Arturo is five, Henri is four, and Vivienne is three. Arturo and Vivienne are siblings by blood, Henri their brother because he’s always been one of the three as soon as there were three of them to be one of.
Arturo and Vivienne’s parents are Philip and Lisa, Philip the author of the good-selling cookbook Delicious Meals for the Somewhat Ambitious Cook and a two-evenings-a-week waiter at Jessica’s Seafood & Mexican in the small town of Mercy on the far north coast of California. Lisa is a massage therapist who will only be giving a few massages a week until Vivienne joins Arturo and Henri at the local Montessori school, Arturo starting kindergarten in the fall, Henri to begin morning pre-school.
Henri’s parents are Andrea and Marcel, Andrea a former sous chef now a fulltime vegetable and flower gardener, Marcel a three-evenings-a-week waiter at Jessica’s Seafood & Mexican and otherwise assisting Andrea in her half-acre garden and working tirelessly with Philip to make something of the neglected six-acre vineyard that he and Andrea co-own with Philip and Lisa.
Their two houses are separated by a five-minute saunter through their vineyard. Lisa and Philip’s house is a two-bedroom redwood and stone farmhouse built in 1922 and remodeled twice since, with a third renovation long overdue. Marcel and Andrea’s house is a three-bedroom curiosity with five oddly juxtaposed sections of roof slanting in five different directions, a failed attempt at cutting edge modernity in 1982, failed because of chronic leakage problems caused by the odd juxtapositions that Marcel and Andrea intend to eliminate if they ever can afford a radical roof makeover.
Philip is fifty-four, handsome with dark brown eyes and curly black hair. Born to a French mother and an Italian-American father, he grew up speaking French at home, English otherwise, and still often dreams in French.
Lisa, forty-seven, is a pleasing mix of African, Brazilian Indio, and Ashkenazi Jew, her dark brown hair falling to her waist when not captured in a braid or bun. She spent the first ten years of her life in Buenos Aires, the second ten in Beverly Hills, and the next twenty in Berkeley before their move to the outskirts of Mercy six years ago.
Andrea is forty-eight, lithe and muscular with shoulder-length black hair, her German accent faint now after twenty-five years in America, her first twenty-three years spent in a working-class suburb of Hamburg.
Marcel is fifty-two and has recently taken to shaving his head, his thick French accent more curiosity than problematic when he waits on customers at Jessica’s Seafood & Mexican. Born in Lyon, Marcel became a professional soccer player at seventeen and might have been a star had he not torn his Achilles when he was twenty, an injury that ended his athletic career and precipitated his becoming a waiter. He came to America when he was thirty, met Andrea shortly after his arrival, and they have been married for twenty years now.
The four were close friends when they lived in San Francisco and Berkeley, and with Philip’s advance from Delicious Meals for the Somewhat Ambitious Cook and a large gift from Lisa’s grandmother, along with Marcel and Andrea’s life savings, they bought the abandoned vineyard and two houses a few miles inland from the town of Mercy and made their move when Lisa was very pregnant with Arturo, and Andrea just pregnant with Henri. To say they are glad they took the leap from city to country would be a vast understatement.
Arturo, he who is five, is outrageously cute, but then so is Henri and so is Vivienne, so never mind.
Arturo, he who is five, is a year older than the oldest of the three dogs belonging to the collective. There are cats, too, and we will speak of the cats after we speak of the dogs.
Legally, as in who the dogs are licensed to at the Mercy sheriff’s office, Goliath, the small golden brown Chihuahua poodle mix, belongs to Philip and Lisa, as does Mimi, the very sweet Golden Retriever, while Jung, the enormous Black Lab Malamute mix belongs to Marcel and Andrea, but try telling the children that. They know Jung is Arturo’s dog, Mimi belongs to Vivienne, and Goliath is attached to Henri. What’s more, the dogs know this, too, and behave accordingly.
Indeed, when Jung has not returned from one of his expeditions by nightfall, Marcel and Andrea and Philip and Lisa can shout themselves hoarse calling him, but only when Arturo calls will the mighty dog race home to one or another of the houses, whichever is closer, food and bed awaiting him in both places.
Goliath is the most likely of the dogs to do things that make people laugh, as is Henri of the children, hence their affinity for one another.
And Mimi and Vivienne, who both enjoy life at the houses three miles inland from the ocean, live for their twice-weekly trips to the beach, Mimi to chase tennis balls flung into the surf, Vivienne to build sandcastles with her brothers and play in the icy water which she tells everyone is her favorite thing in the world.
As for the cats, not counting the feral cats who live in the vineyard, the collective owns five neutered and named cats who by day roam freely in and out of the two houses, and by night hunker down in the barn near the farmhouse to be safe from pumas and owls. The five are Cleo, Zapata, Maurice, Lion, and Aurelia. They are all fond of people, and four of them are rodent killers, Lion unwilling to kill anything, though she is nearly twice the size of the other cats and is a champion at catching gophers and mice, but leaves the killing to the other four.
Lion’s unwillingness to kill—Arturo named her Lion when he was three and assumed the enormous cat must be male—is a good place to begin our story.
In the late morning on a sunny Saturday in July, Arturo, Vivienne, and Henri, up since six this morning and having been back and forth between the two houses several times already, are sitting at the picnic table with Philip in the semi-shade of a mighty oak a hundred feet from the farmhouse, eating watermelon.
