Inheritance

I inherited this story from my mother who got it from her mother; my grandmother received it from her father, who is the protagonist of the piece. It is set in a small village in the mountainous Spanish province of Extremadura, mere millimetres from the Portuguese border on most maps of Europe. One century is about to displace another in a world that radio, television, and the automobile have yet to colonize. In many places, including this remote town, streetlights, too, are unknown. When night falls, it covers everything. When the moon is absent, you have torchlight and your wits to guide you.

He sifted through his store of knowledge for an explanation for what he was seeing. He’d had a lot to drink – no doubt about that – but no amount of drinking could account for what was plainly a bottle singing a song.

On this particular night, on the lip of a new century, my great-grandfather (let’s call him Antonio, his given name) left the only taberna in the town. The hour was late, the moon weak, and the streets deserted. To keep himself company, he sang what was nothing more than a medley of drinks, things he’d had and things he wished he’d had. In no particular order (then realized it was alphabetical), he recited: absinthe, beer, cider. No matter how much he tried, he couldn’t get past “c” and rummaged for something else to sing. Sirve me otro, something his grandfather used to sing, came to him. Sirve me otro que tengo la garganta seca. As he sang, he let his legs direct him home in the dark: they’d done it before, and he trusted them completely.

He remembered only one verse and repeated it until he realized he wasn’t singing alone. Somewhere up ahead, in the dusty plain that separated the town from Antonio’s house, a voice was singing the second verse of the song. Mañana beberemos otra vez el mismo vino, el mismo vino.

“How do you know that song?” Antonio said.

There was no answer, except for the third verse, sung in a gruff voice not unlike his own. Antonio gave chase. And almost immediately stopped. For a long while he just stood there. Stone-like and stunned. He sifted through his store of knowledge for an explanation for what he was seeing. He’d had a lot to drink — no doubt about that — but no amount of drinking could account for what was plainly a bottle singing a song. He waited until it was finished singing before picking it up. It was an ordinary wine bottle, empty, and the cork missing. He had seen swans before, as a child, and was reminded of them by the bottle’s neck. Bottle in hand, he found his way back home; neither uttered another note.

Usually, he finds his wife in bed, asleep. On such occasions, he makes no concession to silence as he moves through the house, knowing nothing will wake Marta.

On this night, though, he found her on the doorstep. He told her he was surprised she was still up. She said she was just thinking the same about him. “I could smell you before I even saw you,” she added. “Just how much did you drink?” Then, spotting the bottle in his hand: “I don’t want that in my house.”

“It’s empty.”

He considered telling her about its unusual ability but her mood didn’t appear to be thawing. Still, she let him into the house with the bottle. He set it down with care on the kitchen table — then staggered to the bedroom. For a moment she considered throwing the bottle out. Some intuition, disguised as fatigue, kept her from doing it. When she got to the bedroom, he was already asleep though not yet snoring.

The following day started, after two cups of Marta’s strong coffee, with more strangeness: the bottle was on the porch. A criminal on the lam, thought Antonio. He picked it up and back into the house he went. Marta was still sitting at the kitchen table, dunking day-old bread in her coffee.

“Did you put the bottle outside?”

She paused long enough to swallow, and shook her head.

“Don’t tell me it left the house on its own.”

“I wasn’t going to,” she said.

He looked skyward. “I’m an idiot. Of course, it must’ve left on its own. If it can sing, it can certainly walk out of the house.”

Maybe he thought he was talking only to himself, but now Marta was demanding an explanation, and she wanted it ahora mismo. He recounted what had happened the night before. Leaving the bar, singing the song, hearing the voice, seeing the bottle — every detail he could remember. Some parts he described; others, he mimed.

“You must’ve been drunker than ever.”

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