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Early Summer

June eleventh, a sunny Tuesday morning on Ziggurat Farm, two miles inland from the town of Mercy on the far north coast of California.

Henri, a fast-growing lad of twelve, his black hair recently cut short for the summer, and Joseph, a large man of seventy-one with longish gray hair, sit a few feet apart on folding aluminum lawn chairs on the western shore of a recently revived natural pond, the granite basin some fifty-feet-long and thirty-feet-wide and quite deep at the south end where the water overflows and carries on as a sparkling brook.

They are sketching the scene before them, the glassy surface of the pond beyond which arises a densely forested slope of young redwoods, firs, and hemlocks—the stream burbling westward through oaks and madrone.

Joseph is a British landscape painter and portraitist of some renown in England, his paintings reminiscent of the work of Singer Sargent, though Joseph most frequently compares himself to Pissarro. Henri has lived on Ziggurat Farm his entire life and has been drawing ever since he was four, Joseph giving him occasional instruction and constant encouragement.

“Do enlighten me as to why you chose not to audition for the play, Henri?” asks Joseph, his accent born in Devon. “You would be magnificent as Bottom and surely would have won the role.”

“Actually,” says Henri, who has a British accent, too, whenever he’s with Joseph or Constance, Joseph’s wife, “I couldn’t be in the play because one has to be at least thirteen to be in the Mercy Players Junior Company and I won’t be thirteen until August. Arturo just turned fourteen and he’s nearly the youngest person in the cast.”

Henri frowns at an errant stroke and carries on, having learned from Joseph that sketching isn’t about getting the picture just so, but about practicing sketching.

Had you been thirteen,” Joseph persists, “would you have auditioned?”

Henri muses for a moment. “Doubtful. There were extenuating circumstances.”

“Do tell,” says Joseph, bored with this view. “Shall we shift around and face west? I’m finding this scene rather prosaic. The pond will one day be a glory, but for now is but a rustic swimming pool.”

They turn their chairs around and contemplate the view to the west, a meadow of tall grasses between towering redwoods to the north, oaks and madrone to the south, the sky vast and cloud-dotted above a forest descending to the not-quite-visible ocean.

“You attended the audition with us,” says Henri, smiling at Joseph, “so you know save for Arturo and the divine Dolores Ramirez, the players were dreadful and not likely to improve much in seven weeks.”

“Seven weeks of good coaching can work wonders,” says Joseph, returning Henri’s smile. “But your point is well-taken. What else?”

“I’d much rather study drawing and painting with you and have twoextra music lessons with Delilah every week for my summer Main Study than spend six hours a day for seven weeks playing Drama games and mounting a ghastly teenaged production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Henri finds the new view more to his liking and sketches swiftly and confidently. “Also just between you and me, I needed a break from Arturo. We are so much together, our little band of friends, we needed time away from each other before school starts again in September.”

“What is your schoolmate Larry doing for the summer?” asks Joseph, sketching happily now. “Delightful fellow. Beautiful baritone. Loved the ‘I’d Do Anything’ duet he sang with Irenia at the end-of-school concert. Bravura.”

“Larry and his parents are spending three weeks in Manhattan with Larry’s mother’s parents,” says Henri, pleased with his sketch, “after which they’ll go to an island off the coast of British Columbia for a month to stay with Larry’s father’s parents. Larry didn’t want to go. He loves it here and wanted to do a Main Study in Math and Physics with Delilah, but his parents insisted he go with them, so…”

“Why didn’t Irenia audition for the play?” asks Joseph, arching a quizzical eyebrow. “She’s so talented. And I don’t just mean for one so young. I mean she is a fully realized actor and singer, not to mention being blindingly beautiful.”

A blush appears on Henri’s cheeks. “Well… she was keen to study cooking with either Raul or Philip for her Main Study, and when both of them said they’d be willing to mentor her, the play became an irrelevancy.” He stops sketching, his artistry derailed by thoughts of Irenia. “And just between you and me again, she desperately needed a break from Arturo. He’s obsessed with her. Follows her everywhere. She tolerates it, but I know she’s greatly relieved he’s otherwise engaged for the next several weeks.”

“Can’t blame him, can you?” says Joseph, shaking his head. “I’m sure I would have done the same thing at his age. She’s spectacular.” He pauses meaningfully. “Don’t you think?”

