The Pull of the Earth
A literary thriller
set at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin and Taliesin West
Grace Avila never imagined that at thirty-one she would flee the cultured life of her family’s Brooklyn stained glass studio—little knowing the perils ahead would be worse than the ones she’s trying to leave behind. The renowned architecture colony, Taliesin, where she goes to serve as the artist-in-residence, is in a downward slide, with new threats to its very existence. Someone needs to do something, and it may have to be Grace.
Emotionally vulnerable as she recovers from her mother’s accidental death, she is also unprepared for sharing a home with the other new arrival, Irie Koritsu. The exhibit director is charming, cool and sexy, and for some reason, she is Grace’s biggest fan—until she becomes her worst enemy. The fact that Irie believes she and her son, a student at the school, are descendants of the place’s founder, Frank Lloyd Wright, adds to the confused atmosphere, in which things are not what they seem.
So does the fact that Grace is hiding the truth that she’s too traumatized to actually work in her medium. She also has to decide what to do about Christian Dubay, the earthy grad student who seems to understand what she needs better than she does. With him as her ally, she digs for truths, and her discoveries bring her face to face with flawed humanity, past and present.
As things go from bad to worse, she slowly uncovers what’s happening—but no one is inclined to believe her. And when everything finally comes to a head just before the opening of the exhibit, Grace must finally trust herself and decide what she wants to risk for–and what she’s ready to let go.
The interior becomes the reality of the building.
Frank Lloyd Wright
Heavy rain wants to hammer my car into the earth, or at least force it from a backwoods road that is little more than a path through the woods. It deafens and blinds me, which means all I can do is focus my attention a few feet ahead and hope the way is free of obstacles as I move through. Leaving behind everything that ever felt like home does not feel good, only necessary.
Since Madison, signs of civilization in the rural Wisconsin countryside have become 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. It feels like driving back in time, which is a tempting fantasy—that I might go back and change what happened, to have my mother still alive and myself freed from the endless ‘what if’s.’ The fact that I have lost both her, and my longtime love, Josiah, has made me question everything, most especially myself.
The air conditioning defogging the windshield makes the car interior frigid, despite that it’s August. I open a window as the rain lightens up, and weighty drips of rainwater are carried in on the thick air. They land cold on my face and splatter the large boxes riding in the back seat like awkward, silent passengers.
Drenched trees drip onto flattened flora within a landscape that is dense with aged stands of oak and pine, and I watch as the world is suffused with the sepia hue of an antique print. I’ve seen no other vehicles for miles, which finally means the outer world reflects how I feel on the inside—alone.
The car dips into a valley swirling with fog, and at a sudden flash of red on the road, I hit the brakes and let out a startled cry. The bicyclist is as surprised to see me there as I am to see him. His face under the helmet does not look afraid, only focused, and…Josiah? My heart rises into my throat even as I realize that of course it can’t be. And Josiah’s hair is not long anymore. It is buzzed—or was the last time I saw him, anyway. My heart races as I look back in the rear view mirror and see that he’s managed to stay upright. I raise my hand and wave half in apology, half in salute, and he returns the gesture as he recedes.
The road straightens out, and I pass a redwood sign for the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center. I am almost there. Taliesin has always been a place of pilgrimage for creative people, I know, despite its out of the way location. But the closer I get, the more difficult it becomes to imagine spending day after day there, with the nearest sizeable city forty miles away.
I had been tempted to decline when my childhood friend, Kenneth, called with an offer to come serve as the artist-in-residence for a famed but esoteric college I would have assumed defunct: The Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, located in west central Wisconsin. The estate that houses the school is called Taliesin, which he pronounced Tally – “S”- in. The name sounded both strange and familiar. We are in a time of transition here, he said. You could help.
Of course Kenneth had found the place. The guy had a kind of obsession with Frank Lloyd Wright even in high school—not so much for the architecture as for his legendary charm and the women it drew. He badly wanted to be irresistible, but no amount of playing Casanovas in the theater 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.
Kenneth was hetero, but you could say Josiah was both of our first love. From the minute he arrived at our school in Brooklyn Heights from Chicago at the end of elementary school, I had wanted to have Josiah, and Kenneth had wanted to be him. I had come close, but in the end, it had not worked out for either of us.
Now, New York is a thousand miles behind me and I have somehow made the long drive two hours faster than expected. The last thing I wanted was to arrive in time for tonight’s ‘Taliesin Evening,’ some traditional, formal event going way back. It seems an uncomfortable way to rendezvous with my old friend, and to meet everyone else for the first time. But here it is, eight o’clock, with my new home just minutes away.
