By Kate Savage

 

An old man looked to his left and saw the mountains; looked to his right and saw the raw, new city; and sliced down his shovel blade into the dust.

He pissed into the hole, and threw in some ox dung. And then he placed inside it the stick he’d brought all this way. Just a dry stick in a hole, the dirt tamped back in.

And even though the season was wrong, the stick blinked out wet leaves. And the next summer the vine grew to absurd lengths, long tentacles of leaves. The man trained them into the shape of a tent, and slept in the shade of the grapevine.

Even before the grapes came on, other old men took to sitting here with him, telling each other again their pointless stories. They took turns bringing cool terra cotta pots of water, not from the muddy irrigation ditches but straight from the crick, mumbling to the vine as they poured the water down. They took off their shirts, showed their bony shoulders to the sun, laughed out of their unkempt beards. They left off going to church, and the city below them started talking.

That’s when the first wall went up. The old men built it together, treading the mud and straw into bricks. Just the front wall of a house to block them from view of the street. But as it went up they became more enthused and built in a shady porch, because if they were going to have a house — even a pretend house — then the thing they most wanted from it was the shady porch.

The people of this valley thought that at least they were showing some industry. Meanwhile the grapes came on, small and sour like in the old country, and sent the men to giggling.

One Sunday, one of the bishop’s wives heard the laughter on her way to church. Angry that there were heathens here already — or maybe angry that others could laugh together while she would spend the next four hours in a heavy, black dress and a hot, crowded room, she tiptoed to the false front of the house and peeked behind the edge.

She saw the old men stark naked and covered in sticky juice. Two at a time danced in a wide steel tub, holding onto each other’s hands and singing songs in a language she didn’t know. They seemed already drunk off the thought of future wine.

And then she watched one of them — the one they said started all this trouble — hush all the others and cup his hands in the purple juice. All the bumbling crew turned reverent while he carried the juice back to the vine and intoned:

“Blessed are you, mother vine,

For through your goodness we have received

The blood we offer back to you.”

He sprinkled the liquid in the dust around the vine while the old men, sinners all, bowed their heads to the plant and said “Amen.”

By that very evening the families had come to fetch the old men back, keep them close and forbid them from returning. The original old man, who had no family anymore, was probably chased off into the mountains to die of hunger or exposure.

The saints turned the land over to a high-ranking wife and her children, who built out the rest of this house and never sat on the shady porch. She hadn’t been told the story of the vine, and didn’t understand why the bishop had told her to kill it.

When he asked about it later, she told a small lie and said Yes, she killed it, because she hadn’t been watering the grapevine. Or she hadn’t been watering it very much — just an occasional wash basin that had to be emptied anyway, when the water may as well splash wet against those wide leaves, those dark fruits.