“Baldwin’s The Last Wise Woman is an intriguing look into how women and wisdom shape our world and what would happen if that spiritual connection was threatened. It made me think and kept me turning pages long into the night!” —USA Today Bestselling Author, Suzanne Ferrell
Wisdom is fading, sending the world spinning into chaos.
An extraordinary vision sends Sophie on a journey to find the dying Wise Woman and become her novice—a wisdom keeper of our era.
Time is of the essence. Without the spirit of wisdom to guide us, knowledge will fall into evil hands and become dangerous. Ultimately fatal. If Sophie fails, the world will sink into another dark age, this one far more brutal than the last one.
Sophie hides a painful secret behind her quick wit and snappy comebacks. She must save the world from drowning in darkness, but along the way, can she find healing for her torn soul?
This lively spiritual journey will appeal to fans of William P. Young’s The Shack, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, and Mitch Albom’s The Stranger in the Lifeboat.
“The Last Wise Woman is a journey full of heart and soul that will have you asking questions you never asked before… Sit back and enjoy the adventure. You just might find a piece of yourself in the pages of The Last Wise Woman.” —Patience Griffin, award-winning of the Kilts & Quilts® series
— EXCERPT —
The Novice Awakens
Long before I met Ryder or the Wise Woman, I drowned.
Water splashed and clapped hands, closing above my head. Bubbles fizzed, gushing past my nose as I slid toward the bottom of the pool. I tried to climb up, reaching, clawing, grabbing at the water, only to have it slither between my fingers and toes as I slipped further and further from the shimmering surface.
Hopeless. I gave up, holding onto the last swallow of air as it swelled out my cheeks and pressed for escape. One by one, traitorous bubbles trickled out of my mouth. Wiggly pockets of lost hope drifted up toward the light. I sank to a place where babies do not splash happily in the sunshine—down into a gray cocoon where death awaited.
I gasped for air and shook my head.
The drowning child wasn’t me. I wasn’t even wet. And I was eleven, not a toddler. But I knew that baby.
I ran to our motel door and flung it open. From the second-floor landing, I saw him—my little cousin floating in the pool. I screamed for my mother and raced down iron and concrete stairs, my footsteps echoing in the empty courtyard like gunshots. Finally, I got down to the deck and slid belly first onto the pool’s edge. Reaching into the water, I caught hold of his tiny arm and yanked him up to the air he craved.
Except he didn’t breathe.
He hung in my arms like a broken doll. I shook him. Wild with panic, I demanded to know how he’d gotten down there. “How!”
No answer—only the soft steady drip of water from his dangling arms. Death had lulled him to sleep. I screamed louder for my mother.
Terrified, I turned him upside down, held him by his ankles and tried to shake the water out of his lungs. Tears blurred my vision. I pleaded with him—pleaded with God. “Live!” I shrieked. “Live.”
Letting go of one leg, I slapped his back. Water and vomit spewed from his mouth and nose. He choked, coughed . . .
And, finally, he cried.
I held him tight, rubbing his back. Tears stung my eyes until I felt my mother’s hand on my shoulder. She lifted the child out of my arms, and I crumpled to my knees on the hot pool deck, rocking and sobbing louder than the toddler.
That was the day I knew for certain I was different. I’d always suspected I wasn’t quite normal, but after Jace drowned and I drowned with him, I never wondered again. Later, in college, professors hooked me up to a machine that monitored brain waves. We discovered there were times when my brainwaves dropped like a rock into the theta range even though I was wide awake. Maybe that explained some things, maybe it didn’t.
This anomaly, this curse, this blessing that makes me different, has both ruined my life and made it wonderful beyond my wildest imaginings.
Jace was my cousin, sunny blonde, bright, sweet, and only two years old when we drowned. He’d been staying with us that summer while his mother struggled through a difficult pregnancy. Five months later, Jace died in an automobile accident.
I wondered endlessly if I had merely staved off the inevitable. Had I altered Jace’s timeline or kept it on track?
The Llama Girl Cometh
Coldwater, Minnesota, twelve years later, on the day of the Great Quake
That afternoon, when everything we thought we knew about earthquakes changed, I sat at the Coldwater Herald news desk doodling. Sun glinted off my monitor as I waited for a graphics program to update changes to a photograph.
“We need a new computer,” I said to no one in particular. My complaint floated through the sunny newspaper office as if it were a soiled candy wrapper caught on the breeze. No one responded. The old printing press hummed noisily in the backroom, and my boss, Ollie, sat encased in his glass office, door shut, talking on the phone with considerable agitation.
The sluggish update spinner on my screen continued to whirl. So, I rested my chin in my palm and gazed out the front window at two centuries of architecture lining Main Street. I knew each and every building by heart. I knew the way the maple floorboards in the drugstore creaked and how the thick walls in Maggie’s Emporium trapped a musty lavender smell that always made me sneeze. First National Bank had an ATM, but I liked going inside and tracing my fingers over the 1920’s brass scrollwork while waiting for a teller. And, like everyone else in town, I knew exactly how many donuts Mr. Larsen baked every morning for Coldwater’s only coffee shop.
I came back during my first year of college—to bury Dad.
Three years later, though, I was still there. Yeah, I get it. Education is important. I liked school, and I planned to go back. Or so I’d told myself. It could be that grief and guilt were just too bulky to cram into a suitcase and haul off to school. I didn’t know. Anyway, there was the farm to run until my older brother could finish school, and after that I just never felt right about leaving.
