The Yellow Leaf
As they did each Autumn, the great cottonwoods of Tulare County turned their leaves brilliant yellow before setting them free to fall or blow across the land.
The woman picked up a leaf from the ground under the old cottonwood near the riverbank and held it up against the bright morning sky. Her blue dress tossed in the cool wind and blew her hair as she tucked her skirt between her legs.
"Every part of nature," she told her son, "no matter how small or humble, has purpose. Even something as common as this leaf has a reason to exist - some destiny to fulfill."
He looked up from his sandbox, decorated with yellow leaves. Already this Saturday morning he had gathered small piles of leaves, built roads around them, filled his toy dump truck with the great treeís gold. He imagined it as real gold, so in his mindís eye he understood what she meant.
He watched as she held the leaf up to the sun and marveled at its translucence, illuminated like a piece of stained glass from the tall windows of St. Martinís Cathedral. She held it only by her fingertips until a sudden gust of wind pulled it loose from her grasp and sent it rapidly skyward. Mother and son watched it flutter and rise.
She picked up the laundry basket and turned toward the clothesline. The boy watched the leaf for a few more moments and waved goodbye. "Have a safe trip!" he said to the golden leaf as it left its home off Highway 395 South of Olancha, California. "Be safe, wherever you travel!"
Mark Hernandezí flat bed wrecker sat in the parking lot of Fred Beanís diner on a Monday afternoon along highway 89 west of Williams, Arizona. He didnít notice the golden leaf that fluttered down from the sky and fell inside one of the two blown tires chained tight across his flatbed as he limped around to the driverís side. He lifted up on the handle and yanked open the rusty door. An empty soda can rolled out and he labored to bend over but the wind rolled it underneath the truck. He shrugged, took the driverís seat and slammed the door closed. "Too many lawyers 'round here," he muttered as he cranked the 389.
The lettering on the truck door under his sweaty left elbow read
Hernandez Towing and Salvage.
The middle "B" was distorted by a bullet hole. Not an ordinary bullet hole, but one from a Colt .44 caliber 1860 army revolver.
24 hour mobile tire service
"Only an accident?" he muttered, "Could have killed me!" He remembered hearing the doctor call a nurse as his leg wound was opened.
"Come take a look at this," the doctor said, "Iíll bet no oneís seen a gunshot wound like this in more than a hundred years."
With long tweezers he carefully extracted the round lead ball. "Welcome to the Civil War," he added as he held it up.
"Well look at that," she said, "You can see some of the rifling marks. Perhaps those re-enactors were also indulging in spirits -- authentically of course."
The doctor nodded. "Nothing mixes quite like alcohol and gunpowder," he said as he plunked the ball into a pan.
"You donít have to live near the shooting range," the attorney had told him over lunch at Fred Beanís diner. "Itís your choice. You can always move."
Mark Hernandez finally settled out of court for $475 in cash, reimbursement of all medical expenses, and a book of coupons good for complimentary meals at several local restaurants.
With a great distance to make that day he headed toward interstate 40, bound East toward Gallup. With luck, and his sister-in-lawís Ď94 Taurus in tow, heíd make Roswell by tomorrow evening.
There were dust devils this time of year; big ones bearing closer resemblance to small tornadoes. They always seemed to form on hot mornings, on days when blustery afternoon thunderstorms grew. Mark gazed out the passengerís side window and watched clouds billow and rise majestically. He was sixteen miles west of Roswell, battling a crosswind with the Taurus in tow. Suddenly a large dust devil crossed the highway directly in front, and as he ploughed through, it blew sand and sticks in his open windows and in his eyes as it scoured all loose contents from the bed of his truck: rags, newspapers, leaves, empty beer cans - all rose up into the sky. The crosswind was strong enough to push his truck halfway into the left lane. A black Camaro swerved onto the gravel shoulder. A loud horn was followed by a raised arm out the passengerís window displaying a common gesture of disrespect.
"Learn how to drive!" said the Camaroís passenger as they accelerated, throwing gravel across the road.
