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Lips

In late April, on a foggy Saturday morning in the small town of Mercy on the far north coast of California, Delilah, the only child of deceased movie star Margot Cunningham, sits on the sofa in the living room of the little house she shares with Nathan and Celia, octogenarians who dearly love Delilah and vice-versa.

Toulouse, a shorthaired black cat, is sitting on the sofa, too, purring as Delilah strokes him. A fire is crackling in the hearth and Celia is at the kitchen table in her bathrobe reading the newspaper and sipping her second cup of coffee while Nathan is out walking the mutts Chico and Gypsy. 

Delilah is twenty-six and greatly resembles her famously beautiful mother, though Margot was fair and blonde and Delilah has olive skin and brown hair, her totality suggesting the unknown father was Latino. A superb musician and artist, Delilah is sexually romantically in love for the first time in her life. Her lover Thomas Darling, a professor of wildlife biology at Cornell, is expected to move to Mercy in June to merge his life with Delilah’s.

Eager to tell Thomas about exciting developments at Ziggurat Farm where she is the main home school teacher, Delilah decides to call Thomas this morning, their last phone conversation three weeks ago. Letters from Delilah and emails in reply from Thomas are their usual way of communicating, with phone conversations reserved for special occasions and excessive missing of each other.

“I was just going to call you,” says Thomas, answering on the second ring.

“Sex-starved minds think alike,” says Delilah, delighted to know he was thinking of her. “Shall I go first or you?”

After a moment’s hesitation—or was that his cell phone lagging?—he says, “You.”

“Well,” she says, speaking into Nathan and Celia’s trusty old landline phone, “have either of your sibs told you about the pond they discovered? Or I should say the former pond.”

“I think Caroline mentioned something about it at the end of a long email, though I only skim her emails,” he says, sounding slightly annoyed. “She does go on. Is that why you called?”

“Oh it’s so exciting,” says Delilah, undaunted by Thomas’s customary reticence at the outset of their phone calls. “Caroline and Michael took the kids on a field trip to the northeast corner of the farm and they uncovered part of what turns out to be a stone basin that once held a spring-fed pond just down the hill from where the Ramirez brothers are building the Richardsons’ new house. So then the collective hired Gabriel Fernandez, our local backhoe wizard, to dig out most of the dirt in the former pond, which is about fifty-feet-long and thirty-feet-wide and quite deep. And for the last week, Michael and Boris, Irenia’s father, have been digging out the remaining soil, with the kids doing some digging, too. And tomorrow morning early Celia and I are going to the farm to help Philip and Raul and Caroline and Andrea and Lisa make food for the gala luncheon to follow what we hope will be the unearthing of the spring. We’re making Celia’s chicken enchiladas and Philip’s ratatouille and tortillas from scratch and a stupendous guacamole Raul and I have been perfecting. Oh I wish you could be here, Thom. It’s going to be so much fun.”

“What else?” he asks quietly.

“Besides counting the hours until the one I love comes back to me?” she says, smiling into the phone. “Well… we’re expecting rain tomorrow. Real rain, which we desperately need. Nathan and Celia are being their usual marvelous selves, the homeschoolers are ever amazing and turning into adults before our very eyes, and it’s so great to have the Richardsons back in the mix, all the kids and I speaking with British accents again. Their gorgeous new house should be done in July, and in August their magnificent Steinway arrives from England, and they’re coming for supper tonight. Fish tacos and baby potatoes we’ll harvest from the garden this afternoon. The potatoes, not the tacos. Oh you will just love Joseph and Connie, and they will adore you.”

“So you’ve said,” he says with little emotion.

“Are you okay?” she asks, frowning into the phone. “Have I annoyed you with my ebullience? You sound even more taciturn than usual.”

“I’m okay, I just…” He hesitates. “I’ve been working day and night to clear the boards to come out there and…” He hesitates again. “I had a meeting a couple weeks ago with Jack Cuthbertson, head of the department, and he made a very strong case for my putting in another four years here, after which I could take a sabbatical and a year off and not lose my place, which seems prudent given the current collapsing economy. So I’m wondering… would you consider moving here for four years before we give living out there a try?”

“You’re joking,” says Delilah, sure he must be.

“No, I’m… I think it makes a lot of sense given the ongoing economic breakdown and the swiftly disintegrating future. My staying on at Cornell would give us at least a modicum of security in this wildly insecure world.”

