Photograph by Marta Moreiras, Story by Laura Hallam
The grapes were ruined.
They hung heavy on the vines, skins splitting, their insides bulging as if desperate to escape. Some were starting to rot, the smell curling around them, clinging to the skins. It was spreading, the decay loitering on the dying fruit, a thief looking for its next mark.
I walked between two rows of vines, the ground squelching beneath my boots. We had removed the white netting that usually covered the vines as there was now no need to protect them from the birds. The uninterrupted greenery looked foreign to me, but the plants looked prettier this way, the landscape less blighted by signs of human intervention, betrayed only by the straight lines of the planting, otherwise looking lush, wild, natural. I picked a bunch of grapes off the vine, squeezing them between my fingers, feeling the soft flesh ooze over my hands.
It had been the year from hell, everyone said it. They whole year had been dry, a long waterless slog. Secretly we had been glad. The endless sun gave us big ripe fruit, sugary fruit that could be turned into sweet smooth wine, the kind that sold best. The last time we had a rainy year our grapes were full to bursting and we had to pick them early. The vintage that year was dry and woody. We still struggled to sell it even five years on, wheeling it out for all the wine tastings at the cellar door and talking about the earthy palette, hoping to convince some clueless tourists to buy it. But still some sat on the shelves. So we had been thankful for the sunny winter, the dry spring.
During spring word began to start about the fires burning up north. It seemed a distant disaster, but within weeks waves of smoke were shrouding our property. The air was thick and burdened, hanging low over the ripening fruit. Customers who came to stay in the little cottages woke up to an orange haze, their cars covered in black ash, the short walk to breakfast a burden on the lungs.
December began with questioning phone calls, people wondering whether the trip south from Sydney would give them some clean air and the Australian summer they were expecting. When I had to tell them that it was just as murky at the winery they began to cancel, their withdrawals wrapped in soft apologies, the disappointment cushioned by the forfeited deposits that helped keep things running. But soon people stopped booking at all. The wine garden was empty on the weekend, the picnic tables blackened with soot, the furthest vineyards impossible to see in the distance behind the floating remnants of distantly burnt trees. Enquiries started getting snappier, city dwellers annoyed that their plans for escape were foiled. Didn’t they realise they were lucky up there, tucked away in their air-conditioned apartments, their living not tied to the land?
I had started to panic, going over the books obsessively, and seeing empty bookings and slow lunch times. It had to end soon. Christmas was coming, a busy time of year when people were willing to indulge, longer bookings on accommodation, families laden with swimmers and floaties driving down the road to the beach, people readily helping themselves to third, fourth, fifth glasses of wine and leaving loaded up with our selection boxes.
We sat and hoped that the fires would ease, that the country would release its chokehold on the south coast but after weeks of ashy skies it was clear our grapes were ruined. The plants, desperate as the rest of us to breath had sucked it all in, absorbing the toxic haze the sky rained down, filling up with black heaviness like the lung of an aging smoker. No customers now, no wine to make next year. I spent my hours searching for ways to turn smoky grapes into money.
I was brushing off the picnic tables for the millionth time when my brother came out of the cellar door, his face forlorn as he delivered the news. New fires were burning down south, leaving us sandwiched between two paths of destruction. The steady stream of traffic that drove down south for the Christmas break would be dry, yet another dusty riverbed caused by the drought. We sat at the table, cracked open one of our own bottles and drank.
Soon the flow of traffic was back, but moving in reverse, evacuees floating upstream from the south coast to the city. One afternoon we had a couple stop by, two small children trailing behind them as they walked into the restaurant. I was so excited by the prospect of customers that I bounded over to them, beaming, almost not noticing their tired expressions held up by an undercurrent of fear. It was soon clear they had left their home at the mercy of the flames, fleeing for safety. I questioned them as I brought food for the kids.
“Where are you going to stay tonight?” I asked.
“We don’t really know,” the mother replied, tugging her children close.
As I led them to one of our cottages, helping them with their bags and seeing how little they had of their belongings, I felt immensely grateful. Suddenly I was like the city dweller. Here I was atop my land with my house and family safe, angry because I had lost Christmas business. I was lucky.
February came and with it the rains, great gushing sheets of water that quenched flames and brought the crisp brown landscape back to life. I ran a hand over the moist leaves and marvelled at the vibrancy, the sudden green, the pungent smell of fruit. The sky was a deep blue, clear of smoke, turning to dusk. Birds circled above me, squawking in the evening sky. I watched one of the babies swoop down and pluck a plump grape from the ground, gorging on the ruined fruit we had left to rot on the vines.
Laura Hallam is an amateur writer from Australia. As a child, she won awards at her local art gallery’s writing competition six years in a row, so you could say writing based on pictures is her niche interest. She can currently be found at home, thinking about writing a novel but probably not doing it.
Marta Moreiras is based in Dakar, Senegal. She loves travelling. Nonetheless she has settled for some years in eclectic cities such as Madrid, Barcelona and London. After her degree in Media and Journalism she completed her education at the London College of Communication with a Masters in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography. She is currently dedicated to both work on personal projects about in Senegal and also taking photography assignments that dig in her obsessions: health, education, sustainable development, culture and the impact of climate change. Her personal work is focused on different aspects related to landscape and human values as definers of culture and identity. You can find her here @martamoreiras