Now that he is no longer an aspiring academic, Michael Darling, forty-three, tall and good-looking, is letting his curly brown hair grow long for the first time in twenty years. And Michael’s cute and curvaceous wife Daisy, forty-one, hasn’t had her shoulder-length reddish brown hair cut since she gave birth a year and a month ago to their daughter Jenna.
For the last year and a half the Darlings have lived in their big modern house on three acres adjacent to Ziggurat Farm, two miles inland from the northern California coastal burg of Mercy, and they cannot imagine wanting to live anywhere else.
The three Ziggurat Farm kids and three kids from Mercy are homeschooling on the farm, and Michael, an ornithologist and wildlife biologist, and his sister Caroline, a botanist, are the homeschoolers’ science teachers.
In mid-April, on a cool cloudy Thursday morning, the six homeschoolers gather in the living room of the Ziggurat Farm farmhouse to await Michael and Caroline, a field trip in the offing. The three farm kids are Vivienne, Henri, and Arturo, the kids from town Irenia, Larry, and Alma.
Larry is thirteen and an only child. He and his parents, his father a physicist, his mother a psychotherapist, came to Mercy four years ago, their move from Berkeley precipitated by Larry’s poor health and his being a target of bullies at the public schools he attended. Skinny and extremely nearsighted, Larry was diagnosed with an eating disorder (he didn’t eat much) and depression (he had no friends and was reluctant to go outside), conditions his parents hoped would disappear with the move to Mercy.
However, public school in Mercy provided no respite for Larry from bullying and teasing, and when he began homeschooling at Ziggurat Farm eight months ago, Larry was still painfully thin, had a chronic cough, spoke in a nasal falsetto, fidgeted constantly, and was afraid to make eye contact with his teachers, schoolmates, and his parents.
This morning when Larry’s father Arthur brought Larry to Ziggurat Farm for the day, Larry gave his father a hug and a kiss, jumped out of the car, and ran to join Henri and Vivienne kicking the soccer ball around on the playing field near the barn. Arthur sat in the car watching his son and weeping grateful tears because Larry has grown six inches in the last eight months, gained fifteen pounds, his cough is gone, his voice has dropped an octave, he no longer fidgets, and he is happy all the time now.
Alma is twelve, also an only child, born in Portland, Oregon. When she was six-years-old and just starting First Grade with dear friends she had been in preschool and kindergarten with, her parents, on the spur of the moment, bought the only optometry practice in Mercy, and a few weeks later Alma found herself in an overcrowded school with kids she didn’t know and a First Grade teacher insensitive to how traumatized Alma was by being torn away from her beloved friends and all that was familiar to her.
A year after moving to Mercy, Alma was chronically depressed and diagnosed with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). She was given drugs to address her inability to concentrate at school, and drugs for her depression. Chubby and friendless, she was held back a year in Third Grade and grouped with kids with learning disabilities. Her parents were counseled that Alma was probably on the autism spectrum and might never be able to function on her own in the world.
After eight months of homeschooling with her five comrades and a delightful cast of teachers, Alma no longer takes drugs, has no trouble concentrating, reads voraciously, loves to sing and draw, and is the star of the sewing class taught by Irenia’s mother Maria. For her twelfth birthday, Alma asked for a sewing machine because she loves designing and making clothes for herself and others, and she and Vivienne are launching a line of clothing to sell on the Ziggurat Farm web site called Shirts & Skirts.
Irenia is fourteen, tall and beautiful, a superb athlete and a marvelous singer. Her parents are Russian and she speaks English with a slight Russian accent. She spends four nights a week at the farm and self-identifies as one of the farm kids. She makes her bed on a mattress on the floor in Vivienne’s bedroom, does more than her share of chores, and is learning to cook from Philip, Vivienne and Arturo’s father, a cookbook writer who used to be a professional chef. Irenia’s favorite subjects are music, gardening, and writing, though she recently started taking Jazz dance at the Mercy Rec Center with Delilah, the main homeschool teacher, and is now mad for dancing.
Arturo is thirteen and greatly resembles his French Italian father Philip. Somewhat vain of his good looks, Arturo wants to be an actor. He plays the guitar and sings beautifully and enjoys all the homeschool courses, but he especially loves reading plays, memorizing lines, and acting. He is the first of the farm kids to express a desire to go to college and live somewhere other than Mercy, either New York or London.
