“Something of vengeance I had tasted for the first time; as aromatic wine it seemed, on swallowing, warm and racy: its after-flavor, metallic and corroding, gave me a sensation as if I had been poisoned.”
— Charlotte Brönte
“Be awfully nice to ’em goin’ up because you’re gonna meet ’em all comin’ down.
— Jimmy Durante
We all have a right to our private lives; it’s living a secret life that gets us in trouble. At least, that’s been my experience. Either the house of cards comes crashing down when the lies and deceit finally catch up with us, or we die with our secrets and someone uncovers them after we’re gone. Either way, we break the heart of a loved one, and that’s our legacy.
I own a vineyard at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia on a 500-acre farm that has been in my family almost as long as this country has existed. Every Montgomery who lived here for the last 250 years is buried in a brick-enclosed cemetery that sits atop a hill near my home and commands a particularly breathtaking view of the mountains. My parents lie in the two newest graves.
Every few weeks I make a point of stopping by the place and always find peace and tranquility there. Most of the time I spend at my mother’s grave, leaning against her headstone and talking to her as the clouds drift across the Blue Ridge in a pretty tableau of chiaroscuro. I do right by Leland, too—my father preferred his children to call him by his first name—although I don’t stay long with him nor talk much.
They say God gives us families so we don’t have to fight with strangers. My father somehow managed to be both family and stranger to my brother and sister and me. Each time I stare at his polished granite tombstone with its chiseled epitaph—The acts of this life are the destiny of the next—an Eastern proverb that seemed that seemed more warning than prophecy in Leland’s case, I wonder about the man he was and the layered life he hid from us. Leland had done a good job of keeping secrets about some of the acts of his life, but in the two years since he passed away, so far nothing he had done had altered my destiny, nor that of my siblings.
Though that was about to change.
Today’s visit to the cemetery on a sultry late July afternoon was brief. I had picked my mother some fragrant pale pink Renaissance roses from her garden. She planted the bush shortly before she died eight years ago, a few months before my twenty-first birthday, and never saw it bloom. If she had, I know it would have been one of her favorites.
When I had finished, I got back in the two-seater Gator and drove to a remote part of the farm where I’d agreed to let a group of men spend a weekend shooting at each other. That probably sounds sinister, but it’s not. A person can’t tread on a patch of land around here that hasn’t somehow been part of the Civil War, a fact that still eats at plenty of folks. Of all the states that fought in the war, none suffered like we did in Virginia. Gettysburg lasted four horrific days. We had four years of misery.
So when B.J. Hunt, who owned Hunt & Sons Funeral Home, approached me last year and asked if I’d allow Company G of the 8th Virginia, his reenactment unit, to stage the 1861 Battle of Ball’s Bluff on my land, how could I say no? Especially when B.J. said the local battle wasn’t often reenacted, meaning we’d not only draw spectators and reenactors from all over the country, the vineyard would also get a healthy shot of national publicity.
I am not martial in my interests, nor do I hunt and shoot, unlike my father who was an expert marksman, but I do honor my forbearers and our history. The real Ball’s Bluff, now preserved as a national battlefield and a park, is a few miles down the Old Carolina Road at the edge of the Potomac River, and is the site of the third smallest military cemetery in the United States.
B.J. and his reenactors did not want to fight on hallowed ground, but they did want to stage their event as close to the battlefield as possible, preferably some place near water. On October 21, 1861, Union soldiers had taken a few small boats across the Potomac from Maryland to Virginia, expecting to find a deserted Confederate camp near the town of Leesburg. What happened instead was a daylong series of skirmishes that ended with the panicked retreat of Federals down the cliffs of Ball’s Bluff into the fast-moving Potomac. The site of dozens of bloated bodies in blue floating down river to Washington, as far away as Mount Vernon, so horrified President Lincoln and his Congress that a commission was established to oversee the conduct of the war from then on, forcing Union commanders to answer to a bunch of non-military lawmakers.
Goose Creek, one of the Potomac’s tributaries, runs through the middle of my farm. Though it meanders mostly through woods, the creek also skirted a large field beyond the vines that B.J. said would an ideal place to hold the reenactment, now scheduled to take place in less than two weeks.
I was a few dozen yards from the field when the Gator, anemic-sounding ever since I’d left the cemetery, stalled and died. I turned the key in the ignition and pumped the gas, hearing nothing but dead-sounding clicks. I was about to climb down for a closer look at the engine—though to be honest, I wouldn’t know what I was looking for if it hit me in the face—when the ominous sound of wind rushing through the treetops made me look up. The birds suddenly had gone silent. We were in for a storm. A fast-moving one, too.
The weather forecast hadn’t said anything about a tornado, but there was no mistaking the ropy-looking gray funnel that had materialized out of nowhere on the horizon, spewing debris like dirty smoke. The dust cloud swelling at its base was shaped like an old-fashioned oil lamp and the twister, rising in the middle, had the furious torque and spin of an angry genie.
As though its appearance was a cue for what came next, a lead-colored wall of clouds descended from the sky like a curtain slamming down on a stage. The wind picked up, twisting tree branches unnaturally until all I could see were the undersides of leaves flashing like millions of silvered coins.
I fished my cell phone out of my pocket and started to call Quinn Santori, my winemaker, until I remembered that he was twenty miles away at a meeting of the winemakers’ roundtable in Delaplane. Instead I hit the number for Chance Miller, our new field manager, and heard him say, “Hello, Lucie” before the display flashed “call lost . . . searching for service” and went blank. The storm must have knocked out reception from the tower.
Across the field lightning arced the sky like God was throwing down pitchforks. I tossed the phone, now a lightning-magnet, in the Gator’s open glove compartment, and started counting. One-Mississippi. I only got to four before the crack of thunder came, sounding like it had split open the earth.
