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Lucy

On a cold sunny morning in November in the cozy cottage behind the little old house on Nasturtium Road, Naomi Weintraub taps the Tarot card she has just turned over on the small table in her living room and says, “I had a feeling we might be seeing the Four of Cups.”

Naomi and her husband Ezra bought the little old house on two acres at the south end of Mercy sixty-five years ago when Naomi was twenty and Ezra was twenty-four. When Naomi was seventy and Ezra seventy-four, they returned to their native England where they lived for fifteen years until Ezra died; and six months ago Naomi moved back to Mercy where she is planning to spend the rest of her life.

Until very recently, her three-room cottage was a large one-room workspace, three-fourths of which was Ezra’s woodshop, and one-fourth of which, separated from the woodshop by two large shoji screens, was Naomi’s studio where people came to consult with her about all manner of things for which Naomi used Tarot to help shed light on the questions posed to her.

When Naomi left Mercy fifteen years ago, she was seeing upwards of twenty clients a week. Since returning to Mercy, she’s been seeing one or two people a day and wants to keep it that way, though demand for her services is growing by leaps and bounds. Her fee for an hour session is whatever the client feels the session is worth.

“Four of Cups means apathy, right? Taking things for granted?” says Sylvia Brantley, sixty-five, a lovely person who knows little bits of things about lots of things, and not much more than little bits about anything.

Naomi looks over the tops of her wire-frame glasses at Sylvia and says, “I’ve never subscribed to those particular interpretations of the Four of Cups. Indeed, I can’t imagine why ‘taking things for granted’ and ‘apathy’ came to be associated with this painting.” She hands the card to Sylvia who is inquiring about why her partners never stick with her for more than a little while. “What do you see in the painting?”

“I see a man staring at three cups on the ground in front of him and ignoring the cup being offered to him by a hand coming out of a cloud,” says Sylvia, wrinkling her nose. “Some sort of spirit being?”

“Ignoring suggests volition,” says Naomi, pursing her lips. “Does the man appear to be intentionally not looking at what we might call a spiritual gift? Or is he simply blind to what is being offered?”

Sylvia frowns at the card. “How could he be blind to it? It’s right there.”

“Exactly. The partner you seek is right there before you, only it isn’t a man.”

“A woman?” says Sylvia, wrinkling her nose again. “Been there, done that. Not my thing.”

“Not a person,” says Naomi, smiling.

“God?” says Sylvia, tossing the card back to Naomi. “Not me. You know my story. Crazy Baptist parents. Go to church or get a beating. No thank you.”

“Why do you think the men you’ve been involved with terminate their relationships with you?” asks Naomi, gazing intently at Sylvia.

“They want somebody younger. They get bored. They’re assholes.”

“Those on the spiritual path,” says Naomi, wishing for Sylvia a happier life, “care nothing for age, never get bored, and when they are assholes, the path will not sustain them until they change back into non-assholes.”

*

Healing Weintraub, Naomi’s son, lives in the little old house on Nasturtium Road with his wife Jahera and their five dogs, four cats, and two parrots. Healing is sixty-three and no longer has what is commonly referred to as a regular job. He spends his time gardening, taking care of his animals, giving accordion and ukulele lessons, cooking, playing accordion in his quartet Mercy Me, hanging out with friends and family, communing with Jahera, and helping people solve dog and cat problems.

Jahera is fifty-four, a photographer, calligrapher, and illustrator. She has a studio in her parents’ house two miles inland from Mercy, though that will change soon when Caspar and Maahiah find a house in town, after which Jahera will use the remodeled attic in the little old house for her studio.

Following her morning session with Sylvia, Naomi has tea and cookies in the sunny kitchen with Healing and Jahera.

“Who called this morning as I was on my way out the door after breakfast?” inquires Naomi, dipping her cookie in her tea. “New case? Dog or cat?”

“Dog,” says Healing, smiling at his mother. “In Oregon. Owned by a woman named Leona and a man named Percy.”

“How did she hear of you?” asks Naomi, who loves helping Healing solve dog and cat cases.

“She was referred by Mimi Carvello,” says Healing, getting up to put the kettle on for more tea. “You remember Mimi. The youngest and most mystically inclined of Annabelle Carvello’s four daughters.”

“Oh Annabelle,” says Naomi, excitedly. “Is she still wandering the globe?”

“Still wandering,” says Healing, setting the kettle on the stove. “We had a postcard from her last Christmas from Mallorca where she’d gone to lay flowers on the tomb of Robert Graves.”

“Not a tomb, dear,” says Naomi, smiling wistfully. “A simple stone in the graveyard of a small church. Ezra and I made pilgrimage there the year we moved back to England, Graves being one of your father’s favorite poets, as you know.”

“I translated several Graves poems into French when I was in high school,” says Jahera, who grew up in France. “His love angst was perfect for teenage girls.”

“And well Graves knew it,” says Naomi, arching an eyebrow. “He was famously prolific in his seductions of much younger women when he was in his fifties and sixties. I never liked his poetry after I learned that. I know we shouldn’t judge the art by the artist, but I’m one who does.” She shrugs. “So tell me about the dog in Oregon.”

“I will be speaking to Leona again this afternoon, and possibly Percy, to get the full story,” says Healing, spooning fresh black tea into the pot. “Didn’t have time to do an in-depth interview this morning, and now I’ve got two accordion lessons to give. However, I promise you a full report at supper.”

“And what’s your day all about?” asks Naomi, smiling at Jahera.

“I’m going house hunting with my mother and Conchita,” says Jahera who has two cats on her lap and the puppy Socrates sitting on the floor next to her hoping for crumbs to fall. “Would you like to come with us? Conchita thinks she found a house we’ll like.”

“Oh I’d love to,” says Naomi, nodding enthusiastically. “If I won’t be too much in the way.”

“Of course you won’t be,” says Jahera, laughing. “How could you be?”

Naomi turns to Healing and looks over the tops of her glasses at him. “Tell me the truth. Does your bride have any flaws? I’ve known her for six months now and have yet to detect anything even slightly not wonderful about her.” Naomi arches an eyebrow. “Seems highly implausible.”

“She’s riddled with flaws,” says Healing, nodding complacently. “If only you knew.”

