A Function of the Land

Thomas N. Mannella III

In October I met my brother, Nicky, for the first time in months. As I drove through the village to his house, I sensed a vast chill in the swath of air above the nearby vineyards. This was autumn in Naples, New York. My visit was unannounced but would not be a surprise.

Approaching the porch, I observed candles burning on a table and the upholstered chair that was sprouting its stuffing, the chair where for years Nicky had taken to his intoxicated slumbers as satisfied as a hummingbird after a sugar-pool bath. He sought immediate rewards at the expense of those that were large and delayed, and that, I thought, was why he had recently been in jail.

Weasel, his golden retriever, barked.

“Howdy, pardner,” Nicky said, smoke jumping out of his mouth with each syllable.

He stood a bottle at his feet and we greeted each other with a brotherly hug.

Our purpose tonight, or rather mine, was simply to be together.

We ascended West Hill behind his house. A half-dome of light touched our faces through the treetops. This we had done since we were young boys and tonight we were prepared to sleep outdoors. I looked through the trees toward a scene I’d scrutinized throughout my life, rows of vineyards striping the valley floor like rumpled corduroy.

The air was cool and we built a fire. In the coming dark, my breath floated from my mouth, rising with the wood smoke and dissolving among the branches. We talked about the land on which we trespassed. We toasted bread and melted cheese and roasted a purple onion on the flames. We washed our food down with local vintages and I took the opportunity to remind him of the time in high school he brought grape juice to the Phish concert instead of wine.

“Well, shit,” was all he said.

West Hill had been terraced a century ago for vineyard cultivation here, the Finger Lakes, and as we ambled along a ridge after dinner we found our boots tangled in sprawling vines or rusted wire. Widmer’s Winery had long since abandoned the steep slopes where we slept.

In our boyhood quest to be tough, to be men, Nicky and I made a survival kit, a duffel bag stuffed with supplies that could sustain us in the wilds surrounding our home. We had no guns. Instead we provisioned band aids and black electrician’s tape for treating flesh wounds; lengths of twine from our neighbor’s horse barn for detaining enemies; matches from a tin canister in Mom’s pantry for fires; dog biscuits for sustenance (because we were roughing it); pencil-drawn maps that marked the summit of East Hill, the creek, the cemetery, our house. The prized possession of the kit was our Papa’s multi-tool pocketknife.

“Be careful,” Grandma had said when she handed it over. She probably hoped the knife would keep us out of her kitchen. When Papa saw us sharpening the tip of our hunting spear with it, he said, “I’ll have to show you my knife.” Of course, it was our knife now and we performed many emergency surgeries in the woods with it. Amputations. Appendectomies. Lobotomies. Tracheotomies. Transplants. We were prepared for anything. The knife was vital, isolated as we were within our imaginations and dependent upon our wits for survival.

Possessing a scar that wrapped around my side from sternum to spine, I was the patient, removing my shirt and revealing the gummy white line from heart surgery I had in kindergarten. In the forest with Nicky, I felt more comfortable about my scar than anywhere else. There were no secrets between us. He knew who I really was, the ways I was different and maybe damaged. Blood brothers, we were. So I would lay on a mattress of leaves, the roots of a maple tree my pillow, the terraced hillside of an abandoned vineyard a reclining hospital bed. Nicky would press the cold steel of the dull blade to my skin and open me up, reenacting my operation or whatever procedure was necessary that day. I always survived.

About these same terraced hillsides where Nicky and I had once performed our heroic surgeries with Papa’s knife we were ambivalent: less grape growing, but more space to wander. The duties of adopted ownership honored us. In high school we had built a lean-to of sticks tethered with twine as the headquarters of our cherished post. We were never too old to build a fort.