Everett and Marlene, both seventy-four, both professors emeritus at the University of Vermont, both undeniably eccentric, have been married for fifty-one years. They are the parents of Michael, an ornithologist, Caroline, a botanist, and Thomas, a wildlife biologist specializing in foxes and other small to medium-sized carnivores.
Marlene, her light brown hair now silvery gray, began her studies of butterflies when she was seven by capturing three Tiger Swallowtails and trying to keep them alive in her bedroom for as long as she could. Everett, a former redhead now bald, began collecting beetles when he was eight, and by the time he was twelve had a dozen large terrariums housing hundreds of beetles, each one known to Everett by the first, middle, and last names he gave them, along with their Latin appellations, of course.
Coincidentally, Marlene’s parents and Everett’s parents were all artists. Everett’s father was a sculptor specializing in statues of famous Americans, his mother a potter. Marlene’s father was a painter of nudes, Marlene’s mother a modern dancer.
Michael and Caroline and Thomas agree that Everett and Marlene could only have married each other because no one else could possibly put up with either of them. They agree about this for many reasons, but most obviously because Marlene sings constantly, not loudly or melodically, but noticeably, except when she’s sleeping or talking. She sings while driving, walking, writing, watching movies, reading, listening to other people, and during meals. And Everett hums and whistles, sometimes both simultaneously, concurrently with Marlene’s singing.
As a consequence of their incessant soundings and their loud and unexpected non sequiturs which are only funny to them, along with their mutual tendency to lecture others by asking questions they themselves never answer, to name but a few of their many idiosyncrasies, neither Everett nor Marlene has ever had a close friend, other than each other. And also as a consequence of their annoying habits, their children reflexively sought to distance themselves from their parents and seek refuge in each other and a series of valiant nannies employed by Everett and Marlene to raise the kids while they continued their obsessive studies of butterflies and beetles.
Which is not to say their children don’t love them, but to say their children don’t care to spend much time with them.
So you may imagine Michael and Caroline’s distress when Everett and Marlene announce they are coming to California for the two weeks surrounding Thanksgiving to meet their first and only grandchild Jenna, daughter of Michael and his wife Daisy, and to stay with Michael and Daisy in their new house contiguous with Ziggurat Farm on the outskirts of the northern California coastal town of Mercy.
Caroline, who is living with Michael and Daisy and Jenna while on sabbatical from the University of New Hampshire, is so worried about the impending arrival of her parents, she suggests to Michael and Daisy that they forewarn the adults of the Ziggurat Farm collective about Marlene and Everett’s eccentricities before their arrival a week hence.
And because Caroline and Michael and Daisy and baby Jenna dine with the farm collective several times a week, the meeting takes place the next night after the farm kids have gone to bed. Also present at the meeting are Delilah, twenty-five, the main homeschool teacher at Ziggurat Farm, and Nathan and Celia, an elderly couple who share their home in Mercy with Delilah and are frequent visitors to the farm.
“The good news,” says Michael, who is forty-three and somewhat less distressed than Caroline about their folks coming to visit, “is that our younger brother Thom is arriving a few days after Mommer and Popper and has agreed to take them on a couple overnight jaunts away from here to give us some relief.”
“You call your parents Mommer and Popper?” asks Andrea, boss of the farm’s vegetable and flower garden as well as manager of Ziggurat Farm Productions, publisher of Philip’s two cookbooks and a related line of Philip’s Kitchen and Ziggurat Farm T-shirts and sweatshirts featuring Delilah’s beguiling drawings, and a just-released volume of Nathan’s poems with illustrations by Delilah entitled Exactly Is A Tricky Word.
“When I was two and trying to say Mama and Papa,” Caroline explains to Andrea, “out came Mommer and Popper, and the effect on our parents was miraculous. Not only did they both stop their perpetual singing and humming, they both smiled and laughed and gave me and Michael hugs and kisses, something they rarely did, so thereafter we never called them anything else because we loved it when they stopped singing and humming and hugged us. When Thom came along ten years after me, we taught him to call them Mommer and Popper so he might reap the benefits of those inexplicably effective words.”
“Remarkable,” says Philip, who loves listening to Caroline speak. “Shall we call them Mommer and Popper?”
