The Barrel Races

In this excerpt from The Black Cat by J.M. Geever, the Schütte family plants the seeds of its wine-making dynasty in Alsace around the year 1800.


Bas began his vintnery experiments when his son Herman was six years old. Unknown to either man, for who knows the future unless they manifest it to be, their wife and mother, respectively, was only eight years from death. Not that this knowledge pertained much to Bas’ Traminer work.

When he began to redefine the Schütte palate most people laughed. A man’s reputation occasionally disguises his abilities. Bas could not discuss Kant’s practical or pure reason, or comprehend many of Edith’s jokes, or recognize that his homeland was in the mists of war. For his detached and absent perspective, Bas was looked upon as an idiot. (Father Schütte had once listed him within the desultory and stolid with idiocy category.) Still, a son is a son of a father (or mother). Mr. Darwin had not quite shown this animal tendency, but it was evident within Bas’ taste buds: the man could make wine.

After three years of mockery, which he really didn’t comprehend, he sent with a confident smile and a deep accomplished sigh his Durbacher Clevner (Edith passed along two of the three family secrets to her husband and Bas felt it necessary to distinguish his work from his father’s, so he adopted the Baden-Baden varietal for his creations) to the waters of the Rhine. Sensational. Divine. An angelic reprieve from the violence. A sup of Olympian ambrosia. The austere complexity of his father’s work, with a drop of our land’s honeyed soul. And other such descriptions murmured their ways across the Rhine Valley: Bas had succeeded in surpassing the legend of his father.

When Edith died Bas was disconsolate. For once in his life he felt the hollow pain of sadness, of loss, which depresses the mind’s ability to heed laughter or understand. Bas wanted to compare Edith’s death with that of his father, that being his only other knowledge of regeneration. This served only to make him angry. Father Schütte was a strong domineering father. He had affection, mild, for his son and his son understood love. This did not lead Bas into longing regret or loss when his father passed. Death was correct for the old man. Death was murderous and cruel for Edith. Neighbors of the Schüttes were dismayed and confused by Bas’ reaction. They assumed a stoic smile would grace his face, a slight stoop of the shoulders would appear— as a symbol of memory—and a rededication to the vines would mark his remainder. When the vines sprouted untended, and harvest came unplucked, and visions of Bas, like his vines, unkempt and stumbling through the Vosges with a rifle and a clutch of rodent skins tied around his shoulders were reported, the citizens of Riquewihr mumbled pity and gossiped relentlessly about the tragedy of the Schüttes.

They were games. Where would his father be? What foolishness would he devise next? How would his son be able to help? Herman found his father on the day that sent rumors across Riquewihr dressed in a robe rudimentarily stitched out of rodent pelts, wearing a tricorn from Napoleon’s legion, standing by the road to town staring at the forest, and throwing rocks into the sky. Bas told his son as they walked back home, ‘I saw your mother playing cards with your grandfather in the clouds; you know she always beat him at cards—but that old man always tried to cheat.’ A smile crossed the crazy man’s face and he leaned into his son. ‘I was trying to warn her.’

Another occasion found Bas deep in the forest with 11 full barrels of mixed vintage, which he had taken into the groves on a cart. The cart, with its unattended horse, was thrashing around the oaks when Herman arrived. His father meanwhile had found a little hill above a rabbit warren. He set the barrels on their sides and was pushing them one at a time down the hill. The game was to shoot a rabbit before the barrel came crashing through the brush. If the rabbit was hit, the barrel would crush the carcass and bounce off at an odd angle before crashing into a tree. One rabbit managed to cave in a stave and lay a mangled marinating mess of blood fur and Durbacher Clevner. Bas laughed wildly at this. Herman joined his father for two barrel races, as Bas called them, before he brought the old man and his brace of bunnies home.

One year to the day after his mother Edith died, Herman saw his father Bas half-submerged in a barrel of 1814 vintage. At first Herman thought his father was expressing his crazed sadness with another act of lunacy. (Sitting naked in a barrel of priceless Durbacher Clevner and moaning to the moon was a common enough action on Bas’ part that Herman thought nothing of it). The young boy sighed, a whistle escaping through the gap in his front teeth, thought about certitude and fate and whirligigs of time, then smiled. He was, if being true to his heart, enjoying these pranks of his father. Before Edith died, Bas was constantly mulling about the vines, or sipping and spitting in the barn cellar, or blankly staring while the world walked and talked. Bas was isolated within the bones of his skull. Now, with depression swirling his already murky thoughts, he let his imagination go completely. Herman for the first time in his life saw his father, understood his mind. For once Herman could grasp how the blank, seemingly empty look in his father’s eyes could translate into those barrels in the barn; Herman finally glimpsed his father’s unheralded and radiant imagination. Losing his mother had gained him a father.

On that anniversary day, seeing his father slouched in a barrel, Herman giggled to himself and skipped over trying to think of a witty and playful entrance into his father’s world. He hoped there was another barrel at hand, with luck not one of the grand vintages, so he could join with Bas in a wine bath. A smiled crept large as he approached. Bas looked so peaceful and relaxed. Herman thought maybe his father was beginning to mend the rending of his heart. Possibly, this was a signal that recovery might start. With their newly formed bond, father and son could return to the peaceful life of the thoroughly neglected grapes and reestablish the Schütte name as something more than ‘a master and a savant gone mad with sorrow,’ as the family was referred to in Strassburg. They always said that the true mark of a great vineyard was found in the third generation. At that point the vines were matched with the soil and deeply involved with the minerals and rocks, and the winemakers should have tomes of family secrets and knowledge only experience and time could provide; understandings of the specific acreage and how it blossomed best. All this rampaged among Herman’s neural pathways: play for the day, and dreams of the future.

It took nothing but greeting his father for all of Herman’s world to fall with a shatter. The golden hue of the Durbacher Clevner was dark with carmine swirling eddies stemming from a sliding drip down Bas’ neck. Above the crazed man’s ear was a bullet hole. A pepperbox rested on the ground beneath his hand.

The Black Cat

The Black Cat by J.M. Geever is on sale here.

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