On December 17 in his little house on the edge of Mercy, a small town on the far north coast of California, Nathan wakes in darkness just before dawn and gets up to pee and have a glass of water. He is eighty-five and usually sleeps well, one nocturnal visit to the bathroom his usual habit. Nathan’s wife Celia, six years younger than Nathan, does not stir in their queen-sized bed when he rises.
He goes down the hallway, making no sound as he passes the open door of the other bedroom wherein Delilah is slumbering. She has lived with Celia and Nathan for thirteen years and recently turned twenty-six.
During the warmer months of the year, Nathan has his middle-of-the-night drink of water in the bathroom, but in the depths of winter he likes to drink in the kitchen and then put a few logs on the remnant coals of the evening fire so the house will be warm when everyone gets up around seven.
The good mutts Chico and Gypsy are slumbering near the hearth and wake when Nathan comes into the living room to build up the fire, but neither rises and goes to the sliding glass door to ask to be let out into the backyard.
When he is confident the fire will come back to life, Nathan is about to return to bed when he feels a strong pull to go outside, despite the cold, and watch the first light of day give form to the myriad things. He puts on his down jacket over his pajamas, slips his bare feet into loafers, opens the sliding glass door, and steps out onto the deck overlooking the big vegetable garden. A small stand of chard, a few long rows of garlic, and two enormous parsley plants are growing in the vegetable patch, the ground otherwise heaped with horse and chicken manure.
He listens to the distant surf for a long moment, glad his hearing is still pretty good, and is about to go back inside when a movement in the garden catches his eye. He squints into the darkness and sees something on the gravel path next to the chard, something white.
Careful not to slip on the icy wood, he crosses the deck, goes down the stairs to the edge of the garden, and discerns a person in a white robe standing on the garden path.
“Hello?” says Nathan, guessing the person is homeless and looking for something to eat, though the few times that’s happened before the dogs always barked. “May I help you?”
Nathan slowly approaches the person, and as the dawn’s light grows brighter, he sees the person is a naked woman with long white hair, her hair what he thought was a robe.
“Nathan,” she says, her voice warm and tender. “You will live here until you are ninety-three and then you’ll come with me.”
“I’m gonna live to ninety-three?” he says, smiling at the thought of having another eight years with Celia and Delilah and his friends. “In good health?”
“Yes,” she says, giving him a long look before changing into a sleek gray fox and trotting away into the woods.
Getting into bed after his encounter with the spirit being, Nathan lies on his side facing Celia and falls into a dreamless sleep.
Waking to sounds of Delilah and Celia talking and making breakfast in the kitchen, Nathan gets out of bed, notices his bedside clock says 8:17, and thinks If I tell them I met a spirit being in the garden who told me I’m going to live eight more years, Celia will fear this is the onset of dementia and Delilah will design her life to be with me constantly for the next eight years. So I can’t tell them, but I really want to tell someone. But who?
Two nights later, Celia and Nathan drive to Ziggurat Farm for the Ziggurat Farm Holiday Follies, a variety show featuring the six students of the Ziggurat Farm School, four parents, and two faculty members. The students are Irenia, Arturo, Larry, Henri, Alma, and Vivienne. The kids will be singing three songs, acting in two scenes of their own creation, and ballroom dancing to accordion music provided by Marcel, one of the parents. Three other parents, Lisa, Philip, and Andrea, will perform a scene written by Vivienne and Irenia. Delilah will play a recent composition of hers on the piano, Nathan will read a poem, and Irenia, Alma, and Vivienne will close the show by singing an original song written by Arturo and Henri, with Arturo on guitar and Henri on accordion accompanying the girls.
During the long intermission, the fifty people in attendance gobble delicious finger food provided by Philip and Andrea and Raul Neves, a famous chef with a world-renowned restaurant in Mercy.
Nathan stands apart from the hubbub, considers everyone in the farmhouse, and concludes there are only two people he can tell about the spirit being he encountered in his garden and not be disbelieved or thought to be losing his marbles, nor will these two feel compelled to tell anyone else, though they would certainly tell each other if he only told one of them. They are Philip and Lisa, parents of Vivienne and Arturo, and mainstays of Ziggurat Farm.