Heavy clouds hang over the Wisconsin River as it appears beside me, wide and tree-lined. Then, out of the green valley rises Taliesin, perched high on a wooded hill. Something fluttery inside me goes still as I rest my eyes on it. Its beauty is subtle—it belongs in the landscape—and yet it rivets my attention. The yellow ochre bands of the building stretch across the face of the hill like the strata of the monumental sandstone formations I passed earlier. They meet the earth humbly and nestle into it, propped up on piers where the land is steep. A stucco deck in the same golden color runs along the front, and it nearly glows against the black trees and stormy sky.
I turn right at the limestone boulder that’s marked in raised bronze letters with the name. I whisper it and hear my mother’s voice. “Taliesin—you remember, don’t you?” she said, moments before her death. She told me we once took refuge there when I was a child. “We were on a driving tour of the Midwest, about to get swept up in a tornado,” she said, “and then I swear, Taliesin suddenly appeared on the map a few miles away.” I tell myself the old memory is not why I am headed there, because it seems mystical when I need to be practical. What I am going to Taliesin for is to work again, to regain my balance in a place free of the shadows of my failures.
The entrance drive is identified only by a sign that says, Private Road, No Admittance. Where the road forks, I stop at the gate and get out beside the retaining pond, where a waterfall rushes loudly, stirring up whitecaps. A bolt of lightning makes me jump and within seconds, rain returns to patter gently on the windshield. From here, only a few patches of the stucco are visible up the hill, behind the dense tree cover. I pull out my cell phone and call Kenneth.
“You made good time,” he says. “I’m over at Hillside already, so Monique Hopkins will come down and get you. She’s the student in charge of hospitality this month.”
The whispery rain feels good on my bare skin as I wait, until the mosquitoes find me. When one lands on my arm, I swat it and rub the blood off with raindrops.
The limestone pier of the gate has a weathered stone plaque engraved with Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect. It looks like a gravestone, and I am struck that this is the architect’s house. What he built for himself. Where he lived his life. I can feel that Taliesin is deeply personal and that coming here is a little like invading someone else’s life.
I look up to see a tall woman coming down the hill. Her African hair is big and fabulous, and in a black sheath, she looks like a model. When she gets closer, she waves and runs the last little distance to me.
“I’m Monique,” she says with a big smile and a soft Southern accent as she takes my hand. “You’re the one from the famous stained glass studio, right? My sister watched every episode of that documentary on the Tiffany window restoration…” Then her face clouds. “Oh, but…Was it your mother who…?”
“ I’m so sorry.” I like how she says it and how she holds my eyes, sincerely and without awkwardness. “Anyway,” she waves her slender arm, “I can’t wait to see your stuff.”
Thank you.” I look down at my limp cotton clothing.
“You can change inside the house,” she says. “Then, when the formal’s over, I’ll take you to the guest cottage.”
“Okay.” I smile my thanks. “Would you like to ride up with me?”
When she gets in, the scent of the car interior changes to coconut, and I feel myself relax a little. At the top of the drive, she points at an open space in the carport and says, “Right here is good.” Two red bikes stand in a rack nearby, reminding me of the cyclist.
“Can I carry something?” she asks as we get out.
“No, thanks. I just need to grab a few things.”
“I’ll wait over there.” She points across the courtyard at a set of glass double doors. “I need to catch Christian for a sec.”
I watch her head off toward the rambling, interconnected buildings. The upper court, where I stand, resembles 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 terraces everywhere.
It must have once been beautiful and idyllic. Now it has an air of neglect, as if the heirs are struggling to maintain their inheritance. The closest door is screened, a casual entrance, and it hangs open like the spring has failed. Paint peels from the doorway.
The main building is large and wraps halfway around an expansive garden. The hilltop rises gently beside it, and a massive tree towers over a curved stone seating of mossy flagstone, which looks like it has been there forever. The tea circle, I think suddenly, and then wonder how I could possibly know or remember that name from a forgotten childhood visit.
Outside the glass doors, Monique holds her umbrella over a slender man in biking spandex, who has a helmet in his hands. The cyclist. The resemblance to Josiah is striking, except that he is a shade darker and his features are coarser. Something awakes in my belly as I look at him. Feeling my gaze, he glances over and a slow smile breaks over his face.
I collect my shoulder bag, along with a dress and sandals from one of the boxes, and hold them close, to stay dry, as I hurry through the garden. I can feel both of their eyes on me as I approach.
“You’re the cyclist I almost ran down,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
This close to him, I sense another difference. Where Josiah has a lightness of body, he has a solidity. He managed to stay on his bike not because of my driving, but because of his own groundedness, I realize.
