On a rainy Monday morning in mid-December on Ziggurat Farm, two miles inland from the northern California coastal town of Mercy, Vivienne and Andrea are working together in the farm office, one of the five rooms in the cottage where Andrea lives with her husband Marcel and their son Henri, a stone’s throw from the farmhouse where Vivienne lives with her parents Lisa and Philip and her brother Arturo.
Vivienne turned twelve in October and has been Andrea’s office assistant since June when she chose Andrea, the farm manager, to be her Main Study mentor for home school summer session. Farm management, gardening, and computer skills were the main focus of Vivienne’s summer studies, and she proved so helpful to Andrea, so adept at using the computer for business correspondence and keeping track of sales and inventory, and such a whiz with the bookkeeping software that has bedeviled Andrea for years, Andrea now employs Vivienne in the office two afternoons a week at double the wage she pays the kids for gardening work.
Passionate, meticulous, tenacious, and seemingly inexhaustible, Andrea was born in Germany fifty-seven years ago, her German accent now barely detectable after thirty-three years in America. Five-foot-seven, formidably strong, with long black hair only recently beginning to show signs of gray, Andrea is fiercely devoted to her friends and overjoyed that Vivienne says she wants to one day assume the role of farm manager.
Vivienne, olive skinned and slender with shoulder-length dark brown hair, has recently attained the height of five-foot-three in the midst a growth spurt she hopes will eventually make her as tall as her best friend Irenia, who is three years older than Vivienne and five-foot-nine. Vivienne’s father is a handsome blend of Italian and French, her mother a pleasing mix of Brazilian Indio, African, and Ashkenazi Jew, and Vivienne resembles both of them, her girlish cuteness fast giving way to womanly beauty.
With Ziggurat Farm Home School on hiatus until mid-January, Andrea is availing herself of Vivienne’s greater availability to catch up on long neglected farm business, and this cold rainy day finds Vivienne and Andrea sitting across from each other at the big table that serves as the farm office desk, Vivienne manning the computer while Andrea organizes a big pile of October and November invoices for Vivienne to log.
“How interesting. We just received a notice from Primero Press,” says Vivienne, gazing at the computer screen—Primero Press the company handling the printing and distribution of Philip’s two cookbooks and a volume of Nathan’s poetry, Nathan a dear friend of the farm and the unofficial poet laureate of Mercy. “They are informing us of a tidy sum they just deposited into our account at Mercy Savings.”
“For how much?” asks Andrea, looking up from the clutter of invoices.
“Nine thousand two hundred and seventy-three dollars and forty-one cents.” She frowns at Andrea. “I wonder if this could be, to quote my favorite Monopoly card, a bank error in our favor? Beats the previous monthly record by almost six thousand dollars. Then again, maybe that sum is correct. The accompanying sales figures for September say we sold 1723 copies of Philip’s Kitchen and 1268 copies of Delicious Meals for the Somewhat Ambitious Cook and 47 copies of Nathan’s book of poems.”
“Impossible,” says Andrea, coming to look over Vivienne’s shoulder at the screen. “Send Primero an email to confirm the amount and those totals, and ask if they’ve got estimated sales for October and November.”
“Shall I read the email to you before I send?” says Vivienne, quickly composing the missive.
“Yes, please,” says Andrea, sitting down to listen.
“‘Dear Wonderful Primero Press. Andrea here at Ziggurat Farm Productions. Surprised by apparent large increases in sales in September. Please verify accuracy of numbers. Curious if you have October and November sales figures yet. Many Thanks, Andrea.’”
“Fine,” says Andrea, smiling at Vivienne. “Now back to reality.”
“Oh but what if it’s true?” says Vivienne, gazing at the $9,273.41. “Wouldn’t Papa be so happy to know people are buying his books?”
“If it’s true and continues,” says Andrea, resuming her sorting of invoices, “your father can finally stop working at Ocelot.”
“He does dread waiting tables these days and traveling to and fro on these cold winter nights,” says Vivienne, composing an email to Hortensio’s Market in Mercy asking them to please pay for vegetables and fruit they purchased in September, October, and November. “Though he says it’s more of a psychic strain than physically difficult. Hmm. Interesting how psychic and physic are composed of the same letters in different orders. I’ll track down those word origins later on my own time.”