As the end of Act Two approaches, Vivienne, eleven, wearing a pretty blue dress she made with the help of Irenia’s mother Maria, stands on the little stage and introduces Nathan.
“It is now my great pleasure,” she says, reading the speech she prepared, “to present our Poetry and Writing teacher Nathan Grayson. He is the author of the recently published Exactly Is A Tricky Word and other poems available from Ziggurat Farm Productions. We have copies here Nathan will be happy to sign for you or you can get signed copies at Crow’s Nest Books. Nathan is a wonderful teacher. Whenever we use a word like wonderful in our stories or poems or essays, he will say something like, ‘That is a fine word for a generality. Might there be another word more specific and revealing of what you mean to convey?’ In this instance, however, I mean wonderful because he constantly fills us with wonder as he teaches us how to express ourselves in words.”
Nathan bows to Vivienne, steps up on the stage, and gazes fondly at the audience of friends and family.
“Teacher is a tricky word, too,” he says, smiling at his six students sitting in the front row. “I prefer mentor, and I’m sure I learn more from you than you learn from me. In any case, thank you Vivienne for that wonderful introduction, and I mean wonderful because you are a wonder. I will now recite a short poem from my book Exactly Is A Tricky Word, which, by the way, is the first new volume of poems I’ve published in fifty-seven years. But who’s counting?”
Your heart was born before your body,
and beat as one with the heart of God.
Your spirit was born before your heart,
and lived in the wilderness as God’s lover.
The truth was born before your spirit.
God is this truth.
God lives in your spirit.
Your spirit lives in your heart.
Your heart lives in your body.
Your life is a journey to God.
A few evenings after Christmas, Lisa and Philip meet with Nathan in his living room—Celia and Delilah gone to supper at Raul’s restaurant Ocelot, their meal at the exclusive eatery a gift from Raul to Celia for showing him how to make her grandmother’s incomparable enchilada sauce.
When Lisa and Philip are settled on the sofa with mugs of tea, a fire blazing in the hearth, Nathan says, “I really appreciate your coming here tonight despite the clandestine nature of our get together.”
“I assume you want to spring some sort of surprise on Celia and Delilah,” says Philip, who considers Nathan the wisest person he knows. “Lisa thinks otherwise.”
“What’s your surmise, Lisa?” asks Nathan, knowing her intuition verges on clairvoyance.
“You want to tell us something you don’t want anyone else to know about,” she says quietly.
“Not for eight years anyway,” says Nathan, eager to describe his meeting with the spirit being.
“Tell us,” she says, now certain he will speak of his death.
“A couple days before the school farm follies,” says Nathan, closing his eyes to bring the scene to mind, “just before dawn, I got up to pee and stoke the fire. When I was sure the logs would catch, I went outside to watch the coming of dawn. And I saw something in the garden, something white and about the size of a person on the path near the chard.”
“The dogs bark?” asks Philip, assuming they did.
“No and that perplexed me,” says Nathan, keeping his eyes closed. “My first thought was a homeless person had wandered into the yard. That’s happened a few times before and the dogs always alerted us by barking. But this time they stayed sleeping by the fire.”
“Who was it?” asks Lisa, closing her eyes and seeing the white figure on the garden path.
“A woman,” says Nathan, nodding. “Or a spirit in the form of a woman with long white hair. From a distance I thought she was wearing a white robe, but when I came closer I saw she was naked and enshrouded in her hair. Her face was human, but extremely narrow, her eyes deeply set. I asked if I could help her and she said, ‘Nathan, you will live here until you’re ninety-three and then you’ll come with me.’ I said, ‘I’m gonna live to ninety-three? In good health?’ And she said, ‘Yes,’ and then… she changed into a gray fox and ran off into the woods.”
“Then what happened?” asks Philip, hoping Nathan isn’t losing his marbles.
Nathan opens his eyes. “Then I went back to bed and slept until 8:17, which is a good hour longer than I usually sleep, and then I got up and really wanted to tell Celia and Delilah, except I knew Celia would think I was losing my marbles and Delilah would never let me out of her sight until I died, whenever that happens to be.”
“So…” says Philip, frowning. “Do you think you were hallucinating?”
