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Lips

In late April, on a foggy Saturday morning in the small town of Mercy on the far north coast of California, Delilah, the only child of deceased movie star Margot Cunningham, sits on the sofa in the living room of the little house she shares with Nathan and Celia, octogenarians who dearly love Delilah and vice-versa.

Toulouse, a shorthaired black cat, is sitting on the sofa, too, purring as Delilah strokes him. A fire is crackling in the hearth and Celia is at the kitchen table in her bathrobe reading the newspaper and sipping her second cup of coffee while Nathan is out walking the mutts Chico and Gypsy. 

Delilah is twenty-six and greatly resembles her famously beautiful mother, though Margot was fair and blonde and Delilah has olive skin and brown hair, her totality suggesting the unknown father was Latino. A superb musician and artist, Delilah is sexually romantically in love for the first time in her life. Her lover Thomas Darling, a professor of wildlife biology at Cornell, is expected to move to Mercy in June to merge his life with Delilah’s.

Eager to tell Thomas about exciting developments at Ziggurat Farm where she is the main home school teacher, Delilah decides to call Thomas this morning, their last phone conversation three weeks ago. Letters from Delilah and emails in reply from Thomas are their usual way of communicating, with phone conversations reserved for special occasions and excessive missing of each other.

“I was just going to call you,” says Thomas, answering on the second ring.

“Sex-starved minds think alike,” says Delilah, delighted to know he was thinking of her. “Shall I go first or you?”

After a moment’s hesitation—or was that his cell phone lagging?—he says, “You.”

“Well,” she says, speaking into Nathan and Celia’s trusty old landline phone, “have either of your sibs told you about the pond they discovered? Or I should say the former pond.”

“I think Caroline mentioned something about it at the end of a long email, though I only skim her emails,” he says, sounding slightly annoyed. “She does go on. Is that why you called?”

“Oh it’s so exciting,” says Delilah, undaunted by Thomas’s customary reticence at the outset of their phone calls. “Caroline and Michael took the kids on a field trip to the northeast corner of the farm and they uncovered part of what turns out to be a stone basin that once held a spring-fed pond just down the hill from where the Ramirez brothers are building the Richardsons’ new house. So then the collective hired Gabriel Fernandez, our local backhoe wizard, to dig out most of the dirt in the former pond, which is about fifty-feet-long and thirty-feet-wide and quite deep. And for the last week, Michael and Boris, Irenia’s father, have been digging out the remaining soil, with the kids doing some digging, too. And tomorrow morning early Celia and I are going to the farm to help Philip and Raul and Caroline and Andrea and Lisa make food for the gala luncheon to follow what we hope will be the unearthing of the spring. We’re making Celia’s chicken enchiladas and Philip’s ratatouille and tortillas from scratch and a stupendous guacamole Raul and I have been perfecting. Oh I wish you could be here, Thom. It’s going to be so much fun.”

“What else?” he asks quietly.

“Besides counting the hours until the one I love comes back to me?” she says, smiling into the phone. “Well… we’re expecting rain tomorrow. Real rain, which we desperately need. Nathan and Celia are being their usual marvelous selves, the homeschoolers are ever amazing and turning into adults before our very eyes, and it’s so great to have the Richardsons back in the mix, all the kids and I speaking with British accents again. Their gorgeous new house should be done in July, and in August their magnificent Steinway arrives from England, and they’re coming for supper tonight. Fish tacos and baby potatoes we’ll harvest from the garden this afternoon. The potatoes, not the tacos. Oh you will just love Joseph and Connie, and they will adore you.”

“So you’ve said,” he says with little emotion.

“Are you okay?” she asks, frowning into the phone. “Have I annoyed you with my ebullience? You sound even more taciturn than usual.”

“I’m okay, I just…” He hesitates. “I’ve been working day and night to clear the boards to come out there and…” He hesitates again. “I had a meeting a couple weeks ago with Jack Cuthbertson, head of the department, and he made a very strong case for my putting in another four years here, after which I could take a sabbatical and a year off and not lose my place, which seems prudent given the current collapsing economy. So I’m wondering… would you consider moving here for four years before we give living out there a try?”

“You’re joking,” says Delilah, sure he must be.

