Editor’s Note: An opinionated narrator peppers this story with touches of sarcastic humor, but it is the structure, from different times and places, that contributes most to its uniqueness. A couple is driving to visit a friend at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and Georgia O’Keefe’s holistic Ghost Ranch, in New Mexico. Crossing time, there are references to Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, the Atomic Bomb, and the extraordinary messages of Sister Agnes Sasagawa, in Akita, Japan. Enjoy the journey.
We had no clothes. That’s what the empty trunk of our Albuquerque Sunport Budget rent-a-car was reminding us. Not that we didn’t know where they were: fat, warm, and happy in their suitcase, 2,000 miles away, on a comfy sofa with access to cable, no doubt laughing their asses off. Only what we were wearing, plus the change of underwear in my carry-on bag, distinguished us from Adam and Eve before The Fall.
All the way up to Santa Fe on I-25, we reenacted the five stages of grief.
“Pull over and look again.” (Denial)
“How could you be that f—— stupid?” (Anger)
“Buy me a new wardrobe and I won’t tell the kids.” (Bargaining)
“God, we’re going to stink.” (Depression)
“Screw it, we’ll never see any of these people again.” (Acceptance)
Not until the turn-off to Los Alamos did we notice the snow, three feet of it stacked like a white shadowbox frame on either side of the main drag. Not only were we without clothes, we were without the wrong kind of clothes.
“Freak storm.” our motel keeper says. “Just missed it.”
Tom was there for his first face-to-face with his email contact at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Their agenda was peacetime uses for nuclear war technology. My agenda, clearly, was clothes shopping. Happily, in a government town where the phrase “one size fits all” applies only to IQ levels, The Company Store did not blink at 2XL Long requests.
“Wanna go look for elk?” our Science Guy host says at the end of Day One.
Los Alamos sits about 7,500 feet up an ancient volcanic cone, a mutant bump on an atomic log. Science Guy downshifts his 4- wheel drive, steering hand-over-hand, peering and pointing, all the way to the top. The snow glare penetrates my photo-gray lenses right into my eyeballs. Worse, the rising, curving altitude tells my gut it is seasick. At 10,000 feet, with my Western omelet threatening to revisit, we reach Valles Caldera, a rock-ringed twelve-mile wide lake of snow.
“Youngster,” Science Guy says, referring to the fact that it is only 60,000 years old.
You couldn’t prove it by me.
Agnes Sasagawa, a nineteen-year-old Buddhist, awoke paralyzed from a botched appendectomy. She remained immobile for the next sixteen years. During her recovery at a Catholic clinic, Agnes was converted by a nun. She joined a religious order, where she had a relapse and spent ten days in a coma. The Sisters sent her water from Lourdes; she recovered. By January 1973, she had joined the Lay Institute of the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart in the Eucharist in Akita, Japan, founded by Bishop John Ito. She was also losing her hearing.
Meeting day two: the rental Mazda and I set off on our pilgrimage to Abiquiu, Georgia O’Keefe’s “black place.” Los Alamos, known locally as The Hill, may be America’s only hometown with a near-vertical driveway. In lieu of pollen, the air harbors conspiracy particles. After all, the top secret in top-secret Sandy Hook, New Jersey, where I grew up, turned out not to be buried gun emplacements or Nike missile silos, but the Bali Hai-like Officer’s Beach with its stem-to-stern view of Manhattan island.
What if the top secret in top-secret Los Alamos was not The Atomic Bomb, but this four-lane divided drag strip with no speed limit, the only way in and out of town?
Once down The Hill, I follow the road that says “scenic overlook.” It is flat, lined with back-to-back soccer fields. Ridiculing my naiveté over what the government would consider scenic, I follow it to its end. Beyond the last paved parking lot, the world drops off. Snaking along so far below it as to be indifferent not only to me, but to life itself, is the Chama River. It is that shade of green museum shop catalogs call celadon. Everything is so still, I actually look around for objects that make noise. There are none: no birds, no wind, no water over rocks. It reminds me of the summer I was ten, when the eye of the hurricane blew over South Cottage. Being warned how dangerous it was, I promptly went outside. For some immeasurable time, we shared the same silence: me, the Shrewsbury River, Grandpa Rowland’s silver maple trees, and one lone seagull, circling and re-circling in its own time zone.
At around Espanola, I notice I am the only person on the road, man or woman, not driving a low rider. Somewhere along Okeyh Owingeh, formerly San Juan Reservation, I notice I am the only woman driving anything. The country, high and flat, is open, just this side of desolate.
Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project’s “Coordinator of Rapid Rupture,” was no stranger to black places. As early as the 1930s, he had written papers suggesting the existence of “black holes.” Nor was he a stranger to depression. Or to the more pessimistic nuances of the Bhagavad Gita, which he read in the original Sanskrit. Or to self-destruction (a chain smoker, he had recovered from tuberculosis not far from Los Alamos).