Maybe it was because the people in Coldwater didn’t care that I was different.
Sure, some of them might cross the street to avoid me if they had an ugly secret they wanted to hide. On the other hand, long before anyone scheduled a sonogram over in Rochester or up in the Twin Cities, they’d come running to ask me the sex of their baby. I tried to keep stuff like that to a minimum, but it had a way of slipping out.
Everyone in town took my strangeness for granted. No one wanted to run me through yet another MRI machine, make me take a bunch of pointless tests, or try to figure out why I am the way I am. It didn’t seem to bother them. I was simply part of their world. As ordinary as the donuts in Mr. Larsen’s bakery case every morning—two dozen jelly-filled, one dozen lemon cream, two dozen glazed, another twelve with sprinkles, and three dozen chocolate with fudge frosting.
Coldwater was home.
As much as I loved this town, for months I’d felt something tugging at me, some invisible force pulling at me. Except, I couldn’t leave Coldwater, it’s my home. Maybe that feeling was just my imagination.
Relax, I told myself. Don’t think about it.
So I didn’t.
The stoplight down the street blinked from red to green, and Mrs. Donovan in her faded green Chevy turned the corner. I closed my eyes, basking in the summer sun radiating through the front window.
That may have been my mistake, right there.
If I could go back to that moment and force myself to stay sharp, to pay attention and concentrate, maybe everything would be different. Maybe destiny would have picked someone else for this task. Maybe the world wouldn’t be tumbling into the next ice age of ignorance.
Then again, destiny can be strange and perplexing. It might have snared me no matter what I did. Destiny seemed pretty stubborn in that respect. Still, there was a remote possibility that if I had stayed alert and been ready all this might have turned out differently.
In my defense, earthquakes don’t happen in Minnesota.
Scratch that. They didn’t.
There’s no scary fault line running up the middle of the state. No volcano nearby. It’s Minnesota. Land of 10,000 lakes. Snow and ice. Moose and milk cows.
At exactly 3:29 the floorboards shook.
I glanced down to see what was going wrong with my shoes. Then the ceiling rattled, and our lights swung crazily. The front windows shattered. Glass exploded into the room.
I clutched the edge of my desk and readied myself for Armageddon.
Had I been thinking properly, I would’ve gotten under the desk. But like I said, I’d been dozing off, and this was Minnesota. They didn’t teach earthquake preparedness in our schools. Tornado preparedness, yes. What to do in a flood, sure. How to survive a blizzard, heck yeah. Earthquake, no.
I couldn’t look away.
The whole world shook.
When the earth split open, it sounded like we were in the bowling alley of the gods. All the other sounds, breaking glass, horns blaring, screaming, rattling, and clinking, all those other noises seemed incidental. One low gut-quivering sound reminded us we were not in control. A roaring whoosh, a thunderous roll, a series of loud bangs and fierce jolts, like gigantic bowling pins crashing down around us. And then…
A fissure ripped open Main Street.
The stoplight toppled over.
Slabs of the red-block stone walls from Maggie’s Emporium plummeted to the sidewalk, splattering, sending shards of rock flying into the air.
All this happened in mere seconds. I gaped, unable to fathom the earth shaking apart. One of our overhead lights crashed to the floor. Still, I stood there, not believing any of it.
Later, Ollie told me he saw a chunk of ceiling plaster fall on my head. That could explain why everything suddenly went dark.
In this case, at 3:33 in the afternoon, it fell on me alone. The rest of Coldwater remained sunny, shaken, torn, and yet still bathed in stark unrepentant daylight.
Night swallowed me up in one enormous gulp.
Crickets chirped. Everyone knows crickets usually tune-up in the evening. Except that afternoon I distinctly heard crickets and frogs. Before the quake, there hadn’t been so much as a vapor trail in the sky. Now Prussian blue filled the horizon and charcoal black stretched overhead. The newsroom ceiling vanished. Stars twinkled back at me, and a bright full moon illuminated my surroundings.
This sudden night appeared to be coming from somewhere else, some other land. A land where storks foraged beside a meandering stream dipping their long bills among the rushes. While the back of the office remained as it was, this night someplace else arose in front of me. Our shattered front window disappeared, and a tall skinny hill jutted up where Main Street should have been.
First the earthquake, and now this.
I stumbled back, bumping into my chair. It clunked against my desk, but the clatter drowned in the growing oboe-like song of bullfrogs. Night birds trilled, and the crickets sawed louder and louder until I was sure Ollie would come charging out here and demand the racket stop. But mist shrouded his office, and vines snaked up the sides.
That was when I realized this was a vision.
No stopping it now.
I plunked down in my chair and lowered my face into my hands. When I finally gathered the courage to peek out from my fingers, a young woman holding a shepherd’s staff stood in front of me. She had thick, dark, shoulder-length hair, and no way could she be from our century—not wearing those heavy fur boots and that hand-woven tunic. I couldn’t tell if she was Mongolian, Peruvian, or from somewhere else entirely. Behind her stood a herd of llamas, with a few long-haired goats mixed in, or maybe they were sheep—I couldn’t tell—and a handful of geese.
All of them seemed to be looking at me.
