December 1, 2021

Sunburn

by Martin Toman

The sun beat down. Hot air blasted into the cabin through the open windows. It was a long drive back to the vineyard from town, made dangerous by the rutted road. William bounced around on the bench seat, concentrating on avoiding the channels carved out of the surface by heavy winter rains, the mud long since dried hard by the summer sun. He had made this trip a few times in the past months. He knew that if his mind wandered he could put a wheel deep into a rut, lose control of the vehicle and end up in a ditch or over the edge of the road. If he wasn’t killed, he’d have to call Ivan to haul him out with the tractor. It wasn’t worth contemplating. So all he thought about was the road: his hands on the wheel, his feet on the pedals, being in control.

William had worked at the vineyard for nearly half a year, from the end of winter until now, high summer and harvest. He was on a working visa, a twelve month deal. It sounded so easy when the agency sold him the package. Find a sponsor, get a working visa and get paid for six months, followed by a lump sum when the term was up. Then he’d be free to travel on his earnings for the next half-year; an easy way to see the world. The vineyard looked idyllic on the internet, described as rustic but beautiful, and the owner seemed nice enough from their email correspondence. So he provided the ID and completed the forms on the website. In three clicks, he’d sold himself to six months of servitude, and all that went with it.

Of course, rustic turned out to be an understatement. It was sixty kilometres from the nearest town. There was no electricity, the power only working when the generator was running, and that would break down every other week. Forget about the internet when the generator was kaput. There was one phone, but it was in Ivan’s bedroom. During the spring storms the phone line had gone down for a month. William spent the days of late winter and spring pruning and preparing the vines in the raw wind and rain. At night he would bundle inside his sleeping bag and read by the light of the sputtering fireplace. Beside him, Ivan would sit in his shirtsleeves or sometimes a pullover, an open bottle of spirits on the floor, and stare at the popping fire.

As he approached the final slope to the vineyard, William crunched down the gears once last time as the engine laboured the truck up the hill. He navigated the truck through the gates: two timber pillars that bisected the stone wall. The vines stretched away from the road that divided the property, the limestone ground dry and parched. Despite the heat, the grapes looked full and burnished under the sun, promising a fiercely flavoured vintage. The truck kicked up a plume of dust, heralding his arrival, as William drove the last stretch of his journey. He’d been to town to collect some irrigation pipes, some things for the kitchen, and of course the generator that had been repaired, yet again.

Ivan stood waiting to meet him outside the machinery shed. As William alighted from the truck, Ivan was upon him, his meaty body pressed against William’s side, thick arm around his neck. His boss smelt as he usually did by this time of day, a dense male smell: perspiration, dirt, and something underneath, something hormonal and quintessentially Ivan, like an animal. William knew better than to recoil. If he did Ivan would pull him closer, yank his neck into the crook of his elbow, bringing pain and causing embarrassment, if not more of the smell.

William closed his eyes in Ivan’s embrace: Just get it over with you closet fag. He felt some of the older man’s sweat brush onto his cheek, filling his nostrils with scent, and then he was released.

You made it again, up the track, no turning back, yes? Such a good boy! You have everything we need, yes? We are ready for real work now! The real work. And you will stay, make the wine and then you can go, if you like. Or if you want you can stay, see what autumn brings.

William rubbed the back of his neck, stepped away to be free of Ivan. He looked at the man, his complete opposite. Ivan: older, muscular and thick waisted, his hairy chest damp with sweat, thick black hair just turning to silver at the temples. And then William, just out of school and still looking like a student, although his hands were no longer school boy soft. The vineyard had seen to that. His pale skin had been burned so many times in the vines that he now sported a dense crop of freckles. And he’d gained weight from all the physical work, but he was no Ivan. Ivan looked like he was made of the earth. William closed his eyes, thought about the generator, the work to come, and the holiday on the other side of it. He knew that getting there would mean going through Ivan.

The argument took place the next morning. William knew it would happen eventually, it was just a matter of when. They had lifted the generator out of the back of the truck and plugged it into the mains near the grape press. Ivan filled it with diesel before he primed the engine, turned on the choke and pulled the starter cord. The engine kicked over and then stalled, chuffing blue smoke. Then he tried it again, for the same result. Then again, and again, and within a minute Ivan was swearing and cursing. The generator sat dead and whipped beneath him, as useless as it was when it had left the vineyard for town.

You ladyboy fuckingboy whore! Odjebi u skokovima!

William knew from experience that it was serious when Ivan started swearing in Croat. Normally he just cursed in broken English, sometimes laughing between the phrases when he realised he had mangled the word order. William didn’t know what Ivan had just said in his native tongue, but the generator didn’t seem impressed, ignoring his efforts to bring it to life.

Ivan stepped back, hands on hips. His shirt was rucked up, a patch of black hair running up past his waistband on his lower back. The rising sun was already starting to make William’s skin prickle.

