The Red Grove


The following is from Tessa Fontaine’s The Red Grove. Fontaine is the author of The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts. Her writing can be found in Outside, Glamour, AGNI, and The Believer. She has been a sideshow performer, a shoe saleswoman, and a professor, and she taught for years in jails and prisons. She cofounded and runs the Accountability Workshop with the writer Annie Hartnett. Raised among the redwoods of Northern California, she now lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

June 26, 1997

Someone had spotted something unusual moving in the Red Grove’s cliffs. High up in an alcove, a mountain lion had made a den for her three kittens. Nobody in the community remembered seeing a whole mountain lion family before, as they are secretive, stealthy, and rare. Evidence appeared sometimes—a dried paw print in the mud, a deer carcass, a missing cat—but their presence was mostly theoretical, mythical, the ghost of something lethal that was somehow tied to what made the Red Grove safe, always just out of sight.

A news anchor from one of the nearby towns had arrived first thing that morning. Within the Red Grove, the rules were clear: no reporters. A cult in California had committed mass suicide a few months earlier, leaving thirty-nine people dead, and though the Red Grove was nothing like that, the people in the community all knew how damaging media spotlights could be, especially for the people who lived here in order to disappear.

By midday after the early-morning news report, there were thirty or so spectators, including a dozen outsiders who set up camp chairs along the road, everyone squinting through binoculars across the fields and up onto the rock outcropping, where the fat kits wrestled in the sun. Yes, the lions in and of themselves were spectacular, but beyond that, for the people of the Red Grove, they raised spiritual questions, supernatural questions. What might it mean? An indication of Tamsen Nightingale’s reincarnation? These wild animals wanting their land back, another person said. That’s not it, Luce thought, seeing in their brute strength a reminder to the world: nobody can fuck with us here.

Gloria spotted Ruby Wells talking to one of the outsiders, gesturing toward the lions and also back toward the red groves that dotted the valley. Yes, sure, Gloria wanted her kids to see the miracle of lion cubs, but mostly she’d hoped Ruby would be here. That fucker would not stop calling and had the nerve to show up on their goddamned doorstep. Well, no more.


Luce scanned the crowd, lingering on the outsiders. Not all serial killers fit the young-crazy-white-guy-listening-to-possessed-dogs type. There were the suave bankers you’d never suspect, or that meek baker who set women free in the Alaskan wilderness and then hunted them. You just never knew when someone was going to try to carve you out of your life. Right here in this crowd, someone had on a suspiciously thick jacket for the warm day, and that was the kind of thing someone would later remember, tearfully—I knew something was off about him. Why didn’t I follow my instincts? But it’s more than instinct. It’s common sense. Every sixty seconds a woman in the United States is sexually assaulted, perhaps by someone who seems perfectly nice at a speed-dating event, who tells you how pretty you look when he comes to pick you up, who even pulls a quarter from behind your niece’s ear. Luce leaned over to her mother and pointed at the man in the oversize coat, saying, “There are laws on the books that say if you steal a bundle of hay, it’s a felony. But you can stab a woman with a knife or shoot her with a gun and get charged with assault, which is a misdemeanor.”

“Not now, Luce—why don’t you pay attention to these lions? This is amazing.”

“Gloria, these are the foundational belief systems of the world they live in,” Luce said, nodding toward the outsiders.

Gloria stiffened, embarrassed by the possibility of anyone hearing her paranoid daughter, but something in her softened, and she put a hand across Luce’s back, her daughter’s sweet skin smell and baby powder–scented deodorant up close, turned her so they were face-to-face. “Listen, baby,” Gloria said. “Do you hear yourself? You’re sixteen. When I was your age, I was playing volleyball and making out in cars and going to prom and—”

“Prom is basically the Cinderella fantasy—” Luce started, but her mother cut her off.

“Just hush for a second. Please? I made a lot of mistakes in the past. You know that. I know that. I’m sorry. But I am going to make things better. For you.” Gloria put both arms behind Luce’s neck, leaned down, and pulled her in so their foreheads touched.

