She found sleepingly dead by the twisted tree in his backyard, curled so tightly into himself that she thought he must warmed in the sun to soften the architecture of his body, before the glacial night air had hardened him into that shape. He was the core of a cocoon of leaves, pressing so tightly around him that, had she not known who he was (a person, a physical marvel), she may have imagined that he had been sliced open and the cacophony of leaves in various states of post-death loveliness had been removed in some grand and ungodly postmortem.
She wasn’t sure if she imagined the part of her that was interested in what would happen if he really had expired overnight, and she knelt and placed a finger on his neck. The faint bopping of blood under his papery skin (why was she so obsessed with skin? And bones, for that matter? She was still determined to come back later to rectify it) shut that part of her down, thankfully.
“Wake up,” she hissed, poking him on the forehead. He inhaled deeply and turned his face away from her, his mouth open just enough to let a leaf stem penetrate the gap.
“Wake up.” She poked him again, harder, and his eyes fluttered for a second before he spit the leaf away and shut his eyes tightly. A trilling groan echoed from somewhere deep in his chest.
“I’m the Leaf Undertaker.” His voice dripped with sleep. He rubbed his eyes and then stretched, nearly hitting her in the face with the heel of his palm.
“The Leaf Undertaker?”
“The Leaf Undertaker. I undertook—” he gestured to himself, “—all these leaves.”
She saw him glance upwards, and followed suit. For the first time, she noticed that the tree under which he’d slept was completely devoid of leaves. Its neighbors still had their deceased autumn foliage attached, and the wind whistled through the ravaged tree’s unclad branches.
“You mean to tell me,” she began slowly, “that you pulled off all the leaves on this tree?”
“Mmm. Isn’t it great, though?”
“What in the—” she looked at him again, and saw it in his face. Whom she knew was receding. She knew this feeling, for she recalled herself, and how it had felt when she was being swallowed up by herself, but a part of her that felt alien, with the intent to destroy. “You pulled off all the leaves on this tree?”
“It took me all night.” He sounded stronger now, and sat up, disturbing the leaves that had settled on his head. She watched them slide off, brush his ear, and land among their similarly dispatched brethren.
The previous afternoon, after she’d left, he’d taken a few libations to calm his nerves from cha-cha-ing down to waltzing. The part of him that never saw daylight seemed to be in a frantic state lately. He understood it as a phase of artist’s divine inspiration, and was plagued by a never-ending hunger to create, to invoke, to catalyze, to effectuate. He blamed her for it, because the months of trying to cope with the human-shaped negative in the mass of his heart she’d left him with had led him to frantically throw things into the emptiness to try and fill it. There was the color detonation in the basement… the 34 pies he’d baked in a single week (all were dipped in acrylic for preservation purposes and stacked in his closet)? And the time he painted his entire body baby-blue to see if it would somehow percolate into his blood and brain and make him sad? He was aware of the strangeness he imbued now (he proudly called it his Era of Phantasmagoria), and he was also obtusely aware that her return would inevitably bring with it the steady hand of rationality and common sense. He loved her to death, but now that she’d gone home, he realized how much he’d come to rely on his sacred solitude as he expanded beyond the boundaries previously set him (both by his skin and his energy.)
On that day, the crisp-sounding air whistling through the house’s slightly-open windows prompted him to go from his Kingdom of Emotional Instability outside into the Kingdom of Sun. He stood in his modest backyard, barefoot, among the mottles of dancing sunlight draped over the grass. The day was staling, with the sun plodding away to its home under the horizon. The dying (dead) leaves flamed under the slowly fleeing sun, and it somehow made things feel more justifiable.
For the art!
He grabbed the lowest branch and pulled himself up. He had strong arms, so it was no large trouble for him to do so. Up, as the branches shrunk and the leaves reached out to each other, unable to touch, until he reached the fork between the two highest branches that would hold his weight. He started from there, slowly at first. One leaf by the stem. It detached stiffly from its place on woody appendage, leaving a faint scar on the bark. He relished the moment. One leaf is a thousand leaves. And they’re dead. He grabbed another, and another. Within minutes, the tree was weeping a steady stream of leaf carcasses as he amputated one after the other. Pluck, and he thought is this what God feels like? Pluck, and he thought I am death, I am the Reaper, the Reaper of the Leaves. Pluck, and he thought Hmm, these leaves are already reaped, really. They’re dead. I’m just moving them. Pluck, I’m the Leaf Undertaker!
The rational part of his soul soon slept to the hungry advances of whatever it was that made him want to be there. His vision blurred, sounds came in warped, gluggy spurts, and the nerves in his arms and fingers turned off as they were automated by the part of him (or separate from him and simply passing by his private areas (his chest…the most private place of all)), moving endlessly back and forth, wrapping around the base of a leaf stem, administering the severing pull, and moving on thirstily to the next corpse in need of a gossamer descent.
The worst part was he looked sort of beautiful, lying in the dewy grass, smothered in leaves as the sun groggily heaved itself into the sky. She knew the impulse behind what had transpired here perfectly—it had burned its silhouette into her time and time again before. She could fit perfectly into that space the longing to do something to herself like that—a particular instance from a year ago came to mind, one that had found her suspended in an IV bag in the hospital after she’d starved herself for a week. She’d only wanted to drain her body of foreign objects, to feel her insides with her insides.
“Why would you do this?” she whispered.
“You destroyed the tree!”
“The leaves were dead anywayyyyyyyyy.”
She looked around. While that may have been true, the tree was humiliated, bare, and scabbed all over from each pluck. Against the other trees that billowed against the sky like rusted, organic clouds, this one was positively defunct.
“You’re freezing. Come on.” She tried to heave him up by his arm. “Let’s get inside.”
“Wait,” he stood up, leaves tumbling from his chilled-overnight body. He was wearing long pants, thankfully, and a thermal shirt. “I have to get all these.”
He was jogging across the yard, sadly without shoes towards the little shed wedged between the northwest side of the house and the fence that separated his property from his nonexistent neighbor’s. She remembered when, a couple years ago, she’d insisted on painting the shed, transforming it from a dead-wood color to a living-leaf green. The front half of his body disappeared into the little wooden snuggery, and emerged a moment later with a wheelbarrow attached to the ends of his arms.
“Help me get all these leaves!” he jogged backwards to the site of the massacre, and began hefting armful after armful of the little corpora into it. She decided then that not only was it was her duty to help him as he fell apart, but that she was going to carry out that duty—she had not given him that luxury when she found herself deconstructing, and selfishly couldn’t bear to give him the holiness of solitude while he did it. She began to help him, and a few minutes later, the splendor of the wintering oak was packed down into a thick block of death turned by hunger into morbid art.
I will be there for him, she thought. While he falls back into the vacuity he (and everyone) has inside themselves reserved for dormant spirits, and the projects he undertakes grow increasingly morbid (he would, later that day, catch a rat, dissect it, and glue the organs to the bathroom mirror so he would be reminded of his mortality every time he washed his hands) she would care for the ravager that took its place, comforting it, standing right outside its window, letting its barbs bloody her if only to keep him closer.
Zachariah Crutchfield is a Minnesotan who doesn’t want winter to end. He is attempting to triple major in political science, mesaas, and creative writing but knows it’s not probable. He wants to leave Columbia with at least four languages under his belt, even if rudimentary, and he loves swimming, hiking, boating, and nursing his caffeine addiction.