I’d never been this close to a llama before. The largest of the herd stood protective and alert beside the small shepherdess. This guardian llama seemed extraordinarily tall. She looked a little like a camel, only she was covered in thick white hair that hung in short curly dreadlocks everywhere except for her curious face.
She blinked uncommonly long eyelashes at me. Then, as if understanding my unspoken comments about her appearance, the animal chortled—a weird mixture of a goose honking and a goat bleating. The llama’s chin went up, and I thought for a minute she was going to attack me. Instead, she stretched out her long neck and snuffled the papers on the edge of my credenza.
Her floppy lips opened in a malicious grin, and that ornery creature crumpled up the Jorgensen wedding announcement for tomorrow’s paper. Then, as if it tasted bad, she let the wad of paper flutter down past her furry neck to the floor. With a decisive grunt, she stomped her two-toed foot right on the middle of Mellie Jorgensen’s face.
“Stop!” I lunged for it and yanked what was left of the announcement out from under her sharp, pointy toes. “Are all llamas this rude?” I muttered and tried to smooth the torn wet edges of the photo.
The llama shepherdess thumped her staff down in front of the tall fiend, who reluctantly stopped snorting around in my papers. Llama-herder girl looked to be about thirteen or fourteen. Her brown cheeks were smudged, but that didn’t mar her dignity. She stood with the poise of a young queen, except instead of a crown perched atop her straight black hair she had a pointy red cap with a tiny bell. Rows of Aztec-looking symbols embroidered along the edge of her coarsely woven cloak captivated my attention.
“Sophie.” She startled me. Hers was a gentle voice, musical and sweet, haunting and flute-like. Yet, when she called my name, it seemed to awaken every cell in my body, even my bones shivered with aliveness. “You must leave this place and go in search of the Wise Woman.”
Now, I’ve watched enough TV to know that if I started taking orders from apparitions it was just a hop, skip, and a jump into the loony bin. So, I kept mum.
The herd of llamas let loose with a few disgruntled whimpers. It sounded like a room full of unhappy preschoolers. Llama girl and her pesky paper-demolishing companion exchanged meaningful glances.
Yes, meaningful. I lived on our family farm with my brother and his wife. Our sheep and goats had a wild-eyed stare that either meant “Keep away from me!” or “Hmm, I wonder if there’s anything edible on you?” This big llama was different. Plain as day, the old gal’s expression said, “Uh oh, Llama-herder, are you sure you’ve got the right girl?”
The shepherdess nodded as if she understood.
I took a deep breath. “No, your llama is right. There’s been some mistake. I can’t run off and hunt for your missing Wise Woman.”
Thick black hair whisked the top of her shoulders as the Llama-girl shook her head in disagreement. “Not my Wise Woman. Yours. And she is coming to the end of her journey.” The girl pointed her staff at me. “You are the novice, Sophie, chosen for this generation.”
“Oh, now, see, that proves there’s been some sort of cosmic mistake. I’m not even a Catholic. There’s a lovely convent over in Rochester chock full of willing novices. Thank you for dropping by, but as you can see I already have a job.”
That wretched llama rippled her lips in a wicked sneer. Before I could stop her, she spit bits of paper and green goo onto the center of my screen. I cringed and grabbed a tissue. While I turned my back to wipe it off, that surly animal clamped her teeth around my brand-new blue-line pencil and cracked it in half.
I scooted the rest of my papers and equipment across the worktable away from my uninvited guest. “At least, I did have a job before that animal of yours came in here and started vandalizing everything.”
“Daughter of Eve, do you not feel it?” Llama girl searched my face.
I looked away, hoping to escape her scrutiny. She couldn’t have known there’d been something plaguing me. I shrugged and immediately regretted it when sadness overwhelmed her features.
She gestured with her staff, encompassing the newspaper office in back of us and her mountain and pasture in one broad stroke. “I know you feel it. All around you, wisdom is seeping out of the world. You must find the Wise Woman and preserve what is left. Time grows short.”
How could a girl so young look so incredibly mournful, so long-suffering? It was as if she’d been watching civilization for a thousand years, witnessed every act of cruelty, every dying child, every bomb exploding, every killer plague and volcano, every lamb gone missing.
“The earth itself is groaning,” she said.
That was when the first aftershock hit.
The newsroom rattled so hard I thought the huge stone walls would tumble down. Was this part of the vision or reality? The shepherdess and her llamas stood with their heads bowed and eyes closed until the shaking stopped.
“Was that real?” I asked.
She gave me a single nod.
“This earthquake can’t have anything to do with wisdom. How can they possibly be related to one another?”
She gazed at me, gentle and kind but bright with expectation. Too bright. I felt bad knowing that I was bound to disappoint her. She smiled. “This is good. See how you ask the right questions? You are the novice.”
The llama beside her blinked, big-eyed, at me and looked more thoughtful as she gnawed on the splintered remains of my pencil. Fragments of it dropped forgotten from her mouth. For the first time, her expression wasn’t completely skeptical.
Llama girl smoothed her fingers over the animal’s white fur. “Humankind without wisdom…” She shook her head. “Even the earth trembles at the thought.”
Her llama moaned like a plaintive toddler.
“The Wise Woman is dying. Find her soon or all is lost.” The bell atop Llama girl’s hat jingled as she turned to leave.
“Wait! I don’t understand. What all is lost? Find her? Where?”
“Follow your instincts.”
