Maple Wood

It was the season when crimson pooled on the sidewalks and in the parks. It was the season when gold adorned every yard in the neighborhood. This was the season when the last of the year’s flickering fireflies danced through the dark of night; when a vivacious yellow torch illuminated everything to and beyond the horizon by day. The atmosphere filled with the smells of life and death. Every movement on the ground crinkled, snapped and crackled. Birds chirped and rustled, rodents squeaked and cackled, and on occasion a wolf howled forlornly into a lapis lazuli night.

The world was not quite so vivid anymore, but it still came close enough for me. The scent of leaves about to die and fall from their homes hovered in the air. The birds called, chirped and cried. I slept with the window open, anticipating the morning when I would wake to find the palpable scent of my favorite season embracing me, wafting through from the world outside.

I knew the moment I saw him that I was asleep. I knew because I was looking at me.

He was little more than limbs poking out from a lumpy sheet. Twigs just one misstep away from cracking served as arms; he had calves that couldn’t possibly have been much thicker than his ankles.

I took a step toward him. He stirred. The sheet slipped away to reveal his hair—that frizzy, vividly colored hair—framing his head like a dark pool of blood. His face had turned towards me, allowing me ample opportunity to study it. He was plain; ugly, even. His face was prematurely wrinkled, skin marred by freckles and pockmarks alike. His eyes were clear, glistening with something that made me look anywhere else. The only feature we truly shared was the oversized, drooping nose that we inherited from the French side of our family.

Yet I recognized him at once. I knew the way his shoulders drooped, curving his spine around his belly. I knew the way his neck yearned to arch into a curve that would tuck his chin into his chest. I knew the worry lines and laugh lines that made his face look older than we were. I knew the way the corners of his lips were slightly turned down, marring the apparent smile to those who knew to look. I knew that careless curve of his eyebrows, as if they had the capacity to despise the glistening grey orbs that they adorned.

I knew him too well to see anything but flaws.

When I woke, the air was heavy with all that I could no longer see, and all that I could. A deep breath tasted more of death than of my favorite season. Dragging myself out of bed had never felt so dreary.

I got myself a cup of milk that I cupped in both hands and tilted into my mouth to take the first tiny sip. The cool liquid brushed my lips, and I touched it with the tip of my tongue even as I pulled the cup away from my mouth again. The thought of stomaching anything made something inside me turn over fitfully. The image of my dream self simply would not take its leave of me. It burned into my mind like a brand: for once, I couldn’t stop looking.

My hands must have been trembling, but I didn’t realize until I felt the wet splash on one hand a moment before the cup clattered to the ground. I stepped back instinctively, but knew that my socks and slippers would be wet anyway.

Sure enough, moments later I felt the wetness seep through the cloth at my toes. Kicking off my slippers and then my socks, I didn’t sigh as I reached for the towel and bent carefully to wipe the floor clean. I wiped until I found the cup, and then a little more just to be sure.

I threw my socks and the cloth in the general direction of the sink; I would find and clean them later. I found my cane, slipped on my shoes and headed out the door.

The steps I had to descend to leave my house had never ceased to be a deterrent to going outside; but the location of my home, far from the bustling city and the provincial suburbia, made such small challenges well worth bearing. I took the fifth step—the last—and there came a crisp crunch from under my foot.

The sight that was only in my mind faded away and I took a breath.

Yes. The scent of dry leaves hit my nose, the cawing of a crow reached my ears. This was where I wanted to be.

Each crunch of leaves and twigs under my shoes and cane was crisp, sharp and satisfying. It was a familiar rhythm for all its irregularity, surrounded by the time of year that I loved and the mundanity of everyday life. Left, cane, right, cane, left, cane, right, cane—crack, swish, snap, swish, crunch, swish crackle, swish. Was it already Monday? The boy would be coming by tomorrow to check in on me. Snap, swish, crunch, swish, crack, swish, crack, swish.

Music.

Not the modern percussionist’s composition, composed and performed by my three clumsy feet. It was the peal of a melody sweet and soft, calling to me with each even note. The notes danced and overlapped as they fell to the ground, and I wondered if they were crying.

It spoke to me of rain, droplets in the wind—But no! It was the leaves! The falling of the leaves in the maple forest in which I stood. I could see them now: red and yellow, the perfectly shaped five-fingered leaves drifting through the air, dancing their way to the ground in the melody. The world was vivid all around me, the crimsons and golds that I so longed to see, but also the clear turquoise of the evening sky, the uneven mud beneath the leaves…How could I ever have imagined that the notes spoke of anything else?

I stood where I was, not daring to move lest the music cease and the world go dark before me again.

The music ended anyway, leaving me alone and cold in the darkness that had been my home mere minutes ago. I could still hear and smell the world. It wasn’t the same; suddenly, that wasn’t enough.

I couldn’t remember if anyone else lived along the path through the woods. I’d never given it much thought, and it had never seemed relevant since I never noticed anyone else when I took my walks.