Ivan turned to him, his face still creased with effort.

Well that’s it then, you have to stay now, for longer. I will need you to press, pump. We have no machine. It will take longer, but we have no generator now. The wine needs to get into the barrels. I need you to stay. As long as it takes. I need your hands, and your back. I can’t have the fruit go bad on the vine or rot after we have picked it.

William knew this was coming, one way or the other. It wouldn’t have mattered if it was the generator or something else. Ivan would invent some reason for him to have to stay. He would try to keep William working for a stipend while holding out the lump sum and freedom. In fact, he had felt it since he arrived. He wondered what Ivan thought of him as they worked together, or when they sat silently in front of the fire in the darkness. William looked at the man, saw him though narrowed eyes, the cold dry voice of his inner dialogue speaking as they stood beside the dead generator. You want me to stay forever you old queen, so we could be lovers, growing grapes and making wine and living together as master and servant. You are a fucking joke you fucking barbarian.

William kept his silence and walked away, towards the farm house. He wasn’t going to get drawn into the argument. Then he felt Ivan’s hand on his shoulder, spinning him around.

Ivan’s face was drawn up right next to his. William could smell the coffee on his breath.

Well, what you do? I need you to stay. It is fair. I put you up for all this time, you see this country after. We see this through to the end.

William recognised that there was nothing he could do to avoid the confrontation. He had to say it or he would never leave.

You can do it all yourself. In ten days I am out of here, grapes picked or unpicked, wine in barrels or not. In ten days’ time it’ll be six months, and I am gone. I didn’t come to this country to be your slave.

William kept walking, into the farmhouse, to his room. He could hear Ivan outside, attempting to start the generator, each slinging effort punctuated by curses. William lay on his mattress and stared at the ceiling. The morning light of the summer sun burned through the windowpane. Dust motes swirled in the air currents.

There was silence for a while and the shadows in the room changed as the day moved on. Eventually Ivan appeared, a dark shape in the doorway.

So, you are right. I cannot keep you. But we must work, the grapes won’t wait. Put this behind us. We should start picking, there is much to do before you go.

William got up off the bed and followed Ivan. The air outside was still and hot.

They spent the day in the vines, harvesting. Ivan and William picked without speaking. As he worked, William imagined where he would go when he left the vineyard, the places he had seen on the internet. All he knew of the country was the airport, and the passing landscapes on his six hour bus ride to the vineyard. It had been a bleak winter’s day when he landed, the horizon shrouded in looming clouds, the rough hills stretching on and on. William paused in his work, straightened his spine. He lifted his head to the blue sky, the silhouette of rough hills. Surely there’s more to this country than this.

By the end of the day William was sore from bending over and carrying, his knees ached from crouching under the foliage. Even though he’d worn a hat, the skin on his face felt tight with sunburn. Ivan drove the truck back to the buildings in the twilight and they unloaded the grapes into the sheds. It was dark by the time they were inside the farmhouse, the first stars twinkling in the dry summer sky. Ivan cooked by candlelight and they ate silently in the kitchen. William was too tired to speak, and went to his room as soon as he had finished cleaning the kitchen. It almost seemed like too much trouble to wash himself, but the cold water from the shower head cooled his tight skin as he stood in the watery darkness. He fell asleep almost as soon as he blew out the candle.

When he awoke in the morning, William saw immediately that someone had been in his room. His bag was unzipped, and the drawers of the bedside table lay open. He guessed what Ivan had done.

William found him in the machinery shed.

Where’s my fucking passport?

Ivan held up his hands. They were big, almost bear like, the palms pale compared to the rest of his body.

You will get it back when we are done, and paid all what you are owed. It will only be a matter of a few weeks extra, maybe a month.

You can’t do this. You don’t have the right. I didn’t sign up for this. It’s illegal.

Ivan stood across from William, the generator a guilty party between them. The cover was off, parts taken out and lying on the concrete floor. Ivan had been trying to get it started, again. The sun shone through the open doors.

Legal? Illegal? Little boy, what is the difference out here? You work, get paid, have your holiday. After all that we have done together, you cannot leave. You will get what you are owed, but only when the wine is pressed and in the barrels. Then you can go. I will even drive you to the city, no bus. You can fly away wherever you wish from there.

William realised that he was stuck. Ivan would take the keys that he typically left in the truck and hide them, and it was too far to walk to town. Even if he walked in the cool of night it would take him two or three days. He might get lucky and hitch a lift, but there were no guarantees in this countryside. He didn’t have a choice.

The day that followed played out like the last; in the vines, working in silence. Then the drive back in the gloaming, a silent meal and bed. William extinguished the candle with his fingers. The sting of the burning wick didn’t hurt as much as he’d hoped it might.