“No,” says Michael, slowly shaking his head. “Daisy tried a few times and Mommer angrily lectured her for several minutes each time with a cascade of questions.”
“How do you mean?” asks Nathan, who finds all this both silly and fascinating. “Can you demonstrate?”
“I will,” says Daisy, who is forty-one and adores Nathan. “Marlene said, ‘Do you think it appropriate for you to call me the pet name given to me by my children? Do you make a habit of that sort of thing? Who suggested you call me by that name? What did you call your mother? What pet name did she have for you? Would you like it if I called you by the pet name given to you by your mother?’ Etcetera.”
“I see,” says Nathan, finding the situation less silly.
“The other good news,” says Caroline, who loves being three thousand miles away from her parents instead of only a hundred and eighty-six miles, which is the distance between the University of New Hampshire where she is a professor and the University of Vermont where her parents still live, “is they are not thinking of retiring here because they both want to move somewhere warm year-round. We are hopeful of Hawaii if not Malaysia.”
“Surely you exaggerate, Caroline,” says Marcel, Andrea’s French husband and the farm’s wine maker. “You and Michael are both so charming and easy to be with. Your parents must be charming, too.”
“We were raised by wolves,” says Michael, matter-of-factly.
“Imagine a small pretty woman with silvery gray hair sitting at this table with us,” says Daisy, relieved to see seven-month-old Jenna snoozing peacefully in Celia’s arms, Jenna extra fussy of late. “And imagine while the rest of us are trying to have a conversation, this woman is singing, not quite under her breath, an endless song with unintelligible but almost intelligible lyrics. Now imagine there is also at the table a bald man humming and occasionally whistling an entirely different tune than the singing woman, his tune obnoxiously repetitive, and sometimes he hums and whistles simultaneously.”
“I didn’t know it was possible to whistle and hum at the same time,” says Marcel, giving Delilah a questioning look.
Michael demonstrates, the sound a cicada-like drone.
Philip tries to imitate Michael, so do Delilah, Marcel, Andrea, Lisa, and Nathan—all of them bursting out laughing at the strange noises they make—the outburst waking the baby who starts to cry.
“Calmate, hija,” says Celia, gently rocking the baby back to sleep.
“You’ve got the touch,” says Daisy, smiling gratefully at Celia. “Thank God.”
“Can’t you ask them to stop their humming and singing?” asks Marcel, who finds the idea of college professors behaving this way rather farfetched.
“Oh you can ask them to stop,” says Caroline, nodding knowingly. “As you might ask the wind to stop blowing. But the wind will not stop because you ask it to, nor will our parents stop singing and humming.”
“I don’t think this is going to be a problem,” says Nathan, looking at Caroline. “I think they’ll stop singing and humming after they’ve been here a few days.”
“Why would you say that?” asks Michael with a touch of anger in his voice. “You don’t know anything about them.”
“That’s true, Michael. And I didn’t mean to imply that I do. But I know you and I know Caroline and… I just have a strong feeling they’ll be changed by being here.”
“I’ll try to imagine that,” says Michael, his anger subsiding. “I really will. And if it comes to pass, I will forevermore believe in magic and that you can see into the future.”
When Everett and Marlene arrive at Ziggurat Farm on a cold November afternoon, having missed Daisy and Michael’s driveway as most people do the first time they come to visit, they are greeted at their rental car by three friendly dogs and four children on the cusp of young adulthood: Irenia, thirteen, Arturo, twelve, Henri, eleven, and Vivienne, ten, the kids extremely curious to meet the humming and singing parents of Michael and Caroline.
Everett and Marlene are delighted to meet the kids, and do, indeed, hum and sing throughout the introductions and on their way to the farmhouse.
They continue to hum and sing while meeting Marcel and Andrea and Philip and Lisa, and they keep humming and singing as they shed their raincoats and stand by the fire warming themselves—their combined noises sounding not unlike bees swarming around a hive on a warm day.
“Excuse me,” says Henri, standing before Everett, “but why are you humming?”
“Like to hum,” says Everett, winking at Henri. “She likes to sing and I like to hum.”
“While other people are talking?” asks Henri, ignoring his mother’s urgent gestures and facial expressions asking him to desist from this line of questioning.