“That was some skilled maneuvering on your part, actually. Christian Dubay.” He holds out his hand. “I’m in the masters program.” His smile is bright in his tanned face, revealing crooked teeth on the bottom, and he looks openly at me in a way I like. His eyes crinkle just enough at the edges that I know he is an older student, maybe close to my age of thirty-one. When he shakes my hand, I feel how embodied he is, and my own flesh grows warm. I smile self-consciously at him.
“We need to get her changed,” Monique tells him. “You can talk at the party.”
He smiles. “See you later.”
“Cute, isn’t he? He has a girlfriend in London, though,” Monique says, pushing through the doors.
Inside, a mineral scent of wood and stone comes up through the earth into the structure. It sends a pulse through my body, inviting me to it. I have an urge to lie down and rest on the pieces of limestone at my feet, which have been laid as naturally as if they had fallen onto the forest floor. I look to where the other woman arranges her umbrella, but she seems oblivious to the spirit of the place. In me, it vibrates with life energy and pulls with a primeval force. I take a breath and look at my surroundings.
The foyer of Taliesin is a modest space—a series of small spaces, really, which gives it intimacy. Inside even more so than out, it feels historically ‘modern,’ clean lined but warm, like Japanese architecture. Wooden slat partitions and built-in seats create room divisions. Light glows from the ceiling and walls, not from fixtures, but from within the wood and glass.
I go to a stand full of walking sticks that resemble branches and close my hand around a smooth wooden knob that reminds me of a gourd. It’s worn to the shape of another hand and is comforting against my palm.
“Those are Mr. Wright’s,” Monique says, as if the architect is expected to walk back in at any moment. “You can change down the hall in his bedroom and night study.” She points to the right, toward an open door at the far end. “When you’re done, go all the way down to the other end, and you’ll find us in the living room, all right?” Over strains of classical guitar music, laughter erupts, and she turns and walks in its direction.
I carry my dress into the architect’s bedroom, where the green-saturated sky pushes up against the terrace doors and wrap-around windows. The border of small, rectangular panes of glass again look Japanese. I remember seeing photos of a hotel he designed in Tokyo, so he must have spent a lot of time there. Beyond the windows, I can make out a pergola draped with thick, flowering vines.
A large worktable sits under a skylight, and for a moment, I can imagine the diminutive man with big hair sketching by moonlight. The night study sounds like a place for someone with broken sleep, and in that, feel a kinship with him.
A low wall of shelving provides privacy for his sleeping area, which is so modest—containing only shelves, a bed, a nightstand and a lamp—that it gives me a little ache. I lay my dress on the twin bed, which is topped with a sunflower-colored pillow and a fur animal skin that’s old, dried out and stiff.
The outfit is from my mom’s friend, Coco, a fashion consultant, who sends me more clothes than ever now. Still, I’ve made the wrong choice. With its low neckline and short skirt, this thing will not provide the gravitas I want to convey as the new artist-in-residence.
I remove my damp clothes and wait for the moisture to evaporate from my body. When I cup my breasts with the opposite hands to warm them, they are Josiah’s hands, and he stands behind me, fitted there like the other half of a whole. I catch my breath. The last I heard, he was in Rome, studying at the Vatican, but really, I preferred not knowing.
I roughly tug the dress on and yank at the front, which is too low on my chest. Then too much thigh seems to be showing, so I pull the skirt down. I repeat this until I realize that whatever I do, the result is the same: I am too exposed.
I sit down at the table with my makeup case. Even in my uncomfortable state, I can feel that it’s a good spot, has good feng shui. I brush my hair and re-knot it, then use the mirror in my compact to powder my nose and apply lip gloss. Finally, I slip on my sandals and fasten the leather straps. Leaving my bag, I open the door and start down the hallway toward the living room. The oppressive air outside has made its way in and I am aware of my breathing as I move through the house.
The hallway is open on both sides, a stone walkway lined with wood installations that have seating or display beautiful objects. Music and conversation drift from the living room. A caterer carrying an empty hors d’oeuvres tray almost runs into me and then excuses himself as he turns into a tiny kitchen.
A low wall of shelving topped with an Asian statue is the first thing I see as I enter the living room. Then the space opens before me, with its high, angled ceiling and ribbon of windows that wrap the perimeter in storm clouds.
Monique stands with a regal Latina whose dark hair is gathered in a beaded bun. I recognize her as Silvia Arroyo, the professor who contacted me. With her wide set eyes and strong face, she reminds me of the Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo, a notion enhanced by the embroidered shawl she wears.
Monique looks up and smiles as I approach. “You know Grace Avila, our amazing new artist-in-residence, right?” She says to Silvia. “She came here from New York.”
