The Pull of the Earth
A literary thriller
set at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin and Taliesin West
Coming in 2017
When Grace Avila arrives at the late Frank Lloyd Wright’s estate, Taliesin, to serve as the stained glass artist-in-residence, she is seen as an accomplished woman from a renowned artistic lineage. That she is marked by tragedy—the dramatic accident that took her mother’s life during the filming of a documentary–only adds to the mystique.
The way she sees herself, though, is as a devastated artist, a failed daughter, a woman who has lost her bearings. Impossibly, she must hide the fact that she is too traumatized to actually work in her medium, while struggling to overcome this.
Taliesin offers hope in the form of a different life. It is as remote as her family’s studio was urban, as rustic as the studio was refined. What Grace is unprepared for is that the place is as scarred as she is, and in a downward slide.
Working with the archives director as they prepare an international exhibit on the famous architect’s life, she learns that some artifacts appear to be missing, unaccounted for in the new digital archiving system. And this is just one of the ways things at Taliesin are not what they seem.
Her old friend, Kenneth Arneson, is supposed to be in charge, but he has fallen under the spell of the unstable exhibit director, Irie Koritsu, who believes she and her son are descendants of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Grace herself has to decide what to do about Christian Dubay, the earthy grad student who seems to understand what she needs better than she does. He and the rain-soaked land that daily muddies her boots bring her closer the remains of all things, and what they mean for the possibility of new life.
With Christian as her ally, Grace digs for truths, and her discoveries bring her face to face with flawed humanity, past and present. To revive herself and defend the Taliesin, she must face the demons and decide what she wants to risk for—and what she is ready to let go.
The interior becomes the reality of the building.
Frank Lloyd Wright
A sudden downpour wants to hammer my car into the earth, or at least force it from this backwoods road that is little more than a path through the woods. The storm renders me blind and deaf to anything else, which means all I can do is focus my attention a few feet in front of me and hope the way is clear of obstacles as I move through. Where I am on the map, I know, and my destination, but at the same time, I do not really know where I am going, nor quite why. The leaving, I understand better.
I had been tempted to decline when my childhood friend, Kenneth, called with an offer to come serve as the artist in residence for an 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 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 Kenneth worshipped Josiah, the prince of the high school we attended together, were the same as for Wright—they both had presence, charisma, natural grace. I loved Josiah for that, too, and for his depth. From the minute he arrived in Brooklyn Heights from Chicago at the end of ninth grade, I had wanted to have the new guy, and Kenneth had wanted to be him. I came close, but in the end, it had not worked out for either of us.
In the present, I do fear that Kenneth and I might have nothing in common anymore; and maybe the truth is, we never really did. We became friends by circumstance—his mother was my father’s secretary, and we were around each other from kindergarten on. But as we pursued different lives in the thirteen years since high school, and as our proximity fell away, our friendship dissipated. I seldom even thought of him until the call about coming to Taliesin.
Since Madison, the signs of civilization along County Highway C 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.
I feel like I am driving back in time now, which has a certain appeal. Maybe at Taliesin, the recent loss of my mother will be less present for me. The theme I am tasked with as the artist-in-residence could not be worse, though: interpretation of the “New American Home” in the medium of stained glass. For someone who has recently lost almost everything that ever felt like home, it sounds like a kind of personal torture.
The car dips into a valley swirling with fog, and a sudden flash of red on the road makes me hit the brakes. My startled scream fills the car as the red flash becomes a bicyclist who is as surprised to see me appear out of the mist 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 cannot be. And Josiah’s hair is not long like that, anymore. It is buzzed—or was the last time I saw him, anyway. My heart continues to race as I look back in the rear view mirror and see that the cyclist has 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 appearance of the Josiah lookalike here seems unfair, when part of what drove me to this godforsaken location is the desire for a place with no reminders of him or my mother—of the ways in which I have let down the people I love, and lost them.
At least the rain has let up, but it has left its mark. Drenched trees drip onto the flattened flora within a landscape that is dense with aged stands of oak and pine. Hansel and Gretel, I think. Snow White. It is an ominous forest out of a Grimm’s fairy tale. I have seen no other vehicles for miles and feel completely alone in the vast landscape—which finally means the outer world reflects how I feel on the inside.
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.
Meanwhile, I am a thousand miles from New York now and have made the drive faster than expected. That means I am going to show up in the midst of a ‘Taliesin Evening,’ some traditional formal event going way back. It seems an uncomfortable way to rendezvous with my old friend, and meet everyone else for the first time. I hoped to arrive late enough to miss it, but here I am approaching the place two hours earlier than planned, right at eight o’clock.
Below the gray sky, the Wisconsin River appears beside me, wide and tree-lined. Then, out of the deep 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 monochrome of black trees and gray sky.
