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Hide and Seek

This story was published in the Lip Creative Writing Anthology.

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Hide and Seek

It is a few hours before Demetri is due to arrive and Sofia is walking through her father’s vineyard. The signs of neglect are evident everywhere, from the empty fountain to the rusted wheelbarrow and the broken windows. The endless stretching rows of untended vines stand withered and crooked like a line of old men hunched together for warmth.

Her chest feels tight and her heart beats sharply as she runs her hands over the yellow-green leaves. A few defiant grapes cling to the forgotten branches. She picks off one of these survivors, handling it delicately and feeling the texture of its skin. She bites into it, but the pulp is sour. She tries to spit out the bitterness but somehow can’t quite get the taste out of her mouth.

Sofia crouches down. Her breathing is uneven and her hands are shaking. She scoops a handful of earth and holds it to her face, inhaling the scent of the vineyard. The breath makes her dizzy and nauseas. Sofia is surprised. Years of rain cannot not wash away the past. Memories are stained into the earth. It remembers everything.

She breaks down onto her knees as the tears finally come streaking down her face. She clenches her fists, squeezing the damp soil. She breathes deeply, closes her eyes, and remembers.

It is the early autumn fourteen years earlier. On the dry slopes of the valley estate Sofia is crawling forward on her hands and knees along the ground. She is eight years old. The hot breath of the sun beats down heavily upon the vine leaves and the multiple rows of vibrant green are flushed golden orange from the dying afternoon glare.

The bulbous fruit on the branches provide Sofia with shelter from the heat but also the probing eyes of her younger brother. While she pauses in the shade the wind whispers in her ear and she listens for any sound of Demetri, who is somewhere close by.

Sofia is doing well, as she has been hiding from him for much of the afternoon and he still has not found her. She looks around and breathes in carefully. The air is warm and smells of dried grass and violets. She waits awhile longer in the shade and then moves on.

For the second time that day she stumbles across her father pruning the vines. He winks and tosses her a grape. He often joins in Sofia’s games but now it is close to harvest time and he is busy worrying about the ripeness of the fruit. He nods at his daughter and smiles but is silent. He understands he must not speak.

Sofia stifles a giggle and watches silently as her father entertains her by holding a grape up to the sky and muttering.  She enjoys watching him work. She loves how he rolls the grapes in his rough hands so delicately as if each berry were a precious emerald. Sofia stares as he crushes the grape then licks the juice as it runs down his fingers. She smiles and moves on.

Sofia is feeling warm and damp under her dress and pauses in the shade again for a moment as salty perspiration drips from her brow. She is tired and her mouth is as dry as sand. She has been out in the vineyard for a long time without anything to drink. Looking up, she realises she is near to the small stone fountain at the side of the house. The still water looks deliciously cool and refreshing.
She springs to her feet and makes a dash towards the fountain. Out of the corner of her eye she catches sight of Demetri’s straw-coloured hair as he jumps out from his hiding spot and runs toward her. Sofia moves as quickly as she can but her brother is stronger and faster. As she approaches the fountain Demetri leaps to tackle Sofia. As he awkwardly clasps hold of his sister the momentum causes them to trip over a stone figure and fall head first into the water. From the kitchen doorframe their mother cries out and runs toward them.
The water envelops Sofia and her Demetri. The coolness extinguishes the heat from their bodies as they laughingly writhe around and splash each other. They giggle as their mother grabs them each by the arm. Her face is stern and solemn. She pulls them out of the fountain and leads them back toward the house. She does not smile or laugh.

In the evening the kitchen air is thick with steam and the smell of thyme and rosemary. Sofia likes to wander around the house with her eyes closed while she breathes in the different aromas. The vapour from the stove finds its way into her nose and tingles her nostrils as she listens to the bustling melody of chairs creaking, cutlery clinking and copper pots clanking and chiming in the preparation for dinner.
Sofia watches her mother lay down the ceramic bowls on their dark placemats in front of each member of the family. Her mother seems very distant. Sofia wonders what is troubling her. While she was chopping vegetables her mother stared absently out of the window across the vineyards. Sofia blames the man on the radio for her mother’s mood. His tinny, faraway voice sounded agitated and alarmed, but Sofia could not understand many of the things the man was saying.
The family eat soup and bread. They all smile but the soup is tasteless and thin. Sofia watches the potatoes, leeks and carrots bob up and down like shipwrecked sailors in her bowl. She is desperate to eat some meat, but does not say so. Her father drinks down large spoonfuls of the soup. He smiles and tells them all how good it is. When her mother collects the dishes he stops her by holding her hand and squeezing it tightly.
Later, Sofia’s father soberly reads the paper. He is quiet and his glass of wine sits untouched beside him. Sofia is terribly confused. She looks at the paper her father is reading. She does not know what all the words mean. The paper is covered with pictures of maps and photos of stern-looking men in uniforms.

