Photo by Solen Feyissa on unsplash
After buying a stout lock for the garage, the first thing Grace did in Santa Fe was paint the studio apartment blue. Deep, Regatta Blue, like the inn she'd once stayed at in Valencia. While she double-coated the foot thick adobe walls and the low ceiling between the dark wooden vigas, she drank iced gin out of a bone china teacup picked up someplace in Indiana or Missouri and listened to Jimmy Cliff's album The Harder They Come over and over on the portable phonograph she'd grabbed from home at the last minute with her favorite soup pot and a set of 1800-count Egyptian cotton sheets. The album had come out in February, and it might have been the reggae that had stirred her up, had shaken her out of the paralyzed depression she'd been mired in since Stephen left for Italy on Christmas Eve without her.
Grace wanted to be her old self again, the traveler to Cambodian temples and remote European hill towns, the bestselling author of the book on the Italian saint. The woman who used to sing off-key the Ode to Joy as she brandished her feather duster. She wanted to smoke Woodbines on a city fire escape, wearing her hooded bathrobe and chunky old Persian turquoise beads against her skin. To drink good coffee with the moon still printed on the early morning sky, rustic rosemary bread rising under a flour-sack towel in the kitchen, a smudge of writing ink like a tribal tattoo on her cheekbone. She didn't like being a fugitive from failed love and failed middle age, was still trying to get her head around what her imps had shoved her into. That rather stupendous fall from Grace—the only road to salvation she could devise, with Jimmy Cliff egging her on: "You Can Get It if You Really Want."
When Gloria Archuleta, the petite landlady with lively eyes and twitching nose, came knocking on the door just before suppertime—pretending to have a receipt to give her for the deposit and first month's rent but really prying, Grace was well aware—she turned the music down and called out some excuse for not opening up. The blue was surely another—if lesser—transgression. But it would make it more pleasant to hole up here in this tiny apartment furnished with some basic old pine furniture and a sprung mattress, near the Santa Fe River, on the road whose name so amused her, Camino Escondido. Hidden. Safely tucked away, she'd thought, with her usual naive faith in things that proved faithless. How could she know how wrong she'd prove to be?
The hue and cry started almost right away. The town could talk of nothing but the theft that happened the first Sunday Grace was there. The little willow-wood Madonna, La Conquistadora, Santa Fe's beloved patron saint, stolen from her altar in the Cathedral downtown on Sunday night, March 18, 1973. History in the making. Newspaper headlines were practically hysterical. The town and all of Catholic New Mexico was horrified, bereft. Grown men and women, said the front-page news reports, wept when they heard. In answer to his people's anguished prayers, Santa Fe's mayor vowed to do everything in his power to make sure the irreplaceable statue was found—as if appealing for the safe return of a human victim. And everybody started looking sideways at each other, speculating, formulating all kinds of suspicions and fanciful theories.
Grace looked out her rented kitchen window at the shiny padlock on the freestanding garage. She thought how really theft wasn't so much about loss as about inescapable presence.
On one of her late night escapes from hiding, Grace met Peter Zorn walking a French bulldog.
"Like the Thai marinade?" Satay, she thought he'd said. Under a dim streetlight he looked surprised.
"No... like the French composer."
Peter was lanky, calm, wearing a woolen duffle coat with toggles like a Victorian schoolboy. Satie, spotlighted under a streetlamp, sported a natty turquoise and orange wool Navajo dog sweater. The elderly bulldog belonged to the man whose house Peter lived in on Bishop's Lodge Road, in exchange for odd jobs—"caretaking and cooking and the occasional flan." Peter had been experimenting with a dozen recipes, he told Grace, most recently a flan flavored with Calvados, apple brandy from his eldest sister's home in Normandy.
He was on Camino Escondido visiting his friend Ralph Kingsolving, he said, a neighbor of Grace's in the compound.
"Ralph teaches high school drama—spunkily channeling those teenage histrionics." If only he could channel hers, Grace thought. Way, way too late, in any case.
Despite her pressing need for caution and seclusion to consider and regroup, Grace and Peter became friends without further ado. Fellow night creatures. He didn't ask questions. He didn't mind talking about himself instead, and the intricacies of burnt-sugar syrup, or about uneasy things, hauntings. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. The squadrons of downed planes in the desert outside Tucson. Constantine's vast underground pools of stored water.
Peter had lived some years in California, worked as a baker in the San Francisco Tenderloin and at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center on a rutted, almost inaccessible road outside Carmel. He'd come back to New Mexico after his brother's killing in LA—which, he told Grace, left him chronically sleepless, prowling the dark late at night, unable to settle or still.
He'd gotten a job as sous-chef (sous-jefe he joked) at one of the restaurants downtown, making the gallons of red chile sauce they went through every day for enchiladas, carne adovada, Frito pies. He ground the chile pods from the ristra, added cumin, salt, oregano, garlic. Made chile pods into sauces in time-old holy rituals. He'd thought about becoming a healer, studying with a curandera up in Rio Arriba, but needed something more immediate, more sure.
He'd lived in Chimayo near the Sanctuario, before Ricardo Limón took him in; for two or three years after his brother was shot in LA, he had joined the pilgrims walking along the highway on Good Friday. He had learned then: prayer had to be an act. Enacted. Carried out.
He thought about where that belief had led him. Thought about walking in others' shoes. About footprints. The footprint on the altar the thief in the cathedral left behind.
"Take only memories, leave nothing but footprints," counseled Chief Seattle of the Suquamish Tribe, though he'd been talking about land rights.
And a Dakota proverb, meaning something else as well, said, "We will be known by the tracks we leave behind."
Peter despaired of his immortal soul and mindfully whisked eggs for flan in his own version of perpetual penance.