Abiquiu comes and goes, no more than the map dot it deserves. The Chama River reassembles itself into Abiquiu Dam with back-to-back concrete boat ramps. (Duped again?) I drive onward to the end of the world. O’Keefe’s hills—the ones in my twenty- five-year-old Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival poster—are finally there: pink, gray, white, black, parfait-striped. All they need is a cherry on top.
Agnes Sasagawa, now totally deaf and forced to resign her catechist job, went to live permanently at the old farmhouse on Yuzawadai Hill that housed her Lay Institute. On June 12, while praying in the convent chapel, she experienced the tabernacle engulfed in flames. On June 28, the eve of the feast of the Sacred Heart, she experienced intense pain in her left palm. She told Bishop Ito. No abstract theologian, the bishop told Agnes to ask God if this was a sign that his Institute should continue.
The exact location of O’Keefe’s Ghost Ranch was proving as elusive as its name.
“Back in Abiquiu,” the gas station attendant says. “Second building on the left after the traffic light. Up on the hill.”
But the “Ghost Ranch Visitor Center” sign points ahead on the right. My idealized reclusive O’Keefe would no more emblazon her name across her driveway than she would, well, live next to a traffic light. After some dithering on the matter— considering the traffic on Route 84, I could have slept on it—I turn into the gravel entrance.
While in her coma, Agnes Sasagawa had reported a vision of a “gracious person” who taught her a prayer, unknown in Japan but familiar in Europe as the Fatima Prayer. Now, on June 29, this gracious person appeared to her. On July 5, Agnes received the stigmata, followed, on July 6, by Mary’s First Message. (Agnes never actually named her but specified that “the voice” came from the statue of Mary in the chapel that was carved with Japanese features. She also insisted that, while deaf, she “heard” the message.)
Ghost Ranch lobby smelled of patchouli. Next to the Holistic Cleansing Schedule brochures were scented candles for sale. Serenity was not among them. “We called down earlier,” whined the female voice from a back door through which I could glimpse cabins, suitcases (!) and confusion. She was Sixties in both senses: rimless glasses, gray ponytail, turquoise earrings, turtleneck, L.L. Bean skirt not quite covering expensive boots. “We’ve been working with the kindling and the matches and we cannot get a fire started.”
This time, I had been duped. Nobody saw me leave.
On August 3, Agnes Sasagawa received Mary’s Second Message. On August 4, the so-called “Malevolent Being” grabbed her as she was entering the Chapel for group prayer.
No one knew quite what to call Oppenheimer. To his students at Cal Berkeley, he was “Oppie,” the Ph.D. at 22 whose theoretical physics was as good as his arithmetic was awful. To his lab mentor at Cambridge, on whose desk he left a poisoned apple, he was presumably Snow White gone bad. He cheerfully called himself a radical leftist but refused to be labeled a Communist. It all depended on the girl he was chasing, making him, in the scientific community’s judgment, a womanizer, an adulterer, even, but not a traitor.
From August until September 29, Agnes Sasagawa’s diary records nothing.
Leaving Ghost Ranch, like a compass on autopilot, I keep pointing north. Did Kit Carson trek this high, flat county? I wonder. Did he wonder, as I did, whether, when he reached the vanishing point, he would just vanish? Whatever disrupted his pioneering—rattlers? Apaches? bad water?—it would not have been this white woman’s bladder, demanding immediate (and indoor) relief. At the Carson National Forest welcome sign, I turn into a parking lot. Bracing against the wind, focusing on the loo- containing lodge dappled among its evergreens, I quick-step past a line of empty-looking cages.
An eye catches mine.
Can’t be, no time, gotta GO.
I back up.
It is, I think, a coyote. His name plate says “Bert.” And where there’s a Bert, there’s an…yes, right next door.
Walking backward, kennel by kennel, I fill in the story line. Bert and Ernie were not trapped together. They were not trapped at all, but rescued from Route 84 where two separate cars had hit them. Their new neighbors are two abandoned fox kits, a wolf who has, by his well-chewed look, lost his “dominance issues,” and a roadrunner, victim of mistaken identity, shot-gunned in place of a quail. This is not a mini-zoo, but an R & R shelter whose residents rotate with the season’s fender benders. Having brought neither flowers nor candy, I nonetheless observe the protocol of the convalescent ward. In my most comforting tone, I speak a few cheery words to each patient. Absent guardrails, I wonder how many well-wishers are tempted, as I am, to extend a misguided forefinger and tickle their noses.
