“The leaves are falling up,” she says, her mittens pointing to the tree above us.
I smile at my little girl, her face rosy from the cold and excitement. She reminds me so much of myself as a child with her braids and her exuberance and her imagination. I smooth down one of her braids, then look up.
The leaves are falling up.
They are flying from the autumn trees, the gold and red and orange intermingling as they dance up to the sky. The trees are reaching up with their branches as if to say, come back, come back. Or maybe they, too, want to fly up to where their leaves are going. There is no breeze, the sky is blue and clear except for the leaves that oh-so-gently swarm up; some are much higher than others, mere dots in the sky that could be mistaken for lost balloons or lost birds. Even the leaves that had fallen are making their slow ascent upwards. Lily catches one, a fiery red leaf that tugs at her hand until she releases it, where it joins its fellow leaves in continuing the ascent. I catch one of my own, feel the leaf exerting a gentle force upward, then let go.
We make a game of catching the leaves in the park and releasing them until all the leaves are out of reach, making their slow way up. With our arms around each other, we watch the leaves float up into the air in a mass of riotous color until they are just specks floating in the sky.
The week before it had been birds. All of the birds had gone wheeling up in slow circles, birds of every type and every size, until they had simply disappeared into the sky, swallowed by the infinite blueness. Neither bird watchers nor ornithologists could give a clear reason for this phenomenon. Lily and I had been at the park then, too. We had found an eagle feather lying on the ground afterwards and now, it was displayed in the living room of our small apartment. I joked to her that it would now be a rare specimen, worth millions, and she, taking it seriously, barely touched the feather, only looked upon it with awe.
We made up our own reasons for the flight of the birds. We shared stories and hypotheses while huddled under the comforter on my bed, holding each other while telling horror stories of the sky eating up birds, of spaceship abductions, of sky pirates who sold earth birds to other planets without birds. “Why would they take all of ours?” Lily asked when I suggested the last, “They could take some but they don’t have to take all of them. Now we have no birds.” And it was true. We kept expecting the birds to return, in the same graceful swooping circles that they had left in. To descend upon the trees in droves and fill our streets and homes and hearts with song. But they didn’t return.
We played games in which, with certain rituals and circumstances, we could make the birds come back. We made up bird dances, cutting out feathers from construction paper and gluing them together as if we were Icarus and Daedalus before taping them to our backs to make wings. We sang bird songs and whistled with our hands. We tore around the apartment, hooting and flapping our arms before collapsing on the floor laughing together, Lily’s high gleeful laugh echoing through the apartment. The one sound better than any bird’s song.
With the flight of the leaves, conspiracy theorists went wild. The tabloids screamed out, “Alien invasion draws nigh!” and “First birds, now leaves! What will be next?” Lily and I had our own theories. Our newest was that the sky fairies needed the birds to build their castles of leaves. It made perfect sense. We would giggle together and talk about how we wanted to meet the sky fairies, how we would help them build their castles, making one room all orange and one room all yellow and one room all red. And they would reward us with leaf wings of all different colors so that we could come visit any time.
With the leaves gone, the trees look bare, the ground empty. There are no autumn leaves to jump in, no leaves to crunch underfoot. We go outside and I hold Lily on my shoulders so that she can drape the trees with colorful old clothes to keep them warm. They look less lonely that way.
The next day they are gone. But we imagine that they now clothe the sky fairies who are chilly up there in their leaf castles. Or the birds who are busy helping them build their castles. It must be cold up there in the sky and the work may go faster if they are warm. We draw pictures with crayons of birds wearing clothes swooping back down onto the apartment roof and I tell her the story of the seven swans and their shirts made of nettles.
We go to the park again as autumn seeps into winter without crossing any recognizable boundary. The air is a little bit chillier, the wind a little bit stronger, the white of our breaths a little more obvious.
We go on the swings first. Our favorite. We feel like we are flying, we are meeting the sky feet-first. I give Lily an initial push to get the momentum going, then hop onto the next swing so that we can swing together. We swing slowly, sometimes in sync but most of the time out of sync. We are together at the highest point. We fly up, up, up…the sky is reaching for us or maybe we are reaching for it…
At the highest point, my swing and I start to reverse direction. To head back towards the earth. Lily does not.
Her swing clatters away as she continues her ascent skyward. When she turns around to look at me, her face is apprehensive but excited. Her cheeks are red from the cold, her hair tangled by the wind, her smile a stab in my heart.
I fall. I reach up and realize she is out of reach already but I try. I stand on my tiptoes and call her name and wish, desperately, that I, too, would ascend. The tears are streaming down my face and I hear her say, “I’ll say hi to the sky fairies for you!” I want to be lifted into the sky, I wish myself lighter but she is floating farther and farther away until I can barely see her hands waving goodbye and all I can do is wave back and smile for her through my tears, so that she isn’t afraid, and call her name until she is gone.
And then she is gone. The sky is the same uninterrupted blue it has always been, as if nothing has changed, nothing has happened. But she is gone.
I still think of her every day. I drape clothing on the trees, all the clothes that she would possibly need up there in the sky. In the morning, they are gone and I imagine her wearing them as she dances with fairies, surrounded by sky pirates and birds. Every day, the radio gives a new theory although none can explain the ascension of one child. Nothing else has been swallowed up by the sky since then but every day, I practice. It is winter but I jump on the trampoline I bought, my eyes closed, and I can almost feel the cold air lifting me, the wind against my face. I imagine that I am flying; every second my feet don’t touch the ground is a second closer to Lily.
I am waiting for my daughter to come plunging back to earth; I am waiting for the sky to take me.
This story was inspired by autumn in Providence, RI where I attended college. The image of a young girl watching the leaves flying up haunted me for some time before I decided to try sketching that image. However, my artistic talents weren’t quite up to the task but as soon as I tried writing it, the story practically wrote itself.