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A Dartblog Change of Pace

A few weeks ago, Frank Gado ‘58 entered a three-minute short story in a competition at the Salt Hill restaurant in Hanover. It describes a familial event in a Piedmontese village in northwest Italy, where his grandmother was born and his aunt, now 96, still lives. Two of three judges gave it the lowest grade assigned among the fifteen entries; the third, the sole male judge, awarded it the highest mark. The compost score placed it dead last. I consider the story quite fine. And you?

La Vigna

It was the second day of the visit, and their conversation draped over tentpoles of his cousin’s quips and puns in the old dialect that Bruno seldom used any more and his listener had to retrieve from fading memory. Erbida, who had just passed eighty-two the week before, looked out the small window into the courtyard where primroses scattered, but her mind paced behind a wall of thought.

“Bruno,” she interrupted her son, “if the business will let you, can you take care of the vine today?” Then, as an inducement, she added, “Maybe Frank can help you.”

Frank could tell that Bruno had planned a different day, but he had always been an obedient son, and at her age, his mother’s wishes had the force of commands. She lived alone at the edge of the small village, and for more than a decade now, the vines had been a recurring subject at the monthly meals she would cook for her three sons, their wives, and those grandchildren who could be cajoled from the city to pay homage. Erbida’s wits remained sharp, even though they usually whittled the past between gatherings, and she still rode her simple bicycle to the village’s one tiny grocery and occasionally, when the mood was on her and the itinerant priest reluctantly fulfilled his obligation, to the Romanesque church. But her knee and hip had deteriorated to the degree where it was no longer wise for her to cycle along the stretch of dirt road to the strip of vineyard she had tended most of her life. Worse, the automobiles, especially those speeding to Mombaruzzo from the city, would not know that she was almost entirely deaf and couldn’t hear them when she pedaled from one side of the road to avoid the stonier patches And besides, her sons insisted, it was much more convenient to buy the wine than to take on the work and trouble to make it. (That they thought the quality of what came from the communal cantina was far superior was never expressed.). Finally, she capitulated. On this perfect day with sun and breeze sporting coltishly, the grapevine would be cut down.

Frank was eager to do something physical, but, entering this contest of wills at the very end, he didn’t understand. The land had almost no value, and there had been no talk of either trying to sell it for a pittance or to let the village assume ownership through non-payment of taxes. Wouldn’t it do just as well to leave the vine unattended? It might even produce a small harvest of grapes.

“No,” Erbida said, summoning patience for an explanation to her sister’s American son.. The grape vine has always been admired. I kept it so very well, from the moment I married Carlo. I should leave it, as though I didn’t care? As though I had become too feeble? No. No.”

While Frank weighed her words for pride, she interrupted herself, releasing a much deeper reason. “To abandon it as you say would be an indignity to the vine that provided for this family, over good years, bad years, during fascism and the war, when my sons were born ….” She stopped. There was no need to go on, even if her voice could find the air to speak.

The two cousins whose lives had been separated by an ocean went to the toolshed. Each took a mazlin, a piedmontese machete adapted over the centuries to beat the rhythms of the vines, tested its heft, and walked, one behind the other, toward Mombaruzzo.

The two parallel rows of wires gently undulated for about a hundred meters. Frank noted the pale green buds poking from the arthritic wood as he stripped to the waist, and then in the warm sun of earliest spring, tried to match Bruno’s pace in undoing the varied strings and twist-ties that for decades had bound the branches to the wires. After the refuse had been collected in a series of small piles, the killing began. The cousins raised their mazlin just above their heads before swinging them with swift force down on the gnarled nubs at the ground.

When they arrived back at the house, Erbida was at the propane stove stirring the soup for dinner while the television screen that had become her constant companion showed a high-kicking file of dancers and the blaring band approximated a Charleston. “Did you put away the mazlin?” she asked. “Yes,” Bruno answered. Nothing else needed to be said.


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