By Caitlin Radonich
This short story was published in the Feb. 2019 edition of Live Ideas. View it HERE.
Terroir (terˈwär): n. the characteristic taste and flavor imparted to a wine by the environment in which it is produced.
The town she now lived in was tiny, a mere blemish in the broad fields. Those travelling along the highway between the two cities of any account in the area would hardly even notice it, if it were not for the momentary inconvenience of having to slow down as they passed through.
The house she now lived in was crushed between the Factory and the parking lot for the Factory’s trucks. The Factory was the only thing of note within the town; most of the people she knew in the area worked there or had worked there, or would work there as soon as they were old enough. The steady hum of the machinery and fans formed a base-track for her life, punctuated by the crunch of tires on gravel and the flash of truck lights through the windows at all hours of the day and night.
A cheap candle flickered on the bookshelf besides her improvised desk, fending off the reek of the Factory with an artificial memory of hyacinth. She sighed, fingers resting on the keys of her laptop, waiting for inspiration. The shrill screams of the cicadas filled the summer evening, drowning out the Factory like an over-eager children’s choir.
Her mind drifted far away, to the scent of fresh roses and the crisp breeze off the ocean. Memories of other summer days floated before her, the crash and tug of the Pacific upon her ankles, the spray of the sea upon her face. The delicious solitude of standing at the edge of the earth and looking out across the grey and gold abyss…
The hoot and roar of the train – distant now but clattering ever closer – disturbed her reverie. She had moved four times in the past four years, each time creeping closer and closer to the tracks, till now the thundering engine passed only a few yards from her bedroom window, rattling her little world with its sound and fury. Perhaps there was a subconscious comfort in living close to the tracks, to that wood and iron artery that wound from coast to coast. She remembered the shipyards of San Francisco, watching the huge ships come in from the Pacific stacked high with the colorful containers. They looked so big as they clattered past her window, but on those giant ships they seemed as small as children’s blocks.
“Why Kansas?” The question had plagued her every time she went home on holiday, voiced alternately with amusement, credulity, and genuine interest. Certainly there were practical considerations – the lower cost of living, her choice of college, the friends she had made out there, etc., etc. But how could she explain to them how the smaller infinitudes of the corn fields had captivated her, how the wide open abyss of the sky, stretching out on all sides with nothing to hedge her impudent gaze from seeking out the horizon, had filled her with a feeling akin to standing on the edge of the sea – the smallness of a single life in the infinite sweep of space and time? These sensations were difficult for her to understand, and even more difficult to communicate to others. So she shrugged and fended off the question with the usual, dull litany.
There were times – when the sun unfolded all its glory against the evening sky with lazy magnificence, or when the fields about the town were clad in their baptismal gown of snow – that she loved living where she did. But then there were times, times like this, when the reek of the Factory refused to be dispelled and the broad, imperious sky crushed down from above like a thumb upon a tack, wedging her in place. That was when she ached with homesickness, and felt every mile that stretched between her and the coast.
Her plane touched down with the usual skipping jolt. She was back in the Valley again, between the mountains and hills that had bookended her life until four years ago. The mountains had always seemed small to her, and their lack of snowy crags had disappointed her as a child; but now, viewed with eyes refreshed by absence, they seemed huge and lush, crowding out the horizon and narrowing the sky to a comprehensible expanse. The hills were brown from years of drought, but the mountains retained their verdant coat of redwoods and oaks, broken by regimented patches of vineyards. And beyond the mountains, hidden behind their back like a child’s surprise, lay the ocean. Even though she couldn’t see it, the knowledge that it was near pleased her.
Her grandparents lived on several acres in the mountains. It was a long drive to their property, on a narrow winding highway lined with orange poppies and yellow yarrow. Some of the happiest hours of her childhood had been spent adventuring amongst the fruit trees of the orchard that covered the majority of their land; in her absence, however, the orchard had been removed and grapevines planted in its place, as her family became the newest member of the growing coterie of vineyards in the area.
“The land is good here,” her cousin said, as they stood on the back deck of the house and surveyed the ranks of infant vines that spread out from them like ripples on the gently sloping mountain side. “The terroir. It’ll be a few years till we can harvest though.”
She felt a curious mix of the old and new within her. A piece of her childhood was gone forever, and she had expected to be saddened, but she was not. In a few years, there would be wine that tasted of her childhood, and of her mountains. It would be imprinted with the sense of place just as deeply as she was.
Holiday was over and she was back in the tiny town, in the house crushed between the Factory and the trucks, back in the company of the cicadas, back under the infinite sky. The homesickness she had felt before was replaced by a new sensation within her. The land is good here, she thought to herself, as she turned out the light and crawled into bed. The terroir. Lying in the darkness, she turned this thought over and over in her mind, like a pebble caught in a rushing stream, smoothing and polishing it. Perhaps people are like wine. They pick up the tastes and textures of the places they’ve been and make them a part of themselves. Or, perhaps wine is like people.
She pictured someone pouring her out and seeing ocean waves, corn fields, poppies and sunflowers. What other places, she wondered, would the current of life bring her to? What other tastes and textures would she absorb? Perhaps a time would come when she would miss this tiny town as intensely as she had missed the ocean. Outside in the darkness the train rushed by, leaving echoes in its wake of the places that had made her.