Tober Quincy is nine-years-old and quite tall for his age. Highly intelligent and intuitive and talkative, his dark brown hair has yet to be cut since he was born and nearly reaches his waist. Some mornings he captures his hair in a ponytail, and some mornings his mother braids his hair in a three-strand braid she ties at the end with a red shoelace.
Augie Quincy, Tober’s eight-year-old brother, is also very bright and intuitive and talkative, but not particularly tall for his age. Augie’s red hair has been cut many times since he was four, per his request, and much to his mother’s chagrin he insists on wearing baseball caps most of the time, his current favorite a neon-orange Houston Astros cap that really bugs her.
Sharon Quincy is Tober and Augie’s thirty-two-year-old mother. She is five-foot-three, weighs a hundred and five pounds, and is remarkably strong and agile for a person of any size. Blazingly smart with a wry sense of humor, Sharon speaks English with a strong New Jersey accent and is also fluent in French and Spanish, languages she learned from her fellow dancers when she was in the corps de ballet of the New York City Ballet Company from the age of fifteen until she was twenty. She has shoulder-length brown hair, dark blue eyes, a simply beautiful face, and at a distance is often taken for a teenager.
An excellent violinist and guitarist and a voracious reader, Sharon homeschools Tober and Augie on their remote farm three miles from the Pacific Ocean in the far north of California. Sharon and Tober and Augie grow nearly all the food they need in their quarter-acre vegetable garden and large greenhouse, and what food they don’t grow, they buy at Ray’s Food Place in Fortuna where Sharon works twenty hours a week as a checker.
Sharon has many friends, but she hasn’t been in a relationship since Tober and Augie’s father vamoosed when Tober was five-months-old and Augie was in utero.
Lance is Tober and Augie’s father. He told Sharon his last name was Vogelsang, but Sharon doubts this is true; and she wouldn’t be surprised if Lance is a pseudonym, too. Tober and Augie don’t know much about their father except the little Sharon has told them and what they deduce from photos he sends in a Christmas card every January along with a fifty-dollar bill, the amount unvarying since Lance made his getaway nine years ago.
The postmarks on the envelopes are usually from Arizona, the town name changing from year to year; and one year the card came from Bangor, Maine. Because Lance doesn’t write anything in the card or on the backs of the photos, Tober and Augie and Sharon have no idea where the photos were taken, though they guess Lance lives somewhere in Arizona.
Three photos came with last year’s Christmas card, and Tober and Augie have looked at these three images dozens of times in the eleven months since they arrived, not because they miss Lance—they don’t know him to miss him—but because they enjoy how the photos fuel their imaginings and supply details for the stories they make up about their father.
In the first of the photos in this most recent batch, Lance, a broad-shouldered man with muscular arms and a big paunch, is sitting sideways on the rump of a large brown horse standing in front of what looks like the wall of an old barn. Lance is shirtless, his blue jeans tattered, his feet bare. His head is shaved, he has a gold ring in his left nostril, and he has a tattoo of a cobra coiled around his left arm, the head of the cobra on the back of his hand. A tattoo of a Chinese dragon covers Lance’s right arm from his wrist to his shoulder, the dragon’s nose touching Lance’s collarbone; and a tattoo of the head of a roaring male lion covers Lance’s heart. Lance is smiling, but despite the smile, Tober and Augie agree he looks sad.
The second of these three recent photos shows Lance wearing a lime green tank top, blue plaid Bermuda shorts, and red flip-flops. He is standing on a scraggly lawn at dusk, holding a can of beer in one hand and a hand-rolled cigarette in the other as he gazes up at a cloudless sky, the camera’s flash reflecting off his shaved head.
In the third photo, Lance is wearing a white dress shirt and a black tie. His hair has started to grow back, revealing much of the top of his head is bald. He is standing beside a woman with unnaturally blonde hair wearing a scoop-necked yellow dress that shows off the tops of her breasts. She and Lance are smiling, but again, despite those smiles, Tober and Augie think Lance and the woman look sad.
Sharon makes a point of not speaking ill of Lance in front of the boys, though when Tober was six and Augie was five, and Sharon was feeling particularly upset about something, she referred to Lance as a charismatic jerk; and when the boys were eight and seven, while Sharon was talking on the phone to her mother in New Jersey and thought the boys were asleep, she characterized Lance as a narcissistic schmuck.