Behind me, I faintly hear a thin, female voice say, “Artist-in-residence? I thought we were done with those. We can’t even feed the people we already have.”
I try but fail to see the speaker as the professor leans forward to shake my hand and draw me into a polite semi-hug. Her grip is strong, and she is scented with something faintly orange and jasmine.
“Welcome, Grace,” she says. “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.” When I look blank, she adds, “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. Did you have a good trip?”
“Until I ran into this the storm.” I glance toward the windows. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen it quite so…intense.”
The professor nods and follows my gaze. “We get a lot of severe weather. I’ve gotten used to it, but it is extreme.”
“I’ve seen skies like that before,” Monique says, “growing up in Oklahoma.”
“That explains your accent.” I grin.
“The opposite of yours,” she smiles back. “How did you end up here?”
“I grew up with Kenneth Arneson.”
“Oh, he’s got great ideas for saving this place.” She lowers her voice and whispers, “The finances are really bad right now,” and then aloud again, “These earrings are one of the new things in the gift shop. Kenneth’s idea.” She puts her hand to her ear where a red square imprinted with the word ‘Taliesin’ hangs. The logo. I don’t care for any earring that looks like an advertisement.
She leads me toward the piano, where a young man with spiky, dark hair touches the keys without making a sound. The silent pianist wears a nice tuxedo, but his youth shows in the residual baby fat that rounds out his face even though he’s thin. I see Japanese heritage in him as he looks up and says, “I hate the piano.”
When Monique introduces me to Lincoln Koritsu, he bows his head and says, “Hello,” with no change of expression.
“His mother, Irie, is going to be the new Exhibit Director. She’s amazing. All that L.A. sophistication and so nice…” She grins at me, then says to Lincoln, “Isn’t she coming soon? Tonight?”
“I guess.” He looks toward the door and says, “Here she comes.”
The woman makes a celebrity-style entrance she could almost take to the runway. The lapels of her glittery gold trench coat form a deep V to her belted waist, and she peers out sideways from behind a curtain of dark hair. In a room full of academics, eccentrics and students, everyone’s heads turn. She allows a small grin as she heads for her son, who stays seated on the piano bench.
“Lincoln,” she says a little breathlessly, shaking her hair back. The strong scent of an expensive perfume wafts my way. “Hello?” She gives us wide eyes a big smile while leaning over to kiss him. I find myself smiling back.
“Hi,” He says, giving her a glance. “When did you get here?”
“Just now. In time for a drink, I hope.”
“What can I get you?” The speaker is a middle-aged man with gold, wire-rimmed glasses. He’s physically fit and wears a tux so understated it must have been very expensive. “Dan Wendel,” he says, holding out his hand.
“You’re too kind.” She clasps it in both of hers. “I’m Irie Koritsu. I’ll come along and see what they’ve got.”
“That’s a unique name,” the man says as they walk toward the bar. I hear him ask about the origin.
Her son must hear, too, because he looks at me and says, “Iris. That’s her true name, she decided, instead of what her parents named her, Claudia.” He watches her for a second and then walks off. The poor guy, probably no one ever wanted their mother to join them at college. Then again, she does not appear to be a typical mom.
“Grace.” The voice from over my shoulder sends warm breath across my bare skin. Christian has changed from biking clothes into a tailless tux, and his dark hair is damp. What he looks like, I realize, is a Native American version of Josiah. The face is a little broader, especially across the cheekbones, and the nose and chin a little stronger. The hint of red in his dark skin makes me want to smell it.
“Can I get you something from the bar?” he asks. “I’m afraid the selection is limited to chardonnay, cabernet, regular beer or light beer.”
“Cabernet would be great. Thank you.” I watch as he heads for the nearby table draped in white cloth and set with bottles. Lincoln’s mom and the guy in wire-rimmed glasses stand nearby, both holding glasses of red wine. Coat removed now, she wears a strappy black dress. When she raises her arms to emphasize something, her bangles tinkle merrily, and they laugh together.
I turn toward the fresh air coming from an open door to the deck, which cantilevers high above the hill. The view gives me a jolt of acrophobic dizziness—something that has plagued me since my mother’s death.
A matted drawing of the architect’s most famous home design, Fallingwater, is displayed on a nearby easel. Lincoln studies it intently, pulling his fingers up through his already-spiky hair as he does.
The artistry of the Fallingwater rendering is exquisite, its horizontal bands and draping ivy delicately inked and awash in sepia. The design is breathtaking—anchoring vertical elements brace layered horizontal bands, the lowest of which is a manmade dam where the falling water from a stream on the property is integrated within the design of the building. My eyes are drawn to the open door again, and I realize the world outside right now is the color of a Frank Lloyd Wright rendering. On paper, it is beautiful. As a color for the atmosphere, it is bilious.