“I suppose I might have been,” says Nathan, deflated by Philip’s response. “Though she seemed as real as you seem right now. And I was definitely awake because the fire got going and the house was toasty when the girls got up, so I don’t think it was a hallucination. I think it was…” He hesitates, sensing Philip doesn’t believe him.
“You met a spirit being,” says Lisa, nodding assuredly. “She came to tell you not to worry about dying for a long time.”
“Funny thing is I wasn’t worried about dying,” says Nathan, relieved Lisa believes him. “I went through big worries about dying when I was in my seventies, but since then I’ve been at peace about it. Even so, I was delighted to know this spirit being thought I had eight more good years. Because if I do, I’ll get to see Vivienne and Arturo and Irenia and Henri reach full size, and I’ll get to see Delilah turn thirty-three. How cool would that be?”
Philip laughs. “You’re the greatest, Nathan.”
“You’re the only people I knew I could tell who wouldn’t feel they had to tell Celia and Delilah.” Nathan’s eyes fill with tears. “I may eventually tell them, but for now I’d rather they didn’t know about this.”
“You have my promise,” says Philip, placing his hand on his heart.
“Mine, too,” says Lisa, placing her hand on hers.
In early January, on a cold rainy morning, Delilah is moping around the house missing Thomas, the first serious love of her life, Thomas recently returned to Ithaca where he is a professor of Wildlife Biology at Cornell.
Nathan comes in from walking Chico and Gypsy, glances at Delilah slumped forlornly on the living room sofa and says, “Call him. You want to talk to him, call him.”
“We agreed not to become phone dependent,” she says, looking up from a sheet of staff paper on which she has written two lonely notes at the beginning of the first staff, the rest of the page blank. “He’s only been gone four days and I’ve already called him once and he’s already called me once.”
“Then I’ll call him,” says Nathan, picking up the old landline phone on the kitchen counter, no cell phones in the house—Delilah severely allergic to microwaves, Nathan and Celia content with the old way. “What’s his number?”
Delilah recites Thomas’s number and Nathan punches it in.
“Hello?” says Thomas, hoping this is Delilah.
“Hi Thom. Nathan.”
“Oh hi Nathan. How nice to hear your voice.”
“What’s going on back there?”
“Just getting ready to give a lecture. Then I’ve got office hours. Then a faculty meeting. Then I’ll go home and make supper and answer a jillion emails and then go to bed. What’s going on out there?”
“There’s a woman in our living room longing to hear your voice,” says Nathan, handing the phone to Delilah.
When Delilah finishes her brief and uplifting conversation with Thomas, she returns the phone to the kitchen counter and says to Nathan, “That was so unlike you.”
“What was unlike me?” asks Nathan, kneeling by the fire and drying Gypsy with a towel. “Calling Thom?”
“Yes,” she says, frowning at him. “I’ve lived with you for thirteen years and I’ve never known you to do something like that.”
“Life is short,” says Nathan, draping the towel over a stack of firewood. “The days fly by. We just paid our income taxes and it’s time to pay them again. I projected my impatience onto you. I apologize.”
“I’m glad you called him,” she says, mystified by the change in Nathan. “It’s just I’ve never known you to be impatient, so it surprised me.”
“You’ve never been in love with a wonderful guy,” says Nathan, hoping he lives long enough to see Delilah marry. “I want you to be happy.”
“He’s hoping to take a year off starting in June,” says Delilah, putting the kettle on for tea. “And come live out here and see how he likes it.”
“That will be wonderful,” says Nathan, calming down. “June will be here before we know it.”
“Seems like a hundred years from now,” say Delilah, sighing.
“Time accelerates as we age,” says Nathan, gazing at the flames. “I know that’s theoretically impossible, but it does. I was ten-years-old forever. Now a year passes in a week. I know it doesn’t, but that’s how it seems. I recited a poem at the holiday follies, went to bed, woke up, and it’s three weeks later.”
“Thom left four days ago,” says Delilah, laughing, “and it feels like he’s been gone forever.”
“Maybe I need to fall in love,” says Nathan, laughing, too. “Maybe that would slow things down.”
A few days later, Lisa and Nathan meet at the Happy Day Café & Bakery in downtown Mercy, rain pattering on the windows.
Lisa has a latte, Nathan green tea, and they split a gargantuan pumpkin muffin.