I turn right at the limestone boulder 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 have to admit it is a strange coincidence that I have been steered here twice in my life—but as someone who no longer believes the universe has a guiding hand, I do not give that any weight.
The entrance drive is identified only by a sign that says, Private Road, No Admittance. I stop where the road forks, unsure which way to go, and hear the manmade waterfall rushing loudly into its pool. I look up the hill but can see only a few patches of stucco behind the dense tree cover. I pull out my cell phone and call Kenneth.
“You made good time,” he says. “I’m actually over at Hillside already. Emily Vanderhoof is the student in charge of hospitality this month. I’ll have her come down to meet you.”
I get out of the car and wrap my arms around myself. A mosquito buzzes near my ear and I swat at it impatiently, only to see three more on my arm. I squash them against my skin and rub the blood off with raindrops.
The entrance gate is suspended from a pier whose weathered stone plaque is engraved with the words, Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect. It strikes me that this is the architect’s house. What he built for himself. Where he lived his life. Taliesin is deeply personal.
The tall, female figure coming down the hill has reddish blond hair that looks like faded orange, pulled tightly back, and the freckled pallor to go with it. Her simple navy dress, black umbrella, and practical black heels make a stark contrast to her coloring. She walks with an efficiency that leaves little room for poise, which surprises me in someone who is maybe twenty-two years old. She opens the gate and looks me over.
“This is not when Kenneth said you would arrive…We have guests up there at the formal—board members, people with the Foundation, donors…” She shifts impatiently.
I smile and reach for a hand that is reluctantly given. “Sorry for the inconvenience. I’m Grace Avila. If you can just show me my room, I’ll clean up a little.”
“I can’t take you there now,” she says. “You’ll have to park in the upper court and change inside the house.”
“Okay,” I nod. “Would you like to ride up with me?”
“No. I’ll walk. You follow.”
I drive slowly behind the rigid young woman. When we reach the top of the drive, she points at an open space in the carport and walks off toward the house. Two red bikes stand in a rack next to me, a reminder of the cyclist. I get out of the car and look at where I am.
The rambling, interconnected buildings of Taliesin wrap around a central garden. The upper court 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 once have been beautiful and idyllic. Now it has an air of neglect, as if the heirs are struggling to maintain their inheritance. A screen door with a failed spring hangs open, and paint peels from the doorway.
At the south end of the garden rises the gentle slope of the hilltop. Moss-covered flagstone seating that looks like it has been there forever follows its curve, under the protective umbrella of a huge, old tree. The tea circle, I think suddenly, and then wonder how I could possibly remember that name from a forgotten childhood visit.
Emily has already crossed the garden path and stands by a set of glass doors with a slender man in biking spandex, who holds a helmet in his hands. The cyclist. The resemblance to Josiah really is striking, except this man is a shade darker and his features are coarser. Something awakes in my belly as I look at him.
Feeling my gaze, Emily glances over. He follows her eyes, and a slow smile breaks over his face. I wave and grab my shoulder bag from the car, along with a dress and sandals. I can feel both of their eyes on me as I approach.
“You’re the cyclist I almost ran down,” I say breathlessly. “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.
“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 closer to my age than Emily’s, and he somehow pulls off shoulder-length hair without looking affected. When he shakes my hand, I feel how embodied he is, and my own flesh grows warm. I smile self-consciously at him.
“You need to get changed.” Emily steps between us.
He nods at me. “See you later.”
Emily pushes through the glass entry doors, and I follow. As I step over the threshold, I catch a mineral scent of wood and stone and feel a new rush, which seems to come up from the ground, through the building and into my body. This earthiness pervades everything and invites 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 Emily arranges her umbrella, but she seems oblivious to the spirit of the place. In me, it vibrates with a life energy that is dark and rich and dangerous, like blood, and pulls with a primeval force. I take a breath.
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 and close my hand around a smooth wooden knob that reminds me of a gourd. It feels worn to the shape of another hand and is comforting against my palm.
“Those are Mr. Wright’s,” Emily says, as if the architect is expected to walk back in at any moment. Most of them resemble branches, with or without a handle on top. “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 down the hallway the other way, to the living room.”
“Thanks,” I say, and carry my dress into the architect’s bedroom. The green-saturated sky is here, too, pushing up against the terrace doors and wrap-around windows like it is trying to get in. The border of small, rectangular panes 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.
The centerpiece of the night study is a large skylight with an equally large table beneath it, and for a moment, I can imagine the diminutive man with big hair sketching here by moonlight. The night study sounds like a place for someone with broken sleep, and in this I feel a kinship with him.
A low wall of shelving provides privacy for the sleeping area, which is very modest—shelves, a twin bed, a nightstand and lamp. The bed is topped with a sunflower-colored pillow and a fur animal skin that is old, dried out and stiff when I touch it.
