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Of Grapes and Guilt
May 1, 2011

Of all the details I remember from that ominous August day, what impressed me most was the sweat trickling down the workers’ faces as they harvested the vineyard. They carried crates filled with grapes, coming and going among the countless rows of vine, making me dizzy with fear of getting lost. Would I be able to find my way back to the white building where my mom, the accountant, was checking calculations in the kooperativa, the collective farms books?

Land in my country was state property and it was divided into collective farms like this one. Mom worked for the only state bank in our town and was expected to come out once a year and check the procedures on this collective farm.

I enjoyed coming here with her. Walking among the vines, I wondered how those dry trunks could produce such a juicy fruit. I suspected that rain and the sweat drops of the kooperativists had contributed to the process.

I loved the outdoors, yet the reason I wandered as far as possible from where Mom kept comparing numbers was something else. You see, Mom was a pure Communist at heart. She would not eat grapes she hadn’t paid for. And I wouldn’t dare eat them either, at least not in front of her.

“C’mon Comrade Liri, eat some,” her colleagues would insist. “Don’t be so self-righteous. Everybody else eats these grapes. It’s no big deal.”

And I secretly agreed. What harm would eating some grapes do to the huge harvest of this collective farm? Mom shook her head stoically to these objections while I sneaked outside to the tempting juicy globes.

In my country nobody owned anything other than the clothes they had on and the food on their table. Everything else was state property. Yet, the state was us, the people; so in a sense everything belonged to everybody in general and nobody in particular. This was confusing enough to make me give into temptation.

After finishing one big cluster of grapes, I started picking randomly juicy balls here and there, selecting the biggest ones, which were shining like jewels under the sun. Meanwhile I listened to the talk of the workers as they snapped the grapes from branches with large scissors. They were talking about some important members of Political Bureau, a top organization within the Socialist Party, who had come all the way from the capital to visit their successful collective farm. They were now having lunch with the foreman. The workers, it seemed to me, picked the grapes with diligence, as if to impress the PB members.

Later the talk shifted to plain gossip and I was losing track of it when all of a sudden somebody started blowing a whistle. Whoever was blowing the whistle so loudly intended to challenge his lungs to full capacity and I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had blown his brains into the whistle.

Everybody around dropped their scissors and hurried in one direction, which was a good enough reason for me to run along, perspiring profusely.

The crowd gathered in front of the white stucco building. The foreman stood on the front steps, whistle in hand, brain intact, taking in the view of the sweat drenched kooperativists and the vineyard shimmering under the sun.

“Comrades,” he shouted when everybody had gathered, “something despicable has happened in our exemplary Kooperative. This wretched person,” he said pointing to a middle-aged man who stood apart, head bowed, not moving to even wipe his sweat from his face, “this person with no conscience, no morals, this degenerate was caught red-handed stealing grapes.”

All turned around to the degenerate, noticing that he still held a bag half full with grapes. I found Mom among the onlookers. Her face seemed a mix of unreadable emotions. Contempt? Anger? Pity? My mind, out of its own volition started estimating whether the amount of the grapes in my tummy came any where close to the amount in the bag, while I searched for the whereabouts of my conscience. Feeling my cheeks blush, I wished I had stuck to Mom’s resolution of not eating grapes that belonged to everybody.

“Comrades,” continued the foreman, “this man is an enemy of the proletariat and his act will not be overlooked. He dared violate the code of work, the fruit of his comrades’ sweat. What do you have to say?” the foreman sternly asked the red-handed enemy. The once-comrade spoke, without raising his eyes to look at the people who were co-workers, his neighbors, his relatives.

“I am sorry. I shouldn’t have done it.” His voice broke into sobs and tears joined drops of perspiration on the edge of his chin. I felt my spit dry in my mouth.

A couple of fellow kooperativists spoke in turns, shaming their brother and at the same time, trying to appease the anger that, like rain clouds, had started to gather on the PB members’ faces. As they say, wet wood burns along with the dry wood.

