In the early morning of December twentieth in their little house on the outskirts of the northern California coastal town of Mercy, the resident trio of Delilah, Nathan, and Celia sit at the dining table listening to heavy rain drumming on the roof, Nathan having green tea, Celia and Delilah coffee.
Nathan is eighty-eight and feeling chipper this morning after a good night’s sleep. Dressed in old brown corduroy trousers and a black long-sleeved T-shirt, his hair snow white, he’s thinking of taking the mutts Chico and Gypsy for a walk once the rain lets up, which he guesses will be in the early afternoon. After fifty-eight years of living in Mercy, Nathan’s guesses about the weather are rarely wrong.
Celia is Nathan’s wife. She is eighty-two and was a nurse for forty-five years until she retired simultaneously with Delilah coming to live with them fifteen years ago. She is still in her nightgown and bathrobe, her long black hair full of gray, her winter days filled with cooking and reading and spending time with Nathan and Delilah and their friends, her hopes of late pinned on Delilah marrying Gabriel Fernandez, a charming fellow and good friend of their family.
Delilah is twenty-eight and the only child of movie star Margot Cunningham who died eight years ago. Unmistakably the daughter of her famously beautiful mother, Delilah is also still in her nightgown and bathrobe, her brown hair longer than it has been in several years, though only a boyish bob. This morning, after a lifetime of wondering, she is both excited and fearful about the possibility of finally discovering who her father is.
Last night Delilah and Nathan and Celia went with Gabriel to a party at the home of the very British Constance and Joseph Richardson next door to Ziggurat Farm where Delilah is the main home school teacher and Nathan and Celia are the honorary farm elders. Gabriel and Delilah are not yet lovers, though they are wildly attracted to each other and love spending time together.
At the party, Raul Neves, chef and owner of Ocelot, a renowned restaurant in Mercy, and his wife Caroline, Delilah’s close friend and the manager of Ocelot, gave a slide show of their recent honeymoon in England and Portugal. One of the slides was of Raul’s deceased mother Beatrice. In the photo, which was taken when Beatrice was thirty-five, her resemblance to Delilah is exact down to the finest details.
And because Delilah knows Raul met her mother Margot on a few occasions twenty-nine years ago, now that she’s seen this photo of Beatrice she is convinced Raul is her father.
“Fortunately,” says Nathan, going to put a log on the fire, “Raul is a wonderful person and you like him and he likes you. Much better than discovering your father is some obnoxious lout you can’t stand.”
“You would think so,” says Delilah, groggy from lack of sleep because her mind won’t stop gnawing on the possibility of Raul being her father, “except how will Caroline feel if I ask Raul to have a DNA test to see if he’s my father? They just got married and she’s pregnant with his child. She might be devastated.”
“Caroline loves you,” says Celia, getting up to make more coffee. “She’ll want to know the truth as much as you. So will Raul. They’re both strong people. Don’t worry.”
“Life is far more mysterious and fantastic than we could ever imagine,” says Nathan, gazing into the flames. “Raul and Caroline must have noticed how much you resemble his mother and done the math. They’re probably wondering the same thing. And if he’s not your father, oh well.”
“So do I just call him up and say, ‘Hi Raul. Delilah here. Shall we go have a DNA test and see if you’re my father?’”
“Would you like me to call him?” asks Nathan, returning to the table. “I’d be happy to.”
“Would you?” says Delilah, feeling childish and overwhelmed.
“Of course,” says Nathan, going to the phone. “Why else did I reincarnate?”
A half-hour later, Raul and Caroline arrive with a day-old pumpkin pie.
Fresh coffee is made.
After everyone expresses joy over the much-needed rain and the deliciousness of Raul’s pie, Caroline, tall and lovely and married and pregnant for the first time in her life, cuts to the chase.
“The first thing I said when I saw that picture of Beatrice was how much she looked like Delilah. And Raul…” She turns to her husband. “You tell.”
“When I first looked at that old photo,” says Raul, ruggedly handsome, his hair a tangle of gray, “I couldn’t see what Caroline was seeing. The photo is very small and the images I have in my mind of my mother are from much later in her life, so it never occurred to me she looked like Delilah. But when I saw the picture projected on the big screen, it was obvious.”
“So…” says Delilah, feeling incredibly shy around Raul, “will you… would you… can we have a DNA test and see?”
“If you’d like,” he says, smiling warmly at her. “But I know you’re my daughter. And it makes me happy in a way I never knew I could be happy.”
Twenty minutes later, Raul and Delilah are sitting side-by-side in the otherwise empty waiting room of the Mercy Hospital lab, Delilah feeling six-years-old, Raul feeling pleasantly ancient.
“Did my mother seduce you?” asks Delilah, innocently. “Or did you seduce her?”
Raul ponders the question and says, “When we’re done giving our blood, I’ll tell you what I remember. But not here.”
“Raul Neves?” says a young woman in blue scrubs calling from the lab entrance. “Ready for you now.”
