This is a short story about love, loss and, if you think there be such a thing, fate. My protagonist may come as a surprise…
The illustrations are by me, too.
I can still recall what it was like that first morning. The world was quiet and dim, shrouded in dormancy, just as it had been for days. Then, a stirring. It came from somewhere deep inside and even though I did not know what it was, I knew what it meant. Life coursed into my veins and I stretched, reached outwards, unfurled.
All at once, I burst into a world of colour and light. Green on every side – sharp, verdurous chartreuse. I stood amid a myriad of leaves, arranged in perfect order along tiers of branches. Golden rays of sunshine broke through the canopy and, as if this were the cue we had all been waiting for, we moved as one, turning up our faces to receive this gift of warmth. Oak. The word welled up within me as I drank in the light. We are oak leaves and this is our tree.
As I contemplated my newfound home, I was spun around by a small breeze and introduced to a different view of my surroundings. That was when I first caught sight of her. On a branch, a little higher than I, sat a leaf – a leaf not like any of the leaves I was standing among. She was broader and had fewer lobes, which fanned outwards and ended in fine pointed edges. Her branch grew from another tree. Sycamore. That was the name of her tree.
The sycamore leaves fascinated me and I often found myself looking in their direction. The more I looked, the more I found my gaze being drawn back to that first sycamore leaf that I had seen. She seemed to me exquisite among her species. Her leaf was larger, her edges more delicate and her bearing, as she perched on her branch, more refined.
I looked and I admired.
In spring, I awoke to see her bedecked in sparkling pearls of fresh morning dew. In summer, she glowed with the same radiance as the sunbeams that shone down, her backlit veins a fine tracery across her leaf.
I admired and I loved.
Lighthearted summer ripened into a vivacious autumn of boisterous wind and scampering squirrels. All around me, leaves traded their green uniforms for richer dress of gold, vermillion, magenta and chestnut. It was a parade of finery and the sycamore leaf – my sycamore leaf – was the crowning display. She was brilliant crimson as burning flame, her edges burnt nut brown with a hint of gold. How I longed, as I had now for months, to speak with her, to tell her how resplendent she looked, but we were too far apart.
Ever more insistently the wind blew, as if its time were swiftly running out. Sycamore seeds helicoptered down in showers and soon, leaves followed in whirlwinds of vibrant colour. An urgency began to build in me. Something needs to happen. It needs to happen soon. Before I was snatched away from the sycamore leaf, I had to speak with her, at least once.
This went on, more leaves disappearing from our trees with each passing day, until, on one particularly blustery afternoon, the sycamore leaf was taken from me. I watched, stricken, as she was pulled off her branch and strained to keep her in my sight as she was carried away, but she was taken too far, too quickly. She disappeared.
Perhaps the wind heard my silent plea in that moment; perhaps it felt how I yearned to know where the sycamore leaf was. The same wind that had stolen her now rushed into my tree. I felt myself being lifted off my branch and swept into its current. Then I was flying over an open field, spinning wildly one second and drifting gently the next. Slowly, slowly, I was falling. The wind laid me down in a patch of fading grass. Just before I touched the ground, I saw a glimpse of crimson, tinged with gold.
I hoped and I feared.
A sycamore leaf lay beside me, her crimson leaf and fine brown edges spread out like a stunning hand fan. She was beautiful, as no one else could possibly have been. Joy came over me like a flood and, as if a gate had been opened, the words I had stored up in all those months poured out from me.
I avowed and I won my love.
We would have been perfectly content to stay in that field forever, not having known any other existence apart from the stationary, but the wind had different plans. The following day, it came blowing low across the field and caught us up into the air. Holding on to each other tightly, we let it carry us where it would, unafraid because we were together.
Fields, buildings and treetops passed under and around us, sometimes serving as our resting places. We came to a stop on the faded pink roof of a carousel and found ourselves in the company of some elm leaves and a couple of circus tickets. Over the roof’s turreted rim, I saw the sun lowering on the horizon, burning the sky a searing orange. The carousel began to turn, slowly at first, then faster and faster. We were spun around again and again in wide circles until my love was breathless with laughter. The sky above us also seemed to turn, the amber sunset rolling aside to give way to dusky evening.
At last, the music wound to a stop. A moment later, a breeze came and lifted us on invisible wings, as if it were whisking us away to the next item for our evening. We drifted among fairground stalls in the fast-fading light and out into the streets. Up the side of a building we climbed and, finally, we settled onto the warm red tile at the top. There, we waited for night to fall and fell it did, but in a way that we had never seen before.