In response to her brother saying he plans to leave Mercy to pursue an acting career, Vivienne, eleven, who resembles her lovely olive-skinned mother Lisa, declared she never wants to leave the farm. She aspires to write books and plays, is a zealous gardener, and loves going on field trips with Michael and Caroline, especially when those field trips take them to the ocean.
Henri, twelve, son of Marcel, the farm vintner, and Andrea, the farm manager, lives in a cottage with his parents a stone’s throw from the farmhouse and avers that he, too, wants to live on the farm for the rest of his life, though until the recent return of the very British Richardsons he imagined living with them in England and exploring the British theatre world, never mind about college. Now that the Richardsons are building a house on land adjoining the farm, Henri can think of no reason to be anywhere but here.
The spectacular terraced vegetable and flower garden at the heart of Ziggurat Farm begins on level ground and covers an acre as it climbs eastward up a gently sloping hill to the edge of a vast redwood forest last clear-cut a hundred and thirty years ago. Within that forest there have been a few more recent clear-cuts, one of which occurred on the twelve-acre parcel just east of the farm, the parcel the Richardsons are building their house on.
Michael and his sister Caroline, a pretty gal with short brown hair and nearly as tall as Michael, lead the six homeschoolers and a couple farm dogs up the wide path skirting the north side of the deer-fenced acre of vegetables and flowers. Beyond the garden, they ascend through a stand of enormous redwoods and transect a quarter-acre meadow to arrive at the site of today’s field trip—a small patch of level ground at the base of a steep slope, the Richardsons’ land beginning at the top of this slope—sounds of construction faint in the distance.
Standing on the level patch of ground—roughly fifty-feet-long and thirty-feet-wide—Caroline asks, “What do we make of this place?”
“By place,” says Larry, looking around, “do you mean this level area with these nine somewhat scraggly trees?”
“Yes,” says Caroline, smiling at Larry. “Tell us what you mean by scraggly?”
“Well,” says Larry, clearing his throat in imitation of his father preparing to give a lecture, “I mean these trees are much younger than the trees growing in the forest we came through to get here, and are apparently of a different age and less robust than the trees growing uphill from us that you told us are approximately thirty-years-old. I doubt very much these little trees are thirty-years-old, and the preponderance of yellow needles suggests an iron deficiency.”
“None of these nine trees is a redwood,” says Henri, frowning. “Seven pines and two hemlocks.”
“What does that suggest to you?” asks Michael, marveling at how bright and knowledgeable these kids are compared to most of the thousands of undergrads he taught for twenty years.
“Well since most redwoods come up from the roots of other redwoods and not from seeds,” says Henri, loving these kinds of inquiries, “maybe there’s something in the soil disallowing redwood roots. A nutrient deficiency as Larry suggests or some sort of barrier to their roots.”
“The ground here is so level,” says Alma, looking around. “If you took away these trees it would be perfect for croquet.”
“Perfectly level,” says Larry, standing up from placing a little level on the ground. “Bubble right in the middle.”
“Why do you think this patch of earth is so level?” asks Michael, who doesn’t know the answer. “Here on an otherwise sloping hill bringing us to the bottom of this steep incline?”
“How old are these nine trees?” asks Vivienne, looking at Caroline. “Maybe that will give us a clue.”
“They’re all between twelve and fifteen-years-old,” says Caroline, who also doesn’t know why this stretch of ground is so level.
“I suppose,” says Arturo, pursing his lips in his thoughtful way, “someone may have cleared this area for a home site fifteen years ago and then abandoned it, though there are no obvious signs of the necessary equipment having come here.”
“Or something else may have happened fifteen years ago to flatten it and clear away the trees,” says Vivienne, frowning. “Though I can’t imagine what.”
“No obvious signs of a fire,” says Arturo, shaking head. “No burn marks on any of the bigger trees nearby. A mystery, indeed.”
“So thirty years ago,” says Henri, looking up the steep slope, “they clear-cut the twelve acres that now belong to Joseph and Connie, as well as all the trees down to the bottom of this steep slope. Had this level ground we’re standing on also been clear-cut thirty years ago, some of these trees would be closer to thirty-years-old than fifteen-years-old. Yet it seems probable that whatever happened here fifteen years ago was related to the clear-cutting of this slope thirty years ago.”
“What might have happened here?” asks Michael, looking up the slope and seeing a few small gullies amidst the resurgent forest.
