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The Pond

Now that he is no longer an aspiring academic, Michael Darling, forty-three, tall and good-looking, is letting his curly brown hair grow long for the first time in twenty years. And Michael’s cute and curvaceous wife Daisy, forty-one, hasn’t had her shoulder-length reddish brown hair cut since she gave birth a year and a month ago to their daughter Jenna.

For the last year and a half the Darlings have lived in their big modern house on three acres adjacent to Ziggurat Farm, two miles inland from the northern California coastal burg of Mercy, and they cannot imagine wanting to live anywhere else.

The three Ziggurat Farm kids and three kids from Mercy are homeschooling on the farm, and Michael, an ornithologist and wildlife biologist, and his sister Caroline, a botanist, are the homeschoolers’ science teachers.

*

In mid-April, on a cool cloudy Thursday morning, the six homeschoolers gather in the living room of the Ziggurat Farm farmhouse to await Michael and Caroline, a field trip in the offing. The three farm kids are Vivienne, Henri, and Arturo, the kids from town Irenia, Larry, and Alma.

Larry is thirteen and an only child. He and his parents, his father a physicist, his mother a psychotherapist, came to Mercy four years ago, their move from Berkeley precipitated by Larry’s poor health and his being a target of bullies at the public schools he attended. Skinny and extremely nearsighted, Larry was diagnosed with an eating disorder (he didn’t eat much) and depression (he had no friends and was reluctant to go outside), conditions his parents hoped would disappear with the move to Mercy.

However, public school in Mercy provided no respite for Larry from bullying and teasing, and when he began homeschooling at Ziggurat Farm eight months ago, Larry was still painfully thin, had a chronic cough, spoke in a nasal falsetto, fidgeted constantly, and was afraid to make eye contact with his teachers, schoolmates, and his parents.

This morning when Larry’s father Arthur brought Larry to Ziggurat Farm for the day, Larry gave his father a hug and a kiss, jumped out of the car, and ran to join Henri and Vivienne kicking the soccer ball around on the playing field near the barn. Arthur sat in the car watching his son and weeping grateful tears because Larry has grown six inches in the last eight months, gained fifteen pounds, his cough is gone, his voice has dropped an octave, he no longer fidgets, and he is happy all the time now.

Alma is twelve, also an only child, born in Portland, Oregon. When she was six-years-old and just starting First Grade with dear friends she had been in preschool and kindergarten with, her parents, on the spur of the moment, bought the only optometry practice in Mercy, and a few weeks later Alma found herself in an overcrowded school with kids she didn’t know and a First Grade teacher insensitive to how traumatized Alma was by being torn away from her beloved friends and all that was familiar to her.

A year after moving to Mercy, Alma was chronically depressed and diagnosed with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). She was given drugs to address her inability to concentrate at school, and drugs for her depression. Chubby and friendless, she was held back a year in Third Grade and grouped with kids with learning disabilities. Her parents were counseled that Alma was probably on the autism spectrum and might never be able to function on her own in the world.

After eight months of homeschooling with her five comrades and a delightful cast of teachers, Alma no longer takes drugs, has no trouble concentrating, reads voraciously, loves to sing and draw, and is the star of the sewing class taught by Irenia’s mother Maria. For her twelfth birthday, Alma asked for a sewing machine because she loves designing and making clothes for herself and others, and she and Vivienne are launching a line of clothing to sell on the Ziggurat Farm web site called Shirts & Skirts.

Irenia is fourteen, tall and beautiful, a superb athlete and a marvelous singer. Her parents are Russian and she speaks English with a slight Russian accent. She spends four nights a week at the farm and self-identifies as one of the farm kids. She makes her bed on a mattress on the floor in Vivienne’s bedroom, does more than her share of chores, and is learning to cook from Philip, Vivienne and Arturo’s father, a cookbook writer who used to be a professional chef. Irenia’s favorite subjects are music, gardening, and writing, though she recently started taking Jazz dance at the Mercy Rec Center with Delilah, the main homeschool teacher, and is now mad for dancing.

Arturo is thirteen and greatly resembles his French Italian father Philip. Somewhat vain of his good looks, Arturo wants to be an actor. He plays the guitar and sings beautifully and enjoys all the homeschool courses, but he especially loves reading plays, memorizing lines, and acting. He is the first of the farm kids to express a desire to go to college and live somewhere other than Mercy, either New York or London.

In response to her brother saying he plans to leave Mercy to pursue an acting career, Vivienne, eleven, who resembles her lovely olive-skinned mother Lisa, declared she never wants to leave the farm. She aspires to write books and plays, is a zealous gardener, and loves going on field trips with Michael and Caroline, especially when those field trips take them to the ocean.

Henri, twelve, son of Marcel, the farm vintner, and Andrea, the farm manager, lives in a cottage with his parents a stone’s throw from the farmhouse and avers that he, too, wants to live on the farm for the rest of his life, though until the recent return of the very British Richardsons he imagined living with them in England and exploring the British theatre world, never mind about college. Now that the Richardsons are building a house on land adjoining the farm, Henri can think of no reason to be anywhere but here.

*

The spectacular terraced vegetable and flower garden at the heart of Ziggurat Farm begins on level ground and covers an acre as it climbs eastward up a gently sloping hill to the edge of a vast redwood forest last clear-cut a hundred and thirty years ago. Within that forest there have been a few more recent clear-cuts, one of which occurred on the twelve-acre parcel just east of the farm, the parcel the Richardsons are building their house on.

Michael and his sister Caroline, a pretty gal with short brown hair and nearly as tall as Michael, lead the six homeschoolers and a couple farm dogs up the wide path skirting the north side of the deer-fenced acre of vegetables and flowers. Beyond the garden, they ascend through a stand of enormous redwoods and transect a quarter-acre meadow to arrive at the site of today’s field trip—a small patch of level ground at the base of a steep slope, the Richardsons’ land beginning at the top of this slope—sounds of construction faint in the distance.

Standing on the level patch of ground—roughly fifty-feet-long and thirty-feet-wide—Caroline asks, “What do we make of this place?”

“By place,” says Larry, looking around, “do you mean this level area with these nine somewhat scraggly trees?”

“Yes,” says Caroline, smiling at Larry. “Tell us what you mean by scraggly?”

“Well,” says Larry, clearing his throat in imitation of his father preparing to give a lecture, “I mean these trees are much younger than the trees growing in the forest we came through to get here, and are apparently of a different age and less robust than the trees growing uphill from us that you told us are approximately thirty-years-old. I doubt very much these little trees are thirty-years-old, and the preponderance of yellow needles suggests an iron deficiency.”

“None of these nine trees is a redwood,” says Henri, frowning. “Seven pines and two hemlocks.”

“What does that suggest to you?” asks Michael, marveling at how bright and knowledgeable these kids are compared to most of the thousands of undergrads he taught for twenty years.

“Well since most redwoods come up from the roots of other redwoods and not from seeds,” says Henri, loving these kinds of inquiries, “maybe there’s something in the soil disallowing redwood roots. A nutrient deficiency as Larry suggests or some sort of barrier to their roots.”

“The ground here is so level,” says Alma, looking around. “If you took away these trees it would be perfect for croquet.”

“Perfectly level,” says Larry, standing up from placing a little level on the ground. “Bubble right in the middle.”

“Why do you think this patch of earth is so level?” asks Michael, who doesn’t know the answer. “Here on an otherwise sloping hill bringing us to the bottom of this steep incline?”

“How old are these nine trees?” asks Vivienne, looking at Caroline. “Maybe that will give us a clue.”

“They’re all between twelve and fifteen-years-old,” says Caroline, who also doesn’t know why this stretch of ground is so level.

“I suppose,” says Arturo, pursing his lips in his thoughtful way, “someone may have cleared this area for a home site fifteen years ago and then abandoned it, though there are no obvious signs of the necessary equipment having come here.”

“Or something else may have happened fifteen years ago to flatten it and clear away the trees,” says Vivienne, frowning. “Though I can’t imagine what.”

“No obvious signs of a fire,” says Arturo, shaking head. “No burn marks on any of the bigger trees nearby. A mystery, indeed.”

“So thirty years ago,” says Henri, looking up the steep slope, “they clear-cut the twelve acres that now belong to Joseph and Connie, as well as all the trees down to the bottom of this steep slope. Had this level ground we’re standing on also been clear-cut thirty years ago, some of these trees would be closer to thirty-years-old than fifteen-years-old. Yet it seems probable that whatever happened here fifteen years ago was related to the clear-cutting of this slope thirty years ago.”

“What might have happened here?” asks Michael, looking up the slope and seeing a few small gullies amidst the resurgent forest.

“Mudslides?” says Henri, noticing those same gullies.

“Yes,” says Irenia, who is kneeling on the ground apart from the others. “I know what was here before the mud and stones came down.”

“What was here?” asks Caroline, gazing curiously at Irenia.

Irenia places the palms of her hands on the ground and closes her eyes.

“She’s done this before,” says Vivienne, whispering to Caroline.

“There was a pond here,” says Irenia, seeing the place as it once was. “In a basin of stone. After they cut all the trees on the steep slope, heavy rain washed down dirt and rocks and branches and leaves that filled the pond.” She opens her eyes and looks around. “There was still some water here every year for several years until finally the pond was full of soil and the ground dried out and these trees began to grow.” She stands up. “This is what I saw.”

“So there’s a basin of stone here?” says Henri, excitedly. “We should dig this out and make a pond here again.”

“If her theory is correct,” says Michael, who sees no obvious flaw in Irenia’s reasoning.

“I am correct,” says Irenia, confidently. “There was a pond here. That’s why the ground is so level. Because water always seeks to be level.”

“Be worth a bit of excavation,” says Henri, looking at Michael. “Don’t you think?”

“I think so,” says Michael, grinning at Caroline. “In any case, there’s always lots to be learned from digging in the ground.”

*

After returning to the farmhouse for a mid-morning snack, tools are gathered in wheelbarrows, the Ziggurat Farm adults join the expedition, and the enlarged gang returns to the field trip site where the kids begin excavating what might have once been the edge of the pond.

A foot or so below the surface, solid granite is struck, the stone grayish white.

“So are you saying this entire level area was once a pond?” asks Marcel, his French accent always stronger when he gets excited. “Like a big swimming pool.”

Possibly was a pond,” says Michael, unwilling to believe Irenia saw what was previously here.

“We should bring it back,” says Marcel, unaware that Henri suggested the same thing. “We’ll cut up these little trees for firewood and hire someone with a backhoe to dig out most of the dirt and we’ll dig the rest by hand.”

“Huge job,” says Michael, giving Marcel an incredulous look. “And we’re only guessing there was a pond here.”

“I wasn’t guessing,” says Irenia, looking up from her shoveling. “I saw the pond. It was beautiful. There were lily pads and frogs and tall reeds growing in the shallows, and it was very deep over there.” She points to the south.

“Think of all the birds that would come here,” says Daisy, sitting in a lawn chair nursing Jenna and smiling at her husband.

“We could stock it with fish,” says Arturo, looking up from his zealous digging. “And Joseph could teach us to fly fish.”

“That settles it,” says Philip, clapping Marcel on the back. “Who do we know with a backhoe?”

*

Two mornings later, a crystal clear Saturday, the elderly couple Celia and Nathan and their beautiful housemate Delilah make their way up the hill from the farmhouse to join the homeschoolers and their parents and the Darlings and the Richardsons who have all come to watch the renowned backhoe artist Gabriel Fernandez remove the soil from what everyone hopes was once a pond.

Arriving at the pond site, Nathan says, “So this is what happened to the spring. No wonder your creek dried up.”

“Our creek?” says Andrea, her German accent barely noticeable. “Where was it?”

“The creek bed on the south side of your garden,” says Nathan, walking to the south end of the level area. “You still get a little flow in the winter, but the creek used to run year round because this pool overflowed and fed the creek.”

“You saw this pond?” asks Michael, excitedly.

“We did,” says Nathan, taking Celia’s hand. “We came here in the fall every year for three years after we got married. Fifty-five years ago. We’d pick apples from your orchard and then come up here for a picnic and a swim. I first saw the pond fifty-six years ago when I came to prune your apple trees for the first time. The trees were about ten-years-old. It was in December. Jose Alvaro brought me up here. He was the farm manager way back when before the Rostens sold the place to the crazy rich people who put in the vineyard that is no more. They didn’t want me on their land because I was one of the more vocal opponents of their clear-cutting, so we stopped coming here until Philip and Lisa and Andrea and Marcel bought the place.”

“It was such a beautiful pond,” says Celia, who is eighty. “There were cattails at that end.” She points to the north. “And a deep pool at the other end where it overflowed.” She gives Nathan the sweetest smile. “The water was so clear.”

“Spring-fed,” says Nathan, smiling as he remembers skinny-dipping with Celia. “Mallards here every time we came.”

