(Written in 2007.)
The air blew cooler now, cooler than any day of this year so far. Those walking beneath only hurried along quickly; their days of dawdling, looking up and around and enjoying the fall were past. A louder rustle could be heard today, above them in the trees; a rustle almost like voices.
“It won’t be long now,” George said, his slow voice as gloomy as ever.
“Oh, George, there’s no need to sound so glum!” Patricia said. “These are our golden days! What our whole lives have been waiting for!”
“It’s really quite morbid,” Daniel said sharply, “to say that our entire life’s purpose is found in our dying, as we asphyxiate and starve.”
“Oh, come now, we’ve had our full year of life. We’ve seen our summer and provided shade throughout – now is the time for the world to really notice us!”
“Basically,” said Gladys, her voice flat, “you’re an attention whore, Patricia.”
At that, a dozen leaves burst into speech at once, several upbraiding Gladys, and Patricia’s own voice rising in defense: “This isn’t about one of us; we won’t be noticed alone, we must combine all our efforts!”
Then Gladys exploded, drowning out the rest. “Excuse me for not being so damn cheerful about dying! Patricia, you can celebrate it and count out every gram of chlorophyll in your reserves to make sure you make the most wonderful designs in your last hours before you lose all consciousness, but is it a little too much to ask that you count quietly!”
“I’ll second that,” Daniel said.
An uneasy quiet fell, though one of the difficult things about being leaves is that they can’t take a break from one another by moving physically away. At last, Cornelius – their unelected leader by virtue of his large size and the way he hung over the rest of them like an admonishing parent – spoke up.
“Patricia is right to say we have all had a full life. And we have served our purpose – to shade those below, to support bird nests, to provide a home for spiders, even to feed caterpillars –”
A high wail, not unlike the undulating noise of an ambulance, rose below him.
“Did you have to mention that, Cornelius?” George said, sounding grieved. “Was it truly necessary?”
“Please, Caroline,” Patricia said, “you are all right now; the insect has moved far away and will not return, it is all over –”
“As it has been for months,” Daniel said, though only so Gladys could hear.
“You are truly as beautiful now as you were before. Why, I would even say some of it has the delicate appearance of lace.”
The wailing rose to a new pitch.
“May the leafblower take her,” Gladys swore, then said louder: “Patricia, you are not helping. Just let her get it out.”
“But you don’t know what it’s like!” Caroline’s howl at last formed words. All the leaves of the branch mouthed her next words together. “Utterly helpless to defend myself, and that horrid bug just sat on me, biting and chewing, ripping me away as slow as he pleased – utter agony –”
“Such is the fate of leaves,” Cornelius said. “By all rights, we all should have expected to feed the insects as summer came to its close. Our purpose now is finished, and we have nothing more to expect until we fall, wherever the leafblower takes us.”
“We have such a cheerful branch,” Gladys said to Daniel.
“But we can still do something!” Patricia seemed unable to contain herself. “Something more proactive than anything before, too – we know it’s part of the cycle of leaves, the very last part, to create colors! The whole tree can turn beautiful colors day by day.”
“It serves no purpose,” Cornelius said.
“A little peace,” Daniel broke in. “It’s been a long afternoon, and look – the sun’s about to set.”
The leaves of the branch turned as one to see the sun sinking into sight from behind some clouds. It would not be visible long, and they all knew every day it would disappear sooner and sooner. So in silence they watched, able to gaze directly at their source of life as humans are not, at the large sphere, its gold already dimming.
For a while, some level of tranquility held – Patricia’s developing little swirls of red and yellow around her edges caught the attention of the vapid twins, Kerry and Kevin.
“That’s so pretty, Patricia! See, Kevin? Can you see it? See the way the colors blend together at her point – isn’t it pretty?”
“It’s really pretty,” Kevin agreed.
“I wonder if I could do that – do you think I could do that, Kevin? I don’t know if I could. It looks so pretty. Gosh, it does.”
