Nathan is eighty-five, spry, in full command of his senses, and very much enjoying his less strenuous life after fifty years of pruning fruit trees for a living. He lives with his wife Celia, seventy-nine, a retired nurse, in a little house on the outskirts of the small northern California coastal town of Mercy. They’ve lived in their comfy two-bedroom home since they married fifty-three years ago, and for the last twelve years they’ve shared their house with Delilah, who is now twenty-five. Their one child, Calypso, fifty-two, a nurse at Mercy Hospital, lives nearby with her computer-savvy husband Paul and their teenaged son Carlos.
A poet of some renown in his late twenties, Nathan writes for an hour or so every day as he has for the last sixty-five years. He posts poems and short stories on his blog whenever he finishes one he especially likes. Every now and then he hears from someone who enjoyed one of his postings, and he thinks of these communiqués from afar as the universe kissing him. He teaches writing twice a week to the Ziggurat Farm kids Arturo, Vivienne, Henri, and Irenia, and occasionally lends his editing skills to local writers who appreciate his way with words.
On a foggy morning in mid-July, Nathan sits at his kitchen table with Daisy, who is forty and moved with her husband Michael into the house and property adjoining Ziggurat Farm nine months ago, just five months before their baby girl Jenna was born. Daisy has come to see Nathan today to find out what he thinks of her novel she gave him to read two weeks ago.
While Celia carries four-month-old Jenna around in the living room, singing softly to her in Spanish, Nathan asks Daisy, “So who is this book for?”
“What do you mean?” asks Daisy, confused by the question. “I wrote it to try to get published.”
“I understand, but… who did you have in mind while you were writing it?”
“Oh,” says Daisy, frowning. “I guess my agent.”
“Your agent,” says Nathan, surprised by her answer. “Is she a friend of yours?”
“No, I don’t really know her,” says Daisy, realizing she knows nothing about her agent except she’s a literary agent in New York and represents several published writers. “Why do you ask?”
“Just curious.” He sips his tea. “What did your agent say about this book?”
“Well…” Daisy clears her throat. “She sent me a list of things I need to change before she’ll show it to anyone. You know… things like… I need to beef up the romance between Arno and Miranda and make the characters of Harmon and Cid more overtly evil and the characters of Miranda and Jessica more obviously good. But she likes the writing and thinks the plot is strong for the first two-thirds, and then she says things kind of fizzle out and I need to wrap things up much sooner and with more of a bang. To make it more saleable.”
“I see,” says Nathan, looking at the title page of the manuscript: Racing Through Darkness by Daisy Darling. “May I ask who your writing role models are?”
“My favorite authors?”
“Yeah, writers you learned from.”
“Well I decided to be a writer after I went on an Edith Wharton binge my last two years of college. I read everything she ever published over and over again, including her most obscure short stories. And then I had a fling with Thomas Hardy and Dickens, and then I was obsessed with Irish short story writers, and then Bashevis Singer and somewhere in there Steinbeck and Faulkner and Carson McCullers and Truman Capote, and then I read lots of contemporary women writers, and when I finally got an agent—took me seven years to convince someone to represent me—she said I should religiously read the books on the New York Times bestseller list, so I’ve been trying to do that for the last three years.”
“How has that gone?” asks Nathan, sounding concerned.
“Well…” Daisy laughs uneasily. “Interesting.”
“Mostly murder mysteries and thrillers and horror books. Yeah?”
“Not all of them. Every once in while there’s one about a person… you know, overcoming incredible odds and… to be totally honest, I don’t actually read most of them. I skim them. The writing is…” She hesitates. “Not great. Usually.”
Nathan thinks for a moment. “Daisy, I don’t think I can help you. I don’t know anything about commercial writing.”
“Did you hate my book?” she asks, her jaw trembling.
“I wouldn’t say I hated it,” he says, shaking his head. “When you gave me the manuscript you said you felt there was something missing and you couldn’t figure out what it was. And for me what was missing… was you.”
“Me?” she says, horrified. “What do you mean?”
“I mean your voice, your feelings, your take on reality.” He taps the manuscript. “I think this was an attempt to write something you thought your agent would want to try to sell. But I couldn’t find you in here. And I don’t know anything about these kinds of books except I’m not the audience for them. I’m an audience for the radiance of your soul. And though that may sound grandiose, it isn’t. I listen to you talking and telling stories and you flood the world with the radiance of who you are. That’s what I’m an audience for. That’s what makes a good poem or a good story for me. Not the plot. Not the genre. Not imitations of tired old formulas, but the miraculous nature of life expressed in words.”
