To Georgi Ichkonov,
who skillfully infuses sunshine in grapes
and concocts wine magic
A man is God’s servant. Thus, He commanded.
An eternal cage, beastly destiny, may you live a thousand years, mate, but your soul shall be obsessed by delusions, it will be speechless and dumb and your damned existence shall be seedless.
And the man wept bitterly and his tear dropped into the sludge under his bare feet. He did not dare cast a glance or raise his forehead. Why did the Almighty and Omnipotent, being so wise, destine him to breed black worms in mud, so that his poor eyes would see nothing but slimy creatures?
So, the man prayed in his soul without words, voicelessly in his worried heart. To fly up in the sky for a moment at least. To obtain the power to create and command and not only trudge mindlessly. To see his own seed, to spread around his children. To turn a bit of his clay body into a womb icon.
So, the compassionate God took mercy on him and showered blessing over the clay man. He granted him three most sacred miracles. And the man, hereto a worthless, low slave, touched Creation. He raised his eyes thankfully over his dusty toes and felt the divine power under his wings, now overgrown with light.
And he became equal to Him.
Through these three lucky miracles.
“Just try it, Doc!”
I had been working there for over a year now but the ambitious and headstrong people from the town of Petrich never ceased to amaze me. They constantly insisted that one should follow their wishes and were you to stop celebrating the sun of the South for even a second, they got mightily offended.
Therefore, I tried to be tactful in my refusal.
– No, thank you.
I had met him somewhere before. Was he a patient? Or had he brought someone to the consulting room?
“Come on, Doc, do it for me. Just try it!” He thrust the glass bottle before my eyes, through which I could see the blood of grapes.
Dark in color, almost black.
He put it gently but confidently on the reception desk like an ancient Olympic trophy on the pedestal of the winners.
The one-liter bottle, serving as vanguard, emanated the same hue as the two plastic ten-liter cans on the floor on both sides of him, that were the rear guard.
Like bags of explosive ready for action.
I smiled in my mind at the self-confidence of that simple man. Rather with some pitying affection than arrogance.
Only a year ago I had come back from the center of the world itself.
London. A fancy sterile white clinic with a lot of zeroes in the price-list and endless opportunities.
For the last three years I had drunk elite wines with golden labels and price that was heartbreaking to my accountant.
From all over the world. The New World. The Old World. A planet of vineyards.
My palate remembered the captivating grassy nuance with some addition of nettles of Argentinian Malbec, the persistent vanilla aroma of damson from Chile and the soft smoky rhapsodies underlying the Australian Cabernet.
The proverbial tension of the surgeon might sound as a banal excuse, but I did not neglect the Old World either. I collected gallons of experience. Bordeaux, aged in oak, thick European Pino Noire and Italian palatial pleasures.
Now there was Bulgarian wine in front of me.
It is as much Bulgarian, as it is also Greek, Macedonian, Thracian, both ancient and new. Ours in any case.
How can I define and describe it?
The color of wine through the glass, refracted as from a bitter rainbow.
I am looking at this man, wondering how to act so as not to insult him and hurt his tiny ego. How can I explain of terroirs, climate, soils, the need for wine to absorb air in a decanter, that he cannot possibly expect me to drink it from a plastic cup in the middle of my waiting-room.
He cherished his wine like a relic. His eyes were caressing the glass with a pilgrim’s awe. Like it was some heavenly wealth. Divine creation of Mother Nature.
And he had taken part in this creation.
“I don’t drink home-made wine. How many times do you need me to tell you?”, I said, defending stubbornly my Anglo-Saxon principles. “I’ve worked all over Bulgaria, from the Danube to the southernmost village. And I’ve always poured it down the toilet. You will forgive me, but I never touch it if it hasn’t got a label.”
“But why, Doc? Wine needs heart, not a label!”
“You know me already, I’m not fussy, I’m just one of the folks”, I said, aiming at intimacy. “But I cannot lie about wine. If it is good, I’ll praise you, if not, I’m not going to spare the truth for you!”
“Right, Doc. Just taste it.”
“I hate to offend you!” I laughed. There was something in him…
“We are not easily offended, Doc”, he responded with laughter too.