I look at my waiting dress, which feels too revealing but at least is dry. I remove my top, skirt and bra and wait for the moisture to evaporate from my body. I cup my breasts with the opposite hands to warm them, and for a moment they become the hands of Josiah. He would be standing behind me, fitting against me like the other half of a whole.
I take a breath and roughly tug the dress on. The last I heard, Josiah was in Rome, studying at the Vatican, but really, I preferred not knowing. I zip up 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 should have tried harder to find something that did not leave me so exposed.
I take my makeup case to the table and sit down. Even in my uncomfortable state, I can feel that it is a good spot, has good feng shui. I brush my hair and 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 hallway is open on both sides, a stone walkway lined with wood screens displaying 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.
I enter the living room and the space opens before me, with a high, angled ceiling and a ribbon of windows that currently wrap the perimeter in clouds.
Emily stands not far away in a small group, appearing almost colorless between a black woman in a sheath dress, who looks like a model, and a regal Latina whose dark hair is gathered in a beaded bun.
The latter is Silvia Arroyo, the professor who interviewed me at the other campus, Taliesin West, in Arizona. With her wide set eyes and strong face, she reminds me of Frida Kahlo, a notion enhanced by the embroidered Mexican shawl she wears. She looks up and smiles as I approach. The tightness in my chest releases a little.
She cues Emily, who frowns at my dress before saying, “This is Grace Avila, the new artist-in-residence. 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. 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?”
“Other 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 you’re right, it is extreme…” She touches the shoulder of the black woman, whose gold necklace catches the light. “This is Monique Hopkins, one of our third year students.”
The woman turns from her conversation and gasps happily at me. Her eyes are bright under winged brows, and a sprinkling of freckles across her nose is disarming. When she opens her mouth, she speaks with a soft Southern accent.
“You’re the one from that 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.”
I thank her and glance toward the dark windows again.
Monique follows my gaze. “I’ve seen skies like that before, growing up in Oklahoma.”
“That explains your accent.” I smile.
“It’s a little different from 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 want to say I like her necklace better, but I just smile.
Near the window, a young man with spiky dark hair touches the keys of the piano without making a sound. I see Japanese heritage in him as he looks up at me and then looks away. This backwoods place is a regular United Nations.
“That’s Lincoln Koritsu,” Monique says. “His mother is going to be the new Exhibit Director. She’s amazing. Pure L.A. sophistication and so nice. She’s supposed to get here any time…” She looks toward the doorway. “There she is!”
The woman makes a celebrity-style entrance she could 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 and heads for her son, who stays seated on the piano bench.
“Lincoln,” she says a little breathlessly. “Hello?” She shakes her head at him, then gives us wide eyes and a big smile. I find myself smiling back.
“Hi,” He says. “When did you get here?”
“Just now. In time for a drink, I hope.”
“Let me get you something,” says an older man with wire-rimmed glasses, who has suddenly appeared.
“You’re too kind.” She takes his hand in both of hers. “I’m Irie Koritsu. I’ll go 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 gets up from the piano and walks over to Monique and me. He says, “Iris. That’s her true name, she decided, instead of what her parents named her, Claudia.” His face, still rounded with residual baby fat, is expressionless. 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. Beside him, Emily puts her large, pink hand possessively on his sleeve. That explains some of her coolness toward me.
“Can I get you something from the bar?” Christian asks me. “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 a nearby table that is draped in white cloth and displays the drink options. 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 bare 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 stands studying 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.
When I look away, 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 flutter on its stand, 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. The easel tips forward and collapses.
As he moves out of the way, he bumps the Tree of Life panel, which lifts off its hooks and falls in slow motion toward the red concrete floor.
I cover my face as it shatters, heart palpitating with off-kilter beats too strong and then too weak. I forget where I am for a moment, remind myself to breathe, and open my eyes when I hear Silvia the professor’s voice.
“What happened? Are you all right? Lincoln!” She 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 glass. “The wind blew it down,” he says, looking at me. I am the only person who might have seen him bump the glass panel.
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.
Lincoln still holds the Fallingwater rendering, which is now creased diagonally. Silvia frowns and speaks loudly to be heard over the siren. “That’s the copy? It’s supposed to be…“ 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 to the center of the room, raises her arms and says, “People, we need to follow protocol and go to the basement. Follow me.”
“It used to be guest rooms down there about a hundred years ago.” Monique makes a face. “But now everything is crumbling and covered in mold.” 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.”
We take a short-cut through the kitchen, and as we pass through the Dutch door leading outside, she says, “This is where Mr. Wright’s crazy butler trapped his mistress in the fire he set in 1914. 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.”