Henri clears his throat.  “I won’t disagree she’s lovely.” He takes a deep breath. “But one doesn’t want to smother one, does one?”

“No,” says Joseph, suppressing a giggle. “But one wouldn’t mind kissing her if one could and she was amenable, and one was roughly her age. Yes?”

“I suppose so,” says Henri, squinting suspiciously at Joseph. “Do you know something you’re not telling me?”

Joseph glances around as if to make sure they are not overheard. “Connie and I were coming down the trail to the pond a few afternoons ago to see how the algae was progressing, and at a crook in the trail…” He gestures behind him up the hill in the direction of their house that’s being built. “…Connie stayed me with a touch and whispered, ‘Methinks we’ve come upon young Romeo and Juliet.’ And though we quickly retraced our steps, we were fairly certain Romeo was you and Juliet was Irenia, though we could be wrong, of course, dusk being such a trickster.”

“Joseph,” says Henri, gazing earnestly at his mentor and friend. “May I ask an enormous favor of you and Connie? That you tell no one what you saw a few afternoons ago? I fear it would devastate Arturo if he knew.”

“Ah,” says Joseph, nodding in understanding. “Connie and I shall never mention it to anyone, though I’m sure we will mention it to each other on many occasions when we wish to remember that supremely sweet moment. You lucky guy, you.”

*

Meanwhile, Joseph’s wife Constance, two years Joseph’s junior, a plump pretty fantastically successful murder mystery writer, is serving tea to Daisy, forty-one, a darling yet-to-be-published writer of fiction.

They are sitting at the small dining table in the little house Joseph and Constance are renting in Mercy while they await completion of their spectacular modern home being built on land adjacent to the northeast side of Ziggurat farm.

Daisy and her husband Michael and their fifteen-month-old baby girl Jenna live in a house on three acres adjacent to the south side of the farm. Michael is an ornithologist recently relieved of his academic duties by Daisy inheriting a fortune from her mother, and Daisy is a writer recently freed from her job as a secretary by that same inheritance, Jenna their first and probably only child.

Michael is taking care of Jenna for the morning while Daisy visits Constance to learn what Constance thinks of Daisy’s novella Women Farm, which Daisy gave to Constance a week ago.

“I absolutely love watching Vivienne and Irenia lug your adorable daughter around on their soon-to-be-women’s hips,” says Constance, pouring very black tea from a large white teapot into dainty white teacups. “Makes the little darling so happy, and me, too.” She sighs in her dramatic way. “I suppose if I’d had a real live baby to play with when I was their age, I might have had children, but such was not the case.”

“I didn’t want children until just a few years ago,” says Daisy, tasting a cookie. “These are so yummy, Connie. Did you make them?”

“No, no, I commissioned Celia to make them for me. She and Nathan and Delilah are giving us breakfast every day until we move into our new house, and often supper, too, when we’re not dining at the farmhouse or at Ocelot. We are hopelessly addicted to Raul’s restaurant. Imagine him agreeing to mentor Irenia for the summer. How could he possibly have time? We were shocked when we heard.”

“Imagine having the chutzpah to ask him,” says Daisy, who finds all the Ziggurat Farm kids amazing. “She’s only fourteen.”

“Where did she get such confidence?” exclaims Constance. “Her parents are self-effacing to the point of saintliness.”

“Does Joseph cook?” asks Daisy, finding the tea incredibly strong.

“He can,” says Constance, making a dismissive face, “but prefers not to unless he absolutely has to. And I never cook, unless you consider making tea and boiling eggs cooking.” She nibbles a cookie. “What decided you to have a child?”

“An unconscious decision,” says Daisy, feeling she might cry talking about this. “When my mother died not quite three years ago I just… stopped taking precautions, though I didn’t decide to stop and wasn’t aware I had until one night after we made love I thought, ‘I think I’m ovulating’ and I hadn’t put my diaphragm in.” She smiles through her tears. “Maybe I wanted to replace my mother. I don’t know.” She shrugs. “Why didn’t you want children?”