“No, I’m… I think it makes a lot of sense given the ongoing economic breakdown and the swiftly disintegrating future. My staying on at Cornell would give us at least a modicum of security in this wildly insecure world.”

“A modicum of security,” she repeats, the room spinning. “You’re not joking, are you?”

“I’m trying to keep our options open,” he says with some anger. “I didn’t inherit seven millions dollars like Michael and Daisy. This is a very good job. I can’t just transfer to a college near you because there are no colleges near you. But you can make music and art here just as well as there, so…”

“Thom,” she says, interrupting. “I’m going to live in Mercy until Nathan and Celia die, which I hope won’t be for a very long time, and then I’ll probably live here for the rest of my life. We talked about this when you were here. Several times. And you said you were more than ready to stop being a cog in an academic factory and wanted to start a new life. With me. Remember? You said you’d do anything to be with me.”

“Of course I remember, but…”

“Do you really expect me to abandon the two people I owe my life and happiness to? In the last years of their lives? To come live with you in Ithaca? To leave my community and friends to move to a place where you told me you have no friends? Why would I do that?”

“To be with me.”

“Thom?”

“What?”

“Have you met someone you want to be involved with rather than me?”

“No. Why would you say that?”

“Please don’t lie to me.”

“I haven’t met anyone. I’m… things are finally going well here after years of not going well for me. I have some great graduate students now and…”

“Is one of your graduate students a woman you’re interested in?”

“Why do you keep suggesting that? I just asked you to come live with me.”

“Knowing I wouldn’t,” she says, growing numb with sorrow. “So now you can say it was I who ended things, not you. Is that what you want? To feel exonerated?”

“Exonerated for what?” he snaps. “I asked you to come live with me. How is that ending things?”

“Because you knew I’d say no. Didn’t you?”

She waits for him to reply.

He says nothing.

“I exonerate you for changing your mind,” she says quietly. “Whatever your reasons. I hope you have a wonderful rest of your life. I really do. Goodbye.”

*

In the late afternoon on that same Saturday, Irenia, fourteen, Arturo, thirteen, Henri, twelve, and Vivienne, eleven, are doing some last minute soil removing from the stone basin ahead of tomorrow’s celebration.

The wheelbarrows used by Boris and Michael to ferry dirt out of the basin are too big even half-full for the kids to use, so Henri commandeered a sturdy two-wheeled cart from the garden that can be pulled by two people, thus enabling them to remove lots of soil.

At five o’clock, the air growing chill, only a large mound of soil in the deep south end of the basin remains to be removed, the hole otherwise largely free of dirt. This mound, about the size of a small car, is thought to be sitting atop the mouth of the spring that once filled the pond to overflowing and fed a year-round creek—the removal of the mound to be the centerpiece of tomorrow’s pond resurrection ceremony.

Vivienne, who is very tired from a day’s work in the vegetable garden and two hours of pond excavation, says to her brother Arturo, “You and I are scheduled to get the chickens in today and Andrea is probably already mad we haven’t yet. Come on.”

“Okay,” says Arturo, who is also very tired but doesn’t want to leave Irenia. “Let’s all go back now. We’ve done more than enough today.”

“Henri and I will just finish this last load,” says Irenia, giving Arturo a dazzling smile. “Go rescue the chickens.”

So Arturo and Vivienne exit the hole via the shallow north end and disappear.

A moment passes.

Irenia drops her shovel, walks out the north end of the hole, confirms Arturo and Vivienne are gone, and returns to Henri.

“We kissed for the first time a month ago when the Richardsons came back,” she says, her Russian accent always stronger when she speaks quietly. “But then you never kissed me again. Don’t you love me anymore, Henri?”

“You know I love you,” he says, leaning his shovel against the cart. “I just don’t want Arturo to know. It would break his heart.”

“So you break mine instead?” she says, moving closer and standing slightly downhill from him to mitigate the difference in their heights.

“I’m only twelve, Irenia,” he says, his heart pounding. “I think about you all the time, but I’m still a boy and I’m… I’m not sure what to do.” He takes a deep breath. “I’ve written three poems for you since we kissed and I composed that new thing I’ve been playing on the piano, the thing you said you loved. I wrote it for you. But I haven’t had a chance to give you the poems without Arturo knowing because he follows you everywhere. He’s obsessed with you.”

