We thought maybe Papa had gotten the idea from a book. For months he spoke of nothing but the wine-hearted solitude of the place, quoting Robinson Jeffers, while I racked my thoughts trying to remember which of my library books I’d left on the kitchen table at home, what he might have riffled through while I was at school on Bay Street. It wasn’t that Papa didn’t have imagination. We’d just never seen it spill out of him so suddenly. Like lanterns lighting up at dusk, one after another so that globes of yellow waltzed down the road.
It couldn’t have been Arabian Nights. Though I wouldn’t have blamed him. I had the most beautiful edition of it. I don’t mean to brag, but really, I did. Grandma had given it to me for my tenth birthday. An 1880 edition, the binding had cracked down one edge, but the emerald-green cover and its silver arches shone nicely. My mother warned me not to bring it to school, but I did, the day after I got it, and it made Ann Thompson so jealous that she stomped her foot on her mother’s purse after school and declared she would take up rare book collecting right then. (When I called Ann Thompson a spoiled brat, my mother frowned. “Cassandra Breslin! We do not call people spoiled brats! I can’t imagine what you are thinking sometimes!” Then she sighed and started pulling open all the drawers in the kitchen again.)
Nevertheless, I started hiding the books I was used to leaving on the kitchen counter before school between the cookbooks on the high shelf above the sink. I lost track of a lot of them that way, but I did find my mother’s glasses.
Arabian Nights was the only book I got to bring. I went over my stacks for hours in those weeks, tipping piles over to figure out which one I couldn’t live without, while Papa poked his head into the room I shared with my little brother Lucas. “Don’t worry, Cassie, I’ll buy you as many as you can carry when we get to San Francisco!” And then we were rushing through Pennsylvania Station, one bag each, my mother clenching my arm and dragging me along and poor Lucas tripping over legs so many in number I couldn’t decide who they belonged to. I watched Brooklyn and then Manhattan fall away from me.
Mama seemed glib and calm, chatting with the other women on the train and watching the long, straight rows of corn go past as we steadily plugged toward Chicago, but she orbited Papa like a dark cloud as he herded us from train to train.
The entire journey took a week, because we kept having to stop to wait for the cheaper connections. I tried to read Arabian Nights to Lucas, but at seven years old I guess you get confused- who’s telling the story to who? Did Schererazade make it all up to save her skin? I settled for showing Lucas the illustrations while he clutched his stuffed goose in fright at the summer thunderstorms outside Denver.
Reno smelled like cigarettes and decaying alstroemeria. We bought two chocolate bars to share, a bottle of cough medicine for Lucas, and a new bronze hatpin for Mama, who had misplaced hers and who looked at the new one with distaste. “Kind of crass, isn’t it?” she said to Papa. By that time, she was leading our crew, had decided she wouldn’t take directions from him any longer. She plunged ahead like the Titanic. Papa, trailing behind her with two bags in hand having carried Mama’s luggage for her, pleaded. “Come on, Demetra, where’s your sense of adventure? That enterprising spirit I fell in love with?” When she didn’t answer, he reverted to an older authority. “San Francisco is so close, my dear. Show a little excitement!”
I think I was the only one who saw Mama put her hand on her heart, heard her whisper something about God giving her the strength to suffer fools. She was almost glad when we got to San Francisco and found out that Grandmother was sick, that she needed to get back to New York right away.
I thought Big Sur was very unsettling when we first arrived. New York is comforting, with its boxes of buildings all neatly stacked, but the way, here, that the sea blends into the sky in the morning makes you feel like you’ve fallen off the edge of the world. In this world, I was an old metal fork someone had bent out of shape.
We’ve been here for a few months now, since April. Papa has found work at an old inn in Lucia, so old it’s practically falling down around the manager, Frank’s, ankles. Wooden tiles will sluice gently off the roof and drop onto your head if you’re unlucky enough to walk out the front door at the wrong time. Frank’s always looking for ways to make it more appealing to the tourists who come up from Los Angeles in their gleaming Packards. He insists to anyone who comes to the check-in desk that the inn is a “bed and breakfast”. To prove it, he shoos them into the “salon”- a dining room with three tables, a long buffet where they put out the oatmeal and coffee in the morning, and cracked vinyl chairs. We happened to show up asking for a room at half rate just when he decided to build a garden in back to give the guests fresh fruit and vegetables. Now Papa levels and tills the earth at the back of the inn in return for a place to stay.
Old as it is, I have to admit it’s still kind of beautiful. The whole back wall is a pretty Carmel stone, run through with rust orange, pink and caramel. And there are wild roses that grow up it, pale as a ballet slipper. They’ve started to open, and Frank says when they do he’ll have Lucas and I cut all the good ones off to even stem lengths and go sell them to businessmen’s wives as they drive through.
The sort of people who stay here as the people who don’t lower their voices as they rise in the mornings and greet you loudly in the dining room, asking about your day. I love that. It reminds me of our window in Brooklyn, which looked out over the street. Lucas and I used to lull ourselves to sleep with the conversations below us, couldn’t drift off without them. In the mornings, we go downstairs and get in line for oatmeal and coffee with the lumbermen. They’ve taken to telling us stories about this place, how it was originally built in the midst of the country’s turmoil during the Civil War, how the ghosts of the men who originally cut down trees along the coast still haunt Lucia. “You can see them walking down the highway, sometimes,” says Andrew, a thick-bearded man we never see without a rabbit’s foot charm swinging from his belt. “Always at dusk. Yes, I have too seen one, Samuel!” To make the oatmeal a little more appetizing, we help ourselves to a heap of brown sugar each and sit down at one of the tables to wait for Emil.
