“What kind of beast is your salamander?” asked the Prince. “It is hard to tell their kind, your Honor,” said Golg. “For they are too…
After the air raid, everyone waited for another attack, but it didn’t come. February gave way to March, and March brought rain—not much, but enough to make the creek run and bring a pale green flush of new grass to the hills. After a week of gray skies the sun returned, just in time for the weekend. Saturday morning was bright and clear, with a cool wind blowing the last of the storm clouds away. Jessie, Kitty, and I couldn’t bear to waste the day indoors. Instead, we packed a picnic and headed for the hills. Everything was clean and fresh. I felt like we could walk forever, like we were heroes setting out on a quest. We might find anything, I thought, hidden treasure, or ancient ruins. It was that kind of a day.
We took the path that I was walking on when I met Jessie for the first time. the one that followed the creek into the big canyon behind our homes. I had ridden this way several times with Aunt Maddie, but things were different today. The creek was filled with water for the first time since I arrived. The roaring, rushing water filled the canyon with sound, and made everything about the walk exciting. Willows, flooded by the overflow, trapped all kinds of debris. We each selected the perfect walking stick. Jesse spent a long time choosing hers, while Kitty and I hunted for agates and moonstones on a bar of pebbles that let us walk right out into the rushing water without getting our feet wet.
The canyon narrowed as we moved further upstream, and the wide, shallow stream became a deep channel flowing through boulders. Cliffs rose on both sides of us. Boulder hopping was fun. We picked our way carefully along the creek, which rushed clear and as brown and foaming as root beer among the rocks.
We stopped to explore the closest thing we had seen yet to an ancient ruin—the stone chimney of a long-vanished cabin. The only other thing left from the house was the foundation, made of river rock, but all around it June lilies bloomed, even though it was March, and the air was full of their sweet scent.
“What a place to live!” Kitty exclaimed. “It’s just high enough above the creek to be safe from floods, and what a view they had!”
“You could fish from your front door,” Jessie said.
The canyon lay before us, stretching out in a wide arch towards the sea in one direction, narrowing surrounded by forbidding peaks in the other.
Behind the ruin, hidden from view by a stand of laurel trees, a gorge branched off the main canyon. It had been carved by a smaller tributary to the main creek. The cliff walls were high, and the slot held huge boulders, some of them the size of cars. The sound of water here suggested a music box. It had a sparkly chiming kind of sound as it moved unseen among the boulders. We couldn’t resist a closer look.
The water ran under and between the stones. Sometimes we had to duck under arches made by the boulders. In one place the water poured over an arch, creating a curtain like glass made from water.
“If you walked through that, you would find yourself in another world, like Alice,” Kitty said.
The canyon ended at a huge waterfall. We could hear it roaring before it ever came into view. The water poured down a high cliff and into a rocky pool. The wall of the cliff was green with ferns, and the spray from the falls made a cloud of mist that covered everything in drops of moisture that glittered in the sunlight like crystal and diamonds.
Jesse wanted to climb up to the pool, but the rocks were too slippery and she got outvoted by Kitty and me.
On our way back down the narrow canyon we spotted a trail we’d missed on our way in. It wound up the side of the slope in a series of steep switchbacks, but someone had been at work here once, making rough steps out of stone and laying the trail in a way that made it easier to climb.
“Maybe it leads to the hidden city of Shangri-La,” Jesse said. “Or an outlaw’s secret hide out. Or a temple guarded by the statue of an ancient goddess, with rubies for eyes, and a terrible curse for anyone who enters uninvited.”
After that, we all had to creep along as silently as possible, pretending our walking sticks were rifles and keeping an eye out for booby traps.
“Someone has been here since the last rain,” Jesse announced, in her best Sherlock Holmes voice, pointing at a smudged footprint in a patch of mud. “No doubt it was a bandit. We must use caution!”
We used caution, but I began to feel a little uncomfortable. Suppose we were trespassing, and instead of encountering imaginary foes we ran into an angry homesteader, maybe one with a real shotgun instead of one made from a piece of wood?
We wound our way through more big boulders and out into a miniature valley, shaded by huge old oak trees, and filled with rocks that did sort of resemble an ancient ruin.
“What a magical place!” Kitty exclaimed, delighted, and forgetting that we were tracking bandits and avoiding traps. “It’s beautiful. It really is like Shangri-La.”
I didn’t share her enthusiasm, because I had suddenly caught the scent of pipe smoke. I looked around, trying to find the source. The man was sitting on a boulder, not twenty feet away. He had an enormous beard, and a black coat, and he sat so still, and looked so like something from one of Jessie’s stories that I wasn’t sure I could believe my eyes at first. I would never have known he was there, if not for that sudden whiff of smoke
Hesitantly, I raised a hand in greeting.
“Uh, hello. I, um, hope we aren’t trespassing,” I said, feeling foolish.
Kitty and Jesse turned around to see who or what I was talking to and gazed in astonishment.
The man looked at me gravely, and then gave me a shy smile. “Good morning,” he said. “I was not expecting company, but no, you are not trespassing. You are welcome here.” He had a thick accent but I didn’t have any trouble understanding him. It occurred to me that an awful lot of the people I had met so far in Malibu had come from somewhere far away, but then so had I, I realized. I wondered if everyone thought I had an accent, too, one from Illinois.
