memory, the Grotto retains all of the
fearsome sanctity of my first trespass, in spite of its recent
debasement by suicide and tabloid scandal. I’m one of the lucky ones
who came upon it unaware and wondered afterwards if what I’d seen
was real. It was constructed, they say, in 1929, in a grove of spruce
on the back ten acres of the Bethlehem Academy for Girls, and yet,
when I pushed my bicycle into that grove in the Summer of 1977, I
beheld it as if it had sprung up overnight, fully formed from the
fabric of a schoolboy’s dreams.
It is a shrine, a thirty foot mountain of concrete, chicken
wire and native stone dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, but the
stirring I felt on first glimpse was as much in my loins as in my
soul. Although the icons and images are Christian, the setting is pagan, and other goddesses haunt the grounds as well.
I was sixteen, and not two-hundred yards away in a broad field
beyond the trees, a group of Catholic schoolgirls in plaid skirts
turned cartwheels on the newly mowed grass. One of them, with skin as
white as the Virgin’s and a mind as dirty as Lily Langtree’s, was
I work now, twenty-five years later, as a reporter for the New
Hebron Herald, where I cover local politics and crime as well as any
conjunction of the two. Though I did go away to school and traveled
a bit in my twenties, there was never any doubt that I’d return to
the town of my birth. This is where I lost my youth to Mona, and where
my callousness caused her death. Even if I wanted to escape her ghost,
She would follow me to Timbuktu and she will follow me
She comes to me on nights when the
moon hangs like a
transfigured sun over City Hall, and on the gunmetal-gray dawns of
November’s first, wet snow. In late August, when the fetid heat of day lingers well past midnight and I lie in my bed like a corpse
at wake, finding relief only in stillness, she draws down the sheets
and takes me into her mouth, just as she did that first time, on the
day of my seventeenth birthday.
The bodies of six teenaged girls have been taken from the
grotto over the past twelve months, all of them apparent suicides, all
of them with hallucinogens in their blood. This has caused the good
people of New Hebron to react with both denial and profound
puzzlement, but then most of them have memories shorter than mine.
one of those great circular ironies that inevitably trap men with
something to live down, the “Grotto Suicides” have put my byline
on the front page and granted respite from chronicling city council
squabbles and vending machine vandalism. My articles have been picked
up by papers as far away as Cleveland and Kansas City, and I have been
interviewed on Good Morning, America. I have covered the story with the same dispassionate
objectivity I once brought to reporting of the mayoral race, and I
have good reason for leaving my own feelings aside. I am, you see,
partly responsible for the tragedies I have been assigned to cover.
On an Indian Summer day in 1977, three months after I’d first
laid eyes on it, Mona McCaffrey caught me at the Grotto. I had just
entered my junior year in High School and had left school that
afternoon with a consuming itch to return to that weirdly hallowed
ground. I would describe it as a religious feeling, except that it was
also laden with adolescent sexual desire and the throbbing guilt that
accompanies it. I hopped
on my bike and tore the ten blocks to the edge of the wood on the
north perimeter of Bethlehem Academy, then hid the bike in the brush,
just inside the broken gate, and walked the quarter mile to the
Grotto. The day was hazy and fragrant with the scent of burning
leaves, and the autumn sun was low in the sky, making the woods appear draped in successive curtains of old lace. I crept into the
clearing and approached
the cavern-like entrance to the monument in a state of breathless
excitement. My bowels
shifted when she spoke.
there!” she called, in a playfully forbidding tone.
I froze. The voice came from the trunk of a nearby spruce, but
all I could make out was a ray of gauzy sunlight gilding the needles
on a low bough. My impulse was to run, but then she stepped from
behind the tree, one plaid strap fallen from the shoulder of her white
blouse. Wine-colored curls framed an impish and still-freckled face.
“We kill boys and eat them for dinner,” she said.
“And tonight is mystery meat night.” She grinned at the sight of my red face and took a step closer.
Two other girls materialized, wide-eyed and wary, from the haze
behind her; one was broad and doughy, and the other pale and scrawny
as a medieval penitent. “Should we kill him now, girls ... or
torture a confession out of him first?”
“We shouldn’t be here,” whispered the skinny one.
“We should get back,” the dumpling agreed.
“Sister Beatrice would kill us.”
“You two go ahead,” said Mona, her double-barreled stare
trapping me like a frightened rabbit. “I’ll meet you in the caf.” The girls hesitated.