I didn’t like Emil when I first met him. Maybe he was representative of all the Big Sur country, the land that Papa said was so valuable and untapped. In any case, he’d interrupted my reading. I didn’t even notice when he sat down across from me, tapped the cover of my book, and said, “Say, who’s this?”
I laid the spine down on the table. “That’s only a fair question if you tell me who you are.”
He chuckled and cupped the flame of his cigarette with both hands while he steadied it between his teeth. It looked like a tightrope act. I crossed my arms and waited while Lucas looked down into his oatmeal.
“You two are the new arrivals, right? Your father is the handyman?”
I didn’t like that. Papa had been a welder in Brooklyn.
“He’s a gardener. And a businessman. My name is Cassie, and this is my brother Lucas.” I elbowed Lucas, who was still trying to divine the fortune in his oatmeal. He snapped out of it and stuck his hand out.
“Pleased to meet you too. My name is Emil White. I’ve been coming to breakfast here for twenty years, so I know all the seasonal faces. Are you here for the season?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted.
“Well, what kind of business does your father do?” He stared at us expectantly, twirling one end of his bristly mustache. “Come on now, I’m only curious.”
“Stone? You mean those ridiculous lime-mining operations?”
“They aren’t ridiculous! He has some partners in San Francisco and everything… they own those old mines, or…” My voice trailed off. I felt like a dummy. I knew my voice was rising; I could feel the eyes of the lumbermen sleepily. My face grew hot.
Emil leaned back in his chair. “Apologies, young lady. It’s just I haven’t heard of one of those operations working yet. Nobody has mined lime here in fifty years or so.”
We sat in silence for a moment. I watched the cream in my coffee roil under the brown surface. Then Emil hunched forward suddenly with a gleeful expression.
“Tell me about that book of yours. It’s absolutely lovely.”
“It’s not mine.”
He adopted a look of shock. “Not yours! Then you must have got it from whatever passes as a library in this ramshackle place. You sure do have an eye for the gems, Cassie.”
I blushed in spite of myself. “It’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”
“A good novel for dreamers. Look at that lovely cover, too.” He leaned over, conspiratorial. “But you know, Frank’s not much of a reader. He wouldn’t know a breathtaking sentence if it….well, if it took his breath away. I’ll have to bring you a couple books next time I come down here.”
“Where do you get them?”
“From the library of a good friend of mine. He’s a writer, lives and works just a couple miles north in Big Sur.” Emil stood up abruptly. “Well, my new friends, it’s been pleasant. Do remind me if I forget the books next time we see each other, won’t you? I expect it won’t be long.” He stepped lightly around the table to shake hands with Lucas. I noticed he wore a very new navy blue three-piece suit.
“What do you come here for, anyway?” I blurted out.
Emil knitted his brows for a second. “Why, the coffee, of course. It’s the worst damn coffee I’ve ever tasted. Gives one an appreciation for the fine brews they make in the city- otherwise, I would get complacent here.”
Emil walked out of the salon. I could see him through the open door, walking over to talk to Frank at the dingy check-in desk. They discussed something in hushed tones. I took a sip of the coffee. Emil was right; it was the worst I had ever tasted. Even though he didn’t sound like he was telling the whole truth.
Papa came back that night with heavy bags slung over his shoulder. “Look at all of this!” he said. He dropped them onto the floor, probably causing an avalanche of ceiling dust in the room below ours. “I drove all the way to Carmel today to meet with a couple partners. I managed to pick these up on the way.”
I looked inside. There were pumpkin seeds, zucchini seeds, a couple packets of delicata squash. Papa had picked up a couple lemons and avocados for us to eat as well, and a few fresh-looking batons of bread. I broke off a piece of one- it was almost as fresh as the loaves sold two blocks down from our house at the old grocer’s.. Papa beamed, his beard shining red in the gleam from the single dim light bulb hanging out of the ceiling. “What do you two think of the plants? I’m going to plant them tomorrow.”
“I want to see the kilns,” Lucas whined.
“Not just yet, Luke. Besides, what you really want is to see them in action, the way they will be when we get them up and running again. I think I got a good lead on potential sites, though.”
“Emil says that no one’s been successful at running a limestone mining operation here in fifty years,” I said quietly.
“Who said that?” Papa spun around.
“Emil. He comes here for breakfast and coffee in the mornings.”
“Hmph. I’ll set him straight tomorrow morning when I see him. You just tell me which one he is, and don’t go talking to people in that dining room.” He thought a second. “You know what?”
“What?” Lucas and I chorused. I felt dread rising in my stomach.
“I think I will take you to see the kilns tomorrow. It’s a good opportunity for you to understand what I’m trying to accomplish out here.”
He turned to Lucas. “Luke, have I told you yet about the smell out there on the mountains? It’s everything you could ever want. A little bit spicy, the bay laurel, but so fresh and sweet, like nothing you knew in New York…..”
Papa didn’t take us anywhere the next day, or the day after that. He brought the seeds to show Frank, but Frank insisted that he build a fence first to keep the rabbits out. So he sawed and sanded down redwood boards, salvaged from the old cannery, for the next week straight, his five-o-clock shadow growing grayer and more pallid. It always shocks me, when it grows out. It makes him look as worn out as the inn.