“But they won’t publish the radiance of who I am,” she says, crying.
“Aye, there’s the rub,” he says, nodding. “They used to, when all those writers you named got published. They used to hunt for books and authors full of the radiance, and that’s when all sorts of weirdo geniuses got published. But now the radiance has got to get through in other ways, which I’m sure it does, just not very often through conventional channels.”
She stops crying and looks at him. “You’re saying I wasted twenty years of my life.”
“Not at all,” he says, shaking his head. “You know how to build a house now and you can build another one if you want. And I’ll bet you if you build it for someone you know and love, they’ll want to live there. And I probably will, too.”
She takes a deep breath to dispel her tears. “Sometimes I’ll be writing and go into a kind of trance, and I’ll write pages and pages that have nothing to do with the book I’m trying to write. And I’ll read those pages and be amazed, though I never think they’re anything but transcriptions of waking dreams.”
“That’s the boss stuff, Daisy.”
“You think so?” she says, turning to watch Celia standing at the window with baby Jenna in her arms, the fog giving way to sunshine.
After graduating from college with a degree in English, and until she inherited a fortune from her mother two years ago, Daisy worked as a secretary in the Biology department at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where her husband Michael was a graduate student, then a lecturer, and most recently a professor of Ornithology and Wildlife Biology. Daisy worked on her short stories and novels in the evenings and on weekends, and belonged to a group of writers that met every two weeks to share their writing and encourage each other to keep going.
Daisy and Michael were saving money to buy a house and have a baby and give Daisy two years as a stay-at-home mom when Daisy’s mother unexpectedly died and left them a huge pile of money.
Now they own a beautiful house on three acres adjacent to Ziggurat Farm on the edge of a vast forest of redwoods and firs and spruce and hemlocks. Michael is completing his third book about owls and beginning research on Ospreys, their baby Jenna is happy and healthy, and Daisy, until a few minutes ago, thought she would soon be starting another rewrite of her novel following the directives of her literary agent.
But now, as she sits in Nathan and Celia’s living room nursing Jenna and waiting for Michael to come drive her home, she knows she will not be revising her novel and may never write another one. And though she feels sad about this ending to a very long chapter of her life, she also feels profoundly relieved, as if some part of her always knew she wasn’t meant to be an imitator.
She closes her eyes and surrenders to the lovely sensation of her daughter suckling, the fire crackling in the fireplace, and when she hears Nathan open the door and greet Michael and invite them for lunch, she doesn’t open her eyes until Michael kisses her forehead and whispers, “Shall we stay for lunch, darling?”
“We shall,” she says, seeing how tired he looks from the months of getting up three times a night to bring the crying baby to her. “Guess what?”
“You had a good time with Nathan,” he says, relieved to see her happy again after weeks of anguish.
“Yes,” she says, nodding, “and I’ve decided to let my novel go and start anew. Only from now on I’ll write what I want to write and not what anyone else tells me to write.”
A few days later, Daisy puts Jenna in what Michael calls the all-terrain stroller, the most heavy duty stroller they could find, leashes their Golden Retriever pup Figaro, and takes baby human and baby dog on the path to the one-acre terraced vegetable garden where Andrea and Lisa and Irenia and Vivienne are working, all of them wearing long-sleeved shirts and shorts and sunhats.
Irenia and Vivienne ask Andrea if they can take a break from weeding to visit with Daisy and Jenna, and Andrea says, “Of course.”
Vivienne, who is a few months away from turning ten, lifts four-month-old Jenna out of the stroller—Jenna chuckling with delight because she especially loves Vivienne.
“Hello my darling precious new person,” says Vivienne, kissing Jenna’s cheek. “You who are possessed of the softest skin in the entire universe.”
Irenia, who is twelve and a foot taller than Vivienne, stands nearby waiting her turn to hold the baby.
“She’s growing so fast,” says Irenia, making no attempt, as she sometimes will, to hide her Russian accent. “Every time I see her she is a different person, and I just saw her two days ago.”
“I wonder if she would like a strawberry?” asks Vivienne, kissing Jenna again before handing her to Irenia. “Not to eat, of course, but to suck on. We’ll be very careful.”
“That’s fine,” says Daisy, sitting on a small wooden bench next to an expanse of voluptuous scarlet and burgundy gladioli.
Andrea and Lisa are thinning carrots several terraces up the gently sloping incline, and Lisa says something that makes Andrea laugh and Daisy hears They are a farm of women. Not that men don’t come to visit, they do, but the men rarely stay for long because they are not wanted here save for sex and to make the occasional child, male children sent away to the farms of men when they are no longer little boys.