Jan and Tim were twin siblings, six years old, playing by the brook in the back pasture under a great old oak. They collected acorns and played tic-tac-toe with the treeís brown seeds and caps on lines drawn by fingers in the dirt. The yellow leaf that fluttered down from the sky to land on the stream bank contrasted sharply with the many brown oak leaves and Jan ran to grab it. They marveled at its color. Tim set a tiny acorn cap on top of it and placed it in the water. With a gentile nudge they set the tiny leaf-boat heading down stream, eastward on its journey.
The stream meandered quietly for miles through a pasture, past a feed lot, and for a time paralleled highway 64 just west of Nash, Oklahoma Ďtil it reached Farmer Alanzoís pumpkin field. The strong suction from an irrigation pump drew the yellow leaf inside the intake pipe and it lodged along with other debris in the filter screen.
Pumpkin harvest was well in progress and Farmer Alanzo, hearing the pump, came to switch it off. He removed the filter screen and dumped its contents into a cardboard trash box in the back of his pickup, then headed east toward the Highway 64 Pack-N-Go for bread, tomatoes, onions, lunch meat and sodas; lunch for the pumpkin pickers. He parked at the gas pumps and emptied the contents of his trash box into a dumpster before entering the store. As the glass door closed behind him, a truck from the Twin Rivers Recycling and Disposal Company arrived for their twice weekly collection.
It was a seagull who noticed the speck of yellow amid the plastic bags and soggy cardboard of the Lamont Landfill, sitting atop a pizza box like a golden pepperoni. It captured the gullís eye and sparked its curiosity. The gull had already feasted on catfish heads but swooped down anyway and playfully picked up the leaf in its beak and took it skyward. Higher and higher the gull flew, all the way to the clouds.
Storms were strong and numerous that year across Oklahoma due to the El Niňo pattern in the Equatorial Pacific. It had been a summer for dangerous weather, and powerful storms had already spawned over thirty tornadoes across the territory.
John Iverson and his family finally had enough. It was only two years ago when their first mobile home was blown off its moorings by a category three. It shattered the windows, doors, and crushed the walls. The incident with their second trailer, barely a month later, was more fortunate, with only the south end torn loose. It was repairable.
A year later and with a new member of the family on the way, they bought their first doublewide and had it placed on a half acre lot outside the town of Twin Oaks.
After nearly a year of peaceful weather and renewed faith in prosperity, along came that Category Four. They were on their way back from the Tulsa County Fair, where his wife was a respected pickle judge, when the tornado destroyed their home along with much of the neighborhood.
The National Weather Service long range forecast predicted still more inclement weather for the remaining season. John Iverson was taking no chances. Having recently passed the national test for his class A water license, he accepted a job offer as assistant manager with the Forrest City Water & Wastewater Treatment Facility. He and his family would move to Arkansas and get as far away from Oklahoma weather as they could.
The Iversons managed to swing a great price for a new Manufactured Home thanks to a brother-in-law with a sales position - and the Iversonís fishing boat traded under the table - and even with trip and setting charges, this brand new 3 bdr. 2 ba. 1,950 sq. ft. w. front porch Ė steps included Ė was saving them nearly $900 over a comparable model from a dealer in Central Arkansas.
The deal had been put together in a hurry. No one bothered to sweep out the remaining construction trash left by the cabinetmakers as huge sheets of heavy plastic were stapled firmly across the open sides. There had been no time to clean out the bits of trim wood that lay on the floor, the dropped screws, the sycamore twigs from the tall trees shading the dealerís lot. And with all that assorted debris, no one even noticed the single yellow leaf that lay in the kitchen sink along with a candy bar wrapper and two cigarette butts.
Their new home was trailered behind two trucks and strapped down tight as dark clouds gathered in the west. While lightning flashed in the distance and thunder rolled, they set out down Highway 412 bound east for the promised land of Arkansas as rapidly as possible.
They managed to stay just ahead of the boiling layer of dark clouds, looming ever closer as they sped down Interstate 40; but as the two trucks stopped for fuel at Conway, the storm caught up.
With the wind gusting near forty and rain beginning to fall they turned back onto the interstate.
Within the storm snaked the dark shadow of a twister. The driver had an eye glued to the side mirror, watching for indications of its path. He could discern no sideways motion. "Youíre a damn tornado magnet!" he said to John Iverson in the passenger seat.
