On a sunny morning in late June, Healing Weintraub and his partner Jahera Dahl sit at the kitchen table in their little old house on Nasturtium Road in Mercy, laughing uproariously as Healing’s sister Jean describes her husband Albert’s latest enactment of his annual birthday performance of Hamlet’s To be or not to be soliloquy.
Jean explains in her deadpan way, her English accent colored with Scottish inflections absorbed from Albert, that Albert always performs the monologue on May 13 at 7:42 AM, the date and time of his birth, his only attire a crown of ivy fashioned from the ubiquitous ivy in their backyard in Devon, England – Jean’s recounting of Albert’s performance punctuated by droll comments from Naomi, Healing and Jean’s mother.
Naomi, who is eighty-five and has long white hair she wears in a ponytail, and Jean, sixty-five and short curly gray hair, arrived in Mercy from England just two days ago, three months after the death of Naomi’s husband Ezra and a week after Healing’s sixty-third birthday. Naomi is intending to live with Healing and Jaher for her remaining years, while Jean plans to stay in Mercy until, as she puts it, “the time feels right for me to go.”
Jean’s hubby Albert, an archaeologist, calls Jean every day to see how things are going and to inquire about when she’s thinking of returning to England. Jean’s daughter Constance calls every other day to inquire about these same things.
“We’ve been married for forty-five years,” says Jean, pausing to contemplate the magnitude of that number, “and in all those years, even when the children were little and I was overwhelmed, Albert has only attempted to cook something twice. Forty years ago he tried to broil salmon, and ten years ago he tried to make spaghetti, and both times he nearly burned the house down.”
“Surely he can boil a potato,” says Naomi, looking over the tops of her wire-frame glasses at Jean. “Fry an egg?”
“He would forget the water was boiling,” says Jean, her glasses similar to her mother’s. “And the question of when to flip the egg might very well precipitate a panic attack, so I shall not suggest either of those entrees to him. Better he dine out and have things delivered when Constance doesn’t cook for him.”
“I wish he had come with you,” says Jahera, still laughing about the portly bald Scotsman standing naked in the rain reciting Shakespeare, his audience Jean and five soggy Schnauzers. “He sounds delightful.”
“He would be smitten with you,” says Jean, smiling at Jahera. “He adores women with French Norwegian accents, especially beautiful charming women. I do hope you and Healing will come visit us sooner than later. We’re none of us getting any younger. My grandchildren on the verge of producing great grandchildren.” She gazes around the house where she was born. “The days go by so fast now, don’t they?”
After breakfast, Healing and Jahera leash their five dogs and walk across town to The Letter Writer, the shop owned by Jahera and her parents Caspar and Maahiah.
“I’ll be home at three,” says Jahera, giving Healing a kiss.
“I know we’re dining with your folks tonight, but I can’t remember if we’re going out or eating at their place,” says Healing, who used to work at The Letter Writer until a year ago when he retired at the earliest possible age to qualify for Social Security.
“My mother is making an Algerian feast,” says Jahera, wrapping her arms around Healing. “This is a welcoming for your mother.”
“Now I remember,” says Healing, reveling in his lover’s embrace. “Methinks my mother’s arrival blew a few fuses in the old psyche.”
“Methinks so, too,” says Jahera, kissing him again. “See you a little after three.”
Walking home, the dogs pulling him along their preferred byways, Healing realizes the main blown fuse in his psyche has to do with sharing the little old house on Nasturtium Road with his mother again after fifteen years of not sharing the house with her – Naomi and Ezra having gone back to Oxford where they were both born, Ezra wishing to spend his last years in England.
“Which is to say,” Healing proclaims to his dogs, “I have thoroughly enjoyed being the only human on the premises except when Tova visits from Portland, and now with Jahera who seems to create more space when she’s with me, whereas my mother, as you all know, casts a rather large psychic shadow.”
Arriving home, Healing and the dogs find Naomi and Jean in the backyard inspecting the small building that once housed Naomi’s studio and Ezra’s woodshop wherein he made his exquisite tables.
“We just returned from a glorious walk on the beach,” says Jean, beaming at Healing. “I am revived.”
“We lacked only a dog,” says Naomi, arching an eyebrow. “You took them all. Leave us one next time, would you?”
“Will do,” says Healing, giving his mother a quizzical look. “Are you thinking what I think you’re thinking?”
