Read Solomon's Oak Online

Authors: Jo-Ann Mapson

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Self-actualization (Psychology), #Literary, #Loss (Psychology), #Psychological

Solomon's Oak

S O L O M O N’S  O A K

A Novel

Jo - Ann  Mapson

In memory of Jason Wenger:

Murdered December 2, 2007, an unforgettable human being who left behind many broken hearts. To honor Jason’s writing ambitions, a percentage of the proceeds from this book will benefit the Jason Wenger Award for Excellence in Creative Writing at the University of Alaska Anchorage MFA Program in Creative Writing.

Jason, I hope heaven is everything you dreamed and more.
You are missed every day.

And to Earlene Fowler:

For your abiding, generous friendship.

Women’s hearts are like old china,
none the worse for a break or two.
—S
OMERSET
M
AUGHAM
Lady Frederick
, 1907

P R O L O G U E

I
N
1898,
IN
Jolon, California, not far from the Mission San Antonio de Padua, Pennsylvanian Michael Halloran set out to cross the Nacimiento River during spring thaw. Like everyone heading west, he thought California was the land of plenty: the Pacific Ocean full of abalone, citrus groves and artichokes growing year-round, everything necessary to raise a family and prosper.

According to Salinan Indian storytellers, his horses refused to enter the water until Halloran whipped them. On the other side of the river lay his newly purchased land. Everyone begged him to wait until spring runoff was complete. Stay in the hotel for free, the owner said. Halloran refused, believing it was a trick to steal his land. As soon as he entered the river in his horse-drawn wagon, his wife, Alice, and baby daughter, Clara, aboard, he lost control. Michael Halloran was thrown free, but Alice became caught in the reins as the panicked horses tried to free themselves. The wagon flipped over and over in the swift current. Horrified, Michael could only watch from the riverbank while the reins he had used to punish the horses twisted and turned, decapitating his wife. Her body washed ashore days later. Baby Clara was never found.

After Mrs. Halloran’s burial, the Salinan shaman predicted her ghost would never rest, because a body without all its parts has trouble finding its way to the spirit world. In the 1950s, Alice appeared to two soldiers on watch at an ammunition bunker on the Fort Hunter Liggett military base. One died of a heart attack; the other never recovered from the trauma. The army denied the reports, but closed the bunker. In addition to the Salinan story “The Headless Lady of Jolon,” several Central Valley, California, ghost stories feature a headless horsewoman: “The Lady in Lace,” “Guardian Spirit,” and “Ghost of a Murdered Wife.”

Stories, passed down from generation to generation, can take two forks: factual history, or legend/lore. The word
history
came into English from Latin via Greek and originally meant “finding out,” and in some dictionaries “wise man.” In modern dictionaries,
history
is defined as “a continuous, typically chronological record of important events.” You can
make history
, and that can be a good or bad thing. Sometimes people say
and the rest is history
, which leaves out the most interesting parts. Or you can
be history
, which means you’re gone. Disappeared. “Dust in the wind,” which is the title of the rock band Kansas’s only hit song.

The word
legend
has its roots in Middle English, French, and Latin.
Legenda
translates to “things to be learned.”
Lore
, from the German and Dutch
lehre
, translates to “learn.”

You would think that between the two we’d get the whole story.

To this day, it is said that on a moonless night in Jolon headless Alice can be seen floating above the Nacimiento River, searching for her lost daughter. She also frequents the old cemetery on the military base. Locals say if you catch sight of Alice, quickly put your ear to the earth and you will hear the baby girl crying for her mother.

Part  I

G L O R Y  S O L O M O N

 

A Pirate Handfasting Menu
Roast tom turkey
Apple, date, and onion stuffing
Mashed Yukon Gold potatoes
Peasant bread
Crudités
McIntosh apples
California navel oranges
Mead
Grog
Lemon bumble
Pirate-ship devil’s food wedding cake

