The gravel drive was long and winding, beautifully lined with evergreen trees about eight to nine feet tall, perfectly spaced and nicely trimmed. The lush, green lawn was well-manicured as was the shrubbery buttressing the front of the completely ranch-style mansion. It was the old Caring Ranch, the childhood home of Grace and Suĳnwe, her adopted brother. This is where they had lived most of their lives until each went away to pursue further education.
When their parents died, of course, they bequeathed the home and property, about 10 acres, to their two children. Grace and Suĳnwe had always been very close, and they’d always dreamed of growing up and somehow working together. In fact, most of the childhood games they played had them teamed up together to fight crime, solve some mystery, save the earth from destruction or whatnot. They were truly like “two peas in a pod.” Of course, neither one of them considered selling Caring Ranch; instead, they decided to make it both home and hub. Grace had just recently passed the bar exam, and Suĳnwe had only just earned his Master’s in Social Science at the time.
Grieving the loss of their parents, whom they both loved without reservation, they nevertheless talked excitedly about their plans for an investigative, communally-minded law firm. The name came easily. Both Grace and Suĳnwe had always been fascinated by the Phoenix. The mythical creature conveyed powerful hope as it rose from the ashes; even more, eternal hope in nothing less than resurrection from the dead. The Phoenix rebelled against human reasoning, defied the naturally possible, and cried against the inevitable end of life. Thus, Phoenix Rising was born.
Dr. Wiseman, the strikingly handsome 48-year-old, well-respected psychologist from Grand Oak, made her way slowly up the drive, breathing in once again the magnificently crisp, cool, fresh air that always seemed to permeate this place. She glanced over at Morris who, though obviously tired, seemed somehow at peace. This place – Caring Ranch – has a way of doing in minutes what a dozen priests and an army of psychologists could not do in months! I’m not surprised… Not at all surprised. Thank God, then! Maybe he’ll feel perfectly comfortable just opening up to Grace and Suĳnwe… Then again, that may be hoping for too much!
It only made sense for Dr. Wiseman to pick up Morris and bring him to Phoenix Rising. Lucent had to work, Able and Moxie had classes, Blue was at Lucent’s home “holding down the fort” and awaiting phone calls and further instructions. The boys, thankfully, actually wanted to go to school, most probably as a much-needed break from all the trauma! Joy was in the hospital, of course, and Effete was out and about taking care of business … business of the most important kind. This left Dr. Wiseman, who was well-acquainted with Phoenix Rising anyway, to convey Morris to Caring Ranch and make the friendly introductions. Morris’ mother would not be visiting today; she was at the Hart Community Clinic now being further examined and treated by Lucent, at least as best as possible given the fact that Angelica did not want doctors involved.
Sage Wiseman pulled her car to a stop next to two other cars parked out front. Evidently, the whole team was here … at least somewhere in the mansion compound. She opened her door and stepped out. Morris followed suit. The magnificent home, beautiful as it was, stood so strongly and boldly, it was just a bit intimidating. Even after her many visits, Sage found her first few steps up onto the porch somewhat difficult. She heard the guard dogs, all three German Shepherds, properly restrained but somewhere nearby. Chills ran up her spine, but she managed some comforting words for Morris.
“It’s o.k. They’re restrained. They won’t come after us.”
“Comforting,” Morris answered with a mock smile.
“Welcome,” came the delightful voice of Grace Caring. “Come in, come in! Hello, Dr. Wiseman; such a delight to see you again, as always!”
“Thank you, Grace,” Wiseman hugged her. “It’s always a delight to see you, too, and your dear brother and friends… In fact, it’s always rather refreshing to be here in this magnificent oasis. Coming here I always feel as if I’m on a bit of an emotional/spiritual retreat.”
“Wonderful!” answered the clear, soft-spoken voice of Suĳnwe. “I believe we feel the same way … certainly blessed to be able to continue living here in our childhood home.” His broad smile radiated warmth and serenity. “I have been most intrigued by your latest essay on alteracentrism, Dr. Morris.” He wasted no time as everyone entered the foyer of the ranch-style mansion. “Most interesting; the central idea seems to parallel the ancient priest.”
“Ah, in many ways, yes I believe so, although I’m not an historian or anthropologist, professionally speaking,” Wiseman happily replied. “No matter,” Suĳnwe laughed, “neither am I, but socially most ancient peoples, I believe, looked to the priest to communicate with the god or goddess, or pantheon of deities, perhaps; then, in turn, to communicate to them on behalf of those deities, one or all. They were, in essence, the vox dei, the voice of god. No wonder, then, they were so very powerful.”