Lucas and I helped to turn the soil over, loosening it up with the hose. Frank poked his head around the side of the building periodically, shouting, “Don’t use too much water, kids! There’s not a lot of it out here as it is!” Lucas mostly ignored him; we had to loosen the rocks somehow. We managed to dig a fair amount of the loose ones out of the way, and started hauling in buckets of rich, dark soil from the pile at the front of the inn to spread for the garden. My jeans got stiff and uncomfortable, caked with dirt and hardened with dried water.
I came downstairs in my dirty jeans to see Emil, in a heather grey suit this time, sitting at a breakfast table with a girl I hadn’t seen before, a brunette with pretty long waves. Emil waved, but I turned toward the buffet table instead, then buried my nose in Arabian Nights. I was just getting to the good part anyway.
Something thumped the other side of the table unceremoniously. I looked up in the middle of yet another uncertain conversation between the king and Scheherazade, and saw Emil peering down square frames at me.
“Excuse me for interrupting your reading, Cassie. I did bring you the books you seemed so interested in.”
I used Arabian Nights to hide my face. “My father says I am not allowed to talk to you.”
I could see Emil’s brows knit and unknit over the top of the book, then finally soften. “Ah. Well, surely, he did not say you couldn’t talk to Jane. Come over here, Jane.”
I grudgingly, carefully closed my book when Jane sat down. “Hello,” she said. Her voice was smooth like Mama’s chamomile tea blend. “I’m Jane. Who are you?”
“My name is Cassie.”
Emil cut in with delight. “Jane is my niece, Cassie. She’s staying with me for the summer while her mom works in the naval hospital in Oakland.”
Jane shifted her spoon around in her coffee, slowly swirling sugar in, clearly uninterested in what her uncle or I had to say. Not that I had a whole lot to say to her. She must have been at least sixteen, a whole world removed from my twelve, I guessed. “That must be nice,” I offered.
“It’s all right. There aren’t many movie theaters down here.”
“You could take a lesson from Cassie, you know, and read a book or two. Speaking of which, is that the 1880 edition of Arabian Nights?”
“Um… yes, it is.” I said hesitantly.
Emil clapped his hands. “Would you mind if I take a look at it?”
“I guess not.”
He picked it up gingerly; I appreciated his care with the cracked binding. “Those Moorish arches, there- stunning! It’s kept its color quite well, and the green of the edges! My friend Henry would absolutely love to see this. Would you mind bringing it to show him sometime? It would be a real treat.”
“I don’t think I should,” I said.
Lucas tumbled into the room. Seeing me with Emil, he ran over, and stopped when he saw Jane. Lucas isn’t particularly given to meeting new people; he far prefers to watch them from the side of a room, unseen and undisturbed. To her credit, Jane sensed that. “Hey there,” she said, coming around the table and crouching down to him. “What’s your name? You don’t have to hide.” Suddenly I didn’t think she was half bad at all. Emil noticed me watching her and said, “Jane’s brother is about Lucas’s age. Seven, is that a good guess?”
“Yes!” Lucas yelled. A little louder than he intended. A man in a blue flannel shirt dropped his cup of coffee on the floor and yelped when the hot liquid hit his leg.
The corners of Jane’s eyes crinkled. Emil put Arabian Nights back down. “Anyway, when you’re done with all these, Cassie, come and visit Henry’s studio. Lucas can come too.”
I was about to protest, but the stack of books Emil had set down on the table caught in the corner of my eye. Beautiful, old tomes; I drank in their lettering. The Count of Monte Cristo. Wuthering Heights. Grimm’s Fairy Tales. There were four or five, all with the same type of fabric that gets faded when you put it out in the sun. I picked one up and ran a hand reverently over the engraved illustration on the cover- columns like you’d see in ancient times, presenting the name of the novel between them. The pages were dog-eared. These books were loved. I decided I had to see the rest.
I managed to read The Count of Monte Cristo before Papa finished the redwood fence and decided we would finally go to see the kilns. Lucas skipped ahead of us both, while I trudged up a faint path worn only by my father’s boots, noticing how, despite his jovial nature, his skin had started to take on a gray pallor.
By noon, we were sweating through our shirts, Papa having insisted on circling the kilns for a route that might show him the pristine white limestone cliffs, ready to be mined and ground, that he wanted. We sat among a stand of tanbark trees for lunch. Papa handed me an orange, and I dug my thumb into the peel, finding that it was soft. It tasted bitingly bitter; Lucas spit a slice of citrus out.
“Papa, do you even know where you’re going now?”
He looked offended that I would ask such a question. “Of course. I always do. Did you know that you come from a long line of navigators?”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“It’s in your blood, my girl, those wide open spaces! Mine, too. Your grandfather was a sailor, a navigator. A proud member of the merchant marine. He transported citrus up and down the eastern seaboard.”
I racked my brain, trying to remember which grandfather that was. Tully? He died when I was four. The thing I remembered most about him was his trick pipe, with the compartment that opened when you pressed the little latch in its ivory side.
“Cassie? You listening?”
“Uh, sure. Watch the edge, Lucas.” Lucas was walking around restlessly, in ever-widening circles around Papa and I, and getting close to the edge of the stand, where it dropped into wide-open sky.
“Why, one time he even told me-”
“What did he tell you?” I asked. This actually sounded promising. People usually cut off right at the bit you actually want to know.
“Ah-never mind. It was nothing. But there was something more important than that!” He stopped, trying to think about what it was, and I nearly ran into him. “That’s right. The astrolabe. We used to have one in our house, an old one that got passed down through a long line of sailors right to my father. Solid- you could’ve used it to cut stone. But it had a better use than that. Can you two guess what that is?”
