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The Pond

Now that he is no longer an aspiring academic, Michael Darling, forty-three, tall and good-looking, is letting his curly brown hair grow long for the first time in twenty years. And Michael’s cute and curvaceous wife Daisy, forty-one, hasn’t had her shoulder-length reddish brown hair cut since she gave birth a year and a month ago to their daughter Jenna.

For the last year and a half the Darlings have lived in their big modern house on three acres adjacent to Ziggurat Farm, two miles inland from the northern California coastal burg of Mercy, and they cannot imagine wanting to live anywhere else.

The three Ziggurat Farm kids and three kids from Mercy are homeschooling on the farm, and Michael, an ornithologist and wildlife biologist, and his sister Caroline, a botanist, are the homeschoolers’ science teachers.

*

In mid-April, on a cool cloudy Thursday morning, the six homeschoolers gather in the living room of the Ziggurat Farm farmhouse to await Michael and Caroline, a field trip in the offing. The three farm kids are Vivienne, Henri, and Arturo, the kids from town Irenia, Larry, and Alma.

Larry is thirteen and an only child. He and his parents, his father a physicist, his mother a psychotherapist, came to Mercy four years ago, their move from Berkeley precipitated by Larry’s poor health and his being a target of bullies at the public schools he attended. Skinny and extremely nearsighted, Larry was diagnosed with an eating disorder (he didn’t eat much) and depression (he had no friends and was reluctant to go outside), conditions his parents hoped would disappear with the move to Mercy.

However, public school in Mercy provided no respite for Larry from bullying and teasing, and when he began homeschooling at Ziggurat Farm eight months ago, Larry was still painfully thin, had a chronic cough, spoke in a nasal falsetto, fidgeted constantly, and was afraid to make eye contact with his teachers, schoolmates, and his parents.

This morning when Larry’s father Arthur brought Larry to Ziggurat Farm for the day, Larry gave his father a hug and a kiss, jumped out of the car, and ran to join Henri and Vivienne kicking the soccer ball around on the playing field near the barn. Arthur sat in the car watching his son and weeping grateful tears because Larry has grown six inches in the last eight months, gained fifteen pounds, his cough is gone, his voice has dropped an octave, he no longer fidgets, and he is happy all the time now.

Alma is twelve, also an only child, born in Portland, Oregon. When she was six-years-old and just starting First Grade with dear friends she had been in preschool and kindergarten with, her parents, on the spur of the moment, bought the only optometry practice in Mercy, and a few weeks later Alma found herself in an overcrowded school with kids she didn’t know and a First Grade teacher insensitive to how traumatized Alma was by being torn away from her beloved friends and all that was familiar to her.

A year after moving to Mercy, Alma was chronically depressed and diagnosed with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). She was given drugs to address her inability to concentrate at school, and drugs for her depression. Chubby and friendless, she was held back a year in Third Grade and grouped with kids with learning disabilities. Her parents were counseled that Alma was probably on the autism spectrum and might never be able to function on her own in the world.

After eight months of homeschooling with her five comrades and a delightful cast of teachers, Alma no longer takes drugs, has no trouble concentrating, reads voraciously, loves to sing and draw, and is the star of the sewing class taught by Irenia’s mother Maria. For her twelfth birthday, Alma asked for a sewing machine because she loves designing and making clothes for herself and others, and she and Vivienne are launching a line of clothing to sell on the Ziggurat Farm web site called Shirts & Skirts.

Irenia is fourteen, tall and beautiful, a superb athlete and a marvelous singer. Her parents are Russian and she speaks English with a slight Russian accent. She spends four nights a week at the farm and self-identifies as one of the farm kids. She makes her bed on a mattress on the floor in Vivienne’s bedroom, does more than her share of chores, and is learning to cook from Philip, Vivienne and Arturo’s father, a cookbook writer who used to be a professional chef. Irenia’s favorite subjects are music, gardening, and writing, though she recently started taking Jazz dance at the Mercy Rec Center with Delilah, the main homeschool teacher, and is now mad for dancing.

Arturo is thirteen and greatly resembles his French Italian father Philip. Somewhat vain of his good looks, Arturo wants to be an actor. He plays the guitar and sings beautifully and enjoys all the homeschool courses, but he especially loves reading plays, memorizing lines, and acting. He is the first of the farm kids to express a desire to go to college and live somewhere other than Mercy, either New York or London.

In response to her brother saying he plans to leave Mercy to pursue an acting career, Vivienne, eleven, who resembles her lovely olive-skinned mother Lisa, declared she never wants to leave the farm. She aspires to write books and plays, is a zealous gardener, and loves going on field trips with Michael and Caroline, especially when those field trips take them to the ocean.

Henri, twelve, son of Marcel, the farm vintner, and Andrea, the farm manager, lives in a cottage with his parents a stone’s throw from the farmhouse and avers that he, too, wants to live on the farm for the rest of his life, though until the recent return of the very British Richardsons he imagined living with them in England and exploring the British theatre world, never mind about college. Now that the Richardsons are building a house on land adjoining the farm, Henri can think of no reason to be anywhere but here.

*

The spectacular terraced vegetable and flower garden at the heart of Ziggurat Farm begins on level ground and covers an acre as it climbs eastward up a gently sloping hill to the edge of a vast redwood forest last clear-cut a hundred and thirty years ago. Within that forest there have been a few more recent clear-cuts, one of which occurred on the twelve-acre parcel just east of the farm, the parcel the Richardsons are building their house on.

Michael and his sister Caroline, a pretty gal with short brown hair and nearly as tall as Michael, lead the six homeschoolers and a couple farm dogs up the wide path skirting the north side of the deer-fenced acre of vegetables and flowers. Beyond the garden, they ascend through a stand of enormous redwoods and transect a quarter-acre meadow to arrive at the site of today’s field trip—a small patch of level ground at the base of a steep slope, the Richardsons’ land beginning at the top of this slope—sounds of construction faint in the distance.

Standing on the level patch of ground—roughly fifty-feet-long and thirty-feet-wide—Caroline asks, “What do we make of this place?”

“By place,” says Larry, looking around, “do you mean this level area with these nine somewhat scraggly trees?”

“Yes,” says Caroline, smiling at Larry. “Tell us what you mean by scraggly?”

“Well,” says Larry, clearing his throat in imitation of his father preparing to give a lecture, “I mean these trees are much younger than the trees growing in the forest we came through to get here, and are apparently of a different age and less robust than the trees growing uphill from us that you told us are approximately thirty-years-old. I doubt very much these little trees are thirty-years-old, and the preponderance of yellow needles suggests an iron deficiency.”

“None of these nine trees is a redwood,” says Henri, frowning. “Seven pines and two hemlocks.”

“What does that suggest to you?” asks Michael, marveling at how bright and knowledgeable these kids are compared to most of the thousands of undergrads he taught for twenty years.

“Well since most redwoods come up from the roots of other redwoods and not from seeds,” says Henri, loving these kinds of inquiries, “maybe there’s something in the soil disallowing redwood roots. A nutrient deficiency as Larry suggests or some sort of barrier to their roots.”

“The ground here is so level,” says Alma, looking around. “If you took away these trees it would be perfect for croquet.”

“Perfectly level,” says Larry, standing up from placing a little level on the ground. “Bubble right in the middle.”

“Why do you think this patch of earth is so level?” asks Michael, who doesn’t know the answer. “Here on an otherwise sloping hill bringing us to the bottom of this steep incline?”

“How old are these nine trees?” asks Vivienne, looking at Caroline. “Maybe that will give us a clue.”

“They’re all between twelve and fifteen-years-old,” says Caroline, who also doesn’t know why this stretch of ground is so level.

“I suppose,” says Arturo, pursing his lips in his thoughtful way, “someone may have cleared this area for a home site fifteen years ago and then abandoned it, though there are no obvious signs of the necessary equipment having come here.”

“Or something else may have happened fifteen years ago to flatten it and clear away the trees,” says Vivienne, frowning. “Though I can’t imagine what.”

“No obvious signs of a fire,” says Arturo, shaking head. “No burn marks on any of the bigger trees nearby. A mystery, indeed.”

“So thirty years ago,” says Henri, looking up the steep slope, “they clear-cut the twelve acres that now belong to Joseph and Connie, as well as all the trees down to the bottom of this steep slope. Had this level ground we’re standing on also been clear-cut thirty years ago, some of these trees would be closer to thirty-years-old than fifteen-years-old. Yet it seems probable that whatever happened here fifteen years ago was related to the clear-cutting of this slope thirty years ago.”

“What might have happened here?” asks Michael, looking up the slope and seeing a few small gullies amidst the resurgent forest.

“Mudslides?” says Henri, noticing those same gullies.

“Yes,” says Irenia, who is kneeling on the ground apart from the others. “I know what was here before the mud and stones came down.”

“What was here?” asks Caroline, gazing curiously at Irenia.

Irenia places the palms of her hands on the ground and closes her eyes.

“She’s done this before,” says Vivienne, whispering to Caroline.

“There was a pond here,” says Irenia, seeing the place as it once was. “In a basin of stone. After they cut all the trees on the steep slope, heavy rain washed down dirt and rocks and branches and leaves that filled the pond.” She opens her eyes and looks around. “There was still some water here every year for several years until finally the pond was full of soil and the ground dried out and these trees began to grow.” She stands up. “This is what I saw.”

“So there’s a basin of stone here?” says Henri, excitedly. “We should dig this out and make a pond here again.”

“If her theory is correct,” says Michael, who sees no obvious flaw in Irenia’s reasoning.

“I am correct,” says Irenia, confidently. “There was a pond here. That’s why the ground is so level. Because water always seeks to be level.”

“Be worth a bit of excavation,” says Henri, looking at Michael. “Don’t you think?”

“I think so,” says Michael, grinning at Caroline. “In any case, there’s always lots to be learned from digging in the ground.”

*

After returning to the farmhouse for a mid-morning snack, tools are gathered in wheelbarrows, the Ziggurat Farm adults join the expedition, and the enlarged gang returns to the field trip site where the kids begin excavating what might have once been the edge of the pond.

A foot or so below the surface, solid granite is struck, the stone grayish white.

“So are you saying this entire level area was once a pond?” asks Marcel, his French accent always stronger when he gets excited. “Like a big swimming pool.”

Possibly was a pond,” says Michael, unwilling to believe Irenia saw what was previously here.

“We should bring it back,” says Marcel, unaware that Henri suggested the same thing. “We’ll cut up these little trees for firewood and hire someone with a backhoe to dig out most of the dirt and we’ll dig the rest by hand.”

“Huge job,” says Michael, giving Marcel an incredulous look. “And we’re only guessing there was a pond here.”

“I wasn’t guessing,” says Irenia, looking up from her shoveling. “I saw the pond. It was beautiful. There were lily pads and frogs and tall reeds growing in the shallows, and it was very deep over there.” She points to the south.

“Think of all the birds that would come here,” says Daisy, sitting in a lawn chair nursing Jenna and smiling at her husband.

“We could stock it with fish,” says Arturo, looking up from his zealous digging. “And Joseph could teach us to fly fish.”

“That settles it,” says Philip, clapping Marcel on the back. “Who do we know with a backhoe?”

*

Two mornings later, a crystal clear Saturday, the elderly couple Celia and Nathan and their beautiful housemate Delilah make their way up the hill from the farmhouse to join the homeschoolers and their parents and the Darlings and the Richardsons who have all come to watch the renowned backhoe artist Gabriel Fernandez remove the soil from what everyone hopes was once a pond.

Arriving at the pond site, Nathan says, “So this is what happened to the spring. No wonder your creek dried up.”

“Our creek?” says Andrea, her German accent barely noticeable. “Where was it?”

“The creek bed on the south side of your garden,” says Nathan, walking to the south end of the level area. “You still get a little flow in the winter, but the creek used to run year round because this pool overflowed and fed the creek.”

“You saw this pond?” asks Michael, excitedly.

“We did,” says Nathan, taking Celia’s hand. “We came here in the fall every year for three years after we got married. Fifty-five years ago. We’d pick apples from your orchard and then come up here for a picnic and a swim. I first saw the pond fifty-six years ago when I came to prune your apple trees for the first time. The trees were about ten-years-old. It was in December. Jose Alvaro brought me up here. He was the farm manager way back when before the Rostens sold the place to the crazy rich people who put in the vineyard that is no more. They didn’t want me on their land because I was one of the more vocal opponents of their clear-cutting, so we stopped coming here until Philip and Lisa and Andrea and Marcel bought the place.”

“It was such a beautiful pond,” says Celia, who is eighty. “There were cattails at that end.” She points to the north. “And a deep pool at the other end where it overflowed.” She gives Nathan the sweetest smile. “The water was so clear.”

“Spring-fed,” says Nathan, smiling as he remembers skinny-dipping with Celia. “Mallards here every time we came.”

“Was it as big as this whole area?” asks Marcel, thrilled at the prospect of having a pond.

“Pretty much,” says Nathan, nodding.

“We’ve determined this level area is fifty-two-feet-long north to south,” says Larry, referring to his notes. “And roughly thirty-four-feet-wide east to west.”

“Seems right to me,” says Nathan, grinning at Larry. “If memory serves.”

At which moment the rumbling of powerful engines presages the coming of Gabriel Fernandez and his big rainbow-colored tractor outfitted with backhoe and front loader, and Rodrigo Fernandez, Gabriel’s uncle, driving a smaller tractor with a front loader. Gabriel is in his early thirties, handsome and muscular and gregarious, known locally as the backhoe magician. Rodrigo is in his sixties, heavyset and soft-spoken. They park their machines on the edge of the site, turn off their engines, and Gabriel jumps down to find out what’s going on.

“Buenos dias,” says Gabriel, addressing the assembly. “Qué pasa?”

“Good to see you, Gabriel,” says Marcel, shaking Gabriel’s hand. “There was a pond here that got filled in after the forest up there was clear-cut and we want to get the soil out and bring the pond back to life.”

