TEACH A MAN TO FISH Part II
An Original Short Story by John Conway
In Part I of our story, we met Clement Wiley, a resident of colonial Cushetunk, a settlement of Connecticut Yankees along the Delaware River in 1767. He had just lost a raft of timber he was taking down the river to Philadelphia and was feeling despondent when he was approached by two Native Americans, who identified themselves as Canope and Ben Shanks. As we resume our story, the three men are standing on the riverbank, under a willow tree in the rain. Canope has assured Wiley they can help him…
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, 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.”
“I am not at all certain of what you mean by that,” Wiley replied. “But I tell you that I am prepared to try almost anything.”
“You have lived here along Lenapewiattuck just a short time,” Canope said, using, in near perfect English, the Lenape word for the Delaware River. “You are probably not aware of the bounty that exists right in front of you.”
“I thought I was,” Wiley interjected ruefully. “I cut the finest timber on my land to take to Philadelphia, thinking it would make me a wealthy man, and instead I lost everything.”
“I am not talking about timber,” Canope said. “I am talking about schawanammek. What you shëwanahkòk call shad.”
Wiley knew the Lenape word shewanahkok was used to refer to all white men, who were believed to have come from the “salty waters,” the ocean. He had never heard the other word.
“Fish. A savory fish at that.”
“I know they are fish; if you can call them that. I have been told they are disgusting, with more bones than meat.”
“Then my new shewanahkok friend has never tasted the shad?” Canope laughed. He looked at Ben Shanks. “What say you, Ben Shanks? Are schawanammek tasty, or are they disgusting?”
Ben Shanks merely rubbed his stomach in a circular fashion while a broad smile spread across his long face.
“More importantly,” Canope said to Wiley, “they are plentiful. We can catch many right here. Enough to feed your family for months and even have some to sell to those who do not know how to catch them.”
Canope went on to explain that his people, the Lenape, the Indian tribe the English called Delaware, had been catching and eating shad for generations. The fish were once so plentiful during their spring run that “a man could walk across the river on their backs.”
The shad, he said, lived in the salty water much downriver, but every spring they swam upriver to spawn. The Delaware celebrated this miraculous perennial food source with a festival that “lasted many days.”
He said that Mesinghalikon, the manetu whose duty it is to protect the game from over-hunting and over-fishing, provided this great source of sustenance every year. The Delaware had learned to smoke the fish to preserve it, and it would feed many mouths during the year.
“Ben Shanks and I can teach you how to catch many shad, how to cook them, and how to preserve them for later.” Canope said.
Wiley was impressed. And, after listening to Canope speak, he felt somewhat better about his situation.
The Indian told him that he and Ben Shanks would help him construct a net in time to catch the shad on their upriver run, which would occur very soon. The three men then began gathering willow branches and just the right size stones, which Canope insisted upon inspecting and passing judgement on, deciding which ones to retain to serve as anchors for the net, and which ones were to be discarded.
By the end of the daylight, Canope proclaimed that enough material had been procured that construction of the net could begin the next morning. Wiley felt good about the work he had put in, and although he still wasn’t convinced that shad were the answer to his family’s predicament, he felt a growing sense of optimism that the two new friends he had made might just be the right people at the right time to help.
Although he knew the family had precious little to eat because of his preoccupation for so many weeks with getting the timber raft built and making the ultimately unsuccessful trip downriver, Wiley felt obligated to invite Canope and Ben Shanks to eat with them. The two men accepted, and soon, following some quizzical looks from his wife and children, Wiley was showing them to the table and Lottie was serving up a venison pie while Verity was pouring tankards of spruce beer. They all ate heartily.
Before anyone took a bite, Wiley stood up, hoisted his tankard over his head, and spoke loudly, feeling better than he had in some time.
“I hereby propose a toast… to Divine Providence and to the new friends it has delivered to us today. May this meal we share tonight be the first of many!”
He then clanked his tankard against those of Canope and Ben Shanks, both of whom looked a bit bewildered by the whole thing. Finally, Canope rose to his feet and spoke.
“My new friend speaks well,” he said softly. “Ben Shanks and I thank you for allowing us to partake of your meal in your home this night, and the manetuwak willing, we will soon be feasting on our fill of schawanammek.”
Following the meal, Canope and Ben Shanks left, advising Wiley that they would be sleeping nearby. The three men agreed to meet early the next day to construct the gill net.
Wiley helped his wife clean up after the meal, and told her about how the meeting with Canope and Ben Shanks had taken place, leaving out the part about his despondency, and what Canope had in mind for catching shad. He hoped his newfound optimism would rub off on Lottie, but she had obviously been burned by his overly rosy outlook before, and remained unconvinced.
Despite the fact that his wife was still angry and worried, Wiley went to bed feeling the best he had in weeks. And he slept soundly that night for the first time in a long while.
Don’t miss the next chapter of “Teach a Man to Fish” in the July edition of The Hurleyville Sentinel.