Michael Darling is forty-two, strong and wiry with longish brown hair, an ornithologist recently freed from academia by his wife Daisy inheriting a fortune from her mother. He is now in the throes of adjusting to a reality void of office hours, faculty meetings, and giving lectures to hundreds of students looking at their phones instead of listening to him, while also adjusting to the enormous differences between the climate and topography of the northern California coast, where he and Daisy are now, and southern Michigan where they lived for the last seventeen years.
Daisy is thirty-nine, curvaceous and pretty with short reddish brown hair, an aspiring novelist with a degree in Psychology. Four months pregnant—her first pregnancy—she and Michael have been married for fifteen years. As the only child of a single mother who worked in a Ford assembly plant in Dearborn, Michigan for thirty years, Daisy expected to inherit her mother’s little house in Dearborn but had no idea that when laid off by Ford at the age of fifty-seven, her mother took up day trading stocks and in the five years before she died amassed a fortune of seven million dollars.
Michael and Daisy have been in Mercy for twelve days now. They came here to fulfill Daisy’s dream of eating at Ocelot, the restaurant created by the famous chef Raul Neves who Daisy has idolized for the last seven years, ever since she read his erotic culinary memoir I Made This For You. Neither Michael nor Daisy expected to be so profoundly captivated by the little town and the surrounding wilderness, but now they want to live here for the rest of their lives. So far they’ve looked at seven houses in or near Mercy, made offers on two, and were outbid both times.
“How nice of him to invite us to his farm,” says Daisy, speaking of Philip who waited on them two nights ago at Ocelot. “I wonder what his story is.”
“We’ll soon find out,” says Michael, piloting their shiny new car up the curving road through the redwood forest, the October afternoon cool and sunny. “We’re exactly two miles inland from Mercy so we should see the sign for the farm any minute now.”
Where the curving road becomes a straightaway, a small wooden sign appears on their right—carved letters painted black saying Ziggurat Farm.
“Oh my God,” says Daisy as they turn off the highway onto the drive leading to the farmhouse. “This is paradise.”
They park near the huge old redwood barn and four dogs come to greet them: two Golden Retrievers, a giant hound, and a little mutt, each wagging his or her tail in greeting and none of them barking.
As the dogs mill around Daisy and Michael, an entirely different-seeming Philip than the Philip who waited on them at Ocelot emerges from the farmhouse with his wife Lisa.
Philip is fifty-nine, slender with short black hair, and Daisy thinks he’s gorgeous. Lisa is fifty-two, her long black hair in a ponytail, her skin dark olive brown, and Michael thinks she’s one of the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen.
After hellos and introductions, Philip and Lisa give Michael and Daisy a tour of the barn wherein seventy big barrels of grape juice are fermenting into wine and cases of Ziggurat Farm wine rest in the cool recesses.
From the barn they cross a wide expanse of level ground where the farm kids play soccer and Frisbee and croquet, and Michael and Daisy ooh and ah about the elegant bathhouse made of redwood and river rock and timber bamboo that adjoins the recently vacated five-room cottage.
From the bathhouse they walk on a path lined with lilac trees and rose bushes and lavender to the one-acre deer-fenced vegetable and flower garden wherein Andrea, muscular and pretty with short black hair, is preparing beds for garlic.
And who should be standing in the very center of the garden, but Raul Neves and his assistant Maurice, both of them picking vegetables for Ocelot—the last of the garden’s summer produce.
“Oh my God,” whispers Daisy, clutching Michael’s arm. “Raul. It’s Raul. I can’t believe this.”
“A woman whispered my name,” says Raul, fifty-five, big and handsome and Portuguese with a mop of curly gray hair, his black Ocelot sweatshirt surmounting faded blue jeans.
Maurice, also big and middle-aged, says in French, “When usually they shout.”
“Raul and Maurice,” says Philip, leading Daisy and Michael to the zucchini patch where Maurice and Raul are harvesting the last zucchini, the big leaves of the exhausted plants turning yellow. “May I introduce Daisy and Michael. They dined at Ocelot two nights ago and were not displeased.”
“Oh we loved it,” effuses Daisy, blushing brightly. “I had the quail stuffed with truffles. It was beyond amazing. You’re just… amazing.”
“And you, Monsieur?” asks Raul, smiling at Michael. “What did you have?”
“The cod,” says Michael, blushing, too. “Also amazing.”
“We aim to amaze,” says Raul, moving from the zucchini to a verdant bed of chard and calling to Andrea. “Maestra. Can we take chard from this bed? The leaves are fantastic.”
Andrea looks up from her digging. “The bigger leaves, yes.”
“I would love to visit with you longer,” says Raul, bowing to Daisy, “but we have much to pick and little time. Oh Philip, have you any of your 2020 Pinot left to sell?”
“Andrea?” says Philip, calling to her. “Can we spare a case of the 2020 pinot for Raul?”
“We only have three cases left,” she says, laughing. “So of course they’re priceless.”
“Two thousand for a case?” says Raul, looking expectantly at Andrea.
