The first day of October. Evening. Fall in full swing. No rain yet this season in the Mercy River watershed of northern California.
After supper at Ziggurat Farm, two miles inland from the little coastal burg of Mercy, Lisa and Philip and their children Arturo and Vivienne find they are just the four of them in the farmhouse tonight. Irenia, who is fifteen and shares a bedroom with Vivienne four nights a week, is home with her parents in Mercy, and Marcel and Andrea and their thirteen-year-old son Henri have retired to their cottage for the evening.
When the dishes are done, a game of Hearts ensues on the living room floor in front of the fire with Alexandra, a six-year-old Golden Retriever, and the pups Jargon and Cordelia and Max sprawled on the floor around the humans.
With Vivienne slightly in the lead after the first hand, the second hand dealt, Arturo, who turned fourteen in June says, “I really need a smart phone. It’s imperative I have one.”
Lisa and Philip have been anticipating something like this from Arturo for some weeks now, ever since school resumed and Arturo got the lead in the play at Mercy High where homeschoolers are allowed to participate in after-school activities. But Vivienne, who is three weeks away from turning twelve, is shocked by her brother’s demand.
“You can’t be serious,” she says, gaping at Arturo. “You know we can’t have cell phones until we’re eighteen, and even then we won’t be able to use them in the farmhouse when Delilah’s here because microwaves make her physically ill.”
“So she claims,” says Arturo, haughtily. “All my friends say that’s ridiculous.”
“Well all your friends are morons,” says Vivienne, glowering at her brother. “Are you accusing Delilah of lying? Because if you are, I will never speak to you again until you take that back and apologize.”
“It’s impossible for microwaves to make her sick,” cries Arturo, throwing down his cards. “How could she even walk down the street?”
“You know she has to be in the same room with an activated cell phone to be adversely affected,” says Lisa, frowning at her son. “What’s wrong with you?”
“What’s wrong with me is we’re relegated to living in the Stone Age because one person claims microwaves make them ill? That’s insane.” He glares at his father. “Why can’t I have one? I’m cut off from my friends, from society, from a vast treasure trove of information and cultural stimuli.”
“How are you cut off from your friends?” asks Philip, accustomed to his son’s penchant for hyperbole. “Or from society? Or from information or cultural stimuli?”
“I can’t text my friends and they can’t text me,” says Arturo, grimacing as if in pain. “I have no way of knowing what they’re doing or telling them what I’m doing, andwe can’t share videos. I might as well be marooned on a desert island.”
Vivienne looks at her parents and says, “He’s clearly suffered some sort of brain damage. Maybe you should take him to the emergency room. But I will have nothing to do with him ever again.”
And with that, she stalks off to her bedroom.
“Arturo,” says Lisa, who has a deep loving bond with him, “tell us what’s really going on. Okay? You can’t have a smart phone, and not because of Delilah but because we don’t want you to have one yet. You know you can use the telephone any time you want to call your friends. You also know you are better educated than anyone your age in Mercy except for your fellow homeschoolers. You also know perfectly well you are not being deprived of anything except a portable device for accessing the internet, which you can do from our home computer for an hour every evening. You can’t text back and forth with your friends, but you certainly can send them emails. So tell us what’s really going on and then please apologize to your sister for what you said about Delilah.”
“You can’t possibly know what it’s like not to have a phone when all your friends have them,” says Arturo, his eyes full of tears. “I’m a laughingstock.”
“That’s not true,” says Philip, shaking his head. “When I picked you up tonight after your rehearsal you were surrounded by admirers and having the time of your life.”
“Okay I’m not a laughingstock,” says Arturo, sniffling back his tears. “But I feel cut off, disallowed, life passing me by.”
“What is passing you by?” asks Lisa, who lived in extreme poverty for the first ten years of her life. “What do you lack besides a portable computer for looking at videos and texting your friends?”
“I lack being part of the modern world,” he says, his jaw trembling. “And Dolores Ramirez…”
Lisa and Philip wait patiently, Philip trying not to laugh, Lisa knowing this was the underlying issue all along.
“What about Dolores?” asks Lisa, speaking quietly to encourage her son.
“She said she won’t… can’t…” He bows his head and sobs. “…go steady with me if I don’t have a phone.”
On the fourth day of October, after two days of Arturo histrionically refusing to attend home school classes, Philip drives Arturo to Mercy High where they meet with the principal and Arturo is given an aptitude test, the results of which suggest he will learn nothing in high school he doesn’t already know, and he is enrolled as a junior, his first day of school tomorrow.
