Plum Wine, by Noel Osualdini

It was with some disquietude that I discovered my wife’s father Eugenio intended to carry on the family tradition of bequeathing everything to the eldest, and in this case only, son, Umberto.

“But that leaves you a pauper,” I objected.

Francesca, with only love in those soft, doe eyes, replied: “How can I be poor, Robert, when I have you?”

We were sitting in our garden––or Eugenio’s garden, rather:  some day he might return from the old country to reclaim a room in the house and resume his role as patron.

“Besides,” she added, pouring some of Eugenio’s home-made wine for me, “do you think my brother would let his sister and her husband starve?” She glanced around at the half-dozen trees––a few apricots, a plum, an apple and a pear––and sighed: “Papa always loved his orchard, you know.”

Some orchard! I thought, brooding on our misfortune. Umberto would prosper on the fruit of Eugenio’s hard work and investments while I would return each day to Rob’s Mechanical Repairs––one of the few consolations was that people sometimes thought the “Rob” on the sign at the front was me, not realising it was the English translation of his name––knowing that he would be my boss and my better forever.

With Umberto overseas with his latest girlfriend, I was at least in charge of the garage for the moment, and lorded it over the others like a Roman slavemaster.

“Call for you,” said one of the girls. “International.”

Of course it could have been a supplier to one of Eugenio’s other businesses, or even Eugenio himself, but it turned out to be the son, Umberto, calling from Italy, with news that his father had passed away.

“He died in my arms,” he blubbered––and yet, I could tell he was already calculating his new net value. With the death of the king, the prince had risen in rank. Long live the king, I cringed inwardly.

“How––” I started, wanting to ask how long it would be before he came back to claim the throne. Instead, I asked: “How did he die?”

“Plum wine,” Umberto replied. “The wine had gone bad.”

He’d be returning home in a few days, he told me. A plane seat was already booked, and he would make the arrangements for the funeral. He went on with instructions about when and where to collect him, flight numbers, which areas of the house he would take upon his return, which we would have to vacate to make room for an office and seat of his inherited empire of properties, garages, shopping centres––he was careful not to mention it as such––and how soon he would depart, to return to his girlfriend still holidaying in Europe, leaving me with the grieving Francesca.

“And one more thing,” he said, before ringing off. “Do not tell my sister. The news will break Francesca’s heart. Let her big brother be there to comfort her.”

As though I, her husband, could not better comfort the fading rose of my wife.

I imagined him strolling through the streets of Naples. Meanwhile, I saw the townsfolk laughing at Robert O’Toole, kept man, with a wife who could snap her fingers for a new dress with inlaid gold but who himself was relegated to overalls and workmen’s boots six days a week.

“Get back to work,” I yelled at one of the apprentices, who was slow in coming back from the tea room. “And you,” I said, pointing to an older man across the oil-stained concrete, “take over on the Ford. I have urgent business to attend.”

I spent a few hours at the local hotel, drowning my sorrows and plotting.

Francesca, used to me arriving home inebriated, was putting dinner on the table when I got home. I changed my clothes before coming down to eat.

“Your father’s dead,” I imagined myself blurting out, “and your sponging, useless  brother is coming home to ensure his inheritance.”

Instead, watching my wife undress for bed that night, I told her simply, between my teeth, that her brother was returning.

“Oh, Robert,” said Francesca, “why didn’t you tell me earlier?”

“I’ll drive out and pick him up on Wednesday morning.” I said.

“Can you stay away from work for that day? Don’t they need you?” she asked. “Perhaps I should go.”

Angrily, I replied: “I can do whatever I want. Until Umberto comes back, I’m in charge of the garage. Nobody’s going to challenge me over my whereabouts for the day.”

My wife, in nightshirt and slippers, ran off to begin preparations for her brother’s return.

I imagined myself pressing him: “So your father died of bad wine?”

I could see clearly how it had happened: Umberto, keen to secure all that would have come to him eventually, greedy to to claim his inheritance sooner rather than later, had poisoned his own father.

He arrived, and it was as I expected: he took over the house, and with her brother only two doors down from our own bedroom, and the sorrow of her father’s loss, Francesca would not even allow me to make love with her. I returned to the courtyard, and it was there that Umberto found me, with a bottle and a glass.

