Here are the opening chapters of the upcoming Miranda Lamden mystery, Blood on Holy Ground!
By the time I turned south off the parkway toward Tennessee, black clouds were racing across a sullen green sky. Branches brittle with late summer leaves thrashed above the narrow road, littering the air with swirling debris. Lightning flashed across the sky. Then in a single burst, a sudden wall of rain hammered into the Jeep’s roof, and the road exploded with light and bone-jarring thunder. I hit the brakes and skidded across a film of oil and water, sliding to a stop on the narrow verge—three tires resting on a slick mat of fallen leaves, and one spinning idly above the precipitous drop into a roadside creek.
Breathing deeply to calm my pounding heart, I managed to coax all four tires back onto the road before I peered through the streaming windshield. I blinked, and looked again. Where I’d expected to see the ruin of an ancient oak or tulip poplar blocking the road, I saw only rain-slick highway dipping down into a narrow valley. Then as I stared, tongues of fire began to lick through the roof of a large frame building on the far slope. My senses failed me: I was gazing through a trembling veil of dark water at a hillside dotted with gargantuan beehives, one of them on fire. Then before I could do more than gape, a blazing inferno erupted from inside the building, shattering the roof and blowing smoke and flame aloft like a sap-rich stand of Ponderosa pines crowning in a Western wildfire. Wind sheered through the valley, driving the flames toward a second structure.
My thoughts reeled, staggered, and then suddenly came together with an almost audible click: whiskey warehouses! Aging oak casks of 130-proof Kentucky bourbon, piled to the wooden rafters in a tinder-dry tower of Babel outfitted with faulty lightning rods. I could almost see the coruscating brilliance of the lightning bolt, plunging deep into the belly of the rack house, all but vaporizing the aromatic aisles. People were running around the burning buildings now, frenzied and helpless, stumbling in their panic.
Firefighters arrived quickly, but there was little they could do. The first warehouse soon collapsed, sending flames towering into the sky. The second followed swiftly. A third and fourth were already burning, and flames swept unchecked toward the others. Exploding bourbon barrels caromed down the hill, spewing runnels of liquid fire that hissed into the creek and engulfed the creekside distillery buildings. Along the fire’s edge, spinning columns of flame erupted like fiery earthbound tornados. Only intermittent torrential rain kept the forest from torching as the flaming whiskey flowed across the surface of the creek and raced downstream on the current.
Enough. The longer I stayed, the more my adrenaline shakes would feed on themselves, and I had no wish to find myself babbling incoherently to the local EMTs. Police were setting up a roadblock some fifty yards behind my front-row seat as I turned the Jeep around. I suspected that one deputy’s pin-wheeling arms were aimed at me, although until now no one had bothered about my unsanctioned presence. Surely he didn’t think I planned to cruise on down the road into the flames of Armageddon! I threaded my way though the expanding crush of flashing lights and headed back toward the parkway in search of a heaping plate of serious comfort food and an alternate route south.
1 ~ Mount of Angels
Monday, May 14
Now, eight months later, I turned onto the same two-lane road, feeling no more than a mild flutter of anxiety, surely only to be expected when returning to the scene of a minor trauma. I parked where I’d skidded off the road and looked down at the peaceful valley. Mounds of charred debris dotted the hill like abandoned phoenix nests. Spring grass had reclaimed the slope between the mounds. Some of the scorched trees along the creek were putting out new leaves, but where root and fragile cambium had drunk deep of the fiery liquor only charcoaled skeletons remained. Flames had gutted the distillery buildings, and the few surviving warehouses looked deserted. The phoenix nests were only a tease: three seasons had turned, and Abner Beebee’s historic distillery hadn’t reemerged from its ashes.
So here I was, spring classes at Obadiah Durham College finished, and grades turned in. I was a free woman . . . Or I would’ve been, if I hadn’t tied myself down to a summer research grant in Conicoke County, Tennessee. Maybe I should just blow my summer’s pitiful fortune in riotous living and hope the donors didn’t notice.
Give it up, Miranda, I grumbled, and pulled back onto the pavement. The convent of Monte di Angeles was close now, less than an hour’s drive to the south, while Canaan Wells lay three hundred and some miles behind me in a backwoods holler in eastern Kentucky. Of course Jack Crispen’s presence in one of those hollers was a serious incentive to turn tail, but even he didn’t wield that kind of clout. I sighed and peeled my sweaty back away from the seat. My word was my bond. I would not be forsworn.