Luce opened her eyes and was ready to hate it, but there was her mother, wild animal, softest animal, looking right at her. It took her breath. Something older than she could remember wanted it to never, ever end. “You’re mine,” Gloria said, so softly Luce could barely hear the words over the chattering crowd. Gloria lifted her hand from Luce’s neck and brushed a thumb against her cheek. “Stay here, soak in the gloriousness of these kittens, and hey, maybe even go talk to a cute stranger?” Luce rolled her eyes. “I’ll be home a little later. Walk Roo home when you guys are done.” She winked and disappeared into the crowd.


The presence of the mountain lions was weird, surprising in ways Gloria didn’t even yet understand. Something she couldn’t quite put her finger on—how, in this supposedly safe place, what they were celebrating was the proximal presence of a goddamned lion, as if that were safe, as if nature itself weren’t brutal and violent. She knew the way a mother lion could rip open the throat of anyone, anything at all, trying to harm her babies.

She slipped back through the crowd. What is a mother? She asked herself this question not infrequently, trying to articulate what she was supposed to be doing. What is a mother if not a protector? If not a person who must provide the information and guidance to help a child make the best choices. There were a lot of things Gloria had not done as a mother. Hell, she was a human, her own human first and foremost. She would not sacrifice all of herself. Why should she? The sacrificial mother was a bullshit narrative. But she could do this one thing.

When Luce was one or two years old, Gloria had brought her a plastic clown mask. Here, she’d said, handing it to the baby, who still looked a little drunk in her new wobbling walk. Luce looked at her mother, not smiling, not reaching out to take it. Gloria tried again—here, shaking it closer to Luce’s hand, making it easy, but Luce stared, maybe didn’t even blink. It’s silly, don’t you see, honey, it’s so funny, she said, booping the nose. She said, Hi, Luce, in a high-pitched drawl, a clown voice, it was funny—but Luce didn’t budge. Didn’t crack a smile. Luce held in her hand a wooden mixing spoon, which Gem told Gloria she brought everywhere. This child so small and already so stubborn, so skeptical, so sure of what she liked and what she did not. But this is a clown, Gloria had tried once more, sticking out her tongue. Nothing.

Luce was not a baby who would pander. She did not pretend to be moved by something that did not move her. Not as a baby, not as a child. Not now, as a young woman. Gloria had brought the wrong toy. The only way to reach Luce was on Luce’s own terms.

She breathed in again, shakily, the mountain lions behind her. Got into the car, started the ignition. She had thought her children would never be as vulnerable as they were back when they were small. How foolish she’d been.

She could do this one thing, and even if her daughter didn’t understand yet, she would come to understand it.

The tall golden grass covering the hillside ahead bowed with a gust of wind that sent a pair of birds up out of hiding. One circled the other once before they flew away, not far off the ground, ducking and weaving between each other until they both shot up toward the sun.


Luce and Roo took the long route home, Luce pointing out the redwood wound where she’d recently seen a skunk family, the little one no bigger than her fist, Roo flinching at the creaking trees for the first time in his life, asking if Luce was worried about the calling man. “Nah,” she told him. “Do you know what seeing a family of lions means?” she asked. He didn’t. “It means fierce mother warrior protection for all those around,” she said. “It’s some of the old knowledge, Tamsen Nightingale stuff,” and though she’d made it up, it felt true.

They walked, stretching into the sun when the dense trees broke, snacking on a packet of beef jerky Roo had gotten from an outsider kid in exchange for a blue-bellied lizard he’d caught under a rock. The afternoon heat blurred the air off the road, but they weren’t in a hurry.

When they climbed up the long deck’s steps and into their house, they found only their aunt Gem, asleep in the same place she always was. Luce read, and Roo designed clothes for his dinosaurs, but Gloria hadn’t come home by later that afternoon or that evening. Luce warmed up tortillas with beans and cheese, let Roo tell her about the diet of Brachiosaurus, and cleaned the packed dirt from the carved bone she’d found, carefully scraping in its chiseled pockets, rinsing it under warm water to reveal the fine detail. Still, Gloria wasn’t there. Their mother wasn’t there when the sun finally went down on one of the longest days of the year, wasn’t there when the near-full moon rose, when fog rolled halfway in but dissipated before it took hold, when a coyote yelled once the sky was full of stars.

She wasn’t there when everyone in the house was dreaming, except for Luce, who walked to the deck and peered down at the empty driveway once again. Gloria still wasn’t home.


From The Red Grove by Tessa Fontaine. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2024 by Tessa Fontaine. All rights reserved.

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