“Was it as big as this whole area?” asks Marcel, thrilled at the prospect of having a pond.

“Pretty much,” says Nathan, nodding.

“We’ve determined this level area is fifty-two-feet-long north to south,” says Larry, referring to his notes. “And roughly thirty-four-feet-wide east to west.”

“Seems right to me,” says Nathan, grinning at Larry. “If memory serves.”

At which moment the rumbling of powerful engines presages the coming of Gabriel Fernandez and his big rainbow-colored tractor outfitted with backhoe and front loader, and Rodrigo Fernandez, Gabriel’s uncle, driving a smaller tractor with a front loader. Gabriel is in his early thirties, handsome and muscular and gregarious, known locally as the backhoe magician. Rodrigo is in his sixties, heavyset and soft-spoken. They park their machines on the edge of the site, turn off their engines, and Gabriel jumps down to find out what’s going on.

“Buenos dias,” says Gabriel, addressing the assembly. “Qué pasa?”

“Good to see you, Gabriel,” says Marcel, shaking Gabriel’s hand. “There was a pond here that got filled in after the forest up there was clear-cut and we want to get the soil out and bring the pond back to life.”

“Bueno,” says Gabriel, nodding as he surveys the site. “Can you cut down these little trees before we start digging?”

“Yes,” says Philip, getting a chainsaw out of one of the wheelbarrows. “Whenever you say.”

“Gracias Philip,” says Gabrielle, continuing to assess the site. “So… does anyone know what the pond looked like? Where it was shallow, where it was deep?”

“Nathan and Celia know,” says Lisa, gesturing to them.

“Ah Nathan,” says Gabrielle, going to shake Nathan’s hand. “Hola Celia.”

“Hola Gabriel,” she says, having known him since the minute he was born because she assisted the doctor who delivered him.

Now Gabriel gives Delilah a loving smile and says, “Maestra.”

“Hola Gabriel,” she says, blushing at his name for her and finding him exceedingly attractive.

“So tell me about this pond,” says Gabriel, returning his attention to Nathan and Celia.

They describe what they remember, Gabriel listens carefully, and when they finish, Gabriel asks, “Where do you want us to put the soil? There will be lots.”

“Well we don’t want to block the outflow,” says Nathan, looking at Andrea and Marcel to make sure they’re okay with him helping in the decision-making. “And we don’t want to crowd the pond with piles of dirt, so… to the north on the open slope I think.”

Rodrigo climbs down from his tractor and walks north with Gabriel and Marcel and Andrea and Nathan until they come to a large open area on the sloping hill a hundred feet north of the site.

“Aqui,” says Rodrigo, nodding. “Es bueno.”

“Yes,” says Marcel, nodding. “Perfecto.”

“Okay then,” says Gabriel, returning to his backhoe. “Three days. We don’t work on Sunday, so we finish Tuesday. Three thousand dollars a day for me, my uncle, and our beautiful machines. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” says Andrea, who handles the farm’s finances.

“Bueno,” says Gabriel, shaking Andrea’s hand. “I will begin at the deep end while you cut down those trees so Rodrigo can get in there and take away whatever I dig up.”

Now Gabriel dons his sound-blocking earphones, mounts his tractor, starts the engine, and drives slowly to a starting point at the south end of what once upon a time was a pond.

*

At noon, great progress made, many of the spectators gone home, Gabriel and Rodrigo drive their tractors down to the farmhouse to refuel and have lunch before resuming the excavation. The six homeschoolers and Marcel and Philip and Michael and Caroline lunch with Gabriel and Rodrigo at the picnic tables under the oak tree near the farmhouse, the delicious lunch provided by Andrea and Lisa.

At an opportune moment, Vivienne asks Gabriel, “We were wondering why you called Delilah maestra. Do you take piano lessons from her?”

“No,” says Gabriel, smiling at the thought of Delilah. “I play guitar. I call her maestra because she is my healer.”

“How did she heal you?” asks Alma, who also feels she’s been healed by having Delilah as a teacher and friend.

“It’s a long story,” says Gabriel, looking at Philip and Marcel. “Con permiso.”  

“Por favor,” says Marcel, nodding.

“My father who was Rodrigo’s older brother died when I was fifteen,” says Gabriel, looking at each of the homeschoolers. “My mother was very sick and couldn’t work. Since we needed money and I was the oldest of the four kids, I quit school and went to work for a landscaping company. When I was eighteen, my mother was well enough to go back to work and I joined the Army because they paid me a big bonus for joining and my family needed that money. A couple weeks later I was in North Carolina for basic training and I told them I had some experience with heavy equipment because I drove a big truck and a tractor when I was landscaping, so they trained me to operate heavy equipment, bulldozers and backhoes, and four months later I was sent to Afghanistan.”

“Why did they send you to Afghanistan?” asks Irenia, who finds geopolitics baffling.

“We’d been fighting a war there for many years,” says Gabriel, nodding as he remembers. “They told us it was to protect democracy, but I don’t think so.”

“Why don’t you think so?” asks Henri, frowning.

“Because they don’t have a democracy in Afghanistan,” says Gabriel, shaking his head. “But I can’t talk about that because I don’t know enough. All I wanted to do was survive, and somehow I did, though there were many days when I didn’t think I would. We were in some terrible battles. I was driving a bulldozer and doing backhoe work, but the fighting came to me, you know, so… I saw many terrible things and some of my friends were wounded and some were killed. And when I had served my three years and expected to come home, they extended me for another six months. I couldn’t believe it. I went to my commanding officer and said I signed up for three years. Why wasn’t I going home? He said there was a clause in my contract allowing them to extend me in emergencies and they were short on heavy equipment operators. After that I woke up every day feeling sure I was going to die. Then I stopped sleeping because when I fell asleep I had nightmares. Without sleep I couldn’t concentrate and I started making mistakes in my work. One day my bulldozer hit one of our jeeps. I thought it was twenty feet away, but I hit it. Nobody was hurt, but the jeep was destroyed. So they had me evaluated by a psychologist and he said I was suffering from PTSD and ordered me sent home. A month later I was back in Mercy.”

“What is PTSD?” asks Irenia, aching in sympathy with him.

“Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It means even though the trauma is over, my body and my brain still thought I was in Afghanistan, still in the Army, still fearing for my life every minute.”

“So what did you do?” asks Arturo, horrified by what befell Gabriel.

“I hid in my mother’s house for three months. I was afraid to go out and kept thinking I was having a heart attack. So Rodrigo drove me to the VA hospital in Oakland and I stayed there for three weeks and they gave me some treatments and put me on medicine for anxiety and I came home. But I was still afraid to go out and couldn’t sleep so I was tired all the time and the drugs made me numb and I started to think maybe I didn’t want to keep living. And then one day my good friend Ricardo, a fantastic musician, he can play anything, he gave me a guitar and gave me lessons every day and I started to feel better. Playing guitar calmed me down and gave me something to focus on. So I decided to take less of the anxiety medicine so I wouldn’t feel so numb, and I started to feel even better, but then the nightmares came back and I began to feel hopeless again.”

“Did you go back to taking more anxiety medicine?” asks Alma, who used to take drugs for her ADD and depression and hated how the drugs made her feel.

“I was going to,” says Gabriel, smiling at Alma, “but right before I did, Ricardo said he wanted to take me to a concert in town at the art gallery, a piano concert. I said I was afraid to go. I could barely go out of the house, barely walk around the block without freaking out. How could I go to a concert and be with all those people? He said he would stay beside me and never leave me alone. His wife Lisa would be with us and they would take care of me. He begged me to go with him. He said he knew it would help me. So I said okay and they took me to the gallery, and I started to freak out. I said, ‘Ricardo take me home,’ and he said, ‘Just one more minute, Gabriel. Please.’ And then Delilah, your teacher, she was only fifteen, she came out and sat down at the grand piano and played a nocturne she composed, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Her music was more beautiful to me than anything I have ever known in my life. I closed my eyes and her music came into me, into my body and into my brain, and I could feel my fear leaving me. There was no room for the fear with her music in me, no room for my sorrow and my guilt for what I did in the war. There was only her music, and her music was love. And it healed me. Not all the way, but enough so I knew I would be well again one day. That is why I call her maestra, because she is the master of my healing.”

“Did you ever hear her play again?” asks Vivienne, her eyes full of tears.

“Oh yes, many times,” says Gabriel, his eyes full of tears, too. “Ricardo’s wife Lisa is good friends with Delilah, so we got to hear her play at the Richardsons many times, and seven more times at the gallery. And every time I hear her play, she heals me more.”

fin

The Magician   

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Spirit Beings

On December 17 in his little house on the edge of Mercy, a small town on the far north coast of California, Nathan wakes in darkness just before dawn and gets up to pee and have a glass of water. He is eighty-five and usually sleeps well, one nocturnal visit to the bathroom his usual habit. Nathan’s wife Celia, six years younger than Nathan, does not stir in their queen-sized bed when he rises.

He goes down the hallway, making no sound as he passes the open door of the other bedroom wherein Delilah is slumbering. She has lived with Celia and Nathan for thirteen years and recently turned twenty-six.

During the warmer months of the year, Nathan has his middle-of-the-night drink of water in the bathroom, but in the depths of winter he likes to drink in the kitchen and then put a few logs on the remnant coals of the evening fire so the house will be warm when everyone gets up around seven.

The good mutts Chico and Gypsy are slumbering near the hearth and wake when Nathan comes into the living room to build up the fire, but neither rises and goes to the sliding glass door to ask to be let out into the backyard.

When he is confident the fire will come back to life, Nathan is about to return to bed when he feels a strong pull to go outside, despite the cold, and watch the first light of day give form to the myriad things. He puts on his down jacket over his pajamas, slips his bare feet into loafers, opens the sliding glass door, and steps out onto the deck overlooking the big vegetable garden. A small stand of chard, a few long rows of garlic, and two enormous parsley plants are growing in the vegetable patch, the ground otherwise heaped with horse and chicken manure.

He listens to the distant surf for a long moment, glad his hearing is still pretty good, and is about to go back inside when a movement in the garden catches his eye. He squints into the darkness and sees something on the gravel path next to the chard, something white.

Careful not to slip on the icy wood, he crosses the deck, goes down the stairs to the edge of the garden, and discerns a person in a white robe standing on the garden path.

“Hello?” says Nathan, guessing the person is homeless and looking for something to eat, though the few times that’s happened before the dogs always barked. “May I help you?”

Nathan slowly approaches the person, and as the dawn’s light grows brighter, he sees the person is a naked woman with long white hair, her hair what he thought was a robe.

“Nathan,” she says, her voice warm and tender. “You will live here until you are ninety-three and then you’ll come with me.”

“I’m gonna live to ninety-three?” he says, smiling at the thought of having another eight years with Celia and Delilah and his friends. “In good health?”

“Yes,” she says, giving him a long look before changing into a sleek gray fox and trotting away into the woods.

*

Getting into bed after his encounter with the spirit being, Nathan lies on his side facing Celia and falls into a dreamless sleep.

*

Waking to sounds of Delilah and Celia talking and making breakfast in the kitchen, Nathan gets out of bed, notices his bedside clock says 8:17, and thinks If I tell them I met a spirit being in the garden who told me I’m going to live eight more years, Celia will fear this is the onset of dementia and Delilah will design her life to be with me constantly for the next eight years. So I can’t tell them, but I really want to tell someone. But who?

*

Two nights later, Celia and Nathan drive to Ziggurat Farm for the Ziggurat Farm Holiday Follies, a variety show featuring the six students of the Ziggurat Farm School, four parents, and two faculty members. The students are Irenia, Arturo, Larry, Henri, Alma, and Vivienne. The kids will be singing three songs, acting in two scenes of their own creation, and ballroom dancing to accordion music provided by Marcel, one of the parents. Three other parents, Lisa, Philip, and Andrea, will perform a scene written by Vivienne and Irenia. Delilah will play a recent composition of hers on the piano, Nathan will read a poem, and Irenia, Alma, and Vivienne will close the show by singing an original song written by Arturo and Henri, with Arturo on guitar and Henri on accordion accompanying the girls.

*

During the long intermission, the fifty people in attendance gobble delicious finger food provided by Philip and Andrea and Raul Neves, a famous chef with a world-renowned restaurant in Mercy.

Nathan stands apart from the hubbub, considers everyone in the farmhouse, and concludes there are only two people he can tell about the spirit being he encountered in his garden and not be disbelieved or thought to be losing his marbles, nor will these two feel compelled to tell anyone else, though they would certainly tell each other if he only told one of them. They are Philip and Lisa, parents of Vivienne and Arturo, and mainstays of Ziggurat Farm.

*

As the end of Act Two approaches, Vivienne, eleven, wearing a pretty blue dress she made with the help of Irenia’s mother Maria, stands on the little stage and introduces Nathan.