“I know,” she says, nodding. “Will you kiss me now?”

“Okay,” he whispers.

Their lips meet and their tongues touch and they gently embrace as they kiss.

At long last they move apart, the beauty of the other beyond measure, neither having words to express their feelings, their bodies energized in ways heretofore unimaginable to either of them, both vibrating in ways neither has ever vibrated before.

Now comes the distant clanging of the farmhouse triangle, which means, incredibly, thirty minutes have passed since Arturo and Vivienne departed.

“What do we tell them?” asks Irenia, as she and Henri run down the hill together. “When they ask us why we took so long?”

“We’ll say we got lost in our work,” says Henri, giving her a rakish smile.

“Which is true,” she says, taking his hand. “My darling. My love.”

*

The next morning at ten, the day overcast and cool, rain expected this evening, forty people gather on the western edge of the stone basin—Nathan and Celia and Delilah, Michael and Daisy and their baby Jenna, Caroline and Raul, Constance and Joseph Richardson, Oscar and Diego Ramirez and their wives and several kids, Gabriel Fernandez the backhoe magician sans backhoe, and the six homeschoolers and their ten parents.

Andrea, Henri’s mother and the farm manager, nods to her husband Marcel, and with pleasing voice and charming French accent he addresses the crowd.

“Bonjour my friends. Thank you for coming to help us revive our pond. Seven of us are going down into the hole with shovels and wheelbarrows to remove the big mound of dirt you see there at the south end where we hope to uncover the mouth of a spring to fill the pond, though I must tell you we don’t really know what is under that mound. But we are full of hope. If you get cold watching, please go to the farmhouse. The living room is warm and there is coffee and tea. Now we will dig.”

Dressed for working in muddy ground, Marcel, Philip, Boris, Michael, Gabriel, Oscar, and Diego descend into the hole with seven shovels and four big wheelbarrows and begin clearing away the mound of wet soil.

Raul Neves, a big handsome Portuguese chef with a famous restaurant in Mercy, stands with his lovely partner Caroline Darling in the midst of Nathan and Celia and Delilah and Boris’s wife Maria.

“My fingers are itching to grab a shovel,” says Raul, envious of the diggers. “Though they obviously don’t need my help.”

“Mine are itching a little, too,” says Nathan, who is eighty-six, “but my brain knows better, for which I am grateful.”

“I like to dig in the garden,” says Raul, sighing, “but I am not half as strong as Boris.” He smiles at Maria. “How did your husband get to be such a Hercules?”

“He do this work in Russia since he was boy,” says Maria, smiling shyly at Raul. “Now he pick up heavy things at Mercy Garage and move piano on weekends, so he has big muscle.” She laughs. “But he cannot cook like you. No one can.”

“Cooking for hours every day requires stamina but not such enormous strength,” says Raul, enraptured by the men working. “How beautiful they are.”

“And to their enlightened credit,” says Caroline, smiling down at her brother Michael, never before a laborer, striving to keep up with the more seasoned diggers, “they offered me and Andrea the opportunity to join them and we demurred.”

“Oh you should have done it,” says Raul, grinning at Caroline. “Showed off your sexy muscles and given everyone a thrill.”

“Stop,” she says, blushing in delight.

Now Marcel and Diego wheel the first two wheelbarrows of soil out of the pond—the watchers cheering and applauding.

“To think we may swim here again some day,” says Nathan, putting his arm around Celia. “Wouldn’t that be amazing?”

“In the summer,” says Celia, smiling at her mate of fifty-six years. “On a hot day.”

To which Delilah reacts by bursting into tears, yesterday’s shocking end to her relationship with Thomas rendering her as fragile as a goblet of Venetian glass.

“Why the tears?” asks Raul, opening his arms to give Delilah a comforting hug.

She collapses in his embrace and sobs and sobs, and Celia looks at Caroline and says, “Thom is not coming to Mercy. He broke up with her.”

“The idiot,” says Caroline, going to Delilah and Raul and gently placing her hands on Delilah’s shoulders. “I’m so sorry, dear. So sorry.”

