We depend too much on outward forms and are too careless of the spirit beneath them.
—Frank Lloyd Wright
The Pull of the Earth
A literary thriller
set at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin and Taliesin West
What if an accident changed what kind of person you thought you were?
High above Manhattan, a window reinstallation went wrong, destroying the priceless Tiffany rose, Beatitudi, and killing Grace Avila’s mother. The family stained glass studio has lost its standing. Grace lost her mother, and…the capable, trustworthy person she thought she was.
Being invited to serve as the stained-glass artist-in-residence for a renowned, esoteric architecture school in rural Wisconsin might save her sanity—until she discovers the problems at the new place are worse than the ones she’s trying to leave behind.
Her housemate, Irie Koritsu, is her fan at first—until she turns crazy. In financial free fall, the school accepts corporate sponsorship that defaces the landscape and world-famous buildings. Then it sells off land at the Arizona campus for development.
At least it helps that the earthy graduate student, Christian Dubay, seems to know what Grace needs better than she does. Designing her artwork while living submerged in nature at the two campuses—one in Wisconsin woodlands and one in the Arizona desert—Grace slowly finds her power and steps up to challenge exploitation, and to ask for help. When the community rallies far beyond the boundaries of the school, the people’s power, together, changes everything.
The interior becomes the reality of the building.
—Frank Lloyd Wright
Grace LaRouge Avila’s shoulders ached from holding onto the steering wheel while storm winds challenged her vehicle’s stability, its connection to the earth. Severe weather had introduced her to August in Wisconsin an hour ago, with huge, theatening clouds ringing a horizon that looked endless over sprawling farm fields. She was thirty-one years old, but she hadn’t known the sky could be that big and that dark. Strings of lightning threaded across it so brightly, and so fast, that they seemed to be showing off their power. The storm was overwhelming, a little frightening—and it was breathtakingly beautiful.
She felt a touch of gratitude for that; nothing had taken her breath away for a long time. She took a moment to unclench her hands, spread her fingers, and take a breath. She was near her destination.
She had been standing in the middle of the glass studio arguing with her Aunt Leah when her childhood friend, Kenneth, called in June and asked her to come to Wisconsin. Leah, who had returned to American Atelier after twenty years away—and was still no fan of stained glass—now wanted to grow the decorative painting department instead.
“Look, Grace,” she had said, “There’s a black cloud over our stained glass. It’s bad enough that the figurehead of the studio died, and a Tiffany window was destroyed. But the fact that it was seen on live news—People are never going to get over it. Besides, stained glass is dead.”
Grace had wanted to say, How dare you walk back in here and say that? Instead, she took a deep breath and said, “Accidents happen.” She said it quietly, not sounding convincing even to herself. She spoke louder. “People need to understand that one accident does not change the fact that the studio has done excellent work for a hundred and forty years.”
“Maybe we change the name,” Leah had continued, as if she had not heard. “Companies sometimes do that when something awful happens. Like that ValueJet airline was renamed AirTran after the plane crashed in the Everglades…No one knows what ‘atelier’ means, anyway.”
Kenneth had called at just the right time—seven months of struggle, and guilt, after her mother’s death had worn her down. True, she was functional, which was an accomplishment when she had felt at first that she could do nothing. But the most critical aspect of recovery still remained elusive: her ability to work with glass. She couldn’t touch it, or even look at it. That meant she had to steadily hold the eyes of an artisan asking her a question about a panel, or gaze across the studio where sheets of glass stored in vertical shelving looked merely like a rainbow pattern, grouped as they were by color.
She had developed a few workarounds, but avoiding glass would be an essential problem in taking the position Kenneth was offering as a stained glass artist-in-residence. It would be impossible, if she were honest. But all she could do right now was cross one bridge at a time—starting with going to Wisconsin—and hold onto a tendril of hope that healing was possible.
She had said her goodbyes earlier in the week, and it felt good to leave Brooklyn this morning, before dawn. She would take this time as a sabbatical, she had told the team—and would not call in or monitor what they were doing. It had felt like a huge relief at the time she made the decision. But now that the studio was a thousand miles in her rearview mirror, concerns were surfacing.
