahead. He vowed that 1767 would be a better year than the one before.
Then, as spring approached earlier this year, he went against his wife again. He had decided that instead of working in the fields, clearing and plowing and planting the seeds, and tending to the crops that would feed his family, he would cut and trim some of the tall pine trees on their property and, with his friend Jedidiah Horner, raft them down to Philadelphia, where they could sell them for a lot of money to the ship builders there. He could then take his share of that money and buy the food to substitute for what he hadn’t grown, and still have plenty left over.
Lottie told him it was a risky and foolhardy plan. He suspected that at least part of the reason for his wife’s opinion was that she did not like Jedidiah much, and he stubbornly went ahead and spent his time readying his raft.
The trip had been a disaster almost from the start. The spring freshet had made the river wild and unpredictable, and neither he nor Jedidiah had ever tried to raft it before. They had not even reached Mill Rift when the raft came apart in the rough water, throwing them into the river, and forcing them to fight for their lives. Both he and Jedidiah had barely made it to land, and Jedidiah had made it clear that he was never going to attempt to raft the Delaware again.
So, Wiley had returned home, with nothing to show for the months of labor, and was now faced with first trying to get the fields ready after a rough winter’s neglect. He had left the family enough food from his hunting to last them while he was gone, but he knew that would soon be depleted. There were going to be some tough times ahead, all because of his stubbornness.
Deep down inside, Wiley felt that he could handle whatever life threw at him, but he was distraught over what he had done to his family, and disgusted with himself for being so obstinate, as well as disrespectful to his wife. All he had ever wanted was to make a good life for Lottie and the children, and now he had made their lives worse.
The shame and despair became overwhelming, and he dropped to his knees, turning his face up to the heavens, his eyes tightly shut in a silent prayer. He had no idea how long he knelt there, but at some point he became vaguely aware of someone or something approaching. He quickly gathered himself together as best he could and got to his feet in time to see two Indians walking toward him.
Before he could react at all, one of them spoke, in somewhat broken, but understandable English.
“Do not be afraid,” the shorter of the two men said. “We are Munsee, and friends of the English. I am Canope, and this is Huycon, known to white men as Ben Shanks.”
Wiley didn’t speak, and when the two men were within a few feet of him they stopped.
“We know you live near here,” Canope said. “We pass by your cabin on our way to our traps.”
“I am Wiley,” he finally answered. “Clement Wiley.”
The three men decided to get out of the rain by huddling under the drooping branches of a nearby willow tree, which even without the leaves that would eventually fill in its barren limbs offered some shelter.
Although he could not understand why, Wiley felt almost immediately comfortable with the two Indians. This surprised him, because he was usually extremely cautious around other people, and typically very mistrusting of strangers. He was conscious of the fact that he felt no such mistrust here, and he began speaking freely to his two new acquaintances, even telling them the story of his ill-fated trip downriver, and the predicament in which he had left his family.
“You need not be disconsolate,” Canope told him in a reassuring tone. “Ben Shanks and I can be of great help to you if you are willing to learn something new.”
“Teach a Man to Fish” is an original short story about life along the upper Delaware River in the colonial era, serialized exclusively in The Hurleyvile Sentinel. Watch for Part II of the story in our June edition.