Everything happened so quickly, the denizens of Ziggurat Farm, grownups and children alike, are having a hard time adjusting to the new reality.
In mid-September, Hilda, who just turned eighty-five, told Philip and Lisa she was frightened by how forgetful she was becoming and wanted to move back to Berkeley and live in a senior care facility. Hilda’s daughter Tamara and Tamara’s partner Celine then decided not to buy the Richardson’s place in Mercy and instead move to Berkeley and live in Hilda’s house just a few miles from the senior care facility—and by late September the three of them were gone.
Then two weeks later, the very British Richardsons, Constance and Joseph, bid the farm gang adieu and moved back to England, their house in Mercy selling in one day for five times what they paid for it ten years ago.
So now the cottage near the farmhouse is empty save for Lisa’s massage studio, two thousand dollars a month is no longer coming into the farm coffers from Hilda, the children are without a grandmother, the grownups without a mother, Aunt Tamara and Aunt Celine are no longer daily visitors, Joseph will never more recite for the children his favorite lines from Shakespeare as they stroll with him on the beach at the mouth of the Mercy River, nor will he give them twice-weekly drawing lessons, and there will be no more tea parties with Constance, no more learning to speak in the manner of erudite upper crust Brits, and no more piano concerts from Delilah on the Richardsons’ fabulous Steinway grand.
On a Tuesday evening after supper in mid-October, a week or so after Joseph and Constance left for England, Henri, who is nine, asks his parents Marcel and Andrea if he can spend the night with Arturo and Vivienne, something he often does on weekends but rarely does during the week.
“No dear,” says Andrea, knowing her son is distraught about losing five of his favorite people. “It’s a school night.”
“I don’t want to go to our house,” he says, his sleep bothered by nightmares since Hilda and then Joseph moved away. “It’s too far from Arturo and Vivienne. Can’t we stay in the cottage?”
“We have no beds there,” says Marcel, who feels helpless to ease his son’s sorrow about the loss of Hilda and Joseph, both of whom Henri adored.
“Well we should,” says Henri, angrily. “We should live in the cottage. We’re here for most of the day anyway. The garden is here, the orchard is here, the barn and the wine and the chickens are here. The dogs mostly stay here. My best friends are here. Your best friends are here. Why can’t we live here instead of all the way on the other side of the property?” Having said this, he bursts into tears, and Vivienne bursts into tears, too.
And though this may seem like a fairly insignificant moment in the grand scheme of things, as Joseph was fond of saying, quite the opposite is true, for Henri’s plea causes the four adults to simultaneously realize that if Andrea and Marcel and Henri did move into the cottage, the other house, along with three of the farm’s eight acres, could be sold for a million dollars or more, money that would support the farm and the creative efforts of the collective for many years to come.
When the children are finally asleep, Henri having prevailed in his wish to stay with Arturo and Vivienne, Marcel opens a bottle of their exquisite Ziggurat Farm pinot noir and he and Andrea and Philip and Lisa gather by the fire in the living room to discuss the possibility of selling the house where Marcel and Andrea have lived since the four of them took possession of the two contiguous properties ten years ago.
“The Richardson’s got 1.9 million for their place,” says Andrea, who can’t believe she hadn’t thought of this until now. “We might get 1.2. Possibly more.”
“I love the cottage,” says Marcel, who is more discombobulated by the thought of selling the house than he was by the loss of five of his closest friends. “But is it big enough? Where would Lisa give massages?”
“If we sell your house,” says Lisa, who is weary of being a masseuse, “I can work here in the living room and only giving one massage a day instead of three.”
“If the cottage is too small for you, we can add another room or two,” says Philip, who worries about Lisa, her hands aching all the time now.
“And we can finally publish Philip’s cookbook,” says Andrea, bowing her head and crying.
“We will do this, my love,” says Marcel, putting his arms around Andrea. “And I’ll only wait tables three nights a week, but I’m not stopping entirely this time. I like the work and I like making money.”
“What are you thinking?” asks Lisa, looking at Philip.
“I think we should let this simmer for a day or two,” he says calmly. “Then we’ll make a careful assessment of our annual expenses and what we might spend on any projects we want to pursue, sell the house, see how much we get, and proceed accordingly.”
“Yes,” says Marcel, nodding in agreement.
“But we will publish your book,” says Andrea, gazing steadfastly at Philip. “That is my number one priority.”
“I think it’s a great idea,” says Nathan, sitting at his kitchen table with Philip and Lisa who just dropped the kids at school and came to confer with Nathan and Celia and Delilah about the plan to sell Andrea and Marcel’s house. “But beware your new neighbors.”
