The Year Without Summer

by Alice Hoffman

1816

There was frost in the garden in June. Clothes hung out on the line froze, their wrinkles set in place. Bed sheets turned hard as stone. The wind from Hightop Mountain gusted across the meadows, sifting through the cracks below windows and doors. Horses in their barns grew skittish when the sky pooled into black puddles in the middle of the day. The spring had been unnaturally cold and dry and now the weather took a turn for the worse. Throughout the commonwealth, cornfields were ruined and peapods were covered with ice. There was talk of a famine to come. People were preoccupied, panicked. Perhaps that was why no one noticed when Rebecca and Ernest Starr’s daughter, Amy, disappeared.

The Starrs lived in the house people called the Museum. Ernest Starr was a collector. He searched out rocks, seeds, minerals, animal skeletons. On his mantel there was a moose jaw, a rust-colored fox’s pelt, a strange piece of rock that was always hot to the touch, and another in which there was a hole caused by a four-inch piece of hail that Ernest himself had witnessed before the ice melted into a wash of greenish water in his hands. He had specimens preserved in jars of salt and liked nothing more than to study the desiccated bodies of bats and birds. Over the years he’d gathered a library of atlases, maps, and scientific books that were so rare professors from Harvard College had come to view them. The Starrs were an old family, with ancestors who were part of the founding expedition. Ernest had inherited the wheat fields beyond Band’s meadows, as well as the leather works. He was a man in his forties, distracted, intelligent, the father of five. He employed several men to work at the farm, along with a woman who came in to help with the laundry and cooking. The housemaid lived among the rag-tag settlement of horse traders from Virginia that had recently set up camp on the far side of the Eel River, but Ernest didn’t hold that against her. He was a fair and liberal man. The Starr’s house was bustling, and Ernest had trained himself to read and study in the midst of extreme chaos. Doors slammed, children argued and laughed—none of that stopped him. When his wife, Rebecca, called everyone to lunch, he often ignore her. Rebecca would then have a tray brought to his study so he could go on working through meals. He was currently interested in moths, and had been searching the mountains for specimens. On his desk there were glass bell jars and a small bottle of spirits that was used to stun the moths, which he could then pin and study.

On the day his daughter disappeared there was stew and molasses bread for lunch, with lemon sponge cake for dessert. He remembered that because he wrote it down in his dietary book, in which he recorded all of his meals. He thought such a diary might be of interest if he were ever diagnosed with a disease that might be related to diet. He worked all that morning in his study on the day of the storm, as the temperature outside dipped. It was the oddest June ever recorded, not just in the commonwealth but all over the Atlantic Coast, as far as Pennsylvania. There were no birds that year, for their eggs had frozen in their shells. Foxes and wolves had come down from the mountains, searching for food, drawing ever nearer to town. The eels in the river were sleepy because of the frigid water and were therefore easy to catch. Since many in town made their living from fashioning eel-skin wallets and belts and shoes, and were employed at the Starr’s leather works, there was a melee of fishermen down on the banks. People wore high boots and gloves as they rushed to the shore with their nets and hooks. It was a river of eel flesh, the water roiling, reflecting the black thunderhead clouds moving in from the west, a sign of worse weather to come.

No one realized Amy Starr was missing until it began to snow. Rebecca thought the drifting white drops fluttering into the yard were blossoms from the cherry trees, then she remembered the leaves had been stunted from the spring drought. Cherry blossoms had never formed. Amy was six, a quiet, well-behaved child. She had followed the birth of her brothers and sisters: Henry, ten; Olive, twelve; William, thirteen; and the eldest, sixteen-year-old Mary. By dinnertime the sky was black as coal. The falling snow was gaining muster, nearly six inches on the ground already, when Amy’s absence became known. She didn’t show up at the table, even though she was usually the first to scramble onto her chair, her folded napkin neatly placed in her lap. No one could remember seeing her all day. Rebecca called and called. She rose from the table and looked through the rooms, growing increasingly worried. When she reached Ernest’s study, up on the third floor, her neck was flushed and she was shivering. It had gotten progressively colder as she’d gone from room to room, and she took that as a bad sign. The hired woman, Sonia, had read her fortune that morning, using a pack of cards she kept tied up with a silk scarf. They had sat in the kitchen where they were supposed to be paying attention to the preserved pears simmering in the kettle. Sonia had laid out the fortune on the pine trestle table. One card was for love, another for the future. Sonia had put down a third card, then quickly snatched it up again. “That one’s a mistake,” she said. But Rebecca had seen it. The card was death.

