I nibble on my bottom lip as I look out through the patio doors of my childhood home. The view looks much as I remember it, except someone has erected birdhouses upon the old fence posts. On the north side, auburn tufts of Indian grass flow to the woods’ edge, and cedar trees are scattered in the prairie. I didn’t tell my husband where I was going for this retreat because he would not have approved and would have pointed out the obvious: I am stalking the Jespersons.
The summer I was eleven, I was camp champion of the stalker game. The counselors would take us into the forest and set a blindfolded kid in charge of guarding the van keys. The rest of us campers were to try to sneak up and snatch the keys without the blindfolded kid first hearing and pointing at us. The other attendees were all from the city an hour away, but I lived only ten minutes from the camp: this was my territory. No other fifth grader had the patience to carefully weight each foot into the contours of twigs and pine needles, or to freeze for several moments at a time. I won over and over again.
Becky Jesperson stands in what was once my parents’ living room and is now the retreat house’s lounge, her feet widely planted like a man. She is a plain, stout woman with dark-hair and glasses.
Thankfully, another guest arrived at nearly the same time as I and is peppering Becky with questions about the woodwork, the daily schedule, and the availability of cell phone reception. It keeps her attention from focusing on me.
“It was built in 1974,” says Becky, “just as a family home. It sat empty for several years before we bought it. Josh had to do a lot of work to fit it to our needs as a guest house.”
The other woman chirps her appreciation. I nod and murmur, “Beautiful,” but my hand is rubbing the trim around the patio door, seeking out the BB pellet my brother buried into the wood the night he tried to shoot the bat.
I see Becky eyeing me oddly, so I quickly drop my hand and turn back to the room.
“Yes,” Becky says, “we feel blessed to have been able to leave Dayton and find a property suitable for our dream of creating a place where people can renew their spiritual connection with Creation.” I can hear her capitalize the word as she does on her website.
She offers to show us where we’ll be sleeping and we follow her back down the hall. In my fantasies, I had been afraid that I would rush into the house and blurt out the location of the fuse box or of the squeaks in the stairs, but so far I haven’t given myself away. I’ve hardly said a word. In stalking, as in many things, silence is the key.
“You’ll be in the Milkweed Room,” Becky tells my fellow retreatant and leads her to the bedroom my brothers once shared. “You,” she tells me, “will be in the Trillium Room.”
Whatever she calls it, by some ironic fate, she’s chosen my old bedroom for me. Same gray paneled walls, same window looking out at the wooded ridge above the creek. The smell is different though.
My parents had lost the property to their medical bills fifteen years ago, but I vowed I would get it back even if I had to moonlight as a pole dancer.
If I stand to the left of the window I can see the big chestnut oak. Our first family dog is buried at the base of that tree—beneath the leaves shucked by twenty-three autumns and sodden with the snows and rains of an equal amount of winters and springs.
The Jespersons didn’t know all that they were buying last November.
I hadn’t been able to take off work for the auction. I sent my husband, Bret, with instructions to bid our entire savings, plus what the bank had said it would loan. My parents had lost the property to their medical bills fifteen years ago, but I vowed I would get it back even if I had to moonlight as a pole dancer.
I was worthless the entire morning of the auction. Throughout everything I did, I was listening for the chime of the phone.
Bret came to tell me in person. My eyes flew to his grave face. I thought at first he was playing a joke.
“It was some couple with Montgomery County license tags,” he explained.
“I told you to bid everything…I said I’d pay it all back somehow!” I wailed and slumped against the wall.
“I did. But everything I put up they outbid.”
There are five guests staying here at the house. We sit around a large oak table in the dining room. Becky’s husband has lit two thin burgundy candles in the center of the table and the flames jiggle with the slight movement of air. He’s a slim, angular-faced man with a more balanced ratio of merchant-to-poet in his eyes than his wife has. He’s harder to dislike, though I try. (My mother used to lament after any occasion in which my parents had been introduced to other couples: “I always like the fellers better.”)
The Jespersons serve orzo for dinner. I’ve never seen orzo on a grocery shelf anywhere in the entire county.
The woman who arrived at the same time as I is from Canton. She is talking about donating money to a zoo. Josh Jesperson opens a bottle of red wine. Another woman recounts a mystical experience she had by a duck pond. I have perfected the art of nodding in a way that doesn’t look as though I want to speak and yet does not look so shy that people feel the need to coax me. I am adroit at avoiding questions but prepared if there are any.
