This story is by Dena Linn and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
It was our love: the island, our soil, and the fruit that it gave us. This was our tradition, so I thought.
My Papa, Bernardo, was out with his vines. A widower twelve long years. Mother had died of grief 12 years after my sister; typhus took her. She succumbed 12 years after Uncle had passed, a horrible accident. That left Papa and me to care for the grapes, the land, and our clients. I called them that. I was young and scared of nothing.
I knew our people had lost many battles, retreating into the mountains to fight another day. Romans had come, first to convert, then to annihilate. We fought, and Romans perished on our land. The island was ours, rich with Roman blood, and its wine near godly. Then, Romans arrived again on our shores. But this time with wealth and power and a thirst for our wine. They chose our family to nurture the island’s assets.
Papa warned, “Gianna, they are all-powerful,” as he cried silently for his wife and baby daughter.
But he had me, the vines and the island, and our family’s history inscribed in a book.
He waived this book one day, challenging me to understand. I’d never dared, fearing it contained secrets I would regret knowing. When I opened it, dates of deaths and names swam up at me. I turned, but Papa’s fingertips pushed it back.
“Read.” He said.
Then I saw 1840 Antonio, 1852 Chiara, uncles, aunts, cousins. Turning to the last entry: 1910, mother’s name! The line above, 1898 Sophia, my sister. Some young, some old, someone had died every 12th year!
“I don’t understand.”
“You call them clients, but realize, the Romans are devils. They fought us for generations! Now we have peace and our land, although everything has a price. Whether by accident or illness, our family must sacrifice a member every 12th year for the 12 thousand Romans souls we slaughtered, fighting for this rock.
He hung his head, “The wine is theirs, but we have the vines, peace, and the respect of the whole island.
“I promise, I will love and care for our land and its fruit, as I love you, Papa.”
I looked out, the rolling hills striped with trellises, lush with the late summer harvest, and beyond, the beautiful sea. We lived in a paradise of dark soil, cool mists, and the best wine. We were far from mainland strife. Papa was correct; what more could we want?
“In the family book, Papa, I saw 1922 written. That’s next year!”
“Yes, but if you lay with a man, we’ll have a child to pay the debt when the clients arrive.”
“I don’t want a child.”
“And then they will take you, Gianna. Must I sacrifice my only daughter?”
Bernardo took a deep, sorrowful breath. “It will be alright. You’ll give the baby up, the sacrifice. That’s how we and our grapes survive.”
Papa was too kind. I couldn’t imagine how our family had entered into such a fantastic business arrangement, yet I realized Papa’s reluctance to fight. So, I pitied him and naively decided against having a child for whatever purpose. I would not be bullied, as my Papa was.
Harvest time came and Bernardo said, “You’re not pregnant. We will be ruined and lose everything that you love.”
I was genuinely torn. The reality was complex. I roamed our hills and valleys, caressing each plant, asking for any wisdom they could share.
There was a boy. His family helped us at harvest. They worked hard and would have been dirt poor, like all who lived on this rock, if not for our vineyards. I could lay with him, although a simpleton and – a male! Just the thought turned my mouth sour, and months clicked by as the grapes and I soaked in the sun, maturing.
This year, I was old enough to accompany Papa at the tasting. A luxury yacht steamed close, then smaller landing boats filled the shallow waters bringing guests ashore.
“Oh Papa, our wine is surely the finest, spice and Sardo earth. It’s a work of your master tastebuds. Everything will be splendid.”
“They’ll notice you’re not with child. I am just an old man. They will not be pleased.”
The tasting was to begin, our clients entered. Elegant suits stitched by private tailors, Borsalinos on every male, and arms cocked holding delicate divas gliding on thin heels. The last woman walked alone, and it was love at first sight. My heart leaped on a rainbow, its pot of gold this willowy form with a smooth sweep of auburn hair curled at her neck. Aptly named Rosalaura, for me she was pure essence, petals and roses.
In that instant, I was crazy to press my lips against her, to get a small taste. Who would ever contemplate a simple glass of wine when such a beauty stood in the flesh?
I caught her eye; my reward was to escort her through our vineyards and accompany her during the tastings.
Dinner appeared, and I felt her knee hot, pressing mine. We had smiled and spit wine together, and now, she took my hand, placing it on her smoothness. I’d stopped breathing. It was not the wine talking; it was the universe.
After dessert, she taught me what it was to lay in love. A hidden well within me exploded as our hands roamed wild, our arms wrapping like warm caramel to soothe and rock in a corner of the wine cellar.
But her eyes held dark currents as she voiced a susurrus of my name. “I love you more than the wine that surrounds us.”
The tasting was a success, and calendar months fell away. Papa invited that boy from the village for aperitifs. It was awkward, especially when Papa begged me.
“Gianna, we’ll lose everything. Just let him between your legs, one minute, no longer, and we will be saved. Time is running.”
However, in my mind, I lay each night with my only love, Rosalaura, and thought even less of Papa’s fears. I had discovered real love.
Bernardo and I traveled the island, inspecting grapes, tasting for sweet and tart. As a brilliant winemaker, he taught me everything, yet I couldn’t fathom how our family became hostage to these powerful men. Why was our wine, the finest on earth, not enough? Someone had to die every twelve years. It was an absurdity!
Every night, Papa and I sat with a bottle. I asked him, “Why?”
He lifted his wine glass, eyes growing sadder as the year ran out. “It’s tradition.”
Papa’s entreaties to have a child built to a frenzy, and I felt for him. We had only each other and our vines – till the day, he did not come back for coffee.
When I found him, my world died even as the grapes glowed in the morning sun. He lay broken, legs crushed under the wheels of his narrow-gauge tractor. His life bleeding out, yet he could still say,
“Gianna, I’m dying. It’s the twelfth year, our family’s fate.”
The entire village came. I was wrapped in the black of guilt, knowing it could’ve been me! It could’ve been a child. The carved gravestone spoke of a debt paid with Bernardo 1922, next to mother’s 1910 and sister’s 1898. Stones matching a 500-year tradition in father’s book.
The service was over, and the earth smelled fresh.
Sorrow and worry, I sobbed, “Twelve more years.” And through my tears came a breeze. My love, Rosalaura, stood holding a red rose.
We were alone on the hill. She held my face, palms drying my tears. “We will have our special love. Now is our time.”
Behind her, I could see an army, her wealthy family – waving.
Rosalaura looked into my eyes; I was drunk with her touch. She leaned, whispering into my hair, “We have to love – hard and fast, not wasting a moment.”
“But why is your family standing there? What do they wait for?”
“They wait for the 12th year, my love.”
Rosalaura, her fingers traced my ear, sliding down my neck till they rested at the narrow hollow between my breasts.
Not wholly distracted, I asked, “But why? It’s so childish. They have their wine, the finest, and we have each other and true love. Tell them!”
Then a realization dawned as her lips buried in my neck.
I whispered, frantic, “We’ll have a baby in the eleventh year. It will be the sacrifice!” My breath was coming hard. My hands raked her hair. Everything was possible when you loved.
“Yes, Gianna, but no. That child would be a part of me! My Roman family would never allow it to die.”
Rosalaura stroked me to the rhythm of our heartbeats and chanted, “We shall dance in our love for eleven long years. Then I will prepare you to die and lay next to your family, as is the tradition.