Now Constance hurries over and takes charge of Delilah. “What happened, sweetheart? Tell me.”

“I… Thom and I parted ways,” says Delilah, bursting into tears again as Constance embraces her.

“Oh would the spring burst forth as do your tears,” says Joseph, putting on a sad face as he approaches. “What hath brought such grief to our dear girl?”

“Heartbreak,” says Constance, feeling she might cry, too. “The cad jilted her.”

Delilah laughs through her tears. “He’s not a cad. He’s…”

“An idiot,” says Caroline, disappointed her younger brother chose the barely tolerable known over the risk of happiness. “Ruled by fear as I was before I came here.”

Irenia and Vivienne and Alma rush to see what has befallen their teacher and friend, and when they learn what happened Alma starts to cry and Irenia says to Delilah, “You will find somebody better than that fool. I know you will.”

Much better,” says Vivienne, her jaw set in anger. “The cad.”

Meanwhile the men in the hole have made swift work of the mound, and as the last of the soil is hauled away, Boris and Marcel and Gabriel go down on their knees and with their hands clear away the remnants of soil around a massive gray stone the size and shape of a refrigerator and lying wide-side down on a flat expanse of white granite.

“There is some water coming out from under the stone,” says Boris, standing up and brushing the mud off his trousers. “Not much, but some.”

“Could this stone have fallen down the slope and landed exactly here to block the spring?” asks Marcel, looking around at the other men. “What are the odds of this happening?”

“I don’t think odds apply to miracles,” says Gabriel, sitting on the stone.  

“Exactamente,” says Oscar, sitting beside Gabriel. “God doesn’t worry about odds. If he did, there would be no life on earth and none of us would be here.”

“Let’s invite everyone down to see the miraculous stone,” says Philip, smiling at his comrades. “Then we’ll try to move it.”

“I’ll get my camera,” says Michael, recalling the moment Daisy gave birth to their daughter Jenna and the meaning of life was no longer in doubt.

“Come see the stone we think is sitting on top of the spring,” says Philip, calling up to the audience. “Be very careful on your way down. The ground is quite slippery.”

Ten minutes later, when everyone is gathered around the big gray stone, Lisa asks Joseph, “Anything from Shakespeare come to mind?”

“No, but Leonardo speaks to me now,” says Joseph, who is a painter and a great admirer of da Vinci, not to mention being a big ham.

Silence falls.

“‘The beginnings and ends of shadow lie between the light and darkness and may be infinitely diminished and infinitely increased,’” says Joseph, gazing at Delilah whom he considers his protégé and the closest thing to a daughter he will ever have. “‘Shadow is the means by which bodies display their form. The forms of bodies could not be understood but for shadow.’”  

Now many pictures are taken of people posing with the huge gray stone, and when the pilgrims are satisfied they exit the pond and reassemble on the western rim to watch Marcel and Michael and Philip and Diego and Gabriel and Raul position themselves on the east side of the gray stone and place their hands high on that side while Boris stands at the south end of the stone and Oscar stands at the north end, the two goliaths gripping the stone to lift as the others push.

When the eight men are ready, Boris counts to three and they all exert themselves to the utmost, rolling the behemoth up onto its side and pushing it over so it crashes down four feet farther to the west.

And revealed in the white granite plane is a fissure a few inches wide and three-feet-long from which muddy water burbles forth, the mud soon exorcised by a crystal clear flow—the men lying on their bellies to drink from the source.

*

For a moment on their way down the hill to the farmhouse, Gabriel and Delilah find themselves side-by-side among the pilgrims.

“Hola Delilah,” says Gabriel, smiling at her.

“Hola Gabriel,” she says, on the verge of tears again.

He nods in understanding and moves ahead, not wishing to intrude upon her sorrow.

 *

At the height of the enchilada ratatouille feast in the farmhouse, Raul and Caroline steal away to visit the pond one more time before they leave for Raul’s restaurant Ocelot on the headlands of Mercy to prepare for the Sunday evening customers.

Holding hands as they walk up the hill, they speak of the demise of Delilah’s relationship with Thomas, how Thomas’s choice to stay at Cornell was no great surprise to Caroline who knows how terrified her brother has always been of the compromises relationships require; and this brings up Caroline’s pressing need to make her choice between staying in Mercy with Raul or returning to her professorship at the University of New Hampshire.