The fifth day of October dawns sunny and warm, the coast clear of fog.
Today is Delilah’s twenty-eighth birthday. She has lived with Nathan and Celia in their little house on the outskirts of Mercy for fifteen years and intends to live with them until they die. Nathan is eighty-eight, Celia eighty-two. Delilah is a musician, artist, and teacher. Nathan is a retired tree pruner and locally renowned poet, Celia a retired nurse, now a housekeeper and gardener.
For Delilah’s birthday breakfast, Celia makes pancakes while Delilah sets the table for four, their friend Gabriel Fernandez to join them. Gabriel is thirty-four and has been a fan of Delilah’s music since he first heard her play thirteen years ago, and in just the last two weeks he and Delilah have begun exploring the possibility of embarking on a relationship.
Celia assisted at Gabriel’s birth at Mercy Hospital, and Nathan remembers Gabriel as a determined little boy going door-to-door asking for empty pop and beer bottles to redeem for money at the grocery store. When Gabriel’s father died, Gabriel dropped out of high school and went to work for a landscaping company to help support his ailing mother and younger siblings. Nathan planted fruit trees for that same landscaping company and Gabriel was often assigned to work with Nathan, a pairing they both enjoyed. When Gabriel turned eighteen, he joined the Army and was sent to the war in Afghanistan. Upon his return, after recovering from the post traumatic stress, he opened his now-thriving business as a backhoe operator.
Gabriel, tall and handsome, his long brown hair in a ponytail, arrives promptly at nine and presents Celia with a jar of his homemade blackberry jam and gives Nathan a new pair of leather gardening gloves.
“So you won’t be jealous of what I’m giving Delilah,” says Gabriel, handing Delilah a small white box adorned with a magenta rosebud.
“Gads,” says Delilah, blushing brightly. “It’s not a ring, is it? We hardly know each other.”
Gabriel laughs. “Not a ring. Don’t worry.”
“What if it had been a ring, hija?” says Celia, comically slapping her forehead. “Think how embarrassed he would be.”
“He wouldn’t be embarrassed,” says Delilah, giving Gabriel a coquettish smile. “He’s too suave to be embarrassed.”
“I’ve been called many things in my life,” says Gabriel, confiding in Nathan, “but never suave until now.”
“Yeah she calls me things I would otherwise never be called, too,” says Nathan, laughing. “One of her many talents.”
Delilah opens the box and finds two earrings, each a long slender turquoise stone clasped in silver, the stones nearly identical but not quite.
“Oh their exquisite,” says Delilah, her eyes brimming with tears. “Thank you, Gabriel. I love them.”
“My sister Carmelita made them. I bought the stones in New Mexico a year ago when I went to see the aspens turn yellow in the mountains near Santa Fe. I got them from a young woman on the plaza there. Un Indio. They are not too heavy, so I think they will be okay.”
“How were the aspens?” asks Nathan, wistfully. “We’ve never been, though we always meant to go.”
“Yellow beyond yellow beyond yellow,” says Gabriel, watching Delilah take off her small silver earrings and put on the turquoise. “Whole mountains covered with a golden yellow only nature can make.”
A few days later, while Celia is making supper—Delilah spending the night at Ziggurat Farm—Nathan kneels on the hearth building a fire.
“How did the sketching session go today?” he asks, having spent the afternoon fishing with Celia’s brother Juan.
“We had fun,” she says, pausing in her chopping of green onions. “All the women and girls from the farm were there, eleven of us and baby Jenna. We wore skirts and T-shirts with the sleeves rolled up. In Daisy’s book the women wear skirts and shirts without sleeves, so this was as close as we could get to that.”
“Did Connie direct?” asks Nathan, referring to the very British Constance who lives next door to Ziggurat Farm and usually takes charge of anything she’s involved in.
“No,” says Celia, shaking her head. “I thought she would, but she only made a few suggestions. Mostly Joseph and Delilah directed us. But first they served us wine.”
“There was wine?” says Nathan, amused. “Eleven drunk women in the garden of Eden. That’s probably the real story, not that nonsense about Adam and Eve and a snake.”
“Henri and Marcel poured a glass for each of us, including Vivienne and Irenia and Alma, and then Joseph posed us in front of the snow peas. He had two easels with big canvases, and Henri and Delilah had their big sketch pads, and the three of them sketched our first pose for maybe five minutes and then Joseph posed us another way and they sketched us again and Delilah took pictures.”
“And all the while you were drinking wine?” asks Nathan, lighting the fire.
“Yes. Marcel kept filling our glasses, except not so much for Irenia and Vivienne and Alma who got very giggly after just a little.”