Did she know how hard I’d been trying to ignore my troublesome instincts over the past few years? Did she really expect me to dust them off and use them like a rusty compass to locate one woman among billions? “My instincts are gone.”
She glanced back and almost smiled. “You’ll find her in the desert under a palm tree.”
Ollie lifted a chunk of plaster off me. I lay on the floor, still stunned. The colors of night faded away, as if Llama girl’s world had been nothing more than a watercolor, taking with it the storks and crooning frogs. The afternoon sun glinted through our shattered news-room window.
“Sophie!” Ollie brushed bits of plaster off my face. “Are you all right? Say something?”
“The llamas…” I muttered.
“Llamas?” He squinted at me. “Lay still, kid. You must have a head injury.” Ollie hollered for our printing press operator. “Swede! Call 911! Sophie’s delirious. We’ve gotta get her to the hospital.”
Swede picked his way through the rubble and pointed vigorously toward where Main Street used to be. “How in tarnation do you expect an ambulance to get across the Grand Canyon out there?”
Swede tended to exaggerate. So, despite my pounding head, I tried to sit up.
“Don’t move,” Ollie ordered, and the two of them set to arguing about toppled cell towers and busted landlines.
“I’m okay,” I mumbled and leaned up to look out of our missing front window. The chasm wasn’t anywhere near as big as the Grand Canyon–more like a deep, deep, very deep ravine. Later, it would come to be known as the Main Street Gorge.
Ollie rubbed his neck. “Anyhoo, leastwise she isn’t bleed-ing.”
“Not visibly.” Swede is not an optimist. “She could have a concussion. Internal bleeding, or—”
A third aftershock hit.
Plaster hailed on us. Ollie swore, and both he and Swede ducked under my worktable. This time I had the good sense to scoot under my desk. I huddled under it, getting kicked by some invisible force and hoping Llama girl had been merely a hallucination from getting conked on the head.
On the tile, right beside my knee, jiggling like water on a hot skillet, was the eraser end of my blue line pencil. I grabbed it and, despite my quaking universe, inspected the distinctive bite marks.
When the earth finally stopped doing a hula dance, we crawled out from under our hiding places. Without a word, like migrating geese fleeing winter, we headed out of the building. Ollie kept his arm around me as the three of us shuffled over hunks of plaster, broken glass, and scattered office equipment. We gingerly stepped over what used to be our front door and went out into the sunlight to check on our neighbors and stare into the chasm.
Across the great divide, Maggie sobbed as she struggled to climb over a pile of red stones. Those stones had been set in place a century before she was born. An old maid with no children, the Emporium was all she had. She cried her way over each stone as if they were dying children.
One by one we all gathered on our respective sides of our groaning world and stood in awed silence.
There would be time for our tears later. Even Maggie stopped crying as we stared down into the abyss, at torn sewer pipes burbling into the pit, upside down stoplights, fizzling wires, cars wedged on their sides at the bottom–alarms blaring uselessly, and huge chunks of sidewalk and pavement strewn two stories below our feet. We shouldn’t have stood so near the edge. What if it happened again? But none of us could turn away from the massive lightning-strike gash that ran up the center of our hometown.
So, is this what happens when the Earth grieves?
“How far does this thing go?” Mr. Larsen hollered to Ollie, pointing down the length of the fissure.
Ollie shook his head and shrugged. “Won’t know ‘til we get a hold of a radio.” He turned to Swede and asked about the newspaper’s prize possession, our antique printing press. “Did the Heidelberg survive?”
Swede rubbed the back of his neck. “Yah, I’ll have to dust the plaster out of her, but I expect that ole’ press would survive a nuclear bomb.”
“We need to put out a special edition. And I don’t care if I have to send the story to the AP by carrier pigeon. We’ve got to get word out to the rest of the world.” Ollie rubbed his hands together. And I knew why. He was literally standing on the biggest story of his career. “Sophie, you don’t look so good. You up to working on the story?”
I couldn’t write. Not now. I had a groaning world and two-toed llamas prancing through my brain. When I’d crawled out from under my desk, I’d noticed a green smear on my computer screen. Either that was llama spit or I’d gone stark raving crazy. I didn’t try to explain. “How can we write without electricity or internet?”
“The old-fashioned way.” He looked positively excited at the prospect. “There’s an old Smith-Corona typewriter in the storeroom.”
Swede snorted. “Yah, and I suppose you plan to run the press by hooking a couple plow horses up to a flywheel?”
Ollie gave him a drawled out an emphatic Norwegian no, “Nooowh, I’ve got a back-up generator in the storeroom. I’ll siphon the gas out of my car if I have to. We’re gonna get this story out to the world.”
I heaved a worried sigh. “For all we know, the rest of the world has been hit, too.”
“Yah, you might have something there.” Ollie scratched at his graying stubble. “Find our radio, Swede. I saw it in the printing room yesterday.”
Just then Mr. Larson came hurrying through the debris toward us. Looking like a balding middle-aged rapper, he held a small boom box to his ear, and shouted out bits of a news report. “8.7 magnitude. Shook the whole Mississippi region. Iowa. Missouri. Illinois. Tennessee. Arkansas. All the way to New Orleans. First quake of this magnitude to hit the continental U.S. since 1964 when a 9.2 hit central Alaska.”
We gathered close to listen. To mourn. To share our shock.
