To begin at the beginning, go back three hundred million years.
Time sculpted this place with a large, slow, blunt knife; a knife of lava, a knife of ice. And then began the long, loving polish of water. Storm, drenching, mist; blizzard and deep drift; springs, streams, falls, rivers, potholes. The rare and secret bog. The work of the buckling plates, once violent and jagged, softened and settled.
A mist of pale blue-green inched its way along the summits: lichen, its slight, thready footholds patiently making soil. Then the mosses. Then the ferns, in every shape and size from the giant cinnamon to the dainty maidenhair. Under this weightless hand, the cliff tops subsided into the valleys. Eventually, great shaggy balsams marched up the slopes.
For one immense moment, glaciers slid by the mountains’ feet, sweeping away all that Time had grown in the lowlands, leaving the ancient trees above, a thousand-mile trail of fir and Canada anemones, a distant memory of Appalachia’s youth in pockets of boreal forest.
In their dark green chambers, the fleet shadows of animals passed: wolf, lion and bear, fox and possum. Where the forests thinned, sun struck the grassy balds. A swirling thrill of rose-breasts fed on bright umbels of mountain ash berries. So many little bumblebees, they made the fuchsia globes of rhododendron quiver.
Finally, the slim two-legged ones came and crowned the peaks and rivers with language: Nantahala, Tuckasegee, Cataloochee, Yonah.
All the while, worked by clouds from above and by springs from below, the mountains had quietly fashioned themselves a necklace: copper, rose quartz, gold and pyrite, rubies and sapphires, all set in the sparkle of moving water.
And that is where the trouble began.
Chapter 1: Pottage
“Did you hear about Hoyt Houston?”
Laverne made her entrance, a swirl of cold air, skirts, bouffant blonde hair, an untidy armload of papers, all in a whirlwind of movement and speech.
Grace glanced up from her keyboard. “DUI?”
“Dead.” Laverne threw the mail and the Atlanta and Charlotte papers down on the other desk. Kicked-off shoes skidded up against the wall and she thumped free-footed to the door to flip the sign to Open. There she paused, backlit by the plate-glass storefront, hands on her wide hips, to judge the effect on her boss.
Grace asked only: “How?” And clicked up a new blank document on her screen, quickly paraphrasing the story Laverne relayed:
Local Man Falls to Death
Licklog, Sept. 21, 2010—Hoyt Louis Houston, 39, of the Warwoman Cove community, was pronounced dead on arrival at Blue Ridge County Hospital Wednesday morning. Neighbors said that Houston had been drinking heavily for several days before he apparently stumbled over the edge of the cliff behind his home on Warwoman Cove Road and fell over 80 feet to his death. Employees of the Grover Parker excavation company, which has been excavating fill dirt from the site behind Houston’s house, found the body at 6:30 Wednesday morning between two pieces of heavy equipment at the base of the excavation face.
“Dumb shit,” Laverne added as a coda. “His daddy would turn over in his grave if he could see what Hoyt did to that place.”
“It was easy money, Laverne. That’s hard to resist.”
“Yeah, but think about it: selling the dirt right out from under your own homeplace that your granddaddy built.” Laverne laughed shortly. “Serves him right, really. That cliff wouldn’t have been there if Hoyt wasn’t so damn sorry.”
“Well, he was pretty sorry, that’s a fact.” Grace chewed her lip. “Who told you all this?”
“My brother Hank’s with the EMS. He said Hoyt didn’t live a minute. Hit his head on a dozer blade, what it looked like.”
Grace shuddered. “Geez. Okay, well I guess that’s news, all right.”
Laverne leaned over her shoulder to read. “Oh, honey, old Miz Houston’ll flat pitch a fit if you come right out and say he was drunk.”
“Fine. I’ll take it out. Then everyone local can read between the lines. And everyone else can wonder what the hell happened. So much for journalism.”
“This ain’t journalism, honey. It’s the Licklog Weekly Visitor.”
Wry-faced, Grace clicked open the desktop publishing program and made a small space for the story on page one. “There. That about nails it. Did you pick up the ad from Piggly Wiggly?”
