Described in Agro World as “a sort of Esalen Institute for lady asskickers,” the mountainside retreat of the Sisterhood of Kunoichi Attentives stood on a promontory dappled in light and dark California greens above a small valley, only a couple of ridgelines from the SP tracks, final ascent being over dirt roads vexing enough to those who arrived in times of mud, and so deeply rutted when the season was dry that many an unwary seeker was brought to a high-centered pause out in this oil painting of a landscape, wheels spinning in empty air, creatures of the hillside only just interrupting grazing or predation to notice.
Originally, in the days of the missions, built to house Las Hermanas de Nuestra Senora de los Pepinares — one of those ladies’ auxiliaries that kept springing up around the Jesuits in seventeenth-century Spain, never recognized by Rome nor even by the Society, but persisting with grace and stamina there in California for hundreds of years — the place had acquired extensions and outbuildings, got wired and rewired, plumbed and replumbed, until a series of bad investments had forced what was left of the solidarity to put it up for rent and disperse to cheaper housing, though they continued to market the world-famous cucumber brandy bearing their name.
By the 1960s the kunoichi, looking for some cash flow themselves, had begun to edge into the self-improvement business, not quite begun to boom as it would in a few more years, offering, eventually, fantasy marathons for devotees of the Orient, group rates on Kiddie Ninja Weekends, help for rejected disciples of Zen (“No bamboo sticks — ever!” promised the ads in ‘Psychology Today’) and other Eastern methods. Men of a certain age in safari outfits and military haircuts and quite often the grip of a merciless nostalgia could always be counted on to show up with ogling in mind, expecting some chorus line of Asian dewdrops. Imagine their surprise at the first day’s orientation session, when the Sisters, all wearing ninja gear and unpromisingly distant expressions, filed onstage one by one. Not only were most of them non-Asian, many. were actually black, a-and Mexican too! What went on?
“There it is,’ DL said, “check it out.” They had rounded a curve, and under the bright moon the forest fell away and the land went sloping down in pastures and then thickets of alder to where a creek rushed and fell, and up beyond that, high on the other side, there stood the Retreat. Steep walls weather-stained over old whitewash did not so much tower above the rolling, breaking terrain as almost readably reflect it, as if they shone at all their different angles like great coarse mirrors, beneath ancient tile roofs gone darkening and corroded under the elements, with windows recessed into shadow and seeming to bear no relation to any set of levels that might be inside. As they got closer, Prairie saw archways, a bell tower, an interpenetration with the tall lime surfaces of cypresses, pepper trees, a fruit orchard… Nothing looked especially creepy to her. She was a California kid, and she trusted in vegetation. What was creepy, the heart of creep-out, lay back down the road behind her, in, but not limited to, the person, hard and nearly invisible, like quartz, of her pursuer, Brock Vond.
DL was known at the gates outer and inner, getting long looks Prairie couldn’t interpret. By the time they got up to the reception building, there was a welcoming committee standing in the lamp-lined drive, all in black gi, headed by a tall, fit, scholarly-looking woman named Sister Rochelle, who turned out to be Senior Attentive, or mother superior of the place. “DL-san,”’ she greeted her longtime disciple and antagonist. “What new mischief now?” DL bowed and introduced Prairie, at whom Sister Rochelle had been gazing as if she knew her but was pretending for some reason that she didn’t. They entered a small tiled courtyard with a fountain. Owls called and swooped. Women lay naked in the moonlight. Others, all in black, stood together in the gallery shadows. “Any interest from law enforcement here?” inquired Sister Rochelle.
DL’s line should’ve been something like, ““Oh, you working for them now?” delivered emphatically, but she only waited quietly in what Prairie would learn was the standard Attentive’s Posture, her eyes lowered, her lip zipped.
“So will the sheriff break down the gate right away, do you think, or wait till Monday morning? This ain’t The Hunchback of Notre Dame here, and even if she’s not some kind of escapee, there’s the Ninjette Oath you took, Clause Eight, you’ll recall, section B? ‘To allow residence to no one who cannot take responsibility for both her input and her output’.”
“Like earn what you eat, secure what you shit, been doin’ it for years,” Prairie said, ‘“‘what else?” Not in the first place the sort of kid to take stuff personally, getting ESP messages that around here it might not even be considered cool, she had been tending to the line of her spine and quietly meeting the woman’s neutral but energetic gaze. “Well then maybe you have some kind of work-study program here, list of courses, price schedule, maybe pick something cheap, be a live-in student, work off the fees?” detaching from their eye contact long enough to look around, as if for chores that needed doing, trying to wish some deal into being.
