The vines grew. Leaves tangled. Fruit burst. The earth cracked in its effort to thrust up more life.
In the spring, people called Maggie lucky. In the summer, they said she was blessed. With autumn, her harvest came in large and radiant, straining the other growers’ smiles with envy. Winter stilled the country, and yet the vines shone a healthy green through a thin dusting of snow, pulsing with life like veins under pale skin. And neighborly eyes grew cold.
Fruit ripened and oozed on the vine. The juice beaded and froze, transforming grapes to glittering diamonds. Maggie wondered if she should harvest them. She worried everything would shrivel and die come spring.
“It’s alright, Auntie,” her niece said, slicing onions with thin precision.
Maggie stood at the kitchen window, frowning at the dark spots where fallen grapes stained the snow.
Her niece and nephew had come to spend their winter holidays. They always did. Becca seemed much older, as if she had done all her growing in one year. She watched the vines rioting in the winter field with practiced nonchalance. While Benjy shied from them, darting down the dirt lane every morning, skates and stick slung over his shoulder.
He came back with the early sundown, sluggish and reeking from a day of pond hockey. Sometimes he came home with bruises, once with a black eye. Maggie never asked if it was the game’s natural play, or if the other boys said things that her nephew had to answer. He had grown distant in the last year, as if concentration could keep him a willow limbed boy with spring colored eyes forever.
“It’s alright, Auntie,” Becca said, again.
“Mhhmm,” Maggie’s low voice hummed off the glass.
“Benjy’s late today. The sun’s almost down.”
“They’ll be at the back porch soon.”
Becca scraped the onions into a pan, they hissed and spat as she stirred them through hot oil. Maggie left the frost-edged window and began piling dishes in the sink. Becca helped herself to what remained of her aunt’s red wine. Maggie raised an eyebrow. Becca raised a shoulder.
“Mom will never know,” she said. “Besides, red wine’s good for your heart.”
“You’re too young for heart trouble.”
“You should grow Syrah.”
“Syrah’s surly. We don’t have the right climate for it.”
“December’s not the right climate for anything.”
And yet the vines grew.
In the year past, Becca had gotten notions of Paris and culinary school and romance under European skies. But Maggie’s sister believed illusions were best shattered early. She told Maggie to take the kids to town, stuff them with burgers and fries, anything salted and greased, rather than let Becca near a stove. But Maggie never had much defiance in her and found it too easy to bow to her niece’s efficiency.
And watching the tall girl at the stove, Maggie knew Becca would run to the Old World. She’d run from her mother’s petty tempers and her own unfinished dreams.
Maggie had made the journey herself, once. But she hadn’t sought oil painted sunsets or velvet accents. She’d gone to Germany, learned about soil, mineral deposits, and microclimates. The only thing that caught her eye with longing was a cottage on an abandoned bit of vineyard, choked by wild hops, untamed vines mingling for as far as she could see under a sky leaded with rain.
When Benjy came home at last, there was a bloody gap where his left eyetooth used to be. He insisted it was a baby tooth, not a big deal. Wasn’t he too big to still have baby teeth? Maggie fretted, thought about warming up the beastly old pick-up and taking him to a doctor? A dentist? She wasn’t sure. And eventually she gave into his thirteen-year-old obstinacy and settled for giving him some ice wrapped in a dishtowel.
“You won’t tell Mom?” he mumbled, through the towel.
Benjy shrugged his doubt.
“They trapped a bird,” he said.
“The other boys?” Maggie frowned.
Maggie peered out the window, but in the dusk, she saw no feeble flap of wings.
“It’s probably caught in the wire,” Maggie said. “They’re pests, you know.”
“It’s the vines,” the boy insisted. “They’re mad it tried to eat the grapes.”
Becca clucked her tongue from the stove, but she didn’t tell her little brother he was being stupid. Maggie shrugged on her heavy coat, swamping her in flannel and old- snow musk.
She tramped along the nearest row of vines, listening for any cries from further afield. But the bird must have freed itself. All Maggie found were a few gray feathers twisted in a trellis wire.
Later, ice melting in the sink, bloody towel crumpled by the draining board, Maggie watched the vines in the bluish moonlight. She wondered what had filled them with such unsleeping life, and if they meant to strangle the house. Maybe she could find the answers in their wind raked pattern. Flakes whisked down, catching on the still green leaves, lacing the trellises. The vines seemed to shiver. Maggie blinked, feeling foolish.
