The Year the Leaves Didn't Turn

Greetings Gentle Reader,

Please enjoy this rather atypical blog post. It is a short story I wrote after my grandfather died last fall. My goal is to publish it as an illustrated picture book (illustrated by me 🙂 in the manner of Barbara Cooney.

With love – Melinda


October is a month for magic and mystery. So is December. But it is a very different kind of magic. December is the merriment of holly and ivy; of frosty cheeks warmed by hot chocolate and marshmallows; the sweet scent of pine. In October a burst of blazen color ignites the crystalline sunlight; the silver mist of the witching hour lingers in the air, on the skin, in the soul; the promise of midnight.

Emeline unrolled her new “Autumn Leaves” map and hung it next to the others in her bedroom. Using a system of pushpins, handwritten notes and stickers Emeline tracked various elements of the natural world such as the greening of the grass in Spring and the rate of snowfall at Christmas. Her interest in such things began as an assignment in first grade.

“For one week I want you to watch the daffodils. Record their progress on this handout. We’ll go over them together next week,” said her teacher Ms.Cannon.

October was her favorite month. From her observations Emeline knew that the leaves around her farmhouse in Southern Maine began to turn in August. Depending on the weather conditions it could be just a few, or if things had been really dry, whole trees would be covered with brown leaves. This summer had been perfect. Not too hot, not too cold; not too wet and not too dry. The Farmer’s Almanac was predicting the most spectacular Autumn in a century. But Mother Nature is anything but predictable.

Everyday Emeline took a walk in the woods behind her house, looking for signs of October. She looked for it in the cooling night air, the slow disappearance of mosquitos, and the few leaves turning red, orange and gold; she watched for the mists, thin and vaporous at first then denser and denser until she could no longer see her out-stretched hand.

In the August before 5th grade Emeline saw only green. “Perhaps I am too early,” she thought, “I’ll come back tomorrow.” And she did; and the next day and the day after that. She came everyday for a week and for the week after that. Emeline was getting worried. It was September now, school had started, the air cooled, the mosquitos were disappearing, a fine mist settled on the morning air but she hadn’t put a single red, orange or yellow pushpin on her map.That was the year the leaves did not turn. At first, Emeline thought she was the only person who noticed. But she was not. It was not something most adults would admit. Soon, their silent anxiety, their suspicion that the mind must be going, gave way to whispers of concern.

“Have you seen…?”

The first report aired on Channel 5 News at 6, then again at 10:30 and 11. Within hours it was all over the Internet. The following evening it was the lead story on all of the major networks.

“Good Evening. No doubt you’ve heard by now the strange news that the leaves in what is normally the most colorful region of the country, are not turning.”

Each night stories came flooding in. In Montana, the Dakotas, Colorado, the leaves had not started to turn. The reports from Canada were just the same (though they’d been issued days earlier and ignored). Meteorologists, climatologists, biologists, were stumped. All they could do was speculate; global warming, climate change, polluted rivers, none of it made sense. The weather had been so perfect.

If what she thought was actually happening Emeline had a sneaking suspicion she would need only green pushpins. She used her allowance money to buy another box. This was going to be hard to track. She sat cross legged on her bedroom floor and looked up at her maps. Her father swore he could see actual gears turning in her head. After some time Emeline stood up, transferred the dates from last year’s map onto the new one and hoped that as each one arrived she’d be able to use a red, orange or yellow pin.

But as day turned to night and back into day, as the cool air headed south displacing Summer’s heat, nothing changed. By mid-October Emeline had given up all hope for a colorful fall. She watched to see what would happen in the South, where the leaves don’t reach their peak until November. But in Virginia and Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama, Texas and the High Desert, all that remained was green.The night of the President’s first address on the subject her parents invited friends over to dinner. Emeline wasn’t too pleased about this because it meant that Jimmy was coming too. Jimmy was a year older than Emeline. They’d been friends and playmates when they were little but Jimmy didn’t like science and teased her about her maps; and her glasses.

“Now, James Holden, you behave yourself tonight. Be nice to Emeline. You don’t tease your friends” his mother directed as they walked to the front door.
He kicked the dirt.

Emeline picked at her plate of chicken and mashed potatoes while the adults discussed the latest collapse of the Red Sox pitching staff, the unusual number of people attending Sunday services, the bushels of apples they’d picked and the run on canned goods, water and ammunition down at Foster’s Provisions.

“Emeline, how are your maps coming this year?” asked Mr. Holden, “How are you handling this leaf situation.”
“Well…” said Emeline, growing more and more excited as she explained the new system of dates and green pushpins.

After dinner Emeline helped her dad with the dishes then joined her mother and the Holdens in the living room. Jimmy lay on his stomach, chin propped up in his hands. He may not like science, but he liked the President and wanted to hear what she had to say. Emeline sat on her knees, notebook and pen in hand.The President didn’t say much in the way of comfort. She and other world leaders had listened to the advice of climate experts and come up with a plan should one be needed. Though what that was or why they would need one she didn’t say.

“In this time when we all feel anxious or afraid I urge you: Count your blessings, keep doing the work that makes this country great… God Bless You and God Bless the United States of America. Good night.”

“Well, that was a whole lot of nothing” said Emeline’s father as he turned the channel to the post speech analysis.
“Shut it off, hon” said her mother, “let’s just enjoy the rest of our evening.”

Over coffee and hot apple pie they tried to stick to topics of everyday life but again and again, the conversation returned to the strange situation with the leaves.