“Well,” says Constance, who hasn’t talked about this since she was in therapy in her forties, “I made a very conscious choice not to have children when I was twenty-five, a year after I was jilted by a man I’d given my body and soul to for three years. I was sure we would marry, though unbeknownst to me he was philandering from day one, and for the entire year after his cruel betrayal I was bedridden and couldn’t even begin to recover until one day I proclaimed to my distraught mother that I would never have children. And my mother, who’d had four, said, ‘That’s fine, dear. Just so you get well.’ And then I did.” She pours more tea into Daisy’s cup. “I’ve never regretted my decision, and truth be told I never had much to do with children until we moved here and became entangled with young Delilah and then the farm kids, all of whom we adore, and I do hope you will bring Jenna to visit me frequently and sometimes leave her with me so I may pamper and spoil her without you seeing me make a googly ass of myself. Please?”

“Is tomorrow too soon?” asks Daisy, nodding hopefully.

They laugh uproariously and Constance touches Daisy’s hand and says, “Now let us speak of your novella.”

“Oh that,” says Daisy, and off they go laughing again.

“I will preface my remarks,” says Constance, gazing wide-eyed at Daisy, “by saying we are so glad, Joseph and I, that we like your book because we will soon be your neighbors and it would have been so awkward to see you all the time and have to pretend we liked your book if we didn’t. But we do.”

“Oh good,” says Daisy, blushing.

Constance gets up from the table and goes to fetch the manuscript from the coffee table in the living room, and Daisy holds her breath until Constance returns.

“To properly set the scene for my experience of reading your novella,” says Constance, settling into her chair and placing the manuscript on the table, “I will detail our morning schedule, which begins with Nathan and Celia giving us breakfast at nine, after which we visit our pups Alec and Merula who are staying with their mother next door to Nathan’s until we move into our new house. After the puppy visit, we walk to and from and along the beach at the mouth of the Mercy. Are you with me?”

“I’m with you,” says Daisy, relieved to know they like her book.

“So the day after you gave me Women Farm,” says Constance, recalling the moment vividly, “we came home after pup visiting, and with some trepidation, knowing you were destined to be our neighbor and frequently dining with us at the farmhouse etcetera, I sat down with the manuscript thinking I’d get through a few pages before we left for the beach.” She pauses momentously. “But the beach, despite the glorious day, had to wait until I finished reading your masterwork.”

Daisy gasps and her eyes fill with tears.

“Joseph came twice to get me for our walk,” says Constance, on the verge of tears herself, “and seeing I was so completely gone to your story he left me alone until I finished. Then I changed into my beach togs and we walked through town and down the stairs to the beach, and after I’d waded in the water to regain my senses, he asked, ‘Are you ever going to speak again?’ and I replied, ‘Either I’ve lost my mind or I’ve just read a work of surpassing genius.’ And that’s what I think of your novella.”

Daisy tries to speak, but words won’t come.

“When we got home from the beach,” says Constance, continuing, “Joseph sat down in the big armchair in the living room and without once getting up for drink or food or to pee, he read Women Farm from start to finish, took off his reading glasses, looked at me—I was on the sofa with my feet up waiting for him to finish so I could read it again—and said, ‘If Delilah will do some pen and ink drawings to illustrate this riveting tale, Arnold Winfield will go mad to publish it.’ And I agree, Arnold will. He only does a few books a year, but each one is a literary event. In England. A hundred and thirty-three pages of manuscript will only make a hundred pages of print, and it’s a book you’d never in a million years get published in America unless it’s a huge success elsewhere, but Arnold will want it, we’re sure.” She beams at Daisy. “Did you have an editor, dear? The word flow is breathtaking.”

“Nathan,” says Daisy, nodding.

“He’s marvelous,” says Constance, smiling brightly. “Doesn’t care for my books, but then I’m not original and he is so original.”

“I think you’re original,” says Daisy, who recently gobbled three of Constance’s murder mysteries. “I loved Lisa Has Three Suitors. Seemed highly original to me, and your dialogue is fantastic. No wonder they all get made into movies.”

“I’m clever, dear,” says Constance, enjoying the praise but not taking it seriously. “And I copy others prodigiously as all mystery writers do. And dear Joseph grooms my dialogue until it sparkles, else it would sound ridiculous. I could never write anything so grand as Women Farm. Some magnificent spirit spoke through you, didn’t she?”

“Seems so,” says Daisy, humbled by such praise.

“I assure you no spirits speak through me,” says Constance, looking out on the sunny day. “Shall we walk around town? I’d love to give you lunch at the Happy Day Café & Bakery. Won’t hold a candle to what Philip and Raul are concocting for supper at the farmhouse, but it will sustain us until then.”