When Amy couldn’t be found, Ernest and the boys got on their coats and boots and gloves and went to search outside the house in places where the child was likely to be found. She often played in the barn, or the garden, or in the orchard of apple trees that this year hadn’t bloomed. Amy liked to pretend she was a horse, or a fine lady, or a man who planted trees. Ernest and his sons came back after a while, ashen and puffing from the cold. The snow was now more than ten inches high. Ernest told his wife not to worry, he would be right back. Then he went out again with Henry and William. He told his boys to keep on looking while he ran to the pastor’s house. When Reverend Smith heard Ernest’s story he too put on his coat. The men went on to the meeting house, raced up the steps, and rang the bell. Four peals and then a ceasing meant an emergency.

In the parlor at home, Rebecca and her daughters knew what four peals of the bell meant. Olive, who was twelve, stayed with her mother, who was nearly faint with nerves, but Mary put on her coat and hat and slipped outside. The whole town of Blackwell was covered with mounds of snow, nearly a foot in some places. The world seemed enchanted and strange. Mary could hear the cows in the meadows lowing as she went on to the meeting hall. Some girls had a fear of the dark and of being out alone, but Mary wasn’t one of those. She had long red hair and a wide mouth and an especially curious nature. She was a voracious reader and secretly borrowed her father’s books, even the ones about anatomy. She was bright enough to have frightened her mother with her ideas. On more than one occasion Rebecca had taken her eldest daughter aside to ask, “What good can ever come from a girl with so much knowledge?”

When Mary entered the town hall, the men were forming into search parties. Lanterns were brought around, for even though the snow made the night quite brilliant, there were dark places they would need to look into, vegetable cellars and barns, for instance, out-of-the-way spots where a child might have hidden in order to wait out a storm.

Mary’s uncles, Tom and Isaac Partridge, joined with her father and brothers in the search. There were eight other groups. Every house in Blackwell was searched. Barns were examined, and porches, and gardens. Tom Partridge even climbed down the well in the town center, a rope tied round his middle. At midnight they all gathered back at the meeting house. The searchers were spent and exhausted. Most people’s fingers and toes were half-frozen. Mary noticed that her brother Henry, who was only a boy, the youngest of the searchers, looked blue. His teeth were chattering and he bit down on his lip, trying to control his shivering. The townspeople would not stop their searching, only fan out farther. The men got their walking sticks, refilled their lanterns, and set forth in a large group. People didn’t say out loud what they feared. They stared straight ahead.

Mary walked at the rear. Her brother William came up to her.

“You shouldn’t be here,” he said. “Go home.”

“I’ll be where I like,” Mary replied. She took Will’s hand in hers.

“We’ll find her,” William said, but he was thirteen and he didn’t sound sure of himself. Mary had a lump in her throat. She hadn’t thought before that they might not.

When they got to Band’s Meadow they stopped. The wayfarers from Virginia had wagons there, the horses quiet in the deep snowfall in their corral. Six wagons were set around in a circle. The trees were thick with snow and the boughs, already leafing, were breaking under the weight. The snow looked green when Mary gazed upwards through the frozen leaves.

The wayfarers had cleared a place for their bonfire and several people sat around it, as if the falling snow were indeed apple blossom petals and nothing more. It seemed odd that they would be awake so late at night; there were even children playing in the snow. The men in the search party huddled closer together. Mary had snow on her eyelashes. She’d never before noticed there could be color in the dark. The bonfire was red and orange and looked like a sunset when she narrowed her eyes. The group from town stood there, shifting uneasily, until some dogs noticed them. The dogs barked and ran over yapping and the spell, or whatever it had been that kept the men motionless, was broken. The search party went forward and the men from the encampment came to meet them in the meadow. Mary lagged behind. She was afraid of dogs, and one collie dog shadowed her. A tall young man whistled through his teeth and the collie went trotting off.

Perhaps people began to be suspicious when they got near the meadow, or perhaps that anxiety had already begun, a whisper of doubt as the men from town walked through the fields of snow. Now it was suggested out loud that it was a strange coincidence for the child to be missing so soon after the horse traders had appeared. The wayfarers agreed to have their wagons searched. The men from Blackwell were not as careful as they’d been when looking through their own neighbor’s homes. Blankets, clothes, pots and pans, sleeping pallets stuffed with hay, all of it was tossed into heaps in the snow. The horse traders stood together, speaking in a language no one else understood. The women and children were around the bonfire, even the sleepy babies had been brought out. Mary saw Sonia, who came to their house every day to clean and cook. Three children held onto Sonia’s legs. Mary was surprised. She hadn’t thought about Sonia having children. She went to sit beside Sonia on a bench that had been fashioned from an oak tree. There were two or three dogs around and some puppies in a crate, nesting in some old clothes.

