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From Whence

In the early morning of December twentieth in their little house on the outskirts of the northern California coastal town of Mercy, the resident trio of Delilah, Nathan, and Celia sit at the dining table listening to heavy rain drumming on the roof, Nathan having green tea, Celia and Delilah coffee.

Nathan is eighty-eight and feeling chipper this morning after a good night’s sleep. Dressed in old brown corduroy trousers and a black long-sleeved T-shirt, his hair snow white, he’s thinking of taking the mutts Chico and Gypsy for a walk once the rain lets up, which he guesses will be in the early afternoon. After fifty-eight years of living in Mercy, Nathan’s guesses about the weather are rarely wrong.

Celia is Nathan’s wife. She is eighty-two and was a nurse for forty-five years until she retired simultaneously with Delilah coming to live with them fifteen years ago. She is still in her nightgown and bathrobe, her long black hair full of gray, her winter days filled with cooking and reading and spending time with Nathan and Delilah and their friends, her hopes of late pinned on Delilah marrying Gabriel Fernandez, a charming fellow and good friend of their family.

Delilah is twenty-eight and the only child of movie star Margot Cunningham who died eight years ago. Unmistakably the daughter of her famously beautiful mother, Delilah is also still in her nightgown and bathrobe, her brown hair longer than it has been in several years, though only a boyish bob. This morning, after a lifetime of wondering, she is both excited and fearful about the possibility of finally discovering who her father is.

Last night Delilah and Nathan and Celia went with Gabriel to a party at the home of the very British Constance and Joseph Richardson next door to Ziggurat Farm where Delilah is the main home school teacher and Nathan and Celia are the honorary farm elders. Gabriel and Delilah are not yet lovers, though they are wildly attracted to each other and love spending time together.

At the party, Raul Neves, chef and owner of Ocelot, a renowned restaurant in Mercy, and his wife Caroline, Delilah’s close friend and the manager of Ocelot, gave a slide show of their recent honeymoon in England and Portugal. One of the slides was of Raul’s deceased mother Beatrice. In the photo, which was taken when Beatrice was thirty-five, her resemblance to Delilah is exact down to the finest details.

And because Delilah knows Raul met her mother Margot on a few occasions twenty-nine years ago, now that she’s seen this photo of Beatrice she is convinced Raul is her father.

“Fortunately,” says Nathan, going to put a log on the fire, “Raul is a wonderful person and you like him and he likes you. Much better than discovering your father is some obnoxious lout you can’t stand.”

“You would think so,” says Delilah, groggy from lack of sleep because her mind won’t stop gnawing on the possibility of Raul being her father, “except how will Caroline feel if I ask Raul to have a DNA test to see if he’s my father? They just got married and she’s pregnant with his child. She might be devastated.”

“Caroline loves you,” says Celia, getting up to make more coffee. “She’ll want to know the truth as much as you. So will Raul. They’re both strong people. Don’t worry.”

“Life is far more mysterious and fantastic than we could ever imagine,” says Nathan, gazing into the flames. “Raul and Caroline must have noticed how much you resemble his mother and done the math. They’re probably wondering the same thing. And if he’s not your father, oh well.”

“So do I just call him up and say, ‘Hi Raul. Delilah here. Shall we go have a DNA test and see if you’re my father?’”

“Would you like me to call him?” asks Nathan, returning to the table. “I’d be happy to.”

“Would you?” says Delilah, feeling childish and overwhelmed.

“Of course,” says Nathan, going to the phone. “Why else did I reincarnate?”

*

A half-hour later, Raul and Caroline arrive with a day-old pumpkin pie.

Fresh coffee is made.

After everyone expresses joy over the much-needed rain and the deliciousness of Raul’s pie, Caroline, tall and lovely and married and pregnant for the first time in her life, cuts to the chase.

“The first thing I said when I saw that picture of Beatrice was how much she looked like Delilah. And Raul…” She turns to her husband. “You tell.”

“When I first looked at that old photo,” says Raul, ruggedly handsome, his hair a tangle of gray, “I couldn’t see what Caroline was seeing. The photo is very small and the images I have in my mind of my mother are from much later in her life, so it never occurred to me she looked like Delilah. But when I saw the picture projected on the big screen, it was obvious.”

“So…” says Delilah, feeling incredibly shy around Raul, “will you… would you… can we have a DNA test and see?”

“If you’d like,” he says, smiling warmly at her. “But I know you’re my daughter. And it makes me happy in a way I never knew I could be happy.”

*

Twenty minutes later, Raul and Delilah are sitting side-by-side in the otherwise empty waiting room of the Mercy Hospital lab, Delilah feeling six-years-old, Raul feeling pleasantly ancient.

“Did my mother seduce you?” asks Delilah, innocently. “Or did you seduce her?”

Raul ponders the question and says, “When we’re done giving our blood, I’ll tell you what I remember. But not here.”

“Raul Neves?” says a young woman in blue scrubs calling from the lab entrance. “Ready for you now.”

“Can we come in together?” asks Raul, smiling at the young woman. “We’re finding out if I’m her father.”

“Oh,” says the young woman, pleased by Raul’s frankness. “Sure.”

*

Driving back to Nathan and Celia’s house from the lab, they stop at a vista point to watch the parade of storm-driven waves rolling into Mercy Bay.

“Your mother summoned me to her hotel room,” says Raul, striving to remember his tryst with Margot. “It was the night of the last time she came to my restaurant. Each of those times, there were three or four, I came out of the kitchen and spoke to her at her table, something I don’t often do, but your mother was a big star and so very beautiful and I was thirty and full of myself and had a faint hope of adding her to my trophy list. You do resemble her, you know, though not as much as you resemble my mother when she was your age.”

“Did you like my mother?” asks Delilah, who found Margot emotionally impenetrable.

“I was hypnotized by her,” he says simply. “But I didn’t know her. She was fantastically alluring, but not warm, not effusive. In our chit-chat at her table we discovered we were both thirty, so maybe that was a bond.”

“So you went to her hotel room. More than once?”

“Just one time,” he says, closing his eyes to remember.

“You don’t have to tell me more if you don’t want to,” she says softly.

“I don’t mind,” he says, opening his eyes and smiling at her. “I understand why you want to know. I would like to know how it was when my father and mother made me. And now that I have opened this page of my memory I remember when your mother opened the door of her suite I was pleased to see she had changed out of her fancy clothes and was wearing a sleeveless black top with spaghetti straps showing off her beautiful shoulders and arms, and a short red skirt showing off her beautiful legs, and her hair was down and she was barefoot, her toenails painted red, and she was impossibly beautiful. We sat together on the sofa and she drank hard liquor and I had wine. I don’t recall what we talked about. My restaurant, I suppose, or the movie she was making. I don’t remember, but I know we spoke for quite some time and she had a beautiful deep voice, as deep as Caroline’s. Then she told me…” He hesitates. “I don’t know if I should tell you this. I’m only just now remembering what happened.”

“You don’t have to,” says Delilah, though she wants him to.

“No, I’ll tell you. Maybe it will help you understand her. I don’t know.”

“Whatever you want,” says Delilah, closing her eyes.

“She told me she wanted me to pursue her and she would try to elude me. She said when I caught her she would fight to get away, even though she wanted me. I remember she said, ‘I hit hard. So be ready.’”

Now he remembers everything.

“She said, ‘I want you to overwhelm me until I have no choice but to surrender.’ I said, ‘But this is not my way. I would never force a woman to have sex with me.’ And she said, ‘Then you should go.’ So I said, ‘Okay.’ But then I looked at her and saw how sad she was, so lonely, and I said, ‘Or maybe you will let me be gentle with you, and also strong. Maybe you will like that, too.’ She looked away and said, ‘No. Gentle doesn’t work for me. Just go.’ So I got up and bowed to her like a monk bowing low to a statue of his god. I don’t why I did that, but I remember it felt good to bow to her like that. And then I told her it was a pleasure meeting her, which in a strange way it was, and then I walked to the door and she came running after me and wrapped her arms around me and we kissed, and then she took me to her bed.”

*

Early the next morning, a Thursday, Raul and Caroline lie abed talking about the myriad things they need to do today before they open Ocelot at five this afternoon.

“I wish Andrew was not so dour,” says Raul, speaking of the new cook in the kitchen. “I keep thinking he’ll lighten up as he gets more familiar with everything, but he remains so deadly serious, and deadly seriousness does not work well in my kitchen.”

“Shall I resume the hunt for another cook?” asks Caroline, wishing they didn’t have to get up just yet, the day cold and dreary.

“I suppose so,” says Raul, tired of breaking in new employees, life in the hinterlands a difficult fit for many professional cooks accustomed to city living. “And I’ll speak to Andrew. I keep waiting for him to relax, but maybe he needs a little prompting.”

“I hate to say this, but I think he’s intimidated by Maurice,” says Caroline, speaking of Raul’s longtime sous chef and assistant.

Raul sighs. “Maybe so. Maurice has become a mean old man, and that won’t work in my kitchen either.”

“I can’t imagine your kitchen without Maurice,” says Caroline, who has never been intimidated by Maurice because no one intimidates her. “Can you?”

“I can,” says Raul, getting out of bed. “Whenever he goes away for a vacation now the kitchen is much happier. But what can I do? He’s been with me for twenty years.”

“Yes, but if he’s the problem…”

“He’ll have to change or go,” says Raul, putting on his bathrobe. “I’m making breakfast. Stay in bed my darling. I’ll call when the coffee is ready.”

“I don’t want to be apart from you,” she says, getting out of bed and embracing him. “I’ll come with you.”

“Before we found each other,” he says, looking into her eyes, “I couldn’t imagine letting Maurice go, but now I can because I have you and our baby and Delilah and all our friends I never had before.”

*

Seven days later, the twenty-eighth of December, Delilah and Celia and Nathan give lunch to Constance and Joseph Richardson and Daisy and Michael Darling and their almost-two-year-old daughter Jenna. Michael is Caroline’s older brother, an ornithologist, Daisy is the author of a novella entitled Women Farm that Delilah has illustrated with exquisite pen and ink drawings, Joseph is a landscape painter, and Constance is a writer of bestselling murder mysteries; and they are all members of the Ziggurat Farm collective.

When Celia’s incomparable chicken enchiladas have been devoured, everyone deploys in the living room with pie and coffee, Celia sitting in the rocking chair with Jenna on her lap, a fire crackling in the hearth.

Constance taps her mug with her fork. “We have news.”

Momentous news,” says Joseph, nodding in agreement with the adjective.

“So do I,” says Delilah, bouncing her eyebrows. “You go first.”

“Arnold Winfield called from London yesterday,” says Constance, gazing intently at Daisy, “to tell us he is head over heels in love with Women Farm and wants to bring out a lavish clothbound edition in September and hopes very much that you and Delilah will come to England for a couple weeks of publishing-related events.”

