“Phillip, take that ridiculous thing off.”
I unclipped the throat chakra crystal necklace and slipped it into my pocket.
“Thank you. We can’t have the customers thinking we are some sort of hippy grape commune.” She sent me a short smile and quickly returned to her files.
“Yes, Ms. J. Sorry about that.” Once I was facing the doorway to her office, I rolled my eyes.
“Oh don’t pout with me, love. You know how picky I am about our atmosphere.”
How does she do that?
“Of course, I know.” And when I looked at her, those hazel eyes smiled in a way that I could not pout with her at all.
Ms. J had always been particular about her winery, and she was right, I’d known since my first day that there would be a strict dress code.
That first day, she’d hired me twelve minutes into my interview, and began to show me around the space. She then began a long speech about the standards she held for each of her employees. To match the Tasting Room, all servers were to follow exact outfit restrictions: Clothing must be black, white, navy, or cerulean. No silver jewelry, only gold. No casual shoes- loafers or heels, period. No hats, no headbands. And of course, no “hippy” clothing (a definition that included anything Ms. J thought of as too colorful, casual, frayed, or unusual).
However, Ms. J made up for all the rules of the vineyard with good pay and consistent hours, so we didn’t complain often. Well there is Molly. She was always trying to sneak in wearing bright pink flats or a ti-dye hair bow.
Sometimes I would catch Molly before Ms. J saw her, but not always. Like this morning, when Molly came in with a dang florescent clip at the top of her ponytail.
“Molly! You kids are going to be the death of me! Get that thing off your head!”
“Ms. J, it’s just a splash of color!”
“It’s nonsense. We’re a classy place. Take it off or head home.”
Molly smirked, “Maybe I will head home then. Then you’ll be a server short on the solstice- you know that’s bad luck!”
Around the room, all servers instinctively took a step further away in any direction we could go.
Mrs. J turned slowly, her right silver bun spinning to the back of her neck in a way that reminded me of a spooked owl.
“Solstice? Luck?” She began to stalk slowly to Molly, “You think that’s what built all that surrounds you?” The older woman stood mere inches from Molly’s nose, and for the first time I realized Mrs. J was actually very tall. Her eyes were set in a glare a solid four inches above Molly’s eyes, filled with fear.
“No, no ma’am.” If she could have moved, I imagine Molly would have been shivering. It was noticeably colder in the room.
“Good. Because it didn’t. I built this. My siblings poured their savings into my dream, and my broken back lifted it up from a dirt mound into one of the most premier vineyards on the East Coast. Does that sound like luck to you?”
“Good.” Mrs. J leaned back, and it was like someone opened the shades! Light poured back into the room and everyone buzzed with relaxed breath.
I gestured Molly to come over, the managers kept a box of extra hair clips, tights, etc. hidden in one of the decorative barrels. But before she could reach me, Mrs. J had reached the office door, and turned on her heel again to face the room.
“Oh Molly?” She called.
Her body still aimed at me, Molly turned her head, “Yes ma’am?”
“Take the day off, dear,” Mrs. J purred, “I’m sure we can do without today, and I think you could use some air.”
Molly turned back to me, but I couldn’t meet her eye. It was one of the first Saturdays the heat from summer had broken, and the winery would be packed with people happy to leave huge tips. Mrs. J was making a point, and none of us were missing it.
And unfortunately for Molly, Mrs. J was right. We were busy as heck, and I don’t think I or the others paused for even a moment. The sound of corks popping was so constant it turned into a kind of music, pop pop ba-dop, pop pop ba-dop!
But when the end of day came, none of us were really that tired! All of the customers arrived in happy moods and became pleasantly buzzed through the afternoon and into the evening. We didn’t have to call a single cab to pick up someone who had gone to far, nor had to invite anyone to never come back! As we finished cleaning and split the tips, we all felt a little jived from the success in the cool evening air, so we decided to have a little party ourselves. Manager Leanne put a few bottles on her tab and led all the servers to the picnic area.
We were as loud as one of the bachelorette vans that comes by in the Spring parading from the Tasting Room building to the picnic area. Still though, a sound pricked my ear and I turned towards the parking lot. There was a car there with its lights on. Odd, as we’d been closed for a little over an hour, and we’d left Mrs. J typing away in her office, as usual.
“Hey, someone leave their lights on?”
A few of the closest heads turned to me, then to the car I was pointing towards.
After a chorus of “nope”s, I decided to investigate. If it was a patron waiting to sober up or something, they’d need a ride called.
“Commin’, Phillip?” Leanne called.
“Yeah yeah, just going to check on this!”
“Alrighty, careful you don’t miss all the Sangiovese!”