“But why don’t I know?” asks Naomi, feigning exasperation. “I specialize in detecting flaws in others while ignoring my own too numerous to count, yet I detect nothing but perfection in her.”

“The feeling is mutual,” says Jahera, going to Naomi and giving her a hug. “My mother and Conchita will be here in fifteen minutes.”

“I’ll go change into my real estate togs,” says Naomi, who loves how affectionate Jahera is, though she herself only rarely initiates a hug.

*

Supper that night is a celebration of the splendid house Conchita found for Maahiah and Caspar at the end of Hydrangea Street, just five blocks from the little old house on Nasturtium Road. Healing and Jahera make fish tacos and a garden salad, and Caspar and Maahiah bring beer and guacamole.

“When I was a teenager and a young man,” says Healing to Caspar and Maahiah, “The Silversteins owned the house you’re buying. Horace and Alison. They wrote murder mysteries together under the pen name Howard Albert, and their daughter Ruth and I were in plays together in high school. Ruth became a film editor in New York, and last I heard she had turned to writing murder mysteries, too.”

“Rufus Blessington was their most famous detective,” says Naomi, chuckling. “Lived in Sausalito and drove a rouge Karmann Ghia named Karma. Rufus was British and had a portly Portuguese sidekick named Antonio and a moody Serbian girlfriend named Zelda. Set in the 1960s when Sausalito was a sleepy artist colony adjacent to the small city of San Francisco.” She sighs, remembering. “They would bring chapters over and we would stage readings here. Horace and Alison loved hearing Ezra read Rufus. Helped them get the British vernacular right. Dialogue was their strong suit, not their plots.”

“Were these books made into movies?” asks Caspar, frowning. “They sound very familiar to me.”

“Yes,” says Healing, recalling his romance with Ruth the summer after his junior year – love poems back and forth and fabulous kissing in the woods. “Three of the Rufus Blessington books were made into movies starring Colby Jacobs as Rufus and Raul Cruz as Antonio and Gina Contardi as Zelda. That’s what took Horace and Alison to Hollywood, which is when they sold their house.”

“I do hope you will all forgive me for abruptly changing the subject,” says Naomi, smiling at Maahiah and Caspar, “but I’m dying to hear the details of the new dog case Healing’s working on.”

“Please,” says Caspar, clapping his hands. “This is one of the reasons we are so happy we’ll be living nearby, so we won’t miss a moment of the fun.”

Healing laughs. “You’ll be happy to know, Mum, the dog in question and her two humans Leona and Percy will be here in a few days, driving all the way from Oregon with Lucy, a three-year-old Siberian Husky Shepherd who is, according to Leona, ideal in every way except that given the slightest opportunity she runs away into the wilderness surrounding their home and doesn’t come back for many hours. And in the warmer months she will sometimes stay away overnight, though she has yet to stay away for more than thirty-six hours.”

“She’s going on adventures,” says Maahiah with her usual confidence.

“Something like that,” says Healing, nodding. “However, the minute Lucy runs away, Leona and Percy alert the sheriff and their neighbors in the remote forestlands where they live, and then they go frantically searching for her. Sometimes they find her, but more often Lucy simply comes home when she’s ready to come home.”

“They need to build a fence like yours,” says Maahiah, referring to the sturdy wire deer fence that surrounds Healing’s two acres. “Let her roam around in a big yard.”

“They have a fence, eight-feet-high, encircling two of their twenty acres,” says Healing, who has a fence around his property to keep the deer out more than keep the dogs in. “However, Lucy can apparently surmount this fence. Besides which, she does most of her escaping through doors left ajar in the house.”

“Why are they bringing her here to see you?” asks Caspar, pondering the situation, “rather than you go there to investigate the particular circumstances?”

“I don’t travel outside the local area to help people with their dogs and cats, and I told Leona I didn’t think bringing Lucy here would change my diagnosis of the situation. Nevertheless, she believes I will be better able to counsel them if I meet Lucy in-person.” Healing gives a little shrug of embarrassment. “I fear Mimi Carvello, the woman who referred Leona to me, endowed me with super powers regarding dogs, thus convincing Leona that bringing Lucy to meet me was the best thing to do. So they are coming.”

“May I ask why you don’t think meeting Lucy will change your diagnosis?” asks Caspar, who likes dogs but feels no great affinity for them.

“Because Lucy’s behavior is perfectly consistent with a dog who, before she came to live with Leona and Percy at the age of two, was accustomed to going on such walkabouts. A large part of Lucy’s genetics, larger than most other dog breeds, is wolf, and wolves need to roam, no matter how much Lucy may love her humans and they her.”

“So what is the solution?” asks Naomi, who has unbounded faith in her son’s intuitive powers.

“There is no solution,” he says solemnly, “except to let her be who she is.”

“You’re certain of this?” asks Jahera, smiling at her husband. “Maybe you do have super powers regarding dogs and you’ll say something to Lucy that will convince her not to run away.”

“Except she isn’t running away,” says Healing, shaking his head. “Nor is she escaping. She is, as Maahiah suggested, going on adventures. And why shouldn’t she?”

*

Three days later, on a cold cloudy morning, Percy and Leona and Lucy arrive at the little old house on Nasturtium Road, their mode of transport a medium-sized electric van equipped with bed and toilet and mini-kitchen. Leona and Percy are in their fifties, recent escapees from city life, Percy a burly redhead from Australia, Leona a svelte brunette descended from Wisconsin Swedes, Percy a software designer, Leona a chef with a YouTube channel.

As is his custom when meeting a new dog, Healing greets Lucy and Leona and Percy in front of his house as prelude to introducing Lucy to the five resident dogs – this meeting of the dogs key to Healing’s understanding of the visiting dog.

Lucy is much larger than Healing expected a female of her breed to be, larger even than most male huskies, her short hair almost entirely white. If Leona hadn’t told him Lucy is quarter German Shepherd, Healing would guess Lucy was pure Siberian Husky, and she is so friendly and effortlessly obedient, it is only after Healing takes the leash from Percy that he realizes Lucy is clairvoyant.

“Magnificent dog,” says Healing, gazing into Lucy’s sky blue eyes. “Does she, perchance, read your minds?”

“Not sure what you mean,” says Leona, smiling uneasily.