Perhaps it was his belief in a turn of fortunes, or that some force of nature knew that he had been challenged enough; for this time the Iversons were more fortunate. The twister crossed the highway directly behind them. It ripped the cover plastic off both halves of the double wide and blew out anything not nailed down. Trash from inside the home joined the other debris already inside the tornado; tree limbs, wadded paper, plastic bags and one flying house cat. All raised high into the sky by the powerful wind to ride the storm front eastward all the way across two states in only a matter of hours. The single golden cottonwood leaf wove its way among the swirling chaos like a miraculous candle flame, its long journey nearing its end.
The old man had suffered through the North Carolina summer heat and humidity; hard enough for any healthy working man but even worse for a man in his condition. He had given up smoking two years earlier but the stage had already been set for the rebellion of lung and liver cells raging through his body. He felt that this autumn would be his last.
He picked up the morning newspaper his neighbor had brought when she checked on him. Headline: CAT FALLS FROM SKY, HOUSEKEEPER INJURED. "Damndest thing I ever seen," was the quote under the photo of a housekeeper with a bandaged head, holding a cat whose head was bandaged as well, being wheeled together out of Camden County General. "Iím gonna call it Thumper", the quote continued.
He shook his head, set the paper down. "People just make that stuff up," he muttered, voice raspy from his persistent cough.
He gazed out the tall open window across the room, thankful for the cool breeze following a stormy night. He leaned back and watched cottony clouds grow tall with the dayís warmth, gilded yellow by the sun. Suddenly a gust set the windowís lacy white curtains in motion and a single golden leaf blew in. It settled lightly on his bed. He reached out and picked it up, held it to the morning light.
"Cottonwood leaf," he said, "Beautiful. Like fresh honey."
There were a few cottonwoods in the area, but this leaf seemed different. He smelled it, pressed it to his cheek.
Suddenly he remembered his childhood long ago in Tulare County, California, and the time he spent watching his grandma work a small garden by the great cottonwood as he played with model cars in the soft sand of the riverbank. There was a particular autumn when the leaves were especially golden, when she bent down and gathered up an armload of fallen leaves and held them high, let them rain down over his head. He felt loved. He loved his grandma. He loved the great tree. He loved its golden leaves.
"Everything Ďround here has a place, and everything has meaning," she told him as they sat together that autumn afternoon long ago, on a leaf covered riverbank behind an Airstream trailer along a route south of Olancha where highway 395 was being constructed. "Donít take things for granted. Specially not things of beauty, like wildflowers, or even these leaves."
She reached out and placed a hand on the cottonwoodís rough grey trunk. "If you believe in it, even this old tree can watch over you when Iím not able to, just like your granddad does when he comes to visit. Itíll take care of you because you love it. Whenever you love something, it loves you back, and its love will follow you wherever you go. Love always remembers."
She put her arm around him and they watched the river current swirl between the stones that lined the streambed.
On that day, long ago, the world was huge and new, filled with infinite possibilities. He closed his eyes and suddenly he felt that way again. He could see himself standing by the riverbank next to the great tree. His feet were bare. He could feel the damp sand. Yellow leaves were all around him. Stones in the stream were large and flat, and formed a path of steps across the water. Light reflected from the waterís surface, shimmered, and the path beckoned to be crossed.
He remembered the time he hugged the tree, after his grandma went back inside the trailer and left him to play; how he said "thank you for watching over me".
This is the start of a new journey, he thought. He tucked the yellow leaf inside his shirt, pressed it against his skin, and closed his eyes.
© 2005 by Joel Doonan
Bio: A year or so ago, Joel Doonan said, "Growing up in the rainforest area of Eastern Peru offered time and environment for imagination and wonder. I've had a love of writing since childhood but made no serious effort toward being published until ten years ago when I began chronicling stories from my youth; stories that include: cannibals, dangerous wildlife, unusual spiritual rituals; archeology and ancient history, even ufo's. (I'm serious.) Science Fiction with a metaphysical twist has always held fascination for me, and the concept of weaving truths into the fabric of a story." His story The Wanderers appeared in the June 2004 edition of Aphelion.
E-mail: Joel Doonan
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