It was one of those days that evokes memories, like a brightly coloured patchwork quilt, as fading remnants of the waning summer were pieced together with fragments of rich and vibrant tapestry. The air was crystal-clear, scented with a fragrant bouquet of damp leaves, woodsmoke, and tangy frost. The halcyon sky was a deeper, more vivid blue.
Laney and I were deer hunting, stalking through the woods, by turns pretending to be safari hunters, frontiersmen, and leather-clad Indians. Bagging an elusive buck would be a fortuitous bonus, as our intent was to enjoy each other, delighting in singing silly choruses about bears, mountains, and buffalo, and telling jokes in which the punch-line became lost in translation or lost altogether.
“Why do loons laugh?” Laney giggled as she tried to imitate the lilting cry of a pair of loons, the only wildlife we’d seen.
“They’re talking to other loons. Or maybe they see us. Or the lake.”
“Oh.” The non-technical answer satisfied her. Time enough later to differentiate between loon yodels, hoots, and tremolos. She trudged through a drift of dry leaves, nudged at a rotten log, and then hunkered down to peer into the hollowed centre.
“There are elves or maybe hobbits.” She winked. “Or more’n likely an old, dead skunk.”
She bent down again, excavating in the pithy wood with an elegant finger. I crept up behind her and tickled her. She shrieked, then stopped, wide-eyed. “We’ll scare the deer away,” she admonished, flicking splinters of decayed wood at me.
I hoisted her onto my shoulders, and she announced in a haughty voice, “You’re an elephant and I am the maharanee,” she declared. “Go faster.” I became a dauntless and stouthearted pachyderm, trotting in a most un-elephantine manner, weaving through the brush, side-stepping stones, dodging branches, and slowing down when loose leaves made mad galloping too treacherous. I swung the indignant princess to the ground.
“Let’s rest, baby girl,” I gasped. Laney sat cross-legged, digging in her small backpack for a chocolate bar and water. “Want some?” she offered, and I took a long swallow.
“Why do leaves turn colour, Dad?” she asked between bites.
I considered an easy explanation.
“Well, green is not a leaf’s real colour. All summer, the leaves have been making chlorophyll to make food for the tree to grow. Chlorophyll is green, right?” She nodded. “The green covers up the red, orange, and yellow. But, when fall comes, it’s time for the tree to rest, so, it stops making chlorophyll, and the trees reveal their true colours.”
She had a look of wonderment on her face, quite unwarranted by my simple account, but I realized she was looking past me, at something in the trees.
“A deer, Dad.”
A young buck stood a hundred yards away, camouflaged in the ribboned shadows of the woods.
“Stay here, Laney.”
I readied the rifle, balanced it in my hands, and carefully followed the animal at a slightly oblique angle.
Maybe it was excitement, the certainty of an easy shot, or any one of many distractions, but I knew as I stepped on the downed cottonwood I had misjudged, miscalculated. The rotting bark tore and slipped away from the trunk, and I fell, revolving in a deadly pirouette that lasted for an eternity, landing on my back.
The gun thundered.
For an awful moment, the forest held its breath.
I scrambled through the leaves, slipping and sliding, to reach Laney. A crimson stain spread across her plaid jacket. A leaf was stuck on her cheek, a crumb of chocolate on her lips. Blood trickled from her nose.
Her eyes closed.
“Laney.” And again, “Laney!”
My cries reverberated from tree to tree, until my echoing disbelief became a wordless whisper. Around me, the trees rained down golden tears in silent lament, shedding their burden of dying splendour. The gilded hills bowed in mourning, while the blazing forest burned in grief without being consumed.
My baby girl. I held her until the shadows lengthened, and I’d said what I could, of my love, remorse, rage.
The smell of woodsmoke re-kindles memories of that day, and I am caught between longing to triumph over sorrow and torturing myself with reliving the hideous moment. I desire to shine as I truly am, stripped of the ordinary, the superficial, and the pain of each day without Laney. To be clothed in grace, radiant and gloriously resplendent.
Author’s Note: The title is taken from the autumnal poem “Tragic Song” by William Stafford -- “...nothing left to whisper, not even good-bye, to the wind.”
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