Apart from the main ward, in a very large cage, sits a smallish bird with burnt sienna feathers. “California condor, blown off course” offers me a silent bored profile. I lean in to check out why it needs so much space. In a single twitch, it makes full eye contact with me and extends both its wings in a dry, ratcheting spasm. Only an aspen tree stops my backpedaling. Dear Lord, I thank Thee I am not a field mouse.
For the third time that day, it occurs to me, I am alone in a time-free zone. One, five, fifty miles ahead of me—how would Kit Carson have measured it?—an arc of purple mountains’ majesty, drawn by some celestial protractor, starts and ends at my left hand.
A female, Hispanic voice trills behind me. (Only in Northern New Mexico—and only the women—can sing small talk.)
“You’re cold,” she says.
Cold? You think? It’s forty degrees, the wind is jackknifing through my spring windbreaker. Even as I turn around, she has removed her Forest Ranger jacket and is wrapping it around my shoulders.
“We’ve got a fire inside,” she coaxes me, “and some nice beavers to look at.”
The A-bomb test is scheduled for July 16, 1945. “Oppie” has decided to name it, from one of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, Trinity.
On October 13, 1973, the anniversary of Fatima’s Miracle of the Sun, Agnes Sasagawa’s Gracious Person issued threats of catastrophe: “Fire will fall from the sky…survivors will find themselves so desolate, that they will envy the dead.”
When it goes off, at 5:30 a.m., the press reports that Oppenheimer, purveyor of the poisoned apple, quotes from his Bhagavad Gita: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one.” But the Gita is only what he quotes for print. His actual words, according to bystanders, were: “Good. It works.” Newspapers around the world covering the Potsdam Conference, which starts the same day as the Trinity test, quote President Truman, urging the Japanese to surrender: “They may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.”
“You can see The Whale,” Science Guy says.It is our last night in Los Alamos. Wine glasses in hand, we’re inspecting his collection of aerial photographs. Sure enough, on a line dribbling down the side of the volcano is a lump we recognize as the Los Alamos Aquatic Center, having passed it this evening on the way to his house.
“Room for two kayaks side by side,” he says.
The Hill, he tells us over dinner, was originally the Los Alamos Ranch School, a “fresh-air” camp for sickly boys. Modeled after the Boy Scouts of America, the residents slept on covered outdoor porches and washed in cold water. Among its alumni were future Beat writer William Burroughs and future Lincoln biographer Gore Vidal. In November 1942, the U.S. Army bought it for $440,000 to build the bomb.
Akita is a remote, mountainous area in the far north of Japan’s main island. It is notable for the highest national consumption of sake, which is locally brewed, the most severe population declines and its “Akita beauties,” women renowned for their round faces, white skin and high voices.
“Gotta card game for you,” Science Guy says after the dinner dishes are cleared.
With the girls and their mother taking leave for home schooling, the “you” includes me. Tom picks it up in five minutes. Science Guy makes me a cheat sheet on his napkin, the way I learned to play bridge in college. In the heat of competition, he barely remembers not to keep score on the tablecloth.
“Occupational hazard,” he says.
When we have played long enough that he can beat Tom fairly, he drives us back to our motel.
On January 4, 1975, the statue of Mary in the Institute Chapel began to weep. Over the next ten years and eight months, it wept 101 times. On August 6, 1946, the Catholic Feast of the Transfiguration, the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. As predicted by the Blessed Virgin nine years earlier, Agnes Sasagawa was permanently cured of her deafness. Three days later, another bomb followed on Nagasaki. In April 1984, Bishop John Ito declared the events at Akita to be “supernatural.” On August 14, 1946, U.S. bomber pilots flew 3,800 miles to the port of Tsughizaki to destroy Japan’s last operational refinery which produced 67% of their oil. It was in Akita. East had met West.
After the war, when he lost his security clearance, Robert Oppenheimer took Albert Einstein’s old job at Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study. He died of throat cancer. Agnes Sasagawa may or may not still be alive. The Catholic Church has not issued any further formal statement about her visions. Nor has the statue wept.
In May 2000, the slopes of Cerro Grande, a 10,000-foot summit on the Valles Caldera, were tinder-dry. Reluctant to remain at the mercy of heat lightning, National Park Service officials started a controlled burn at Bandelier National Monument. High winds and drought turned the perfect snow-filled lake into an inferno. Four hundred homes and 48,000 acres burned, causing $1 billion in damages, but no loss of life.
Marilyn R. Janus lives on the Delaware Shore after being raised on the New Jersey shore. Words and music have guided her life as a church musician, a traveler, and a writer of memoirs and poems. Firewalking is her first published short story.
Delmarva Review publishes the best of new short fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction selected from thousands of submissions annually. The independent literary journal is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by individual contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. Print and digital editions are available from Amazon and other major online bookstores. Website: DelmarvaReview.org.