The Pull of the Earth
A literary thriller
set at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin and Taliesin West
The foundation of Grace Avila’s life has been swept from beneath her with her mother’s death—an accidental fall as they worked together trying to reinstall a restored Tiffany window—and her sense of inadequacy, amplified.
When she’s invited to go serve as the stained glass artist-in-residence for a renowned, esoteric architecture school in rural Wisconsin, she thinks getting away might save her sanity—until she discovers the problems at the new place might be worse than the ones she’s trying to leave behind.
She is attracted to the earthy graduate student, Christian Dubay, and fascinated by her housemate, Irie Koritsu, the new event director. Irie is cool, fun, and at first, Grace’s biggest fan—except when she’s not.
The architecture colony’s crises are slowly revealed, with failing structures and underpaid staff making the place desperate, and ripe for exploitation. Corporate sponsors begin to deface the natural landscape and the world famous buildings, while land is sold to venture capitalists for development. Someone needs to do something, and it may have to be Grace.
At Taliesin West, she lives open air in the desert, listens to the land, and builds a tiny home for herself. She gradually discovers a rich past that provides insight for a better future, if only she can rally others to the cause. Most challenging of all, she may have to reach out to the very people behind the degradation if there is to be any hope of regaining the paradise lost for all of them, and for posterity.
The interior becomes the reality of the building.
—Frank Lloyd Wright
Rain again. It had been Grace Avila’s companion for more than half of her sixteen hour drive. Now, as she neared her destination, bucketfuls blasted the small car sideways, challenging gravity itself as it held her to the narrow road. Her shoulders were stiff from the struggle to hold on, and finally, she unclenched her hands from the wheel, spread her fingers, took a breath.
Since Madison, the land had grown greener until the road was little more than a path through thick woodlands. The remaining signs of civilization were fewer and older, with towns consisting of a handful of aging buildings on either side of the road, 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 single rotation of the earth, to a place where the failures and losses etched inside would be less present, where something fertile might seep into the fissures.
She opened her window. A splash of cold rainwater startled her and splattered loudly on the large boxes riding in the back seat. Then the car dipped into a swirl of fog.
A sudden flash of red made her hit the brakes. The bicyclist was as surprised to see her as she was to see him. His face under the helmet did not look afraid, only focused, and…like Josiah. But of course it could not be her former fiancé. And his hair was not long like that, anymore; it was buzzed—or at least it was the last time she saw him.
Heart racing, she looked in the rear view mirror and saw the cyclist had managed to remain upright. She raised her hand and waved half in apology, half in salute, and he returned the gesture as he receded.
Soon the road straightened, and she passed a redwood sign for the Frank Lloyd Wright visitor center. She was almost there.
Taliesin had always been a place of pilgrimage for creatives despite its out of the way location. That seemed promising. But everything also depended on Grace being able to work again. The truth was—and no one here knew it—she had not made a single thing, had barely touched a piece of stained glass, since the accident ten months ago.
The restoration of the Tiffany window had gone beautifully; the whole studio was proud of their work on it. Her mother chose Grace to lead the reinstallation with her. That might have been okay except for the wind that day, with the height of the scaffold. And Grace’s unforgivable distraction. Finding her mother lifeless on the stone steps below, pinned beneath the shattered church window, changed everything. Nothing could be trusted, she realized, especially herself.
The next months passed in a fog. Then came the request to serve as the artist-in-residence for a famed but esoteric college she would have assumed defunct: The Frank Lloyd Wight School of Architecture, located in west central Wisconsin. The estate that housed the school was called Taliesin. Her childhood friend, Kenneth, the CEO of the Foundation there, pronounced it “Tally-S-in” when he called. The name sounded both strange and familiar. “We’re in a time of transition here,” he said. “You could help.”
Now Grace looked at the dashboard clock. It was 7:10 PM, which meant she would arrive almost two hours earlier than planned. She should have stopped more often along the way if she really wanted to miss tonight’s Taliesin formal, which apparently was some traditional event 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 since her dear friend, Madeleine, had died, as if good clothing might fortify the daughter in her bereft state.