I grumbled. Lucas giggled. “Nope.”
“I can’t beeeeee-elieve that, Cassie! With all your reading?” Papa drew this out and snuck a peek back at me to see if I was amused with him. I put out my tongue at him, and immediately felt bad when the back of his neck softened, revealing the stretched ridges of skin where he’x grown thinner.
“I really haven’t, Papa,” I said. “Tell us, please.”
“I thought you’d like to know!” His joviality was back. “An astrolabe can tell you where you are in the middle of the ocean. Celestial altitude, they call it. Long ago they’d use astrolabes to follow Polaris- the North Star- back before we had modern instruments. You’d point one end at the horizon and raise a lever, or a rule, up to the level of the star. And there were notches on the side that you could use to tell you where in the ocean you were.”
He swung his arm outward, down the knobbled spine of the mountains. “So we’ve got finding in our blood, even if we don’t use one of those.” He waved his arm up and down for emphasis.
“What happened to it?” I said. I had never seen an astrolabe at our home in Brooklyn.
“Oh….it got lost. Sometime after Grandpa passed away.” Papa’s voice went flat.
We sat suspended for a minute, feeling the warm air coast through our lungs. I could see the wild gray-green hills of the Santa Lucia mountains stretching out north and south. Down below pieces of highway scarred the landscape black. Small figures worked at their edges, grinding and smoothing the asphalt from where it was damaged with the last rains.
Lucas stomped his foot on mine in emphasis, causing a small avalanche of gray pebbles to cascade down the brush. “Where are the kilns? Are we close?”
Our father grinned, pleased with himself. “I think they’re just over that hill, son. And just a bit further on- I have to take a couple of samples and whatnot, probably- but I believe there is an untouched lime deposit.” I craned my neck out and squinted past the blazing sun and the spindles of faraway trees. I didn’t see anything. “Just a little bit further,” he said.
Everything is always just a little bit further, according to my father. I threw the orange peel down into the ravine.
We finally arrived back at the inn just after dark, after managing to pick our way back to the truck Papa had borrowed. We’d seen the kilns- giant monstrosities that seemed to hold the forest hostage. Nothing dared to so much as breathe in their presence.
Papa went straight to the big oaken desk, where Frank was lounging, and handed back the keys to the truck. Papa started to walk away, but Frank called him back.
“Did you plant the seeds yet, Jacob?”
Frank sighed in exasperation. “Yes, the zucchini and pumpkin. And squash. Whatever else you’ve got.”
Papa’s voice turned wheedling. “We really got out too late, Frank. It was a long hike back to the truck- well, you know. I’ll plant tomorrow.”
Frank rubbed the bridge of his nose with thin fingers, and a hot flush crept over my face on Papa’s behalf. “Jacob, you should forget about the limestone. We can’t let you stay here to look for it without a fair day’s work in return. And I’m not seeing much return on your work, as it is.”
Papa scoffed. “I know I seem a fool, Frank. You think I don’t realize that? It’s plain as day on your face.” Frank’s mouth turned into a thin graying line. “Just because you don’t see the potential that I see out here doesn’t mean it’s all been lost. This is a rich land. What we can find here- well, we don’t even know the value of it yet.”
“Be that as it may-“
“I’ll plant your precious seeds tomorrow. Drive into town and get a few more packets, too. And I’d be obliged if you’d at least acknowledge the fence I’ve already built. Hard work- and you know as well as I that I’m one of the most hardworking men you’ll find to do it.”
Papa has a thick, broad Brooklyn accent, a New York confidence that draws out vowels and can build a sentence so that it towers over whoever he speaks to. Frank looked cowed for a moment, then abruptly stood up. They stood face to face, the entire lobby holding a slurried silence. Frank picked up a piece of paper and walked briskly over to me, shoving it into my hand.
“Message for you children. Run along to the salon.”
I considered staying put, but I saw the name “Demetra Breslin” at the top of the page. Mama. I hurried quickly into the dining room, Lucas trailing after me. We slouched into the two chairs that faced Papa’s new fence, sinking into cracked vinyl.
Dear Lucas and Cassandra,
Your grandmother’s been recovering well, so far. We’re still a little unsure. She doesn’t get out of bed much, but she does ask me to write and send you her love. She makes plans of what she’ll make for us once you get back- a veritable feast, it sounds like. She asks me to mark dozens of recipes for her every day. Cassie, we found Tales of Neverland between a couple of the cookbooks- did you mean to leave it there?
July in New York! How I wish you were here! The heat is starting to hang heavy over the city. Roses and dahlias are now in full bloom and I have been buying bouquets for Grandma. She enjoys them so much. I pray daily for her recovery, and for you two and especially your father. I hope he’s found what he’s looking for; with luck, I’ll see you within the month!
The message was written in Frank’s stilted longhand. Mama must have called while we were out, and I resolved not to get dragged along on another fruitless trip to the kilns again. Lucas drowsed on my shoulder, so I stayed put and listened to the wind, which had begun to howl outside.
A summer storm began to roll in. Papa couldn’t plant anything. He spent his time putting new caulking on the insides of the leaking windows, haunting the corridors on both floors with an old caulking gun and a putty knife. There was no shortage of windows to seal.