*

That afternoon in the farmhouse kitchen, Philip, slender handsome husband of Lisa and father of Arturo and Vivienne, and Raul, ruggedly handsome chef of exceeding fame, both in chef’s whites, stand in the farmhouse kitchen watching Irenia, also in chef’s whites, swiftly dicing garlic.

Raul and Philip are awaiting Irenia’s assessment of the sauce they’ve concocted for a dish they are calling Prawns Raul Philip, both very pleased with their concoction.

“Of course,” says Irenia, who is Russian, tall and gorgeous and though only fourteen could easily pass for eighteen, “you are both culinary savants and know everything about cooking, yet I am certain this sauce lacks garlic, though not raw garlic, but garlic sautéed ever so briefly in olive oil, if one of you would prepare a small frying pan for me.”

Raul and Philip exchange arched eyebrows and Raul says to Philip in French, “It is her lack of pretense I find most disarming.”

“She’s fearless,” says Philip, nodding in agreement. “Frequently wrong, but unafraid to try and fail.”

“The garlic will ruin the sauce,” says Raul, grimacing. “And it’s so good now. Your touch of turmeric was a master stroke.”

“As was your dill,” says Philip, nodding.

“But I suppose we must let her try,” says Raul, wistfully.

“How else will she learn?” asks Philip, laughing. “We know telling her won’t convince her.”

“No other way,” says Raul, laughing, too. “And we have time to make it again.”

“What are you saying about me?” asks Irenia, a blush in her cheeks.

“We are saying you will learn by doing,” says Raul, setting a small frying pan on a flame and pouring in the olive oil.

*

At the end of the fabulous supper made by Philip and Raul and Irenia for twenty happy diners, Prawns Philip Raul sans garlic the star of the show, Nathan, who recently turned eighty-seven, addresses the assembly.

“I wanted to share something Celia and I discovered about your creek,” he says, extracting a stack of rolled up maps from a cardboard tube. “I’m chagrined to say I didn’t remember this six weeks ago when the excavation of the pond began, but I didn’t.”

“By the way, Nathan,” says Alma, who just turned thirteen and is studying Botany and Ecology with Caroline and Michael for her summer Main Study, “three days ago we calculated the creek has a flow rate of fifty-seven gallons per minute.”

“A very good flow, indeed,” says Nathan, smiling at Alma, “especially considering we’re in the third year of a severe drought. All of which suggests the creek was here for a very long time before it was stoppered.”

“So what did you remember?” asks Henri, who thinks of Nathan as his grandfather.

“Well,” says Nathan, nodding his thanks to Henri for keeping him on track, “a week ago Celia was making breakfast and said to me, ‘When we used to go to the farm fifty-five years ago to pick apples, didn’t we drive across a little wooden bridge on the farm drive?’ And then it all came back to me. The bridge was about twenty-feet-long and just wide enough for a truck.”

“So the creek didn’t turn south and follow the path to our house and beyond,” says Michael, excitedly. “It continued directly west.”

“That’s right,” says Nathan, unfurling ten copies of a two-foot-square map. “These are facsimiles of the map on the wall of our town museum.” He hands nine of the copies to Henri to distribute around the dining table. “They show the Mercy watershed as rendered by a surveying crew in 1856. If you look dead center on this map you’ll see your stream followed a southwesterly course from here and entered the Mercy River about a mile inland from the mouth. You see the name there where it meets the river? Mammoth Creek. Merle Redstone, the docent at the museum, said it wasn’t called Mammoth because the creek was big, but for the enormous redwoods that grew along the creek before they got cut down. He also said the first half-mile of the creek coming this way from the river was a renowned steelhead and salmon spawning area. And you can see two other creeks joined your creek along the way from here, one of them Bella’s Creek, which I know still has a little water in it most of the year and skirts Susan Oldfield’s place a half-mile down the road from you.”

“So if we were to redirect the creek across the farm drive where it originally flowed,” says Philip, sharing a copy of the map with Lisa and Vivienne, “the creek would resume its old course down to the Mercy?”

“I don’t see why not,” says Nathan, smiling at the thought of that. “Pretty much all the land from here to there is protected now and will never be logged again. Part of Egret Estuary State Park.”