“Bueno,” says Gabriel, nodding as he surveys the site. “Can you cut down these little trees before we start digging?”

“Yes,” says Philip, getting a chainsaw out of one of the wheelbarrows. “Whenever you say.”

“Gracias Philip,” says Gabrielle, continuing to assess the site. “So… does anyone know what the pond looked like? Where it was shallow, where it was deep?”

“Nathan and Celia know,” says Lisa, gesturing to them.

“Ah Nathan,” says Gabrielle, going to shake Nathan’s hand. “Hola Celia.”

“Hola Gabriel,” she says, having known him since the minute he was born because she assisted the doctor who delivered him.

Now Gabriel gives Delilah a loving smile and says, “Maestra.”

“Hola Gabriel,” she says, blushing at his name for her and finding him exceedingly attractive.

“So tell me about this pond,” says Gabriel, returning his attention to Nathan and Celia.

They describe what they remember, Gabriel listens carefully, and when they finish, Gabriel asks, “Where do you want us to put the soil? There will be lots.”

“Well we don’t want to block the outflow,” says Nathan, looking at Andrea and Marcel to make sure they’re okay with him helping in the decision-making. “And we don’t want to crowd the pond with piles of dirt, so… to the north on the open slope I think.”

Rodrigo climbs down from his tractor and walks north with Gabriel and Marcel and Andrea and Nathan until they come to a large open area on the sloping hill a hundred feet north of the site.

“Aqui,” says Rodrigo, nodding. “Es bueno.”

“Yes,” says Marcel, nodding. “Perfecto.”

“Okay then,” says Gabriel, returning to his backhoe. “Three days. We don’t work on Sunday, so we finish Tuesday. Three thousand dollars a day for me, my uncle, and our beautiful machines. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” says Andrea, who handles the farm’s finances.

“Bueno,” says Gabriel, shaking Andrea’s hand. “I will begin at the deep end while you cut down those trees so Rodrigo can get in there and take away whatever I dig up.”

Now Gabriel dons his sound-blocking earphones, mounts his tractor, starts the engine, and drives slowly to a starting point at the south end of what once upon a time was a pond.

*

At noon, great progress made, many of the spectators gone home, Gabriel and Rodrigo drive their tractors down to the farmhouse to refuel and have lunch before resuming the excavation. The six homeschoolers and Marcel and Philip and Michael and Caroline lunch with Gabriel and Rodrigo at the picnic tables under the oak tree near the farmhouse, the delicious lunch provided by Andrea and Lisa.

At an opportune moment, Vivienne asks Gabriel, “We were wondering why you called Delilah maestra. Do you take piano lessons from her?”

“No,” says Gabriel, smiling at the thought of Delilah. “I play guitar. I call her maestra because she is my healer.”

“How did she heal you?” asks Alma, who also feels she’s been healed by having Delilah as a teacher and friend.

“It’s a long story,” says Gabriel, looking at Philip and Marcel. “Con permiso.”  

“Por favor,” says Marcel, nodding.

“My father who was Rodrigo’s older brother died when I was fifteen,” says Gabriel, looking at each of the homeschoolers. “My mother was very sick and couldn’t work. Since we needed money and I was the oldest of the four kids, I quit school and went to work for a landscaping company. When I was eighteen, my mother was well enough to go back to work and I joined the Army because they paid me a big bonus for joining and my family needed that money. A couple weeks later I was in North Carolina for basic training and I told them I had some experience with heavy equipment because I drove a big truck and a tractor when I was landscaping, so they trained me to operate heavy equipment, bulldozers and backhoes, and four months later I was sent to Afghanistan.”

“Why did they send you to Afghanistan?” asks Irenia, who finds geopolitics baffling.

“We’d been fighting a war there for many years,” says Gabriel, nodding as he remembers. “They told us it was to protect democracy, but I don’t think so.”

“Why don’t you think so?” asks Henri, frowning.

“Because they don’t have a democracy in Afghanistan,” says Gabriel, shaking his head. “But I can’t talk about that because I don’t know enough. All I wanted to do was survive, and somehow I did, though there were many days when I didn’t think I would. We were in some terrible battles. I was driving a bulldozer and doing backhoe work, but the fighting came to me, you know, so… I saw many terrible things and some of my friends were wounded and some were killed. And when I had served my three years and expected to come home, they extended me for another six months. I couldn’t believe it. I went to my commanding officer and said I signed up for three years. Why wasn’t I going home? He said there was a clause in my contract allowing them to extend me in emergencies and they were short on heavy equipment operators. After that I woke up every day feeling sure I was going to die. Then I stopped sleeping because when I fell asleep I had nightmares. Without sleep I couldn’t concentrate and I started making mistakes in my work. One day my bulldozer hit one of our jeeps. I thought it was twenty feet away, but I hit it. Nobody was hurt, but the jeep was destroyed. So they had me evaluated by a psychologist and he said I was suffering from PTSD and ordered me sent home. A month later I was back in Mercy.”

“What is PTSD?” asks Irenia, aching in sympathy with him.

“Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It means even though the trauma is over, my body and my brain still thought I was in Afghanistan, still in the Army, still fearing for my life every minute.”

“So what did you do?” asks Arturo, horrified by what befell Gabriel.

“I hid in my mother’s house for three months. I was afraid to go out and kept thinking I was having a heart attack. So Rodrigo drove me to the VA hospital in Oakland and I stayed there for three weeks and they gave me some treatments and put me on medicine for anxiety and I came home. But I was still afraid to go out and couldn’t sleep so I was tired all the time and the drugs made me numb and I started to think maybe I didn’t want to keep living. And then one day my good friend Ricardo, a fantastic musician, he can play anything, he gave me a guitar and gave me lessons every day and I started to feel better. Playing guitar calmed me down and gave me something to focus on. So I decided to take less of the anxiety medicine so I wouldn’t feel so numb, and I started to feel even better, but then the nightmares came back and I began to feel hopeless again.”

“Did you go back to taking more anxiety medicine?” asks Alma, who used to take drugs for her ADD and depression and hated how the drugs made her feel.

“I was going to,” says Gabriel, smiling at Alma, “but right before I did, Ricardo said he wanted to take me to a concert in town at the art gallery, a piano concert. I said I was afraid to go. I could barely go out of the house, barely walk around the block without freaking out. How could I go to a concert and be with all those people? He said he would stay beside me and never leave me alone. His wife Lisa would be with us and they would take care of me. He begged me to go with him. He said he knew it would help me. So I said okay and they took me to the gallery, and I started to freak out. I said, ‘Ricardo take me home,’ and he said, ‘Just one more minute, Gabriel. Please.’ And then Delilah, your teacher, she was only fifteen, she came out and sat down at the grand piano and played a nocturne she composed, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Her music was more beautiful to me than anything I have ever known in my life. I closed my eyes and her music came into me, into my body and into my brain, and I could feel my fear leaving me. There was no room for the fear with her music in me, no room for my sorrow and my guilt for what I did in the war. There was only her music, and her music was love. And it healed me. Not all the way, but enough so I knew I would be well again one day. That is why I call her maestra, because she is the master of my healing.”

“Did you ever hear her play again?” asks Vivienne, her eyes full of tears.

“Oh yes, many times,” says Gabriel, his eyes full of tears, too. “Ricardo’s wife Lisa is good friends with Delilah, so we got to hear her play at the Richardsons many times, and seven more times at the gallery. And every time I hear her play, she heals me more.”

fin

The Magician   

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The Brits Return

For their first breakfast since getting back from England to the northern California coastal town of Mercy after a two-year absence, Constance and Joseph Richardson dine in the Ziggurat Farm farmhouse with all the farm folks joining them for pancakes and raspberries.

Quintessential Brits, Constance is a short plump pretty redhead and a hugely successful author of twenty-seven murder mysteries, her pen name Margaret Orland, Joseph a big strong gray-haired painter of landscapes and portraits. Having spent the night at the farm in their enormous Mercedes van, a luxury suite on wheels, Constance and Joseph are having a delightful time bringing everyone up to date on their immediate past and their plans for the future.

“There we were in our lovely house in Devon,” says Joseph in his actorly way, “January especially dreary this year, and as my first cup of coffee, not nearly so good as yours, Philip, brought a modicum of clarity to my clouded senses, it dawned on me that out of obeisance to a way of thinking we’d fostered for thirty years, we had enslaved ourselves to a lie.”

“A misconception,” Constance clarifies. “Un idée fixe.”

 “This idea, this obsessive misconception, was this. By now in the arc of our lives we would be old and decrepit. Yet quite the opposite is true. Indeed, I am only seventy-one, Connie still a year shy of seventy, and we are both wonderfully fit and healthy. Nor were we the cause of our twice-daily walks being so brief and in apparent slow motion. It was our short-legged Dachshunds Aristotle and Venus who were responsible for the slow down, and we’d chosen them instead of larger dogs because we’d imagined ourselves to be entering our dotage.”

“And it dawned on me,” says Constance, not to be outdone by Joseph when it comes to dramatics, “that I was not done writing as I, for some bizarre reason, imagined I would be by now, and I was thunderstruck by a stirring vision of my next book about a retired—ha!—detective and his pastry chef wife set in a fictitious version of Mercy, which meant…”

“We might come back here for a time,” says Joseph quietly.

Silence falls, the collective breath held.

Vivienne, who is eleven, ventures, “For how long will you be staying?”

Joseph and Constance exchange long looks

“Some years,” says Constance smiling at Vivienne. “So goes our current thinking.”

“Hurray!” shouts Henri, who is twelve and great pals with Joseph. “My dream come true.”

“Will you rent or buy?” asks Andrea, Henri’s mother and by far the most pragmatic member of the farm collective.

“Dear Andrea,” says Joseph, who has made several paintings of Andrea in her magnificent terraced vegetable garden, “in order to do our story justice we must beg your indulgence for a few moments so we may properly tell the tale.”

“Take as many moments as you wish,” says Philip, head chef of the collective. “We hang on your every word.”

“Thank you, Philip,” says Joseph, clearing his throat. “So there we were in Devon dreaming of Mercy and being with all of you again and getting to know the new members of the consortium we’d heard so much about in Henri’s letters, and we took ourselves to our computers to search for a house to rent hereabouts.”

“As will happen,” says Constance, taking up the narrative, “when one ventures into cyber space, rental listings comingle with houses for sale, and both of us, quite unknowing of the other’s progress, came upon the same property, twelve acres not far inland from town with a driveway cut through the woods from highway to home site, a good well dug, the large foundation poured, and then… did the previous owners run out of money? The listing did not say.”

“The price was good,” Joseph goes on, winking at Henri, “the location ideal, and Connie and I have always wanted to build our own house at least once in our lives.”

“Ere long the land was ours,” says Constance, her eyes wide with excitement. “We hired a clever architect to concretize our vision, and a month ago we called those marvelous carpenter artisans who built your cottage and so gorgeously remade this farmhouse, and now…”

“A week from Monday,” says Joseph, raising his arms to the heavens, “the Ramirez brothers and their crew of crack carpenters will begin work on the house of our dreams, a large bonus awaiting them for swift completion.”

“Where is your land?” asks Michael, he and his wife Daisy and their baby Jenna the newest members of the Ziggurat Farm collective.

Joseph and Constance exchange glances again

“As your land, Michael,” proclaims Joseph, “is contiguous with the farm to the south, our land is contiguous to the east.

“Mon dieu,” says Marcel, Henri’s handsome French father. “Those twelve acres? We wondered who bought them.”

“We’ve just completed a bird and botanical survey of your land,” says Michael, an ornithologist. “My sister Caroline and I and the homeschoolers. We’ve convened on your foundation several times in the last few weeks. Spectacular site.”

“Good God,” says Arturo, who is thirteen and from age six to eleven modeled his way of speaking in large part on Joseph’s. “You mean to tell us we’ll be neighbors?”

“Just up the hill past the vegetable garden,” says Joseph, pointing in that direction.

“It’s a miracle,” says Henri, leaping up from the table and dancing around the living room with Vivienne and Arturo. “We’ll see you every day.”

“We’ll have art lessons with you again,” says Vivienne, twirling around. “And marvelous tea parties with Connie. I must call Irenia and tell her.”

“You’ll dine with us, of course,” says Philip, bowing to Constance. “As often as you like.”

“Which, to be quite honest,” says Constance, giving Philip a blushing smile, “was a large motivating factor in our decision to return, your meals and Celia’s and, of course, our weekly pilgrimage to Ocelot.”

“What about dogs?” asks Lisa, who knows Constance and Joseph always have dogs. “Did you bring your Dachshunds with you?”

“No, we gave the little sweeties to an old friend in Devon who coveted them,” says Joseph, glad to be free of the waddlers. “We intend to find two larger mutts to abide with us here and lead us on many a merry chase.”

“We’re getting two new dogs, too,” says Vivienne, returning to the table. “Jung and Goliath died, you know, and Nathan and Celia’s neighbors have an enormous Black Lab who just had seven puppies with a variety of fathers and we’ve reserved two of those.”

“We shall hope to pick two more of the seven for ours,” says Joseph, overjoyed to be back among people he loves so dearly.

*

After breakfast, a light rain falling, Joseph and Constance drive their van into town to spend some time with Delilah and Nathan and Celia, their closest friends in Mercy. Nathan is eighty-six, Celia is eighty, and Delilah, Nathan and Celia’s house mate for the last thirteen years, is twenty-six.

Nathan and Celia and Delilah were in the farmhouse yesterday afternoon when Constance and Joseph arrived during the homeschool drama and music performances, but they did not learn of Joseph and Constance coming to live in Mercy again until today, and they are thrilled by the news.

Delilah painted with Joseph for ten of the eleven years the Richardsons previously resided in Mercy, studied French and mythology with Constance, and gave many a stirring concert on the Richardsons’ magnificent Steinway grand, which she is thrilled to learn will be coming back from England as soon as the new house is built. Constance and Joseph partook of countless suppers at Nathan and Celia’s, Nathan pruned their fruit trees, the quintet frequently walked their dogs together on the beach at the mouth of the Mercy River, and Delilah and Joseph showed together at the Fletcher Gallery in Mercy.

