To make wine in a country of beer drinkers is to birth a planet in a solar system with no sun to sustain it. This is what Nandi’s brother declared when she announced what she’d do with the blighted slice of land their late father had gifted her. The favored son, lavished with excesses that would embarrass someone of superior character, was bequeathed the thriving cement business in Botswana.
Nandi slogged through her morning ritual on her nascent vineyard. She lamented the shriveled violet grapes, cursed a cluster of diseased vines, swatted and screamed at scavenging birds. And in the latest hand pruning malady, she’d sliced a chunk of flesh from her ring finger. Each injustice delivered to her the potent sting of her father’s mockery. She rolled her eyes at the sound of a familiar chuckle.
“You trying to run a vineyard or raise camels out here?” Her Afrikaner neighbor jeered. He owned a thriving winery four miles east that yielded a vintage served in American restaurants.
“Whether or not I fail does not matter.” Nandi hid her bloody finger. “At least I did not steal land from the rightful owners and tread across their broken backs on my way to success.”
Nandi suspected the man loved the South African sun but she thought it had done terrible things to his face. The skin had taken on a waxy unnatural texture. Deep rivulets lined his face and framed his mouth. His expression now was that of a man deciding whether or not, post-apartheid, he could get away with strangling her. She guessed he’d decided against it because his face split into a mamba’s grin.
“You know this land is cursed, right?” He folded his arms and leaned against her fence.
Nandi neither responded nor made any movement to leave, so the Afrikaner continued. “That Kaffir boy was about 10 or 11–another orphan. Plunged from the highest branch on that dead Marula tree of yours and sliced himself up in a hundred places on the way down. Bled out right there at the base. Heard he poisoned everything within a mile, but that could just be talk. Of course, I’ll take the land off your hands if that spooks you.”
Nandi forced on a cool smile. The racial slur didn’t unsettle her; it was an overused, primitive tool. But had a child really died on her property? She left her neighbor without benefit of retort and drove off.
Nestled on the outskirts of the dying vines, her four-room cottage stood as brazen in its misplaced cheerfulness as a rosebush atop a mass grave. The outside was a collage of color and vitality but the inside carried the lingering stench of a husband who abandoned her for a more fertile vessel for his offspring. Sometimes, in the deepest stillness of the night, Nandi heard the cries of her unborn children.
With the car tucked under the non-existent shade of the dead Marula tree, Nandi had taken a few steps before she shivered in the triple-digit heat and flung her gaze back. It towered overhead, a lush rainbow of russets and greens. But instead of the sweet yellow fruit of the Marula, the branches sprouted six-petaled flowers of every hue, about 15 centimeters in diameter. It smelled like a centuries-old beginning.
Nandi glanced from the tree to her cottage and back again. When the black outline of a face sizzled to life in the center of the brown bark and a voice rose from the rough slash of a mouth, she yelped.
“This was once a fine land. But there is a sickness here, something of man, not of the earth.”
Nandi’s breath lodged painfully in her throat.
“Your ears hear true. It is I who speaks.” the ground rumbled and the earth splintered as Nandi threw out her arms to try and steady herself.
“This is not happening.” was all that Nandi had the courage to say.
“The Zulu, the Xhosa, Ndebele,” the tree’s voice was as raw as uncooked yam. “Each have sang songs of my children and I for generations. Will you waste time questioning what is or will you ask for what you need?”
Nandi decided in an instant. She’d dismissed the tales as folklore but could not discount her eyes and ears. “I would ask for your help if I knew what it was you had to offer.”
“What problem do you have that needs solving?”
Nandi thought of the troubles she had in the romantic realm but decided not to waste her time there. And there were other more insignificant matters. “My vineyard,” she responded without further consideration. “If this harvest fails, I am finished.”
“A family is like a forest, when you are outside it is dense, when you are inside you see that each tree has its place. I will grant one of my children for your own family and she will help you. She may remain with you forever under two conditions.”
The folklore says that when you are gifted one of the children that flower the trees, she born with abilities to thwart whatever assails you. “Name your conditions.”
“You will be kind to her but you will not spoil. And you must never reveal the truth of where the child came from to anyone.”
Without hesitation, Nandi announced, “I agree to your conditions.”
A beautiful red flower glided down from the tree and spun slowly, building speed until the color blurred. Wind and earth swirled together, throwing off small branches and rocks and debris. Nandi witnessed each of the six petals transform: a fuzz-covered head, a torso, two arms and two legs. The child appeared to be of an age where she has learned to walk but is not yet ready to run. Nandi’s numb heart shot through with blissful anticipation.
While Nandi and the child regarded each other, the tree resumed its lifeless facade.
