Study: Summer Vines [story] by Jon Sindell

To attain the most favorable view of the vineyards they had to hike a back–country trail. The trail was too narrow for side–by–side hiking but was shaded by redwoods, oaks, and madrones—and when they stopped to kiss, the musty odor made them giddy. They kicked up summer dust as they hiked—it was the fourth straight year of drought in Sonoma—and cracked twigs underfoot. The young man, who was tall and slim, pointed excitedly to a line of black wood ants crossing the trail, and photographed them from multiple angles—this would yield a painting, perhaps. Mosquitos lighted, and the young woman—heat–pinked, vibrant, half a head shorter than the man—applied repellent to her wrists, then her neck with her wrists, demonstrating the proper technique. The man grinned as he rubbed wrists together. “I’ll paint a clear blue lake some time. Your eyes will be the water.” She lowered her face lest her blushing seem vain, and switched her ponytail like a horse swatting flies. They were three months in love, and knew it was real.

An hour of uphill trudging later they crested the ridge. The summit overlooked a broad green valley of shimmering vines, and they smiled at each other in wonder and love, the man’s smile also expressing an artist’s approval of his subject and studio. The woman reached back over her shoulder, like an archer, and drew a rolled up mat from the sleeve of her backback. She unfurled the mat near the edge of the cliff, and as the man studied the view and the lighting, she set up his camp chair and easel. The man gazed at the panorama for a full five minutes, then turned his face, eyes closed, to the broiling sun, and poured water all over his face. “Easy sweet,” said the woman, “better save some for the hike back.” The man smiled broadly, and the pair lapsed into a contented silence. The woman sat peacefully still on the mat as the man painted, never once glancing at his work, but inhaling the beauty of the bushy green vines dotted with blue fruit, or gazing at cruising redtailed hawks, or worshipfully facing the radiant sun. When the man finished the painting, a study only two feet square, the woman hopped to her feet to see his work. Her response, she realized, may have owed partly to lightheadedness, partly to love, but she thought it more beautiful and sublime than reality.

They tramped down the trail in reverent silence, pivoted around a tight switchback and saw it: a mountain lion of one–hundred–and–twenty pounds or more, thickly muscled, seated twenty feet up a slope to their right. The man reflexively raised his painting as if it were a shield, and both remembered the ranger’s admonition to make loud noises if they encountered a cougar. The woman filled herself with hot breath, squared herself to the cat, stared into its studious yellow eyes, and loudly sang in a bell–like voice: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of The Lord!” She continued and the man tried to sing too, but could only extrude a thin choking breath. The cougar jerked its head away as if breaking free of the woman’s stare, then licked its paw and rubbed its face in the manner of Astrid, the woman’s pet cat. The woman cried now in a loud voice that was not unpleasant: “Now run away kitty, run away home, your house is on fire, your children will burn!” The cat stretched lazily and strolled away.

“Amazing,” the man marveled, his heart still pounding, his legs still shaking. “I’d have sung too, but—” With an abashed smile—the woman loved his smile—he turned his water bottle upside down. A few drops dribbled out. “Parched,” he said, exaggerating, perhaps, how dry his throat was.

“For sure,” she assured him with a pure, simple smile. She squeezed his hand and tugged him down the trail.


Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: This story refers to Luke Jones’s image of huge juicy grapes that accompanies Mark Elber’s poem “Samson.”]

Image by CDFG

Jon Sindell wrote the flash–fiction collection The Roadkill Collection (Big Table Publishing, 2014) and the long–story collection Family Happiness (2016). He curates the San Francisco–based reading series Rolling Writers.