Here are the first three chapters of my debut novel, In the Land of God. It’s available for purchase on Amazon (and also available as an Amazon Unlimited title). Hope you enjoy, and feel free to leave feedback.
In southern Illinois, near the great artery called the Mississippi and the wooded hideaways of the Ozarks, there once lay a town named New Canaan. It’s gone now, just a collection of abandoned buildings, overgrown dirt roads, and the decaying reminders of a time when people lived there. It can no longer be found on a map, and it is never mentioned in public records.
In another time, New Canaan did exist, a sanctuary in the wilderness. A small collection of buildings and shops formed its main street; a post office, a library, a church, and a town hall that doubled as the only school along with various shops that served the citizens’ basic needs. On the edge of town there was an old bar, probably one of the first things built in New Canaan. It served as a second town hall where the farmers gathered to share information and opinions.
A collection of farms made a patchwork of the surrounding countryside, some of them owned by the descendants of original settlers, and others more recently developed. Shortly after that great national calamity known as the Civil War, a man came to New Canaan looking to make a new life for himself. He had been made a scarred victim of industrialized violence, and once he recovered he decided to leave the city in search of tranquility. He planned on going west and starting a farm, but instead he wound up in New Canaan.
Despite his unluckiness, his family had been very lucky, and as a result he inherited a great deal of money. He laid claim to the unclaimed land around town, established a property business in town, and began selling to anyone choosing to settle in the area. Years passed and his wealth grew, but money doesn’t prevent aging. He grew older and the amount of land he owned shrank. Nobody would remember him after he died. As a young man the thought didn’t trouble him much, but with the passage of time it haunted him. There was one piece of land that he wanted to make sure went to the right buyer.
It laid a few miles out of town, and he’d grown attached to it. He had no practical use for it. He didn’t hunt, he didn’t fish, and he never thought to build on it or farm it. Still, when he spent too much time alone in thought, or when he just needed to get away, he would walk to this land and take refuge there. He spent many afternoons sitting on a fallen log or a stump, basking in the glorious peace of the place, listening to the chirping birds, the hum of insects, and the bubbling creek that ran through the property. It was the kind of place that a good man would live and die for, it deserved more than to be worked until it could produce no more.
As the century ended he sold off most his remaining land except for that one piece he couldn’t bring himself to part with. He wrote to his living relatives, asking if they knew anyone interested in buying the land. They responded, saying that a young man from a wealthy family in Chicago might be interested in it, and they had given him the necessary contact information. The old man received a letter shortly thereafter from this potential customer who explained that he was interested in buying the land. They decided on a date to meet in New Canaan once the winter passed.
In the spring of 1900, there was one of those halcyon days that held the promise of tremendous things to come. Farmers came and went from New Canaan, buying material in preparation for the new sowing season. In a rural community like this, sowing season marked the start of the new year, not some date on a calendar. The old man had risen before dawn so that he could walk out to the property and be with it one last time. This was the day the young man was coming down from Chicago, and the old man accepted that by the day’s end the land might no longer be his.
After returning from the property he cleaned up, and dressed for the meeting; a white shirt, dress pants held up with suspenders, and black, shined shoes. He looked at himself in the mirror, the wrinkles on his face seemed more pronounced, his belly a little larger, and his eyes more tired. At noon he walked downstairs to the office and sat, watching the clock, waiting for the future to come through the front door. Outside, farmers bustled around buying new tools, making deals, getting things arranged. The old man chuckled, because these men that despised city life acted so similarly to the thing they hated.
The farmers stopped, and there came a low rumbling that rose to a roar outside his office. The old man jumped to his feet and ran outside just in time to see a young man and a young woman drive up to the front of his office. They rode in a black, square machine somewhat like a cross between a tractor and a carriage. The two people were dressed in clean, metropolitan clothing, but modest enough to offset the ruckus they had caused. Still, the farmers eyed them with suspicion. The couple left the machine and walked toward the office, hand-in-hand exuding an air of nervous positivity. They nodded and smiled at the farmers near them, and received glares, scowls, or curt nods in return.
