"Woven together out of the strands of myth, science fiction, and ecological warning, Matt Bell’s Appleseed is as urgent as it is audacious." --Kelly Link, Get in Trouble A "work of incandescent imagination" (Karen Russell) from Young Lions Fiction Award–finalist Matt Bell, a breakout book that explores climate change, manifest destiny, humanity's unchecked exploitation of natural resources, and the small but powerful magic contained within every single apple. In eighteenth-century Ohio, two brothers travel into the wooded frontier, planting apple orchards from which they plan to profit in the years to come. As they remake the wilderness in their own image, planning for a future of settlement and civilization, the long-held bonds and secrets between the two will be tested, fractured and broken—and possibly healed. Fifty years from now, in the second half of the twenty-first century, climate change has ravaged the Earth. Having invested early in genetic engineering and food science, one company now owns all the world’s resources. But a growing resistance is working to redistribute both land and power—and in a pivotal moment for the future of humanity, one of the company’s original founders will return to headquarters, intending to destroy what he helped build. A thousand years in the future, North America is covered by a massive sheet of ice. One lonely sentient being inhabits a tech station on top of the glacier—and in a daring and seemingly impossible quest, sets out to follow a homing beacon across the continent in the hopes of discovering the last remnant of civilization. Hugely ambitious in scope and theme, Appleseed is the breakout novel from a writer “as self-assured as he is audacious” (NPR) who “may well have invented the pulse-pounding novel of ideas” (Jess Walter). Part speculative epic, part tech thriller, part reinvented fairy tale, Appleseed is an unforgettable meditation on climate change; corporate, civic, and familial responsibility; manifest destiny; and the myths and legends that sustain us all.
Release date: July 13, 2021
Publisher: Custom House
Print pages: 480
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In the faun’s clawed and calloused hands the pomace comes out rich and sweet, a treasure of crushed cores and waxy skins and pulped flesh, a dozen colors of apples distinct in the gap between the cider mill’s grindstone and its wheel. He squeezes his fingers into the trough—if the wheel slips, he’ll lose his hairy hand—and jerks free a handful of mash, dumping it onto a stretch of cheesecloth spread across the floor. He hops side to side, his hooves sliding on the slick boards, his claws’ sharpness speeding the pomace’s recovery from the circular groove. Occasionally he lifts his horned head to nervously watch the millhouse door: if he strains he can hear his half brother’s voice outside, still negotiating for seeds already freely given.
The faun hurries to finish before his brother loses the miller’s attention: his brother has many gifts, but a penchant for entrancing gab is not one. Every seed he pries from the mill comes up wet, each black kernel is coated in mottled skin, browning flesh, strands of core—all moisture and fertilizer for the long walk ahead. The room is thick with apple-drunk wasps, but the faun ignores their buzzing and the prickling welts their stings raise along his forearms.
Despite the irritation, he harbors the wasps no ill will: What else should a wasp be except a wasp?
The faun digs and sorts, pushing more seeds inside his leathern bag, filling it to bursting, then tamping down the mash to make room for more seeds. The moisture of the pressed pomace seeps through the tanned skin; by the time the brothers reach the Territory, a musk of sickly rot and sweet fermentation will have worked its way deep into the faun’s fur.
Ten years into this apple planter’s life, the faun has come to crave this clinging, cloying smell: the smell of the future he and his brother are making, all their orchards to be, the smell of his truest hope, that the Tree he seeks waits inside these seeds—although even if this is the year he plants it, then still ten more impatient years must pass before the Tree the seed contains might deliver its first ripe apple, revealing itself—and as always whenever the faun makes himself sick with hope, it’s because the pomace’s rotted drunken scent promises him something else, something more than mere trees, and yes, as he lifts the next fistful of crushed apple to his nose and breathes in its ferment, there it is, that hoped-for future beyond smell, beyond taste, beyond want, where one day this faun must go, forgotten and forgetting.