“We have enough money in the bank for him to quit now, but he doesn’t want to draw on our reserves,” says Andrea, handing a stack of invoices to Vivienne. “When you get these entered, we’ll be done for the day.”
“Well, well, well,” says Vivienne, gazing wide-eyed at the screen. “This just in from the very prompt Primero. Maybe Papa will be able to quit working at Ocelot without drawing on our reserves.”
“Tell me,” says Andrea, closing her eyes and praying those sales figures were true.
“In October Philip’s Kitchen sold 3244 copies, and in November 5225, and that’s only a partial total for November, with similar numbers for Delicious Ambitious. Which means, if my calculations are correct, 50,000 dollars will soon be arriving in our bank account. And who knows what the totals will be for December when all those frenzied Christmas shoppers get done snatching up copies.”
“Never mind the invoices,” says Andrea, leaping to her feet. “Let’s go tell your father.”
On this same rainy December day, Marcel, the wine master of Ziggurat Farms, and Philip, Marcel’s accomplice in wine, invite Raul the famous chef and Boris the wonderfully strong father of Irenia to join them in the gigantic old redwood barn and help stir the yeast in the seventy barrels of wine that have been fermenting since September, to be followed by tasting wine from six test barrels to determine if last year’s wine is ready for bottling after fourteen months of fermentation.
Raul has been longing for such an invitation because he considers Marcel’s pinot noirs and cabernets among the best he has ever tasted, and he has tasted the best in the world. Yet he knows Marcel buys his pinot noir and cabernet grapes from three inland vineyards owned by three wineries producing wine Raul would never serve in his restaurant in Mercy where customers pay hundreds of dollars for a bottle of wine and expect nothing less than world class, which Marcel’s wine is.
And now more and more wine aficionados, many of whom first tasted Marcel’s wine at Raul’s restaurant, greatly covet Ziggurat Farm’s incomparable pinot noir and cabernet that Andrea sells for twelve hundred dollars a case and could reasonably ask twice that. How, Raul wonders, does Marcel evoke such greatness from the same grapes that supposedly expert vintners can only rouse to mediocrity?
When all the barrels of fermenting wine have been stirred for the second time today, the tasting of the previous year’s wine begins.
“As you can see there is no more sediment,” says Marcel, dipping wine from the first of the six test barrels, his ladle made of sturdy glass. “My nose is pleased, the color is good, and the wine has been transforming for nearly fifteen months, so perhaps this pinot is ready for the bottle.”
Marcel pours the dark purple wine into each man’s glass, and Philip says, “May Bacchus be with us.”
“Dionysus say the Greeks,” says Marcel, raising his glass.
“In Russia we say the wine god is Kvasura,” says Boris, raising his glass, too.
“In Portugal we call him Lusus, son of Bacchus,” says Raul, touching his glass to the others.
Now they taste and swallow.
“I know little about wine except what you teach me, Marcel,” says Boris, having downed his wine in a single gulp, “but I know this is delicious. No trace of bitterness.”
“Oui,” says Marcel, nodding. “I like it.”
“I love it,” says Philip, grinning at Marcel. “You’ve done it again.”
“It’s magnificent,” says Raul, shaking his head in wonder. “How do you do it? Why can’t the growers of your grapes make wine like this? Or even close to this?”
“Our secret,” says Marcel, matter-of-factly. “Maybe you’ll find us out as we taste.”
Marcel jots a few things in a small notebook, they rinse their glasses, and he ladles out wine from the next barrel.
“This is also a pinot?” asks Raul, holding his glass up to the light and noting the wine is perhaps slightly darker than the first one they tasted. “From the same grapes?”
“Oui,” says Marcel, tasting.
“Ah,” says Boris, nodding. “This is maybe just a little sweet. Yes?”
“You have good taste buds, Boris,” says Marcel, nodding. “And I think the oak comes through a bit more in this one.”
“I like this even better than the first,” says Raul, frowning. “But it’s the same grapes. Correct?”