When their rejoicing subsides, Celia calls their neighbors, Elvis and Lena Quisenberry, and arranges for a puppy viewing.

*

Elvis is fifty-five, a burly auto mechanic at Mercy Garage. Lena is a zaftig fifty-three and owns Perfect Fit, a women’s clothing store in town. Their son Jerry works in a cannabis dispensary in Los Angeles while pursuing an acting career. Elvis and Lena are religious devotees of The Grateful Dead, prodigious pot smokers, and are forever promising to spay and neuter their dogs and cats, though they rarely do.

Sheba, a large Black Lab, is the mother of the litter Constance and Joseph and Nathan and Celia and Delilah come to visit, the Quisenberry kitchen a riot of seven little cuties not yet old enough to leave their mother, but old enough to totter around and tumble adorably for the visiting humans.

There are two black and white pups in the litter, one of them making a beeline for Joseph, the other tottering across the linoleum to Constance, and not three minutes into the visit Constance says, “We’d like to have these two black and whites if they are not yet spoken for.”

“That’s easy to remember,” says Elvis, off for the weekend and profoundly stoned. “They should be ready to leave mama a few weeks from now.”

“We’re asking fifty dollars each,” says Lena, smiling at Constance. “That seem fair to you?”

“More than fair,” says Joseph, picking up one of the black and white pups and nuzzling her.

“We will pay you seven hundred each,” says Constance, picking up the other black and white pup, “if you will keep ours for another three months until our new house is finished.”

“Zounds,” says Elvis, grinning at his wife. “No problema.”

“The Ziggurat Farm kids have dibs on these two,” says Lena, picking up two of the pups. “And Raul… you know Raul? Chef at Ocelot? He’s getting the big black one. And Boris who works at the garage with Elvis? You know Boris? His daughter Irenia homeschools up at Ziggurat. He’s getting the biggest one for Irenia. We’re guessing a Great Dane daddy for that one. So now we’ve got the litter sold but one and I’m guessing the Ziggurat kids will take three if nobody else wants the last one.”

“Any guesses about the progenitor of our two?” asks Constance, standing beside Joseph and holding her pup next to his.

“Far as we know only one black and white dude made the scene,” says Elvis, his grin expanding. “Maggie Fetherston’s cocker spaniel. Came all the way across town to do the deed. Don’t know why Sheba let the little guy get on, but she did.”

“Love is blind,” says Joseph, reluctant to let his pup go. “Would you happen to know the sexes of our two?”

“Boy and a girl,” says Lena, nodding.

“Perfect,” says Constance, setting her pup down. “Given their father’s diminutive size they should not be too enormous. We’ve done enormity and needn’t again.”

*

Returning to Nathan and Celia’s for a spot of tea, Joseph brings forth one of Henri’s letters sent not long ago to Devon and reads, “‘Delilah is a superlative teacher and we especially appreciate how easy it is to convince her to switch from Math to Music or Drawing, which all of us prefer to Math save for Larry who is most comfortable midst the abstraction of numbers, though he’s a fine baritone and adds a gratifying depth to our harmonizing. Now and then Delilah will drift into a trance and we’ll know she’s thinking of Thomas in faraway Ithaca and counting the hours until June when the handsome authority on foxes makes his way west to be with her again.’”

“Such a marvelous writer is Henri,” says Constance, beaming at Nathan. “Thanks to you.”

“All those kids are good writers,” says Nathan, thinking of the six homeschoolers he writes with a few times a week. “I am ever amazed by them.”

“Do tell us about Thomas,” says Joseph, taking off his reading glasses and gazing fondly at Delilah. “Your first real flame, yes?”

Delilah smiles and the room brightens.

“You’ve met his brother Michael,” she says, sighing. “Thom is a little taller, his features not so chiseled, his voice somewhat higher. I think he’s gorgeous, but then I’m in love with him, so… He’s thoughtful and kind and he does worry a lot about the biosphere and global warming and overpopulation. He’s a wildlife biologist, so he’s steeped in bad news about the environment, and I haven’t seen him in nearly three months so he’s become somewhat surreal to me, and I think I’ll be fine if our relationship doesn’t work out, though I hope it will.”

“Have you slept with him?” asks Constance, cutting to the chase.

Delilah nods. “And it was good.”

Everyone laughs.

“You talk on the phone?” asks Joseph, assuming they do.

“We did for the first few weeks after he went back to Ithaca,” says Delilah, getting up from the dining table to put another log on the fire, “but we found it more frustrating than satisfying, so now we just write. I send him gushy love letters and he answers with emails.” She watches the log catch fire. “He’s insanely busy.”

“What do you think of the lad?” asks Joseph of Nathan and Celia.

“I like him,” says Nathan, seeing Thomas with furrowed brow, the weight of the world upon him. “I don’t really know him yet. But I like him.”

“He’s very nice,” says Celia, nodding. “He was shy around us and mostly wanted to be alone with Delilah, so we didn’t spend much time with him when he was here.”

“He’s a wonderful artist,” says Delilah, wishing she knew Thomas better than she does, some large part of him withheld from her. “Raul bought his drawing of Henri. You’ll see it when you go to dine at Ocelot.”

“Tomorrow,” says Constance, looking forward to Raul’s incomparable cuisine. “We are told that Thomas and Michael’s sister Caroline, of whom we only caught the merest glimpse yesterday at the farmhouse, is now the Ocelot hostess and Raul’s paramour. Quite the conquest of Mercy by these Darlings. Such a marvelous last name.” She laughs. “Who wouldn’t want to be a Darling?”

*

When the sun scatters the rain clouds, Joseph and Constance bid Nathan and Celia and Delilah adieu, pick up sandwiches at the Happy Day Café & Bakery, and go have a picnic at their new home site.

In the one-acre clearing in a forest of thirty-year-old trees, they walk around on the large square cement foundation and imagine the house they’ll soon be living in here.

Overcome by jet lag, Constance seeks a hug from Joseph.

“Tell me we did the right thing coming back here,” she says, clinging to her mate. “I’m feeling overwhelmed.”

“We did the right thing,” he says, holding her. “If we change our minds a year from now and want to go back to Devon, we will. We’ll have had an adventure and a reunion with our dear friends, built a house, and gotten some good dogs. Nothing will be lost. We followed our hearts and here we are.”

“I worry our Delilah has fallen in love because she was ready to fall in love,” says Constance, sighing. “He sounds dreadfully serious. End of the world and all that. She needs a man with a sense of humor.”

“He knows too much,” says Joseph, who keeps his own doomsday thoughts to himself knowing they upset Constance.

“I think of her as my daughter,” says Constance, who never wanted children and didn’t really like children until she fell in love with fourteen-year-old Delilah and shortly thereafter became a favorite of the Ziggurat Farm kids. “I know that’s silly, but I do.”

“Not silly at all,” says Joseph, his eyes full of tears. “I feel the same.”

*

On Sunday, as billowy white clouds over Mercy Bay turn golden at dusk, Constance and Joseph dress in their finest—Joseph in a beautiful blue suit with teal shirt and crimson tie, Constance in a pretty peach dress—and take themselves to the incomparable Ocelot, the restaurant of Raul Neves on the headlands in Mercy.

Lovely Caroline Darling, long-limbed and graceful with curly brown hair, greets Constance and Joseph at the entrance of the beautiful old Victorian wherein Ocelot occupies the ground floor—Caroline regally sexy in white dress shirt, black bow tie, dangly turquoise earrings, black pants, and red sandals.

She seats them at a table with a view of Mercy Bay to the south, the largest wall in the room adorned with Joseph’s gorgeous painting of the beach at the mouth of the Mercy River as seen from the headlands, huge waves breaking on the shore.

Settling into her comfortable chair, Constance gives Caroline a wide-eyed look and asks, “How long have you been Raul’s hostess?”

“Two months now,” says Caroline, her deep voice thrilling to Joseph. “Though every night so far feels like the first.”

“Enjoying the job?” asks Joseph, nodding his thanks as she hands him the day’s menu. “You seem to.”

“I do,” she says, laughing. “Very much.”

“And you teach the children science,” says Constance, sounding amazed. “How marvelous.”

“I’m a professor of Botany,” says Caroline, feeling funny saying so. “On sabbatical from the University of New Hampshire, though I am so enthralled with the restaurant I may never go back.”

“We must speak more of everything another time,” says Constance, nodding brightly. “When you’re free of these shackles we’ll have tea.”

“Oh and before you leave us,” says Joseph, who has always wondered what it would be like to be with a tall woman, “can you tell us where the drawing your brother did of Henri is hanging?”

“I’ll show you,” she says, beckoning to them. “No one is seated in that room yet, so now’s the perfect time.” 

*

Joseph startles when he enters the room where Thomas’s large pen and ink sketch framed in gold adorns the wall—Henri wearing a feather headdress and holding his accordion, a tender smile on his face, a few touches of color adding an ineffable potency to the exquisite rendering.

After closely perusing the picture, Joseph turns to Constance and Caroline and says, “This drawing is worthy of Rembrandt. It is that fine and made of the same genius.”

“It is rather good, isn’t it?” says Constance, coming close to inspect the drawing. “I wonder if he’d like to draw me for the author picture of my next book.” She turns to Caroline. “Set in a fictitious version of Mercy. Wife of retired—ha—detective a pastry chef in a fine restaurant. Dining scenes abound. Tall beautiful hostess entangled with handsome Portuguese chef. That sort of thing.”

“I’m sure Thom would love to draw you,” says Caroline, understanding now why Raul said of Constance and Joseph, “They are comic savants who have no idea they are funny.”

fin

On the Way Home piano cello duet

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Being Here On Earth

Henri is twelve, exactly twelve, as twelve as he can be. Five months ago he was four-foot-nine and now he’s five-foot-three. A beautiful muscular lad with curly brown hair, his mother German, his father French, Henri plays accordion, piano, and guitar, all of them quite well, and he sings beautifully, too. He loves to draw and write and work in the garden, his reading of late Geology and Irish short stories.

An outstanding soccer player and brilliant with a Frisbee, Henri thinks it would be wonderful to be a wildlife biologist like their neighbor and teacher Michael, though he often feels destined to be a playwright actor musician. Still other times there’s nothing he would rather be than a farmer who gives accordion lessons and has the occasional show of drawings at the Fletcher Gallery in town. And then there is his keen interest in cooking and architecture.

He is standing some fifty feet from the farmhouse at Ziggurat Farm, two miles inland from the remote northern California coastal burg of Mercy. His five fellow homeschoolers await him in the farmhouse along with various parents and teachers and friends enjoying a brief intermission from monologues and scenes and music the homeschoolers (and sometimes teachers and parents and friends) perform every third Friday of the month, this being March 22, the afternoon cool and cloudy.

Henri is scheduled to open the second act with an original accordion tune and a monologue of his own creation, a speech he work-shopped extensively with his Drama teacher Lisa, his writing teachers Nathan and Daisy, and his schoolmates Arturo, Vivienne, Larry, Alma, and Irenia, as well as his parents Andrea and Marcel. Thus many of the people in the audience have already heard some version of the speech, though no one save Henri has heard exactly the version he is about to recite.

The monologue sprang from an assignment to create a speech based on something from Shakespeare, and Henri decided to use the famous To be or not to be soliloquy from Hamlet as his spark.

“To not die or to not not die,” says Henri, reciting the opening of his speech, his use of not not a sure laugh getter. “That is a tangle of knots. If no one stays when supper’s over, who will scrub the pots?”

He’s waiting for someone to come out of the farmhouse and tell him intermission is at end, and as he waits he thinks of Joseph Richardson who moved back to England with his wife Constance two years ago, and how Joseph would have loved these third Friday shows and no doubt would have performed at them, too, had he not moved away. Joseph was an inspired reciter of Shakespeare as well as being the children’s art teacher before he passed the baton to Delilah, who also teaches them music and math. Oh how I miss Joseph! thinks Henri, who always felt profoundly appreciated by Joseph, and vice-versa.

“And what of girls becoming women, and boys becoming men?” says Henri, continuing his monologue. “Where went the child I used to be? I’m else than I was then.”

Which lines make him think of Irenia who is fourteen and the eldest of the Ziggurat Farm homeschoolers, a gorgeous five-foot-nine and the premiere object of Henri’s desire, sexual arousal a new and disconcerting sensation for him.

Arturo, Henri’s best friend, is madly in love with Irenia, too, and speaks to Henri of his love for her almost every day. Arturo is thirteen and five-foot-eight, and lives in the farmhouse with his younger sister Vivienne and their parents Lisa and Philip.

Henri wouldn’t think of competing with Arturo for Irenia’s affection, and is therefore resigned to Arturo and Irenia becoming sweethearts, though they are not yet so entwined; and to complicate matters further, just yesterday Henri felt Irenia gazing at him and when he met her gaze it was clear as day she loves him.

“Those tiny seeds my mother planted now are sprawling vines,” says Henri, going on with his speech. “The grapes we trod a year ago are now my father’s wines.”

Now Irenia comes out of the farmhouse, her face more beautiful to Henri than anything in the world, her long black hair in a braid, her lovely white blouse given shape by her budding breasts, her long gray skirt revealing hips she had not a year ago, this her costume for a scene with Arturo to follow Henri’s soliloquy; Irenia playing Kate to Arturo’s Petruchio in the famous “I say it is the moon” scene from The Taming of the Shrew.

Assuming Irenia’s emergence means intermission is over, Henri starts for the farmhouse as Irenia runs to meet him.

“I want to give you a good luck kiss,” she says quietly with her subtle Russian accent.

And before Henri can reply, she kisses him, their lips slightly parted—a blissful communion ended too soon by an extra-large Mercedes van rumbling down the drive and parking near the barn.

“Who could this be?” asks Irenia, taking Henri’s hand.

“I would guess Raul,” says Henri, worried Arturo might come out and see them holding hands. “Only he’s already here and his van is not so big.”