In the backseat my two cats ripped at their carriers and yowled their outrage. But I was the only one within earshot, and I merely hardened my heart, turning up the volume on Sting’s Sacred Love until his background singers transmuted even feline wails into throbbing harmony. My fate was cast in fresh Tennessee cement. Struggle was pointless. I had doomed myself to a sultry summer spent in a whimsical shack optimistically called a hermitage, slapped together with other people’s unwanted construction parts . . . and no air conditioning.
I sighed again. Sister Catherine would be waiting for me, delighted that I was going to bring due respect to the Conicoke tribe’s legend, happily unaware of the dread settling deeper into my soul with each passing mile. What had possessed me to think our friendship’s gentle altar required the sacrifice of three months spent in a teeming mosquito cloister?
The idea had sounded good back in the fall, but that was before the insects had returned from their vacation swamps in Florida. No one was forcing me to stay in one of Catherine’s recycled cabins. I could always rent a pasteboard efficiency apartment thirty miles away, probably next door to a wannabe bluegrass band. But I needed to be on the convent grounds for my research. The documents were in the convent library, the site adjoined their forest, the tiny Conicoke Reservation abutted their land, and the few remaining Conicoke elders trusted the sisters. No, since I’d committed myself to the project, I had no choice.
I growled (to relieve the tedium of sighing) and tried not to think about the stone chapel I called home. A student was housesitting while I was gone, but the chapel was my home in a way no other place had ever been. Already I missed it. And Jack as well.
The convent rose above the surrounding farmland like a Romanesque fortress. Late afternoon sunlight mellowed the curving brick walls and towers, calling to mind the crumbling Italian convents that had inspired it. Of course, the original frontier academy for young women built by the School Sisters of the Poor had never been so grand. A wealthy patroness with nostalgic memories of her own convent schooling had ordained its creation.
Like most of its sister behemoths, this school had long since succumbed to twentieth century progress and closed its doors to students. Still, as a retirement community for aging female religious, it was impressive, and I was duly impressed. I drove past chattering groups of sisters taking the humid air in gardens so severely pruned that only born-again disciplinarians could have loved them. Canes and wheelchairs abounded on smoothly paved walkways. Hardly anyone was under 70. A few earnest retreatants wandered here and there, conspicuous by their youth, and I breathed a prayer of thanks to the convent’s resident saint that Catherine hadn’t housed me with them.
I found the small dirt road easily enough. It wandered out the back of the infirmary parking lot, meandered around barns, cattle pens, and silos, between fields of soy beans and corn, and finally through a gate posted with a small warning sign: “Hermitages: Private Road.” Rows of neatly cultivated grape vines stretched along both sides of the road beyond the fence, set apart from the fields along with the hermitages. What kind of wine could north-central Tennessee possibly produce? Surely it would rank right up there with maiden-auntly efforts with dandelions and parsnips! Still, someone must think the grapes worth the effort. Maybe the sisters made their own sacramental wine. Or maybe the hermitage sisters held Dionysian rites in their forest groves. Hermitic maenads! Anything was possible.
A line of what looked like Douglas firs towered beyond the vineyard, just far enough away not to interfere with direct sun. “Thus far shall you come and no farther!” the words floated into my head . . . as if these imported firs formed a cultivated barrier, holding the pagan mysteries of the undisciplined forest at bay. I could just imagine the sisters on the hill pointing disapproving fingers at the forest depths and shutting out the wilderness like the Lord God confining the unruly sea. If so, did the vineyards side with forest or hill?
Gad, what drivel! Did monastic eccentricity float around the convent like some rare ecclesiastical contagion? More likely the sun on the Jeep’s roof was overheating my brain. But now I was under the forest’s eaves, heading into deep shade. Native hardwoods arched above me as I bumped down the road into the cool shadows. Perhaps half a mile into the trees, a creekstone wall appeared on the right, setting the hermitages off from the forest. I stopped beside the first cabin and breathed the peace for a moment before knocking at the screen door. The silence was complete except for the chirps of titmice running up and down the trees and the distant clamor of crows. Somewhere in the forest a pileated woodpecker’s weird ululation rang out. No Catherine.
I walked down the graveled path toward the center of the little community. Small cabins were scattered among the trees with no discernible pattern, unless perhaps they made an erratic semicircle around the central oratory. Each cabin was different, dependent for its design on whatever construction materials had lain to hand when Catherine got around to building it. Some were single storied, some two. All had screened porches facing away from the oratory into the trees, and small woodsheds where each recluse amassed her winter fuel. I ventured a little way into the octagonal oratory Catherine had been framing when I’d last visited.
“Catherine?” I called. “Are you here?”
“Miranda!” a voice answered from the bowels of the tool shed behind me. “I didn’t hear your car! Welcome!”