When Jenna goes down for a nap in the early afternoon and Michael and his sister Caroline go on a hike, Daisy sits at the kitchen table and writes down the words she heard in the garden. But when she tries to write more than what she heard, nothing comes out.
“This is when I start forcing things,” she says, speaking aloud. “Trying to make up what I think should come next. But I’m not going to do that anymore. I’m not going to worry the words, as Nathan says.”
Thinking of Nathan and his invitation to come write with him, she goes in search of her phone. After looking in the bedroom and kitchen and living room she remembers she left her phone in the all-terrain stroller they store in the foyer where they hang their coats and keep their outdoor shoes.
As she’s fishing her phone out of the pocket on the backside of the stroller, she feels an urgency, almost a panic, to turn those lines she heard into something big and sensational, a book her agent will want to sell to a publisher, and she realizes that as long as she is ruled by this compulsion, she will never hear more of the story.
The next day after breakfast, Daisy nurses Jenna, leaves her with Michael, and drives to Nathan and Celia’s for tea and talk by the fire, the town of Mercy cloaked in dense fog.
Daisy tells Nathan and Celia and Delilah about her experience of hearing the beginning of a story, writing the lines down, and then feeling desperate to write more but only being able to think of what she describes as derivative guck.
“So what are you gonna do?” asks Nathan, sipping his tea.
“I guess I’ll have to unlearn my compulsion to force things,” says Daisy, having no idea how to do that.
“I think you’ll have to replace your compulsion with something else,” says Delilah, nodding thoughtfully. “I’ve been reading about brain maps and how we create synaptic patterns, actual maps in our brains, by repeating physical and emotional patterns, and these maps are the drivers of our neurology, our operating system, so to speak. And it seems the more we repeat something, the more deeply etched the brain map for that particular thing and the harder it is to override the commands of that map. But if we create new brain maps by repeating new behaviors hundreds and thousands of times, and we stop repeating the old behaviors, our old brain maps eventually grow fainter and less dominant, though they never go away completely.”
“Which is why we can still ride a bike even if we haven’t ridden one in twenty years,” says Nathan, trying to remember the last time he rode a bike. “The brain map we made when we learned to ride is still there.”
“I think also,” says Celia in her quiet way, “you need to end your connection with your agent.”
Daisy gasps. “Oh no. It took me so long to find someone to represent me. She won’t care if she doesn’t hear from me for a few months.”
“But isn’t she the grand manifestation of your compulsion?” asks Delilah, going to heat more water for a second round of tea. “Isn’t she fueling the urgency that causes you to force things?” She cackles. “The wicked witch of the east.”
“Oh let’s not make her wicked,” says Nathan, laughing. “Let’s just say she may be keeping you anchored somewhere you’d rather sail away from.”
“I really don’t think it’s necessary,” says Daisy, terrified of not having an agent.
“Then stay with her,” says Nathan, simply. “See how things go.”
A few nights later, Michael and Daisy and Jenna and Caroline are having supper in the farmhouse with the seven farm residents plus Irenia, the feast prepared by Philip with assistance from Henri and Irenia.
Mid-supper, Arturo, who is about to turn twelve, describes something that happened as he and Vivienne were closing up the chicken coop for the night and gathering eggs.
“There are two hens,” says Arturo, his story-telling style modeled on that of an erudite British fellow who used to be a mainstay of the collective. “One is Marilyn Monroe and the other is either Queen Elizabeth or Marie Antoinette. I never can tell those two apart. In any case, they are always the last hens to go inside to roost for the night, and sometimes we have to shoo them in, which we had to do tonight, which is when we saw the fox.”
“We think the fox was a she,” says Vivienne, taking up the tale, “because she was not very big, but definitely not a kit and certainly big enough to kill a chicken.”
“She was just sitting there in the high grass on the edge of the clearing,” says Arturo, looking at his father Philip. “Calm and unafraid and waiting patiently for the right moment to leap over the fence into the scratch yard and grab one of those hens.”
“Where were the dogs?” ask Marcel, Henri’s French father. “Don’t tell me. They were in here by the fire. Old dogs in retirement.”
“Alexandra was with us,” says Vivienne, speaking of her five-year old Golden Retriever, “and she definitely saw the fox, but she didn’t even bark. It was very strange, as if she and the fox had come to an agreement.”
“So we need to start getting the hens in a half-hour earlier,” says Andrea, who would hate to lose either of her premiere egg producers. “I’ll write the new closing time on your chore sheets.”