“That we make this my abode henceforth,” says Naomi, nodding to confirm her son’s clairvoyance. “Annex the workshop to make a living room. Insulate the walls. New insulated roof. Skylights. Woodstove. A bathroom with a shower and a separate large tub. Now that we’ve sold the house in Oxford I’m awash in cash.” She unfurls her tape measure. “I assume you know the requisite craftsmen.” She titters. “Though now that I’m back in the land of the politically correct I should say craftspeople. A crew of Amazons perhaps.”
“Someone named Alicia called for you,” says Jean, squinting at Healing. “Something about her cat. You still doing that? Solving animal problems?”
“Still am,” says Healing, enormously relieved to know his mother will eventually be living out here some of the time. “I’ll go call Pablo and ask him to come consult with you, and then I’ll see what Alicia wants of me.”
“Should you need any help with the cat conundrum,” says Naomi, pursing her lips as she contemplates a wall in need of a window, “I am ever ready to be your Watson.”
During the feast of Algerian food at the home of Caspar and Maahiah Dahl, the talk turns to the Sixties when Caspar and Naomi were both in their teens and twenties.
Maahiah, who is seventy-four and was a teen in Marseilles in the 1970s, asks Naomi what years she feels constitute the Sixties.
“The awakening began with the Beatniks of the Fifties,” says Naomi, swirling the wine in her goblet, “and peaked in the early Seventies – our doomed renaissance as Ezra liked to call that particular cultural ferment.”
“Why doomed?” asks Jahera, gazing intently at Naomi.
“He felt there was never any hope for a continuance of the awakening,” says Naomi, who often aches for her husband. “Seeds were planted, he said, that might one day sprout again, but not so long as the emotionally stunted old boys held the reigns of power.”
“He was right,” says Caspar, nodding in agreement. “I think every renaissance is a blooming that leaves seeds, some of which may one day take root again. Thus culture slowly evolves.”
“Unless everything is erased by catastrophe,” says Jahera, who feels such erasure is underway.
“The Sixties for me,” says Healing, who was born in 1959, “were all about sharing. No one having much more or much less than anyone else. A collective awareness that wealth disparity was the root of all conflict.”
“I think that’s true,” says Caspar, who was a hydrologist before becoming a successful author when he was in his late fifties. “Though I also think those who embraced the ethos of sharing comprised a tiny fraction of the population.”
“Our house and land, and to some degree all of Mercy, was a mecca for those exploring such communality,” says Naomi, smiling at her son. “And then one day everything changed.” She sips her wine. “I know it was not literally one day, but I remember being in the garden with you, Healing. You were sixteen and we were planting sunflower seeds along the northern border of the garden, so it would have been in April, and you said, ‘We haven’t had many visitors lately. I wonder where everyone is.’ And I looked around and felt in my bones the renaissance was ending.”
The next morning, following a brief phone conversation with Alicia, a native of Barcelona, Healing and Naomi set out to walk five blocks from their little old house on Nasturtium Road to a big old house on Estuary Lane where Mark and Sophia Ingersoll lived for fifty years until Sophia died a year ago and Mark moved to Maui.
“Sophia was one of the most marvelous people I’ve ever known,” says Naomi, wearing her usual daytime attire: long-sleeved shirt, corduroy trousers, walking shoes, and one of her many sunhats. “Mark was one of the least marvelous.” She shakes her head. “Heaven help the women of Maui.”
“He was over there when Sophia died,” says Healing, who had a crush on Sophia when he was ten and eleven and took accordion lessons from her. “She came for lunch a few weeks before she died. We played duets and had a splendid time.”
“Was it determined to be suicide?” Naomi frowns. “Must have been. She was only seventy-seven and in good health. Wasn’t she?”
Healing nods and they walk on in silence.
“Anastasia is in the kitchen,” says Alicia, a lovely woman in her forties with shoulder-length brown hair and a songful voice.
Healing and Naomi follow her through the high-ceilinged living room to a splendid kitchen where a large brown cat is sitting on a windowsill drowsing in the morning sun.
“What a gorgeous cat,” says Healing, meeting the cat’s interested gaze. “I thought she might be older.”
Alicia smiles quizzically. “How old do you think she is?”
Healing studies the cat a moment more. “Not quite five.”
Alicia frowns. “How could you know this? I did not tell you.”
“He’s had the knack since he was…” Naomi indicates with her hand the height of a little boy. “I tend to guess cats are younger than they are, dogs older. Not so Healing.”
“So…” says Healing, gazing around the kitchen and wishing his kitchen was big like this. “What seems to be the problem?”
Before Alicia can reply, the kitchen door flies open and a short stocky man with a tangle of curly white hair wearing a purple paint-spattered jumpsuit comes in, stops abruptly when he sees Healing and Naomi, glares at Alicia and says, “Who are they?”