I finished rereading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and started on Wuthering Heights simply because I liked the sapphire-blue cover. I couldn’t get much out of it with all the excessive noise in the dining room all day; the working men who rented a semi-permanent room at the inn often had their work canceled because of conditions, and the dining room rang with guffawing laughter and conversation all day. I wondered if I was starting to get used to the expansive quiet of the West. I even thought that the moors in England sounded quite nice, somewhere a person could really be alone, but Cathy seemed an idiot and the Heathcliff character was rude.
Mostly I waited for more news from Mama, and thought about how warm and pleasant it would be in Brooklyn right now. In reality, I knew it would be sweltering, but then Lucas and I could go to the corner candy store and eat a Good Humor bar each. Quickly, before they melted, and we could feel the creamy vanilla running down our throats.
I couldn’t find Arabian Nights. I had turned over the covers and pillows, the piles of clothes on the floor, even looked inside all of the pockets of our worn-out coats on the second floor rooms we shared. I’d come upstairs to find an illustration to show Lucas, even though I was surprised he had even paid attention to me and my book on the journey across the country. The rising sense of panic in my stomach hadn’t stopped ballooning. I slumped into one of the corners in exhaustion.
It hadn’t left this room. I was sure of it. There was no closet corner or dresser drawer I hadn’t checked. I went over the checklist mentally in my mind, then tried to think about the last time I had taken it out. Did it get caught between the stacks Emil had given me? Had I placed it behind the check-in desk?
It had been a present from Grandma. Back in a life that seemed like it would never materialize as real as the endless mountains outside my window. I started to sob.
When Emil learned that I had lost it, he was quick to place a consoling hand on my shoulder and offer a solution. “I’m so sorry to hear that, Cassie. I’m sure it’s around here somewhere- maybe in that stack of books in the corner Frank calls a library? No? Well, if you’d like to get your mind off it, come and meet my friend Henry, the writer. No, he won’t mind that you haven’t got it.”
“Are you sure?” I asked, holding back tears.
“Absolutely not,” he said. Jane, sitting across from me with folded arms, nodded her agreement.
I made Lucas carry the stack of books I had finished downstairs and place them in the truck of Emil’s lovely navy-blue 1936 Chevrolet. He said he’d bought it off an officer during the war for a song since the transmission was bad. “They’re all right, but you’ve got to be careful with these things out here. They only finished the highway a couple of years ago.” He’d already hopped into the front seat but I could imagine the crinkle that was forming in his forehead. “People think they can just roar through with no concern for anyone around the corner, speeding like they’re in Malibu in front of God and everyone.” Lucas and I sat in the back while Emil fiddled with the gearshift, coaxing the vehicle into a steady long purr that changed tempo as we rounded each turn.
Henry, the writer, apparently lived 20 miles up the road from the inn in Lucia, and I began to realize how far we were from the epicenter of activity along this stretch of coastline. As we drove, we passed workers on the side of the road adding more asphalt to the edges, shoring up the sides of the cliffs with more netting. They pinned it unceremoniously over the older lichen-covered netting, fighting a never-ending battle against nature. Not for the first time, I wondered who the hell had decided to build out here.
I have to admit that I did admire it all as we whizzed by. The highway was beautiful in its own strange desolate way, a ribbon of black cleaving through nearly untouched country. Or at least this part was- the logging operations and old mining sites, I knew, were farther into the hills. If I leaned my head against the window and really stretched my neck as Emil coasted up and over the tallest curves, I could see waves breaking against outcroppings of stolid, stubborn rock, bits of cappuccino-colored cliff being showered in turquoise.
Maybe this is what Papa was drawn to, the elemental hues. I considered the fact that some of us were. Walking around with this longing in our bones for a deep rich cerulean. With the specter of its absence in the back of our minds when we found ourselves among brownstone buildings and steel girders.
Scattered along the road were buildings, inns like ours but in better shape, small cafes, the occasional art museum. Emil waved to those with a hand that was at once dismissive and admiring. “They’re only open in the summer,” he explained, “for the tourists. The rest of the year the artists all retreat into themselves like hermits and work on their next batch of cliff paintings or ceramic pots or stone etchings, you name it.” He and Jane retreated into conversation about her mother, how the soldiers who had recently returned from Europe who were under her care, and what Jane was going to do when she got back to Oakland- “Go see Gilda, I guess…” while I stared out the window at the fishing boats out from Monterey for the day.
Emil finally brought the car to a stop by an oaken fence on the side of the road. The highway veered in at this particular point, and redwoods rose from the canyon beyond the guardrail. He positioned the Chevy carefully so that it was visible from either direction. “I’ll recommend getting out on the sloped side, Cassie- you never know who might come roaring around that turn.” I did as he said. Beyond the fence I could make out a small wood-shingled house, surrounded by the same redwoods, nestled between two sloping hills and so far back it seemed like it must always be in perpetual shade.
“Come on in,” he said, and the four of us walked through the narrow open gate and toward the house. The closer we got, the more it looked like it was imprinted upon, and built into, the hill. Inexplicably, there was a rusted old bus sitting on the far side of the yard; it looked like someone was drying bundles of bay laurel and lavender from the windowsills. Before we could get to the front door, a man wearing a checkered shirt and a cap opened it.
“Henry, these are my friends, Cassie and Lucas,” Emil said.
“Didn’t I tell you to stop bringing your friends around here?” He laughed. “You’re the girl that Emil borrowed some of my books for, aren’t you?” he asked me.
“Yes…” I trailed off.
“Mr. Miller,” he replied. “Henry, if you want.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Miller.” I tried to stick out my hand, but the books I was carrying would have fallen out of my arms and onto the still-dewy leaves.