“You mean does she know when we’re getting ready to go for a walk?” asks Percy, his Australian accent minimal after twenty years in the states. “She definitely knows that.”

“I thought so,” says Healing, looking down at Lucy. Can you read their minds?

I can’t not read their minds she communicates to him. Which is why I have to get away some of the time or I’ll go mad with loneliness. We’re all alone in that house, the three of us. They have no friends nearby and there are no other friendly dogs in the vicinity, which is why I have to go quite far to find anyone to talk to.

“Well let’s meet the home dogs,” says Healing, leading the way to the back gate.

“Are your dogs friendly?” asks Leona, worriedly. “Lucy was eighteen months when we got her from the shelter and she’s hardly ever been around other dogs.”

“Except to snarl at the Doberman down the road from us when we walk by,” adds Percy, scrunching up his cheeks. “I don’t think she likes other dogs.”

“My dogs are ultra-friendly,” says Healing, opening the gate. “All will be well.”

*

Healing unleashes Lucy as they enter the backyard and the five home dogs come to greet her as if she is their beloved friend.

“Didn’t expect that,” says Percy, standing with Healing and Leona and watching Lucy communing with Healing’s dogs – Carla the enormous and elderly Lab Dane, Tarzan the large old Siberian Husky Lab, Tabinda the young Lab Shepherd, Harriet the young Golden Lab, and Socrates the five-month-old Black Lab Catahoula pup. “She’s in heaven.”

“Shall we leave them alone and get out of the cold and have some tea?” asks Healing, gesturing toward the house. “My wife just made a batch of her fabulous oatmeal raisin cookies. Oh and here comes my mother.”

The door of the cottage on the other side of the vegetable garden opens and Naomi emerges dressed for the day in a blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up and brown corduroy trousers, her long white hair in a ponytail. Lucy looks up from her play with Socrates, sees Naomi, Naomi sees her, and Lucy trots over to Naomi who places her hand on Lucy’s head and says, “You take my breath away.”

*

In the kitchen with the door left ajar for the dogs to come in and go out as they please, Leona gazes anxiously out the window and says, “You’re sure Lucy won’t run away? We never leave her outside unless one of us is with her, and we almost always keep her on a leash. Otherwise she just jumps the fence like it’s nothing.”

“Eight feet,” says Percy, sounding anguished. “Cost a small fortune and doesn’t do a bit of good.”

“She has no need to run away now,” says Healing, turning at the sound of the Harriet and Tabinda and Socrates hurrying in from the cold to get warm in the living room where the fire is burning brightly.

“You mean because she has the other dogs to play with?” asks Leona, frowning at Healing.

Now Carla comes in and goes directly to Healing, which is her habit, and when he has given her a pet and said a few soothing words to her, she walks sedately into the living room and lies down on the rug.

“It’s funny about dogs,” says Naomi, exchanging looks with Healing to get his blessing to speak. “We think they want to play with each other, which they do, but playing, you see, is our human notion of what they do together, when mostly they’re relating to each other, sometimes through play, sometimes by exploring together, sometimes by resting together. And all the while they are communicating with each other in ways as complex and nuanced as humans communicating with words.”

“She would be the alpha of this pack, I think,” says Jahera, looking out the window at Lucy and Tarzan returning shoulder-to-shoulder from exploring the pond and the surrounding forest of maples. “Tarzan is the alpha now that Carla has retired from the role, but if Lucy joined the pack I think Tarzan would bequeath that place to her.”

“You see,” says Healing, placing his hand on his heart as he speaks to Leona and Percy, “Lucy runs away in search of friends, in search of other beings, mostly dogs I would assume, to commune with. My sense of her is that she is highly intuitive and does, in a way, read your minds, which in regard to her are full of thoughts of how to contain her, how to keep her from running off, and your dismay and worry about her. And though I don’t think this is what you were hoping to hear from me, I think the solution to your problem is to either get another dog, or two, so Lucy will have companions, or you could give Lucy to us and get another smaller dog, or two, who will be more content to mostly stay inside with you. Or you might get a cat. Or two.”

Now Lucy enters the house and goes to Healing and gazes up at him with love and gratitude.

fin

Alone and Lonely a song by Todd with Gwyneth and Marcia

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Dickens and Grace

“Maahiah and I were wondering,” says Caspar Dahl, handing Healing Weintraub a glass of wine, “if you and Jahera would consider changing your wedding to October rather than waiting until next year. I had a premonition a few days ago that I may die soon, and I would like to see you two married before I depart.”

Caspar is eighty-five, Norwegian, and was a hydrologist until late middle age when he published a vastly successful little book entitled Décollé (Unstuck in English) after which he became a fulltime writer of parables and essays. He met his Algerian wife Maahiah in Paris when he was twenty-seven and she was seventeen, and they married four years later when Maahiah was pregnant with Jahera.

A year after Jahera was born, Maahiah graduated from the Sorbonne with degrees in French Literature and Fine Art, and for next fifty years Caspar and Maahiah lived in France and spent their summers in Norway, Maahiah the illustrator of Décollé and Caspar’s subsequent twelve books.

Three years ago, Caspar, Maahiah, and Jahera moved to Mercy on the far north coast of California to open their shop The Letter Writer, which was to be the first of many such shops promoting the writing and sending of handwritten letters

Not long after Jahera arrived in Mercy, she and Healing met and fell in love.

“I will marry her tonight,” says Healing, clinking glasses with Caspar. “My sister asked us to wait until she came back in April, but we’re ready now. Let’s talk to Jahera.”

“We’ll ask her at supper,” says Caspar, gazing out at the forest surrounding their house two miles inland from Mercy – the leaves of the deciduous trees just beginning to change from greens to yellows and reds. “I won’t die tonight. And who knows? I’ve had these moments of feeling death is near before and then more years go by.” He smiles and shrugs. “Perhaps this is an unconscious ploy to get you to marry my daughter sooner than later. My psyche is certainly capable of playing such tricks on me. My mother lived to a hundred and I very well could, too.”

“Ploy or no,” says Healing, clinking glasses with Caspar, “we’ll get married in October.”

*

Two weeks before the wedding – September mostly sunny – with the cat population at the little old house on Nasturtium Road having dwindled to two and the dog population at five, Healing and Jahera and Healing’s mother Naomi decide to get a kitten to compliment the recently acquired puppy Socrates.