It was a Wednesday, falling already at eight a.m. into the familiar routine of last-minute rewrites, headlines, captions, and ad placements, leading to a zipped file and a courier package of documents by noon. So much simpler than a few years before, when press day meant ten hours on your feet in front of the layout tables in the dark, grimy pressroom, fingernails gommed with wax residue. Every shift of copy had required deft sculpture with the exacto blade in those days, and it was possible quite literally to “lose an inch of copy” in the netherworld crack behind the table. Her back hurt just remembering it.
Old Evans Desmieux had held on to his antediluvian publishing methods until well into the 21st century. She loved Evans, who had given her her first internship, her first byline…her first real job. He’d founded the Visitor in 1947 and for decades had made a fine figurehead, bombasting his way through countless public occasions and turning out a weekly front page column full of pleasantries and hyperbole—typed on his old Smith Corona manual. She had defended him fiercely all through the paper’s takeover by Hometown Newspapers, the chain that owned hundreds of weeklies across the region. For a while he had continued to grace the masthead. Giving up his typewriter, though, had been the last straw. Now Grace had the title as well as the work. She scribbled a note on her desk calendar: Check on Evans.
“You okay?” Laverne’s pink forehead furrowed. “You look kindly peaky.”
“Oh, yeah. Tired. This getting up at six a.m. to puke for an hour so you can come to work by eight is getting old.”
“Honey, you don’t have to tell me. When I was pregnant with Billy I was working at the carpet mill and one morning I threw up all over a spindle of beige yarn. I didn’t say nothing to nobody, just went home and said to Rodney, That’s it. It’s up to you from here on, Daddy.” She smirked. “But then, I wasn’t no feminist.”
“Don’t start with me, Laverne.”
“I’m just saying. It don’t seem like all that great a life for a woman to me, not in your breeding years.”
“Breeding years! You make me sound like a prize cow.”
“So? It ain’t all that different, is it? Two minutes of glory for the bull and a year of waddling around fat or with young’uns chewing on your…”
“Okay, okay. Spare me the rest of the metaphor.”
The usual work-ridden peace fell on the office, a single room flanked by two desks. Her first act upon becoming editor after Evans left had been to drag his huge wooden desk out into the main room and turn it so that she and Laverne faced each other. Evans’ old lair was now storage. The two women attacked each week together, Laverne answering the phone, handling the advertising, sorting the mail, doing the books, while Grace reported and wrote, typed and edited, laid out and proofed—two galley slaves pooling muscle power on the same oar. It was easier that way, though much less private.
“Typo in a caption on last week’s front page. I shouldn’t look at this thing after it’s printed. I can’t see anything but mistakes once it’s on paper.”
Privacy was an illusion, anyway, she’d decided. You could hear everything through the walls in the office. She’d heard Evans wheedling his art professor boyfriend to go bar hopping in Atlanta. She could hear Laverne pee and flush. And if there was anything to know about her or Darnell, the whole damn town already knew it anyway. If Darnell got drunk in a college bar with some chippie everyone but her knew it within hours. If she fled to Eugenia’s in the middle of the night sobbing after a hormone-intensified fight with him, someone was sure to call her by midmorning full of false solicitude. She knew it wasn’t Eugenia who’d told them; her mother-in-law despised gossip. In a town that substituted rumor and innuendo for written news—Grace shook her head, eyes squinched in a kind of intellectual pain—Eugenia sailed through the muddy waters like a queenly barge, making a bow wave of righteousness before her. People often said, If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. But only Eugenia actually behaved that way.
“Weekly Visitor, Laverne speaking.” Scratch, scratch of pencil. “Why yes, Mr. Pettigrew, she is. Just a minute, please.”
“Great.” Grace took a deep breath and picked up the phone, tried to sound chipper and confident.
“Hey, Lucien. How are you?”
“Well, I don’t know,” he drawled. “I just got off the phone with Shirley.” A few heartbeats of silence. Grace gritted her teeth. She’d be damned if he’d manipulate her into asking what the financial manager had said.
“And?” she finally offered.
“And those numbers didn’t look too good last month, Grace. You know the ratio we’re shooting for. All that new business coming into the county and the best we can do is 65 percent?”
“Lucien, when the ratio you’re shooting for is the maximum allowable by law, your average is always going to look bad. You can’t ever have a high number to balance the low one. To set 75 percent as the target is just unreasonable, in my opinion.” By this time Laverne was making choking motions toward her own throat and rolling her eyes.