Near the easel, a panel of stained glass is suspended in the window, one of the architect’s “light screens,” as he called them. His art glass is not my favorite, with its heavy geometry, but some of it is lovely.
The panel is not installed, but rather hangs from hooks in the top of the window frame, like a giant sun catcher. Most of the glass is clear, and the design is open in the center but for thin lead lines growing up from gold squares and branching into chevrons above. I realize I have seen the design before, in a book. It is the Tree of Life. I want to touch the smooth, pale gold glass at the bottom.
As I stare, a breeze sweeps behind the piece and gently lifts it. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the Fallingwater rendering on its stand flutter and Lincoln reach to steady it.
Monique is still talking to me, now about the upcoming exhibition here—the one for which I am supposed to make my own stained glass.
“Anyway,” she drawls, “we’re going crazy preparing for it, and so are the archives people at Taliesin West.”
I nod absently, feeling a strong gust of wind come through the screen door. It lifts the rendering from its stand up into the air. The young man reaches for it with graceful movements, like a dancer, as the easel tips forward. He moves out of the way, bumping the Tree of Life panel off its hooks, and it falls in slow motion. Light glints off the glass, and as it hits the red concrete floor, I see the heads of the nearest people turn. When it shatters, I cover my face and turn away, heart palpitating with off-kilter beats too strong and then too weak.
“What happened? Are you all right? Lincoln!” Silvia has appeared and faces the young man, pulling her shawl around herself. She looks back and forth between the rendering in his hand and the glass on the floor.
He follows her eyes to the broken panel. “The wind blew it down,” he says, looking at me. I am the only person who might have seen him bump it.
I nod and regard the lead framework on the floor, where the remaining pieces of glass jut from the lead channels like shark’s teeth. Everything is suddenly darker, I realize, as if most of the daylight was lost during the last moments. Then a whining sound begins outside and grows very loud. A weather warning system.
The priceless rendering Lincoln holds is now creased diagonally. The professor, Silvia, frowns and speaks loudly to be heard over the siren. “That’s the copy?” She looks around. “Monique? You put the original away…?”
Monique looks stricken. “I didn’t have a chance to get a copy made. I’m so sorry…”
“Give it to me,” The professor adjusts her shawl and takes the artwork. Everyone has stopped talking, and some are looking to her for direction. She moves quickly toward the center of the room.
“People,” she says, “we need to follow protocol and go to the basement. The entrance is around front. We’ll have to go outside to get there.”
As people slowly begin to move, Monique says, “Come on, I’ll take you. It used to be guest rooms down there about a hundred years ago, but now everything is crumbling and covered in mold.” She puts a dark hand on my arm, looks at Lincoln, who has not moved, and says, “You can come, too.”
She accepts a flashlight from someone and glances over to where Christian and a guy with highlighted hair are collecting wine bottles. The siren continues to blare shrilly. “We don’t need to wait for them. I know a short-cut.”
She takes us to the kitchen, and as we move through the Dutch door leading outside, she says, “This is where Mr. Wright’s butler trapped his mistress, Mamah Cheney, in the fire he set. You’ve heard the story? He locked the top half of the door and stood guard with a hatchet, attacking people as they tried to crawl out.”
“That was Julian Carleton,” Lincoln says. “He killed her because she fired him.”
Taken aback, I wonder why they have not removed the door, or the whole wing. And how the architect kept living here after that.
Outside, the temperature has dropped and the blare of the siren is overwhelming. We walk around a section of cedar shake roof that slopes almost to the ground and see the group ahead descending a set of basement stairs. As we stand waiting, a sudden sound like handfuls of pebbles being thrown turns into a cascade of icy pellets hitting my shoulders and arms. I look up to see little white balls of ice bouncing off the roof.
“Hail,” Monique says, catching some and holding it out to show me. I have only seen it once before in my life, when it damaged all the cars in my neighborhood.
We hurry through the door at the bottom of the stairs, and she shines the flashlight beam ahead. It’s surreal watching her move along in her formal dress through the dilapidated basement, like Nancy Drew.
The concrete floor is heaved at some points, and true to her description, the plaster walls are badly deteriorated. Everything is stained with damp. When the flashlight illuminates a foundation wall that is washed in red, she says, “Fire changed the color. Isn’t that weird?”
We walk slowly, wiping the melted hail from our faces.
“It’s appalling that this is not taken care of,” Lincoln says, and it comes out sounding unnatural, like he is repeating something he has heard. “This is a world famous site, and all over Taliesin, the buildings are neglected.”
“There’s no money,” Monique says sadly.
