The Grotto

by A.W. Hill

The grotto holds in my memory all of the fearsome sanctity of my first trespass, despite its recent desecration by suicide and scandal. I am one of the lucky ones who stumbled on it unawares and gawked in wonder, like Columbus on the shores of a new world. 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. 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 of my immortal soul. Although the icons and images are Christian, the setting is pagan, and other goddesses seemed to haunt the grounds, as well. I was sixteen. Not two-hundred yards away, a cluster of Catholic schoolgirls in plaid skirts turned cartwheels on the new mowed grass. One of them, with skin as white as the Virgin’s and a mind as dirty as Lily Langtree’s, was Mona McCaffrey.

I work now, twenty-five years later, as a reporter at 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 travelled 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 virtue to Mona, and where my cruelty caused her death. Even if I wanted to escape her ghost, I couldn’t: she would follow me to Timbuktu and she will follow me to Hell.

She comes to me on nights when the harvest moon hangs like a blood sun over City Hall, and on the gunmetal grey dawns of November’s first, wet snow. In late August, when the night sweat is so profuse that I lie in my bed like a corpse at a 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 struck the people of New Hebron with grief and profound puzzlement, but then most of them have memories shorter than mine. In 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 temporary relief from 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 thoroughness I once brought to coverage of the mayoral race, but I have not revealed everything I know. I am, you see, partly responsible for the events I have been assigned to chronicle.

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 come home that afternoon with a consuming desire to go there. I would describe it as a religious feeling, except that it also bore similarities to the fever that drives adolescent boys into the bathroom to jerk off. I hopped on my bike and tore the ten blocks to the edge of the wood on the north perimeter of Bethlehem Academy. It had become my habit to hide the bike in the brush, just inside the broken gate, and walk the quarter mile to the Grotto. The day was hazy and fragrant with the scent of burning leaves, and the autumnal sun was low in the sky, making the woods appear as if draped in successive curtains of smoky lace. I stepped into the clearing and stealthily approached the rough-hewn, cavern-like entrance to the monument, in a state of breathless excitement akin to that of Jack creeping past the Beanstalk’s sleeping giant. My bowels shifted when she spoke.

“Halt! Who goes 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 framing an impish face.

“We kill boys and eat them for dinner here,” she said. “And tonight is mystery meat night.” She grinned at the sight of my ashen 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 freckled and as emaciated as a medieval penitent. “Should we kill him now, girls ... or torture him first?”

“We shouldn’t be here,” whispered the skinny one.

“We should get back,” the dumpling agreed.

“You guys go ahead,” said Mona, her double-barreled stare trapping me like a fox in a shotgun sight. “I’ll meet you in the caf.” The girls hesitated. “I promise,” she said. “Fifteen minutes.” Once her sidekicks had skulked off, glowering back at me all the way, Mona came fully into the clearing, flicked 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 ya doin’ here?”

“I love this place,” I said, and the words felt true coming off my lips. I had never spoken of the grotto to anyone. “It’s beautiful and ... I dunno. Kind of haunted, 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. “And it feels a million miles from anywhere.”

“I love 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 sacred ground, you know. Are you a Catholic?”

“Uh-uh,” I replied. “I don’t know what I am. I’m a mutt.”

“My Daddy teaches Ancient History at Holy Cross College ... you know, the all guy 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 see their future. Women with second sight -- they called them sybils -- lived inside and spoke to them from their dreams. And then there were really holy places -- like this one called Eleusis -- where hundreds of people came once a year, at harvest time ... like right now ... and went into the grotto for this secret ceremony. And when they came out, they weren’t afraid of dying anymore.”

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 stuff.”

“Like what?” I asked.

She dropped her chin and then raised her eyes to mine, the corners of her mouth curling slightly. She nodded to the entrance of the grotto. “Come inside.”

On every night of my life since, at the liminal moment when I lie suspended between waking and sleep, I have seen that look and heard that invitation. “O.K.,” I said. “If you’re sure ...”

The interior of the grotto is a single chamber, roughly circular and 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 group of scattered benches. The dank walls of the main chamber are inset with crucifixes and statuettes of the Virgin at every level, and hung like a Christmas tree with the offered rosary beads of a hundred penitent schoolgirls. She sat cross-legged on the cavern floor and I followed suit.

“I snuck into my Dad’s study one night,” she continued, “when he was out doing a lecture somewhere, and read everything I could find about Eleusis.” She swallowed hard. Her eyes were wide and moist, and flashed in the fading light. “I had to find out why the people who went there weren’t afraid of death afterwards.” Her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper, as if the Virgin herself might be listening in. “The whole deal was about this story ... this myth ... about how Hades, the god of the underworld, captured Persephone and took her below to do his nasty stuff with her, and then her mother, Demeter, had to rescue her. But it’s really about how things never die. We never die. But since that’s pretty hard for people to swallow, they put on this whole crazy show to prove it. Everybody drank a potion called the Kykeon, made from fermented wheat with this mold growing on it. Guess what the mold was ...”

“I dunno,” I said, so erotically entranced that I hadn’t realized she had her hand on my chest. She tracked my line of sight down to the exposed white thigh below the rumpled hem of her plaid skirt, but made no effort to cover it.

“LSD,” she said. “The mold was ergot, which is what LSD comes from.”

A bead of water, condensed from the moisture on the ceiling of the grotto, dropped at that moment onto her thigh with a soft splat. She rubbed it into her skin without breaking stride, inadvertantly nudging the hem a little higher.