The young man walked to the old man, offering him a genuine smile and extending his hand for a shake.
“You’re the man I’ve been talking to, right?” the young man asked.
The old man shook hands with the young man and returned the smile, “Yes, I am.”
“I’m Abraham,” and pointing to the young woman, “This is my wife, Sarah.” She smiled, and the old man gave her a light handshake.
“Pleasure to meet the two of you.”
“Y’know, I don’t think I ever caught your name in any of the letters, and I’d like to know a man’s name before I start doing business with him,” Abraham said without suspicion, but with honest interest in knowing the old man’s name.
The old man smiled and laughed a little bit, “I suppose that was rude of me not to tell you who I am. The name’s Elijah, but you can just call me Eli.”
Abraham smiled, “Well, in that case you can just call me Abe.”
Eli opened the office door, “Here, let’s all come inside and get out of the sun. I’m sure you’d like to rest after riding down from Chicago in that contraption.”
Abe gave a hearty laugh, “Oh, no, no we didn’t come down here on that. We took the train and had it shipped with us, we just drove over from Quincy.”
Eli laughed back, “Oh, of course, that makes a lot more sense.”
The trio walked inside, the shoes’ clicking making an echo as they struck the hardwood floor. They walked over to a large, beautiful desk that somehow also possessed a humility. Behind it sat a leather chair that seemed to be more of a throne than a chair. The office smelled of ink, coffee, and pipe smoke along with the faint smell of food. Eli pulled back the chairs in front of the desk so Abe and Sarah could sit. He walked around to the other side of the desk and sat down in the luxurious chair, his hands folded in front of him on top of a pile of papers.
“So! You’re interested in buying my last bit of land.”
“Yes, from what you’ve told me it would be more than enough to have a farm.”
“Are you thinking of farming it?”
“Well, yes, but I want it to be more than a farm, I want it to be the kind of place I can hand down to my children, and my grandchildren, and God willing my great-grandchildren.”
Eli smiled upon hearing that, “I think this land is exactly what you’d like, and I can already tell I’d be comfortable selling it to you, and that’s not a light decision for me. This is my most treasured property.”
Sarah cleared her throat and spoke up, “I don’t mean to be…intrusive, but if it’s so important to you, why not give it to your children?”
Abraham frowned at her, and Eli chuckled, “You may not have noticed, but do you see any pictures of a family?”
Sarah shook her head.
“There’s your answer.”
“Oh, I’m sorry…I just assumed, I thought…” Sarah stammered, her face turning red with embarrassment.
Eli laughed, “It’s alright. No, when I moved here…” he thought about how to best explain himself without giving away too much information, “Well, a wife and children just weren’t part of my plan I suppose.”
Abe and Sarah nodded, and he gave her a pat on the leg.
“Now, are you two thinking of starting a family?” Eli asked.
They perked up and smiled. Abraham said, “Actually, we learned right before we left that we’re expecting our first child.”
Sarah smiled, “Yes, and that only made Abe want to come here even more. He doesn’t think the city would be a good place to raise a child, but he forgets we were both raised in the city.”
Abe cleared his throat, “It was different then.”
“Well, I can’t argue with you Abe,” Eli said to break the tension, “But how about we all take a look at the property before we make any agreements?” He glanced at Sarah and gave her a knowing smile, letting her know that he understood her reservations.
“How far is it from town?” Abe asked.
“Not too far, if an old man like me can walk there in a couple hours I’m sure it won’t take us long at all to get there in that gadget of yours.”
They walked outside and the town had fallen silent. Most of the farmers had gone back to work their land, and only a few older men sat on porches and stared at the trio emerge from Eli’s office. Abraham stopped for a moment, even in the town there was a natural, calming quiet. The sky not only seemed, but was, bluer, clearer, and everything had a purity and simplicity like it had been built just after the world had formed. He walked over to the automobile and helped Sarah and Eli up into their seats, then he started the engine.
It came to life and the whole car surged with energy. Abe turned to Eli and said, “Show me the way.”
