The year Milo Corrigan turned twelve was the freak year of the Great Shedding when all over Westchester County spring leaves fell and lay on the ground in spongy heaps of green. This strange thing started not more than a month after the season’s full leafing and spared not a single species of tree. It continued through a couple of weeks till there was not a leaf left on a branch anywhere in the county. No one had ever seen anything like it, and no one knew why it was happening. Not master gardeners, not local arborists, not botanists and certainly not the confused employee from the Health Department, called in as a last, flailing resort by a county commissioner. Even so, all throughout those bewildering weeks of the shedding, life went on as usual; people went to work, people came home, children went to school and plopped on couches afterwards to play their video games. Park workers and homeowners alike, helpless and unnerved, stood scratching their heads when the soft, spring-juicy leaves gummed up their machinery or, raked into piles, would not burn.
That was also the spring when one afternoon Milo came home from sixth grade to find no one home. His mother was not sitting in her chair by the front window smoking as she almost always was. She was not in her bedroom napping, as she sometimes was. And there was no note in her handwriting on the kitchen table saying supermarket or doctor appt. She was just not there.
His hand on the back of her empty chair, Milo stood staring out the picture window into the yard’s bare trees, as if the knowledge of where she could be was lodged somewhere up in the leafless branches. And as he stood looking and wondering, something like a deeper sense of the simultaneous came to him. Something that reached past the simple act of a phone and doorbell ringing at the same time. Something that bore down through the everyday to settle in an undiscovered, uneasy place in himself. And it was from that new place where he felt, more than understood really, that it was possible for more than one strange and unexplainable thing to happen to him at the same time. Dropped leaves, missing mother.
As startling as that realization was in the moment, what he had been aware of in any number of ways from the time he was very small, was that his mother wasn’t like the moms of his friends. She didn’t go as the others did to PTA meetings or chaperon class fieldtrips. She didn’t even leave the house that much. When Kevin played Little League, she never went to watch his games, and she didn’t keep a garden or have any hobby Milo knew of. She didn’t even talk much to any of them. He was used to all that though, his strange, silent mother, because he’d never known her any other way. But at least she was always around, which made her unexplained absence that day so strange. Wherever she’d gone, he figured she’d be back soon to get dinner started. And he knew he was fine – this wasn’t his first time being on his own.
So, turning on the thought that she’d be back, he headed for the stairs and to do what he almost always did after school anyway – close himself in his room, the one he shared just with Kevin now, to pull out the oversized sketchbook and his prized tin of 24 Derwent soft graphite pencils. There, finally, having survived another day of the nuns droning on about things he already knew or didn’t care about, he was back where it felt right to be – sitting at the battered old wooden desk under the window, a clean new page open and inviting him in. Because Kevin never came home till he had to and his mother hardly made any noise at all, he was also used to, and counted on in a way, the afternoon quiet. Inside that day’s usual quiet there was, though, a further touch of a something missing in the house, a new sort of vacancy. Today, though he couldn’t have put words to it, he knew this quiet and emptiness were different and had to do with no note on the table. But almost as soon as this knowledge came to him, he realized that difference didn’t bother him at all.
And so he took a last look out the window, wondering if the trees minded what had happened to them. And because there were no rustling spring leaves to betray it, he didn’t notice that a wind had kicked up and was moving through the branches of the old maple. Had he been aware of it, he probably would have paused to note the mild sway of a leafless branch. He might have caught how the afternoon sun played through the bare branches to stipple the trunk in light and dark. But he saw none of these things. What he did see out there was a stillness that didn’t much interest him, so instead he selected a 9N from the pencil tin and started right in on what he’d been drawing in his head all day long – a dragon flying through tree branches, bare of all leaves.
And as the light faded through the next couple of hours, getting this image from how he’d seen it inside his head out onto paper was all there was for him. For those few hours, it was all he required.