Later, when he thought about what happened next, he realised that he had sensed Ivan before he was awake. It was his smell, the animal undertone, the prehistoric and unevolved. As William came to full consciousness he saw Ivan in his room, a black shape in the darkness, absorbing whatever light shone in from the stars outside. From his outline it was clear that Ivan was naked.

Before he could will his body to move, William felt his arm pinned behind his back, yanking his wrist higher until he felt the bones bend and break. A hideous white hot pain erupted from his elbow to his neck. Then there was a huge hand on the back of his head, pushing his face into the pillow with impossible strength. With his breath shallow, panting from the pain, William felt Ivan push into him, penetrate his body. The smell of the older man was overpowering. William felt only pain and then there was nothing, only a swimming darkness.

*****

William awoke to pain and light. The sun was high in the sky and shone on his face. He sat up slowly. He was somewhere in the hills, away from the vineyard, in the empty land beyond. He looked down and examined his arm. The elbow stuck out an unnatural angle, the joint flabby and swollen. William reached up to his face, felt for contusions or lumps. One eye was almost shut. He ran his fingers down his face to check for further injuries and that was when he found the cut in his neck. His fingers came away sticky and wet. He traced the cut. It ran from his ear to his Adam’s apple. That fucker cut my throat and left me for dead out here. For the fucking foxes to eat.

William tested the wound carefully with his fingers, prodding the gash. The skin was parted and open, but it had stopped bleeding. He squinted at the sun, plotted the compass direction from its place in the sky, the shadows under the trees. He did the maths.

If I head east I will find the road. Then we’ll see.

It took him most of the day to find it. Ivan had dumped him far into the hills. William traversed the slopes unsteadily, tracing a way back. Occasionally he saw a faint tyre print. Sometimes William stopped when he found a tree to shelter under. The stumpy brushy eucalypts offered him little comfort, but the shade was something. Once he found a muddy spring, and scooped handfuls of dirty water into his mouth. It made him feel both sick and stronger.

Later, when the sun was long gone, his feet found the road. He paused. For a moment he looked down from the hills, away from the direction of the vineyard. If he followed the road he might still get to town, get help. In the softness of the night a thin sliver of moon had crested the horizon. I could make my way down, get help, come back with the police. Wait for justice.

William looked up at the sky. The constellation of Orion burned above him, the great hunter majestic and bright. His celestial bow aimed up the hill, in the direction of the vineyard. The stars pointed the way.

Fuck town, he said aloud. His lips felt thick and alien, like they belonged to someone else. He smiled, ran his finger along the cut, picked away a crusty flake of blood, and began walking.

*****

The sun rose over the vineyard. Ivan lay in bed. He had spent the day before burning and burying William’s possessions. He had even burnt the mattress that the boy had slept on, consigning what was left to the earth. There would eventually be questions, of course, but no evidence. He would say the boy had finished his contract, been paid his lump sum and left. He was ready.

*****

Ivan had singed the hair on the back of his hands in the blaze. He inspected them now in the morning light. They were almost free of the dark mat that usually covered them. Pretty hands, he thought, almost like a girls. Then he smiled, A big girl though.

In the stillness Ivan smelt something, something had been burnt. He held his fingers to his nose, expecting that the smell came from them, lingering from the fire the day before. No, nothing. They are clean. Then he sniffed again. He hadn’t imagined it. Something was burning.

Ivan emerged from his bedroom half-dressed, snatching at clothes in his rush. The smell intensified as he moved through the house. The morning light came in through the windows a shade of amber.

Then he saw it and swore. He didn’t notice what language escaped his lips.

The sun was perched low in the sky as a plume of smoke ballooned up from the vineyard. The vines were alight, tongues of flame leaping from row to row as if they were alive, running along lines on the ground to ignite and burn everything. The inferno intensified and increased in the nascent day’s heat. Through the smoke and flame he could see the truck, parked away from the farmhouse, next to the gates. A figure leant against it, arms folded. He could see him through the smoke, the boy whose throat he had slashed. Then Ivan knew what had happened. While he was asleep William had moved the truck, doused the vines in diesel, and set them alight as dawn broke. The vines were gone, there was no way to extinguish the fire. If he was lucky Ivan might have been able to save the buildings and the farmhouse, but it was unlikely. The fire burned clear lines to the machinery shed, the pressing room. The flames could run and run, but Ivan couldn’t move.

William watched Ivan from the other side of the inferno. The sun shone on Ivan’s face through the smoke, but it was too far to see his expression. Thick smoke ascended to the heavens. William climbed into the truck, started it. It would be difficult to drive down the rutted road to town with a broken arm, but he steeled himself for the task. His hands stank of the fuel he had used to ignite the fire, but it was a sweet smell, much better than the smoke that funnelled into wide open sky, towards the sun.

He started his way back down the hill, slowly and carefully steering around the dangers he met.

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