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. The group ahead is descending a set of basement stairs. As we stand waiting, a sudden sound like handfuls of pebbles turns into a cascade of icy pellets hitting my shoulders and arms. I look up and see little white balls of ice bouncing off the roof.
“Hail,” Monique says, catching some in her hand and show me. I have only seen it once before in my life, when it damaged all the cars in my neighborhood.
Ahead of us, Silvia and the others enter the door at the bottom of the stairs. We follow, and Monique shines the flashlight beam ahead of us.
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 a child repeating something he has heard. “This is a world famous site, and all over Taliesin, the buildings are neglected.”
“There’s no money.” Monique sounds sad.
“This is the richest country in the world,” he replies.
As they stare at each other, the siren stops. The quiet is shocking for a moment, and then I hear sighs of relief. Someone claps.
Christian, the highlighted hair guy and Emily 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 blond, 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 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.”
“Mr. Wright was born in Wisconsin. That made him prejudiced toward it,” Monique says.
“How did he convince the woman?” Hardy asks.
“Mamah Cheney? Must have been love, right?” Monique gives him a teasing look. “You know, 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. We don’t even have a scarf or a piece of jewelry.”
“My uncle thinks there is still some of her stuff,” Christian says. “but it’s 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 the hospital 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,” Emily says, touching his sleeve again, “someone needs to take her”—she indicates me—“to the guest house when we’re done with this weather farce. 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,” Monique is the one who answers. “It’s about half of us there and half in the housing over here at Taliesin. Christian lives 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 looks at 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,” 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. “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 house,” I say.
He follows me inside and down the hallway. In the bedroom, he turns on an architectural wooden lamp and stands close to me.
“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.
“Thank you.” I give him a warm look and sling my bag over my shoulder. The dark windows pull at my eyes, and I realize 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, followed by a deafening crack. Christian propels me away from the windows and covers my head as wood splinters and glass shatters around us. He pulls me to the ground. The room collapses as the outside comes inside, in a storm of wet leaves and debris. Something heavy slams onto the arm that encircles me, and the cacophony ends in his gasp of pain.
My mind slowly works out what has happened: lightning hit the old tea circle oak and sent it crashing onto this room. We are caged within its branches. I am pinned half under him and have bitten my tongue. I taste blood.
“Are you okay?” His voice is strained and I 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 dusty wool rug.
“Sorry. It’s stuck,” he says.
I attempt to shout for help but the sound comes out weakly.
“Help!” Christian manages to be louder.
A shout comes in response, and the sound of footsteps. Someone yells about calling 9-1-1.
It is hard to breathe and my legs ache beneath my companion’s weight.
“Grace? Are you okay?” A voice calls. Kenneth.
“We’re trapped under here!” I reply, as loudly as I can.
“We’re coming to get you,” He says. “Just hold on.”
The sight and scent of the midsummer leaves surrounding me overwhelms my senses, and I close my eyes. I think how huge the tree is, how heavy. It is miraculous, really, that for centuries, it defied gravity and grew up toward the sky. It will never be upright again, and at this moment, it is hard to imagine I ever will be, either.
When my eyes open again, something beyond us catches my eye, under the architect’s bed. Broken wood…and a gleaming object. “Christian?” I ask. “Do you see something under there?”
“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?”
“Try to get that,” he 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 leans down to 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 and shines on us. I hear the sound of many feet moving into the room now and the branches shake.
“Here we are. Are there two of you?” A calm, male emergency worker voice asks. After we reply yes, he says, “We’re going to cut away the branch. I don’t want you to move, even after it’s gone.” Then, “Go ahead.”
A chainsaw roars to life, frighteningly close. But it is over quickly.
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 adjusts her shawl and puts a hand on my back. “You’re not hurt? You were really lucky.”
The mighty tree lies only ten feet from where Christian and I were trapped under a branch. It gives me a little ache inside, how it still looks vibrant. 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 walks toward us with her son, Lincoln at her side. His awkwardness highlights her composure as she waves.
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 takes Kenneth’s outstretched hand. “I feel at home here already. Thank you.”
I walk through the garden, where it smells overwhelmingly of wet leaves, bark and vegetation. Branches on the ground and the plants beneath them are broken and bleeding their scents. The architect’s bedroom and night study has disappeared completely under the tree, whose size seems magnified a hundred times now that it is 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. It is the thin voice that said something earlier about not being able to feed everyone. 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.
“Florence,” Silvia says, “have you met our new artist-in-residence, Grace Avila?”
As we shake hands, she explains, “Florence 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.
“What is it?” Silvia asks.
“The Fallingwater rendering,” she says. “You said you put it back in the vault.”
“I did put it back, yes.”
“I went to check, and…the vault wasn’t locked.”
Silvia stares at her.
“The rendering is gone.”