“Everybody got really high,” she continued. “I mean like ... mystical, spooky, sixth sense kind of high. And the priest ... the hierophant ... led them all in this huge orgy ...” She paused and leaned in as if to sniff the scent coming off me: to gauge whether it was fear or 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 then the people became knowers ... they became the Epoptai.”

“What happened to the girl?” I asked, not yet getting the sublime drift.

“She was dead but not dead,” said Mona. “She died in the act of being reborn.”

I don’t know how or by what magic present my hunger and fear and awe congealed into purpose, because I had always been tentative with girls, but I suddenly grabbed a handful of her curls and pulled her mouth to mine. Her tongue slipped between my teeth without a moment’s hesitation.

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 beneath a rock at the gate on the edge of the wood. Because she was, despite her pagan predilections, a good Catholic girl at heart, and I was at heart a shy and reticent boy, we never profaned the grotto by actually fucking in it. She opened her blouse one day and let me feel her breasts; on another, she lifted her skirt and let me put my finger inside her wet cunt; and once, on a rainy afternoon, she unsnapped my jeans, slipped her hand inside my underpants, and rubbed me until, raw and sore, I came all over her fingers. 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
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 almost 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 a birthday present. 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 her 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 tongue.

“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 Epoptai.”

I knew without asking that a tab of acid was dissolving under my tongue.

“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 saints 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 longing that felt like vertigo, she took my hand and led me to face the bronze Virgin.

“Watch her,” she said, and dropped to her bare knees in front of me. “I want to suck your cock.”

“Wait,” I said in knee-jerk timidity. “Maybe we --” But she knew I wanted her to continue. She freed the button and pulled the zipper down slowly enough for me to hear and feel every notch. She was an expert at sixteen. I don’t know how, I don’t know where she had learned. She slipped her right hand between my legs and laid her forefinger against my anus, and my cock, still soft with apprehension, grew hard inside her mouth. I looked down and saw that her eyes had rolled back to the whites, and my soul lept out of my body like some grinning Punch in a medieval street show. She pulled her mouth roughly away, and it stung.

“Watch her!” she said. I raised my eyes to the black Virgin, and saw that thatwas where my soul had gone. Her eyes were the color of milk, and flowed with thick tears of semen. I thrust my hips into Mona’s face, pinning her head against the stone, and came until there was nothing left of me. When the echo of my howl had subsided, I heard shouts and footfalls from outside the grotto.

We were busted, me with my pants around my knees and Mona with my sperm on her face. Busted by her two companions, a security guard, and the Mother Superior. Now, I was no Catholic, not even a very good Christian, but with the drug coursing through my veins and the blood draining from the nun’s horrified face, I’d have sooner died then and there than face the judgement I knew lay ahead.

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 membrane sheathed my consciousness and dulled my senses. I was spared a confrontation with Mona’s father, but not the wrath of my own parents or the ridicule that made its way ineluctably from the lunchroom of the Academy to the classrooms of my own High School. I can neither account for nor excuse how quickly a glacier of indifference -- even contempt -- 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 had been despoiled, just as had her temple. For the month leading up to the date of her expulsion, she continued to leave notes for me at the gate, and I, cavalierly, continued to collect them. As they grew more desperate, more pathetic in tone, my own despicable ego grew fatter, feeding off her humiliation. 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 cowardice. I retrieved her last note on September 27, 1978. On October 1, her naked body was found in the grotto by the groundskeeper, wrists neatly slashed and laid on the cold floor, a megadose of LSD dispersed in the puddle of blood that surrounded her.

Mona’s suicide was handled with the image-conscious discretion that only the Catholic Church can muster in these 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 excess of secrecy could keep the girls of Bethlehem Academy from gossipping, snooping, and finally, from giving birth to a virtual cult of the Grotto, inspired by Mona’s whispered revelation of death’s fallacy and honored in candlelit rituals before the dormitory mirrors, complete with their own incantory riff on “I Believe in Mary Worth.”

It must not have taken long for some intrepid schoolgirl to find the scroll of makeshift parchment hidden behind the black Virgin’s robes, but it took twenty-four years for it to reappear, and it did so only because I happened to ask for it. Teenagers are capable, when they want to be, of a rule of Omerta worthy of Mafia capos, but as I say, I’m a diligent reporter and have interviewed extensively the families and friends of the six girls who’ve died in the Grotto: three of them from Bethlehem and three from the public high school. Behind each of those deaths, I’m convinced, is a boy like myself, who took the supreme gift of sexual love and then used it to devalue the giver. A girl named 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 feelings, 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, perhaps on the day she died:

I loved him as a brother, I loved him as a son
I 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, a young woman comes to my house. For reasons of legal propriety, she is twenty, 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 out. 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 for mercy, it is Mona’s pardon I beg. She is dead but not dead, and it is she who summons her cast off sisters to the Grotto, which, like her own beauty, has been fully restored in my heart.


A.W. Hill lives in Los Angeles. His first novel, a supernatural thriller entitled Enoch's Portal (ISBN 1-891400-59-2) was published in June 2002 and acquired for motion picture development by Paramount. A screenplay, Little Black Book, a comedy about a modern-day courtesan, is currently being shopped to studios and actresses unafraid to soil their reputations. More info about Hill and his alter-ego, P.I. Stephan Raszer, can be found at

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Enoch's Portal © 2002 by A.W. Hill






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