On Christmas day in Carmeline Creek, a small town on the far north coast of California, Elisha Montoya, fifty-one, and her husband Paul Windsor, fifty-eight, make their annual walk around the town giving gifts to their friends: sturdy hot pads Elisha crocheted, jars of home-made apple sauce, and copies of Paul’s new holiday short story Naughty and Nice.
This year’s walk is especially poignant for them because this is the first Christmas since they married seven years ago that Elisha’s children Conor and Alexandra are not with them, both living in Ireland now—Conor twenty-two, Alexandra nineteen.
Elisha, who is half-Irish and half-Spanish, misses her children more than she ever imagined she would, and Paul misses them, too, though his missing them is conflated with his concern for how deeply sad Elisha is about her kids living on the other side of the world; and he blames himself a little for their leaving because he knows they were emboldened to go by their mother having a loving husband.
The last stop on their Christmas ramble is the home of Ephraim Spinoza and Tivona Descartes, very recent transplants from Switzerland.
“Come in, come in,” says Tivona, greeting Elisha and Paul on the front porch of the stately old brick and wood building she and Ephraim took possession of just three weeks ago. “Get warm by the fire.”
Tivona is sixty-seven, Moroccan, raised in France, her black hair cut short, her figure girlish, her eyes brilliantly blue. She leads Elisha and Paul through the empty downstairs space—a single large room with a very high ceiling—and up a long flight of stairs to a two-bedroom apartment where a fire is blazing in the living room hearth and Ephraim is in the kitchen cooking—Bill Evans playing on the stereo.
“Here you are,” says Ephraim, seventy-one, Spanish, with an impressive mop of gray curly hair. “I’ll open the wine.”
“Looks like you’ve lived here forever,” says Paul, gazing around the cheerful room.
“We found everything at the secondhand store,” says Tivona, taking their coats. “Now the only question is what to do with the big empty space downstairs.”
“Why do anything with it?” asks Elisha, joining Paul by the fire. “It’s lovely empty.”
“Did Paul tell you about our dream?” asks Tivona, hanging up their coats in the hall closet.
“Your quest for a magnificent seven?” says Elisha, arching an eyebrow. “He did.”
“We have not yet appended magnificent to the seven,” says Ephraim, laughing. “Or any adjective for that matter.”
“I think you are the fourth,” says Tivona, gazing at Elisha. “I love the way you think and speak.”
“I thought she was the fourth the first time we met her at Mona’s,” says Ephraim, nodding in agreement. “I was only waiting for you to think so, too.”
“Which only leaves three more to find,” says Tivona, going to the kitchen to open a bottle of wine.
“I smell garam masala and garlic and tomatos and onions,” says Elisha, standing beside Ephraim at the stove.
“A lentil stew,” says Ephraim, stirring the mélange in a large iron pot. “Inspired by the stew you served at Mona’s a few days ago. Was that your recipe?”
“My mother’s,” says Elisha, lifting the lid from a pot of jasmine rice. “Forgive me. My café habit. I’m terrible.”
“You are a great cook,” says Ephraim, speaking Spanish to her. “You may lift our lids whenever you desire.”
“Gracias,” says Elisha, Ephraim’s Spanish bringing tears to her eyes. “I don’t often hear Spanish as my mother spoke it.”
“The mother tongue,” says Ephraim, offering Elisha a taste of the stew. “They say there is nothing more profound to our senses than our mother’s voice.”
During supper, in answer to Elisha’s question about where and when Tivona and Ephraim met, Tivona says, “Paris. I was thirty-seven, so… thirty years ago. I was a lecturer in Archaeology at the Sorbonne, Ephraim was a professor there in Spanish Literature. We met at a party given by a mutual friend. And we fell in love at first sight, only he had a wife and I had a husband, so…”
“So,” says Ephraim, taking up the tale, “we were in love but would not pursue each other because neither of us was inclined to adultery. We did occasionally have lunch together in a café near the university, but spoke only of academic things and never revealed our feelings for each other, at least not in words.”
