These short fiction stories are about a family, their house, and their land, which Walter Peterson named Sanctuary Ridge. It’s a place that gets stored in your body like a recording that years later starts to play. Sometimes those forgotten sensations arrive like a fragrant breeze.
Jacob Peterson gathered the stories from a variety of sources. Elizabeth Kalanta Theodoros was of great help, for she helped Jacob see himself more clearly. Jacob wrote in the 3rd person because that makes it less awkward. He did not always arrange the stories in the order that they happened. Sometimes the stories are in the order that he heard them. Sometimes he listened to a story but was not ready to accept it. Jacob would leave it unsaid until he could think on it. Some stories he never bothered to look into until he was old, so some of the older stories are told last.
Sanctuary Ridge casts a spell with its beauty and seclusion, but to many in the family, the Ridge was the kind of place you had to leave before you could like it. After giving everything he had to the homestead, even old Walter got bored for a while and went searching.
In the rolling hills of Western Pennsylvania, in a rural area known as Smoke Valley, sat a sprawling brick house that overlooked a valley that a large Jewish family had once farmed. In 1950, David Peterson’s father, Walter, purchased fifty-five acres and hired a company to build the house he designed. After the house was finished, Walter began construction of a chapel for his wife. That’s why he named his estate Sanctuary Ridge. But the work was never completed. David was not sure why but suspected it was because his mother had a falling out with the local priest. But the name stuck.
According to tradition, Smoke Valley was originally named “Hebel” by the Jewish community that farmed there in the 1820s. Hebel was the Hebrew word “vapor” or “vanity” from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes. “All is hebel (vapor) under the sun,” the elders said. The world after Eden was shrouded in a fog of uncertainty. Suffering seemed random and unexplainable.
As the Jewish families migrated to Pittsburgh, the area became known as Smoke Valley—still a possible translation of hebel but less religious. Smoke Valley was more to the liking of the new inhabitants who had a “can do” spirit of enterprise. Plus, the valley was hazy because the winds blew from the direction of the steel mills.
The one remaining Jewish farm was called Shalom, a twenty-acre spot owned by the Sapersteins about a mile from Sanctuary Ridge. Homer Bardly, David’s brother-in-law, was raised at Shalom Farm, for his parents worked for Doctor Saperstein.
Bordering Sanctuary Ridge on the north was a retirement village, run by St. Andrew’s, the old church that sat next to the complex. When David first roamed his father’s acreage as a twelve-year-old, he would sometimes run into a disoriented older man or woman who had wandered off.
On a warm sunny day in the early summer of 1957, Homer Bardly drove his light blue rusted Chevy truck up the gravel road at Sanctuary Ridge. Stuffed in the cab were Delores and Naomi Edmunds, sisters from the tiny borough of Warren just north of Smoke Valley. Naomi and David had been dating for six months. Homer and Delores were getting married the next day.
David heard the car and met them when they reached the top of the driveway. Naomi jumped out and hugged David, who then jumped into the bed of the truck. They went to the drive-in diner in town and ordered fries and milkshakes. Homer, Delores, and Naomi joined David in the truck bed.
“We found a small place in Los Angeles,” Homer said. “And I’ve hired an agent. He says he’ll find me a role in a movie.”
“That’s great, Homer,” David said. “Does your agent know about your cauliflower ears?”
“Well, he knows I was a wrestler before I took to the stage.”
“We’re going to miss you so much,” Naomi said. “Delores and I have never been apart. Not since our parents died.”
“I raised you good, little sister,” Delores asserted as she lit a cigarette. “But you can visit anytime.”
A New Start (1973)
A Winnebago turned into the newly paved portion of the old gravel road to Sanctuary Ridge. The gate was open. David Peterson and his thirteen-year-old son Jacob stepped out of the vehicle. The sign at the entry had faded in the years they’d been gone. The canopy of large oaks that welcomed them triggered memories in David of his departure to college all those years ago. He opened the rusting mailbox marked Walter T. Peterson. His last check from California has arrived.
Pointing at the fading sign, he said to his son, “We’ll need to paint this. And I’ll need your help replacing the post.”
