On a cold rainy morning a few days before the Winter Solstice, her cottage toasty from the fire blazing in her woodstove, Naomi is giving her granddaughter Tova a Tarot reading.
“So,” says Naomi, watching Tova place the seventy-eight Tarot cards face down on the table between them, “you want a child though you’re not in a relationship. And what is your question?”
“What does the universe think about that?” asks Tova, moving the cards around to mix them up.
“Ah,” says Naomi, getting up to put a kettle on for tea. “What do you think about that, dear?”
“I want to have a child,” says Tova, continuing to move the cards around. “I’m thirty-seven. I occasionally get a part in a play and sing in pubs a few times a month and work at the veterinarian clinic three days a week, and that’s been my life for eighteen years now. I’m sick to death of living in Portland, which was supposed to be my first stop on the way to greater glory that never quite manifested. I’m sad about my few and far between failed relationships. I feel like an idiot for throwing myself at Lucien every time I came home the first few months he was living here, and though he was very nice about rejecting me, his being here makes moving back to Mercy less of an option, though now he’s talking about moving back to Switzerland, in which case it would be easier for me to live here if that’s what I decide to do, which I might if Kelsey’s roommate in Manhattan decides not to move out of Kelsey’s tiny apartment, and even if she does move out, I’m not really sure I want to move to New York and start all over again at the bottom of the heap at my advanced age and… it’s all a terribly depressing muddle.”
“Your greatest challenge as I see it,” says Naomi, returning to the table with two cups and a pot of black tea, “is that you have created a life in which your happiness depends entirely on the largesse of others. Someone else must give you a part in a play. Someone else must give you a place to sing. Someone else must provide you with an apartment in a place where someone else may or may not allow you to attain what you imagine to be greater glory. Lucien must leave Mercy before you will feel okay about moving back here. And someone else must agree to be in a relationship with you before you have a child. Perhaps the depressing muddle is the result of waiting for others to provide you with whatever you believe is missing from your life.”
Tova frowns. “Have you always thought this about me?”
“Goodness no,” says Naomi, shaking her head. “When your grandfather and I moved back to England eighteen years ago, you were nineteen and taking action right and left just as you always had from the moment you could walk. And we fully expected you to go on taking action like that for the rest of your life.”
“I did go on taking action for my first few years in Portland until…” Tova ceases to stir the cards. “… I started trying to be what other people wanted me to be so I could get parts in plays and get singing gigs. And I did get parts in plays and I did get singing gigs by being what other people wanted me to be until one day I realized I’d become a fake. A phony. So I tried not to be fake and discovered I’d forgotten how to be anything but what I thought other people wanted me to be because I’d so thoroughly trained myself not to be who I really am. And now I’m old and soon I won’t be able to have a baby, and people won’t want to give me parts no matter who I pretend to be.”
“If that’s how you think of yourself,” says Naomi, looking over the tops of her glasses at Tova, “then that’s what you’ll be. You may gather up the cards now and we’ll see if any light may be shed on your dilemma.”
“I meant old in terms of having a baby,” says Tova, crying as she gathers the cards and hands them to Naomi. “I didn’t mean to insult you, Gram.”
“Darling,” says Naomi, who is eighty-seven, “I know what you meant and I am not insulted. However, I will caution you that the words we choose to describe ourselves can wreak havoc on our psyches with their power of suggestion. Neurologists have now proven this with their brain-watching devices, not that we needed more proof, but now we can actually see the brain maps we create with our words, and these brain maps literally dictate the course of our lives and who we are.”
“I shall endeavor to use more skillful speech,” says Tova, sitting up straight and ceasing to cry.
“Let us begin,” says Naomi, turning over the first card. “Aha. The Seven of Wands reversed.
“Who is he?” asks Tova, perusing the painting on the card. “Or she? Doing battle on a precipice.”
“This is a depiction of the depressing muddle you just described, and the person in the painting is you, fighting to preserve yourself as you pursue your goals, though you grow weary of the battle as you are pushed to the edge of your resilience.” Naomi gazes at Tova, who for her first nineteen years was the embodiment of unbridled creative energy and is now forlorn and exhausted. “The card presented itself reversed, which suggests you are on the cusp of changing course.”
“Or falling off the cliff?” says Tova, laughing to forestall her tears.
“Possibly,” says Naomi, turning over the next card – the Five of Cups.
“Oh how sad,” says Tova, pained by the picture of a person cloaked in a black robe gazing at the distant ruins of a castle.
“This painting depicts your despair and your longing for a relationship, though I must tell you that beyond these obvious indications, this card, in my sixty-five years of employing this deck, always speaks of unexpressed rage.”