“Plum wine,” he said, examining the bottle. Eugenio had always made his own. “I brought a glass,” he added, joining me uninvited at the table.

I mumbled a response.

“Drinking on your own? Where is my sister?”

“In bed already,” I replied. “Cried herself to sleep.”

I noticed his hands seemed to tremble. Too much of the good life, I reflected. He was almost my age. Neither of us had produced an heir to the kingdom.

“What’s that in your hand?” I asked, spying a folded slip of paper.

“A tonic, given me by a doctor in Rome,” he replied. “To be mixed with water and drunk on a balmy, moonless night.” He waved artistically at the evening. It was, indeed, a balmy, moonless night. In the soft light from a garden lamp, I watched him rub that slip of paper between thumb and forefinger, crushing its contents into a finer powder.

“Surely not to be taken with alcohol,” I said. I watched him sip from his glass.

“With alcohol, without alcohol … It is all the same.” He held the glass up to the light. “This is good wine,” he mused.

I noted that, despite his showmanship, the crumbled contents of the paper had not been poured into his own glass.

“The last of the plum wine a season ago,” I said.

“Last season,” he pondered, and added: “That was an excellent harvest. You mean to say you’ve already finished off that entire batch?”

“As you say,” I reminded him, “it was a very good wine.”

From the corner of my eye, I watched Umberto pour the contents of his little fold of paper into my glass. It fizzed briefly.

I turned back to the glass and raised it to my nose, detecting a slightly acid scent.

“With your father dead,” I asked, “will you return permanently to take over the running of the business?”

He nodded.

“And your sister?”

“Do not fear,” he assured me. “I will always make sure my sister has a home and food on the table. And you, as an extension of her, will live well, too. Was this not your concern?”

“And who will inherit the business after you?” I asked. “You have no children.”

“Alas, I fear I am too old, and not inclined to produce offspring,” he retorted. “It will be up to Francesca to carry on the line. She is still young.”

“But you and I are of the same age,” I reminded him. If he had no inclination to be a father, then surely he couldn’t expect it of me.

“Francesca will do what is needed of her,” he said mysteriously. I suspected now that there was no place in his plans for me. I wondered if he had a replacement, already, waiting in the wings.

He watched me drain the dark fluid in my glass, and raised his own in a toast. “To my father, who died drinking his favourite wine.”

Now was the time to act.

“Wine goes bad,” I reminded him, “but it becomes vinegar––nothing more. It does not become toxic, unless someone has poisoned it.”

“Are you accusing me of some misdeed?” he asked.

“Not accusing you: telling you.” I’d kept my voice steady, despite the emotions I was feeling: I now was sure that my father-in-law had died by the hand of his own son, and that he’d tried to poison me, too.

“Ah, in that case, so you do not go blindly to your death, I will tell you––” He coughed, suddenly. Ever the gentleman, he excused himself, placing his hand over his mouth as he spluttered. “You will, in a few minutes, realise your fate. You were never right for my sister––”

“She accepted me.”

“––never right for this family.” He clapped a hand to his mouth. Dark droplets burst from between his fingers. “I––”

More coughing. His watering eyes widened––he’d realised suddenly that I’d somehow managed to switch the glasses. He coughed again, and a great gout of black liquid ejaculated from his mouth, covering his shirtfront and part of the table.

His last words, before his eyes rolled back into his head and his jaw dropped open, were: “What have you done?” He slumped forward.

And that was all.

I let him lie there for a moment, his face in a pool of his own vomit. After a few minutes, I leaned across to feel for the enfeebled pulse. When death finally gripped him, when his heart stopped, I thought I saw his eyes widen suddenly.

I dragged his lifeless body behind the plum tree and heaved it into the hole I’d dug there.

I made sure I was up well before the rest of the household, so that when Francesca awoke and asked for her “beautiful brother”, I was able to tell her that he’d been called back to Europe. I slipped her a sedative and explained that his girlfriend had called and had found herself in some sort of trouble with the locals ­­–– urgent enough that he’d gone immediately, without time even to say goodbye. Such a loving brother was he that he hadn’t wanted to wake his sister.

“He’ll be back some day,” I assured her.

I was certain that with a few forged letters, I could convince her he’d decided to settle in Europe long enough for me to come up with another story.