In both instances, Tober and Augie looked the words up in the dictionary, and the definitions they found for charismatic, jerk, narcissistic, and schmuck sparked long discussions with Sharon about who Lance was, why she partnered with him, how they ended up far from the nearest town at the end of a dirt road, why Lance went away, and why he never comes to visit.
Sharon decided to make a life with Lance and have children with him because she loved who she thought he was, only she didn’t know who he really was and didn’t love the person he turned out to be. But before she realized Lance was not who she thought he was, she was pregnant with Tober, and while pregnant, Lance convinced her to empty her savings and buy an old farmhouse on ten acres of land at the end of a dirt track known to locals as Snake Creek Road, and to firefighters and law enforcement officials as the nameless dirt road just past the three-mile marker on Highway 211.
When Lance, who claimed to be ten years older than Sharon, was wooing her in San Francisco, he boasted of a degree in Design from the University of Oregon and claimed to be a master organic gardener. He said he knew all about raising chickens and rabbits, could build virtually anything, and was an old hat at living off the grid with solar panels. He also claimed to be an expert woodsman and auto mechanic.
None of this turned out to be even remotely true.
By the time Lance left Sharon after two tumultuous years of involvement with her, she was well established on Snake Creek Road. She had a bountiful vegetable garden surrounded by a sturdy deer fence, a new roof on the old farmhouse, the old glass greenhouse was repaired and producing lettuce, kale, green onions, and chard year-round, she had thirty hens laying copious eggs to eat and trade, and she was the master of seven robust beehives. A large solar array was producing ample electricity to power her lights and freezer and refrigerator and the pump for her well; and she had a great store of firewood for her two super-efficient woodstoves.
Sharon accomplished all this and much more with the generous assistance of her knowledgeable neighbors and without a lick of help from Lance. There are twenty-two people in six households, counting Sharon and her boys, living on Snake Creek Road, and these hearty homesteaders know all about living off the grid far from the nearest town; and they were happy to help such a likeable and hardworking young woman with a delightful baby and another on the way.
For most of those two years that Lance figured so largely in Sharon’s life, he was not with her on Snake Creek Road. He said he was doing design work in Portland, and he would, every few weeks, return to the homestead and give Sharon some cash. On a few occasions, he gave her several hundred dollars, but usually he gave her a pittance, stayed for a few days, and then left again.
The day Lance departed for good, he waited for pregnant Sharon to drive off in her little pickup truck with baby Tober to go grocery shopping in Fortuna, and then he ransacked the house looking for cash and Sharon’s valuable musical instruments. However, he found no money or instruments because Sharon had anticipated his search for cash and valuables and had removed her money and instruments to a neighbor’s house the previous day while Lance was sleeping.
Fortunately, Lance was not a vindictive person, merely desperate, so he broke no windows and killed no chickens. Instead, he took most of the food in the refrigerator, several bottles of wine, a large ceramic salad bowl, a down comforter, and a lovely porcelain statuette of Kuan Yin.
Tober and Augie have only watched television twice in their lives, both times for just a few moments. The first time was two years ago in a house in Fortuna where they went with Sharon to procure a couple kittens. The middle-aged man and woman who lived in the house had large flat-screen televisions in nearly every room, and all the televisions were tuned to the same football game, so as Tober and Augie followed Sharon through the living room and family room and kitchen to reach the door that opened into the garage where the kittens were, they saw fragments of what to them was a fantastically colorful and otherworldly spectacle of dozens of armored men, some wearing red uniforms, some black, doing battle on a brilliant green lawn surrounded by thousands of cheering people wearing red sweatshirts.
The second time they saw television was just a few months ago in a Japanese restaurant in Eureka where they’d gone with the Bernstein’s, their closest neighbors on Snake Creek Road. Sharon was in New Jersey visiting her parents, and Tober and Augie were staying with the Bernstein’s for the two weeks Sharon was gone. George and Lisa are the adult Bernsteins, Cecily, ten, and Felix, eight, their children.
Cecily is Tober’s best friend besides Augie, and Felix is Augie’s best friend besides Tober, and Cecily and Felix are being homeschooled and growing up without television, too. There are seven kids on Snake Creek Road being homeschooled, and George and Lisa and Sharon and four other adults on the road are the faculty.
The television in question was mounted on the wall above the sushi bar. On the large screen, a man with receding brown hair and a sunburned face was being interviewed about a movie he had made. The woman interviewing the man was small with short blonde hair and a voice that reminded Tober and Augie and Cecily and Felix of the duck Camille who quacks long dissertations when the children come to feed her and the chickens.