“This is Healing Weintraub and his mother Naomi,” says Alicia, returning the glare. “They’ve come to help with Anastasia. Recommended by the vet.” She turns to Healing and Naomi. “This is my husband Earl.”
“Pollard,” says Earl, as if his last name will make a significant difference to them.
“A painter of large abstracts,” says Naomi, already knowing more about Earl than he knows about himself.
“You’ve heard of me,” says Earl, giving Naomi a jaunty smile.
“Sorry, no,” says Naomi, her analysis of him complete. “But the clues are rampant.”
They sit at the large kitchen table – the cat immediately taking possession of Healing’s lap – and Alicia serves excellent coffee and scrumptious almond butter cookies.
“We made the move to Mercy,” explains Earl in his imperious way, “because my fame was getting in the way of making my art, and nothing matters to me more than making my art.”
And though Alicia says nothing to contradict Earl, both Healing and Naomi intuit celebrity was not the reason Earl and Alicia relocated from Santa Barbara to a small town on the far north coast of California.
When Earl finally pauses in his exhaustive recounting of celebrities and wealthy people and art museums clambering for his paintings and sculptures, Healing interjects, “The cat. Tell us what’s going on with this marvelous cat.”
“I’m not a cat person,” says Earl, gulping the last of his coffee and abruptly getting up. “I’m on a roll. Nice to meet you.”
When Earl is gone, Alicia explains, “Our house in Santa Barbara was in the hills above the city. The land is quite wild there. Deer and coyotes and rattlesnakes. Anastasia loved to be outside and was very savvy about the hawks and coyotes and snakes, but here she won’t go into the backyard, though she does like to be in the front yard. And she’s fine in the kitchen and in my studio where she sleeps, but she will not enter the living room or go into our bedroom.”
“You carry her through the living room to the kitchen?” asks Healing, petting the loudly purring cat.
“Yes,” says Alicia, loving the sight of her cat so happy on Healing’s lap. “And she’s frightened all the way through.”
“You’ve done wonders with this kitchen,” says Naomi, beaming at Alicia. “Used to be so dingy in here, and now it is a sunny Shangri-La. We should do something like this with our little ship’s galley of a kitchen. Don’t you think, Healing? And I love how you left the magnificent living room as it was. I applaud your taste.” She frowns thoughtfully. “Is your studio one of the rooms you remodeled?”
“Yes,” says Alicia, delighted by Naomi. “We remodeled the entire house except for the living room, and we remodeled the barn where Earl paints and does his welding. I’m also a painter. We combined two of the bedrooms and a bathroom in the house to make my studio. My paintings are not so large as his, nor are they abstract.”
“The landscaping in front hasn’t changed since Sophia and Mark lived here,” says Healing, getting up with the cat in his arms and slowly approaching the living room. “Any changes to the backyard?”
“Oh, yes,” says Alicia, nodding grimly. “Earl had all the beautiful Japanese maples cut down and the pond and flower garden removed, and then he had the ground covered with gravel for displaying his sculptures.”
Healing stops on the threshold of the living room and watches the cat peering wide-eyed into the big room, rigid with fear.
“Let me see if I have this right,” says Naomi, holding out her arms for the cat as Healing returns to the table. “Every room in the house, save for the living room, has been extensively remodeled, and Anastasia will not go in the living room or into your bedroom. But she will go out into the front garden, though not into the much-changed backyard.”
“That’s right,” says Alicia, fighting her tears.
“Any other changes in Anastasia’s behavior?” asks Healing, handing the cat to Naomi and going to the window overlooking the refurbished barn and the expanse of gravel populated with large tangles of black pipe.
“None that I’m aware of,” says Alicia, shaking her head.
“Your husband said he is not a cat person,” says Naomi, petting the happy cat. “Does she avoid him?”
“Yes. And he avoids her.”
“Was his studio adjacent to your house in Santa Barbara?” asks Healing, reminding himself they are here to solve a cat problem, not marital disharmony.
“No. Earl’s studio took up the entire bottom floor of our two-story house, and she never went down there.”
“So her not going out into the backyard here might be a continuation of her avoiding Earl’s work space,” says Healing, sitting down to enjoy another cookie. “Whereas the living room I will guess is a separate issue.”
“And the bedroom?” asks Naomi, hoping to sound only mildly interested in the bedroom. “Did she avoid your bedroom in Santa Barbara?”
“No,” says Alicia, shrugging. “It was not one of her favorite rooms, but she didn’t entirely avoid it.”