Peter's benefactor, Ricardo Limón, designed costumes for the Santa Fe Opera, which one reviewer had said referred subtly to his monastic background while yet being vampish. He'd been a monk for several years at a notorious ashram in Wisconsin, and then connected somehow with Christ of the Desert Monastery out in Abiquiu on the Chama River. He was currently making a fool of himself over a Japanese bath boy—a specialist in Flowing River Stone Massage at one of the spas in Jemez Springs, deep in the mountains, who smelled disarmingly of pine oil and Lapsang Soochong tea.
His house with ridge-top views, pine floors, and five fireplaces had a whole room with museum display cases housing his collection of kachinas and priceless old wooden figurines. He was in touch with several art dealers all over the southwest. He'd been on the phone to one of them a lot lately, Kenji Ueda the massage therapist had noticed, talking in a tense, secretive undertone.
Grace settled into her blue rooms, bought a spiral notebook and blue, felt-tip pens. (This was her blue winter, like that favorite short-story by J.D. Salinger, "De-Daumier-Smith's Blue Period." She should have come up with some clever, hyphenated name for her fugitive self, instead of going back to plain old Alessi, her maiden name—no longer being what you'd call a maiden.) She started a haphazard diary. Wrote that she'd get her ducks in a row, muster her saints. Saint Francis and his birds. Santa Cecilia and her mandolin. San Pasquale and his long wooden spoon. Saint Jerome and his book, the lion in his folds. The lovely gothic beards and hats. The naïve carved cottonwood. The lush pigments. And then the Zuni bear fetish of some translucent stone, which both completed and unsettled the others. She had become a pantheist over the years, Grace understood, adding to her musterings a voodoo doll from Bourbon Street, a scrap of Haitian cloth reeking of night-blooming jasmine and jazz, and finally the melon-bellied mandolin that Stephen kept among his academic's corduroy trousers and turtlenecks. She needed all of them. She'd need them now especially, going forward, though her mother the hardy Methodist would have exclaimed "God help you!"
And every time she crossed the trickle of the Santa Fe River over the Delgado Street Bridge, under which atomic secrets had been passed on to the Russians, local myth had it, she called out to the woman saint she'd brought to everyone's attention in her wildly popular book, the saint invoked when crossing rivers or bridges.
And what about when burning bridges? Too late to wonder about that.
She found herself drawn to the Cathedral, the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, built by Archbishop Lamy (the Archbishop memorialized by Willa Cather) in the late 1800s. No matter that it was nothing like her favorite Italian cathedrals, places of lofty elegance and grace, or St. John the Divine back in New York. Or that it felt somehow barren and bleak, as if the patron saint who had the town in an uproar, the little wooden Madonna, had been the soul leaving its body. And something so poignant and personally revealing about that led Grace to another intriguing decision—surely less drastic than her last.
It crystalized at a party at Ricardo's, where Peter gave them Tanqueray martinis and a beef tenderloin stuffed with ginger and garlic, cumin, coriander, turmeric, and a minced jalapeño.
Ricardo had been talking to Ralph's girlfriend Allie Malone about basset horns.
"One of my colleagues at the opera plays one."
"And of course Mozart famously used them," Allie replied.
And Grace, sitting on a burnt orange velvet Chesterfield under a Tiffany lamp (surely a replica?), remembered out of the blue two basset hounds she'd spotted one August noon waddling down 54th Street while she waited on the sidewalk for halal, and realized with a wave of homesickness how many things she missed about New York: the social service outreach program at St. John the Divine where she'd worked part time; her bookstore reading in midtown and one up by Columbia; long rambles from one end to the other of Central Park, past the ice skating rink, the Turtle Pond, the Shakespeare Garden; the museum with Medieval limestone saints from Burgundy—her favorite, like a favorite uncle, James the Greater, a stone sage in a sagacious hat.
Allie was a kindly, earth-mother type, poly to Ralph's roly, a graphic artist who made letterpress chapbooks and offered printmaking workshops. Over Peter's prune flan enhanced with a soupçon of his family Calvados, she introduced Grace to Amalia White, a woman who looked after La Conquistadora's wardrobe and the gifts of jewels lavished on her. The woman was grieving, as if for a mother, a child. Grieving like Grace for what had gone out of her reach.
It was a pivotal concurrence of losses and their cures. As they talked and her imagination quickened, as dormant urges and synapses began to stir, Grace heard herself ask for Amalia's contact information, ask if she could call. While she was at it, she'd call Carmella back in New Jersey, too, and let her sister know she was okay. (Or if not okay, something, much too complicated to put a name to.) She'd have to dodge questions, gloss over the most embarrassing bits or steel herself against the words her sister would think up that she hadn't: stupid—infantile—insane. But she had no excuse to go on keeping all the family worried sick. Her vanishing act had been more than a little inconsiderate, her cri de coeur not shared or voiced before she left. And though she'd always been famously reticent, even as a child holding her secrets close against her heart, she needed to assure the people who loved her they needn't send out the bloodhounds.
Grace met the Madonna's disconsolate attendant late one morning in the French pastry shop at La Fonda, with its green-hearted copper kettles and cozily steamed windows, over apricot jam crèpes and cinnamon-dusted café au lait.
"Thank you for meeting me. I've decided to write a creative history—a kind of narrative essay—about La Conquistadora, and I'd love to hear about your work with her."
Amalia, small and intense, with dark circles under sad eyes, described Our Lady's confraternity. The women who lovingly dressed her. Those who knew intimate details about the dresses in the Madonna's wardrobe.
"How many dresses are there?" Grace guessed maybe half a dozen, to reflect traditional liturgical colors.
"Right now it's something like one hundred and thirty. More all the time, you understand. From simple, with personal meaning for the donor, to really fancy. Damask and gold lamé gowns and mantles... dresses copied from queens'... East Indian saris... clothing of Chinese silk brocade... one dress made by an artist at the Cochití Pueblo, worn with silver bracelets and miniature squash blossom necklace."
"So jewelry, too?" Grace wondered.