As Healing and Jahera are about to leave for the animal shelter, Naomi says, “I know we’ve been speaking of the kitten you are about to select, but should you encounter two kittens who appeal to you and you can’t decide which to get, I don’t think bringing two kittens home would be the end of the world. Do you?”

“We shall keep your suggestion in mind as we peruse the candidates,” says Healing, who has intended all along to get two kittens.

“You’re sure you don’t want to come with us?” asks Jahera, giving Naomi a hug. “Then you can choose the kittens.”

“No,” says Naomi, shaking her head. “It would be folly for me to go with you. I would bring home seven cats and three dogs. At least. I will love whichever kitten or kittens you choose, I assure you.”

*

In the animal shelter, the many cages full of kittens and cats, Healing and Jahera are both in tears by the time they settle on two nine-week-old kittens, an orange tabby male and a female calico.

“We’ll let Mum name them,” says Healing, gazing around at the many lovely beings longing for freedom.

*

Naomi is in the living room playing with Socrates, the adorable three-month-old Black Lab Catahoula pup, when Healing and Jahera enter with the kittens.

“Oh dear God,” says Naomi, taking the orange tabby from Healing. “Will you look at this little dickens?”

“Excellent name,” says Healing, handing her the calico. “And this one?”

“Oh Grace,” says Naomi, her eyes full of tears. “Grace Calico.”

*

October fifth. Late afternoon. Cool and cloudy. Healing and Jahera get hitched in the backyard of their little old house, seventy-seven people attending, including Healing’s daughter Tova, Naomi, Caspar, Maahiah, and Jahera’s son Lucien – this being Lucien’s first time in Mercy and his first time meeting Healing and Healing’s family and friends.

Sara Feinberg, the rabbi of Mercy’s surprisingly large shul, presides over what Sara proclaims a Jewish Buddhist Sufi khsunh, and Healing’s band minus Healing on accordion – Rico Silveira guitar, Buster Gomez bass, and Helen Tremblay clarinet – play George and Ira Gershwin’s Someone To Watch Over Me for the processional and Bobby Hebb’s Sunny for the recessional, after which a party featuring Algerian and Mexican food ensues in the little old house and spills out onto the deck in the twilight.

*

With the party raging around them, Lucien, twenty-nine, his dark brown hair in a ponytail, and Tova, thirty-four, her brown hair in a boyish bob, sit on the living room sofa and interview each other. Dickens the orange tabby kitten is curled up on Tova’s lap, Tova wearing a light blue summer dress, while Grace the calico kitten is curled up in Lucien’s lap, Lucien wearing a khirqah, a light blue woolen robe given to him by his sheik.

“So are you a monk?” asks Tova, trying to think if she has ever seen a more beautiful man than Lucien, and no one comes to mind.

“No,” he says, his accent similar to his mother’s, French with Norwegian overtones. “I’m studying with a Sufi master in Zurich and he gave me this robe when I became his student three years ago. He doesn’t require I wear it, but I like wearing a robe and I thought it would be fun to wear to the wedding.”

“I think it’s very fun,” she says, mesmerized by him. “Do you have a partner?”

“No,” he says, shaking his head. “I…” He frowns. “I’ve tried a few times, but I am more at ease living alone. I’m an only child and I though I collaborate with other artists, I do most of my work alone, so… yes, being alone is comfortable for me.”

“Oh,” she says, nodding thoughtfully. “I guess in many ways I’m more at ease living alone, too, being an only child, though I do share a house with five other people and I’d like to be in a relationship. At least I think I would.”

You don’t have a partner?” he asks, wide-eyed. “Who was the hunk you were with during the ceremony?”

“Oh that’s Clement,” says Tova, looking around for Clement. “We’ve been friends since we were children. And we probably would be married except he’s gay.” She sighs. “No, I’m entangled with my friends and family, trying out for plays, singing in pubs, and I work three days a week as a veterinarian’s assistant. In Portland. And sometimes I’m actually in a play. But I’ve had little success in marriage-like relationships.”

“We are birds of a feather,” says Lucien, laughing. “I, too, am entangled with friends and my mother and my grandparents. It’s just… my boundaries are not good. You know? My emotional boundaries. My teacher says I am extremely porous in terms of my psyche, and this makes marriage-like relationships difficult for me, though I’d like to be in one, too.”

“You must be besieged by suitors of all genders,” says Tova, blushing. “I mean… who wouldn’t want to be in a relationship with you?”

“Are we flirting?” asks Lucien, giving Tova a wide-eyed smile. “Aren’t we siblings now?”

“We’re not genetically siblings,” says Tova, imagining the beautiful baby she and Lucien could make together. “I think it’s perfectly okay for us to flirt, if that’s what you were doing.”

“Is that what you were doing?” asks Lucien, laughing again, his laughter a sweet song to Tova. “Or maybe we just like each other, so it seems like flirting.”

“To be brutally honest,” says Tova, taking a deep breath, “I was flirting. But then I’ve always had a thing for men in robes.”

“Ah,” says Lucien, nodding. “As I have always had a thing for veterinarian assistants.”

*

Two days after the wedding, on the morning of Tova’s departure for Portland, Healing makes breakfast for Naomi and Jahera and Tova and Clement who is traveling with Tova to Portland where he will catch a jet to Minneapolis where he is a mainstay of Juggernaut Theatre Company.

“Will you be coming home for Thanksgiving, Clement?” asks Naomi, who considers Clement part of the family.

“Alas, no,” says Clement, shaking his head. “We’re running The Importance of Being Earnest right up to the opening of A Christmas Carol in mid-December, one of our big moneymakers, and I’m in both.” He smiles at Healing and Jahera. “But I wouldn’t have missed your wedding for anything.”

Harriet the young Golden Lab barks at the sound of someone coming up the front stairs, which inspires Socrates to start yapping and causes Tova to rush to the door hoping it’s Lucien come to say goodbye; and she tries not to show her disappointment when it turns out to be Darby with his dog Dagwood.

“Sorry I’m late,” says Darby, who is seventy-nine and Irish, Dagwood a mix of Beagle and Jack Russell Terrier. “Who should I find waiting for me as I’m coming out of my shop just now, but Maeve Springsteen frantic to buy a hundred-year-old silk chemise and an Edwardian candle holder.”

