Friday, October 2, 2009


In La Roquette, the village of my vigneron, there is a fountain. It's fed by a spring and so cool, fresh water fills it without stop. The fountain stands about three feet high. It has a deep rectangular basin which is always filled, being that it drains from the top. It looks like it would be perfect to water a horse, and I am sure at one point, not long ago, it did. You must keep in mind that until the 1970's most of the farming here was still done with horses. Until 1975, when my vignerons father got a tractor, it was Bijoux, their horse, that did all the heavy work.

Bijoux is gone now. The tractor that replaced him and which came with the ability to distribute great quantities of high production wonder products, is gone too. Those miracle products, in addition to increasing production were also much more toxic than the manure of Bijoux, consequently the father of my vigneron, along with quite a few other vignerons with the new modern capabilities, went not long after Bijoux - all with the same type of liver cancer. Modern farming, just like the farming that came before it, has it’s brutal side

My vigneron, his sister, and his mother, have all talked fondly of Bijoux, the family horse. One day when I asked the sister, after she had recounted a funny memory of the time Bijoux went astray, what they did with him after they had gotten the tractor, she matter of factly replied that they ate him. The way she said it made it seem the most logical thing one could do with a horse when it's utility is finished, after all a horse is an expense. On the farm everyone has to pull their weight.

I am sure Bijoux probably bellied up to the same fountain that I find myself pulling up to everyday as I pass through this village. I stop before, during and after work. You see picking grapes is a sticky and thirsty affair and that big basin full of cool sparkling, spring water wipes either of those problems away instantly. But any water will do that. The unique thing about this fountain is not the sweet water that runs into it, any of the local fountains have that, but the bench that sits across, and just down the street a bit from it.

The bench is inhabited with a rotating cast of the local senior citizens from this village. There aren't very many of them, these characters who look as though they have been sent over from central casting, the village has a population of perhaps 100, yet the bench always seems to be full. Perhaps it's the nice, sunny, almost autumn weather we are having. More likely it's the commotion of the tractors and the traffic of grapes rolling up and down the street that calls them out. It's the harvest, the money shot of the agricultural world. All these folks sitting on the bench have done their time in the world of grapes, and for a couple of weeks each year, the grapes, and their pasts, come parading down the road.

This village has harvested grapes since the times of the roman emperors. It runs on the cycle of the vines as steadily as the water that flows from the source feeds the fountain. Now I am here, at that fountain, several times a day, watering and washing, cooling down, just like they once did, or at least like their horses once did.

When I pull up, I see them. I see them watching me. They make no pretense about not, and why should they, it is their town, their fountain, and they are there to see the show. For the moment it is me. That undeniable fact casts me in a mood each time I step up to the fountain and see them out of the corner of my eye.

No doubt they are trying to sum up the somewhat recognizable stranger. They know I am here because I am picking grapes, but for who, and in what capacity is perhaps open. They may even know I am the american and who my vigneron is, information they got from the grapevine, in this case the grapevine being my vignerons mother. Her grandfather, father, husband, and son where all vignerons. She did her time on the bench too. She was in the fields last year when we did the harvest, a week later she was dead. It's the fate of everyone who drinks from the fountain, be it this one or any other.

But it's not the stares of the local seniors on the bench that get to me each time I step up to the fountain. It’s the memories lurking behind their stares that make me uneasy. I am the present, like at one time they were. I can see their thoughts churning, they are as visible as the dark purple stains on my hands. Each time it is shocking. They are just sitting there, watching, remembering. They look at me, I look at them. I smile and nod - bonjour, bonsoir, madame, monsieur. They remain without movement or response, but not without interest.

They can't be without interest. It's why they sit on the bench along the road, and not on the bench down by their vegetable gardens which they tend each day. It's the grapes that have brought them here. They are falling off the vines by the ton to make their way to the local caves to be turned into wine. The grapes are the continual present, the only constant, the life blood of this village and all the others around here. These people sitting on the bench have had wine running through their veins for uncountable generations.

At one time it was their turn. They picked the grapes, they got hot in the september sun, thirsty, sticky. They washed up and cooled down in the same fountain I am standing before now. They were young and fit and had families, and dreams for the future. They stood just where I am standing now, were stained like I am stained now.

Their memory of another time is what I see in their looks. And what gets borne with all the other thoughts, is that the experience I am having now - the pleasant sensation of standing before the fountain at the end of the day and washing off in its cool waters - they have already had. My present is their past. I am a part of a memory which I never had.

These folks on the bench shake my belief in a solid fixed present. They put me in a line that is constantly present, and yet continually ending. They are witnesses that only the line, and not the points that make it up, is infinite. It is this fact and not always the cool water on my hot skin that makes me shudder. This realization that those people sitting on the bench across from the fountain were me, before they became them. That I will be them. That we both will end, but the line will not. That each time someone falls off the bench, another sits down.

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