Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Wraith of Leaves

"Where do leaves go when they die?"
Every scruff covered face at Tony's Cafe turned and cast incredulous grimaces upon Hunter Jackley. It was the kind of question that NO one asked men frequenting greasy spoon diners at 5:38 AM on a work day. Flannel rustled and worn caps on worn heads slowly shook as 15 men turned their attention back to biscuits and gravy, coffee, and the morning paper. Hunter was slightly younger and more introspective than the rest of the morning crowd at Tony's. He always sat by himself in the corner by the window and stared at the park across the street where he was caretaker. When talk of football standings rolled about the cafe Hunter would posit some conversation stopper about lacrosse. If a discussion about cattle sales stirred then Hunter would undoubtedly muster a remark about his favorite calf, whom he had named Delilah. If men spoke of the early freeze, Hunter would ask "Where do leaves go when they die?"
No one could quite get used to his remarks and Hunter never could manage to speak his mind at a socially sound time or place. He was the sort of man that knew things reserved for the very young, the very old, or the deepest kind of dreamers, none of which Hunter could be described as. Hunter possessed, however, the surprising wherewithal to contain, or at least partially conceal, the things he knew. Typically, his remarks were rooted in one of these odd fragments of cognition. Like when he asked "Where do leaves go when they die?"
Hunter had been staring fixedly at a spot in the deepest part of the forested park. Perhaps, had they looked in the right direction with the right sort of empty mind, some of the older men at the cafe might have seen a dark, blurry shape hovering in the shadows of the bare fall elms. Hunter saw it because he was Hunter. A shape, mostly leaves, shadow, and rag was drifting in and out of focus. It seemed to inhabit several spots at once and never quite caught the light like it should have. It was a ghost and Hunter knew it, though he had never seen one. The strange thing to Hunter wasn't that he was looking at a ghost but that it seemed perfectly natural. Looking at the specter made him feel that he had discovered an answer to a question that he had never asked but desperately wanted to know. "Where do leaves go when they die?"
Hunter finished his hash browns and cold buttery toast, crossed the street, and waded into the leaves carrying his rake. All that grey morning as he raked leaves he felt as if he stood on sacred ground and the ghost watched. As he raked Hunter thought, as often manual labor will force one to do, of strange stories. Perhaps in each leaf husk was a fleeting tale of good and evil, of joy and sadness, of fear and peace to tell. As Hunter raked and piled the leaves it seemed to him that each rustle and mutter was the last telling of these tales. By the end of the morning, Hunter had raked all the multitude of leaves from the damp, cool grass of the park. As he leaned his rake against a tree and removed his cap the specter seemed to waiver and fade. It raised a hand like a gnarled branch and held a small leaf. The leaf seemed to linger, bright green and alive, for a moment longer than the rest of the apparition and then, was gone.

The sunlight broke through the heavy morning fog and Hunter caught a faint whiff of crocuses and melting snow and then the fog swallowed up the morning.

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