“I wish I’d been there,” says Nathan, smiling at the thought of the female bacchanal.
“Then Delilah posed us in groups of two and three and took lots of pictures while Joseph and Henri sketched, and when we were sleepy in the sun, Gabriel arrived and Delilah posed him with different women and took lots of pictures. Then Daisy wanted a picture of Delilah with Gabriel, so they stood together and Daisy took lots of pictures and so did Joseph. I can’t wait to see them.”
“Did Gabriel take off his shirt?” asks Nathan, joining Celia in the kitchen. “Wasn’t that the burning question of the day? Would he or wouldn’t he?”
“He did,” says Celia, smiling as she stirs the beans.
“And?” asks Nathan, arching an eyebrow.
“As you would say, marido, he was not even a little bit unbeautiful.”
In the late morning on the tenth of October, Delilah is playing her piano in her bedroom, practicing the music she will play for the processional and recessional at the wedding of Raul Neves and Caroline Darling three days from now.
Raul is the famous Portuguese chef and owner of Ocelot, a world-renowned restaurant on the headlands in Mercy, for which Raul buys copious quantities of vegetables and fruit and flowers grown in the Ziggurat Farm garden and greenhouses. He also teaches culinary history to the homeschoolers and is the godfather of Caroline’s niece Jenna, who is nineteen-months-old and lives next door to Ziggurat farm with her parents Michael and Daisy.
Caroline is a former professor of Botany and deeply entangled in the life of Ziggurat Farm. She teaches natural science to the homeschoolers, takes dance classes with Delilah at the rec center, and is the hostess and manager of Ocelot. She is Michael’s younger sister by two years, and the older sister by ten years of Thomas, a professor at Cornell who was in a relationship with Delilah—the end of their liaison six months ago severely traumatic for Delilah.
The phone in the kitchen rings and Delilah stops playing to go answer. Nathan and Celia are working in the garden, and Celia comes in to answer the phone, too. There are no cell phones in the house, the old landline phone sufficient for their purposes—microwaves toxic to Delilah’s nervous system.
“Hello?” says Delilah, answering the phone a moment before Celia comes in from the garden.
“Delilah,” says Thomas, calling from New York. “It’s Thom. How are you?”
Hearing Thomas’s voice, Delilah drops the phone and bends over in agony.
“Who is it?” asks Celia, holding her breath.
“Thom,” says Delilah, hurrying down the hall. “I’m gonna vomit.”
Celia picks up the phone and says tersely, “What do you want, Thom?”
“I want to come to Caroline’s wedding and she said I can only come if Delilah says it’s okay. And… I want to try again with Delilah. I made a terrible mistake breaking up with her. I was a fool. Can I please speak to her?”
“No, Thom,” says Celia, listening to Delilah retching in the bathroom. “She doesn’t want to talk to you. She was sick for a long time after you broke up and she’s just getting well.”
“Please Celia. I really need to speak to her.”
“No. She has a new boyfriend now. Don’t come to the wedding. Goodbye.”
On October eleventh, still shaky from Thom’s call yesterday, Delilah meets with Caroline and Raul at Constance and Joseph’s house to play her music for them on Constance and Joseph’s magnificent grand piano, and Caroline assures Delilah that Thomas will not be coming to the wedding.
“I wish I wasn’t such a wimp,” says Delilah, grateful for Caroline’s assurance, “but I am.”
“I should never have told him to ask you,” says Caroline, furious with her brother for interfering with her wedding. “I didn’t want him to come. I should have just said so. He’s never cared about me. He was just using this as an excuse to come beg you to take him back.”
“I’m glad you told him to call me,” says Delilah, breathing a big sigh of relief. “I needed to vomit him out of me, only I didn’t realize it until I did.”
October thirteenth is a glorious day on the far north coast of California, warm and sunny, the afternoon sky brilliantly blue with puffy white clouds.
“I am a born again Ziggurat Farm person,” says Raul, as he and Caroline walk hand-in-hand on the path from the Ziggurat Farm garden to the pond at the northeast corner of the farm. “I was a narcissist among narcissists until I fell in love with Andrea and Lisa and their garden, and Marcel and his wine, and the beautiful farm children adopted me as their uncle, and Philip became my brother.”
“I was born again here, too, and they are my family now,” says Caroline, both she and Raul in their wedding finery, Raul in a magnificent white suit with a turquoise tie, his shaggy gray hair somewhat tamed, Caroline in a long white skirt and a fiery red sleeveless blouse, her short brown hair festooned with tiny white flowers placed there by Vivienne and Irenia.