It is late before we have helped the Jespersons finish cleaning up the kitchen. The Jespersons call goodnight as they head down the stairs to the basement, where they sleep. When I was a kid the only thing down there was our washer and dryer.
I lie in bed in my old bedroom. The window is a black rectangle of sightlessness, but beyond it, the creek is urgently whispering incantations in some inhuman tongue.
I am just about to drift off when I hear them. Inside the walls creatures larger than mice and less airy than birds are moving. I listen to them squeak and shuffle, a smile on my lips. The flying squirrels abide.
The Jespersons are taking us on a contemplative hike into the woods. I want to show this is my place. I want to rescue one of my fellows from a sinkhole only I know is there. I want the group to get lost and me to be the one to lead them back.
Becky has a biology degree and is a fairly good naturalist, pointing out a goldenrod gall here and coyote scat there. I am itching to show her up. A bird is sounding a metallic bray from behind a dead snag up ahead. “Downy woodpecker,” I eagerly announce.
“No, it’s a hairy woodpecker,” Becky asserts.
We pass the zebra-striped fellow hanging from the tree and get a good look. I’d been too hasty. “They’re easily confused,” Becky tells the group. She then proceeds to lecture for the next couple minutes on the differences between the two species.
“Actually,” Josh says when she finally pauses, “we see a hairy there most times we pass by. They must have a nest in that particular tree.” He grins at me. “We have an advantage over you…we live here.”
The trees blare torrid autumn splendor overhead. Below our feet fungi squat in all the subtle hues of a changing bruise. The dawns are silver as the inside of a bell. The nights are cold and clear. By the third day, I’ve let go of my agenda. Maybe it’s Stockholm syndrome; maybe it’s the landscape working its healing magic. I’ve spent hours outside, alone and in the company of the other retreatants and the Jespersons—tromping through the fields, sitting beside the creek, and climbing the wooded hills. Mostly, I think it is a growing awareness of the futility of my reconnaissance mission. What will I do—blog about how no one should visit this retreat center because of rodents in the walls, and hope that sends the Jespersons into bankruptcy? Fat chance.
On our last evening here, I stay back from the sunset hike to phone my husband collect. “I’ll be home tomorrow.” My voice is hollow with longing. He asks me if the retreat has been all I wanted. He didn’t know what I wanted to begin with. I suppose I’ll have to tell him eventually where I’ve been. “It’s beautiful here,” is all I can think to answer.
It reminds me of my conversation with Josh Jesperson that afternoon.
“I hope you got something from this retreat.”
I understood that Josh was asking a question. I haven’t exactly been an open book.
“I’m sure it will take a while to soak in,” I told him.
“This place gets under your skin. Into your soul,” he said.
Becky was passing by and added, “Soon as I saw it, I knew this was where Josh and I belonged.”
I had to put my hand over my mouth to keep from crying out.
Becky listens to astronomy reports on NPR and mentions at dinner that the Orionid meteors will be peaking this week.
It’s three in the morning when I wrap the comforter around me and toddle out the front door and down the driveway. Josh Jesperson is sitting there in a lawn chair in a winter coat. I know if I wanted to I could walk so quietly across the gravel that he wouldn’t hear me coming. I could frighten him. I could steal the keys. But not to the kingdom I want. I shuffle my feet to nudge a few noisy stones loose on purpose.
His head whirls around quickly, but then I see the flash of his teeth in the dark. “Hey,” he welcomes me. “Come to watch the show?”
I nod and sit down in the driveway near him. A few trees rustle but there are no other sounds. We don’t talk. I lean back and watch the heavens. It’s only a few minutes before a diamond tail whips the darkness and is gone. The next one arcs slower, almost fizzing out of sight. There’s an ache in my chest where I hold in the wishes I don’t dare make upon those shooting stars. I swallow the next star, feel it burn in my throat.
“Take good care of this place,” I tell him.
Kai Cooley grew up in the hills of Southern Ohio with the 16,000-acre Edge of Appalachia Preserve as her backyard. She is an Antioch College alumna and was part of a Zen writing group for nearly a decade. She loves cats, wildflowers, bird calls, dirt roads, blue-collar folks, fitness training, and cooking without a recipe.