How well could they respond to requests for proposals without her? Would Leah even do it? American Atelier had been the family identity for so long—and had been Grace’s place of work, too, for almost a decade now. Who was she, if not one of the LaRouge stained glass women of American Atelier? Or rather, at this point, the woman, given Leah’s lack of interest.
She turned her attention back to the road. Since Madison half an hour ago, the storm-riddled landscape along US14 had nevertheless offered one surprise after another for what Leah called “flyover territory”—suggesting it was too uninteresting to even call by name.
High sandstone formations and rolling hills had suddenly risen out of the plains. And everything had grown greener—in what seemed its very own version of the color—until finally the road was little more than a path through thick woodlands, with only scattered farm fields interspersed between them. Less surprising was that the occasional town now consisted of a handful of aging buildings, half abandoned, and half with hand stenciled signs for farm supplies or auto repair.
She had traveled to a different life in less than a day—far enough, maybe, that the fissures inside, which felt like cracked earth in a drought, might be less present. With all of this moisture, maybe something fertile might seep in.
When the rain lightened, she opened her window for a breath of fresh air. Water splattered loudly on the large boxes that rode in the back seat like awkward, silent passengers.
Then the car dipped into a swirl of fog, and a sudden flash of red made her hit the brakes. The bicyclist’s face under the helmet did not look afraid, only focused, and…like Josiah. But of course it couldn’t be him. And his hair was not long like that, anymore—It was buzzed—or at least it was the last time she saw him. And maybe she was just thinking of Josiah because of Kenneth—they had all been friends together.
Heart racing, she looked in the rearview mirror and saw the cyclist had managed to remain upright. She raised her hand and gave a half-wave of apology.
The road straightened, and she passed a redwood sign for the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center. She was almost there. Kenneth had said that Taliesin—which he pronounced “Tally-ESS-in”—the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, had always been a place of pilgrimage for creative people despite its out-of-the-way location. That seemed promising for helping Grace get her mojo back. The name, Taliesin, had sounded both strange and familiar, because her mother had mentioned it on the day of her death.
The Tiffany window restoration itself had gone beautifully; the whole studio was proud of the work they had done during the three months that the 20-foot rose window was in the workshop. Then, when it was time for the reinstallation, Grace’s mother had chosen her for a partner—on one of the most important commissions in years. Finally, she had felt good enough.
It all would have been fine, too, except for the wind. And the height of the scaffold. And Grace’s weakness. She should have said more, and done more, to make it safe. The ‘what if’ questions haunted her.
When Kenneth called, she probably would have gone to the moon if that’s where the place was, just to get away. She was surprised that a program built around one individual’s architectural philosophy would have persevered decades beyond the man’s death, even if the man had been the “greatest American architect.”
Kenneth was serving as interim dean while the regular dean was recovering from a stroke. “We’re in a time of transition here,” he’d said. “You could help.”
Of course Kenneth had found the place. The guy had a fascination with the famous architect even in high school—not so much for the architecture as for his legendary charm and the women it drew. Kenneth badly wanted to be irresistible, but no amount of playing Casanovas in the theater or saving up for stylish clothes had made him that. He was not helped by his teeth, which were large and clearly had not seen orthodontia, or his ears, which protruded and turned pink when he was upset.
Maybe the reasons that Kenneth idealized Josiah, the prince of the high school they all attended, were the same as for Wright—they both had presence, charisma, natural grace. Grace had loved Josiah for that, too, and his depth. From the minute he arrived in Brooklyn Heights from Chicago at the end of ninth grade, she had wanted to have the new guy—and Kenneth had wanted to be him. She had come close, but in the end, it had not worked out for either of them.
In the present, Grace feared she and Kenneth might have nothing in common anymore. He had eventually gone to MBA school for a masters of business administration—the antithesis of the artistic life—and they had all but lost touch by the time he contacted her.
Now Grace looked at the dashboard clock. It was 7:20 PM. She would arrive almost two hours earlier than planned. She should have driven more slowly if she wanted to miss tonight’s formal, which apparently was a tradition going way back.
She would have to drag out the latest dress from Auntie Vittoria, who sent along her designer cast-offs even more frequently now that her dear friend, Madeleine, had died—as if good clothing could possibly fortify a bereft daughter.
