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Sydney Heintz: The Vineyard

There were entire clots of them in the vines, glowing like velvet lanterns. Sam flicked one in the air, caught it in his mouth with a satisfying thwack. Viv tried. Grapes started dotting the grass. Then he said he’d teach her but she didn’t want to be taught anything by a boy.

In the evening they’d go haunt the playground above the school. The oak stretching its black limbs into the sky. “Go get the ball, scaredy cat!” And indeed, she was afraid of what was on the other side of the wall, but put on a brave face and went and got it anyway. The terror of being examined in the dark. She shrieked. He laughed.

It was a sleepy joyous August. She was nine. He was a year older. They felt alone; they were alone. The only time she took notice of another presence was when her Pa would come home late and go to bed even later, and she would pretend to be asleep. Then at sunrise she’d run down the road to Sam’s, and the whole thing would become a faded memory against the luminous swell of their voices, ever chirping and singing in the dawn.

The grapes were one in a series of projects. There was also, importantly, the milk. They realized that the barn was an easy target. Only the Old Soldier worked there, sometimes sweeping, sometimes milking, always humming a tune while he toiled. The sweet pots would be left to warm in the sun while he checked the cows, a bunch of sorry-looking creatures.

“Hello, Mr. Hardison,” said Viv, striding into the shadow of the barn.

“Hello missus,” replied the Old Soldier.

She stood there as he took long sips from his mug. Then she kicked up a bunch of hay and watched it fan out. Sam had poked his head out from behind the gates to see what was going on.

The Old Soldier’s eyes were like no other eyes she’d ever seen. They reminded her of the stones in the courtyard of the church. Wet and misty and swimming with silence. She thought she saw him flick them in her direction, but she couldn’t be sure.

“You always by your lonesome, Mr. Hardison?”

“Yus missus. Since me wife died.”

“What’d she die of, Mr. Hardison?”

“O’ the winter, missus.”

Viv felt a shiver despite the heat, which pasted over everything thickly. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Sam starting to handle the buckets, patting the creatures sometimes as he lifted them. A little uneasy, Viv screwed the points of her shoes into the dry mud. She said,

“I can help you sometime, Mr. Hardison. With them animals an all.”

This threw the Old Soldier into a thunder of protests – “That’s ‘ery nice o’ you missus, ‘ery nice indeed, but it ain’t necessary, missus” – as he lifted himself into an upright position. Viv watched him half-awestruck, half-afraid. She wouldn’t have believed that the Old Soldier was once like her, a fancy-driven child of nine. Not when he looked like a saint risen from the dead.

“Lemme show you ‘em cow-darlins, missus,” he said. And before she could retort, the Old Soldier had made a full turn, and there stood Sam in full view, two brimming buckets in hand. Viv saw his face contort in horror. Neither of them said anything as the Old Soldier’s eyes glazed over the area.

“Right o’er here, missus,” he said, staggering towards Sam. The two children stayed rooted to the spot as the Old Soldier’s greying figure approached the cows. Sam resumed tip-toeing away, and Viv felt something squeeze in her chest. Even when his small shadow disappeared, she continued to watch the Old Soldier stroke his cattle, the fog in his look lifting as he sounded out bits of thoughts: “Them lay down when the rain comin’, see – the wind tell’em more than any other creature. Even me wife wa’nt that acquainted with them ways a’ nature, missus, no’ even she, them best of wives a man can aks for, missus, picking fruit all day long in that forest at the edge o’ town. Then ‘course there was the war, and a war ain’t got no time to be consid’rate, so it got its way with me eyes, see, missus, and now it’s jus’ me and em creatures, jus’ us, missus, but we take good care o’ each other, don’t we my darlins?” Then he lapsed back into his tune, and the glaze over his eyes sealed itself again like filled crevasses of earth. “Missus?” he said, “Missus, you see ‘em beauties?” But Viv had already begun running along the path.

She found Sam above the school. Chin licked with milk. 

“Who knew the man was blind as a bat!” he hollered when he saw her coming down the road. But as she approached, he saw she had turned color. “What’s wrong?”

She merely sat on the ledge a bit further from him, the one that gave onto the lake. She didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know how to say it.

“We gotta take ’em back, Sam.”

He wheeled around to look at her, one finger still in his mouth. 

“Are you crazy?!”

“We gotta!” she said, shaking in spite of herself. “He’s all alone. We can’t. We just can’t.” Then she began to cry, and Sam went silent. Four legs dangling over a stone wall. The light filtering red through the leaves.

“Yuh really feel sorry for Old Soldier?” he asked, almost in a whisper.

A moment passed before she nodded, hair splayed about her face, neck open to the clouds. This was the time when the trees froze into dusk, and all the houses along the vineyard road lit up one by one like earth-grown stars. It began to rain. Slowly at first, then more, until her T-Shirt clung to her back and Sam held out a pink tongue to the sky. For a long time they watched the lake shimmering cooly around the pier, half-obscured by the sheets of rain, wondering silently at its benign immensity. But what Viv would most remember, was when the storm lifted, and a small fire seemed to hang in the space between two mountains, a ruby in an otherwise bloodless sunset. How she longed to be suspended there, gazing upon the prize beneath! She thought of sharing this with Sam, but, deciding against it, the moment was buried and lost to the depths of herself.

She took the milk back that night, her lean arms struggling against the weight. The barn was quieter now, with only the animals’ slow breath rising to the heavens. A flap of wings, and a pigeon landed on a beam above as Viv passed by each of the enclosures. An earthquake made of the smallest rustle of grass. At the far end she lay down the pots and seated herself next to them. She imagined the Old Soldier finding them the next day, and lay back against the hay with a weak smile spread across her face, her soul shining just that little bit brighter in the dark.

About the Author:

Sydney Heintz is an incoming freshman at the University of Cambridge. She is an alumna of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio and has been published in the Write the World Review and Parallax Online. Though originally from New York, she has been living in Switzerland her entire life, where she reads, paints, and practices Bach.

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