Chapman wakes in the cold and the dark and the wet predawn slush to the sound of his brother, Nathaniel, already up and tending to the sputtering ashes of last night’s fire, cursing and shivering, huddled beneath his only blanket; despite Nathaniel’s ministrations, the coals beneath the ashes stay dead, the gathered wood wet, breakfast impossible. Shelling himself out from his bedroll, Chapman rises too, offering his brother a grunted good morning before stamping his cloven hooves against the frigid ground, trying to quicken blood sluggish with sleep. As first light breaks, he stalks silently away from their campsite, climbing the last ridgeline of this Pennsylvanian mountain pass to watch the night’s rainfall trickle off into morning mist, admiring the fine accidental melody of clean water falling branch to branch; a moment later dutifulNathaniel follows along, dragging their bags and tools to where Chapman waits upon his outcropping of rock, one clawed hand raised to shield his golden eyes as he surveys the forest they’ll cross today, snowpack still jamming the forest’s shadows, sparkling ice coating its swampy glacial kettles and its irregular lakes, all this waiting beauty backlit now by the red shroud of sunrise, the new day’s dawn setting aglow a vast world not yet fully explored.
“This, brother,” Nathaniel says, placing one calloused hand on taller Chapman’s bare brown shoulder, waving the other out over the Territory below, “this is where we’ll make our fortune.” Pointing out the first landmarks they’re due to pass today, he traces a path out of this mountain gap and down through the slim strand of tilled earth that gives entrance to the Ohio Territory, then the way beyond into the unsettled, unmapped forest swamps of the interior, past the river bottomlands and sheltered ravines where they sowed last year’s nurseries, toward the next uninhabited acres where they’ll aim to plant this year’s seeds.
As Nathaniel happily details his plans, Chapman smiles his much-practiced smile, his sharp teeth slipping from behind his broad lips. “Look, brother,” he interrupts, pointing out dim campfires barely visible through the morning mist, flickers of flame and smoke rising in far-off sheltered dales. “There are so many more of us this year.”
Every year, these fires move deeper into the landscape, each one a distant sign of strangers come to expand the human mark, to put the land to what Nathaniel has taught Chapman are its rightful uses: here are settlers hunting and trapping and gathering wild foodstuffs, cutting down trees and tearing up rocks to make room for placeholder farms, making way for the towns to come, while others tap trees for sap and hang tin sugaring buckets over hot coals, sometimes passing the time with amateur fiddling, the inviting sounds of their instruments carrying across even the most desolate starless, moonless nights.
Together the brothers measure again the increasingly believable potential of this Territory, its wilderness cleared by war then emptied by treaty; as he has at the start of every other year’s journey, Nathaniel tells Chapman again how this taken land can now be brought to heel by industrious men, how by many hands the foundations of a new civilization will be laid here, the land year by year made ready for the coming of more people, until one day the uncultivated earth gives way to what he says will surely be the grandest of cities, each graced by the tallest buildings and the widest avenues, all populated by an endless parade of hardy settlers planting horizon-busting fields of wind-tilted golden grain, harvesting fruitful orchards planted by these two forward-thinking brothers.
Chapman and Nathaniel and these others gathered around their distant fires are only the first to come, he says. “Even if our industries should fail entirely,” Nathaniel concludes, “surely we will not be the last.”
Nathaniel has said this for ten years now, the same lines recited from the same mountain pass at the outset of each year’s venture. “It’s time to go,” Chapman says, suddenly impatient with his brother’s story. He ties his bedroll and his tools over one bare shoulder, slings his leathern seed bag around the other. The morning air is chilled and damp, but the bark of his skin keeps him warm enough that even in winter he wears no shirt or coat, only a pair of trousers hacked off above his inhuman knees. He dusts the last of the night’s frost from his flanks, then whinnies lowly, stretching tall to rub the smooth shells of his curved horns with his clawed hands, first his broken horn and then its intact twin, for luck. Nathaniel laughs, then mimics his brother’s superstitions, rubbing his own bare temples, where just recently a few gray hairs have started creeping through the brown.
