Aunt Maddie showed me around the ranch after breakfast. I hadn’t really been able to see it when we drove up the night before. All I could see then was a long dark shape among tall dark trees. The house was just one story, but it sprawled all over. It had thick, white plaster walls and a red-tiled roof with a weathervane on top shaped like a shooting star. There were a couple of cottages, too, and barns, and a corral, and even though it was January, there were flowers and green growing things everywhere.
“The cottages are older than the house,” Aunt Maddie told me. “Late 1800s, I think. They are made of adobe—bricks made of mud, clay, and straw. The main house burned in a big fire in 1903. This one was built about 20 years ago.”
“I didn’t know there was anything that old here,” I said. “You always hear about how everything in California is new.”
My aunt laughed. “We have history here, too, James,” she said. “Malibu was a Spanish land grant awarded in 1805 to a man named Tapia, and long before that it was home to the Chumash, the local Indians, and they lived here for hundreds or maybe even thousands of years.”
“Did they live right here?” I asked, looking around the ranch with new interest.
“They did,” my aunt said. “We’re always finding bits of shells and stone tools. We leave them be, unless they need to be moved, Arturo feels strongly about that, but there are bits of ancient life underfoot everywhere,” she added.
“Now, that cottage is where the Calzadas live—Rosaria and her husband Arturo,” she pointed to the nearest building. It had a rough stone chimney decorated with a pattern made of old horseshoes. The garden in front was full of bright flowers.
We met Mr. Calzada coming out of the door of a nearby shed. He was carrying a roll of baling wire and a bag of tools. He was stocky and broad-shouldered, with a lined and weather beaten face. His boots were worn and muddy and his jacket faded and patched, but his belt had a beautiful silver buckle and his broad-brimmed hat had a stripy feather tucked into the band at a jaunty angle. He addressed a remark in Spanish to my aunt, then came over to us and shook hands with me. “You were asleep on your feet when you got here last night,” he said, and smiled at me. His English was perfect.
“I’m glad to meet you now that I’m awake,” I said.
“We are happy to have you with us,” he replied. “If you need anything and your aunt is not around, just ask me or my wife. She understands far more English than she speaks,” he added. “And there’s not much she can’t do when she puts her mind to it.”
“That is not an exaggeration,” Aunt Maddie told me, as she guided me towards a big barn. “I have never yet had a crisis here, big or small, that Arturo and Rosaria couldn’t cope with.”
We passed a second cottage on our way. It was further from the house and smaller than the first— a sort of gatekeeper’s cottage. There was an old car in front of it, a really old one, with a brown tabby cat napping in the sun on the hood. I would have liked to take a closer look, but Aunt Maddie explained that the occupant of the cottage kept late hours, and wouldn’t be ready for visitors.
“You’ll meet him later,” she said. “He’s a musician—a composer. He needs peace and quiet and prefers to work at night. Now, come meet the rest of the family.”
The rest of the family weren’t humans, they were animals. The corral in front of the barn held three horses, four goats, and a donkey.
“The gray horse is Ariel, Cosmo is the roan, and the pinto is Monkey,” Aunt Maddie said. “The burro is named Roxanne, and she thinks she’s a horse, too. Can you ride?”
“No,” I said. “I’ve only ever ridden a pony, and that was just at the fair.”
“Once you’re settled you can learn, if you would like to,” she replied.
Would I ever!
She pulled a handful of carrot pieces out of the pocket of her jacket and handed them to me. “They’re very gentle, and they love treats,” she said. “Just make sure you save some for the rest of the crew. Here they come! The goats are Penelope, Cassandra, Clytemnestra, and Iphigenia.”
“Like all of those ladies in the stories about the Trojan War?” I asked, doubtfully. “Weren’t those ladies all great queens and prophets and things?”
“They may be goats, but in their own minds I’m sure they think of themselves as great ladies,” my aunt replied. “Very aristocratic. And they remind me of a Greek chorus, because they go everywhere together and I don’t doubt for a moment that the things they say are a commentary on the events around them.”
I wasn’t sure what my aunt meant, but I held out more treats and was suddenly surrounded by goats. Their eyes were alarmingly weird, but the animals were gentle, nosing the treats out of my hands. One of them, having eaten her share of the carrots, began nibbling at my shoelaces in a friendly, inquisitive kind of way.
“Penelope is a genius who is especially good at untying knots and opening gates,” Aunt Maddie said, distracting the goat from my shoelaces with more carrots. “Cassandra loves to have her back scratched—she practically purrs. The other two are still a little shy. I got them after a wildfire burned through the area. Clytemnestra has a scar on her back where she was burned. Iphigenia is her daughter, she’s still young. One of the fire crews found them wandering together, and no one claimed them, so here they are.”
