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It was that time of year when summer and autumn are intertwined, when the warm months begin to fade into memory and the leaves are just starting to fall from the trees. Then, as summer retreats, the ground becomes littered with leaves, leaves that look lost without a strong limb on which to attach themselves. Today, in particular, was sunny and warm'shadows of the trees cast strips of light across the grass, sparse and thin. I walked along at an unhurried pace, keeping rhythm by listening to the steady crunching of the leaves beneath my feet. When I reached the top of the hill where my property ended, the dusty dirt path curved over the crest of the hill and continued for about one mile before leading into town. I however, veered left and high-stepped through the wild weeds and overgrown shrubs instead. A few thorns raked my clothing but their intentions were not malicious, their attempts half-hearted, and none of them pierced through my skin. My wool tunic protected me, as it has for years past. The sleeves were worn and thin, the collar frayed, yet despite its age and unattractive condition, it offered me great comfort. I had many memories associated with this tunic, as if the memories themselves had been stitched into the fabric one by one and now were the only things holding the tunic together. I even remember when it was made for me'she had given it to me for my birthday one year. It was the finest cloth I had ever felt and so excellently done too; she had a magical touch'like King Midas, everything she touched turned to gold. I noticed the golden leaves dangling from the trees, I reached and plucked one'so beautiful despite the fact that they would soon turn brown and fall to their deaths, to lay there and rot for eternity.
I supposed I'd have to retire this shirt eventually before it fell apart at the seams. My pants were not in much better condition, times were rough and it was time that had ravaged them, as it had ravaged me. The stubble on my face, like salt and pepper, caused me to appear slightly unkempt but my hair was washed and clean, it shined silver in direct sunlight but was growing thin. My tired feet matched my tired face; they were bare today, encased in caked mud and dirt. I usually went shoeless in warm weather unless I was heading into town but today especially I wanted to experience every touch. Shoes just seemed like an unnecessary hindrance to it all. My wool pants, which reached to just above my ankles, were torn around each leg and patched in some places.
My thoughts had carried me through the tall grasses and deep into the forest without my realizing it, I had to stop to get my bearings. Streaks of light danced across the forest floor, having penetrated the canopy that was so much thinner now that the leaves had begun to fall. I looked up and saw a golden shimmer descending from a top branch; a leaf caught in the light. It came to rest on the ground in front of me defeated, deflated, yet still so beautiful. I examined my surroundings once more then headed off confidently over a patch of moss to my right; it was softer than a sheep's coat.
Now that I was walking again my mind seemed to lose interest in my travels and returned to thinking about other things. A sense of dread began to creep forward from the dark recesses of my mind, like a snake slithering through the grass, darting his tongue and always staring with those golden eyes. The sunlight was hot on the back of my neck, beads of sweat like little crystal orbs, formed on the surface of my tan skin. I could feel them crashing one by one down my spine, chilling the blood in my veins. I was anxious. I missed her. The house was not as cozy without her, the fertile soil beneath my boots no longer instilled me with joy at cultivating new life, the once golden sun and the once cerulean sky seemed less rich'as though her passing had sucked all the brilliant hues out of my world. So even though I was grateful for my opportunity to spend a moment with her again, it was always heart-wrenching to walk away after the moment had passed. A golden cross hung on a chain around my neck; I grasped it in my fist and held it against my chest. My breathing slowed again. I swallowed and felt those hopeless questions sink to the pit of my stomach, as if I'd swallowed a stone.
The sounds of running water, I was nearly there. I approached a cool stream; the water was clean and clear so that I could see the colorful polished stones nestled on the bottom like treasures tucked away in a safe place: rubies and sapphires and amethysts, all glimmering like gems through the water. I knelt down gingerly on the bank; my knees were stiff from the walk. The sun beat down hard, it must be nearly midday. Cupping some water in my hands I brought it to my parched lips, it felt refreshing, revitalizing. I drank once more from my hands. This stream had flowed through this forest since as long as I could remember, since before I had built our house over the hill, which was many years ago. Season after season, through wind and rain, storm and sun it continued to flow'slowly carving out the path of least resistance. It was life-giving for all the creatures that came to lap up its pure water on a hot summer day, or a long autumn night. This stream was reliable, consistent; men and beast alike enjoy consistency, it makes them feel as though they are in control, as if they hold the keys to their own futures'a perception, of course, but never the less comforting in such a large and untamed world.