“What is your name?” her voice cracked but did not dampen her cautious grin.
“I am called Grace.” Her voice was deep as if it emanated from a thousand miles beneath their feet.
“That you are,” Nandi said and began to weep.
The child crowded Nandi, touching a leg, wondering at her blood-stained finger. “What am I to call you?”
Nandi thought about the word that she had longed to hear and considered the tree’s admonition not to tell anyone the truth of where the child had come from. Through the tears that streamed down her face, she said, “I would be so very happy if you would call me Mama.”
Nandi’s daughter had been born unclothed and she knew she needed two things: clothing and food. The meager offerings she had in her cupboards would not do. She worried alternately about taking Grace with her and leaving her alone.
Grace sat on the rug in front of the sofa, trapping a spider between her cupped hands.
“What is it, Mama?” Grace asked in that unsettling deep voice.
Nandi smiled inwardly. “I need to get things for you, but I cannot take you into town with me as you are.”
Grace laughed. “Mama, I will be fine. Tree mother is there.”
It only took a little more coaxing before Nandi tied on a colorful headscarf and put on some clean clothes. She looked out the rearview mirror more times than she could count, before the little cottage disappeared from view.
There were raised eyebrows at her purchases. She’d entered these same stalls before, but never had she bought children’s clothes and had to guess at the size at that. The quickly concocted story about adopting an orphan rolled off her tongue as easily as the shopkeepers accepted it as truth. Her last trip was to the market to get fruits and meats Grace might like. And candy, yes.
The tree’s admonition played in her mind. Do not spoil her.
On her way back to the cottage, Nandi passed the Afrikaner’s lush vineyard. Despite what he said about the curse, she knew that he’d snatch her land up to add to his own if he could. She vowed to set her fields on fire before she allowed anything but charred remains to fall into his hands.
Back at home, she burst through the door with her arms loaded. “Grace,” she called, but there was no answer. She dropped her purchases where she stood and frantically searched the small space and outside. Grace was nowhere to be found.
Nandi collapsed on the sofa and sank her face into her trembling hands. Talking trees and flower children were myth. She debated submitting herself for evaluation when the door banged open.
The child bound in on dusty bare feet.
“What’s wrong, Mama?” little Grace exclaimed and traced her tiny finger down the tear that fell from the corner of Nandi’s eye.
As quickly as her doubts had arisen, Nandi stamped them out. “I am just so happy to have you.”
“What did you bring me?” Grace asked and Nandi put all thoughts of the vineyard out of her mind for the moment and showed her daughter her new clothes and the sweets and the toys she’d purchased though she didn’t really have the money. She had probably gone overboard but this was her first child.
She showed Grace to the small unfurnished sitting room where she would sleep. They laid out a sleeping mat. When she was able, she would get a proper bed.
Nandi was happy to cook for someone again and she and her new daughter shared a meal outside on the verandah before retiring. During the night, tiny Grace managed to find her way into Nandi’s bedroom and had curled up beside her. Nandi awoke and cradled the child close to her, relishing the warmth of her tiny body.
The next morning, after a breakfast of cornmeal porridge and bread, Nandi allowed the child to drag her outside and they got in the car for the trip to the vineyard. Though this land had brought Nandi nothing but heartache and disappointment, she had never tired of its beauty. And now she had a child where she’d resigned herself to having none. Her ex-husband could keep his young tart in Cape Town and the irascible monster they’d produced.
She pulled over and parked, relieved the Afrikaner wasn’t there to torment her. They got out of the car and together they went down a row. Grace pointed up at the doves circling overhead. “They like the taste of your grapes,” she said and held out her arm. The arm thinned and lengthened. Plump, supple skin became the rough texture of wizened bark. Small branches sprouted. Her daughter’s arm had become a sturdy tree branch and soon, one of the doves glided down and settled there.
Grace and the bird conversed in a language that was lost on Nandi. She watched in awe and hoped nobody drove by to see what she herself could only dare to acknowledge. The exchange went on for a time, screeches and squawks at one point so animated, that Nandi began to fear that the bird might poke its sharp beak at her new daughter.
A moment later, the bird shot upward to rejoin its flock and they flew off toward the east. Grace’s arm returned to normal and she wore a look of consternation. “A most difficult bird, Mama,” she said. “I asked it to leave us alone and only eat your neighbor’s grapes but it refused.”
Nandi sagged a bit. The birds had been unmerciful.
“But,” Grace brightened. “They will only take from the two meters at the southwest edge of our vineyard. We have to care for it like the rest and we can’t try to poison their grapes either.”
Nandi pursed her lips. She did not relish the idea of giving up any part of her land to the air predators but figured she had no choice. “You negotiated well,” she said. She embraced Grace and the child beamed.