A hard, slanting rain moved in, slapping my shoulder-length hair in my eyes and tearing at my clothes. In my head I heard the litany of warnings television weather reporters shout as they are lashed by rain and wind in some perilous edge-of-the-world location, moments before they bolt for safety when the camera is turned off. Seek shelter immediately! The safest place is the basement of a house! If you do not have a basement, find an interior room and barricade yourself inside! Cover yourself with a mattress or hide behind a piece of furniture! Abandon all cars and mobile homes! They will not protect you! Seek shelter immediately!
The warnings never provided for the foolhardy soul who wasn’t about to be whisked out of the path of destruction by a waiting car. The tornado danced closer, teetering and swaying like a drunkard. If I didn’t get out of here soon, I was doomed. I fought against the panic crawling through my mind and tried to focus on my options. How fast did tornados travel? How much time did I have?
The surrounding woods were no safer than the field. The vineyard, where wooden posts could be uprooted and trellis wire become as sharp as a razor, was a worse idea. Get to a low place, that’s what they always said.
On my way here I had driven across a stone bridge my great-great-great grandfather built across Goose Creek shortly after the Civil War. Calling it a bridge was a stretch, since it was really more of a culvert. But it was nearer than the winery or my house, both at least two miles away. Another flash of lightning looked like it struck something in the woods. My skin tingled as I heard the crack of timber splitting.
I grabbed my cane from the Gator and began moving toward the bridge. Four years ago an automobile accident left me with a crippled left foot and a devastating pronouncement from my doctor that I would spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair. I changed doctors until I found one who saw things differently. It took surgery and months of therapy and swimming until I finally managed to get around with the help of a walker. Later I graduated to a cane, which I still need for balance and support. But I can no longer run—and I never will—other than managing an awkward lope like I’m half of a shackled team in a three-legged race.
The wind shifted and I glanced over my shoulder. The darkening wall of clouds obliterated the sky and it sounded as though a jet or an out-of-control freight train was bearing down on me. I dragged my bad foot like a reluctant child. The dirt road dissolved into a muddy, rutted stream and my right work boot made a sucking sound with each step.
How much longer until I reached the bridge? What would happen if the tornado overtook me before I got there? Would it pick me up, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, and spin me around, depositing me safely somewhere else? At least Dorothy had been inside a house. What really happened to people who got caught in a tornado’s vortex? Were they hurled through the air like human javelins? Or was the drop in barometric pressure so intense it literally tore them apart?
The outline of the bridge, blurred and softer-looking in the downpour, loomed ahead. I slid down the embankment, grabbing a branch to keep from landing on my rear or tumbling into the creek. Underneath the air smelled of cobwebs and decomposing vegetation. I threw my cane into the darkness, coughing and swallowing what tasted like dirt, as I felt around for a dry spot that wasn’t some animal’s lair. The rising creek rushed past me in a torrent, but the noise could not drown out the apocalyptic sound of what was happening outside.
The bridge was too low and shallow to stand. Instead I knelt as though I were praying and dug my fingernails into the crumbling mortar between the old stones. Outside the rain changed to hail, dancing like hot grease in a frying pan as it crackled on the ground and hissed on the water. The wind buffeted the bridge, sending debris hurtling at me with such force it seemed to penetrate my skin.
Only one other time in my life did I wonder with the same desperation if these were my last minutes on earth. For months after my crippling accident, I woke from sweat-drenched dreams where I’d relived the slow-motion moment I knew the car driven by a now ex-boyfriend would not make the turn and instead slam with a killing force into the stone wall at the entrance to the vineyard. The storm outside slammed into me with that same violence, inhabiting my body and crowding my mind like a demon that would need exorcising.
The bridge shuddered as the tornado passed by—how close I couldn’t tell—but so much debris and dirt rained down that I was sure it would collapse and bury me alive. Gradually the throbbing diminished and the roaring grew dimmer. My arc-shaped view of the world changed from black to gray. Then the rain stopped as suddenly as someone shutting off a faucet.
I found my cane and crawled back outside. My muddy clothes stuck to me like skin and my hair felt like seaweed when I pushed it off my face. To the west the sky was still death-colored, but to the east the tornado seemed to have sucked the storm clouds with it, leaving behind blue skies and improbable sunshine.
The hail had transformed the summer landscape to a winter scene that dazzled and glittered. In the distance, the yellow and green Gator—exactly where I’d left it—was a bright blotch of color against a frozen carpet.
The tornado’s wide swath stretched from the edge of B.J.’s battlefield through the woods. I squinted at the low-slung Catoctin Mountains, which were to my south, and the Blue Ridge, which filled the skyline to the west, and made some calculations. The twister had traveled from southwest to northeast. On that trajectory it probably sliced right through the vines in the south vineyard, which meant it might have destroyed more than half of our grapes. I closed my eyes and contemplated the loss of a few million dollars worth of vines and thousands of cases of wine. But my life had been spared, and if the tornado missed my home and the winery—and God was merciful—then everyone who worked here had survived as well.
I retrieved my phone. Still no service. Unless someone came looking for me, I had a two-mile hike back to the vineyard. Before I left, though, I wanted to see up close the gash the tornado had cut through the field.
At the edge of the trench a dome-shaped object gleamed in the late afternoon sunlight. I knelt and brushed away dirt to get a better look at it. The first thing I saw were the eyes, empty sockets staring into space. There was a perfect triangular orifice where the nose had been. The mandible and lower row of teeth were missing, but the top teeth were intact. Distant thunder rumbled like a drum roll near the vineyard.
It was a hell of a way to announce that the tornado had unearthed a human skull.