Last Thursday, April 12, on Ziggurat Farm, two miles inland from the remote northern California coastal town of Mercy, the homeschoolers Vivienne, Alma, Henri, Larry, Arturo, and Irenia, ages eleven to fourteen, and their science teachers Michael and Caroline, discovered what was once a small pond at the northeast corner of the five-acre farm, the former pond entirely filled with dirt.
Their discovery prompted the adults of the collective—Andrea, Lisa, Marcel, and Philip—to hire Gabriel Fernandez, a local backhoe magician, and Rodrigo Fernandez, Gabriel’s uncle and accomplice, to excavate the basin of stone that once held a spring-fed pool fifty-feet-long and thirty-feet-wide and of varying depths—the collective hopeful of soon having a pond to enjoy and a revived creek resulting from the pond overflow.
Gabriel and Rodrigo’s first day of work was Saturday, two days after the initial discovery, and the dynamic duo made swift progress in removing the top few feet of soil in the basin. Gabriel deftly wielded the backhoe on his large tractor to scoop out the soil while Rodrigo used the front loader on his somewhat smaller tractor to carry the soil away to a dumping spot a hundred feet north of the pond site.
Having confirmed old-timers Nathan and Celia’s memories of the north end of the basin being shallow and the south end deep, Gabriel and Rodrigo resumed their work on Monday morning at seven and the deepening quickened.
By the end of the day on Tuesday, Gabriel and Rodrigo have done all they can to empty the granite basin of soil and logs and boulders, and as dusk descends they drive their tractors down the hill to the barn where their trucks and flatbed trailers await them.
When the tractors are secure on the trailers, Philip and Lisa and Marcel and Andrea gather with Gabriel and Rodrigo at Gabriel’s truck. Lisa invites Gabriel and Rodrigo to stay for supper, they politely decline, and Gabriel nods gratefully when Andrea hands him a check for the agreed-upon fee plus a bonus of five hundred dollars.
“I left a mound of soil in the deep end of the pond,” says Gabriel, having very much enjoyed this job. “The mound is wet and we think that’s because the mouth of the spring is under there. I suggest you leave the mound until you’ve gotten as much other dirt out of the hole as you want, though it wouldn’t be a bad thing for the pond to have a foot or two of soil on the bottom.”
Rodrigo says something to Gabriel in Spanish and Gabriel translates. “When the pond is full, please let us know so we can come see.”
The second half of April is the busiest time of the year for the Ziggurat Farm garden, the bountiful acre and a quarter providing a cornucopia of vegetables and flowers for markets and restaurants throughout the greater Mercy watershed. With several days of much needed rain expected next week, all the farm adults and kids are working long hours in the garden and don’t have much time for removing the remaining dirt in the stone basin.
However, Michael, who lives with his wife Daisy and their baby girl Jenna on land adjoining the farm, has time to dig, as does Irenia’s father Boris who is taking a two-week vacation from his job as a mechanic at Mercy Garage. And so on Wednesday morning, Michael and Boris arrive at the farmhouse bright and early for coffee and instructions, the excavating from now on to be accomplished with picks and shovels and wheelbarrows.
“The main thing to remember,” says Marcel, accompanying Boris and Michael to the pond site, “is to leave the mound of soil in the deep end for last. We think the mouth of the spring is under there and we don’t want to release the water until we’ve gotten as much dirt out as possible.”
“Plenty of dirt to move before we get to the deep end,” says Michael, forty-three, an ornithologist recently freed from academia by his wife inheriting a fortune.
“How wonderful to have a pond,” says Boris, fifty-eight, an auto mechanic from Russia. “When I was a boy in summer we would go to my grandmother’s farm and swim and fish in her pond. Was heaven after long cold months in the city.”
“Which city?” asks Michael, who has spent little time with Boris until today.
“Saint Petersburg,” says Boris, nodding. “Beautiful city, but our life is better here. Now we are never cold. In Russia the winters are very cold.”
When they arrive at the pond site, Michael exclaims, “My God, I never imagined it would be so big.”
At which moment, the clouds obscuring the sun move away and the basin is flooded with sunlight.
“I wish I could work with you today,” says Marcel, longing to get down in the hole, “but we have many beds to prepare and thousands of seedlings to plant before the rain comes. We look forward to your report at lunch. Bon chance.”
“Happy planting,” says Boris, waving goodbye to Marcel.
Michael and Boris leave their water bottles and snacks on the west side of the hole and wheel their wheelbarrows into the north end where they set the barrows down to discuss where to begin.
“Amazing,” says Michael, looking across the basin to the deep end. “To think it was only a week ago when Caroline and I brought the kids here to theorize about why this patch of ground was so level.”
“Irenia loves your field trips,” says Boris, putting on his work gloves. “She learns so much from you. Whenever she goes on these trips she comes home so excited and tells us everything. She was very smart before she came to farm school and now she is ten times smarter.”
“Smart kids come from smart parents,” says Michael, smiling at Boris.
“You’re right,” says Boris, pointing at Michael. “Her mother is smart.”