“But only for you, Raul,” she says, trying not to show how excited she is by the fantastic price.
“We’ll take all three,” says Raul, bending down to cut leaves of chard.
After a tour of the garden, Lisa and Philip lead their star-struck guests to the farmhouse and serve them tea and muffins on the south deck and ask them about their lives—Michael eloquent about his research on owls, Daisy effusive about the novel she just finished writing, and both of them quite emotional about the enormous changes in their lives since the death of Daisy’s mother and inheriting what for them is an enormous fortune.
Now Raul and Maurice honk their horn seven times as they depart, and moments later Marcel, a handsome Frenchman, Andrea’s husband, arrives with Arturo, eleven, Henri, ten, and Vivienne nearly nine, the kids overjoyed it’s Friday and no more school until Monday.
Andrea comes in from the garden to join the conversation, and while the kids are finishing their after-school snacks, Marcel says to Michael and Daisy, “So… Philip tells me you are looking for a place to buy in Mercy.”
“This place will do,” says Michael, laughing. “If only.”
“It is a very good location,” says Marcel, smiling at Michael. “But this one is not for sale.”
“No, of course not,” says Daisy, in love with the children and the grownups and the house and the land and the dogs and cats. “But if you know anyone who wants to sell anything even remotely like this, please let us know.”
“Do you have any kids?” asks Henri, gazing earnestly at Daisy.
“Not yet,” she says, returning his ardent gaze, “but I’m going to have a baby soon. My due date is March 13th.”
“Do you have a nice dog?” asks Vivienne, speaking to Michael. “Or dogs?”
“No, but we’re going to get one once we get settled,” says Michael, smiling at Vivienne. “And we’ll be very nice to him or her, so she’ll probably turn out okay. Don’t you think?”
“Golden Retrievers are inherently nice,” says Vivienne, a fierce advocate of the breed. “I cannot recommend them highly enough.”
“What do you do, Michael?” asks Arturo, pursing his lips in his thoughtful way. “For a living?”
“I’m an ornithologist,” says Michael, nodding. “Do you know what that is?”
“Of course we do,” says Arturo, frowning in dismay. “You’re a bird scientist.”
“You study ornithols,” says Henri, laughing.
“No, he doesn’t,” says Vivienne, giggling. “He studies birds.”
“Specifically owls and he hopes to be studying ospreys,” says Philip, giving Marcel a meaningful look.
“What about you?” says Henri, addressing Daisy. “What do you do?”
“Well I plan to be a full-time mother for a couple years,” she says seriously. “But then I’ll go back to writing novels and short stories.”
“We love novels and short stories,” says Arturo, nodding emphatically. “We’re avid readers and we write with Nathan after school two times a week. Nathan is a poet and has a blog.”
“We also write when we’re not with Nathan,” says Vivienne, wanting Daisy and Michael to know they don’t just write with Nathan. “Mostly book reports for school, but also poems and stories and song lyrics.”
“Would you like to see our house,” says Henri, looking from Daisy to Michael. “It’s on the other side of the property.”
“We’d love to,” says Michael, suspecting he’s dreaming and any minute will wake up in Michigan.
“Come on we’ll show you,” says Vivienne, going to the door and putting on her shoes. “It’s only a five-minute walk.”
So the seven farm people and their four dogs walk with Michael and Daisy on the wide path connecting the two houses on the eight-acre parcel, and Michael notes the young trees growing on the terraced hillside.
“This has all been recently reforested,” he says, knowing a great deal about forests. “Did you do that?”
“Yes,” says Philip, admiring the thriving young conifers. “When we bought this property twelve years ago, there was a dying vineyard here and we tried to revive it until we finally accepted that grapes won’t grow here.”
“We came here because of the vineyard,” says Marcel, recalling the thousands of hours they spent on their failed experiment, “and we were very stubborn about trying to save the vineyard despite nature telling us No in her loudest voice.”
“The people who lived here before us used to drive trucks on this path,” says Arturo, walking beside Michael, “but now it’s just for walking.”
“We do sometimes ride our bikes here, too” says Vivienne, who is walking next to Daisy. “But mostly we just walk on it. Or run.”
“It’s not quite level,” says Henri, who is in the lead. “And you’ll find it goes slightly downhill in this direction and slightly uphill on the way back to the farmhouse.”
Andrea laughs. “Just as you would expect.”
“There seem to be more little birds on this side of the property,” says Lisa, holding Philip’s hand. “We think that’s because the cats spend most of their time around the barn where they catch mice, and in the garden and orchard where they hunt gophers, but they also occasionally take birds, unfortunately.”
“Yeah, cats love birds,” says Michael, nodding. “But we’ll have a cat or two anyway. We couldn’t have a dog in Ann Arbor because our landlord forbade it, but we always had a cat because… well, we love cats.”
“Our last cat died a year ago,” says Daisy, awestruck by the surrounding beauty. “Her name was Spunky, though she hadn’t been spunky for quite some time.”
“Spunky is a very good word,” says Henri, nodding thoughtfully. “It’s not quite onomatopoeia, but almost.”
