Saturday, October 21, 2023

“The Rustling Leaves of Autumn” • by James C. Bassett

The rustling leaves of autumn always depress me, presaging as they do the coming cold and dark, their last bit of life spent to make the colours that fade too quickly into a dry, drab death.

The changes have been coming for a few weeks now, so subtle from day to day as to be almost unnoticeable—trees just slightly less green and more yellow or orange, slightly less full—but from the lush heat of summer, which still seems so near and yet has fallen so terribly far into the past, it might as well be a different world, and poorer.

This morning as I walked to work at a time that so recently was full of light and life but which now is decidedly pre-dawn, autumn’s first chill lay heavy, and I imagined that I could see frost riming the grass and fallen leaves. But it was only that, my depressive imagination, pessimistically inventing prematurely what will too soon become reality. The crunch I felt underfoot was only dead, dry autumn leaves.

Some small thing scuttled onto the sidewalk ahead of me and then sat still. In the early morning semilight I at first thought it a bird or perhaps a mouse. Strange, I thought, that it ran into my path instead of away to safety, under a shrub or pile of leaves.

As I drew nearer, it stirred again, and others, and I saw that they were only a few leaves, fallen and dry. Yet this too was strange. No birds sang in the darkness; I could feel not the slightest breath stirring the sleeping world—but as I walked closer, the leaves again trembled and took flight, twitching farther onto the path.

I stopped to stare at the one closest, and it fell still again. Was there a wind so low, I wondered, scuttering only along the surface of the pavement? Was it an air current caused by the warmth being drawn out of the earth by the morning cold? Were beetles hiding under these leaves, just as I longed to still be hunkered beneath the warmth of my blankets?

The leaf lifted once more and fell across the toe of my shoe. Disinterestedly, I bent to brush it off. A sudden sharpness stung my finger, like a static shock or a mosquito bite. My hand drew back reflexively, then I reached down and picked up the leaf.

I know nothing about trees. The only leaf I can identify is the maple, which this was not.

I rubbed my thumb over the side of my finger and felt a slight ridge where the skin had been delicately sliced, like a paper cut. The leaf was dry, dry enough to crumble, but I still was surprised that it had been strong enough to slice skin, however shallowly. One in a million, I thought, and I absently put the leaf in my coat pocket and continued on toward the shop.

The light grew, but only halfway, as the sun rose but remained hidden behind dense, low clouds. The artificial light of the shop glared in contrast, too white. For the first hours my finger burned with a faint itch, but it soon subsided as I lost myself in the drudgery of work and customers. Time vanished.

A woman entered and asked for a plaster. Blood trickled from above her left eye. She said the wind had blown a twig from a tree and it had fallen on her.

A twig or a leaf? I asked, my mind suddenly springing to life

She admitted she had only thought it was a leaf at first, but once she realised she was bleeding she assumed it must have been a twig, because a leaf couldn’t have cut her.

Did you keep the leaf? I asked, and she looked at me is if I were mad.

I gave her a plaster and she left, shaking her head. Ah, well. She’ll understand soon enough.

Freed at last when the shadows lengthened, I went straight home. Leaves littered the streets and sidewalks. I heated the remains of last night’s stew and fortified my tea with brandy, grey autumn’s solace, and sat on the couch to eat under a pile of blankets.

I turned on my computer to let the cold dark evening pass into oblivion. The news was terrible, as ever. Death, war, poverty, suffering. Here in town an old man had been found dead in his front garden, a rake beside him, his papery skin torn and ragged. The public was warned to be wary of potentially dangerous rodents.

I laughed out loud at that, knowing the truth. A pile of leaves of course was far too many. One is safe, or only a few, but no more. There will be more deaths this autumn, but there will more, too, like me and the woman in the shop, who have chanced to learn the secrets of sap and blood.

Steeling myself against the chill, I retrieved my leaf from my coat pocket and cosied back into my cocoon.

Was there a suppleness to one small edge of the leaf, a glimmer of green returned, as on my finger? I laid the leaf flat on my palm while I watched a movie, feeling from time to time a rough tingling under the touch of the leaf.

I can hear the wind against the window, scattering the autumn leaves from the trees and sending them all through the town. I want only to stay here all winter in my huddle of blankets, hibernating, incubating, until warmth returns to the world, returns the world to life.

In the spring the trees will spring forth their green, rustling leaves, spring forth to new life, and so will I.




James C. Bassett’s fiction has appeared in such markets as Splonk, Crannóg, Coffin Bell, Constellary Tales, Amazing Stories, and the World Fantasy Award–winning anthology Leviathan 3. He co‑edited (with Stephen L. Antczak and Martin H. Greenberg) the anthology Zombiesque (DAW Books, February 2011) and (with Stephen L. Antczak) the anthology Clockwork Fables (ROC, June 2013). He also is an award-winning stone and wood sculptor and painter.


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Anonymous said...

Subtle, atmospheric and creepy!

ray p daley said...

Oh, I like that. It could lead into a much longer story, too. Nice work, James!

Gary said...

Bravo! Well done!