"Oh, yes—such jewels! Turquoise and coral, sapphires and pearls. She's got ruby earrings. A Byzantine cross with emeralds... another with more than 200 diamonds. A gold filagree crown from Mexico. A rosary with Swarovski crystals—you know?—given her by Archbishop Lamy.
"And other things as well. Castilian mantillas, an ermine cape stitched by Inuit villagers, tiny Parisian lace handkerchiefs. Prayers stitched into the lining of her robes. A cape sewn with wedding bands. Native Americans sometimes leave her ceremonial feathers... even though she helped the Spanish conquerors."
Grace, intrigued, could have gone on asking questions for hours, but Amalia was due back at the Cathedral. Thanking her, and spooning up the last trace of apricot jam, Grace buttoned her coat against the icy dregs-of-winter wind and walked to Allie's studio on upper Alameda to pick up a small chapbook of verses Amalia had mentioned, inspired by the well-loved figurehead of faith.
On Saturday, April 7, a ransom note arrived. It promised the Madonna would be returned unharmed in exchange for $150,000 and a pledge from the Governor that those involved wouldn't face criminal charges. If church leaders agreed to these terms, Father Miguel Baca should ring the bells of the Cathedral on Wednesday, ten times, at exactly 4:45 PM. If the bells rang as stipulated, further instructions would follow on Thursday by phone. A cross from the Madonna's crown was enclosed with the ransom note as proof of possession. The note was written in poor Italian—a touch Grace adored and Peter found peculiar.
"Thieves with a sense of humor? Too much daytime TV, or what?"
That Sunday night Gloria Archuleta watched two men furtively carrying the wrapped bundle into strange Ralph's apartment, long after dark—as if she wouldn't notice! She was at her kitchen window, making tamales for her niece Carla's first communion party, spreading the masa thinly on the corn husks she had soaked in the bathtub to make them soft. She'd caught him uttering some heathen nonsense about Queen Mab, one of those singers, probably, like Three Dog Night or the Flying Burrito Brothers. Who knew what they got up to anymore? Aieee!
She had no choice but to put the corn husks aside and call Danny Roybal at home, not the police station at that hour, to report what she'd seen. Our Lady of Sorrows vanishing feet first into the apartment where strange creatures were always hanging out. That gawky friend, mostly, who came by much too often with that ugly dog. It had been him tonight, trying to hide his face in a big stripy scarf—but she'd known him, all right.
"Danny," Gloria said urgently in a stage whisper into the telephone, "Call me! I know who took her! Come before it's too late."
Police Sergeant Danny Roybal put Gloria off until the next morning, Monday, knowing his cousin's friend tended to overdramatize most everything, but came by early bringing Dunkin Donuts—chocolate buttermilk, her favorite. He reluctantly agreed to go around to Ralph's, to "interrogate" the suspect.
Peter, greatly amused, told Grace about the visit of the police to Ralph's apartment when he'd gotten home from school. About Danny Roybal standing on the doorstep, stammering ("Excuse me, Mr. Kingsolving?"), inquiring if he might come in and look around. How Gloria Archuleta had seen them carrying inside the antique wooden figurine Ricardo was loaning Ralph from his collection to put in Friar Lawrence's cell for the school play.
"You know he's doing Romeo and Juliet. He loves veracity. He's also borrowed a wonderful old spice rack from Allie with apothecary jars of herbs, for his 'baleful weeds and precious-juicèd flowers.' He thinks the students' hearts aren't in it, this year; he's afraid he has somehow let them down. I know that everyone's on edge, upset, being tested by having La Conquistadora gone. Catholics, certainly—but I'd say nonbelievers, too. It's good we've been shaken up a bit."
Grace was silent, appalled. She knew she'd be next. The police would appear when she least expected and make her take the lock off the garage. She'd be disGraced, unmasked, and maybe even thrown in jail, with winos and cockroaches, awful runny gruel, the whole nine yards. This was the Wild West, after all. All those barbaric practices wouldn't have simply gone away.
Peter went on, unaware, talking about the man who'd carved santos out of cottonwood for Ricardo one summer, how santero meant saintmaker—like John of Gaunt being a kingmaker, in old England—and how he could see himself living in a canyon, making saints.
"And cooking as the heat goes from the day and the saints rest, smelling of pine shavings."
But Grace could only focus on the villainy and trepidation rioting like Furies in her head—like those painted by John Singer Sargent, she imagined, on the staircase of the museum in Boston, with their wild eyes and hands full of writhing snakes. She'd seen them with Stephen just after they were married and had gone up from New York, invited to the opening of a big exhibition curated by his roomate from college.
Opening. Funny how opening meant something entirely different now.
Funny how far she'd come from being open, even with people she trusted and loved. How far she'd come. Well, yes. Crazily far. Fatally far. The Flying Dutchman kind of far.
Grace fretted in the night, one of the curses from her wicked fairy godmother, like her gap teeth. She fretted about whether she should flee before all of these people she had come to like learned what a silly, reckless creature she had been. She fretted at the thought of leaving her quirky blue bolthole, this hidden road with eloquent potholes, gracious concealing walls. She fretted at losing the ground she had determinedly won. She had her writing, again, the new book she'd started about the beloved Spanish Madonna with her blue eyes, her amazing wardrobe and jewels. The borrowed adobe cave was snug, in spite of spring wind gusts and tumbleweeds in frenzied eddies right outside the door. It had become almost like home. She'd pressed purple African violets between her notebook pages, the seeds of a dried chile pod into a miniature Acoma ant pot on her narrow wooden mantelpiece—the ants upright and playing flutes. She'd gotten caught up in this strange, alternate life, only occasionally missing New York, and trying not to think about Lucca, the year when she and Stephen had been happiest, in perfect synch, he researching the Renaissance artists, and Grace the local saint, both writing at a timeworn table in an alcove off the tiny tiled kitchen—the shrine of the porcini mushrooms they had deified, fragrant in their own earthy way as frankincense, as myrrh, and added to risottos or ragus most nights.
