What doesn't kill us ~
gives us arthritis
The old church stood like an unplayed piano, decaying, grandiose, and no longer voiced. Mary stood outside the throat of its door, the scroll worked angels, the bones of its columns and bricks crumbling upward. Wasn't the law of beauty that beauty exists to be admired? Wouldn't the real crime be to follow the "No Trespassing" sign and leave? She thought.
She walked to where one of the windows was busted clean. The snow bank here was high enough and hard enough that she could hoist herself up on the sill and sit, legs dangling.
"Gorgeous." She breathed, a little white cloud rising.
Inside, the church stunned with abandon. Mary took in the ceiling first - the vaulted beams, the areas where the salmon drywall wore away to expose wood, the hairline cracks, the words "Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison" in calligraphy over the arches that framed the altar. Too much to see. The dawning sunlight diffused, casting a soft, colorful geometry of dots and patterns from the stain glass windows. And snow fell where the roof crumbled in, drifted over pews, piled into marble pillars. The entirety of it shined.
She didn't dare hop down. The floor boards could be rotted. She had no idea if there was a basement beneath or not. Mary hoped not. She hoped the floor was wood. If it was, she could come back in the spring, pull up some of the board, expose the dirt and make a garden. She'd bring wild flower seed like bee balm and vining plants like morning glories and moonflower and ivy. Botany that would propagate and fight containment, herbs that healed, scents that soared.
Mary laughed at herself. Nature was dismantling this man made structure as surely as God tore down the tower of Babel. And here she was- planning to plant. Wildflowers no less. She laughed again. The pride of trying to control Nature, or Time, or God. Who did she think she was?
But the dream of it consumed her. Her body tingling with excitement. A garden here, in this secret place, would be incredible. Something about the church made her swell with emotion. She'd lost so much to life, but life had given her what she lost to begin with. And it kept giving. And it kept taking. And she knew she wasn't trying to control a thing.
She just wanted to add to the beauty of it all.
Sighing, she gingerly crawled from the window sill. Half the fun would be researching this place. Odd how little she knew, since it bordered on her own property. All these years and she had no idea the church laid so close. Then again, walk on private land out here and you'd risk getting shot. Lots of Right to Bear Arms supporters in the country- so many bumper stickers, so many trucks. Still, the chapel was obviously abandoned. Why hadn't teenagers found it and marked it with graffiti and empty beer bottles, like the stray cats they were? Probably too busy playing video games, she mused and laughed at herself for being an ageist at thirty six. Teenagers. She had no right to judge. They had school and chores and work, and there were better places to sneak off to like the lakes and the cornfields and the bluffs.
They probably hadn't a clue, just like her. Most country folk kept to themselves. She was a private person. She respected other people's privacy, and she always followed the law. Except for seat belts. She'd have to find out who owned the church and she'd have to get permission to be here. Maybe she could even buy it or lease it.
She hoped so. She 'd been walking as she thought, following the deer trail to the break in the barbwire fence that first beckoned her to cross out of her woods into her neighbor's.
Mary looked back even though the evergreen farm blocked her view: the church, the dream garden, the faded, nearly illegible "No Tresspassing" sign.
She felt a wildness of the soul. Should she even ask for permission?
~ Chapter 1 ~
Dear Beatrice Armstrong,
Please accept this $200 payment for yearly lease of the grounds of your property, W497 Seven Bridges Road, for walking, cross country ski, and hunting. I would very much like to purchase the grounds of the chapel as it is adjacent to my property and (while in terrible disrepair) of historical value to the community. Please let me know if you would be interested in a sum of $25,000 for the two acers and chapel. If the lease is not to your satisfaction please contact me. If it is, I will consider cashing of the check to be acceptance.
Mary Ellen Carter
W495 Seven Bridges Road
"This keeps getting worse and worse. My brother cashed the check and took the $25,000. Correct?" Ben fisted the paper.
The brick sinking in his stomach for the last hour hit rock bottom. His mother loved that old ruin. She'd filled him and his brother Kevin's heads with stories of the roaring twenties: of bootleggers and bank robbers and mafia princesses coming to party. The estate had boobie traps and hidden rooms and secret tunnels. She talked about the property like it was an actual person, calling it the 'Lady of the Lake' or 'Lady' for short. As a child, she'd summer there. Long, lazy days of swimming, catching frogs, climbing trees, exploring. But the mansion with its spiral staircase and tantalizing secrets was the treasure. "I so want to take you both there," she'd say, and laugh, "It's the perfect place for boys. When I was a boy," she'd wink, " a tomboy, it was like Neverland."