His smile is seemingly like mine, but somehow sincere, more human. I look at him – a stout Bulgarian man with genuine eyes, shiny, but also sad. He is regarding me with respect, but stands strong for his wine.
“Right, just try it and I’ll go. I see you’ve got people waiting.” He looked around and just then another patient came in and sat on the leather sofa. The people in the waiting room were anxiously waiting to see the winner of this so far virginal verbal showdown, as yet not bloodied by wine.
The man stepped nearer and laid his heavy calloused hand on my shoulder.
“Doc, you’re driving a fabulous car and look like a decent person”. His eyes glittered with fun and affection. “But you will forgive me if I say that you are no expert in wine and women. That is, until you’ve tried my wine and made love to a Macedonian woman.”
I thought of my lawyer in London, a tight-lipped ginger-haired gentleman with a cramped suit.
I also remembered the patients around who you are not supposed to make jokes. The insane rules that must be observed. Hugs – forbidden, any physical contact involves heaps of legal paperwork.
The patients in my Bulgarian waiting-room did not seem bothered in the least that a surgeon who was going to operate on them, was being persuaded to consume alcohol.
“How do you know I’m not an expert?” I laughed again and drank the wine in the plastic cup.
A lightning pierced me and shuddered beneath my heels. It grasped my palate with a bouquet of velvety aromas.
I swallowed. The second gulp burnt my taste receptors with a thick oak flavor and penetrated through the tongue down along the roaming nerve.
Right to the heart.
His wine had Bible quality.
No, it had descended in divine fashion directly from Olympus along the slope down to us, the insignificant creatures.
It advances lightly, gently. It caresses the lips, tingles the tongue first and then the palate. You don’t feel, you don’t understand. Time is needed to realize its taste. Just like us, Bulgarian folks – one never knows when they cry and when they are overjoyed. When they curse you or bless you.
There was damson, and oak, and heat, and protest. Warmness, brightness, finesse for the senses.
I had not drunk such wine in my life!
Fiery and bold, resolute and determined.
And the first gulp invites for a second one. It does not let you wait. And you drink and drink.
It was not world class. That simple man’s wine was from another world.
Rothschild Chateau was nowhere as good as the product of the master from Petrich.
But how could I tell him that, how could I possibly admit the European defeat and my personal grape bigotry and wine prejudices?
And Rothschild would be offended too.
“Do you like it, Doc?” he asked with no doubts whatever about the answer.
Now I got it.
He had never had doubts about his wine. He wanted my approval and my blessing, that of the Doctor.
So that word still had authority.
My lips smiled, I felt warmness in my eyes.
“Go on, pour some more”, I urged him to fill the plastic cup, just putting off the admission of defeat.
I drank again.
It was not possible!
I had to taste it again!
More slowly this time, with passing it along the palate, so that I could convince myself I was not dreaming.
Like some pauper and non-believer, I put out the cup to be filled again.
The man poured some more with a triumphant smile.
Since I was far from intoxicated, I watched him closely. Was I suspecting some wine conspiracy or a TV prank with a hidden camera?
“You know, wine is not just color and taste”, I started philosophically, in order to cover the shame from the defeat. “It is all up to the terroir, that is to climate and soil, but sometimes just a narrow strip of land divides very different terroirs. That’s in the Old World. And in the New World it is even more important than the variety.”
“Doc, do you like it?”
“I would kill for this wine, man!” I brought myself to admitting at last.
He just smiled.
“These twenty liters are for you, Doc.” He laid the explosives next to my feet. They were like two sacrificial pheasants before the high priest of alcohol. “I can bring more if you like.”
“How much does it cost?”
“Don’t insult me, Doc. Don’t you remember Gergana?”
“My daughter!”, the man exclaimed almost offended. “My Gergana.”
“Forgive me, but I can’t seem to remember…”
“She was ill. I took her everywhere. To Thessaloniki even…” For the first time he lowered his eyes, filled with tears. “It was you who cured her. God sent you here to treat us.”
“I didn’t do anything. Just what had to be done.”
“Well, see you.” He turned and walked to the door.
Now I knew why I had come back.
With a smile I invited the next patient to the consulting room.
“Come in, uncle Petko.”