Sister Catherine and I went back several years to a research project of mine in the Southwest. Her order had maintained a small school on a Pueblo reservation whose old chapel was credited with three hundred years of miraculous cures. My studies there had attracted her attention, and an unlikely friendship had grown up between us. She’d been surprised and pleased that my phenomenological methods only described and sorted believers’ experiences, without trying to explain them away. I’d been delighted to find in her a brilliant intellect as well as a faith that neither judged nor sought to convert me. From what I could tell, she’d joined the School Sisters of the Poor simply to teach and care for others—especially children—without the distractions of the workaday world.
She wasn’t altogether pleased with her present assignment, but she recognized that her carpentry skills suited her to it. Once transplanted to Tennessee, she’d discovered that the convent sprawled across what had once been Conicoke land. Her restless curiosity had unearthed the neglected legend, which led eventually to the small study grant I’d wrangled out of a local historical society.
I turned to meet her grin and found myself wrapped in a fierce hug. Catherine was tall like me, and like me, wore her dark hair long, although she corralled hers into a French braid. Broad shouldered and impressively fit, to all appearances she was permanently bronzed by her long years in the desert sun. Goodwill blazed from her clear blue eyes.
Disentangling myself from her welcome, I noticed a young girl hovering behind her. “Hello!” I said, peering around Catherine with exaggerated surprise. “I’m Miranda. Who are you?”
The girl smiled and ducked further away. Catherine hauled her out with a rumbling laugh.
“Gloria, meet Miranda. She’s an old friend of mine. Miranda’s come to talk to the Grandmothers about the miracles.
“Miranda, meet Gloria. She’s a very bright and talented young Conicoke girl who helps me out around here whenever she can.”
I smiled at the girl again. Eleven, I thought, maybe twelve, teetering on the verge of adolescence. An aureole of reddish hair framed a beautiful freckled face. She deserved her name. From somewhere in the genetic soup that made her who she was, the aquiline nose, high cheekbones, and sculpted lips of her Native forbears had reached out to bless her. The forest-green eyes were all her own.
“Come on, Gloria, let’s show Miranda her home away from home!” shouted Catherine, grabbing the child by the hand and pulling her into a run toward the cabin furthest from the road. Their run rapidly became a race and then a rout. Gloria won hands down.
I might actually like it here, I smiled to myself, as I looked around the tiny house. With her usual tact, Catherine had gathered up her young assistant and left me alone to explore my new home. A minuscule first floor boasted a real bathroom, with toilet—and a tub that might accommodate a small turkey. In the kitchen Catherine had managed to cram in a counter, hot plate, sink, dorm-sized refrigerator, wall-mounted folding table, pot-bellied wood stove, and a few shelves.
A ladder in the far corner ran up to the second floor’s single room, where I found a narrow bed obviously pilfered from a convent cell, its battered frame strung with wire mesh supporting a lumpy mattress. An old student desk with a straight chair, a dilapidated wardrobe, and a small table completed the furnishings. The screened porch ran the length of the room. I eyed the old two-pronged electrical outlets with distaste. I’d have to buy an adapter, a powerful surge protector, and probably a hefty book of spells designed to placate thunder gods and cast charmed circles around my laptop to protect it from local haints. And definitely unplug my computer whenever storms threatened.
Peering down from the screened porch, I could see an outdoor patio below, bentwood chairs and all. But best and most unexpected was a tiny corner tower reached by a ladder in the corner of the bedroom, with barely enough room at the top for its nest of oversized pillows. Mismatched screened windows opened on every side, and once in the tower I found myself lost among the forest’s swaying treetops. I could imagine Catherine having some difficulty prying me out of my new eyrie.
From my vantage point among the maple branches, I could see that a small cleared area surrounded the cabin, carpeted almost entirely with lush green moss. Later, after I’d settled in, maybe I’d lay my cheek against it to feel its softness. Had Catherine planted it, I wondered? Cut it and carried it in like turf? Or did it grow wild like that here? To one side of the moss lay what looked like a half-finished labyrinth of limestone fossils, laid out in the familiar convoluted pattern. Then from beyond the cabin’s small yard, where the woods sloped down into a steep valley, I heard the murmur of a creek.
I laughed out loud and felt the tension drain away. This place was drawing me in to its heart like a long lost child, whether I would or no. Climbing back down the ladder, I went to fetch the cats and luggage.
2 ~ School Sisters of the Poor
Tuesday, May 15
Somehow I’d failed to anticipate the games Shiva and Shakti might devise in a house of ladders.
The sun was barely over the horizon when I gave up on sleeping and struggled out of the sagging mattress. I muttered under my breath—so as not to disturb my less profane neighbors—and threw a pillow at Shiva, who ricocheted off the walls and ladder in an orange blur, and scrambled noisily back down to the first floor. Providence willing, I wouldn’t find Catherine’s virgin drywall gouged with floor-to-ceiling cat scratches.