She let herself picture him in Verona now without her for the winter quarter, teaching art to spirited Italian students, every one who'd look like Claudia Cardinale and read Adorno in bed with tortoise-shell glasses after another torrid night while Grace's wretched husband in his midlife crisis, his heartless devil-may-care masculinity, went naked as a Rubens Adonis to make them tiny gold-rimmed cups of espresso. It made her crazy all over again. She felt herself, all she'd been and started to become again, erased. Eradicated, just like that. Reduced to soup pot, record player, sheets. And of course to that ungodly object which threatened her undoing—what she'd made off with in that Faustian moment back in New York, because she couldn't bear his arrogant absence and infidelity without making a protestation he'd be sure to hear.
"I'm thinking next year I'll put on Noel Coward's Nude with Violin, for something completely different," Ralph told them, depressed by his students' lukewarm interest in Romeo and Juliet. "Or maybe The Tempest in a Teapot—my own revisions to Shakespeare."
"What, like the old woman who lived in a shoe?"
"I'm working it out still. I can see a teapot with sails, stranded on a mesa top—a metaphoric desert island upstage left."
"New Mexico's an ancient inland sea, of course," Allie went on with the conceit. "It kind of works. Could Prospero be a Hopi shaman, and the motley crew a bunch of Pueblo clowns?"
Grace listened to the banter, her feet in stripy socks tucked up on Allie's homey sofa. But much as she appreciated these new friends and Peter's green chile brioche and Moroccan tagine, the secrets she was hugging to herself kept her apart from them, reluctant to confide, to let them learn how infantile and idiotic she had been. She'd love to be braver, 'fess up with rueful contrition, and laugh at it with them—they could together make it seem a lark.
She'd been in Santa Fe a month. The time it took for the grape hyacinths to bloom. For tumbleweeds to collect on chain link fences around town, shepherded by fitful spring winds. For the crowded kitchen at the restaurant where Peter cooked (or undercooked, as he put it, one of his sous-chef jokes) to go through 7,000 gallons of red chile sauce.
She'd paid another month's rent, refusing to be cowed. Gloria Archuleta's eyes followed her everywhere. She felt them even at her window as she wrote. She felt them as she passed the locked garage, looking away from it, studiedly nonchalant, as she went out to walk after a day of writing and then crossing out what she'd written.
She'd bought a nice piece of obsidian from the Original Prospector's Shop near Burro Alley, said to absorb negative energy, but couldn't tell if it was doing any good. She remembered having been charmed at the Morgan Library in midtown Manhattan by the Ritual for the Observances of Eclipses—a Babylonian clay tablet inscribed in cuneiform, intended to counter the bad omen that an eclipse always was. "That catastrophe, murder, rebellion, and the eclipse approach not..." And she remembered saying to herself as she was packing for her madcap flight across disjointed US states that she had clearly remembered it wrong.
On Tuesday night Ralph ran into Grace as he was coming home, and while curtains twitched at the Archuleta kitchen windows behind them, told her about the disastrous dress rehearsal of the play.
"Lady Capulet's sore throat was diagnosed this afternoon as mono, and in other news Mercutio had to go bail his father out of jail on a drunk driving charge."
He reported as an afterthought that the police had been to Ricardo's house, checking his extensive collection of antique figurines. Livid after a nighttime fight and in the process of moving his things out, Kenji had called them to tell them about a very large check Ricardo had received from an art dealer.
"He found it while snooping, as he loved to do," Ralph explained. "When they heard about that, they suspected Ricardo of having sold La Conquistadora, despite the ransom request—thinking it could have been a smokescreen."
"So what really happened?" Grace asked, again appalled.
"In fact he'd sold one of his rare kachinas, planning to give the money to Kenji—before their game-changing fight."
Lovers' quarrels, lovers' mistakes, missteps. She knew them all too well.
"I ought to make a run for it while I still can," she told herself, then realized she'd spoken aloud. Ralph laughed, assuming she was joking. But she could see suspicion was running high in Santa Fe, fueled by the ransom note, the upping of the ante. And then she gave a queasy start, as it suddenly hit her that Steven's return to New York would be in less than a week—on Sunday, Palm Sunday, the winter quarter class in Verona ending today, maybe—and finding her would be his Holy Week priority. Wouldn't it be best to head for Phoenix or San Diego as she'd intended in the first place—one of those big cities where runaways could lose themselves effectively, not land plumb in the middle of a conspicuous media-circus screwball farce as she had managed here, a magnet for hawk-eyed attention? (Especially after that interview she'd given The Columbia Review last week.)
She could picture the stories now. The ridicule, the mud-slinging battle she would never win. Stephen would be remorseless, feed Grace and her reputation to the celebrity-hungry lions piece by piece.
When Ralph had gone, she slipped bemusedly across to the garage to check the tires on the car—sorely tempted to run again. She remembered the front right had been a little low when she'd arrived in town. As she came out, Gloria Archuleta spied her looking furtively around while re-attaching the padlock, "as guilty as a girl can be." La Conquistadora was in there! the landlady realized, thrilled, and called Danny at once.
On Wednesday morning before she'd even had her second cup of coffee, editing a sentence about La Conquistadora's journey north from Mexico, Grace was summoned to her fate by a loud knock. Decisive, inescapable. She had no alternative but to let Sergeant Roybal into the garage.
He showed no surprise to see nothing in it but the Thunderbird, a little drift of last fall's leaves in one corner, a daddy long legs. He hummed appreciatively, said "Nice car," and asked politely if she could unlock the doors, open the trunk. He noted down the license plates and registration. Just a matter of routine, he assured her.
"But—um—don't leave town," he added as an afterthought, blushing deep red. Danny had always wanted to say that, since watching cop shows as a kid, and seized the opportunity.
Grace called Peter as soon as the police sargeant had gone, to see if her assuring friend was free for lunch.
"I think I'd better start arranging for bail bonds. Do you think you could vouch for me?"
