A thin trickle of water zigzagged over the Virgin Mary's cold face. She gazed westward from her home on top of the Blue Ridge Mountains, between Afton Gap and Humpback Mountain. Her elevation approached two thousand two hundred feet. The fertile expanse of the Shenandoah Valley spread below, rolling westward to the Allegheny Mountains. The Valley, made immortal by the military genius of Stonewall Jackson, had been beloved of the Native Americans long before the European immigrants, refugees, and mountebanks ever beheld its calming beauty.
Had the Blessed Virgin Mother been able to turn her head and look east, undulating hills traversed with ravines and ridges stopping at the Southwest Range would have delighted her eyes. The last spur of the Appalachian Mountain chain, the Southwest Range gives way on its eastern slopes to land with a gentle roll. These rich fields and forests drop until the Fall Line, the true geographic boundary between low country and up-country, between sandy soils, red clay, and loam mixtures. This line also divided the Iroquois-speaking peoples from the Sioux-speaking peoples. Neither side liked the other much, warfare and raids occurring with savage regularity. Into this political hot zone trooped the English, the first surviving colony founded in 1607. Those that lived, learned.
The conclusion of the Revolutionary War in 1781, one hundred and seventy-four years after Jamestown was founded, unleashed an exuberance of trade, exploration, birthrate, and optimism. Even the fierce Monocan tribe and their allies, who had kept the whites from building safe communities ever westward of the Fall Line, couldn't hold them back.
The land on which Mary stood was settled in 1794 by Catholics more comfortable on the crest of the mountains than walking among their hustling Protestant neighbors in Richmond or the Tidewater. They built a log chapel. The land and altitude were good for apples. Orchards flourished. After the Constitutional Convention, the new Constitution made crystal clear the separation between church and state. Many of the apple-growing Catholics moved down the mountain into Nelson and Albemarle Counties on the eastern slopes, Augusta County on the western slopes. Nestled in the valleys, the temperature warmer, the winds less fierce than on the mountaintop, the former religious refugees prospered.
The hard-core mountain people, many of them distillers of clear liquor--the mountain streams being wonderful for such endeavors--stayed in the hollows. They didn't want to live on a mountaintop.
Finally in 1866 a war-weary Confederate captain founded a monastic order based on the Carmelites. He called it Mt. Carmel after the original in Palestine. Carmelite orders were being founded in the north after the War Between the States. Captain Ainsly was defiant and remained independent of the international monastic order even though he followed their rules. Instead of being known as Whitefriars, the monks on Afton Mountain were called Greyfriars because of their gray wool robes, an echo of their uniform color.
The monastery itself was not open to the public. The dairy, the chandler's building, the food building with honey and jams, and the ironmonger's forge were open, though, as were the exquisite gardens. The products were made by the monks themselves. Applejack was their biggest seller. Made on the grounds from apples grown in the old orchards, the brothers took special care with their distillery. Folks said Greyfriars' applejack could kick one harder than a mule.
The Virgin Mary stood on the highest point of land, the spring gardens nestled below her. She was carved from native soapstone by another Confederate veteran sick of war and worldly corruption. The Blessed Virgin Mother radiated a sorrow, a forgiveness that touched many who looked upon her. The stones leading to her, worn concave from many feet, bore testimony to her grace and power.
On this day, November 24, Thanksgiving, snow settled in the folds of her raiment. It covered the earth down to a thousand feet above sea level. Below that, freezing rain pelted farm and forest.
Mary Minor "Harry" Haristeen had driven up before the rain reached the eastern meadows. But as she squinted upward into a leaden sky, she knew getting down Afton Mountain would take a steady hand and a steady foot, no jamming on the brakes.
Her three dearest companions--Mrs. Murphy, a tiger cat, Pewter, a gray cat, and Tee Tucker, a brave corgi--had smelled the shift in the weather before their human friend knew it was coming. Confident in her driving ability, Harry wouldn't have turned back even if she had foreseen the change. She was determined to spend an hour on the mountain, alone and in thought, before plunging into Thanksgiving cheer. She'd quit her job as postmistress after sixteen years because the U.S. Postal Service was building a large, modern post office in Crozet by the railroad track. In this fit of improvement, the bigwigs decided that Mrs. Murphy, Pewter, and Tucker could no longer "work" with her. How could she live without the cats and dog? How could millions of Americans sit in windowless cubicles without even a bird to keep them connected to real life? Harry couldn't live like that. Not yet forty, she felt a disquieting alienation from so-called modern life. What seemed vital to others, like wading through their e-mail, seemed fake to her. Harry was at a crossroads, not sure which way to jump.