“Mudslides?” says Henri, noticing those same gullies.
“Yes,” says Irenia, who is kneeling on the ground apart from the others. “I know what was here before the mud and stones came down.”
“What was here?” asks Caroline, gazing curiously at Irenia.
Irenia places the palms of her hands on the ground and closes her eyes.
“She’s done this before,” says Vivienne, whispering to Caroline.
“There was a pond here,” says Irenia, seeing the place as it once was. “In a basin of stone. After they cut all the trees on the steep slope, heavy rain washed down dirt and rocks and branches and leaves that filled the pond.” She opens her eyes and looks around. “There was still some water here every year for several years until finally the pond was full of soil and the ground dried out and these trees began to grow.” She stands up. “This is what I saw.”
“So there’s a basin of stone here?” says Henri, excitedly. “We should dig this out and make a pond here again.”
“If her theory is correct,” says Michael, who sees no obvious flaw in Irenia’s reasoning.
“I am correct,” says Irenia, confidently. “There was a pond here. That’s why the ground is so level. Because water always seeks to be level.”
“Be worth a bit of excavation,” says Henri, looking at Michael. “Don’t you think?”
“I think so,” says Michael, grinning at Caroline. “In any case, there’s always lots to be learned from digging in the ground.”
After returning to the farmhouse for a mid-morning snack, tools are gathered in wheelbarrows, the Ziggurat Farm adults join the expedition, and the enlarged gang returns to the field trip site where the kids begin excavating what might have once been the edge of the pond.
A foot or so below the surface, solid granite is struck, the stone grayish white.
“So are you saying this entire level area was once a pond?” asks Marcel, his French accent always stronger when he gets excited. “Like a big swimming pool.”
“Possibly was a pond,” says Michael, unwilling to believe Irenia saw what was previously here.
“We should bring it back,” says Marcel, unaware that Henri suggested the same thing. “We’ll cut up these little trees for firewood and hire someone with a backhoe to dig out most of the dirt and we’ll dig the rest by hand.”
“Huge job,” says Michael, giving Marcel an incredulous look. “And we’re only guessing there was a pond here.”
“I wasn’t guessing,” says Irenia, looking up from her shoveling. “I saw the pond. It was beautiful. There were lily pads and frogs and tall reeds growing in the shallows, and it was very deep over there.” She points to the south.
“Think of all the birds that would come here,” says Daisy, sitting in a lawn chair nursing Jenna and smiling at her husband.
“We could stock it with fish,” says Arturo, looking up from his zealous digging. “And Joseph could teach us to fly fish.”
“That settles it,” says Philip, clapping Marcel on the back. “Who do we know with a backhoe?”
Two mornings later, a crystal clear Saturday, the elderly couple Celia and Nathan and their beautiful housemate Delilah make their way up the hill from the farmhouse to join the homeschoolers and their parents and the Darlings and the Richardsons who have all come to watch the renowned backhoe artist Gabriel Fernandez remove the soil from what everyone hopes was once a pond.
Arriving at the pond site, Nathan says, “So this is what happened to the spring. No wonder your creek dried up.”
“Our creek?” says Andrea, her German accent barely noticeable. “Where was it?”
“The creek bed on the south side of your garden,” says Nathan, walking to the south end of the level area. “You still get a little flow in the winter, but the creek used to run year round because this pool overflowed and fed the creek.”
“You saw this pond?” asks Michael, excitedly.
“We did,” says Nathan, taking Celia’s hand. “We came here in the fall every year for three years after we got married. Fifty-five years ago. We’d pick apples from your orchard and then come up here for a picnic and a swim. I first saw the pond fifty-six years ago when I came to prune your apple trees for the first time. The trees were about ten-years-old. It was in December. Jose Alvaro brought me up here. He was the farm manager way back when before the Rostens sold the place to the crazy rich people who put in the vineyard that is no more. They didn’t want me on their land because I was one of the more vocal opponents of their clear-cutting, so we stopped coming here until Philip and Lisa and Andrea and Marcel bought the place.”
“It was such a beautiful pond,” says Celia, who is eighty. “There were cattails at that end.” She points to the north. “And a deep pool at the other end where it overflowed.” She gives Nathan the sweetest smile. “The water was so clear.”
“Spring-fed,” says Nathan, smiling as he remembers skinny-dipping with Celia. “Mallards here every time we came.”