I decided to cross the stream and then take my rest on the other side before completing my journey. Standing again, I followed the stream to where it thinned and there were enough stones to step on to get across. The water was relatively high for it had been a wet summer; each of my stepping stones just barely jutted about the surface, like the shells of turtles. The water shot out around them, drops jumping into the air like hot oil out of a frying pan. I carefully placed one foot on the first rock'the cold water licked at my heels like flames. Another tender step, the sound of the stream enveloped me and grew louder and louder'popping and cracking'drowning out all the other noise. Another step, the rock was slippery, I was halfway across. I reached far and placed my foot yet again on the next rock. I balanced, I froze. No'time froze, then I was moving again against my will. The rock was wet. I couldn't catch myself, my foot was wedged, and my ankle gave. I put out a hand to stop my fall but it slipped on the hot coals and I fell into the fire.
I opened my eyes. I breathed in. My chest erupted in pain like an electric shock that coursed up my spine. Just as shocking was the icy water chilling my old bones. I grunted and clenched my jaw. Think, think. I managed to shift my position so that I was sitting awkwardly on the stream bed. The water was splashing around me. For a few moments I sat there, trying to stay calm as it was not pain but now panic that surged through my frail body. I was okay. I tested moving my legs'I could tell they were bruised in places and my ankle was tender but it was nothing serious. My arms next'my arms were fine too. Yet every breath sent pain shooting through my chest. The sun was hot, it shined in my eyes. The golden leaves on the trees waved to me in the light breeze, they were spinning. It was dark, it was bright. The water rushed past, in a hurry to get to where ever it was going. And I sat there, rubbing my sore ankle and experimentally stretching my spine.
I decided it was time to move after a moment or two because I was starting to get cold; the water had soaked my clothing and frozen my toes and fingers. I also needed to accurately assess how badly I was hurt. Very slowly I rotated onto my hands and knees. My back tingled ever so slightly, threatening to erupt in pain again, but nothing happened. I didn't want to overexert myself and bring on another back spasm so I waded through the rest of the stream. I pulled myself heavily up the bank, favoring my left ankle, and made my way to the base of a large oak tree nearby where I could sit and dry out under the warm sun. It was a blessing that I hadn't hit my head on a stone when I fell. My pulse had been racing and my breathing short and uneven but they steadied gradually as I sat. The panic subsided and I flushed a little when I realized how silly I'd been to fret. It was just a short fall after all.
Two ants scurried around on the ground where I sat; I imagined they were making a last stand before the fatal chill that would inevitably come. They seemed so carefree scuttling around down there, so unaware and undaunted by the fact that within a few days they would no doubt be curled up in a ball on the forest floor'as dead as a hide that has been stripped from a deer. I admired their courage, bold enough to keep on going so near to the end. At least they had each other. A crow screeched somewhere in the distance, breaking the silence. The only birds to be heard at this time of the year were crows and ravens. The songbirds had migrated south. It takes a day like this to realize how very lovely birds are: their beautiful colors, sweet songs, and their assurance that summer would last a little longer. It's a shame I never appreciated them before now, not like I should have. Now I wouldn't hear them again until next spring: robins, chickadees, golden finches, all nesting in the safety of the trees. Then I realized just how much the forest smelled like spearmint because of the pine trees. Pine trees are fascinating too'they never lose their needles, not even in the winter; they just stand there, so immense and sturdy and resolute. Just waiting, watching the other trees kiss their leaves goodbye'one by one'as they float away on a gentle whisper of air. I respect the trees for their steadfast strength. Man often gets it in his head that he is dominant over all else but trees live longer than men, and they probably oversee more things than men too. So many diminutive details are overlooked when one is scrambling around worrying about things that don't matter day after day, but the trees, with nowhere to go, monitor the forest from the tiniest insect to the largest predator. They witness the noble deer brought down by a hunter's arrow, they oversee the ants rebuilding their hill after a rain, they notice when a young rabbit has been caught by a fox'and probably mourn its death'they watch over the little birds that take shelter in a nest on one of their firm branches'it must be wonderful to be a tree. I silently scolded myself for never understanding that before either.