Shakti’s grey head appeared cautiously from the tower to see if I’d held any missiles back. Satisfied that approach was safe she jumped down and strolled over to greet me, arching her back to meet my hand so I could scratch the base of her tail. I could almost read her thoughts: Nice place, Mir, but a little small, especially with the berserker in residence. When do we get outside?
Thinking about the varied omnivores who probably inhabited the forest around the cabin, I offered the evasive formula beloved by authority figures everywhere: “We’ll see, guys.”
Then a knock sounded on the door, and the day began in earnest.
Catherine drove me around the convent’s lands in a battered green ATV, showing me the tidy lakes, cultivated fields and cow pastures, farm buildings, creeks and forests, and the rough track that continued on beyond the hermitages and connected the convent to the reservation. We visited the church, where she introduced me to Sister Helena, the administrator, and Sister Juliana, the guest sister.
But the glorious stained glass windows overwhelmed any critical thoughts I might have harbored about the chapel’s architectural excesses. The windows were the real thing: leaded glass figures and delicately painted details, marching in tall arches along each side of the church and gathering into flaming rose mandalas at three of the four arms of the church’s living cross. The reds and blues were as rich as any a French cathedral could boast. Light shining through the stained glass hung in rainbow-colored mist over walls and floors, transforming even wooden pews into insubstantial relics of lingering prayer.
Still, my ever-watchful academic mind filed the creation and crucifixion windows away for later study. I’d noticed several odd details tucked in among the orthodox tableaus that reminded me of the Conicoke legend, and I had no wish to call the sisters’ attention to them before examining them more closely myself. Catherine had been suspiciously evasive when I’d asked what the convent’s current administration thought about my research project.
We moved on to the library, a drab (but highly polished) memorial to 19th century library science, occupying three vaulted chambers on the ground floor of the Victorian administration building. At least it had its own outside entrance. Card catalogues and drawers filled with original manuscripts took up all of one room, and books the second. Neither computers nor microfiche lurked in the shadows: I’d have no access to e-books or online journals except from my laptop—assuming I could get a signal. Had the Information Age just skipped over the convent, like a tornado making an erratic bounce?
The library’s third room housed the restricted section, open only to those few Sister Helena judged trustworthy. I realized that I’d been admitted to that select company when an awed hush seemed to fall on the empty rooms and the librarian led me to a carved key box hidden behind a massive bookcase.
The retreatants’ dining room was next on the tour, included in case I should ever want to buy a quick meal there. Its off-hours aromas weren’t encouraging. Last of all we visited the guesthouse: an appalling 1950’s motel-like structure built into the side of the convent’s hill. Every room came equipped with telephone and television, with no more soundproofing between rooms than single-cinderblock walls could provide. On a busy weekend, a college dorm would probably be quieter. Definitely not my idea of a retreat environment. Maybe it was some administrative sister’s perverse notion of worldly temptation as a means of strengthening spiritual focus . . . or maybe it was just what visitors demanded.
Finally we returned the ATV to the barns, where I met Earl Fetter, the man responsible for overseeing all the acreage under contract to local farmers, as well as the convent’s own small agribusiness. As soon as I’d cobbled together some lunch from groceries packed in from home, I returned to the library to begin my research.
Historians agreed that the School Sisters of the Poor opened their first log schoolhouse just before the Indian removals began in 1830. The last of the local tribes had been rounded up and driven down the long heartbreaking road to Indian Territory before the little academy celebrated its tenth anniversary. But like the people of more populous tribes, a few of the Conicoke had managed to stay behind, hiding in the hills from Stonewall Jackson’s troops. The sisters sheltered those they could, and when they were able, welcomed them into their community as laborers, servants and students. They supported the Conicoke in their struggle for a land grant of their own and eventually helped make the reservation a reality.
The Conicoke Legend was less firmly rooted in documented fact. According to the one eyewitness account recorded in a sister’s journal from the 1840’s, a young Conicoke student, 15 years old and born with a clubfoot, had a vision while walking in the forest. Jesus appeared to her on the cross, but the Jesus she saw was one of her own people, easily identified by his hair, facial features, skin color, and tribal tattoos. She swooned in a faint. When she awoke the vision had vanished, but where the cross had stood a mighty stag now towered over her. He snorted, pawed the earth, and then bounded away into the forest.
Stunned and awed, she approached the place where he had stood. There, sticking up out of his tracks, half buried by mud and fallen leaves, she saw a flint spearpoint, perfect in every way. She reached out to pick it up, but in the instant she touched it, the forest blazed with light, and her leg burned like fire. When the light faded, she saw that her clubfoot was healed, and she ran to tell the sisters her good news.