“Was it as big as this whole area?” asks Marcel, thrilled at the prospect of having a pond.
“Pretty much,” says Nathan, nodding.
“We’ve determined this level area is fifty-two-feet-long north to south,” says Larry, referring to his notes. “And roughly thirty-four-feet-wide east to west.”
“Seems right to me,” says Nathan, grinning at Larry. “If memory serves.”
At which moment the rumbling of powerful engines presages the coming of Gabriel Fernandez and his big rainbow-colored tractor outfitted with backhoe and front loader, and Rodrigo Fernandez, Gabriel’s uncle, driving a smaller tractor with a front loader. Gabriel is in his early thirties, handsome and muscular and gregarious, known locally as the backhoe magician. Rodrigo is in his sixties, heavyset and soft-spoken. They park their machines on the edge of the site, turn off their engines, and Gabriel jumps down to find out what’s going on.
“Buenos dias,” says Gabriel, addressing the assembly. “Qué pasa?”
“Good to see you, Gabriel,” says Marcel, shaking Gabriel’s hand. “There was a pond here that got filled in after the forest up there was clear-cut and we want to get the soil out and bring the pond back to life.”
“Bueno,” says Gabriel, nodding as he surveys the site. “Can you cut down these little trees before we start digging?”
“Yes,” says Philip, getting a chainsaw out of one of the wheelbarrows. “Whenever you say.”
“Gracias Philip,” says Gabrielle, continuing to assess the site. “So… does anyone know what the pond looked like? Where it was shallow, where it was deep?”
“Nathan and Celia know,” says Lisa, gesturing to them.
“Ah Nathan,” says Gabrielle, going to shake Nathan’s hand. “Hola Celia.”
“Hola Gabriel,” she says, having known him since the minute he was born because she assisted the doctor who delivered him.
Now Gabriel gives Delilah a loving smile and says, “Maestra.”
“Hola Gabriel,” she says, blushing at his name for her and finding him exceedingly attractive.
“So tell me about this pond,” says Gabriel, returning his attention to Nathan and Celia.
They describe what they remember, Gabriel listens carefully, and when they finish, Gabriel asks, “Where do you want us to put the soil? There will be lots.”
“Well we don’t want to block the outflow,” says Nathan, looking at Andrea and Marcel to make sure they’re okay with him helping in the decision-making. “And we don’t want to crowd the pond with piles of dirt, so… to the north on the open slope I think.”
Rodrigo climbs down from his tractor and walks north with Gabriel and Marcel and Andrea and Nathan until they come to a large open area on the sloping hill a hundred feet north of the site.
“Aqui,” says Rodrigo, nodding. “Es bueno.”
“Yes,” says Marcel, nodding. “Perfecto.”
“Okay then,” says Gabriel, returning to his backhoe. “Three days. We don’t work on Sunday, so we finish Tuesday. Three thousand dollars a day for me, my uncle, and our beautiful machines. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” says Andrea, who handles the farm’s finances.
“Bueno,” says Gabriel, shaking Andrea’s hand. “I will begin at the deep end while you cut down those trees so Rodrigo can get in there and take away whatever I dig up.”
Now Gabriel dons his sound-blocking earphones, mounts his tractor, starts the engine, and drives slowly to a starting point at the south end of what once upon a time was a pond.
At noon, great progress made, many of the spectators gone home, Gabriel and Rodrigo drive their tractors down to the farmhouse to refuel and have lunch before resuming the excavation. The six homeschoolers and Marcel and Philip and Michael and Caroline lunch with Gabriel and Rodrigo at the picnic tables under the oak tree near the farmhouse, the delicious lunch provided by Andrea and Lisa.
At an opportune moment, Vivienne asks Gabriel, “We were wondering why you called Delilah maestra. Do you take piano lessons from her?”
“No,” says Gabriel, smiling at the thought of Delilah. “I play guitar. I call her maestra because she is my healer.”
“How did she heal you?” asks Alma, who also feels she’s been healed by having Delilah as a teacher and friend.
“It’s a long story,” says Gabriel, looking at Philip and Marcel. “Con permiso.”
“Por favor,” says Marcel, nodding.