When George and Lisa realized the kids were riveted by what was showing on the television, they changed tables so the kids could no longer see the screen.
Cecily summed up the children’s feelings about not getting to watch more of the show by saying, “We know television interferes with the proper development of our brains, but surely a tiny bit won’t hurt us.”
Hunting rabbits with their bows and arrows, fishing in the Eel River, and making blackberry sorbet from fresh-picked berries are near the top of Tober and Augie’s list of favorite activities, but going to the libraries in Fortuna and Eureka to check out books is at the very top of their list. And today they have come to the big library in Eureka with Sharon to return seventeen books and check out more.
While Augie scours the shelves for books about animals he and Tober haven’t read multiple times, Tober goes to use the bathroom, and on his way passes the open door of a conference room in which twenty people are listening to a handsome man with reddish brown hair speaking about Queen Elizabeth of England and the mysteries surrounding her life. The man, according to the name written on the blackboard, is Alex Redfield. He’s wearing a black jacket, a purple shirt, and black corduroy trousers; and he has an enchanting Scottish brogue that makes Tober grin.
Tober and Augie have learned a little about Queen Elizabeth, not the current queen of England but the long-ago queen of England, from Lisa Bernstein who co-teaches the homeschoolers History and Geography with Hank Carpenter who used to be a professor of History at Cal State Sacramento before fleeing academia to build a rammed-earth solar home on Snake Creek Road where he lives with his wife Ivy, an herbalist and astrologer.
Alex Redfield, however, is much more interesting to Tober than Lisa or Hank because he speaks so beautifully, almost as if he is singing his words in his deep Scottish-accented voice; and his sentences are the most beautiful sentences Tober has ever heard.
Tober stands in the doorway of the conference room for ten minutes, mesmerized by Alex, and when the presentation is over and the twenty people applaud, Tober writes Alex Redfield in his little notebook, goes to use the bathroom, and on his way back from the bathroom looks into the conference room and sees Alex is still there talking to a woman who attended the lecture. So Tober decides to ask Alex if he can recommend a book about the long-ago Queen Elizabeth suitable for a nine-year-old.
When the woman departs, Tober approaches Alex and says with his characteristic confidence, “Excuse me Mr. Redfield. I only heard the end of your speech about Queen Elizabeth, but you made me want to read a book about her. I’m nine, but according to the results of the last test we took to measure our reading and comprehension levels, I’m in Tenth Grade, though I’m not really in any grade because we’re being homeschooled and don’t have grades.”
Alex, who Tober guesses to be about the same age as George Bernstein who is forty-two, smiles at Tober and says, “Well, I suppose you could read my book about Elizabeth. There are a few racy passages, but nothing R-rated. The copy they have here is checked out to someone who attended my lecture today, but I know copies can be had on the Internet for mere pennies plus the shipping.”
“We don’t have a computer,” says Tober, handing his little notebook and pencil to Alex. “Would you please write the name of your book in my notebook and I’ll put my name on the waiting list here, and if the wait is much too long, I’ll ask my neighbor George to get a copy for me. He has a computer and buys lots of books that way.”
Alex takes the notebook from Tober, smiles at how neatly he printed ALEX REDFIELD in all caps, and says, “You know what? I’ll just give you my copy. How about that?”
“That would be wonderful,” says Tober, beaming at Alex. “I will trade you something for it. We have honey and eggs in the truck, and I have some beautiful stones I found at the beach two weeks ago at a minus tide. Do you like stones?”
“I do,” says Alex, enchanted with Tober. “Where are these stones you speak of?”
“Here,” says Tober, reaching into his pocket and bringing forth a little pouch he made from the skin of a rabbit he killed with his bow and arrow. “Hold out your hands.”
Alex cups his hands together and Tober pours ten exquisite stones into Alex’s hands.
“They’re gorgeous,” says Alex, his eyes wide with delight. “Where is the beach where you found these stones?”
“Mouth of the Eel,” says Tober, picking out the red one that resembles carnelian. “North side. This is the one you want, isn’t it?”
“It is,” says Alex, nodding. “Though truth be told, I want them all. But you should certainly get more than one measly book for these.”
“I’m sure your book is not measly,” says Tober, gazing sternly at Alex. “I’m sure it’s very good. And you can have all these stones, and the pouch, too, and owe me two books. How about that?”