“It is now my great pleasure,” she says, reading the speech she prepared, “to present our Poetry and Writing teacher Nathan Grayson. He is the author of the recently published Exactly Is A Tricky Word and other poems available from Ziggurat Farm Productions. We have copies here Nathan will be happy to sign for you or you can get signed copies at Crow’s Nest Books. Nathan is a wonderful teacher. Whenever we use a word like wonderful in our stories or poems or essays, he will say something like, ‘That is a fine word for a generality. Might there be another word more specific and revealing of what you mean to convey?’ In this instance, however, I mean wonderful because he constantly fills us with wonder as he teaches us how to express ourselves in words.”

Nathan bows to Vivienne, steps up on the stage, and gazes fondly at the audience of friends and family.

Teacher is a tricky word, too,” he says, smiling at his six students sitting in the front row. “I prefer mentor, and I’m sure I learn more from you than you learn from me. In any case, thank you Vivienne for that wonderful introduction, and I mean wonderful because you are a wonder. I will now recite a short poem from my book Exactly Is A Tricky Word, which, by the way, is the first new volume of poems I’ve published in fifty-seven years. But who’s counting?”

Journey

Your heart was born before your body,

and beat as one with the heart of God.

Your spirit was born before your heart,

and lived in the wilderness as God’s lover.

The truth was born before your spirit.

God is this truth.

God lives in your spirit.

Your spirit lives in your heart.

Your heart lives in your body.

Your life is a journey to God.

*

A few evenings after Christmas, Lisa and Philip meet with Nathan in his living room—Celia and Delilah gone to supper at Raul’s restaurant Ocelot, their meal at the exclusive eatery a gift from Raul to Celia for showing him how to make her grandmother’s incomparable enchilada sauce.

When Lisa and Philip are settled on the sofa with mugs of tea, a fire blazing in the hearth, Nathan says, “I really appreciate your coming here tonight despite the clandestine nature of our get together.”

“I assume you want to spring some sort of surprise on Celia and Delilah,” says Philip, who considers Nathan the wisest person he knows. “Lisa thinks otherwise.”

“What’s your surmise, Lisa?” asks Nathan, knowing her intuition verges on clairvoyance.

“You want to tell us something you don’t want anyone else to know about,” she says quietly.

“Not for eight years anyway,” says Nathan, eager to describe his meeting with the spirit being.

“Tell us,” she says, now certain he will speak of his death.

“A couple days before the school farm follies,” says Nathan, closing his eyes to bring the scene to mind, “just before dawn, I got up to pee and stoke the fire. When I was sure the logs would catch, I went outside to watch the coming of dawn. And I saw something in the garden, something white and about the size of a person on the path near the chard.”

“The dogs bark?” asks Philip, assuming they did.

“No and that perplexed me,” says Nathan, keeping his eyes closed. “My first thought was a homeless person had wandered into the yard. That’s happened a few times before and the dogs always alerted us by barking. But this time they stayed sleeping by the fire.”

“Who was it?” asks Lisa, closing her eyes and seeing the white figure on the garden path.

“A woman,” says Nathan, nodding. “Or a spirit in the form of a woman with long white hair. From a distance I thought she was wearing a white robe, but when I came closer I saw she was naked and enshrouded in her hair. Her face was human, but extremely narrow, her eyes deeply set. I asked if I could help her and she said, ‘Nathan, you will live here until you’re ninety-three and then you’ll come with me.’ I said, ‘I’m gonna live to ninety-three? In good health?’ And she said, ‘Yes,’ and then… she changed into a gray fox and ran off into the woods.”

“Then what happened?” asks Philip, hoping Nathan isn’t losing his marbles.

Nathan opens his eyes. “Then I went back to bed and slept until 8:17, which is a good hour longer than I usually sleep, and then I got up and really wanted to tell Celia and Delilah, except I knew Celia would think I was losing my marbles and Delilah would never let me out of her sight until I died, whenever that happens to be.”

“So…” says Philip, frowning. “Do you think you were hallucinating?”

“I suppose I might have been,” says Nathan, deflated by Philip’s response. “Though she seemed as real as you seem right now. And I was definitely awake because the fire got going and the house was toasty when the girls got up, so I don’t think it was a hallucination. I think it was…” He hesitates, sensing Philip doesn’t believe him.

“You met a spirit being,” says Lisa, nodding assuredly. “She came to tell you not to worry about dying for a long time.”

“Funny thing is I wasn’t worried about dying,” says Nathan, relieved Lisa believes him. “I went through big worries about dying when I was in my seventies, but since then I’ve been at peace about it. Even so, I was delighted to know this spirit being thought I had eight more good years. Because if I do, I’ll get to see Vivienne and Arturo and Irenia and Henri reach full size, and I’ll get to see Delilah turn thirty-three. How cool would that be?”

Philip laughs. “You’re the greatest, Nathan.”

“You’re the only people I knew I could tell who wouldn’t feel they had to tell Celia and Delilah.” Nathan’s eyes fill with tears. “I may eventually tell them, but for now I’d rather they didn’t know about this.”

“You have my promise,” says Philip, placing his hand on his heart.

“Mine, too,” says Lisa, placing her hand on hers.

*

In early January, on a cold rainy morning, Delilah is moping around the house missing Thomas, the first serious love of her life, Thomas recently returned to Ithaca where he is a professor of Wildlife Biology at Cornell.

Nathan comes in from walking Chico and Gypsy, glances at Delilah slumped forlornly on the living room sofa and says, “Call him. You want to talk to him, call him.”

“We agreed not to become phone dependent,” she says, looking up from a sheet of staff paper on which she has written two lonely notes at the beginning of the first staff, the rest of the page blank. “He’s only been gone four days and I’ve already called him once and he’s already called me once.”

“Then I’ll call him,” says Nathan, picking up the old landline phone on the kitchen counter, no cell phones in the house—Delilah severely allergic to microwaves, Nathan and Celia content with the old way. “What’s his number?”

Delilah recites Thomas’s number and Nathan punches it in.

“Hello?” says Thomas, hoping this is Delilah.

“Hi Thom. Nathan.”

“Oh hi Nathan. How nice to hear your voice.”

“What’s going on back there?”

“Just getting ready to give a lecture. Then I’ve got office hours. Then a faculty meeting. Then I’ll go home and make supper and answer a jillion emails and then go to bed. What’s going on out there?”

“There’s a woman in our living room longing to hear your voice,” says Nathan, handing the phone to Delilah.

*

When Delilah finishes her brief and uplifting conversation with Thomas, she returns the phone to the kitchen counter and says to Nathan, “That was so unlike you.”

“What was unlike me?” asks Nathan, kneeling by the fire and drying Gypsy with a towel. “Calling Thom?”

“Yes,” she says, frowning at him. “I’ve lived with you for thirteen years and I’ve never known you to do something like that.”

“Life is short,” says Nathan, draping the towel over a stack of firewood. “The days fly by. We just paid our income taxes and it’s time to pay them again. I projected my impatience onto you. I apologize.”

“I’m glad you called him,” she says, mystified by the change in Nathan. “It’s just I’ve never known you to be impatient, so it surprised me.”

“You’ve never been in love with a wonderful guy,” says Nathan, hoping he lives long enough to see Delilah marry. “I want you to be happy.”

“He’s hoping to take a year off starting in June,” says Delilah, putting the kettle on for tea. “And come live out here and see how he likes it.”

“That will be wonderful,” says Nathan, calming down. “June will be here before we know it.”

“Seems like a hundred years from now,” say Delilah, sighing.

“Time accelerates as we age,” says Nathan, gazing at the flames. “I know that’s theoretically impossible, but it does. I was ten-years-old forever. Now a year passes in a week. I know it doesn’t, but that’s how it seems. I recited a poem at the holiday follies, went to bed, woke up, and it’s three weeks later.”

“Thom left four days ago,” says Delilah, laughing, “and it feels like he’s been gone forever.”

“Maybe I need to fall in love,” says Nathan, laughing, too. “Maybe that would slow things down.”

*

A few days later, Lisa and Nathan meet at the Happy Day Café & Bakery in downtown Mercy, rain pattering on the windows.

Lisa has a latte, Nathan green tea, and they split a gargantuan pumpkin muffin.

“I wanted to tell you about what happened to me when I was ten-years-old in Buenos Aires,” says Lisa, speaking quietly. “Also what happened to me in Oakland when I was twenty-four. I’ve told Philip and Andrea and Marcel, and they thought I must have imagined what happened or that my fear distorted my perceptions. Hilda is the only person I’ve ever told who believed me.”

“I miss Hilda,” says Nathan, speaking of the woman who used to live at Ziggurat Farm, a Jungian psychoanalyst now residing in a senior care facility in Berkeley. “I’d love to tell her about the spirit being I met.”

“We miss her, too,” says Lisa, sipping her latte. “Henri especially. He writes to her every week and always includes one of his drawings.”

“So tell me what happened to you in Buenos Aires.”

Lisa takes a moment to gather her thoughts before she begins.

“I was tall for ten, like Irenia, and more womanly than most girls my age. In the year before my mother died, men came to her and offered money for me and she threatened them with her knife and they went away. But after she died, my aunt was not able to protect me. She had five kids and worked twelve hours a day as a hotel maid. So I hid in her house as much as I could. When I say house I mean two rooms made of sticks and scraps of plywood and cardboard attached to other rooms like that. But I couldn’t hide all the time because I had to go out and beg.”

She closes her eyes and sees the dusty rutted lanes snaking through the jumble of makeshift shelters.

 “One day I was begging at the entrance to the mercado, the open air market, and two men came to capture me. I ran away from them crying for help, but no one would help me because everyone knew the men had guns. They chased me into an alley ending at a high wall and were about to catch me when four huge black dogs attacked them and chased them away. I stood there in shock and a woman appeared. I didn’t see her come out of a house or enter the alley, but there she was standing before me. She was big and muscular with brown skin and long black hair. She said, ‘Run to Fernanda’—my aunt—‘and do not leave her house until you can fly away.’ I had no idea what she was talking about because this was a week before my grandmother, my father’s mother, sent money to my aunt and arranged for me to come to Los Angeles. I was afraid to leave the alley because I thought the men were waiting for me. ‘They are dead,’ said the woman, holding out her hand to me. I took her hand and we ran together out of the alley past the bodies of the men, and then she let go of me and changed into a big black dog and ran away.”

“They saved you,” says Nathan, who would not have believed Lisa’s story if he hadn’t met the spirit woman in his garden and seen her change into a fox.

“I don’t know why they saved me,” says Lisa, opening her eyes and sighing with relief to be in a bakery in Mercy, no longer a girl in the slums of Buenos Aires. “But they did.”

“And the other time?”

“When I was twenty-four my car broke down while I was driving at night through a bad neighborhood in Oakland. I was on my way home to Berkeley from a party at a friend’s apartment. This was before cell phones. I got out of my car and started walking fast because I knew I was on a street of crack houses and I wanted to get to a main avenue and find a pay phone to call a tow truck. As I walked by a big car, two men got out and chased me. I ran as fast as I could and was about to scream when an old woman appeared on the sidewalk in front of me and said, ‘They’re gone. You can use my phone.’ I looked behind me and the two men had disappeared, though I know they were right behind me when the woman appeared. We went into her house and I used her phone to call a tow truck. She made me a cup of chamomile tea and we sat in her living room waiting for the truck to come. She was very old. Her hands were gnarled and her arms were like sticks and her hair was white and tangled. She had no weapon, yet the men vanished. She had crystals on her coffee table. I recognized amethyst and quartz. The walls were festooned with feathers and leaves. I tried to give her money to thank her and she said, ‘If you want to give me a gift, name your daughter after me.’ Then she told me her name and the tow truck came.”

“Vivienne,” says Nathan, saying the name of Lisa’s daughter.

Lisa nods. “Though at the time I never thought I would have children. And after we had Arturo, we decided one was enough and took great care not to have another.”

“But the gods had other plans,” says Nathan, filled with joy thinking of Vivienne. “I say gods because I don’t know what else to call the spirit beings who saved you and came to tell me I have eight more years to live.”

“Don’t forget the spirit being who rescued Delilah and saved us from our delusion of trying to have a vineyard where grapes won’t grow.” She smiles sublimely. “He who teaches our children to write so beautifully.”

“Oh yeah,” says Nathan, his eyes twinkling. “That guy.”

 fin

Light Song

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Frisson

“Something extraordinary happened to me today,” says Delilah, twenty-six and strikingly beautiful with dark brown hair cut very short, housemate of Celia and Nathan for thirteen years now. “Of course being at Ziggurat Farm is inherently extraordinary, but today…”

Nathan, eighty-five, and Celia, seventy-nine, are sitting with Delilah in the living room of their small two-bedroom house on the eastern edge of the northern California coastal town of Mercy. Thanksgiving is four days away, a fire is blazing in the hearth, and their tummies are full of rock cod tacos and garlic potatoes and a big green salad.