The leaves now littered on the ground beneath my feet have completed one of life's most fundamental cycles; they were born, they lived, they died, and in turn gave those to follow them the same chance at life. The same as it is with everything else that lives for a while and then must face the inevitable'yet another reason why I can't seem to figure out why man considers himself so superior. Not even man can escape death. I put my hands together'my palms wet and sticky with sweat'and bent my head toward the ground, my eyes closed. I muttered a prayer to the heavens. I reached for the cross at my chest and gripped it tightly in my hand, holding it for a moment before pressing it to my lips and letting it fall back into place. I spent a few moments in silence, just observing, just listening, just watching, and sharing for a moment, in the duties of the trees.
The crow squawked again, awaking me from my stupor. I stretched my back experimentally and when it felt fine I pulled myself lightly to my feet, and headed off resolutely toward my destination.
After about an hour of half-walking, half-limping I arrived at the edge of a small clearing. I stopped, hesitated. My heart began pumping wildly, I tried to swallow but my mouth was dry. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled uncomfortably, my hand flew unconsciously to the golden cross. I walked unsteadily forward. I came to the other side of the clearing, and halted in front of a wooden cross firmly fixed in the ground that I had carved and placed here a number of years ago, on this very day. I knelt down and reached out'I touched it, I ran my fingers over the worn wood. My wife's bed was blanketed with fallen leaves, the same fallen leaves that were scattered across the rest of the ground. If it hadn't been for the cross, one wouldn't even know that it was a grave. I would always remember, of course, the precise location'just as I will always remember how her emerald eyes twinkled when she smiled, the way she would laugh with all the innocence of a child, her plush, pink lips and her smooth, caring hands'I could just see her sweet smiling face, freckles sprinkled across her soft cheeks'but for the rest of the world the only evidence that she ever existed, the only testament to her memory was that cross.
I somewhat absentmindedly began uprooting the small plants and weeds that had grown in the once freshly turned dirt, brushing aside the dead leaves. Once the area was cleared to my satisfaction I stood again and took a few steps to pick some wildflowers that were still clinging on to the life of summer. They were not significantly stunning: they were undersized, weak and had pale'almost half-hearted'coloring. I wished I had something better but at the same time I knew she wouldn't mind these. My wife was as calm and gentle as a fawn, and not at all vain. She was as beautiful as a sunset'even more so, and not just because of her looks but because she was kind and as sweet as maple syrup'she deserved beautiful flowers, but these would have to do. I laid them near the base of the cross. I clasped my cross necklace, searching for some comfort in this lonely world.
Thoughts streamed through my consciousness, each one inducing further melancholy than before. I stared in silence at the earth where I could picture my wife's precious face and told her everything about the past year, everything that was on my mind: the fine crop and the warm weather, the various comings and goings of the fellow townsfolk, how much I missed her and desired to hold her again'The moment seemed to stretch beyond the bonds of time and matter; I felt a stirring in my heart and dismissed everything else, insignificant as it was. Her spirit touched me and I yearned to never let her go again. I was encased in her presence, the forest scene dissolved and the spearmint dissipated until all I could smell was her delightful fragrance. A warm, tingling sensation tickled the tips of my fingers and my toes, it caressed my arms and my legs in an embrace of love'wholesome, selfless love. A small flame flickered alive inside my chest, glowing through my tunic. As I scanned my surroundings the colors brightened and intensified until they seemed to come alive and surround me in a swirl of passion'each color was a human emotion, but more powerful then ever I had experienced before. The inside of my nose delighted at the sweet aroma that I could not place; I inhaled deeply and I could feel the flame burn brighter, fueled by the Heavenly perfume that excited my nostrils. The smell was nostalgia. I don't know how I knew it but somewhere within me I could feel that it was true. For a few timeless moments I simply sat in ecstasy. What I was smelling and seeing could hardly be considered real'I wondered if I was dreaming'but then again, why should anything be less real just because it was dreamt?
A thought pulled at my conscience seemingly from far away, irritating me like a nosy mosquito and although I tried to brush it away, the nagging thought persisted. It was a reminder of a lesson I knew quite well, that the most cherished moments often pass without your consent. As such, I submissively understood that I was at the mercy of the angels that allowed me these short visits once a year, on this day. She would let go when it was time and I could not prevent it. It was my role to relish the few moments I had while they lasted.
