The giant vines were as green as the grass in the ancient children’s books the first settlers brought from Earth. The fruit they bore was bigger than a man’s head and midnight black. When the fruit was ripe, it carried an opalescent sheen that reflected back the yellow sky, or the red lights of the city, or whatever thing happened to be nearby, but until the fruit matured, the surface was as dull as swirled storm clouds, and just as dismal.
No one ever tasted the fruit.
The colonists hadn’t planted the vineyard, and neither had the original explorers.
No one knew the name of the fruit, and if they did not call it “beautiful fruit” or “evil fruit” most languages simply called it “grapes.”
In the spring, the vines bloomed, and in the fall, the ripe grapes fell to the ground and rotted. The ground squirrels and rabbits got drunk off the fermenting juices. When the ground thawed, and spring returned, the fruit drew the bees that pollinated the colonists’ more human orchards and fields.
No one considered eating the fruit.
The colonists built a fence, and appointed a caretaker, and eventually, when their own crops began to grow, and the food was no longer rationed, the scientists stopped studying the grapes, and returned to more important things. Whatever the fruit was, it didn’t matter. And whoever had planted it… well, clearly, they were gone.
For forty-two years, the Caretaker did take care of the vineyard. He was barely more than a boy when he began, but in time, no one remembered him as anything but a sinewy recluse. The council suggested he should get a dog. The mayor—she was one of the colony’s elders—suggested he should get married. His own mother and father suggested he should quit, entirely, and let someone else take care of the vineyard.
The Caretaker stayed in the vineyard. For forty-two years, he drove to the town twice a month and bought groceries. After the grocery store, he went to the hardware store, or the farm-supply store, and after that, he picked up crates of books at the library, and returned the old ones. Most of them, anyway. Then, he collected his compost in the back of his truck, and went home. He kept the vines in check. They did not overflow the boundaries of the vineyard, and they did not grow wild between the rows of plants. The council checked on the situation from time to time, but they were always satisfied, and they never had to stay for long.
The Caretaker’s work was always satisfactory.
But in August, forty-two years after he’d begun working, he stopped buying groceries. The hardware store prepared an order that was never picked up. The library called the council about two crates of books that were never returned. The Council grumbled. In September, the same thing happened. And by the beginning of October, the vines seemed to be creeping over the wooden fence closest to the city.
There was gossip. And theories. And if someone on a street corner wasn’t saying the old man was dead, someone in a bar or coffee shop was saying that he must have gotten senile. Some people even said that he had taken to eating the fruit—the evil fruit, the beautiful fruit… the grapes—and that the city would never see him again. The new Librarian objected, of course. Even if the old man was eating the grapes, she said, he’d still come for his books. That wouldn’t change.
The Librarian dragged the council out to the vineyard.
They huffed and puffed down the hill, into the valley that was known as Mar Mozambique, and stopped at the gate to the vineyard.
The gate was closed, and locked, but even the fact that there was a gate was new to the Council. Two notices were painted in handwriting the Librarian barely recognized as belonging to the old Caretaker. The first notice, in black letters six or seven inches high, read “Caution. Keep out. Danger. Grapes.” and then, it said nothing. The sentiment appeared complete, as if the word “Grapes” were a warning in itself, as much as Danger or Caution. As if the Caretaker had never intended to say anything more.
The council shook their heads, and looked for a crowbar.
The old man was clearly out of his mind, and if he wasn’t taking care of the vines, he’d have to be replaced.
The second notice, written in ink that could only be described as the color of grapes reflecting the sunrise, and written on fine stationery that might have been made on Earth, itself read: Welcome to paradise.” The librarian turned the paper over, and kept reading.
“You must be the new caretaker,” the old man had written. “Welcome. I have little advice to give, so this will be short. The vines belong to no one, and they were planted by no one. There are tools in the shed. You won’t need any of them. The plants manage themselves, as long as they’re content, and you can’t possibly handle them, when they’re not.”
The council had broken through the gate, by then.
“Nothing is going to happen,” the letter said. “The vines are jittery, but they aren’t dangerous.”
The Librarian stepped through the gate, and looked into the overgrown vineyard. The council was shouting the Caretaker’s name, and scurrying around, as if they had just noticed he was missing.
The letter continued, a list of supplies to keep the vineyard running, and a longer list of ways to get rid of those supplies, since they weren’t really needed. Suggestions, and counter suggestions, and ways to spend the time when everyone assumed she would be gardening. Rolling and unrolling hoses. Putting up trellises, and then taking them down. Bonfires in the fall, and butterflies in the spring.
The letter sounded like a fantasy, or a delusion.
And, of course, up until then, the Caretaker’s work had always been satisfactory.
“He’s not here!” one of the councilmen shouted. Someone else concurred. “He’s gone.”
“One last word of advice, my young friend.” The Caretaker’s handwriting was shaky, almost illegible, and smaller than the rest of the letter.
She had to squint to read it.
“Eat the fruit.”
Here are links to the other stories in the blog hop.
Stealing Space by Barbara Lund
The Day I was Clever by Katharina Gerlach
Never kid a kidder by Angela Wooldridge
The Color Of… by Chris Makowski
Nightmare by Erica Damon
Pick Up Lines by Bill Bush
The Scorpius Gate by Sandra Fikes
V is for Vortex by Elizabeth McCleary
Deep Dive by Juneta Key
Bugs by Gina Fabio