“Meet you at the river,” Nathaniel teases, sidestepping onto the narrow trace path leading down the ridgeline, “if you can catch me.” He rushes to build his slim head start, but his advantage doesn’t last long. A moment later Chapman surges past him to drop down the steep plunge of the mountainside, his hooves sliding precariously on loose scree as he picks up speed, the joy of moving fast filling him from the inside out, his fur standing on end, his heart leaping with happy effort. He quickens his pace with every step until a barking cry rips free of him, the sound of his voice foreign enough to this Territory and every other to frighten all the nearby roosting birds into sudden startled flight, the gray sky filling with their black silhouettes, their many cries joining the whooping of this one faun, returned at last to wildest lands.
As many years as Chapman’s made this passage out of Pennsylvania, the thrill of arriving in the Territory has never ceased to provoke his fullest wonder. Propelled by joy, he runs dangerously this morning, his furred legs taking leaping, straining steps, his splayed hooves seeking purchase on sharp juttings of quivering rock, on old-growth roots thrust through black earth and slushy snow, other obstacles threatening to trip him and send him sprawling. When his descent smooths onto more level ground, he increases his speed again, his few possessions banging rhythmically against his muscular torso as all around him the forest deepens. The sun has only a pale power beneath these trees, where the frontier’s every shaded feature is a fresh barrier to progress. Searching for the way forward, Chapman follows a trail trampled by first peoples or fur trappers or single-file processions of deer, the path a barely visible scrawl plotting the way forward, then crosses dry strands of seasonal creeks strewn with the lacy bones of trout, an unremembered stream quickening with snowmelt; he encounters a thicket impassible except by hacking out each halting step with his tomahawk. He leaps fallen columns of oak and maple, vaults lichen-stung trunks maybe giving shelter to squirming snakes, the only animals he can’t abide; his movements scatter squirrels and chipmunks playing amid rotted leaves, forest mice leaping hungrily over melting snow. Once an explosion of foxes appears, a half-dozen pups running through the flattened grass of a meadow once purpled with loosestrife, yellowed with goldenrod; in the moist underbrush he spies the year’s first warty toads hopping hungrily through the moldings of mud rattlers and the pellets of horned owls.
Abundance everywhere, everywhere gathering and joy and predation and sorrow: amid all this untamed splendor, every acre of forest is an empire in the shape of the world.
Wherever Chapman ventures next there waits some unnamed waterway or unexplored meadow, some ridge never described, never made anyone’s landmark. Or so he once believed, come late to this landscape cleared of its most recent inhabitants. Now he just as frequently exits untouched woods to find newly planted lands, the forest’s brambles burned back, its glacier-spilled stones stacked into makeshift garden walls, so many trees felled to make rough-sawn boards, boards nailed into unsound houses held upright by mortar and tar and hope. New construction makes Chapman nervous; long inhabitation doubly so. From his youngest days, he could follow a wooded trail haphazardly stamped flat but couldn’t abide a road cleared by men with picks and shovels and mules; he could skirt the edges of farms but couldn’t cross their fenced-in fields without his skin aching with hives, his bones burning in their sockets.
Only after Nathaniel hit on the idea of planting frontier orchards did Chapman begin to better acculturate himself, their nurseries tucked amid their wilder cousins easing his flesh toward the idea of the domesticated, Nathaniel’s stands of apple trees wild enough for Chapman to pass among them as long as the trees are planted from seeds, never grafted.
By midday he reaches the river he seeks, the sun emerging over its clear, fast course, its waterline raised by snowmelt and spring rains. He squats over his hooves to scan the sparkling water for signs of trout coming up to feed on the gathering insects, hungry for their pleasurable slap and splash, then picks a tick from his fur, squeezing the pin of its head with clawed fingers, the pressure not enough to kill it but certainly to make it release. Half wild as he is, he doesn’t count himself as one of the forest creatures, but anything afflicting them might afflict him too, a lesson painfully learned his first wet season in the Territory, when he caught a hoof rot that Nathaniel treated as he would any common goat’s: with dreadful cuttings, then the application of stinking herbal salves.