There is a sombre atmosphere in the house. After a while Sofia’s father folds the newspaper stares blankly ahead. Everyone is quiet. Sofia’s father gets up and walks over to sit with Sofia’s mother, who is trying to knit but she looks as if she cannot concentrate. They both look very sad, and Sofia’s mother begins to cry, burying her head into her husband’s chest. He runs his hands through her hair and whispers something Sofia cannot hear. She looks at Demetri. She is bewildered. She does not understand what is happening. She has never seen her parents act like this.

When their mother calms down Sofia and Demetri are both sent to bed without being asked to wash the dishes. From upstairs they hear the man on the radio again. He sounds just as agitated.
The next night is different. Sofia is surprised that they use the best dinner plates and they do not listen to the radio. Instead they play records and the house is filled with the booming voice of an Italian opera singer. Sofia closes her eyes and listens. She likes the lady’s voice and decides she is probably very pretty.

The soaring music gets everywhere. It fills every room and seeps into every pore in the house. Sofia greatly prefers it to the alarmed voice of the man on the radio. Later in the evening Sofia is surprised to see chairs cleared away so her mother and father can dance to the music. Sofia and Demetri curl up by the fire, which crackles and spits warming embers. They watch as their parents hold each other tenderly and gently sway to the soft melody coming from the speakers.
That night Sofia lies in bed awake and hears her mother sobbing. She asks Demetri what is wrong but he tells her to go to sleep and stop asking questions. Sofia waits until Demetri is asleep then gets up and presses her ear against the wall. She can hear her mother sobbing and the deep, reassuring voice of her father. Some time later she hears firm, rhythmic thudding noises against the wall. She is puzzled by the noises but assumes her father is still trying to comfort her mother.
The next morning Sofia’s mother explains that their father had something very important to tell her and her brother.
Sofia’s father lifts her up onto his lap. For a moment he is quiet. He ruffles her long brown hair and kisses her cheek. When he speaks his voice is low and gravely serious. He tells them that some strangers are coming to see them. These men, he says, are not nice. It is not a good visit. They will try and take the vineyard and house away from them. The family might be separated.
He keeps talking but Sofia finds it hard to take in what her father is saying. Her ears are burning and her face feels hot and flushed. Tears are running down her cheeks. Her father says that they must all do what the men tell them to do. He says some more things but Sofia cannot concentrate. Her father takes her hand. He looks into her eyes and asks if she understands. She lies and nods.

Hours later it is dusk. The encroaching evening sky is smudged purple like ink stains on blotting paper. The air is moist and the ground is covered in cold dew. Sofia is alone amongst the vines when the men come.

They arrive in great mechanical monsters that cough up filthy grey smoke. Sofia crouches behind some of the vines next to the fountain. She is about fifty yards from the house. From there she can see Demetri run up to her father.

The men all carry guns and wear dark uniforms. Their faces are expressionless. They shout things at each other in a language that Sofia does not recognise, although it sounds familiar.

They seem very organised and purposeful, these men. Sofia wonders why they are in so much of a hurry. Some of them run up to her father and brother and others run into the house. While in the house the men continue to shout incomprehensible instructions at each other.
Sofia is afraid. She wants her mother. She wants the men to go away. Her chest heaves spasmodically as she takes deep, punctuated breaths. Her father is arguing with a stern-faced man who is older than the rest. One of the tall uniformed men has snatched her brother and is holding him tightly. Demetri is wriggling but cannot get away.
From inside the house there is the sound of a struggle. Sofia hears a crash. Some men emerge dragging Sofia’s mother. They are also carrying one of the family photos. The older stern-faced man points emphatically at the picture, asking questions. Sofia’s father has adopted a blank expression. He says nothing. The man makes a strange gesture and one of the younger men hits Sofia’s father over the head with the end of his gun. Sofia’s chest feels excruciatingly taut. She cannot breathe.

The younger man moves onto Sofia’s mother who yells and grabs for the picture. Everyone stands and watches as Sofia’s mother and the young man struggle over the wooden frame. For several minutes the picture moves back and forth between the two, the young man seemingly unable to contend with Sofia’s mother’s feral rage. Some of the men begin to laugh. Sofia thinks it is the cruel laugh of bullies. Eventually the older man seems to grow bored of the struggle. Wearily, he pulls a gun from his belt and shoots Sofia’s mother in the chest. 

The sound of the shot reverberates into the darkening sky but does not conceal the sound of Sofia’s long, piercing scream. A dozen heads snap round to where she is hiding.

For a second nothing happens, then multiple orders are shouted and a number of men scramble toward the fountain.

