Willy and the Herring Run

Willy was my grandfather’s cat. He weighed 20 pounds and was only allowed in the house via a zig-zag of white planks that Z’d up the side of the kitchen to a rubber flap which folded open to a long wide shelf right under the ceiling. Willy would slink up the planks, poke his face through the flap, and sit like a fur muffin, paws tucked under his body, staring down at me eating pancakes while I stared back at the spectacle of a cat sitting on a shelf, out of my reach and too smart to try jumping down to the floor where I might pull his tail.
Animals lived outdoors, people lived indoors. Willy lived in between. I was allowed to hold him once, but the minister’s terrier made an appearance and Willy clawed me. I never tried to pick Willy up again.

I write of Willy because the alewives are once again running up into the ponds here on Cape Cod, something they start doing in late March and continue to do through June. Alewives, aka River Herring, are the cliche of Cape Cod harbingers, and the source of much hand wringing lately as their numbers have declined and the state has imposed a three-year ban on the practice of taking them from the runs for striped bass bait or even fried roe.

I ate alewives once. Make that twice.

The first time was in the early sixties when my grandfather took me up to the Santuit River herring run to net a couple canvas buckets full of alewives for his tomato plants. The river — a stream actually — ran from Shoestring Bay to Santuit Pond, winding through the scrub pines, past Maushop Farms, to cross under Route 28 and then a mile of cranberry bogs to the pond. We turned down a sandy road and walked through the brush to the river. It was solid silver. More fish than water, all flashing and finning, some wriggling half-exposed in the shallows, others furiously churning over obstacles to gain a few more feet of stream.

He filled the buckets in five minutes and drove them home sloshing in the back seat of the Buick. I poked at them for a little while under the grape arbor, tried to pick one up, but it squirt through my hands into the dirt, where it gasped and died. That was probably the first death I witnessed, so I told my grandmother, Nellie, who came outside, washed the dirt off the curling fish, and brought it and a few more of its dead friends into the kitchen in her apron.

She slit the bellies open and with her finger, popped out a long yellow sac of tiny herring roe, held together by the thinnest of membranes. She pulled out a skillet, melted some butter, and started frying the roe. Five minutes later I was sitting at the zinc kitchen table on a stack of phone books, with a plate of fried fish eggs in front of me.

They were horrible, so bad that thirty years later I inflicted the same cruelty on my children. The second time I ate a herring was when I tried to pickle a batch in a crock (back in my hunter-gatherer phase) but ended up with an excellent starter culture of botulism.
While I poked at the limp blob of herring roe and pretended to eat it my grandfather asked me if I knew where Willy was. I looked up at the shelf where the cat usually watched me eat. No, I said. I haven’t seen Willy.
I expect we’ll see him next month, he said. He was a teaser and I had wised up to not walk into his traps. So I ignored the question and tried to find a way out of eating the herring roe without hurting my grandmother’s feelings. I needn’t have worried about the woman’s feelings. A few years later she showed me how to skin and cook an eel by nailing it to the side of the garage, cutting a circle around its neck and then slipping the skin off with two sets of pliers like some satanic condom. The eel — alive of course — went bananas, writhing into knots and then spinning around and around the nail.

I could only watch and learn, and indeed, to this day, I am the only person I have met who knows how to properly skin an eel.

But I digress.

Back to the cat. Willy wasn’t around that day in 1962 because the cat was in the habit of taking a vacation from the house and my grandparents every spring when the herring were running. Willy would make a two-mile journey up Main Street, past the Cotuit Grocery Store, past the Elizabeth Lowell Memorial Baseball Park, past the elementary school, Sampson’s Inn, and through Santuit, the little suburb of Cotuit where the Portugese lived, to the herring run. There Willy went feral for a month or so, living in the bushes and gorging on herring — I imagine playing the Cape Cod version of an Alaskan grizzly bear swatting salmon in mid-leap.

I grew very concerned when my grandfather told me this. The idea of a cat, someone’s kitty, living in the woods, alone, at night, seemed very dangerous to me. I grew obsessed and haunted by the thought, so consumed that I started to bug my grandfather to return to the herring run. He assumed I had taken a shine to fried herring roe and wanted some more, and confided to me that he couldn’t stand the stuff and regarded herring as excellent garden fertilizer. I told him I also couldn’t bear to eat it, but was most concerned about Willy. He assured me Willy would be back when the herring tapered off and there were bluefish and striped bass racks to pick through in the compost heap.

Willy came back. He went back and forth to the herring run for a few more springs, then one year he didn’t come back. My father said he probably got hit by a car crossing Route 28.

My grandfather died a couple years later from a bad heart.

I’ve never been to the Santuit River herring run since. I drive over it every time I go to Boston to catch an plane somewhere.

Now there aren’t many herring left to catch and it’s against the law. There are so few that it isn’t worth stopping to look in the fish ladders at Marston’s Mills and the Mashpee Flume. I’ve seen a fist fight at a herring run, seen dead fish left on the grass for the gulls to take, and read countless elegies to this once abundant harbinger of springtime. I hope they come back, but the days when cats climbed ramps and spent their spring by the side of a stream seem long gone.

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