When they reach the pond and find they are alone in the glorious quiet, the water in the south end of the basin now six-inches-deep, the gray stone an island, they kiss in celebration of this miraculous rebirth and Raul looks into Caroline’s loving eyes and asks, “Will you marry me, my dear friend, and make your life with me?”

“Yes,” she says, the last of her doubt gone.

Now they move apart and disrobe, going naked together to sit on the gray stone—laughing and weeping as they anoint each other with the holy water.

fin

La Entrada

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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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Ziggurat Farm School

On August 27, after their third day of Seventh Grade at Mercy K-8, Arturo, a handsome lad of twelve, and Irenia, a lovely lass of thirteen, walk along Jousting Street in the northern California coastal town of Mercy on their way to Nathan and Celia’s house to have piano lessons from Delilah and after-school snacks with Vivienne and Henri who just started Sixth Grade at Mercy Montessori, Sixth Grade being the highest class at the school many locals call the hippy school.

Arturo and Irenia have the same homeroom teacher for Seventh Grade, Mr. Delbonis, a surly middle-aged man who has been teaching Seventh Grade at Mercy K-8 for twenty-eight years, and both Arturo and Irenia are distraught about what they’ve experienced so far from Mr. Delbonis and their other teachers at the public school.

“I shudder to think we’re in for six more years of this,” says Arturo, who has made a long list of Mr. Delbonis’s factual errors in his lectures on the history of England and Europe and colonial America, subjects Arturo and Vivienne and Henri and their parents have read several books about. Arturo has also compiled a list of Mr. Delbonis’s many grammatical errors as well as several examples of his undisguised contempt for the intelligence of his students.

“I feel like we’re in prison,” says Irenia, her Russian accent always stronger when she’s upset.

“I feel the same way,” says Arturo, who finds Irenia exceedingly beautiful. “That’s why I’m documenting everything. To convince our parents to get us out of there.”

*

Irenia and Arturo arrive at Nathan and Celia’s little house on the outskirts of town and find Vivienne, Arturo’s soon to be ten-years-old sister, at the kitchen table having guacamole and chips and talking to Celia, seventy-nine, and Nathan, eighty-five, while Henri is having his piano lesson with Delilah in the piano room, otherwise known as Delilah’s bedroom.

Celia brings more guacamole and chips for Arturo and Irenia, and Vivienne opines, “You both appear to be in mourning.”

“We are,” says Arturo, sighing heavily. “Mourning the end of happiness.”

“Public school is a catastrophe for us,” says Irenia, her eyes full of tears. “For everyone else, too, but especially for us.”

“Today,” says Arturo, angrily, “Mr. Delbonis had the gall to say the Battle of Hastings in 1066 drove the Vikings out of England, which couldn’t be further from the truth and ignores the fact that most of the British Isles at the time had been inhabited by the Danish, which he conflates with men in horned battle helmets, for three hundred years!”

“Did you alert him to his error?” asks Nathan, who knew that public school, and in particular Ralph Delbonis, would be disastrous for the Ziggurat Farm kids.

“Heavens no,” says Arturo, aghast at the thought of confronting their large and humorless teacher. “When Larry Jurgens said, ‘You mean 1776,” when Mr. Delbonis said 1876 in reference to the Declaration of Independence, Mr. Delbonis practically ripped Larry’s head off. He’d kill me if I dared question the veracity of his erroneous twaddle.”

“So what are you going to do?” asks Nathan, glancing at Celia. “We’re too old to start a school for you.”

“That may be true,” says Vivienne, who can’t imagine life without Nathan and Celia, “but you’re not too old to help us convince our parents to home school us.”

“We’ll try,” says Celia, recalling how their daughter Calypso languished in public school for a decade, having learned far more from her parents by the time she was eight than she would learn in the ensuing ten years at Mercy K-8 and Mercy High. “But it won’t be easy because they’re all so busy.”

“At the Montessori school we had art and music and field trips,” says Irenia, recalling the good old days of last year. “At public school they give us piles of meaningless data to memorize and at recess the kids all stare at their phones. I feel like a lab rat.”