“It will cost a pretty penny to dig out the creek bed across the drive and beyond, and build a sturdy new bridge,” says Joseph, sharing a map with Constance. “We’d be happy to contribute to the cause.”

“The state might fund part of it,” says Michael, avidly studying the map with his sister Caroline. “Restoration of precious wildlife habitat.”

“Another job for Gabriel,” says Henri’s father Marcel, speaking of the local backhoe magician.

“As soon as he finishes digging the hole for our septic tank and trenching the septic field,” says Constance, looking up from the map. “Did you see there’s a waterfall along our little Mammoth Creek? Indigo Falls. Why indigo we wonder? Won’t it be fun to find out?”

fin

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Constance and Joseph

This story springs from the previously posted Nathan and Del stories, and might also be entitled Nathan and Del Part Four, though Constance and Joseph may be enjoyed without resort to the first three parts of the saga.

The very British Richardsons, Joseph and Constance, have lived on the outskirts of the California coastal town of Mercy for seven months now, their house a rambling seventy-year-old redwood-and-river-rock beauty on ten acres of meadowland ringed by a vast forest of evergreens.

Joseph is fifty-nine, tall and heavyset with longish black hair gone mostly gray. Born and raised in Devon, he studied at the Royal College of Art in Battersea before embarking on a career as a painter specializing in landscapes and portraiture.

Constance is fifty-six, short and plump, her auburn hair still auburn with help from her hairdresser, most of her many pairs of glasses encrusted with rhinestones. She was born in York, grew up in Chelsea, and studied Greek Mythology and French Literature at Oxford before embarking on her career as a writer of murder mysteries, her pen name Margaret Orland.

For the ten years prior to moving to Mercy, the Richardson’s lived in a splendid villa amidst grape vines in Tuscany, and before Tuscany they lived for twelve years in a fabulous villa amidst olive trees in Provence. And before their move to Provence, they lived in a small house in Bristol.

They met on the opening night of Joseph’s show at the Crombie Gallery in Bristol when Constance was twenty-seven and Joseph was thirty. Constance happened by on her evening constitutional with her two mini-Australian Shepherds, Agathon and Hera, and was attracted by a painting she saw through the front window of the gallery, a portrait of a woman with blonde hair playing a cello in her nightgown—the woman, not the cello, wearing the nightgown.

Constance told her dogs to sit and stay, which they did, and then she went into the gallery, gazed at the painting of the cellist for several minutes, and beckoned to the gallery owner.

“I should like to buy this one,” she said, noting the price of two hundred pounds and hoping she had that much in the bank. “It will make a splendid cover for the book I’m writing.”

“And your name is…?” asked the gallery owner, Thomas Crombie, a handsome fellow with sparkling brown eyes and a subtle mustache.

“Constance Higby,” she said, curtsying to Thomas in the old-fashioned way. “I’ve walked by your gallery hundreds of times only never came in until I saw the cellist. Isn’t she fabulous?”

“Indeed,” said Thomas, his heart pounding at the prospect of a sale. “Would you like to meet the artist?”

“I would,” said Constance, looking around the room to see if she could discern which of the dozen or so people in attendance painted the intriguing portrait. “Very much.”

Thomas then wrangled Joseph away from a woman who was quite drunk on the complimentary wine and besieging Joseph with questions such as, “Why landscapes and portraits? Seems so retro, don’t you think? Abstraction’s all the rage now, isn’t it? And why oils and not acrylics? Oils take so long to dry, don’t they?”

“Joseph,” said Thomas, guiding the artist away from the drunk to Constance. “May I present Constance Higby, the author. She wants to buy Cellist.”

“Heavens,” said Joseph, beaming at Constance and finding her darling. “Truly?”

“Truly,” said Constance, offering him her hand to kiss in the old-fashioned way. “I want her for my bedroom and for the cover of the book I’m writing, assuming this is the one that finally wins me a publisher and gives me the wherewithal to move to Provence where all great mystery writers live for a time. Or so I’m told.”

“May it be so,” said Joseph, gallantly kissing her hand.

Then they looked into each other’s eyes for a short infinity and decided to get married.