They all laughed. God we were nerds.
I made it across the gravel of the parking lot and saw there was indeed someone in the lit car. It was a little spooky to come up to someone alone in a dark parking lot, but I’d come this far, right? And surely a buzzed customer wasn’t a danger.
I rounded up the side of the car and knocked on the driver’s window, “You okay in there?”
Aaaaand I spooked the hell out of Molly.
“Oh my GOD, Phillip!” She jumped out of the car after a little shock wore off for us both, “I almost maced you!”
“Well, thank you for not doing that. What the hell are you doing here?”
She slumped against the car, “I was whining to my mom about Mrs. J and she told me to drive back here after we closed and apologize.”
“Oh well that’s smart. I’m sure Mrs. J wasn’t actually that mad. Just pop in and say sorry then come join us at the picnic tables- we’re celebrating a busy day.”
“God, lots of tips?”
My turn to smirk, “You don’t wanna know how well we did today.”
“Damn,” she straighten up and began shuffling towards the building, “Will you come with me?”
There was nothing I’d rather do less, and I think that was clear on my face.
“Pleeeease, Phillip? She can be so scary!”
“Only cause you push her buttons.”
“We can’t all be perfect little Phillip with his checkered bowtie.”
“Hey! Everyone loves my bowtie!” But I reluctantly followed her to the building. Leanne had left it unlocked in case any of us needed a bathroom run, and enough lights were on to make it Mrs. J’s office door.
That light was on too, but Mrs. J wasn’t there.
“Think she’s in the loo?”
I stared at Molly, “The loo?”
“The bathroom,” she rolled her eyes and laughed, “I’m working on being more posh for this place, ya know.”
So we waited a few minutes, but Mrs. J did not return.
“Maybe she took off.”
“No, I’m parked next to her,” Molly answered, “I know that GrapeLady license plate. We would have passed her coming in here if she left.”
“Well, I’m sure your apology can wait,” I started to pull Molly back towards the entrance, “lets go get some wine.”
“No no!” Molly pulled back, “what if she stews about it? She could decide you all don’t need me at all! I need to find her tonight.” She began stalking towards the barrel room.
It seemed like a terrible idea to go snooping around in the dark when we didn’t know where Mrs. J was and one of us was already in trouble, but I think I was still a little wired from the day.
As we trundled down the stairs I tried to remember where the light switch might be, but there was no need. The barrel room had a soft glow coming from the glass panes of the double doors. And… music?
Nope that was chanting, definitely chanting.
“Yeah Molly this is a terrible idea. It’s dark, there’s weird glowing, we’re just out of screaming-range from people we know. We are literally at the beginning of a horror movie right now, and I just don’t have time for that.”
But she was already kneeling by the side of the door and peaking through the glass, and her eyes were huge with whatever she could see. Oh yeah, we were for sure going to die.
“Shut up and come here.”
“Absolutely no-” She pulled my shirt so I was next to her, and therefore had to duck to not be seen through the door.
I figured if I was going to die, I’d at least have a good story to tell whoever’s waiting for me in heaven, so I chanced a glance myself.
Mrs. J was standing in the middle of the barrel room, in a long blue gown I had never seen before. It had little shimmers on it that reminded me of constellations, but that couldn’t be right, because that did not fit the beige drsesscode she held for herself.
But there were other people standing by her. Some of them had the same silver/blond tinge to their hair, and as one turned I recognized him as Mrs. J’s big brother who I’d met a few times before. He too was in a dark blue color, his a suit with a sky-blue scarf with little golden zigzags. The other figures were similarly dressed, and similarly shaped as the two of them, probably the other siblings that lived further away.
“Can you hear what they’re saying?” Molly whispered.
“I don’ think I want to.”
But she did, she pushed the door open just slightly enough for the sound of hums and sighs to come rushing through.
When the sound stopped suddenly, I had to grab Molly’s arm so she didn’t let the door slam shut.
“Thank you all for coming again, on this beautiful solstice,” Mrs. J announced to her little family circle, “You know how much more powerful this night is when we are all together, and the moon is ever so closer when I have you all near.”
There were little happy laughs as well as a few joyous, “here here!” in the small audience.
“As we begin tonight’s solstice ritual for the late harvest, and the blessings to lead us through winter, I’d like to offer you all a sip of sacrifice…” Mrs. J turned to a barrel on its end beside her. I realized her dark haired husband seemed to be attending it. He was dressed in much lighter clothing, like some sort of champagne silk, and he offered her a clear carafe of red liquid.
Mrs. J nodded her thanks, and then poured the liquid into crystal gobblers for each of her siblings.