“No one usually hears us,” says Marlene, who has a strong Boston accent. “We’re usually alone or just with each other.”
“But we are here now,” Henri persists. “We can hear you and it makes us feel like you don’t want us to talk to you.”
“Oh but we do,” says Marlene, smiling at him. “Just ignore it.”
“I’ll try,” says Henri, shrugging. “But I don’t think it will be easy.”
When Michael arrives at the farmhouse a little while later he finds Everett and Marlene sitting on the living room sofa holding hands and listening to Irenia and Arturo and Henri and Vivienne singing a four-part harmony version of The Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’, Arturo accompanying the singing on guitar. ‘Blackbird’ is one of the songs the kids will be performing at the upcoming Ziggurat Farm School Holiday Follies.
When the children finish their enthusiastic performance, Everett and Marlene jump up applauding, Everett exclaiming, “Don’t change a note. Couldn’t be better.”
And Marlene turns to Michael and shouts, “No wonder you became an ornithologist.”
Two mornings later, a light rain falling, Caroline and Marlene walk from Daisy and Michael’s house to the cottage where Andrea and Marcel and Henri live, a stone’s throw from the farmhouse, and where for this morning Lisa has commandeered the living room to give Marlene a massage.
“I’ll be at the farmhouse, Mommer,” says Caroline, handing her mother off to Lisa. “See you after.”
Marlene stops singing to say to Caroline, “See you after,” and immediately resumes her singing.
When Caroline departs, Lisa says, “Would you like me to leave the room while you undress?”
“Undress?” says Marlene, startled. “Oh I don’t think I want to do that.”
“I use body oil that will be very good for you,” says Lisa, noting the stoop in Marlene’s posture and her marked lean to her left. “If you’re not naked, I can’t use the oil. But if you’d rather keep your clothes on, I can massage you without oil, though the massage won’t be as effective.”
“You want me to take off all my clothes?” asks Marlene, who has never had a massage and never been naked in front of anyone except Everett, and even with him she only takes off her nighty when they’re under the covers.
“You’ll be under a sheet,” Lisa explains, gesturing to the massage table made up with blue flannel sheets. “I’ll leave the room while you disrobe and you call me when you’re ready. We’ll start with you face down. The face catcher is at the end of the table. I think I can alleviate some of the pain you spoke of at supper last night.”
Lisa leaves the room and Marlene considers changing her mind and not having a massage, at which moment the pain in her neck and shoulders and back that has persisted for decades expresses itself loudly, and in a little rage of frustration Marlene takes off her clothes, drapes them over the back of the sofa, gets under the sheet on the massage table, and situates herself so she is face-down in the cushioned face catcher.
“Okay,” she murmurs, speaking so quietly she doesn’t think Lisa could possibly hear her, yet Lisa returns.
Lifting the sheet off Marlene’s feet, Lisa says, “I’m going to start with your feet, Marlene. Are you ticklish?”
“Not that I know of,” says Marlene, tensing her entire body in anticipation of Lisa touching her. “I’ve never done this before. But it’s not my feet that hurt, it’s my neck and shoulders and back.”
“I understand,” says Lisa, taking Marlene’s left foot in her warm hands. “But everything is connected. As you will see.”
Two hours later, Marlene wakes from a dream of having had an amazing life-changing massage from Lisa, and for a moment she doesn’t know where she is and doesn’t realize she is lying on her back on Lisa’s massage table—the pain that has defined her life for as long as she can remember entirely gone.
“Lisa?” she says, having no idea how long she’s been asleep.
“I’m here,” says Lisa, getting up from the sofa and coming to the massage table. “Need a hand up?”
“Okay,” says Marlene, holding out her hand to Lisa. “I’m… the pain is gone. I can’t believe it.”
“Might come back,” says Lisa, helping her sit up, the sheet falling away and Marlene not caring if Lisa sees her naked. “I’ll massage you a few more times while you’re here. But now… how about a warm bath in the soaking tub with me?”
“Okay,” says Marlene, getting off the table and allowing Lisa to wrap a big towel around her and lead her to the big tub in the bathhouse adjoining the cottage.
When Lisa and Marlene enter the farmhouse for lunch, the morning session of homeschooling has just ended and the six students are eating lunch with Delilah at the dining table while Philip and Andrea and Marcel are in the kitchen preparing lunch for the grownups.