“Oui,” says Marcel, winking at Philip. “Now we taste the third pinot from those same grapes.”
They rinse their glasses and Marcel ladles out the wine.
“This is the darkest yet,” says Raul, tasting the wine. “And maybe the best. I’m not sure. In any case I want forty cases, whatever your price. Tell Andrea.”
“We shall,” says Philip, clinking glasses with Marcel.
“We begin bottling tomorrow,” says Marcel, jotting a few more thing in his notebook, “should either of you want to help me and Philip and Lisa and Henri and Vivienne and Irenia, and with any luck Arturo. Now let us taste the cabernet.”
“One moment, my friend,” says Raul, raising his hand to forestall Marcel. “These three pinots are subtly different from each other in color and taste, though you say they are made from the same grapes and spent exactly the same amount of time fermenting in the same barrels in the same old barn two miles from the same ocean. How can they be the same grapes? And why can’t those wineries make better wine from these same grapes when you can make this nectar of the gods?”
“You promise to tell no one?” says Marcel, smiling at Raul.
“I promise,” says Raul, nodding solemnly.
“We buy from three vineyards we have chosen after some years of tasting the grapes at many vineyards. In each of these vineyards we have found what Lisa calls sweet spots, groups of vines producing grapes that taste especially delicious to us and are far superior to the other grapes in that vineyard. Who knows why? More water? Better soil? We don’t know, but we visit these sweet spots every day in the last week when the grapes are approaching ripeness, and when the grapes taste perfect to us, we pay extra for those particular vines to be picked just for us.”
“And those vintners haven’t discovered your secret?” asks Raul, frowning. “How could they not?”
“Not only have they not discovered our secret,” says Marcel, chuckling, “but they say we only imagine these grapes taste different than the others. Yet to us there is no comparison.”
“They’re fools,” says Raul, having known countless fools masquerading as experts. “But even so they must have tried your wine and tasted the difference.”
“Not that we’re aware of,” says Marcel, shaking his head. “They think we are silly amateurs.”
“They snicker when we come to claim our grapes,” says Philip, shrugging in acceptance of the fact. “Each to his own.”
“Then they are more than fools,” says Raul, shaking his head. “They’re idiots.”
“But enough about them,” says Philip, rinsing his glass. “Let’s taste the cabernet.”
Marcel ladles the first of the cabs.
“This is more, how do you say it… earthy,” says Boris, feeling a little drunk. “I like it very much.”
“This is the best cabernet I’ve ever had,” says Raul, also drunk. “I want forty cases of this, too. So… your grapes are the best ones grown in those vineyards.”
“The best for my taste and for Philip and Lisa,” says Marcel, rinsing his glass. “They are my co-tasters in the vineyards.”
“So you buy these special pinot grapes and special cabernet grapes from those three vineyards,” says Raul, awareness dawning. “And you mix the three pinots together? And the three cabernets?”
“We do,” says Marcel, ladling out the second cabernet. “But we mix them in three or four different proportions to each other, this year three. Each mixture has a different proportion of each grape to create subtly different flavors and sometimes slightly different colors.”
“You create these proportions by tasting the grapes in various proportions,” says Raul, nodding in understanding.
“Yes,” says Marcel, delighted with the taste of the second cabernet. “We sit around the table with our mouths full of various combinations of grapes, the kids, too, and we write down our reactions, and eventually we discover the proportions we like best. Then we crush the grapes from each vineyard separately, and when we know exactly how much juice of each grape we have, we figure out how to distribute all the juice to create these proportions in the barrels. Then Philip and I and Henri worry over the wine every day like mothers worrying over their first babies, we stir the yeast two and three and sometimes four times a day, and we baby the wine as no big winery could ever afford to baby a wine, and the fermentation takes place in this old redwood barn with the ocean breezes keeping the air sweet and cool, and… here we are.”
At which moment, Andrea and Vivienne rush in with the news of Philip’s cookbooks selling like hotcakes.
A few days later, Lisa and Andrea and Vivienne go for a bathe after supper in the big soaking tub in the bathhouse, the water a delicious ninety-nine degrees.