“My father who was Rodrigo’s older brother died when I was fifteen,” says Gabriel, looking at each of the homeschoolers. “My mother was very sick and couldn’t work. Since we needed money and I was the oldest of the four kids, I quit school and went to work for a landscaping company. When I was eighteen, my mother was well enough to go back to work and I joined the Army because they paid me a big bonus for joining and my family needed that money. A couple weeks later I was in North Carolina for basic training and I told them I had some experience with heavy equipment because I drove a big truck and a tractor when I was landscaping, so they trained me to operate heavy equipment, bulldozers and backhoes, and four months later I was sent to Afghanistan.”
“Why did they send you to Afghanistan?” asks Irenia, who finds geopolitics baffling.
“We’d been fighting a war there for many years,” says Gabriel, nodding as he remembers. “They told us it was to protect democracy, but I don’t think so.”
“Why don’t you think so?” asks Henri, frowning.
“Because they don’t have a democracy in Afghanistan,” says Gabriel, shaking his head. “But I can’t talk about that because I don’t know enough. All I wanted to do was survive, and somehow I did, though there were many days when I didn’t think I would. We were in some terrible battles. I was driving a bulldozer and doing backhoe work, but the fighting came to me, you know, so… I saw many terrible things and some of my friends were wounded and some were killed. And when I had served my three years and expected to come home, they extended me for another six months. I couldn’t believe it. I went to my commanding officer and said I signed up for three years. Why wasn’t I going home? He said there was a clause in my contract allowing them to extend me in emergencies and they were short on heavy equipment operators. After that I woke up every day feeling sure I was going to die. Then I stopped sleeping because when I fell asleep I had nightmares. Without sleep I couldn’t concentrate and I started making mistakes in my work. One day my bulldozer hit one of our jeeps. I thought it was twenty feet away, but I hit it. Nobody was hurt, but the jeep was destroyed. So they had me evaluated by a psychologist and he said I was suffering from PTSD and ordered me sent home. A month later I was back in Mercy.”
“What is PTSD?” asks Irenia, aching in sympathy with him.
“Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It means even though the trauma is over, my body and my brain still thought I was in Afghanistan, still in the Army, still fearing for my life every minute.”
“So what did you do?” asks Arturo, horrified by what befell Gabriel.
“I hid in my mother’s house for three months. I was afraid to go out and kept thinking I was having a heart attack. So Rodrigo drove me to the VA hospital in Oakland and I stayed there for three weeks and they gave me some treatments and put me on medicine for anxiety and I came home. But I was still afraid to go out and couldn’t sleep so I was tired all the time and the drugs made me numb and I started to think maybe I didn’t want to keep living. And then one day my good friend Ricardo, a fantastic musician, he can play anything, he gave me a guitar and gave me lessons every day and I started to feel better. Playing guitar calmed me down and gave me something to focus on. So I decided to take less of the anxiety medicine so I wouldn’t feel so numb, and I started to feel even better, but then the nightmares came back and I began to feel hopeless again.”
“Did you go back to taking more anxiety medicine?” asks Alma, who used to take drugs for her ADD and depression and hated how the drugs made her feel.
“I was going to,” says Gabriel, smiling at Alma, “but right before I did, Ricardo said he wanted to take me to a concert in town at the art gallery, a piano concert. I said I was afraid to go. I could barely go out of the house, barely walk around the block without freaking out. How could I go to a concert and be with all those people? He said he would stay beside me and never leave me alone. His wife Lisa would be with us and they would take care of me. He begged me to go with him. He said he knew it would help me. So I said okay and they took me to the gallery, and I started to freak out. I said, ‘Ricardo take me home,’ and he said, ‘Just one more minute, Gabriel. Please.’ And then Delilah, your teacher, she was only fifteen, she came out and sat down at the grand piano and played a nocturne she composed, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Her music was more beautiful to me than anything I have ever known in my life. I closed my eyes and her music came into me, into my body and into my brain, and I could feel my fear leaving me. There was no room for the fear with her music in me, no room for my sorrow and my guilt for what I did in the war. There was only her music, and her music was love. And it healed me. Not all the way, but enough so I knew I would be well again one day. That is why I call her maestra, because she is the master of my healing.”
“Did you ever hear her play again?” asks Vivienne, her eyes full of tears.
“Oh yes, many times,” says Gabriel, his eyes full of tears, too. “Ricardo’s wife Lisa is good friends with Delilah, so we got to hear her play at the Richardsons many times, and seven more times at the gallery. And every time I hear her play, she heals me more.”