The Head Ninjette seemed interested. “Can you cook?”
“Some. You mean you don’t have a cook?”
“Worse. A lot of people who think they’re cooks but are clinically deluded. We’re notorious here for having the worst food in the seminar-providing community. And we’re looking at another herd next weekend, and we try different staff combinations, but nothing works. The karmic invariance is, we’re paying for high discipline in the Sisterhood with a zoo in the kitchen. Come on, you'll see.”
Out in the evening, she led Prairie and DL around a few corners and down a long trellised walkway toward the rear of the main building. Suppertime was over and some postprandial critique now vehemently in progress. People huddled, intimidated, by the back entrance, out of which came an amazing racket, giant metal mixing bowls gonging and crashing around on the flagstone floors, voices screaming, for background the local 24-hour “New Age” music station, gushing into the environment billows of audio treacle. Inside, something ruined was still smoldering on the back of a stove. Folks stood around next to pots that would need scouring. There lay throughout the deep old kitchen a depressing odor of stale animal fat and disinfectant. The chef who tonight was supposed to have been in charge crouched with his head in an oven, weeping bitterly.
“Hi guys,” caroled Sister Rochelle, “what y’all doin’?”
Holding their nightly self-criticism hour, of course, in which everybody got to trash the chef of the day personally for the failure of his or her menu, as well as plan more of the same for tomorrow.
“I did what I had to,” the chef blubbered, iron and muffled, “I was true to the food.”
One of the stoveside loungers looked over. “What are you calling ‘food,’ Gerhard? That meal tonight wasn’t food.”
“What you cook is stomach trouble with fat on it,” fiercely added a lady holding a meat cleaver, with which she struck a nearby chopping block for emphasis.
“Even your Jell-O salads have scum on them,” put in a stylish young man in a couturier chef’s toque from Bullock’s Wilshire.
“Please, enough,” whimpered Gerhard.
“Total honesty,” people reminded him. This mean-spirited exercise, thought to be therapeutic, was part of everyone’s assignment back here to what Gerhard called “indefinite culinary penance.”
“Isn’t that kidnapping?” Prairie would wonder later.
No — they had all signed instruments of indenture, releases, had all arrived somewhere in their lives where they needed to sign. They spoke of scullery duty as a decoding of individual patterns of not-eating, seeing thereby beyond dishes, pots, and pans each uniquely soiled, beyond accidents of personality to a level where you are not what you eat but how… At first Prairie had no time to appreciate many of these spiritual dimensions, because she was running her ass off nonstop. The penitents in the kitchen, weird-eyed as colonists on some galactic outpost, greeted her arrival as a major event. As it turned out, none of them could fix anything even they liked to eat. Some here had grown indifferent to food, others actively to hate it. Nevertheless, new recipes were seized on like advanced technology from beyond the local star system. After checking out the vegetable patch, the orchards, the walk-in freezers and pantries of the Retreat, wondering if she was violating some Prime Directive, Prairie taught them Spinach Casserole. And it proved to be just the ticket to get these folks going again as a team.
“What were you going to serve them?” she couldn’t help asking.
“Dip,” chirped a Mill Valley real-estate agent.
“S’mores,” chuckled a Milpitas scoutmaster, “with maple syrup.”
“New England Boiled Dinner,” replied an ex-institutional inmate with a shudder.
The secret to Spinach Casserole was the UBI, or Universal Binding Ingredient, cream of mushroom soup, whose presence in rows of giant cans there in the ninjette storerooms came as no surprise.
Deep in the refrigerators were also to be scavenged many kinds of pieces of cheese, not to mention cases full of the more traditional Velveeta and Cheez Whiz, nor was spinach a problem, with countless blocks of it occupying their own wing of the freezer. So next day the classic recipe was the vegetarian entrée du jour at supper. For the meat eaters, a number of giant baloneys were set to roasting whole on spits, to be turned and attentively basted with a grape-jelly glaze by once-quarrelsome kitchen staff while others made croutons from old bread, bustling about while the spinach thawed, singing along with the radio, which someone had mercifully re-tuned to a rock and roll station.
(Excerpted from ‘Vineland,’ 1990)