Photo courtesy of Abbey of St. Walburga, Virginia Dale.
On Thanksgiving Day, a lone swan floats on the lake. It doesn’t seem right; swans mate for life. Maybe the bird is injured. Maybe someone has shot at him. He is magnificent floating out there alone. My mother had come along with me to the ranch this Thanksgiving, a kind of experiment for me in not having to decide which parent to spend the holiday with for once. I just put them together. And then I sit and translate for them, my parents, as I had done my whole life.
After a while, we want an excursion, a diversion, and we decide to leave the swan to the solitary waters and take the cream separator to the nuns at the Abbey of St. Walburga at Virginia Dale. Sister Marie Michael had mentioned to dad that she wanted a cream separator one time when he was up at the abbey helping her with her cattle. It just so happened he had one in the milk barn, left over from some auction or from his childhood on the ranch in Gunnison. He had cleaned it up and gotten it into working order for the sisters.
My father and I stand on the step of the abbey milk barn, spinning the handle of the cream separator to see that it still works. My mother is around the corner by the chicken coop rubbing the belly of a black and white cat happily rolling on to his back, paws upward. The sunlight is more brilliant at high altitude. The crisp cold air is crisper. The cloudless sky covers the rugged land of Virginia Dale like an upside down china teacup. We think the abbey has been abandoned that day. We seem to be the only ones around.
Then we chance to glance up at the granite hillside and see a processional of long black habits following a priest in a cream-colored robe and brandishing an enormous cross. They glide along the ledges and lichen covered rocks, descending the hill two by two seemingly floating in their costumes in silence through the crisp sunlight. They proceed by us, their witnesses, not acknowledging us. One black robe drops away and floats toward us. Sister Marie Michael, friendly, warm, bridges the space between this world where I stand with my broken family and the surreal world of the Benedictines floating still quietly now across the hill toward the monastery. Sister Marie Michael wants a jersey cow, for the cream, to make butter and cheese… this nun, who wears a cowboy hat over her habit.
One brilliant summer day, the sisters, all farmers, are out in the fields working. They prop open the abbey doors with lichen-covered rocks. The mountain lion wanders into the abbey chapel because it is as cool as any cave or den. The dotted skin soft around her whiskers is splashed with triangles of pastel from afternoon stained glass. Her powerful tail sways. Her green diamond eyes nearly close as her lanky body relaxes upon the altar. Fear or wonder, Benedictines must see the presence of this beautiful and fierce wild animal in the chapel as an omen or sign. How I would be tempted to leave her napping until she saw fit to wander back through the big wooden doors, padding her furry toes across the stone floor and out to hunt in the hills for her dinner, a jack rabbit or cotton tail.
Instead the Division of Wildlife comes and shoots her with a tranquilizer gun. Her nap deepens, and two men lift her by her enormous paws and carry her out through the chapel doors past the bronze statue of Saint Walburga perched on granite and out into the mountains near by, where she sleeps it off, waking no doubt disoriented and groggy, looking down on the chapel where she had napped, where lights now shine out into the twilight as the sisters prepare for vespers, the lion no doubt featuring prominently in their evening prayers.