Aunt Maddie slipped the last piece of carrot to the horse Cosmo. He was a funny speckled color, red and white, and he had a comical white ring around one eye and a white stripe on his nose.
“Cosmo is an old friend,” she said. “But I love all my animals. They may not look like it, but they are angels, every one of them. Kindness and consideration for everyone on two legs or four is the only rule here. Well, in your case, that and making sure you’re home for supper, or that you provide a good reason why you are not, preferably in advance. Questions?”
I had lots but I suddenly felt tongue-tied. I focused instead on saying hello to the horses.
“I know this must be hard for you, James,” Aunt Maddie said. “You’re worried about your father, and you are right to be worried. I can’t tell you not to worry, but it may help to remember that he made it through the Great War in one piece, and he saved a lot of men who would have died if he wasn’t there to help them.”
I just nodded. I was afraid if I said anything I would cry again.
“I’m glad you’re here,” my aunt said. “We all are. I want you to know that. And if there’s anything you need, or anything you want to talk to me about, I am here for you.”
I helped my aunt feed and water everyone, and watched while she milked Clytemnestra.
Our next stop was the henhouse. We followed the rusty, contented sound of chickens to a large enclosure. There were a dozen hens there and a trio of ducks. My aunt showed me how to feed them, and how to hunt for eggs. We found three—brown and speckled.
“They take a well-deserved vacation from laying eggs in winter even here in California,” Aunt Maddie told me. “But we usually get a few, even in January. Thank you, ladies,” she told the birds.
Whatever I pictured when I thought about life in California with a mad aunt, it wasn’t milking goats and collecting eggs!
* * *
We went shopping that afternoon. There wasn’t really a town of Malibu—just a couple of shops, a courthouse and a post office. Our first stop was the post office, where we sent telegrams to my father and my sister, telling them I’d arrived safely. Aunt Maddie let me write them out myself. Then we went to the general store next door, and she bought me a new pair of shoelaces to replace the ones Penelope chewed on, and then a pair of canvas sneakers, a pair of lace-up boots and several pairs of wool socks, because the boots were too big.
“You’ll need them,” she said, brushing off my objection. “And it’s good that the boots are a bit big, you’ll grow into them soon enough and they might be hard to get later on if there’s rationing.”
She also bought me two flannel shirts, two pairs of denim pants, two pairs of shorts, a pair of swim trunks, and a windbreaker. “Now you’ll look like a native,” she said.
I learned that Malibu is famous for a row of houses by the sea called “the Malibu Movie Colony,” but they’re just summer cottages, my aunt said. There are less famous beach houses on either side of the colony, and a scattering of ranches, like my aunt’s, in the canyons. Until just a few years ago the whole place, more than 20 miles along the coast, was all a private estate, and there were parts of it where no one had probably ever been since the days when just the Indians lived here. That sounded promising.
Our canyon was called Calaveras Canyon. I found out that that means “skulls” in Spanish, and it was named that because of an old Indian burial ground. Aunt Maddie really meant it when she said there was history underfoot! Everything here was like something from a story.
It was warm and sunny and we ate lunch at a sandwich shack by the pier, with the air full of seagulls demanding their share of our food. Then we walked to the end of the pier. It was odd to see glimpses of the ocean in the gaps in the planks at our feet. The wood glittered with fish scales, but the only fishermen there were a group of old men, chatting lazily, while they waited for a fish to bite.
On the way back to the ranch my aunt told me a little bit about the houses we passed and the people who lived there, but I didn’t really pay attention. I was too interested in how they were all different kinds of styles—cottages and mansions, clapboard with gables and Spanish style like Aunt Maddie’s house, and one great castle-like mansion on the hill above all the others.
“Why doesn’t your house have a name?” I wanted to know. “All of the other houses in the canyon do.” They did, too. Things like “Rancho del Mar”, and “Seaview Cottage”.
“It does have a name,” Aunt Maddie said. “The most important name of all, for me at least. It’s home. And now that we are home, I have to work at least for a few hours, so you are on your own. You are welcome to read any of the books in the house, or explore the property. You’ll know when you come to the end of it because there’s a barbed wire fence. Watch out for rattlesnakes and poison oak—it’s like the poison ivy you’re probably used to from Illinois, and just as aggravatingly itchy—and be back by nightfall.”
I put my new clothes away and my new boots on and set out to explore. I was fascinated by all the things in the house—it was clean and neat but also crowded with interesting things. Bookshelves overflowed with books, but also with fossils, bird nests, sea shells, and all kinds of treasures. There was a large, metal Chinese dragon on one shelf, and what looked for all the world like the helmet of a medieval knight on another.