“About what?” asks Tova, angrily. “Being a fucking failure?”
“That would not be my surmise,” says Naomi, shaking her head. “Nor my choice of words. Because you are not a failure, except in your imaginings.”
“What would be your surmise then?” asks Tova, seething with anger.
“I would surmise that you are enraged by what humans have done and are doing to this precious earth you love so much. And I am sure you are enraged that the worlds of professional theatre and professional music in America are not meritocracies, nor are they societies of loving friends, but quite the opposite. And I would surmise you are enraged that you have spent half your life hoping the place and society you have chosen to inhabit would change into something more like the place and society you were born into here in Mercy, this place and community that nurtured you as you grew into the marvelous person you are. Sadly, the society you now inhabit cannot change for the better because it is founded on the aggrandizement of individuals at the expense of the greater good, which is the death knell of every human society there has ever been.”
“Pa-pa was right not to take the path I took,” says Tova, her tears overflowing. “And I wouldn’t listen to him because I didn’t want the world to be the way it is.”
“Your father has always been too psychically porous for city life and for careers requiring one to outdo others. And you are very much like your father, who is very much like me and very much like your grandfather. We do much better living simply and sharing what we have with others and being creative without thought of recompense. More than this is beyond our natures.”
Naomi turns over the next card – the Nine of Pentacles.
“Doesn’t she look happy and rich,” says Tova, recognizing her former self in the regal woman standing in a bountiful garden.
“She is happy and rich,” says Naomi, tapping the card, “because she is living a life of her own choosing. She is not waiting for someone to save her, nor is she waiting for someone else to give her permission to be who she is.”
For supper that evening, Tova and Jahera make a spicy vegetable stir-fry to go with potatoes they harvested from the garden at dusk. They drink wine while they cook and sing favorite songs, trying out various harmonies, some gorgeous, some hilarious.
Joining Tova and Jahera and Healing and Naomi for the splendid repast are Darby Riley and his housemate Marjorie Kleinsasser.
“Always love having you with us, Tova,” says Darby, raising his glass of beer to her. “The whole town seems more as it should be when you’re home.”
“I’ll drink to that,” says Healing, raising his glass.
“Well,” says Tova, raising her glass of wine, “as it happens, I’ve decided to move back to Mercy as soon as I can gracefully phase myself out at the clinic in Portland. Shouldn’t take long. Lots of people want my job.”
“Tova,” says Healing, gasping at the news and jumping up to give his daughter a hug. “This is the best news I’ve had in forever.”
Now everyone takes a turn hugging Tova, and when all are seated again, Naomi says, “And she’ll be living with me in the cottage until further notice.”
“Why not take the spare bedroom in the house?” asks Jahera, nodding encouragingly.
“The collective needs a guest room,” says Tova, beaming at Jahera. “And I will no longer be a guest.”
“Come live with us,” says Darby, glancing at Marjorie to make sure that’s okay with her. “We’ve got the third bedroom and the place is vast. We hardly know what to do with all the space.”
“We’d love you to live with us,” says Marjorie, having recently returned to Mercy after twelve years away. “We could cook together and sing together and garden together.”
“Thank you, Marjorie. Thank you, Darby,” says Tova, nodding graciously. “I’ll definitely keep you in mind.”
“I’m so happy,” says Healing, his eyes brimming with tears. “I can’t tell you how happy.”
And so on a stormy Monday morning in late January, Tova leaves Portland in her jam-packed little electric car towing a small trailer containing a table, desk, nightstand, and bookshelf made for her by her grandfather Ezra.
Twelve hours later, Tova arrives in Mercy expecting to have supper with her father and Jahera and Naomi, only to find a hundred people crammed into the little old house waiting to greet her with huzzahs and warm embraces.
In early February, the day sunny and cold, Healing walks with Tabinda, Harriet, Socrates, and Mendelssohn across town to Darby’s beautiful house on the headlands, and while the dogs explore the backyard with Marjorie’s dog Fritz and Darby’s dog Dagwood, Darby and Marjorie serve Healing strong coffee and just-baked almond butter cookies – the kitchen a glory of sunlight.
“How’s the daughter doing?” asks Darby, who has known Tova since she was born. “We haven’t seen a shred of the girl since she got home.”
“That’s because she’s been sleeping twelve hours a night and two or three more during the day,” says Healing, relieved beyond telling to have Tova home again. “For twelve days now. It’s incredible. I had no idea she was so depleted.”
“I did the same thing when I first got back here,” says Marjorie, smiling at Darby. “For close to a month. Didn’t I, Dar?”