Now a short woman with auburn hair and a tall man with longish gray hair get out of the van—the very British Richardsons returned from jolly olde England.

“Joseph!” shouts Henri, letting go of Irenia’s hand and rushing to greet his beloved friends. “Constance.”

“Oh call me Connie, dear boy,” says Constance, hugging Henri.

“Henri!” says Joseph, opening his arms. “Look at you a young man now.”

*

Following the joyful hullabaloo of everyone in the farmhouse greeting the Richardsons—their arrival wholly unexpected—Joseph and Constance take seats in the audience and Henri opens Act Two by playing a melancholy barcarole as preface to his soliloquy.

Setting his accordion aside, he tells his poem—words freighted with new meaning now that he and Irenia have kissed.

To not die or to not not die, that is a tangle of knots.

If no one stays when supper’s over, who will scrub the pots?

And what of girls becoming women, and boys becoming men?

Where went the child I used to be? I’m else than I was then.

Those tiny seeds my mother planted now are sprawling vines.

Those grapes we trod a year ago are now my father’s wines.

Time speeds on despite my wish to linger in my youth.

Some grand design beyond my wit propounds another truth.

I dread the day I have to choose the thing I mostly do.

I’d rather stay a clever boy and linger here with you.

The choice, I fear, is hardly mine, the die was cast at birth.

The only thing I’m certain of is being here on earth.

So let us not concern ourselves with whether we should be,

but rather love each minute as a precious entity.

fin

Lounge Act In Heaven

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fawns

doe and fawn dormitory

A circle of large redwoods stands on the northern edge of our two acres and is made into a dense thicket by several smaller trees growing in and around the circle—an ideal dormitory for does and their fawns.

which way did she go?

Some years we have as many as three sets of resident fawns, but this year, July halfway gone, we have but one duo of fawns, a male and a female judging by their brows.

male fawn with nectarine pit in his mouth

These two are unique in my experience of fawns for their almost constant togetherness. Most fawns their age (4-5 months?) still closely follow Mom, but rarely display such ongoing affinity for each other.

Thus photos of these two fawns together continue to be easier come by than in years past.

growing fast

fin

sugar mornings

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July flowers

rose parade
just opening daisy
more to come
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Spirit Beings

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?”

Journey

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.”

 fin

Light Song

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Frisson

“Something extraordinary happened to me today,” says Delilah, twenty-six and strikingly beautiful with dark brown hair cut very short, housemate of Celia and Nathan for thirteen years now. “Of course being at Ziggurat Farm is inherently extraordinary, but today…”

Nathan, eighty-five, and Celia, seventy-nine, are sitting with Delilah in the living room of their small two-bedroom house on the eastern edge of the northern California coastal town of Mercy. Thanksgiving is four days away, a fire is blazing in the hearth, and their tummies are full of rock cod tacos and garlic potatoes and a big green salad.

“Earth to Delilah,” says Nathan, unused to seeing Delilah drift away in the middle of a sentence. “You were saying? But today?”

“Oh,” says Delilah, blushing upon her return to the present. “Today I met Thomas Darling. He arrived at the end of Drawing class, and the frisson between us was…” She muses for a moment without drifting away again. “The closest thing to what I experienced with him was when I first met you two, the feeling of…” She searches for the right word. “Recognition. Profound recognition. Only this time…” Her blush deepens. “There was a sexual component to the energy mix.”

“Is he handsome like his brother Michael,” asks Celia, referring to Michael who lives with his wife Daisy and their baby Jenna in the house adjacent to Ziggurat Farm, two miles inland from Mercy.

“I’m not sure,” says Delilah, sighing. “Every time I looked at him he was bathed in golden light, so who knows what he actually looks like.”

“Did he recognize you?” asks Celia, hoping Thomas saw more in Delilah than her physical beauty.

“He must have,” says Delilah, nodding, “or I don’t think I would have recognized him. Do you know what I mean?”

“I do,” says Celia, looking at Nathan and recalling the first time they met fifty-four years ago. “That’s how it was when I met this guy. I could tell he was really seeing me and not just looking at my breasts, so then I could really see him.”

“Correct me if I’m wrong,” says Nathan, returning Celia’s gaze, “but wasn’t there a bit of frisson between us, too?”

“Let’s not rush things,” says Delilah, getting up to put a kettle on for tea. “For all I know he’s living with someone back in Ithaca and thought I had nice boobs and didn’t recognize me at all.”

“He’ll have to move out here,” says Nathan, gruffly. “Too cold for us in Ithaca and we insist on helping with the children.”

“Stop,” says Delilah, laughing.

“She thinks I’m kidding,” says Nathan, winking at Celia.

“Bastante marido,” says Celia, pointing at him. “Let her have a crush and see where it goes.”

“I apologize, D,” says Nathan, grinning at Delilah. “You know me.”

*

Delilah is not a virgin. When she was twenty-two, she and her close friend Josh, who was also twenty-two, decided to learn how to have sex before they got any older. They felt their ignorance in this regard was becoming an obstacle to future happiness, so despite Delilah not being sexually attracted to Josh, they endeavored to have sex on three different occasions over the course of two weeks.

For their first try, they consulted a book illustrated with glossy black-and-white photographs of a man and a woman engaging in foreplay and then coupling in a variety of ways. They giggled nervously while looking at the pictures, disrobed, and after brief and wholly unsatisfying foreplay, Josh failed three times to successfully deploy a condom before finally managing to sheath himself. They then awkwardly assumed the missionary position, closed their eyes, Josh was way off target, so to speak, and consequently berated himself with shockingly foul language that put the kibosh on their continuing.

The second time they tried, they got stoned, took things slower, engaged in some satisfactory petting, and managed to couple ever so briefly in the missionary position before Josh orgasmed, withdrew, and fled.

Before they tried again, Delilah had a lengthy and enlightening coaching session with Lisa, Delilah’s dear friend at Ziggurat Farm—Lisa a massage therapist, mother, and sexually savvy.

Thus educated, Delilah took charge of her third session with Josh, expertly deployed the condom, positioned Josh in the proper position, and guided him inside her. And though Josh came a moment after entering her and immediately withdrew and wanted to leave, Delilah convinced him to stay and try again a half-hour later, at which time they were able to have intercourse for a few minutes before he came again and fled; after which Delilah felt she had passed her driving test, so to speak.

*

The day after Delilah told Nathan and Celia about meeting Thomas, Nathan spends the morning at Ziggurat Farm teaching a writing class and having lunch with his students, while Delilah and Celia spend the morning together walking the dogs, grocery shopping, and running errands, Delilah’s afternoon to be full of giving piano lessons.

Celia and Delilah are having lunch in the kitchen when the phone rings.

“Buenos,” says Celia to the caller.

“Hi,” says a man with a pleasing baritone. “My name is Thomas Darling. May I speak to Delilah, please?”

“Uno momento,” says Celia, handing the phone to Delilah and mouthing the name Thomas.

“Hello?” says Delilah, clutching the phone.

“Hi Delilah. Thom Darling. Wondering if you’re free any time this week. To do something. With me.”

“I… I… well… probably,” she says, flabbergasted. “Um… I teach at the farm three mornings a week and I give piano lessons three afternoons a week and on Saturday, and I’m sitting the Fletcher Gallery on Thursday and Sunday, but… can I call you back?”

“That would be great,” he says, sounding nervous. “Got a pen handy?”

“Hold on,” she says, taking pen and paper from Celia. “Okay I’m ready.”

He gives her his number, they hang up, and Delilah says, “I really like his voice.”

“So do I,” says Celia, who makes a prayer every day that Delilah will find a partner before Nathan dies.

“I’m overwhelmed,” says Delilah, going to Celia for a hug.

“Just remember,” says Celia, holding her. “He’s overwhelmed, too.”

“He’s actually quite handsome,” says Delilah, relaxing in Celia’s embrace. “To me anyway.”

*

An associate professor of Wildlife Biology at Cornell, Thomas Darling is, by most measures, a strange cat. Tall and broad-shouldered with unruly red hair, he is an authority on foxes, prefers animals to humans, lives in Ithaca in a commune with six other material minimalist Buddhists, and believes jet travel and the continuing manufacture of internal combustion engines are crimes against the biosphere.

He’s been in two one-year relationships with fellow Buddhist material minimalists, both relationships ending when his partners wanted to get married and have children, something Thomas couldn’t imagine with either of them.

“How did you get here if you don’t believe in flying in jets or driving cars?” asks Delilah, sitting opposite Thomas at a small table in Happy Day Café & Bakery in downtown Mercy, cold and rainy outside, the café toasty.

“I flew in a jet and rented an electric car,” says Thomas, blithely admitting his crime. “It’s not that I don’t believe in flying, I think it’s immoral, and to atone for my immoral behavior I will pay for the planting of five hundred trees to mitigate some of the damage I did to Mother Earth by coming out here in a jet instead of on the train.”

“The earth would be covered with trees if everybody who flew did that,” she says, loving the concept of people planting trees every time they fly or drive anywhere. “Wouldn’t it?”

“Alas, no,” he says, shaking his head. “We’re losing trees by the billions every year. But enough about the death of the biosphere, tell me about you.”

“I’m a musician and a composer and an artist,” she says, trying not to think about the death of the biosphere. “And I dance. For the first thirteen years of my life I was cloistered with a series of nannies in Manhattan or Malibu, depending on the whims of my mother who was a movie star and is now deceased. For the last twelve years I’ve been living in Mercy with Nathan and Celia who I plan to live with, or live very close to, until they both die, and I hope that won’t be any time soon because to say I’m emotionally dependent on them would be the understatement of the century. And I would rather not tell you my mother’s name.”

“Daisy told me,” says Thomas, referring to the wife of his brother Michael— Daisy and Michael part of the Ziggurat Farm collective. “I haven’t seen any of your mother’s movies, but a few winters ago I rented a cabin in New Hampshire and was snowed in for three days. I had nothing else to do but try to stay warm, so I read the few things they had there to read, including a collection of magazines with pictures of your mother along with the usual superficial interviews, so I know what she looked like and know she gave money to Planned Parenthood, which was good of her, but I must say, for my taste, you are far more beautiful than your mother.”

“You never met her when she was twenty-five,” says Delilah, loathing Thomas’s tone of voice and his false surety. “And to be honest, your summation of your knowledge of my mother strikes me as flippant, crass, condescending, and obscenely insensitive. Would you agree?”

“Yes,” he says, his bravado vanishing. “I guess I am crass and insensitive and flippant. I apologize. I don’t intend to be, but I often am. Pompous is another word people use to describe me, the entire expression being pompous self-righteous know-it-all asshole.” He closes his eyes. “I really don’t want to be this way, but apparently I am.”

“You weren’t the day we met,” she says, liking him a little more than she did a moment ago. “Maybe you think you have to be someone you’re not in order to impress people or not seem too vulnerable. Men, in general, seem to have difficulty being vulnerable and open to intimacy, the prototypical male pretending to know everything lest he seem weak for not knowing. And by the way, when I say open to intimacy I don’t mean sexual intimacy, I mean emotional intimacy.”

“I have that difficulty,” he says, nodding. “Being open to intimacy. Either kind.”

“Do you know why?” she says, heartened by his willingness to be honest with her.

“Emotional intimacy wasn’t modeled for me by anyone when I was growing up,” he says with a plaintive shrug. “Quite the opposite. I was rewarded for being smarter than most of my peers, but never for being open to intimacy. I’m ten years younger than Caroline and twelve years younger than Michael, and by the time I came along they were too busy fending for themselves to teach me about emotional anything, though they were both tolerant of me and occasionally kind. My nannies were competent, and one of them was very sweet to me, though I was dreadful to her. My parents were busy elsewhere most of the time and I didn’t know anything about emotional intimacy or love or tenderness until I started studying animals when I was thirteen and audited a class at the university where my parents were professors. Foxes, for instance, are devoted and loving to their pups in ways that would be considered incredible if they were humans. In fact, foxes were my first role models regarding tenderness and devotion to others.”

“Nathan defines love as devotion to the miraculous nature of the other,” she says, liking Thomas more than ever now. “Whether the other is a fox or a dog or a person or a tree or a place or anything. What do you think about that?”

“I think I’d like to meet Nathan and ask him lots of questions,” says Thomas, in awe of her. “I think he’s right. And I wish somebody had modeled such devotion for me when I was growing up so I could have practiced that my whole life instead of practicing being a pompous self-righteous know-it-all asshole.”

“It’s not too late to change,” she says, deciding she’d like to try being in a relationship with him. “You’re still quite young, you know.”

“I’m going to try to change,” he says sincerely. “Whether you go out with me again or not.”

“Was that a roundabout way of asking me out again?” she asks, arching her eyebrow. “One might interpret it that way.”

“It wasn’t,” he says, shaking his head. “It was my clumsy way of saying I’m going to try to change, not just to please you and hope you like me, but because you’ve helped me see who I might become.”

“Well then I’ll ask you,” she says, wanting to kiss him. “Would you like to come for supper tomorrow night? Celia and I are making chicken enchiladas. Raul and Caroline are coming, too.”

“I’d love to,” he says, feeling he might cry, though he never cries. “What time?”

“We’ll eat around six, but come at five-thirty for hoovry doovries as we call hors d’oeuvres at our house.”

 *

Raul is fifty-six, a famous chef with a world-renowned restaurant in Mercy. Until three months ago, all his many relationships with women had been purely sexual and none ever lasted more than a couple months. Now he has been involved with Caroline, Michael and Thomas’s sister, for three months and he is happier than he’s ever been, not that he was unhappy before he became involved with Caroline.

“Except for one year of therapy when I was in my twenties, I have lived my entire life on the surface of my feelings,” says Raul, talking with his kitchen manager and sous chef Maurice. “But with Caroline I’m often swimming in my feelings as they mingle with hers, and it feels divine.”