On Grace’s right now, the border of trees opened to reveal the wide Wisconsin River curving past. Then, out of the greenest valley she had ever seen, rose a home that stretched across the face of the hill beyond. Its lines echoed the strata of the sandstone formations she passed earlier, making it almost subtle, integrating itself with the land.
Hello, Taliesin. Something tight inside her eased a bit as her eyes rested on it. The sand-gold bands of the building met the earth and nestled into it. Where the land was steep, it was propped up on stone piers. A stucco deck in the same golden color ran along the front, and it nearly glowed against the black trees and stormy sky.
She turned right at a limestone boulder marked in raised bronze letters. She whispered the name and heard her mother’s voice. “Taliesin—you remember, don’t you?” Madeleine had said, looking out at Central Park from the three-story scaffold that gave them access to the window opening. She told her daughter they’d once taken refuge there when she was a child.
“We were driving across the Midwest, about to get swept up in a tornado, and then I swear, Taliesin suddenly appeared on the map a few miles away.”
Grace was not here because she believed in coincidences, she reiterated to herself now. That was too mystical, and she had learned, over and over, she needed to be practical. She was going to Taliesin to work again.
A sign at the entrance drive at the bottom of the hill said, Private Road, No Admittance, with a stone and metal gate. Grace called Kenneth.
“You made good time,” he said. “I’m over at Hillside already, where we’ll be having dinner in half an hour. Vera Frees will come down to meet you.”
Grace had met Vera at the Arizona campus during the interview process. The woman was in her late sixties, had spent her life at the school, and did not seem happy about it. But there could be many reasons for that.
Grace got out of the car and stretched. A weathered stone plaque fixed to the limestone pier of the gate was engraved with Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect. It gave the appearance of a gravestone.
Looking around, she was struck that this had been not only his workplace and school laboratory, but his home—these structures, married to this land, were what he’d chosen to build for himself. Taliesin was both a professional pinnacle and a deeply personal place, and it made coming here feel like entering someone else’s life—his life.
A sandstone dam created a waterfall here at the entrance, from a broad stream that ran along the lower property. Grace watched the smooth sheet of water glide over the edge. It picked up speed as it fell to stir up whitecaps in the retaining pond below.
Turning back to the drive, she saw Vera’s stiff figure coming down the hill. Her iron gray bob recalled a helmet from here, which contrasted the sequined dress that clearly had been expensive a decade or three ago. Close up, the older woman’s fair skin stretched tightly across her face in a way that telegraphed years of tension.
“This is not when Kenneth said you would arrive, Grace.” Vera gave her a serious look. “We have guests up at the formal—board members, people with the Foundation, donors.”
“Sorry for the inconvenience.” Grace reached for her hand. “I’m glad to see you again. I still think of your botanical tour at Taliesin West. It was wonderful.”
The older woman waited.
“Really, if you can just point the way to my room…” Grace gave an apologetic smile.
Her hair barely moved as Vera shook her head. “It’s too far away. You’ll have to park in the upper court.” She gestured up the hill, then glanced at Grace’s damp, wrinkled shirt. “You can change inside the house.”
“Okay. Would you like to ride up with me?” Grace asked.
“I’ll walk,” she said. “You follow.”
When they reached the top of the drive, Vera pointed at an open space in the carport and walked off toward the house. Two red bikes stood in a rack nearby, reminding Grace of the cyclist.
The rambling, interconnected buildings surrounding the upper court resembled an old Italian street, with a bridge over the entrance, red-trimmed windows standing open above the carport, a stair decorated with a statue, and green terraces everywhere.
While it must once have been beautiful and idyllic, now it had a hint of neglect, as if the heirs were struggling to maintain their inheritance. The closest door was screened, a casual entrance, and hung open as though the door spring had failed. Paint peeled from the doorway.
The main building was large and wrapped halfway around an expansive garden that rose to a hilltop where a massive tree towered over curved stone seating of mossy flagstone that looked like it had been there forever. The tea circle, Grace thought suddenly, and then wondered how she could possibly know or remember that name from a forgotten childhood visit.
Vera had already crossed the garden path and stood by a set of glass doors, sharing her umbrella with a slender man in biking spandex, who held a helmet in his hands. The cyclist. His resemblance to Josiah was still striking, except this man was a shade darker and his features were coarser. Something awakened in her belly when she looked at him. Feeling her gaze, he glanced over, and a slow smile broke over his face.