“Lord, save us…” He lowered the radio and in a solemn tone announced, “They’re saying the Mississippi has changed course.” I shivered as he continued relaying the report. “The entire eastern half of the country is experiencing tremors.” He set the radio on the ground as if he didn’t want to hear anything more.
A cloyingly sweet scent of donuts wafted from Mr. Larson’s apron, so ordinary, but amidst the crumbled buildings and devastation it seemed grossly out of place. Nausea nearly gagged me.
An earthquake that big might’ve hit our farm. Suddenly I had to find my brother. “Ollie, I’ve got to go check on Danny.”
“Right, kid, I’ll drive you.”
“No, I’m okay. You stay and write your story.”
I wasn’t sure of anything, but I said, “Yeah,” and waved goodbye. I stepped over a fallen street sign, avoided a tilted fire hydrant gushing into the chasm, and crunched on an incredible amount of broken glass as I dashed back into the newsroom for my purse and keys. With a deep breath, I slipped out the back door of the office. Our parking lot had a few snake-sized fissures, but there sat my jeep in one glorious piece, untouched by the chaos around us. That jeep was five years older than me and sported more than one rust spot, but as I grabbed hold of the faded green metal and slid into the driver’s seat it felt like being cradled in the arms of an old friend.
I trembled—the aftereffects of shock I suppose. It took a moment or two before I could stop shaking enough to get the key into the ignition. I cranked the engine, put her in gear, and headed home. Wind whipped my hair and blew tears sideways across my cheeks.
Our farm lay due west of the new Main Street Gorge. I put the jeep in four-wheel drive to navigate over the dips and wrinkles and debris in the streets. Outside of town, I went off-road to bypass a fallen power line. A mile later I gunned it across another small fissure. The whole time I couldn’t get those words out of my head, the entire eastern half of the country is experiencing tremors.
I held my breath for the next five miles. Then, in the distance, like beacons of hope, stood all three of our neighbor’s silos, and off on the left Jakob Anderson’s big red barn still stood in one piece. The familiar tree line of Mill Creek Woods still crowned the hill and the bridge still spanned the creek.
I sighed with relief. My heart almost returned to a normal rhythm, until I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw a llama in my backseat. I stomped on the brakes and nearly spun into the creek.
Dust flew around us and the llama herder materialized in the passenger seat. “Now are you going to go find the Wise Woman?”
Once the dust settled, I shifted into first and yanked on the parking brake. “Out!” I pointed feverishly. “Both of you. And no spitting.” I glared at the long-necked llama.
To my surprise, they both vanished. A second later they reappeared beside the jeep staring at me. I didn’t like Llama girl’s long-suffering expression, staring big-eyed at me as if I were a slow-witted child.
“Taste the wind, Sophie.” Irritation colored her normally melodic voice. “The scent of death approaches. You must seek the Wise Woman.”
She shook her head against my argument before I could even speak it. “Blossoms of disillusioned womankind taint the breeze, turning it sour. Life as you know it is slipping away. Growing darker by the minute.”
The thing slipping away is my sanity.
I pressed my lips tight, wishing her away. Only she didn’t go. “No,” I said firmly. “I’m going home to see if my brother is okay.”
“Do you not remember the Dark Ages?”
This from a girl of fourteen?
“No.” I gripped the steering wheel. “Not firsthand.”
“I remember.” She sighed and leaned heavily on her staff. “It was a time of unfathomable cruelty. Violence. Hopelessness. Disease. People bent their minds toward death, toward brutal domination and conquest. These were their fondest aspirations.”
“That was hundreds and hundreds of years ago. It’s over.”
She shook her head. “Not so long ago in the history of humankind. In those days they did not design medical equipment.” Pain whirled in her dark eyes. “Instead, they used their knowledge to build instruments of torture, iron masks, and barbed chastity belts for their women. Canons and catapults, racks and slow blades for their enemies.”
The afternoon light dimmed as if a dark cloud passed over us. Mill creek evaporated. In its place appeared a village with cobbled streets, thatched huts, and stone shops. The putrid stench of sewage flowing through open gutters burned my nose. A narrow street echoed with the sounds of jeering. Villagers goaded a woman forward, shouting, throwing stones, and spitting. Her hands were bound with leather straps. A rusty iron mask in the shape of a shrew’s head was clamped over her head. Her husband thrashed her legs and back with a stick, driving her through the crowded marketplace.
“Stop!” I shouted.
The village disappeared. In its place stone walls rose up, musty moldy walls without windows. A man lay naked, strapped to a wooden torture table, his captors savored his agony as they inserted a huge metal corkscrew and began to twist it.
Like the man on the table, I gasped and couldn’t breathe.
More horrifying images flashed before me. Llama girl showed me beaches strewn with dead and dying bodies—a senseless slaughter of men, women, and children, as horned raiders from the north plundered a coastal village. She showed me faces turned black with disease, and motherless children wandering through filthy streets until starvation took them.
I clamped my eyes shut.
Even so, I could not escape. My chest constricted until I thought I would suffocate. “Stop! Stop,” I choked. “No more. Please.”
“This and worse awaits your world,” llama girl said quietly, and the awful visions subsided. “Wisdom is bleeding out of the earth.”
Sick to my stomach, unable to respond, I bent forward and pressed my hand against my hammering heart. How? “How can one woman from a small town in Minnesota do anything about such horrors?”