Eli pointed to the road that led west out of town and into the country. Abraham nodded and pressed down on the accelerator. The car rumbled down the road, and Sarah placed a hand on her stomach. These new beginnings, the passengers in the car unaware that the life growing in Sarah, and Eli’s land already intertwined, set to unfold an inevitable series of events.
Outside of town the land flattened out. A bird could look down and see the patchwork of farms separated by lines of trees, places where men had made the untamed, virgin earth into places of order and productivity. On each farm stood a barn and a house. In the fields, the men and the sons of those men put seeds in the ground. Despite their cleverness, despite their machines, these people still relied on the bounty and mercy of the earth.
One square of land stood out from the rest. There was no brown field in this square, instead a tangle of strong trees, wild flowers, and tall grass dominated everything. The trees provided a haven for the birds, while the brush made a shelter for small animals that hid from the eyes of predators. A creek ran alongside the land’s western boundary that connected to a sizable pond on the north side of the property. Just beyond the southern line of trees ran a dirt road, and on the other side of the road laid marshland.
From down the dirt road a cloud of dust rose from the earth accompanied by a roar. Some of the birds flew away, and some of the ground animals fled to their holes, but the courageous animals stayed and watched with curiosity as this beast passed by. A young man with black, short hair, and a trimmed black beard sat in the driver’s seat. He had green eyes that radiated with a childish excitement, taking in all of the details of this brave new world. Beside him sat a young woman with a soft face, blue eyes, and coils of blonde hair. She too looked at everything around them with a slightly more analytical gaze than a voracious one. Behind the two younger people sat an old man who leaned forward and pointed to a spot on the side of the road.
Abraham maneuvered the car over to a flat spot on the side of the road, the wheels flattening the tall grass and the tires settling in the mud. Abe killed the engine and jumped out of car. He helped down Sarah first then Eli. The smell of exhaust passed away, and the fresh, intoxicating smell of flowers and dirt replaced it. Abe breathed deep filling his lungs with the natural aromas. A wall of healthy trees before him blocked his view of the clearing beyond them. A small path of flattened grass and trampled dirt passed between two trees.
“I’m guessing that’s from you?” Abraham asked Eli.
“Oh yes, I figured I might as well stick to the same path to get on and off the property. It’s just more convenient that way.”
“Is it all tall grass in there?”
“Mostly tall grass, but there’s a little plot of land where you don’t have to worry about ticks or anything.”
Abraham swept his hand in a half-circle to tell Eli to lead the way. Abe and Sarah followed Eli along the path. Eli touched each tree he passed, his fingertips grazing the tops of the blades of tall grass. Abe helped Sarah navigate the path, ensuring that none of her clothing snagged on vegetation or got caught on a tree branch. The trees gave way to an almost endless sea of yellow-green tall grass, pockets of dark green bushes freckled with berries, and in the middle of it all an island of dirt. Two other tree lines marked the other borders, and on the far edge of the property Abe saw a shimmer of water. Beyond the water a field.
A gentle breeze washed over the clearing making the tall grass roll like waves. The leaves in the trees rustled making a chorus of oak, maple, beech and the odd pine. Eli walked over to the patch of dirt and sat down on a stump. A smile crept onto his lips, and he looked around at the property, then lifted his head to look at the sky. Abe and Sarah stood back, allowing the old man to have his moment. He realized his lapse of attention and jumped off the stump as if a shock passed through it.
“I’m so sorry about that, folks,” he apologized, dusting off his pants, “This place, it just…” He trailed off and shook his head, “Well, that doesn’t excuse me being rude, and to think I didn’t even offer it to the pregnant lady!”
“It’s alright Eli,” Sarah said with a smile, her voice telling of her sincerity.
Abraham knelt down and ran a hand over the dirt, his fingers probing the earth. His hand came back wet, he pinched and rubbed his fingers together. It smelled rich, it felt soft but durable. Perfect for growing.