“Including,” says Joseph, raising a declarative finger, “a show of Delilah’s original drawings at the Onyx Gallery in London, which is a coup of epic proportions, the Onyx an apex gallery. I can only dream of my paintings hanging there.”

“Oh my God,” says Daisy, bursting into tears. “I can’t believe it.”

“Congratulations, honey,” says Michael, hugging Daisy. “England here we come.”

“Mama cwy,” says Jenna, pouting. “Dome cwy Mama.”

“She’s happy,” says Celia, bouncing the little girl. “Happy tears.”

 “Arnold’s initial offer was 10,000 pounds with 80% to Daisy and 20% to Delilah,” says Constance, beaming at author and illustrator, “but I jiggled him up to 20,000 pounds. You can arrange the split however you like. That’s entirely up to you.”

“Thank you so much, Connie,” says Daisy, going to Constance and hugging her.

“Thank you, dear, for writing such a masterpiece and allowing us to show it Arnold,” says Connie, delighted to be the agent of such a fortuitous collision of writer and publisher. “A match made in heaven.”

“And what is your momentous news, Delilah?” asks Joseph, feeling certain she can’t possibly top Arnold Winfield publishing Women Farm.

“Well,” says Delilah, standing with her back to the fire, “I’m sure you all remember the picture of Raul’s mother from the honeymoon slideshow.”

“Gorgeous woman,” says Joseph, remembering the shimmery green dress clinging to those admirable curves.

“I thought she looked like you,” says Michael, who finds Delilah surpassingly lovely.

“I thought she was you at first,” says Daisy, still breathless from the news of her novella finding a publisher, never having published anything before.

“So… what about Raul’s mother?” asks Constance, smiling curiously at Delilah.

“Well it turns out,” says Delilah, looking at Celia for courage, “and we just got the results a few days ago, that I resemble Raul’s mother because… she’s my grandmother.”

“Raul is your father?” says Daisy, mouth agape.

Delilah nods. “He is.”

“Dear God,” says Constance, placing a hand on her heart. “How is this possible?”

“Well,” says Delilah, laughing through her tears, “when Raul was thirty and had just opened his restaurant in San Francisco, my mother dined there a few times and they had a fling, the result of which was me, though Raul never knew, nor did my mother know who the father was because she was quite promiscuous at the time. And though I knew Raul had met my mother long ago, it never occurred to me they might have been lovers until I saw that picture of Beatrice.”

“Raul never suspected?” says Joseph, staggered by this astonishing turn of events. “Never saw the resemblance?”

“Not until he saw that picture of his mother projected on the screen,” says Nathan, gazing fondly at Delilah. “Then he knew.”

“So the morning after the slide show,” says Delilah, continuing the story, “Nathan called Raul and he and Caroline came over, and then Raul and I went to the hospital lab and got our blood drawn, and five days later… voila.”

“Have you told the farm folks?” asks Constance, in shock—Raul a god to her and Delilah her favorite person in the world right after Joseph.

“Raul and Caroline are telling them even as we speak,” says Delilah, smiling at the thought of her dear friends gasping in amazement.

“So now what?” asks Michael, dazzled by the unfathomable workings of the universe.

“So now I’m going to change my last name to Neves,” says Delilah, giving Constance a hug. “And my middle name to Beatrice.”

*

On a cold clear night in January, Delilah and Gabriel are necking in the living room—Nathan and Celia long gone to bed—when Delilah stops the kissing and says, “Make love to me?”

“Shall we go to a motel?” asks Gabriel, eager to please his beloved. “I would take you home, but my mother and sister are there.”

“No, my love,” she says, getting up and holding out her hand to him. “Here. In my bed.”

“But we might wake Celia and Nathan,” he whispers, taking her hand.

“If we do,” she says, leading him to her bedroom, “I assure you they will be delighted.”

fin

Just Love

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Mothers and Fathers

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.”

fin

Love’s Body

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October Wedding

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.

Kindred Spirits

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.”

fin

A Wedding Song

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Being In Love

On a warm sultry afternoon in early September, Delilah is alone in the big soaking tub in the bathhouse on Ziggurat Farm, two miles inland from the northern California coastal town of Mercy. A musician and artist and teacher, her twenty-eighth birthday a month away, she has been battling severe depression for five months now as her body numbly goes through the motions of life.

Her depression ensued when her boyfriend Thomas, a professor at Cornell, ended their brief and mostly long-distance relationship—Delilah’s only experience of a sexual romance—and her sorrow has proven impervious to the love and concern of her friends.

Submerged in the big tub, her eyes closed, she startles when Andrea and Caroline, two of her closest friends, emerge from the changing room and join her in the tub, no one speaking.

A few minutes pass and Delilah murmurs, “I should go,” and moves to get out.

“Stay a while longer,” says Andrea, her words more command than request.

“Okay,” says Delilah, subsiding.

“When I came to San Francisco,” says Andrea, her German accent barely detectable after thirty-four years in America, “I was twenty-three and knew nothing about love. Not even a little bit. I had never been in love or been loved, and my sexual experiences were few and ugly. To my surprise and delight, American men were interested in me, and not just for sex, but for sharing life, too. In Germany I lived in the same working class neighborhood of Hamburg for my whole life and either the men there weren’t interested in me or I wasn’t interested in them, but in San Francisco lots of men found me attractive and I felt the same about many of them. After some months of dating and enjoying the novelty of being so popular, I chose James for my boyfriend. He was a guitar player and singer and worked as a concierge in a small hotel. He was funny and sweet and I enjoyed him very much, though I never imagined marrying him. Then one day I met Marcel. He was a waiter in a restaurant near the restaurant where I worked. We went for coffee and I knew immediately I preferred him to James. But I didn’t tell James right way, not for a few weeks. Then one night when James was at my apartment, Marcel called. When James asked who that was on the phone, I told him it was someone I liked very much and maybe we should break up. He was devastated. I had been meaning to tell him about Marcel, but I was waiting for the right time, except there is no right time to tell someone who loves you that you don’t want to be with them anymore. Then a year passed and I was very happy with Marcel, and one day I heard from a mutual friend that James suffered terribly for a long time after I broke up with him and he finally moved away because it was too painful for him to stay in San Francisco where we had been together. So… I did to James what Thomas did to you.”

“You’re a horrible person,” says Delilah, blubbering. “I always suspected you were.”

“I know you did,” says Andrea, gliding across the tub and embracing Delilah. “Now your suspicions have been confirmed.”

“I’m James,” says Delilah, clinging to Andrea and sobbing.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” says Andrea, holding her. “I’m sorry you were so hurt.”

“Being in love,” says Caroline who is forty-two and about to be married for the first time after many short-lived affairs, “is not the same as love. In fact, being in love isn’t love at all.”

“Then what is being in love if not love?” asks Delilah, amazed to feel her sorrow lessening.

“Being in love is imagining the other person is who you want them to be,” says Caroline, joining the embrace. “A passing fancy. But love has nothing to do with what we imagine. Love is real.”

“Love is when two are one,” says Andrea, thinking of Marcel.

“Yes,” says Caroline, thinking of her lover Raul. “Oneness.”

*

A few days after her soak with Andrea and Caroline, Delilah wakes to the familiar sounds of Celia and Nathan beginning their day.

“I’m better,” she says, rising with ease and about to put on her usual trousers and T-shirt when instead she puts on a dress, a light summery thing, and waltzes down the hall to the kitchen.

Celia is making coffee, her long black hair full of gray, not surprising for one who is eighty-two. She smiles to see Delilah in a dress and says, “I dreamt you were wearing a dress and playing the piano.”

“Shall I play something now?” asks Delilah, looking from Celia to Nathan who is sitting at the kitchen table sipping his tea and musing over a blank page.

“Yes, please,” says Nathan, nodding emphatically. “I’ve been missing your morning concerts.”

So Delilah returns to her bedroom, sits at her beautiful teak upright, and improvises a jazzy-sounding waltz unlike anything she’s ever played because she is now unlike anyone she has ever been.

Nathan and Celia stand in the bedroom doorway, thrilling to Delilah’s music and rejoicing in her transcendence of sorrow.

*

In the late morning on a warm humid day in mid-September, Delilah rides her bicycle up the steep curving road through the forest to Ziggurat Farm. Winded from her two-mile climb, she stands on her pedals and glides along the farm drive to the sturdy new bridge spanning a newly made creek bed that will soon carry the flow of a recently resurrected spring.

However, before that flow is directed into the new channel, Gabriel Fernandez, a local backhoe wizard, must finish extending the channel another fifty yards to connect it with the original creek bed descending through the forest to the Mercy River.

Delilah watches Gabriel sculpting the ground with his backhoe, and she wonders if he only likes her because he loves her music.

Gabriel is thrilled to see Delilah watching him, and he wonders if she only likes him because he loves her music.

Now Daisy arrives on the bridge with her eighteen-month-old daughter Jenna on her back—Daisy married to Michael who is Thomas’s older brother.

Delilah and Daisy and Jenna are rendezvousing for a walk up the hill to the Richardsons’ new house to meet with Constance and Joseph about Delilah illustrating Daisy’s novella Women Farm—Constance and Joseph keen to send the book to a publisher friend in England.

“Isn’t this amazing,” says Daisy, standing beside Delilah and looking down at the newly made channel. “In just another few days there will be water flowing under us.”

“Down,” says Jenna, reaching out to Delilah.

“In a little while, Jenna,” says Daisy, having just spent twenty minutes with Michael wrestling the baby girl into the backpack. “When we get to Connie and Joseph’s.”

“Now!” yowls Jenna. “Down now.”

“I’ll carry her,” says Delilah, wanting to make the baby happy.

“Okay,” says Daisy, sighing. “If you will hold her up, I will extricate myself from the straps.”

Once on the ground and set free, Jenna toddles off in the direction of the farmhouse where she hopes to find the big girls she adores and their puppies.

“Not that way, honey,” says Daisy, chasing after her daughter. “We’re going to Joseph and Connie’s.”

“Vinnie,” says Jenna, her way of saying Vivienne. “Puppy.”

“Joseph and Connie have two puppies,” says Daisy, dragging Jenna away from the farmhouse. “And cookies.”

“Cookie,” says Jenna, ceasing to resist.

So up the hill they trudge, Delilah carrying Jenna on her hip.

At a turn in the path, Delilah looks back at Gabriel on his tractor far in the distance, and not expecting him to see her, she raises her hand in farewell and he raises his hand in response.

“Isn’t he the most beautiful man?” says Daisy, sighing. “Please don’t tell Michael I said that.”

“Tell Michael,” says Jenna, glowering at her mother. “Cookie.”

“When I was reading your book,” says Delilah, setting Jenna down for a moment, “I kept thinking of Gabriel as Man.”