“Can we come in together?” asks Raul, smiling at the young woman. “We’re finding out if I’m her father.”
“Oh,” says the young woman, pleased by Raul’s frankness. “Sure.”
Driving back to Nathan and Celia’s house from the lab, they stop at a vista point to watch the parade of storm-driven waves rolling into Mercy Bay.
“Your mother summoned me to her hotel room,” says Raul, striving to remember his tryst with Margot. “It was the night of the last time she came to my restaurant. Each of those times, there were three or four, I came out of the kitchen and spoke to her at her table, something I don’t often do, but your mother was a big star and so very beautiful and I was thirty and full of myself and had a faint hope of adding her to my trophy list. You do resemble her, you know, though not as much as you resemble my mother when she was your age.”
“Did you like my mother?” asks Delilah, who found Margot emotionally impenetrable.
“I was hypnotized by her,” he says simply. “But I didn’t know her. She was fantastically alluring, but not warm, not effusive. In our chit-chat at her table we discovered we were both thirty, so maybe that was a bond.”
“So you went to her hotel room. More than once?”
“Just one time,” he says, closing his eyes to remember.
“You don’t have to tell me more if you don’t want to,” she says softly.
“I don’t mind,” he says, opening his eyes and smiling at her. “I understand why you want to know. I would like to know how it was when my father and mother made me. And now that I have opened this page of my memory I remember when your mother opened the door of her suite I was pleased to see she had changed out of her fancy clothes and was wearing a sleeveless black top with spaghetti straps showing off her beautiful shoulders and arms, and a short red skirt showing off her beautiful legs, and her hair was down and she was barefoot, her toenails painted red, and she was impossibly beautiful. We sat together on the sofa and she drank hard liquor and I had wine. I don’t recall what we talked about. My restaurant, I suppose, or the movie she was making. I don’t remember, but I know we spoke for quite some time and she had a beautiful deep voice, as deep as Caroline’s. Then she told me…” He hesitates. “I don’t know if I should tell you this. I’m only just now remembering what happened.”
“You don’t have to,” says Delilah, though she wants him to.
“No, I’ll tell you. Maybe it will help you understand her. I don’t know.”
“Whatever you want,” says Delilah, closing her eyes.
“She told me she wanted me to pursue her and she would try to elude me. She said when I caught her she would fight to get away, even though she wanted me. I remember she said, ‘I hit hard. So be ready.’”
Now he remembers everything.
“She said, ‘I want you to overwhelm me until I have no choice but to surrender.’ I said, ‘But this is not my way. I would never force a woman to have sex with me.’ And she said, ‘Then you should go.’ So I said, ‘Okay.’ But then I looked at her and saw how sad she was, so lonely, and I said, ‘Or maybe you will let me be gentle with you, and also strong. Maybe you will like that, too.’ She looked away and said, ‘No. Gentle doesn’t work for me. Just go.’ So I got up and bowed to her like a monk bowing low to a statue of his god. I don’t why I did that, but I remember it felt good to bow to her like that. And then I told her it was a pleasure meeting her, which in a strange way it was, and then I walked to the door and she came running after me and wrapped her arms around me and we kissed, and then she took me to her bed.”
Early the next morning, a Thursday, Raul and Caroline lie abed talking about the myriad things they need to do today before they open Ocelot at five this afternoon.
“I wish Andrew was not so dour,” says Raul, speaking of the new cook in the kitchen. “I keep thinking he’ll lighten up as he gets more familiar with everything, but he remains so deadly serious, and deadly seriousness does not work well in my kitchen.”
“Shall I resume the hunt for another cook?” asks Caroline, wishing they didn’t have to get up just yet, the day cold and dreary.
“I suppose so,” says Raul, tired of breaking in new employees, life in the hinterlands a difficult fit for many professional cooks accustomed to city living. “And I’ll speak to Andrew. I keep waiting for him to relax, but maybe he needs a little prompting.”
“I hate to say this, but I think he’s intimidated by Maurice,” says Caroline, speaking of Raul’s longtime sous chef and assistant.
Raul sighs. “Maybe so. Maurice has become a mean old man, and that won’t work in my kitchen either.”
“I can’t imagine your kitchen without Maurice,” says Caroline, who has never been intimidated by Maurice because no one intimidates her. “Can you?”
“I can,” says Raul, getting out of bed. “Whenever he goes away for a vacation now the kitchen is much happier. But what can I do? He’s been with me for twenty years.”
“Yes, but if he’s the problem…”
“He’ll have to change or go,” says Raul, putting on his bathrobe. “I’m making breakfast. Stay in bed my darling. I’ll call when the coffee is ready.”
“I don’t want to be apart from you,” she says, getting out of bed and embracing him. “I’ll come with you.”
“Before we found each other,” he says, looking into her eyes, “I couldn’t imagine letting Maurice go, but now I can because I have you and our baby and Delilah and all our friends I never had before.”