*

“As it happened,” says Joseph, speaking to the man on the ladder pruning an apple tree in Joseph and Constance’s orchard adjacent to their house in Mercy, “the book Connie was writing at the time of our initial collision was the book that finally won her a publisher, though not until I read the manuscript and took copious notes and made several suggestions that so infuriated her she called off our wedding, which nearly killed our mothers, poor dears. They both had long despaired of ever seeing their more difficult progeny wed, and here, on the brink of salvation, their prize was snatched away by the vicissitudes of ego.”

“What did you suggest that made your wife so angry?” asks the man on the ladder, Nathan Grayson, a spry seventy-four and Constance and Joseph’s nearest neighbor.

“Myriad things,” says Joseph, who is bundled up in a black fur-lined parka with a fur-lined hood that makes him look like Nanook of the North—the February morning clear and very cold.

“Such as?” asks Nathan, who finds everything Joseph says amusing, not so much because of what Joseph says but how he says it with a thick Devonshire accent and seeming mildly astonished by everything he says.

“Well to begin with I said the title was way too long,” says Joseph, watching Nathan descend from the ladder. “As were many of the paragraphs. Constance is one of those writers who pours out great masses of words onto the page and then prunes those masses.” He laughs. “Speaking of pruning.”

“What was the overly long title?” asks Nathan, moving his ladder to the next apple tree, a large Fuji he is particularly fond of. “If you don’t mind my asking.”

Ode To the Moodiest of Cellists,” says Joseph, following Nathan. “Tell me. What are we to do with all these clippings from the trees?”

“We’ll lop them into kindling for you and stack them in your woodshed,” says Nathan, circumnavigating the Fuji to study the branches before ascending the ladder. “A year from now they’ll start your fires easy as pie.”

“Oh you must repeat that for Connie,” says Joseph, delighted by Nathan’s turn of phrase. “She’ll want to use it in a book, I guarantee you.”

“I may not remember,” says Nathan, who has pruned these apple trees every winter for the last thirty years. “Words tumble out, you know, unbidden and soon forgotten.”

“Oh God, that, too,” says Joseph, looking toward the house wherein he knows Constance is sipping brandy and listening to Nathan’s granddaughter Delilah play their Steinway. “She carries a little notebook to capture those sorts of lines.”

“So…” says Nathan, climbing to the fourth rung and beginning his pruning. “Eventually she forgave you.”

“Eventually, yes,” says Joseph, thinking he’d like to paint a picture of the orchard in winter with Nathan on his ladder pruning. “But first she raged at me for a few days, and then she toiled from morning to night for several weeks doing everything I suggested, and then she had me critique the new draft and the final draft, and then she sent the manuscript to her agent. And then we waited seven agonizing months until the book sold, after which the wedding was back on, and our mothers were cautiously delirious.”

“What else had you suggested?” asks Nathan, moving the ladder again. “Besides shortening the title and the paragraphs?”

“Oh her dialogue was a bit on the nose,” says Joseph, sighing because her dialogue still so often is. “Unlike actual dialogue, which is more roundabout, if you know what I mean.”

“I do,” says Nathan, deciding to lop a large branch he’s spared for the last three years. “I suppose the trick is making dialogue sound natural without sounding idiotic.”

“Precisely,” says Joseph, turning at the sound of Delilah and three dogs emerging from the house. “And she also had the habit of giving every character a thorough back story, and I mean every character, including the most insignificant, which tangle of back stories strangled the plot.”

“So you were the editor she’d always needed,” says Nathan, coming down from the ladder.

“Still am,” says Joseph, proud of his role in his wife’s success.

The two magnificent Siberian Huskies, one white, one silver, and a small brown floppy-eared mutt, race around the orchard, sniffing and pissing.

“Freezing out here,” says Delilah, fourteen and outrageously cute, her brown hair in two long braids crowned by a burgundy beret. “Deliciously toasty in the house and I just love playing your grand piano. Such magnificent bass notes and I sound eons better on your piano than on mine, though mine is a fine piano as uprights go.”

“Work will warm you,” says Nathan, moving the ladder again. “Want to have a go at finishing this Fuji while I gather the cuttings?”

“Love to,” says Del, taking the loppers from him and ascending the ladder. “Only don’t go too faraway should I need to consult you.”

“I would love to paint you on that ladder in that tree,” says Joseph, flummoxed by Delilah’s beauty. “Perhaps on a warmer day in the spring.”

“The tree will have leafed out by then,” says Delilah, stymied by the puzzle of the branches. “Won’t be so starkly dramatic.” She looks down at Nathan. “I’m baffled, Nate. Help me.”