And that was exactly what it was to him, a never land. He'd never seen it. Not once. It lived in Wisconsin. It might as well have been the moon.
His mother Beatrice married his father, a business man with a keen taste for the cosmopolitan. They lived in New York, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans. They traveled to Sydney, Paris, Rome, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Deli, Bueno Aires.
The Lady of the Lake didn't make the map. It was nothing but a charming bedtime story intimately tied to his mother. Ben could have forgiven his brother the stolen money. Money makes money. Thanks to his father, Ben always had money to spare. He excelled at riding the market, weathering the ups and downs, with a little luck, a bit of smarts, and a whole lot of money. He couldn't lose. The Armstrong Corporation thrived and tripled its revenue since he took the helm. But for Kevin to steal from one of his cherished childhood memories—he'd never forgive that.
His mother wanted to be buried at the Lady, on the family plot, for Christ's sake. The fact that a part of it had been sold, grated like nothing else could.
Ben's friend and lawyer, Curry Kearn, winced. "Yes. The property isn't yours anymore, at least not the chapel, but the mansion is as is the rest of the estate. It could have been far worse."
Far worse, Ben's hands shook, waves of anger so strong he actually saw red. Blood sucking lawyers. His mother was dead.
"Really. Worse? He stole a quarter of a million dollars, a fourth of the family's assets, that lying piece of shit…and it could have been worse? If my mother lived. Right, that's what you're saying. "
"You know I don't mean it like that Ben. Kevin had power of attorney for a year and a half, and yes, he did an insane amount of damage. But the bulk of your mother's assets are tied to the company's. If he would have tried to sell any of those, you would have found out immediately. I simply meant he could have done more damage than he did because it would have taken time to stop him. "
"And it's legal? There's nothing I can do." Ben's palm hit the side of the plane. Curry flinched at the thud and stalled answering by cleaning his glasses.
"Turbulence I can handle. A hole in the hull of this milk carton you call a plane, I cannot." Curry's calm gaze and caustic humor usually worked in the court room and with his friend. This time it did the opposite. Ben felt like he was going to black out he was so angry.
"Don't try and talk me off the bridge like I'm crazy. Be my friend and tell me how I can destroy that piece of shit."
Curry leaned back putting as much distance between them as possible in the cramped space.
At the exact same moment Ben caught a glimpse of his reflection in the window behind Curry. He looked like a wild man.
The ballooning anger popped. In its wake he rode waves of shame.
Ben didn't fool himself. He was big, over six feet, with a big personality to match that naturally put people on guard. Worse, his good looks tended to make people shy away instead of gravitate. He was simply too overwhelming. He had to work hard with soft words and winning smiles to make his associates feel comfortable enough to give their true opinions. Sometimes it took months, sometimes it took years. Thank God, he was a practical man who knew he needed authenticity from his associates if for no other reason than it kept his ego in check. He couldn't afford to lose a good friend like Curry who never spared him the hard truths.
"I'm sorry for losing my temper."
Curry nodded. They were friends. They would remain friends.
"No need to apologize. As for Kevin, there's not much you can do unless you can prove that she wasn't in her right mind when she gave him power of attorney." Curry said, leaning in.
"I can't. She trusted him. Hell, we all did."
"Then we are doing all we can. The will is being contested. He won't see a penny more of her money until it's finalized."
"What can I do about this?" Ben waived the paper in his hand. "I need that chapel back. " At Curry's puzzled expression, Ben explained, "it's personal, for me and my mother."
"Then you make the current owner an offer she can't refuse," Curry buckled up, the plane about to descend. "Do you want me to handle it?"
"No. I will. Like I said, it's personal. Just handle the home front while I'm gone. I'm sorry again about before…I'm a mess. It's not your fault. How I acted was totally uncalled for. I appreciate and value your friendship and support."
Curry met Ben's steady green gaze feeling a bit mesmerized. Honesty and humility, so rare to find in a person, rarer to find in the elite at the top of their game…it set Ben apart from the rest of mere mortals.
"Stop apologizing. If you weren't an asshole from time to time you'd be boring as hell."
"I can barely function right now."
"Fake it, that's what I do. "
"Hmmm. If you say so."
"I do. I've won a thousand cases on faking it. Believe every bullshit thing you say and so will everyone else. Act like you got it under control and you do."
"You sound like Tony Robbins and it's creeping me out. You even got the orange tan."
"Fuck you, Tony Robbins is a rich man."
"So am I."
"There goes the asshole again." Curry saluted, then his smile turned serious, "If there is anything more you want me to do, name it. I'll be there."