Raul is sitting with Maurice at a counter in the glorious kitchen of Ocelot, Raul’s restaurant housed in a large old Victorian overlooking Mercy Bay, the restaurant closed Mondays and Tuesdays, this a Tuesday afternoon. They have just made a list of food and supplies for Maurice to order, and Raul will soon leave for supper at Nathan and Celia’s.

Maurice is a big Frenchman in his fifties who has worked with Raul for seventeen years and lives in a large apartment above the restaurant with his partner Jerome, a choreographer who spends every other month in San Francisco and teaches ballroom dancing at the Mercy Rec Center when he’s in town.

“I’m glad you’re in love,” says Maurice, who expects Raul to dump Caroline any day now. “Jerome is thrilled, of course, but then he’s a romantic and I, as you know, am a cynic. Even so, it’s nice to see you so happy. The atmosphere in the restaurant has greatly improved because you are. I’m sure you’ve noticed.”

“I have,” says Raul, who has long known his mood sets the standard for his staff, and this in turn resounds to the patrons. “We are not so somber and serious.”

“Though not yet frivolous,” says Maurice, laughing. “May we stop short of frivolity.”

Silence falls—the ocean roaring faintly in the background, both of them thinking about Raul hoping to buy out the wealthy couple who initially financed Ocelot and brought Raul and Maurice to Mercy four years ago.

“I made my offer yesterday,” says Raul, ending the silence. “No word yet, but Darlene did not sound displeased. I know she’s weary of making the long trek from Santa Barbara, and Frank has lost interest in coming here. The golfing is not good and he is too far from his mistress. And most importantly, their sycophants much prefer the warmer clime of Santa Barbara and the opulence of the palace in Montecito.”

“Fingers crossed,” says Maurice, who loves the Ocelot kitchen and loves living far from the madding crowd, his desire to be in the mix in San Francisco gone now.

*

Caroline and Thomas drive to Nathan and Celia’s together in Caroline’s little blue pickup, both of them staying at Michael and Daisy’s house along with their parents Marlene and Everett who are visiting until a few days after Thanksgiving.

“You seem tense,” says Caroline, uncharacteristically wearing a dress, a slinky one at that. “I’m not used to seeing you tense. Are you?”

“Maybe so,” says Thom, rolling his shoulders and feeling them ache. “I feel like I’m about to meet Gandhi.”

“More like St. Francis,” says Caroline, thinking of Nathan standing in the apple orchard directing the pruning of the trees, “with a sense of humor and a beautiful wife.”

Thomas looks at her. “I’ve never felt this way about anybody.”

“We are speaking of Delilah,” says Caroline, taking the curves slowly, rain falling.

Thomas nods. “Do you like her?”

“Hello?” says Caroline, giving him an are-you-nuts?-of-course-I-do look. “If I wasn’t insanely in love with Raul, and it is insane of me to persist in this doomed relationship, I’d be longing for Delilah, except she doesn’t seem interested in me that way. Even so, when we’re in the soaking tub together I can’t keep my hands off her.”

“I’ve never liked your boyfriends,” says Thomas, very much hoping to one day be in a tub with Delilah, “and I always like your girlfriends. I guess that says more about me than about you.”

“I’ve never liked my boyfriends either,” she says, matter-of-factly. “Until now. And this one is sixteen years older than I am.”

“Is that the main sticking point for you?”

“That and he lives here and not in New Hampshire where I have my career.”

“How funny we both came out here to visit our big brother and fell in love with people who would never in a million years move to where we live.”

“Ha ha,” says Caroline, pulling up in front of Nathan and Celia’s just as Raul arrives on foot, her heart thumping when she sees him—love, real love, not giving a hoot about age or location.

*

During supper Raul gazes intently at Celia and says, “Your enchilada sauce is impeccable. The balance of heat and the many flavors is fantastic. I would be most grateful if you would show me how to make this sauce.” He turns to Delilah who is also uncharacteristically wearing a dress and is too alluring for words. “And your guacamole is just how I like it. Bravo.”

“Gracias,” says Celia, giving Delilah a can-you-believe-it? look. “My grandmother is smiling in heaven.”

“Gracias también,” says Delilah, clinking her wine glass with Celia’s. “Celia taught me, though I tend to use a bit more lemon than she and a bit less onion.”

After more food talk, Nathan says to Thomas, “Delilah tells us you’re an authority on foxes. Seen any at the farm yet?”

“I’ve seen their spore,” says Thomas, tearing his eyes away from Delilah to focus on Nathan, “and paw prints in the mud near the chicken coop, but I have yet to see one.”

“Are the local ones the kind you’ve studied?” asks Nathan, who has a special love for foxes.

“I have studied Gray Foxes, yes,” says Thomas, who all during supper has been thinking he would gladly give up his academic career and be a grocery clerk or a house painter or work in a hardware store if Delilah would consent to be in a relationship with him, “though not to the extent I’ve studied Red Foxes, which are ubiquitous in New England. And you might be interested to know that Red Foxes and your Gray Foxes are only remotely related and cannot interbreed.”

“That is interesting,” says Nathan, seeing why Delilah likes Thomas. “I used to prune a big old plum tree that every few years attracted a mother fox and her pups when the fruit started to ripen, and I was amazed by what monkeys those baby foxes were, scrambling around in the branches, hanging from their paws as they knocked the plums to the ground and then scampered down to eat them. Amazing.”

“I’d love to see that,” says Thomas, beaming at Nathan. “Foxes are considered semi-arboreal, no doubt a saving trait in those times when large predators abounded.”

“Thom is also an excellent artist,” says Delilah, giving Thomas a loving look. “The drawing he did of Henri with his accordion and wearing a feathery headdress is exquisite.”

“Oh I’d love to see it,” says Raul, speaking to Thomas. “I need a drawing for a wall in my restaurant that could use some cheering up.”

“I’ll show it to you tomorrow,” says Thomas, his life as a person devoted to others unfolding before him.

fin

Mystery Love

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Uncategorized

We Both Know

Everett and Marlene, both seventy-four, both professors emeritus at the University of Vermont, both undeniably eccentric, have been married for fifty-one years. They are the parents of Michael, an ornithologist, Caroline, a botanist, and Thomas, a wildlife biologist specializing in foxes and other small to medium-sized carnivores.

Marlene, her light brown hair now silvery gray, began her studies of butterflies when she was seven by capturing three Tiger Swallowtails and trying to keep them alive in her bedroom for as long as she could. Everett, a former redhead now bald, began collecting beetles when he was eight, and by the time he was twelve had a dozen large terrariums housing hundreds of beetles, each one known to Everett by the first, middle, and last names he gave them, along with their Latin appellations, of course.

Coincidentally, Marlene’s parents and Everett’s parents were all artists. Everett’s father was a sculptor specializing in statues of famous Americans, his mother a potter. Marlene’s father was a painter of nudes, Marlene’s mother a modern dancer.

Michael and Caroline and Thomas agree that Everett and Marlene could only have married each other because no one else could possibly put up with either of them. They agree about this for many reasons, but most obviously because Marlene sings constantly, not loudly or melodically, but noticeably, except when she’s sleeping or talking. She sings while driving, walking, writing, watching movies, reading, listening to other people, and during meals. And Everett hums and whistles, sometimes both simultaneously, concurrently with Marlene’s singing.

As a consequence of their incessant soundings and their loud and unexpected non sequiturs which are only funny to them, along with their mutual tendency to lecture others by asking questions they themselves never answer, to name but a few of their many idiosyncrasies, neither Everett nor Marlene has ever had a close friend, other than each other. And also as a consequence of their annoying habits, their children reflexively sought to distance themselves from their parents and seek refuge in each other and a series of valiant nannies employed by Everett and Marlene to raise the kids while they continued their obsessive studies of butterflies and beetles.

Which is not to say their children don’t love them, but to say their children don’t care to spend much time with them.

So you may imagine Michael and Caroline’s distress when Everett and Marlene announce they are coming to California for the two weeks surrounding Thanksgiving to meet their first and only grandchild Jenna, daughter of Michael and his wife Daisy, and to stay with Michael and Daisy in their new house contiguous with Ziggurat Farm on the outskirts of the northern California coastal town of Mercy.

Caroline, who is living with Michael and Daisy and Jenna while on sabbatical from the University of New Hampshire, is so worried about the impending arrival of her parents, she suggests to Michael and Daisy that they forewarn the adults of the Ziggurat Farm collective about Marlene and Everett’s eccentricities before their arrival a week hence.

And because Caroline and Michael and Daisy and baby Jenna dine with the farm collective several times a week, the meeting takes place the next night after the farm kids have gone to bed. Also present at the meeting are Delilah, twenty-five, the main homeschool teacher at Ziggurat Farm, and Nathan and Celia, an elderly couple who share their home in Mercy with Delilah and are frequent visitors to the farm.

“The good news,” says Michael, who is forty-three and somewhat less distressed than Caroline about their folks coming to visit, “is that our younger brother Thom is arriving a few days after Mommer and Popper and has agreed to take them on a couple overnight jaunts away from here to give us some relief.”

“You call your parents Mommer and Popper?” asks Andrea, boss of the farm’s vegetable and flower garden as well as manager of Ziggurat Farm Productions, publisher of Philip’s two cookbooks and a related line of Philip’s Kitchen and Ziggurat Farm T-shirts and sweatshirts featuring Delilah’s beguiling drawings, and a just-released volume of Nathan’s poems with illustrations by Delilah entitled Exactly Is A Tricky Word.

“When I was two and trying to say Mama and Papa,” Caroline explains to Andrea, “out came Mommer and Popper, and the effect on our parents was miraculous. Not only did they both stop their perpetual singing and humming, they both smiled and laughed and gave me and Michael hugs and kisses, something they rarely did, so thereafter we never called them anything else because we loved it when they stopped singing and humming and hugged us. When Thom came along ten years after me, we taught him to call them Mommer and Popper so he might reap the benefits of those inexplicably effective words.”

“Remarkable,” says Philip, who loves listening to Caroline speak. “Shall we call them Mommer and Popper?”

“No,” says Michael, slowly shaking his head. “Daisy tried a few times and Mommer angrily lectured her for several minutes each time with a cascade of questions.”

“How do you mean?” asks Nathan, who finds all this both silly and fascinating. “Can you demonstrate?”

“I will,” says Daisy, who is forty-one and adores Nathan. “Marlene said, ‘Do you think it appropriate for you to call me the pet name given to me by my children? Do you make a habit of that sort of thing? Who suggested you call me by that name? What did you call your mother? What pet name did she have for you? Would you like it if I called you by the pet name given to you by your mother?’ Etcetera.”

“I see,” says Nathan, finding the situation less silly.

“The other good news,” says Caroline, who loves being three thousand miles away from her parents instead of only a hundred and eighty-six miles, which is the distance between the University of New Hampshire where she is a professor and the University of Vermont where her parents still live, “is they are not thinking of retiring here because they both want to move somewhere warm year-round. We are hopeful of Hawaii if not Malaysia.”

“Surely you exaggerate, Caroline,” says Marcel, Andrea’s French husband and the farm’s wine maker. “You and Michael are both so charming and easy to be with. Your parents must be charming, too.”

“We were raised by wolves,” says Michael, matter-of-factly.

“Imagine a small pretty woman with silvery gray hair sitting at this table with us,” says Daisy, relieved to see seven-month-old Jenna snoozing peacefully in Celia’s arms, Jenna extra fussy of late. “And imagine while the rest of us are trying to have a conversation, this woman is singing, not quite under her breath, an endless song with unintelligible but almost intelligible lyrics. Now imagine there is also at the table a bald man humming and occasionally whistling an entirely different tune than the singing woman, his tune obnoxiously repetitive, and sometimes he hums and whistles simultaneously.”

“I didn’t know it was possible to whistle and hum at the same time,” says Marcel, giving Delilah a questioning look.

Michael demonstrates, the sound a cicada-like drone.

Philip tries to imitate Michael, so do Delilah, Marcel, Andrea, Lisa, and Nathan—all of them bursting out laughing at the strange noises they make—the outburst waking the baby who starts to cry.

“Calmate, hija,” says Celia, gently rocking the baby back to sleep.

“You’ve got the touch,” says Daisy, smiling gratefully at Celia. “Thank God.”

“Can’t you ask them to stop their humming and singing?” asks Marcel, who finds the idea of college professors behaving this way rather farfetched.

“Oh you can ask them to stop,” says Caroline, nodding knowingly. “As you might ask the wind to stop blowing. But the wind will not stop because you ask it to, nor will our parents stop singing and humming.”

“I don’t think this is going to be a problem,” says Nathan, looking at Caroline. “I think they’ll stop singing and humming after they’ve been here a few days.”

“Why would you say that?” asks Michael with a touch of anger in his voice. “You don’t know anything about them.”

“That’s true, Michael. And I didn’t mean to imply that I do. But I know you and I know Caroline and… I just have a strong feeling they’ll be changed by being here.”

“I’ll try to imagine that,” says Michael, his anger subsiding. “I really will. And if it comes to pass, I will forevermore believe in magic and that you can see into the future.”

*

When Everett and Marlene arrive at Ziggurat Farm on a cold November afternoon, having missed Daisy and Michael’s driveway as most people do the first time they come to visit, they are greeted at their rental car by three friendly dogs and four children on the cusp of young adulthood: Irenia, thirteen, Arturo, twelve, Henri, eleven, and Vivienne, ten, the kids extremely curious to meet the humming and singing parents of Michael and Caroline.

Everett and Marlene are delighted to meet the kids, and do, indeed, hum and sing throughout the introductions and on their way to the farmhouse.

They continue to hum and sing while meeting Marcel and Andrea and Philip and Lisa, and they keep humming and singing as they shed their raincoats and stand by the fire warming themselves—their combined noises sounding not unlike bees swarming around a hive on a warm day.

“Excuse me,” says Henri, standing before Everett, “but why are you humming?”

“Like to hum,” says Everett, winking at Henri. “She likes to sing and I like to hum.”

“While other people are talking?” asks Henri, ignoring his mother’s urgent gestures and facial expressions asking him to desist from this line of questioning.