“Maybe you can use him as a model for Man,” says Daisy, picking up her daughter.

“Maybe so,” says Delilah, smiling at the thought of Gabriel posing for her in the garden.

*

Joseph and Constance have been in their new house for six weeks, and to say they are thrilled is a vast understatement. For forty years they fantasized together about designing and building their dream house, yet never believed they would until they decided to move back to Mercy from England and were searching for a house to rent or buy when they found these twelve acres for sale adjacent to Ziggurat Farm, the housing site already cleared, a paved driveway from the highway completed, a prolific well dug, a large foundation poured.

Now seven months after purchasing the land and designing the house, they wake each day in their glorious master bedroom and hurry down the wide hallway to the huge high-ceilinged room that is kitchen, dining room, and living room opening onto a vast deck overlooking a meadow surrounded by a resurgent forest, their dream come true.

*

“I imagine most of these drawings being portraits of the women and Man,” says Constance, confident of her imaginings, “whereas Joseph, and correct me if I’m wrong, dear, imagines landscapes with human figures seen from afar if at all.”

“I prefer leaving things to the reader’s imagination,” says Joseph, sauntering after Jenna as she toddles around the living room in pursuit of the adorable black and white puppies Alec and Merula, most of the furniture yet to arrive. “Illustrations should evoke not define.”

“What do you think, Daisy?” asks Delilah, who has read the manuscript three times and feels somewhat overwhelmed by the thought of trying to illustrate such a masterwork.

“I hadn’t imagined there would be drawings, “ says Daisy, sitting at the big dining table with Constance and Delilah and enjoying herself immensely. “But I love the idea. I think there could be landscapes and closer views of the women gardening or cooking or hunting.”

“When I read illustrated books as a boy,” says Joseph, following Jenna to the table and lifting her onto Constance’s lap, “I had a hard time imagining myself in the stories if the illustrations were too obviously not me. Do you know what I mean?”

“I do,” says Delilah, who has been drawing with near photographic accuracy since she was a little girl. “I was thinking we could assemble the females of the collective in the garden for an hour or so of sketching and picture-taking. That would give me more than enough material to get started.”

“Who will pose as Man?” asks Joseph, frowning thoughtfully. “Philip? Marcel? They both have youthful physiques, and if the face is not too specific…”

“We were thinking of Gabriel for Man,” says Daisy, exchanging looks with Delilah.

“The backhoe fellow?” says Joseph, excitedly. “Now that’s a stroke. He’s the right age and darkly handsome, and he’s got the flowing locks and requisite muscles.”

“Wouldn’t we like to see him without a shirt on?” says Constance, loving having Jenna on her lap. “Speaking of Adonis.”

“Think he’d do it?” asks Joseph, arching an eyebrow. “Seems rather shy.”

“He doesn’t have to take his shirt off,” says Delilah, blushing. “Only if he wants to.”

*

Delilah leaves Daisy and Jenna visiting with Joseph and Constance and walks down the hill to the farmhouse to give Henri a piano lesson. Seeing Gabriel is done for the day and nowhere in sight, she pouts and says, “Darn. Next time no matter what I’m talking to him.”

She enters the farmhouse and is happy to find Henri, who just turned thirteen, giving a piano concert for Philip and Andrea and Gabriel, the three of them sitting at the dining table.

Delilah tiptoes to the table and sits next to Gabriel who is listening raptly to the lovely samba Henri’s been working on with Delilah, his playing not yet masterful but getting there.

When he finishes playing and acknowledges the applause with a gracious nod, Henri says, “Now you play something, Delilah. Please?”

“Would you?” says Gabriel, turning to Delilah and placing a hand on his heart.

“Okay,” she says, getting up and crossing the room to the piano.

“Don’t start yet,” says Vivienne, coming in the front door with Irenia followed by three seven-month-old puppies—Jargon with pointy ears, Cordelia the biggest, Max the runt with a stubby tail.

“We are parched,” says Irenia as she and Vivienne take off their work boots and leave them by the door. “Please wait, Delilah, until we have water.”

When at last Vivienne and Irenia are settled on the sofa with Henri, Delilah closes her eyes and thinks of Gabriel who has attended every concert she’s ever given since his return from war thirteen years ago, her music holy to him.

She imagines they meet on a dance floor, he and she the only dancers, and as they dance together she plays a variation on the jazzy-sounding waltz she improvised for Nathan and Celia a week ago, this time the music profoundly romantic.

*

On the morning of the Autumnal Equinox, the day sunny and cool, fifty people gather on the Ziggurat Farm drive to witness Gabriel remove the last few feet of soil keeping the headwaters of Mammoth Creek from resuming their original course.

Two state park officials have come from Sacramento to join five park rangers from nearby Egret Estuary State Park at the rejoining ceremony, two of those park rangers and Michael and Caroline having completed a survey of the creek bed from where it begins on Ziggurat Farm to where it joins the Mercy River, a descent of two miles through a forest of second and third growth redwoods, only a few problematic log jams found along the way, those obstructions subsequently removed.

Also present are three members of the local Pomo community, a dozen local environmentalists, the six Ziggurat Farm homeschoolers and their ten parents, as well as various neighbors and friends of the farm including Constance and Joseph and Nathan and Celia and Delilah.

Nathan stands on the farm drive a few yards north of the new bridge and addresses the fifty witnesses. “I was asked by the farm folks to say something before Gabriel performs the miracle. Why me? Because Celia and I are the only ones here who remember the creek as it was a long time ago before the spring got jammed up, and I’m the more verbose of the two of us. So here’s a little poem I wrote to commemorate this moment.”

Mammoth Creek

We were young lovers just married

when last we stood on the old bridge here

looking down at the quiet stream touched by sunlight.

Now we are old lovers standing on this new bridge

looking down at the dry creek bed waiting for

the water to flow beneath us again, sunlight

waiting to glint off the water once more.

Same lovers, same place on earth,

same source, same delight to be here,

everything eternally new.

He nods in thanks for the applause and turns to watch Gabriel mount his tractor, start his engine, and with his mighty backhoe remove the last obstacle to the creek resuming her original course—everyone cheering as the sparkling water flows under the bridge and emerges on the downhill side going strong.

*

During the celebration following the return of the stream to her natural course—coffee and tea and muffins at the picnic tables near the farmhouse—Delilah approaches Gabriel and asks him if he’d be willing to pose for some drawings for Daisy’s book.

“What is the book about?” he asks, finding her surpassingly lovely as always, though especially so in her light summery dress.

“It’s called Women Farm,” she says, feeling quite naked in her dress and enjoying the feeling. “A fable set in the future when society has collapsed and is evolving anew, a chaotic time when groups of women band together for protection and live mostly apart from men.”

“And who am I in the story?” he asks, looking into her eyes. “A bad man or a good man?”

“Oh you’re good,” she says, nodding emphatically. “All good.”

“So it really is a fable,” he says, smiling wryly.

“He’s an innocent,” she says, meeting his gaze. “Would you like to come for supper tonight? Celia is making her famous fish tacos and I’ll be making my less famous but nonetheless delicious guacamole.”

“I can’t tonight,” he says, sounding disappointed. “My mother’s birthday.”

“How about tomorrow night?” she asks, undaunted.

“Yes, I can,” he says, nodding. “Que hora?”

“Come at five-thirty,” she says, breathlessly. “We’ll eat at six.”

“Bueno,” he says, holding out his hand to her. “I was hoping you and I would share a meal one day.”

“You were?” she says, taking his hand. “Really?”

“Of course,” he says, growing serious.

“Why of course?” she asks, never wanting to let him go.

“Because,” he says quietly. “You know.”

“I do know,” she says, her eyes sparkling. “I do.”

fin

Passing Fancy

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Early Summer

June eleventh, a sunny Tuesday morning on Ziggurat Farm, two miles inland from the town of Mercy on the far north coast of California.

Henri, a fast-growing lad of twelve, his black hair recently cut short for the summer, and Joseph, a large man of seventy-one with longish gray hair, sit a few feet apart on folding aluminum lawn chairs on the western shore of a recently revived natural pond, the granite basin some fifty-feet-long and thirty-feet-wide and quite deep at the south end where the water overflows and carries on as a sparkling brook.

They are sketching the scene before them, the glassy surface of the pond beyond which arises a densely forested slope of young redwoods, firs, and hemlocks—the stream burbling westward through oaks and madrone.

Joseph is a British landscape painter and portraitist of some renown in England, his paintings reminiscent of the work of Singer Sargent, though Joseph most frequently compares himself to Pissarro. Henri has lived on Ziggurat Farm his entire life and has been drawing ever since he was four, Joseph giving him occasional instruction and constant encouragement.

“Do enlighten me as to why you chose not to audition for the play, Henri?” asks Joseph, his accent born in Devon. “You would be magnificent as Bottom and surely would have won the role.”

“Actually,” says Henri, who has a British accent, too, whenever he’s with Joseph or Constance, Joseph’s wife, “I couldn’t be in the play because one has to be at least thirteen to be in the Mercy Players Junior Company and I won’t be thirteen until August. Arturo just turned fourteen and he’s nearly the youngest person in the cast.”

Henri frowns at an errant stroke and carries on, having learned from Joseph that sketching isn’t about getting the picture just so, but about practicing sketching.

Had you been thirteen,” Joseph persists, “would you have auditioned?”

Henri muses for a moment. “Doubtful. There were extenuating circumstances.”

“Do tell,” says Joseph, bored with this view. “Shall we shift around and face west? I’m finding this scene rather prosaic. The pond will one day be a glory, but for now is but a rustic swimming pool.”

They turn their chairs around and contemplate the view to the west, a meadow of tall grasses between towering redwoods to the north, oaks and madrone to the south, the sky vast and cloud-dotted above a forest descending to the not-quite-visible ocean.

“You attended the audition with us,” says Henri, smiling at Joseph, “so you know save for Arturo and the divine Dolores Ramirez, the players were dreadful and not likely to improve much in seven weeks.”

“Seven weeks of good coaching can work wonders,” says Joseph, returning Henri’s smile. “But your point is well-taken. What else?”

“I’d much rather study drawing and painting with you and have twoextra music lessons with Delilah every week for my summer Main Study than spend six hours a day for seven weeks playing Drama games and mounting a ghastly teenaged production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Henri finds the new view more to his liking and sketches swiftly and confidently. “Also just between you and me, I needed a break from Arturo. We are so much together, our little band of friends, we needed time away from each other before school starts again in September.”

“What is your schoolmate Larry doing for the summer?” asks Joseph, sketching happily now. “Delightful fellow. Beautiful baritone. Loved the ‘I’d Do Anything’ duet he sang with Irenia at the end-of-school concert. Bravura.”

