A Bottle of Innocence, with Essence of Regret
by Kelley Patten
I was once told that only those who are young can see nature with an unprejudiced eye. Today at eighteen I see the grapevines as repenting sinners. They stretch their emerald palms towards the heavens, as though begging forgiveness for some unknown sin. But ten years ago they were only my afternoon maze. I can easily remember a time when I ran free through my father’s vineyard. In those days I could pause my sprinting to lie in the Earth’s rich brown womb and suck hungrily at her beauty.
But I was a child, not a priest or a poet, and before long my feet were itching to scramble over the vineyard again, and to lose myself amongst the rolling hills and wait for my father’s call. I used to, until one day–the only day–I lost my path.
I thought I knew where I was, but to a child, even a child raised in a winery, all vines look the same. The rows that march on like unfriendly soldiers in machine-woven-uniforms of green are all as foreign and familiar as the last. Their defining idiosyncrasies were lost along with that essential need to be looked at as an individual rather than a whole.
As most children do when they are frightened, my first thought went to my father.
“Daddy!” I cried to the silent hills. “Daddy! Daddy!” over and over again, first in sharp cries and then in soft moans. When my avenging savior did not appear, my cries gave way, and I was finally lulled to sleep by my own wind-swept whimpers.
* * *
I don’t know how long I slept, but when I was prodded awake it was not by the smooth fingers of my father. These hands were callused, and ropy, and as intricately gnarled as the grape trunks themselves. I turned heavily and peered at the man’s face. To my surprise and wonder the face was darker than the infant dusk it was set in.
“Come on child,” he whispered, and his voice was like smooth white dove wings. “Come; don’t be frightened, I’ll take you back to your mother.”
The words were English; that I understood, but they had an undercurrent of sweetness to them I hadn’t heard before. As we walked gently between the rustling vines, he kept his chapped palms securely around my padded ones, and murmured a little lullaby, and churned a little dust.
Mi amor y mi hijo.
Todo esta bien porque
Ahora estoy aqui.”
As the man crooned to the inky night I couldn’t understand the words, but I felt a sudden welling in my heart to sing along. In my sleepwalk I smelled cinnamon and tasted turquoise water, and when he paused, I silently begged him to continue. I knew a heavy English word would clog this rich oasis.
As deeply hypnotized as I was by the swaying tune, I was paralyzed when the icy glare from our home’s open door struck me, my limbs suddenly petrified as though my father’s presence could encase me in an iron pose, bind me in a single glance of disdain.
So many times I’ve thought of that night; chewed the memories over and over and let the bitter results well up in my lungs. If only he had paused and let me run the last hundred yards to the door! If only my father hadn’t glimpsed his hand around mine! I can see it now as it must have appeared to him that night. A dark strange man, a man to be scorned and ridiculed, holding the hand of his pure, golden daughter. My guilty face caught in the entryway, and the ever-so-subtle mocking of the dignity in the man’s eyes.
His boots marched towards us. The winding garden entryway bore no attention as the steel toes plowed forward, trampling everything between us in an unprecedented path of destruction. White lilies lay crumpled in scuffed heaps, their stems broken and their faces trekked with mud, while my only blooming rose watched its petals plummet to the earth. Above this carnage-filled battlefield, were his eyes: blue charging from the shade of his hat and hurling a lance that impaled my forlorn cry on its tip. I shivered as I saw the look turned onto my companion. The autumn night was silent, but my ears rang from the scream reverberating from my father’s look. I knew I would never hear that lullaby again.
In the revealing light that shone from the doorway I saw the man’s large palms outlined against the earth. I looked up at him with wonder. His fingers were stained purple.
* * *
Eight years later my father’s vineyard had tripled in size. Harvest time dragged him to the vineyard three times as long, and he needed three times the workers he had needed when I was nine–three times the underpaid migrants . . .
I watched them come and go each year. They came, packed like cattle in trucks: old dusty Fords and Chevys’, bringing men who matched their vehicles’ sad exterior: their faces unshaven, their eyes tired. Each year as I scampered up our vineyard’s stone gateway I watched the pale dust clouds roll before and beneath me, examining each face as it passed, hoping to lock eyes with a familiar one. Each year I slid down after the last truck had crawled through, feeling disappointed, but not surprised.
Father hated the Mexicans. It was true that he employed many of them in his vineyards, but only because he could pay them a minimal wage and get away with it. We would roll past them in the afternoon on our way to a restaurant, as they were eating their lunches. Some sipped coarse black coffee and looked impassive. Others looked simply mournful.