“Give it a minute,” he says, looking up at her. “Gaze at the field of branches until the ones that need to go present themselves.”

“There,” says Joseph, pointing at Nathan. “Connie would die for a line like that.”

*

A few evenings after Nathan and Delilah prune the Richardson’s apple trees, and for the first time since they arrived in Mercy, Constance and Joseph have supper with Delilah and Nathan and Nathan’s wife Celia.

They dine at Nathan and Celia’s house a two-minute walk from their much larger house, the meal co-created by Delilah and Celia—petrale sole cooked in white wine and olive oil and lemon juice and minced garlic, baked potatoes, and green beans à la provençal.

“We’re curious to know why you chose Mercy,” says Celia, a beautiful Latina, sixty-eight, with black hair laced with strands of white. “Must be so much colder here than in Tuscany.”

Dogs is part of the answer,” says Constance, squinting at her plate as if disbelieving what she’s eating. “This is the best fish I’ve ever had, and I’ve had some very good fish. Joseph may remember its equal, but I cannot unless he reminds me.”

“In Paris a time or two perhaps,” says Joseph, frowning at his fish. “I speak for both of us when I say we never expected to eat such superb food here in these American hinterlands. Where on earth did you learn to cook, Celia? This sole is worthy of multiple Michelin stars.”

“From my mother and grandmother,” she says, pleased by their praise. “And the fish is very fresh. We bought it off the boat this afternoon.”

“Plus we’ve been pillaging Larousse Gastronomique for tips on sauces,” says Delilah, who can’t help imitating Constance and Joseph’s accents.

Constance and Joseph exchange meaningful looks and Constance says, “We’d like to explain why we’ve been so standoffish and apologize for that, and not merely because we hope to be invited to supper again, though we will hope for that, I assure you.”

“We assumed you were getting settled and enjoying your privacy,” says Nathan, smiling warmly at Constance. “These hills are full of people who want to be left alone.”

“Well that’s a relief,” says Constance, smiling brightly. “Because we really do like you and we’re so glad to have you as our neighbors. And not just because Delilah plays the piano like a young Mendelssohn and you prune our trees and your wife is a magus in the kitchen.”

“So why were you so standoffish?” asks Delilah, loving how it feels to speak with a British accent. “And what do dogs have to do with your moving here?”

Constance sighs and looks to Joseph. “Would you mind, dear?”

“Not at all,” he says, clearing his throat. “Prior to our coming here, you may not have heard of the novelist Constance Richardson, but it is highly unlikely you haven’t heard of…” He pauses momentously. “Margaret Orland.”

Nathan and Delilah and Celia exchange glances and Celia says, “I don’t think we know her.”

“Can you give us a hint?” asks Delilah, hopefully.

“Murder mysteries?” says Joseph, arching an eyebrow.

“The only murder mysteries I’m familiar with are ones by Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammet, and Agatha Christie,” says Nathan, frowning thoughtfully. “Never really took to the genre.”

“Are you Margaret Orland?” asks Delilah in her straightforward way.

“I am,” says Constance, brightening. “Have you heard of me?”

“No, but I’ll bet my mother has,” says Delilah, nodding enthusiastically. “She loves murder mysteries.”

“Where is your mother, Delilah?” asks Constance, giving Joseph a look to say I don’t think they know who I am.

“She’s in New York at the moment,” says Delilah, growing somber as she thinks of her famous movie star mother. “Soon to leave for Tokyo.”

“A traveler, is she?” says Joseph, wishing someone would offer him more wine.

“More wine, Joseph?” says Celia, nodding encouragingly.

“Love some,” he says, laughing. “Delicious. I must get the vintage details from you. Fabulous. Sprightly. Hint of pear. Room to grow, yet for such a young white already speaking of future greatness. Goes so well with the sole.”

“Is your mother by any chance a stewardess?” guesses Constance, who enjoys sleuthing in real life, too. “Specializing in long distance flights?”

“No,” says Delilah, shaking her head. “She travels on business. But lets get back to why dogs is part of why you moved to Mercy.”

“Ah yes,” says Constance, smiling her thanks as Celia refills her wine glass. “Good to keep me on point, Delilah. I do tend to wander. But I won’t leave tonight until you tell us how you got to be such a superb pianist.”