“Larry and his parents are spending three weeks in Manhattan with Larry’s mother’s parents,” says Henri, pleased with his sketch, “after which they’ll go to an island off the coast of British Columbia for a month to stay with Larry’s father’s parents. Larry didn’t want to go. He loves it here and wanted to do a Main Study in Math and Physics with Delilah, but his parents insisted he go with them, so…”

“Why didn’t Irenia audition for the play?” asks Joseph, arching a quizzical eyebrow. “She’s so talented. And I don’t just mean for one so young. I mean she is a fully realized actor and singer, not to mention being blindingly beautiful.”

A blush appears on Henri’s cheeks. “Well… she was keen to study cooking with either Raul or Philip for her Main Study, and when both of them said they’d be willing to mentor her, the play became an irrelevancy.” He stops sketching, his artistry derailed by thoughts of Irenia. “And just between you and me again, she desperately needed a break from Arturo. He’s obsessed with her. Follows her everywhere. She tolerates it, but I know she’s greatly relieved he’s otherwise engaged for the next several weeks.”

“Can’t blame him, can you?” says Joseph, shaking his head. “I’m sure I would have done the same thing at his age. She’s spectacular.” He pauses meaningfully. “Don’t you think?”

Henri clears his throat.  “I won’t disagree she’s lovely.” He takes a deep breath. “But one doesn’t want to smother one, does one?”

“No,” says Joseph, suppressing a giggle. “But one wouldn’t mind kissing her if one could and she was amenable, and one was roughly her age. Yes?”

“I suppose so,” says Henri, squinting suspiciously at Joseph. “Do you know something you’re not telling me?”

Joseph glances around as if to make sure they are not overheard. “Connie and I were coming down the trail to the pond a few afternoons ago to see how the algae was progressing, and at a crook in the trail…” He gestures behind him up the hill in the direction of their house that’s being built. “…Connie stayed me with a touch and whispered, ‘Methinks we’ve come upon young Romeo and Juliet.’ And though we quickly retraced our steps, we were fairly certain Romeo was you and Juliet was Irenia, though we could be wrong, of course, dusk being such a trickster.”

“Joseph,” says Henri, gazing earnestly at his mentor and friend. “May I ask an enormous favor of you and Connie? That you tell no one what you saw a few afternoons ago? I fear it would devastate Arturo if he knew.”

“Ah,” says Joseph, nodding in understanding. “Connie and I shall never mention it to anyone, though I’m sure we will mention it to each other on many occasions when we wish to remember that supremely sweet moment. You lucky guy, you.”

*

Meanwhile, Joseph’s wife Constance, two years Joseph’s junior, a plump pretty fantastically successful murder mystery writer, is serving tea to Daisy, forty-one, a darling yet-to-be-published writer of fiction.

They are sitting at the small dining table in the little house Joseph and Constance are renting in Mercy while they await completion of their spectacular modern home being built on land adjacent to the northeast side of Ziggurat farm.

Daisy and her husband Michael and their fifteen-month-old baby girl Jenna live in a house on three acres adjacent to the south side of the farm. Michael is an ornithologist recently relieved of his academic duties by Daisy inheriting a fortune from her mother, and Daisy is a writer recently freed from her job as a secretary by that same inheritance, Jenna their first and probably only child.

Michael is taking care of Jenna for the morning while Daisy visits Constance to learn what Constance thinks of Daisy’s novella Women Farm, which Daisy gave to Constance a week ago.

“I absolutely love watching Vivienne and Irenia lug your adorable daughter around on their soon-to-be-women’s hips,” says Constance, pouring very black tea from a large white teapot into dainty white teacups. “Makes the little darling so happy, and me, too.” She sighs in her dramatic way. “I suppose if I’d had a real live baby to play with when I was their age, I might have had children, but such was not the case.”

“I didn’t want children until just a few years ago,” says Daisy, tasting a cookie. “These are so yummy, Connie. Did you make them?”

“No, no, I commissioned Celia to make them for me. She and Nathan and Delilah are giving us breakfast every day until we move into our new house, and often supper, too, when we’re not dining at the farmhouse or at Ocelot. We are hopelessly addicted to Raul’s restaurant. Imagine him agreeing to mentor Irenia for the summer. How could he possibly have time? We were shocked when we heard.”

“Imagine having the chutzpah to ask him,” says Daisy, who finds all the Ziggurat Farm kids amazing. “She’s only fourteen.”

“Where did she get such confidence?” exclaims Constance. “Her parents are self-effacing to the point of saintliness.”

“Does Joseph cook?” asks Daisy, finding the tea incredibly strong.

“He can,” says Constance, making a dismissive face, “but prefers not to unless he absolutely has to. And I never cook, unless you consider making tea and boiling eggs cooking.” She nibbles a cookie. “What decided you to have a child?”

“An unconscious decision,” says Daisy, feeling she might cry talking about this. “When my mother died not quite three years ago I just… stopped taking precautions, though I didn’t decide to stop and wasn’t aware I had until one night after we made love I thought, ‘I think I’m ovulating’ and I hadn’t put my diaphragm in.” She smiles through her tears. “Maybe I wanted to replace my mother. I don’t know.” She shrugs. “Why didn’t you want children?”

“Well,” says Constance, who hasn’t talked about this since she was in therapy in her forties, “I made a very conscious choice not to have children when I was twenty-five, a year after I was jilted by a man I’d given my body and soul to for three years. I was sure we would marry, though unbeknownst to me he was philandering from day one, and for the entire year after his cruel betrayal I was bedridden and couldn’t even begin to recover until one day I proclaimed to my distraught mother that I would never have children. And my mother, who’d had four, said, ‘That’s fine, dear. Just so you get well.’ And then I did.” She pours more tea into Daisy’s cup. “I’ve never regretted my decision, and truth be told I never had much to do with children until we moved here and became entangled with young Delilah and then the farm kids, all of whom we adore, and I do hope you will bring Jenna to visit me frequently and sometimes leave her with me so I may pamper and spoil her without you seeing me make a googly ass of myself. Please?”

“Is tomorrow too soon?” asks Daisy, nodding hopefully.

They laugh uproariously and Constance touches Daisy’s hand and says, “Now let us speak of your novella.”

“Oh that,” says Daisy, and off they go laughing again.

“I will preface my remarks,” says Constance, gazing wide-eyed at Daisy, “by saying we are so glad, Joseph and I, that we like your book because we will soon be your neighbors and it would have been so awkward to see you all the time and have to pretend we liked your book if we didn’t. But we do.”

“Oh good,” says Daisy, blushing.

Constance gets up from the table and goes to fetch the manuscript from the coffee table in the living room, and Daisy holds her breath until Constance returns.

“To properly set the scene for my experience of reading your novella,” says Constance, settling into her chair and placing the manuscript on the table, “I will detail our morning schedule, which begins with Nathan and Celia giving us breakfast at nine, after which we visit our pups Alec and Merula who are staying with their mother next door to Nathan’s until we move into our new house. After the puppy visit, we walk to and from and along the beach at the mouth of the Mercy. Are you with me?”

“I’m with you,” says Daisy, relieved to know they like her book.

“So the day after you gave me Women Farm,” says Constance, recalling the moment vividly, “we came home after pup visiting, and with some trepidation, knowing you were destined to be our neighbor and frequently dining with us at the farmhouse etcetera, I sat down with the manuscript thinking I’d get through a few pages before we left for the beach.” She pauses momentously. “But the beach, despite the glorious day, had to wait until I finished reading your masterwork.”

Daisy gasps and her eyes fill with tears.

“Joseph came twice to get me for our walk,” says Constance, on the verge of tears herself, “and seeing I was so completely gone to your story he left me alone until I finished. Then I changed into my beach togs and we walked through town and down the stairs to the beach, and after I’d waded in the water to regain my senses, he asked, ‘Are you ever going to speak again?’ and I replied, ‘Either I’ve lost my mind or I’ve just read a work of surpassing genius.’ And that’s what I think of your novella.”

Daisy tries to speak, but words won’t come.

“When we got home from the beach,” says Constance, continuing, “Joseph sat down in the big armchair in the living room and without once getting up for drink or food or to pee, he read Women Farm from start to finish, took off his reading glasses, looked at me—I was on the sofa with my feet up waiting for him to finish so I could read it again—and said, ‘If Delilah will do some pen and ink drawings to illustrate this riveting tale, Arnold Winfield will go mad to publish it.’ And I agree, Arnold will. He only does a few books a year, but each one is a literary event. In England. A hundred and thirty-three pages of manuscript will only make a hundred pages of print, and it’s a book you’d never in a million years get published in America unless it’s a huge success elsewhere, but Arnold will want it, we’re sure.” She beams at Daisy. “Did you have an editor, dear? The word flow is breathtaking.”

“Nathan,” says Daisy, nodding.

“He’s marvelous,” says Constance, smiling brightly. “Doesn’t care for my books, but then I’m not original and he is so original.”

“I think you’re original,” says Daisy, who recently gobbled three of Constance’s murder mysteries. “I loved Lisa Has Three Suitors. Seemed highly original to me, and your dialogue is fantastic. No wonder they all get made into movies.”

“I’m clever, dear,” says Constance, enjoying the praise but not taking it seriously. “And I copy others prodigiously as all mystery writers do. And dear Joseph grooms my dialogue until it sparkles, else it would sound ridiculous. I could never write anything so grand as Women Farm. Some magnificent spirit spoke through you, didn’t she?”

“Seems so,” says Daisy, humbled by such praise.

“I assure you no spirits speak through me,” says Constance, looking out on the sunny day. “Shall we walk around town? I’d love to give you lunch at the Happy Day Café & Bakery. Won’t hold a candle to what Philip and Raul are concocting for supper at the farmhouse, but it will sustain us until then.”

*

That afternoon in the farmhouse kitchen, Philip, slender handsome husband of Lisa and father of Arturo and Vivienne, and Raul, ruggedly handsome chef of exceeding fame, both in chef’s whites, stand in the farmhouse kitchen watching Irenia, also in chef’s whites, swiftly dicing garlic.

Raul and Philip are awaiting Irenia’s assessment of the sauce they’ve concocted for a dish they are calling Prawns Raul Philip, both very pleased with their concoction.

“Of course,” says Irenia, who is Russian, tall and gorgeous and though only fourteen could easily pass for eighteen, “you are both culinary savants and know everything about cooking, yet I am certain this sauce lacks garlic, though not raw garlic, but garlic sautéed ever so briefly in olive oil, if one of you would prepare a small frying pan for me.”

Raul and Philip exchange arched eyebrows and Raul says to Philip in French, “It is her lack of pretense I find most disarming.”

“She’s fearless,” says Philip, nodding in agreement. “Frequently wrong, but unafraid to try and fail.”