“You have unleashed our imaginations,” says Healing, fetching Darby’s plate from the oven – pancakes and sausage.

“In my business, I ask no questions,” says Darby, smiling as Healing sets the heaping plate before him. “I would have told her to wait until I got back from breakfast except I very much needed the cash, and she was, as I said, exhibiting all the signs of extreme desperation.”

“Which signs are those?” says Tova, abashed about dashing to the door. “As if I didn’t know.”

“Heavy breathing,” says Darby, relishing his first sip of coffee. “A wild look in her eyes. Not bothering to dicker about the outrageous price I asked because she was in such a terrible hurry.”

“Why do I find her so easy to identify with?” says Tova on the verge of tears.

“Apparently,” says Naomi, looking over the tops of her wire-frame glasses at Tova, “your biological clock has a very loud alarm.”

“I don’t want to live in Portland anymore,” says Tova, pouting at her grandmother. “I want to stay here with you and Pa-pa and Jahera and Socrates and Dickens and Grace and all the dogs and cats and parrots and… I’m tired of fighting for parts in plays and singing over the din of drunks and dating jerks.”

“Then come home,” says Naomi, smiling at Tova. “There are plays to be in here, venues for your singing, people to date. As your grandfather was fond of saying, the center of the universe is wherever you are.”

“Amen,” says Darby, clinking his coffee cup with Clement’s. “You coming home for Thanksgiving, Clement?”

“Can’t,” says Clement, sighing. “The center of my universe is Minneapolis until further notice.”

*

Two nights later, Caspar and Maahiah and Lucien come for supper, and Caspar announces that henceforth the residuals from his ever-popular Décollé and its many translations will be split among Maahiah, Jahera, and Lucien.

“We are dissolving the foundation,” says Caspar with a heavy sigh. “I don’t want my legacy to be a novelty shop. The truth is, without Jahera giving calligraphy and drawing classes for free, The Letter Writer would have few patrons. My vision was anachronistic, a foolish attempt to rekindle the ethos of the Sixties. I might as well have tried to resurrect the hula hoop.”

“The good news is Lucien is going to move here and live in the apartment above the shop,” says Maahiah, who is accustomed to Caspar abruptly changing his mind in the midst of one of his grand schemes. “And we’re going to lease the shop to a local artists’ collective to use as a gallery.”

“You’re going to live in Mercy?” says Naomi, gazing in surprise at Lucien. “We’re a far cry from Zurich, you know.”

“I’m weary of city life,” he says sincerely. “And I’ve been wanting to live close to my mother and grandparents again.”

“When will you move here?” asks Healing, who never for a moment thought Lucien would want to live in Mercy.

“I’ll need a month or so to wrap things up in Zurich,” says Lucien, enjoying Healing and Naomi’s surprise. “So I hope to be here by Christmas. Maybe sooner.”

“And we are selling the house in the forest and buying a house in town,” says Caspar, sounding greatly relieved. “So we needn’t drive to get here.”

*

The next morning, Healing wakes at dawn as he always does and smiles at the sound of Jahera singing in the shower.

He gets out of bed, puts on boxer shorts, and walks down the hallway to the living room where the four adult dogs and Socrates are waiting to go outside.

“Good morning,” he says, opening the kitchen door and allowing the dogs to rush out ahead of him into the fog-cloaked yard.

Socrates skitters across the wet deck and scrambles down the two stairs in pursuit of Tarzan, the only other male in the pack.

Healing wanders into the vegetable garden and keeps an eye on Socrates who has a tendency to wander away in pursuit of enticing scents. For though a sturdy deer fence surrounds the two-acre yard, there are small gaps here and there in the wire barrier where a small dog might wiggle through, and wiggling is Socrates’s specialty.

Now Naomi emerges from her cottage in a red flannel bathrobe, her long white hair not yet captured in a ponytail for the day, and following a brief discussion with Healing about which of the four potato patches is most ready to be harvested, Healing inquires, “Coming in for tea, Mum?”

“If I won’t be too much in the way,” she says, looking over the tops of her wire-frame glasses at him. “I know you newly married couples like to be left alone.”

“We appreciate your delicacy in this regard,” says Healing, bowing to her, “but do come in for tea, Mum. And breakfast, too.”

“I shall dress for the day and be in shortly,” she says, curtsying. “Bringing with me a hankering for toast and omelets.”

“If the hens have provided,” says Healing, heading for the chicken coop, “omelets it shall be.”

*

Omelets consumed, second cups of coffee poured, the benevolent sun impregnates the fog with subtle brightness and the kitchen is drenched in a mellow golden light that incites the parrots Bogart and Bacall to speak.

“Naomi,” says Bogart, opening his wings so their tips touch the bars of the cage.

“Carla,” says Bacall, balancing on her right foot. “Tarzan.”

“Oh the light, the light,” says Jahera, jumping up from the table to go get her camera.

“Low tide at eleven,” says Healing, sipping his coffee. “Up for a beach walk, Mum?”

“I thought you’d never ask,” says Naomi, smiling as Jahera returns. “Now that is an impressive camera. I’ve only seen you wield your smaller ones. Is this one special?”

“I hope so,” says Jahera, fetching the kittens from the sofa where they just awoke and were gazing down at the dogs sprawled near the hearth, the morning fire spluttering. “I’ve only had it a few weeks and I’m still learning its idiosyncrasies. So far the results are promising.” She hands Dickens to Healing and Grace to Naomi. “I’d like to move your chairs closer to the window.”

So Healing and Naomi stand up with kittens in hand, Jahera positions their chairs side-by-side next to the window, and when they are seated again, Jahera starts taking pictures.

“Anything in particular you’d like us to do?” asks Naomi, holding Grace against her cheek.

“That’s wonderful,” says Jahera, firing away. “Anything you like.”

Healing sets Dickens on his lap and the little cat gazes up at Healing’s chin.

Naomi sets Grace on her lap and Grace jumps over to Healing’s lap, which causes Dickens to jump over to Naomi’s lap.

“Now you hold them both, Naomi,” says Jahera, continuing to shoot as Healing hands Grace to Naomi, who holds a kitten in each hand so they frame her face.