“An apt analogy,” says Arturo, giving Nathan a pained look. “And we have zero interest in being lab rats.”

*

Thus it comes to pass that Vivienne and Arturo’s parents Philip and Lisa, Henri’s parents Marcel and Andrea, and Irenia’s parents Boris and Marie, agree to home school their progeny rather than subject them to the well-meaning but essentially destructive public education system as it manifests in Mercy.

Philip and Lisa and Andrea take it upon themselves to assemble a faculty and create a curriculum to educate their children and prepare them for the future and so they can pass the high school equivalency exam, a test they will take a few years hence; and a week later Ziggurat Farm School opens for business.

When Alma Goldstein, eleven, and Larry Jurgens, twelve, hear about the farm school from Arturo and Vivienne, they and their parents beg to join the new enterprise. After brief negotiations, Alma and Larry’s parents agree to pay tuition sufficient to cover the salaries of Nathan and Delilah, the only salaried faculty members, and Alma and Larry become the fifth and sixth members of the student body.

The Ziggurat Farm School (ZFS) faculty members and the subjects they teach are as follows:

Andrea—Gardening, Farm Management, History

Lisa—Physiology, Yoga, Drama

Philip—History, Conversational French, Cooking

Marcel—Conversational French, Carpentry, Soccer, Fermentation

Michael—Ornithology, Wildlife Biology

Caroline—Botany, Marine Biology

Delilah—Mathematics, Music, Drawing

Marie—Sewing, Knitting

Boris—Engine Repair, Wrestling

Nathan—Writing, Poetry

Daisy—Literature, Typing, Cinema

Celia—Spanish, First Aid, Healthcare 

Arthur Jurgens (Larry’s father)—Physics, Beachcombing

Raul—Restaurant Economics

 *

On a spectacular warm and sunny morning in mid-September, Caroline, forty, a lovely long-limbed professor of Botany at the University of New Hampshire on sabbatical for a year, lies naked in the king-sized bed in Raul’s house in Mercy and thinks I’ve got to nip this romance in the bud. He’s sixteen years older than I am, I have a great job at UNH, and I’m falling in love with him. No. I am in love with him. What the fuck am I doing?

*

Raul, big and handsome and Portuguese, a most famous chef and renowned Lothario, is the godfather of Caroline’s six-month-old niece Jenna who lives on Ziggurat Farm with her mother Daisy and father Michael, Caroline’s brother. Raul and Caroline have been romantically involved for two weeks now, and unlike his experiences with his previous lovers, Raul is not growing weary of Caroline, which is an entirely new experience for him.

“I think I am falling in love with you,” says Raul to Caroline as they eat breakfast on the deck of Raul’s modern one-story house at the end of a quiet lane on a headland meadow in Mercy. “I’ve never been in love before, so I’m not sure. But I think this must be how people feel when they fall in love.”

“What do you mean you’ve never been in love?” says Caroline, looking up from the delicious omelet Raul made for her. “I’ve read your memoir. You’re famous for being in love.”

“I’m famous for my food and sleeping with movie actresses,” he says with a shrug. “But I was never in love with any of them. I enjoyed sleeping with some of them, some not so much. Before the actresses, my liaisons were also brief. I have no experience of being in a relationship. Until you.”

“Are we in a relationship?” asks Caroline, who has only been in a few, none lasting more than a year. “I thought we were just having a fling.”

“Maybe we are,” he says, gazing in wonder at her. “But I admire so many things about you, besides your genius in bed. This is new for me and I like it very much.”

“I feel the same about you,” she says, keenly aware of her resistance to being in love. With anybody. “Though we’re terribly mismatched, you know.”

“Why?” he asks, smiling. “Because I’m older than you?”

“And I’m a college professor in New Hampshire,” she says, feeling she might cry, “and you live here.”

“Aha,” he says, gazing up at the blue blue sky. “Yet here we are and at least for the moment you don’t seem to mind our age difference, so perhaps we could spend the day together.”

“I’d love to, Raul” she says, softening, “but I’m the after-lunch teacher at the farm school today. I’m taking the kids on a walk in the woods to study the ecosystem.”

“I would love to go with you,” he says, nodding hopefully. “If I wouldn’t be in the way.”

