This story was written for the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2021, in which I placed 2nd.
Max 1,000 words in 48 hours
Genre: fairy tale
Location: holiday fair
Object: bunch of grapes
The vineyards knit handsome green stripes across the faces of the hills, but among them was a patch torn from the blanket to reveal bare threads and soil, and its grapes had shriveled on their bunches like little lungs squeezed shut.
From atop a hill, the boy stared down at the blighted vines. His father would be unable to contribute to the royal wine barrels, and the vineyard would be razed.
Crows circled and dove at a shape that walked the withered rows. From afar, the boy heard it speak: “The vines can live again.”
“The grapes are to be offered at the harvest fair tomorrow,” said the boy. “My father is ruined.”
The shape stepped from the rows—a scarecrow in clothes fatigued by years of wind, rain, sun, and snow. Under the rippled hat brim its eyes shone like polished garnets. “You may have the wealth of a hundred harvests,” it said.
Hope fluttered in the boy’s chest.
“But something must be given before something is received.”
“Anything,” said the boy.
The scarecrow took hold of the boy’s head, and with a small sickle carved a line around his crown, lifted the lid and scooped his brain and his eyes. His vision went black. Cool air blew into the cavity and whistled through his ears.
The scarecrow removed its hat and lifted a fat bunch of red grapes from its cranium, its eyes emptied of their garnets. The sockets were paneless windows, into which nestled the boy’s blue eyes as they lowered with his brain into their new container.
In turn, the boy’s head received the grapes; two bulbous members of the bunch filled his sockets and shone with juice in the yellow evening light.
“Touch every leaf,” said the scarecrow.
The boy set to work, blindly anointing each leaf with a sweet tear from his new eyes.
In the morning the father awoke to a field of luxuriant vines, but still not a single grape hung from them. He found his cart was missing. To save his son the shame of arriving cart-less and empty-handed, he walked to the fair alone.
But when he arrived, he found his cart and his son surrounded by mountains of luscious grapes that reached even above the colored flags strung across the beams of the stalls.
The boy sat among the piles, staring into the distance and wearing on his face the only smile in sight. Villagers glowered from nearby stalls of gourds, fresh bread, corn of all colors, woven baskets and furniture, handcrafted tools, jars of jam and honey, and barrels of dried beans and herbs. Children approached to marvel at the grapes, but their parents quickly snatched them away as if from piles of moldering corpses.
“My boy,” said the father, stepping over grape-full crates near bursting on the ground. “It is a miracle.”
“Miracle, my eye!” said the butcher, tossing aside the bunches of grapes tumbling onto his table of salted meats. “The child is touched by the devil!”
The woodcarver worried over a toy horse stained with juice from grapes fallen into his chests. He spat into a kerchief and wiped the figurine. “Indeed, from what sulfur-smelling hole have you dug this ‘miracle’?”
The father put a hand upon his son’s shoulder and said quietly, “My son, what terrible magic was summoned for this?”
The boy smiled up at the father and a drop of juice ran down his cheek.
The father trembled. “I have gained prosperity, and lost my son!”
Fanfare chopped his voice away, and a mass of members of the court came down the alley. The king himself stepped to the front. All bowed, including the father and still-grinning son.
The king eyed them suspiciously. Even the jewels in his crown paled next to the light and color of the grapes. “Only yesterday your farm was a spot of blight,” said he. “Now you must answer for this… diabolical reversal of fortune.”
“Your Highness,” said the boy, “before you declare us heretics, please taste of our grapes.”
The king paused. Then he snapped his fingers. A set of bells jingled through the members of the court until a jester emerged.
The king pointed. “Jester, taste a grape.”
The jester approached with caution. He plucked a grape, examined it at length, put it into his mouth, and slowly bit down. “Sire… this is the most delicious grape I have ever had the pleasure to taste.”
The king hesitated, then chose and ate a grape. Misgiving melted from his face. He demanded that all of the court’s wine barrels be filled with only the juice of those grapes.
Having won the king’s favor, the father and son spent the fair selling their surplus to the decreasingly suspicious villagers. The boy stared at nothing and felt his way among the bunches, packing more crates while his father counted coins with quivering hands.
When the day dimmed, the last of the customers approached—a man in weather-worn clothes, with a strange old face but familiar blue eyes.
At the sight of those eyes, the father fell to his knees.
The man said, “Your son made a great sacrifice for this fortune.”
“Please, replace his sacrifice with my own,” said the father. “He must not suffer my failings.”
“Very well.” The man removed his hat.
In the following years, the vineyard flourished under the boy’s care. He often stopped atop the hill to admire the green rows knit tight over the dark earth. His blue eyes drank with sadness the plentiful view that his father could no longer see.
The father kept watch among the vines below, night and day, through all weather. Crows gathered like never before, but they left the vines untouched, favoring the juicier grapes of the father’s eyes.