Two sisters and the school priest returned with her to find the point just as she had described it, sticking up out of the stag’s track. The priest picked it up carefully, and took it back to the school, placing it in the chapel near the altar. People came from all around to see it, many whispering—well out of the priest’s hearing—of the spear that had pierced Jesus’ side.
The regional archdiocese had determinedly ignored both the vision and the spearhead, so when the Conicoke tribe asked for the bit of land where the spearhead had been found, the sisters gave it gladly, and returned the spearpoint to the tribal elders as well. The archdiocese heaved a collective sigh of relief and closed its books on the whole affair. Years later a Conicoke artist carved what became known as the Conicoke Christ from a living red cedar on the site. It stood there still. The Conicoke considered the place holy ground.
What puzzled me was the absence of other firsthand accounts: nothing from the girl herself, the priest, or the second sister. If they’d left anything, the documents had been lost . . . or suppressed. I wondered if official Church disapproval had motivated their removal. It wouldn’t have been the first time. I looked forward to examining the church windows more carefully to see if the curious details I’d glimpsed were indeed references to the vision. If they were, they might be a valuable testimonial to the legend’s authenticity; the windows probably dated back to the last quarter of the 19th century—less than fifty years after the girl’s vision.
The prospect of trying to separate 200-year old facts from the Church’s sanitized accounts made me tired even before I began. Not that I had issues with the Christian faith: I didn’t. But its institutional incarnations made me twitchy. Catholic, Protestant, independent, or just downright peculiar, Christian believers were mostly honorable, decent people, even saintly at times. Unfortunately, power at any level seemed to corrupt them as easily as it did the regular run of humanity . . . but in the secular world, those with power usually didn’t claim God’s authority in support of their enterprises. And there lay the problem: in my experience, human beings who claimed to channel God’s will almost always behaved badly.
I sighed and set the documents aside. Where did I hope to go with this? Miracle stories like the Conicoke Christ were as common as oak apples along the frontier, especially in the years following the Second Great Awakening. Only one thing made this story unique: the fact that the vision, while Christian, was wholly Native American in its details and later development. But I’d need to speak to the Conicoke elders before I could even begin to guess how the years had shaped its evolution. Unfortunately, I had no guarantee that the Conicoke would agree to share their mysteries with me.
On the plus side, the Catholic hierarchy’s rejection of both vision and miracles meant that the least possible encrustation of dogma and holiness had attached themselves to the original events. And Catherine’s description of the Conicoke elders’ determination to protect their oral traditions augured well for the legend’s accurate transmission.
I had reason to hope.
When I returned to my cabin I found Gloria deep in conversation with my cats, both of whom were sitting in the open window above the kitchen counter. I suspected their motives were entirely unworthy, and related to a possible breakout whenever they could tempt this unwary innocent into opening the door—but I admitted that I could be wrong. She was a very engaging child.
She heard my steps approaching and started to turn away, but I called out to her. “Gloria! I’m glad you’re here! I need some advice, and I thought maybe you could help me.”
She stopped and waited for me to approach, her eyes cast politely aside.
“You’ve met my cats, I see,” I smiled. “They’re what I need advice about. Would you like to come in and say hello?”
Caution warred with curiosity, but, as I was fairly certain it would, curiosity won. She lifted her eyes, offering me a blazing smile lit with a spark of woodland magic, and followed me into the cabin. Proper introductions were made, and Shiva condescended to bestow the delights of his person on his new devotee, but Shakti only came close enough to sniff Gloria’s finger and then withdrew to consider her possibilities.
“Gloria,” I said, as she carefully scratched Shiva’s ears, “I was wondering about letting my cats outside here. Do the sisters allow cats on the grounds?”
“Oh, yes, Sister Miranda!” she exclaimed. “There’s lots of cats at the convent.”
I managed not to choke at her use of this alarming honorific, and decided that now was not the time to explain complicated relationships. I merely continued.
“How about here at the hermitages? Are there cats in the cabins?”
Clearly she wanted to say yes, but I could tell the answer was no.
“Sister Catherine don’t have animals, and the visitin’ sisters mostly come by theirselves,” she finally replied.
I spared a glance for Shiva, who had rolled over onto his back and was waving his paws in the air, displaying an irresistible expanse of silken belly fur: a fur-bearing Venus flytrap if there ever was one.
“What about birds, Gloria?” I asked.
Her hand hesitated over his belly.
“Do you know if the other guests would worry about the cats catching them? Are there bird feeders around?”
Her face brightened at a question with a definite answer, and she turned away from Shiva for the moment.