“I can’t help smiling,” says Naomi, giggling, “though I could try to be serious if you’d prefer that. Oh how they tickle my soul.”

“Anything,” says Jahera, firing away.

“They are most cooperative,” says Naomi, kissing Dickens, and now Grace. “I think they’re still rather sleepy.”

“Now you hold them both, Shafi,” says Jahera to Healing, and Naomi hands both kittens to Healing.

“Let’s do the trick we learned yesterday,” says Healing, speaking to the kittens as he sets them on his lap. “Where you sit in my hands.”

He holds his hands palms up next to the kittens and Dickens steps onto the palm of Healing’s right hand, while Grace ignores Healing’s left hand.

Healing gently presses the side of his hand against Grace’s leg and she reflexively steps onto the proffered palm.

Now he raises the kittens up to the level of his heart with Dickens sitting primly and facing forward, and Grace curls up in Healing’ hand and gazes sideways at Dickens.

“Look at me Gracie,” says Jahera, taking pictures all the while. “Look over here, darling.”

And Grace obliges by sitting up and gazing at the Jahera while Dickens turns to look at Grace – Healing delighted by the little geniuses.

Now sunlight breaks fully through the fog and the mellow golden light gives way to glaring brightness.

fin

Wedding Prayer piano solo by Todd

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Benito and Socrates

At dawn on the tenth of July, Healing Weintraub wakes at dawn in his bed in the house he has lived in for all his sixty-three years on earth, and his partner Jahera wakes, too, though today she doesn’t get up with him because she stayed up late talking to Healing’s sister Jean and is hoping to sleep for another hour or so.

When Healing and Jahera are the only humans in residence, it is Healing’s habit to go naked down the hall to the living room where the five dogs wake at the sound of his footfalls and follow him to the kitchen door to be let outside. These days, with Jean visiting, and with Healing and Jean’s mother Naomi living in the house until the backyard cottage is done being remodeled, Healing wears boxer shorts.

The morning foggy and promising to get sunny, Healing lets the hens out of the old redwood coop into their scratch yard while the dogs wander around the fringes of the vegetable garden peeing and sniffing, and it is at this moment that Healing realizes only four dogs came outside with him – Carla the enormous Lab Dane, Tarzan the Malamute Lab, Harriet the Golden Lab, and Tabinda the Lab Shepherd.

The eldest of the five, Benito, a brown Chihuahua with pointy ears, is missing.

Heart pounding, Healing dashes into the house and finds the little old dog lying near the hearth where he has slept every night for thirteen years. Healing cradles his dear friend in his arms and murmurs I love you as Benito takes his last breath.

*

A week later, on a warm afternoon, Healing addresses a few dozen friends who have gathered near the pond in the center of the Weintraub property to pay homage to Benito.

“Benito was a no-nonsense dog,” says Healing, smiling around at his friends. “He knew what he liked and knew what he didn’t like, and he was not easily convinced to change his preferences. He felt it was his special privilege to go with me whenever I went anywhere in the truck, and on those few occasions when another dog accompanied me somewhere in the truck and Benito was not allowed to come along, he held a grudge against me that no quantity of chewy treats could ameliorate. Only taking him for a ride somewhere in the truck, he the only dog, combined with several chewy treats and a lengthy heartfelt apology would return me to his good graces.”

“He was a marvelous dog,” cries Darby Riley, an old family friend. “Warmed my lap on many a cold evening when I’d come to visit, the dear dear boy. He’ll be greatly missed.”

“Yes, he will,” says Healing, nodding to Darby and turning to Jahera who is standing with her parents Caspar and Maahiah. “When you, Jahera, joined our household two years ago, Benito was the last of the resident dogs to warm to you. Then one evening, you were sitting on the sofa and said, ‘Benito? Would you like to come sit with me?’ He pondered your request for a moment, and while he was pondering, Harriet came to you, and you said, ‘Not now, Harriet. I want Benito to sit with me.’ And hearing this, Benito was emboldened to come to you, and you picked him up because he was beginning to have difficulty making the leap up onto the sofa, and you placed him beside you and he stayed for a while and apparently found the experience sufficiently pleasing that he became your frequent sofa companion thereafter.”

His tears on the rise, Healing nods to Naomi to take over the proceedings.

Naomi, who is eighty-five and British and recently returned to Mercy after fifteen years in England, gestures expansively and says, “You see all around us these magnificent Japanese maples. There are forty-six trees in this copse, and each tree was planted to honor a dog or cat who lived with us for a time before embarking on his or her next incarnation. The oldest tree is sixty-two years old, and since then twenty dogs and twenty-six cats have been so honored. As my dear departed husband liked to say, ‘Given our profusion of pets, it’s lucky we have two acres.’ Benito is the twenty-first dog to die here since we bought this old homestead sixty-five years ago, and though I only knew him for the last few weeks of his life, I found him delightful and quite funny, especially when he would butt his head against my leg to ask for a chewy treat.”

*

After the planting of a sapling purple-leaf Japanese maple next to where Benito is buried, the assembly reconvenes on the deck of the little old house for a barbecue, the gathering suffused with Benito’s spirit, thus a joyful time ensues.

Jean takes Maahiah for a tour of what will soon be Naomi’s new abode, the former woodshop and studio now a spacious three-room cottage with a splendid bathroom.

“When are you returning to England?” asks Maahiah, who thought Jean was only going to stay in Mercy for a week or two, and now she has been here for five weeks.

“I don’t know,” says Jean, grimacing. “I… my husband calls every day to ask me that, and…” She bites her lip to suppress her tears. “I’m afraid I may never see my mother again after I go back to England. I know that’s irrational and I can come here again next year, but that’s how I’m feeling right now and why I’m reluctant to go. Albert…”

She fails to hold back her tears and Maahiah embraces her.

“Stay a while longer,” says Maahiah, her voice soothing. “Ask your husband to come here for a time.”

“He can’t,” says Jean, shaking her head. “He’s teaching a summer course at the university and has a full schedule of classes starting in the fall. And he’s finishing up a book, and… no, he can’t.”

“Then you stay a while more,” says Maahiah, who used to spend six weeks apart from her husband every year until he turned eighty, and he is now eighty-five, she seventy-five.