She thumped her staff on the ground. “Next time it will be far worse. Human beings’ tools are more ingenious now. Knowledge without wisdom is deadly.” She rested her hand on her llama’s neck, lacing her fingers through the long hair as a mother would tousle her infant’s curls. Sorrow veiled her words so that I barely heard her. “If you fail, I doubt anyone will survive.”
Would we all be destroyed? Just our world? Or hers too? I still didn’t have enough breath to fully form my question. “Anyone?”
She didn’t answer.
The old llama blinked her long lashes and issued a low moan that meant I didn’t want the answer, just that it was too awful to contemplate.
“Okay. I get it.” I took a deep breath and straightened. “Find the Wise Woman.”
Llama girl raised her chin, and hope glistened in her eyes. She closed the distance between us and laid her hand on my shoulder as if blessing me. “Go, daughter. Quickly. While there is still time.”
“Show me where she is.” I met her gaze evenly. She was sending me on this mission. I had a right to demand answers.
As if my request pleased her, she smiled. Quick as lightning, another vision opened. No more dark ages, I saw her—my first glimpse of the Wise Woman —a woman very much from our era. I had expected a hospital bed, IV tubes, and heart monitors, or at the very least someone sitting lotus style on a silk pillow in an austere Buddhist monastery.
No hospital bed. No Tibetan monk’s toga. She had on a bathing suit. And sunglasses. Just as llama girl had said, the Wise Woman sat beneath a palm tree. But this woman didn’t look sick at all. More like an aging movie star stretched out on a chaise lounge, sunning under a wide-brim hat. For a dying woman, she looked darn good. Maybe llama girl had clicked her vision remote controller to the wrong channel?
“That’s her?” The corner of my mouth twisted up skeptically. “The Wise Woman?”
Llama girl let go of my shoulder and vanished.
Twenty-six minutes later, I skidded to a stop in front of our farmhouse. Danny saw me from the field and sprinted my way, tearing recklessly through rows of young corn as if it wasn’t all his hard work that did all that planting. He shouted something at the top of his lungs, but I couldn’t make it out. I chewed my lip. Not wanting to be the one to tell him what was going on, or that I’d be leaving.
I knew my brother. That frantic run didn’t look anything like the smooth wide-receiver run from his high school days. That ground-thundering run was burning up with fear.
The screen door creaked open and bounced shut. Marla came out of the house with the baby on her hip. “Thank God, you’re home. I’ve been worried sick. Been trying your cell phone. There’s no signal. Power’s out. Everything shook like crazy. The bathroom mirror broke. Is that a bruise on your forehead? Are you okay?”
I nodded and turned back to watch my brother.
Marla kept talking. “After we heard the radio say it was an earthquake Danny took off to check the fields. Said you’d be home soon. How he figured that I don’t know.”
It was like that with Danny. He wasn’t born with my strangeness, except when it came to me. They say some mothers have an intuitive bond with their children. In my case, my brother always seemed to know when I was in trouble or needed help.
He ran up breathless and doubled over, worry pinching up his forehead. He clapped a hand on my shoulder. “Tell me.”
“It’s bad in town.” I explained about the Main Street Gorge.
Danny leaned in close and narrowed his gaze at me as if he knew I was holding back. “And?”
“And I need to go pack.” I went inside the house and tore through my dresser, flinging underwear and socks into a duffle bag.
“Why?” he asked, as I stuffed clothes into the bag.
“There’s something I gotta do.” Instead of meeting his gaze, I folded a t-shirt and shoved it into the bag. “I can’t explain. You’ll think I’m crazy.”
“When have I ever thought that?”
“Fair enough.” My brother had always believed me, always trusted me, no matter what crazy thing I’d seen or done. This one was bound to push his trust too far. “I’m sorry, Danny. This time I can’t explain. You’re going to have to trust me. I have to do this.” I paused, squeezing a pair of socks in my fist, picturing the dark ages falling on him and Josh, crushing their souls with ignorance and savagery. I tossed the socks in my duffle bag. “I have to go. It might make all the difference for Marla and baby Josh. You. Me. Everybody. Unless I fail. Then it won’t amount to anything at all. Either way, I’ve got to try.”
Danny raked his hand through his hair. “How long?”
That was just like him. No lectures. No accusations that I’d gone off the deep end. Just, how long? He was the best brother in the whole world.
I stopped and stared at the floor. “I don’t know.”
Marla, who looked every bit as skeptical as a certain llama of my acquaintance, said, “You can’t just up an’ take off. It isn’t safe. Especially now with the earthquake and everything.” She nudged Danny. “You can’t let her.” Joshie started to cry.
I squared up and faced him straight on. “Danny, you remember the day Jace almost drowned?”
“It’s like that.”
He whistled out a stream of pent-up air. He knew the whole story—the real one. The story I’d never told anyone else.
“Only this time it’s bigger. Worse. Way worse.”
He took Josh from Marla. The baby snuggled against his chest and calmed down. “Marla, honey, I’d like you to get some sandwiches together for Sophie to take.”
And that was that.
My sister-in-law shook her head and went off to the kitchen mumbling something about us being reckless lunatics.
A simple nod and Danny knew the gratitude I felt. “I’ll call as soon as I can. Do me a favor. If I’m not back in a few days, call Ollie for me and tell him I’m sorry. Tell him Becky Larson knows a little about layouts and graphics. Maybe she could fill in while I’m gone.”