“Yes, there is,” he says in the same vehement voice. “This is the richest country in the world.”
As he and Monique stare at each other, the siren stops. The quiet is shocking for a moment, and then I hear sighs of relief. Someone whoops.
Christian and the highlighted hair guy come around the corner a moment later on a breath of heavy air, carrying several bottles of wine and a stack of plastic cups. They are all wind-blown and wet. Christian has taken off his jacket, and his white shirt is transparent where it clings to his skin. I notice that his muscles are thin and well shaped before I look away.
“You’re soaked!” Monique says. “What happened?”
“There wasn’t much wine left, so we had to go over to the old root cellar to get this,” says the blondish man, who introduces himself as Hardy. He adds, “Since that bloody siren is off now, we don’t have to stay in this god awful basement. Shall we?”
I look around for the professor, Silvia, not sure if I should go off with this group, but do not see her. I follow the students up the stairs, around to the courtyard and over to the stone seating area, the tea circle. It is no longer raining, or hailing, but thunder rumbles in the distance. I inhale deeply and let the fresh air clean the basement mildew from my lungs. Everyone continues to stand as more wine is poured.
“Damn these mosquitoes!” Hardy slaps the side of his neck and finger combs his streaked bangs, which are long. “Frankly, I don’t know how anyone ever thought this part of the world was livable. I curse my parents for moving the family across the pond, but it’s still better in Connecticut than here.”
I was thinking the British accent might be inauthentic but now reconsider.
“Mr. Wright was born in Wisconsin. That made him prejudiced toward it,” Monique says, in her own soft accent.
“How did he convince the woman?” Hardy asks.
“Mamah? Must have been love, right?” Monique gives him a teasing look. “We need some personal things of hers for the exhibit—I’m one of the people working on it—but I can’t find anything,” she continues. “For him, we have lots of stuff—everyone loves the hat and cape on the coat rack… But for her, we don’t even have a scarf or a piece of jewelry.”
“My uncle thinks there are some things,” Christian says. “but they’re hidden. He claims old Wright was sentimental in private.”
I must look blank, because Monique says quietly, “His uncle’s the dean.”
The guy in the hospital? I try to sort this out. The reason my old friend, Kenneth, had moved from archivist to interim dean was because the real dean had an accident that landed him in a long term hospital stay with an uncertain prospect for recovery. This must be Christian’s uncle.
When thunder rumbles again, he looks up at the tree canopy and then at me. “There used to be three trees on the crown of this hill, when the place was built. Everything was designed around it. Now only this one is left. Two hundred some years old. White oak.”
The tree must be over fifty feet tall. Grouped with others, it would feel protective. By itself, it looks almost threatening, with its many large branches full of leaves blocking what little daylight remains.
By the way,” Monique says, “We still need to take Grace to the guest house. There’s no room at Hillside.”
“Is that where you live, at Hillside?” I ask. I cannot remember what I have been told about where exactly the living quarters are, only that the campus includes both the buildings of Taliesin and the buildings of Hillside, an old boarding school complex over the hill.
“Yes,” she says. “It’s about half of us there and half in the housing over here at Taliesin. Christian and Lincoln live right there.” She points toward the building that connects to the main house via the skywalk.
“I can take her to Tan-y-deri,” Christian says, and then to me, “Too bad you’ll be alone there, though.”
It figures somehow, that I will be by myself. But I do not mind the idea, especially if Christian will take me there. “What I really want to see is the workshop,” I say, “because that’s where I’ll be setting up my glass studio.”
I do not add that I want to see it the way you want to see the scene of an accident—with a morbid fear for your own life. The studio will be the place where I make or lose my position here. As far as I understand, I am not expected to do a lot—attend the class and studio on the theme of home design all semester, and make stained glass art that captures the artistic spirit of home in some related way—but I do have to accomplish something. Then in at the end of February, my work, along with the students’ architectural designs and the museum exhibit, will all be displayed at one big event.
“I can take you,” Christian says. “It’s right near where you parked.” Behind him, a series of lightning bolts at the horizon draws everyone’s attention.
“I don’t think the storm is over yet,” Monique says softly. “And it’s almost time to eat. Hardy, is your car here?”
In response, he jingles the keys in his pocket.
Christian looks at me. “Grace, if we take your car, we can check out the workshop on the way to the carport.”
“I just need to get my bag from the bedroom,” I say.
He follows me inside and down the hallway, turning on an architectural wooden lamp when we reach the bedroom.
“Thanks for helping me out,” I tell him. “I don’t know what’s what yet.” A shiver runs through me, and he puts his coat around my shoulders. It seems to have the same earth incense as this place.
I give him a grateful look. “Thank you.”