“Agreed,” says Alex, nodding graciously. “And how will I get those two books to you?”
“We have a post office box in Fortuna,” says Tober, putting the stones back into the rabbit-skin pouch. “ Box 347. My name is Tober Quincy. Tober is short for October, but everyone calls me Tober except my brother and mother who call me Tobe. Would you please sign your book for me?”
“I will,” says Alex, taking the pouch of stones from Tober.
At which moment, Sharon and Augie come into the room, and Sharon says, “Ah here you are, Tobe. Sorry to drag you away, but I’ve got to be at work in forty minutes.” She smiles at Alex. “Sorry to interrupt.”
“No problem,” he says, returning her smile. “We’re just exchanging addresses to facilitate our future correspondence.”
Dear Alex Redfield,
My name is Tober Quincy. We met at the Eureka library three weeks ago and you traded me your book Queen Elizabeth I: A Brief Introduction To A Most Complicated Life for ten stones and you owe me two more books. I have finally finished reading your book with the help of my mother and Hank Carpenter who was a history professor. I love your book even though some parts are confusing for me because I don’t know enough about the history of England. I love how you write sentences and I want to learn to write sentences the way you do.
The most interesting part for me is about who Elizabeth’s father was if he wasn’t Henry the VIII. You thought her father might be Mark Smeaton who was a musician who was friends with Elizabeth’s mother, and if Elizabeth looked like him that seems like a good clue. Probably because I’m only nine, I don’t understand why people wanted to kill Elizabeth when she was just a girl and not doing anything wrong and why Henry the VIII cut off Elizabeth’s mother’s head and Mark Smeaton’s head, too. Henry the VIII sounds like a very sad person with a terrible temper.
Hank tried to explain to me and my brother Augie, short for August, why people were so violent in those days and why everyone kept killing other people, but I don’t understand why they couldn’t agree on things without killing each other all the time. The book made me like Elizabeth, but she must have been afraid all the time about people trying to kill her and attack England.
Even Elizabeth who was very smart and spoke so many languages killed people when she didn’t like them. This is very primitive and not a good way to do things, but Hank says England in the olden days was very violent and history is complicated.
We are having a potluck party at our house for everyone on the road and other people, too, starting at noon on the seventh day of Hanukkah. Would you like to come? It would be great if you could come. If you want to come, call my mother Sharon Quincy at Ray’s Food Place in Fortuna and she will give you directions. I hope you can come.
Thanks again for your wonderful book.
At 11:30 in the morning on the seventh day of Hanukkah, the day sunny and clear and very cold, Tober and Augie and their two big mutts Bozo and Nina arrive at the unmarked junction of Snake Creek Road and Highway 211 to await the arrival of Alex Redfield. Sharon told Alex to be on the lookout for the boys and Augie’s neon-orange baseball cap, and though Alex said he would aim to arrive at noon, Tober and Augie wanted to be at the junction a half-hour early to make absolutely sure Alex doesn’t miss the turn.
To pass the time, they play Frisbee for a while, both boys expert at flinging the disc, and when they tire of Frisbee, they sit side-by-side on a gray boulder and take turns reading aloud from a book about pumas the Bernsteins gave them for Hanukkah Christmas Solstice; and in the middle of a fascinating passage describing how pumas hunt by surprising their victims rather than chasing them, Alex arrives in an old forest green Volvo station wagon.
He makes the turn, comes to a stop, and rolls down his window. “Hello Tober. Hello Augie,” he says, grinning at the boys. “Thanks for coming to guide me. Jump in. I’ll drive you up to the house.”
“The dogs won’t get in your car,” says Augie, shaking his head. “And we can’t be sure they’ll follow us home and we can’t leave them here.”
“You go ahead,” says Tober, pointing up the road. “We’ll run after you. It’s one-point-four miles to our house at the very end of the road. We’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”
By the time Tober and Augie get to the house, Alex is inside being introduced to everyone by Sharon; and Augie and Tober agree, without saying anything aloud to each other, that they will probably have to be quite aggressive about prying Alex away from the adults if they want to show him all the things they intend to show him.
However, this turns out not to be the case because after an hour of chatting with people and sampling scrumptious hors d’oeuvres, Alex finds Tober and Augie and Cecily and Felix in the kitchen cutting up apples for the two big pans of apple crisp Sharon is making to go with homemade ice cream, and Alex asks the children if they’d like to give him a tour of the house and the farm.