Wherever the walls weren’t covered with books there were paintings, movie posters, carvings, and even a pair of crossed swords.
The living room was home to a wireless and a phonograph with an enormous bell on it like an overgrown Easter lily. There was a big fireplace there with more of the colorful tiles on it. The mantlepiece held a rock with fossil shells the size of saucers in it, a bowl carved from stone, a statue of a cat—tall and elegant, and something that looked for all the world like a wasp’s nest, round and gray and papery. I longed to take a closer look, but I could hear the sound of a typewriter peck-pecking from the room across the hall, and I didn’t want to make too much noise. Father always hated it when Ali and I made noise when he was trying to do his paperwork.
I walked as quietly as I could down the hall and out through the kitchen. There was a vegetable garden just outside. Most of the beds were bare earth, but there were still things growing. I recognized peas, lettuce, and carrots. There was a pungent scent of herbs in the air, along with the buzzing of bees. I could see several white-painted beehives at the edge of the garden, but I wasn’t tempted to take a closer look at them.
Beyond the vegetables was an orchard, but not like any I had ever seen. Some of the trees were bare, but many were green and covered in fruit. There were orange and lemon trees, heavy with fruit, and big trees with what looked like knobbly green pears on them. Beyond the orchard was the garden I could see from my bedroom window. A green lawn sloped down towards huge trees. Some kind of sycamores, I thought. They had silvery, scaly bark. The ground beneath them was covered in large, star-shaped leaves, and stems with pom-pom-like balls of seeds.
I could hear water running beyond the trees, and found a little brown creek that ran among big boulders. There was a path beside it.
My aunt’s house was at the end of the canyon, with no houses behind it, but the path continued up the canyon. There was a small gate when I came to the barbed wire fence. I went through, being careful to close it again behind me. I kept going, headed up stream towards the mountains and away from the other houses. I would have preferred to boulder hop—it was perfect for that—but I thought it probably wasn’t a good idea to come home all wet and muddy, not on my first day, at least.
There were deep pools in places with tiny waterfalls between the boulders. I forgot about everything except wanting to see what came next. I wouldn’t have seen the girl if she hadn’t called out to me. I looked up, and there she was, sitting in a tree, 20 feet above me.
“Are you James?” she asked.
“I am, but who are you?” I called back, astonished.
“I’m Jessie,” she said, as if that explained everything. “Your aunt said you were coming, but I wasn’t sure when. Wait while I climb down.”
She scrambled down like a monkey. I’d never seen a girl like her. She was wearing a faded overall. It was too short, and was covered in green tree moss and mud. Her feet were bare and muddy. Her hair was almost as dark as mine, but full of leaves and twigs, and her nose had a smudge of mud on it that only partially covered up a flock of freckles, but it didn’t seem to bother her a bit.
“Let’s go this way,” she said, pointing back down the trail “I have to be home soon, but I’m glad you’ve come. It will be nice to have someone the same age in the canyon. I asked your aunt if she thought you were the kind of person who would like the things I like. Having adventures, and exploring, and things like that, and she said she thought you would be. Are you?”
Was I? I wondered. “Yes!” I said. “Especially adventures with pirates,” I added.
“Oh, me too,” Jessie said. “And smugglers. The great thing about that is we really have had them here, and they may have left their ill-gotten gains hidden somewhere in the hills. There was a famous one named Tiburcio Vasquez, only he was a highwayman, a real one, like ‘stand and deliver’, and he robbed stagecoaches, and trains, and everything, and he’s supposed to have buried gold here. For real.”
After that, it was pirates and smugglers all the way home.
“Bye James,” she said when we reached the gate to my aunt’s property. “See you soon?”
“Where do you live?” I wanted to know.
“Just over there,” she said. “I better hurry. I’ll be late for dinner, and so will you!” She waved and disappeared down the path, into the dusk.
* * *
“So you’ve met Jessie,” Aunt Maddie said when I told her about my afternoon. “I’m glad you got on with her. She’s a little lonely sometimes, I think. It will be nice for both of you to have someone your own age around.”
“Aren’t there any other kids in the canyon?” I asked.
“Not many. There are a couple of girls, but Jessie’s not the kind of girl to stay at home and play with dolls. She wants to be doing things.”
I never thought in a million years that I would be friends with a girl, but then I’d never met anyone like Jessie before.
Before I went to bed I took the notebook Aunt Maddie had given me out of my pocket, sharpened a pencil with my penknife, and started to write, hesitantly at first, and then more and more. “Ocian in view…” I began.
I went to sleep that night with Mouse the cat beside me, and my head full of smugglers and pirates, and I dreamed I was looking down into the water from the top of the pier at a pirate treasure of gold, and the gulls were wheeling and calling all around.