“I suppose I will,” says Jean, composing herself. “Though Albert is furious with me. We married when I was nineteen and he was twenty-one, and this is the first time we’ve been apart for more than a few days, and it was always he who went away, not I.”

“Why is he angry with you?”

“He has his routines, you know,” says Jean, shrugging. “And I am the facilitator of those routines – his meals, his clothes, his social life, his interactions with our children and grandchildren, the evening Scrabble game, the hot Toddy before bed.” She smiles wistfully. “He says he doesn’t know who he is without me.”

*

A few mornings after the commemoration of Benito’s life, Healing and Tarzan visit Darby’s Antiques, the jam-packed shop presided over by Darby and his very smart dog Dagwood, a mix of Beagle and Jack Russell terrier. Healing and Darby sit on high stools at the counter having tea and cookies while Tarzan and Dagwood sniff around the store together.

“The party for Benito put me in mind of death,” says Darby, his Irish accent barely muted after fifty years in America. “Not that death isn’t always somewhat on my mind. After all, you could say my livelihood is built on buying and selling the possessions of dead people. And I am seventy-nine, so more people I know are dying these days rather than getting married or having babies. Yet what I loved most about the party was the joy we all felt at not being dead yet and having a bit more time to revel in life.”

“People kept asking me if we’ll be getting a new dog soon,” says Healing, sipping his tea. “I wonder why so many people asked me that. We’ve still got four dogs, and four is plenty. So is three or two or one. It’s not about how many, it’s about who they are and how we find each other because… that’s who we are.” He laughs. “Now there’s some nonsense for you.”

“Speaking of the four remaining dogs,” says Darby, smiling as Tarzan comes to sit near Healing. “How are they doing with Benito being gone?”

“Tabinda and Harriet don’t seem much changed,” says Healing, recalling how the dogs acted this morning when he let them out. “They’re both young and only knew Benito for a year or so, and he rarely showed any interest in them, so… but Tarzan and Carla are both very sad, especially Carla who has known Benito since she first opened her eyes eleven years ago. He was her father in a way. And though she was twice his size by the time she was three-months-old, he was her guide and protector when she was a pup, so she misses him profoundly.”

“How does that manifest?” asks Darby, curious about the ways of dogs. “Does she mope around?”

“Not so much,” says Healing, knowing Carla may only live another few years at the most. “But every morning now when I let the dogs out, Carla and Tarzan visit all the usual places and linger a bit longer than usual in each place. And when they finish their rounds they go to where we buried Benito and they sit there for a time before finding me to ask for a chewy treat, which was Benito’s habit, not theirs.”

*

After their visit with Darby and Dagwood, Healing and Tarzan walk across town to The Letter Writer, the shop located in a beautifully restored old building at the end of a lane bordering the headlands.

Before Healing enters the shop wherein Jahera is teaching twelve people the basics of calligraphy, Healing says to Tarzan, “Will you wait out here for me, please? I won’t be long.”

Tarzan lies down out of the way of the door and gives Healing a look to say I’m happy to wait a little while, emphasis on little.

Healing quietly enters the shop and stands behind the counter where he used to work; and he feels glad not to be working here anymore, though he enjoyed the job of assisting people in writing and sending letters via the postal service.

He watches Jahera demonstrate how to make a Romanesque letter S on a large easel pad of white paper, and he marvels at her skill as a calligrapher and teacher – her students enthralled and inspired.

*

Walking home from The Letter Writer, Tarzan and Healing pass Big Goose, the pub where Healing performs every few weeks with his quartet Mercy Me, Healing on accordion, and out the door comes Justin Oglethorpe, the very tall bartender and owner of Big Goose.

“Healing,” says Justin, who was among those who attended the Benito tribute along with his wife Helen Morningstar, a poet of some renown. “I just called you a few minutes ago and left a message with Jean. You got a minute?”

“Thousands,” says Healing, who is always somewhat awed by Justin’s size, for the man is both extremely tall and something of a Hercules.

“Hey pup,” says Justin, scratching the top of Tarzan’s head – Tarzan being in awe of Justin, too. “So we want to get a new dog. Didn’t want to bug you about it at the party, but is now okay?”

“Fine,” says Healing, who has known Justin and Helen his whole life and loves them both dearly.

“Been a year now since Sasha died,” says Justin, speaking of their Golden Retriever, “and Helen really wants a dog, and we heard that Lester and Sara Peabody’s dog had a litter about eight weeks ago. You know Lester and Sara? They live up Mill Creek Road.”

“I know them, though not well,” says Healing, surprised he hadn’t heard about the litter. “What kind of dog do they have?”

“Black Lab,” says Justin, nodding. “Sara says the father is a Catahoula?” Jason frowns. “You know what a Catahoula is?”

“A kind of a Black Mouth Cur,” says Healing, the back of his neck tingling. “Very aggressive. Bred to be a hunting and guard dog in the South, though I suppose the Lab might temper the aggression somewhat and the pups could be sweetie pies. Tend to be rather big and very strong, but if the mother’s not too big… well, I’d have to see them.”

“There are only two pups left,” says Justin, sounding uncharacteristically anxious. “Could you come look at them with us? Like right now? We don’t mind a big dog, but we don’t want anything mean or too hard for Helen to handle.”

“I’m ready,” says Healing, nodding eagerly. “I just have to take Tarzan home.”

“We’ll come get you in twenty minutes,” says Justin, hurrying back into the pub.

*

When he gets home, Healing tells Naomi and Jean he’s going to look at pups with Justin and Helen, and Jean, who bred champion schnauzers for many years, asks to come along.

“I would ask to come, too,” says Naomi, looking over the tops of her wire-frame glasses at Healing, “but the painters are due to arrive at any moment and we’ll be trying out various paint colors for the cottage interior. But do keep me in mind for any future puppy viewing expeditions.”

A few moments later – Justin driving their old Volvo station wagon, Helen riding shotgun, Jean and Healing in the backseat – they head for Mill Creek Road, seven miles north of Mercy.

Helen is a native of the local watershed in the truest sense of the word, her people the Pomo who have lived here for thousands of years. Healing and Helen went steady when they were sophomores in high school – Helen the first girl Healing ever kissed in a sexual way – and he was heartbroken when she dumped him for a nineteen-year-old guy with a car.