"Find me everything you can on Mary Ellen Carter." Ben handed the letter over to Curry. "It might take more than money with her and I want to be prepared."
~Chapter 2 ~
Fresh from morning mass and just clocking into her shift, Rosie winced as she overheard Joseph the Jamaican cook brag to Dave the manager, "I've got millions of bitches, man, millions."
Tying her apron firmly, she tried not to analyze if she winced because of what he said, or because she was judging him and his tattoos along with Dateless Dave who couldn't wait to hear all of Joseph's raunchy barroom tales, or because she was eavesdropping—again. None of these things were very Christian and at 79 she couldn't afford to lose any more points in heaven.
But she wasn't Jesus. "In America, the women you date are called ladies, not bitches. English Joseph—learn it, love it."
"Gwan. Rosie, wa mek you so racist? As you can hear, I speak perfect English." Dave laughed as Joseph switched from a heavy accent on the first sentence to newscaster voice on the second.
Rosie took a deep breath. "You both know I'm not racist, nor am I a sexist pig, which is why I call women ladies. You I can forgive. You're in your twenties and can barely think past your Oscar Myer. You Dave, you should know better, so stop encouraging him. Clean it up and get back to work. We've got hungry customers to feed."
Rosie didn't wait to hear them say "Yes, Ma'm." She used her hip to open the door to the restaurant floor and went to turn on the lights and unlock the front. She threw up a silent prayer to St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes to spare her from fools and help her with her caustic tongue.
The regulars poured in and the first few hours flew by. Rosie loved the smell of coffee and bacon. She loved the routine and the smiles and gentle hum of the conversing crowd. She'd loved her sharp mind that she could remember even the most complicated order and who ordered it.
"When you gonna retire, Rosie?" Pete the trucker tapped his cup for more coffee.
"I suppose when I get tired of seeing your handsome face."
Pete chuckled, they both knew he was far from handsome. "So never then, huh?"
"Never, hon." She smiled and went to freshen the coffee of the stranger next to Pete.
"Would you like me to warm that for you?" She asked. He was big and dressed to the nines, his hair in a fashionable tousle, his nails neatly trimmed and filed. When she spotted his briefcase, she thought drug dealer, case full of cash. And then immediately chided herself for watching too many crime shows.
"No thank you, Rose" The man said glancing at her nametag. He flipped over the bill, leaving a small but healthy pile of cash, "'keep the change."
"You just passing through town?" She asked her curiosity getting the best of her, or maybe it was the generous tip. Either way, Pete leaned in. He was curious too. Strangers rarely came to Marion. Theirs was a small town in a smaller world.
"I'll be here at least a week. I'm on vacation. My family owns the Lady of the Lake. I'm Ben Armstrong." The man leaned back in his chair. "And I like coffee, in buckets, so I'll be back."
Her smile grew wider. "Well, that's wonderful. And it's about time someone did something with that beautiful mess, no offense," she rushed on, "it's just a shame for it to be vacant for so long."
"I understand. I plan to make renovations. I'm half thinking of creating a country club or resort."
Rosie was just about to start to suggest local contractors when the man's, Ben's, phone rang. "I'm sorry. I need to take this." He cut her off and answered. "Hello."
"Ben. Don't hang up. I plan to be at the service. I don't want to get into a fist fight over her grave so I'm warning you now. I'm at-" The phone wasn't on speaker but Rosie could hear plain as day.
" You backstabbing parasite." Ben jumped up and stormed out of the restaurant, "You're not stepping one inch—" Rosie flinched as the door slammed.
"Well that was interesting." She whispered to Pete.
"Why are we whispering? He can't hear us." Pete whispered back.
"You're right. Let's talk about him behind his back real loud like." Rosie smirked. And then threw up a prayer to St. Martha to help her not to be such a terrible gossip.
Outside, Ben stared at his phone, listening to the dial tone.
A lesser man would have thrown his cell phone into the street to smash against the pavement and explode into tiny fragments.
Ben gritted his teeth and squeezed the phone so tight that it cut into his hands. He took a deep breath. A heartbeat. Two. The phone rang.
His pious brother, Kevin's voice blathered through the atmosphere, like nothing had changed between them, "Are you calm now? Can we talk? I'm at—."
"Just stay away." Ben shut the phone down.
He stalked to his car and drove. He would never get rid of it, the feel of his mother's paper dry skin, the image of her bird boned hand cradled in his own and Kevin hovering over her feeding her ice chips. She was so thin and gaunt, her eyes huge and insect like in that wasted face. Pumped full of morphine, her belly rose bloated and round. She looked like a starving child in a third world country. Death the destroyer, it tortured; it insulted, her belly huge and bloated on a frail frame. She looked like a pregnant skeleton. She deserved better.