Waiting for Nathaniel, Chapman swings his bag around his bare frame, rests it above his bony knees. He pulls it open even though he shouldn’t—the seeds could easily dry out despite the moist pomace and pulp—and then he plunges his head into the bag’s opening, breathes deep the wet ferment inside. Around him are a thousand fresher scents, all the Territory’s perfumes and poisons, promises and provocations, but Chapman’s favorite is the one he carries lashed to his chest, kept contained within his satchel: not the attractive smell of apples ready to be picked, not the smell becoming taste of an apple bitten, but this rotten stinking hope, the intoxicating promise of what next.
The Tree, the Tree, the Tree: taste and smell are almost the same sense, even in memory, even in dream; with his face buried in the leathern bag, Chapman imagines the taste-smell of the apple of the Tree he tells himself it’s possible to plant, to grow, to harvest one glowing apple from, one apple all he’ll need to change his life.
Let Nathaniel make his fortune, if he can. All Chapman wants is one particular apple.
The faun sneezes, snorts, and shakes. He removes his head from the bag, gives his attention back to the phenomenal world at hand, the light already different, the shadows slightly shifted in a moment, then more so by the time Nathaniel arrives an hour later, huffing down the narrow riverbank.
“Brother,” Nathaniel says, revealing a shirt wet with perspiration as he unshoulders his burden. He takes a knee, tries to catch his breath. “You waited for me this time.”
“Yes, brother,” Chapman happily replies, both of them grinning now, both glad to be back in the Territory, to be here together. Nathaniel has the steadiest step in the Territory, his stride is swift and sure; he is a man sure of his place, a plower of fields, a planter of seeds, a man charged to bring order to the wild chaos—but without Chapman he’d soon be lost. There are no reliable maps of the Territory and the brothers carry no compasses, relying instead on Chapman’s wilder parts to suss out wild ways for them to travel: as they leave the riverbank, he kneels, puts his nose to the wet ground.
“What is it?” Nathaniel asks, but Chapman only shushes him.
“Quiet,” he says, stretching low against the fragrant earth. He sucks in a deep breath through flared nostrils, finds his own smells intruding: sweat and dirt, tobacco, apple flesh; the wind within the skin, his trap of bark and fur. He filters himself out, tries again. This is trail as a container for sign, visual, auditory, olfactory: the stamped mud and broken twigs, the kicked-away pine straw and haphazard middens of fur-laced feces and owl pellets; the sounds of birds pecking at exposed seeds; the smell of decaying matter being carted away by ants or beetles. This is trail as time travel: to be able to read the signs is to know this place as it was hours or days before. In the dirt it is written: the last time it rained, the last time it snowed, flooding the landscape, burying it beneath white powder; how long since there was lightning overhead, bright danger sparking low above the tinder.
“This way,” Chapman says, leading Nathaniel through narrow bands of grass gently trampled by deer and moose, then along routes traveled by the wolves and coyotes and bobcats the brothers sometimes believe they see stalking black slates of dark slashed between the trees. Hours later, they make their first camp, their hearts glad for the smooth progress of their first day back in the Territory; tonight and every night they will sleep bared beneath the naked stars, without even a tent to spare them from the weather. Always they travel light, then endeavor to travel lighter. They can’t leave behind their bags of seeds, but much they believed they could not live without in Pennsylvania will be discarded in the wilder Territory, unnecessary weight left in the ruins of some minimal campsite, near a blackened splotch of earth where they burned a fire, a matted stretch of grass where they lay down to sleep upon what will soon be threadbare blankets.