He responds with a little smile and then breaks the connection to touch the same dried out skin I examined earlier atop the architect’s bed. “It’s a group that takes some getting used to…and the weather, too. Even though I grew up thirty miles away, it’s different here.”
Bag in hand, I walk back to him. The dark windows pull at my eyes, and I remember the tea circle is just beyond us—but all I can see is the contents of the room reflected back.
Then everything lights up from above, through the skylight. A long flash of lightning silhouettes the massive branches and a deafening crack follows. Christian propels me away, with his arm stretched protectively over my head, and then pulls me to the ground amidst splintering wood and shattering glass. It feels like the whole world is collapsing as wet leaves and debris crash down upon us. Something heavy slams onto the arm that encircles me, and the whole cacophony ends in Christian’s gasp of pain.
My mind slowly works out that lightning must have hit the tree and sent it toppling onto this room. We are caged within its branches.
I am on my side, half under Christian, smelling the dusty wool of the rug and tasting something metallic at the corner of my mouth—blood. I have bitten my tongue.
“Are you okay?” Christian’s voice is strained and I can feel his breath on my ear.
“I think so. You?” I ask.
“Can you move your arm?” It is still around my neck, pressing my face against the rug.
“Sorry. It’s stuck,” he says.
“Help,” I try to shout, but the word comes quietly from my compressed lungs. When Christian tries, his voice cuts off in a gasp of pain.
“Help!” This time my voice is loud enough, I hope, to be heard.
A shout comes in response, and the sound of footsteps.
It is hard to breathe and my legs ache beneath Christian’s weight. His pants feel silky against my bare skin, and I try not to wonder how little of my dress is covering me now.
Muffled voices carry from somewhere.
“Help,” I try again.
To my relief, a male voice calls back. “Grace! Where are you? Are you okay?”
“We’re trapped under here!” I say as loudly as I can.
“Call 9-1-1.” The voice says. Then, in our direction, “We’re coming to get you. Just hold on.”
I breathe in the scent of midsummer leaves and think how huge the tree is, how heavy. It is miraculous, really, that it defied gravity and grew up toward the sky for decades, for centuries. It will never be upright again. At this moment, it is hard to imagine I ever will be, either. I feel disconnected from my body and think how this happens sometimes: that one minute you are in the company of others and all seems okay with the world, and the next, you are alone in a silent, dark place, unsure of the way out. It was how I felt after the funeral. But I am not alone. “Christian?”
Something catches my eye, under the architect’s bed. Broken wood…and a gleaming object. “Do you see something under there?” I ask.
“I can’t really…” he says. I can feel him straining. “Oh, my God. I wonder…”
“Grace? Christian?” The footsteps are closer.
“Over here,” I say as loudly as I can, and then to him, “What is it?”
“Hello? Hello?” The voices are on top of us now.
“Try to get that,” Christian whispers urgently. “If it’s what I think…it’s not safe to—” He stops as polished black shoes arrive and block my view.
“Here they are!” The man who peers at us in the dim light is good-looking, elegantly attired with a bow tie. “Are you hurt?”
I say, “No,” at the same time Christian says, “Just my arm.”
“Thank God,” Kenneth says. I hardly recognize him. His ears lie flat against his head, which is enhanced by a very good haircut. “Hang in there, guys. We’re going to need a little more help.”
A siren stops close by, followed by the sound of a big engine idling. A moment later, a brighter light appears—a work light—and shines all around us.
“Hello, are there two of you in there?” a calm, male emergency worker voice asks.
We reply yes and that we are okay.
“I want somebody on both sides of these people,” the voice says. This time, big black boots appear near my face. “Okay, you two, they’re going to lift the branch, but I don’t want you to move.” Then, “Go ahead, Jimmy.”
A chainsaw sounds too loudly and frighteningly close. But it is over quickly.
“On three, we’re going to lift the branch and walk it away from the house. One, two, three.”
The pressure eases and leaves sweep across us. Christian makes another sound of pain, and then he is rolled off me.
When I start to sit up, a paramedic puts one hand on my shoulder and one on my head. “Don’t move, Ma’am.”
“I’m fine,” I say and hope it is true.
“Your man’s arm might have saved your life.” They roll me in the other direction, also onto a backboard.
“I’m not hurt. Please let me get up.” The last thing I want to do is ride forty miles in an ambulance to a hospital. And I need them all to go away if I am going to get whatever is under the bed.
“It’s just a precaution while we do some tests,” he says.
“No. Thank you.” I am impatient. “He’s the one…”
“No.” My firmness is apparently convincing.
He sighs and removes the stabilizing blocks he has just put on either side of my head. “It’s up to you. I wouldn’t be so sure…You’ll have to sign that you refused treatment.”