“And then seven months after we first met,” says Tivona, her eyes sparkling in the candlelight, “I came home one evening and my husband Jerome told me he had fallen in love with someone else and wanted a divorce. I was quite surprised because I had no inkling he was having an affair. Fortunately we had no children and I was ready for a change, so I agreed, and then I asked him who he had fallen in love with and he said Margot Espinosa, Ephraim’s wife.”
“Yes,” says Ephraim, swirling his wine. “Margot was confessing to me at the very moment Jerome was telling Tivona.”
“So then how long was it before you got together?” asks Paul, who was married twice before he married Elisha, both marriages ending when he learned his wives were having affairs.
“A year,” says Ephraim, gazing fondly at Tivona. “Our lunch dates became more personal and less academic, but we both wanted to be completely free from our previous mates before we embarked on a relationship. We didn’t discuss this, but we knew this was what we both wanted.”
“Then finally we did get together,” says Tivona, her eyes full of tears, “and eleven months later our daughter Simone was born. Our only child. She lives in San Francisco now, which made our decision to move here much easier.”
“What does Simone do?” asks Paul, loving the romance of their story.
“She is a film editor,” says Ephraim, smiling as he thinks of their daughter.
“And a fine musician,” says Tivona, proudly. “She plays the guitar and sings.”
“So you are one and two, Paul is three, and I am the fourth of the seven people your dream told you to find,” says Elisha, sitting with Paul on a small sofa facing the fire and enjoying after-supper tea. “What happens when you find the seventh?”
“We don’t know,” says Ephraim, sitting in a grand old armchair. “Maybe the mystery of what to do with the room downstairs will be solved when we find the seventh or the seventh find us, but maybe not. Meanwhile, we are trusting the dream and living the days as they come.”
“What if I said I don’t want to be one of your seven?” asks Elisha, speaking to Tivona who is sitting on a big pillow near the fire.
“I don’t think it matters,” says Tivona, shaking her head. “In the dream Ephraim says, ‘Our first visitor will be one of the seven,’ and I say, ‘And you and I are two of the seven.’ And he says, ‘Leaving four to find.’ But nothing is said about any of the seven belonging to us or belonging to a collective or that any of the seven is required to do anything or even acknowledge they are one of the seven. I think it must be more about recognizing them and their recognizing us.”
“For that matter, we don’t even know if the seven are all people.” Ephraim shrugs. “They might be the four of us and a dog and a cat and a beautiful parrot, like the parrot in our dream. So perhaps the purpose of finding the seven is a way to focus our awareness as we settle into our new lives here.”
“I feel the seven are people,” says Paul, sounding quite certain. “Though I realize the dream is yours and not mine.”
“Maybe it is your dream,” says Tivona, dancing into the kitchen.
“Maybe you will find the other three,” says Ephraim, following Tivona. “And now we are going to have a special sherry we brought all the way from Zurich.”
“A Christmas tradition,” says Tivona, clapping her hands four times. “A most delicious elixir.”
“How will we recognize the fifth, sixth, and seventh?” asks Elisha, lifting Paul’s hand to her lips.
“A certain je ne sais quoi,” says Paul, shivering as Elisha kisses the back of his hand.
“A delightful aliveness,” says Ephraim, pulling the cork from a tall green bottle.
“A pleasing complexity,” says Tivona, setting four small crystal goblets on the counter. “An ineffable sparkle.”
“I feel those things about so many people,” says Elisha, laughing.
“Then it shouldn’t take you long to find them,” says Ephraim, pouring the dark red sherry.
Breaking News! My brand new album of songs Lounge Act In Heaven has just come out. You can buy copies of the CD with all the marvelous artwork for just five dollars from my web site (think Solstice/Xmas/Hanukkah gifts), or you can download and stream the album from Apple Music, CD Baby, Amazon, qobuz, YouTube, or any of your favorite music sites. I’m very excited to be sharing this collection of twelve new songs. If you give them a listen and like what you hear, please tell your music-loving friends.