Healing played the processional and recessional at Helen and Justin’s wedding – an accordion and clarinet arrangement of Simple Gifts – and Healing is always the first person Justin and Helen call to consult about dogs, cats, or gardening.

“How’s life in England?” asks Helen, turning in her seat to look back at Jean. “We’ve been there twice in the last ten years. My publisher is in Bristol now. We love England, though neither of us travel well.”

“Once we get there we’re fine,” says Justin, resisting the urge to speed. “But going and coming back is a killer. For us anyway.”

“Such a long way,” says Jean, this talk of England bringing her close to tears. “Life is good there.”

“How long are you staying for?” asks Helen, who always admired Jean at school and never understood why Jean didn’t want to be her friend.

“Not sure,” says Jean, her tears winning out. “I’m having a hard time saying goodbye to my mum.”

“Then stay a while longer,” says Helen, nodding encouragingly.

“I might,” says Jean, bowing her head. “I don’t know.”

*

The pups are in an old wooden baby crib in the corner of a two-car garage behind Lester and Sara’s rambling old house, Lester and Sara both from Georgia, Sara a substitute elementary school teacher, Lester a car mechanic.

“They’re over here,” says Sara, leading Helen and Jean and Justin and Healing between the two cars Lester is currently working on. “We thought Molly was spayed. That’s what the guy who gave her to us told Lester. Part of a trade for a Camry.” She shakes her head. “Then a friend from Georgia came to visit with a young Catahoula, and next thing we know Molly’s pregnant. There were seven pups and there’s just these two left. We’re asking three hundred each. We could get five hundred easy. Phone ringing off the hook since I posted their pictures on Facebook.”

“Dear God,” says Jean when she sees the two pups in the baby crib. “They’re colored like Appaloosas and they’re cuter than anything in the history of the world.”

Sara scoops up the female pup and hands her to Helen. “This one was the smallest, but the first to walk. Not afraid of anything, so Lester named her Joan of Arc.” Now Sara scoops up the male pup and hands him to Healing. “Lester calls this one Socrates because he always seems to be thinking deep thoughts.”

“Is Molly around?” asks Healing, nuzzling the pup.

“Mah-lee,” says Sara, looking around. “Mah-lee. Where are you, girl?”

A moment later, a small Black Lab trots into the garage and approaches the visitors with tail wagging.

Healing holds the pup out to Molly and she gives the baby dog a tender lick, which causes the pup to whimper for milk.

“They’re marvelous,” says Healing, giving the pup a finger to suck on. “I’ll take one if you don’t want both, Helen. And both if you don’t want one.”

“Oh I want Joan,” says Helen, looking at Justin who nods in agreement.

“Thus Socrates is ours,” says Healing, handing the pup to Jean who cannot find words to express her joy.

*

The day after Socrates joins the Weintraub household, when the last word has been spelled in the after-supper Scrabble game – Socrates asleep in Jahera’s lap – Jean announces she has something she would like to say.

So Healing joins Naomi and Jahera on the sofa and Jean stands with her back to the fire and says, “As you know, I moved to England when I was sixteen. I thought you, Jahera, would be interested to know it was my first time in England. We’d gone to visit relatives in Oxford and I had every intention of returning to Mercy with Mum and Papa and Healing, though I was miserable here. When Ezra’s sister Cecily said I could stay with her and attend school in England for a year, I jumped at the chance. And three years later Albert and I were married and I never gave coming back to Mercy another thought. We did make two trips here in the ensuing forty-five years, but I had no desire to ever live here again.”

“May I ask why you were miserable here?” asks Jahera, who struggled with depression when she was a teenager.

“The short answer is that I had no friends other than Healing,” says Jean, gazing at her brother, “and I felt ignored and minimized in the constant swirl of visitors, some of whom stayed here for weeks and months at a time. And also I didn’t feel I had any special talent, which was terribly painful for me having such a gifted brother and such brilliant creative parents, and the place being such a mecca for artists and musicians. And Aunt Cecily adored me and thought I was witty and clever, and I was so hungry for that kind of approval, I chose to stay with her.”

“And then you blossomed,” says Naomi, nodding. “You finally had enough space to expand into your fullness.”

“Yes,” says Jean, smiling sadly at her mother. “And for a long time I thought I didn’t miss you or Papa, though I knew I missed you, Healing. And then I met Albert and fell madly in love, and we went on digs together in Italy and Greece and I became the wife of a successful academic, and we had our wonderful children and bought our house in Devon and I started breeding schnauzers, and it wasn’t until Mum and Papa decided to move back to Oxford that I realized how terribly I had missed them, how I’d been missing them my whole life. And these last fifteen years with Mum and Papa in England have been the happiest years of my life.”

“And now I’ve moved back to Mercy,” says Naomi, gazing lovingly at her daughter. “I’m sorry, Jean. I’m sorry I can’t be in two places at once, but this is where I feel whole and wholly alive, and that’s how I want to feel for however many days I have left to live. I hope you will forgive me.”

“I do forgive you, Mum,” says Jean, holding out her arms to Jahera who hands Socrates to her. “When I saw this darling puppy, I knew what I was going to do. So this afternoon I called Albert and told him. And the dear man did not argue or cajole or complain, and said, ‘Yes, dear, that is what we will do. I have been selfish and shortsighted and I will do my best to make it up to you.’”

“Good God,” says Naomi, giving Healing a look of amazement. “Whatever did you say to make Albert respond is such an un-Albert way?”

“I told him I am going to stay here until you are settled in your new digs,” says Jean, beaming at her mother. “Late August I imagine. And then I will return to England. And next April I will come back to Mercy and help plant the vegetable garden and go on walks with the dogs and take calligraphy and drawing classes from Jahera, and spend time with you, Mum. And in June, Albert will come here for two weeks and we’ll return to England together. And then we’ll see how we feel about things. And I may do that every year until you die, Mum, unless I die before you.”

“How wonderful,” says Healing, getting up to hug his sister. “How wonderful you are.”

fin  

Nothing Anybody Says a song by Todd with Gwyneth  

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Anastasia

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 1969, “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.

fin

Light Song a song by Todd and Marcia and Gwyneth