Grace waved and opened the car door to collect her shoulder bag and grab a dress from Auntie Vittoria. She held them close as she hurried through the misty garden, feeling two sets of eyes on her as she approached.
“You’re the cyclist I almost ran down,” she said, a little breathlessly when she reached them. “I’m sorry.”
This close to him, she noticed another difference. Where Josiah had a lightness of body, this man had solidity. He managed to stay on his bike not because of her driving, but because of his own groundedness.
“That was some skilled driving on your part, actually. Christian Dubay.” He held out his hand. “I’m in the masters program.” His smile was bright against his tanned face, revealing crooked teeth on the bottom. He looked openly at her in a way she liked, and his eyes crinkled just enough at the edges for her to know he was an older student, maybe close to her age. When he shook her hand, she felt how embodied he was. She grew warm and smiled self-consciously at him.
“Better get changed.” Vera said, looking her over again.
He nodded at Grace. “See you later.”
She watched him walk away toward the bike rack.
“Don’t get too attached,” Vera said after he was gone. She pushed through the entry doors and paused a moment for Grace. “He has a girlfriend in London.”
Grace laughed softly, embarrassed. “I’m not in the market, anyway.” It was true, but for a different reason than his: There just was not enough left of her to give to another person right now.
She stepped across the threshold, breathing in a mineral scent of wood and stone that seemed to come up through the earth, into the structure. It sent a pulse through her body, inviting her to lie down and rest on the pieces of limestone that lay at her feet as naturally as if they had fallen onto the forest floor.
The foyer of Taliesin was a modest space—a series of small spaces, really, which gave it intimacy. Inside even more so than out, it felt historically ‘modern,’ clean lined but warm, like Japanese architecture. Wooden slat partitions and built-in seats created room divisions. Light glowed from the ceiling and walls, not from fixtures, but from within the wood and glass.
She went to a stand full of walking sticks that resembled branches, and closed her hand around a smooth wooden knob that reminded her of a gourd. It was worn to the shape of another hand and felt comforting against her palm.
“Those are Mr. Wright’s,” Vera said, as if the man was expected to walk back in at any moment. “You can change down the hall there, in his bedroom and night study.” She pointed to the right, toward an open door at the far end. “When you’re done, go all the way down the hall the opposite way, and you’ll find us in the living room.” Distant laughter erupted over strains of classical guitar music, and she turned to walk in its direction.
Grace carried the dress into the architect’s bedroom, where the green-saturated sky pushed up against the terrace doors and wrap-around windows. The border of small, rectangular panes of glass again looked Japanese. She remembered seeing photos of a hotel the architect designed in Tokyo, so he must have spent a lot of time there. Beyond the windows, she could make out a pergola draped with thick green vines.
Inside, a large worktable sat under an equally large skylight, and for a moment, she could imagine the diminutive man with big hair sketching by moonlight. The night study sounded like a place for someone with broken sleep, and in that, she felt a kinship with him.
A low wall of shelving provided privacy for his sleeping area, which was so modest—containing only shelves, a bed, a nightstand and a lamp—that it gave her a little ache. She laid the dress on the twin bed, which was topped with a sunflower-colored pillow and a stiff, dried out animal skin.
With its low neckline and short skirt, the dress was the wrong thing to wear. It would not provide the gravitas she wanted to convey as the new artist-in-residence. But it was too late now to make a different choice.
She roughly tugged it on, yanking at the front, which was too low on her chest. Then too much thigh seemed to be showing, so she pulled the skirt down. She repeated this until she realized that whatever she did, the result was the same: she was too exposed.
She sat down at the table with her makeup case, and even in her uncomfortable state could feel it was a good spot, had good feng shui. She brushed her hair and re-knotted it, used the mirror in her compact to powder her nose and apply lip pencil. Finally, she slipped on her sandals and fastened the leather straps. Leaving her bag, she opened the door and started down the hallway toward the living room. The oppressive air outside had made its way in, and she was aware of her breathing as she moved through the house.
The hallway was open on both sides, a stone walkway lined with wood installations that had seating or displayed beautiful objects. Music and conversation drifted from the living room. A caterer carrying an empty hors d’oeuvres tray almost ran into her and then excused himself as he turned into a tiny kitchen.