He was intrigued.
They met at Washington Avenue Liquor and Delicatessen for their usual hot pastrami sandwiches and kosher dills. He'd surprised her with it one drear day, after she'd let slip she was missing New York.
"It's not exactly the Carnagie Deli, but it's considerably closer," he'd said. Kosher hot dogs, Reubens, an array of cheeses, sausages, and wines seemed so exotic in the Santa Fe context. She'd been amused and pleased by his conjuring trick.
Today, Grace meant to tell him absolutely everything, but in the end she funked it—made the "dawn raid" and "police caution" just one more chapter in the ongoing saga of Gloria and her tireless rout of thieves and thugs. She asked for all the dirt on Ricardo and Kenji's falling out, luring him off into apparently murkier waters than her own in the time left before he needed to get back to work.
"Be sure to listen for the bells this afternoon," Peter said airily as he parted from her on the corner across from the Palace of the Governors, two blocks from the Cathedral, "so you can finalize arrangements with your bank to get the ransom money wired in. I assume interest rates are good?"
At a quarter to five that afternoon, the bells of the Cathedral rang ten times as the kidnappers had demanded, signaling agreement to the ransom terms. Grace heard them from the window, having opened it to the chilly early spring air to hear more clearly what the answer to the thieves would be.
Never send to know for whom the bell tolls, she thought with a shiver. It tolls for thee, thee, thee. She pictured the two limestone towers of St. Francis of Assisi Cathedral Basilica a half a mile away, with bells in only one, flanking a rose window brought to New Mexico from France, and above that a smaller window with a dove, a replica of Bernini's translucent alabaster window in St. Peter's in Rome. Everything echoed, met, diverged. No woman was an island, entire of herself—no matter how decisively she might try raising the drawbridge. Dolorous thoughts were unloosed by the slow, measured ringing.
She thought how cut off she'd become from those she loved. How much she missed her mother, three years dead. Her grumbly glazier father with his deaf ear to complaints. Her sister Carmella, usually so quick to laugh when Grace did something crazy, who had hollered at her on the phone last week for this Santa Fe escapade, without a trace of sympathy—though she had never warmed to Stephen, had made faces about him from the start. Their brother Gareth, the high-principled archdeacon, to whom Grace wouldn't dare confess so much as a hangnail, though she liked and admired him immensely.
She couldn't concentrate on writing. She rifled through her notes on La Conquistadora, La Reina, Our Lady of the Rosary or of the Assumption (who had more names even than Grace—Grace Dermott by marriage, Graciela Alessi by birth and again by mischance, simply Gracie in school), scribbled in her notebook during her La Fonda meeting with Amalia White.
Feeling unmoored, and through her own doing unloveable, unloved, she found herself suddenly teary at how much the little figurine meant to a multitude of friends and confidants who deeply cared for her and couldn't do without her in their lives. One account especially moved Grace's pregnable heart, referring to the theft of a statue of San Miguel a year before the Madonna was taken:
A handwritten note received by the Archdiocese office the week after the theft was discovered suggested that La Conquistadora had gone off in search of the lost San Miguel, because he'd been gone so long and clearly needed help finding his way back home.
Or maybe in search of the lost Grace, who needed help even more desperately? She pictured the brave little statue slipping down from her altar and heading out into the night, crown tucked discreetly into the pocket of her cape. Picking the lock of the garage when no one was looking, and letting herself in to check out the infernal Thunderbird. Cold and worn out from her exertions, crawling into the back seat, curling up and drifting off to sleep. Locked in by accident, as sometimes happens to children.
Grace's imaginings of that redemptive love, a guardian angel with Grace's best interests at heart, made her see that Stephen had never come anywhere near that, the love-no-matter-what she was so hungry for. She saw the ways he'd misprized her, the months and years he'd let her fade away to nothing, from casual put-downs to out-and-out neglect.
She left the notebook open on the table, made herself a cup of bright green matcha tea, stoneground tea leaves, a present from Kenji by way of Peter, before the breakup with Ricardo.
"It makes a lovely green flan, too," Peter had smiled.
She needed badly to talk to Peter. This secrecy had gone on way too long, and was getting harder to justify each time she put it off. She felt awful about not telling him what she had done—and Ralph and Allie, too. It probably wouldn't have seemed like a big deal at all in the beginning, before it had been allowed to grow long fangs and spook every exchange with them.
She'd call and ask Peter to supper the next day. She'd cook clam chowder in the soup pot that had traveled cross-country with her. Manhattan, of course, not her mother-in-law's bland recipe from Nantucket. They had an ongoing but friendly argument, decades old. Grace made a very Italian Manhattan chowder, with Sicilian elements mostly inherited from her own mother. Oregano, garlic, capers, dry white wine, a dried chile pepper—from Chimayo, this time.
She'd serve her friend her favorite soup and then come clean—however contrary that was to her inherent reticence, however it might change the way he'd look at her. At least she wouldn't have vanished into thin air. She would have made an impression, even if "mad as a March hare" came into it. (It had been March, she argued in her own defense.)
Grace took a deep breath, set her soup spoon in her empty bowl, and explained to Peter in hesitant half-sentences (so much for the much lauded author!) about running away in Stephen's car while her husband was off in Italy without her, lecturing on Veronese's illusionistic perspective to adoring art students. "Needing some time alone," he'd said—that terrible and untruthful cliché all unfaithful husbands use. His eyes for many months by then empty of love.
"So I've been hiding something. Things. Well, lots of things, in fact."
"More than the stolen saint?" he asked mischievously.
"No stolen saint... nothing nearly as wonderful—or practical—as that. Only the sainted Thunderbird I ran away with out of spite. My husband's baby, as it were, what he loves most in all the world."
She described doing a runner from Manhattan at a breakneck speed across all kinds of random states, keeping a wary eye out for the cops since her name wasn't on the registration. His classic Thunderbird, an unflawed seaspray green with white convertible top, porthole window. Highly visible, of course. The kind of blaring secret Grace would try keeping.