Turning away, I opened my top dresser drawer, searching for one last thing, Mama’s locket hidden in the back corner. It was hard to know what to bring when hunting a Wise Woman. I unfolded Grandma’s lace-edged handkerchief, opened the locket and stared at Mom’s tiny photo. She’d been gone for years, but I could still feel her hand on my shoulder, reassuring me, like she did the day Jace and I drowned. Just seeing her face gave me hope this Wise Woman hunt might not end in disaster. I snapped the gold heart shut, coiled the chain, wrapped it securely in the handkerchief, and tucked them into my pocket.
Marla came back and thrust two sandwiches tucked in plastic bags at me. “Don’t go,” she said sternly.
“I love you, but I have to do this. Danny will explain later.” I hugged her, put the food in my duffle bag, zipped it, and slung it over my shoulder like a soldier headed for war.
I paused beside Danny and smoothed my hand over Josh’s plump little cheek and twirled one of his soft curls one last time. Then I brushed past them into the hallway. I hated goodbyes. When Danny and I lost our parents, first mom and then two years later dad, well, that was enough good-bye-ing to last me a lifetime.
He grabbed my arm. “Soph, wait!”
Against my better judgment, I turned back and hugged him. “I love you, Danny. You’re the best big brother a kid could ever have.” I kissed baby Josh on the cheek and turned away, fighting the moisture filling the corners of my eyes. Tears would be disastrous. He’d never let me go if I cried.
So, I pushed away and gave my brother a brisk pat on his shoulder, the kind of sturdy thump Dad used to give us on the first day of school or the first time we went to climb up the high dive at the public pool. It meant, Go on then. You’ll be fine.
Only I wished I hadn’t done that. That one gesture threatened to resurrect ghosts I’d fought every day for the past three years to keep buried. I couldn’t risk thinking about Dad right now. I had enough on my plate without digging into that heartache.
Before Danny could change his mind and decide I’d lost my marbles, I hurried out of the door. The screen door bounced just like it always did. Danny caught it before the second thump and stood there on the porch, hugging Josh, watching as I climbed into my jeep and drove off to hunt for a Wise Woman.
Since most of the deserts in the U.S. were situated in the Southwest, I drove in that direction. Plus, I didn’t dare risk traveling toward the catastrophic earthquake scarring the Mississippi region. According to the news, most of their major highways were closed and multiple fires and floods threatened that part of the country.
As darkness fell, a bright moon lit my way on the backroads, the radio faded in and out with intermittent static. I’d grown weary of earthquake news anyway, so I switched it off. To keep myself awake, I recited aloud a poem my mother had taught me about the moon. O’Shaughnessy’s magical words danced from my tongue.
“We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams; —
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.”
Mom must’ve thought that poem would reassure me. Dreamers of dreams, Yeah, she knew early on that I had strangely vivid dreams even though I’d rarely spoken about them. Sitting by desolate streams—yeah, I guess that fit me, too. I’d certainly learned to keep my peculiarities to myself. It made some people nervous, and they tended to steer clear of me. But a mover or shaker?
I was a college dropout from a little town in the middle of Laura Ingalls-Wilder’s Minnesota prairie. I was nobody! And for sure I wasn’t someone who llama girl should have entrusted with a task this important. What would happen if I failed to find the Wise Woman? Or failed to accomplish whatever it was a novice was supposed to do?
Would civilization come tumbling down?
I flipped the fuzzy radio back on. Anything to distract me from those thoughts.
By the time the sky turned pre-dawn gray, I was heading south, yawning my way through Iowa.
Iowa. . .
Endless corn fields.
Clueless deer wandering across the highway.
More corn fields.
Me, I couldn’t look at cornfields without feeling eight years old again. And that was all good, because when I was eight, she was there, my mother.
“Do you see it?” I could still hear her voice as we drove by fields of knee-high corn. “Look there, Sophie. It looks like a man running on stilts.” She pointed at the furrows of corn transformed into the long legs of a circus performer running beside the car. She was like that, my mother, able to make a bunny out of a bland white cloud, or turn it into a frightening pirate ship, depending on her mood.
While Dad drove, she entertained my brother and me in the car by reading stories aloud, filling our heads with the antics of Huckleberry Finn, or Dorothy Gilman’s The Amazing Miss Pollifax. My favorite was wacky Mrs. Piggle Wiggle and her bizarre solutions for reforming naughty children. I didn’t know how my mother read without getting carsick, but she managed, and our family car trips turned into adventures in more ways than one.
Morning emerged on the flat horizon like a pink rose blooming at the edge of a dull woolen sky. Rose turned to bright magenta, and before long yellow light lit up the green stalks of corn. I yawned and tried to stretch my back.
Under the brilliant sun, an hour or two west of Des Moines, a gnawing feeling hit my stomach. Not just hunger, doubt. Common sense and a wicked lash of reason flogged me mercilessly.
You haven’t a clue where you’re going, do you?
Hunting for a Wise Woman?
I mean, how rational is it to drive off to who knows where in search of some mysterious woman with no known address? Your blood sugar could be off. Diabetes does run in your family, you know.
“Yeah, could be.” My stomach rumbled in agreement. Maybe a large stack of pancakes smothered in syrup would cure me. I could always turn back after breakfast. A mile down the road I spotted a gigantic sign for a diner and truck stop and nearly skidded off the highway.