“Sorry to pepper you with so many questions,” says Healing, wondering why Alicia stays with Earl when she so obviously despises him. “I’m guessing there were other pets before Anastasia. Cats? Dogs?”
“I always have a cat or two,” she says, a few tears escaping from the corners of her eyes. “I had a dog for a year, but Earl could not tolerate him, so I’ve only had cats since then.” She takes a deep breath. “We’ve been married for twenty-two years.”
“May we poke around in the living room?” asks Healing, who likes Alicia and finds Earl repulsive. “Take a peek at the backyard?”
“Please,” says Alicia, smiling bravely.
After supper that evening, Naomi having recounted the details of the Anastasia case to Jahera and Jean in great detail, Jean opines, “Must be Earl, don’t you think?”
“Regarding the cat’s avoidance of bedroom and backyard,” says Healing, making a pot of mint tea to accompany the impending Scrabble game, “that is my surmise. The living room, however, is a more…”
“Metaphysical situation,” says Naomi, nodding assuredly. “We both definitely felt a presence there when we sat in silence on the sofa.”
“A ghost?” says Jean, melodramatically. “Sophia?”
“A lingering spirit,” says Healing, pouring boiling water over the mint leaves.
“Did they keep any of Sophia’s furniture?” asks Jahera, who neither believes nor disbelieves a person’s spirit may linger for a time after the body dies.
“A splendid coffee table,” says Healing, smiling at Jahera. “Made by Ezra. All the other furniture is new, the oak floor refinished, new light fixtures, new windows, new paint on the walls, the redwood rafters newly sanded.”
“Do you think Sophia is living inside Papa’s table?” asks Jean, who does believe the spirit may linger after the body dies.
“I think not,” says Healing, enjoying his sister’s awe and wonderment. “What we felt was all around us.”
“Does Alicia feel it, too?” asks Jahera, who would love to experience such a feeling.
“She is cloaked in such heavy sorrow,” says Naomi, placing the Scrabble board on the coffee table, “I’m not sure the dear woman can feel much else.”
“The cat definitely feels what we felt,” says Healing, bringing the tea tray to the coffee table.
“What is the solution?” asks Jahera, sitting on a cushion on the floor where two of the dogs and one of the cats settle around her.
“A ceremony,” says Healing, sitting on a cushion next to Jahera. “To release Sophia’s confused spirit, if that is the case.”
“Will Alicia and Earl allow you to do that there?” asks Jean, sitting on the sofa next to her mother.
“As it happens,” says Healing, pouring the tea, “they are leaving for Los Angeles in a few days and I will be feeding Anastasia in their absence.”
“Thus,” says Naomi, the first to draw letter squares, “we shall have the run of the place, so to speak.”
Healing, Naomi, Jahera and her parents Caspar and Maahiah, Jean, and Darby Riley, an elderly Irishman who was good friends with Sophia, gather in the living room of Alicia and Earl’s house on a balmy evening to enact what Naomi calls a soul release ceremony.
When everyone is seated, Naomi stands beside the coffee table on which sits a large purple ceramic bowl full of sand.
“This ceremony borrows from a number of traditions,” says Naomi in her quietly masterful way. “Mostly Tibetan Buddhism. The idea is that Sophia’s soul may not have set out on the journey to her next life because her soul is afraid or confused or stuck here for some reason.”
Now Naomi takes a photograph of Sophia taped to a chopstick and inserts the slender end of the chopstick into the sand so the photo is upright.
“We will look at this picture of Sophia and take turns saying anything we wish to say to her to allay her fear and confusion. Then we will chant the following words one hundred and eight times. ‘Please go on your journey now, Sophia. There is nothing to fear. We love you and wish you well.’ Jean will keep track of how many times we’ve chanted the prayer and ring a gong at one hundred and seven. When we have completed the chanting, I will light the picture on fire and we will envision Sophia’s spirit departing into the wild blue yonder.”
When Alicia and Earl return from Los Angeles, they find the cat napping on the living room sofa.
A short time later, Earl goes out the kitchen door to visit his studio and the cat follows him out the door onto the deck and down the stairs into the backyard.
However, Anastasia does not follow Earl across the expanse of gravel to the barn. Instead she takes a path skirting the gravel, the slender trail leading to a massive redwood plank twelve-feet long, four-inches-thick, and two-feet-wide bridging a small creek that meanders across the southeastern corner of the property.
Standing next to the end of the mighty plank is a small wooden sign with beautifully carved letters spelling Anastasia’s Bridge.
Alicia follows her cat across the bridge to a level clearing Healing carved out of the brambles, and here, in the center of the clearing, the big brown cat rolls onto her back to bask in the gentle sun.