“It’s good soil, isn’t it?” Eli said to Abraham, “I’ve had so many people ask me to sell them this land, but I just couldn’t do it.” He around at the trees, the vegetation, and stopped when he faced the adjacent farm. Eli closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
Abraham stood up and wiped his hand on his pants, “This place really is special to you isn’t it.” He worded it more as a statement of fact than as a question.
Eli opened his eyes and continued to look at the other farm in the distance, “Yes, I suppose it is,” he replied just above a whisper. He turned to Abraham, “I like to think of this place as something…well something holy I guess. Like it’s God’s own land, and that no matter who owns it someday it’ll have to go back to him,” he paused, “Does that make sense to you Abraham?”
Abe considered how to respond to the question. His family had been nominal Christians, in his opinion. They went to church to keep up appearances and maintain business connections, not out of belief in some higher power. His family worshiped one god, but it wasn’t the one Eli meant.
“It means you don’t know how long you’ll have it, so you should treat it like a gift that you’ll have to give back someday.”
Eli nodded in approval. He walked back to the stump and sat down.
“I don’t know how much longer I’ll be around, and I don’t really have anyone to inherit this land, or any of my belongings,” he thought for a minute then said, “How much did I say I’d sell this property for?”
“To be honest, I don’t recall.” It was true, Abraham couldn’t remember the price.
Eli looked at Abraham and Sarah with a thoughtful gaze, he leaned forward on the stump and said, “What if I gave this farm to you? I have no use for any more money, I have enough to keep me comfortable until my time comes, so I don’t want any money from you.”
“What is it you want?” Abe asked trying not to show his suspicion.
“I want to help you build your life here.”
The two men stared at each other, unflinching, trying to figure out if the other one told the truth.
Sarah touched Abraham’s arm and whispered, “Abe, let’s think about this, this is a big decision for everyone involved. Are you sure this is right for everyone?” As she stressed the last word she gently tilted her head toward Eli.
Abe looked at the old man, this lonely old man who just wanted to be included in something besides a simple transaction. A deep wellspring of empathy opened up inside Abe and he whispered to Sarah, “I’m sure.”
She didn’t say anything in return, but squeezed his arm and stepped back.
Abe walked over to Eli and said, “I’d still like something in writing, just so everything’s formalized.”
Eli’s face stretched with a warm smile, “Yes, of course, of course we can do that.”
Abe smiled back at him, “Alright then.” He stuck out his hand for a shake, but Eli stood up and wrapped his arms around Abraham instead. Abraham let his hands rest on the back of Eli’s shoulders, and as soon as he did Eli pulled away, deeply embarrassed.
He cleared his throat and looked away, but Abe patted him on the shoulder. In a strange way, this man felt more like a father-figure than his own father had. He didn’t cry at the funeral, not out of a show of masculinity, but because he truly couldn’t make the tears come. With this old man, this stranger, he knew that when the time came he wouldn’t be able to stop the tears.
Eli slapped Abe on the arm a couple times and said, “Let’s go back to town and get everything done. You two are welcome to stay with me if you’re planning on staying overnight.”
“We’d appreciate that Eli,” Sarah said, “You’re the only person we know for miles around.”
She hadn’t meant for it to be touching, but to Eli it came off as so trusting and faithful that how could he not be moved by the sentiment?
They walked back to the car, repeating the process from when they left town. Abraham climbed back into the driver’s seat, overcome with an exhilaration he hadn’t felt since he made the decision to come to this town in the middle of nowhere. How could this place, barely mentioned on maps, mostly unknown to the outside world, have such an impact on him? Maybe Eli was right that this land was sanctified touched by something divine, or maybe it was all in his mind. He knew it to be the latter, but wanted to believe the former.
Racing back to New Canaan he placed a hand on Sarah’s thigh. She looked over and smiled at him, but her eyes betrayed her nervousness. Abe squeezed her leg, and she placed a hand over her stomach while staring at him. Without realizing it, Abraham had set in motion a series of events that would last for decades and span continents.
After the group returned to town, Eli transferred the deed over to Abraham, making Abe and Sarah the newest residents of New Canaan. At first, Abe and Sarah discussed going back to Chicago for the rest of the summer to get their affairs in order. They planned on returning in the fall and starting work on building the farm.