In all other ways October was the same as it ever was: the sky was clear and bright, the air crisped and the morning mist thickened; the squash and apples and pumpkins grew plump and abundant in markets and road side farm stands, chrysanthemums bloomed. Stores across the country stocked and sold autumnal fare: cinnamon spice scented candles, plaid tablecloths in crimson and brown, wreaths and garlands of artificial leaves manufactured in China (where the leaves had also not turned.) Front lawns were decorated with pumpkins, corn husks, hay bales and scarecrows.

To the surprise of all, people who’d been hoping for years to see New England in the fall kept their travel plans.  Tourist trains went up and down Mt. Washington; kayakers navigated the Penobscot; thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail who started the summer in Georgia reached the summit of Mt. Katahdin sporting T-shirts that read I hiked the AT so fast it stayed green.”

“Maybe this is what October’s like for the folks in the south” said Mr. Holden. It wasn’t.

A strange new magic hung in the air; a dense electricity, silent, powerful, rumbling like a distant train; the feeling that midnight might never arrive, or worse, arrive too soon. At Walden people sat, dazed on its misty shores. There were no red, orange and gold leaves to press between wax paper and hang in the kitchen window; no piles to jump in, and only acorns to crunch under foot. There were no stain glass sunsets but the evening light was just as fragmented in its beauty.

As Halloween approached pumpkins were carved into jack-o-lanterns and garbage bag ghosts and spiders hung from the trees. Emeline’s map was now covered in green pushpins. It was a stark contrast to the fiery colors on the maps from Autumns past.

Jimmy was just as excited about candy as he’d ever been and wanted to trick-or-treat as a pile of leaves. His mother said that was insensitive. He shrugged and went as a skeleton. Emeline usually enjoyed Halloween. This year wasn’t so much fun. Not only had she dressed up as Marie Curie and kept having to explain her costume, but their trick-or-treating was accompanied not by the ghastly fingers of nearly naked trees but by an eerie canopy of leaves blocking the moon and the stars.

A week into November the weather turned cold. Emeline sat on the floor by the fireplace, her head resting on the hearth.

“What are you thinking about?” her mother asked as she knelt down next to her daughter.
“Well. I was just wondering. The leaves didn’t turn, but everything else seems to have happened right on schedule. We had Halloween, but it wasn’t the same.  Thanksgiving isn’t much more than a meal and a parade, but what about Christmas?”
“Oh, you can’t stop Christmas” said her mother. And she was right.

As November slid into December the anxiety over the leaves was channeled into a new fervor for the Holiday season. More twinkle lights were stapled to houses, more electric candles placed in windows. People who usually put up an artificial Christmas tree opted for a fresh Frasier Fir or Scotch Pine,  the taller the better. Christmas carolers went door to door.  Advent wreathes were lit and calendars opened. The news stopped reporting on the strange situation with the leaves.

On December 24th, Emeline left a plate of milk and cookies by the fireplace. She knew she was too old for this sort of thing but the business with the leaves was really getting to her. Everything had been set for a perfect fall but if something as important as the leaves changing could simply not happen, perhaps, despite their efforts, Christmas would stop showing up too. But it didn’t. She awoke the next morning to a blanket of falling snow, presents under the tree, a fire in the hearth and baby Jesus in the manger of their creshe.

And so the Holidays came and went and soon the new year arrived. Emeline tracked the snowfall. It had started right on time and so far, was following all of the average records. She wondered how the delicate maple leaves could bear the weight of the heavy snow. By mid-January everyone was pretty much use to seeing the added greenery and were surprised to find just how much it did to lift the winter gloom.In late March the cold began to thaw and Emeline rolled out her “Daffodil and Other Spring Flora” map, though she knew it would be a while longer before the little pockets of sunshine poked up through the muddy earth. But poke through they did and soon the April showers brought May flowers,

“And you know what May flowers bring?”
“What?” said Emeline, trying to puzzle it out.
“Pilgrims!” Jimmy laughed, tickled by his own genius.

It was pretty funny, Emeline thought.

Everyday life continued just as it had always been. Green was supposed to be there in the Spring, June was the month for weddings and July for swimming, Bar-B-Qs, and Red, White and Blue. For awhile people, even Emeline, forgot there was something to worry to about. But as the August heat reached its breaking point and the last lighting bugs of summer lit the night, anxiety returned.

Emeline bought a new map for tracking the Autumn leaves and a new box of multicolor pushpins. She hung the map on the wall next to the others, gathered her backpack with notebook, pen and other necessities of science, took a deep breath and set out on her daily walk.

To her dismay Jimmy, who’d gotten a little taller over the summer, was waiting by the trees.

“Want some company?” he asked.
“Not really.”
“Too bad.”

They walked deep into the woods, Jimmy laughing and telling jokes all the way. To her surprise she found him funny again. His jokes were still pretty dumb, but at least he wasn’t teasing her anymore. She was even more surprised to find that she’d been following him and was now unsure of their location.

“Jimmy, where are we?”
“Hang on, Em, just a little bit farther.”

When they came to a stream Emeline stopped. She was tired of hiking and just wanted to observe. She removed her backpack and sat down on a rock.

“Pretty huh?” Jimmy boasted.
“Sure is. How’d you find it?”
He shrugged.

Emeline took the notebook and pen from her pack, opened to a blank page and looked out over the water, scanning the trees.

“Look!” she cried.
“What?! Where?!” said Jimmy with a bit too much gusto.
“Over there. Look!”

Across the water, through the tangle of oak and hawthorne, was a single, yellow leaf.

“Oh Jimmy it’s beautiful!”
“I know,” he said as he reached in his pocket, then handed Emeline a pushpin.

October, the month for magic and mystery looked down and smiled.

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