“Oh, yes, Sister, there’s lots of bird feeders, but they don’t fill ‘em ‘cept in winter.”
I smiled and asked the question that concerned me most. “What about dogs? Do the sisters have a problem with wild dogs, or maybe coyotes?”
This question puzzled her. She paused and grew very still, as if trying to grasp whatever strange meaning must be hidden in my question’s heart.
“Coyotes are all over, Sister,” she said at last, “but we mostly don’t see ‘em. I cain’t think they’re no problem. Farmers got some dogs, and they run loose, but they ain’t wild. We got dogs, too.”
I smiled again. “Thank you, Gloria, that’s exactly what I needed to know. Maybe I’ll check with Catherine, too, just to be sure.”
She smiled her shy smile and stopped talking, since I’d stopped asking direct questions. Turning back to Shiva, she reached out toward the waiting belly . . . and Shiva purred. She rubbed, scratched, and ruffled, and he just narrowed his eyes and smirked at me.
At last, after watching several minutes of Shiva’s apparent personality transplant, I led Gloria back out into the yard. She removed her hand from Shiva’s embrace reluctantly, without receiving any farewell scratches.
“I have one other question, Gloria,” I said.
Shiva followed us to the door, yowling his indignation at having his massage cut short. I ignored him.
“I see that someone has started making a stone spiral out here in yard. Do you know where they found the stones? I thought I might get some more and finish it while I’m here.”
“Oh, I’ll show y’all, Sister Miranda! Do y’all want to go now?”
I looked at the sun and checked my watch. “How far is it?”
“Real close, Sister! They’re all over.”
“I tell you what, why don’t we wait and do it Saturday when we both have more time. Could you come back then?”
For some reason, I wanted to explore the grounds myself before commissioning a guide, even one as disarming as Gloria.
“Saturdays I help Sister Catherine,” she answered. “Maybe she’d say I could go.”
“I’ll ask her myself, and we’ll work it out when you come, OK? And Gloria?”
“You can call me Miranda. I’m not a sister.”
Wednesday, May 16
The next day was one of those rare times in May when spring recaptured Tennessee’s weather patterns and transformed the day into an idyll stolen out of faerie. Grabbing my favorite picnic lunch of green onions, cherry tomatoes, soft cheese and bread, I set off to explore the places described in that long-ago sister’s account of the miracle, first turning back up the road toward the convent. Catherine had pointed out the little dirt track near the forest’s edge that led to the vision site.
No sign pointed the way, nor was the site set apart from the rest of the forest, but I emerged from the trail’s narrow corridor into the heart of a woodland cathedral. Green branches soared into vaulted traceries that swayed against the brilliant sky like old Irish lace. Light danced everywhere.
Suddenly I drew back in surprise, my heart pounding absurdly: the carved figure of the Conicoke Christ emerged from the dappled shade like a flesh and blood Conicoke man sliding between the worlds. Nothing I‘d read had prepared me for the power pulsing through his limbs. He stood where an altar table might have been placed in a cathedral of mortar and stone, carved from the near half of a double cedar tree. The rear trunk spread living branches behind the carved figure, causing the anguished body to seem to leap out of the shadows, while still remaining one with them. The starkness of the man’s pain was overwhelming, yet it bore within it the deep peace of the forest. Paradox upon paradox, mystery within mystery. Scholar of church art though I was, I was undone.
When I recovered, I studied the sculpture more closely. In the unpredictable way of red cedars, the closer trunk had grown into the rough shape of a cross with a figure upon it: the artist had merely emphasized the resemblance. The fibrous bark had been stripped away and the wood gently shaped and smoothed. Ropy ridges suggested the musculature of torso and legs, and branches emerged like straining arms. Other branches protruding from the trunk behind the arms formed the cross. The crown of the tree had been cut away. Only the figure’s bent head with its strongly Native American features and hanging hair was created entirely from the artist’s vision. Shapes suggestive of arms, legs, feet and hands had been enhanced with a knife. Tattoos had been cut into the face, arms, and legs, and darkly stained. Surely some sort of preservative must have been applied through the years, because the wood was still smooth and retained its reddish color.
Why this sculpture wasn’t the focus of pilgrimages from all around the world I couldn’t guess, but I was content that it should be so. I didn’t even open my camera.
I wandered through the forest and fields for the rest of the day, and decided that the large tracts of woodland probably owed their continued existence to the limestone caves and sinkholes that opened everywhere beneath my feet. Some were gaping fissures with clammy breath, choked with rotting branches, others just tiny holes in earthen dimples. No plow would ever tame this landscape. Small wonder the government had agreed to cede the land to the Conicoke!