“I practice two hours a day,” says Delilah, glancing at Nathan and Celia. “Most days.”

“Let’s see,” says Nathan, assuming a thoughtful pose. “Your Siberian Huskies were mere pups when you arrived. What may we deduce from this?”

“Huskies like the cold,” says Celia, pouring herself a bit more wine. “I don’t think Tuscany is cold.”

“Nor is Provence,” says Delilah, raising a finger to denote Aha. “Where they lived before Tuscany. Methinks you’re on to something, Watson.” She turns to Constance. “Is she?”

“In a way, yes,” says Constance, frowning. “But before I tell you more about the dogs…” She hesitates. “Have we conclusively determined that you’ve never heard of Margaret Orland?”

“I think we have,” says Nathan, nodding. “Determined that.”

“Are you very famous?” asks Celia, innocently.

“I thought I was,” says Constance, looking askance. “But maybe I’m not anymore. At least not around here.”

“Oh I doubt that,” says Nathan, shaking his head. “Our town library has several thousand volumes, and virtually all of them are murder mysteries, so I would wager you have many fans hereabouts, many being a relative term since there are only a few thousand people in the greater Mercy watershed and many of them don’t read.”

“The BBC has dramatized several of her books,” says Joseph, clearing his throat authoritatively. “Ubiquitous on the telly.”

“We don’t have a television,” says Delilah, delighted by the fact. “When I first came to live with Nate and Celia, I searched the whole house twice but couldn’t find one. And then I ran into the kitchen…” She looks at Celia. “Remember?”

“Yes,” says Celia, gazing fondly at Delilah. “You said, ‘Where’s the television?’ and when I said we didn’t have one, you hugged yourself and said, ‘Heaven.’”

“So the dogs,” says Nathan, looking into the living room where Tennyson the floppy-eared mutt and the two big Huskies, Odysseus and Io, are sprawled by the fire. “You choose the breed to go with where you choose to live?”

“Other way round,” says Constance, happily tipsy. “I fall in love with a breed and then we consider where they—because we always get two—would be happy to live and where we would be happy living, too.”

“And you get the new dogs after the old dogs die,” says Delilah, her eyes filling with tears. “I don’t ever want Tennyson to die. He’s my best friend.”

“I know, dear,” says Constance, touching Delilah’s hand. “It’s the hardest thing about having dogs, but it’s worth it. And the more dogs you have, the more you’ll be convinced, as we are, they sometimes reincarnate in your new dogs so they can go on living with you, and you with them.”

“The fact is,” says Joseph, finishing his fifth glass of wine and giving Celia a hopeful glance to ask for more, “though you may not have heard of Margaret Orland, tens of millions have, and thus our home in Tuscany, as with our home in Provence, were irresistible to her worshipers, if I may use that word, and we became, in essence, prisoners of her fame.”

“And when Paris and Helen, our Bazenjis, the dogs we had in Tuscany, were very old, we fell in love with Siberian Huskies,” says Constance, gazing into the living room at Odysseus and Io. “We were cruising the fjords of Norway when we met the most darling Siberian Husky and her obscenely cute pups in the town of Bodo where the fish was excellent, though not remotely as good as yours. And then when our friend Porter Ainsworth regaled us with tales of how gorgeous it was here, the rugged coast, the redwood forests etcetera, remote yet not too remote, we made inquiries, and here we are.” She eats the last of her sole. “Do you know Porter?”

“The name doesn’t ring a bell,” says Nathan, looking at Celia.

“I don’t think he ever lived here,” says Celia, getting up to start the water for tea. “But lots of people vacation here.”

“Photographer,” says Joseph, more than a little drunk. “Dresses like an Australian bushwhacker, though he’s entirely Canadian. Claims to be the protégé of Ansel Adams, but we have our doubts. Dates and locations don’t line up. Inherited a fortune. Copper, I think it was. Or sugar. Blighter’s been in love with Connie for decades.”

“Not true,” says Constance, blushing in delight. “Porter’s just a dear friend. We’re hopeful he’ll visit this summer.”

“Of course he’s in love with you,” says Joseph, gazing at his wife and seeing her as she was thirty years ago in the Crombie Gallery in Bristol, buying his painting that would become the cover of her first great success, the murder mystery Cello. “Who wouldn’t be?”

Sevensong by Marcia Sloane