Panicking, Sofia hurriedly backs away from the fountain into the mass of leaves. She turns and scurries through the vines. The branches feel like small prickly hands clawing at her skin, scratching her face and grabbing at her clothes. Her eyes are watery and she struggles to see where she is going.

All around the house there is chaos as the men hunt for Sofia. The air is filled with the sound of scuffed boots pounding the jagged stone paths around the house.

She stops and huddles up in the gully of a row of vine roots, making herself as small as possible. Around her some of the men have torches and shine them in all directions. Occasionally the light flashes Sofia in the eyes but somehow she is not seen.

Close to Sofia there is a fresh commotion and the sound of instructions being barked. Above the din she can just about make out the cries of her father. Suddenly she hears a shot fired. And another.  For the shortest time nothing is said, then the orchestra of voices continues. Sofia can no longer hear her father.

Sofia suddenly feels very alone. She begins shivering. Her heart is a tight drum beating uncontrollably as acid circulates her veins. For a few minutes she does nothing. Her arms and legs will not work. They feel hollow and weak like empty tree trunks. She knows she needs to move but she is paralysed by fear.

But then she thinks of something.

It is just a game. It is just like playing with Demetri. Hide and seek. She is a small girl and the vineyard is large. Beyond the vineyard are the dense woodlands, and beyond that are roads and neighbours. She is small and agile. The men are clumsy and foolish. She can beat them. She can win.

Little by little Sofia crawls through the dense foliage. Around her insects hiss and chirp, oblivious to her predicament. Every movement is made in sharp, silent bursts. Her breaths are quick but quiet so she can listen for voices. The men have taken to searching silently to catch her.  Whenever she does not hear a sound for a moment she scurries further away from the house.
Sofia is halfway across the vineyard when she trips and falls to the ground. Immediately she hears the heavy breathing of a man nearby and assumes she has been caught. But when she turns around she sees the figure of a man lying awkwardly across the ground. His clothes are soaked with blood, which in the moonlight appears black like oil. He sees her and Sofia gasps.

He smiles and nods at her but he understands he must not speak. Sofia’s eyes begin to well up. Her face is like cracked porcelain ready to break. She wants to say something but he shakes his head and holds a finger to his pursed lips. She crawls over to him and he envelops her small, delicate body with one arm.

Sofia rests her head on her father’s chest. His breaths are painful and shallow. She tries to match the rhythm as her head rises and falls and for a moment they breathe as one. Her father strokes her skin with his course hands and holds her tightly as she shivers. For a moment they lie together silently and stare at the cold, empty sky above them. To Sofia the bright stars look like salt scattered on her black kitchen placemat.

Her father loosens his grasp. His breathing is slower now. He indicates she must continue to the security of the trees. She begins to move, but hesitates. Her father cups his hand around her ear and whispers something. She nods and quickly crawls forward.

After some time spent crawling she glances back. Her father is in the same place. Weakly, he tries to waves at her. She smiles, turns back, and keeps going. It is the last time she sees her father.
Near the house the men have become more organised and are moving in a line of ten slowly downhill, systematically checking for any sign of a child hiding amongst the vines. They are too late. At the bottom of the hill Sofia stands in front of the dark woodlands. Two giant oak trees flank the entrance like sturdy guardians protecting the forest.

She is safe now. No amount of torches will find her once she is in the heart of the woods. She breathes the air. The dirty smoke from the vehicles is gone. Here the air is clean and smells of lavender. Sofia listens to the rustle of the leaves and the creaking and swaying of the braches. Above her the moon lurks shyly behind a cloud of rich silver and in the distance the echoes of harsh voices are lost in the ether.

Sofia cautiously steps into the darkness and disappears.

Sofia opens her eyes. She wipes at her cheeks and catches her breath. She is an adult once again.

She rubs the dirt from her hands, watching as the brown powder falls from her fingers into the shadows and dust that cover the ground. She is calm. It has been a long time now since the earth has been stained with blood.

Sofia gets to her feet. She nervously checks her watch and mutters to herself about the time. Ripe afternoon sky has given way to dark bruises and discoloration. Demetri will soon be arriving for supper and everything must be perfect. Preparations must be made. She has not seen her brother in a long time.  She wonders what he will look like. She wonders what she will say when she sees him. She wonders if he will be happy.

For a moment Sofia pauses and looks over the fields. She sighs deeply, then turns toward the house and begins to leave the vineyard behind her.


1 Gemma3373 | on 15 November 2008

I love the way that, by keeping the location of the story broadly the same, the changes that circumstance and the passage of time bring about for Sofia and her family become more harrowing and seem more real because they are also written in the descriptions of the physical space.
Getting a child’s innocent, incomplete perspective on events helps build the suspense, and when the big reveal comes it is very dramatic.
Really enjoyed reading this, so thanks!

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