Outside the car, the border of trees opened to reveal the Wisconsin River curving past on her right, wide and tree-lined. Then, out of the greenest valley she had ever seen, rose a home that stretched across the face of the hill beyond, recalling the strata of the monumental sandstone formations she passed earlier.
Taliesin. The tightness inside her eased a bit as she rested her eyes on it. The sand-gold bands of the building met the earth humbly and nestled into it, propped up on piers where the land was steep. 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 with the name. She whispered it and heard her mother’s voice. “Taliesin—you remember, don’t you?” Madeleine had said, moments before her death. She told her daughter they once took 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 told herself the old memory was not why she was headed there, because it seemed mystical when she had learned over and over she needed to be practical. She was going to Taliesin to work again, in a place not haunted by what should and should not have been.
The entrance drive at the bottom of the hill was identified only by a sign that said, Private Road, No Admittance, with a simple 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. Barbara Frees will come down to meet you.”
Grace got out of the car and stretched. A weathered stone plaque fixed to the limestone pier of the gate was engraved Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect. It looked like a gravestone.
She was struck that this had been the famous man’s home. What he built for himself. Where he lived out his time on earth. Taliesin was deeply personal, and it made coming here feel like entering another’s life. His life. She watched his waterfall stir up whitecaps in the retaining pond beside her.
The rigid female figure of Barbara, when she appeared, coming down the hill, did not look exactly welcoming. Her iron gray hair was pulled tightly back, and she wore an angular black dress that clearly had been an expensive design twenty years ago.
Grace had met Barbara at the Arizona campus of the school, Taliesin West, during her interview process. The older woman must have been in her late sixties, but her fair skin still clung tightly to her face in a way that suggested ease had not come her way with age.
“This is not when Kenneth said you would arrive,” she said, giving Grace a serious look. “We have guests up at the formal—board members, people with the Foundation, donors. I don’t have time…”
“Sorry for the inconvenience.” Grace reached for her hand. “I’m glad to see you again. I still remember your botanical tour at Taliesin West. It was so wonderful.”
“Really, if you can just point out how to get to my room…” Grace gave an apologetic smile.
The gray hair did not move as the other 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 clothes— “and you can change inside the house.”
“Okay. Would you like to ride up with me?” Grace asked.
“I’ll walk,” the older woman said. “You follow.”
When they reached the top of the drive, Barbara 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.
It must once have been beautiful and idyllic. Now it had an air of neglect, as if the heirs were struggling to maintain their inheritance. The closest door was screened, a casual entrance, and it hung open like the 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 seating of mossy flagstone. It 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.
Barbara 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. The resemblance to Josiah was striking, except this man was a shade darker and his features were coarser. Something awakened in her belly as 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, she sensed another difference. Where Josiah has a lightness of body, this man had a solidity. He managed to stay on his bike not because of her driving, but because of his own groundedness.
“That was some skilled maneuvering on your part, actually. Christian Dubay.” He held out his hand. “I’m in the masters program.” His smile was bright in 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 that she knew he was an older student, maybe close to her age of thirty-one. When he shook her hand, she felt how embodied he was, and her own flesh grew warm. She smiled self-consciously at him.
“Better get changed.” Barbara 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,” Barbara said after he was gone. She pushed through the entry doors and paused a moment for Grace. “He has a girlfriend in London.”
The younger woman laughed softly, embarrassed. “I’m not in the market, anyway.” She did not add why, that there 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. She resisted.
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,” Barbara said, as if the architect 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 sunflower-colored pillow and a stiff, dried out animal skin.
With its low neckline and short skirt, the dress from Auntie V. 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 seems 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.
Barbara stood with Silvia Rivera, the design professor who interviewed Grace, also at Taliesin West. With her wide set eyes and strong face, she reminded her of the Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo, a notion enhanced by the embroidered shawl she wore.