“I’m sorry about your sister,” Sonia said. “But they won’t find her with us.”

When Mary glanced over to the wagons the young man with the dog was staring at her.

“That’s my brother,” Sonia told her. “He can help you.”

His name was Yaron and his dog could find anything and anyone. All the collie needed was a scrap of the missing person’s clothing. Once the dog picked up a scent there was no stopping him.

“Should we tell them?” Mary nodded to the men from town.

“Would they believe us?” Sonia shrugged.

They decided to search on their own. Sonia left the children with another woman and accompanied Mary and Yaron through the field with the dog, whose name was Birdie. The collie was sable and cream colored with flowing hair and a long sensitive nose. He and his owner looked alike, except that Yaron’s hair was dark. They both seemed standoffish, as though they had other things on their mind. No one spoke as they walked along, the dog trotting before them. Mary was shivering so badly she’d begun to shake. The snowy June, the dark sky, the outsiders beside her, all of it made her feel disoriented, even though they soon reached town, and then her street, and then the house where she had lived her whole life long. Every lamp was glowing and the Museum loomed huge and bright. For some reason Mary was embarrassed in front of Sonia and Yaron to have been granted so much. She wanted to say, None of it means anything to me. Only the people inside matter. Instead she asked if those were Birdie’s puppies in the box back at the camp.

Sonia and Yaron exchanged an amused look. Yaron looked a little less cross. He said something to his sister that Mary didn’t understand.

“He said he hopes so,” Sonia told Mary. “Since Birdie is the only male dog in the camp.”

They left the collie in the yard, stomped the snow from their boots, and went inside. Rebecca and Mary’s younger sister, Olive, were in the parlor by the fire. When they heard footsteps they leapt up.

“Where is she?” Rebecca said.

“They haven’t found her yet,” Mary told her mother. “But this man’s dog can find her.”

When the dog’s talent was explained, Olive ran for one of Amy’s dresses.

“Do you have the cards?” Rebecca asked her housemaid.

Sonia looked at her brother who shook his head and said “Na.” All the same Sonia laid out the cards for Rebecca. She turned over the first one. The Queen of Hearts.

“Your daughter,” Sonia said.

She turned over another. The Queen of Diamonds. Sonia stopped.

“And that one?” Rebecca wanted to know.

Sonia paused. “Your other daughter,” she told Rebecca.

They all turned to Mary.

“That means I’ll find her,” Mary said.

Olive had returned with Amy’s best dress, blue muslin with ribbon smocking. Mary took it and nodded to Yaron and they turned to go.

Kaj dajas?” Sonia called to her brother but he didn’t call back an answer and Sonia didn’t need one. She knew they were going to find the little girl, even though it would probably be wiser for the travelers to pack up and leave right now before they were blamed for whatever happened. Mary and Yaron went through the kitchen, outside to where the dog was waiting. Yaron got on one knee and let the dog smell the dress. The dog barked excitedly.

“He has her scent,” Yaron said. “It’s a good sign.”

Birdie went through the yard and they followed him across the green, past the old Brady house, the first one built in Blackwell when the town was settled, where Mary’s Uncle Tom Partridge lived now. It looked different in the night, like a house she’d never been to before. They went round the yard, into the rear garden, the one that was never planted, for it had once been a burying ground. The dog stopped. Yaron knelt down again. He dug through the snow. The soil was red here and there were climbing roses, frozen, buried in a tall drift. Yaron accidentally pricked himself on some thorns and his blood dripped into the snow. Mary felt her heart leap. She wanted to move forward. Instead she backed away. The dog barked again and Yaron scooped more snow. There was a scrap of fabric. Mary came to kneel beside him. She was trembling but she forced herself to be steady. Yaron glanced at her, then quickly looked away.

“Oh,” Mary breathed. It was Amy’s poppet doll that they had sewn together only weeks ago. Amy was never without it. Mary sat back on her heels as though she’d been struck. The dog was headed toward the far end of the property.

Yaron stood and reached out his hand to Mary. She suddenly felt too young to be where she was, in the red garden on a cold, black night with a man she didn’t know. Freckles of snow were still falling. Later the wind would be fierce, but now everything was silent. They could hear the dog trotting through the drifts.

“I don’t know,” Mary said softly. She wasn’t sure what she meant by her own remark. Did she mean she didn’t know if she could go on or where they should look? Or did she mean that she didn’t know what to think or feel?

“You don’t have to,” Yaron assured her. “The dog knows. All we have to do is follow.”

Mary took Yaron’s hand and he helped her to her feet.

