The Vines of Vanity.-
The estate agent had said now was the time to buy. It would be generations before prices were this low again. Ian agreed. He had sold his business and property back in the UK, liquidated stocks, cashed in an endowment or two and bought an annuity. He made the deal. The land and the house were his.
The economics of the vineyard and viniculture did not matter to him; he had cash in the bank to live on. He would sell the grapes for whatever the local co-operative offered to pay. It would be his hobby. The toil and labour he anticipated would become his fun in the sunshine, exercise for an unfit, middle-aged Englishman. In a battered tractor he would drive slowly along the rows of vines while the seasonal workers filled the trailer with the crop. Young women would chatter and giggle as they trod the grapes, holding up their skirts and exposing their long, brown legs. In the evenings he would sit on the veranda drinking the wine from his land and listen to guitar music blowing in on the warm breeze.
On that first afternoon the geckos splayed on the walls, pressed flat by the sun that beat upon their backs. The sun sank slowly, like the arse of a fat man finding his seat. The heat pushed down, a stultifying force that squashed all sound from the air. Ian walked the land with his dog while his wife organised the house. Silence prevailed over all, perfect peace; not a twitter or a hum. The distant hills danced in the haze, the vineyards, that covered them like a gown, rippled from green to yellow to brown. The soil felt rich as it fell through his fingers and the grapes weighed heavy in his hand.
The tolling of a bell broke the silence. Only man, it seemed, and even then within the protection of the house of God, had the audacity to challenge the sun; to distract with sound those held in its grip, drained of strength and purpose, and to remind them that knowledge and reason were badges of rank higher than a ball of burning gas.
But the man in the hat, walking with his dog, needed no such reminder. He had land, he had liberty and he had life.
The church was a remnant, a relic of a time when the land, for as far as the eye could see, comprised one estate. It had served the spiritual needs of the terrateniente and those that lived and worked on the land. Now the lands were diminished; broken up and split by inheritance, bankruptcy and modern commerce. The people were gone, their labour no longer required. The church remained, standing on what was now Ians land, and the blessing of the vines each year was the rent. The bell tolled a broken rhythm, without precision, that drew Ian to it.
He was hot and the dog was panting when they reached the shade offered by the church. An old priest with a smiling face stood in the doorway. He greeted Ian in Spanish and knelt to make a fuss of the dog, laughing and talking as he did so.
"Buenas tardes," Ian said. "Mi Espanol es mal."
The priest stood up, placing his hands on his back as he straightened with an exaggerated grimace. "Ringing that bell doesnt help my back," he laughed.
"Ah. You speak English," Ian said. There was no hint of relief or surprise in his voice. His words were simply a confirmation of something expected.
"I lived thirty years in New York. I guess it's English," said the priest. They laughed together. Then the priest said, "I saw you walking through the vineyard with your dog and I was reminded of a story I once heard."
Ian said nothing for a second or two and then realised the other was waiting for a response, a prompt, permission to tell the story. "Go on, lets hear it," he said.
The priest smiled, patted the dog and told his story.
"A man and his dog were walking along the road. The man was enjoying the scenery when it suddenly occurred to him that he was dead.
He remembered dying, and that the dog had been dead for years. He wondered where the road was leading them.
After a while they came to a high wall, along one side of the road, built with white marble. At the top of a long hill the wall was broken by a tall arch that shone in the sunlight. In the arch was a gate that glowed like mother of pearl, and the path that led to the gate was made of pure gold. The man and the dog walked towards the gate and, as he got closer, he saw a man at a desk to one side. He called out "Excuse me, where are we?"
"This is heaven, sir," the man at the desk answered.
"Wow! Would you happen to have some water?" the man asked.
"Of course, sir," the man at the desk replied. "Come right in and I'll have some ice water brought right up." The gate began to open.
"Can my friend come in, too?" the traveller asked, gesturing towards his dog.
"I'm sorry, sir. Pets are not allowed," said the man at the desk.
The man thought for a moment and then continued on his walk along the road. After many miles, and at the top of another hill, he came to a dirt track which led to a farm through a gate that looked as if it could never be closed. As he approached the gate, he saw a man inside leaning against a tree and reading a book.
"Excuse me," he called to the man by the tree. "Do you have any water?"
The man pointed to a place that couldnt be seen from outside the gate. "Yeah, sure. Theres a pump over there. Come on in."
"How about my friend here?’" the traveller gestured to the dog.
‘"There should be a bowl by the pump,’" said the man by the tree.
They went through the gate and, sure enough, there was an old fashioned hand pump with a bowl beside it. The traveller filled the bowl for his dog and took a long drink himself. When they were full, the man and his dog walked back toward the man by the tree, waiting for them.
‘"What is this place?" the traveller asked.
‘"This is heaven,’" replied the man by the tree.
‘"Well, that'’s confusing,"’ the traveller said. "‘The man down the road said that was heaven, too.’"
‘"You mean the place with the gold path and pearly gates? Nope. That's hell,"’ said the man by the tree.
"‘Doesn’'t it make you mad they use your name like that?’" the traveller asked.
‘"No,’" replied the man by the tree. ‘"We’'re just happy that they screen out the folks who’'ll leave their best friends behind.’”"
The priest roared with laughter at the end of his joke and once again ruffled the dogs head. The man in the hat smiled politely. They had walked slowly around the church while the priest had been telling his story and were now leaning against a low wooden fence that surrounded a small burial ground. There were perhaps a dozen graves in it, some fallen and overgrown, and others better kept.
"Who were you tolling the bell for?" asked the man in the hat.
The priest looked at Ian with mock horror on his face. "You should never ask that question," he said.
An old man, wearing a straw hat to protect his bald head against the sun, stood in a new grave shovelling out the heavy, brown dirt onto a heap beside it. Stripped to his vest, his shirt and jacket thrown over the memorial next to the hole he was digging, the sinews in his back twitched and his arms trembled with the weight of the work. Each shovel load thrown onto the heap caused a small cascade of soil to slide back into the grave. On seeing Ian and the priest he stopped digging, took off his hat in deference and shouted greetings. Resting his thin arms on the shovel he lit a cigarette that he took from behind his ear and called out in Spanish to the priest.
"What is he saying?" Ian asked.
"He is telling me that the grave will be ready on time."
Ian nodded. He waved his hand in a gesture that encompassed all the graves. "Who is buried here?" he asked. "Are they all from the same family?"
"No," said the priest. "These are all the men who once owned this land."