the cricks in all our necks
Autumn came early, that year. Not loudly at first, but in pieces, all falling into a glorious disarray. Summer was not being replaced—it had simply grown older. Deeper. It had changed into something not altogether different, in the same way that a person who is now grown was once a child. It hadn't turned its back on youth—but it had outgrown it.
Paxton had seen autumns before. But not like this. He’d seen them out of train windows, and he’d seen them in pictures. But that was like looking at paintings of the ocean, and never actually standing on the beach. Here, he was buried in autumn. Drowning in it. It was falling on his head, and pooling around his boots and leaving pieces in his hair.
And just like that painting could do nothing to capture what the tide really felt like, what the salt really tasted like, what the foam really smelled like, Paxton was just as surprised, here. At first, it was the smell—the richness, the wetness. It hung on him like the smell of smoke, it crawled through his clothes, but never quite made him cold.
It was dizzying, at first—and eventually, his neck started to hurt from standing, staring up at the branches. He’d known summers before. And he knew winters very well. He’d stared up at Januarys and Februarys, where the sky was the texture of cotton balls, torn apart and glued down to gray paper. The trees, there, were like cracks into space—the sorts of cracks that he saw in ceilings sometimes, but filled with soot.
Not here, though. Here, the sky bled through in patches of stark, sharp blue or spilled in all gold, tumbling across the backs of the leaves. And from there it was hard to tell whether the wind rattled the leaves loose, or whether the sunlight talked them into letting go.
It was there, with October piling up in gutters and reddening his cheeks, that Paxton stood, staring up at the branches, at the golden and red and the green that hung like ornaments from them, wondering what it would be like to fall.
Some fell straight down. Others hesitated—they spun and danced a little longer, sometimes for so long that he had to let out his pent-up breath, and take another. And these had the most peculiar ability as they fell—though he did not observe it in so many words—as though they could make all of the world stand still. With every swoop and bend, every twist and turn, the sun was pinned; time itself held down at the corners in anticipation.
And it was these, the ones that fought to stay afloat, that Paxton ran for, with his eyes peeled back as wide as they would open, his fingers spread and palms out, as far as his arms would reach, to snatch them up before they hit the ground. Most often, he’d get there in time; the leaf would nestle into his small hands, and he would take a moment to stare at it.
He took in all the curling points on the fingers, the little veins in the skin like stained glass windows, or like dragonfly wings. The absolute redness, with its spots of green and its edges of brown.
Of course, for every one that he caught, there were a hundred he did not. But he was only one boy, and there were hundreds of trees. And yet he caught and held onto each one as gently and with such joy in his eyes as though this, alone, was the very leaf worth catching. And he did it again and again.
As everybody already knows, there’s no point in catching leaves only to drop them again. And that is not, of course, what a boy—especially a boy such as Paxton—intended to do with them. Instead, he took each precious little handful and ran, kicking through the heaps and the waves of fading gold and snarling russet and toward the old porch, eyes beaming and cheeks stained strawberry from the crisp air.
From the porch, his mother watched and smiled and sometimes laughed. Her chair rocked slowly, and her hands, with their crocheting, were never quite still, though they were slower now than they were once.
But of course, Paxton was a very occupied sort of boy, and can therefore be forgiven for not noticing. But his mothers crocheting fingers—in fact, her fingers in general—were slower than they used to be. She, herself, moved at a much slower pace. But Paxton didn't mind.
He, of course, hadn't slowed down. But nobody made him hurry. He simply did. He treated each accosted leaf as though it was a matter of life and death to scamper them back to shelter.
Shelter, in this case, was his mother. And more specifically, it was the very large red book that she kept beside her chair, beside the other books that she occasionally picked up to read—the latter were mostly books of poetry, but the former was one of those splendid prices of bookwork left entirely blank, a pliable and eager mess, waiting to be made.
Paxton's mother was a young woman, and one of those rare and frail sorts who would never seem old. Her name was Rose Melving. Her hair was the color of caramel, and her skin no longer that soft tan, but a sort of cream, which made her eyes only bigger and bluer and her eyelashes longer and the rest of her younger. She hardly looked like more than a child herself, until she spoke.
When she did speak, she seemed far too old for her body. Her words were soft and strung together like music, and they had color to them, and flavor to the way she made them, as though she'd torn every one of them from one of those poetry books beside her chair.
On the far side of the books, in a chair of her own and with crocheting of her own, there sat an older-looking woman who frowned a great deal, but not usually because she was unhappy. She was very unlike the young mother, when she spoke, but not unpleasant. To Paxton, she was a piece of that porch nearly as permanently as his mother—but not nearly such a complimentary one. Her name was Edith Price.