A low wall of shelving topped with an Asian statue was the first thing she saw as she entered the living room. Then the space opened before her, with its high, angled ceiling and ribbon of windows that wrapped the perimeter.
Here, you would never be out of touch with nature, or the weather, though no one was paying attention to that now. Several groups of two or three sat in conversation on the built-in window seats, elegant in their black formal wear, with their legs crossed and drinks in hand. She faintly heard Vera’s voice say, “Artist-in-residence. I thought we were done with those. We can’t even feed the people we already have.”
Ahead stood a regal Latina woman whose dark hair had gray streaks at the temple and was gathered in a beaded bun: Silvia Rivera, the design professor who interviewed Grace for the position. With her wide set eyes and strong face, she resembled Frida Kahlo, a fact that was enhanced by the embroidered Mexican shawl she wore. She spoke with a blond student who might have been a model, with his slim build, regular features and well-cut hair.
When Silvia looked up and smiled, the tightness in Grace’s chest released a little. Her polite, semi-hug was strong and faintly scented with orange and jasmine.
“Welcome, Grace,” she said. “I’m glad you made it in time for dinner. Most of the others have gone ahead over to Hillside, where we’ll be eating. You know the Hillside buildings—on the other side of the hill, the opposite end of the campus? Not far, but we’ll probably drive because of the weather. I hope you had a good trip?”
“Most of the way—until I ran into this the storm.” She glanced toward the windows. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen it quite so…intense.”
The professor nodded and followed her gaze. “We get a lot of severe weather. I’ve gotten used to it, but you’re right, it is extreme…” She touched the arm of the man beside her and said, “This is Hardy Gordon, one of our masters students.”
The man’s hair, which might have been highlighted, was carefully styled to fall over his eye, and his bow tie was knotted perfectly. “Charmed,” he said, with a British accent. His eyes slipped toward Grace’s chest, and then he caught himself and raised his eyes to hers. She resisted the urge to tug at her dress.
“Ah, you’re the one from the famous stained glass studio, then, American Atelier?” He asked with a grin.
“Yes,” Grace replied.
“Very good.” He cleared his throat, and she was aware he was thinking of the accident. People always knew about it—and didn’t know what to say. “Have you met Lincoln May?” He asked, as if suddenly compelled to continue the introductions. “One of our first-year students.”
They turned their attention to a young man seated at the baby grand piano. His spiky head of dark hair was bent over the keys, and he touched them without making a sound. He wore a nice tuxedo, but his youth showed in the residual baby fat that rounded out his face even though he was thin. His eyes were dark and expressionless when he looked up and said, “I hate the piano.”
Beyond him, Grace saw Christian by the window seat, where Vera and a young woman who was probably a student sat speaking to him. The young woman’s strong profile and freckled pallor, framed by faded orange hair, made her look intense.
“My mom will be here any minute,” Lincoln said. “She’ll want to go eat, too.”
“Good.” Silvia glanced at her watch and then said to Grace, “His mother, Irie, is going to be the new event coordinator. She’s coming from the opposite direction you did, L.A. Lincoln drove out last week, and she’s flying in.”
Lincoln glanced toward the doorway and said, “Here she comes.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Grace saw Christian and the women on the window seat turn to watch the arrival, too.
Irie May was tall in three-inch heels, and slender beneath a designer trench coat. Her pretty face was framed in long, dark hair that looked salon-styled. She hurried toward them, teetering slightly with each step, and offered up a downturned grin when she was near.
Her son stayed seated on the piano bench.
“Lincoln,” she said brightly, shaking her hair back. The strong scent of an expensive perfume wafted toward Grace. “Sorry I’m late. I had to help a woman at the airport who fainted practically in my arms! She wouldn’t let me go, and they had to hold the flight for me. Crazy.” She let out a breathy laugh.
When Lincoln still did not look up, she said, “Hello? Son?” and leaned over to hug him. “Happy Birthday!”
“Thanks,” he said, silently tapping a key.
She shook his shoulder playfully. “And Happy Birthday to me, too, right? Since I’m the one who gave birth. Ha ha.”
“Happy Birthday, Lincoln,” Silvia told the young man, and then to his mother, “You’re just in time.”
