It was the sort of day that the native Vermonters of her youth would have described as crisp, and left it at that. However, Susan’s less taciturn spirit delineated, noting that it was chill to the verge of being cold, that the sky was as blue as a new robin’s egg and the air thin. It felt rarefied in her lungs and the deep breaths she took for the pleasure of nuance, inhaling the crushed leaves, unmown hay and deer musk which, taken together, almost constituted a potpourris, were a necessity as much as an indulgence. It was as if the whole state had been somehow shot into the upper echelons of the atmosphere and the sunlight, nearly nine minutes old from the face of the ancient sun, was just that much newer and cleaner.
The sloping side of the hill at which she had stopped the car was imbued with such peaceful grandeur that Susan wished she could believe in its uniqueness, that she didn’t know she had passed by fifty such, or a hundred, on the bumpy ride out. But she had and so, like a shell at the seaside, the magnificent stretch of god's own green earth upon which she stood, now mottled orange and brown by the fallen autumn leaves; yellow, ochre, green, red and every shade imaginable in between, had to stand alone, content in and of itself.
Susan was not a believer in god, despite, even particularly despite, an upbringing as rigid as any in that regard. Now her eyes swept and swept and swept once again, culling over the expanse as if they could possibly take in the crenulations of the million dying leaves, each as unique as a snowflake, which peppered the field like an Amish quilt; all around her and as far as the eye could see. She could not believe in him, not anymore, but she could to a degree, believe in it. In such a place and at such a time, she could consider... the concept of good. It was a rare thing for her, who, though she had no particular reason to doubt, who had not seen more than her share of the reverse nor done anything particularly heinous, was nonetheless privately convinced that the world was a foul place, that man had dominated man to his injury.
She sighed. Perhaps it was inevitable that King Solomon should swarm up at her. What would he have made of this strewn hillside, he, with his concubines like the stars and cedars of Lebanon and bisected babies?
Susan didn’t care.
She knew that she was distracting herself and rubbed at her eye, dry and itchy in this land of anecdotes and allergies. That wasn’t too bad, ‘anecdotes and allergies’; she should write that down in her little book of prose… and she would, too.
Flipping open a pocket sized spiral bound, now almost an anachronism, she carefully eased it open to the correct list, chary of the first several pages which had begun to resemble tissue paper and evinced a strong inclination to waft free, to enter the world like enigmatic notes in bottles.
She added the three words.
There were a heap of these little books in her desk back home, used up, molded into the shape of her rump, undated little diaries in cipher. Each had a caterpillar drawn on the cover, the maturity of the art the only clue to their order, from the first to whichever she was up to now. Susan smiled. Her butt cheek felt cold till she slipped the miniature volume back into its accustomed spot.
The leaves were mostly down, well, halfway, and the hills starting to get that look about them. It was not manginess, for in the northeast the countryside was never unattractive, nor truly bereft of cover. When the Maples and Oaks and Sycamores had let slip their annual leaves, weeping them off by their millions to stand stark and howling, then the more strongly did the great Balsams and Red Spruce shoulder the load, their solid, hunkered forms standing in permanent vigil with their naked sisters till spring clad them again. The hill did have an ‘inbetweeny’ sort of look about it though, the sort that only happened for a sliver here and a moment there in that great loop of seasons, normally so seamless, the variegations as impossible to detect as shades in an evening sky as it spans the infinite, from fire to evening stars.
“Like the birds of the heavens,” sighed Susan, not knowing why she had said those particular words, hardly even registering them, not till her ears brought the sounds back in and she smiled ruefully. “Or the flowers in the field,” she sighed, finishing the thought, accidentally begun.
Well, perhaps the leaves were counted, too- or was that just grains of sand? Hairs upon one’s head? Something was counted anyway and it was supposed to make you feel… unforsaken.
Susan shooshed the leaves aside with her boots, the tote with its knotted rope lanyard jostling uncomfortably on her hip. Some of the leaves were dry enough to crunched underfoot and she was pleased to note that it was every bit as satisfying as an adult as it had been when once a little girl, walking, if not hand-in-hand with her father, for they had never been that sort, then at least beneath the umbrella of his affection.
Susan breathed in deliberately, the itch waxing in her eyes. In this place out of time she seemed to see herself whole and understood why she had come, why stoked the dormant embers in her soul. She understood at least a little. A chill stream of maple filtered air fluttered the fat leaves of their oaken brethren about her in a flapping storm, a whirring, whooshing sound like the heart of the sea... and winter, lurking in the wings.
‘Yes!’ thought Susan, so strongly she could taste the unspoken word like syrup in her mouth.
As if following a treasure map she veered to the left, nearing the edge of the clearing which, unmaintained, did not have a tree line but rather a graduation. There were no hard lines in the Vermont countryside. Even the rivers seemed to meld in. He had told her in the note that she would find it and she had known that she would not and now she knew that she would and it was so eerily natural that she felt she might be sick. For the first time since it had happened, she felt like she might be sick and was glad that it was only her, alone in this plenty, in god's god damn grains of sand.
Fishing a napkin from her pocket, Susan blew her nose.
There it was, of course, a maple tree whose leaves, having sickened of eating and drinking, had escaped the green camouflage of their lives, showing up in the deresolution of chlorophyll the intense red they always had been underneath. Red, red; from tip to tip, apex to petiole. It was a tree of crimson spirits, as pure and unblemished as a flock of roosting tanager’s. Even as Susan watched, a single leaf took to flight. In its true form, it’s honest form, it sank to the ground, landing without a sound.
The wind blew. The leaves moved as a body.
She crouched down, next to the red leaf. Up close, she could see every part of it. Eight grade science projects, around the kitchen table, swelling up at her as if she had never forgotten them, that huge part of her life that had once been all. Her all. Strong hands. She could see the leaf’s every vein, main and secondary and tertiary, branching away into infinity, every tooth, the insertion point, the margins and sheath and stipule. It was a perfect leaf and it was the one, the one he had said would be there. Susan almost touched it but drew back. Sliding the notebook from her pocket she flipped to the middle and sketched an outline. Drawing had never been her metier but she made an effort, sliding her thumb inward to slur the graphite. With a firm hand she labeled all the parts, staking out the memory before it slipped back into the past.
She saw her hand reaching out again as if it belonged to another person. It was a woman’s hand and made her feel hollow inside. She picked up the leaf by the stem, as light as air, and made to set it aside, but a slight vibration tickling through the husk caused Susan to spiral the shaft, like a pencil. On the underside, placidly searching for something wick, out of time and out of season, inched a tiny green bug.
She could not breathe.
Had her hand found her throat?
How could he possibly have guessed?
How could he?
Quickly, knowing that the lock had been sprung, Susan set the leaf to one side. Slinging round the tote in a single motion, she folded back the flap and removed the container. The grey dust poured out, filling the place where the leaf had been. It formed a small hill, filtering round the dun blades of grass, all the way down, touching the earth. Slapping the container back into the tote Susan smiled hard and shifted the leaf back over the pile. Heedful of the doomed little caterpillar, she left him top side up.
She rose. The wind blew. The sun was slowly going down. The itching allergies boiled over and ran slantwise over Susan’s cheeks, cooling as they diverged, forming secondary tributaries and tertiary, into infinity.
Twisting abruptly from the red leaf, Susan took off running down the hill, her big boots kicking the leaves high, high, so high, the empty tote slapping on her back.