The white fossil stones lay exposed wherever one of the countless seasonal creeks veined the hillsides. I had no idea what once-living beings had calcified into these fossils over the millennia. I wanted to call them coral, or maybe sponges, but I was no biologist. They looked like stumpy cauliflower trees to me, with celery and broccoli thrown in for variety. Gloria was right: they were everywhere. For the first time, the vague awareness that this area had once been a shallow sea came home to me. Everywhere I walked the bones of a dead ocean bore me up.
The ground dropped down in mossy terraces whenever I got close to one of the larger creeks, and I found myself descending through knee-high forests of small green umbrellas, each with one drooping white flower. Mayapples, I laughed. They were old friends from the mountains. Even my cats knew them well and gave their poisonous leaves a wide berth. But I loved the feeling of walking through a mysterious Lilliputian landscape with only its waving treetops visible.
When I finally turned away from the forest to the plowed fields, the sense of magic diminished, but didn’t disappear. I strolled through shoulder-high cornrows and sat down in a field’s center, relishing my total invisibility in its regimented green world, and resolutely refusing to think about the toxic agrichemicals in the air I breathed and the soil beneath my fingers.
Corn roots had always fascinated me, the way they rose above the soil, creating small caves beneath their stalks. I could never decide whether those dark hollows were mysterious doorways to the underworld or signs that at any moment the corn plants might lift their roots out of the earth and wander away. Like trees, corn always called to mind the joining of heaven and earth, even the idea of a world tree. That corn was sacred to many peoples didn’t surprise me.
I followed the forest’s edge south until a grid of high-tension wires strung along massive wooden poles crossed it from east to west. Figuring the poles were a warning of worse things to come, I turned and walked through the trees parallel to their open corridor until the lines crossed a large creek. Beside the creek a mass of sticks and grass on top of one of the poles caught my eye: a red-tailed hawk’s nest perhaps? But I saw no sign of activity in the nest, no parent birds watching my approach with suspicion. No sign of hawk fledglings. I wasn’t sure how late in the spring young hawks left their nests, but mid-May seemed early for young hawks to be fledged and gone. Perhaps it was an abandoned nest, or one commandeered by great horned owls. I looked around for feathers that might identify the most recent residents, but the grass was tall and thick. Even when I relaxed my eyes and scanned for the breathy flutter of a feather’s delicate filaments, I found nothing.
Where the floodplain met the creek, a large canebrake had overgrown the banks. River cane had almost disappeared in recent years, and I wondered if the Conicoke were responsible for this thriving community. It covered both sides of the creek in dense stands easily fifteen feet in height. I could see where stalks had been cut near the outer edges, but impenetrable shadows swallowed the ground only a little distance into the brake, leaving only the cane’s feathery tops visible. That many species of snakes called the canebrake home I had little doubt. So, happily honoring the Conicokes’ inviolable rights to their canebrake, I turned up a small tributary creek, back (I hoped) toward the hermitage road and off reservation land. I never reached the convent buildings at all.
The only disquieting moments in the day were caused by sporadic gunshots, some quite close. Allowing hunting on their land seemed out of character and dangerous for sisters running a retreat facility. I made a mental note to check with Catherine about it.
3 ~ Holy Ground
Friday, May 18
On Friday Catherine took me to meet the Conicoke elders, Gloria’s “Grandmothers.” Their village lay on the far side of the ridge beyond our own, but we walked rather than taking the ATV. When we emerged from the trees into a large clearing of hard-beaten dirt, we found them waiting for us beside a square lodgehouse under an arbor that shaded all four sides, groaning under the weight of venerable wisteria vines in riotous bloom. Log houses were scattered among the tall trees so unobtrusively that they reminded me of mushrooms springing up on a shady forest floor. Except for the women, the village seemed deserted.
As we approached the lodge, I saw that it rose up on its earthen foundations only as high as a small man might stand. Wisteria blossoms hung so low that they caught in my hair and brushed my cheek as I entered the arbor. We seated ourselves in the offered chairs and rocked and drank strong coffee together in comfortable silence. The Grandmothers were as wrinkled as walnuts, their grey hair pulled back and coiled in buns behind their heads. Sitting in their bentwood rocking chairs, dressed in faded loose-fitting dresses, they looked as much like Appalachian matriarchs as Conicoke Grandmothers.
I studied the woven cane mats spread across the arbor floor with respect; clearly some Conicoke crafts had survived acculturation. The old women asked questions about my family and my job, and the place where I’d grown up. Their smiles were slow and gentle, and they spoke with frequent pauses. They murmured that they would be pleased to see me again to answer whatever questions they could. Perhaps I might see the spearhead; we would talk about it. They were honored that I had recognized the power of the forest sculpture. I must come back another day.