Chapter 1

THANKSGIVING, THURSDAY,
NOVEMBER 27, 2003

O
NE YEAR AGO
to the day, Glory Solomon had spent hours cooking the traditional Thanksgiving dinner for her husband, Dan: turkey with bread-crumb stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and gravy, and Dan’s favorite, the yam casserole with the miniature-marshmallow topping she always managed to scorch. Why he liked it she never understood. Her pumpkin pie was a work of art, with a homemade crust so flaky it rivaled her grandmother’s, but for Dan it didn’t get any better than blackened yams. Glory had set the table with the china Dan’s mother had left them, Franciscan Desert Rose. She ironed and folded linen napkins. She whipped heavy cream to tall peaks. While Dan said grace, she took a slug of wine because religion made her nervous. They feasted and laughed, and when they could move again, they took the horses out for a long ride on their oak-filled property that was ten minutes as the crow flies from the Mission San Antonio de Padua. After that, Glory called her mother in Salinas to wish her a happy holiday, and they both said how much they missed Daddy, gone twenty-two years now. Glory and her sister, Halle, had been teenagers when he died. Next Glory called Halle and interrupted her appletini party because she could never get Halle’s schedule right.

This year Glory was roasting three twenty-five-pound turkeys, mashing thirty pounds of potatoes, baking a dozen loaves of baguette bread, and heaping local apples and oranges in bushel baskets borrowed from her friend Lorna, who ran the Butterfly Creek General Store. Not a yam in sight. If Dan were still alive, Glory would gladly have made yams the main course, paid attention to his grace, put her wineglass down, and waited for him to say “Amen.”

This Thanksgiving, she made gallons of mead (honey wine), lemon bumble (vodka, heavy on the lemons, to prevent scurvy), and grog, which is basically a bucket of rum with fruit thrown in. These three beverages are what pirates drink, and drink is what pirates do, on any occasion, and who can blame them, the high seas being filled with mortal danger every single second?

The dinner she was cooking was for the Thanksgiving “handfasting” ceremony of Captain General Angus McMahan and his wench-to-be, Admiral Karen Brown. Those two and their fifty-eight guests were weekend reenactment pirates who’d been turned away by every church they tried to book for their ceremony. Angus had come to Glory seeking permission to hold the wedding in the chapel Dan had built on their land last September. What would Dan have thought of her holding a wedding there? What was Glory thinking that she could cater and pull off a wedding on a national holiday?

Money.

Angus had spotted the chapel while visiting the tree known as Solomon’s Oak. It wasn’t in the AAA guidebook, but word gets around when a white oak that isn’t supposed to exist in the Central Coast Valley climate grows to be more than a hundred feet tall. The tree had stood there for three generations of the Solomon family, and who knew how long before that?

The oak set the Solomons’ property apart from that of the other ranchers, who grew strawberries, grapes, pecan trees, distilled flavored vinegar, raised hens, or ran a few head of cattle, made gourmet goat cheese to sell at the farmers’ market—whatever they could do to squeak by and keep hold of their land. Arborists bused field trippers to the tree. Horticulture professors from U.C. Santa Cruz gave lectures beneath its branches. Young men seeking a romantic setting to propose to their girlfriends could not go wrong under the shady oak. In sunny weather, plein air painters descended with field easels. If the moon was full or there was some pagan holiday, say Bridgid or Beltane, a flock of druids would show up, sometimes in clothing, other times without. The Solomons tolerated people on their property because they recognized the tree was special. Most oak trees die before they hit a hundred years of age, but Solomon’s Oak had a healthy bole, and from its circumference, the University of California, Santa Cruz, boys estimated its age at approximately 240 years.

“No one else will host our wedding,” Captain Angus said as he pleaded his case to Glory a month earlier over the fancy coffee and almond croissants he’d brought to win her over. October, once Glory’s favorite month, had been filled with golden leaves and a pile of unpaid bills. “We’ve tried the Unitarian church, the Transcendentalists, the nondenominational; I’ve even been turned down by the Masonic Temple, and those guys have a reputation for being somewhat piratical, at least in how they dress for parades.”

Glory studied him as he sat across from her at her kitchen table. “How old are you?” she asked.

“Thirty. It’s a turning point. How old are you?”

“Thirty-eight.”

“How long were you married?”

“Nearly twenty years.”

“Wow,” Angus said. “That’s a long time.”

“You’d be surprised how fast it goes by,” Glory said, brushing crumbs from her fingers.

“I’m in love, Mrs. Solomon.”

“I can see that.”