Suddenly she saw how comical it was, how recklessly unhinged she'd been in her moment of flight—needing some grand gesture, needing to reclaim what had been stolen from her by effecting a still more spectacular theft. And how unlikely that a willow-wood Madonna from the 14th Century would steal her thunder, if not the bird.
"I do these crazy things when I can't figure out what else to do." She rolled her eyes with stagy disbelief, though feeling the whole while immensely vulnerable, unclothed.
Peter, fidgeting with his bread knife, hadn't said anything. Grace's heart beat fast in a jittery beat. His silence was devastating.
But after all he'd just been thinking, not condemning her at all.
"After my brother's death, I came to believe prayer has to be an act," he said. "Enacted. What you did was prayer of just that sort, really—enviable!"
"Prayer for the person you needed to save."
"You, don't you see, Grace? From eradication."
She had seen that, felt it day after day, but never so clearly. Never with that kind of generous forgiveness.
In further benediction Peter uncovered the bowl of flan he'd brought, a simple lemon flan this time, with a sprinkling of toasted piñon nuts, and handed her another spoon. After they'd eaten a good half of it and he had heard all about Stephen and his faithless flight to Italy, he said "I need to confess, too."
Grace watched his kind, lined face that made her think of the older George Harrison.
"I didn't act when I should have. The faith I'd grown up with, and never questioned any more than I did algebra, or yeast making bread rise, turned out to be no more than pretty words, when the crunch came." Believing what had been fed into him, he'd judged his delinquent brother damned, beyond salvation. And by refusing to see him, or give him money for a place to live, even for food, he'd driven him into the company of those who didn't judge, who welcomed anyone ready to prove their worth through acts that served their own beliefs—including the belief that killing was okay.
"I never once tried to picture myself walking in Vincent's shoes. I thought I was too good to fail so radically."
And now again he saw the bloody footprints the police report said led the rival gang member (a 15-year-old Angelino named Chuy—short for Jesus, he'd been gutted to hear) down the dark alley on the trail of poor, flawed Vincent, where he ended what the first knife thrust began.
Vincent had been religious, too, the gang that took him in was some kind of radical cult urging its members to blood sacrifice. The cross he wore had been ripped from his neck for the silver and turquoise.
Grace thought again of her own brother, Gareth, archdeacon at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, and her sister Carmella, older by 15 years and ready to retire from her Jersey City hair salon so she could look after their father in his beginning decline. She felt the pang again of being absent from family. How infinitely worse to have a brother shot dead? She couldn't even imagine.
"That's terrible, Peter—I'm so sorry."
"I've learned a lot since then, I hope. I've worked hard on forgiveness, with the help of therapists and friends. But now I feel, somehow, as if this theft has left us all without a steady moral compass. Left us to sink or swim. Like Gloria's witch hunt—the way they used to test for witchery."
"I've had to wonder if my own behavior was a kind of witch hunt too—condemning Stephen without giving him a chance to explain or to make things right again..."
"Oh come on, Grace," Peter exclaimed, touching her hand where it played with her spoon. "His taking off for Italy without you was just wrong, no matter what his excuse was. I think it's great, the come-uppance you came up with."
"It might be said to have been just a bit haphazard," she ventured, relieved to be able to laugh.
"He really deserves worse, you know. Won't he just buy another car, and not be inconvenienced at all?"
"He loves this one beyond reason. So I doubt it. And it's the principle of the thing, too. My daring touch it, let alone risk it on those Neanderthal highways teeming with all kinds of unspeakably lower-class vehicles. I never got to drive it once since he got it last year. Not that I wanted to, but still."
She felt strangely elated, freed. And even more when Peter kissed her cheek lightly on his way out.
"Thank you for listening," he said.
"And you. I'm so sorry for being such a coward earlier."
"It's all good, Grace. Don't beat yourself up."
"Who's that man?" Ralph asked them, from his kitchen window. "This is the second time I've seen him outside your place, Grace. It almost looked like he was trying to look in your front window, just now."
Grace looked over his shoulder, and saw a sapling of a man, coppery hair longish at the sides, eyes wary, five o'clock shadow more like 11:30 going on midnight, a wrinkled Oxford shirt under a leather jacket.
"Oh, my God," she freaked, white as the Paperwhite Narcissus Allie had forced in a glass bowl on Ralph's dining table. "It's Stephen..."
"Do you want to see him?" Allie asked, watching her face.
"I can't," Grace wailed. "There's no way in the world."
"Are you quite sure?" Peter asked her, quietly intent.
"You're not inclined to take him back?" he asked again, needing to know.
She didn't hesitate over her answer. She had long since thought she knew, and having him again before her, in this place she'd made her own, only confirmed it, once and for all. She nodded, eyes more than a little sad.
"Okay," he said lightly to all of them, "so maybe he will go away. He can't stay here all night."
They waited, carefully peering out the blinds, and before long were horrified to see Gloria Archuleta on her porch, in a shocking pink jumpsuit, calling something to Stephen.
He must have explained politely (charmingly, Grace thought, sick to her stomach) that he had come looking for Grace, because the landlady was drawn to him as if to a magnet, and gazed up coquettishly, from chest level. She waved her hand indignantly in the direction of Grace's apartment, and then at the garage.
"Oh, no—she's surely told him all about the Thunderbird!" Grace moaned.
"Do you really care if he takes it back?" Peter wondered, again oddly intent.
"It all depends on how he does it," she realized, miserably. "He'll make me look a fool—of course—he always does. I'm never good enough for him. I'm always 'that's just Grace' as far as he's concerned. Even my grand gesture that's cost me so much soul-searching will be dismissed as more wifely idiocy. Hormones or such."
And that would happen any minute now, in front of her new friends, desecrating her sanctuary. Fatally, Gloria pointed straight at Ralph's apartment.
