In the fall, the sweet gum tree turned red.
There were just four red leaves glowing among all the green ones now, but he knew how it would be. In a few days, or a week, he’d get up one morning and the whole tree would be scarlet, an intense, almost unbelievable scarlet, tinged with hot orange, so wild and shocking it almost made you recoil it was so stunningly beautiful. The few green leaves left would act as contrasts, making the red ones appear even brighter. It was just an optical illusion, of course – opposite colors on the wheel — but glorious nonetheless.
He’d look at the little tree – it was young, still only about 12 feet tall — now and then for the next few days, enjoying the alien color. And then one evening, long after he was asleep, it would rain. There would be wind, gusty and harsh. And the next morning, the sweet gum tree would be bare, a thin gray skeleton surrounded by a pool of clotted blood.
For some reason, the quick drop of the scarlet sweet gum leaves always left him sad. It was so brief, that killer blaze of color. And it wouldn’t happen again for another 12 months. If he wasn’t paying attention he’d miss it entirely.
He vowed to pay attention, to savor the gift when it came.
Autumn was his best time of year. He’d been born in this season, and if his mother had hung on just a few more days, he’d have been a Halloween baby. It was a quiet time, autumn, a slowing, a calming down after the heat, fecundity and messy profusion of summer. The air slowly cooled and the sun shifted its arc across the sky, its light subtly different. The wind chimes sang more often. Night came earlier. Evenings required sweaters. He wouldn’t light a fire in the woodstove for another month, but some weekend mornings when the house was chilly, in the long hours before the sun warmed it he was tempted.
He liked the slowing of autumn, the sense of the world getting ready to hibernate. But he loved the sweet gum the best of all. Second-best were the tall fir trees. They didn’t change color, of course, but when autumn came you could hear their voices. Whenever the wind blew, you could hear them conversing in a soft whispery roar like a faraway surf, ebbing and flowing with the wind. And in the colder air, wet with rain, their scent conjured up spicy thoughts of frosts and snows to come, of warm fires and soup simmering on the stove.
Four scarlet leaves on the sweet gum. A flock of Canada geese, a ragged V high up in the sky, crying hurry, hurry.
Winter was coming. He smiled.