Their dignity was palpable. I also guessed it would turn adamantine if pressed. I hoped we’d made a start toward mutual trust, but I couldn’t fault their reticence: it was more than justified. Without Catherine’s intervention I wouldn’t’ve gotten this far.
Saturday morning, May 19
As luck would have it, rain was pouring down when I dragged myself out of bed on Saturday morning. The sheets were damp and sticky. I navigated the ladder without breaking my neck or killing a cat and successfully brewed a mug of coffee. My feet squelched like suction cups every time I picked them up off the linoleum floor. I shuffled into the bathroom and glowered. Not only was there barely enough room for me to squeeze into the tub with my knees up to my chin, but the hot water heater couldn’t even deliver enough tepid water to cover my hips. It would’ve made a good tea dispenser.
I crouched in the tub for a very unsatisfactory sponge bath and then washed my hair in the sink.
Catherine had told me that no one in the hermitages would think of intruding on a resident’s privacy if the cabin’s downstairs curtains were closed. So between the rain and the closed curtains, I wasn’t surprised that Gloria hadn’t appeared. But no sooner had I climbed the ladder to dress than a loud pounding sounded at the door. I threw on jeans and a shirt and peered down through the porch screen at the top of a familiar wet head.
“Jack!” I yelled and slid down the ladder to unhook the door. “What are you doing here?”
“Why, I missed our sweet sinnin’ ways, Sister Miranda,” he smiled. “Won’t you let me in before one of your neighbors calls in the convent chaperones?”
I looked up at his teasing eyes and dripping hair and hauled him into the house.
“Give me a break, Jack, that sister thing is starting to reek already, and I’ve only been here five days. But do come in before somebody notices you.”
We said hello properly after he’d closed the door.
The skies cleared before noon, and I took Jack out for a tour of the grounds, starting with the Conicoke Christ. For the moment I’d forgotten that he would greet the carved tree with the eye of an artist, but his sudden withdrawal into himself reminded me that he was venturing into fields of wonder I could only guess at. He walked toward the tree with the prowling steps of a cautious cat and reached out to touch the wood as if he expected it to vanish into Otherworld—prickly needles, roots and all. I watched his strong hands curve around the ropy muscles and across the breadth of the chest. He traced the tattoos lightly, and allowed his fingers to drift across the carved face with something like a lover’s caress. Then he turned to me with blazing eyes.
“Andi, how can such a work of art be turning to dust in an empty forest? It should be protected. Surely people would come from all over the world to see it if they knew it was here!”
“You know, that’s what I thought when I first saw it, Jack, but then I left without even taking a photograph. It’s an odd place. The Conicoke consider it sacred. One of their people had the original vision, another created the carving, and this is their land. It’s up to them to decide how it should be protected. They may be doing a far better job than we’d ever guess. It doesn’t seem to be suffering.”
Jack laughed and strode toward me, plucking me off the ground like a child, and whirling me around in a circle. “This place makes me feel alive, Andi!” Then he laughed again and returned to his study of the tree.
The fields lay deep in wet clay after the rain, so we kept to the road when we left the clearing. I pointed out the beauties of the cornfields on each side, but suggested that we leave the architectural complexities of the convent to another time. Then we paused together at a small rutted road turning off to the east: the sound of roaring water proclaimed a creek in spate at the very least, and maybe even a waterfall. A few yards along I realized that the road led to the old dump where the solid detritus of convent life was bulldozed into a steep ravine. Catherine had told me that she hunted for old glass and arrowheads there.
Waterfalls or arrowheads, either sounded tantalizing. Skirting the jumble of trash and mud, we started down the grassy slope, holding onto trees to keep from falling on the wet ground. In the end we followed the sound of water upstream toward the forest. Not much more than a hundred yards along the creek we were stopped by a limestone overhang almost completely screened by the water pouring over it. A shallow cave hollowed by thousands of years of heavy rains revealed itself in brief glimpses. Islands divided the flow of the water pouring down from the falls, and spread it across the ravine’s broad bottom. Bluets and penstemon rioted on the slopes, and even a few violets and blue-eyed marys hung on in the shadows past their April prime. Because of its overhanging trees the whole ravine was invisible from both fields and roads.
What was it about this land, with its little pieces of paradise tucked away amongst cornfields and dumps?
We retraced our steps instead of trying to scale the steeper slopes near the waterfall. I was poking around the bottom of the dump spill for bits of cobalt glass when Jack spoke.
“Andi?” was all he said, but his tone brought my head up sharply. Apprehension prickled in my belly.
“There’s something here,” he continued. “I think we should get some help.”
My eyes met his, unspoken questions clear.
“It’s a body, Andi . . . ”