“Why, Grace, I don’t recall asking your opinion,” the CEO drawled evenly.
“Oh, sorry. I thought you did. Anyway,” she charged on, “isn’t that new regional ad rep supposed to be bringing in business from chain stores? I haven’t seen much evidence yet.”
“That takes time. Getting an ad contract from McDonald’s isn’t as simple as walking into Nix’s Grocery and picking up the list of specials. But what about that new bakery? What about that art gallery on the square?”
She laughed. “Damn you’re quick, Lucien. Those places haven’t been open more than a week. When were you in Licklog?”
“Last Friday. I came by but the office was already closed up.” Pointed silence.
“I had to go take pictures of the college football team and Laverne’s son is on it, so…”
“You had a typo in a caption on page one,” he interrupted.
“I know, I saw that, Lucien.” She held her index finger pointed at her temple and pulled the trigger for Laverne’s benefit.
“Not soon enough, apparently.” A smile entered his lazy Low Country voice. “Listen, Gracie, how’d you like to have lunch with me tomorrow?”
The false suggestion that she had a choice annoyed her, but then the something that had been nibbling at the back of her mind for the last minute or two broke through. “Sure, if you like, but—what did you say a minute ago about McDonald’s?”
“Well, I’m damn sure not going to McDonald’s for lunch,” he chuckled, dodging her question. “Make us a reservation over at the spa, see if you can get them to make that medailles de veau for me, would you? And—by the way—what’s the ratio for today’s paper?”
“I don’t think Laverne’s figured it up yet. And the last minute stuff hasn’t come in. I’m guessing 70 percent, what with the ads from all the football boosters.”
“That’s not bad. Not bad. What’s your front page?”
“Oh, the usual. County commission meeting report. Human interest picture of local state fair winners. Car wreck on the interstate down by Aurelia—nobody local. Oh, yes, and an accidental death.”
“Anybody I know?”
“I don’t think so. But I’m sure you’ve seen that house, when you’re coming into town from the south, up on the hill behind the motel? The one where they’ve been excavating fill dirt from around it for years?”
“Oh, yes. The pedestal dwelling,” he said ironically.
“That’s—that was— Hoyt Houston’s. He fell down the dig face onto a bulldozer.”
Lucien roared with laughter. It boomed in her ear so loud that she held the phone out for Laverne to hear. “Oh God, what a great story,” he said. “Faulkner couldn’t have thought up anything better. I love it.” He was still laughing when he hung up.
Grace looked at the phone in her hand. “That is the most bizarre man I have ever known.”
“My daddy always said, if you want to know what the Lord thinks about money, just look at who he gives it to,” Laverne said.
Grace nodded. “No kidding. Now, Laverne. Please tell me I didn’t just make a liar out of myself. What’s the ad ratio?”
Laverne clicked away on her calculator for a minute, shuffling the papers in front of her. “70.057.”
Grace stretched and gave herself a satisfied smile in the dark mirror of the timed-out computer screen. “Bingo.”
One hundred years ago, she mused as she followed the long, curving lane between shaggy ranks of balsam trees, was when it all began. Before that, everyone here in these broken and craggy hills lived in about the same state of self-sufficient poverty. Well, not poverty exactly. They used to say with some pride that the southern mountains were “the land of do without.” She recalled her own grandmother smiling scornfully at the excesses of city dwellers, and teaching her grandchildren the motto: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”
Then the flatlanders came, in ones and twos at first, seeking relief from the heat, seeking a cure for city-seared lungs, seeking gold, rubies, sapphires. And suddenly, this—she took it in as she rounded a curve—the vista to the north, the blue and purple hills rising up in a wall. All of this ceased to be the world and became vacation real estate. It was a sour thought to go with the sour taste in her mouth, and perfectly matched her sour frame of mind. Lucien knew that this place—the house she still thought of as her homeplace, now in the hands of strangers—was the last place she’d want to eat lunch.
“Lucien,” she greeted her CEO somewhat curtly.
He was already in the dining room of the hotel, a high-ceilinged room which, in her grandparents’ time, had rarely been used and which was now chilly despite the gas logs burning in the fireplace. Grace steeled herself when she saw the copy of this week’s Visitor open on the table. Before she could even sit down, he started in.
“If you didn’t hyphenate your damn name it would save a line in the masthead and on every single column where you have a byline.”