Jacob asked, “Are we going to rename it, come up with something new?”
“No, we’ll keep it the name.”
“What’s a sanctuary?”
“Good question. Usually a holy place like church, but “sanctuary” can mean a lot of things. Maybe the way Yosemite felt for John Muir—a place of peace, a refuge.”
“I think it will be for me,” Jacob said. “I hope it will be for Ruth, too.”
David looked away pensively and walked toward the motorhome. “So do I.”
David and Jacob had driven from San Mateo, California. Naomi, Jacob’s mother, and Scarlett, his older sister, had flown out the week before. The family had lived in San Mateo for ten years, but now David was taking over his father’s business. It was a tool company that specialized in axes and sledgehammers. David was going to revive the blacksmithing dimension. His parents sold him the house and land for a bargain price.
After catching up with his mother and Scarlett and telling them how great the trip was, Jacob decided to visit his grandparents Walter and Minnie. They had recently moved into the St. Andrew’s retirement village just beyond the Sanctuary Ridge property line.
He walked past the big bell that was mounted on a log about seven feet high. He made a mental note to ask his father where such a thing came from and its purpose. Proceeding past a small garden of rhubarb and tomatoes, he passed the old foundation of a barn. A black snake at least five feet long slithered near his feet and disappeared into a pile of rocks. He then came to a structure with peeling red paint that looked like a cabin. It was his grandfather’s tool shed, though built only twenty years earlier, appeared to Jacob like it was from another century. He heard buzzing and looked up at the hornets’ nest hanging from the eave. Shaped like a heart, made of what looked like grayish crinkled paper, the bustling, vibrating factory was bigger than a basketball.
Nervous, Jacob moved on only to be startled by the sound of the shed door slowly creaking open. A thin old man emerged. He had white hair, a pointed chin, and wore faded overalls. In his hand was a sickle that Jacob knew from Cold War propaganda posters. The man could have passed for a mad prophet like a drawing he’d seen in his old Children’s Bible. Maybe Ezekiel.
“You must be Davey’s boy!” the old man said.
Jacob nodded and kept walking.
“I’m John. Welcome, boy!”
Jacob nodded again and walked down the path another hundred yards or so to a level clearing. He could see across the valley and up another ridge. The ground was littered with shotgun shells and cigarette butts. He walked down the hill about ten feet into a small concrete block structure with three walls and an open front. Mounted on two posts was a metal contraption that he didn’t understand. It looked like a robot arm. On the ground, there were yellow shards that appeared to be broken pottery. He opened a cardboard box labeled “clay pigeons.” When he opened the box, he saw that the contents did not resemble pigeons at all but little clay discs, like hardened hamburger buns.
Jacob would soon learn all about trapshooting—the thrill of yelling “pull,” his body becoming one with the Browning over-under double-barrel twelve-gauge, and a split second later turning a “clay bird” into an explosion of dust. Trap was a good sport for dealing with anger too.
Jacob emerged from the woods into a mowed field. Just ahead was St Andrew’s, a four-story brick building in an L shape. He found his grandparents in the lobby smoking, having cocktails, and laughing with their fellow seniors who were also smoking and drinking.
Jacob smelled the familiar fragrance of perfume, Old Spice, Cutty Sark whiskey, and Camels. Though the cloud of smoke rings, he heard Papaw cough, then proclaim with some gravel in his voice, “Well, it seems a young man has returned from the West. Shake my hand.” Gran cried with joy and kissed him on the cheek.
Papaw took Jacob for a walk from St. Andrew’s back onto the Sanctuary Ridge property. They joined the mowed path that Jacob had been on then took a right on a narrower trail. After a minute or two, Jacob heard water running; then he saw where it came out of the hillside and was gathered in a barrel. “This is the Spring, ” Papaw said in his wizard voice. He filled the tin cup that hung from a nail on the barrel and sipped. “I expect I’ll live to be at least a hundred from this water. Have some.”