“Earth to Delilah,” says Nathan, unused to seeing Delilah drift away in the middle of a sentence. “You were saying? But today?”

“Oh,” says Delilah, blushing upon her return to the present. “Today I met Thomas Darling. He arrived at the end of Drawing class, and the frisson between us was…” She muses for a moment without drifting away again. “The closest thing to what I experienced with him was when I first met you two, the feeling of…” She searches for the right word. “Recognition. Profound recognition. Only this time…” Her blush deepens. “There was a sexual component to the energy mix.”

“Is he handsome like his brother Michael,” asks Celia, referring to Michael who lives with his wife Daisy and their baby Jenna in the house adjacent to Ziggurat Farm, two miles inland from Mercy.

“I’m not sure,” says Delilah, sighing. “Every time I looked at him he was bathed in golden light, so who knows what he actually looks like.”

“Did he recognize you?” asks Celia, hoping Thomas saw more in Delilah than her physical beauty.

“He must have,” says Delilah, nodding, “or I don’t think I would have recognized him. Do you know what I mean?”

“I do,” says Celia, looking at Nathan and recalling the first time they met fifty-four years ago. “That’s how it was when I met this guy. I could tell he was really seeing me and not just looking at my breasts, so then I could really see him.”

“Correct me if I’m wrong,” says Nathan, returning Celia’s gaze, “but wasn’t there a bit of frisson between us, too?”

“Let’s not rush things,” says Delilah, getting up to put a kettle on for tea. “For all I know he’s living with someone back in Ithaca and thought I had nice boobs and didn’t recognize me at all.”

“He’ll have to move out here,” says Nathan, gruffly. “Too cold for us in Ithaca and we insist on helping with the children.”

“Stop,” says Delilah, laughing.

“She thinks I’m kidding,” says Nathan, winking at Celia.

“Bastante marido,” says Celia, pointing at him. “Let her have a crush and see where it goes.”

“I apologize, D,” says Nathan, grinning at Delilah. “You know me.”

*

Delilah is not a virgin. When she was twenty-two, she and her close friend Josh, who was also twenty-two, decided to learn how to have sex before they got any older. They felt their ignorance in this regard was becoming an obstacle to future happiness, so despite Delilah not being sexually attracted to Josh, they endeavored to have sex on three different occasions over the course of two weeks.

For their first try, they consulted a book illustrated with glossy black-and-white photographs of a man and a woman engaging in foreplay and then coupling in a variety of ways. They giggled nervously while looking at the pictures, disrobed, and after brief and wholly unsatisfying foreplay, Josh failed three times to successfully deploy a condom before finally managing to sheath himself. They then awkwardly assumed the missionary position, closed their eyes, Josh was way off target, so to speak, and consequently berated himself with shockingly foul language that put the kibosh on their continuing.

The second time they tried, they got stoned, took things slower, engaged in some satisfactory petting, and managed to couple ever so briefly in the missionary position before Josh orgasmed, withdrew, and fled.

Before they tried again, Delilah had a lengthy and enlightening coaching session with Lisa, Delilah’s dear friend at Ziggurat Farm—Lisa a massage therapist, mother, and sexually savvy.

Thus educated, Delilah took charge of her third session with Josh, expertly deployed the condom, positioned Josh in the proper position, and guided him inside her. And though Josh came a moment after entering her and immediately withdrew and wanted to leave, Delilah convinced him to stay and try again a half-hour later, at which time they were able to have intercourse for a few minutes before he came again and fled; after which Delilah felt she had passed her driving test, so to speak.

*

The day after Delilah told Nathan and Celia about meeting Thomas, Nathan spends the morning at Ziggurat Farm teaching a writing class and having lunch with his students, while Delilah and Celia spend the morning together walking the dogs, grocery shopping, and running errands, Delilah’s afternoon to be full of giving piano lessons.

Celia and Delilah are having lunch in the kitchen when the phone rings.

“Buenos,” says Celia to the caller.

“Hi,” says a man with a pleasing baritone. “My name is Thomas Darling. May I speak to Delilah, please?”

“Uno momento,” says Celia, handing the phone to Delilah and mouthing the name Thomas.

“Hello?” says Delilah, clutching the phone.

“Hi Delilah. Thom Darling. Wondering if you’re free any time this week. To do something. With me.”

“I… I… well… probably,” she says, flabbergasted. “Um… I teach at the farm three mornings a week and I give piano lessons three afternoons a week and on Saturday, and I’m sitting the Fletcher Gallery on Thursday and Sunday, but… can I call you back?”

“That would be great,” he says, sounding nervous. “Got a pen handy?”

“Hold on,” she says, taking pen and paper from Celia. “Okay I’m ready.”

He gives her his number, they hang up, and Delilah says, “I really like his voice.”

“So do I,” says Celia, who makes a prayer every day that Delilah will find a partner before Nathan dies.

“I’m overwhelmed,” says Delilah, going to Celia for a hug.

“Just remember,” says Celia, holding her. “He’s overwhelmed, too.”

“He’s actually quite handsome,” says Delilah, relaxing in Celia’s embrace. “To me anyway.”

*

An associate professor of Wildlife Biology at Cornell, Thomas Darling is, by most measures, a strange cat. Tall and broad-shouldered with unruly red hair, he is an authority on foxes, prefers animals to humans, lives in Ithaca in a commune with six other material minimalist Buddhists, and believes jet travel and the continuing manufacture of internal combustion engines are crimes against the biosphere.

He’s been in two one-year relationships with fellow Buddhist material minimalists, both relationships ending when his partners wanted to get married and have children, something Thomas couldn’t imagine with either of them.

“How did you get here if you don’t believe in flying in jets or driving cars?” asks Delilah, sitting opposite Thomas at a small table in Happy Day Café & Bakery in downtown Mercy, cold and rainy outside, the café toasty.

“I flew in a jet and rented an electric car,” says Thomas, blithely admitting his crime. “It’s not that I don’t believe in flying, I think it’s immoral, and to atone for my immoral behavior I will pay for the planting of five hundred trees to mitigate some of the damage I did to Mother Earth by coming out here in a jet instead of on the train.”

“The earth would be covered with trees if everybody who flew did that,” she says, loving the concept of people planting trees every time they fly or drive anywhere. “Wouldn’t it?”

“Alas, no,” he says, shaking his head. “We’re losing trees by the billions every year. But enough about the death of the biosphere, tell me about you.”

“I’m a musician and a composer and an artist,” she says, trying not to think about the death of the biosphere. “And I dance. For the first thirteen years of my life I was cloistered with a series of nannies in Manhattan or Malibu, depending on the whims of my mother who was a movie star and is now deceased. For the last twelve years I’ve been living in Mercy with Nathan and Celia who I plan to live with, or live very close to, until they both die, and I hope that won’t be any time soon because to say I’m emotionally dependent on them would be the understatement of the century. And I would rather not tell you my mother’s name.”

“Daisy told me,” says Thomas, referring to the wife of his brother Michael— Daisy and Michael part of the Ziggurat Farm collective. “I haven’t seen any of your mother’s movies, but a few winters ago I rented a cabin in New Hampshire and was snowed in for three days. I had nothing else to do but try to stay warm, so I read the few things they had there to read, including a collection of magazines with pictures of your mother along with the usual superficial interviews, so I know what she looked like and know she gave money to Planned Parenthood, which was good of her, but I must say, for my taste, you are far more beautiful than your mother.”

“You never met her when she was twenty-five,” says Delilah, loathing Thomas’s tone of voice and his false surety. “And to be honest, your summation of your knowledge of my mother strikes me as flippant, crass, condescending, and obscenely insensitive. Would you agree?”

“Yes,” he says, his bravado vanishing. “I guess I am crass and insensitive and flippant. I apologize. I don’t intend to be, but I often am. Pompous is another word people use to describe me, the entire expression being pompous self-righteous know-it-all asshole.” He closes his eyes. “I really don’t want to be this way, but apparently I am.”

“You weren’t the day we met,” she says, liking him a little more than she did a moment ago. “Maybe you think you have to be someone you’re not in order to impress people or not seem too vulnerable. Men, in general, seem to have difficulty being vulnerable and open to intimacy, the prototypical male pretending to know everything lest he seem weak for not knowing. And by the way, when I say open to intimacy I don’t mean sexual intimacy, I mean emotional intimacy.”

“I have that difficulty,” he says, nodding. “Being open to intimacy. Either kind.”

“Do you know why?” she says, heartened by his willingness to be honest with her.

“Emotional intimacy wasn’t modeled for me by anyone when I was growing up,” he says with a plaintive shrug. “Quite the opposite. I was rewarded for being smarter than most of my peers, but never for being open to intimacy. I’m ten years younger than Caroline and twelve years younger than Michael, and by the time I came along they were too busy fending for themselves to teach me about emotional anything, though they were both tolerant of me and occasionally kind. My nannies were competent, and one of them was very sweet to me, though I was dreadful to her. My parents were busy elsewhere most of the time and I didn’t know anything about emotional intimacy or love or tenderness until I started studying animals when I was thirteen and audited a class at the university where my parents were professors. Foxes, for instance, are devoted and loving to their pups in ways that would be considered incredible if they were humans. In fact, foxes were my first role models regarding tenderness and devotion to others.”

“Nathan defines love as devotion to the miraculous nature of the other,” she says, liking Thomas more than ever now. “Whether the other is a fox or a dog or a person or a tree or a place or anything. What do you think about that?”

“I think I’d like to meet Nathan and ask him lots of questions,” says Thomas, in awe of her. “I think he’s right. And I wish somebody had modeled such devotion for me when I was growing up so I could have practiced that my whole life instead of practicing being a pompous self-righteous know-it-all asshole.”

“It’s not too late to change,” she says, deciding she’d like to try being in a relationship with him. “You’re still quite young, you know.”

“I’m going to try to change,” he says sincerely. “Whether you go out with me again or not.”

“Was that a roundabout way of asking me out again?” she asks, arching her eyebrow. “One might interpret it that way.”

“It wasn’t,” he says, shaking his head. “It was my clumsy way of saying I’m going to try to change, not just to please you and hope you like me, but because you’ve helped me see who I might become.”

“Well then I’ll ask you,” she says, wanting to kiss him. “Would you like to come for supper tomorrow night? Celia and I are making chicken enchiladas. Raul and Caroline are coming, too.”

“I’d love to,” he says, feeling he might cry, though he never cries. “What time?”

“We’ll eat around six, but come at five-thirty for hoovry doovries as we call hors d’oeuvres at our house.”

 *

Raul is fifty-six, a famous chef with a world-renowned restaurant in Mercy. Until three months ago, all his many relationships with women had been purely sexual and none ever lasted more than a couple months. Now he has been involved with Caroline, Michael and Thomas’s sister, for three months and he is happier than he’s ever been, not that he was unhappy before he became involved with Caroline.

“Except for one year of therapy when I was in my twenties, I have lived my entire life on the surface of my feelings,” says Raul, talking with his kitchen manager and sous chef Maurice. “But with Caroline I’m often swimming in my feelings as they mingle with hers, and it feels divine.”

Raul is sitting with Maurice at a counter in the glorious kitchen of Ocelot, Raul’s restaurant housed in a large old Victorian overlooking Mercy Bay, the restaurant closed Mondays and Tuesdays, this a Tuesday afternoon. They have just made a list of food and supplies for Maurice to order, and Raul will soon leave for supper at Nathan and Celia’s.

Maurice is a big Frenchman in his fifties who has worked with Raul for seventeen years and lives in a large apartment above the restaurant with his partner Jerome, a choreographer who spends every other month in San Francisco and teaches ballroom dancing at the Mercy Rec Center when he’s in town.

“I’m glad you’re in love,” says Maurice, who expects Raul to dump Caroline any day now. “Jerome is thrilled, of course, but then he’s a romantic and I, as you know, am a cynic. Even so, it’s nice to see you so happy. The atmosphere in the restaurant has greatly improved because you are. I’m sure you’ve noticed.”

“I have,” says Raul, who has long known his mood sets the standard for his staff, and this in turn resounds to the patrons. “We are not so somber and serious.”

“Though not yet frivolous,” says Maurice, laughing. “May we stop short of frivolity.”

Silence falls—the ocean roaring faintly in the background, both of them thinking about Raul hoping to buy out the wealthy couple who initially financed Ocelot and brought Raul and Maurice to Mercy four years ago.

“I made my offer yesterday,” says Raul, ending the silence. “No word yet, but Darlene did not sound displeased. I know she’s weary of making the long trek from Santa Barbara, and Frank has lost interest in coming here. The golfing is not good and he is too far from his mistress. And most importantly, their sycophants much prefer the warmer clime of Santa Barbara and the opulence of the palace in Montecito.”