“The garlic will ruin the sauce,” says Raul, grimacing. “And it’s so good now. Your touch of turmeric was a master stroke.”

“As was your dill,” says Philip, nodding.

“But I suppose we must let her try,” says Raul, wistfully.

“How else will she learn?” asks Philip, laughing. “We know telling her won’t convince her.”

“No other way,” says Raul, laughing, too. “And we have time to make it again.”

“What are you saying about me?” asks Irenia, a blush in her cheeks.

“We are saying you will learn by doing,” says Raul, setting a small frying pan on a flame and pouring in the olive oil.

*

At the end of the fabulous supper made by Philip and Raul and Irenia for twenty happy diners, Prawns Philip Raul sans garlic the star of the show, Nathan, who recently turned eighty-seven, addresses the assembly.

“I wanted to share something Celia and I discovered about your creek,” he says, extracting a stack of rolled up maps from a cardboard tube. “I’m chagrined to say I didn’t remember this six weeks ago when the excavation of the pond began, but I didn’t.”

“By the way, Nathan,” says Alma, who just turned thirteen and is studying Botany and Ecology with Caroline and Michael for her summer Main Study, “three days ago we calculated the creek has a flow rate of fifty-seven gallons per minute.”

“A very good flow, indeed,” says Nathan, smiling at Alma, “especially considering we’re in the third year of a severe drought. All of which suggests the creek was here for a very long time before it was stoppered.”

“So what did you remember?” asks Henri, who thinks of Nathan as his grandfather.

“Well,” says Nathan, nodding his thanks to Henri for keeping him on track, “a week ago Celia was making breakfast and said to me, ‘When we used to go to the farm fifty-five years ago to pick apples, didn’t we drive across a little wooden bridge on the farm drive?’ And then it all came back to me. The bridge was about twenty-feet-long and just wide enough for a truck.”

“So the creek didn’t turn south and follow the path to our house and beyond,” says Michael, excitedly. “It continued directly west.”

“That’s right,” says Nathan, unfurling ten copies of a two-foot-square map. “These are facsimiles of the map on the wall of our town museum.” He hands nine of the copies to Henri to distribute around the dining table. “They show the Mercy watershed as rendered by a surveying crew in 1856. If you look dead center on this map you’ll see your stream followed a southwesterly course from here and entered the Mercy River about a mile inland from the mouth. You see the name there where it meets the river? Mammoth Creek. Merle Redstone, the docent at the museum, said it wasn’t called Mammoth because the creek was big, but for the enormous redwoods that grew along the creek before they got cut down. He also said the first half-mile of the creek coming this way from the river was a renowned steelhead and salmon spawning area. And you can see two other creeks joined your creek along the way from here, one of them Bella’s Creek, which I know still has a little water in it most of the year and skirts Susan Oldfield’s place a half-mile down the road from you.”

“So if we were to redirect the creek across the farm drive where it originally flowed,” says Philip, sharing a copy of the map with Lisa and Vivienne, “the creek would resume its old course down to the Mercy?”

“I don’t see why not,” says Nathan, smiling at the thought of that. “Pretty much all the land from here to there is protected now and will never be logged again. Part of Egret Estuary State Park.”

“It will cost a pretty penny to dig out the creek bed across the drive and beyond, and build a sturdy new bridge,” says Joseph, sharing a map with Constance. “We’d be happy to contribute to the cause.”

“The state might fund part of it,” says Michael, avidly studying the map with his sister Caroline. “Restoration of precious wildlife habitat.”

“Another job for Gabriel,” says Henri’s father Marcel, speaking of the local backhoe magician.

“As soon as he finishes digging the hole for our septic tank and trenching the septic field,” says Constance, looking up from the map. “Did you see there’s a waterfall along our little Mammoth Creek? Indigo Falls. Why indigo we wonder? Won’t it be fun to find out?”

fin

Hey Baby

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Lips

In late April, on a foggy Saturday morning in the small town of Mercy on the far north coast of California, Delilah, the only child of deceased movie star Margot Cunningham, sits on the sofa in the living room of the little house she shares with Nathan and Celia, octogenarians who dearly love Delilah and vice-versa.

Toulouse, a shorthaired black cat, is sitting on the sofa, too, purring as Delilah strokes him. A fire is crackling in the hearth and Celia is at the kitchen table in her bathrobe reading the newspaper and sipping her second cup of coffee while Nathan is out walking the mutts Chico and Gypsy. 

Delilah is twenty-six and greatly resembles her famously beautiful mother, though Margot was fair and blonde and Delilah has olive skin and brown hair, her totality suggesting the unknown father was Latino. A superb musician and artist, Delilah is sexually romantically in love for the first time in her life. Her lover Thomas Darling, a professor of wildlife biology at Cornell, is expected to move to Mercy in June to merge his life with Delilah’s.

Eager to tell Thomas about exciting developments at Ziggurat Farm where she is the main home school teacher, Delilah decides to call Thomas this morning, their last phone conversation three weeks ago. Letters from Delilah and emails in reply from Thomas are their usual way of communicating, with phone conversations reserved for special occasions and excessive missing of each other.

“I was just going to call you,” says Thomas, answering on the second ring.

“Sex-starved minds think alike,” says Delilah, delighted to know he was thinking of her. “Shall I go first or you?”

After a moment’s hesitation—or was that his cell phone lagging?—he says, “You.”

“Well,” she says, speaking into Nathan and Celia’s trusty old landline phone, “have either of your sibs told you about the pond they discovered? Or I should say the former pond.”

“I think Caroline mentioned something about it at the end of a long email, though I only skim her emails,” he says, sounding slightly annoyed. “She does go on. Is that why you called?”

“Oh it’s so exciting,” says Delilah, undaunted by Thomas’s customary reticence at the outset of their phone calls. “Caroline and Michael took the kids on a field trip to the northeast corner of the farm and they uncovered part of what turns out to be a stone basin that once held a spring-fed pond just down the hill from where the Ramirez brothers are building the Richardsons’ new house. So then the collective hired Gabriel Fernandez, our local backhoe wizard, to dig out most of the dirt in the former pond, which is about fifty-feet-long and thirty-feet-wide and quite deep. And for the last week, Michael and Boris, Irenia’s father, have been digging out the remaining soil, with the kids doing some digging, too. And tomorrow morning early Celia and I are going to the farm to help Philip and Raul and Caroline and Andrea and Lisa make food for the gala luncheon to follow what we hope will be the unearthing of the spring. We’re making Celia’s chicken enchiladas and Philip’s ratatouille and tortillas from scratch and a stupendous guacamole Raul and I have been perfecting. Oh I wish you could be here, Thom. It’s going to be so much fun.”

“What else?” he asks quietly.

“Besides counting the hours until the one I love comes back to me?” she says, smiling into the phone. “Well… we’re expecting rain tomorrow. Real rain, which we desperately need. Nathan and Celia are being their usual marvelous selves, the homeschoolers are ever amazing and turning into adults before our very eyes, and it’s so great to have the Richardsons back in the mix, all the kids and I speaking with British accents again. Their gorgeous new house should be done in July, and in August their magnificent Steinway arrives from England, and they’re coming for supper tonight. Fish tacos and baby potatoes we’ll harvest from the garden this afternoon. The potatoes, not the tacos. Oh you will just love Joseph and Connie, and they will adore you.”

“So you’ve said,” he says with little emotion.

“Are you okay?” she asks, frowning into the phone. “Have I annoyed you with my ebullience? You sound even more taciturn than usual.”

“I’m okay, I just…” He hesitates. “I’ve been working day and night to clear the boards to come out there and…” He hesitates again. “I had a meeting a couple weeks ago with Jack Cuthbertson, head of the department, and he made a very strong case for my putting in another four years here, after which I could take a sabbatical and a year off and not lose my place, which seems prudent given the current collapsing economy. So I’m wondering… would you consider moving here for four years before we give living out there a try?”

“You’re joking,” says Delilah, sure he must be.

“No, I’m… I think it makes a lot of sense given the ongoing economic breakdown and the swiftly disintegrating future. My staying on at Cornell would give us at least a modicum of security in this wildly insecure world.”

“A modicum of security,” she repeats, the room spinning. “You’re not joking, are you?”

“I’m trying to keep our options open,” he says with some anger. “I didn’t inherit seven millions dollars like Michael and Daisy. This is a very good job. I can’t just transfer to a college near you because there are no colleges near you. But you can make music and art here just as well as there, so…”

“Thom,” she says, interrupting. “I’m going to live in Mercy until Nathan and Celia die, which I hope won’t be for a very long time, and then I’ll probably live here for the rest of my life. We talked about this when you were here. Several times. And you said you were more than ready to stop being a cog in an academic factory and wanted to start a new life. With me. Remember? You said you’d do anything to be with me.”

“Of course I remember, but…”

“Do you really expect me to abandon the two people I owe my life and happiness to? In the last years of their lives? To come live with you in Ithaca? To leave my community and friends to move to a place where you told me you have no friends? Why would I do that?”

“To be with me.”

“Thom?”

“What?”

“Have you met someone you want to be involved with rather than me?”

“No. Why would you say that?”

“Please don’t lie to me.”

“I haven’t met anyone. I’m… things are finally going well here after years of not going well for me. I have some great graduate students now and…”

“Is one of your graduate students a woman you’re interested in?”

“Why do you keep suggesting that? I just asked you to come live with me.”

“Knowing I wouldn’t,” she says, growing numb with sorrow. “So now you can say it was I who ended things, not you. Is that what you want? To feel exonerated?”

“Exonerated for what?” he snaps. “I asked you to come live with me. How is that ending things?”

“Because you knew I’d say no. Didn’t you?”

She waits for him to reply.

He says nothing.

“I exonerate you for changing your mind,” she says quietly. “Whatever your reasons. I hope you have a wonderful rest of your life. I really do. Goodbye.”

*

In the late afternoon on that same Saturday, Irenia, fourteen, Arturo, thirteen, Henri, twelve, and Vivienne, eleven, are doing some last minute soil removing from the stone basin ahead of tomorrow’s celebration.

The wheelbarrows used by Boris and Michael to ferry dirt out of the basin are too big even half-full for the kids to use, so Henri commandeered a sturdy two-wheeled cart from the garden that can be pulled by two people, thus enabling them to remove lots of soil.

At five o’clock, the air growing chill, only a large mound of soil in the deep south end of the basin remains to be removed, the hole otherwise largely free of dirt. This mound, about the size of a small car, is thought to be sitting atop the mouth of the spring that once filled the pond to overflowing and fed a year-round creek—the removal of the mound to be the centerpiece of tomorrow’s pond resurrection ceremony.

Vivienne, who is very tired from a day’s work in the vegetable garden and two hours of pond excavation, says to her brother Arturo, “You and I are scheduled to get the chickens in today and Andrea is probably already mad we haven’t yet. Come on.”

