Bell Weather: A Novel

Bell Weather: A Novel

by Dennis Mahoney


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Bell Weather: A Novel by Dennis Mahoney

A thrilling adventure set in a peculiar world, a fantastical 18th century, where a young woman must uncover the secrets of her past while confronting the present dangers of a magical wilderness

When Tom Orange rescues a mysterious young woman from a flooded river, he senses that their fates will deeply intertwine.

At first, she claims to remember nothing, and rumor animates Root-an isolated settlement deep in a strange wilderness. Benjamin Knox, the town doctor, attends to her recovery and learns her name is Molly. As the town inspects its young visitor, she encounters a world teeming with wonders and oddities. She also hears of the Maimers, masked thieves who terrorize the surrounding woods.

As dark forces encircle the town, the truth of Molly's past spills into the present. A desperate voyage. A genius brother. A tragedy she hasn't fully escaped. Molly and Tom must then decide between surviving apart or risking everything together. Dennis Mahoney's Bell Weather is an otherworldly and kinetic story that blends history, fantasy, mystery, and adventure, to mesmerizing effect.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250093813
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 08/09/2016
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 1,164,707
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Dennis Mahoney is the author of Fellow Mortals, a Booklist Top Ten Debut in 2013. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, son, and dog.

Read an Excerpt

Bell Weather

A Novel

By Dennis Mahoney

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2015 Dennis Mahoney
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62779-268-4


Town of Root, Continent Of Floria, 1763

Lush spring made amends for Root's monstrous winters and remoteness in the forest, but the snowmelt, mud, and early-season flux left the town unstable, prone to floods and violent storms.

It was daybreak. The heavy fog had just begun to brighten, and the blurry trees and hills cupped the narrow valley like a pair of giant hands enclosing something fragile. Tom Orange stood with his horse, two miles north of town, and saw a woman in the middle of the riotous Antler River. He was tired and he hadn't drunk his morning cup of smoak, so when the dull floral pattern of her gown caught his eye he disregarded it at first, assuming it was blossoms. Only blossoms on a huge, twisted branch — not a body. Not a thing worth saving in the wreckage of the flood.

Tom removed his tricorne, tightened up the ribbon in his ponytailed hair, and put his hat back on before the mist wet his scalp. Every spring the river surged with swirling flowers. White petals, black centers — they were minuscule and stemless and appeared in quick profusion, well before any known plants began to bloom. The river undulated white like a meadow made of foam. Some of the townspeople said they floated from the Wolf Mountains in the north. Others thought they blossomed at the bottom of the river and emerged when the potent spring current stirred them up.

Tom viewed the flowers as just another element of home, and yet this morning he had ridden down the length of Root's border, following the river and surveying its engorgement. Only once in old Nabby's antediluvian memory had the water risen high enough to overwhelm the town, but there was always that threat and nobody in Root, least of all Tom, dropped their vigilance with so much danger roaring past. Not to mention all the people who would question him in the tavern: Had the river drowned the wharf? Had it swamped Murk's Farm? It was easier to know when he was serving them a cider, easier to ride out and see it for himself.

Bones shifted hooves and snorted in the mist. He was a gangly, crooked horse who appeared malnourished, though he moved with graceful confidence and ate without reserve. Tom had found him last summer in the graveyard, standing with a crestfallen slouch beneath a tree, as if his owner had abandoned him but might reappear. It was said that people who perished in the wilderness, alone and far from home, walked as spirits to the town in search of others like themselves. There were numerous haunts in Root — the tavern had a child ghost, according to the cook — and Tom suspected Bones's owner had died in the forest, led the horse to the graveyard, and silently departed. That or providence, he thought. Either way, they'd quickly bonded.

Moments earlier, the two had shared a ripple of the flesh — a question in the fog, an instinctual anxiety — and Tom had dismounted Bones to see what he could find.

Dawn spread vermilion in the low-slung clouds. Looking harder at the branch he had earlier dismissed, he was puzzled by the different sort of flowers in the tangle. They were larger than the others, dark blue and dirty rose. Tom's boot began to slide very slowly in the mud. Not blossoms, he decided. They were flowers on a gown. Then he saw her all at once: a woman, maybe dead, her upper half held above the water by the branch.