“Fingers crossed,” says Maurice, who loves the Ocelot kitchen and loves living far from the madding crowd, his desire to be in the mix in San Francisco gone now.

*

Caroline and Thomas drive to Nathan and Celia’s together in Caroline’s little blue pickup, both of them staying at Michael and Daisy’s house along with their parents Marlene and Everett who are visiting until a few days after Thanksgiving.

“You seem tense,” says Caroline, uncharacteristically wearing a dress, a slinky one at that. “I’m not used to seeing you tense. Are you?”

“Maybe so,” says Thom, rolling his shoulders and feeling them ache. “I feel like I’m about to meet Gandhi.”

“More like St. Francis,” says Caroline, thinking of Nathan standing in the apple orchard directing the pruning of the trees, “with a sense of humor and a beautiful wife.”

Thomas looks at her. “I’ve never felt this way about anybody.”

“We are speaking of Delilah,” says Caroline, taking the curves slowly, rain falling.

Thomas nods. “Do you like her?”

“Hello?” says Caroline, giving him an are-you-nuts?-of-course-I-do look. “If I wasn’t insanely in love with Raul, and it is insane of me to persist in this doomed relationship, I’d be longing for Delilah, except she doesn’t seem interested in me that way. Even so, when we’re in the soaking tub together I can’t keep my hands off her.”

“I’ve never liked your boyfriends,” says Thomas, very much hoping to one day be in a tub with Delilah, “and I always like your girlfriends. I guess that says more about me than about you.”

“I’ve never liked my boyfriends either,” she says, matter-of-factly. “Until now. And this one is sixteen years older than I am.”

“Is that the main sticking point for you?”

“That and he lives here and not in New Hampshire where I have my career.”

“How funny we both came out here to visit our big brother and fell in love with people who would never in a million years move to where we live.”

“Ha ha,” says Caroline, pulling up in front of Nathan and Celia’s just as Raul arrives on foot, her heart thumping when she sees him—love, real love, not giving a hoot about age or location.

*

During supper Raul gazes intently at Celia and says, “Your enchilada sauce is impeccable. The balance of heat and the many flavors is fantastic. I would be most grateful if you would show me how to make this sauce.” He turns to Delilah who is also uncharacteristically wearing a dress and is too alluring for words. “And your guacamole is just how I like it. Bravo.”

“Gracias,” says Celia, giving Delilah a can-you-believe-it? look. “My grandmother is smiling in heaven.”

“Gracias también,” says Delilah, clinking her wine glass with Celia’s. “Celia taught me, though I tend to use a bit more lemon than she and a bit less onion.”

After more food talk, Nathan says to Thomas, “Delilah tells us you’re an authority on foxes. Seen any at the farm yet?”

“I’ve seen their spore,” says Thomas, tearing his eyes away from Delilah to focus on Nathan, “and paw prints in the mud near the chicken coop, but I have yet to see one.”

“Are the local ones the kind you’ve studied?” asks Nathan, who has a special love for foxes.

“I have studied Gray Foxes, yes,” says Thomas, who all during supper has been thinking he would gladly give up his academic career and be a grocery clerk or a house painter or work in a hardware store if Delilah would consent to be in a relationship with him, “though not to the extent I’ve studied Red Foxes, which are ubiquitous in New England. And you might be interested to know that Red Foxes and your Gray Foxes are only remotely related and cannot interbreed.”

“That is interesting,” says Nathan, seeing why Delilah likes Thomas. “I used to prune a big old plum tree that every few years attracted a mother fox and her pups when the fruit started to ripen, and I was amazed by what monkeys those baby foxes were, scrambling around in the branches, hanging from their paws as they knocked the plums to the ground and then scampered down to eat them. Amazing.”

“I’d love to see that,” says Thomas, beaming at Nathan. “Foxes are considered semi-arboreal, no doubt a saving trait in those times when large predators abounded.”

“Thom is also an excellent artist,” says Delilah, giving Thomas a loving look. “The drawing he did of Henri with his accordion and wearing a feathery headdress is exquisite.”

“Oh I’d love to see it,” says Raul, speaking to Thomas. “I need a drawing for a wall in my restaurant that could use some cheering up.”

“I’ll show it to you tomorrow,” says Thomas, his life as a person devoted to others unfolding before him.

fin

Mystery Love

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Uncategorized

Who Is Your Audience?

Nathan is eighty-five, spry, in full command of his senses, and very much enjoying his less strenuous life after fifty years of pruning fruit trees for a living. He lives with his wife Celia, seventy-nine, a retired nurse, in a little house on the outskirts of the small northern California coastal town of Mercy. They’ve lived in their comfy two-bedroom home since they married fifty-three years ago, and for the last twelve years they’ve shared their house with Delilah, who is now twenty-five. Their one child, Calypso, fifty-two, a nurse at Mercy Hospital, lives nearby with her computer-savvy husband Paul and their teenaged son Carlos.

A poet of some renown in his late twenties, Nathan writes for an hour or so every day as he has for the last sixty-five years. He posts poems and short stories on his blog whenever he finishes one he especially likes. Every now and then he hears from someone who enjoyed one of his postings, and he thinks of these communiqués from afar as the universe kissing him. He teaches writing twice a week to the Ziggurat Farm kids Arturo, Vivienne, Henri, and Irenia, and occasionally lends his editing skills to local writers who appreciate his way with words.

*

On a foggy morning in mid-July, Nathan sits at his kitchen table with Daisy, who is forty and moved with her husband Michael into the house and property adjoining Ziggurat Farm nine months ago, just five months before their baby girl Jenna was born. Daisy has come to see Nathan today to find out what he thinks of her novel she gave him to read two weeks ago.

While Celia carries four-month-old Jenna around in the living room, singing softly to her in Spanish, Nathan asks Daisy, “So who is this book for?”

“What do you mean?” asks Daisy, confused by the question. “I wrote it to try to get published.”

“I understand, but… who did you have in mind while you were writing it?”

“Oh,” says Daisy, frowning. “I guess my agent.”

“Your agent,” says Nathan, surprised by her answer. “Is she a friend of yours?”

“No, I don’t really know her,” says Daisy, realizing she knows nothing about her agent except she’s a literary agent in New York and represents several published writers. “Why do you ask?”

“Just curious.” He sips his tea. “What did your agent say about this book?”

“Well…” Daisy clears her throat. “She sent me a list of things I need to change before she’ll show it to anyone. You know… things like… I need to beef up the romance between Arno and Miranda and make the characters of Harmon and Cid more overtly evil and the characters of Miranda and Jessica more obviously good. But she likes the writing and thinks the plot is strong for the first two-thirds, and then she says things kind of fizzle out and I need to wrap things up much sooner and with more of a bang. To make it more saleable.”

“I see,” says Nathan, looking at the title page of the manuscript: Racing Through Darkness by Daisy Darling. “May I ask who your writing role models are?”

“My favorite authors?”

“Yeah, writers you learned from.”

“Well I decided to be a writer after I went on an Edith Wharton binge my last two years of college. I read everything she ever published over and over again, including her most obscure short stories. And then I had a fling with Thomas Hardy and Dickens, and then I was obsessed with Irish short story writers, and then Bashevis Singer and somewhere in there Steinbeck and Faulkner and Carson McCullers and Truman Capote, and then I read lots of contemporary women writers, and when I finally got an agent—took me seven years to convince someone to represent me—she said I should religiously read the books on the New York Times bestseller list, so I’ve been trying to do that for the last three years.”

“How has that gone?” asks Nathan, sounding concerned.

“Well…” Daisy laughs uneasily. “Interesting.”

“Mostly murder mysteries and thrillers and horror books. Yeah?”

“Not all of them. Every once in while there’s one about a person… you know, overcoming incredible odds and… to be totally honest, I don’t actually read most of them. I skim them. The writing is…” She hesitates. “Not great. Usually.”

Nathan thinks for a moment. “Daisy, I don’t think I can help you. I don’t know anything about commercial writing.”

“Did you hate my book?” she asks, her jaw trembling.

“I wouldn’t say I hated it,” he says, shaking his head. “When you gave me the manuscript you said you felt there was something missing and you couldn’t figure out what it was. And for me what was missing… was you.”

“Me?” she says, horrified. “What do you mean?”

“I mean your voice, your feelings, your take on reality.” He taps the manuscript. “I think this was an attempt to write something you thought your agent would want to try to sell. But I couldn’t find you in here. And I don’t know anything about these kinds of books except I’m not the audience for them. I’m an audience for the radiance of your soul. And though that may sound grandiose, it isn’t. I listen to you talking and telling stories and you flood the world with the radiance of who you are. That’s what I’m an audience for. That’s what makes a good poem or a good story for me. Not the plot. Not the genre. Not imitations of tired old formulas, but the miraculous nature of life expressed in words.”

“But they won’t publish the radiance of who I am,” she says, crying.

“Aye, there’s the rub,” he says, nodding. “They used to, when all those writers you named got published. They used to hunt for books and authors full of the radiance, and that’s when all sorts of weirdo geniuses got published. But now the radiance has got to get through in other ways, which I’m sure it does, just not very often through conventional channels.”

She stops crying and looks at him. “You’re saying I wasted twenty years of my life.”

“Not at all,” he says, shaking his head. “You know how to build a house now and you can build another one if you want. And I’ll bet you if you build it for someone you know and love, they’ll want to live there. And I probably will, too.”

She takes a deep breath to dispel her tears. “Sometimes I’ll be writing and go into a kind of trance, and I’ll write pages and pages that have nothing to do with the book I’m trying to write. And I’ll read those pages and be amazed, though I never think they’re anything but transcriptions of waking dreams.”

“That’s the boss stuff, Daisy.”

“You think so?” she says, turning to watch Celia standing at the window with baby Jenna in her arms, the fog giving way to sunshine.

*

After graduating from college with a degree in English, and until she inherited a fortune from her mother two years ago, Daisy worked as a secretary in the Biology department at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where her husband Michael was a graduate student, then a lecturer, and most recently a professor of Ornithology and Wildlife Biology. Daisy worked on her short stories and novels in the evenings and on weekends, and belonged to a group of writers that met every two weeks to share their writing and encourage each other to keep going.

Daisy and Michael were saving money to buy a house and have a baby and give Daisy two years as a stay-at-home mom when Daisy’s mother unexpectedly died and left them a huge pile of money.

Now they own a beautiful house on three acres adjacent to Ziggurat Farm on the edge of a vast forest of redwoods and firs and spruce and hemlocks. Michael is completing his third book about owls and beginning research on Ospreys, their baby Jenna is happy and healthy, and Daisy, until a few minutes ago, thought she would soon be starting another rewrite of her novel following the directives of her literary agent.

But now, as she sits in Nathan and Celia’s living room nursing Jenna and waiting for Michael to come drive her home, she knows she will not be revising her novel and may never write another one. And though she feels sad about this ending to a very long chapter of her life, she also feels profoundly relieved, as if some part of her always knew she wasn’t meant to be an imitator.

She closes her eyes and surrenders to the lovely sensation of her daughter suckling, the fire crackling in the fireplace, and when she hears Nathan open the door and greet Michael and invite them for lunch, she doesn’t open her eyes until Michael kisses her forehead and whispers, “Shall we stay for lunch, darling?”

“We shall,” she says, seeing how tired he looks from the months of getting up three times a night to bring the crying baby to her. “Guess what?”

“You had a good time with Nathan,” he says, relieved to see her happy again after weeks of anguish.

“Yes,” she says, nodding, “and I’ve decided to let my novel go and start anew. Only from now on I’ll write what I want to write and not what anyone else tells me to write.”

*

A few days later, Daisy puts Jenna in what Michael calls the all-terrain stroller, the most heavy duty stroller they could find, leashes their Golden Retriever pup Figaro, and takes baby human and baby dog on the path to the one-acre terraced vegetable garden where Andrea and Lisa and Irenia and Vivienne are working, all of them wearing long-sleeved shirts and shorts and sunhats.

Irenia and Vivienne ask Andrea if they can take a break from weeding to visit with Daisy and Jenna, and Andrea says, “Of course.”

Vivienne, who is a few months away from turning ten, lifts four-month-old Jenna out of the stroller—Jenna chuckling with delight because she especially loves Vivienne.

“Hello my darling precious new person,” says Vivienne, kissing Jenna’s cheek. “You who are possessed of the softest skin in the entire universe.”

Irenia, who is twelve and a foot taller than Vivienne, stands nearby waiting her turn to hold the baby.

“She’s growing so fast,” says Irenia, making no attempt, as she sometimes will, to hide her Russian accent. “Every time I see her she is a different person, and I just saw her two days ago.”

“I wonder if she would like a strawberry?” asks Vivienne, kissing Jenna again before handing her to Irenia. “Not to eat, of course, but to suck on. We’ll be very careful.”

“That’s fine,” says Daisy, sitting on a small wooden bench next to an expanse of voluptuous scarlet and burgundy gladioli.