“You aren’t suggesting that I change my name so I can fit a half-inch more advertising in the paper, are you?”
“Why not? What’s in a name? As the Bard once said.” Grinning. Teeth like a wolf. His shirt collar frayed—an affectation. “Or you could just get a divorce.”
One silver eyebrow shot up. Grace contemplated the face she loved to hate. It really was unfair that a character like Lucien was so perfectly handsome; this seemed to violate some deep principle. A man who delighted in driving little county-seat weekly newspapers bankrupt so he could buy them up cheaply to add to his empire, who lived to underpay his staff and misinform his public, who had married (so far) three of his accountants—bringing new meaning to the phrase “to be in bed with”—such a guy should at least not have patrician features and the body of a college basketball star. He could be loathsome to look at as well as talk to.
“My wife,” he said with a slight possessive emphasis, “has gone to look at some property we are thinking of buying at the lake.”
“You’re moving to Licklog?” Grace asked, astonished.
His expression told her that Licklog was the last pitiful dead burg in the world he’d actually live in. “No. Just some vacation property. An investment, really.”
“Unless you know something I don’t, that sad little lake is not about to become a mecca for millionaires,” she said. “At the realtors’ meeting last month, they had some financial pundit speak, and he said the property market here is not coming back to pre-crash levels in our lifetimes.”
She noticed that Lucien was studiously examining his cufflinks. Normally he locked eyes in a challenging manner. “You know something I don’t know, don’t you?”
“I know there’s something I’d like to know.” He smiled in a way that Grace did not like.
“And what’s that?”
“When are you getting a divorce?”
Grace waved at the waiter, wanting to nip this line of conversation in the bud. “Did you already order, Lucien?”
“I did. So, you are, I take it?”
“Lucien, is this a business lunch or are you just here to gossip?”
Lucien had had his fun. He was content to dig into the veal the waiter set in front of him, order a bottle of Viognier (with two glasses, over Grace’s protest) and grill her about her plans for the Thanksgiving supplement. They sparred more or less politely about how many pages of grocery ads Licklog could contribute to pad the recipes and homecoming articles. Less politely over the raise she had requested for Laverne. She pointedly pushed the wineglass over to his side of the table.
He sighed. “The good little mother. When can I expect you to hit me up for maternity leave, and for how long? I hope you have some idea how that’s all going to work out.”
“Not until February.” Grace described the plan she and Laverne had worked out, which involved some help from Evans, some from a college intern, and leeway for Grace to work from home and, later, bring the baby to work with her.
“No. No babies in the office.”
Even Grace was surprised by his vehemence. “Seriously?’
“Y’all are unprofessional enough without a baby squalling in the background every time you answer the phone.”
Grace sipped her tea and mastered her fury. She would not cry, hormones be damned. Instead, she narrowed her eyes at him. “So why are you buying investment property in Blue Ridge County?”
On her way home that night, Grace sorted through what she had learned from Lucien, despite his refusal to tell her anything. Something was definitely in the wind. As the highway narrowed to two lanes and began the long, sinuous climb to the gap, her thoughts turned this way and that with the steering wheel. Property values had climbed for the ridgetop property, the lots with spectacular views, until they had almost regained their boom-time values—well, the asking prices, anyway. Probably no one was actually getting that. But for the lesser places—land that was too soggy for drain fields, down in the narrow creek valleys, land tainted by 1960s ticky-tacky vacation houses along the shore of the manmade lake—the real estate market was pretty depressing. This thought brought a smile, and she allowed her eyes to flicker over the view of the mountains that stretched away to the horizon on her left. The fewer people, the better. On impulse, she pulled over into the overlook parking lot at the top of the gap.
The secluded valley where Sally Spinnit Creek wound down into a small lake showed only a few signs of humanity: the old stone school, now a community center, a tiny store at the crossroads, and the Moody farm, settled softly among its immense, shaggy balsam trees like an outcrop of white stone, wreathed in ivy and boxwoods. Old Mrs. Moody might be the last of that family to live there, after a hundred years. The children and grandchildren had done what “successful” people do: left the farm and gone to the city. Left the herd of black cattle that Grace could see moseying back toward the barn in the slanting golden light. Left the crooked heirloom apple trees. Left the drifts of bloodroot that covered the lawn like a galaxy of stars in the early spring. She wondered what they had gotten in exchange, and if they felt it was worth the price.