“I wish Irenia had spent the night tonight,” says Vivienne slipping into the warm water. “She loves it when all the women bathe together.”
“Tonight we wanted it to be just the three of us,” says Lisa, smiling at her daughter, “because we want to tell you something we’ve been waiting to tell you until you turned twelve.”
“Is this about sex?” asks Vivienne, excitedly. “Because you know, Mama, I do know how all that works, even before Caroline gave us an excellent lecture on mammalian reproduction.”
Andrea laughs. “This is not about sex, sweetheart, though it is somewhat related.”
“Then why did you wait until I was twelve?” asks Vivienne, frowning.
“We chose the age a long time ago,” says Lisa, moving across the tub so she’s sitting next to Vivienne. “We almost told you a few other times, but then we didn’t. And now we want to. It’s nothing bad. Don’t worry.”
Vivienne gasps in her dramatic way. “Was I adopted?”
“No,” says Lisa, putting her arm around her daughter. “You came out of my womb, and Philip is your father.”
“Then what could it possibly be?” asks Vivienne, perplexed.
“When Arturo was thirteen months old,” says Lisa, speaking quietly, “I stopped making milk and could no longer breastfeed him. He was almost ready to stop, so it wasn’t hard for him to switch to goat’s milk, and by the time you were born fifteen months later, my milk was renewed and I breastfed you until you were three months old and then my milk began to wane again.”
“Because you were forty-four?” ask Vivienne, nodding sympathetically. “And that’s a little old for being a mother?”
“That was maybe part of the reason,” says Lisa, looking at Andrea, “but mostly I couldn’t make milk because I lost so much weight after Arturo was born and couldn’t gain it back, so I had very little body fat, which a woman needs to get pregnant and to make milk. In fact, we didn’t think I could get pregnant again after Arturo was born, but luckily I could and you were born.”
“But you were too skinny to make enough milk for me,” says Vivienne, nodding in understanding. “So then did you give me goat’s milk? Is that what you’ve been waiting to tell me? Because I love goats, Mama. I do.”
“We didn’t give you goat’s milk,” says Andrea, smiling fondly at Vivienne. “We gave you my milk.”
“You breastfed me?” says Vivienne, gazing in wonder at Andrea.
“I did,” says Andrea, crying. “From when you were three months old until you were almost two. Henri was fourteen-months-old when you were born and I had plenty of milk for both of you. And then he weaned himself at eighteen months, and I continued nursing you for another year.”
“Did Mama ask you to?” whispers Vivienne, starting to cry.
“No,” says Andrea, coming to sit with Vivienne and Lisa. “One morning I was holding you and you were fussing because you wanted to suckle. I rocked you and sang to you, but you would not be appeased, so I gave you my breast and then you were happy, and so was I.”
“I don’t remember,” says Vivienne, embracing Andrea, “but I’ve always thought of you as my other mother, and it turns out you were.”
In the early evening a few days before Christmas, Gabriel Fernandez comes to Nathan and Celia and Delilah’s little house on the outskirts of Mercy to drive the four of them to a dinner party at the new home of Joseph and Constance next door to Ziggurat Farm.
Gabriel is thirty-four, a Mercy native and backhoe operator. Nathan is eighty-eight, a retired arborist and poet. Celia is eighty-two, a former nurse now gardener and cook, and Delilah is twenty-eight, a musician, artist, and the main teacher at Ziggurat Farm Home School.
Nathan and Celia became Delilah’s guardians when she was thirteen, her movie star mother, the late Margot Cunningham, having brought Delilah to Mercy hoping to establish a better life for her daughter far from the insatiable celebrity hounds, and Margot’s hope was realized when Delilah moved in with Nathan and Celia.
Margot died when Delilah was twenty, Delilah’s father unknown even to Margot, because, as Margot confided to Nathan, any of several men might have impregnated her around the time Delilah was conceived.
Delilah and Gabriel have been dating for two months and have yet to become lovers, both of them wary of rushing into a sexual relationship and possibly wrecking their lovely friendship.
Nathan and Celia sit in the backseat of Gabriel’s new electric car and Delilah sits up front with Gabriel.