“You have a marvelous vocabulary, Henri,” says Daisy, smiling at him.
“Thank you,” he says, bowing to her as his father bows to those he waits on. “So does Arturo, and so does Vivienne.”
“So do our parents,” says Vivienne, running ahead to the house so she’ll be the first one there.
Standing on the deck on the south side of the large three-bedroom house where Marcel and Andrea and Henri have lived for twelve years, the forest descending gradually to the west—the horizon a slender strip of shining blue sea—Michael and Lisa turn away from the breathtaking view and find the four adults and three children and four dogs perusing them with great interest.
“Stunning,” says Daisy, beaming at them. “Just stunning. We’d love to find a place like this. We made offers on a house in town with a little yard, and we offered on a falling-down house on an acre just north of town, but we were outbid both times.”
“How much did you bid for the falling-down place with an acre, if I may ask?” says Marcel, smiling warmly at Daisy. “We’re very curious to know what this place might be worth now.”
“We bid 1.2 million on the one with an acre, but this house would go for at least 1.8,” says Michael, with great surety. “Three acres and a gorgeous three-bedroom house? Here? With neighbors like you? In a market this hot? Probably more like 2. But I don’t know. I’m just guessing.”
“Hold that thought,” says Marcel, dashing into the house and returning with binoculars. “There is a snag, the dead top of an old redwood.” He brings the binoculars to his eyes and scans the forest to the west. “Yes. There.” He hands the binoculars to Michael and points. “You see? It is much taller than the other trees around it.”
“Oh, yes,” says Michael, falling silent. “Is that… oh my God, that’s an osprey nest. It’s huge.”
“These woods are full of magic,” says Marcel, stating the simple fact. “And all this forest you see to the west is a state park and will never be built on.”
“Would you like to buy this house?” asks Henri, looking at Daisy. “We’ve decided to sell it because we’re going to live in the cottage near the farmhouse.”
“This house is for sale?” says Michael, giving Daisy a wild-eyed look.
“And the three acres,” says Andrea, her eyes full of tears.
“How much are you asking?” Daisy asks, holding her breath.
Andrea looks at Marcel, Marcel looks at Philip, Philip looks at Lisa, and Lisa looks at Andrea.
“For you,” says Andrea, trembling. “1.8.”
Over the next few weeks, Marcel and Andrea and Henri relocate to the cottage, and by Thanksgiving Michael and Daisy are living in their new home and about to walk to the farmhouse for the Thanksgiving feast.
Daisy tries on three different dresses, growls in frustration, goes in search of her phone, and finds it on the kitchen counter. She taps the number for the farmhouse and bursts into tears.
“Hi Daisy,” says Lisa, answering on the second ring. “Are you coming soon?”
“Yes, but… are you wearing a dress for the party?” she asks, sniffling back her tears.
“I am,” says Lisa, warmly. “So are Andrea and Vivienne. Delilah almost never wears dresses, but she might. Celia will wear a beautiful blouse and maybe a skirt, maybe pants, and Celia’s daughter Calypso and Juan’s wife Camille will definitely wear dresses. But you should wear whatever you feel most comfortable in.”
“Thank you, Lisa,” says Daisy, greatly relieved. “I’m just… highly neurotic these days. I’m not usually like this, so I assume it has something to do with being pregnant and still in shock about actually being here.”
“Come over soon,” says Lisa, watching the children gobbling the hors d’oeuvres. “Philip and Andrea just set out the stuffed mushrooms and the kids are making short work of them.”
Daisy puts on her turquoise paisley dress and her big round abalone earrings, and goes in search of Michael. She finds him on the deck looking fine in black corduroy slacks and a teal dress shirt and his black winter coat, his telescope aimed at the osprey nest atop the redwood snag.
“We can go over any time,” she says, still learning how softly she can speak and be heard in the marvelous quiet.
“You called them?”
“Yeah I wanted to know if I should wear a dress.” She shrugs. “I’m hopeless.”
“But sweeter than honey,” he says, kissing her.
“In the spring we’ll have a baby,” she says, relaxing in his arms.
“And the ospreys will return from their sojourn to the south.”
“In the meantime…” She looks around in wonder. “…here we are.”
“And to think I didn’t want to go to Ocelot,” he says, looking to the west where the ocean meets the illimitable sky. “Because I thought it was immoral to spend so much money on supper.”
“Which just shows to go you,” says Daisy, speaking her mother’s favorite rearrangement of the old expression, her dear mother who left them a fortune to fulfill their dreams.
In the last light of day, halfway along the path to the farmhouse, Daisy and Michael meet Marcel with the big hound Jung at his side.
“Andrea saw a puma at dusk yesterday,” says Marcel, turning to walk with them the rest of the way, “so she asked me to come escort you.”
“Thank you,” says Michael, putting his hand on Marcel’s shoulder. “I guess we should get a dog sooner than later.”
“We got our pups about the same time the kids were born,” says Marcel, who is very glad to only be waiting tables at Ocelot three nights a week now instead of five. “So they all grew up together and think of each other as kin.”