“We’re eating in an hour,” says Sharon, making eye contact with each of the children, “so don’t take him too faraway, please.” Now she looks at Alex. “Have you got a watch?”
“I do,” he says, reaching into his pocket and bringing forth a beautiful silver pocket watch. “I shall sound the alarm in forty-five minutes, if necessary.”
“Good man,” says Sharon, mimicking his Scottish accent. “And good luck to you.”
The tour takes the children and Alex around the house and up the hill to the grand old oak where Tober and Augie and Abe Peoples, an excellent carpenter who lives on the road, built a tree house with three walls on a sturdy platform about fifteen feet off the ground. After climbing the rope ladder to the platform and exclaiming about the spectacular view, Alex climbs down the rope ladder and follows the kids from the grand old oak to an outcropping of red rock the children call Lizard Point, and from Lizard Point they follow a slender trail down a steep hill through a copse of pines to the Bernstein’s house, a two-story beauty made of oak and river rock.
In the Bernstein’s house, after introducing Alex to their three cats, Cecily performs part of a Bach partita on the grand piano, Felix holds forth on the contents of two of the eleven cigar boxes comprising his insect collection, and they show Alex the large woodshop where George makes exquisite furniture sold in art galleries.
From the Bernstein’s house, the quintet climbs back up the hill to the Quincy place where Alex is shown the verdant young cover crops in the vegetable garden before being led to the chicken coop wherein forty hens are roosting and where Alex is encouraged to gather eggs to take home with him. And for the final outdoor part of the tour, Tober and Augie each demonstrate their considerable skill with an axe in the splitting of rounds and the creation of kindling.
Returning to the farmhouse, the boys show Alex their bedroom, their collection of animal skulls and feathers, their hundreds of books, and their guitars and violins, which they play a little to prove they are both quite good musicians.
They leave Alex alone while he uses the bathroom, and after giving him a peek into their mother’s bedroom, they lead him to the dining room just as the midday meal is about to be served.
A half-hour before dusk, Alex says his goodbyes to everyone, and Tober and Augie accompany him to his car.
“I had a wonderful time with you today,” says Alex, opening the car door. “And I brought you two books, Tober, to complete our trade. One is a book of stories I read countless times when I was your age. Tales of a Knight Errant. And the other is Island Reveries, essays by a very good writer about the islands and birds off the west coast of Scotland where I spent many a happy summer. I think you and Augie will both love these books.”
“I know we will,” says Tober, taking the books from Alex. “And…” He wants to say more, but words won’t come out.
“And what?” asks Alex, smiling warmly at Tober.
“Will you come visit us again?” asks Augie, nodding hopefully.
“I will,” says Alex, giving each of the boys a gentle hug. “I’ve been at the university in Arcata for a year now, and I was despairing of ever making any good friends, and now I’ve met you and your mother and your wonderful neighbors, and they’ve all asked me to come again, so I will.”
“When?” asks Tober, cradling the precious books.
“When would you like me to come again?” asks Alex, touched by Tober’s interest in him.
“Tomorrow,” says Tober, nodding assuredly. “It’s not supposed to rain and there’s a negative tide at eleven in the morning, and we could go to the beach on the north side of the mouth of the Eel and have a picnic. I know we’ll find some good stones. I’m sure we will.”
“Come for breakfast,” says Augie, taking Alex’s hand. “We’ll make pancakes and then we’ll go to the beach.”
“Don’t you think we should see if this fits into your mother’s plans for tomorrow?” asks Alex, looking toward the house where Sharon is coming out the door to see what’s keeping her boys.
“Hey Mom,” says Tober, calling to Sharon. “Can Alex come for breakfast tomorrow and then we’ll go to the beach for low tide and hunt for stones?”
“Fine with me,” she says softly. “If that’s something he’d like to do.”
“I’d love to,” says Alex, letting go of Augie’s hand. “And now I must be on my way before it gets too dark. Long drive home and I’m not a great driver in America. Everything about driving here is the opposite of England, and I’m especially not a good American driver in the dark.”
“Spend the night,” says Sharon, matter-of-factly. “If you don’t mind sleeping on the sofa.”
“It’s a very comfortable sofa,” says Tober, nodding emphatically. “I can barely sit on that sofa and not fall asleep.”
“Me, too,” says Augie, nodding in solidarity with his brother.
“Well then that’s decided,” says Alex, walking with the boys back to the house. “And lucky me, the party’s still going.”