“No one usually hears us,” says Marlene, who has a strong Boston accent. “We’re usually alone or just with each other.”

“But we are here now,” Henri persists. “We can hear you and it makes us feel like you don’t want us to talk to you.”

“Oh but we do,” says Marlene, smiling at him. “Just ignore it.”

“I’ll try,” says Henri, shrugging. “But I don’t think it will be easy.”

*

When Michael arrives at the farmhouse a little while later he finds Everett and Marlene sitting on the living room sofa holding hands and listening to Irenia and Arturo and Henri and Vivienne singing a four-part harmony version of The Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’, Arturo accompanying the singing on guitar. ‘Blackbird’ is one of the songs the kids will be performing at the upcoming Ziggurat Farm School Holiday Follies.

When the children finish their enthusiastic performance, Everett and Marlene jump up applauding, Everett exclaiming, “Don’t change a note. Couldn’t be better.”

And Marlene turns to Michael and shouts, “No wonder you became an ornithologist.”

*

 Two mornings later, a light rain falling, Caroline and Marlene walk from Daisy and Michael’s house to the cottage where Andrea and Marcel and Henri live, a stone’s throw from the farmhouse, and where for this morning Lisa has commandeered the living room to give Marlene a massage.

“I’ll be at the farmhouse, Mommer,” says Caroline, handing her mother off to Lisa. “See you after.”

Marlene stops singing to say to Caroline, “See you after,” and immediately resumes her singing.

When Caroline departs, Lisa says, “Would you like me to leave the room while you undress?”

“Undress?” says Marlene, startled. “Oh I don’t think I want to do that.”

“I use body oil that will be very good for you,” says Lisa, noting the stoop in Marlene’s posture and her marked lean to her left. “If you’re not naked, I can’t use the oil. But if you’d rather keep your clothes on, I can massage you without oil, though the massage won’t be as effective.”

“You want me to take off all my clothes?” asks Marlene, who has never had a massage and never been naked in front of anyone except Everett, and even with him she only takes off her nighty when they’re under the covers.

“You’ll be under a sheet,” Lisa explains, gesturing to the massage table made up with blue flannel sheets. “I’ll leave the room while you disrobe and you call me when you’re ready. We’ll start with you face down. The face catcher is at the end of the table. I think I can alleviate some of the pain you spoke of at supper last night.”

Lisa leaves the room and Marlene considers changing her mind and not having a massage, at which moment the pain in her neck and shoulders and back that has persisted for decades expresses itself loudly, and in a little rage of frustration Marlene takes off her clothes, drapes them over the back of the sofa, gets under the sheet on the massage table, and situates herself so she is face-down in the cushioned face catcher.

“Okay,” she murmurs, speaking so quietly she doesn’t think Lisa could possibly hear her, yet Lisa returns.

Lifting the sheet off Marlene’s feet, Lisa says, “I’m going to start with your feet, Marlene. Are you ticklish?”

“Not that I know of,” says Marlene, tensing her entire body in anticipation of Lisa touching her. “I’ve never done this before. But it’s not my feet that hurt, it’s my neck and shoulders and back.”

“I understand,” says Lisa, taking Marlene’s left foot in her warm hands. “But everything is connected. As you will see.”

*

Two hours later, Marlene wakes from a dream of having had an amazing life-changing massage from Lisa, and for a moment she doesn’t know where she is and doesn’t realize she is lying on her back on Lisa’s massage table—the pain that has defined her life for as long as she can remember entirely gone.

“Lisa?” she says, having no idea how long she’s been asleep.

“I’m here,” says Lisa, getting up from the sofa and coming to the massage table. “Need a hand up?”

“Okay,” says Marlene, holding out her hand to Lisa. “I’m… the pain is gone. I can’t believe it.”

“Might come back,” says Lisa, helping her sit up, the sheet falling away and Marlene not caring if Lisa sees her naked. “I’ll massage you a few more times while you’re here. But now… how about a warm bath in the soaking tub with me?”

“Okay,” says Marlene, getting off the table and allowing Lisa to wrap a big towel around her and lead her to the big tub in the bathhouse adjoining the cottage.

*

When Lisa and Marlene enter the farmhouse for lunch, the morning session of homeschooling has just ended and the six students are eating lunch with Delilah at the dining table while Philip and Andrea and Marcel are in the kitchen preparing lunch for the grownups.

“I feel like a little girl,” whispers Marlene, taking Lisa’s hand. “A little girl who has never been anywhere or done anything.”

*

That night as they get ready for bed in the guest room in Michael and Daisy’s house, Everett hums and whistles as he changes out of his clothes into his pajamas.

Now something feels terribly wrong to him, so he stops humming and realizes he can’t hear Marlene singing. In a panic, he turns to where he last saw her, and there she is in her nightgown, standing at the partly open window listening to the rain.

“You okay, Mars?” he asks, wondering why she isn’t singing.

“I’m fine,” she says, her voice calmer than Everett has ever known it to be. “Just enjoying the sound of the rain.”

He joins her at the window in his T-shirt and underpants, and he doesn’t hum and she doesn’t sing, and they listen to the rain together for several minutes, the sound intoxicating.

“We both know you started humming to drown out my singing,” she says, speaking the truth that has gone unsaid for fifty-two years. “I wish I’d stopped singing long ago, but I couldn’t. Or wouldn’t. But now I want to stop and I’d like you to help me by calling my attention to it whenever I start.” She takes his hand. “Will you Ev?”

“Are you sure you didn’t start singing to drown out my humming and whistling?” he says, wanting to share some of the blame.

“I’m sure,” she says, bringing his hand to her lips and kissing his fingertips. “You never hummed until we got together, and I’ve been singing like I do, which isn’t really singing but sing-song talking, since I was a little girl. But now I’m going to stop and I hope you’ll stop with me, and we’ll see what happens.”

“Is this because of the massage?” he asks, struggling to contain his tremendous urge to start humming.

“The massage was the key that opened the box with the treasure map inside,” she says, sitting on the edge of the bed.

“The treasure map?” he says, sitting beside her. “What do you mean?”

“The treasure map to the buried treasure that was me as a frightened girl who didn’t want to hear the horrible things her parents were saying to each other and to her brother and sister, and to her. She wanted to mute those words, but then her singing became her habit and also the way she stayed separate from everyone else, which was the only way she could feel even a little bit safe, and I have no doubt I would have ended up in the loony bin if you hadn’t seen through my singing and fallen in love with me so I could fall in love with you.”

*

The next morning, rain intermittent, Thomas Darling, Everett and Marlene’s youngest son, arrives at Ziggurat Farm, having missed the driveway to Michael and Daisy’s house as everyone does the first time they come to visit.

Thirty-one, handsome and broad-shouldered with unruly red hair, Thomas knocks on the farmhouse door and hears four dogs barking in tones he recognizes as friendly.

The door opens and here is Arturo, thirteen, a fast-growing cutie pie with longish brown hair and olive skin wearing a red Ziggurat Farm sweatshirt and black jeans and neon blue running shoes.

“Ah,” says Arturo, offering Thomas his hand. “You must be Thom. I’m Arturo. Please come in. We’re just finishing up the morning lesson and then one of us will escort you to Michael and Daisy’s. The entrance to their driveway is invisible to the uninitiated.”

Thomas enters the large high-ceilinged room that is living room, dining room, and kitchen all in one, only the long counter that separates kitchen from dining room a permanent divider of the spaciousness. A young woman with short brown hair and four kids ranging in age from ten to fourteen are seated in a big circle around a small dais upon which a twelve-year-old boy holding an accordion and wearing a headdress made of a dozen large feathers is posing for the others to sketch him.

“The greatly-anticipated Thom has arrived,” announces Arturo, returning to his seat in the circle.

“Welcome Thom,” says Henri, the artists’ model. “Or do you prefer Thomas?”

“Thom is fine,” says Thomas, delighted by what he’s stumbled into.

“Welcome Thom,” say the other kids as they continue sketching Henri.

Now the young woman stands up and Thomas’s jaw drops—his previous notions about everything blown to smithereens.

“Hello Thom,” she says, coming to greet him. “I’m Delilah. Do you mind hanging out with us until we finish the morning session? Then someone will guide you where you want to go.”

“Don’t mind at all,” he says, shaking her hand. “Might I join your class? I love to draw.”

“Please,” she says, very much enjoying the union of their hands, as is he.

fin

Forgotten Impulses

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Ziggurat Farm School

On August 27, after their third day of Seventh Grade at Mercy K-8, Arturo, a handsome lad of twelve, and Irenia, a lovely lass of thirteen, walk along Jousting Street in the northern California coastal town of Mercy on their way to Nathan and Celia’s house to have piano lessons from Delilah and after-school snacks with Vivienne and Henri who just started Sixth Grade at Mercy Montessori, Sixth Grade being the highest class at the school many locals call the hippy school.

Arturo and Irenia have the same homeroom teacher for Seventh Grade, Mr. Delbonis, a surly middle-aged man who has been teaching Seventh Grade at Mercy K-8 for twenty-eight years, and both Arturo and Irenia are distraught about what they’ve experienced so far from Mr. Delbonis and their other teachers at the public school.

“I shudder to think we’re in for six more years of this,” says Arturo, who has made a long list of Mr. Delbonis’s factual errors in his lectures on the history of England and Europe and colonial America, subjects Arturo and Vivienne and Henri and their parents have read several books about. Arturo has also compiled a list of Mr. Delbonis’s many grammatical errors as well as several examples of his undisguised contempt for the intelligence of his students.

“I feel like we’re in prison,” says Irenia, her Russian accent always stronger when she’s upset.

“I feel the same way,” says Arturo, who finds Irenia exceedingly beautiful. “That’s why I’m documenting everything. To convince our parents to get us out of there.”

*

Irenia and Arturo arrive at Nathan and Celia’s little house on the outskirts of town and find Vivienne, Arturo’s soon to be ten-years-old sister, at the kitchen table having guacamole and chips and talking to Celia, seventy-nine, and Nathan, eighty-five, while Henri is having his piano lesson with Delilah in the piano room, otherwise known as Delilah’s bedroom.

Celia brings more guacamole and chips for Arturo and Irenia, and Vivienne opines, “You both appear to be in mourning.”

“We are,” says Arturo, sighing heavily. “Mourning the end of happiness.”

“Public school is a catastrophe for us,” says Irenia, her eyes full of tears. “For everyone else, too, but especially for us.”

“Today,” says Arturo, angrily, “Mr. Delbonis had the gall to say the Battle of Hastings in 1066 drove the Vikings out of England, which couldn’t be further from the truth and ignores the fact that most of the British Isles at the time had been inhabited by the Danish, which he conflates with men in horned battle helmets, for three hundred years!”

“Did you alert him to his error?” asks Nathan, who knew that public school, and in particular Ralph Delbonis, would be disastrous for the Ziggurat Farm kids.

“Heavens no,” says Arturo, aghast at the thought of confronting their large and humorless teacher. “When Larry Jurgens said, ‘You mean 1776,” when Mr. Delbonis said 1876 in reference to the Declaration of Independence, Mr. Delbonis practically ripped Larry’s head off. He’d kill me if I dared question the veracity of his erroneous twaddle.”

“So what are you going to do?” asks Nathan, glancing at Celia. “We’re too old to start a school for you.”

“That may be true,” says Vivienne, who can’t imagine life without Nathan and Celia, “but you’re not too old to help us convince our parents to home school us.”

“We’ll try,” says Celia, recalling how their daughter Calypso languished in public school for a decade, having learned far more from her parents by the time she was eight than she would learn in the ensuing ten years at Mercy K-8 and Mercy High. “But it won’t be easy because they’re all so busy.”

“At the Montessori school we had art and music and field trips,” says Irenia, recalling the good old days of last year. “At public school they give us piles of meaningless data to memorize and at recess the kids all stare at their phones. I feel like a lab rat.”

“An apt analogy,” says Arturo, giving Nathan a pained look. “And we have zero interest in being lab rats.”

*

Thus it comes to pass that Vivienne and Arturo’s parents Philip and Lisa, Henri’s parents Marcel and Andrea, and Irenia’s parents Boris and Marie, agree to home school their progeny rather than subject them to the well-meaning but essentially destructive public education system as it manifests in Mercy.

Philip and Lisa and Andrea take it upon themselves to assemble a faculty and create a curriculum to educate their children and prepare them for the future and so they can pass the high school equivalency exam, a test they will take a few years hence; and a week later Ziggurat Farm School opens for business.

When Alma Goldstein, eleven, and Larry Jurgens, twelve, hear about the farm school from Arturo and Vivienne, they and their parents beg to join the new enterprise. After brief negotiations, Alma and Larry’s parents agree to pay tuition sufficient to cover the salaries of Nathan and Delilah, the only salaried faculty members, and Alma and Larry become the fifth and sixth members of the student body.

The Ziggurat Farm School (ZFS) faculty members and the subjects they teach are as follows:

Andrea—Gardening, Farm Management, History

Lisa—Physiology, Yoga, Drama

Philip—History, Conversational French, Cooking

Marcel—Conversational French, Carpentry, Soccer, Fermentation

Michael—Ornithology, Wildlife Biology

Caroline—Botany, Marine Biology

Delilah—Mathematics, Music, Drawing

Marie—Sewing, Knitting

Boris—Engine Repair, Wrestling

Nathan—Writing, Poetry

Daisy—Literature, Typing, Cinema

Celia—Spanish, First Aid, Healthcare 

Arthur Jurgens (Larry’s father)—Physics, Beachcombing

Raul—Restaurant Economics

 *

On a spectacular warm and sunny morning in mid-September, Caroline, forty, a lovely long-limbed professor of Botany at the University of New Hampshire on sabbatical for a year, lies naked in the king-sized bed in Raul’s house in Mercy and thinks I’ve got to nip this romance in the bud. He’s sixteen years older than I am, I have a great job at UNH, and I’m falling in love with him. No. I am in love with him. What the fuck am I doing?