“Okay,” says Arturo, who is also very tired but doesn’t want to leave Irenia. “Let’s all go back now. We’ve done more than enough today.”

“Henri and I will just finish this last load,” says Irenia, giving Arturo a dazzling smile. “Go rescue the chickens.”

So Arturo and Vivienne exit the hole via the shallow north end and disappear.

A moment passes.

Irenia drops her shovel, walks out the north end of the hole, confirms Arturo and Vivienne are gone, and returns to Henri.

“We kissed for the first time a month ago when the Richardsons came back,” she says, her Russian accent always stronger when she speaks quietly. “But then you never kissed me again. Don’t you love me anymore, Henri?”

“You know I love you,” he says, leaning his shovel against the cart. “I just don’t want Arturo to know. It would break his heart.”

“So you break mine instead?” she says, moving closer and standing slightly downhill from him to mitigate the difference in their heights.

“I’m only twelve, Irenia,” he says, his heart pounding. “I think about you all the time, but I’m still a boy and I’m… I’m not sure what to do.” He takes a deep breath. “I’ve written three poems for you since we kissed and I composed that new thing I’ve been playing on the piano, the thing you said you loved. I wrote it for you. But I haven’t had a chance to give you the poems without Arturo knowing because he follows you everywhere. He’s obsessed with you.”

“I know,” she says, nodding. “Will you kiss me now?”

“Okay,” he whispers.

Their lips meet and their tongues touch and they gently embrace as they kiss.

At long last they move apart, the beauty of the other beyond measure, neither having words to express their feelings, their bodies energized in ways heretofore unimaginable to either of them, both vibrating in ways neither has ever vibrated before.

Now comes the distant clanging of the farmhouse triangle, which means, incredibly, thirty minutes have passed since Arturo and Vivienne departed.

“What do we tell them?” asks Irenia, as she and Henri run down the hill together. “When they ask us why we took so long?”

“We’ll say we got lost in our work,” says Henri, giving her a rakish smile.

“Which is true,” she says, taking his hand. “My darling. My love.”

*

The next morning at ten, the day overcast and cool, rain expected this evening, forty people gather on the western edge of the stone basin—Nathan and Celia and Delilah, Michael and Daisy and their baby Jenna, Caroline and Raul, Constance and Joseph Richardson, Oscar and Diego Ramirez and their wives and several kids, Gabriel Fernandez the backhoe magician sans backhoe, and the six homeschoolers and their ten parents.

Andrea, Henri’s mother and the farm manager, nods to her husband Marcel, and with pleasing voice and charming French accent he addresses the crowd.

“Bonjour my friends. Thank you for coming to help us revive our pond. Seven of us are going down into the hole with shovels and wheelbarrows to remove the big mound of dirt you see there at the south end where we hope to uncover the mouth of a spring to fill the pond, though I must tell you we don’t really know what is under that mound. But we are full of hope. If you get cold watching, please go to the farmhouse. The living room is warm and there is coffee and tea. Now we will dig.”

Dressed for working in muddy ground, Marcel, Philip, Boris, Michael, Gabriel, Oscar, and Diego descend into the hole with seven shovels and four big wheelbarrows and begin clearing away the mound of wet soil.

Raul Neves, a big handsome Portuguese chef with a famous restaurant in Mercy, stands with his lovely partner Caroline Darling in the midst of Nathan and Celia and Delilah and Boris’s wife Maria.

“My fingers are itching to grab a shovel,” says Raul, envious of the diggers. “Though they obviously don’t need my help.”

“Mine are itching a little, too,” says Nathan, who is eighty-six, “but my brain knows better, for which I am grateful.”

“I like to dig in the garden,” says Raul, sighing, “but I am not half as strong as Boris.” He smiles at Maria. “How did your husband get to be such a Hercules?”

“He do this work in Russia since he was boy,” says Maria, smiling shyly at Raul. “Now he pick up heavy things at Mercy Garage and move piano on weekends, so he has big muscle.” She laughs. “But he cannot cook like you. No one can.”

“Cooking for hours every day requires stamina but not such enormous strength,” says Raul, enraptured by the men working. “How beautiful they are.”

“And to their enlightened credit,” says Caroline, smiling down at her brother Michael, never before a laborer, striving to keep up with the more seasoned diggers, “they offered me and Andrea the opportunity to join them and we demurred.”

“Oh you should have done it,” says Raul, grinning at Caroline. “Showed off your sexy muscles and given everyone a thrill.”

“Stop,” she says, blushing in delight.

Now Marcel and Diego wheel the first two wheelbarrows of soil out of the pond—the watchers cheering and applauding.

“To think we may swim here again some day,” says Nathan, putting his arm around Celia. “Wouldn’t that be amazing?”

“In the summer,” says Celia, smiling at her mate of fifty-six years. “On a hot day.”

To which Delilah reacts by bursting into tears, yesterday’s shocking end to her relationship with Thomas rendering her as fragile as a goblet of Venetian glass.

“Why the tears?” asks Raul, opening his arms to give Delilah a comforting hug.

She collapses in his embrace and sobs and sobs, and Celia looks at Caroline and says, “Thom is not coming to Mercy. He broke up with her.”

“The idiot,” says Caroline, going to Delilah and Raul and gently placing her hands on Delilah’s shoulders. “I’m so sorry, dear. So sorry.”

Now Constance hurries over and takes charge of Delilah. “What happened, sweetheart? Tell me.”

“I… Thom and I parted ways,” says Delilah, bursting into tears again as Constance embraces her.

“Oh would the spring burst forth as do your tears,” says Joseph, putting on a sad face as he approaches. “What hath brought such grief to our dear girl?”

“Heartbreak,” says Constance, feeling she might cry, too. “The cad jilted her.”

Delilah laughs through her tears. “He’s not a cad. He’s…”

“An idiot,” says Caroline, disappointed her younger brother chose the barely tolerable known over the risk of happiness. “Ruled by fear as I was before I came here.”

Irenia and Vivienne and Alma rush to see what has befallen their teacher and friend, and when they learn what happened Alma starts to cry and Irenia says to Delilah, “You will find somebody better than that fool. I know you will.”

Much better,” says Vivienne, her jaw set in anger. “The cad.”

Meanwhile the men in the hole have made swift work of the mound, and as the last of the soil is hauled away, Boris and Marcel and Gabriel go down on their knees and with their hands clear away the remnants of soil around a massive gray stone the size and shape of a refrigerator and lying wide-side down on a flat expanse of white granite.

“There is some water coming out from under the stone,” says Boris, standing up and brushing the mud off his trousers. “Not much, but some.”

“Could this stone have fallen down the slope and landed exactly here to block the spring?” asks Marcel, looking around at the other men. “What are the odds of this happening?”

“I don’t think odds apply to miracles,” says Gabriel, sitting on the stone.  

“Exactamente,” says Oscar, sitting beside Gabriel. “God doesn’t worry about odds. If he did, there would be no life on earth and none of us would be here.”

“Let’s invite everyone down to see the miraculous stone,” says Philip, smiling at his comrades. “Then we’ll try to move it.”

“I’ll get my camera,” says Michael, recalling the moment Daisy gave birth to their daughter Jenna and the meaning of life was no longer in doubt.

“Come see the stone we think is sitting on top of the spring,” says Philip, calling up to the audience. “Be very careful on your way down. The ground is quite slippery.”

Ten minutes later, when everyone is gathered around the big gray stone, Lisa asks Joseph, “Anything from Shakespeare come to mind?”

“No, but Leonardo speaks to me now,” says Joseph, who is a painter and a great admirer of da Vinci, not to mention being a big ham.

Silence falls.

“‘The beginnings and ends of shadow lie between the light and darkness and may be infinitely diminished and infinitely increased,’” says Joseph, gazing at Delilah whom he considers his protégé and the closest thing to a daughter he will ever have. “‘Shadow is the means by which bodies display their form. The forms of bodies could not be understood but for shadow.’”  

Now many pictures are taken of people posing with the huge gray stone, and when the pilgrims are satisfied they exit the pond and reassemble on the western rim to watch Marcel and Michael and Philip and Diego and Gabriel and Raul position themselves on the east side of the gray stone and place their hands high on that side while Boris stands at the south end of the stone and Oscar stands at the north end, the two goliaths gripping the stone to lift as the others push.

When the eight men are ready, Boris counts to three and they all exert themselves to the utmost, rolling the behemoth up onto its side and pushing it over so it crashes down four feet farther to the west.

And revealed in the white granite plane is a fissure a few inches wide and three-feet-long from which muddy water burbles forth, the mud soon exorcised by a crystal clear flow—the men lying on their bellies to drink from the source.

*

For a moment on their way down the hill to the farmhouse, Gabriel and Delilah find themselves side-by-side among the pilgrims.

“Hola Delilah,” says Gabriel, smiling at her.

“Hola Gabriel,” she says, on the verge of tears again.

He nods in understanding and moves ahead, not wishing to intrude upon her sorrow.

 *

At the height of the enchilada ratatouille feast in the farmhouse, Raul and Caroline steal away to visit the pond one more time before they leave for Raul’s restaurant Ocelot on the headlands of Mercy to prepare for the Sunday evening customers.

Holding hands as they walk up the hill, they speak of the demise of Delilah’s relationship with Thomas, how Thomas’s choice to stay at Cornell was no great surprise to Caroline who knows how terrified her brother has always been of the compromises relationships require; and this brings up Caroline’s pressing need to make her choice between staying in Mercy with Raul or returning to her professorship at the University of New Hampshire.

When they reach the pond and find they are alone in the glorious quiet, the water in the south end of the basin now six-inches-deep, the gray stone an island, they kiss in celebration of this miraculous rebirth and Raul looks into Caroline’s loving eyes and asks, “Will you marry me, my dear friend, and make your life with me?”

“Yes,” she says, the last of her doubt gone.

Now they move apart and disrobe, going naked together to sit on the gray stone—laughing and weeping as they anoint each other with the holy water.

fin

La Entrada

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Digging

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.”

fin

Rise and Fall

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The Pond

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.”

fin

The Magician   

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The Brits Return

For their first breakfast since getting back from England to the northern California coastal town of Mercy after a two-year absence, Constance and Joseph Richardson dine in the Ziggurat Farm farmhouse with all the farm folks joining them for pancakes and raspberries.

Quintessential Brits, Constance is a short plump pretty redhead and a hugely successful author of twenty-seven murder mysteries, her pen name Margaret Orland, Joseph a big strong gray-haired painter of landscapes and portraits. Having spent the night at the farm in their enormous Mercedes van, a luxury suite on wheels, Constance and Joseph are having a delightful time bringing everyone up to date on their immediate past and their plans for the future.

