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Fifteen

This story is a continuation of Almost Fifteen, which is the fifth story in the Nathan and Del series. Almost Fifteen and Fifteen may be enjoyed together without resort to the first four parts of the saga, although reading the previous episodes will enhance your enjoyment of these later chapters of the saga.

On the morning of the opening of her show of drawings at the Fletcher Gallery, Delilah wakes to her pillow and sheets soaked with sweat. She tries to get out of bed, but can barely lift her head or arms.

She calls, “Celia?” and when no one responds to her call, she tries again to get up, and again she can barely move.

“What’s wrong with me?” she murmurs, and feeling frightened she makes a greater effort and manages to sit up and swing her legs off the bed.

 “Nate? Celia?” she calls, struggling to her feet only to wobble and fall back onto her soggy sheets.

Now the bedroom door opens and here is Celia who was working in the garden with Nathan and thought she heard Delilah call. A nurse for forty-five years, Celia quickly assesses the situation, feels Delilah’s forehead, and helps her stand up.

“Come lie down in the living room and I’ll change your sheets,” says Celia, helping Delilah walk down the hall. “You have a pretty high fever.”

“I’m so weak,” says Delilah, clinging to Celia. “I went to bed feeling fine.”

Celia has Delilah drink two big glasses of water before helping her lie down on the living room sofa and covering her with a blanket, whereupon Grace the calico cat settles on Delilah’s chest and begins to purr thunderously.

Done changing the sheets, Celia returns to the living room and places her hand on Delilah’s forehead.

“Better,” says Celia, tenderly. “You hungry?”

“No,” says Delilah, mournfully. “I’d just throw up. And now I won’t be able to go to the opening. I’m way too sick.”

“We’ll see,” says Celia, moving into the kitchen and putting a kettle on. “I’ll make you some bouillon.”

“We already see,” says Delilah, plaintively. “I’m too sick to go. I can barely move.”

Nathan comes in from the back deck followed by Tennyson.

The little dog gives Delilah a quizzical look, sees the cat has taken possession of her, and trots back outside.

Nathan looks down at Delilah. “What’s going on, D?”

“I’m ill,” she says peevishly. “I drenched my sheets and pillow with sweat. I have a raging fever and I’m dizzy and weak and nauseated, and now I can’t go to the opening after all the trouble Joseph and Constance went to having their piano moved to the gallery. I feel terrible.”

Nathan nods. “I thought this might happen.”

“What do you mean?” says Delilah, glaring at him. “You thought I’d get sick? Why would you think that? You don’t think I’m pretending, do you? I’m really ill, Nate. Feel my forehead.”

He places his big cool hand on her forehead and looks into her eyes. “I don’t think you’re pretending. But I’ll bet you five bucks there’s nothing wrong with you except a little thing called fear.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she says, her eyes filling with tears. “I’m not afraid. I’m ill.”

“Sun’s coming out,” he says, going to the door. “Let’s have our tea on the deck.”

“I can’t move,” she says angrily. “Celia had to practically carry me in here from my bedroom and I almost passed out on the way.”

“Methinks you exaggerate,” he says, looking at Celia bustling around in the kitchen. “She gonna die, doctor?”

“Not today,” says Celia, shaking her head. “But you’re not being very nice to her.”

“Yeah, Nate,” says Delilah, pouting. “I feel so guilty about letting Constance and Joseph and William and Guillermo down, and all the people we invited.”

“Come out in the sun,” he says, lifting the cat off her. “I’ll cure you.”

“How?” she says, believing him for a moment.

“I’ll show you,” he says, giving her a hand up.

*

Delilah lies on a chaise longue with a big pillow behind her head, sipping bouillon while Nathan and Celia sit close by, Nathan having nettle tea and Celia coffee.

“Long ago when I was a poet of some renown,” says Nathan, gazing at the verdant garden, “I’d routinely get sick a few days before I was going to perform. I’d start coughing and running a fever, soaking my sheets with sweat, and it never occurred to me I was afraid because I loved reading for people, the more the merrier.”

“But I’m not afraid of performing,” says Delilah, frowning. “I wanted to go to my opening.”  

“I wasn’t afraid of performing either,” he says, shaking his head. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Performing wasn’t what I feared. Reading for an audience was my bliss, as Jung would say.”

“Then what were you afraid of?” she asks, bewildered.

“I was afraid to do what I was not supposed to do, what I was punished for a thousand times when I was a boy and a young man. I was not allowed to be a poet.”

He thinks of his mother and father and how his love of plays and poetry, his desire to be a poet, caused them to constantly abuse him, physically and emotionally, and this abuse planted in his subconscious the belief that to be a poet, and more especially to present himself to the world as a poet, was verboten, a mortal sin.

