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
Boris—Engine Repair, Wrestling
Daisy—Literature, Typing, Cinema
Celia—Spanish, First Aid, Healthcare
Arthur Jurgens (Larry’s father)—Physics, Beachcombing
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.