He slipped and spun around, clutching at the grass and muddying his coat. The river nearly got him but he bellied up the bank. He mounted Bones, who cantered away before Tom was fully balanced on the saddle, and they raced along the riverside in something near to silence — just the hooves' boggy suction and the rumble of the flood. They hurried south toward the town two miles off, where the ferry rope stretched bank to bank above the river. It was his only chance of catching her and holding her in place before the water swept her off to Dunderakwa Falls.

Every breath seemed to blow directly into his heart, billowing his chest and flushing through his veins. They were riding so fast, his hat blew away. The old bullet in his shoulder ground against bone. He squinted left and saw the branch still carrying the body. Then he lost it in the mist. They were barely keeping up.

Where the river met the mouth of Dampmill Creek, the flood spilled wide across an acre's worth of grassland. Tom, so preoccupied with following the woman, spurred Bones onward into the new-made marsh as if expecting that the flowers were indeed solid ground. Bones splashed in and waded to his chest. They struggled through the mire to the high, firmer ground, up a slope lined with birches to a thin, bare ridge. There the ground turned hard but they were suddenly befogged, suicidal as they galloped in their blindness on the path.

Now the river was invisible below them to the left. They would storm downhill and locate the wharf, where the fishing road began and they could ride along the bank again. Tom yanked the reins and Bones made his turn. Then the horse stopped short and Tom left the saddle. He was thrown along the horse's neck and landed on the ground near a tight stand of pines Bones had halted to avoid. His wrist folded back and streaked fire up his arm. He saw his own broken nose, weirdly crooked through his tears, and sniffed until the blood dribbled down his throat.

"Ruddy fucking trees!" he said, wiping off his eyes.

He was lacquered head to boot with slick black mud, but then he was up and riding Bones again, weaving downhill until the pines thinned away and he could finally see the wharf. They continued at a breakneck pitch, Bones rearing back to keep from tumbling over, Tom's straight legs rigid in the stirrups. The wharf was underwater but beside it, in the current, was a small rocky mound like a miniature island.

Silas Booker stood upon it, fishing with a gaff. He wore a smock and heavy boots and had a long, sturdy basket full of murkfins behind him. The river roared along, spewing up oceanlike and menacing around him. Petals from the spray were clinging to his hair, and he was so intent on balancing and managing his gaff that he didn't hear Bones approaching from behind.

Tom dismounted, jumping over the bank-side water to the mound. Rain came upon them. Giant drops began to fall and it was dismal, like a sinister undoing of the dawn. When Silas hooked a murkfin and turned to put it down, he yelped at the sight of Tom's figure in the gloom, still dirty from the fall, like a man made of mud. Silas backed away, slipping on the flowers till he very nearly fell and tumbled off the mound. Tom caught his belt.

"Silas, look at me. It's Tom!"

Just beyond them in the river went the woman on the branch. Silas took a breath and laughed through his beard.

"Hell's britches! I thought you was the Colorless Man —"

"I need your gaff," Tom said, snatching it away. He shook the murkfin loose but missed the open basket. It was a fish with poison hairs and short slimy legs, serpentine and bleeding and contorting round his heel. Tom kicked it into the water, where it vanished with a slap and left a clump of flower heads bloody in the foam.

"Damnation!" Silas said, more dismayed than angry, grabbing back the pole and holding on tight.

"Give me the gaff," Tom said, pulling it toward him.

Silas, though a coward, was prodigiously endowed. He was ripe and wetly grizzled, his hard-worked knuckles whitening and split, and he would sooner fight a friend than lose his precious gaff. He said, "You know they only surface half a week every spring —"

"There's a woman —" Tom began.

"— and that's a two-shilling fish you cost me," Silas said, too focused on his loss to heed Tom's words.

They wobbled back and forth with the pole between their chests. Murkfin blood dribbled to their hands. For a second through the rain, Tom could see the woman clearly — long black hair, raggedy and wet, contrasted with the spring-cold pallor of her skin. She was young, not a girl but scarcely into womanhood. Her eyes were closed. Her mouth hung ajar. She was beautiful and deathlike, elegant as silk, yet her grip upon the branch looked desperately alive.