“I wanted to tell you about what happened to me when I was ten-years-old in Buenos Aires,” says Lisa, speaking quietly. “Also what happened to me in Oakland when I was twenty-four. I’ve told Philip and Andrea and Marcel, and they thought I must have imagined what happened or that my fear distorted my perceptions. Hilda is the only person I’ve ever told who believed me.”
“I miss Hilda,” says Nathan, speaking of the woman who used to live at Ziggurat Farm, a Jungian psychoanalyst now residing in a senior care facility in Berkeley. “I’d love to tell her about the spirit being I met.”
“We miss her, too,” says Lisa, sipping her latte. “Henri especially. He writes to her every week and always includes one of his drawings.”
“So tell me what happened to you in Buenos Aires.”
Lisa takes a moment to gather her thoughts before she begins.
“I was tall for ten, like Irenia, and more womanly than most girls my age. In the year before my mother died, men came to her and offered money for me and she threatened them with her knife and they went away. But after she died, my aunt was not able to protect me. She had five kids and worked twelve hours a day as a hotel maid. So I hid in her house as much as I could. When I say house I mean two rooms made of sticks and scraps of plywood and cardboard attached to other rooms like that. But I couldn’t hide all the time because I had to go out and beg.”
She closes her eyes and sees the dusty rutted lanes snaking through the jumble of makeshift shelters.
“One day I was begging at the entrance to the mercado, the open air market, and two men came to capture me. I ran away from them crying for help, but no one would help me because everyone knew the men had guns. They chased me into an alley ending at a high wall and were about to catch me when four huge black dogs attacked them and chased them away. I stood there in shock and a woman appeared. I didn’t see her come out of a house or enter the alley, but there she was standing before me. She was big and muscular with brown skin and long black hair. She said, ‘Run to Fernanda’—my aunt—‘and do not leave her house until you can fly away.’ I had no idea what she was talking about because this was a week before my grandmother, my father’s mother, sent money to my aunt and arranged for me to come to Los Angeles. I was afraid to leave the alley because I thought the men were waiting for me. ‘They are dead,’ said the woman, holding out her hand to me. I took her hand and we ran together out of the alley past the bodies of the men, and then she let go of me and changed into a big black dog and ran away.”
“They saved you,” says Nathan, who would not have believed Lisa’s story if he hadn’t met the spirit woman in his garden and seen her change into a fox.
“I don’t know why they saved me,” says Lisa, opening her eyes and sighing with relief to be in a bakery in Mercy, no longer a girl in the slums of Buenos Aires. “But they did.”
“And the other time?”
“When I was twenty-four my car broke down while I was driving at night through a bad neighborhood in Oakland. I was on my way home to Berkeley from a party at a friend’s apartment. This was before cell phones. I got out of my car and started walking fast because I knew I was on a street of crack houses and I wanted to get to a main avenue and find a pay phone to call a tow truck. As I walked by a big car, two men got out and chased me. I ran as fast as I could and was about to scream when an old woman appeared on the sidewalk in front of me and said, ‘They’re gone. You can use my phone.’ I looked behind me and the two men had disappeared, though I know they were right behind me when the woman appeared. We went into her house and I used her phone to call a tow truck. She made me a cup of chamomile tea and we sat in her living room waiting for the truck to come. She was very old. Her hands were gnarled and her arms were like sticks and her hair was white and tangled. She had no weapon, yet the men vanished. She had crystals on her coffee table. I recognized amethyst and quartz. The walls were festooned with feathers and leaves. I tried to give her money to thank her and she said, ‘If you want to give me a gift, name your daughter after me.’ Then she told me her name and the tow truck came.”
“Vivienne,” says Nathan, saying the name of Lisa’s daughter.
Lisa nods. “Though at the time I never thought I would have children. And after we had Arturo, we decided one was enough and took great care not to have another.”
“But the gods had other plans,” says Nathan, filled with joy thinking of Vivienne. “I say gods because I don’t know what else to call the spirit beings who saved you and came to tell me I have eight more years to live.”
“Don’t forget the spirit being who rescued Delilah and saved us from our delusion of trying to have a vineyard where grapes won’t grow.” She smiles sublimely. “He who teaches our children to write so beautifully.”
“Oh yeah,” says Nathan, his eyes twinkling. “That guy.”