Stephen was there in several long strides, knocking.
"She isn't here," Peter insisted to the others, shooing Grace into the back bedroom. He whispered to Allie, and she went to the door, when Grace was safely out of sight, with the bedroom door closed.
"Grace?" Allie asked, sounding surprised. "No, she's not here. I think she said she was going on a road trip for a few days, to Socorro and Truth or Consequences." (The names were quite genius on Peter's part, they thought.)
"I didn't think she had a car," the visitor said with casual cunning.
"Oh, no," Allie agreed, in purest innocence, "I'm sure she rented one."
"I'm sorry to have missed her. You can say Stephen was here, when she gets back."
He thanked her and moved off, but before he had gotten to the street Allie ran after him, saying, "She might be back as early as tomorrow evening. Does she know how to get in touch with you?"
"I'm staying at La Fonda. Tell her that Stephen's here—she'll figure out the rest."
Peter didn't trust the man an inch, especially in light of that cunning inquiry about the car, and while he and Ralph were washing dishes, formulated a new plan, in case his guess was right—he'd love to mess with the guy's head big-time. Prayer in action, come true. He persuaded Grace to stay the night out of the way in the guest room at Ricardo's on Bishop's Lodge Road, while he "took care of something." When he'd driven her there, he returned to Ralph's, parking out on the street as usual. They turned off the lights and sat in the dark, listening to Van Morrison and having just a whiff of Calvados.
In the middle of "Here Comes the Night" (which had in fact come long before), he said in a pleased voice, "Okay, we're on, Ralph—get the Friar Lawrence costume on. I'll let you know as soon as he's gone into the garage."
In just a few minutes the two of them slipped out, Ralph pretending to be surprised to find the door open, tut-tutting and exclaiming in his best stage whisper, "What's going on here?" After a long moment, Peter shone a large utility flashlight inside.
When Stephen came out, angry at being interrupted, Peter inquired of his ecclesiastical witness, "Father Gabriel?"
"Detective Smart—I'm so thankful you were nearby. I saw this stranger going into the garage with a wrapped bundle, which he's just put in the car."
"The stolen statue," Peter said forbiddingly.
"Statue? What in the name of God—?" Stephen, in the wide beam of the flashlight, looked both bewildered and furious.
"Are you going to pretend you don't know anything about the theft and the ransom demand that's all over the news?"
"Our blessed saint," the supposed Father Gabriel murmured reverently, almost in tears, crossing himself (if in the wrong direction). "Thank Heaven she is here!"
"But I don't know anything," Stephen snarled, edging away. With that distinct stubble of facial hair (forgot to pack his razor, Peter guessed, unreasonably pleased), he looked outright disreputable.
"I'm going to have to ask you to come with me, sir," Peter the plainclothes detective said politely, but with cold steel in his voice.
"This man is lying."
Ralph the good Father looked aghast, and crossed himself again, for good measure.
"Search the car if you like."
They'd thought about planting the statue borrowed for Romeo and Juliet, but in the end discarded that idea as unnecessary.
"All in good time," Peter said soothingly. "Let's get you safely down to the police station, where it's warmer as well, while I get a team out to go over the premises."
"My lawyer will tear you to shreds, both of you."
"We have ways around that, here," said Peter with quiet menace. Then he said casually, "We've had you under observation for a good long while. Who better than an art historian who specializes in the 16th Century to know where to dispose of a priceless statue from that period?"
"Now hold on—" Stephen gaped. "You've got it wrong. I don't know anything about this theft, this statue you keep mentioning. I've just gotten to town."
"Well, sure—accomplices," Peter nodded. "We knew about them too."
Ralph ran an antique turquoise rosary borrowed from Ricardo through his fingers, and said, "Okay, Detective Smart—do you want me to call ahead to the station for you? I'm headed home."
"That would be helpful, Father Gabriel. You're in our debt already for the tip. We'll be in touch."
With quiet authority, Peter led Stephen to his Datsun out on the dark street. Before he'd switched the engine on, another car drove up and parked in front of them. Two bulky men in black got out. Peter got out to talk to them (dishwashers from the restaurant, good friends, happy to be in on the prank), saying to Stephen "wait here." The three moved off, back to Grace's garage—which gave Stephen the perfect opportunity to flee for his hotel.
Half an hour later Peter drove the Thunderbird to La Fonda, and parked it in the lot for guests. Allie, following behind with Ralph in his own car, went into the magnificent lobby and left the keys for Stephen in an envelope at the front desk, with a note suggesting that he get away from town as soon as possible, away from Grace's dangerous and vengeful lover, who would go to any lengths to protect her.
Outside again, on the side street just half a block from the Cathedral that felt eerily stage-lit, she and Peter got back into Ralph's waiting car and slipped away unnoticed, as the thief of La Conquistadora must have done.
Completely unaware of any of the night's activities, Grace spent long sleepless hours pacing the worn stone floor of Ricardo's vast living room, racked with remorse and dread in equal parts, visualizing possible scenarios.
A thwarted Stephen would arrive at the apartment compound with Danny in tow and break down the door of the garage. Then he'd sue her for aggravation or for car abuse or something massively expensive and impossible to fight. It would go on for years and years—the emotional trauma, the damage to her authorial image.
Or worse, she thought, despairing, he would be charming and devious, and she would end up saying yes to anything. (This was the historically proven scenario.) She pictured him standing half sheepishly outside her open door, not able to help reaching out his hand to touch the blue streak in her hair, then moving with sure pride of ownership inside. He'd examine the Acoma ant pot with his calculating art historian's eye, turn down the matcha tea she'd offer him—her newest spell against eclipses and catastrophe and upsets of the heart not working, spilling messily over the scarred counter as she shakily spooned the pigment-like powder into the little pot.