“I thought for sure we’d get one of these,” says Nathan, who rarely drives nowadays and is thinking of selling his old pickup truck. “But we hardly go anywhere and Celia’s little old Toyota still runs, so we probably won’t get one. Not in this lifetime anyway.”
“I went to a tractor show in Santa Rosa last year and tested some amazing electric ones,” says Gabriel, who reveres Nathan and Celia. “I couldn’t believe how quiet they were, but I just bought a new tractor and backhoe two years ago and the best electric ones are incredibly expensive, so… not for a few years.”
“This car is so comfortable,” says Celia, resting against Nathan. “I could go to sleep.”
“Mi madre says the same thing,” says Gabriel, driving slowly up the curving road through the redwood forest to Joseph and Constance’s house. “By the way, she says hello and wants to know what we can bring bring for supper on Saturday.”
“Nada,” says Celia, who makes a prayer every morning and every evening that Delilah and Gabriel will marry before Nathan dies. “Just your wonderful selves.”
Following the lavish supper in Joseph and Constance’s gorgeous new house, the twenty guests move into the living room where Raul and Caroline give a slide show on an enormous television screen—photos from their October honeymoon in England and Portugal.
After several pictures of the two of them visiting Raul’s old haunts in London where he became a culinary superstar when he was in his twenties, the pictures change to the city of Aveiro in Portugal where Raul was born and lived until he was a young man.
“My mother’s name was Beatrice,” says Raul, narrating. “This is her grave in Aveiro.”
A picture appears of his mother’s large gray marble headstone standing in an old cemetery.
“She was seventy-four when she died,” he says, the picture changing to one of a small house in a neighborhood of older homes with tile roofs. “This is where she lived for the last thirty years of her life. Caroline wanted to know what my mother looked like, but because my mother refused to have her picture taken after she was forty, the most recent one I have of her is when she was thirty-five.”
Everyone oohs at the photo of a strikingly beautiful brunette in a shimmering green dress showing off her splendid figure as she kisses the air in the direction of the camera, an amorous look in her eyes.
Now the next slide appears – Caroline in sunhat and shorts and a sleeveless shirt, walking on a pier in Aveiro, several men ogling her as she goes by.
“My beautiful bride turned many heads in Aveiro,” says Raul, laughing. “The men there have very good taste in women.”
Another picture appears – Caroline standing at the end of the pier looking out to sea.
“I used to fish here when I was five and six-years-old,” says Raul, on the verge of tears. “I would come with my grandfather, my mother’s father. My father was a fisherman and I liked to come here and fish while we waited for his boat to come in. He died in a storm at sea when I was seven. Here is the only picture I have of him.”
The next slide appears – a handsome man with curly brown hair playing a guitar.
“His name was Goncalo. Besides being a fisherman, he played the guitar and also the trumpet and the violin, and he sang like an angel, or so I thought when I was a boy.”
They show many more pictures, the last one taken just a few days ago—Caroline and Raul holding hands on the beach at the mouth of the Mercy River.
“Though you can’t tell from this picture,” says Caroline, her voice shaking with emotion, “we have it on good authority that I am pregnant, and assuming all goes well our baby will be born in July.”
“Hallelujah!” cries Joseph, turning on the lights, everyone rushing to congratulate Caroline and Raul, everyone except Delilah and Gabriel, Delilah still in shock from seeing the picture of Raul’s mother, which very well could have been a picture of Delilah.
“Que paso?” asks Gabriel, gently putting his arm around Delilah. “Are you okay?”
“I’m… do you think I look like Raul’s mother?” she whispers.
“Yes, very much,” he says quietly. “And I’d love to see you in a dress like the one she was wearing.”
“Well,” says Delilah, still whispering, “Raul once mentioned to me that he met my mother a few times when she dined at his restaurant in San Francisco. Twenty-nine years ago. He didn’t say anything about them being lovers, but it’s possible they were. She was prolific in that regard, as was he, and as I told you, she had no idea who my father was.”
“I see,” says Gabriel, looking across the room at Raul surrounded by jubilant friends. “So you think maybe Raul is your father?”
“Now that I’ve seen his mother,” says Delilah, gazing at Raul, “I think maybe so.”