She decided Benjy’s jaw needed to recover, so she took the kids to town the next day. On the main street, a gaggle of boys sprayed slush over her shoes, as they chortled past on their fat-tired bikes. Maggie sunk her fingers into Benjy’s puffy coat sleeve when his body jackknifed toward the retreating riders.
“Who wants ice cream?” Maggie asked.
Benjy swore and sucked at the red gap in his teeth.
“Don’t talk like that,” Maggie said. She turned an appealing gaze to Becca, who watched two women lean over strollers and wag pointed chins at Maggie. Becca’s eyes turned to flint.
Maggie repeated the offer of ice cream.
“It’s winter,” Becca said.
Their cheeks were apple bright and stinging, the sun too pale and distant to do more than wring water from last night’s icicles.
“Since when do kids turn down sweets?” Maggie asked. But she thought of Becca sipping the tannin dried wine without a pucker to her lips.
Benjy had slipped three doors ahead, close to the corner where the boys lingered with their bikes.
“It’ll be good for his tooth,” Maggie said.
“It won’t grow back.”
But she caught up with her brother and hustled him across the street. The shop was empty, as Maggie had known it would be. The bell above the door muffled by a wilting sprig of mistletoe. A poison and a bane against witches, her sister had whispered on a far-gone winter eve.
The air was sweet and warm, but the ribbons around the proud chocolate nutcrackers looked defeated. A teddy bear cradled a sign in his coco paws declaring the holidays were now for sale, half-off.
Mr. Peters, white haired and weathered, stood behind the counter in his neat pinstriped apron. He looked like a gnarled tree but he bustled about their order without a creak of arthritis. He gave the children extra scoops and Maggie a wink doubled by his round, wire rimmed glasses.
“Trouble with your vines, I hear,” he said.
“Yes,” Maggie smiled tightly. No one talked to her about the vines anymore.
“They’re getting all grown-up,” Mr. Peters nodded at Benjy and Becca, their faces sticky with black cherry and pistachio. They didn’t look grown-up just then, elbowing giggles out of each other.
“You can’t do much about it,” Mr. Peters adjusted his glasses with a fluorescent twinkle. “Except stay on your toes. Vinifera’s tricky.”
“Yes,” Maggie agreed.
“Hard to manage on your own.”
“And no one ought to say otherwise. You been there six years now, haven’t you?”
“I ought to be minding my own business.”
A sound like ice cracking on a warm winter day silenced Maggie’s next question. Benjy stood amidst glass shards and rolling gumballs.
“I’m sorry,” Maggie said. “I’ll pay for it.”
Mr. Peters waved a papery hand. “Don’t worry. These things happen.”
Still, Maggie tucked some bills under the memo pad beside the register while the old man went for a broom. Benjy apologized and did his best to help with the mess, but his well-intentioned feet sent the rainbow-colored candy spinning into corners. Maggie felt Mr. Peters was better left on his own. She ushered the children back toward the faded mistletoe.
“I’m sorry, again,” she said, over her shoulder.
“It’s nothing. Don’t let it discourage you,” Mr. Peters chuckled. “Not too late to have one of your own.”
He meant it mildly, so Maggie only shook her head and left.
Later, Maggie stood in her kitchen, twirling a long-stemmed wineglass like a flower she meant to pluck the petals from, while the sun flared away in the west. She could hear the children bickering in the next room. Mixed with the hum of the television, their voices sounded scripted and hollow.
The awful truth was they wore on her. She would be relieved when they returned to their mother and Maggie was left alone with the reaching vines. It wasn’t what she should want. She knew that.
The syrup sweet liquid in her glass smelt of strong sun and ripe flowers. It was the first she had pressed from the unlikely grapes and it made her head light.
She wondered again if she should harvest before winter was through. By spring, the crop might be lost. By summer, the town might find an impassable wall of greenery around the house. But Maggie had shears out in the shed, the metal darkened with age still held its edge, and the next autumn might bring grapes bursting with a finer vintage.
The children had subsided. Maggie would call her sister in the morning, tell her to let Becca go to Paris. The girl would have to see things for herself sooner or later. And if she came home with her dreams scattered, well maybe by then Maggie would be ready for an extra hand about the place.
A coyote darted, russet and ragged at the tree line. The sun stained the sky like spilled wine. And the vines grew.
B. B. GARIN is a writer living in Buffalo, NY. She holds a B.F.A. in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College. Her work has appeared in the online journal Embark. Her chapbook New Songs for Old Radios is available from Wordrunner eChapbooks and she has been nominated for a 2020 Pushcart Prize. She is a current member of the Grub Street Writing Center, where she has developed a series of short fiction pieces, as well as a novel.