“Come, Mama.” Grace walked further down the row and pointed at a vine. “The darkening, here and here; it is very easy to cure. Do you think we could go into the city later? I would so like to see it.”
“Of course,” Nandi answered, barely able to contain herself. She’d tried commercial products intended to kill all manner of disease that had in the end, nearly killed her vineyard. “We shall head into the city right now.”
“Not yet, Mama,” little Grace intoned. “Your land,” she began and then detoured. “Can I have a snack?”
“We just had breakfast,” Nandi rebuked. “You can have a snack later.”
Grace crossed her arms and poked out her lower lip. Nandi thought it wouldn’t hurt to indulge the child just this once. “Here,” she produced a candy from her pocket. “Just this time.”
Grace popped the candy in her mouth and continued between slurps. “Your land is sick, Mama but I can make it feel better. Just you watch.”
Grace sank to the earth and sat like a little temple, her arms stretched out and touching the ground on either side of her and her legs stretched out in front of her. She closed her eyes and her limbs began to stretch again. This time, they took on the look of tree roots. All that was left of the little girl was her torso and head.
Each root limb plunged into the earth and the child began to shake vigorously. Soon, little Grace was sweating profusely and her tiny body trembled so, that Nandi herself became alarmed.
“It is killing you,” Nandi implored. “Stop. Forget the vineyard–”
And in that moment, the trembling ceased, Grace’s limbs restructured back into those of a little girl and she broke out into a big grin. “It is done!”
Subtle changes in the vineyard appeared; spots of new color and growth. Nandi sank to her knees and welcomed Grace’s once again human embrace.
The next three years brought much success to Nandi’s winery. While Grace maintained the health of the land, Nandi negotiated a contract with the largest hotel chain in South Africa. Her wine, a Pinot Noir called Cape Dumisa, was a hit.
But Gradually, tree mother’s warnings faded from memory. As children are prone to do, Grace became a master at manipulation. An unexpected hug or a flutter of lashes was enough to soften Nandi’s firm hand. And as mother’s are prone to do, Nandi loved her first child with a fierceness that the twinge of shirked duties or the occasional pout could not blunt.
For the last year, mother and daughter hurried past the tree, fearful its watchful eye judged them lacking. Grace threw tantrums to get her way; without fail, Nandi relented. And the vineyard became more undone each time the tree’s two conditions were ignored. The hotel contract ended and was not renewed. The Cape Dumisa vintage claimed only a small local grocer as a customer.
One morning, Nandi’s name came to her as a breathless tremor. She went outside and stumbled down the steps. The aroma of fresh flowers was a slap to her face. Nandi trembled before the Marula tree, once again bursting with life. Close behind, Grace also stood wide-eyed.
“We desire to bequeath two things to our children; the first one is roots, the other one is wings,” tree mother said without ceremony. “I gave my daughter wings, but she must now return home.”
Tiny non-blinking eyes watched Grace and Nandi from the beautiful new flowers.
“But she is my daughter now,” Nandi protested. “I have taken good care of her. I love her and she loves me. Who are you to take her from me?” She thought about hustling Grace into the car and driving far away. She would abandon it all in order not to lose her.
“My children do not live away from this soil,” the tree said as if reading her mind. Agitated clicking sounds from tree mother’s flowers rode a searing breeze. The flower children did not approve.
Nandi wilted at the agony of Grace’s sniffles. “Goodbye, Mama.” Her precious Grace embraced her then went to stand in front of the tree, her real mother. Before Nandi, she was remade in the form of the red flower. A subtle breeze swept her up and carried her to the branches from whence she’d come.
Nandi’s vineyard faltered, the old troubles redoubled. She refused her brother’s offer to abandon her home and come to live with him, she’d be little more than a maid for he and his wife. Nandi would remain and would fail or succeed on her own terms.
Not a day passed that Nandi stepped out the house hoping to see the tree mother come to life once again. For a chance to right the wrongs she made with Grace. She prostrated herself in front of the Marula tree, pleading for her daughter’s return. Those pleas were at first hopeful and threaded with respect. But when tree mother refused to shed her shield of lifelessness, Nandi grew angry.
Her contempt became a desperate prattle, a lessening of the mind on the brutal descent to madness. Nandi neither ate nor slept. She wandered her land, waving her arms at birds and other unseen assailants, wasting away until she was called home to her ancestors.
And the flower children ululated a symphony of sorrow.
V.H. Galloway is an ex-Brooklynite, rolling stone, and IT professional by day. She is the author of the Un-United States of Z trilogy and a graduate of the Viable Paradise Workshop. Her work has been published in Fiyah Magazine and Expanded Horizons.