“Fifteen minutes,” she said. “I promise.” Once her sidekicks had skulked off, glowering
back at me as if I’d intruded on Eden itself, Mona came fully into
the clearing, scooped the loose strap back onto her shoulder, and
parked one saddle-shoed foot against the rough, rocky shell of the
shrine. “So,” she
said, “what’s your name?”
I told her.
“What are you doin’ here? You could be punished really bad,
“I like this place,” I said, and it was the first time
I’d spoken of the grotto to anyone. “It’s beautiful and ... sort of spooky, like something from
a fairy tale.” I was
speaking of the place, but I was looking at her. Picture one of those early movie stars, like Norma Shearer or
Hedy Lamarr, playing Jezebel
in a Catholic schoolgirls uniform. “It feels a million miles from anywhere.”
“I like it, too,” she said. “We’re not supposed to come here, except on saint’s days
and special occasions, but I do anyway.” She flipped the curls
from her face. “It’s holy ground, you know. Are you a Catholic?”
“Uh-uh,” I replied. “I
guess I’m a Presbyterian.”
“My Daddy teaches Ancient History at Holy Cross College—you know, the all-boys school in Joliet?”
I nodded, though I’d never heard of it. “You know what he told me?”
“He told me that in ancient Greece—way before Jesus—they had places like this.
Holy places where people would come to
know their future. Women called sibyls
with second sight lived inside
and spoke to them from their dreams. And there were really
holy places—the holiest was called Eleusis—where hundreds of
people came once a year, at harvest time ... this time ... and went
into the grotto for a secret ceremony. And when they came out, they weren’t afraid of dying
The fine hairs on my neck bristled.
“Wow,” I said. “I
never heard that.”
“But there’s some stuff he didn’t tell me,” she
continued, raising one henna-colored eyebrow, “and I had to look it
up myself. Weird
“Like what?” I asked, dry-mouthed.
She dropped her chin and then raised her eyes to mine, the
corners of her mouth curling naughtily. She nodded to the entrance of the grotto.
On every night of my life since then, at that
when I lie suspended between waking and sleep, I have seen that face
and heard that invitation, and I accept it as I did on that day. “Okay,” I said.
you’re sure ...”
The interior of the grotto is a single chamber, roughly
circular and only about sixteen feet in diameter. To the left and
right of the entrance portal are twin spiral stairways, like those
found in castle turrets, leading to pulpits twenty feet above the
forest floor which face the clearing and a rustic amphitheater of
benches. The dank walls of the main chamber are inset with crucifixes
and statuettes of the Virgin at every level, and hung like a Hindu
shrine with the offered rosary beads of a hundred penitent
schoolgirls. She sat
cross-legged on the stony floor and I followed suit, my eyes on the
freckled pink of her bare knees.
“I snuck into my Dad’s study one night,” she continued,
“when he was out doing a lecture, and read everything I could find
about Eleusis.” She swallowed hard. Her eyes were wide and moist,
and flashed in the fading light. “I wanted to find out why the
people who went there weren’t scared of death afterwards.” Her
voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper, as if the Virgin herself—or Sister Beatrice, at the least—might be listening in. “It was
all about this story ... a myth ... how Hades, the god of the underworld, captured the young maiden Persephone—who’s
also called Kore—and took
her below to do his nasty stuff, and then her mother, Demeter, had to
rescue her by making a deal with Hades. But it’s really about how
things never die. We never die. But since that’s pretty hard for people to believe,
they put on this whole crazy show to prove it. Everybody drank a
potion called the Kykeon,
made from fermented wheat with this really disgusting mold growing on
it. Guess what the mold was.”
“I dunno,” I said, so entranced that I hadn’t realized
she had her palm pressed against my chest. She followed my line of
sight down to the inner thigh now revealed beneath the hem of her
plaid skirt, but made no effort to cover it. When I began to get a hard-on, I was sure she could sense it,
because the naughty smile curled her lips again.
“LSD,” she said. “The mold was
which is what they make LSD from.” A bead of water, condensed from the moisture on the grotto’s
ceiling, fell at that moment onto her thigh with a soft splat. She rubbed it into her skin without breaking stride,
inadvertently—perhaps intentionally—urging the hem a little
high,” she continued. “I mean like ... mystical, spooky, sixth
sense kind of high. And the priest ... the hierophant
... led them all in a huge orgy.” She paused and leaned in as if to sniff the scent coming off
me, to gauge whether it was adolescent fear or a young man’s desire.
