His back is used to bending
in the early morning
still picking grapes by hand
as he has always done
as the sunlight highlights them
in waves hanging low on the gnarly vines
metered out in rows, his fingers,
veined and aged, hold onto the pruning shears
that fit just right to cut a bunch of purple twirling
in the slight breeze. He hums to the grapes thinking
the melody as food or love to make them shine brighter
knowing that mechanical harvesting can never
share the same tenderness as he looks out
worried of the smoke rising in the distant hills
where wildfires burn and march their way
to the sea rummaging across the green earth.
He is not troubled by prices and sales
as his life is not big enough
for such things though his eyesight is troubled
at night when he is told that sugar composition
is different though he feels the chill
growing in him as his fingers stiffen
in the early moonlight. The young men call him
El Viejo, old man whose white mustache
and straw hat blocks light from sun or stars.
Each new year is harder than the last
as he walks carefully down the row
the same way he walked his children
when they were young to the ocean
across the border as he fills the yellow tub
with grape bunches before lifting it
with muscles aching and leathery
and carrying the 30 or 40 pounds
to a steel gondola pulled by a tractor
between the vine rows.
He repeats this so many times
during the day when the sun
burns as his tired legs run
to dump the tubs or at night
when his skin stings
that the only thing he does more
is pray or say the names
of his children as he is mesmerized
by the grape he prefers to
the cherries or pears.
When he sings, at first softly
and the women sing along,
he can smell them and sniff in
the scent of food or sweat or see
their legs under the bushes
reminding him of the cows his
grandfather would herd near
the little lopsided shack of his birth
on the hill near the sea when he had
smelled the salt air feeling clean in his heart.
His hands have slowed down
from the young rhythm of picking
just the right bunches that will
make wine sing in a glass
or make a young man dizzy.
He has done this like his father
before him crossing the border
during the season so that he could
send his children to school to become
more than his dreams could ever imagine.
He breathes harder than ever before
wearing his favorite red bandana around
his neck remembering when he was young
stomping the grapes in the wooden vat
into the night surrounded by bonfires
smoking the fields and the remaining grapes
dangling on the vines shivering and sweating
at the same time as the darkness plunges through
the rows while he circles the vat in a ritual, he was
born to live and die for.
Life lies flat on his hand designed
by lines that tell silent stories of his fingertips
colored red, the trek across the desert border
and of children that do not measure life
in the narrowness of shanty walls.
Steven Pelcman is a writer of poetry and short stories and a novelist who has been published in a number of magazines including: The Windsor Review, Innisfree Poetry Journal, The Fourth River, River Oak Review, Poetry Salzburg Review, Tulane Review, The Baltimore Review, The Warwick Review, The Greensboro Review, Iodine Journal and many others. He was nominated for the 2012 Pushcart Prize for individual poems and in 2017 for his volume of poetry titled like water to STONE (Adelaide Books), and an additional Pushcart Prize nomination for an individual poem by Evening Street Press in 2020. Steven has spent the last twenty-three years residing in Germany, where he teaches in academia and is a language communications trainer and consultant.