He walked through an apple orchard where some local boys were climbing trees. He was told the local variety of apples was called Look-No-Furthers and that the trees had been planted by Johnny Appleseed himself. Whether or not it was true, Ben got to writing, pleased by the information. He wandered on, searching for what the boys had called the Tree of Life, the oldest apple tree in town. He found it at the edge of the meadow, standing alone. A small twisted black specimen laden with dusty leaves, drooping in the summer heat. An old woman passing by told him that one year the Tree of Life had bloomed when all other crops for miles around had failed. In this way the citizens of Blackwell had been saved from starvation. The old woman’s grandmother had been there and seen the boughs bloom with her very own eyes as the snow was falling in heaps. Ben wrote that down, too. When he admitted he was starving, the old woman took him home and made him something she called red flannel hash, fixed from scraps of beef and potatoes and cabbage fried in oil. Considering Ben had had nothing but bread, hard cheese, and whisky since getting off the train in Albany, the food seemed especially delicious. The recipe merited an entry in his notebook.

The old woman, whose name was Ruth Starr Carson, lived in a cottage behind the Blackwell History Museum. For years she had been the curator, but now there were no funds for such cultural institutions, so she’d draped white muslin over the displays to keep them from fading and locked the doors. A few neighbors had helped to board up the windows, and still there’d been that awful robbery. She’d heard the thief rustling around—she continued to be blessed with good hearing and eyesight—and she’d gone out to her porch with what was said to be the founder’s rifle. But the stranger had disappeared into the woods. Ruth was afraid she’d break her shoulder if she fired that old gun, if the thing even worked at all, so she let him run. Her family had lived in the grand house that was now the museum. They’d had so many children every room had been filled. But things had changed. Now she resided in the cottage that had once been a barn where sleighs and carriages and horses were kept. She had a son, but he’d gone off to California with some of the other young men in town, and although he kept promising to come back home, she had yet to see him.

Ben Levy kept writing as he ate his red flannel hash. He was starving, and his feet hurt from all the walking he’d been doing in his best shoes. His only shoes, really, since his boots had fallen apart right before he left New York. He thought about New Year’s Day at the Oak Bar at the Plaza Hotel. He imagined walking in, tossing his files on the table, perhaps even reading his case studies aloud. Listen to this one, he’d call, recounting the story of the old woman who had lived in the museum, reciting the recipe for red flannel hash as if it were Hamlet’s soliloquy, amusing the other men with his research and wit, winning the bet hands down.

In exchange for room and board, Ben worked on the cottage, which was in sad shape. He repaired the roof, cleared the wooden gutters, took down the dilapidated fence that was listing to one side, rebuilding it with the use of old slats and wire. In the evenings, Mrs. Carson let him wander through the museum, where he faithfully took notes. He described the wolf in a glass case, the ragged stitches crisscrossed through the threadbare pelt, the mouth pulled back in a snarl. He drew pictures illustrating the smooth, snail-like fossils that had been found in Band’s Meadow, made sketches of the founding families’ wagon wheels and pots and pans, and wrote descriptions of the bats that hung inside a glass case, yellow eyes forever open.

Ruth did him the favor of making introductions in town. When he said he wanted “characters,” she did her best. She took him to the Jacobs, who lived behind the church. Ben took notes while speaking with Mrs. Jacob, who organized the food drives and the knitting and sewing circles, then he interviewed Mr. Jacob, who had fallen from his position of bank president to become church janitor and was now convinced the Lord had a lesson in mind: Money was the last thing he should think about. Redemption, he insisted, could be found in the churchyard, which he faithfully raked every morning.

Ben thanked them and set off to go. As he was leaving, one of the Jacob sons, Calen, the bookish one, heard that the stranger interviewing his parents had gone to Yale. The Jacob boy followed and asked if he could walk Ben back to Mrs. Carson’s. On the way Calen told him there was a mermaid living in the Eel River and that for two dollars he could show Ben exactly where she could be found. Calen was an individual who knew what he wanted, and that included getting out of Blackwell and the church cottage. He disagreed with his father’s philosophy concerning money and redemption. Perhaps Yale was in his future as well.

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