“We’re sorry, we didn’t know you were here,” Jessie said. “We were having an adventure.” She flourished her walking stick. “You aren’t a bandit, are you?” She asked hopefully.
“He’s not a bandit,” Kitty said, embarrassed. “Good day, Mr Somov,” she said. “These are my friends, Jessie and James.”
“Good day, Kitty,” he said to her gravely. “I am not a bandit,” he told Jessie. “But if you two together are Jessie James, then I think perhaps you are the bandits.”
Jessie and I looked at each other and laughed.
“I never thought of that before!” I said. “I guess we are.”
“Your family is well, Kitty?” Mr Somov asked her.
Kitty nodded. “Everyone is well, and my brother and I are teaching Yuki to sit and stay and then come when we whistle for him, even if it’s clear across the farm. He’s an awfully smart dog. Mr Somov comes and helps us at the farm sometimes, and he knew how much we, I, wanted a dog. When he rescued Yuki, he brought him to us,” she explained.
“He needed a home, you needed a dog,” the man said, climbing down from his boulder. “Do you adventurers have time for a cup of tea? You can pretend that you are visiting Robinson Crusoe, for he and I are both castaways, only he was shipwrecked, and I jumped ship. Come.”
He led us to the back of the small valley and between a pair of huge stones to a tiny cabin built against the face of the cliff. The inside was bigger than it looked, because the cabin had been built around a rock overhang that was almost big enough to be called a cave. Mr Somov had made bookcases out of packing boxes. There was a stone hearth, a bed piled with neatly folded blankets, a table and two chairs, an old steamer trunk, and a couple of oil lamps. It looked cozy, clean, and comfortable.
“I call it ‘Frog House’,” Mr Somov said. “I will show you why.” He lit one of the lamps and held it up to the ceiling of the cave. “See, here is a message from the ancient ones.”
There were pictographs on the ceiling, geometric shapes mostly, drawn with black and red paint that was still vivid, and in the center of the designs was a stick figure, like a man with the hands and feet of a frog.
“Kitty was entranced. “What does it mean, do you think?” she asked.
He shrugged. “A vision? A dream? Something important enough to record on this wall, how long ago? Hundreds of years, probably. But come, let us go out. It is too good a day to spend in the dark, thinking about the past.”
Mr Somov had built an outdoor hearth against the stone cliff. The fire in it was neatly banked. He stirred it up, added wood, filled a pot with water from a spring that filled a small stone basin near his front door, and set it to heat among the coals.
“We have a picnic,” I said, tentatively. “Can we share it with you?”
“That is kind,” he said. “But I do not eat meat.”
“I have rice cakes,” Kitty said. “They don’t have meat in them.”
“Mine are egg salad sandwiches,” Jessie said, holding up a squashy package.
“I don’t think mine has meat, either,” I said, rummaging in my pack. “It’s some of Mrs Calzada’s burritos, and they’re just beans and rice and cheese, but they’re really good. Try one.”
He smiled. “I know they will be good. Mrs Calzada is an angel in the kitchen. And now I know who you are, James. You are not a bandit after all. You are Madeleine’s nephew who has come to stay.”
“And how are my Grecian ladies, Clytemnestra and Iphigenia?”
It took me a moment to realize he meant my aunt’s goats.
“They’re doing well,” I said. “Iphigenia has become very friendly, and even Clytemnestra is getting used to people. I never knew any goats before, but they’re a lot like dogs—smart and friendly. Oh! You’re the one who rescued them, aren’t you?” I said, remembering that my aunt said they were found after a fire.
He nodded. “After the fire last fall. I had nowhere to keep them, and I knew your aunt would be kind to them. I am glad they are well.”
Mr Somov busied himself with the tea, and poured it into three battered but clean tin cups and a mug without a handle. The tea was fragrant and sweet.
We shared our lunches between the four of us. I had tangerines, too, from the garden at home, and Jessie had chocolate bars. A large flat rock made an ideal picnic table.There were three smooth, round holes in the stone. Mr Somov said they were made by the Indians for grinding seeds and acorns.
“I like to think I live a little like they did,” he said. “When I need something I find it or make it if I can. They did that also, but out of necessity, not choice. This must have been a special place for them. It is for me, too.”
“You said you jumped ship?” I asked.
He laughed. “It was a long time ago. I did not want to be drafted into the Russian army—it was just after the revolution, and my life had been turned upside down. I ran away and took a job on a freighter. It was the artwork on the labels on the orange crates in the hold that put the idea of California into my head, beautiful orange groves with snowy mountains beyond them. When we stopped for cargo in San Diego I jumped ship. I was going to make my way to Santa Clara, the place on the label, but I found everything that I wanted right here. And here I stayed.”
“Isn’t it lonely”? Jessie wanted to know.
“I have many friends,” he said. “The coyotes and foxes are my brothers. They talk to me and I talk to them, and people are kind. I have good neighbors, like your parents, Kitty, and your aunt, James. No, life is good. I have had enough of cities, and of wars. Here, there is peace. No happiness lasts forever, but to be at peace, that is the true happiness.”
It had been a perfect day, I thought, as we headed home in the golden light of late afternoon. No adventure, not even one that Jessie could imagine, could have been better than the one we had that day. Shangri-La? Mr Somav had made it for himself. Happiness that flowed, like water from a spring.