Patricia fluttered in a delighted sort of way; the rest of the leaves had refused so far to acknowledge her artistic achievements. “Thank you, dears! It really isn’t that difficult, only takes a sufficient amount of concentration and –” At this point even Patricia could not fail to notice Gladys ruffling at her in a menacing sort of way, and she faltered to only, “I imagine you could make some lovely symmetrical designs with each other.”
“It’ll kill you, Kerry,” Gladys said. “Patricia, leave them alone.”
“But they were interested!”
“Because they don’t know any better!” Patricia’s voice dropped to a hiss; the twins were a little further away on the branch from the rest. “Don’t meddle with those who are – a few acorns short of an oak tree. It isn’t right, is it, Cornelius?”
“Every leaf has a right to the little amount of free will it has,” Cornelius replied. “We shouldn’t deny them whatever small enjoyment they may have in their last days. None of us have much longer; it will not make a great deal of difference.”
Furious, Gladys turned to Daniel.
“I’ll try to keep her from talking to them too much,” he said. “But you can’t worry too much about what others do, Gladys. …I know it’s hard for you, since Matilda–”
“This has nothing to do with her,” Gladys said. “You think those twins are remotely like her?”
“No,” Daniel said. “Of course not. Sorry.”
Matilda had been a young, bright leaf closely connected to Gladys’s twig. In mid-summer, long before her time, she was ripped off the branch in an unfortunate and ghastly incident with a squirrel. She was the first lost leaf on Cornelius’s branch and everyone had taken it hard. Gladys had never been especially affectionate with anyone, but her bite was always softened with Matilda; afterward, she never made a large show of emotion as Patricia and Caroline did, but she was ferocious towards everyone for weeks afterward. Daniel was the only one able to finally tone her down.
A week later, a terrible storm blew in. Huge raindrops that felt more like hail pelted the tree, battering the leaves ragged, but the wind was the real threat. It rose and rose to a ferocity none of them had ever experienced before, and Cornelius’s branch began hearing screams from above of those torn from their branches. It was a ghastly sound, and those below shivered and tried to cling tighter to their supports, though it did little to help. Those of Cornelius’s branch were somewhat on the inside of the tree, and they hoped that would protect them more than those on the extremities. But the storm raged hour after hour, stripping away dozens of leaves at a time.
George was the first to go. His stem broke, and the wind swallowed any cry he gave. In a blink, he had disappeared.
Kevin was taken next. The rest of the branch caught his last shout to his sister, though her own scream almost immediately drowned it out.
“TAKE ME TOO! TAKE ME TOO!” she shrieked, sobbing, into the storm; and before dawn, her wish was granted.
Gladys hung on to her stem, too terrified and stunned by the losses to speak. But the storm couldn’t last forever – surely, surely it would end soon, there had been enough damage already….
Then she heard a gasp from beside her. “No –”
Gladys turned to see the awful sight of Daniel’s stem bent to breaking point, tearing – “NO!” she screamed, wanting to throw herself forward to stop it from happening, but she had no power to move.
Then with a twist, Daniel’s stem separated from its branch – anguished, Gladys fixed him with her eyes, determined never to lose sight of him wherever he should go and land until the leafblower took him – but the wind took and slammed him against a cluster of twigs and leaves directly behind him. There he stayed, pinned.
At last, as the skies grew lighter, the winds slowed. The rain had desisted a while ago, and the survivors could take in the damage.
Three-quarters of the leaves on their tree had been stripped away. The bare branches looked ghastly and haunting. Below, hundreds of corpses were scattered across the grounds. Those directly below them weren’t even of their tree; the wind had carried their own kin far out of sight.
All around could be heard the moans and weeping of those left behind. The life of a leaf was a simple, short thing in comparison to humans; unable to physically do much, they spent their days talking and forming bonds, whether good or bad, with those around them. Nothing was more traumatic than to lose one of those who had been as much of a constant in their life as the tree itself.
Cornelius’s great weight had given him the advantage of a strong stem, and he met the morning to assess who was left. Ironically, Caroline lived yet, her stem as whole as she was not; Patricia too remained tethered.