The sign featured a six-foot, shaggy, neon-outlined llama. Granny Jo’s Mama-Llama Café. The cantankerous creature winked! Yep, it winked, and raised her hairy motorized front hoof toward an arrow that flashed the words “next exit.”
Who uses a llama for their logo? I’d never seen a sign like that before—ever. On the other hand, I’d never trekked across the backcountry on a harebrained assignment given to me by a hallucination before.
So, this is the way it’s going to be, eh?
I turned off the highway and followed the road to the truck stop, muttering, “I’m hungry enough to eat a llama, sans the fur and spit. Granny Jo better be more than a figment of my imagination.”
I parked in front of the restaurant, and it seemed solid enough. Judging by the décor, the place dated back forty or fifty years. Aside from the fact that Granny Jo’s cleaning staff could have used a refresher course in mopping, the place looked okay and smelled even better. I slid into a worn maroon vinyl booth and patted my hands against the metal-rimmed Formica table. A real table. Whew! My chances of getting actual food just jumped up a couple of notches.
The waitress handed me a plastic-covered menu. Surprised that it didn’t have a llama on it, I made a joke about their unusual billboard.
“What billboard?” She scrunched up her nose, sniffing at the extra exertion my question caused.
“The big sign on highway 71 coming down from the north.”
Good gravy, this wasn’t a pop quiz. I pointed out the window. “You know, the gigantic six-foot blinking neon llama?”
“Llama?” She squinted sideways at me as if I’d just gone cross-eyed. “Dunno. Sounds to me like you need some coffee, hon.”
“Maybe so.” I gave up and ordered an orange juice along with two strips of bacon to go with my pancakes and eggs.
She left, and an amazing fast five minutes later, returned carrying my breakfast on one arm like a mother who has learned to balance an infant on one hip while wrangling two other rambunctious toddlers with her free hand. She dealt the plates out on my table and stood back, surveying her handiwork. “There you go. This ought to get you going the right way.” She topped off my coffee and plopped down a small dish of prepackaged cream. “Granny’s motto is, a good breakfast’ll carry you for miles. Get you to your destination quicker. And that’s what we all want, isn’t it?” She glanced at me pointedly.
Oh, so now she was Miss Talkative.
Before I could respond, the window beside me shook violently as a Peterbilt semi, pulling an enormous double trailer, rumbled by the diner. The truck clattered and hissed across the parking lot to fill up with diesel. When I turned back to my waitress, she was gone. I sat alone with two steaming plates of food. The aroma of bacon and hot syrup wafted up and teased my nostrils.
I have to say, if you’re ever traveling west of Des Moines on I-71, odd giant llama sign aside, Granny Jo’s cooking was well worth the slight detour. The hearty farm breakfast silenced my grumbling stomach and gnawing doubts. I paid my bill and pulled back onto the highway humming along to an old country western song that demanded, “whiskey for my men and beer for my horses.”
There had been a palm tree in my vision of the Wise Woman. The way I figured it, she had to be in one of three places known for their palm trees, Florida, California, or Arizona. I mean, after all, llama girl hadn’t said, “Fly off to find the Wise Woman.” That meant the old gal wasn’t in Europe, China, the Middle East, or the Caribbean. If she had said that, I’d be off the hook. She’d need to find a richer novice to do her bidding.
When I got to Kansas City, it was my last chance to decide. East to Florida? Or West to Arizona and California?
Something in the vision held a cue, only I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. The closer I got to the junction, the more uncertain I felt about which way to go.
After all, didn’t the three wise men come from the East? Dalai Lama lived in India—East.
Then why was I instinctively thinking of turning west?
I took my foot off the accelerator.
Was I unconsciously running away from this assignment? Who could forget about Jonah? Sailing off in the opposite direction didn’t work out too well for him. Luckily, here in Kansas, there were no giant sea creatures waiting to swallow me whole.
A semi barreled up behind my jeep and laid on his horn. The earsplitting blast sent a jolt of adrenalin burning through my veins. Granny’s pancakes sloshed like lead ballast in my stomach.
In a flurry of rattling metal and puffs of brown diesel smoke, the eighteen-wheeler went around me, his huge tires spit minuscule pebbles around the edges of his mudflaps. He had one of those yellow signs on the back of his double trailer. “How’s my driving?”
“Rude.” It seemed like a feeble response, but I didn’t have time to compose a sufficiently scathing answer.
Above the eye-level how’s my driving sign was a large advertisement for coffee, the presumably product this rowdy trucker carried. Instead of Juan Valdez with his iconic hat and donkey, this brand featured a painting of a dark-haired young woman who bore an uncanny resemblance to llama girl, and her sacks of coffee beans were not strapped on the back of a mule. No, you guessed it, they hung over a conspicuously large and alarmingly familiar white llama. Scrawled across this tableau was the slogan: Make the Wise Choice.
Owing to an acoustical anomaly of some sort, it seemed as if that surly llama bleated at me just as the semi blew his horn again.
When the truck slowed and turned right at the next junction, my doubts vanished. I followed the sun (and that rude semi) west, to the land of cowboys, gold miner’s dreams, and with any luck, the Wise Woman.
Before long, the truck disappeared into the watery mirage of heat-soaked highway stretching ahead of me. It didn’t matter. I knew now where I was going, and certainty settled over me.
An hour later, when I wound through Topeka, missing an exit, doubling back, and finally catching I-35, I was equally certain someone was following me.
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