“A modicum of security,” she repeats, the room spinning. “You’re not joking, are you?”

“I’m trying to keep our options open,” he says with some anger. “I didn’t inherit seven millions dollars like Michael and Daisy. This is a very good job. I can’t just transfer to a college near you because there are no colleges near you. But you can make music and art here just as well as there, so…”

“Thom,” she says, interrupting. “I’m going to live in Mercy until Nathan and Celia die, which I hope won’t be for a very long time, and then I’ll probably live here for the rest of my life. We talked about this when you were here. Several times. And you said you were more than ready to stop being a cog in an academic factory and wanted to start a new life. With me. Remember? You said you’d do anything to be with me.”

“Of course I remember, but…”

“Do you really expect me to abandon the two people I owe my life and happiness to? In the last years of their lives? To come live with you in Ithaca? To leave my community and friends to move to a place where you told me you have no friends? Why would I do that?”

“To be with me.”

“Thom?”

“What?”

“Have you met someone you want to be involved with rather than me?”

“No. Why would you say that?”

“Please don’t lie to me.”

“I haven’t met anyone. I’m… things are finally going well here after years of not going well for me. I have some great graduate students now and…”

“Is one of your graduate students a woman you’re interested in?”

“Why do you keep suggesting that? I just asked you to come live with me.”

“Knowing I wouldn’t,” she says, growing numb with sorrow. “So now you can say it was I who ended things, not you. Is that what you want? To feel exonerated?”

“Exonerated for what?” he snaps. “I asked you to come live with me. How is that ending things?”

“Because you knew I’d say no. Didn’t you?”

She waits for him to reply.

He says nothing.

“I exonerate you for changing your mind,” she says quietly. “Whatever your reasons. I hope you have a wonderful rest of your life. I really do. Goodbye.”

*

In the late afternoon on that same Saturday, Irenia, fourteen, Arturo, thirteen, Henri, twelve, and Vivienne, eleven, are doing some last minute soil removing from the stone basin ahead of tomorrow’s celebration.

The wheelbarrows used by Boris and Michael to ferry dirt out of the basin are too big even half-full for the kids to use, so Henri commandeered a sturdy two-wheeled cart from the garden that can be pulled by two people, thus enabling them to remove lots of soil.

At five o’clock, the air growing chill, only a large mound of soil in the deep south end of the basin remains to be removed, the hole otherwise largely free of dirt. This mound, about the size of a small car, is thought to be sitting atop the mouth of the spring that once filled the pond to overflowing and fed a year-round creek—the removal of the mound to be the centerpiece of tomorrow’s pond resurrection ceremony.

Vivienne, who is very tired from a day’s work in the vegetable garden and two hours of pond excavation, says to her brother Arturo, “You and I are scheduled to get the chickens in today and Andrea is probably already mad we haven’t yet. Come on.”

“Okay,” says Arturo, who is also very tired but doesn’t want to leave Irenia. “Let’s all go back now. We’ve done more than enough today.”

“Henri and I will just finish this last load,” says Irenia, giving Arturo a dazzling smile. “Go rescue the chickens.”

So Arturo and Vivienne exit the hole via the shallow north end and disappear.

A moment passes.

Irenia drops her shovel, walks out the north end of the hole, confirms Arturo and Vivienne are gone, and returns to Henri.

“We kissed for the first time a month ago when the Richardsons came back,” she says, her Russian accent always stronger when she speaks quietly. “But then you never kissed me again. Don’t you love me anymore, Henri?”

“You know I love you,” he says, leaning his shovel against the cart. “I just don’t want Arturo to know. It would break his heart.”

“So you break mine instead?” she says, moving closer and standing slightly downhill from him to mitigate the difference in their heights.

“I’m only twelve, Irenia,” he says, his heart pounding. “I think about you all the time, but I’m still a boy and I’m… I’m not sure what to do.” He takes a deep breath. “I’ve written three poems for you since we kissed and I composed that new thing I’ve been playing on the piano, the thing you said you loved. I wrote it for you. But I haven’t had a chance to give you the poems without Arturo knowing because he follows you everywhere. He’s obsessed with you.”

“I know,” she says, nodding. “Will you kiss me now?”

“Okay,” he whispers.

Their lips meet and their tongues touch and they gently embrace as they kiss.