Since much of the floor of the basin is covered with soil compacted by the tires of the tractors, they decide to start right where they are. Boris, big and formidably strong, wields pick and shovel as if they weigh very little to him, which is true. Michael has much less upper body strength than Boris and only manages to fill his wheelbarrow halfway by the time Boris’s wheelbarrow is piled high.
Boris contributes a few big shovelfuls of dirt to Michael’s wheelbarrow and both wheelbarrows are ready to be wheeled to the dumping site. Boris lifts the handles of his wheelbarrow with ease, while Michael strains mightily to lift his, and they push their loads out of the pond and across the hillside to the dumping site.
Tipping out their loads on the edge of the enormous pile of soil created by Gabriel and Rodrigo, Michael says, “I think let’s not fill mine quite so full next time. I almost didn’t make it.”
“You will get stronger,” says Boris, as they wheel their wheelbarrows back to the hole. “These are big wheelbarrows. For now we only fill yours halfway.”
“How did you get so strong?” asks Michael, awed by Boris’s ease with pick and shovel.
“I was laborer in Russia,” says Boris, recalling his former life. “I started working when I was fifteen. On construction sites, you know. I dig ditches and carry bricks and shovel cement. When I was seventeen I work for bricklayers and carry hods of mortar to them. These hods, you know the big wooden troughs, they weigh eighty ninety pounds when full of mortar and I carry them up ladders. So I got very strong. Then I went to school for mechanics and after my training I work on tractors and big trucks and buses. Lots of heavy things to lift.”
They resume their digging and Boris continues his story.
“One day when I was twenty-three, my friend Ivan says to me, ‘Boris, you are so strong. You should be weightlifter and go to Olympics.’ So I go to gym and start lifting weights. I did not go to the Olympics, but I got very strong and could lift four hundred pounds. Now I dig in my garden and lift heavy things at the garage and sometimes I help my friend Jose move pianos and other heavy things. I am not so strong as I used to be, but I’m still pretty strong.”
“When did you come to America?” asks Michael, resting for a moment.
“Sixteen years ago,” says Boris, throwing a last shovelful into Michael’s barrow. “Is enough for you?”
“Perfect,” says Michael, sweating profusely.
They head for the dumping site, Michael much relieved to have a lighter load this time.
“You do this for a few days,” says Boris, nodding, “you will be much stronger. You are young. You’ll see. You will be sore but then you will be stronger.”
“What made you decide to come to America?” asks Michael, dumping his load and pausing to catch his breath.
“My friend Alex came to San Francisco and after he work there for a year he opens his garage and calls me and says, ‘Boris. Come to San Francisco and work for me. I pay you very well. Life is good here. The grocery stores are full of food. It never snows here and Maria can grow flowers all year long.’ So we apply to come here.”
They return to the pond and resume their digging.
“But there is long waiting list,” says Boris, going on with his story. “Immigration says we must wait three or four years before we can come. Maybe never. So I call Alex with bad news and he says, ‘I know someone who can help you. I will speak to him.’ So he does and Immigration say we can come.” Boris stops digging. “Do you know who helped us come here?”
“Tell me,” says Michael, glad to take another little break.
“The mayor of San Francisco,” says Boris, laughing. “Alex fixes his Mercedes. Two of them. One new, one classic. He tells Mayor, ‘I have friend in Russia who is genius with Mercedes. I want him for my garage. Can you help him come here?’ A month later we are in San Francisco.”
“And what brought you to Mercy?” asks Michael, resuming his work.
Boris works for a while before answering. “Irenia was…” He stops shoveling. “Is hard for me to tell you, Michael. Is tragic. Irenia was only ten, but tall and very pretty and… the men were coming after her, so… I saw job open at Mercy Garage and we come here.”
“I’m so sorry, Boris,” says Michael, thinking of his one-year-old daughter Jenna and the dangerous world she’s been born into.
“Is okay,” says Boris, smiling warmly at Michael. “We love it here. Ziggurat Farm, you know, makes everything good for Irenia and good for us, too. And now we will have a pond.” He resumes his shoveling. “What brought you and Daisy to Mercy?”
“We came to have supper at Raul’s restaurant,” says Michael, speaking of Ocelot, the renowned eatery on the headlands in Mercy. “My wife was a fan of Raul’s cookbooks and his memoir and it was her dream to dine at Ocelot. Once we were here, we never wanted to leave.”
“And now your sister Caroline and Raul will soon be married.” Boris smiles at the thought of big handsome Raul and beautiful Caroline. “Maria and Irenia love your sister. They sit with her at parties in the farmhouse and laugh and laugh. How do you say? They tickle funny bones on each other. And Raul, he is great man. We have never gone to his restaurant, but we eat the food he makes here for parties. He and Philip are unbelievable cooks. I never taste such good food until I come here. Maria is very good cook, but these men are geniuses.”
“Caroline and Raul are not soon to be married and may never be,” says Michael, annoyed that Boris thought so. “They’re just living together. She’s the hostess at Ocelot now and learning to manage the restaurant, though she’s due back at the University of New Hampshire in August, so…” He shrugs. “I don’t know what she’s gonna do.”