*

Raul, big and handsome and Portuguese, a most famous chef and renowned Lothario, is the godfather of Caroline’s six-month-old niece Jenna who lives on Ziggurat Farm with her mother Daisy and father Michael, Caroline’s brother. Raul and Caroline have been romantically involved for two weeks now, and unlike his experiences with his previous lovers, Raul is not growing weary of Caroline, which is an entirely new experience for him.

“I think I am falling in love with you,” says Raul to Caroline as they eat breakfast on the deck of Raul’s modern one-story house at the end of a quiet lane on a headland meadow in Mercy. “I’ve never been in love before, so I’m not sure. But I think this must be how people feel when they fall in love.”

“What do you mean you’ve never been in love?” says Caroline, looking up from the delicious omelet Raul made for her. “I’ve read your memoir. You’re famous for being in love.”

“I’m famous for my food and sleeping with movie actresses,” he says with a shrug. “But I was never in love with any of them. I enjoyed sleeping with some of them, some not so much. Before the actresses, my liaisons were also brief. I have no experience of being in a relationship. Until you.”

“Are we in a relationship?” asks Caroline, who has only been in a few, none lasting more than a year. “I thought we were just having a fling.”

“Maybe we are,” he says, gazing in wonder at her. “But I admire so many things about you, besides your genius in bed. This is new for me and I like it very much.”

“I feel the same about you,” she says, keenly aware of her resistance to being in love. With anybody. “Though we’re terribly mismatched, you know.”

“Why?” he asks, smiling. “Because I’m older than you?”

“And I’m a college professor in New Hampshire,” she says, feeling she might cry, “and you live here.”

“Aha,” he says, gazing up at the blue blue sky. “Yet here we are and at least for the moment you don’t seem to mind our age difference, so perhaps we could spend the day together.”

“I’d love to, Raul” she says, softening, “but I’m the after-lunch teacher at the farm school today. I’m taking the kids on a walk in the woods to study the ecosystem.”

“I would love to go with you,” he says, nodding hopefully. “If I wouldn’t be in the way.”

“You would?” she says, surprised. “That would be… fine. You wouldn’t be in the way at all.”

“Good,” he says, happily. “I will be your student, too. What do I need to bring?”

“A sketch book and a couple pencils,” she says, delighted. “We’ll be sketching trees and landscapes. The kids are amazing artists. They studied with a wonderful painter and now they take drawing from Delilah.”

“I know the painter who taught them,” he says, recalling Joseph Richardson recently gone back to England. “We have two of his paintings in Ocelot, one of the mouth of the Mercy, and a huge amazing portrait of the farm people in fancy clothes with their dogs, playing croquet in the orchard. You’ll see them if you ever come to my restaurant. Joseph and his wife Constance dined there every Thursday evening before they returned to England. They adored Delilah.”

“She’s amazing,” says Caroline, who has a not-so-secret crush on Delilah. “Can you imagine having her as your Math, Music, and Art teacher when you were in school?”

“I quit school when I was twelve,” says Raul, recalling the cold drudgery of Catholic school, “and escaped to the kitchen of my stepfather’s restaurant. But if Delilah had been my teacher, I would not have wanted to escape.” He pauses thoughtfully. “Do you know who her mother was?”

“Margot Cunningham. Daisy told me.” She squints at him. “One of your conquests?”

“I was one of hers,” he says quietly. “Long ago one night in San Francisco.”

“How was it?” she asks, surprised to feel jealous.

“I remember very little about the experience,” he says, recalling Margot dining at estuaire, the restaurant he created that made him world famous—Margot regal and exquisitely beautiful, but sad, deeply sad. “Only that she wanted me to call her Susie, which I later learned was the name she was born with.”

“Does Delilah know?”

“No one in the world knows except you and I.” He takes her hand. “Shall we keep it our secret?”

“Yes,” she says, looking into his eyes. “I will tell no one.”

*

Delilah resembles her famous mother in both face and body, though she is not blonde and fair, but brunette with olive skin. Tall and strong, her hair cut very short, she was a musical and mathematical prodigy as a child, and an accomplished artist by the age of ten, her talents undiminished now that she is twenty-five.

She is wearing her usual outfit of sweatshirt and brown trousers as she stands between two large chalkboards in the farmhouse living room, watching Larry and Henri each attempting to solve the same Algebra problem.

Twelve-year-old Larry is very skinny, one might even say scrawny. He wears wire-framed glasses, his nose long and thin, his lips quite large, his chin barely evident, his red hair frizzy, his father a retired Physics professor now a zealous collector of driftwood, his mother a Marriage and Family Counselor who does most of her work via video telephony.

Eleven-year-old Henri possesses his German mother’s beauty and his French father’s heroic chin. Born and raised on the farm, he is muscular and agile with short brown hair and a stellar sense of humor.

When the boys complete their figuring, Henri concluding with X=32, Larry with X=16, Delilah says, “Very well done, Henri. And Larry, take another look at the third line of your otherwise excellent work.”

“Oh shoot,” says Larry, slapping his forehead and knocking his glasses askew. “Duh.”

“I think we’ve done quite enough math for one morning,” says Delilah, sensing the kids need a break on this glorious sunshiny day. “Go amble around and when you feel sufficiently revived, we’ll finish the morning session with some music.”

Irenia, Arturo, and Henri play Frisbee on the expanse of open ground in front of the barn while Vivienne, Alma, and Larry walk to the vegetable garden, pull a few carrots, and saunter back to the farmhouse happily munching.

“Just think,” says Larry, his voice high and nasal, “if we were at Mercy K-8 right now, I’d be doodling in my binder and praying no one beats me up at recess while Mr. Delbonis spews questionable facts to memorize.”

“And I’d be praying Miss Hansen didn’t call on me,” says Alma, who is plump and cute and has frizzy light brown hair and wears glasses, her father an optometrist, her mother a dietician, “because I wouldn’t have heard anything she said for the last ten minutes, which is when she always called on me.”

“I’d probably be bored at the Montessori school, too,” says Vivienne, who recently had her long brown hair cut shoulder length and sometimes wishes she’d been able to finish Sixth Grade at the Montessori. “But not at recess. I loved recess at the Montessori. The soccer games especially. So I do miss that.”

When the kids return to the farmhouse after their short break, they find Philip and Lisa in the kitchen preparing lunch, the kids to eat first, the adults after—lunch and the mid-day recess lasting from roughly 11:30 to 1.

Delilah is sitting at the piano thinking about what to do with the kids for the next half-hour when Vivienne says, “I hope we’re going to sing now. We loved learning to sing harmonies last week.”

*

Raul and Caroline arrive at the farmhouse in time to hear the children singing a three-part harmony rendition of a verse from ‘Up A Lazy River’—Delilah and five of the children singing in tune, while Alma, singing loudest of all, is way off key, which obviously irks the other children.

Up a lazy river where the robin’s song

Wakes up in the mornin’ as we roll along

Blue skies up above, everyone’s in love

Up a lazy river, how happy we will be

Up a lazy river with me

Standing at the open front door listening to Alma wreak havoc on the otherwise excellent rendition, Caroline and Raul exchanges glances wondering what Delilah will say to Alma when they finish the verse.

“Okay,” says Delilah, before any of the kids can complain about Alma’s singing, “we’re getting there, but I’d like to work on our pitch before we try again. Gather round the piano.”

So the kids gather round the piano and Delilah plays middle C and says, “Let’s match this note.”

Five of the kids match the C perfectly while Alma belts out a D.

“Now one at a time,” says Delilah, playing the C again. “Arturo begin, please.”

Arturo matches the note. Henri matches the note. Vivienne matches the note. Irenia matches the note, her voice extraordinarily beautiful. Larry matches the note. Alma sings a D.

“Alma?” says Delilah, gently. “Can you hear how your note is not exactly the same as the C?”

“No,” says Alma, frowning. “Sounds the same to me.”

“I want you to try again.” Delilah plays the C again and holds down the sustain pedal. “Now listen very carefully as you sing and try to match this note.”

Alma steadfastly sings a D.

“How about this?” says Delilah, winking at Arturo to quell his urge to say No! “Irenia? Would you sing the C and hold the note for as long as you can.”

Irenia sings the C.

“Now Alma, I want you to sing with Irenia so your note sounds just like her note.”

Alma sings D again, but as Irenia continues to hold the C, Alma begins to hear how she is not quite singing the same note as Irenia. So she stops singing, clears her throat, starts again, and gets a little closer to the Irenia’s C.

And now, as if this moment has been waiting to happen since the beginning of time, Alma’s note becomes Irenia’s and they hold the note together for a long time, after which everyone in the farmhouse cheers.

*

In the forest a few hundred yards north of the terraced vegetable and flower garden, the children and Raul and Caroline sit in a circle on the ground a few feet apart, their backs to the center of the circle, making sketches of what they see before them.

An unseen raven makes a sound uncannily like someone playing castanets.

Raul looks up from his sketching and waits for the sound of castanets to come again, but the raven has nothing more to say. Raul looks at his sketch of three large trunks of trees in the foreground, shrubbery in the middle ground, myriad trunks and foliage in the background.

“So this is the world,” he says quietly.

Henri, sitting to Raul’s right, nods and quotes his father Marcel, complete with Marcel’s French accent. “So we are told.”

“Not the whole world,” says Vivienne, sitting to Raul’s left. “But definitely part of the world. You didn’t mean the whole world, did you?”

“I did,” says Raul, loving being here with the children and Caroline. “This is part of the world and the whole world, too.”

“I kind of see what you mean,” says Vivienne, continuing to sketch the scene before her. “For instance, if you were an ant or even something smaller, this would certainly be the whole world.”

“I don’t know about that,” says Arturo, commenting from the other side of the circle. “Ants can travel pretty far in a relatively short amount of time. I read they can travel more than a mile in a day. But to a bacteria this would be a veritable galaxy.”

“Why do people want to go to Mars?” asks Irenia, unhappy with her rendering of a stump surrounded by ferns. “Why not stay here and make the earth clean again? Why go to a planet with no life when we have this one so full of life?”

“Ecology begets philosophy,” says Caroline, remembering making love with Raul this morning, how never before had she experienced such perfect harmony.

fin

Sweet

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Who Is Your Audience?

Nathan is eighty-five, spry, in full command of his senses, and very much enjoying his less strenuous life after fifty years of pruning fruit trees for a living. He lives with his wife Celia, seventy-nine, a retired nurse, in a little house on the outskirts of the small northern California coastal town of Mercy. They’ve lived in their comfy two-bedroom home since they married fifty-three years ago, and for the last twelve years they’ve shared their house with Delilah, who is now twenty-five. Their one child, Calypso, fifty-two, a nurse at Mercy Hospital, lives nearby with her computer-savvy husband Paul and their teenaged son Carlos.

A poet of some renown in his late twenties, Nathan writes for an hour or so every day as he has for the last sixty-five years. He posts poems and short stories on his blog whenever he finishes one he especially likes. Every now and then he hears from someone who enjoyed one of his postings, and he thinks of these communiqués from afar as the universe kissing him. He teaches writing twice a week to the Ziggurat Farm kids Arturo, Vivienne, Henri, and Irenia, and occasionally lends his editing skills to local writers who appreciate his way with words.

*

On a foggy morning in mid-July, Nathan sits at his kitchen table with Daisy, who is forty and moved with her husband Michael into the house and property adjoining Ziggurat Farm nine months ago, just five months before their baby girl Jenna was born. Daisy has come to see Nathan today to find out what he thinks of her novel she gave him to read two weeks ago.

While Celia carries four-month-old Jenna around in the living room, singing softly to her in Spanish, Nathan asks Daisy, “So who is this book for?”

“What do you mean?” asks Daisy, confused by the question. “I wrote it to try to get published.”

“I understand, but… who did you have in mind while you were writing it?”

“Oh,” says Daisy, frowning. “I guess my agent.”

“Your agent,” says Nathan, surprised by her answer. “Is she a friend of yours?”

“No, I don’t really know her,” says Daisy, realizing she knows nothing about her agent except she’s a literary agent in New York and represents several published writers. “Why do you ask?”

“Just curious.” He sips his tea. “What did your agent say about this book?”

“Well…” Daisy clears her throat. “She sent me a list of things I need to change before she’ll show it to anyone. You know… things like… I need to beef up the romance between Arno and Miranda and make the characters of Harmon and Cid more overtly evil and the characters of Miranda and Jessica more obviously good. But she likes the writing and thinks the plot is strong for the first two-thirds, and then she says things kind of fizzle out and I need to wrap things up much sooner and with more of a bang. To make it more saleable.”

“I see,” says Nathan, looking at the title page of the manuscript: Racing Through Darkness by Daisy Darling. “May I ask who your writing role models are?”

“My favorite authors?”

“Yeah, writers you learned from.”

“Well I decided to be a writer after I went on an Edith Wharton binge my last two years of college. I read everything she ever published over and over again, including her most obscure short stories. And then I had a fling with Thomas Hardy and Dickens, and then I was obsessed with Irish short story writers, and then Bashevis Singer and somewhere in there Steinbeck and Faulkner and Carson McCullers and Truman Capote, and then I read lots of contemporary women writers, and when I finally got an agent—took me seven years to convince someone to represent me—she said I should religiously read the books on the New York Times bestseller list, so I’ve been trying to do that for the last three years.”

“How has that gone?” asks Nathan, sounding concerned.

“Well…” Daisy laughs uneasily. “Interesting.”

“Mostly murder mysteries and thrillers and horror books. Yeah?”

“Not all of them. Every once in while there’s one about a person… you know, overcoming incredible odds and… to be totally honest, I don’t actually read most of them. I skim them. The writing is…” She hesitates. “Not great. Usually.”

Nathan thinks for a moment. “Daisy, I don’t think I can help you. I don’t know anything about commercial writing.”

“Did you hate my book?” she asks, her jaw trembling.

“I wouldn’t say I hated it,” he says, shaking his head. “When you gave me the manuscript you said you felt there was something missing and you couldn’t figure out what it was. And for me what was missing… was you.”

