Fall is in the air, and with the change in seasons comes time for transition and reflection. Sharon Broadway, a senior Spanish major, transports us to the transition period between fall and winter with her story “The Aspen.” But the piece is about far more than the changing trees. Read her story below, and early next week look for a second story from an author who takes a different perspective on the theme.
“This is beautiful,” Marilyn said to the boy. “The yellow leaves from the aspen trees are so bright, like sunshine.” The two walked idly down the street. Tall white aspen trees lined the sides of the road, the ends of their branches adorned with golden leaves that floated to the ground like shed fish scales.
The path was long and winding, and despite its enchanting surroundings it rarely saw cars or visitors as its entrance was hidden at the end of an isolated cul-de-sac. Marilyn often came here with Todd on their early evening walks so they could appreciate the beauty of her favorite trees.
“It looks like the trees got sick, and threw up all over the sidewalk,” said Todd.
She looked down at the eight-year-old and he stared back. His eyebrows were raised and hidden beneath the rim of his baseball cap, making his eyes look bigger and rounder than shooter marbles. His hands were shoved into the pockets of his neon orange vest and the cuffs on his plaid shirt flapped freely around his wrists. Todd never buttoned the cuffs. He had been dexterously slow as a baby and tiny buttons still caused him trouble. Marilyn used to fret about this developmental delay before a more recent concern took its place.
“They are not sick,” she said.
“You’re right!” he said. “They’re dying.”
“No, they’re just changing with the seasons.” Marilyn’s voice was wistful and her eyes distant.
Her eyes shone the sharp gray of a steel blade. Well, they used to at least. Now they just looked like two lumps of burnt charcoal embedded in her face. She felt bags droop under her eyes, even when she smiled. Marilyn gently brushed her fingers over white skin stretched thin to near transparency. When she looked in the mirror she saw the horrid face of a melting snowman look back.
“No, they’re dying,” said Todd. “They’ve got the Black Plague.” He stuck his chin up smugly.
“What makes you think that?” she said.
“See, that’s yellow puke because they are sick on the inside,” he said. “Those black circles are dead skin on the outside. Ms. Reid taught us about the Black Plague in class. I know that they’re dying.”
“They are much stronger than that. Stronger than we can see.”
“Stronger than the plague?” He puffed out his chest.
Marilyn swept her thin hand toward the forest of aspens, “Did you know that they are all connected? Aspen trees share one massive root system, right beneath us. It starts with one seedling that grows and connects all of the trees. They are stronger than any plague.”
“There’s like a bagillion of them,” he said.
“That’s because they multiply many times,” she said.
“They can take over an entire area of the forest!” she said.
“And it all starts with one seed?” he said.
“Yes. It’s called a clonal colony.”
“Then the seed is like Jango Fett and the rest are clone troopers?!” he said.
She laughed. “Maybe.” She was silent and then looked at him. “Think of it more like they are individual trees stemmed from one Mother Aspen.”
“So the rest are children trees of the mother tree?” he said.
“Exactly!” She knelt by one of the smaller trees. “They all start as buds underground, called suckers, growing off of Mother Aspen’s roo—”
“Suckers?” he said.
“Suckers because they suck nutrients from Mother Aspen.”
“Gross! They are evil vampire trees.” He kicked a rock towards a nearby sewer drain. It bounced up and hit an aspen.
She chuckled. “They are not evil, Todd. She is helping her children grow into their own trees.”
The six o’clock sun cast long shadows in front of them as they sauntered along in silence. Todd stopped walking. He reached his arms out to the sides, then above his head, and then down by his sides again.
“What are you doing, Toddy?” she asked him.
“I’m a tree!” He waved his arms around and then fell to the ground. “Now I’m a dead tree.”
“Oh no! What happened?” she said, playing along. Marilyn walked to his side, picking up the cap that had fallen.
He jumped up. “I got sick, and then I died.” He continued forwards, looking down and shuffling the fallen leaves with his feet. “What if Mother Aspen gets sick and dies? I bet they would all die then, wouldn’t they.”
“Of course not!” she said. “They are too strong for that. The forest can live for tens of thousands of years,” she said.
“Without Mother Aspen?”
“Yes,” she said. “But her roots stay alive beneath.”
“I don’t really like these Aspen trees, Mom.”
Marilyn stood between Todd and the sun as a wind picked up through the trees. He looked so small below her, his hair tossing in the breeze. She imagined that her shadowing him was a protective shield against the plagued clones and vampires around them.
He pointed at her. “You’ve got a halo, Mom!”
She touched her fingers to the bare skin on her head. From the excitement in his eyes she nearly expected to pick up a golden crown. Her imagination slowed with the wind, and she tucked her chin into her scarf for warmth and comfort. Slanting rays of sunshine reached Todd’s face.
“Ahh!” he yelled. “Where did you go?” His tiny fingers tried to cover the sun from entering his eyes.
“Don’t worry, I’m still here.” Marilyn shifted back to block the sun. Todd staggered around, always a poor judge of distances, and completely missed her shadow.
“No you’re not! I can’t see you!”
“I’m right in front of you,” she laughed.
“Oh my god—I’m blind!”
Marilyn stepped closer and her shadow enveloped him.
“Can you see now?” she asked.
He blinked a few times. His brow scrunched as he squinted and searched her face.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“No, I think I’m blind.” He blinked several more times. “There’s a black spot where your face used to be. Is this what faces look like to blind people?”
“Blind people have no vision. So they can’t see people, but they can feel them.”
“What if I never see your face again?”
“You’ll be able to see me in a minute. You’re not blind, Toddy.”
“What about after that?”
“You’ll still be able to see me in five minutes too,” she said.
“You’ll see my face tomorrow, too.” She smiled.
“Do you promise?” he said, staring at his feet.
Her back slouched and her head hung for a moment. She knelt, straightening up, and wrapped him in a hug.
“If you don’t see me, I promise that you’ll still feel me,” she said.
They stayed there a while, her arms encompassing his body and his hands around her neck, warmth trapped in their enclosure. She heard him sniffing and knew that he wasn’t crying but rather smelling. He had sat close to her in the hospital bed after the procedures because he said it smelled bad everywhere else. She told him hospitals smell like rubbing alcohol and cleaning products. He told her she smelled like candied apples.
Tiny crystal snowflakes began to fall silently from the white canvas sky and a sudden chill entered the aspen grove.
“Look Mom!” He pulled away. “The snowflakes glitter in the sunshine.” He grabbed her hand.
The two continued walking down the path hand in hand as the snowflakes fell harder around them. They sparkled in the sunshine—so bright, like yellow aspen leaves.
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