“You’ve never built before, have you?” Eli asked Abraham, “Because you don’t want to start building in the fall, even down here.”
“So where can we stay?”
“You’re welcome to stay with me in town. You two can have my room and I’ll sleep downstairs.”
“We couldn’t put you out like that,” Sarah protested before Abe could agree. “Besides, we still need to go home and get our things, and get the money to build in the first place.”
“Well, if it’s money you’re worried about I’ve got that covered. A lot of people around here owe me some favors, so I’m sure I could get our hands on equipment and some building materials.”
Sarah mulled it over, and Abe jumped back into the conversation, “That’s very kind of you Eli, but Sarah’s right: we do need to go home, get our belongings, and say our good byes.”
Eli nodded, understanding, “While you go back to Chicago and take care of all that, I’ll go around and call in my debts. To be honest, it’s probably best if you two aren’t here for that part.”
While Sarah and Abe made the trip back to Chicago, Eli collected tools and lumber from the farmers and business owners of New Canaan. Every conversation went the same, “Why’re you helping them two?” and his response was always the same, “Why shouldn’t I?”
Around a week later Abe and Sarah returned to New Canaan by way of Quincy. They had rented a man and his cart to haul the belongings into town. To Abraham and Sarah, it wasn’t much, but to the people in New Canaan it seemed like a king and queen had descended on their small town. How dare they come in here with all their fancy furniture and suitcases full of uppity clothes! When they pulled up in front of Eli’s office he stepped outside and said under his breath, “You two sure know how to make an entrance.” He noticed the New Canaanites scowling at all of it.
They’re good, hardworking people, but their ignorance is exhausting, thought Eli.
No matter how much time passed, how many friends he had made, Eli believed the townspeople regarded him with suspicion. They believed he would turn on New Canaan if an opportunity presented itself, and many of them wondered if Abe and Sarah were that opportunity.
Abe and the cart driver hauled the furniture into the office while Eli collected the bags and suitcases. Once they completed that, Eli pulled Abraham aside.
“You two need to be a little more inconspicuous. These people don’t take kindly to outsiders, especially not ones as obvious as you two.”
Abe pursed his lips and looked out the window at the dusty main street.
“I’m not telling you this to scare you off, but you need to be careful. I have a place for you to put that automobile. If you leave it on the street then someone is gonna wreck it.”
Abraham wanted to charge out of the office and start raging against the New Canaanites for their unwarranted hostility. Sarah saw Abe’s temper flare and she placed a hand on his arm, “Abe, just listen to Eli.”
“Once they get used to you, and actually start to see you as people, then this won’t be a problem. It’s just better, for now, if we all keep to ourselves. I’ve probably upset my fair share of people just by helping you.”
Abraham complied and moved the car to the hiding place. Over the next few days Abraham bought more material to build the house and the barn. The shopkeepers didn’t know much about this newcomer or his wife, but he paid in cash, and that was better than most of the farmers in New Canaan.
Before dawn, Eli and Abe loaded tools into the car and drove out to the property. First they dug up the bushes and moved them to plots near the creek. The berries could provide a quick snack, besides, Abraham intended to get as much out of the farm as possible. Next, Abe and Eli tried to cut the tall grass with scythes, but the work proved harder than it seemed. After a few hours of work the sweat soaked through their clothes and both men gasped for air. Eli sat down on the stump and took out an old pipe, he packed the bowl and lit the tobacco. He cast the match aside, it landed in the grass, and soon a small fire started.
At first, Abe and Eli tried to stop the fire, then realized it could be used to clear most of the land. They dug a dirt perimeter around the tall grass to keep the fire contained, and by late afternoon the fire had consumed most of the tall grass. The field had become a scorched wasteland of dried and burnt grass, and much to Eli’s delight his stump had survived.
The two men walked through the smoldering remnants of the tall grass.
“It’s good for the soil. Fire can destroy, but it can also renew. This will be good for when we start farming next year.”