“Comrades,” Finally, the oldest PB member spoke as the whole crowd shifted on their feet. “We will set up a makeshift court right here, right now and condemn this shameless act.”

He asked the foreman to appoint someone from the crowd to take part in jury.

“Comrade Lavdi.” The foreman startled my mom and made my heart skip a beat. “Would you volunteer to be part of the jury?”

Even a thirteen-year-old girl as myself knew that the question was only a formality, because the Party people never took no for an answer.

The three Bureau members went into the building, my mom in tow, while the crowd scattered to sit under the shades of the two big oaks. The “enemy” remained on foot under the sun. Three wasps flew in a circle around the bag, trying to get in, without worrying about guilt or sin.

I don’t know how long we waited for the verdict, but I suspect it was long enough that we began to worry that something had gone wrong. Finally one of the Bureau members came out and whispered something to the foreman, who was fanning himself with his hat.

The foreman jumped to his feet and they both went inside again. The person closest to the foreman, who had overheard something of the whispered message, passed it around with no delay. Somebody was refusing to sign the verdict!

As people gasped at the news, my heart trembled with recognition that that somebody had fixed himself for big trouble. That somebody risked being declared an enemy of the people, getting a large stain on their personal reference records and would face grave consequences.

“That somebody can’t be my mom,” I remember convincing myself wishfully. “She hates dishonesty, especially stealing. She wouldn’t mind if they hanged the man.”

Yet, I couldn’t think who else could possibly break the unanimity that every decision required in our country, a place where dissidents did not exist. I couldn’t imagine the three Bureau members disagreeing. They even walked in concord, like soldiers in a military parade.

Finally they came out. Mom, pale as a dead woman, walked out last. Fear gripped my heart. I remember only vaguely what happened afterwards: the shock of the crowd upon hearing the death sentence, the pleading eyes of the guilty, my Mom’s right hand trembling and her transfixed gaze that betrayed disappointment.

All were dismissed. Mom and I walked home on the dusty road after refusing a ride in the PB members’ jeep, the guilty man inside. Mom cried silently all the way home holding my hand in a tight grip, as if the ground was slipping under our feet.

That night I woke up to my mom’s muffled cries and my father’s soothing words.

“I can’t believe it,” Mom was saying, sniffing, “sentence a man to death for a bunch of grapes! What is happening?” demanded my mom, raising her voice. “This is not Communism. This is despotism!”

“Shshshsh. Somebody will hear,” worried my dad.

“They made me sign the verdict,” she continued in revolt. “They threatened me. They said unanimity was a must, otherwise people would think that the Party could be wrong. They assured me that the death penalty was just to frighten people, that a higher court will overrule it and sentence the man to prison for a couple of years. But, what if they don’t?”

Mom paused to catch her breath than continued: “This is not what my father fought for in the war to liberate this country. This is not what they promised Communism would be.”

Both of them fell silent. Only Mom’s occasional sobs spoiled the dark silence. I don’t know if Mom became an enemy of the people that night, but she surely wasn’t a die-hard Communist anymore.

Weeks later we heard that the higher court did indeed overrule the death penalty, sentencing the thief to five years in prison. Mom never spoke of that day and everything went back to normal, except that her eyes never shone again upon hearing the victories of our country under the lead of the Socialist Party, and she never reminded me what a fortunate people we were to be living in the last stronghold of Communism in Europe.

Years later, long after Communism had collapsed and the land had been privatized, Mom came home one day with a black plastic bag in one hand and red-rimmed eyes. She said that a man had thanked her for a signature she had hesitated to give so long ago and had given her grapes in a plastic bag saying, “Eat them with a clean conscience sister! They are the fruits of my pure perspiration and of my honest toil in my own land under the sun.”

Mirkena Ozer is pursuing MA in women studies at the University of Georgia, Atlanta.