Brown-haired and slender, the kids are shirtless and wearing shorts, and when they are done with the messy business of eating watermelon will go with Philip into the apple orchard and stand under the biggest Fuji and play in the hose to rinse off, the ongoing drought necessitating as much multi-use of water as possible.
Philip is in charge of cutting juicy red triangles for the kids to devour, and as he watches them eat, he is overwhelmed, as he often is, by how much he loves them.
Lion, a pale orange tabby, is sitting in the nearby orchard, waiting patiently for a gopher to emerge from his hole so she can snag him and toss the rodent to Zapata, a slender black male who frequently hunts with Lion and is in love with her. Zapata is crouched ten feet away from Lion, patiently perusing a different gopher hole.
“Why Lion doesn’t kill the gopher when she catches it?” asks Vivienne, her face smeared with watermelon juice.
“I don’t know,” says Philip, cutting another round of melon into six triangles. “Why do you think?”
“Maybe he doesn’t like how gophers taste,” says Arturo, pursing his lips as his mother does when she makes a guess about something.
“Lion is a girl,” says Henri, looking skyward and rolling his eyes as his father does when exasperated. “How many times do we have to tell you?”
“Maybe she’s just generous,” suggests Philip, handing out the next round of watermelon triangles. “Maybe she likes giving gifts to the other cats.”
“Can cats do that?” asks Arturo, frowning in the manner of Philip questioning something someone says. “Give gifts?”
“Of course,” says Henri, laughing. “That’s why they bring mice in the house. To give them to us.”
“Why they give them to us?” asks Vivienne, wrinkling her nose as Andrea does when perplexed. “We don’t eat mice.”
“Maybe they don’t know that,” says Philip, smiling at his daughter. “Maybe because we give them food, they want to give us food.”
“They can’t go to the store,” shouts Henri. “How could they?”
“Lion likes fish,” says Arturo, nodding in agreement with himself as Marcel will nod when he agrees with himself. “But fish meat is different than gopher meat.”
“How do you know?” says Henri, laughing again. “Have you ever eaten a gopher?”
“You can see fish meat is different than gopher meat,” says Arturo, sighing in exasperation exactly as his mother does. “Fish is soft and white, gopher is hard and red.”
Weary of the debate, Vivienne asks, “Why watermelon has so many seeds?”
“Some watermelons don’t have any seeds,” says Arturo, nodding authoritatively in imitation of Philip being authoritative.
“Why this watermelon have so many seeds?” persists Vivienne.
“This kind always has lots of seeds,” says Henri, matter-of-factly. “My papa eats the seeds, but my mama spits them out. When I’m older I might eat them, but now I spit them out.”
“I think this kind of watermelon has lots of seeds,” says Philip, cutting up the last of the melon, “so there will be plenty for starting more watermelon plants.”
“How do they grow watermelons with no seeds?” asks Arturo, squinting at his father in the way Lisa squints when perplexed. “If the watermelon doesn’t have seeds?”
“Ah,” says Philip, vaguely recalling something about diploids and tetraploids. “A question we will ask Andrea after we have hosed off under the Fuji.”
Jung, the giant dog, and Goliath, the small but very brave dog, trot ahead of Philip and the kids into the orchard, and a lucky thing, too, because Jung growls and bristles when he comes upon a large rattlesnake coiled in the high grass a few yards from the Fuji.
Philip herds the children back to the picnic table, arms himself with a shovel, returns to the Fuji, and with a deft thrust decapitates the awakening snake, after which he makes a search of the area with the dogs. Convinced there are no more serpents in the vicinity, he beckons the kids to return to the orchard to hose off the sticky watermelon juice they are covered in.
“I’m afraid,” says Vivienne, standing on the picnic table and shaking her head.
“I am, too,” says Henri, standing on the bench of the table.
“I’m not afraid,” says Arturo, standing on the ground and not sounding very convincing, “but maybe we could play in the hose somewhere else.”
“Good idea,” says Philip, his heart still pounding from killing the big snake.
So they hose off in the herb and lettuce garden near the house, and when Lisa comes out to see why the change of plans, Vivienne says, “Papa killed a big rattlesnake under the Fuji.”
“Oh God,” says Lisa, giving Philip a horrified look. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” he says, still vibrating from killing the snake. “Time to mow the orchard again and weed whack the path through the vineyard. He probably wouldn’t have bothered us, but I killed him just in case.”
“Let’s play inside for a while,” says Lisa, her heart pounding. “You’ve all had more than enough sun today.”
So the kids come inside and ten minutes later they are asleep in the living room, Vivienne sprawled on the floor next to her dog Mimi, Henri and Arturo comatose on the sofa.
That afternoon, Marcel mows the orchard with the little John Deere tractor, Henri on his lap steering some of the time, and Philip walks the path through the overgrown vineyard wearing headphones to block out the roar of his powerful weed whacker. Meanwhile, Arturo and Vivienne help Lisa and Andrea pick vegetables in the garden and make supper in the farmhouse.
After supper, as Andrea and Marcel and Henri are about to head home, Henri says to Philip, “We forgot to ask my mama how they grow watermelon with no seeds.”
“Seedless watermelon is grown with special seeds in a special way,” says Andrea, who is very very tired. “Tomorrow I will draw you a picture to show you how they do it. But now it’s time for bed.”
When the children are asleep, the farmhouse cloaked in fog—Jung and Mimi slumbering by the fire, Goliath gone home with Henri—Lisa and Philip sit on the sofa and cling to each other until they feel the danger has passed, at least enough to go to bed.