Angus had a red beard and strawberry blond hair that fell to the middle of his back. His eyes reminded her of a kid’s, sky blue and hopeful. “And I want our wedding to not just be a legal contract, but wicked, good fun.”

Glory hadn’t set foot in the chapel since Dan died. As far as she was concerned, the building could fall to rubble. Every time she went out to feed the horses she turned her back on it. Where someone else might have seen beauty in Dan’s carpentry and the river rock, all she saw was precious time wasted on faith that failed to save him. Since his death from pneumonia last February she’d been forced to take a part-time job at a chain discount store. Four days a week she drove the freeway to work five-hour shifts for minimum wage. Her supervisor, Larry O., was nineteen and had atrocious grammar. He was authorized to tell her how to stack the merchandise, how to speak to customers, and when she could duck out to the restroom. She was old enough to be his mother.

Dan’s life insurance policy, through Horsemen’s Practical, a California carrier just about every rancher and farmer in the area subscribed to, paid out $50,000 upon his death, which seemed like a fortune while the Solomons were paying the premiums. But they had no health insurance and hospital bills had gobbled up much of it. By Christmas her savings would be gone.

The pirates wanted to pay Glory $3,000 to use the chapel and to make their reception food. She had chickens, horses, goats, and dogs to feed.

“Okay, Angus. Consider your wedding on.”

“Thank you! I can’t wait to call the Admiral!” He jumped up from the table and thanked Glory in the nicest way possible—he took out his checkbook.

Over her rickety kitchen table among the crumbs of coffeehouse pastry, an unlikely business was born:

SOLOMON

S OAK WEDDING CHAPEL.
PIRATES WELCOME.

The chapel had been Dan’s final project. One summer morning over his oatmeal he’d said, “I’ve got a bug to build myself a chapel. Nothing fancy, just a place to worship out of the rain.”

Glory wasn’t a believer, but she supported his efforts, bringing him lunch and admiring his carpentry, the work he’d done all his life. He’d finished the chapel just before Labor Day 2002, and darned if they didn’t have rain that very weekend. The small building could seat forty on the hewn benches, fifty if you held a child on your lap. It had a pitched, slate roof, exposed beams, and stained-glass designed by an artist with whom Dan traded finish carpentry on her Craftsman-style house in Paso Robles for the windows.

Six months later he would be dead.

Behind the last pew where Glory now stood checking decorations, she’d often brought her husband ham sandwiches and lemonade for lunch. When the summer sun beat down, Dan could drink an entire pitcher of lemonade. He’d take a sip, smack his lips, and say, “I am the luckiest man on the planet.”

Glory thought he still was because he saw the good in everyone he met. He just wasn’t on the planet anymore.

Just two days before Angus’s pirate wedding, Glory stood in her bedroom closet, staring at her husband’s shirts. So far as she knew, there was no etiquette/timetable regarding boxing up your late husband’s clothes, but the day seemed as good a time as any. In a little over three months, February 28, she would have lived an entire year without Dan. She had folded his blue jeans and flannel shirts into a cardboard box. His neckties, given to him by their foster sons over the years, she kept. Maybe this winter she’d use them to piece a log-cabin quilt. His lined denim jacket would keep someone else warm. His Red Wing boots were practically new. She wrapped them in newspaper and set them on the closet floor. Soon all that remained was his starched white shirt. She pressed it to her mouth, inhaling Irish Spring soap.

“I sure could use your help right now,” she whispered. “I have no idea what I’m doing. What if someone loses an eye in the sword fight?”

Once a day she allowed herself ten minutes of closet time. The idea was to restrict her tears to that private place in the house. After she wiped her eyes, she forced herself to recall happy times. The summer evenings they’d ridden the horses to the top of the hill. The dogs racing ahead, flushing birds from the dozens of trees that fringed the property. At the fence line, Dan would reach across his horse to hers, take her hand, and they’d watch the sun go down. Because there were never enough adjectives to flatter a California sunset, he’d say something funny. One time he’d quoted Dylan Thomas in a terrible Welsh accent: “ ‘Like an orr-ange.’ ‘Like a to-mah-to.’ ‘Like a gowld-fisssh bowl.’ ”

Glory gathered eggs to sell at the farmers’ market, trained her “last chance” dogs, and kept the checkbook balanced. One time she’d forgotten to latch the grain bins, and now generations of mice were convinced they’d reached the promised land. On the desk a stack of dusty condolence cards waited for her to send thank-you notes, but she couldn’t abide the pastel card faces or the poems inside. No sentiment could numb such pain. The best she could hope for was the passage of time. Dan had taught her how to build a gate that didn’t sag, how to stretch a sack of beans and rice to fill up hungry adolescent boys, and how to love with your heart full throttle.