She'd had such a bright, beautiful soul. In health, she was always moving, always doing, one charity or another. She gave of her time and her money. She packed groceries at the food pantry and she looked people in the eyes and listened. She never lectured. She never judged. She just listened and helped where she could.
So full of life, she was. He never knew anyone with a bigger appetite for experience. She'd take up a hobby and go all in, complete immersion. One month it was fish. Suddenly, overnight the house would be full of tanks swimming with tropical wonders, rare and common and wild. The next couple of months it would be scrapbooking and a gaggle of women would crowd the kitchen table cutting and gluing and talking about happy memories. He cringed at the thought of 'The Diaper Diaries' she'd put together to commemorate all his and Kevin's toddler days. She loved them so much.
How could Kevin have stolen from her? How could he live with himself? After all her kindness? All her pain?
The sound of car wheels on a gravel road, snapped Ben out of his reverie. The house was a few miles ahead. He rolled down the windows to smell the pines. Already his mother's description rang true, long corridors of trees, lined up like giant soldiers guarding the passageway to mythical realms. He tried to feel what she felt, the lifting of a weight, the peace and expectation.
And there it was, the woods giving way to a gorgeous view of the lake from on top the sloping hill-the Lady herself facing acres and acres of untouched land and pristine water below.
Ben felt a chill as he got out of the car. The estate wasn't what he imagined it to be. It was more.
~ Chapter 3 ~
"Don't sit under the apple tree
With anybody else but me, anybody else but me, anybody else but me, lover.
Don't sit under the apple tree
With anybody else but me. I'm in love, oh darling,' I'm in love."
Mary washed her hands in the bucket she'd left to warm in the sun, singing her own little song, scrubbing the dirt away in the water. It felt wonderful. The heat on her back. The sweat on her skin. The smell of the earth and the cool contrast of well water. Zen.
Gardening is out of body, mind blowing, Zen.
Mary splashed the water on her face, on her neck, and took off her shirt to expose a bikini top. She slide out of her shorts. Jade top. Black bottoms. The thick then thin white lines of scar tissue branching upward, her stomach to her breasts. She'd never wear the swimsuit at a public beach, but here it didn't matter. She traced her finger along the scar thinking again about getting a tattoo to transform it. Violence put that mark there. She wanted to take the power back. But the right image, the right piece of art eluded her. She had too much to say and it kept changing. For now, it was enough to imagine the possibilities.
She headed to the car, grabbed her lawn chair, grabbed a paperback, and went to the chapel.
The garden seemed to bloom overnight. Just a few weeks ago the last of the daffodils had bowed their heads in prayer. Now they were gone, replaced with the shoots of last year's hard work. Beds of lush spongy green phlox decorated with purple flowers and creeping blue primrose carpeted the floor and window ledges. Different varieties of Clematis vined in a rainbow of shapes and colors. Some reminded her of sea anemones, some of starfish, some of ballooned bells. Jack in the Pulpit dotted here and there where the shade lay diffused along with wild violets. She loved these spontaneous gifts most of all because the universe had added them. She made a mental note to send a thank you in the form of Bleeding Hearts. She'd plant them a few shades away so they could frame but not take over.
She picked a spot right over the crumbled roof where sunlight poured in. It was close to the Baptismal fount, now turned coy fish pond. She held a book with no intention of reading. Closed her eyes. Breathed in the scent of earth and blossom. Listened to the fountain. Listened to the drone of the bumble bees outside swirling around the clover.
This was her Walden. She worked in the garden a couple of hours and then afterwards she observed-existed. Like a deer in the woods, lifting up her head at the crack of a twig; she was completely alert. Except not with fear, rather with awe. This overlooked natural world did not need her.
But she needed it. So necessary. This place away from requirement, from students, and faculty, and paperwork, and parents, and rules, and meetings, and interpersonal drama—the endless to do list. As a teacher she gave 100% and they took 110. It killed her how little she had left for her family at the end of each night. She wanted to give them her best but they mostly got the sloppy left overs. And as much as she loved them, God they were takers too.
But this garden gave.
She took off her top. The soak of the sun touched like a hand, the breeze slid along her free skin. It felt so good that she imagined that the sunlight raced through her veins in sparks and that the thrum of the bees became all the little pieces of herself blown away by the world now picked up and put back into place.
Gratitude. To be alive. To be a survivor.
She wanted to share this place and yet she never wanted to tell a soul.