At long last they move apart, the beauty of the other beyond measure, neither having words to express their feelings, their bodies energized in ways heretofore unimaginable to either of them, both vibrating in ways neither has ever vibrated before.

Now comes the distant clanging of the farmhouse triangle, which means, incredibly, thirty minutes have passed since Arturo and Vivienne departed.

“What do we tell them?” asks Irenia, as she and Henri run down the hill together. “When they ask us why we took so long?”

“We’ll say we got lost in our work,” says Henri, giving her a rakish smile.

“Which is true,” she says, taking his hand. “My darling. My love.”

*

The next morning at ten, the day overcast and cool, rain expected this evening, forty people gather on the western edge of the stone basin—Nathan and Celia and Delilah, Michael and Daisy and their baby Jenna, Caroline and Raul, Constance and Joseph Richardson, Oscar and Diego Ramirez and their wives and several kids, Gabriel Fernandez the backhoe magician sans backhoe, and the six homeschoolers and their ten parents.

Andrea, Henri’s mother and the farm manager, nods to her husband Marcel, and with pleasing voice and charming French accent he addresses the crowd.

“Bonjour my friends. Thank you for coming to help us revive our pond. Seven of us are going down into the hole with shovels and wheelbarrows to remove the big mound of dirt you see there at the south end where we hope to uncover the mouth of a spring to fill the pond, though I must tell you we don’t really know what is under that mound. But we are full of hope. If you get cold watching, please go to the farmhouse. The living room is warm and there is coffee and tea. Now we will dig.”

Dressed for working in muddy ground, Marcel, Philip, Boris, Michael, Gabriel, Oscar, and Diego descend into the hole with seven shovels and four big wheelbarrows and begin clearing away the mound of wet soil.

Raul Neves, a big handsome Portuguese chef with a famous restaurant in Mercy, stands with his lovely partner Caroline Darling in the midst of Nathan and Celia and Delilah and Boris’s wife Maria.

“My fingers are itching to grab a shovel,” says Raul, envious of the diggers. “Though they obviously don’t need my help.”

“Mine are itching a little, too,” says Nathan, who is eighty-six, “but my brain knows better, for which I am grateful.”

“I like to dig in the garden,” says Raul, sighing, “but I am not half as strong as Boris.” He smiles at Maria. “How did your husband get to be such a Hercules?”

“He do this work in Russia since he was boy,” says Maria, smiling shyly at Raul. “Now he pick up heavy things at Mercy Garage and move piano on weekends, so he has big muscle.” She laughs. “But he cannot cook like you. No one can.”

“Cooking for hours every day requires stamina but not such enormous strength,” says Raul, enraptured by the men working. “How beautiful they are.”

“And to their enlightened credit,” says Caroline, smiling down at her brother Michael, never before a laborer, striving to keep up with the more seasoned diggers, “they offered me and Andrea the opportunity to join them and we demurred.”

“Oh you should have done it,” says Raul, grinning at Caroline. “Showed off your sexy muscles and given everyone a thrill.”

“Stop,” she says, blushing in delight.

Now Marcel and Diego wheel the first two wheelbarrows of soil out of the pond—the watchers cheering and applauding.

“To think we may swim here again some day,” says Nathan, putting his arm around Celia. “Wouldn’t that be amazing?”

“In the summer,” says Celia, smiling at her mate of fifty-six years. “On a hot day.”

To which Delilah reacts by bursting into tears, yesterday’s shocking end to her relationship with Thomas rendering her as fragile as a goblet of Venetian glass.

“Why the tears?” asks Raul, opening his arms to give Delilah a comforting hug.

She collapses in his embrace and sobs and sobs, and Celia looks at Caroline and says, “Thom is not coming to Mercy. He broke up with her.”

“The idiot,” says Caroline, going to Delilah and Raul and gently placing her hands on Delilah’s shoulders. “I’m so sorry, dear. So sorry.”

Now Constance hurries over and takes charge of Delilah. “What happened, sweetheart? Tell me.”

“I… Thom and I parted ways,” says Delilah, bursting into tears again as Constance embraces her.

“Oh would the spring burst forth as do your tears,” says Joseph, putting on a sad face as he approaches. “What hath brought such grief to our dear girl?”

“Heartbreak,” says Constance, feeling she might cry, too. “The cad jilted her.”