I walked along the side of the path, feeling the ground with my cane at the side of the road. There had to be a footpath somewhere. But all the ground felt the same to me. I eventually tired and turned to make my way home.

The rest of the day I spent wandering the four rooms of my house, feeling the cool glass of the windows and wondering absently after the color of the sky.

#

I woke the following morning haunted by images of my weak, frail body curled up in despair. I lay in bed awake and not quite remembering why when the knock came again. I flinched before I remembered.

It was Tuesday—ten o’clock. I didn’t check the clock. I had been setting my clocks to the boy’s visits for years.

I didn’t call to let him know I was coming as I slipped out of bed and found my robe. The knock came again as I was tying the robe closed. I ambled to the door and opened it.

“We’re going for a walk,” I informed him as I found my shoes and slipped them on. I grabbed my cane from where I had abandoned it the night before, leaning against the cabinet by the side of the door.

“Of course,” said the boy. I tasted the rotting lemon that was his pity; but it was nothing new. I could shrug it off.

He tried to help me down the steps. I shrugged off his hands, but he was persistent. I wasn’t in the mood to argue; maybe it was the empty gray eyes that were staring at me again.

My shoe hit the pavement, so much more solid than the creaking porch steps. Nothing cracked. The boy must have swept.

I walked down the path, trying to remember where it was that I had heard the music the previous day. I heard the boy following me, and dreaded the moment when I would have to turn to him.

“Here, I think,” I said aloud. I turned to him. “Do you see a building anywhere?”

“I see a roof,” said the boy, doubt and puzzlement smeared across his words like a thick coating of grease. “Off to your right. But I don’t see how to get there.”

“Find a way,” I said, and didn’t protest when he took me by the hand.

I let him lead me, and each sweep of my cane was more meaningless than the last. Despite the solid ground beneath my feet, I heard his feet squelching in the mud, and knew that he was off the side of a narrow road to ensure that I had the easiest path.

“Ah,” he would say sometimes, or “Hm.” I asked no questions, and the few times that we had to double back, I followed without comment. I wondered if the boy was mystified by the absence of the fury that I usually dealt him in the form of verbal abuse.

“Ah, here we are,” he finally declared. “Just a little longer, and we’ll be there.”

I reflected that I was too disoriented to be able to find this place again on my own. I hoped that our return journey would be more direct.

“Shall I knock?” asked the boy, cheerful and proud. I thought I might be a little proud of him too—the realization made something leap and spark uncomfortably in my chest.

I considered coming back later, alone. There was no music now, and what would I say anyway? But the boy had left my side and I heard his weight creaking on four steps of a porch. I didn’t have it in me to protest.

His knock was followed by a moment of silence; then I heard shuffling, and then a click. I wanted to shrink back into the trees that I could still hear rustling a little way behind me. Instead, I took a few steps forward.

“Hi,” said the boy, friendly as always. “My brother lives in the house down by the corner that way down the trail…”

“I see,” said a toneless voice slurring—well, artists are often drunk—and I wondered how such beautiful pictures could be painted by one with such a toneless larynx. “And?”

“I heard your music yesterday,” I blurted. I thought I was at the steps, and felt out with my hand for a railing instead of my cane. I grasped air, and felt the boy hurry over to me even as my face heated—what a peculiar sensation. The stranger remained wordless and motionless as the boy led me a few more steps to the stairs and guided me up them. My soul was already laid out before the invisible stranger, naked and scarred. Even as I let the boy guide me slowly up each step, I stammered, “I just—I wanted to hear it again.”

There was a moment’s silence.

“I don’t play.”

“But—”

“What is it to you, mere keys struck out on a piano?”

I gulped. Only words; only barbs of rusted wire. “Mere keys to you…are sight to me.”

There was a silence, and even the boy went still beside me.

A hand took mine—the stranger’s hand. The palm was cool and callused. The strange hand lifted mine higher, higher, gave a slight turn, and my palm was touching warmth and softness. Skin and hair.

At the center of my palm, I recognized the shell of an ear.

I gulped painfully, swallowing all the selfish and bitter thoughts that had crossed my mind. On my tongue remained the sting of regret that they had ever entered my mind. I brought my hand up to the other side of the stranger’s head—but no longer a stranger. I thought I felt a dampness on my cheeks, but it didn’t matter.

“Nothing?”

“Nothing,” slurred my new comrade. I felt a brush of a touch on my eyelids. “And you?” The question was a quiet, fearful whisper.

“Nothing. Unt-until yesterday.”

The head between my hands gave a shaky nod, and then pulled away. The touch on my eyelid receded as well.

“Then come inside, and I will be your eyes.”

There was a strange sensation in my jaw and forehead. In the back of my mind, I saw the decrepit man from my dream two nights prior—but something was different. His mouth was lengthening, the wrinkles smoothing at his brow. Maybe there was still life in him, after all. I saw a smile like I hadn’t seen in years, and I knew that it was mine.

Kai Raine is a world citizen and an ex-biologist. Kai is currently attempting a career in writing, while on the road living out of a suitcase. Kai’s home online can be found at http://www.kairaine.com.

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