It was as if all the stars had fallen out of the sky and sprinkled themselves across the earth. The scene that lay before us was bejewelled with light: twinkling from windows, gleaming in the streets and glittering from the buildings. There seemed to be no end to this dazzling spectacle that stretched out on our every side. It made me realise how far we had travelled, to have seen more in one day than we had in a lifetime. Such a marvellous thing is to be wondered at and, for a long while, that was what we did.
The night stole quietly by and left no trace of itself behind. When we woke the next morning, the starry scene had faded away, overpowered by the ever-rising light piercing from the east. A brisk wind came whistling over the rooftops and tossed us into the young day, alluding that it was ours to take.
Dancing on the air, we dipped and rose to the music of the dawn, twirling now slowly, now quickly. Around us, blushing pink clouds turned to burnished gold as the sun rose in his full splendour into the sky. Our every movement sang of our joyous freedom and of our bliss in choosing to spend it together.
A river, sparkling with the morning sun, appeared below us. We glided over its surface and there, I saw – for the first time – my reflection. I was burnt sienna and blackened tips – earth to her fire. Air held us in flight and water mirrored our path. Here were the elements, brought together, woven into harmony, by love.
We crossed the river and landed on a wide cobblestoned road. It was crowded with stalls stacked high with pyramids of fresh produce and people wove in and out between them. Fruit sellers’ voices called out and footsteps thudded. We sat beside a basket of lemons.
Suddenly, there blew a powerful gust of wind. It swooped down, snatched my love and dragged her away. I followed in her wake, scrambling to keep up, but every second separated us further. Table legs, shopping bags and prams collided with me and blocked her from my sight.
Another gust of wind blew onto the road and threw me off my course, sending me tumbling behind a row of stalls. It deposited me on a forgotten stool in a corner. Where is she? I looked back and forth, back and forth, but I could not see her. I waited impatiently, then begged for a wind to take me after her, but no wind came.
I faltered and I lost heart.
Hours passed, the market closed and it began to rain. The fat droplets plastered me to the stool and it seemed to me that they were sealing my fate. No. Soon, the wind would come, then I would look for her. We would find each other.
The rain passed, the seat dried and the wind came. It carried me up, out of the market, and into a field. Wandering through the grass, I met many other leaves: birch, poplar, larch, even sycamore, but I did not find my love. Like one lost, I drifted from field to bush to treetop. Still, I did not find her.
Days passed, the wind began to bite and, one day, I woke and found myself stiff with brittle frost. I no longer waited for the wind to come and when it did, I did not care where it took me. The wind had brought us together, then it had torn us apart and, now, it estranged us.
I gave up and I grieved.
That afternoon, a pair of wellington boots crunched past me and as they did so, a breeze lifted me up into the air. The boots belonged to a man wearing a thick woollen coat and carrying a brown paper bag. He paused for beat, watching me float by, then reached out and put me into the bag. There were many other leaves inside and we jostled around in the damp darkness as the man strode briskly to wherever he was taking us.
There was the sound a key turning in a lock and a door opening and closing. Then, brightness and warmth as the man tipped us out onto a table. He peered at us for a while before taking a heavy book from the shelf and placing near us.
“Are you doing your scrapbook again, Father?”
A young woman had walked into the room.
“That’s right, Cathy.”
“I’m thinking of making a little gift for Granma, for Christmas. You know how she loves trees? I thought I would frame the leaves of her favourites and write a poem on the back.” She came over to the table and gestured at the pile of leaves. “Would you mind?”
“No, you go ahead. That’s a lovely idea.”
She began sifting through the pile. “I’m looking for an oak leaf. Do you think you have one?”
“Oh, yes, found one in the park. Funny, since there aren’t any oaks there.”
The man rummaged through the pile and fished me out, passed me to the young woman.
She held me between her fingertips and padded up a set of stairs. Turning into her bedroom, she walked up to a desk and flicked on the switch of a lamp. Its light fell onto the table as an ellipse of luminescence, a spotlight. At the centre, there lay a sycamore leaf, her crimson darkened to that of crushed velvet and her edges now more bronze than gold.
It did not matter. She was still beautiful, as no one else could possibly have been.
Today, we sit together on a mantelpiece. Outside, the wind continues to blow, but not, anymore, for us. Our journey has ended here and here, we are content – because we are together. Behind us, the words:
Rooted deep and lasting long,
But courageous and ever-strong
– the oak
Commonplace, but special made
To the weary traveller
By the refreshment of its shade
– the sycamore
Love like these two should always be –
Enduring, enlivening and extraordinary.