THERE WEREN’T MANY people who saw the man who planted the original tree on the day he arrived in Blackwell. He was John Chapman, who came to town with his half brother, Nathaniel. John was eighteen and Nathaniel only eleven. They were quiet and serious, and both seemed older than their age. They’d left home to sleep in meadows, under the stars. John had worked as an apprentice in an apple orchard, and as far as he was concerned his employment there had been a part of God’s plan. He had a philosophy about freedom, one that had come to him in a dream, then had filtered into his waking life. He eschewed things made by man and yearned for a more godly and natural state. He believed that every creature belonged to God equally, a product of divine love and wisdom. Man and beast, insect and tree, all of it reflected the face of the Maker. John had been reading pamphlets written by Swedenborg, the Christian mystic, and the sentiment of charity as divine spoke deeply to him. He felt swept up in something far bigger than himself.

In Leominster, where John had been born, the streets were filthy. His neighbors had sickened and fought among each other. Many had died young. As a child he’d seen a man gun down his wife in the road. He’d seen dogs tied up and left to starve, children set out to fend for themselves. He ached to sleep in the grass with the sound of buzzing all around him. He dreamed of a time when there were trees everywhere instead of houses. Every tree was perfect, unlike human beings, especially the variety of tree that brought forth what John believed to be manna—the apple. When turned into cider and fermented, the juice of the apple was nearly holy in nature. The drink could transport a man out of himself, into a world much closer to God. Not drunkenness—that was not the goal—but an ecstatic state.

John and Nathaniel made their way easily across Hightop Mountain. They were young and strong, buoyed by faith. Each carried a sack on his back and a staff of apple wood from the oldest tree in their town, which had been cut down so that the main road could be expanded. That was the day John decided to head west. As he watched the gnarled branches of that old tree in his hometown destroyed, something inside made him veer radically from the path of other men. He had a yearning for heaven on earth, and that surely wasn’t Leominster. When he walked out the door, his half brother was right behind him.

It was the season when the bears woke, when snow was melting and the air was bracing. Just sleeping in those mountains, waking to hear the rushing echo of the streams that formed the Eel River down in the valley, could induce near ecstasy. From a perch on the mica-lined crag it was possible to spy the town of Blackwell below them. It was the kind of village that needed manna.

John Chapman was tall and thin and didn’t need much sleep. He had long dark hair, which he vowed he would never again cut. His face was angular and beautiful, but in his opinion an ant was more beautiful than he would ever be, a black snake more wondrous. When he first set off for the West, he decided he would have as little as possible to do with anything that had been man-made. The divine was in every human, as it was in him. The closer he was to the natural world, the closer to heaven. He wore homespun clothes and no shoes. As he tramped through the countryside his excitement increased. For some reason he didn’t feel the cold, perhaps because he was burning up with ideas.

He crouched down next to his brother and shook him awake. They had their breakfast, some tea boiled from mint and bear-berry, along with a few handfuls of fiddlehead ferns cooked over the fire in the one pan they carried with them. John had vowed never to eat another living creature or to cause pain to any being. He liked the light-headed feeling that eating so little gave him. He was steady enough, sure of himself as he led Nathaniel down the mountain, then across the plain that people in these parts called Husband’s Meadow, a field that in summer filled with pitcher plants and black-eyed Susans.

It was a small town. The sky was still dark, with bands of pearly gray breaking through. The men from the Starr family were already at work in the pastures on the far side of the Eel River, Harry Partridge was off fishing, the Motts were chopping down trees to expand the small meetinghouse. The only one to see the Chapman boys come into town was Minette Jacob, who had gone out to hang herself from the big oak tree in the meadow, a length of strong rope trailing from her hands.

The meadow grass swished under her boots and around her long skirt. Minette was pale with a cloud of dark hair. She resembled the Partridge side of her family, rather than the Bradys, who tended to be redheads with independent temperaments. She had little in common with the pious Jacobs, the family she had married into, only that their son had been her husband.

Minette had planned this dreadful undertaking carefully, well aware of the hour when she would at last be alone in Husband’s Meadow and could finally end her life on earth. She stopped when she saw the strangers striding toward her. Her heart sank. She knew that self-harm was an abomination, but she was beyond caring. She had lost her husband, William, to measles, and their newborn child, Josie, as well. Two weeks later, her dear sister, Lucy Ann Partridge, only sixteen, had passed on. Minette had no reason to be in the world. She was nineteen and a lost soul. She had not slept for five nights or had a bite of food. Daily life had become a blur, but now her vision cleared. She watched the boy and the man walking through the tall grass, and all at once she knew they were angels who’d been sent to her. She dropped to her knees right there.

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