By the time I stepped outside, the leaves were on fire. I braced myself in the open door frame on the side of my garage, looking out into the backyard, barely remembering I was about to ask my wife to come inspect the nearly finished spice rack she had been asking for over the past few weeks. It was only the scent of slightly burned oaken sawdust rising from the flecks covering my arms and t-shirt that reminded me, or perhaps it was the smell of the burning oak leaves she was walking away from, heading back to the patio table. I can’t bring myself to move now though, my eyes fixed on the glass patio table my son is sitting at.
There are some memories so indelible that even when expelled to the realm of broken dreams, they linger, waiting in silence for the precise moment to burst back into the light. These memories of times long past are tucked away, intertwined with the better times, suppressing the truth, and burying reality somewhere deep within. The moment they return is never a moment prepared for, never a moment to be steadied against. The very nature of these memories is that they will one day come back—full force—and hit home with a strength and ferocity that only time itself could imbue. The day is unseasonably warm and we’re all taking advantage of it. Nathan is sitting upright, his back to me, his deep black hair cut short, the hands of an eight-year-old holding onto a large piece of brown construction paper. My wife takes a seat next to him. I can tell he is inspecting the outline he must have finished drawing as I opened the side door, and I am equally entranced by the sharp, black pattern.
I close my eyes, feeling my shoulder pressing into the door jamb. There is something altogether soothing in the pain I start to feel as I push harder against the frame, trying desperately to steady myself. I can see myself at the dining room table. It’s nothing like the patio table Nathan sits at, but rather it is a table I had long since forgotten about. I can feel the coarse grain of the paper in my hands though, the sheet so large in front of my face, its tawny hue nearly the shade of one of the fallen oak leaves on the ground outside my bedroom window. It feels so real, this piece of paper in my mind. I can see its fibers weaving together, the strands of former wood bound inseparably in their new form. I find comfort in the paper, the thickness of it an anchor to the past I can focus on with clarity.
I don’t recall when I had traced the outlines of leaves on the paper, endless black lines in the shapes of oak and elm and maple. I don’t even remember the other sheets sitting nearby, the bright orange, the fiery red, the sun-touched yellow all waiting for their own outlines, all ready to be scattered about the table in a few days’ time. For a moment, I can almost feel the acrid burn of the permanent marker fumes in my nose, the sour tones lasting far longer than the time it took to circumscribe the paths I was preparing to cut. I can barely remember my mother, but I know in years past we had gone out around the neighborhood and gathered leaves together. This year had been different though. This year I had wandered alone, my father not wanting to accompany me on a child’s foolish errand.
The scissors are in my hand now. I don’t remember picking them up, but they are necessary to start separating new leaf from paper. The dull blades in my hand begin to slice through, aiming for the nearest obsidian line, crossing against each other as I steadily move my fingers and thumb away from each other in repetition. I’m doing my best to guide the rounded steel tips, but my best isn’t quite good enough. The paper is too thick for these scissors, the blades too short, and the deeper I cut, the more I am creasing the paper. I’m too young to play with the real scissors though. I’m only eight. I’m not allowed to handle them without my mom because I might cut myself or go running through the house with them and cause an accident. I’m all too familiar now with the reasons I shouldn’t have had them, but at the time I felt like I was being held back. I want the leaves to be perfect—precise—but these blades won’t do. I’m struggling to cut a smooth edge, and I’m getting frustrated.
I want my mom. She would help me. She would let me use the scissors—the real scissors. She would sit next to me or stand behind me, she would guide my hand and make sure the leaves look the best they can. She’s not here though; she’ll never be here again. My dad won’t tell me what happened, where she went, why I’ll never see her again. I don’t know anything more than he’s counting on me to make this Thanksgiving the best ever because it will be the first one without her. The house has to look nice for when grandma and grandpa arrive for dinner in a few days, so I’m doing my part.
The tears. I feel the tears returning, and now I remember them the most. The tears that would never seem to end. I can’t get the leaf right. I cut too deep in one of the inner curves and slice off one of the points. I crossed into the leaf, leaving the outline, ruining its perfect form, and I know Dad would be furious! I am ruining the family holiday, I am destroying the perfect get-together, and I am betraying the memory of my own mother. These days I need a picture to remind me of how she looked. Even now, stuck in my mind, held captive in my tiny former self, I can only remember her tender touch and her graceful love, but I can’t remember her face. She would have stood behind me and guided me all the way.