Andrea and Lisa are thinning carrots several terraces up the gently sloping incline, and Lisa says something that makes Andrea laugh and Daisy hears They are a farm of women. Not that men don’t come to visit, they do, but the men rarely stay for long because they are not wanted here save for sex and to make the occasional child, male children sent away to the farms of men when they are no longer little boys.

*

When Jenna goes down for a nap in the early afternoon and Michael and his sister Caroline go on a hike, Daisy sits at the kitchen table and writes down the words she heard in the garden. But when she tries to write more than what she heard, nothing comes out.

“This is when I start forcing things,” she says, speaking aloud. “Trying to make up what I think should come next. But I’m not going to do that anymore. I’m not going to worry the words, as Nathan says.”

Thinking of Nathan and his invitation to come write with him, she goes in search of her phone. After looking in the bedroom and kitchen and living room she remembers she left her phone in the all-terrain stroller they store in the foyer where they hang their coats and keep their outdoor shoes.

As she’s fishing her phone out of the pocket on the backside of the stroller, she feels an urgency, almost a panic, to turn those lines she heard into something big and sensational, a book her agent will want to sell to a publisher, and she realizes that as long as she is ruled by this compulsion, she will never hear more of the story.

*

The next day after breakfast, Daisy nurses Jenna, leaves her with Michael, and drives to Nathan and Celia’s for tea and talk by the fire, the town of Mercy cloaked in dense fog.

Daisy tells Nathan and Celia and Delilah about her experience of hearing the beginning of a story, writing the lines down, and then feeling desperate to write more but only being able to think of what she describes as derivative guck.

“So what are you gonna do?” asks Nathan, sipping his tea.

“I guess I’ll have to unlearn my compulsion to force things,” says Daisy, having no idea how to do that.

“I think you’ll have to replace your compulsion with something else,” says Delilah, nodding thoughtfully. “I’ve been reading about brain maps and how we create synaptic patterns, actual maps in our brains, by repeating physical and emotional patterns, and these maps are the drivers of our neurology, our operating system, so to speak. And it seems the more we repeat something, the more deeply etched the brain map for that particular thing and the harder it is to override the commands of that map. But if we create new brain maps by repeating new behaviors hundreds and thousands of times, and we stop repeating the old behaviors, our old brain maps eventually grow fainter and less dominant, though they never go away completely.”

“Which is why we can still ride a bike even if we haven’t ridden one in twenty years,” says Nathan, trying to remember the last time he rode a bike. “The brain map we made when we learned to ride is still there.”

“I think also,” says Celia in her quiet way, “you need to end your connection with your agent.”

Daisy gasps. “Oh no. It took me so long to find someone to represent me. She won’t care if she doesn’t hear from me for a few months.”

“But isn’t she the grand manifestation of your compulsion?” asks Delilah, going to heat more water for a second round of tea. “Isn’t she fueling the urgency that causes you to force things?” She cackles. “The wicked witch of the east.”

“Oh let’s not make her wicked,” says Nathan, laughing. “Let’s just say she may be keeping you anchored somewhere you’d rather sail away from.”

“I really don’t think it’s necessary,” says Daisy, terrified of not having an agent.

“Then stay with her,” says Nathan, simply. “See how things go.”

*

A few nights later, Michael and Daisy and Jenna and Caroline are having supper in the farmhouse with the seven farm residents plus Irenia, the feast prepared by Philip with assistance from Henri and Irenia.

Mid-supper, Arturo, who is about to turn twelve, describes something that happened as he and Vivienne were closing up the chicken coop for the night and gathering eggs.

“There are two hens,” says Arturo, his story-telling style modeled on that of an erudite British fellow who used to be a mainstay of the collective. “One is Marilyn Monroe and the other is either Queen Elizabeth or Marie Antoinette. I never can tell those two apart. In any case, they are always the last hens to go inside to roost for the night, and sometimes we have to shoo them in, which we had to do tonight, which is when we saw the fox.”

“We think the fox was a she,” says Vivienne, taking up the tale, “because she was not very big, but definitely not a kit and certainly big enough to kill a chicken.”

“She was just sitting there in the high grass on the edge of the clearing,” says Arturo, looking at his father Philip. “Calm and unafraid and waiting patiently for the right moment to leap over the fence into the scratch yard and grab one of those hens.”

“Where were the dogs?” ask Marcel, Henri’s French father. “Don’t tell me. They were in here by the fire. Old dogs in retirement.”

“Alexandra was with us,” says Vivienne, speaking of her five-year old Golden Retriever, “and she definitely saw the fox, but she didn’t even bark. It was very strange, as if she and the fox had come to an agreement.”

“So we need to start getting the hens in a half-hour earlier,” says Andrea, who would hate to lose either of her premiere egg producers. “I’ll write the new closing time on your chore sheets.”

“Our brother Thom,” says Caroline, who loves living here and never wants to go back to New Hampshire where she is a professor of Botany, “wrote a book about foxes. He considers them a higher form of life than humans. He wants to come visit soon and meet Jenna and see what we’re all raving about, but he’s teaching summer session and then fall classes start soon after, so it may be a while. He’s in Ithaca. At Cornell.”

“We’d love to read his book,” says Henri, who has a secret crush on Caroline, though she is thirty years his senior. “Can we get it from the library?”

“I doubt it,” says Michael, who is constantly amazed by the sophistication of the farm kids. “I have a copy. It’s rather technical, but you’re welcome to borrow it and I’ll be happy to translate the jargon for you.”

“Thom is working on another book about foxes for the general public,” says Caroline, giving Henri a big-eyed smile, “but that won’t be out for years, assuming he can ever find a publisher.”

“I love the word jargon,” says Arturo, looking at Henri and Vivienne and Irenia. “Lets name our next dog or cat Jargon.”

“I think it would be an excellent name for a male,” says Irenia, holding Jenna on her knee and gently bouncing her. “But it doesn’t sound right for a female.”

“You’re right,” says Henri, raising his voice as he always does before he makes a joke. “The female version would be Jargonella.”

“Excuse me,” says Daisy, getting up from the table. “I’ll be right back.”

While the conversation rages, Daisy hurries to the all-terrain stroller, gets out her notebook, and writes The talk turns to naming the new dog the women got from Old Martha who breeds Malamutes with wolves to make protectors for the farms of women.

When Daisy returns to the table, Michael takes her hand. “You okay?”

“Fine,” she says, smiling at their daughter so happy with Irenia. “Just wanted to write something down before I forgot.”

*

The next day while Jenna is napping, Daisy carries her phone out on the deck, gazes at the fabulous forest descending to the sea, and taps the number of her agent in New York.

“Daisy,” says Gwen, coming on the line. “Call you back in ten.”

“Okay,” says Daisy, knowing the universe is providing these ten minutes to test her resolve.

As she waits, Daisy thinks of her mother Doris who raised Daisy single-handedly and cheerfully while working in a Ford assembly plant, how proud she was of Daisy for being a writer. “Takes courage to do something with no guarantee you’ll succeed,” said Doris a year or so before she died. “But it’s what you love, so go for it.”

Daisy answers her vibrating phone.

“What’s up?” says Gwen who is simultaneously answering emails.

“I’ve decided to stop working with you,” says Daisy, bracing herself for an angry retort.

“No, that’s my line,” says Gwen, laughing a little and ceasing to type. “Too much baby, not enough writing time? I’m happy to wait for the smoke to clear. Hate to lose you when we’re getting so close.”

“I’m going in a different direction now,” says Daisy, smiling at the truth of that. “I really appreciate all the help you gave me.”

“No problem,” says Gwen, curtly. “I’ll email you the quit document to sign and… good luck.”

*

On a warm morning in mid-August, Daisy and Nathan are sitting opposite each other at Nathan’s kitchen table, Celia carrying five-month-old Jenna around the garden visiting flowers with her.

Nathan and Daisy are writing together, each writing two lines of a story on a sheet of typing paper, then exchanging the papers and writing the next two lines of each story, and so on, back and forth until they reach the bottoms of their pages and wrap their stories up with two final lines.

When they finish writing, they each read aloud the story they ended up with. One of the stories doesn’t do much for either of them, but the other story…  

*

Frederick wasn’t sure Amelia wanted to go out

with him, so he didn’t ask her for fear she would

say yes and turn out to be a psychic black hole

and suck all the joy out of his life and make him

want to become a monk, something he often

had nightmares about. You see, Frederick loved

wearing flamboyant colorful clothing and having

sex with women, and Amelia was just exactly

a woman, which was just what Frederick was

looking for. She had two arms, two legs, two

adorable dogs named Gormag and Fitzroy

and her voice was husky and warm and when

she laughed the earth shook and made Frederick

whimper like a dog hearing fireworks exploding on

the eve of the ascension, not to mention

making him wildly amorous and ready to

throw caution to the wind and sleep with

someone he knew had slept with

German aristocrats, rock stars, and women

who enjoyed dressing as men and behaving

like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Yet

he didn’t ask her out, though he wanted to

more than anything he’d ever wanted, except

for one thing: to play boogie-woogie piano

naked on a warm summer night for a

gathering of his favorite writers, most of

them dead, but resurrected especially

for the occasion.

fin

Whoopsie Doopsie

Categories
Uncategorized

People Go Away

Everything happened so quickly, the denizens of Ziggurat Farm, grownups and children alike, are having a hard time adjusting to the new reality.

In mid-September, Hilda, who just turned eighty-five, told Philip and Lisa she was frightened by how forgetful she was becoming and wanted to move back to Berkeley and live in a senior care facility. Hilda’s daughter Tamara and Tamara’s partner Celine then decided not to buy the Richardson’s place in Mercy and instead move to Berkeley and live in Hilda’s house just a few miles from the senior care facility—and by late September the three of them were gone.

Then two weeks later, the very British Richardsons, Constance and Joseph, bid the farm gang adieu and moved back to England, their house in Mercy selling in one day for five times what they paid for it ten years ago.

So now the cottage near the farmhouse is empty save for Lisa’s massage studio, two thousand dollars a month is no longer coming into the farm coffers from Hilda, the children are without a grandmother, the grownups without a mother, Aunt Tamara and Aunt Celine are no longer daily visitors, Joseph will never more recite for the children his favorite lines from Shakespeare as they stroll with him on the beach at the mouth of the Mercy River, nor will he give them twice-weekly drawing lessons, and there will be no more tea parties with Constance, no more learning to speak in the manner of erudite upper crust Brits, and no more piano concerts from Delilah on the Richardsons’ fabulous Steinway grand.

*

On a Tuesday evening after supper in mid-October, a week or so after Joseph and Constance left for England, Henri, who is ten, asks his parents Marcel and Andrea if he can spend the night with Arturo and Vivienne, something he often does on weekends but rarely does during the week.

“No dear,” says Andrea, knowing her son is distraught about losing five of his favorite people. “It’s a school night.”

“I don’t want to go to our house,” he says, his sleep bothered by nightmares since Hilda and then Joseph moved away. “It’s too far from Arturo and Vivienne. Can’t we stay in the cottage?”

“We have no beds there,” says Marcel, who feels helpless to ease his son’s sorrow about the loss of Hilda and Joseph, both of whom Henri adored.

“Well we should,” says Henri, angrily. “We should live in the cottage. We’re here for most of the day anyway. The garden is here, the orchard is here, the barn and the wine and the chickens are here. The dogs mostly stay here. My best friends are here. Your best friends are here. Why can’t we live here instead of all the way on the other side of the property?” Having said this, he bursts into tears, and Vivienne bursts into tears, too.

And though this may seem like a fairly insignificant moment in the grand scheme of things, as Joseph was fond of saying, quite the opposite is true, for Henri’s plea causes the four adults to simultaneously realize that if Andrea and Marcel and Henri did move into the cottage, the other house, along with three of the farm’s eight acres, could be sold for a million dollars or more, money that would support the farm and the creative efforts of the collective for many years to come.

*

When the children are finally asleep, Henri having prevailed in his wish to stay with Arturo and Vivienne, Marcel opens a bottle of their exquisite Ziggurat Farm pinot noir and he and Andrea and Philip and Lisa gather by the fire in the living room to discuss the possibility of selling the house where Marcel and Andrea have lived since the four of them took possession of the two contiguous properties ten years ago.

“The Richardson’s got 1.9 million for their place,” says Andrea, who can’t believe she hadn’t thought of this until now. “We might get 1.2. Possibly more.”

“I love the cottage,” says Marcel, who is more discombobulated by the thought of selling the house than he was by the loss of five of his closest friends. “But is it big enough? Where would Lisa give massages?”

“If we sell your house,” says Lisa, who is weary of being a masseuse, “I can work here in the living room and only giving one massage a day instead of three.”

“If the cottage is too small for you, we can add another room or two,” says Philip, who worries about Lisa, her hands aching all the time now.