“You would?” she says, surprised. “That would be… fine. You wouldn’t be in the way at all.”

“Good,” he says, happily. “I will be your student, too. What do I need to bring?”

“A sketch book and a couple pencils,” she says, delighted. “We’ll be sketching trees and landscapes. The kids are amazing artists. They studied with a wonderful painter and now they take drawing from Delilah.”

“I know the painter who taught them,” he says, recalling Joseph Richardson recently gone back to England. “We have two of his paintings in Ocelot, one of the mouth of the Mercy, and a huge amazing portrait of the farm people in fancy clothes with their dogs, playing croquet in the orchard. You’ll see them if you ever come to my restaurant. Joseph and his wife Constance dined there every Thursday evening before they returned to England. They adored Delilah.”

“She’s amazing,” says Caroline, who has a not-so-secret crush on Delilah. “Can you imagine having her as your Math, Music, and Art teacher when you were in school?”

“I quit school when I was twelve,” says Raul, recalling the cold drudgery of Catholic school, “and escaped to the kitchen of my stepfather’s restaurant. But if Delilah had been my teacher, I would not have wanted to escape.” He pauses thoughtfully. “Do you know who her mother was?”

“Margot Cunningham. Daisy told me.” She squints at him. “One of your conquests?”

“I was one of hers,” he says quietly. “Long ago one night in San Francisco.”

“How was it?” she asks, surprised to feel jealous.

“I remember very little about the experience,” he says, recalling Margot dining at estuaire, the restaurant he created that made him world famous—Margot regal and exquisitely beautiful, but sad, deeply sad. “Only that she wanted me to call her Susie, which I later learned was the name she was born with.”

“Does Delilah know?”

“No one in the world knows except you and I.” He takes her hand. “Shall we keep it our secret?”

“Yes,” she says, looking into his eyes. “I will tell no one.”

*

Delilah resembles her famous mother in both face and body, though she is not blonde and fair, but brunette with olive skin. Tall and strong, her hair cut very short, she was a musical and mathematical prodigy as a child, and an accomplished artist by the age of ten, her talents undiminished now that she is twenty-five.

She is wearing her usual outfit of sweatshirt and brown trousers as she stands between two large chalkboards in the farmhouse living room, watching Larry and Henri each attempting to solve the same Algebra problem.

Twelve-year-old Larry is very skinny, one might even say scrawny. He wears wire-framed glasses, his nose long and thin, his lips quite large, his chin barely evident, his red hair frizzy, his father a retired Physics professor now a zealous collector of driftwood, his mother a Marriage and Family Counselor who does most of her work via video telephony.

Eleven-year-old Henri possesses his German mother’s beauty and his French father’s heroic chin. Born and raised on the farm, he is muscular and agile with short brown hair and a stellar sense of humor.

When the boys complete their figuring, Henri concluding with X=32, Larry with X=16, Delilah says, “Very well done, Henri. And Larry, take another look at the third line of your otherwise excellent work.”

“Oh shoot,” says Larry, slapping his forehead and knocking his glasses askew. “Duh.”

“I think we’ve done quite enough math for one morning,” says Delilah, sensing the kids need a break on this glorious sunshiny day. “Go amble around and when you feel sufficiently revived, we’ll finish the morning session with some music.”

Irenia, Arturo, and Henri play Frisbee on the expanse of open ground in front of the barn while Vivienne, Alma, and Larry walk to the vegetable garden, pull a few carrots, and saunter back to the farmhouse happily munching.

“Just think,” says Larry, his voice high and nasal, “if we were at Mercy K-8 right now, I’d be doodling in my binder and praying no one beats me up at recess while Mr. Delbonis spews questionable facts to memorize.”

“And I’d be praying Miss Hansen didn’t call on me,” says Alma, who is plump and cute and has frizzy light brown hair and wears glasses, her father an optometrist, her mother a dietician, “because I wouldn’t have heard anything she said for the last ten minutes, which is when she always called on me.”

“I’d probably be bored at the Montessori school, too,” says Vivienne, who recently had her long brown hair cut shoulder length and sometimes wishes she’d been able to finish Sixth Grade at the Montessori. “But not at recess. I loved recess at the Montessori. The soccer games especially. So I do miss that.”

