The Pull of the Earth
Set at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin and Taliesin West
If you have to choose, choose Truth. For that is closest to Earth. Keep close to the Earth…:in that lies strength.
—Frank Lloyd Wright
She has brought nothing of home or her mother. The car Grace Avila has driven halfway across the country is a survival kit only, containing a few essentials, along with some of her glazier’s tools that weren’t shipped ahead. The one exception is an unopened box from her godmother that arrived just before she left. That undoubtedly is superfluous: Alessandra’s latest designer castoffs.
In a nervous habit that’s new since the accident twelve weeks ago, her fingers trace the scar beneath her chin, a line straight and deep. At the hospital, they said that later, she should fix it with plastic surgery. But it marks the last connection with her mother, alive. It divides the before and after of believing herself good and capable. Before her role in her mother’s death. After the onerous weight of guilt landed on her back.
For two days, she’s driven toward the flyover territory where she’ll spend the next seven months, in Wisconsin—at the architecture school Frank Lloyd Wright founded almost a hundred years ago, when he left city life to return to the rural place where he grew up. When they first asked her to come to the once-famous, now struggling campus, she wondered if Wright’s estate might be failing because he was old news in architecture and had been endlessly hashed over, hadn’t he? But she would have agreed to go anywhere because she needed to leave.
When she told one of her engineer acquaintances about her plans, he said, “Oh, yeah, Wright’s utopian farming community. Now, why did that never catch on? Have a great time.” And he laughed.
Listening to podcasts has kept her brain tuned to the safe static between high and low frequencies of grief. Like the pills from the doctor, they’ve helped her feel almost nothing—until just now.
The rain makes iridescent threads on the windshield, an impossible combination of water, movement and light. Seeing it, her body quickens, and she almost feels the very thing she deserves least of all: the ache of beauty. A glass even comes to mind. Kokomo Clear Vertigo.
She reaches to change the podcast, where someone is saying, “There’s a housing crisis in America and a crisis of resources. Can we make homes differently? Can we make them better?”
The car dips into a valley swirled with fog, and Grace looks up to see a flash of copper. Brakes and skids on the slick road. A bicyclist sandwiched between the right flank of the car and the dense line of trees whips his head around, wobbles wildly and disappears into the Wisconsin forest.
She pulls over, leaps out and calls, “Are you all right? I’m sorry.” But her words hang in front of her face, stayed by the rain. The rider pedals back out of the trees, glances at her from beneath a green hood and disappears into the mist. A cluster of shiny, wet leaves plops onto her bare arm, startles with its cool wetness and presses hard acorns into her flesh.
The car has already refilled with June heat that seems hotter here than out east and has barely been relieved by the rain. She sits a moment working the controls for air and berating herself for endangering someone. Again. She’s certified by OSHA to a high level of safety training—and yet, somehow, is unsafe for others. So she is flawed, and as she goes to a new place far from where everything went wrong, how soon before her flaws become visible here, too?
The close call has made her lose her bearings, and the fog, denser here, doesn’t help. She checks her navigator. No signal. She remembers that she needs to turn right and does so at the next opportunity. Evergreen trees tower above her on this side road, and a sign says she’s entering a state park. She’ll need to find somewhere to turn around. At least the rain has stopped, for now.
But this place of her accidental arrival is otherworldly. The trees, veiled in mist, rise tall and straight. They seem to proclaim that life is good as they spread their branches wide to receive the daylight from above. She rolls down her windows. Only the sound of dripping water percusses the stillness.
She stops the car and gets out. Looks up at the tree canopy and at the stretch of woods ahead and takes a deep breath. Her arms and hands tingle. Row after row of rosy trunks feel like friends. Whenever the last time was that she walked in the woods, she doesn’t remember it feeling like this.
The rhythm of the trees and her steps begin to relax her. Then the path turns and everything changes. Blocking her way is a monstrous thing like a military tank with green-leafed limbs sticking out from beneath its treads. It’s fitted with a round blade that’s as big as she is. Roughly cut tree stumps and sawdust are what she sees now.
Fog rises from the stumps, the trees’ final breaths, and swirls, rich, in her lungs. For the last time. She wants to turn away but instead clambers through the wet mess toward the stacked trunks. The bark’s warm color comes from a palette of related tones, complex beyond replication even in opalescent glass. The texture, too, is out of reach, intricacy scrawled in the overlapping scales of its skin.
She puts her hands on the nearest trunk and feels the life still in it. Trained to fix what often appears irreparable, they look small and helpless next to the size of the trunk and the complexity of the bark they rest on. It is beyond human capability to make, fix or heal this.
The cut is wet with something thicker than rain. Sap. The tree is trying to feed itself and instead bleeds its life away.
The concentric circles of the rings say it’s close to a hundred years old. Now her breath is tight. These are trees, not people, but the specter of untimely death, and its permanence, its losses, are the same for both. And that’s the fog that has cloaked her for the last three months.