]Molly breathed into my ear, “This is weird…”
“Shut UP, Molly.” Yes, yes it was extremely weird. But I’d already given up my resignation to death and did not want to be caught there.
Mrs. J continued her speech, “Long ago, Demeter lost her daughter to the night, and froze the earth with her tears. Tonight, as she turns Summer to Fall, we honor her by consuming the blood of her enemy, and-”
Nope, nope, that was enough.
I grabbed Molly’s arm and flew back up the stairs, past the office, and didn’t even register leaving the building until I heard the gravel of the parking lot beneath my feet.
“Oh my GOD.”
“Phillip! Oh MY GOD.”
“I know.” But I didn’t. I could breathe. Fancy-pants-don’t-bring-hooplah-into-my-building-Mrs.-J was drinking blood to ask for a goddess’s blessing on the wine barrels.
“We have to tell someone!” Molly started moving to wear our coworkers were shouting out some sort of card game at the tables.
I grabbed her arm again, “Absolutely not. We do not know what we saw.”
“We know exactly what we saw.”
“Nope. No we do not. We did not see a damn thing, Molly. We did not see a damn thing at all.”
She stared at me, I could feel her searching my face for an argument. “Why?”
“I think it’s safest. Mrs. J is filthy rich, and so is her whole family. I’m pretty sure her uncle is like a Duke somewhere in Europe and her husband is a lawyer. We would be walking into a minefield, and we don’t even know what we saw.”
“Fine,” Molly conceded, “we don’t know what we saw.”
“We don’t. Let’s just… lets just go join everyone. You can write Mrs. J an apology email.” A cool wind seemed to brush the sweat from my neck. It felt reassuring somehow, like the earth agreed with the our choice of silence.
But I did know what we saw.
And I know what the chant was saying.
And I never forgot.
As I continued my employment for Mrs. J, I rose through the ranks of server to Head Server to Junior Manager, then finally to Manger. Mrs. J trusted me with larger and larger portions of the business, and when I graduated college, she offered me to become a junior partner.
“I’m getting old, love. I need someone to carry it on when me and mine are gone.”
So September 21st, my first solstice as a partner, Mrs. J asked me to stay behind as the servers closed the Tasting Room. She led me down into the back stairs, through the glass doors, to where her siblings and their spouses were lighting candles all around the Barrel Room.
She introduced me to her niece, “she’ll be joining the vineyard shortly, she’ll be part of your team.” Mrs. J explained.
Then the chanting. Which wasn’t really chanting. No, it was clear her brothers, just like they had all those years ago, had gotten into the wine a little earlier than everyone else. And if I heard right, were doing their best acapella version of The Kinks’ ‘You Really Got Me’, which in turn echoed through the large room in a way I imagine would spook a couple youngens sitting just outside the room…
One of the sisters happily welcomed me, giving me a flowing amethyst scarf to put over my collard shirt.
“There dear, now you look the part too!”
I nodded, thanking her, but I was nervous. I’d known the further I got in my career, the deeper into the lion’s den I went. But ever since that night, I’d needed to know more. And I loved this vineyard, I was good at it! If there was some sort of rich witch cult that made the grapes grow then damnit I wanted in.
I was not excited about the familiar filled carafe that stood on its barrel though, Mr. J guarding it as he had each year.
Mrs. J began her speech, but instead of hearing her words of thanks, I felt only buzzing in my head. I’d swallowed a few glasses of Cab Franc this afternoon, knowing this was coming, but I’m pretty sure it was my own heartbeat in my ears rather than the alcohol.
She stretched out her arms, and it seemed for a moment the wrinkles I’d watched form these past years were gone in a moment. She accepted her husband’s offer of the carafe, and poured the goblets full.
“Let us give first to those who will lead us soon,” She nodded to me and her niece to come forward.
It helped that the young lady next to me accepted her goblet with a shaky hand. It made me feel better that I could not hold my own still either.
“Now raise your glasses of sacrifice for the solstice, the harvest, and the defeat of Demeter’s enemies!”
There was no turning back from this. No leaving, no end. Just me and my crystal goblet with its morose contents. In the moment it took to tilt back my glass, I prayed it wouldn’t be too bitter. That I could handle at least a sip to satisfy the onlookers, my now sworn companions.
Then it reached my lips.
(Noun): A religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.
(Adjective): Relating to or done as a religious or solemn rite.
I almost feel I should leave this one alone for some reason, let you all ponder on it on your own time. It’s got a little humor, because I think life and writing is dull without it 🙂 But I do hope you enjoyed tonight’s story, and I hope you have a few rituals of your own that help you celebrate beginnings, commemorate endings, and welcome the harvest that comes in every season!