Her daughter, Lucy, was something of a middle ground—neither sitting on the porch with the Onlookers, nor wading through the leaves with the Rescuer. In fact, she didn’t really seem sure where she belonged. She stood in the space between Paxton and their mothers, raking the leaves into a mountain, higher than her ribs.
There was an obvious and profound difference between the two, the wonder of one and the experience of the other. It was the difference of familiarity. Of course, Lucy had lived here her whole life, and she’d raked leaves a half-dozen times. Had the roles been reversed, had she been astounded at the hugeness of city streets and the towering, monstrous buildings, she might not have given that little cousin such strange looks.
But Paxton had that sort of obliviousness on his side that helped to undermine those looks—in short, he didn't notice. There were far more important things to do.
“What are you doing?” Lucy asked finally, when she’d worn herself out raking and decided that her cousin really did need a talking-to. Then, remembering a game that she’d once played before, added, “Are you looking for the perfect leaf?”
“No,” Paxton shook his head. “They’re all perfect.”
Lucy frowned, looking at the wide, curling maple leaf that Paxton had just caught. “That one’s not,” she said, pointing at the creasing edge of the leaf’s fingers. “Look at those brown spots. This one isn’t perfect. But there are perfect ones over there.”
“Those are freckles,” said Paxton, grinning.
Lucy thought that this was among the more ridiculous things she’d ever heard. But she also had freckles. So she said nothing, and brushed her rake through the leaves while Paxton ran back to the porch with his new treasure. Of course, she was old enough to realize that she could keep up raking for hours and hardly make a dent. Those trees were maples and birches, and that forest seemed endless, stretching from the back porch and over the hills. She could never hope to pile up them all.
On the porch, Paxton’s newest rescue was being glued to the open page, a torrent of gold upon the white.
The woman Mrs. Price, very much of the same mind as the little Ms. Price, had a similar frown. “But why, Paxton?” she asked.
“Soon,” he said, “all the color will be gone. I’m catching it for later.”
Lucy had followed, and she was the one spoke next: “But it’s not even a perfect leaf, is it mama?”
“Well who says what’s perfect?” Said Rosa happily, as she helped her son glue down the corners of the leaf. “The point of colors, after all, is to feel something, isn’t it? And feelings aren’t always the way they’re supposed to be or the way that we expect them. But we feel them anyway.”
She held up the book to the two children. “What does this make you feel?”
Lucy frowned. Paxton looked hard, his little forehead creasing with concentration. “I don’t know,” he said finally. “But it does make me feel.”
“Is that good enough?” Lucy seemed dubious. She crossed her arms.
But Rosa only smiled. “Yes. I think so.”
Edith shook her head at Rosa as Paxton and Lucy hurried off again. “I hope you know you’re encouraging that nonsense.”
“It’s not nonsense,” said the mother warmly, with her gentle laugh. “He’s right. Who says you shouldn’t collect your lanterns before night falls?”
Edith snorted, but couldn’t quite manage a laugh. In fact, all traces of smile fell off her face, and onto the porch where they sat beside her shoes.
“Winter is coming,” said Rosa, quietly. “And this one will be very, very cold for him.”
“Now that,” Edith announced, “Is nonsense.” Only it wasn’t, and she knew it. And if Lucy had been asked, she’d have known it to. Perhaps Paxton was the only one who didn’t. But of course, no one was going to tell him.
“Let him gather his colors,” said Rosa, more to herself than anything. “Let him gather all the light he can before it goes out. He’ll need it, if only to remind himself that it won’t be gone forever.”
“They’re only leaves, Rosa,” said Edith, but not unkindly.
“And he’s only a boy,” she said in response.
For a moment, they watched in silence as Lucy consecutively raked and stared at her cousin, who continued his mad dash through the trees, his head thrown back and staring between the branches into heaven.
Edith chuckled. “He’ll give us all cricks in our necks just watching him, if he keeps that up.”
“Good,” Said Rosa with a smile. “We could all do with a little more looking at the sky and a little less at our feet.”
And she watched those leaves almost the same way that her son did, watching their every movement with eyes just as wide. Only there was something different, in her. Where he was filled to the brim with wonder, there was a sort of understanding in her—not the familiarity of Lucy, but something deeper. She knew something that he didn’t yet; something about the way that the leaves fall that she saw so very clearly.
Something he was grabbing at, and holding onto—without even meaning to.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” said Rosa in that same quiet, poetic way, as she stared out over the lawn. “Their clumsiness. Their grace. That peculiar way in which those things can be the same. The way they fall.”
Edith didn’t know quite what to make of that—but that was usual. And she stared, for some time, at the scene without quite knowing whether Rosa was referring to the leaves or to the children—it was impossible to tell by the direction of her eyes—and then, of course, whether or not it mattered.