Seven days later, the twenty-eighth of December, Delilah and Celia and Nathan give lunch to Constance and Joseph Richardson and Daisy and Michael Darling and their almost-two-year-old daughter Jenna. Michael is Caroline’s older brother, an ornithologist, Daisy is the author of a novella entitled Women Farm that Delilah has illustrated with exquisite pen and ink drawings, Joseph is a landscape painter, and Constance is a writer of bestselling murder mysteries; and they are all members of the Ziggurat Farm collective.
When Celia’s incomparable chicken enchiladas have been devoured, everyone deploys in the living room with pie and coffee, Celia sitting in the rocking chair with Jenna on her lap, a fire crackling in the hearth.
Constance taps her mug with her fork. “We have news.”
“Momentous news,” says Joseph, nodding in agreement with the adjective.
“So do I,” says Delilah, bouncing her eyebrows. “You go first.”
“Arnold Winfield called from London yesterday,” says Constance, gazing intently at Daisy, “to tell us he is head over heels in love with Women Farm and wants to bring out a lavish clothbound edition in September and hopes very much that you and Delilah will come to England for a couple weeks of publishing-related events.”
“Including,” says Joseph, raising a declarative finger, “a show of Delilah’s original drawings at the Onyx Gallery in London, which is a coup of epic proportions, the Onyx an apex gallery. I can only dream of my paintings hanging there.”
“Oh my God,” says Daisy, bursting into tears. “I can’t believe it.”
“Congratulations, honey,” says Michael, hugging Daisy. “England here we come.”
“Mama cwy,” says Jenna, pouting. “Dome cwy Mama.”
“She’s happy,” says Celia, bouncing the little girl. “Happy tears.”
“Arnold’s initial offer was 10,000 pounds with 80% to Daisy and 20% to Delilah,” says Constance, beaming at author and illustrator, “but I jiggled him up to 20,000 pounds. You can arrange the split however you like. That’s entirely up to you.”
“Thank you so much, Connie,” says Daisy, going to Constance and hugging her.
“Thank you, dear, for writing such a masterpiece and allowing us to show it Arnold,” says Connie, delighted to be the agent of such a fortuitous collision of writer and publisher. “A match made in heaven.”
“And what is your momentous news, Delilah?” asks Joseph, feeling certain she can’t possibly top Arnold Winfield publishing Women Farm.
“Well,” says Delilah, standing with her back to the fire, “I’m sure you all remember the picture of Raul’s mother from the honeymoon slideshow.”
“Gorgeous woman,” says Joseph, remembering the shimmery green dress clinging to those admirable curves.
“I thought she looked like you,” says Michael, who finds Delilah surpassingly lovely.
“I thought she was you at first,” says Daisy, still breathless from the news of her novella finding a publisher, never having published anything before.
“So… what about Raul’s mother?” asks Constance, smiling curiously at Delilah.
“Well it turns out,” says Delilah, looking at Celia for courage, “and we just got the results a few days ago, that I resemble Raul’s mother because… she’s my grandmother.”
“Raul is your father?” says Daisy, mouth agape.
Delilah nods. “He is.”
“Dear God,” says Constance, placing a hand on her heart. “How is this possible?”
“Well,” says Delilah, laughing through her tears, “when Raul was thirty and had just opened his restaurant in San Francisco, my mother dined there a few times and they had a fling, the result of which was me, though Raul never knew, nor did my mother know who the father was because she was quite promiscuous at the time. And though I knew Raul had met my mother long ago, it never occurred to me they might have been lovers until I saw that picture of Beatrice.”
“Raul never suspected?” says Joseph, staggered by this astonishing turn of events. “Never saw the resemblance?”
“Not until he saw that picture of his mother projected on the screen,” says Nathan, gazing fondly at Delilah. “Then he knew.”
“So the morning after the slide show,” says Delilah, continuing the story, “Nathan called Raul and he and Caroline came over, and then Raul and I went to the hospital lab and got our blood drawn, and five days later… voila.”
“Have you told the farm folks?” asks Constance, in shock—Raul a god to her and Delilah her favorite person in the world right after Joseph.
“Raul and Caroline are telling them even as we speak,” says Delilah, smiling at the thought of her dear friends gasping in amazement.
“So now what?” asks Michael, dazzled by the unfathomable workings of the universe.
“So now I’m going to change my last name to Neves,” says Delilah, giving Constance a hug. “And my middle name to Beatrice.”
On a cold clear night in January, Delilah and Gabriel are necking in the living room—Nathan and Celia long gone to bed—when Delilah stops the kissing and says, “Make love to me?”
“Shall we go to a motel?” asks Gabriel, eager to please his beloved. “I would take you home, but my mother and sister are there.”
“No, my love,” she says, getting up and holding out her hand to him. “Here. In my bed.”
“But we might wake Celia and Nathan,” he whispers, taking her hand.
“If we do,” she says, leading him to her bedroom, “I assure you they will be delighted.”