In June, Buni opens the last barrel of her famous black wine just before the holiday of the Saints Peter and Paul, the Summer Saintpeter—Sânpetrul de vara—when the sky opens and we can see God’s face. No one knows how she makes the wine last that long. By this time, the village has gone dry. As soon as word gets out, people come non-stop by her fence, asking for a bottle: peasants, shepherds, or truck drivers from the main road, even late at night. If Peter and Paul would walk through her door, she’d sell them her wine.
My grandfather had bought the vines from the western part of Romania where he worked in construction after his amnesty from political prison. He called them noble vines. They make blue-frosted, dark grapes with fat seeds and a thick, tanninic skin you have to spit out. The grapes’ perfume makes me dizzy, and I don’t like eating them. They give a dark red juice that stains my hands and tongue. God’s blood, Buni says when she pours the wine, and everyone goes silent.
Buni is very old and hunched. She looked old even when she was younger because of the thick, black headscarf she wore even in the hot summers. After grandfather died, she wore black for the rest of her life. Her name is Maria, but my brother and I call her Buni because she’s good like warm bread. She looks like an old Virgin Mary with her black headscarf and wrinkled hands baked by the sun. She sells wine because her pension is so small, she can’t even pay her electric bill from it.
Her best customers are Gicu, Mitica, and a Gypsy woman without an eye, Nina. Gicu is a thief who’d done 10 years for robbery. He carries a knife strapped to his leg. When he has no money, he brings a stolen, red chicken tucked inside his coat, or pigeons, or a bag of pig feed when he gets a job as a pig feeder. Freed into Buni’s yard, the red chicken spends days going around, looking for a hole in the fence to escape. It occurs to me I’m just like that red chicken, looking for a way out.
Mitica is tall and skinny, with blue eyes, 15 years younger than Buni. He’s been an air force officer stationed near the western border. In the 50s, he patrolled the border with Yugoslavia in the standoff against Tito. He loves talking about the Messerschmitt airplanes he used to fly in the war and the acrobatics he did: the loops, the tumbles, the tight wing to wing formations, the hammerhead, the chandelle, the Cuban, the Immelmann. He must have been handsome in his uniform, I think. When he gets drunk, he sings folk songs in his shaky, watery voice.
The black wine is magic, it brings up all these stories. Buni gives me a glass to drink, too. You’re a young woman, she says. You lose the blood—this will help you grow new one. God’s blood is good for you.
Mitica leaves to use the outhouse. Don’t let him charm you, Buni says. He’s done 25 years for murder. One night, he came home on military leave and found his wife with another man. He shot them both and turned himself in. He got out of prison an old man. His parents dead, he now lives in their house. That’s why he hangs out here, Buni says. He doesn’t have anyone else.
When Mitica doesn’t have money to pay for wine, he brings a table and chair from his parents’ house. Other times, he fixes the rickety fence, or tills the garden. He takes my brother to some shepherds to get cheese. Absolutely not, says Buni when I want to join them. You’re a girl—you stay home.
Then Nina, the one-eyed Gypsy woman, comes through the garden gate with her small daughter hanging by her skirt. Gimme a cup’o’sugar, she begs, gimme a cup’o’oil. I can’t pay no money, but I’ll read the girl’s palm for a sip of the black wine.
The one who gives to the poor lends to God, Buni says. Food is rationed, but when my brother and I came to spend the summer, our parents left us some provisions, and Nina knows it. Buni always gives her sugar, oil, or bread, but writes the wine in her debt notebook. Her handwriting is large, round, and a little shaky, the one of a fourth grader.
If this is God’s blood, how does it get inside the grapes? Are the grapes God’s earlobes? Or blue moles clustered on God’s leafy face? Are the grapevines a church into which God steps and becomes one with the juice? The grapevines tangle the garden and cover the yard, their grapes filled with black blood. I can almost hear them growing, rustling under leaves, speaking with God’s deep, multiple voices. When they turn into wine, God speaks again, demanding to leave the barrels: Let me out! Let me out! On the Summer Saintpeter, Buni finally let’s God out from the last barrel in her cellar. Night spills over us its black wine.
Sometimes the dead are asking for a sip, and Buni’s hand trembles and drops some wine. It stains the white tablecloth: a red chicken, Saint Peter’s cane, a catfish from the Danube, a curved knife blade, or the initials of someone long gone.
I learn from Gicu to carry a small knife strapped to my calf with elastic bands under my jeans. These are the 80s when movies with Bruce Lee are popular. Each night, I go out with other girls, surrounded by gangs of dark-skinned boys on bicycles. They show off their nunchucks, chains, and knives. Sometimes they get into scuffles. I’m a little afraid, but also look for danger, secretly wishing one of them would fall in love with me. So I wear a knife to defend myself, which I never do.
Nina touches my palm with her index finger, and the love line opens a clear path. She tells me, her one eye blazing, that the boy I like will come by tonight. Night falls, a black wine with heavy aroma and no stars. We sit in the small house made of mud bricks and straw, in the kitchen lit by a single yellow bulb. We’re less than a mile from the border where the Danube flows, massive and quiet, a black wine carrying the souls of the dead distilled into alcohol.
Mitica tells again his Messerschmitt stories, and my brother listens, entranced. I’m getting ready to go out. Gicu smokes, his face in the dark of the porch. Tonight, the sky opens, says Nina. And you can see God’s face. You can see Saint Peter, sitting next to Him, holding the keys to Heaven. There is no God, Gicu says in his deep voice, his face lit by a match flare. Shush, Gicu, bite your tongue, Buni says, for He can hear you. He’s here, in this room. We’re drinking His blood.