Tom had never wanted to hold a woman more in all his life, and he considered diving in and swimming to her side. But he wouldn't get her out unless he had the hook, and she was vanishing again, speeding out of reach.

Tom released the pole and Silas staggered back, smiling with the prize until the rain made him blink. In the moment of distraction, Tom socked him in the gut. The pole clattered down and Tom picked it up, squinting from the pain — he had punched, like a dolt, with his newly sprained hand — and then he leapt off the mound and ran back to Bones, listening to Silas swearing in the spume.

"I owe you two shillings!" Tom yelled, racing off.

He galloped with the pole before him like a lance, trusting Bones to lead the way while he scanned the widening river, having lost her once again. He felt a tug upon his chest as if a rope, pulled taut, were knotted to his breastbone. His nose had swollen badly. It was difficult to breathe. Fog massed heavy just above the water but the sun had started burning off the layers in the east, leaving thin misty tendrils in the bright gold bloom.

Ahead stood the Orange, Tom's weatherworn tavern, cozy and reliable and glowing in the light. It was stout and double-chimneyed, on a hill near the river, safely distanced from the flood and higher than the ferry. To the right lay the town, a quarter-mile square of small, huddled houses that were bounded by the farms, and the forest, and the river. The meetinghouse steeple poked above the fog. There were lights in many dwellings — it was a town of early risers — but he couldn't see a single man or woman on the streets.

Tom halted Bones and ran toward the water, carrying the gaff and hollering for Ichabod, the ferryman and servingman who boarded at the tavern. He tugged off his boots and felt the chill through his stockings, but it was nothing to the shock of frigid water when he dove.

He broke through the flowers with a splash. Cold struck him like a great set of hammers tipped with needles, thudding but precise, bewildering his mind. The current was astonishingly strong below the surface and it tried to pull him under more than carry him along. He struggled with the gaff, swimming mostly with his legs, and fought to reach the middle of the river at an angle, gasping hard and stiffening up and looking for the woman.

From the shore, the flowers had seemed to form a smooth, gentle surface, but in fact they clumped and bobbed, often rising over his head. They made it hard to recognize the whirlpools and waves. He was battered more than once by unseen debris, and even floating backward with an unobstructed view, he couldn't spot the branch and worried it had passed.

He drifted to the ferry line: a thick twist of rope, suspended over the water, that extended bank to bank from columns on the docks. He floated underneath it, raised the gaff, and hooked the rope. The jerk was so strong, he almost lost his grip. The current forced him several extra feet beyond the line and there he dangled as the floodwaters surged up against him.

His breaths came in quick, light snatches at the air. His legs were numb, his wrist sprain a growing streak of flame. There were flowers in his eyes and petals in his mouth, sickly sweet and slippery when he tried to spit them out. Seven miles downriver lay the Dunderakwa Falls, and if he missed her — curse Silas and his God-rotting murkfins! — nothing but a miracle would pull her from her doom.

He finally saw the branch upriver, dead ahead. It was bigger than he'd realized, dangerously splayed like a wide black claw and coming fast, very fast. He hopped the hook along the line, half paralyzed with cold and moving to the side so as not to be impaled. There'd be one brief chance to get her off the branch. Here it came — he could see the little flowers on her gown, the whiteness of her scalp along the parting of her hair.

A limb beneath the surface cracked him in the ribs. The blow knocked him sideways, fully out of reach, and only fury at the pain allowed him to recover. With a wild bolt of energy, he grabbed her by the armpit, holding one-fisted to the handle of the gaff. The branch continued on, tearing at her gown. She was limp and almost naked when he pulled her free and clear.

The flowers swarmed around them, covering their heads, until his panic spiraled up to something like euphoria. Her body pressed against him, cold as any corpse. She was facing him and buoyant with her head lolling back, hair floating to his chin, breasts rising from her gown. Her slightly open mouth was her captivating feature — what a thing it would have been to see her take a breath.