“Yes, you did, dear,” he says, returning her smile. “You were recovering from a great ordeal. And you know I’ve read that the survivors of the death camps slept like that for weeks and weeks after they were free and safe. It’s how the body and the spirit heal after a terrible trial.”
“Tova walked around the neighborhood yesterday with Mendelssohn and Tabinda,” says Healing, half-laughing and half-crying. “She didn’t go more than a quarter of a mile, and when she got home she collapsed on the sofa and said she felt like she’d just climbed Mount Everest.”
“Is she ill or just tired?” asks Darby, frowning. “Maybe she needs to see a doctor.”
“She has my mother and Jahera and Maahiah,” says Healing, gratefully. “Mum is babying her as I’ve never seen her baby anyone. She says Tova is in a psychic chrysalis and will soon emerge as her new self. Meanwhile, Jahera has turned the kitchen into a restorative soup factory, and Maahiah, who comes from a long line of masseuses, gives Tova a long massage every afternoon, and I swear Tova looks younger and rosier every day, so I think for now we can do without a doctor.”
Ten days later, a light rain falling, Healing is making the morning fire with help from Socrates who likes to bring Healing sticks of kindling. Jahera is in the kitchen preparing the four bowls of cat food, which she will serve to the kitties on the high table in the pantry out of reach of the dogs – the cats purring as they rub against Jahera’s legs. And Naomi is sitting at the kitchen table doing the New York Times crossword puzzle and sipping black tea, when who should come through the kitchen door but Tova wearing a pretty blue dress, her hair longer than it’s been in fifteen years and soon to reach her shoulders.
“A seven-letter word starting with L,” says Naomi, looking over the tops of her glasses at Tova. “That means glorify.”
“Lionize,” says Tova without missing a beat. “Is there more tea in the pot or shall I make a fresh one?”
Healing comes into the kitchen and watches Tova fill the kettle with water. “What’s going on? It’s not yet eight, let alone noon when you usually make your first appearance of the day. Some prince kiss you?”
“I’m better now,” says Tova, setting the kettle on the stove. “I may require the occasional after-lunch nap until I fully regain my sea legs, so to speak, but I am otherwise revived.”
“You look fabulous,” says Jahera, smiling at Tova. “You should see the bloom in your cheeks.”
“I can feel the bloom,” says Tova, pressing her fingers to her cheeks. “Full of blood again.”
“Pa-pa?” asks Tova, looking up from turning the soil in the vegetable garden on a sunny morning in the middle of March. “Naomi and I would like to have a party on the second of April. A barbecue at which your band will play. Please? That’s in two weeks on a Sunday. Would that be okay with you?”
Healing looks up from raking the ground that he and Diego are preparing for cabbage starts – Diego a handsome young man who works for Healing and Jahera and Naomi three mornings a week.
“We love April parties,” says Healing, smiling at Tova. “Might we cajole you into singing a song or two with the band?”
“You might,” says Tova, who imagined the very thing while singing in the shower this morning. “We’re calling the party An Exaltation of Larks, though there aren’t any larks in California, but there are lots of larks in England, and we Weintraubs are deeply English. Doesn’t it sound wonderful? An exaltation of larks.”
“I don’t know what it means,” says Diego, getting a small notebook and pencil out of his back pocket. “Would you spell it, por favor?”
Tova spells exaltation and says, “It means a feeling of great happiness.”
“To exalt someone is to praise them,” says Healing, resuming his raking. “I shall inquire of the band members and see who is available on the blessed day.”
“Can I come?” asks Diego, speaking quietly to Healing.
“Of course you can,” says Tova, nodding emphatically. “You’re always invited to our parties.”
“I didn’t know,” says Diego, glancing shyly at her. “Gracias.”
“Please invite your grandmother,” says Healing to Diego. “And any friends you’d like to bring.”
“I’ll definitely bring my grandmother,” says Diego, wheeling the wheelbarrow away to get more compost. “I’m sure she would love to come and bring her famous antojitos.”
When Diego is out of earshot, Tova whispers to her father, “He’s a whole other person now. He was so grim and angry, and now he’s such a sweetheart.”
“Yes, he is,” says Healing, remembering the evening a little over a year ago when he and Jahera and Naomi decided the best way to help Luisa with Diego was to hire the troubled young man to work for them – and thus began his transformation.
Diego returns with the wheelbarrow heaped high with rich black compost, and begins shoveling the fabulous rot onto the freshly turned soil.
“Can I ask you something?” says Diego, frowning at Tova. “About the party?”
“Of course,” she says, taking a break from turning the soil.
“So… what should I wear? Do we get dressed up or is it more casual? My grandmother will want to know.”
“Dress however you like,” says Tova, resuming her digging. “I’m going to get all dolled up, but that’s just me.”
