They planted till noon the next day. Then she insisted the brothers must see the Eel River, which was rushing with melted snow, its current so loud they had to shout. They took off their clothes right there on the riverbank, all three of them, though Nathaniel was shy at first, then plunged into the water. John was careful not to step on any of the eels that lived in the shallows. He lifted one up to examine for a moment. “Brother eel,” he said before replacing the creature into the waters from which it had come.
Minette felt cold and hot at the same time. She had lost nearly everyone but she was standing in the Eel River, the deep water rushing past, the sunlight beating down on her slim shoulders. She felt the eels swimming along, ancient mysterious creatures that managed to survive the terribly cold winters in Blackwell beneath a cover of ice.
HARRY PARTRIDGE CAME to see them at suppertime. They had a fire burning, and sparks drifted into the sky. Minette’s father had brought a loaf of bread, gratefully accepted, and a pot of stew, which he alone ate. He ignored the fact that John didn’t wear shoes and that his hair was so long. The air was thick with mosquitoes. Bats swooped across the meadow, feeding upon them. It was a beautiful spring night.
After supper Harry asked John Chapman what his intentions were.
“I intend to make this country a garden of trees,” John said solemnly.
“I mean Minette. Your intentions toward her.”
John nodded. “I intend to remind her that she’s alive.”
It was all Harry could do not to punch him. “And then?” he managed to ask.
“Then on to the West,” John said.
Afterward, Harry took Minette aside. He realized she was just a girl. He had expected too much from her and had been so consumed with his own sorrows he had never noticed hers. “Do you hear what he’s saying?” Harry asked his daughter. “Do you understand? He’s not staying here. He’s not the man for you.”
Minette laughed and hugged her father. He couldn’t begin to know what had been revealed to her. He had no idea that the universe could be found in a single instant, a drop of water, a blade of grass, a leaf of an apple tree.
That night Minette slept in John’s arms, warmed by his strange heat. There were burrs on her skirt and in her hair. The scent of the river clung to her skin. She thought about her father sitting at home, worrying about her, and of her own little house, empty. In the morning, the Chapmans got ready to go. There was a light rain falling that John said would be good for the seeds they planted. In a hundred years there would be a hundred trees and each one would bear fruit. Minette waited, but he didn’t ask her to go. She was not especially surprised. Nathaniel shook her hand and wished her well and said if he ever came back this way he would surely stop and visit. John Chapman was singing to himself the way he sometimes did. The rain didn’t bother him. He was already moving forward, thinking about stories he’d heard about the West, how the land was so endless and untouched it was indeed like heaven.
The larks were swooping through the rain. The river was running so fast they could hear it in this meadow. Minette kissed him good-bye in a way she had never kissed her husband, and John kissed her back as if she was perfect and wondrous and alive.
IN THE MIDDLE of the next winter one of the Starr boys came running into town. The tree John Chapman had planted in Husband’s Meadow had bloomed. Everyone went to see, tromping through the snow. It was twilight and the snow was still falling. Indeed, one bough of the young tree was covered with apple blossoms. This was an impossibility, a miracle, not unlike Minette Jacob’s baby being born ten months after her husband’s death. It was the reason the apples from this wonderful tree were called Look-No-Furthers. It was why Minette’s father, Harry Partridge—who was so close to his grandson that the boy took his last name when he came of age—vowed he would never eat apples again.
THE YEAR THERE WAS NO SUMMER
THERE WAS FROST IN THE GARDEN IN JUNE. Clothes set out on the line froze, their wrinkles set in place. Bedsheets turned hard as stone. The wind from Hightop Mountain gusted across the meadows, sifting through cracks below windows and doors, chilling residents to the bone. 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 vegetables were covered with slick coatings of 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.