“What do you mean?” asks Lisa, smiling curiously at Nathan. “We haven’t sold the place yet. We just got the idea last night.”
“I understand,” says Nathan, sipping his tea. “But if you do sell the place, someone might move in who hates dogs and loves guns and shoots your dogs. Or they might be commercial pot growers and have guns and pit bulls that kill your dogs. Or they might be reactionary Republicans who use pesticides and herbicides that float over and taint your organic garden and kill all the bees for miles around. Ideally you would handpick the people you sell the house to, but who do you know and love who has a million bucks to spend on a house in the middle of nowhere?”
“They know me,” says Delilah, making coffee in the kitchen. “Only I think they want more than a million, and that’s all I have. And once I spend the million I won’t have anything and wouldn’t be able to afford the property taxes etcetera, and I don’t really want to live alone in a great big house.” She smiles lovingly at Nathan and Celia. “I’d much rather stay right where I am.”
“We hadn’t thought of problematic neighbors,” says Philip, laughing. “But then we hadn’t thought of selling the house until Henri opened our eyes to the possibility.”
“You could describe what kind of neighbors you’d like,” suggests Celia, taking a pan of blueberry muffins out of the oven, “and put a notice on the Mercy list serve. Someone local might have friends or relatives who want to move here. We’re becoming a haven for people escaping the inland heat and fires.”
“That’s a very good idea,” says Lisa, looking at Philip. “Make a local search before we put it on the market.”
“A ritual would be good, too,” says Nathan, his eyes twinkling. “Call in the beneficent spirits to bless the house and the land. That always works.”
On the following Monday, one of Philip and Marcel’s two days off from their jobs as waiters at Ocelot, a most exclusive restaurant in Mercy, the farm residents gather with Nathan and Celia and Delilah on the deck on the south side of Marcel and Andrea and Henri’s house, and Nathan holds a wand of smoking sage and speaks to the nature spirits.
“Oh mysterious powers of creation,” says Nathan, who isn’t kidding but doesn’t sound overly serious. “We love you. We love the wind and the rain and the sunshine and the fog and the cold and the heat and the dead and the living and everything that goes into making life possible here. We love the animals and trees and stones and grasses and reptiles and amphibians and insects and everything there has ever been and ever will be.”
Nathan makes a few figure eights in the air with his smoking sage.
“So when these good folks offer this house and the surrounding land for sale, and by the way, they reforested those acres after the previous yahoos cut all the trees down, we ask for your help in attracting people who love you as much as we do and will be good stewards of this precious land and good neighbors to those gathered here today.”
He makes a few more figure eights with the sage and says, “Anybody want to say anything more?”
“Maybe they could have kids,” says Arturo, speaking to the surrounding forest. “Kids who would end up being our friends.”
“And nice dogs,” says Vivienne, addressing the meadow descending to the forest. “Not mean ones.”
“They would like us,” says Henri, gazing at a passing cloud, “even if they don’t have kids.”
“Maybe the husband is a wood carver and the wife is a modern dancer,” says Vivienne, imagining a man who looks like Joseph and a woman who looks like Tamara.
“I don’t know if we should be so specific,” says Arturo, looking to Nathan for guidance.
“Specific is fine,” says Nathan, matter-of-factly. “Nature spirits like suggestions.”
“I hope they will be kind,” says Marcel, who finds the ritual deeply moving. “Kind and good to this house and land.”
“Kind and generous,” says Lisa, imagining walking the path from the farmhouse to this house, bringing the new neighbors apples and muffins.
On the Wednesday evening following the Monday ritual, Philip is waiting on a couple in the southernmost room of the gorgeous old Victorian that is home to Ocelot, the snazzy restaurant not yet two years old. An immediate sensation, Ocelot has become a popular destination for wealthy people and movie stars and celebrities from around the world, as well as a mecca for culinary thrill seekers enamored of Raul Neves, the handsome chef renowned for his spectacular cuisine and liaisons with famous beauties.
The couple are Daisy, a darling woman in her thirties with short reddish brown hair, and Michael, an equally darling man with longish brown hair and a few years older than his darling wife, both full of questions about the food, the restaurant, Raul, and most of all about Mercy.
“We lived in Ann Arbor for thirteen years,” says Daisy, beaming at Philip. “That’s in Michigan.” She laughs nervously. “You probably knew that. Michael taught at the university. He’s an ornithologist and I’m a wannabe novelist. We’ve fallen madly in love with Mercy. The real estate market here is bonkers as I’m sure you know, but we’re determined to find something.”
“Do you have a particular bird you follow?” asks Philip, nodding politely to Michael.