As the fruit ripened in the plum tree, I noticed an odd, lumpy texture, and I wondered whether the poisoned Umberto’s presence in the soil had somehow infected  the tree.

“Look at this one,” Franscesca called me. “It’s almost as if it has a nose and the beginnings of ears.”

Over the next days and weeks I tried to stay as close as possible, and made excuses that kept Francesca away, as those lumps developed into eyes, noses, mouths …

One of the plums had taken on the features of him who was buried beneath: I saw the long ears, the acquiline nose beginning to grow. But I saw that others, too, were developing along the same line: noses, ears, lips––beginning fairly generic, then gaining a resemblance to Francesca, to her father, the features I’d seen in photographs of their mother. And there was one, darkening as it grew, with my own face, it and Umberto’s scowling at each other from different twigs across an interval of only centimetres. Its relatively tiny ears, its small nose so distinct from the noses of the men in Francesca’s family, marked it as an outsider. One morning I checked, to find a strip torn from its side, dark juices dripping down into the soil, and a chunk of flesh hanging from its neighbour’s thick lips.

I wondered how soon my Francesca would recognise that something was amiss, and decided then and there that I should harvest the fruit. I crushed it in the shed with Eugenio’s old equipment and drained off the dark red juice.

I let it mature for months.

Meanwhile, several letters arrived from Umberto, and for every one received from her brother in the strained, jagged letters I was finding so difficult to reproduce, I pretended to posted two from her in return.

We were sitting in the late spring in our garden, enjoying the fruits of Eugenio’s labour. With Francesca’s brother removed from the equation–– conveniently, the sinking of a cruise liner in early winter, the deaths of hundreds of tourists, and a scandal over lax habits in keeping passenger lists, had helped to cover his disappearance––my wife, and by extension, I myself, had become quite wealthy. Late breakfasts and evenings of drinking in the orchard had made my life easier, and I went to the garage only one day out of every seven now.

“Excellent wine,” I remarked.

I’d broken out the last of the fruit wines to celebrate Francesca’s pregnancy. The apricot was bittersweet, but the plum was very good.

“Isn’t it, just?” Francesca smiled sheepishly, sipping delicately.

“Why that look?” I asked.

“I’ve been so sad at losing my father, at the disappearance of my brother. But we should be happy,” she conceded. “We have each other, and as long as you’re around I’ll need nothing else.”

“Nor I,” I agreed. At that, I felt a gulp of wine catch in my throat, and coughed.

“And very soon there will be another,” she said, patting her growing belly.

I’d warned her not to drink too much, but she was still on her first glass. I, on the other hand, had almost drained the bottle. I coughed again.

“Are you all right, darling?” she said.

“I’ll be––” Another cough, this time wracking my frame. Her face was swimming before me, making me giddy. I covered my mouth, but a spurt of black liquid escaped, and covered the edge of the table.

“Oh my God, Robert,” she said, rushing to my side.

I clutched my throat, gagging, and the whole world seemed to fade.

I woke hours later, something in my head beating a steady rhthym. My Francesca had somehow managed to drag me to our bed. As the room swam into focus, I threw up dark red wine on the silk sheets. And then I noticed, just beyond the pool of dark liquid, a small white hand, still clutching the sheet. On the floor lay my love, my wife: Francesca, my beautiful soulmate, her pulse gone, her body lifeless, and our baby, no doubt, dead with her.

The wine, poisoned by her brother’s rotting carcass, had taken my Francesca and my child, and had left me alone.

~~

Noel Osualdini (pronounced Oswald-DEE-nee) is a member of the Australian Horror Writers’ Association (AHWA) and received honorable mentions for his entries into the 2013 AHWA Short Story and Flash Fiction Competition. He contributed to flash fiction anthology 100 Doors to Madness (Forgoten Tomb Press, USA), and has a story in forthcoming anthology Fear’s Accomplice(NoodleDoodle Publications, UK), due out in February. He has written non-fiction and worked on layout for public service staff magazines and newsletters, as well as college newspapers. Noel lives southeast of Melbourne with his partner Joanne and their four children.

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Posted on January 20, 2014, in Issue 12: The Shadows Only Hide the Monsters: Poe & Lovecraft Tribute and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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