“Come in,” Mr. Miller said. “You must be wanting to put those down. No thanks to Emil here for not helping you with a couple of them.” Emil went first, then Jane, then Lucas and I, still being careful not to drop any books.
Inside was a different world. We’d stepped into a small living room, only instead of a table or couch or chairs the only piece of furniture was a gigantic oaken desk and matching chair, covered with papers and ornamented with a stack of books in the corner. On the back wall, below a large paned window through which you could see the bus, was a large Mexican tapestry with geometric black triangles superimposed over vertical strands of yellow, purple, orange, pink, and a rusted red. Another tapestry adorned the small space over a print of old botanical illustrations. Bookshelves sagged under the weight of haphazardly ordered books. I sucked in my breath. A small hallway to our left led to the kitchen and the closed door of a bedroom.
“I’ll take those,” Mr. Miller said. He thumped them onto his desk, and the sloped ceiling shuddered. A few flecks of paint came tumbling down upon the papers.
“You can have some tea, if you want.” Both Lucas and I nodded, and while Lucas lapsed down on the rug Mr. Miller disappeared down the hallway. He appeared again bearing five mugs with earl gray teabags in them. We each took one gratefully, Emil, Jane, and I sinking onto a sofa in the corner that I hadn’t noticed in my initial assessment.
Mr. Miller sat at the chair, moving a couple of books out of the way onto the desk. “I’m not very given to cleaning up,” he said by way of apology. “So, what are you two doing out here?”
“Their father’s looking for a business opportunity,” Emil said, matter-of-factly.
“Ha. Nothing out here but dying lumber operations and rich tourists,” Mr. Miller said, in a manner that showed how he felt about both. Reconsidering, he added, “Well, that might not be true. I washed up here somehow. Suppose we’re all castaways?”
He didn’t seem very warm, but I liked the gleam in his eyes. Mischievous.
“I sure feel like one sometimes,” Jane said. “I’d like to go back to Oakland!”
“Oh, Jane,” Emil sighed. “Might not be your first choice, but try to have a little fun at least!” She put on a pout instead.
“Emil’s right, for once,” Mr. Miller laughed. “And so rarely that happens.” The corner of Jane’s mouth turned up in spite of herself.
“The question is,” he continued, “what are we all looking for, if we are castaways?”
“A way off the island, I’ll bet,” Emil said.
“Don’t be so glum. Well, actually, suppose I could give myself the same advice too. Lucas and Cassie, you two will have to excuse me. I’m a writer, I’m not sure I know how to make small talk anymore. The world is simply too full of beautiful souls and interesting people. It throbs with treasure, don’t you think?” He waited a minute, looking straight at me, “Well?”
“Maybe in books.”
“Ah, but books are modeled on life. Stranger though they may be than the truth. You probably just haven’t seen the good parts of Big Sur yet. Have any of you been to the falls?”
“There’s a beautiful waterfall that spills straight onto the beach not too far from here. It’s in an inlet, just like this. Emil, you must take them them by when you all leave,” Mr. Miller proclaimed. “Have you been to breakfast at the Nepenthe Inn, up the road?”
“We live south, in Lucia,” I told him.
“Well, that’s a lovely place in and of itself, I think. Though off the beaten track.” He stood up, pushing the solid oak chair backward. It must have taken some effort. “Here, you two should look through this.”
He picked a large coffee-table book off the bookshelf and handed it to me. A Natural History of Big Sur. “Maybe this will change your mind. Emil, how is the construction at the Ranch going?”
I opened the book up to a random page, finding that it took up most of my lap. Photographs of kingfishers, wood thrushes, and darting eagles took up one page. A warning about poison oak spread across a full two- too late, I’d already gotten caught in a bush of it three weeks before, and Papa had had to go to the store in Gorda to get me some ointment because not a soul at the inn had any. There were watercolors of the tanbark-oak woodlands, spotted skunks peering out from behind the branches. I flipped through mindlessly. I found myself arriving at a beautifully illustrated beach scene, a deserted cove.
Jade Cove is located two miles south of Sand Dollar Beach, three miles south of Gorda, and ten miles south of Lucia. The cove is understood to be the site of a vast underwater deposit of nephrite jade, which often wash up on the shore for lucky hikers to find. Although less valuable than its counterpart, the strikingly bright Asiatic jade, it is still prized for earrings and sculptures.
“Mr Miller,” I said, “Can I borrow this book?”
Mama didn’t call for another two weeks. We started to wonder what she had been doing all that time. I was pulling the roots of weeds that had started to sprout in the garden when Lucas came running out of the double doors that looked out over the hill the inn was built against.
He skidded to a stop against the fence and peeked in through the space between slats. “I just talked to Mama!”
Papa was spreading a bag of fertilizer he’d gotten in Gorda over the raised beds he had decided to build. His face contorted slightly into a grimace, like he wanted to hear what she’d said but was a little afraid to. I asked, “What did she say?”
“We just talked about Grandma, mostly. She’s doing pretty good. Up and out of bed now. They were in the middle of baking a cake for Grandma’s ladies club. The one with the broiled peaches on top.” He licked his lips. “She says she expects to see us by August.”
“August? Does she know it’s already July?” Papa almost roared. “Expects? Your mother doesn’t know me at all.”
“That’s not true!” I protested over my shoulder. “We’ve been gone for a long time. She misses us. We are going to go home, aren’t we?”
Papa ran a dirt-streaked hand through his hair, leaving it more dark brown than the gray-blond it was. The sun beat down as I waited for an answer.