As I sat there, at the foot of my wife's humble grave, I prayed to God from within the sanctuary of her presence. I prayed for strength, I prayed for hope, I prayed for company. My faith was as strong here as it ever was throughout the year'it had to be, because without it I would be lost, lost and alone. It was my wife's unfailing faith that first attracted me toward God. Now when I reflect upon my gradual enlightenment I wonder if it was indeed she that brought me to God, or God that brought me to her. I concluded that it was probably, in fact, both'my wife was God's gift to me. She was also my miracle. I reflected upon all the ways she had changed my life; I pondered all the reasons I was glad for the years we had shared, even though she was gone now. My faith is what has held my hand as I trudged solitarily through the shadows these past four years, and it was her influence over thirty-five years of marriage that encouraged my faith to grow. As I thought about this, I felt her presence grow fainter. I tried in vain to maintain the connection, I pleaded for more time but she faded and faded. The colors returned to their usual dullness, the mint from the trees reentered my nose as the other Heavenly perfume floated away. As she retreated I heard her whisper farewell and a deep sorrow swelled up inside me. I was not yet ready to be left alone again. Tears gathered at the corners of my tired eyes. I began to cry.
Then I felt a weight on my shoulder. Surprised, I lifted my head and quickly turned. I found myself gazing into the eyes of a man who stared evenly back. The faintest traces of a smile played about his perfect lips, the tenderness extended to a twinkle in his blue eyes. His brows were thin and defined, his jaw was strong yet gentle, and his nose was perfection as well. His hair was short but I could not determine the color because it shined so brightly. As I noticed this, his whole body began to glow. It appeared as though the vivid colors that I had just witnessed in the forest surroundings moments before had not in fact disappeared, they had simply returned to their source, within this angel. Each hue was exemplified ten times'his eyes sparkled like sapphires. His entire outline grew hazy and indistinct as rays of light burst forth from every inch of his person. I could no longer make out his shape. He seemed to move continuously back and forth'shimmering like a reflection on a lake. Years ago I may not have believed, days ago I may have blamed my eyes, this morning I may have doubted my sanity, but in that moment I had no misgivings. I knew what he was, and His presence comforted me. The angel's face shone brighter than ever, each feature illuminated and flawless. His lips twitched ever so slightly and his head made one small nod'or so I thought as I squinted to distinguish them from the movements of the light aura.
I felt compelled to reach for the cross at my neck. When my cold fingers closed around the gold I felt the friendly weight lift from my shoulder and a burst of heat simultaneously emanated from the cross! My whole body felt warm and tingly'my clothes were suddenly completely dry, as though I had never fallen into the stream earlier. A warm tingly sensation originated in my cheeks, as though from an affectionate kiss, and all the tears streaked across my face had instantly vanished. I disbelievingly patted my once damp clothing and blinked my once teary eyes experimentally. Then I laughed! A quiet chortle rose into a joyous roar! I shouted praise to the Heavens; I had received a sign this day! The flame in my heart had surely not died! It was still burning inside me, fueled by the memories of love that lay safe in my heart. I understood that God was still there with me even though I could not always be assured with performances like this one. I felt a lingering sense of hope for the fullness I could have again.
And so it was that flame in my heart that kept me strong throughout the rest of the year. The miracle that I had witnessed today allowed me to achieve some sense of calm about my wife's death. I would keep busy with the subsistence farming I maintained'work was a fine distraction, I had found. But now I also felt ready to let go of the guilt and the anger and begin enjoying life again. I made a mental note to go into town the following day to do some long overdue visiting with old friends.
Little by little I know the color will leak back into the trees and the streams, little by little the cavity in my heart will seal itself as my wife's memory fills me once again with peace. I will always miss her, but sometimes I can hear her voice within the rustle of the leaves, or the tinkling of the brook, or the silence of the falling snow. She reminds me that I'm not as alone as I think I am. It was meant to be this way, He made His choice.
When I was certain she was gone, I got wearily to my feet. 'Goodbye my Love. I will visit you again next fall'same time, alright?' With one last loving look, I turned and walked slowly away. I was not quite so alone. Her precious memory lived on through me, warming me on even the coldest wintry nights when I would gaze pensively into the flickering flames of my fireplace, contentedly sipping some hot tea with my old wrinkled Bible lying open my lap.