Unaware of all around her, Gladys was transfixed on another branch, just a foot from hers, where a cluster of leaves still cradled Daniel’s body like a leafy Pieta. “Daniel?” she called, her voice trembling. “Can you still hear me?”
Daniel fluttered slightly. “I’m still alive,” he said, though he sounded faint. “I don’t think it’ll be much longer, though.”
In a quiet, half-strangled way, Gladys started to cry. She couldn’t help it. She had always prided herself on being sensible, aware of the brevity and insignificance of a leaf’s life; but now, it wasn’t just a philosophy. This was the leaf she had valued most of all her life’s companions, the one who had always had the most sense and the only one she had admired. Now he was dying before her, and she would have to face the rest of her short days without him. He was the reason why she hadn’t been afraid of dying, she realized, because she could at least talk to him until the last day.
“Don’t be so sad, Gladys,” Daniel said. “We all have to go to the leafblower one way or another – it’s all the same, you know.”
“It’s just – selfish,” she gasped, trying to keep her voice as steady as possible. “I don’t want to be alone….”
He laughed a little. “Time to make friends with Patricia, then.”
“No, Daniel – no one can be like you –”
“You can remember me. It won’t be long before we’re all gone, you know. You’re too sensible to spend your last days miserable.” Then, to those around him: “It’s time to let me go, if you can.”
“We’re sorry, friend,” one of them whispered.
“It’s all right. I look forward to falling down – and I want to have enough energy saved to appreciate my new view before the leafblower comes. It’ll be interesting to see what our tree looks like from the ground.”
The calm in his voice nearly undid Gladys again, but she squeezed her emotions tight. She didn’t want bawling to be the last thing Daniel heard from her.
A small breeze blew, and the leaf cluster allowed themselves to be parted, letting Daniel go.
“I’m a leaf on the wind,” he sang quietly, as he slowly started to tumble downwards, turning over and over.
Gladys bent to watch him go. “Goodbye, Daniel!” she called, her voice as strong as she could make it.
Silence on Cornelius’s branch.
Patricia tried to give her time; finally, though, she decided it had been long enough.
“Gladys, darling –”
“Shut up, I don’t want to hear from you.”
“Hush,” said Cornelius. “Our numbers were cut in half last night. We must be kind to one another.”
Gladys didn’t respond, and so Patricia persisted. “We – we know now, don’t we, that any of us can be lost at any moment. What do we have left to give to the world and each other? Poor George, Kerry and Kevin, and Daniel could have left us with a wonderful memory of color….”
Gladys cracked. “SHUT UP, you deranged bitch – I loved him –”
Patricia had long ago grown impervious to the abuse. “Gladys, Daniel’s last view of you could have been a beautiful array of autumn colors –”
“I HOPE YOU’RE BURNED ALIVE! I’d kill you myself if I could –”
“Patricia and Gladys,” Cornelius said, his voice thunderous, “I forbid you from speaking, to each other or anyone else, for the rest of the day. We’re all in mourning, and we do no honor to those taken from us by this language.”
So the day passed in brooding silence, apart from Caroline’s occasional sniffling.
A little after sunrise the next day, Gladys spoke, sounding oddly serene. “Patricia, you’re sick and twisted, but I think Daniel would have wanted us to change colors. After all, we don’t have anything else to do at this point.”
“Oh, I’m so glad you’ve come around,” Patricia said. “I’ve been pondering your unique shape and size, and I thought of some very pretty patterns you could probably pull off –”
“Why don’t you show me as an example?” Gladys interrupted. “I’m more interested in seeing what you can do, after all your study of the matter. I’m sure it will be inspirational.”
Patricia ruffled herself in a preening sort of way. “Oh, I’d love to!”
It wasn’t quite three days later that, under Gladys’s steady encouragement, Patricia had completely starved herself of chlorophyll flow. She lost the ability to speak, and a few hours later, the wind snapped her cleanly off and carried her to the leafblower.
Gladys watched her go with a peaceful sense of revenge meted out.
“You’re evil,” Caroline whispered.
“You’re half-witted,” Gladys answered with good humor. “Didn’t you see how pretty she was?”