"I was surprised you didn't follow me to Italy," he'd say. "I kept hoping you might turn up, bringing the recipe for pappardelle with porcini and pistachios." His eyes would quiz her, studiedly sad. "And then when I got home and found out what you'd done—Carmella told me, when I called—I had to come. I had to let you know that however colossal a pain you've been, I forgive you. I love you, Grace, no matter how wacky you get sometimes. I thought we might take our time driving home. Stop in Galveston, New Orleans—spend a few nights there, hear some good jazz. What do you say?"
The conflicting scripts warred in her head, her heart, and finally wore her out completely as she tried to untangle the fine mess she'd made of things.
When he got home, Peter found Grace curled up on the orange velvet Chesterfield, asleep with Satie snuggled in her arms, taking the brunt of her unhappiness like a homely old teddybear. Neither stirred. He turned the lamp off and went quietly to bed.
On Sunday morning, Grace found bread for toast in the kitchen and was eating it listlessly with wild plum jam when Ricardo Limón startled her, wandering in, dressed in dancer's tights and singlet, looking like death warmed over.
"God, what a mess this 'love' thing is," he groaned.
"A total mess," she agreed fervently, still weepy from the night before. Trying to steel herself to face the music, the cacaphony, as soon as Peter got up (where was Peter?) and could drive her back.
"Who's it with you?"
"My husband," Grace said mournfully. "I've done some really stupid stuff I can't believe I put us through." Oh, hell, she was crying for real.
"You and me both, chica," Ricardo exclaimed, leaving the kitchen with a mug of coffee cradled in his palms.
Not wanting to have heard the anguished exchange he'd just walked into, Peter stopped in the doorway—very much afraid.
"I can't do this to him. I realized in the night."
"Do what? Stay here, you mean?"
"In Santa Fe?" He held his breath. Was she going back to New York?
"Oh, no, not that. I'm loving Santa Fe. Just here at Ricardo's, hiding again. I need to go back to the studio, face Stephen's scorn and wrath. Give him his stupid car back, and tell him we're done. Finished. Finito. Kaput." There must be a thesaurus of goodbyes, the writer in her thought.
She stirred the wild plum jam with a small silver spoon, slowly, recalling her night thoughts.
"I was thinking about all the love I have become aware of during his absence. Like the story Amalia White told me about the Hopis praying the sun back each day, I found myself praying back La Conquistadora every night before I went to sleep. For Amalia and all the others, and finally for me. But never once, I realized, did I pray back Stephen."
"That's a relief," Peter said evenly, breathing again after a long, long pause. "I was afraid you'd changed your mind."
"Me, too, for an awful hour or two. But thankfully I realized in the end that the cold dread I was feeling was not for what I'd done, but for the way he made me feel—the remembered repressions and omissions and grim silences. A line from 'All You Need Is Love' hit me last week during an oldies broadcast: 'There is nothing you can do, but you can learn to be you in time.' That is exactly what I hoped I'd managed this past month—learned to be me, in time. But then there wasn't time, when he was here already, looking in the window and hunting for me. For the old, cowardly, washed-out Grace Dermott with no gumption to stand up for what she wanted for herself."
"So here's what I prayed for last night," Peter began, leaning against the tiled counter. "For my friend Grace Alessi, the unstoppable and the redoubtable, the one and only, the legend in her own time—a kind of modern day Grace O'Malley—you know her?—the infamous Irish piratesse." He caught himself, seeing her look. "And it's okay, I think—we can go check, but I'd bet Stephen is halfway to Wichita by now, he and his venerated car, and that he's caught on one way or another to your reluctance to see him. I'm pretty sure you don't need to worry. Prayers heard, and prayers answered."
Grace sat, mouth literally dropped open, as he told her the whole thing, eating a piece of toast now, too. And long before he'd gotten to the end, she'd started laughing—eyes tearing again, she laughed so hard. She tried to stop, to get herself under control, and blotted her eyes with a napkin Peter handed her, mostly free of plum jam, when Ricardo came back into the kitchen, saying something and waving the Sunday newspapers—but paid no attention until Peter held the front page out to her and indicated the enormous headline:
LA CONQUISTADORA RECOVERED
They read the article together, Peter leaning over Grace's shoulder.
Santa Fe police chief Felix Lujan and police captain Alfred Lucero accompanied
[the minor] to La Conquistadora's location in the cold early morning hours... to the
foothills of the Manzano Mountains, east of Los Lunas. The small group hiked about
three miles, and, after crossing a stream, approached a remote, abandoned mine...
[where they] finally found La Conquistadora, safely wrapped in foam padding and
secured in a large plastic bag. Other stolen works of art were also discovered,
including valuable missing artifacts from the San Miguel mission church.
"Rather a busy night all round," Peter said, laughing now, too.
Rather choked up, Grace said "It makes me happy that she really did find poor lost San Miguel." She hummed, softly, "I once was lost, but now I'm found."
She felt ridiculously happy. She wanted to celebrate, to climb up in the tower of the cathedral and swing with her full weight on the big ropes like bell ringers of old. (Was it all automated? That would be too bad.) To follow in a glad procession with gilded robes and silk pennants, singing, shaking a goat-skin tambourine. If nothing else, she'd dye dozens of eggs and fill them with confetti for an Easter gathering next Sunday—as a small, first start at paying back her incredible friends.
Later she and Peter walked with Satie from Camino Escondido up East Alameda, following the river, under the old cottonwoods that would, when leafed out, be like lofty Medieval abbeys, sanctuaries of green light. There was the promise of blossoming in the air, in the dormant but expectant trees and lilacs all along the road. Not hidden—simply biding, anticipating keenly.
And when they stopped by La Fonda after lunch to ask about a guest, Stephen Dermott, they learned he'd checked out sometime early that morning, having retrieved both the envelope left for him and the car parked in the garage. He'd paid by credit card, had left no messages behind. He'd seemed in a hurry to go, the indiscreet young desk clerk mused.
Grace felt a momentary pang of guilt, if just a very little one, that poor Stephen would miss the celebrations and the coming Spring, when he'd come all this way.