“There we were in our lovely house in Devon,” says Joseph in his actorly way, “January especially dreary this year, and as my first cup of coffee, not nearly so good as yours, Philip, brought a modicum of clarity to my clouded senses, it dawned on me that out of obeisance to a way of thinking we’d fostered for thirty years, we had enslaved ourselves to a lie.”

“A misconception,” Constance clarifies. “Un idée fixe.”

 “This idea, this obsessive misconception, was this. By now in the arc of our lives we would be old and decrepit. Yet quite the opposite is true. Indeed, I am only seventy-one, Connie still a year shy of seventy, and we are both wonderfully fit and healthy. Nor were we the cause of our twice-daily walks being so brief and in apparent slow motion. It was our short-legged Dachshunds Aristotle and Venus who were responsible for the slow down, and we’d chosen them instead of larger dogs because we’d imagined ourselves to be entering our dotage.”

“And it dawned on me,” says Constance, not to be outdone by Joseph when it comes to dramatics, “that I was not done writing as I, for some bizarre reason, imagined I would be by now, and I was thunderstruck by a stirring vision of my next book about a retired—ha!—detective and his pastry chef wife set in a fictitious version of Mercy, which meant…”

“We might come back here for a time,” says Joseph quietly.

Silence falls, the collective breath held.

Vivienne, who is eleven, ventures, “For how long will you be staying?”

Joseph and Constance exchange long looks

“Some years,” says Constance smiling at Vivienne. “So goes our current thinking.”

“Hurray!” shouts Henri, who is twelve and great pals with Joseph. “My dream come true.”

“Will you rent or buy?” asks Andrea, Henri’s mother and by far the most pragmatic member of the farm collective.

“Dear Andrea,” says Joseph, who has made several paintings of Andrea in her magnificent terraced vegetable garden, “in order to do our story justice we must beg your indulgence for a few moments so we may properly tell the tale.”

“Take as many moments as you wish,” says Philip, head chef of the collective. “We hang on your every word.”

“Thank you, Philip,” says Joseph, clearing his throat. “So there we were in Devon dreaming of Mercy and being with all of you again and getting to know the new members of the consortium we’d heard so much about in Henri’s letters, and we took ourselves to our computers to search for a house to rent hereabouts.”

“As will happen,” says Constance, taking up the narrative, “when one ventures into cyber space, rental listings comingle with houses for sale, and both of us, quite unknowing of the other’s progress, came upon the same property, twelve acres not far inland from town with a driveway cut through the woods from highway to home site, a good well dug, the large foundation poured, and then… did the previous owners run out of money? The listing did not say.”

“The price was good,” Joseph goes on, winking at Henri, “the location ideal, and Connie and I have always wanted to build our own house at least once in our lives.”

“Ere long the land was ours,” says Constance, her eyes wide with excitement. “We hired a clever architect to concretize our vision, and a month ago we called those marvelous carpenter artisans who built your cottage and so gorgeously remade this farmhouse, and now…”

“A week from Monday,” says Joseph, raising his arms to the heavens, “the Ramirez brothers and their crew of crack carpenters will begin work on the house of our dreams, a large bonus awaiting them for swift completion.”

“Where is your land?” asks Michael, he and his wife Daisy and their baby Jenna the newest members of the Ziggurat Farm collective.

Joseph and Constance exchange glances again

“As your land, Michael,” proclaims Joseph, “is contiguous with the farm to the south, our land is contiguous to the east.

“Mon dieu,” says Marcel, Henri’s handsome French father. “Those twelve acres? We wondered who bought them.”

“We’ve just completed a bird and botanical survey of your land,” says Michael, an ornithologist. “My sister Caroline and I and the homeschoolers. We’ve convened on your foundation several times in the last few weeks. Spectacular site.”

“Good God,” says Arturo, who is thirteen and from age six to eleven modeled his way of speaking in large part on Joseph’s. “You mean to tell us we’ll be neighbors?”

“Just up the hill past the vegetable garden,” says Joseph, pointing in that direction.

“It’s a miracle,” says Henri, leaping up from the table and dancing around the living room with Vivienne and Arturo. “We’ll see you every day.”

“We’ll have art lessons with you again,” says Vivienne, twirling around. “And marvelous tea parties with Connie. I must call Irenia and tell her.”

“You’ll dine with us, of course,” says Philip, bowing to Constance. “As often as you like.”

“Which, to be quite honest,” says Constance, giving Philip a blushing smile, “was a large motivating factor in our decision to return, your meals and Celia’s and, of course, our weekly pilgrimage to Ocelot.”

“What about dogs?” asks Lisa, who knows Constance and Joseph always have dogs. “Did you bring your Dachshunds with you?”

“No, we gave the little sweeties to an old friend in Devon who coveted them,” says Joseph, glad to be free of the waddlers. “We intend to find two larger mutts to abide with us here and lead us on many a merry chase.”

“We’re getting two new dogs, too,” says Vivienne, returning to the table. “Jung and Goliath died, you know, and Nathan and Celia’s neighbors have an enormous Black Lab who just had seven puppies with a variety of fathers and we’ve reserved two of those.”

“We shall hope to pick two more of the seven for ours,” says Joseph, overjoyed to be back among people he loves so dearly.

*

After breakfast, a light rain falling, Joseph and Constance drive their van into town to spend some time with Delilah and Nathan and Celia, their closest friends in Mercy. Nathan is eighty-six, Celia is eighty, and Delilah, Nathan and Celia’s house mate for the last thirteen years, is twenty-six.

Nathan and Celia and Delilah were in the farmhouse yesterday afternoon when Constance and Joseph arrived during the homeschool drama and music performances, but they did not learn of Joseph and Constance coming to live in Mercy again until today, and they are thrilled by the news.

Delilah painted with Joseph for ten of the eleven years the Richardsons previously resided in Mercy, studied French and mythology with Constance, and gave many a stirring concert on the Richardsons’ magnificent Steinway grand, which she is thrilled to learn will be coming back from England as soon as the new house is built. Constance and Joseph partook of countless suppers at Nathan and Celia’s, Nathan pruned their fruit trees, the quintet frequently walked their dogs together on the beach at the mouth of the Mercy River, and Delilah and Joseph showed together at the Fletcher Gallery in Mercy.

When their rejoicing subsides, Celia calls their neighbors, Elvis and Lena Quisenberry, and arranges for a puppy viewing.

*

Elvis is fifty-five, a burly auto mechanic at Mercy Garage. Lena is a zaftig fifty-three and owns Perfect Fit, a women’s clothing store in town. Their son Jerry works in a cannabis dispensary in Los Angeles while pursuing an acting career. Elvis and Lena are religious devotees of The Grateful Dead, prodigious pot smokers, and are forever promising to spay and neuter their dogs and cats, though they rarely do.

Sheba, a large Black Lab, is the mother of the litter Constance and Joseph and Nathan and Celia and Delilah come to visit, the Quisenberry kitchen a riot of seven little cuties not yet old enough to leave their mother, but old enough to totter around and tumble adorably for the visiting humans.

There are two black and white pups in the litter, one of them making a beeline for Joseph, the other tottering across the linoleum to Constance, and not three minutes into the visit Constance says, “We’d like to have these two black and whites if they are not yet spoken for.”

“That’s easy to remember,” says Elvis, off for the weekend and profoundly stoned. “They should be ready to leave mama a few weeks from now.”

“We’re asking fifty dollars each,” says Lena, smiling at Constance. “That seem fair to you?”

“More than fair,” says Joseph, picking up one of the black and white pups and nuzzling her.

“We will pay you seven hundred each,” says Constance, picking up the other black and white pup, “if you will keep ours for another three months until our new house is finished.”

“Zounds,” says Elvis, grinning at his wife. “No problema.”

“The Ziggurat Farm kids have dibs on these two,” says Lena, picking up two of the pups. “And Raul… you know Raul? Chef at Ocelot? He’s getting the big black one. And Boris who works at the garage with Elvis? You know Boris? His daughter Irenia homeschools up at Ziggurat. He’s getting the biggest one for Irenia. We’re guessing a Great Dane daddy for that one. So now we’ve got the litter sold but one and I’m guessing the Ziggurat kids will take three if nobody else wants the last one.”

“Any guesses about the progenitor of our two?” asks Constance, standing beside Joseph and holding her pup next to his.

“Far as we know only one black and white dude made the scene,” says Elvis, his grin expanding. “Maggie Fetherston’s cocker spaniel. Came all the way across town to do the deed. Don’t know why Sheba let the little guy get on, but she did.”

“Love is blind,” says Joseph, reluctant to let his pup go. “Would you happen to know the sexes of our two?”

“Boy and a girl,” says Lena, nodding.

“Perfect,” says Constance, setting her pup down. “Given their father’s diminutive size they should not be too enormous. We’ve done enormity and needn’t again.”

*

Returning to Nathan and Celia’s for a spot of tea, Joseph brings forth one of Henri’s letters sent not long ago to Devon and reads, “‘Delilah is a superlative teacher and we especially appreciate how easy it is to convince her to switch from Math to Music or Drawing, which all of us prefer to Math save for Larry who is most comfortable midst the abstraction of numbers, though he’s a fine baritone and adds a gratifying depth to our harmonizing. Now and then Delilah will drift into a trance and we’ll know she’s thinking of Thomas in faraway Ithaca and counting the hours until June when the handsome authority on foxes makes his way west to be with her again.’”

“Such a marvelous writer is Henri,” says Constance, beaming at Nathan. “Thanks to you.”

“All those kids are good writers,” says Nathan, thinking of the six homeschoolers he writes with a few times a week. “I am ever amazed by them.”

“Do tell us about Thomas,” says Joseph, taking off his reading glasses and gazing fondly at Delilah. “Your first real flame, yes?”

Delilah smiles and the room brightens.

“You’ve met his brother Michael,” she says, sighing. “Thom is a little taller, his features not so chiseled, his voice somewhat higher. I think he’s gorgeous, but then I’m in love with him, so… He’s thoughtful and kind and he does worry a lot about the biosphere and global warming and overpopulation. He’s a wildlife biologist, so he’s steeped in bad news about the environment, and I haven’t seen him in nearly three months so he’s become somewhat surreal to me, and I think I’ll be fine if our relationship doesn’t work out, though I hope it will.”

“Have you slept with him?” asks Constance, cutting to the chase.

Delilah nods. “And it was good.”

Everyone laughs.

“You talk on the phone?” asks Joseph, assuming they do.

“We did for the first few weeks after he went back to Ithaca,” says Delilah, getting up from the dining table to put another log on the fire, “but we found it more frustrating than satisfying, so now we just write. I send him gushy love letters and he answers with emails.” She watches the log catch fire. “He’s insanely busy.”

“What do you think of the lad?” asks Joseph of Nathan and Celia.