“I feel like a little girl,” whispers Marlene, taking Lisa’s hand. “A little girl who has never been anywhere or done anything.”
That night as they get ready for bed in the guest room in Michael and Daisy’s house, Everett hums and whistles as he changes out of his clothes into his pajamas.
Now something feels terribly wrong to him, so he stops humming and realizes he can’t hear Marlene singing. In a panic, he turns to where he last saw her, and there she is in her nightgown, standing at the partly open window listening to the rain.
“You okay, Mars?” he asks, wondering why she isn’t singing.
“I’m fine,” she says, her voice calmer than Everett has ever known it to be. “Just enjoying the sound of the rain.”
He joins her at the window in his T-shirt and underpants, and he doesn’t hum and she doesn’t sing, and they listen to the rain together for several minutes, the sound intoxicating.
“We both know you started humming to drown out my singing,” she says, speaking the truth that has gone unsaid for fifty-two years. “I wish I’d stopped singing long ago, but I couldn’t. Or wouldn’t. But now I want to stop and I’d like you to help me by calling my attention to it whenever I start.” She takes his hand. “Will you Ev?”
“Are you sure you didn’t start singing to drown out my humming and whistling?” he says, wanting to share some of the blame.
“I’m sure,” she says, bringing his hand to her lips and kissing his fingertips. “You never hummed until we got together, and I’ve been singing like I do, which isn’t really singing but sing-song talking, since I was a little girl. But now I’m going to stop and I hope you’ll stop with me, and we’ll see what happens.”
“Is this because of the massage?” he asks, struggling to contain his tremendous urge to start humming.
“The massage was the key that opened the box with the treasure map inside,” she says, sitting on the edge of the bed.
“The treasure map?” he says, sitting beside her. “What do you mean?”
“The treasure map to the buried treasure that was me as a frightened girl who didn’t want to hear the horrible things her parents were saying to each other and to her brother and sister, and to her. She wanted to mute those words, but then her singing became her habit and also the way she stayed separate from everyone else, which was the only way she could feel even a little bit safe, and I have no doubt I would have ended up in the loony bin if you hadn’t seen through my singing and fallen in love with me so I could fall in love with you.”
The next morning, rain intermittent, Thomas Darling, Everett and Marlene’s youngest son, arrives at Ziggurat Farm, having missed the driveway to Michael and Daisy’s house as everyone does the first time they come to visit.
Thirty-one, handsome and broad-shouldered with unruly red hair, Thomas knocks on the farmhouse door and hears four dogs barking in tones he recognizes as friendly.
The door opens and here is Arturo, thirteen, a fast-growing cutie pie with longish brown hair and olive skin wearing a red Ziggurat Farm sweatshirt and black jeans and neon blue running shoes.
“Ah,” says Arturo, offering Thomas his hand. “You must be Thom. I’m Arturo. Please come in. We’re just finishing up the morning lesson and then one of us will escort you to Michael and Daisy’s. The entrance to their driveway is invisible to the uninitiated.”
Thomas enters the large high-ceilinged room that is living room, dining room, and kitchen all in one, only the long counter that separates kitchen from dining room a permanent divider of the spaciousness. A young woman with short brown hair and four kids ranging in age from ten to fourteen are seated in a big circle around a small dais upon which a twelve-year-old boy holding an accordion and wearing a headdress made of a dozen large feathers is posing for the others to sketch him.
“The greatly-anticipated Thom has arrived,” announces Arturo, returning to his seat in the circle.
“Welcome Thom,” says Henri, the artists’ model. “Or do you prefer Thomas?”
“Thom is fine,” says Thomas, delighted by what he’s stumbled into.
“Welcome Thom,” say the other kids as they continue sketching Henri.
Now the young woman stands up and Thomas’s jaw drops—his previous notions about everything blown to smithereens.
“Hello Thom,” she says, coming to greet him. “I’m Delilah. Do you mind hanging out with us until we finish the morning session? Then someone will guide you where you want to go.”
“Don’t mind at all,” he says, shaking her hand. “Might I join your class? I love to draw.”
“Please,” she says, very much enjoying the union of their hands, as is he.