They stand on the shore of the recently revived pond that Caroline and Michael are restoring with the help of the homeschoolers—the water cold enough for trout they hope to plant here in the spring, hundreds of mosquito fish patrolling the waters, frogs newly arrived, water lilies multiplying, the shallow north end seeded with reeds.
“I marry you,” says Raul, holding both of Caroline’s hands and smiling into her eyes. “What’s mine is yours.”
“I marry you,” she says, her voice as deep as his. “What’s mine is yours.”
Now they stand together in joyful surrender until they hear the gong sounding on the deck of Joseph and Constance’s house up the hill from the pond, the gong their cue to come and be united in the presence of their friends.
When Raul and Caroline have exchanged their vows on the sun-drenched deck, Philip presiding, a hundred witnesses moved to tears, Philip nods to Nathan who rises from his chair and recites a poem for the bride and groom.
Sometimes we just know, we do. It’s not a matter of
figuring something out or uncovering hidden information.
No great revelation need come to us, no cosmic event or
scrape with death is necessary to convince us. We just
know, as naturally as breathing and thirsting for water,
in the same way we dream of places we’ve never been
except in our dreams. There is no mystery about how
or why we know the other is a kindred spirit. We know
the moment we hear them speak, the moment we see
them seeing us, and they know, too. So when you do
recognize the other as the one you’ve been waiting
for without knowing you were waiting, and they
recognize you in the same way, by all means
marry each other. Amen.
On Monday October 25 the five homeschoolers are gathered in the living room of the farmhouse about to begin the school day with an hour of working on math problems suitable to their various levels of mathematical proficiency, Delilah and Larry’s father Arthur available for helping anyone desiring assistance.
“Before we begin,” says Delilah, standing in front of the chalkboard, “I would like to welcome Arturo back into our midst. He has decided to resume school with us after a three-week sojourn at Mercy High.” She smiles at Arturo who is standing in the kitchen with Lisa and Philip. “Your seat awaits you.”
Arturo goes to the table he shares with Alma near the chalkboard, but does not sit. “May I say something?” he asks, fighting his tears.
“Please,” says Delilah, sitting down to listen.
“I would just like to say…” he begins, fighting his tears “how very sorry I am for the negative things I said about this school and Delilah and living here on the farm. I was gravely mistaken and I regret any ill feelings I may have engendered in any of you, and I hope you will forgive me.”
“Was it as horrible as Seventh Grade?” asks Larry, who is fourteen and was literally wasting away in public school when he was able to escape the nightmare of public school in Mercy and enter the educational nirvana of Ziggurat Farm School.
“Ten times worse,” says Arturo, who fourteen months ago begged his parents to create a home school. “Nay. A hundred times.”
“Unimaginable,” says Larry, who was a victim of bullying for all his seven years in public school.
“How do the other kids stand it?” asks Vivienne, who has refused to speak to her brother for three weeks after he accused Delilah of lying about her extreme sensitivity to microwaves.
“I don’t know,” says Arturo, unable to restrain his tears. “The teachers are all bitter beleaguered jailers spouting erroneous claptrap, the kids comatose or hyper, and I saw no evidence of anything that might be construed as learning.”
“Why did you want to go there?” asks Alma, who is thirteen and was deemed incapable of learning until she came to ZFS and proved to be brilliant. “You knew in junior high what a nightmare it was.”
“I’m in the play after school there,” says Arturo, sniffling back his tears. “And the Drama kids are great and… they hate school. They live for three o’clock and the joy that follows, and I wanted to be part of their gang, and I still can be, I just won’t have a cell phone.”
“You called us stupid losers,” says Henri, frowning at Arturo. “You said Delilah was a fraud and we were missing out on real life, that this was fake here and you were going where it was real.” He takes a deep breath. “That really hurt me, A. I won’t speak for anybody else, but you really hurt me. I thought we were best friends and now I don’t know what to think. I mean… I’m glad you’re in a gang of kids who love Drama. That’s great. But why did you have to say such horrible things to us?”
“I was desperate to be part of the bigger world,” says Arturo, passionately. “I’m so sorry, Henri. I really am. I don’t know what got into me. I just… lost my mind.”
“Okay,” says Henri, going to comfort his friend. “I think we all want to be part of the bigger world, if only the bigger world wasn’t so ruined.”
“I wish all the Drama kids could come to our school,” says Arturo, embracing Henri. “They’d love it here.”
“Not only the Drama kids would love our school,” says Irenia, solemnly. “All the kids would love to learn this way. We are so very lucky.”