“Our brother Thom,” says Caroline, who loves living here and never wants to go back to New Hampshire where she is a professor of Botany, “wrote a book about foxes. He considers them a higher form of life than humans. He wants to come visit soon and meet Jenna and see what we’re all raving about, but he’s teaching summer session and then fall classes start soon after, so it may be a while. He’s in Ithaca. At Cornell.”
“We’d love to read his book,” says Henri, who has a secret crush on Caroline, though she is thirty years his senior. “Can we get it from the library?”
“I doubt it,” says Michael, who is constantly amazed by the sophistication of the farm kids. “I have a copy. It’s rather technical, but you’re welcome to borrow it and I’ll be happy to translate the jargon for you.”
“Thom is working on another book about foxes for the general public,” says Caroline, giving Henri a big-eyed smile, “but that won’t be out for years, assuming he can ever find a publisher.”
“I love the word jargon,” says Arturo, looking at Henri and Vivienne and Irenia. “Lets name our next dog or cat Jargon.”
“I think it would be an excellent name for a male,” says Irenia, holding Jenna on her knee and gently bouncing her. “But it doesn’t sound right for a female.”
“You’re right,” says Henri, raising his voice as he always does before he makes a joke. “The female version would be Jargonella.”
“Excuse me,” says Daisy, getting up from the table. “I’ll be right back.”
While the conversation rages, Daisy hurries to the all-terrain stroller, gets out her notebook, and writes The talk turns to naming the new dog the women got from Old Martha who breeds Malamutes with wolves to make protectors for the farms of women.
When Daisy returns to the table, Michael takes her hand. “You okay?”
“Fine,” she says, smiling at their daughter so happy with Irenia. “Just wanted to write something down before I forgot.”
The next day while Jenna is napping, Daisy carries her phone out on the deck, gazes at the fabulous forest descending to the sea, and taps the number of her agent in New York.
“Daisy,” says Gwen, coming on the line. “Call you back in ten.”
“Okay,” says Daisy, knowing the universe is providing these ten minutes to test her resolve.
As she waits, Daisy thinks of her mother Doris who raised Daisy single-handedly and cheerfully while working in a Ford assembly plant, how proud she was of Daisy for being a writer. “Takes courage to do something with no guarantee you’ll succeed,” said Doris a year or so before she died. “But it’s what you love, so go for it.”
Daisy answers her vibrating phone.
“What’s up?” says Gwen who is simultaneously answering emails.
“I’ve decided to stop working with you,” says Daisy, bracing herself for an angry retort.
“No, that’s my line,” says Gwen, laughing a little and ceasing to type. “Too much baby, not enough writing time? I’m happy to wait for the smoke to clear. Hate to lose you when we’re getting so close.”
“I’m going in a different direction now,” says Daisy, smiling at the truth of that. “I really appreciate all the help you gave me.”
“No problem,” says Gwen, curtly. “I’ll email you the quit document to sign and… good luck.”
On a warm morning in mid-August, Daisy and Nathan are sitting opposite each other at Nathan’s kitchen table, Celia carrying five-month-old Jenna around the garden visiting flowers with her.
Nathan and Daisy are writing together, each writing two lines of a story on a sheet of typing paper, then exchanging the papers and writing the next two lines of each story, and so on, back and forth until they reach the bottoms of their pages and wrap their stories up with two final lines.
When they finish writing, they each read aloud the story they ended up with. One of the stories doesn’t do much for either of them, but the other story…
Frederick wasn’t sure Amelia wanted to go out
with him, so he didn’t ask her for fear she would
say yes and turn out to be a psychic black hole
and suck all the joy out of his life and make him
want to become a monk, something he often
had nightmares about. You see, Frederick loved
wearing flamboyant colorful clothing and having
sex with women, and Amelia was just exactly
a woman, which was just what Frederick was
looking for. She had two arms, two legs, two
adorable dogs named Gormag and Fitzroy
and her voice was husky and warm and when
she laughed the earth shook and made Frederick
whimper like a dog hearing fireworks exploding on
the eve of the ascension, not to mention
making him wildly amorous and ready to
throw caution to the wind and sleep with
someone he knew had slept with
German aristocrats, rock stars, and women
who enjoyed dressing as men and behaving
like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Yet
he didn’t ask her out, though he wanted to
more than anything he’d ever wanted, except
for one thing: to play boogie-woogie piano
naked on a warm summer night for a
gathering of his favorite writers, most of
them dead, but resurrected especially
for the occasion.