“And then the hierophant chose one of the girls ... one of the Mystai ...
and took her
below. And when he came back, he had a little baby in his arms, and he
called the baby Brimos. And
the people who saw Brimos
became knowers ... they became the Epoptai.” She pronounced the exotic word like an incantation, with
the accent on the middle syllable, and when she said
I smelled strawberries on her breath.
“W-what happened to the girl?” I asked, not making the
“She was dead but not dead,” said Mona. “She died in the
act of being reborn.”
I don’t know by what magic of hers my hunger and fear and awe
congealed into willfulness, because I had always been tentative with
girls, but I suddenly grabbed a handful of her curls and pulled her
mouth to mine. She slipped her tongue between my mouth without a
moment’s deliberation, and put her hand against my zipper.
That was how it began with Mona and me, and it continued for
exactly one year to the day. We never saw one another except at the
grotto, and we arranged our meetings by notes left underneath a rock
near the gate at the edge of the wood. Because she was, despite her pagan-ish ways, a good Catholic
girl, and I was at heart a shy and reticent boy, we never desecrated
the grotto with actual fucking, though in truth, that may have been
more a factor of those cautious times than anything. But we did delicious things. She opened her blouse one day and guided
my hand to her breast. On another, she slipped off her panties and let
me put my finger inside her pussy. And once, while a summer rain
soaked the sacred ground outside, she unzipped my jeans, felt her way
into my underpants, and rubbed me until, raw and sore, I came all over
her fingers. She wiped them dry on her plaid skirt. We conceived (with
the aid of her father’s books) and wrote out a liturgy, our own
version of the Eleusinian rite:
We, children of kore, come naked from the womb
and naked we return to the telesterion to be reborn
We come with reverence to the saints and the virgin
because all are keepers of demeter’s holy flame
We love as she loved and loves still, never dying
No act is a sin which happens beneath her gaze
We made a scroll of the testament, tied it with a ribbon from
her hair, and hid it in the grotto’s wall, behind a bronze statuette
of the Virgin so tarnished it was nearly black. One day, nearly ten
months after our first meeting, she left a note at the gate which
read: “Meet me on Thursday at 4. Make up something so your parents
don’t expect you home for dinner. I want to give you something
special. XX Mona”
She was in her school uniform, but had put her hair up and
decorated her eyes like an Athenian courtesan. When she stooped to
retrieve our scroll from the alcove, I saw that she wore no panties
under the pleated skirt. As
always, we went to our knees to read the verse, and when we had
finished, she smiled wickedly.
“Happy Birthday,” she said.
“Open your mouth.”
I did as she asked, and she set a small tablet beneath my
“Body of Christ,” she said. “Body of Kore.” She closed
my jaw with her forefinger, and then took a second tablet for herself.
“The life everlasting,” she said, kissing my sealed lips. “Today is the Beholding. Today we become
without asking that a tab of acid was slowly dissolving under my
“Let’s make a pact,” she said, her expression absent of
its usual whimsy. “For real and for sure. If anyone or anything ever
tries to drive us from this place ... our place ... we’ll meet here
at midnight on the first new moon after ... and die to this world ...
together.” I nodded, because it all seemed part of her elaborate
stage management, and I was then too poor a student of the female
heart to grasp that for Mona of the laughing eyes and mischievous
grin, some things were deadly serious.
Later, after we were rushing on the acid, after the statues had
begun to whisper and the rosary beads to rattle in sympathy with our
sighs, after my legs had turned to rubber and my belly ached with a
sweet sickness that felt like the vertigo of deep space, she took my
hand and led me to face the tarnished bronze Virgin. “Keep your eyes on her,” she commanded, and dropped to her
bare knees in front of me. “While
I suck your cock.”
“Wait,” I said in knee-jerk
shame. “Maybe we—” But she knew I wanted her to do it, regardless of divine
sanction. She pulled my
zipper down slowly enough for me to hear and feel every notch, and
with each notch, I got harder. She was an expert at sixteen. I don’t
know how or where she had learned. She put her right hand through my
shaky legs and pressed her forefinger against my anus, urging my cock
into her mouth one dizzying inch at a time. I looked down and saw that
her eyes had rolled back to the whites, and my soul jumped out of my
body in dread like some grinning
in a medieval puppet show. She
pulled her mouth roughly away, and it burned.
“Watch her!” she admonished.
