ama loved the fall. She said it made the air feel better, less stifling, less draining. The summer meant freedom for us, but more work for her. She would be sweating by the time she got home from work, and no amount of pool time or lemonade would make her cooler. She was heating from the inside out, she said. And then at the end of September, she began to breathe slower, and sweat less. Something about the fall brought her back to life just when the plants began to die. I used to think she went out at night and drank from the rose bushes, using the stems as straws. Then she would be cheerful in the morning, making ginger pancakes for us while the roses littered the ground with their limp petals.
Everything fell to the ground in October. Petals, leaves, even branches knocked down by the first wind we’d seen since April. It was our job, my brother’s and mine, to pick up the debris of the season. He was always a little bit off, my little brother. He took it seriously, this chore. He picked up the leaves individually, sorted them according to size, shape, color. Branches he piled near the driveway, “for a bonfire”. Daddy didn’t allow bonfires, he knew that. But every year he asked, then cried when he didn’t get his way until Mama made him a s’more in the microwave. They don’t taste the same, in case you’re wondering. They taste stale.
His half of the lawn was laid out like a chessboard, all right angles and straight rows, red, orange, yellow, brown. Descending in order of death. His glasses would slide down his nose as he bent over each pile, making sure all the leaves were going the same way. Mama had to help him – he took too long by himself. But I know she liked my side best. The rake was twice as tall as I was, but I used it anyway, the top sticking out behind me like a witch’s broom. I carefully raked over each section, pulling my leaves into a pile like discarded trash from a street fair. Then I went back through on hands and knees, carefully stretching my fingers under chrysanthemum plants and paving stones to get every tiny fragment of leaf, and then crawling to my pile to add them deftly to the top. I pushed down to compact each armful into the whole, pressing them against each other only to watch the pile spring back up when I removed my hands. It took all afternoon, and my pink overalls had moist patches of dirt on the knees and grass stains on the calves. Whenever Mama scolded me I would explain that this was her fault for making me do chores. She never did have an answer for that.
I wanted to jump in the pile like people did in books and movies, but Daddy said no. He said then we’d just have to do all the work over again. It was all just trash, anyway, and who wanted to jump into a pile of trash? He made my brother add his perfect leaf stacks to my chaotic mass of tree detritus, and predictably said “no” to the bonfire. What if the ashes went into a neighbor’s house? What if we couldn’t control the flame? What if the leaves caught a spark and the whole house went up? It was irresponsible, he said. Mama nodded in the background over the potatoes she was peeling. Daddy said he was too tired from work, he’d finish clearing the leaves tomorrow. My brother ate his s’more. I drank my maple milk. We went to bed.
In the middle of the night I thought I heard the front door open. There was a yellow square of light that shone dimly on my pile of leaves, revealing the black lump to be a jumble of playful colors that might grace a toddler’s nursery. A black shadow raced across the light, and my mother landed softly in the middle of the cushioned clump. She rolled back and forth and tossed the leaves into the air like confetti, spreading my perfect pile back to the four corners of the lawn. The moon watched her as she kicked the last of the leaves towards the house, and picked a rose on her way back inside.