Kenneth appears through an opening in the branches and squeezes my hand. “I can’t believe this—” he begins, but I interrupt to ask him to check on Christian.
He turns away. Beyond us, I see the back of Silvia’s head, her bun, framed by more branches that stick into the air. No one is looking at me. I reach my arm beneath the broken bed and prick a finger on splintered wood before finding a metal chain on top of a soft cloth. I slip the bundle into my shoulder bag and rise stiffly to my feet. I pull Christian’s coat around me and go to where he is strapped down on a stretcher. Kenneth has walked away and is speaking into his phone.
“Hey,” I say softly to Christian, touching his hand. “Thank you. I got the thing.”
“Hide it. I’ll explain later.”
“Here we go,” the paramedic says.
Several people are waiting outside, seemingly oblivious to the light rain that has returned.
“Christian!” As soon as she can get close, Emily kisses his cheek and hovers over him as he is transported to the ambulance. I follow, feeling an unfamiliar pang of jealousy. After he is loaded, the paramedic thrusts a clipboard at me. “Sign here.” The form is entitled, Refusal of Treatment. I sign. Emily climbs in, the ambulance doors close, and it drives away down the hill with its lights flashing.
A group of people has gathered to regard the fallen tree and the collateral damage. The conversations are quiet, respectful, like at a funeral.
Silvia puts a hand on my back. “You’re not hurt? You were really lucky.”
We both look to where the mighty tree lies. The trunk is only ten feet from where Christian and I were trapped under a branch. I shudder. Seeing the downed tree gives me a little ache inside, too…It still looks vibrant, but by tomorrow its leaves will be wilting.
“I’ll ask Monique to stay with you at Tan-y-deri tonight. You could have a concussion.” She studies me with concern.
“Thanks,” I say. I cannot imagine trying to find my way there in this darkness, which makes it hard to see more than a few feet ahead.
“And we need to seal this up.”
“I’m taking care of it.” Kenneth tells her as he walks up beside me and touches my shoulder. “You sure you’re okay?”
I nod, he smiles, and then his attention shifts to Irie Koritsu, who is walking toward us with her son, Lincoln at her side. His awkwardness highlights her composure.
Kenneth moves to meet them, stumbling a little. “Well, hello, welcome!” He puts on a big smile and raises his arms in an embracing gesture. “Lincoln, you didn’t tell me your fabulous mother had arrived.”
Lincoln shrugs and continues walking when she stops to greet Kenneth.
“I’m glad he has a wonderful leader at the helm.” She beams and shakes back her voluminous hair, then clasps Kenneth’s outstretched hand. “I feel at home here already. Thank you.”
I walk through the garden below the tea circle, where broken branches and the plants bleed scents of wet leaves, bark and vegetation. The architect’s bedroom and night study has disappeared completely under the tree, whose size seems magnified a hundred times now that it’s on the ground.
Someone shines a work light in through the broken wall, and from this angle, I can see the mattress, still partially enfolded in its Cherokee red spread, hanging askew. I look for the sunflower-colored pillow and see it lying nearby on the grass, torn and dirty.
An elderly woman in a sequined dress splattered with mud, who is clearly a part of the Taliesin community, walks in front of me, softly repeating, “Oh, my God, oh, my God…” as she gathers books and personal effects that have been scattered. Her hair is iron gray with a blue cast, and bobbed in a style she has probably been wearing for decades. An old photo of her and a recent one would have the same silhouette.
I look away, trying to find Monique, and startle when a hand clutches my arm. It is the woman in the sequined dress. “Did you pick that up?” It is the same thin voice I heard questioning whether Taliesin could afford an artist-in-residence.
“What?” I look down and see the sunny-colored pillow in my hand. It is streaked with dirt and torn open. Wet feathers cling to my hand. “I guess so. It’s one of the pillows from his bed.”
“I know.” She frowns at me.
“Sorry.” I open my hands and let her take it.
“Barbara,” Silvia says, “have you met our new artist-in-residence, Grace Avila?”
As we shake hands, she explains, “Barbara is a fellow here. She’s retired but is teaching Architectural History this semester while the dean is out…So it’s just the two of us right now, and some professionals who come every week to teach classes like Structures and Materials.” She stops speaking as Monique appears with eyes so wide they seem to glow in the dark, and then asks, “What is it?”
“The Fallingwater rendering.” Monique’s voice comes out small. “You said you put it back in the vault.”
“I did, yes.” Silvia is impatient.
“I went to check, and…the vault wasn’t locked.”
The professor stares at her.
Monique takes a deep breath and looks at me before saying, “It’s gone.”