The woman belched a lungful of water in his face.

She coughed herself awake and looked at him, amazed, as if confused to find the branch was suddenly a man. She squeezed him around the middle, murdering his ribs.

"Don't let go," he said.

She clutched him even harder in surprise, legs around his hips, hands fastened to his back. Her irises were dark — he couldn't see her pupils — and she seemed about to talk but coughed herself delirious. He realized only now, having caught her in his arms, that he didn't have the strength to get her to the bank. He would barely save himself if he tried swimming back and so they held each other close, stranded in the flood.

He couldn't hear a thing except the noise of rushing water, and he couldn't feel his hands or verify his grip. Any moment they'd be loose and headed for the falls. He looked at her with false reassurance to console her. Once he did — once she stared at him and seemed to understand — he knew for certain, falls be damned, he would hold her to the end.

A long wooden pole cracked him on the noggin. When he turned to see its source, it struck him on the nose. He bled again and blinked, smarting from the blows, and there was Ichabod the ferryman at last, right beside them.

He was balanced on the tethered raft, lanky and disheveled, reaching with his driving pole and almost falling in. The raft was broad and strong, railed on either side and stable enough for horses, made of planks atop a sturdy pair of dugout canoes. Ichabod was sweating from his fight against the current. He was a lifelong mute and now he spoke with his expressions, subtle changes in his close-set eyes and bony jaw that Tom interpreted to mean, "Grab the pole. Only choice. Any closer and I'll knock you underwater with the raft."

He was right. The raft was bobbing too erratically to trust. Tom dropped the gaff and lunged to get the ferry pole. He caught it but the woman's limp weight pulled him down. She was fading out of consciousness and dragging on his neck and Ichabod, though wiry strong, could barely keep his footing. Tom inched along, hand over hand. The woman started slipping underwater through his arms.

"Grab her hair," Tom yelled, finally at the raft.

Ichabod wove his bony fingers to her roots and kept her head above water, high enough to breathe. Tom hauled himself up and didn't let her go, aching from his injuries and growling like a winterbear. They pulled her up together to the safety of the deck. Ichabod removed his shirt and handed it to Tom, who wrapped her up and held her, cradling her head. They shuddered close together in the cold, misty breeze. She had flowers on her throat and petals in her ears.

He wrung the water from her hair and rubbed her shivery skin, summoning whatever faint warmth she had left, his swollen nose and broken ribs and reasonable questions overpowered by the wonder of beholding her alive.


"Hours in the dark catching murkfins and you come along, steal my gaff, and catch a woman."

Silas Booker, smiling broadly at the curious passersby, stood in the mud of Center Street and blocked Tom's way. He wore the same fishy breeches he'd been wearing at the river — possibly the only pair of breeches Silas owned. The season's first horseflies twirled around his legs. Townspeople noticed Tom and Silas in the road; they were active with the business of a fair-weather morning — airing houses, running errands, trading for supplies — but they had all heard the story of the rescue in the flood.

"I'd gripe again about that bellywallop," Silas said loudly, "but there isn't any question that you went and took the brunt."

No, there wasn't, Tom agreed. He had a bandage on his wrist, a wrap around his rib cage, and grape-and-ash bruises underneath his eyes. The river chill had left him feeling feverish and brittle. His fatigue had only deepened from the necessary tavern work, especially now in spring when travelers braved the road again, no longer hindered by the valley's great snows.

They would soon arrive from Grayport, seventy miles southwest, or from Liberty, a hundred-odd miles northeast. Root was in the middle of the wilderness between — four hundred people in profound isolation with the river up the side and the forest all around them: a miniature town with a small, common green and farmland radiating outward from the center. If not for the road that linked the cities, they would likely be forgotten. As it was, they almost were. There were safer routes between Grayport and Liberty but none were so direct in the drier, warmer seasons. Swamps and gorges riddled the south; the northern passages were safer but a good deal longer. Several days could be recovered by the wilder way through Root, which made it a popular road for mail and urgent trips between the colony's two major settlements.


Excerpted from Bell Weather by Dennis Mahoney. Copyright © 2015 Dennis Mahoney. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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