As their westerly journey continues, the spring sun shines warmer every day, but in the shadows beneath the trees the snow often persists and the damp heavies their lungs, producing phlegmy coughs that leave Nathaniel racked in his bedroll but barely inconvenience hardy Chapman. Despite their hunting and gathering they are often underdressed and underfed, their bodies thinning as they grow irritated with each other’s constant presence, each other’s tics and habits; they squabble and bicker, but nonetheless there is laughter too, nonetheless there are moments of beauty beneath the great trees. The penumbra hemming the light of their campfire. The way yesterday’s rain trickles through the canopy of pine and oak. The deep moist loam pungent beneath their feet. The distant cries of coyotes, the happy snuffling of a nearby bear whose feeding goes unperturbed by their passage; few sounds are better than the bright tinkling of running water somewhere ahead, a chance to refill their waterskins.
Time and miles pass. To ease the hours as they walk, they sing together, their voices forming rough harmonies over snatches of half-remembered hymns, bawdy folk tunes; at night they crowd beside their campfire to dry their bones, lighting their pipes and talking of the nurseries they’ll plant every year forever, of the matured orchards they’ll revisit this autumn. “I believe in the promise of the wilderness,” Nathaniel says, staring into the firelight, as nightly he repeats his self-made creed. “I believe this continent’s far territories, each equally dense and foreboding and unpathed, await only the bravery of good men. And I believe in the taming of those wilds, how any acre not put to use is an acre wasted.”
The good earth, the invincible earth, the earth that can only be improved, made more useful, better suited for Christian inhabitation; an earth giving up its treasure for the good of mankind, a race of which Chapman is at least partly a part.
Mostly this future waits its distant turn. In the present, there is the dark forest to navigate, there are nurseries to plant and land to claim with trees, trees they’ll one year sell to settlers surely following behind them. Every morning Chapman and Nathaniel roll their dew-soaked bedrolls, pack their one pot, Nathaniel complaining his clothes will never dry from the forest’s damp, Chapman leading his shivering brother onward, his hooves following the trails of other hooved beasts. Unlike Nathaniel, who slinks off to hunt whenever the opportunity presents itself, Chapman never eats the flesh of these animals. But neither does he fear starvation, not here in the bountiful Territory, its lands filled with bright bunches of berries, with undomesticated fruits and wild corn, with pale tubers hidden beneath the rich dirt.
Despite the ever-present chill beneath the canopy’s shade, sometimes a bright shaft of sunlight beams through wherever some tree has fallen beneath the weight of winter snow or the sharp crack of spring lightning. Weeks into their journey, the brothers stand in one such pillar of light, clapping each other’s shoulders affectionately, this man and half-man united by their journey and by the destiny Nathaniel has designed for them to earn.
“I believe, brother,” he says, his face flush with the sunbeam’s warmth, “that you and I can put this place to its right uses, that you know best what might grow where, what land might take our seeds and make them thrive.”
In this Nathaniel is correct: whatever else Chapman is, his wildness is a boon, his faunish body a living dowser for good earth. By his guidance the brothers soon arrive at a sharp bend in a river’s creased arc, fertile soil holding a stand of tall trees tucked inside its watery curve, some of them healthy and whole, some recently lightning burned and therefore easier to remove.
“Here,” Chapman says, “right here,” he repeats, pointing at the level stretch of riverbank that surrounds them.
“Yes, brother,” Nathaniel agrees, rubbing his hands together. Even with the land waiting to be cleared, it’s possible to imagine a humble house appearing here, a home where a man and his wife and his children might grow some crops and raise some stock and even catch fish for dinner, brown trout leaping over a manageable rapid, their mouths hungry for the hook.
Chapman is one of a kind; he’ll build no house nor plant any garden, he accepts he’ll have no wife and raise no children, not like this, not as a species of one, half wild and half man, alone in the world except for his human brother. Later, Nathaniel says of his own prospects, deferring any pursuit of his desired family until he’s made his fortune in apple trees. For now only today exists, and today they’ll plant a nursery so some other man might come here and finish the work, all that must be done to settle this land as Nathaniel’s Lord intends: to the good life of husbandry and stewardship, to the total dominion promised all righteous men willing to put to profitable use every square inch of this God-gifted earth.
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