Chapter 2. Rubies
Eugenia’s home had once been a student boarding house, before the dorms were built. Tall and T-shaped, it filled the corner lot across from the entrance to the college, an edifice of white clapboard, porches, breezeways, and garage, surrounded by a quilt of garden beds. On this small a lot, dirt was too precious for mere grass. Eugenia had overthrown the genteel ethic of the lawn in favor of riotous gangs of herbs and vegetables and cutting flowers jumbled—no, wrong word—thoughtfully married by color, by season, by savor. The rainbow chard danced a dark backdrop to sprays of French marigold, the dill waved tall above the glossy New Zealand spinach, mint shared its bed with irises. Among the trees, the magnolia shared sunspace with the pecan and the fig. You could eat all year out of her tiny town lot; her pantry shelves were proof of it.
Today, the harvest was okra. Eugenia looked over her steamed-up glasses at Grace with a kind but stern expression honed many years in her science classroom. She smiled her small, closed-lipped smile, one that Grace interpreted as keeping a firm grip on happiness. Everything in moderation, that was Eugenia. Only in the garden and on the dinner table was her abundant spirit allowed to run riot.
“You look tired,” Eugenia observed. “Are you hungry? Let me get these okra in the freezer and I’ll fix you a plate.”
“I can fix myself a plate.”
“No, you can’t. I said to go put your feet up and keep out of my way in this kitchen.”
“Well,” Grace said impishly, “you didn’t say that but I will.”
“I said it just now!” Eugenia’s voice climbed a note or two and became merry. She loved this sparring; her eyes sparkled behind the misty bifocals.
In the living room, CM already had his feet up and the TV on. “Where’s Darnell?” he asked without preamble.
“Don’t you know?” Grace stretched out on the sofa, consciously trying to keep the tone light. “Doesn’t he work for you?”
CM snorted eloquently. “Yeah, but he’s married to you.”
“So,” Grace said, “I guess that kind of puts us in the same old leaky boat.”
Her father-in-law guffawed and slapped his thigh. He would find his antisocial, undependable son amusing, she thought bitterly, but this flavor of thought was quickly derailed by Eugenia’s entrance with a laden tray.
“Oh, Eugenia, that’s so pretty,” Grace said. “You shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble.”
There was no answer to this. Why not cover a handmade mahogany tray with a linen cutwork placemat and fill the Limoges plate with homegrown squash casserole, baked chicken with green tomato chutney, beaten biscuits, sweet pepper jelly, and an oddly perfect slaw of fresh cabbage with grapefruit and pecans? Why not add a tiny Waterford vase with a single red dahlia? Why not put the ice water in a crystal tumbler and give the silver an extra buff before laying it on the creamy cloth napkin? Why not add artistry to competence and love to perfectionism even in the most mundane of tasks?
“I didn’t get a vase of flowers on my dinner tray,” CM complained.
“You aren’t carrying my grandbaby,” Eugenia said with asperity, and winked at Grace. “Plus, you didn’t work hard all day like she did.”
“Well, I’m supposed to be retired.”
The single word was loaded with the unspoken argument against sloth that was Eugenia’s life. Grace knew without being told that every moment of this long summer day had been productive. Even in rest Eugenia was praying or reading something worthwhile or writing a letter to the editor in her mind. She glanced at the stack of books under the folded reading glasses on the end table. The Bhagavad-Gita. A Passage to India. A Natural History of the Himalayas. High in the Thin, Cold Air. The Collected Poems of Rabindranath Tagore.
“Are you planning a trip to India?”
“No,” said CM.
“Yes,” said Eugenia.
They glared at each other. CM broke first. “Genie wants to go to India,” he groused.
“It’s only natural. We’ve visited all the other sites of the great ancient civilizations. Peru, Egypt. China. Greece. The Holy Land. Why not India?”
“Oh, I swanee. You say that like you know something about it. Which you don’t.”
“Charles and Deedee went to India last year and…”
Eugenia waved her hand dismissively. Grace grinned. Eugenia would never say, don't bother me with an opinion from an airhead like Deedee Mayfield. But Grace could hear her thinking it.
“As if you cared about dirt,” Eugenia said.