“I like him,” says Nathan, seeing Thomas with furrowed brow, the weight of the world upon him. “I don’t really know him yet. But I like him.”

“He’s very nice,” says Celia, nodding. “He was shy around us and mostly wanted to be alone with Delilah, so we didn’t spend much time with him when he was here.”

“He’s a wonderful artist,” says Delilah, wishing she knew Thomas better than she does, some large part of him withheld from her. “Raul bought his drawing of Henri. You’ll see it when you go to dine at Ocelot.”

“Tomorrow,” says Constance, looking forward to Raul’s incomparable cuisine. “We are told that Thomas and Michael’s sister Caroline, of whom we only caught the merest glimpse yesterday at the farmhouse, is now the Ocelot hostess and Raul’s paramour. Quite the conquest of Mercy by these Darlings. Such a marvelous last name.” She laughs. “Who wouldn’t want to be a Darling?”

*

When the sun scatters the rain clouds, Joseph and Constance bid Nathan and Celia and Delilah adieu, pick up sandwiches at the Happy Day Café & Bakery, and go have a picnic at their new home site.

In the one-acre clearing in a forest of thirty-year-old trees, they walk around on the large square cement foundation and imagine the house they’ll soon be living in here.

Overcome by jet lag, Constance seeks a hug from Joseph.

“Tell me we did the right thing coming back here,” she says, clinging to her mate. “I’m feeling overwhelmed.”

“We did the right thing,” he says, holding her. “If we change our minds a year from now and want to go back to Devon, we will. We’ll have had an adventure and a reunion with our dear friends, built a house, and gotten some good dogs. Nothing will be lost. We followed our hearts and here we are.”

“I worry our Delilah has fallen in love because she was ready to fall in love,” says Constance, sighing. “He sounds dreadfully serious. End of the world and all that. She needs a man with a sense of humor.”

“He knows too much,” says Joseph, who keeps his own doomsday thoughts to himself knowing they upset Constance.

“I think of her as my daughter,” says Constance, who never wanted children and didn’t really like children until she fell in love with fourteen-year-old Delilah and shortly thereafter became a favorite of the Ziggurat Farm kids. “I know that’s silly, but I do.”

“Not silly at all,” says Joseph, his eyes full of tears. “I feel the same.”

*

On Sunday, as billowy white clouds over Mercy Bay turn golden at dusk, Constance and Joseph dress in their finest—Joseph in a beautiful blue suit with teal shirt and crimson tie, Constance in a pretty peach dress—and take themselves to the incomparable Ocelot, the restaurant of Raul Neves on the headlands in Mercy.

Lovely Caroline Darling, long-limbed and graceful with curly brown hair, greets Constance and Joseph at the entrance of the beautiful old Victorian wherein Ocelot occupies the ground floor—Caroline regally sexy in white dress shirt, black bow tie, dangly turquoise earrings, black pants, and red sandals.

She seats them at a table with a view of Mercy Bay to the south, the largest wall in the room adorned with Joseph’s gorgeous painting of the beach at the mouth of the Mercy River as seen from the headlands, huge waves breaking on the shore.

Settling into her comfortable chair, Constance gives Caroline a wide-eyed look and asks, “How long have you been Raul’s hostess?”

“Two months now,” says Caroline, her deep voice thrilling to Joseph. “Though every night so far feels like the first.”

“Enjoying the job?” asks Joseph, nodding his thanks as she hands him the day’s menu. “You seem to.”

“I do,” she says, laughing. “Very much.”

“And you teach the children science,” says Constance, sounding amazed. “How marvelous.”

“I’m a professor of Botany,” says Caroline, feeling funny saying so. “On sabbatical from the University of New Hampshire, though I am so enthralled with the restaurant I may never go back.”

“We must speak more of everything another time,” says Constance, nodding brightly. “When you’re free of these shackles we’ll have tea.”

“Oh and before you leave us,” says Joseph, who has always wondered what it would be like to be with a tall woman, “can you tell us where the drawing your brother did of Henri is hanging?”

“I’ll show you,” she says, beckoning to them. “No one is seated in that room yet, so now’s the perfect time.” 

*

Joseph startles when he enters the room where Thomas’s large pen and ink sketch framed in gold adorns the wall—Henri wearing a feather headdress and holding his accordion, a tender smile on his face, a few touches of color adding an ineffable potency to the exquisite rendering.

After closely perusing the picture, Joseph turns to Constance and Caroline and says, “This drawing is worthy of Rembrandt. It is that fine and made of the same genius.”

“It is rather good, isn’t it?” says Constance, coming close to inspect the drawing. “I wonder if he’d like to draw me for the author picture of my next book.” She turns to Caroline. “Set in a fictitious version of Mercy. Wife of retired—ha—detective a pastry chef in a fine restaurant. Dining scenes abound. Tall beautiful hostess entangled with handsome Portuguese chef. That sort of thing.”

“I’m sure Thom would love to draw you,” says Caroline, understanding now why Raul said of Constance and Joseph, “They are comic savants who have no idea they are funny.”

fin

On the Way Home piano cello duet

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Being Here On Earth

Henri is twelve, exactly twelve, as twelve as he can be. Five months ago he was four-foot-nine and now he’s five-foot-three. A beautiful muscular lad with curly brown hair, his mother German, his father French, Henri plays accordion, piano, and guitar, all of them quite well, and he sings beautifully, too. He loves to draw and write and work in the garden, his reading of late Geology and Irish short stories.

An outstanding soccer player and brilliant with a Frisbee, Henri thinks it would be wonderful to be a wildlife biologist like their neighbor and teacher Michael, though he often feels destined to be a playwright actor musician. Still other times there’s nothing he would rather be than a farmer who gives accordion lessons and has the occasional show of drawings at the Fletcher Gallery in town. And then there is his keen interest in cooking and architecture.

He is standing some fifty feet from the farmhouse at Ziggurat Farm, two miles inland from the remote northern California coastal burg of Mercy. His five fellow homeschoolers await him in the farmhouse along with various parents and teachers and friends enjoying a brief intermission from monologues and scenes and music the homeschoolers (and sometimes teachers and parents and friends) perform every third Friday of the month, this being March 22, the afternoon cool and cloudy.

Henri is scheduled to open the second act with an original accordion tune and a monologue of his own creation, a speech he work-shopped extensively with his Drama teacher Lisa, his writing teachers Nathan and Daisy, and his schoolmates Arturo, Vivienne, Larry, Alma, and Irenia, as well as his parents Andrea and Marcel. Thus many of the people in the audience have already heard some version of the speech, though no one save Henri has heard exactly the version he is about to recite.

The monologue sprang from an assignment to create a speech based on something from Shakespeare, and Henri decided to use the famous To be or not to be soliloquy from Hamlet as his spark.

“To not die or to not not die,” says Henri, reciting the opening of his speech, his use of not not a sure laugh getter. “That is a tangle of knots. If no one stays when supper’s over, who will scrub the pots?”

He’s waiting for someone to come out of the farmhouse and tell him intermission is at end, and as he waits he thinks of Joseph Richardson who moved back to England with his wife Constance two years ago, and how Joseph would have loved these third Friday shows and no doubt would have performed at them, too, had he not moved away. Joseph was an inspired reciter of Shakespeare as well as being the children’s art teacher before he passed the baton to Delilah, who also teaches them music and math. Oh how I miss Joseph! thinks Henri, who always felt profoundly appreciated by Joseph, and vice-versa.

“And what of girls becoming women, and boys becoming men?” says Henri, continuing his monologue. “Where went the child I used to be? I’m else than I was then.”

Which lines make him think of Irenia who is fourteen and the eldest of the Ziggurat Farm homeschoolers, a gorgeous five-foot-nine and the premiere object of Henri’s desire, sexual arousal a new and disconcerting sensation for him.

Arturo, Henri’s best friend, is madly in love with Irenia, too, and speaks to Henri of his love for her almost every day. Arturo is thirteen and five-foot-eight, and lives in the farmhouse with his younger sister Vivienne and their parents Lisa and Philip.

Henri wouldn’t think of competing with Arturo for Irenia’s affection, and is therefore resigned to Arturo and Irenia becoming sweethearts, though they are not yet so entwined; and to complicate matters further, just yesterday Henri felt Irenia gazing at him and when he met her gaze it was clear as day she loves him.

“Those tiny seeds my mother planted now are sprawling vines,” says Henri, going on with his speech. “The grapes we trod a year ago are now my father’s wines.”

Now Irenia comes out of the farmhouse, her face more beautiful to Henri than anything in the world, her long black hair in a braid, her lovely white blouse given shape by her budding breasts, her long gray skirt revealing hips she had not a year ago, this her costume for a scene with Arturo to follow Henri’s soliloquy; Irenia playing Kate to Arturo’s Petruchio in the famous “I say it is the moon” scene from The Taming of the Shrew.

Assuming Irenia’s emergence means intermission is over, Henri starts for the farmhouse as Irenia runs to meet him.

“I want to give you a good luck kiss,” she says quietly with her subtle Russian accent.

And before Henri can reply, she kisses him, their lips slightly parted—a blissful communion ended too soon by an extra-large Mercedes van rumbling down the drive and parking near the barn.

“Who could this be?” asks Irenia, taking Henri’s hand.

“I would guess Raul,” says Henri, worried Arturo might come out and see them holding hands. “Only he’s already here and his van is not so big.”

Now a short woman with auburn hair and a tall man with longish gray hair get out of the van—the very British Richardsons returned from jolly olde England.

“Joseph!” shouts Henri, letting go of Irenia’s hand and rushing to greet his beloved friends. “Constance.”

“Oh call me Connie, dear boy,” says Constance, hugging Henri.

“Henri!” says Joseph, opening his arms. “Look at you a young man now.”

*

Following the joyful hullabaloo of everyone in the farmhouse greeting the Richardsons—their arrival wholly unexpected—Joseph and Constance take seats in the audience and Henri opens Act Two by playing a melancholy barcarole as preface to his soliloquy.

Setting his accordion aside, he tells his poem—words freighted with new meaning now that he and Irenia have kissed.

To not die or to not not die, that is a tangle of knots.

If no one stays when supper’s over, who will scrub the pots?

And what of girls becoming women, and boys becoming men?

Where went the child I used to be? I’m else than I was then.

Those tiny seeds my mother planted now are sprawling vines.

Those grapes we trod a year ago are now my father’s wines.

Time speeds on despite my wish to linger in my youth.

Some grand design beyond my wit propounds another truth.

I dread the day I have to choose the thing I mostly do.

I’d rather stay a clever boy and linger here with you.

The choice, I fear, is hardly mine, the die was cast at birth.

The only thing I’m certain of is being here on earth.

So let us not concern ourselves with whether we should be,

but rather love each minute as a precious entity.

fin

Lounge Act In Heaven