“Me?” she says, horrified. “What do you mean?”

“I mean your voice, your feelings, your take on reality.” He taps the manuscript. “I think this was an attempt to write something you thought your agent would want to try to sell. But I couldn’t find you in here. And I don’t know anything about these kinds of books except I’m not the audience for them. I’m an audience for the radiance of your soul. And though that may sound grandiose, it isn’t. I listen to you talking and telling stories and you flood the world with the radiance of who you are. That’s what I’m an audience for. That’s what makes a good poem or a good story for me. Not the plot. Not the genre. Not imitations of tired old formulas, but the miraculous nature of life expressed in words.”

“But they won’t publish the radiance of who I am,” she says, crying.

“Aye, there’s the rub,” he says, nodding. “They used to, when all those writers you named got published. They used to hunt for books and authors full of the radiance, and that’s when all sorts of weirdo geniuses got published. But now the radiance has got to get through in other ways, which I’m sure it does, just not very often through conventional channels.”

She stops crying and looks at him. “You’re saying I wasted twenty years of my life.”

“Not at all,” he says, shaking his head. “You know how to build a house now and you can build another one if you want. And I’ll bet you if you build it for someone you know and love, they’ll want to live there. And I probably will, too.”

She takes a deep breath to dispel her tears. “Sometimes I’ll be writing and go into a kind of trance, and I’ll write pages and pages that have nothing to do with the book I’m trying to write. And I’ll read those pages and be amazed, though I never think they’re anything but transcriptions of waking dreams.”

“That’s the boss stuff, Daisy.”

“You think so?” she says, turning to watch Celia standing at the window with baby Jenna in her arms, the fog giving way to sunshine.

*

After graduating from college with a degree in English, and until she inherited a fortune from her mother two years ago, Daisy worked as a secretary in the Biology department at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where her husband Michael was a graduate student, then a lecturer, and most recently a professor of Ornithology and Wildlife Biology. Daisy worked on her short stories and novels in the evenings and on weekends, and belonged to a group of writers that met every two weeks to share their writing and encourage each other to keep going.

Daisy and Michael were saving money to buy a house and have a baby and give Daisy two years as a stay-at-home mom when Daisy’s mother unexpectedly died and left them a huge pile of money.

Now they own a beautiful house on three acres adjacent to Ziggurat Farm on the edge of a vast forest of redwoods and firs and spruce and hemlocks. Michael is completing his third book about owls and beginning research on Ospreys, their baby Jenna is happy and healthy, and Daisy, until a few minutes ago, thought she would soon be starting another rewrite of her novel following the directives of her literary agent.

But now, as she sits in Nathan and Celia’s living room nursing Jenna and waiting for Michael to come drive her home, she knows she will not be revising her novel and may never write another one. And though she feels sad about this ending to a very long chapter of her life, she also feels profoundly relieved, as if some part of her always knew she wasn’t meant to be an imitator.

She closes her eyes and surrenders to the lovely sensation of her daughter suckling, the fire crackling in the fireplace, and when she hears Nathan open the door and greet Michael and invite them for lunch, she doesn’t open her eyes until Michael kisses her forehead and whispers, “Shall we stay for lunch, darling?”

“We shall,” she says, seeing how tired he looks from the months of getting up three times a night to bring the crying baby to her. “Guess what?”

“You had a good time with Nathan,” he says, relieved to see her happy again after weeks of anguish.

“Yes,” she says, nodding, “and I’ve decided to let my novel go and start anew. Only from now on I’ll write what I want to write and not what anyone else tells me to write.”

*

A few days later, Daisy puts Jenna in what Michael calls the all-terrain stroller, the most heavy duty stroller they could find, leashes their Golden Retriever pup Figaro, and takes baby human and baby dog on the path to the one-acre terraced vegetable garden where Andrea and Lisa and Irenia and Vivienne are working, all of them wearing long-sleeved shirts and shorts and sunhats.

Irenia and Vivienne ask Andrea if they can take a break from weeding to visit with Daisy and Jenna, and Andrea says, “Of course.”

Vivienne, who is a few months away from turning ten, lifts four-month-old Jenna out of the stroller—Jenna chuckling with delight because she especially loves Vivienne.

“Hello my darling precious new person,” says Vivienne, kissing Jenna’s cheek. “You who are possessed of the softest skin in the entire universe.”

Irenia, who is twelve and a foot taller than Vivienne, stands nearby waiting her turn to hold the baby.

“She’s growing so fast,” says Irenia, making no attempt, as she sometimes will, to hide her Russian accent. “Every time I see her she is a different person, and I just saw her two days ago.”

“I wonder if she would like a strawberry?” asks Vivienne, kissing Jenna again before handing her to Irenia. “Not to eat, of course, but to suck on. We’ll be very careful.”

“That’s fine,” says Daisy, sitting on a small wooden bench next to an expanse of voluptuous scarlet and burgundy gladioli.

Andrea and Lisa are thinning carrots several terraces up the gently sloping incline, and Lisa says something that makes Andrea laugh and Daisy hears They are a farm of women. Not that men don’t come to visit, they do, but the men rarely stay for long because they are not wanted here save for sex and to make the occasional child, male children sent away to the farms of men when they are no longer little boys.

*

When Jenna goes down for a nap in the early afternoon and Michael and his sister Caroline go on a hike, Daisy sits at the kitchen table and writes down the words she heard in the garden. But when she tries to write more than what she heard, nothing comes out.

“This is when I start forcing things,” she says, speaking aloud. “Trying to make up what I think should come next. But I’m not going to do that anymore. I’m not going to worry the words, as Nathan says.”

Thinking of Nathan and his invitation to come write with him, she goes in search of her phone. After looking in the bedroom and kitchen and living room she remembers she left her phone in the all-terrain stroller they store in the foyer where they hang their coats and keep their outdoor shoes.

As she’s fishing her phone out of the pocket on the backside of the stroller, she feels an urgency, almost a panic, to turn those lines she heard into something big and sensational, a book her agent will want to sell to a publisher, and she realizes that as long as she is ruled by this compulsion, she will never hear more of the story.

*

The next day after breakfast, Daisy nurses Jenna, leaves her with Michael, and drives to Nathan and Celia’s for tea and talk by the fire, the town of Mercy cloaked in dense fog.

Daisy tells Nathan and Celia and Delilah about her experience of hearing the beginning of a story, writing the lines down, and then feeling desperate to write more but only being able to think of what she describes as derivative guck.

“So what are you gonna do?” asks Nathan, sipping his tea.

“I guess I’ll have to unlearn my compulsion to force things,” says Daisy, having no idea how to do that.

“I think you’ll have to replace your compulsion with something else,” says Delilah, nodding thoughtfully. “I’ve been reading about brain maps and how we create synaptic patterns, actual maps in our brains, by repeating physical and emotional patterns, and these maps are the drivers of our neurology, our operating system, so to speak. And it seems the more we repeat something, the more deeply etched the brain map for that particular thing and the harder it is to override the commands of that map. But if we create new brain maps by repeating new behaviors hundreds and thousands of times, and we stop repeating the old behaviors, our old brain maps eventually grow fainter and less dominant, though they never go away completely.”

“Which is why we can still ride a bike even if we haven’t ridden one in twenty years,” says Nathan, trying to remember the last time he rode a bike. “The brain map we made when we learned to ride is still there.”

“I think also,” says Celia in her quiet way, “you need to end your connection with your agent.”

Daisy gasps. “Oh no. It took me so long to find someone to represent me. She won’t care if she doesn’t hear from me for a few months.”

“But isn’t she the grand manifestation of your compulsion?” asks Delilah, going to heat more water for a second round of tea. “Isn’t she fueling the urgency that causes you to force things?” She cackles. “The wicked witch of the east.”

“Oh let’s not make her wicked,” says Nathan, laughing. “Let’s just say she may be keeping you anchored somewhere you’d rather sail away from.”

“I really don’t think it’s necessary,” says Daisy, terrified of not having an agent.

“Then stay with her,” says Nathan, simply. “See how things go.”

*

A few nights later, Michael and Daisy and Jenna and Caroline are having supper in the farmhouse with the seven farm residents plus Irenia, the feast prepared by Philip with assistance from Henri and Irenia.

Mid-supper, Arturo, who is about to turn twelve, describes something that happened as he and Vivienne were closing up the chicken coop for the night and gathering eggs.

“There are two hens,” says Arturo, his story-telling style modeled on that of an erudite British fellow who used to be a mainstay of the collective. “One is Marilyn Monroe and the other is either Queen Elizabeth or Marie Antoinette. I never can tell those two apart. In any case, they are always the last hens to go inside to roost for the night, and sometimes we have to shoo them in, which we had to do tonight, which is when we saw the fox.”

“We think the fox was a she,” says Vivienne, taking up the tale, “because she was not very big, but definitely not a kit and certainly big enough to kill a chicken.”

“She was just sitting there in the high grass on the edge of the clearing,” says Arturo, looking at his father Philip. “Calm and unafraid and waiting patiently for the right moment to leap over the fence into the scratch yard and grab one of those hens.”

“Where were the dogs?” ask Marcel, Henri’s French father. “Don’t tell me. They were in here by the fire. Old dogs in retirement.”

“Alexandra was with us,” says Vivienne, speaking of her five-year old Golden Retriever, “and she definitely saw the fox, but she didn’t even bark. It was very strange, as if she and the fox had come to an agreement.”

“So we need to start getting the hens in a half-hour earlier,” says Andrea, who would hate to lose either of her premiere egg producers. “I’ll write the new closing time on your chore sheets.”

“Our brother Thom,” says Caroline, who loves living here and never wants to go back to New Hampshire where she is a professor of Botany, “wrote a book about foxes. He considers them a higher form of life than humans. He wants to come visit soon and meet Jenna and see what we’re all raving about, but he’s teaching summer session and then fall classes start soon after, so it may be a while. He’s in Ithaca. At Cornell.”

“We’d love to read his book,” says Henri, who has a secret crush on Caroline, though she is thirty years his senior. “Can we get it from the library?”

“I doubt it,” says Michael, who is constantly amazed by the sophistication of the farm kids. “I have a copy. It’s rather technical, but you’re welcome to borrow it and I’ll be happy to translate the jargon for you.”

“Thom is working on another book about foxes for the general public,” says Caroline, giving Henri a big-eyed smile, “but that won’t be out for years, assuming he can ever find a publisher.”

“I love the word jargon,” says Arturo, looking at Henri and Vivienne and Irenia. “Lets name our next dog or cat Jargon.”

“I think it would be an excellent name for a male,” says Irenia, holding Jenna on her knee and gently bouncing her. “But it doesn’t sound right for a female.”

“You’re right,” says Henri, raising his voice as he always does before he makes a joke. “The female version would be Jargonella.”

“Excuse me,” says Daisy, getting up from the table. “I’ll be right back.”

While the conversation rages, Daisy hurries to the all-terrain stroller, gets out her notebook, and writes The talk turns to naming the new dog the women got from Old Martha who breeds Malamutes with wolves to make protectors for the farms of women.

When Daisy returns to the table, Michael takes her hand. “You okay?”

“Fine,” she says, smiling at their daughter so happy with Irenia. “Just wanted to write something down before I forgot.”

*

The next day while Jenna is napping, Daisy carries her phone out on the deck, gazes at the fabulous forest descending to the sea, and taps the number of her agent in New York.

“Daisy,” says Gwen, coming on the line. “Call you back in ten.”

“Okay,” says Daisy, knowing the universe is providing these ten minutes to test her resolve.

As she waits, Daisy thinks of her mother Doris who raised Daisy single-handedly and cheerfully while working in a Ford assembly plant, how proud she was of Daisy for being a writer. “Takes courage to do something with no guarantee you’ll succeed,” said Doris a year or so before she died. “But it’s what you love, so go for it.”

Daisy answers her vibrating phone.

“What’s up?” says Gwen who is simultaneously answering emails.

“I’ve decided to stop working with you,” says Daisy, bracing herself for an angry retort.

“No, that’s my line,” says Gwen, laughing a little and ceasing to type. “Too much baby, not enough writing time? I’m happy to wait for the smoke to clear. Hate to lose you when we’re getting so close.”

“I’m going in a different direction now,” says Daisy, smiling at the truth of that. “I really appreciate all the help you gave me.”

“No problem,” says Gwen, curtly. “I’ll email you the quit document to sign and… good luck.”

*

On a warm morning in mid-August, Daisy and Nathan are sitting opposite each other at Nathan’s kitchen table, Celia carrying five-month-old Jenna around the garden visiting flowers with her.

Nathan and Daisy are writing together, each writing two lines of a story on a sheet of typing paper, then exchanging the papers and writing the next two lines of each story, and so on, back and forth until they reach the bottoms of their pages and wrap their stories up with two final lines.

When they finish writing, they each read aloud the story they ended up with. One of the stories doesn’t do much for either of them, but the other story…  

*

Frederick wasn’t sure Amelia wanted to go out

with him, so he didn’t ask her for fear she would

say yes and turn out to be a psychic black hole

and suck all the joy out of his life and make him

want to become a monk, something he often

had nightmares about. You see, Frederick loved

wearing flamboyant colorful clothing and having

sex with women, and Amelia was just exactly

a woman, which was just what Frederick was

looking for. She had two arms, two legs, two

adorable dogs named Gormag and Fitzroy

and her voice was husky and warm and when

she laughed the earth shook and made Frederick

whimper like a dog hearing fireworks exploding on

the eve of the ascension, not to mention

making him wildly amorous and ready to

throw caution to the wind and sleep with

someone he knew had slept with

German aristocrats, rock stars, and women

who enjoyed dressing as men and behaving

like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Yet

he didn’t ask her out, though he wanted to

more than anything he’d ever wanted, except

for one thing: to play boogie-woogie piano

naked on a warm summer night for a

gathering of his favorite writers, most of

them dead, but resurrected especially

for the occasion.

fin

Whoopsie Doopsie