I had not yet opened for the day when the man came in with his bottle of red. From behind the bar, while dusting the shelf where my barleycorn and rye used to sit, I heard the tinkle of the doorchime and the squeak of the hinges. “We are not open” I called. “Please, come back in an hour.”
“I am not a customer,” said the man. “I am here to sell.”
That got my attention. Booze was hard to come by these days. Beer was doing okay, moonshine and vodka could never die, but the more intentional liquors had drifted into obsolescence. The bare necessities remained.
The man had come through the door and shut it again. I was alone in the bar with him. Although he wore fine clothes – a colorless trenchcoat, a black hat with a red ribbon – there was a desperate cast to his features. In one hand, he carried a bottle. It looked like a chianti; the little fiascho basket around the bottom, the Homeric purple of the wine. The barstools were still on the bar, and they made a thicket through which our eyes met.
“We are not open,” I said again.
“I think you will be interested in my wine. Not many folk have wine these days. And no one has wine like this.”
A smart man, savvy enough to put in the effort. I gave him an exaggerated sigh and indicated the barstools. “Have a seat.”
He pulled a stool down and straddled it, his coat wrapping around the chair like a ballgown. He set the bottle on the bar. “Do you have glasses?”
“I don’t sample my stock.” Stock was too precious.
“You’ll want to know what you’re buying.” Up close, I could see each little silver hair in his stubbly beard. How old was he? Forty? Sixty?
“Oh, I’m buying it, am I?”
“I hope you will.” He gestured. “At least pour me a glass, if you’d please. Although I hate to drink alone.”
I reached for the glasses. Stemless. They hadn’t always been stemless, but after one of the quakes I got wise to the perilous nature of fragile glassware. Now they just rolled with the earth, and I didn’t spend my mornings sweeping up broken glass.
Without noticing, I’d grabbed two glasses. The man uncorked the bottle with a deft hand and a little metal screw. A man who knew his way around wine. He poured, just a finger in each glass.
“To your health,” he said, and lifted his glass. The lonely lightbulbs winked off the wine. I lifted mine, too, and matched his toast. We drank.
It was a wine unlike any I’d tasted before. There was a richness to it. A deepness. A feeling that you were tasting something extracted from the very depths of existence, not a wine but a syrup, tapped from the tree of life. Red and rich, red and rich, and earthy, too, the taste of loam and moss, the rich soil.
“It’s not bad,” I admitted.
The man snorted. “That’s one perspective.”
“Did you make this?” I inspected the bottle. No label, no maker’s mark. The bottle looked handblown, the faschio handmade.
“What’s the secret? Most vineyards have crumbled altogether, whether from fire or quake or the flu.”
“Most.” He licked his lips. I felt the need to do the same. I could still taste the wine. Its ghost lingered on my tongue. As though I’d chewed a clod of black humus. “The secret is in the soil.”
I tried to imagine what could be in this soil that could cling to the grapes so fiercely. I was not an expert in wines, nor particularly predisposed to enjoying them. I rarely drank of late. Too little stock.
“Do you know how long it takes to make rich soil?”
I sighed. “You don’t need to give me your sales patter. I’ll by the wine. No more than three hundred thousand dollars, though. I’ve got a budget.”
The man didn’t listen. Or, if he heard, he didn’t care. His fingers drummed the bar. There was dirt under the nails. “It can take thousands of years. Millions of years. The best soil, the most potent humus, is in the places untouched by cultivation. All cultivation sucks the goodness from the soil and leaves it wasted.”
“So you, what, built a vineyard in deepest Borneo?”
“No. My vineyard is nearby. When I was a boy, I heard tell of an island near Venice, a place long-abandoned by mortal man. In the days of the plague, they used this island for quarantine. Their quarantines were crude. The sick were abandoned there, and the well with them. Doctors in masks wandered the fields of the dying, collecting the dead and burning them in great pits. The flames could be seen from Venice at night. They said the screams of those burned while still living could be heard clear across the Alps. Exaggerations, of course, and hyperbole, but it is known that the island was a charnel-pit.
“It was abandoned, then, this island, more recently than you might suspect. Superstitious Venetians called it haunted. Perhaps it is. I had forgotten about this story for many years until, in a little bar in Split, I met an old man who sat alone. No other patrons would speak to him. I was studying there at the time, a young man, arrogant and all-knowning, and I took it upon myself to crack the secrets of this old Croat. Every night, he ordered a little glass of water and one empty wineglass. Then, from a silver flask, he would pour himself a little white wine. He drank his water and wine all night, then went home. Every day, he did this.
“I spoke with him for some time. Gained his trust. Eventually, he offered me some wine. I tasted it. My god, I tasted it. It was unlike any other white wine I have ever tried. A depth to it. A taste like liquid silver, with the aftertaste of thick black earth. I was amazed. Here was this old wino, and he had the greatest wine on earth. He told me where he’d grown his grapes, made his wine, aged the casks. He told me the name of his vintage. I knew it well. The name of the island. The island off Venice. The soil of the island, he said, was the richest he’d ever found. You just had to be careful for the bones and teeth that might still be mixed in under the ash.”
I eyed the wine with a new perspective. What had he given me? What was he selling me? “You grew this there, then?”
“No, no.” He laughed. “No. I’ve never set foot on that isle. But I remembered. And when our own plagues struck, I remembered. I gathered up the bodies. The bodies of my neighbors. My wife. Strangers. Children dead in the streets. Old men and women rotting in their beds, left alone at the uttermost end. I gathered them in a van and I took them to a field near my house. I burned them there. The light filled the sky. I dressed in cloak and mask to keep the flu at bay. I have always been strong. Stronger than those that perished, at least. Like you. That’s why we’re still here.
“I grew the grapes in ash. I aged the wine in barrels lined with bone. I drew from the dead what value I could, and aged it, and bottled it, and I am here to sell.”
If you liked this…thing…you can check out more fiction of mine at the Chaotic Neutral Chronicles.