The dear older woman she worked with, Miranda Hogendobber, walked out when she did. But Miranda had her deceased husband's retirement to draw upon; she'd been frugal and was in good shape.
Harry wasn't in good shape financially. Taxes crept upward like kudzu threatening to choke her small farm profits, in particular, and ultimately free enterprise, in general. Services became ever more expensive and gas prices bounced up and down like a basketball in an NBA game.
On top of those worries was her ex-husband, Fair Haristeen, who still loved her and had made significant amends for what Harry saw as bad behavior. Fair had grown up and wanted her back, wanted a mature bond. He was handsome. Harry had a weak spot for a handsome man. Fair qualified at six five, blond hair, all muscle. An equine veterinarian, he specialized in reproduction. They both shared a profound love of horses.
Harry, at last, had made peace with the bombshell Fair had dallied with four years back when their marriage blew up. Olivia "BoomBoom" Craycroft slew men the way longhaired Samson slew his enemies. BoomBoom had enjoyed Fair's impressive physique and his Virginia gentleman ways, but she bored easily, soon dismissing him. "Think of this as recess from class," were her exact words. For all of BoomBoom's heartlessness with men where romance was concerned, she loved animals, was a good athlete, and demonstrated great community spirit. In a word, she was fabulous, until you slept with her or if you were the woman left in the dust by your boyfriend or husband.
As Harry stared up at the unearthly face of the Virgin, she shivered. Tucker, at her feet, shook off the thickening snow.
"She's beautiful," the corgi said.
Harry bent down, patting the glossy head. "Bet you think I'm crazy standing out here. Probably am."
Tucker lifted her nose, breathed deeply. "Susan." The little dog took off toward the enticing scent, skidding to a halt about forty yards away where a curved stone bench overlooked The Valley. The bench, situated on a winding path below the statue, was hidden from view if one was standing in front of the Virgin Mary.
The Valley was usually colder than the eastern slopes. Snow was falling there, a patchwork quilt of white, beige, and corn stubble two thousand feet below.
"Tucker," Susan said, surprised. "Where's Mom?"
Harry, pursuing her dog, slipped along the walkway between tall magnificent English boxwoods, only to be equally surprised when she saw her best friend. "Susan, what are you doing here?"
"I could ask you the same thing," Susan replied, smiling.
Harry brushed off the snow to sit next to Susan. Tucker wedged between them. "I'm here because I, well, I need help. I know the Blessed Virgin Mother has always been reputed to have powers--the statue, I mean. Miranda says whenever times get tough she comes up here and talks with Mary."
"Girl talk." Susan smiled, her auburn hair peeking out from underneath her lad's cap.
"Wish she could talk. I'd like to hear that Jesus wasn't perfect." Harry sighed. "It's too hard having perfect Gods--you know, God the Father, God the Son, and I have no idea who or what the Holy Ghost is. I mean it," she said as Susan laughed. "You went to Bible school in the summers, same as I did; we suffered through two years of catechism together. We only made Confirmation because Reverend Jones took pity on us. I can recite the Nicene Creed but I still can't tell you why I'm supposed to care about it. What is the Holy Ghost?" She threw up her hands, red gloves bright against the gloom. "But I understand Mary, the Blessed Virgin Mother. She's one of us; oh, better, but still, she's one of us."
"Yes." Susan reached for her friend's hand, her tan glove twining with the red. "I talk to her, too.
Questions. Life. Big questions. Little questions." Susan shrugged.
"The questions get bigger as we get older, don't you think?"
Harry took a deep breath, the air scouring her lungs. "I'm here because I don't know what I'm doing. I feel dumb and maybe I really am dumb. And Fair asked me to marry him again."
"Ah." Susan smiled.
"That means you think it's a good idea."
"I'm glad he loves you. You're worth loving." She squeezed Harry's hand.
"Susan." Tears filled Harry's eyes, for kindness and praise affected her more deeply than criticism or meanness. She could stand up to that.
