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?”