The boy’s favorite smell was the smell of leaves burning, that mossy, earthy smoke, even though you weren’t supposed to burn them (because drought? Because the only fire department was the volunteer one, next town over? Because, like Grandpa Dwight said, the goddam feds tying everything up with regulations?), but people still did, those long, late afternoons when the sky was shot through with salmon and purple, scudding clouds drifting past pine tops like dispersing smoke. Leaves were everywhere then, thick hillsides of trees be-leaved and unleaving, leaves that shook and shivered in October wind but still hung on, leaves that sighed and sank, velvetly, into dampish grass, those shadowed spots where dew was slow to leave. Leaves in the neighbor’s yard, raked and regimented. Leaves in the boy’s own yard, that he was supposed to rake but mostly forgot to, or said he forgot; leaves left where the wind tossed them, blown into cement wells that scooped out the ground before small-paned, smoke-glassed basement windows you could imagine a prisoner or hidden fugitive peeking out of, hungry for light. Best of all was the abandoned schoolyard across the street, luxurious with leaves, thick-trunked oaks leaning against chain-link fences, and the bumpy, root-cracked driveway where the boy rode his bike through a surf of leaves just to hear them crackle, coasting with his feet off the pedals, his arms out airplane style—no hands!—and the little old man walking his waddling old dog, who told him, “Enjoy that body while you still have it.”
How many nights after that did the boy lie awake in the long autumn dark, wondering what the old man meant, enjoy that body while you still have it, mixing it up with words half-heard in hard, varnished church pews on drowsy Sunday mornings—This is my body, which shall be given up for you—and the boy sitting and kicking his feet (or were they his?), cracking his knuckles, and wondering, if this body was not his own, then whose was it? Would someone else, someone like that old man, come to take it back, and where would the you inside you go if you had to leave? Would you find some new green shoot to grow into or would you blow away, like russet oak leaves, yellow birch, scarlet maples; whirl-winded, edge-drifted, crinkled and crackled, raked, piled, hilled, jumped into, sometimes peeking through a crust of snow, always there until they weren’t, until the snow melted and the ground was springy and soft, re-greened, and you might wonder, if you took time to wonder, where those old brown leaves had gone, why you’d never even seen them leave.