I raised my eyes to the black Virgin, and saw that the statue
was where my soul—and Mona’s—had gone. Her eyes, like
Mona’s, were the color of milk, and flowed with thick tears of
semen. I thrust my hips forward, pinning Mona’s head against the
stone, and came until the Virgin’s eyes were dry and burned like
molten gold. When the echo of my howl had died out, I heard urgent
shouts and footfalls from outside the grotto, and I left the sanctuary
of Mona’s mouth with the sting of shame in my groin and my solar
We were busted, me with my pants around my knees and Mona with
my cum on her face. Busted by her two companions, a security guard,
and Sister Beatrice. I was no Catholic, not even a very good
Presbyterian, but with the hallucinogen coursing through my veins and
the nun’s fleshy face twisted up with indignation, I’d have sooner
died then and there than face the judgment
I knew lay ahead. It wasn’t that we had done it, it was
we had done it.
Mona was to be expelled from the Bethlehem Academy for Girls:
this I learned in a note she left at the gate after a week had passed.
In that week, some new and callous skin sheathed my soul and
dulled my humanity. I was spared an audience with Mona’s father
(which, in hindsight, might have shed some light on her nature), but
not the wrath of my own parents or the ridicule that made its way
ineluctably from the lunchroom of the Academy to the locker room of my
own High School. I can neither explain nor excuse how quickly a
glacier of indifference iced over my feelings for Mona, because I had
loved her—though more as one loves a goddess than a girl—and as
a goddess, she was as much tarnished by our act as the statue in which
our souls had briefly incubated. Something had hardened me in that
moment of disgrace.
During the month preceding her expulsion, she continued to
leave notes for me at the gate, and I, cavalierly, continued to
collect them as trophies. As they grew more desperate, more pathetic
in tone, my own hungry ego grew fatter, as if feeding off her
desperation. I think now that no penance is severe enough for one who
willfully breaks a woman’s heart, particularly when that willfulness
is born of spiritual cowardice.
I retrieved her last note on September 27, 1978. On October
her naked body was found in the grotto by the groundskeeper, wrists
cleanly slashed, palms up on the cold floor, a megadose of LSD
dispersed in the puddle of blood that surrounded her.
Mona’s suicide was handled with the kind of
discretion only the Catholic Church could still muster in those wide
open times. Not one mention of it appeared in the paper or on the
local news (the New Hebron Herald had no crime reporter—nor any
need of one—in 1978). But no gag order could keep the girls of
Bethlehem Academy from gossiping, snooping, and finally, from giving
rise to a cult of the Grotto and of Mona McCaffrey herself, inspired
by her rumored discovery of death’s fallacy. Her spirit was evoked
from dormitory mirrors in candlelit rituals held long after Sister
Beatrice had called “lights out,” ecstatic conclaves in which the
hysteria was fueled by communal masturbation.
It must not have taken long for some intrepid schoolgirl to
find the scroll of makeshift parchment Mona and I had hidden behind
the black Virgin, but it took twenty-four years for it to come back
into my hands, and it did so only because I happened to ask for it.
Teenaged girls, especially Catholic ones, are capable—when they
want to be—of their own code of Omerta. But my years of ferreting out civic corruption have made me
a diligent reporter. I have extensively interviewed
the families and
friends of the six girls who’ve died in the Grotto over the past
year: three of them from Bethlehem Academy and three from the public
high school. Behind each of these deaths, I’m convinced, is a cad
like myself, who took the supreme gift of sexual love and then used it
to devalue the giver. Nicki Donaldson had the scroll, and Nicki showed
it to me because I told her that Mona McCaffrey had been my friend,
and promised her that I would keep its existence a secret. It is well
that I found Nicki when I did and gave vent to her despair, because
she might otherwise have been number seven. Mona’s cult is growing,
and grows larger with each broken heart. I sat beside Nicki and opened
the scroll gingerly on my trembling knees. Beneath our original
inscription, Mona had scrawled the following, probably on the day she
I loved him as a brother, I loved him as a son
loved him as a lover, my only chosen one
But now he is a father, and judges me a whore
I will not live without him, so I will live no more.
On every other Thursday during the months of
September through March, a young woman comes to my house. For reasons
of legal propriety, she is twenty-one, but she is dressed and mannered
to resemble a Catholic schoolgirl of sixteen. She brings with her a
cat o’ nine tails, and has standing instructions to beat me on the
naked buttocks until I cry for mercy. On rare occasions, the beatings
lead to an ejaculation, but that is only when I am fully able to
imagine that it is Mona who wields the lash. And when I do cry out, it
is Mona’s pardon I beg. I know that she hears me in her Eleusinian
burrow beneath the fertile soil. She is “dead but not dead,” and
it is she who summons her scorned sisters to the Grotto, which—like
her own beauty and holiness—has been fully restored in my shameful