My dad’s rough, calloused hand is on mine now. I don’t want it there. I want it to go away, to take with it the memories I suddenly know are coming, but I can’t stop the sequence of events now. He’s leaning over me, his voice telling me everything will be alright, but it won’t. It will never be alright. Never again. I don’t want to remember any more of this. I don’t want to walk this path through the fallen leaves, reopening old wounds I had purposely buried within the tenebrous depths of my psyche. I don’t want to be haunted by this day again, but it won’t end.
His breath is heavy as he leans in, trying to guide my hand. “Keep cutting,” he’s telling me, but he’s pushing my hand faster than my little fingers can keep up. The leaf is starting to crumble as the paper bunches up in the crook between the blunted blades. I’m crying more now because I see the destruction happening in real time. I can’t make the leaf perfect anymore, I can’t make anything perfect anymore. It’s ruined now, but he keeps pushing my hand. We’re through the oak and heading straight for an elm. He pushes more, his grip on my hand so tight now. There’s a stench in the air, permanent marker replaced by a sharp overly sweet odor, a hint of vanilla to it. There’s an almost harsh, oaken undertone in the air as if the leaves on the table have become stronger in scent. I don’t know precisely when I smelled it, but I could swear it hadn’t been there before my dad came up behind me. The odor is overpowering me. He is overpowering me. He keeps pushing, harder and harder, and I’m trying to hold on, trying to regain control of my simple little life, but it’s all crashing down around me.
I don’t want to remember.
“Well that’s ruined, now isn’t it?”
I never want to hear those words again. I’m closing my eyes so tight now it hurts. His grip on my hand hurts too. He’s prying the scissors from my hand and whispering in my ear. “Everything will be alright.” It’s not going to be. He’s so close now. Not the closeness of a hug, not the comforting closeness of a protective parent, but something different, something scary and unfamiliar. I’m frightened now and I don’t know why. I don’t want to think about it, but the visions continue their unrelenting assault, leaping back to life with more color and dimension than I am comfortable with.
My father’s hand is no longer on mine. It’s running up my arm and he’s leaning so close now. I can hear every breath he’s taking as if his mouth is next to my ear. I can’t live through this again. Not now. Dear God, not now. In a moment, I’m on my feet, the chair kicked across the room. As the seat tumbles across the floor and bangs against the wall, reality crashes into my thoughts and I realize why every time I hear a chair scrape against a floor the muscles in my back tighten. My head is pressed against the table, held fast. I can see the pile of construction paper awaiting my attention. The leafy colors are the only thing I can bring myself to focus on, because the pain I’m feeling now is impossible to describe. The reds and yellows and oranges and browns are all blurred together, a strange autumnal rainbow completely out of focus as I retreat into my own mind. I don’t understand what is happening to me, won’t even know what to call it for years to come, and by then I’ll have safely tucked this all out of my head. A few days from now will be the last time I ever see my father, but I can’t stop crying.
The present snaps back into focus as I finally open my eyes and look across the yard once more. Nathan is there, real scissors in his hand under the watchful eye of my loving wife, the sharpened blades cutting through the light brown paper. He’s so innocent, so beautiful. The sun is casting a sheen on his hair, almost a halo, and even through my tears, I smile. My wife looks up from him and sees me, her eyes suddenly filled with concern, but I can’t say a thing to her. I don’t want to talk about it. Not here, not now. Maybe someday, but not now. Right now, there is only one thing I want to do.
I rush across the grass and bound up the single patio step to wrap my arms around my son as he’s cutting a leaf from the same type of tawny paper I had sliced so many years before. “Dad, you’ll ruin it!” he cries out, but I don’t care. All I want right now is for my son to know I will always be there for him, will always protect him from the monsters of the world, that I’ll love him forever. Part of me is sick to my stomach as the memories finally start to fade, the unbelievable nature of innocence destroyed vanishing back into the far reaches of my subconscious thought, but I recover quickly.
The leaves continue to burn, filling the air with oaken ash and a smell I had often avoided, but now I find comfort in it. Nathan will never have to share my memories. I was wrong so many, many years ago. I am still capable of perfection. He’s right here, now, in my arms, and everything is alright.