I stand, motionless, waiting for the prevailing west wind to trouble the branches above and lure away their progeny. Like a pied piper of the woods.
I come here to play a game, and to remember the friend with whom I played.
When it began we were just eleven. We would cycle to the woods after school on crisp autumn afternoons, then abandon our bikes and backpacks to the soft mattress of leaf litter, as we readied ourselves.
We would become like statues, six feet apart, eyeing each other intently, giggling excitedly as we dared the wind to loosen the rusted leaves from their embattled branches.
The rules were simple: Each falling leaf that touched our body claimed one life. We each had ten lives.
“That was so close! One just missed your nose!”
“Stop moving! That’s cheating!”
I didn’t think of Rachel as a girl when we were eleven, but as childhood gave way to adolescence, I found my eyes falling upon her in new and unexpected ways.
The polyester school dress that once hung loose over her gangling frame now traced the contours of burgeoning breasts and hips. Even the matronly cut of the frock, with its drop-waist, could not conceal her blossoming womanhood. I had to concentrate to steer my eyes from taking what was not given.
Sometimes an audacious leaf would stroke Rachel’s face before tumbling sensually down her chest and falling drunkenly to the forest floor. I imagined being that leaf, and then I drove away the thought, in fear that my blushing cheeks would betray my digression.
It was the day of Rachel’s fourteenth birthday that we played the falling leaves game for the last time. She was heading back for a birthday dinner her grandmother had prepared, and I persuaded her to take the long way home.
Rachael had one life remaining. In a single moment, those dancing eyes and puckish grin were transformed into a portrait of anguish and confusion, and her vibrant form at once became floppy and lifeless, like sailcloth on a windless day.
As Rachel’s body hit the leafy carpet, legs twisted awkwardly beneath her, I knew somehow that she was gone forever.
Sometimes a heart just stops. It’s called Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome, but there is not always a clear reason why it happens to some people and not others, or what causes it to happen. It is simply the case that a person can be alive in one moment and, in the next, fall to the ground like an autumn leaf. Golden. Lifeless.
I close my eyes as I hear the high west wind weave through the treetops, hunting the weak and vincible. A single golden leaf glides down and kisses my cheek as it falls. My heart stutters and warm blood rushes to my face, as I feel Rachel’s lips on my skin. And I do not drive the thought away.