“Maria knows,” says Boris, the wheelbarrows full again. “She says they will get married in fall and Caroline will not go back to college.”
“How does Maria know that?” ask Michael, piqued by Boris sounding so sure of himself. “I just spoke to Caroline yesterday and she doesn’t even know what she’s going to do.”
“Well,” says Boris, wheeling his wheelbarrow out of the pond, “my wife… oh is not important. Never mind.”
Michael pushes his half-full wheelbarrow after him. “No tell me, please. I’m… did you know Irenia claims she could see this pond as it was before it got filled with dirt and logs? And that’s why we dug down and found the basin? Because she was adamant there was a pond here?”
“Yes, I know,” says Boris, dumping his barrow.
Michael dumps his load and they head back to the pond.
“She told me you didn’t believe her,” says Boris, ahead of Michael on the well-worn track. “Is hard to believe, I know, but they do this. Maria’s mother and grandmother could do this, too. Is in their blood, I think.”
“Do what?” says Michael, his intellect set hard against the idea that Irenia saw the pond as it was in the past and that Maria can know with any certainty what Caroline and Raul are going to do. “What’s in their blood?”
“Well…” says Boris, choosing his words carefully, “they can see things most people cannot see. You and Caroline could not see the pond. The other children could not see the pond. But Irenia saw it because… she can.”
“And your wife can see that Raul and Caroline are going to get married in the fall and Caroline will not go back to the university?” says Michael, infuriated with Boris for believing Maria can predict the future. “How is that possible?”
“I don’t know,” says Boris, shrugging. “I fix engines, Michael. I use a pick and shovel very well. I cannot see the future or the past. I don’t have this talent. But Maria does and so does Irenia, even if you can’t believe it.” He shrugs again. “It doesn’t matter. Please don’t be upset. They don’t hurt anyone by knowing these things. Sometimes they help. Look at us. We are digging out the pond because Irenia saw it. Yes?”
“No, we’re digging out the pond because we dug down and confirmed there was a basin here,” says Michael, unable to suppress his rage. “That’s why we’re here. Not because of some idiotic magical hocus pocus bullshit.”
“Maybe is bullshit to you, but not to me,” says Boris, calmly. “My wife is not an idiot, Michael. She is very sensible person. So is Irenia. They just have this other talent you don’t know about. In the same way I don’t know many things you know about. I know how to fix engines. You know about birds and science. We know different things.”
Michael looks away from Boris to try to calm down, and he recalls a night in the farmhouse this past December when Nathan, a good friend, predicted that Michael’s parents would undergo miraculous transformations within a few days of their coming to Ziggurat Farm, and how infuriated he was with Nathan for making such a ludicrous prediction about people he knew nothing about… and then Michael’s parents did undergo miraculous transformations after a few days on the farm, and they ceased to incessantly sing and hum and whistle as they had for Michael’s entire life.
“I’m thirsty,” says Boris, leaning his shovel against his wheelbarrow. “Let’s go have some water.”
Michael nods mutely and follows Boris out of the hole to where they left their water bottles and snacks.
When they’ve drunk their fill, Michael says, “I’m sorry I got angry with you. It’s just… so many inexplicable things have happened to me since I quit teaching and we came here, including meeting Philip at Ocelot and him inviting us to visit the farm and our knowing the moment we arrived this was where we wanted to spend the rest of our lives, and now we live here. Then my parents were coming for Christmas and Nathan predicted they would be healed of their lifelong afflictions after they got here, and they were. Impossible. Yet it happened. And then my brother, my cynical, selfish, angry brother came to visit and changed overnight into a sweet caring person, and now both he and Caroline are thinking of quitting their very good jobs as university professors, though neither of them has much money.” He gazes into the huge hole that was once full of water and teaming with life. “And now this pond is here as your daughter knew it would be, though this was just flat ground when we came here a week ago.” He gazes forlornly at Boris. “I hardly know who I am anymore. For me to believe Irenia could see this pond and that Maria might know before the fact that Caroline and Raul will get married is… if that’s true, then everything I’ve ever believed is false. I’ve built my life on scientific facts that cannot even begin to explain what I’ve witnessed and what has happened to me since coming here.”
“I think I know how you are feeling,” says Boris, nodding sympathetically. “I think you are having identity crisis. I had one of those when our children died, both in the same month. Yelena was six. Sasha was nine. I could not make my body do anything for many months after they died. If Maria had not fed me, I would have died, too, because I did not want to live. But then I got better and we came to San Francisco and I had another crisis, and then another crisis when we came to Mercy. Everything I knew, everything I trusted would be there was gone. It feels like you are falling, doesn’t it? Not falling off a cliff, but slowly falling through the air and you think, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to hit the ground and die.’ But you don’t hit the ground, Michael. What happens is you fall for a long time and then one day the ground rises up to you and touches the bottom of your feet, and when you can trust is safe again, you let yourself stand and feel the ground is solid, and you can go on. You know? Everything you could not believe is now the ground you are walking on. You’ll see. You’ll feel better soon.”