The next day, he came back from one of his daily visits into the hills and slumped down into a chair the second he entered the lobby. Frank, the manager, shook his head, and I looked up from The Natural History of Big Sur. I’d gotten quite good at identifying the different species of birds. That very morning I had spotted both a bluebird and an oriole, glimmering like shadows in the morning mist. I still hadn’t gotten the jade out of my head, though. According to surrounding soil content, it can be yellow, black, blue, or green. It can be easily confused with agate or serpentine, which are both much softer and flake.
“We’re done here,” Papa said, by way of greeting.
“What do you mean? Are we going home?” I thought of sidewalk pavement so hot you could fry an egg on it, and Mrs. Anderson’s flower stand at the corner.
“Yes.” Papa rubbed the back of his neck. “There’s no reason to stay here any longer, is there.”
“Why’s that, Papa?”
He didn’t answer for a moment.
“Why?” Lucas chimed in.
“That limestone deposit. I was so sure it was there…. So sure.” He dropped his voice, even though I couldn’t see Frank anywhere in the vicinity. “Just wait until I tell your mother that it’s nothing but a facade. Plain old granite. I finally managed to figure that one out. I’m not so sharp after all, am I?”
He got up abruptly and walked up the stairs. A bang, the cracking of drywall, echoed back down the stairwell, followed by a loud, “Shit!” Lucas looked at me, sucking in a breath in fright.
Closing Mr. Miller’s book, I thought about even sidewalk pavement and Good Humors and dahlias on Sundays, about the way that Grandma dressed in a white blouse and a bluebell-covered skirt and walked to St. Andrew’s on Sunday mornings, about how the telephone lines buzzed with energy and excitement and the conversations that people couldn’t wait to have. About Ann Thompson and Susie, my best friend, who once punched Ann in the face for being a brat. About fresh dahlias and the familiar smell of the Hudson River. On the train I hadn’t thought about so many things. I was convinced that we were leaving for no damn good reason at all. It didn’t seem like it now- back then, there had been a plan, there had been promises and partners I had never met or seen but who promised the sort of excitement that led us to something entirely new. And, I could see, entirely wonderful, at least in Papa’s mind. All he needed was someone to choose to go along with him, and no one had, least of all me. Was I the reason that he failed? That we had failed? I studied the cover of The Natural History of Big Sur, and then it came to me.
“Lucas,” I whispered, “I’ve got an idea. To make Papa feel a little better. Do you want to go on an adventure?”
Early the next morning, Papa left for Carmel, to make arrangements for the way home and to talk to these shadowy partners one last time. He threw on a red flannel with a resigned air. After he was gone, Lucas and I threw off the sheets and dressed quickly, then snuck out of the room. I’d taken Papa’s pocket-knife the day before; I slipped in into the pocket of my jacket, and Lucas grabbed a backpack and shoved a couple of sandwiches in it that we had wheedled out of Frank.
Dew shook from the leaves and made hollows in the soft grass. We picked a careful way down the path, squinting to see where we were going in the faint light. Ten miles to Lucia, I figured, how hard could it be? We had to walk down the road a bit, so make sure that Andrew and Samuel and the others at the inn wouldn’t cotton on to our absence there. We went about a mile and waited for the first truck to come along.
Of course, it passed us by. So did the second, and the third. I thought about Andrew’s tales; did everyone passing think we were ghosts shrouded in the marine fog? Damn. We walked on a little further, careful to stay close to the mountainside and as far away from the road as we could possibly get. A roaring came from around the corner; Lucas was ready before I was. He stuck out an entire arm, and a blue truck slowed down and came to a stop at the next dirt patch.
A man wearing a houndstooth cap stuck his head out of the window. “What the hell are y’all doing out here so early?” he yelled. “Damn me if you aren’t liable to freeze, now!” We ran toward him. “Do you,” I asked breathlessly, “have room for us? We only need to go about ten miles south.”
He dropped us off on the side of the road again, ten miles south like I had asked, facing a large field of stubbled grass and barren soil. “Here’s where you want to be, I guess,” he said, and roared off. It was chilly, outside the car, and I could only guess it would get worse as we got closer to the shore. “Might still freeze,” I told Lucas. He laughed, clearly unconcerned, and I felt a little better.
We made it to the edge of the field and began picking our way down to the shore. It was rough going. The cliffs were sheer and the good holds were shrouded in loose grass. Our boots grew wet and our noses red, and Lucas kicked down dirt into my face more than once. “Hey, watch it!” I yelled.
By the time we made it down, I was wishing we had brought along a rope to get ourselves back up. It was probably even trickier to climb up and not fall. Then again, I reasoned, it was nice you’d actually be able to see where you were going. “So, what are we looking for?” Lucas asked, kicking around sand.
“Jade,” I said. “It’s really pretty and dark green. And the book said it feels waxy on the outside, so maybe water doesn’t stick to it so much? I’m hoping.”
“Uh, like that over there?” he said.
I narrowed my eyes at the sheer rock face that my brother pointed to on the other side of the shore. It was, indeed shiny and green. We ran over the rocks to touch it, the musty smell of ocean rock sifting through our nostrils. Lucas pulled a loose rock from the base. Parts were gray but I reasoned that the jade was just embedded in the rock.
We tested it with a pocketknife. I held my breath; a chip sliced off from the rock and the knife left a faint streak on the emerald surface. “Serpentine,” I said. I took it from Lucas and chucked it out across the beach.
“What did you do that for?”