* * *
Then came the fateful day. Perhaps on any other day my father wouldn’t have done that thing I cannot forgive him for, the thing that halts me when I reach to call him. But on this day the grape leaves were wilting on the vine. On this day the sun seemed determined to choke the earth of its water, with the kind of stagnant heat that makes men crazy; makes them whet knives against their teeth, and sleep with bullets in their dreams.
On this day, a blazing hot one, my father didn’t make the subtlest effort to conceal his loathing for the migrants.
“Scum,” he muttered, gripping the wheel as though it were a throat. “Dirt,” he remarked conversationally to me, pausing to let me agree.
“Daddy,” I ventured “don’t you think you might be acting unfairly? I’ve never met one that wasn’t hardworking.”
Casting a look of derision towards me, my father took his time to reply.
“You’ve only met one and from him you expect to tell me they’re hard working?” He shifted his latte to his other hand.
“Tell you what,” he spat out, as though he had just drunk venom. “You can come out with me this afternoon, and then you’ll tell me how you’ve changed your mind.”
My first impression that afternoon was of a finely tuned assembly line. Each man worked as quickly as possible, dipping, cutting and dropping in an undulating wave, frantically moving his fingers as quickly as possible to harvest the plump fruit. In the heat, a heavy, rotting musk hung over their heads. Their faces were downcast and dejected, like old mules plodding in the field with their grey heads down. They looked as though they’d pulled a plow every day of their lives, and had finally been broken.
My father and I were walking between two wilting rows when I glimpsed something that made me breathe in the burning vapor and recoil backwards into my father. With a pang in my heart, my eyes latched onto the deep crimson color of the palms and fingers.
“It’s from all the grapes,” my father growled in my ear. “Turns their skin purple.” And seizing my elbow violently he marched me back to the car, not pausing even when I stumbled on the uneven ground. Moments later he was gunning our SUV down the dirt road, just slow enough for me to twist in my leather seat and see our exhaust condense on the faces of the workers in the field. They didn’t even pause. They just let the smog settle on their faces.
Arriving back at the winery I barely noticed when my father slammed us to a stop, or when he jumped out of the car without closing his door, or when he tore open my own door and snatched me from my seat. A moment later, all my senses were reeling from the sudden stinging upon my cheek. Lifting my eyes weakly I watched his hand reach high into the sky for another blow.
“Now you listen–“
”If I ever—“
”Daddy what’s wrong with you?!”
“I’ve made my views clear! He screamed, saliva spattering my face. “You go inside and you stay in there until I come back, and don’t ever let me catch you looking–thinking about those dirty bastards again!”
Before I could retort or reply the black suburban was wheeling around and spurting down the road, only this time it was me breathing in the fumes, and I couldn’t conceal my fury and anger as well as his workers. Choking and backing from the charred fuel I felt raking my throat, I made my way inside the entrance and into his private office. I kept my palm pressed to my cheek, the skin still slightly raised and smoldering.
The oak door to his office was usually cumbersome and difficult for me to open, but today it was easy. I took it as an invitation. Two steps past the floor-length mirror and I saw what I had come for. The mahogany wine cabinet stood before me, tall and imposing. It contained the first bottles of wine my father’s vineyard had ever made, as well as his personal collection of expensive favorites. How many times had I seen him run his hands over it lovingly, caressing each bottle in his hands before fondly replacing it in its bed?
For a moment I saw my face reflected in the glass, scared and pale except for the handprint fading on my cheek. Then it was gone as I tore a plaque from the wall and smashed through the glass’s smooth surface to the bottles inside. I threw every last one upon the tile floor, letting the crimson and amber liquid spill out across the floor, mingling with the tears that fell fast from my face. A moment later I fell on my knees to the butchery.
“So it’s come to this,” I murmured to myself, “All these years of undeclared accusations and unanswered questions are laid out simply and chaotically in a thousand shards of glass. My father has raised his hand to me for the first time in our lives, and here I am, kneeling like a penitent before the remains of his material child.” I pushed my hands aimlessly through the spilled wine and felt the bottles’ little teeth saw eagerly at my palms, their last vain and valiant stand against my impulsive attack.
“What are you sifting these shards for?” I demanded of my reflection, “Were you hoping there would be some anointing salve hidden here?–It was never created.” And with this thought I felt my anger lifting, disappearing, dissolving with my lone act of defiance and rage. I paused once more, letting my palms soak in the thin liquid, considering one last time about cleaning it up and apologizing. Then I watched my body rise into the air, and watched as my feet turned to face the mirror. I smiled. My fingers were stained purple.