When we moved into the new place, we didn’t know that a grape arbor came with it. At first glance back in March it appeared to be a tangled mess of mysterious dry vines, long abandoned. By the time we moved in it was decidedly not dead, but covered in several feet of thick green leaves and runners that were trying to eat the house. In August, there were grapes — small tart green ones, perfect little translucent spheres that steadily grew larger where the sunlight found them.
We share the grapes with the squirrels, the birds, and one large black-eyed opossum, all of whom are Mac’s mortal enemies, according to him fit only for the noose. They pluck individual grapes from the bunches and often take a single bite only to throw it onto the ground, so now the patio is covered with lumpy raisin-like discards. Now that the season is winding down, a small army of ants have moved in to feast on the grapes where they’ve been scored and punctured by tiny claws and beaks.
Grapes are mysterious. The animals know when to pluck them, responding to some signal so far invisible to us. Size isn’t it. Color isn’t it. Some of the small ones are astonishingly sweet; some of the largest ones lemon-sour. Or maybe the animals don’t know, and that’s why we have raisins all over the yard. But they all have a grassy spice to them and thin, delicate skins, easily pierced to shed their juice like little globes of liquid sun.
But they aren’t regular and they don’t come easily, even without the local gardeners. The grapevine doesn’t really think of itself as food, and so invariably the best bunches are buried deep between tenacious vines or pressed against the arbor. As the season deepens they show their age, speckled with brown spots, frequently spaced with individual grapes that have given up the ghost and are in the process of spreading a rather pretty blue mold to those around them.
Finding a perfectly ripe grape is an extremely rare event, and as soon as you’ve eaten it you’re tempted to eat another, but chances are it’s not as good. The best have certainly gone to the birds; the soundest bunches we took were not quite ripe, being slightly sour and so passed over by the squirrels. And in a way we are as wasteful as they are, for how we sift through them, discarding the raisins and the half-bitten fruit, being attracted primarily to the ones that are whole and beautiful. And somehow it is intrinsically human that no matter how delicious the final harvest, you can’t help but think of how good it might have been — if only it could have ripened longer, if only the sun would have hit it in just the right way, if only life were a little more clean.