“We have to find JADE. This is serpentine. It’s not worth anything. Agate isn’t either. And this whole beach is probably full of serpentine.”
“It’s… still…. Very pretty?” he said.
“It’s not what we need. Ok. Let’s spread out and search through these rocks. Get close to the shoreline, okay? The storm wasn’t too long ago, right? There’s still a chance that we can find a couple pieces that washed up during the storm; the book said that’s when it usually comes up.”
“If you say so. Whatever.” Lucas grumbled, but he did as I asked.
“Let’s try those tidepools, okay? There must be some over there.”
We must have spent the next several hours that way, edging our way through the tidepools and getting sprayed with droplets of salt water. Every time that Lucas found something he thought was jade, he threw it to me, and I caught it and scratched it with the knife. Every time the knife scratched the stone. I’d stopped throwing them by noon; I simply placed them gently back in the tidepool they belonged to. I started to know what it felt like to be in Papa’s shoes.
We stopped to eat our sandwiches and drink the water we had bought. I balanced mine on my knees, trying to shield it against the sea mist, while Lucas simply wolfed his down.
“Maybe there are other places, Cassie?”
“Nope,” I said firmly. “We shouldn’t go anywhere else. This is the one that’s called Jade Cove. You think they named it that for no reason?”
The corners of his mouth drooped like a basset hound’s, and I immediately felt bad.
“Look, I didn’t mean it. Finish up and we’ll keep looking. We’ll find one, I swear. One or two or five.”
“And what happens if we don’t?” I realized I didn’t actually know.
It seemed like the waves were supernaturally high- did they get that way because of the storm, I wondered? At around two o’clock we shed our jackets; the marine fog had burned off entirely, and it seemed like the whole beach had come alive. Sure, we had it all to ourselves, but we heard unseen thrushes singing, cliff faces creaking with the weight of rabbits running across them, the redwoods in the distance swaying on their posts.
Eventually, though, the tide got high, and we had to turn back. We were already up to our knees in seawater- we’d gradually built up a tolerance to it, so that we were boiling inside our sweaters but soaked to mid-calf and shivering below the waist. We’d done almost all the tidepools by that point anyway, and I didn’t think that there was any hidden jade to be found among the loose rocks on the beach. “Just one more!” Lucas cried when I told him it was time to go. “We spent the whole day out here! For nothing if we don’t find anything!” I felt the same way.
We walked toward the cliff face. “Hey, what about over there?”
Where?” My back cracked from an afternoon spent searching fruitlessly. Let it, I thought. Stupid damn idea. Lucas was pointing to a spot near the place we’d climbed down on the cliffs, with a crack I had missed before running down the length of it. Hidden by grass and loose branches at the bottom.
“There’s probably nothing in there. I give up, okay? There’s nothing here.”
“Not yet,” he insisted, and ran toward the cliff faster than I could grab his arm.
“Stop it! You’re going to fall and scrape your face up!” I ran after him, but he was faster than I was and more nimble. I slipped on an untidy pile of rocks that someone before us had stacked vertically, hitting my upper lip sharply against stone. I sat up and wiped my lid, and my hand came away red. Lucas was nowhere to be seen.
“Over here! Come toward this weird crack in the rocks, okay, Cassie?”
I picked my way gingerly over the rocks, afraid of falling again. I felt about as hopeless, as Emil would say, as a couple of mules with nothing to pull. But as I got closer, I noticed something about the cliff.
Surrounded by a large ring of stones, like an offering to some unknown god, I’d thought that the ground was level, at first. But those stones concealed a small dip in the beach’s landscape, kind of like a tidepool that was too high up for the water to reach. And Lucas was in the center of that dip, reaching his hand into the narrow space between the two slabs that had split. He was just so small I hadn’t been able to see him at first.
He rooted around in the empty space between the slabs, pulling loose rocks form between them and checking their color. The chromium content will determine the color of California jade. Be sure to examine your rocks carefully- each variety is valued for its unique hue. I watched as he did this for a couple minutes. Finally, he pulled his hand out of the crack and clambered up toward me. Smiling. He was holding something carefully in the fabric of his sweater, and showed it to me.
There it was, nestled in the wool moistening the stray fibers it clung to. Pear-shaped and ocean-polished. I pulled out Papa’s pocket-knife to test it, and when I scraped the edge the knife glanced off the surface without leaving a mark. Not serpentine, then, but what we had come looking for- a real piece of jade, our very own, as big as a tulip bulb and as bright and shiny as though it had trapped the whole of the gray-green Pacific within it. I’d never seen anything so breaktaking. Mr. Miller’s book had been right after all. Lucas let out a joyful whoop.
It took us fifteen minutes to climb back up the cliffside, and ten minutes more waiting on the side of the road before a truck came along that would take us back to the inn. We shivered in the wind, the jade hidden securely in Lucas’ left pocket, while the workmen discussed another road closure by Nepenthe. Or somewhere- I was deep in my own thoughts, where Lucas and Papa and I were wearing new coats and stepping off a train at Grand Central Station. Papa’s back had lost its hunch and his shoulders were straight and proud, and we had at least found something, Not what we were looking for at first, but something. Mama appeared out of the crowd to greet us, and when she folded me into herself I smelled the oversweet roses of her perfume.
The truck let us out, and I followed Lucas as he raced toward the back of the inn, only checking now and then that he hadn’t fallen down. Then, I decided, we’ll go to the Biltmore and skate. And order hot sandwiches. Wouldn’t that be something.