Moving from the “water of life,” as Papaw called it, he led Jacob off the path and up a hill through rows and rows of pines. They came upon a stone cross and partially constructed wall that was covered in tree branches. It seemed to a custom detailed masonry and mosaics with religious symbols Jacob was unfamiliar with. Papaw lifted off the branches. “This is the ruins of the chapel I was going to build for your grandmother. But she only came to the sight once. I regret to say I gave up. But I was thinking maybe you could help me get it started again. It could be our little project.”
“I’d like that,” Jacob said.
A month later, after some of the unforeseen realities of Jacob’s new life set in, his cousin Ruth arrived. She was sixteen, tall like her father Homer, and direct like her mother, Delores.
“Here’s your room, Ruthie,” Naomi said. “I want you to feel at home here.”
Jacob had always been in awe of Ruth. Their parents were close, and the families saw each other many times in California. Ruth was smart, funny, and confident. Jacob was worried, however, that she might be sad about moving like he was.
A Voice Crying the Wilderness (1975)
One afternoon, almost two years after the move to Sanctuary Ridge, Jacob Peterson hopped on his yellow Schwinn ten-speed. He rode down the steep hillside from the commanding heights of the house on Sanctuary Ridge, skipping the driveway, dodging trees and rocks, then flying the edge of the steep bank and onto the Price Mill Road. A half a mile later, Jacob turned into the Ewalt Park. There was a lake on his left and a tennis court area on his right. He leaned the bike against a tree, looking around as he went into the vending shack next to the tennis courts. He put seventy-five cents into the machine and pulled the knob. Out came a pack of Marlboro. In the box. (If you were around in the 70s you know that a cigarette machine was perfectly compatible with a tennis court!) Jacob looked again to see if anyone was watching, then quickly stuffed the red and white contraband in his underwear in case he was asked to show what in his pockets.
He jumped on the bike, rode home faster than he rode in, looking behind him a lot. He parked his bike in the garage and ran to the mowed path, past the trap shooting range, and onto another path that straddled a creek. He lit up a smoke once he was sure no one was around.
After walking a couple of minutes through a muddy stretch, he heard a voice. It sounded like a woman screaming. He stepped closer, careful not to be seen. He knelt behind a fallen maple watched. It was Ruth on the bank of the creek yelling and crying. He heard her yell, “I hate you! I hate you!” But there was no one around. “You don’t love me!” She stomped in the creek and threw rocks upstream.
Jacob was not about to show himself. That would be too uncomfortable.
Ruth started gesturing toward the sky and cursing. Then she dropped to her knees and said, “I’m sorry, Lord. I’m sorry.” She then lay face down and sobbed.
Jacob was afraid to make a noise by moving, so he waited until Ruth left, then waited some more, and went back to the house. He wondered what had made Ruth so angry. Was it her mother’s death two years earlier? Maybe, but in those two years she had lived at Sanctuary Ridge, Jacob had never seen Ruth upset. She often joked around with him about adult matters like sex and drinking. Though he was curious about how Ruth felt and missed Aunt Delores a lot himself, he avoided talking to her about such a sensitive subject as grief.
When he saw Ruth back at the house, Jacob asked, “How was your day?”
“It was good. I had a good walk.” She whispered, “I’ve got some weed.”
Two months later, when Ruth turned eighteen, she left Sanctuary Ridge to look for her father. That morning, Ruth strapped on an army green Kelty frame backpack. The thing rose at least a foot over her head, making her look like a turtle with a shell. Attached to her rig were a sleeping bag, canteens, and cooking pots. She wore cut-off overalls, “waffle-stomper” hiking boots, and a red bandana to keep her long unruly hair out of her eyes. She was hitch-hiking to upstate New York, where Homer was rumored to be living. Jacob was unsure why his uncle had not come to live with the family as his parents had expected when they moved from San Mateo.
Jacob walked Ruth to the bottom of the driveway. He didn’t want to say goodbye. He wished so bad he had asked her about that day she was crying. He also felt that he somehow failed Ruth. Why would she want to leave? Does she not think we love her? Will she into trouble if she goes to the Big Apple?
“Peace, Cuz,” Ruth said as she left him and began her journey. She turned around, the backpack one with her, the cooking pots clinking. “Go easy on the porn if you want to love a real girl.”
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