“Yes, of course, and eventually in the growth and maturation of early religion, I believe, they became, or subsumed, three roles into one; that of the priest, prophet, and king. This, of course, eventually led – and again, I am no expert in this field, but… – to the deification of the king, the potentate, the sovereign lord.”
Morris listened to the ongoing, informative conversation, but he was overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the place. He was surrounded by white walls that looked like brilliant marble. Just inside the foyer, or short hallway, there were two plants at each corner. To his left and right were two nicely framed pictures, each with a votive candle about two feet beneath, resting atop a slender candle-holder. The first picture to his immediate left was one of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Next to him was another photo of the Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and just opposite the founder of the Sisters of Mercy was Mohandas Gandhi. Finally, to his immediate right, next to Gandhi, was Amy Wilson Carmichael. Interesting, he thought. Good choices, but interesting. And what of Grace? She almost looks as Indian as her brother?
Almost as if reading his thoughts, Grace Caring answered, “I am half-Sioux and half-Latino,” she laughed. “What a rare combination, you think, but not so rare. Fortunately, my brother and I were able to grow up looking like real brother and sister.” She smiled over at Suĳnwe. “Of course, as we’ve learned to say, we are still bound together by blood … the strongest blood of all, and that it what matters most in our relationship, aye?”
“Aye!” Suĳnwe answered with an infectious laugh. Dr. Wiseman smiled broadly and even Morris couldn’t help but smile, too. “But as I was saying, Dr. Wiseman, this situation is relatively foreign to contemporary, Western sensibilities … which includes, of course, my own. After all, I’ve lived in Western civilization since almost two-years of age. Nevertheless, we are faced with something not only foreign, but quite ancient as well.”
“Yes, the primordial version of the Pontifex Maximus,” Sage interjected.
“Quite right, of course,” Suĳnwe continued. “This Fen Sloughheart is, in crudest form, the qassis il-kbir, the yompristi ophakeme, wadaadka sare leh … or, as you say, prophet and priest and chieftain all rolled into one. His tribe or clan? This is the congregation, his congregation.”
“And they are very loyal and, thus, very dangerous,” Grace added. “Which is where you come in, my dear friend.” She looked at Morris. The young man was enchanted. Grace was radiant and mysteriously intoxicating … enchanting, hypnotic. Deep smooth, brown skin; brightly shining smile; dancing, sparkling, deep emerald eyes; finely contoured, healthy breasts; obviously strong arms and legs, but glossy and downy-soft. His heart and gut hungered and burned with the natural, raw instinct of any young man … which didn’t seem to perturb Grace in the least, though she clearly noticed. She only smiled more broadly and reached out her hand. “Come.”
Morris followed like a puppy, but a puppy well aware of how he must appear to Grace, and the others, right now. He kept his head down; his cheeks were flush, and he suddenly felt dirty in their presence, particularly in the presence of this earthbound angel. Morris felt like filth was clinging to his body and soul, and he couldn’t get the sounds and images out of his mind. Suddenly, he felt (yet again) like dying. Wouldn’t it ultimately be better if he were dead? But, then, what about his mother? No, somehow he had to stay alive long enough to make sure she was o.k. Not surprisingly, Angelica felt exactly the same way.
They entered a comfortably, delicately ornamented sitting room with just the slightest hint of incense floating through the air. Morris took his seat in a large, plush recliner while the others sat down as well, all in a non-threatening circle. Grace and Suĳnwe purposely sat on each side of Morris, with Dr. Wiseman directly across from him.
Grace gently placed her hand on Morris’ left arm. “There is no reason to be afraid here, Morris. Here at Phoenix Rising, we do not simply take cases. We concern ourselves with people, real flesh-and-blood people, like you and your mother. Look around you, as doubtless you already have, and you will see we are quite comfortable where we live. We are not in this business – or really any business at all – for money. We truly need no more than we already have; no, we are here in the interest of victims and of authentic justice… We are here for you, Morris Graver, and so we are in your service.”
“And so,” Suĳnwe picked up where his sister left off, “this morning we are simply here to listen, to listen to you. We will not force ourselves on you, and we will not try to force you, either. We wish for you to talk to us as openly, honestly, and freely as you will. Of course, first and foremost, we are interested in what has happened to you and your mother … at the hands of Fen Sloughheart. As for the shooting, well … we will come to that as it comes to us.” Suĳnwe smiled broadly again, reassuringly. He was almost as comforting as his sister, although not nearly as enticing. “So, Morris, much has happened … much that is terrible and painful.”
This was, of course, an invitation for Morris to speak, to open up and begin telling the horrific, sickening tale of his relationship, if that word could be used, with one Fen Sloughheart. So Morris took a deep breath and began…