When the kids return to the farmhouse after their short break, they find Philip and Lisa in the kitchen preparing lunch, the kids to eat first, the adults after—lunch and the mid-day recess lasting from roughly 11:30 to 1.

Delilah is sitting at the piano thinking about what to do with the kids for the next half-hour when Vivienne says, “I hope we’re going to sing now. We loved learning to sing harmonies last week.”

*

Raul and Caroline arrive at the farmhouse in time to hear the children singing a three-part harmony rendition of a verse from ‘Up A Lazy River’—Delilah and five of the children singing in tune, while Alma, singing loudest of all, is way off key, which obviously irks the other children.

Up a lazy river where the robin’s song

Wakes up in the mornin’ as we roll along

Blue skies up above, everyone’s in love

Up a lazy river, how happy we will be

Up a lazy river with me

Standing at the open front door listening to Alma wreak havoc on the otherwise excellent rendition, Caroline and Raul exchanges glances wondering what Delilah will say to Alma when they finish the verse.

“Okay,” says Delilah, before any of the kids can complain about Alma’s singing, “we’re getting there, but I’d like to work on our pitch before we try again. Gather round the piano.”

So the kids gather round the piano and Delilah plays middle C and says, “Let’s match this note.”

Five of the kids match the C perfectly while Alma belts out a D.

“Now one at a time,” says Delilah, playing the C again. “Arturo begin, please.”

Arturo matches the note. Henri matches the note. Vivienne matches the note. Irenia matches the note, her voice extraordinarily beautiful. Larry matches the note. Alma sings a D.

“Alma?” says Delilah, gently. “Can you hear how your note is not exactly the same as the C?”

“No,” says Alma, frowning. “Sounds the same to me.”

“I want you to try again.” Delilah plays the C again and holds down the sustain pedal. “Now listen very carefully as you sing and try to match this note.”

Alma steadfastly sings a D.

“How about this?” says Delilah, winking at Arturo to quell his urge to say No! “Irenia? Would you sing the C and hold the note for as long as you can.”

Irenia sings the C.

“Now Alma, I want you to sing with Irenia so your note sounds just like her note.”

Alma sings D again, but as Irenia continues to hold the C, Alma begins to hear how she is not quite singing the same note as Irenia. So she stops singing, clears her throat, starts again, and gets a little closer to the Irenia’s C.

And now, as if this moment has been waiting to happen since the beginning of time, Alma’s note becomes Irenia’s and they hold the note together for a long time, after which everyone in the farmhouse cheers.

*

In the forest a few hundred yards north of the terraced vegetable and flower garden, the children and Raul and Caroline sit in a circle on the ground a few feet apart, their backs to the center of the circle, making sketches of what they see before them.

An unseen raven makes a sound uncannily like someone playing castanets.

Raul looks up from his sketching and waits for the sound of castanets to come again, but the raven has nothing more to say. Raul looks at his sketch of three large trunks of trees in the foreground, shrubbery in the middle ground, myriad trunks and foliage in the background.

“So this is the world,” he says quietly.

Henri, sitting to Raul’s right, nods and quotes his father Marcel, complete with Marcel’s French accent. “So we are told.”

“Not the whole world,” says Vivienne, sitting to Raul’s left. “But definitely part of the world. You didn’t mean the whole world, did you?”

“I did,” says Raul, loving being here with the children and Caroline. “This is part of the world and the whole world, too.”

“I kind of see what you mean,” says Vivienne, continuing to sketch the scene before her. “For instance, if you were an ant or even something smaller, this would certainly be the whole world.”

“I don’t know about that,” says Arturo, commenting from the other side of the circle. “Ants can travel pretty far in a relatively short amount of time. I read they can travel more than a mile in a day. But to a bacteria this would be a veritable galaxy.”

“Why do people want to go to Mars?” asks Irenia, unhappy with her rendering of a stump surrounded by ferns. “Why not stay here and make the earth clean again? Why go to a planet with no life when we have this one so full of life?”

“Ecology begets philosophy,” says Caroline, remembering making love with Raul this morning, how never before had she experienced such perfect harmony.

fin

Sweet