IN THE SEASON after William Brady’s death, Hallie stayed away for several weeks, even longer than usual. When she came back, Josephine was already halfway through trimming her wedding dress. Mrs. Mott, who’d never had daughters of her own, had been helping with the stitchery. If a daughter’s wedding was a glorious time, Josephine wondered why it was that her mother had looked happy until she walked through the door and was home once more.
The wedding was held in the garden. The body of Josephine’s twin was still there. Hallie refused to have his remains moved to the burying ground, and she still spent a good deal of time in that garden. She bought seeds from peddlers for flowers and herbs whenever they passed through. Once she went to Albany herself and came back with three rosebush seedlings that had been brought all the way from England. She favored plants that she’d spied in the gardens of fine houses in Birmingham, the ones she used to pass by on the way to the hatmaker’s when she was a girl. But she also liked local varieties that she found on the mountain: trout lilies, wood violet, ferns. Anything wild would do.
Josephine wore a garland made of daisies that complemented the white dress she and Mrs. Mott had sewn by hand. She was the first and most beautiful bride in the village. Harry moved into the Bradys’ house afterward. He had always preferred it to his own and had been working all year to add a room for himself and his new wife. There were tended fields outside town now, and Harry and his father, Tom, grew corn and wheat and beans. They carted the surplus to Lenox and Amherst. They marked off their acreage with stone walls, carrying the boulders down from the ridgetop until their backs nearly gave out, proud of all they’d created out of the wilderness. It was a different place than it had been all those years ago, when there was little to shelter a man but the tall pine trees. Still Harry dreamed sometimes about that first year, and in his dreams there wasn’t any hunger or cold. The woods stretched on forever and everything was white.
IT HAPPENED IN August, when the fields were dry and hot. The month was halfway done and there hadn’t been rain for weeks. It was so hot that people went swimming in the river despite the eels and the dangerous currents. So hot Harry Partridge couldn’t sleep. One evening he went to the back door to try to catch a cool breeze. That’s when he saw them in the garden. Hallie Brady and the bear. By then the bear was old. From a distance Hallie Brady looked the way she had all those years ago, when they were naming waterfalls and creeks, when everything was a mystery and a revelation, and every river and meadow and snowdrift was something to be tamed.
Harry wasn’t dreaming or imagining anything. He ran for the rifle that was kept above the fireplace, then charged outside and fired. He did it without thinking, with a hero’s response, but in the end he was anything but. Afterward, when he dreamed, he dreamed about the look on her face, the tenderness there, the terrible sorrow. In that instant he saw everything there was to know about love. It terrified and humbled him and made him realize how little he knew.
By the time the neighbors heard the shot and came running, Hallie Brady was gone. She’d run off to the woods, her dress covered with blood. Although the neighbors sent out a search party, choosing men who knew the woods around Hightop, they didn’t find her. Afterward, they wanted to skin the bear, make good use of the meat and the pelt, but Harry forbade it. He himself dug the grave in the garden. He worked so hard his hands bled. He had been attached to Hallie from the time he was a child, so of course he would be upset and want the job of the burial for himself. People closed their windows, and went to bed, and didn’t think about it anymore. All the same, they could hear him sobbing. When at last he came inside, Harry removed the hammer from the rifle he’d used. He would never take up a gun again.
It was days before Josephine realized her mother wouldn’t be coming back. Weeks before she stopped looking out over Hightop Mountain. She never asked her husband why he’d killed the bear or why her mother had run off. She never asked why years later, when they had been married for many years and had raised two daughters, Harry suddenly decided to run for mayor. The first resolution he passed was to change the name of the town. The second was to sign an edict for a yearly celebration honoring Hallie Brady in the middle of August. Some people believed it to be the founder’s birthday, but it was only the mark of blueberry season, the time when people who knew the territory avoided Hightop Mountain, leaving it to the bears.
EIGHT NIGHTS OF LOVE
THE TREE OF LIFE WAS PLANTED IN THE center of Blackwell. People said that when it bloomed, anyone standing beneath its boughs could ask for mercy for his sins. For decades a town bylaw forbade defacing the tree, but at night people took cuttings. They secretly planted saplings in their yards, wrapping the tender bark in burlap to ward off the cold. Such thievery was meant to protect the future of the town, which people said would flourish as long as the Tree of Life did. Should the original tree ever be struck by lightning or consumed by beetles, the cuttings ensured there would be others to take its place. In time the apples that came from these trees, the same fruit that had tempted Adam and Eve, came to be called the Blackwell Look-No-Further. Once you’d come to Blackwell and tasted these apples, you would never need go anywhere else. If the whole world beckoned, you’d still be happy enough to spend your life in this small valley in Massachusetts.