“But I’m allowed to make art and compose music,” says Delilah, defiantly. “My mother loves my drawings and my piano playing. And so do you and Celia, and so do Constance and Joseph. I’ve always been allowed to do those things.”

“Right,” he says, nodding. “So that’s not what you’re afraid of.”

“Why do I have to be afraid of something?” she asks, petulantly. “Why can’t you just let me be sick, which I obviously am?”

“I can and I will,” he says, smiling at her. “Though I’ll bet you anything the cause isn’t physical.”

“Then what’s the cause?” she says, feeling like screaming at him. “If you’re so sure you know.”

“You can scream at me if you want,” he says, knowing exactly how she feels. “Only I’m not the person you really want to scream at.”

“Who do I really want to scream at?”

“Who do you think?” he asks, expectantly.

Not my mother!” she shouts, bowing her head and sobbing. “This is not her fault. She did everything for me. Why are you torturing me like this?”

“That’s enough, marido,” says Celia, touching Nathan’s hand.

“Not quite,” he says, getting out of his chair and kneeling beside Delilah. “Look at me, kiddo.”

She squints at him. “I hate you.”

“No you don’t,” he says, shaking his head. “You love me. And I love you. And because I love you I’m going to tell you something you already know with every cell in your body because you were taught it from the moment you were born until you moved in with us eighteen months ago.”

“What?” she says, crying. “And I don’t hate you. I’m sorry I said that, but you made me so mad.”

“I know you don’t hate me, D,” he says softly. “But you hate something, and that something is what you know with every cell in your body, every synapse in your brain. That something is why you soaked your bed with sweat, and why you’re weak and exhausted.” He waits a moment. “You want to say it?”

“No,” she says, shaking her head. “I don’t know what it is.”

“You want to guess?” he asks, nodding to encourage her.

She gazes into his kindly eyes and whispers, “I have to stay inside. It’s not safe to go out.”

“That’s right,” he says quietly. “You’re supposed to stay hidden from the world. You can do anything you want, anything money can buy, but you must stay inside so no one can see you. You must stay hidden. That’s the rule that was killing you. And your mother knew it. That’s why she brought you here and set you free. But she only brought you here a little while ago, right?”

“Yes,” says Delilah, sobbing. “Just… just… just a little while ago.”

“And the part of you that takes over when you go to sleep,” he says, crying with her, “is the old automatic program saying ten thousand times a night, ‘You must stay inside. You must stay hidden. It’s not safe to go out. If you go out there you’ll die. If you go to the opening you’ll die.’ But you fought that old programming, D. You fought it with all your might, and that’s why you soaked your sheets with your valiant sweat. You were fighting the old rules that you and all your nannies lived by since the day you were born.”

She looks up at him, suddenly aware. “But I didn’t die. And I don’t have to hide anymore. And…” She hesitates. “I can go to my opening.”

“Yes, you can,” he says, getting to his feet. “Now lets have some breakfast and get you fueled up so you can keep fighting.”

*

After breakfast, Delilah lies down on the living room sofa and sleeps without stirring for five hours.

She wakes to the smell of fish frying—Celia making fish tacos for supper.

*

At the opening, the three rooms of the Fletcher Gallery are jammed with people, and there are many more people outside listening through the open doors and windows.

Delilah plays her nocturne with a depth of feeling she has never known before, and when she finishes, the roar that goes up is the universe saying, “Now you know what makes art divine.”

*

Later that night, Joseph and Constance join Nathan and Celia and Delilah at Nathan and Celia’s house to celebrate with champagne and Celia’s incomparable cheesecake.

Joseph is high as a kite, having sold three of his paintings; his Mouth of the Mercy to the Mercy Hotel to adorn the hotel lobby, his Delilah On a Ladder in the Winter Orchard to an anonymous collector, and Nathan and Celia in Their Garden purchased online by Joseph’s mother in Devon, an avid gardener in her late eighties.

“To your triumphant performance,” says Constance, holding aloft her glass of champagne, she and Joseph and Celia drinking the real thing, Nathan and Delilah having sparkling apple cider. “And you sold all your drawings, Delilah. Incredible.”

“And both paintings,” says Celia, clinking her glass with Delilah’s.

“William is ecstatic,” says Delilah, barely able to keep her eyes open.

“I’m amazed,” says Joseph, gazing around the table at his wife and friends illuminated by candlelight. “Astounded. The last thing I expected when we came here was that I would have a show in a local gallery, let alone sell three paintings on opening night, and at my usual prices, which are not exorbitant, but certainly aren’t low.” He guffaws. “We didn’t even know there were galleries here until we got here.”

“We imagined a spartan existence of work and little socializing,” says Constance, her eyes sparkling. “We would make our simple food and love our dogs, and at the end of their lives we would go back to England and live in quiet retirement with two lapdogs of a breed yet to be determined. And now we eat with you Michelin-star chefs three times a week and have friends galore, and I must force myself to sit down and write or I would never make my deadlines.” She looks at each of them. “We just love it here, and mostly because of you three.”