“Where are you from?” she asked as they trudged through the snow.

“We came here from Virginia. We’ll go west when we leave.”

The drifts were even taller here, so Yaron kept Mary’s hand in his to help her navigate the snow. His touch was so hot it was burning. They had come to the oldest apple tree in Blackwell. It was the only tree in town that had bloomed this season.

“Amy liked to play here,” Mary said. Then she fell quiet. She didn’t like the way she was talking, as if she already knew something it was impossible to know.

Yaron reached to snap a frozen branch from the apple tree, which he put in his jacket pocket. “For my horse,” he said. “I’ll plant it where we go next.”

The dog ran back to them and bumped against Yaron’s legs. Yaron reached to pet him but the collie was already running ahead. They followed him for a long way, past the marshy land no one bothered with since it was of no use for pasture land or farming. Usually it was possible to hear the Eel River rushing at this time of year, but in the storm much of the river had been covered with a thin crust of ice. Tonight it was quiet.

Mary drew closer to Yaron. He was twenty-two or -three, a man of the world, whereas Mary had never been as far as Lenox. She’d never been outside of Blackwell, except for the times when her father had taken her on expeditions to Hightop Mountain to look for insects and ferns and the scat of wild creatures that would reveal their diet. She felt like a stranger in a strange land, one of the people the pastor spoke of in his sermons, someone who had wandered very far from home.

The dog was padding back and forth along the riverbank, yelping. Then he stood in one place. Mary went to follow, but Yaron stopped her.

“Let me go,” he said.

Mary, who was unafraid of the dark, found she was now frightened. She watched Yaron lope over to his dog. He knelt down to pet the collie, speaking to it softly. Mary wanted to know what he was saying, she wanted to kneel there beside him. Yaron got up and threw a look behind him that troubled her. Then he plunged into the river.

It shocked her to see him disappear beneath the ice. Mary made a gasping noise even though she wasn’t the one who’d gone under. She felt that her heart had stopped. The dog raced back and forth on the bank, barking, beside itself at the disappearance of its master. Mary stood there for a second, then raced to the river. Everything was going fast, the way clouds flew past in a storm, the way snow fell in a blizzard. He was gone, with broken ice flowing in a circle in the place where he dove in.

Mary stood at the edge of the river, her boots wet. She went deeper still, up to her knees. The water froze her to her bones. She could feel herself sinking into the mud. Through the ice she thought she saw an enormous blue fish. It was like the fish in a dream, the sort you can never catch. Then there was a shadow and the ice broke. Yaron surfaced holding the fish, which was her sister, dripping with water, blue in his arms.

They stood together in the shallows of the river, the little girl’s sopping body between them, their breath hot and fast while Mary sobbed and Yaron did his best to comfort her. The dog was quiet now, down on his haunches, his eyes never leaving the child he’d been sent to find. Amy’s clothes were sodden and she was heavy as a block of ice. They laid her down on the riverbank. Mary covered her sister’s body with her own and breathed into the little girl’s tiny cold mouth. She had read that it was sometimes possible to bring the dead back to life. But it did no good.

“They’ll think I did it because I found her,” Yaron said.

“No.” The snow was oddly bright. Amy looked like a fallen star, shining beside them.

Yaron shook his head. His dark hair was wet. “They always think that.”

The clothes he wore were frozen now too and there was snow in his hair. Mary thought about the way she’d felt when he’d disappeared into the river. She recalled the look on his face before he dove in. She felt something inside her that was unexpected as Yaron leaned to close her sister’s eyes.

In the morning the search party found the child on the bank of the Eel River, the blue dress covering her. The snow had hardened overnight and it made a crunching noise beneath their boots. Ernest Starr had to be restrained. He was in a state of grief so immense he vowed he would never let his daughter go. He claimed he would find a way to preserve Amy’s body in salt or brandy, she would be with him still, but Rebecca wouldn’t hear of it. She insisted the child be taken to the burying ground outside of town, with the service held under the one tree that had managed to bloom in that cold season, the one people would later call the Tree of Life, since its fruit kept people in town from starving during that winter’s famine. Rebecca Starr insisted the child be buried without her boots so that Amy could walk into the kingdom of Heaven in her bare feet. No one was about to deny Rebecca anything. She had lost two daughters in a single day, for Mary had also disappeared. No one dared to question Rebecca when she kept the horse traders’ pup that had been left on her doorstep. She walked with the collie every day, along the river and into the meadow where there were still ruts in the earth the following June when the weather was warm once again, and the sky was cloudless and clear.

Published on January 18, 2023

First published in Harvard Review 37.

2022-12-19T14:44:34-04:00