“And we can finally publish Philip’s cookbook,” says Andrea, bowing her head and crying.

“We will do this, my love,” says Marcel, putting his arms around Andrea. “And I’ll only wait tables three nights a week, but I’m not stopping entirely this time. I like the work and I like making money.”

“What are you thinking?” asks Lisa, looking at Philip.

“I think we should let this simmer for a day or two,” he says calmly. “Then we’ll make a careful assessment of our annual expenses and what we might spend on any projects we want to pursue, sell the house, see how much we get, and proceed accordingly.”

“Yes,” says Marcel, nodding in agreement.

“But we will publish your book,” says Andrea, gazing steadfastly at Philip. “That is my number one priority.”

*

“I think it’s a great idea,” says Nathan, sitting at his kitchen table with Philip and Lisa who just dropped the kids at school and came to confer with Nathan and Celia and Delilah about the plan to sell Andrea and Marcel’s house. “But beware your new neighbors.”

“What do you mean?” asks Lisa, smiling curiously at Nathan. “We haven’t sold the place yet. We just got the idea last night.”

“I understand,” says Nathan, sipping his tea. “But if you do sell the place, someone might move in who hates dogs and loves guns and shoots your dogs. Or they might be commercial pot growers and have guns and pit bulls that kill your dogs. Or they might be reactionary Republicans who use pesticides and herbicides that float over and taint your organic garden and kill all the bees for miles around. Ideally you would handpick the people you sell the house to, but who do you know and love who has a million bucks to spend on a house in the middle of nowhere?”

“They know me,” says Delilah, making coffee in the kitchen. “Only I think they want more than a million, and that’s all I have. And once I spend the million I won’t have anything and wouldn’t be able to afford the property taxes etcetera, and I don’t really want to live alone in a great big house.” She smiles lovingly at Nathan and Celia. “I’d much rather stay right where I am.”

“We hadn’t thought of problematic neighbors,” says Philip, laughing. “But then we hadn’t thought of selling the house until Henri opened our eyes to the possibility.”

“You could describe what kind of neighbors you’d like,” suggests Celia, taking a pan of blueberry muffins out of the oven, “and put a notice on the Mercy list serve. Someone local might have friends or relatives who want to move here. We’re becoming a haven for people escaping the inland heat and fires.”

“That’s a very good idea,” says Lisa, looking at Philip. “Make a local search before we put it on the market.”

“A ritual would be good, too,” says Nathan, his eyes twinkling. “Call in the beneficent spirits to bless the house and the land. That always works.”

*

On the following Monday, one of Philip and Marcel’s two days off from their jobs as waiters at Ocelot, a most exclusive restaurant in Mercy, the farm residents gather with Nathan and Celia and Delilah on the deck on the south side of Marcel and Andrea and Henri’s house, and Nathan holds a wand of smoking sage and speaks to the nature spirits.

“Oh mysterious powers of creation,” says Nathan, who isn’t kidding but doesn’t sound overly serious. “We love you. We love the wind and the rain and the sunshine and the fog and the cold and the heat and the dead and the living and everything that goes into making life possible here. We love the animals and trees and stones and grasses and reptiles and amphibians and insects and everything there has ever been and ever will be.”

Nathan makes a few figure eights in the air with his smoking sage.

“So when these good folks offer this house and the surrounding land for sale, and by the way, they reforested those acres after the previous yahoos cut all the trees down, we ask for your help in attracting people who love you as much as we do and will be good stewards of this precious land and good neighbors to those gathered here today.”

He makes a few more figure eights with the sage and says, “Anybody want to say anything more?”

“Maybe they could have kids,” says Arturo, speaking to the surrounding forest. “Kids who would end up being our friends.”

“And nice dogs,” says Vivienne, addressing the meadow descending to the forest. “Not mean ones.”

“They would like us,” says Henri, gazing at a passing cloud, “even if they don’t have kids.”

“Maybe the husband is a wood carver and the wife is a modern dancer,” says Vivienne, imagining a man who looks like Joseph and a woman who looks like Tamara.

“I don’t know if we should be so specific,” says Arturo, looking to Nathan for guidance.

“Specific is fine,” says Nathan, matter-of-factly. “Nature spirits like suggestions.”

“I hope they will be kind,” says Marcel, who finds the ritual deeply moving. “Kind and good to this house and land.”

“Kind and generous,” says Lisa, imagining walking the path from the farmhouse to this house, bringing the new neighbors apples and muffins.

*

On the Wednesday evening following the Monday ritual, Philip is waiting on a couple in the southernmost room of the gorgeous old Victorian that is home to Ocelot, the snazzy restaurant not yet two years old. An immediate sensation, Ocelot has become a popular destination for wealthy people and movie stars and celebrities from around the world, as well as a mecca for culinary thrill seekers enamored of Raul Neves, the handsome chef renowned for his spectacular cuisine and liaisons with famous beauties.

The couple are Daisy, a darling woman in her thirties with short reddish brown hair, and Michael, an equally darling man with longish brown hair and a few years older than his darling wife, both full of questions about the food, the restaurant, Raul, and most of all about Mercy.

“We lived in Ann Arbor for thirteen years,” says Daisy, beaming at Philip. “That’s in Michigan.” She laughs nervously. “You probably knew that. Michael taught at the university. He’s an ornithologist and I’m a wannabe novelist. We’ve fallen madly in love with Mercy. The real estate market here is bonkers as I’m sure you know, but we’re determined to find something.”

“Do you have a particular bird you follow?” asks Philip, nodding politely to Michael.

“I do,” says Michael, pleased by the question. “I’ve written two books about owls and I hope to study ospreys once we get settled here.”

“Lots of those here,” says Philip, needing to attend another table. “If you’ll excuse me for a moment, I must refresh some goblets and then I’ll return to take your order.”

“Isn’t he stunning?” says Daisy, whispering to Michael. “Of course Raul would have someone like him as his waiter.” She looks around the tastefully appointed restaurant. “Pinch me. I can’t believe we’re here.”

“I feel immoral,” Michael confides quietly. “This meal is going to cost more than we used to spend on food for months. Not weeks. Months. Plural.”

“Yes, but we have enough now for a splurge now and then,” she whispers. “Until we buy our house and the baby’s born and then we’ll go back to being frugal. Sort of. But we don’t really have to because my mother left us so much.”

“I’d rather give our money to the Audubon Society than these folks,” he says, feeling out of place. “And you’re not a wannabe novelist. I wish you’d stop saying that. You’ve written three marvelous books. Just because the publishers are too stupid to see the worth of your writing doesn’t have anything to do with your talent.”

“How about this?” she says, pouting adorably. “However much we spend tonight we’ll give twice that to the Audubon Society? And you’ll relax and enjoy yourself. Say yes.”

“Yes,” he says, still crazy about her after fifteen years of marriage.

Philip returns and nods to indicate he’s ready to take their order.

“Do you recommend the chicken—I’m going to say this wrong—à l’ivoire?” says Daisy, wincing at her mispronunciation of the word.

“If you like a very rich sauce on a tender bird, oui,” says Philip, enjoying her attempt at the French. “But I must tell you the rock cod is spectacular tonight served with baby potatoes and vegetables from the farm where I live. If either of you like fish, the cod is not to be missed.”

“I’ll have the cod,” says Michael, intrigued by Philip. “You mentioned lots of ospreys. We’ve been here for ten days and we’ve yet to see one. Can you give us some leads?”

“Most of the ospreys are gone until spring,” says Philip, nodding to Michael. “But we know a few who spend the winter here.” He looks at Daisy. “The chicken à livoire for you?”

“Oh could you choose something else for me?” she says, pleadingly. “I don’t want to get the same thing as Michael, though I’ll certainly be tasting his fish. And a rich sauce on chicken might be, I don’t know… do you mind recommending something for me?”

Philip, who rarely chooses for a customer, gazes at Daisy for a moment and knows she will love the stuffed quail in a nest of straw potatoes more than anything else on the menu, though the dish costs two hundred and seventy dollars.

“For you, Madame,” he says, understanding this is no ordinary event in their lives, “I recommend the quail stuffed with truffles in a nest of straw potatoes, though it is quite dear.”

“Oh thank you,” she says, sighing with relief. “Yes, I’ll have that. And we want two different salads and if you’ll choose them I’ll be forever grateful.”

“And the wine?” asks Philip, turning to Michael who has the wine list.

“We’re not drinking alcohol at the moment,” says Michael, shrugging self-consciously. “Bubbly water’s fine.”

“Because I’m pregnant,” blurts Daisy. “We love wine, but I’m not drinking until a year after the baby’s born and neither is Michael. In solidarity with me. I told him he doesn’t have to not drink, but he insists.”

“Excellent,” says Philip, going out of character to laugh. “When I return with your bubbly I will tell you what I know about the local ospreys.”

“And your farm?” says Michael, hopefully. “We’d love to pick your brain about growing vegetables around here. We’re zealous gardeners.”

Philip bows and departs.

“The Audubon Society,” says Daisy, taking a deep breath, “will be thrilled with the check we’re sending them tomorrow.”

“They’d be even more thrilled if we had wine,” says Michael, perusing the wine list. “The cheapest glass of wine here is seventy dollars, and the cheapest bottle is a mere four hundred and forty.”

“But we don’t care,” says Daisy, her eyes full of tears. “Not for tonight anyway.”

*

Philip slips into bed a little after midnight, hoping not to wake Lisa, though she almost always wakes to give him a kiss before going back to sleep, tonight no exception.

“How was it?” she whispers.

“Good,” he says, greatly relieved to be home. “I think I may have found buyers for Marcel and Andrea’s house. Kind and generous people who love to garden and love birds and are going to have a baby soon.”

Lisa sits up. “Are you serious?”

“I am,” says Philip, laughing. “They’ll be calling tomorrow. I didn’t say anything about the house being for sale, but I know they’ll want it, and I know they have the money, and best of all… I know you’ll love them.”

“Wouldn’t that be amazing?” she says, growing amorous. “If you found our new neighbors at Ocelot?”

fin

The Hopeless Optimist

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The Great Transformation

In March, with the completion of the five-room cottage and bathhouse, Lisa and Philip and their children Arturo and Vivienne, move all their furniture and possessions from the farmhouse into the new cottage so the Ramirez brothers and their crew can begin what Philip calls The Great Transformation of the farmhouse

The south-facing walls are removed and the entire house is made sixteen feet wider, thereby doubling the size of the living room and kitchen, with a big bedroom and second bathroom being added to the east end of the house, a big deck to grace the south side, and a new roof for the entirety when the interior work is completed.

*

In April, with The Great Transformation well underway, Grandma Hilda moves from Berkeley to a small house in the village of Mercy where she will live until Philip and Lisa and kids move back into the farmhouse, after which she will move into their cottage.

Hilda’s daughter Tamara and Tamara’s partner Celine are planning a July move to a beach house a mile south of Mercy with the intention of buying the Richardson’s place a year or so from now when Joseph and Constance return to England for what Joseph frequently refers to as Our Final Chapter, to which Constance routinely responds, “Now don’t be morbid, dear.”

*

On a Wednesday afternoon in May, twenty-year-old Delilah, tall and beautiful, her long brown hair in a ponytail, is giving Vivienne, five-and-a-half and cute as a button, a piano lesson on the new upright in the cottage living room, Arturo having had the first piano lesson today, Henri’s lesson to follow.

Henri, six-and-a-half, and Arturo, “not quite eight” as he tells people when asked his age, though he is exactly seven-and-a-half, are kicking the soccer ball around in front of the barn, and inside the barn, Marcel, Henri’s father, is tasting the eight-month-old pinot noir from Barrel #7 and thinking in French This needs at least another six months, but my God it could be excellent.

In the large terraced vegetable and flower garden, Andrea, Henri’s mother, and Lisa, Vivienne and Arturo’s mother, are planting out lettuce starts from the greenhouse, both wearing wide-brimmed sunhats though the day is overcast and cool.

Philip, Vivienne and Arturo’s father, is in the farmhouse consulting with Oscar and Mario Ramirez about the long counter that will separate the kitchen from the dining area and living room, while five carpenters take a break on the half-finished deck and enjoy delicious oat bran and raisin muffins Philip made for them—muffins from one of the recipes in Philip’s nearly completed cookbook, working title Good Eats from Ziggurat Farm, working subtitle, more recipes for the somewhat ambitious cook.

And en route to the farm from their house a couple miles down the road, their old pickup laboring on the grade, are Nathan, who just celebrated his eightieth birthday, and Celia, seventy-four, and their little old dog Tennyson, bringing news they didn’t want to give Delilah on the phone.

“Can you tell her,” says Nathan as he parks near the cottage—the farm dogs coming to greet them. “I don’t think I can.”

“Si,” says Celia, nodding.