Delilah laughs through her tears. “He’s not a cad. He’s…”

“An idiot,” says Caroline, disappointed her younger brother chose the barely tolerable known over the risk of happiness. “Ruled by fear as I was before I came here.”

Irenia and Vivienne and Alma rush to see what has befallen their teacher and friend, and when they learn what happened Alma starts to cry and Irenia says to Delilah, “You will find somebody better than that fool. I know you will.”

Much better,” says Vivienne, her jaw set in anger. “The cad.”

Meanwhile the men in the hole have made swift work of the mound, and as the last of the soil is hauled away, Boris and Marcel and Gabriel go down on their knees and with their hands clear away the remnants of soil around a massive gray stone the size and shape of a refrigerator and lying wide-side down on a flat expanse of white granite.

“There is some water coming out from under the stone,” says Boris, standing up and brushing the mud off his trousers. “Not much, but some.”

“Could this stone have fallen down the slope and landed exactly here to block the spring?” asks Marcel, looking around at the other men. “What are the odds of this happening?”

“I don’t think odds apply to miracles,” says Gabriel, sitting on the stone.  

“Exactamente,” says Oscar, sitting beside Gabriel. “God doesn’t worry about odds. If he did, there would be no life on earth and none of us would be here.”

“Let’s invite everyone down to see the miraculous stone,” says Philip, smiling at his comrades. “Then we’ll try to move it.”

“I’ll get my camera,” says Michael, recalling the moment Daisy gave birth to their daughter Jenna and the meaning of life was no longer in doubt.

“Come see the stone we think is sitting on top of the spring,” says Philip, calling up to the audience. “Be very careful on your way down. The ground is quite slippery.”

Ten minutes later, when everyone is gathered around the big gray stone, Lisa asks Joseph, “Anything from Shakespeare come to mind?”

“No, but Leonardo speaks to me now,” says Joseph, who is a painter and a great admirer of da Vinci, not to mention being a big ham.

Silence falls.

“‘The beginnings and ends of shadow lie between the light and darkness and may be infinitely diminished and infinitely increased,’” says Joseph, gazing at Delilah whom he considers his protégé and the closest thing to a daughter he will ever have. “‘Shadow is the means by which bodies display their form. The forms of bodies could not be understood but for shadow.’”  

Now many pictures are taken of people posing with the huge gray stone, and when the pilgrims are satisfied they exit the pond and reassemble on the western rim to watch Marcel and Michael and Philip and Diego and Gabriel and Raul position themselves on the east side of the gray stone and place their hands high on that side while Boris stands at the south end of the stone and Oscar stands at the north end, the two goliaths gripping the stone to lift as the others push.

When the eight men are ready, Boris counts to three and they all exert themselves to the utmost, rolling the behemoth up onto its side and pushing it over so it crashes down four feet farther to the west.

And revealed in the white granite plane is a fissure a few inches wide and three-feet-long from which muddy water burbles forth, the mud soon exorcised by a crystal clear flow—the men lying on their bellies to drink from the source.

*

For a moment on their way down the hill to the farmhouse, Gabriel and Delilah find themselves side-by-side among the pilgrims.

“Hola Delilah,” says Gabriel, smiling at her.

“Hola Gabriel,” she says, on the verge of tears again.

He nods in understanding and moves ahead, not wishing to intrude upon her sorrow.

 *

At the height of the enchilada ratatouille feast in the farmhouse, Raul and Caroline steal away to visit the pond one more time before they leave for Raul’s restaurant Ocelot on the headlands of Mercy to prepare for the Sunday evening customers.

Holding hands as they walk up the hill, they speak of the demise of Delilah’s relationship with Thomas, how Thomas’s choice to stay at Cornell was no great surprise to Caroline who knows how terrified her brother has always been of the compromises relationships require; and this brings up Caroline’s pressing need to make her choice between staying in Mercy with Raul or returning to her professorship at the University of New Hampshire.

When they reach the pond and find they are alone in the glorious quiet, the water in the south end of the basin now six-inches-deep, the gray stone an island, they kiss in celebration of this miraculous rebirth and Raul looks into Caroline’s loving eyes and asks, “Will you marry me, my dear friend, and make your life with me?”

“Yes,” she says, the last of her doubt gone.

Now they move apart and disrobe, going naked together to sit on the gray stone—laughing and weeping as they anoint each other with the holy water.

fin

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