“I might buy a new shirt,” says Diego, smiling at the thought of finding something beautiful to wear to the party. “I know my grandmother will want to get dressed up if you are going to. She has a special red dress she wears for Christmas and Thanksgiving.” He grins at Healing. “The word you taught me. Crimson. More like the red of blood.” Now he shrugs. “I might ask Teresa Nuñez to come. I don’t know if she will, but she might.”
“This is the first I’ve heard of Ms. Nuñez,” says Healing, feigning only mild interest. “Someone new in your social constellation?”
“She’s in my English class at the community college,” says Diego, nodding. “And she’s so beautiful you can’t believe it. When she came up to me after class I thought maybe somebody was playing a joke on me, you know, because I’m not kidding, man, you can’t believe how beautiful she is, so I never thought she would ever want to talk to me.”
“Why not?” asks Tova, looking up from her digging. “You’re very handsome and charming, Diego.”
“Gracias,” he says, embarrassed by her praise. “But girls don’t usually come up to me, you know. I usually go up to them if I think I have a chance with them. But I never thought I would have a chance with Teresa so I would never go up to her. And then the teacher read my essay out loud to the class, you know, the one Healing and Naomi helped me with about my grandmother, and that’s when Teresa came up to me after class and asked me to help her with her essay. So I said I would try, but…” He shakes his head. “She’s already a better writer than I am. I think she needs you, Healing, and Naomi to help her. But even so, I took a chance and asked her to go for coffee with me and when she said Yes I almost fell over you know. Then we went to the café and got some coffee and a scone my grandmother made there, and my grandmother came out from the kitchen to say hello and… now I think maybe Teresa likes me, you know, and maybe she would like to come to the party.”
The weather gods deem An Exaltation of Larks a fine idea, and after several days of rain, the blessed day dawns sunny.
Diego arrives looking like a movie star in his gorgeous new magenta shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, the shirt tucked into stylish black trousers, his glossy black hair swept back from his handsome face. Teresa is as advertised, a gorgeous gal with a songful voice and long black hair wearing a short black dress and a necklace of huge faux pearls. And Diego’s grandmother Luisa is thrilled to have been invited and looks like the Queen of Spain in her crimson gown.
Healing and Jahera and Tova and Naomi fawn over Diego and Teresa and Luisa, and when Naomi offers to help Teresa with her writing, Teresa throws her arms around Diego and says in Spanish, “I’m in heaven.”
At the party’s apex, Healing’s quartet Mercy Me assembles on the deck and delights the throng of guests with a jazzy tango, after which Tova joins the band and wows the crowd with a gorgeous rendition of Billy Taylor’s I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free followed by a deeply moving version of her father’s song Never Ever Thought You’d Love Me, after which she bows to thunderous applause and leaves the deck to the quartet.
“Wow,” says Justin Oglethorpe, and “Wow,” says Justin’s wife Helen Morningstar as they approach Tova at the barbecue where she is tending chicken thighs and vegetable shish kebabs.
“We knew you could sing,” says Helen, gazing wide-eyed at Tova, “but that was way beyond anything we’ve ever heard from you before. Have you been studying with someone, or…”
“No,” says Tova, laughing. “Just got lucky I guess.”
“Tell us you’ll be singing with Mercy Me next time they play The Goose,” says Helen, nodding emphatically. “Please? We’ll pay you on top of what we pay the band.”
“I’ll ask Pa-pa,” says Tova, dizzied by their praise. “Might be fun.”
“Wow,” says Justin again, gazing at Tova as if she just sprouted wings.
When Helen and Justin drift away to get some of Luisa’s fabulous antojitos before they all disappear, Lucien, Jahera’s beautiful son, approaches Tova and says breathlessly, “You’re a diva. I had no idea.”
“Oh thanks,” says Tova, blushing as she flips the thighs.
“You look different now,” he says, as if seeing her for the first time. “You seem so much more… something. Appropriate descriptors elude me.”
“Maybe because I’m all here now,” she suggests. “No more to roam.”
“Maybe so,” he says, frowning. “What will you do here? Now that you’re all here? Work at the vet clinic? Try out for plays? And where will you be singing? I’ll come every time you do.”
“I don’t know,” she says, enjoying his inadvertent double entendre.
Lucien looks away, troubled. “I’m thinking of getting a cat. If I’m going to stay in Mercy, which I’d like to except… I’m not sure.”
“Not sure about getting a cat or staying in Mercy?” asks Tova, arching an eyebrow.