He hadn’t taught her how to live without him.

“Memories you didn’t even know we were making will sustain you,” she could hear him say, but Glory had her response all ready: “A memory can’t put its arms around you.”

More than two hundred people came to his memorial service. After the “casserole months” ended, whole days went by when Glory talked only to the dogs as she ran them through their training exercises. She washed her coffee cup and cereal bowl by hand. She could let the laundry go for two or three weeks. All it took was a quick sweep of the wood floors to keep the house clean. Feeding the animals took her a half hour, tops, and after that, the time dragged. Except for Edsel, her house dog, she was alone.

“Glory, you know what they say. ‘Widowed early, that’s what you’ll get for marrying an older man,’ ” her mother had warned her when Glory was twenty and Dan was thirty-five, and old-fashioned enough to insist on asking her for her youngest daughter’s hand in marriage. But their age difference had nothing to do with her becoming a widow. The blame lay on a man too stubborn to take care of himself in California’s wettest winter on record.

“It’s nothing,” Dan insisted as he coughed his way through the farm chores. At night she plied him with vitamin C, zinc lozenges, and NyQuil. “Go to bed until you beat this bug,” she told him. It was three days before he gave in, and then his fever spiked to 104. By the time she drove him to the doctor, whatever bacterial infection he had been fighting had entered his bloodstream. They called it a “superbug,” antibiotic resistant. Pneumonia raced into both lungs. “Keep a smile on your face for me,” Dan asked of her in the hospital. She was too bewildered to cry. How could a fifty-three-year-old man strong enough to lift two sixty-pound saddles die from an organism visible only under a microscope?

Now the wedding day had arrived, and here she was, staring at the shirts she’d unfolded and hung back up. She dabbed at her eyes, exhausted. Her last dime had gone to the food for the pirate menu. She’d been up since dawn, and cooking for days. Two of her former foster sons—hired as servers—were due any minute. She needed to change out of work clothes and powder her cheeks. Get cracking. But she lingered, touching the hangers.

Turned out this wasn’t the day to let his things go, either. She pushed the box to the back of the closet, slipped on the blue dress that had been Dan’s favorite. She stepped into her dove-gray pumps and picked through her small stash of jewelry in the box on top of her dresser. Pearls today. The single strand of her grandmother’s that had yellowed over time. The matching earrings Dan gave her one Christmas when they were flush. All she needed was to gather her silver hair—it had begun turning gray the summer she was fourteen—into a bun and she was ready to open Solomon’s Oak Wedding Chapel to its inaugural event. She practiced saying an authentic “Arrgh.”

“Kennels,” Glory called to the rescue dogs currently in training. Well,
dog
was more accurate, because Dodge was the only one who had a chance at successful placement. Cadillac, a purebred border collie, had been adopted out twice and run home both times. She’d given up trying to place him for the moment and was experimenting with his training to see if he might like something else besides herding her goats. Dodge, a mix of golden retriever and cattle dog, had been scheduled for euthanasia the day she adopted him. Once she could get him to stop jumping up, knocking her over, chasing the mailman, and barking at nothing, Glory was sure she could find him a family. When she’d made a successful placement, she’d visit the shelter and take home another death-row felon. Dog crimes? Growing from adorable puppies to hundred-pound handfuls. Boredom, followed by destruction. Conforming to the nature of their breeds. Mainly dogs needed a job to do. Glory looked to each one to tell her what kind of training he needed: clicker, treat reward, hand commands. She trained them in whatever worked, agility, fly ball, or Frisbee. In turn for manners, the dogs earned long walks, nutritious meals, and gentle affection. When all that was in order, she found them families. She paid home visits before placing them and followed up after. If the owner’s circumstances changed, she’d take the dog back, find another family.

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