“I do,” says Michael, pleased by the question. “I’ve written two books about owls and I hope to study ospreys once we get settled here.”
“Lots of those here,” says Philip, needing to attend another table. “If you’ll excuse me for a moment, I must refresh some goblets and then I’ll return to take your order.”
“Isn’t he stunning?” says Daisy, whispering to Michael. “Of course Raul would have someone like him as his waiter.” She looks around the tastefully appointed restaurant. “Pinch me. I can’t believe we’re here.”
“I feel immoral,” Michael confides quietly. “This meal is going to cost more than we used to spend on food for months. Not weeks. Months. Plural.”
“Yes, but we have enough now for a splurge now and then,” she whispers. “Until we buy our house and the baby’s born and then we’ll go back to being frugal. Sort of. But we don’t really have to because my mother left us so much.”
“I’d rather give our money to the Audubon Society than these folks,” he says, feeling out of place. “And you’re not a wannabe novelist. I wish you’d stop saying that. You’ve written three marvelous books. Just because the publishers are too stupid to see the worth of your writing doesn’t have anything to do with your talent.”
“How about this?” she says, pouting adorably. “However much we spend tonight we’ll give twice that to the Audubon Society? And you’ll relax and enjoy yourself. Say yes.”
“Yes,” he says, still crazy about her after fifteen years of marriage.
Philip returns and nods to indicate he’s ready to take their order.
“Do you recommend the chicken—I’m going to say this wrong—à l’ivoire?” says Daisy, wincing at her mispronunciation of the word.
“If you like a very rich sauce on a tender bird, oui,” says Philip, enjoying her attempt at the French. “But I must tell you the rock cod is spectacular tonight served with baby potatoes and vegetables from the farm where I live. If either of you like fish, the cod is not to be missed.”
“I’ll have the cod,” says Michael, intrigued by Philip. “You mentioned lots of ospreys. We’ve been here for ten days and we’ve yet to see one. Can you give us some leads?”
“Most of the ospreys are gone until spring,” says Philip, nodding to Michael. “But we know a few who spend the winter here.” He looks at Daisy. “The chicken à livoire for you?”
“Oh could you choose something else for me?” she says, pleadingly. “I don’t want to get the same thing as Michael, though I’ll certainly be tasting his fish. And a rich sauce on chicken might be, I don’t know… do you mind recommending something for me?”
Philip, who rarely chooses for a customer, gazes at Daisy for a moment and knows she will love the stuffed quail in a nest of straw potatoes more than anything else on the menu, though the dish costs two hundred and seventy dollars.
“For you, Madame,” he says, understanding this is no ordinary event in their lives, “I recommend the quail stuffed with truffles in a nest of straw potatoes, though it is quite dear.”
“Oh thank you,” she says, sighing with relief. “Yes, I’ll have that. And we want two different salads and if you’ll choose them I’ll be forever grateful.”
“And the wine?” asks Philip, turning to Michael who has the wine list.
“We’re not drinking alcohol at the moment,” says Michael, shrugging self-consciously. “Bubbly water’s fine.”
“Because I’m pregnant,” blurts Daisy. “We love wine, but I’m not drinking until a year after the baby’s born and neither is Michael. In solidarity with me. I told him he doesn’t have to not drink, but he insists.”
“Excellent,” says Philip, going out of character to laugh. “When I return with your bubbly I will tell you what I know about the local ospreys.”
“And your farm?” says Michael, hopefully. “We’d love to pick your brain about growing vegetables around here. We’re zealous gardeners.”
Philip bows and departs.
“The Audubon Society,” says Daisy, taking a deep breath, “will be thrilled with the check we’re sending them tomorrow.”
“They’d be even more thrilled if we had wine,” says Michael, perusing the wine list. “The cheapest glass of wine here is seventy dollars, and the cheapest bottle is a mere four hundred and forty.”
“But we don’t care,” says Daisy, her eyes full of tears. “Not for tonight anyway.”
Philip slips into bed a little after midnight, hoping not to wake Lisa, though she almost always wakes to give him a kiss before going back to sleep, tonight no exception.
“How was it?” she whispers.
“Good,” he says, greatly relieved to be home. “I think I may have found buyers for Marcel and Andrea’s house. Kind and generous people who love to garden and love birds and are going to have a baby soon.”
Lisa sits up. “Are you serious?”
“I am,” says Philip, laughing. “They’ll be calling tomorrow. I didn’t say anything about the house being for sale, but I know they’ll want it, and I know they have the money, and best of all… I know you’ll love them.”
“Wouldn’t that be amazing?” she says, growing amorous. “If you found our new neighbors at Ocelot?”