“You just encapsulated my conundrum in a nutshell,” he says, looking into her eyes. “I keep wanting a cat and then thinking, ‘Oh but what if I leave?’ And when I finally told my mother of my ambivalence after months of wanting a cat and not getting one, she said she and Healing would take the cat if I decide to move back to Switzerland, so… would you help me choose one? From the shelter?”
“Of course,” says Tova, dumbfounded to realize that brilliant beautiful Lucien is as lost as she was before she found her way back to Mercy.
At the animal shelter the next day, Emilia Martinez leads them into the cat room where the many cages are chock full of kittens.
“Just let me know which ones you want to hold,” says Emilia, who has worked here for twenty years, “and I’ll get them out for you.”
“Oh dear,” says Lucien, overwhelmed by the multitude of cats. “How can I possibly decide?”
“Stop thinking,” says Tova, opening her arms to the legions of kittens, “and you will see them.”
“Them?” says Lucien, laughing. “I thought I was only getting one.”
“Them. Him. Her,” says Tova, laughing, too. “But if I were you I’d get two.”
“I like that idea,” he says, seeing a tiny black tabby sitting apart from the others in one of the cages, and a dark gray kitten in another cage looking right at him with a sweet little frown.
In Lucien’s apartment, after Tova helps Lucien set up the litter box in the laundry room, they sit on the living room sofa and play with the kittens.
“These are the two best kittens in the history of the world,” proclaims Tova. “You have excellent taste in cats, Lucien.”
“A girl and a boy,” he says, feeling giddy. “What shall I name them?”
“Whatever you like,” says Tova, holding the dark gray female.
“Would you name them for me?” he asks innocently. “I know I’ll like whatever names you choose.”
“How do you know that?” she asks, giving him a questioning look.
“I just do,” he says, picking up the tiny tabby. “Aren’t they divine?”
“Yes they are,” she says, closing her eyes. “I would name the female Siena and the male Jose.”
“Of course,” says Lucien, delighted. “They couldn’t be anyone else.”
“And you know, Lucien,” says Tova, opening her eyes, “if you decide to move back to Switzerland, you can take them with you.”
“True,” he says, nodding. “Though one of the reasons I wanted a cat was the hope that having one would make me want to stay in Mercy because I love it here, except…” He falls silent.
“I wonder why you don’t want to stay,” says Tova, marveling that Lucien is so unlike the person she imagined him to be.
“Because I don’t really know how to be here,” he says, gently stroking the kitten named Jose. “Do you know what I mean?”
“How do you know how to be anywhere?” asks Tova, picking up the gray kitten named Siena.
“Well… starting when I was thirteen, I began to invent a persona that works quite well in big cities. Socially charming, pleasantly seductive, witty, lots of acquaintances, no end of work suited to my creative skills, successfully functional within the vast collective anonymity. But here in Mercy my urban persona is revealed to be a concoction of externalities with not very much going on inside except survival calculations and profound emotional confusion. So now I’m floundering around like a fish out of water while my dear grandfather is soon to die and I’m soon to turn thirty-three. And on those rare occasions when I do manage to shake free of my masquerade, I feel so insubstantial I think I might just float away and disappear.”
“I suggest you get a dog, too,” says Tova, handing Lucien the kitten named Siena and rising to go. “Come for supper tonight. We have loads of leftovers from the party.”
“How would you feel if rather than actually getting a dog, I borrowed one of yours now and then?” asks Lucien, accompanying Tova to the door with a kitten clutched in each of his hands. “I have no yard here for a dog.”
“Good plan,” says Tova, giving him a peck on the cheek. “Come for supper.”
“Will you sing tonight?” he asks hopefully.
“If you’d like me to,” she says humbly.
“I would,” he says, holding the kittens up to his cheeks. “Your singing yesterday filled me with a feeling of… being okay. Do you know what I mean? Listening to your glorious voice I felt free of my compulsion to always be doing something or going somewhere or creating something or striving to achieve something. I was just there, outside of time, listening to you and allowing the universe to flow into me and out of me with no desire to cling to anything, and I felt okay. I felt just fine. This is what your singing did for me.”
Walking home from Lucien’s place, Tova has a vivid memory of her grandfather Ezra in his woodshop – now Naomi’s living room – making a table for Tova to take to Portland where she would embark on her quest to make it big in show biz.
“What I love about tables,” said Ezra, looking up from his careful sanding of the tabletop and smiling at Tova, “is how these flat empty planes empower us to explore the complexities of life by giving us somewhere off the ground to put things.”
Holiday Shopping Reminder: Have friends who like short fiction? Why not give them one or two of Todd’s books of short stories? Why You Are Here, Little Movies, Buddha In A Teacup, Oasis Tales of the Conjuror, and Under the Table Books.