“…artist-in-residence.” Barbara was saying. “I thought we were done with those. We can’t even feed the people we already have.” When she saw Grace, she held her gaze a moment as if to reinforce her point.
Silvia said nothing, and the young man seated at a baby grand piano beside her did not look up. His head of spiky, dark hair was bent over the keys, and he touched them without making a sound. The silent pianist wore a nice tuxedo, but his youth showed in the residual baby fat that rounded out his face even though he was thin. Grace could see Japanese heritage in him when he looked up and said to Silvia, “I hate the piano.”
Silvia put a hand on his shoulder and said, “Lincoln’s mother will also be joining us, as the new event coordinator.” To Lincoln, she said, “Grace Avila is our new artist-in-residence, just arrived from New York. Her work will help inspire the New American Home project.”
Grace flashed a nervous smile and changed the subject. “Where is it that Kenneth said we’ll be eating?”
Silvia answered her question with a question. “Do you know the Hillside buildings? On the other side of the hill, the opposite end of the campus. Not far, but we will probably drive because of the weather.”
Lincoln did not look up from the keyboard he continued to finger as he said, “My mom’s almost here.”
“Good.” Silvia glanced at her watch and said to Grace, “She’s coming from the opposite direction you did, L.A.”
Lincoln lifted his eyes to the doorway. “Here she comes.”
The woman was tall in three-inch heels, and girlishly slender beneath a white trench coat. Her walk was hurried, and a pretty face framed in long, dark hair, offered up a downturned grin when she saw them.
As she approached, her son stayed seated on the piano bench.
“Lincoln,” she breathed, shaking her hair back. The strong scent of an expensive perfume wafted toward Grace. “Hello?” She leaned over to kiss him. “Happy Birthday!”
“Thanks,” he said to the keys.
She shook his shoulder playfully. “And Happy Birthday to me, too, right? Since I’m the one who did all the work of giving birth. Ha ha.”
“Happy Birthday, Lincoln,” Silvia told the young man, and then said to her, “You’re just in time.”
“For some wine, I hope?” She widened her eyes invitingly and glanced around at everyone.
She was almost more youthful-seeming than her son, Grace thought, like a forty-year-old teenager playing a polished adult. It was strangely charming, and endearing.
“Oh, I think the casks are empty.” A middle-aged man in gold wire-rims and an expensive tuxedo raised his hands in an exaggerated shrug and then laughed.
Lincoln’s mother rewarded him with the downturned grin.
“Sorry, that wasn’t funny. Just a silly attempt to get a beautiful woman’s attention.” The man bent over, took her hand and kissed it. “Dan Goldman. Please forgive me. I’m a friend of Kenneth’s from the Harvard Club.”
Her smile righted itself. “I’m Irie. Maybe you’d like to make it up to me at the bar?”
“That’s a unique name,” he said, tucking her hand under his arm. As they walked away, Grace heard him ask about the origin.
Her son must have heard, too, because he looked at Grace and said, “Iris. That’s her true name, she decided, instead of Claudia. And this place is her true home.”
He watched her a moment longer and then walked off in the opposite direction. Probably no one ever wanted their mother to join them at college, but this was not anyone’s usual mom.
“Grace.” The voice from over her shoulder sent warm breath across her bare skin. Christian had changed from biking clothes into a tailless tux, 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 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.”
He headed for the table draped in white cloth and set with bottles. Irie stood nearby with Dan Goldman, both holding glasses of red wine. Coat removed now, she wore a strappy black dress. When she raised her arms to emphasize something, her bangles tinkled merrily, and they laughed together.
Grace turned toward the fresh air coming from an open door to the deck, which cantilevered out from the hill. The view 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. The Fallingwater rendering on its stand fluttered, and Lincoln reach to steady it.
Then a strong gust of wind came through the screen door and lifted 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.
He moved out of the way, bumping 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 bump 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.