They get out of the old truck and Nathan sets Tennyson down on the ground so he can exchange sniffs with Jung the giant hound, Mimi the Golden Retriever, Alexandra the fast-growing Golden Retriever pup, and Goliath, who is not much bigger than Tennyson.

Hearing Henri and Arturo shout Hello to Nathan and Celia, Delilah concludes her duet with Vivienne and goes out on the front porch to greet Nathan and Celia, and seeing them upset, she hurries down the stairs asking, “What happened?”

Celia nods and cannot speak, and Delilah knows her mother is dead.

*

Delilah does not attend the lavish memorial service in Los Angeles for her famous movie star mother Margot Cunningham, and in June, Margot’s longtime personal assistant Joan and two of Margot’s lawyers come to Mercy and meet with Delilah and Nathan and Philip and Constance in a small meeting room at Mercy Savings, the only bank in town.

The lawyers inform Delilah that her mother’s trust leaves ten million dollars to Joan, two hundred million dollars to Planned Parenthood, and fifty million dollars to Delilah, with any remaining monies and future residuals from Margot’s many movies to go to Planned Parenthood.

When Joan and the lawyers offer to invest Delilah’s inheritance for her, Delilah says, “No thank you. I would like the money deposited in my account here at Mercy Savings.”

Delilah then signs a few documents that Constance and Philip first look over to make sure all is well, and Joan says, “I’m so sorry for your loss, Delilah. Your mother was a great person. If there’s anything I can do for you, please let me know.”

“Should anyone inquire of my whereabouts,” says Delilah, eager to be done with the meeting, “please tell them I’m living abroad.”

*

Delilah is sitting on the floor with her back against the sofa in the living room of the little house Hilda is renting on a quiet street in Mercy, and Hilda, eighty-three, her long silvery hair in a braid, is sitting in a cushioned rocking chair a few feet from Delilah, the town cloaked in fog as is often the case on mornings in July.

“The truth is,” says Delilah, pausing mid-sentence. “Well… who knows what the truth is, but the thing is, I stopped caring about her except in a mythic way after just a few weeks of knowing Nathan and Celia.”

“Can you explain what you mean by mythic?” asks Hilda, who was a psychotherapist for fifty years and still occasionally offers sessions to friends.

“Yes, but first I need to tell you who I was at thirteen when my mother brought me here,” says Delilah, remembering virtually every detail of her life these last seven years. “I was terrified of other people, yet desperate to know other people. I was especially afraid of men, though they fascinated me. I stuttered constantly and thought I might want to be male instead of female. My mother was almost never home and I had no one I could talk to about anything that really mattered to me. And until we escaped from our townhouse in New York, I wanted to kill myself because I was so lonely and miserable.”

“But your mother was not yet mythic to you.”

“I haven’t forgotten your question,” says Delilah, smiling at Hilda. “I just want you to know from whence I came.”

“Of course,” says Hilda, smiling at Delilah’s choice of words. “Take your time.”

“So we flew to San Francisco, my mother and Wanda and I, Wanda my caretaker who didn’t really like me and certainly didn’t understand me, and then we made that crazy long drive here in the dark to the house my mother bought over the phone, the Richardson’s place, and after two cold rainy days of feeling completely lost, my mother and I went to Nathan and Celia’s house because the realtor said Nathan could help us learn how to live in the country, and I’ll never forget their front door opening and Nathan looking out at us with his welcoming smile and the fire going behind him and Celia coming to see who we were, and Tennyson coming to me, and my heart just broke open, and I don’t mean metaphorically broke open, I mean I actually felt the cage of muscles and sinews around my heart give way and I took the deepest breath I had ever taken and looked into Tennyson’s eyes and heard a voice I thought must be God saying Welcome home, Delilah. You found your people. And when I experienced love from Nathan and Celia, real love for the first time in my life, my mother ceased to be important to me except as a mythic figure, or maybe I should say historic, and after that I rarely thought about her because I had real parents now, real love, and not just a bunch of people I hardly knew being paid to be nice to me in my luxurious prisons where my mother came to visit me a few times a year and was wholly incapable of loving me or even liking me.”

“When was the last time you saw her?”

“My eighteenth birthday. She always made a point of seeing me in-person on my birthday. Not on Christmas or Thanksgiving or Easter, but always on my birthday. When I was still a prisoner, she’d come home to Malibu or Manhattan and spend a few days there and give me piles of presents, and once, when I was eight, she flew me to Paris where she was filming. Then she skipped my fourteenth birthday, and for my fifteenth, sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth she got a suite at the Mark Hopkins in San Francisco, and Celia and Nathan and I went there for lunch and I’d play the piano for her.”

“But not for your nineteenth or twentieth?”

“No,” says Delilah, feeling some anger about that.

“Why did she stop, I wonder.”

“I think because after I turned eighteen she was no longer legally responsible for me, so why bother? And maybe because I reminded her too much of what she looked like when she was young. She hated not being young anymore.”

“Do you know your father?”

“Don’t even know who he is. Or was. When I was a child, my mother and her people told me he was a certain movie star, but the day she left here and never came back, when I was thirteen, she told Nathan she had no idea who my father was.”

“So Nathan told you. When was that?”

“On my eighteenth birthday when I got back from seeing my mother. I’d gone with my friends Josh and Beverly because they wanted to meet my famous mother, and when I was alone with her I asked her to please tell me who my father was and she said, ‘I told Nathan. I’d rather he tell you.’ So I asked him and he told me.”

“Your mother was closed emotionally.”

“I don’t think she had access to her emotions.”

“Why do you say that?”

“I never saw her express delight or fear or sorrow, never heard emotion in her voice. She was monotone. And when she pretended to be enthusiastic about my music and drawings, it was painfully obvious how little she cared, and not because she didn’t want to care but because she was incapable of caring about anyone but herself.”

“You never saw her angry?”

“Peevish a few times, and always muted. I would have loved to see her angry. I did see her cry one time when I was fifteen and Celia and Nathan came with me to the Mark Hopkins for the first time. Celia hugged her when we got there and she burst into tears and then immediately stifled them and left the room to redo her makeup. And she never let Celia hug her again.”

“Do you know much about her childhood?”

“I know she was put up for adoption at birth, lived in several foster homes, and ran away from the last one when she was fifteen.” Delilah grimaces. “I think she must have been sexually abused.”

Hilda waits a moment and asks, “And your sexual confusion? Would you like to talk about that?”

“Not really. I ceased to be confused when Celia and Nathan became my parents.”

“Immediately?”

“Within a month. And my stuttering vanished, too, after seven years and hundreds of hours working with speech therapists to no avail. I woke one morning in my wonderful bedroom at Nathan and Celia’s, gorgeous purple fuchsias dangling outside my window—this was a month after I’d moved in—and I got up and went into the kitchen where Celia was making coffee and she embraced me as she does every morning, and I said without stuttering, ‘I’m a woman like you. I love how it feels to be a woman.’ In fact, my confusion about everything disappeared once I was living with them. Like waking from a horrible murky dream into spectacular clarity and joy.”

“I believe you, dear. But please say a little more about thinking you might be male. I’m curious how this may relate to your mother.”

“The only males in my life before I moved here,” says Delilah, recalling her strange cloistered life in Manhattan and Malibu, “were bodyguards and chauffeurs. Men in uniforms. And only a few of them were even a little friendly with me. So I lived in a world exclusively populated by women. My nannies, the cooks, the maids, mother’s assistants, most of my tutors and music teachers, and I was never left alone with any of the few male tutors I had. My few acquaintances were other daughters of celebrities, and they were all obsessed with their sexual identities and everybody else’s sexual identities, so when I started to develop breasts and got my period, I didn’t know what I should feel. I felt female, but wasn’t sure I should. And my mother kept saying, ‘Whatever you choose to be,’ wink wink, ‘is fine with me,’ which made things even more confusing because I wanted to be like her, a strong athletic feminine woman, but she didn’t seem to want me to be like her. And then I said something to someone, I don’t remember who, about wondering if I might be trans, and the next day it was all over the media that I was trans, and my mother called from Paris and said ‘Whatever you choose to be is fine with me’ and ‘Do you want to see a therapist?’ And that’s when I told her if she didn’t find another place for me to live faraway from the insanity I would choose to kill myself. And she flew home the next day.”

“And brought you here.”

Delilah nods. “We chose Mercy together with some input from Joan, her personal assistant, and then we came here absolutely desperate, she to find a solution to my unhappiness, I to experience life outside my prisons.”

“She acted out of love for you.”

“I want that to be true, but I think it was more she didn’t want me to kill myself or otherwise embarrass her in the media.”

“I think she acted out of love for you,” says Hilda, gazing at Delilah. “And though her love didn’t look or feel like Celia and Nathan’s love for you, or my love for you, or anyone else’s love for you, she loved you and wanted you to be free of those terrible confines. And I’ll tell you something else. Regardless of how you feel about her, she must have provided you with nannies who gave you ample love, or else you wouldn’t be the healthy happy person you are today.”

“My first nanny,” says Delilah, surprising herself with tears. “Portia. I thought she was my mother until I was three, though she was Nigerian and I was a little white princess. She was sweet and funny and strong and wonderful, and I cried for weeks and weeks after she left when I was six.”

“Your mother chose her for you. Chose for you a good loving mother.”

“Oh I’d like to mourn my mother, Hilda, but she was so cold to me. Dismissive really. I know it sounds crass, but her being gone is more a relief than a loss.”

“Do you believe her death was an accident?”

“An accidental overdose? My meticulous mother?” Delilah shakes her head. “One of the last things she said to me was, ‘I see in you how beautiful I used to be. It’s all done with smoke and mirrors now, and even that won’t help in another year or two.’ And two years later she turned fifty-one and ended things.”

“And you would like some closure.”

“In lieu of mourning, something, yes. We did a farewell ceremony at the beach for her, Nathan and Celia and I, but it felt false to me.”

“Why false?”

“I felt no sorrow, no joy, just the same painful emptiness I always felt with her, even when she would hug me, which she only did in greeting or parting. I never felt any warmth or energy from her. Nothing.”

“Let’s close our eyes and imagine something together,” says Hilda, closing her eyes. “Shall we?”

“Okay,” says Delilah, closing her eyes.

“We are walking, you and I and Lisa and Vivienne, on a path in the forest on a lovely day, the sun shining down through the trees. Are you with me?”

“I am,” says Delilah, relaxing into the vision.

“Now the forest ends and we cross a meadow full of wild iris and our path ends at a wide deep fast-flowing river with no apparent way to get across. But now a boat comes from the far shore, and rowing the boat is your mother, strong and skillful at her task. When she reaches our side of the river, we get in the boat with her, and with her marvelous strength and skill, she rows us across the river. When we reach the other side and get out of the boat, she raises her hand to you and says, “Farewell, my child. Farewell.”

*

In early November, The Great Transformation complete, Philip and Lisa and Vivienne and Arturo move from the cottage back into the farmhouse, and a few days later Hilda moves into the cottage and engages Delilah to help her arrange her furniture and put her things away.

On the evening of Hilda’s second day of living on the farm, no longer a visitor but a resident, she walks with Delilah from the cottage to the farmhouse where Philip and Andrea have prepared a feast in Hilda’s honor, the farmhouse feeling almost too spacious now until the kids and dogs come in from playing outside, and Marcel rushes in and says, “We are close. Very close. Another few days, I think, for the pinot noir, perhaps another month for the cabernet,” and now Nathan and Celia and Tennyson arrive, and Constance and Joseph and Tamara and Celine; and the house and kitchen feel just the right size.

Vivienne, who turned six in October, insists on sitting next to Delilah, and Delilah, who turned twenty-one in October, is in heaven with Vivienne on her right and Lisa on her left.

Mid-feast, Joseph, for whom Ziggurat Farm is a favorite place to make his paintings, announces in his loud British way, “I visited your orchard when we arrived today and had a vision of a very large painting, perhaps my biggest ever, six-feet-high and eight-feet-wide, in which all of you are in the orchard, the branches barren as they are now, and all of you in fancy dress playing croquet.” He raises his glass of good red wine. “What say you?”

“I wondered why we all incarnated together,” says Nathan, raising his glass. “Now I know it was to pose in the orchard for you.”

“There’s only one problem,” says Henri, who is seven and nearly as practical as his very practical mother. “We don’t have even one croquet set, and if all of us are playing in the painting, we will need four sets because each set only has four mallets and four colors of balls. I know because we have a set at school.”

“Another problem is Mimi and Alexandra will chase the balls when we hit them,” says Vivienne, her mouth full of mashed potatoes. “So they’ll have to be on leashes and they’ll make quite a fuss.”

“The dogs could be playing croquet, too,” says Arturo, laughing. “Like the dogs drinking wine in Delilah’s picture for Papa’s cookbook.”

“No,” says Joseph, shaking his head. “In my vision the dogs are not playing croquet, but they are among you, watching the game with great interest.”

fin

Broke My Heart

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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