"You are, dear heart. You're my best friend and you know you can tell me anything."
"Tell you? Susan, all I've done for the last three months is bitch and moan."
"Oh, you have not. Anyone in your position is bound to be anxious. No money is coming in and you have to be careful. At least the farm is free and clear and so is the equipment."
"There's the dually payment." Harry mentioned the big one-ton Ford truck with the double wheels that she bought at a great price from Art Bushey, Jr., the Ford dealer and a good friend. His sense of humor was as twisted as hers, so of course they adored each other.
"Four hundred something a month."
"Yes. The feed bill, the gas and electric. I mean, I'm okay, but I've got to do something here pretty soon."
"You're still investigating growing grapes, aren't you? Sounds like a good idea." Susan was encouraging.
"I need to bring money in while I study that. I can't afford to get started anytime soon, since the capital outlay is outrageous. Patricia Kluge said she'd sit down with me. Her vineyards are a booming success. Felicia Rogan, who really revived the whole wine industry in Virginia, said she'd talk to me, too. Still, I need to do something, just get some money coming in. Fair said I could work with him as a vet tech. I know the drill but it's not a great idea. I mean, not until I come to a decision, and I've dragged it out far too long. I'm such a chicken." She brightened a moment. "What I understand, know like the back of my hand, is hay. I'm thinking I could become a hay dealer, not just grow it but buy it from the Midwest, Pennsylvania, and Canada, then sell it. As I do that I could keep learning about grape stuff and see if I could add another string to my bow."
"Sounds like a good plan to me."
"Except I need a paycheck now."
"Pug would take you back in the post office." Susan mentioned the federal employee in charge of postal services for the area.
"Pride goeth before a fall."
"It's not pride. I'm not working without my babies."
"Where are Mrs. Murphy and Pewter?"
"In the truck, steaming up the windows." Harry leaned toward Susan. "Why are you here?"
Susan quietly looked over the Shenandoah Valley. "It's really coming down. Let's hope by the time we drive down Route 250 it's snowing on our side."
"Susan." Harry knew her friend inside and out.
"Ned and I are drifting apart."
Harry's face registered shock. "How? You seem close to me."
"He's distant. He doesn't much want sex anymore. He's all wrapped up in being our newly elected senator to Richmond. He's spending more time in the apartment he just rented there than at home."
"Mmm, the sex part is disturbing."
"He's got a lot to learn about the job." Harry hoped this would help Susan push upsetting thoughts about Ned aside.
"Brooks graduates from high school this year. Danny loves Cornell. The house will soon be empty. He's starting a whole new life. I feel like my life, or at least my usefulness, is vanishing, ending."
Harry leaned into Tucker as Susan did, too. "All of this is a big change for both of you. He's handling it differently than you, that's all."
"I hope so." Tears now ran down Susan's face. "You know I'm not cut out to be a political wife. I'm no good at it." She wiped away a tear. "Ned is handsome. I've heard all those stories about politicians and pretty interns."
Harry wrapped an arm around Susan's shoulders. "Oh, honey, don't cry."
"I remember when it happened to you."
"Fair and Ned are different kinds of men. I knew, like a little seismic rumble underneath, that Fair thought he was missing something marrying his high-school sweetheart. He"--she paused--"well, he just jumped out of the paddock."
Susan cried harder. "I feel so awful. I know now how you felt."
"You were good to me." Harry hugged her.
"But I didn't really know how you felt. I do now."
Harry hugged her again, then straightened up. "Know who can help us?" Susan shook her head, so Harry continued, "BoomBoom. She's got the best radar for men of any of us. If he's up to no good, she'll figure it out. And really, Susan, I don't think he is."
Susan considered this as she again wiped away her tears, the soft leather of the glove cool against her colder skin. "Think she would?"
"Let's call her on my cell in the truck. If she's free we can go down the mountain and meet her. It will ease your mind."
"I can't right this minute," Susan replied. "I came here to think but also to pick up Great-Uncle Thomas for Thanksgiving dinner. He's eighty-two now. Hard to believe. Anyway," she paused, "it's quite strange, really. He said to me, 'Susan, my time is near. I'd like to spend Thanksgiving with you.' He's healthy as a horse. I told him he was a long way from death's door."
Copyright © 2005 by Rita Mae Brown. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.