After all that day’s work they returned to town. Abraham hid the car and walked back to the office. The next day the men rose at dawn and drove back to the property. They cut down the southern line of trees and made a long, high woodpile back from the road.
“Why are we saving this wood?” Abraham asked. “We can’t use it for building.”
Eli chuckled, “You’ll want it when it gets colder.” The conversation about saving the wood ended with that statement.
With the land cleared, Abe and Eli cleared a spot for the future house, a place to set the foundation for future generations. An older farmer, one of Eli’s friends, helped bring out some of the building supplies. He stood by as Abe and Eli began to build the house, but the simple gesture of using his horse and cart to haul material helped Abe realize that at least one other New Canaanite accepted him.
As the house grew, so did Sarah. She radiated with a motherly glow as if she had already given birth to a beautiful child. Despite the hard labor of the day, the sight of Sarah bolstered the spirits of Abe and Eli. They ate dinner in Eli’s old office, went to their separate places to sleep, and the next day Abe and Eli went back to work on the property. By the end of May Abe and Eli had completed the bulk of the house. It still needed a roof, windows, and paint, but the walls were up and it resembled a living space. Sarah begged Abe to take her out to see the house, but he declined. He didn’t want her to see their new home until they could live in it.
On the ground floor a living room with a flight of stairs leading to the second floor, it waited to be filled with life, the fireplace cold and dark waiting for the winter. In the back of the house a kitchen waiting to be filled with the smell of good food and the sound of happy meals. The second floor had a bathroom and four bedrooms. Each bedroom waiting for its occupant. At the end of June Abe and Eli completed the house. They called on Eli’s old friend and he helped move the furniture. For the rest of the summer, for the rest of their lives, Abe, Sarah, and Eli would live in this house.
The chance to plant seeds had passed, but it didn’t bother Abraham; the summer had been productive enough already without worrying about a field of crops. While Abe and Eli had built the house, some of the nearby farmers had stopped by to view the progress. None of them approached the working men, and the working men never stopped to talk to the small audience of farmers. The farmers appreciated the uniformity of the house, it looked like the rest of the farmhouses; nothing ostentatious or arrogant and it didn’t come as a challenge to their own homes.
With the house complete, Eli reached out to some people he knew to sell his office. They dealt in land and were happy to buy an outpost like that, especially considering the price Eli offered them. It not only added to Eli’s account, but truly finalized his moving in with Abe and Sarah.
In July some of the farmers came to Abraham and told him they would help him raise a barn. The men worked without speaking, and with the project complete the farmers returned to their own lands. Nevertheless, it had been a diplomatic moment, an initiation that welcomed Abraham and Sarah as fellow New Canaanites. The significance of the act was not lost on Abe or Sarah or Eli. The rest of July and August brought great storms that swept over New Canaan. Harsh rains threatened to make the creek overrun its banks while harsh winds jeopardized the new buildings on the farm. The house groaned under pressure, and on some nights Abe, Sarah, and Eli retreated to the safety of the cellar. They huddled in the dark hoping that the house did not collapse on top of them.
The storms washed away the dead vegetation and ash, exposing clean, fertile ground ripe for farming next season. On the calm nights, Abraham sat on the stump in the field. He stared at the open land before him believing that it held unfathomable promise. How could he be so lucky to own all of this? Perhaps God had blessed him and readied him for success, or perhaps it had just been fortunate circumstances that led him to this place. Sometimes Sarah came outside and sat beside him, basking in the fading light of the day, watching the stars come out one by one.
On the peaceful nights, Eli stood in the backdoor and gazed at the farm on the other side of the pond. How long before he could tell Abraham about it? Abe had found peace, and after all the sweat and dedicated work did he deserve to have his peace shattered? Still, it was only a matter of time before that outside force from beyond the pond came to intrude on the tranquility whether Eli warned of it or not. For the time being he left it alone, allowing Abe and Sarah to enjoy the stillness of the farm, he didn’t dare disturb it. It would be like a gunshot in a church, a kick to a hornets’ nest, a trauma for a young couple that didn’t deserve it.