“For some wine, I hope.” She grinned, widened her eyes, and swung from hip to hip. She seemed almost more youthful than her son.
“I’m afraid you’re out of luck. All the casks are all empty.” A good-looking, thirty-something guy in a designer tux raised his hands in an exaggerated shrug and then laughed.
Lincoln’s mother rewarded him with the downturned grin.
“Sorry, that wasn’t funny. May I?” The man took her hand and kissed it.
You can make it up to me at the bar. My name is Irie.”
She put her hand on his arm, and he asked about the name origin as they walked away.
Her son must have heard, too, because he said aloud to no one in particular, “Iris. That’s her true name, she decided, instead of Claudia.”
He watched his mother a moment longer and then went the other way, toward the deck overlooking the stream below. Probably no one ever wanted their mother to join them at college, Grace thought. Even a cool mom.
“Grace.” The voice from over her shoulder sent warm breath across her bare skin. Christian had changed from biking clothes into a tailless tuxedo, and his dark hair was damp. What he looked like, she realized, was a Native American version of Josiah. The face was a little broader, especially across the cheekbones, and the nose and chin a little stronger. The hint of red in his dark skin made her want to smell it.
“Can I get you something to drink?” he asked. “I’m afraid the selection is limited to chardonnay, cabernet, regular beer or light beer.”
“Cabernet would be great. Thank you.”
“I’ll accompany you, Christian,” Hardy said, and then gestured in the direction of the bar. “After you.”
The two men headed for the table draped in white cloth and set with bottles. Irie stood nearby with the young man in the designer tux, and when Christian passed, she touched his arm, raised her empty wine glass, and gave him a winning smile. He leaned toward her with a little bow and took the glass. Coat off now, she wore a strappy black dress, and when she raised her arms to emphasize something, her bangles tinkled merrily. The all laughed together.
Grace turned toward the fresh air coming from an open door to the deck. It ran alongside the house and was bisected by a kind of boardwalk that extended straight out into the sky, supported by nothing underneath. Just looking out at it gave her a jolt of acrophobic dizziness—something that had plagued her since her mother’s death.
A matted drawing of the architect’s most famous home design, Fallingwater, was displayed on a nearby easel. Lincoln stood studying it intently, pulling his fingers up through his spiky hair.
The Fallingwater rendering was exquisite, awash in sepia and delicately inked on heavy paper. The design was breathtaking—anchoring vertical elements braced layered horizontal bands, the lowest of which was a manmade dam where the falling water from a stream on the property was integrated within the design of the building.
Grace’s eyes went back to the open door, where the world outside had become the color of a Frank Lloyd Wright rendering. On paper, it was beautiful. As a color for the atmosphere, it was bilious.
Beside the easel, a panel of stained glass was suspended in the window, one of the architect’s “light screens,” as he called them. His art glass was not her favorite, with its heavy geometry, but some of it was lovely.
The panel was not installed, but rather hung from hooks in the top of the window frame, like a giant sun catcher. Most of the glass was clear, and the design was open in the center but for thin lead lines growing up from gold squares and branching into chevrons above. She realized she had seen the design before, in a book. It was the Tree of Life. She wanted to touch the smooth, pale gold glass at the bottom.
As she stared, a breeze swept behind the piece and gently lifted it. Nearby, the Fallingwater rendering on its stand fluttered. Then a strong gust of wind came through the screen door and swept the rendering from its stand up into the air. The young man reached for it with graceful movements, like a dancer, as the easel tipped forward.
Moving out of the way, he bumped the Tree of Life panel off its hooks, and it fell in slow motion. Light glinted off the glass, and as it hit the red concrete floor, Grace covered her face and turned away, her heart palpitating with off-kilter beats too strong and then too weak.
“What happened? Are you all right? Lincoln!” Silvia appeared and faced the young man, pulling her shawl around herself. She looked back and forth between the rendering in his hand and the broken glass.
He followed her eyes to the floor. “The wind blew it down,” he said, looking at Grace. She was the only person who might have seen him jostle it.
She nodded and regarded the lead framework, where the remaining pieces of glass jutted from the lead channels like shark’s teeth. Everything was suddenly darker, she realized, as if most of the daylight was lost during the last moments. Then a whining sound began outside and grew very loud. A weather warning system.