“And what I realized tonight,” says Joseph, moved by the sight of Delilah falling asleep in her chair, “while talking to your charming brother, Celia, was that art should never be considered the exclusive purview of the highly educated or the culturally sophisticated, but the birthright of every human being.”

“You got that from talking to Juan?” asks Celia, glancing at Nathan. “Tell us more.”

“We were standing at my painting Mouth of the Mercy,” says Joseph, remembering the moment, “and Juan said, ‘That was in May. I remember when the river was cutting through the beach like that. You got those breakers on the sand bar just right. A good day for surfing, but you left out the surfers.’ And then we moved to my painting of the deep pool off the rocks south of town where you took me to paint in July, and Juan said, ‘I once caught a rock cod from that pool almost three feet long. Biggest rock cod I ever caught. You got those greens and blues just right, how the color changes with the depth.’ And then he smiled at me and said, ‘You paint things how they really are, Joseph, only not exactly. You make them… what’s the word? Romantic maybe?’ And I was so touched I gave him a hug and thanked him, and he laughed and said, ‘No, man. I’m thanking you for making such beautiful art.’”

“Our darling girl is asleep,” says Constance, gazing fondly at Delilah leaning against Nathan.

“No,” says Delilah, opening her eyes. “I’m here.”

“Come on,” says Celia, getting up from the table and holding out her hand to Delilah. “Time for bed.”

“Oh but I don’t want to miss anything,” she says, yawning.

“We’ll tell you all about it tomorrow,” says Celia, pulling Delilah to her feet and guiding her down the hallway to her bedroom.

“I’ve known a handful of geniuses in my life,” says Joseph, speaking quietly. “All crazy as loons, except for our Delilah.”

“What I found out after I’d lived here for thirty years,” says Nathan, remembering the day he arrived in Mercy, brokenhearted over his ruined career, his few possessions in the back of an old pickup, “is that everyone is a genius. We just have to open our hearts and minds to the truth of that.”

“Do you really think so?” says Joseph, wrinkling his nose. “That everyone is a genius?”

“I know so,” says Nathan, nodding. “And we do them a great disservice when we don’t acknowledge their genius.”

“I think our definitions diverge,” says Constance, who has always felt she is not a genius, but still rather good at writing mysteries. “If by genius you mean uniqueness, I agree. But I think Joseph and I are speaking of super extraordinary talent. Incomparable talent.”

Celia returns from putting Delilah to bed, sits in the chair next to Nathan, drinks the last of her champagne, and nods her thanks as Joseph fills her glass again.

“Your dear husband believes everyone is a genius,” says Joseph, smiling at Celia. “And now we are dickering over the definition.”

“My grandmother,” says Celia, thinking of her grandmother Rosa kneading dough for her tortillas, “never went to school and didn’t know how to read, but she was the best cook I’ve ever known, and I’ve known some very good cooks. Was she a genius? I think so. And tonight at the gallery I was talking to Philip. You’ve probably seen him sitting with his dog Diana in front of the market with the little sign that says Money For Me and My Dog?”

“Of course,” says Joseph, nodding. “The homeless fellow. We’ve given him money several times, after which he always has his dog hold out her paw in thanks, and then he sings a song in a pleasing tenor, usually a Beatles song, though I must admit we don’t often stay to listen after Constance shakes the dog’s paw.”

“Takes wonderful care of his pooch,” says Constance, nodding. “Samoyed Lab mix he told us.”

“Well,” says Celia, holding Nathan’s hand, “would you like to know what Philip said about your painting of Delilah on the ladder in the orchard?”

“Yes, please,” says Joseph, curious to know. “Unless it’s something dreadful.”

“It’s not dreadful,” says Nathan, laughing.

Celia closes her eyes to remember. “He said, ‘She is the untarnished soul reborn amidst the seeming dead, only those branches aren’t dead. They are in the bardo of slumber, soon to be reborn, as everything is reborn and dies and is reborn again.”

“How ever did you remember that?” asks Constance, doubting the scraggly homeless fellow said such a beautiful thing about Joseph’s painting.

“She wrote it down,” says Nathan, giving Celia’s hand a loving squeeze. “Had him say it again and again until she got every word in the right order.”

“You heard him, too?” says Joseph, also doubting.

“I was there,” says Nathan, smiling sublimely. “We were standing in front of your magnificent painting of Delilah in the embrace of those seemingly barren branches, and I knew just what he meant.”

“Me, too,” says Celia, her eyes shining with tears. “And that’s when we decided to buy your painting of Delilah, so we can look at it every day.”

fin

Lounge Act In Heaven

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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