Maple Leaf Souls

by Nickolas Urpí


November Gold

The click of a shotgun alerted me to Ryder’s presence. My hands instinctively shot up and I shut my eyes. My asthma returned, as it always did when I was tense or excited.

“Turn around,” he growled. I obeyed, the light reflecting off the golden maple tree, illuminating the both of us. “Shit! It’s you!”

He was visibly sour at my presence. It was cold, even for November, and I trembled as I feared his anger.

I was working late on a pair of wedding bands when Ryder entered the shop, wearing a battered olive jacket. Had it not been for the glassy white stubble, I would have taken him for middle aged, even considering the turkey’s foot at the edges of his eyes.

He strode in and offered to sell me a golden maple leaf that he had casually removed from his pocket. Skeptical, I had believed it, at first, to be a tin leaf that had been covered with gold paint and had likely fallen from a clock. After careful examination, I found it not only to be genuine gold, but gold of the highest quality. I could find no flaws in it and asked him its origins and purpose. He could not enlighten me in the slightest on either account.

I returned it to him, my business mind knowing I could not sell it, and yet, I found it difficult to relinquish. After he left, I spent the whole night reminiscing on it. It had such perfection, as though it was plucked from nature itself, summoning memories of lost hours spent beneath a maple tree dreaming of making love to a girl I was too shy to ever ask out.

The next morning, I realized the craftsmanship was too perfect for me not to purchase. I could not bear the thought of some other jeweler possessing it. It was the only truly beautiful thing I had ever seen in my life. So many times, I was called upon to fix or repair objects of great wealth passed down from generations, only to find an infinite number more of flaws I had to keep to myself. But that leaf, that leaf was truly perfect.

I drove over to Ryder’s property that morning. It was deep in the forest outside of town. A wood house that was covered in grime and dead foliage waited for me as I tread beyond the barbed wire gate and fence that warned off visitors. There was no smoke rising from the chimney, so I decided to leave, until a gleam out of the corner of my eye summoned me to around the backside of the house.

I could see a picket fence around a carefully preserved gravestone, but there was a shimmering light beyond that that beckoned me forward.

I stepped carefully, as though I were a thief until I came upon a tree, golden and shining despite the grey-veiled sun. The leaves on this maple were not like the other crimson leaves of November days, but a true reflection of metal. I picked up a leaf from the ground, as perfect and beautiful as the one I had examined in my shop.

I realized then that Ryder possessed a miracle.

That was when he came upon me.

“You don’t have to shoot me,” I quivered. “I won’t tell anyone. I just happened to see. I apologize.”

“I’m not going to shoot you. Shut up and come on inside,” he said, lowering his gun and turning to enter his house as though it were obvious I would follow him. I did.

He offered me whiskey, which I declined. The musty interior further aggravated my asthma. The house was sparce on functional furniture and cleanliness but plentiful in photographs, which were spotlessly clean.

He had, in particular, a number of photographs with the photo of a woman with a toothy smile and narrow eyes. She was not particularly attractive but had an endearing quality to her face.

We discussed the purchase of the single leaf, the funds for which Ryder needed to complete the last payment on his house. When our business was done, he looked at me as though I was expected to leave, but I could not.

“Why?” I asked. “Why not just sell them all and live a life of luxury? Why just one leaf?”

He looked at me confusedly. “Why the hell would I do that?”

I did not know how to answer him.

“I don’t need money. Can money bring her back?” he nodded towards the photos on the wall.

“Your wife?”

“Lynn,” he nodded. “What good is money? I don’t need money.”

“But think of all the things you could do,” I said. “You don’t need to stay here and suffer.”

“Haven’t you ever loved someone? Loved someone really? And lost them?”

I replied I had not. I felt a sense of shame, as though I were a child was just waking to the fact that I had not learned anything at all in my whole life.

“Listen Mister Falks,” Ryder said, downing the last of his whiskey. “All the gold in the world can do nothing for me. I’d rather have that tree filled with memories of her, so that I can just pick one up and look into it and see her dancing and smiling and laughing. God, that woman loved to dance. Even when she was sick, she’d move her arms. Hell, she’d just dance with her eyes if she had nothing else. You don’t know the half of living if you don’t know loving.”

I sat in my living room that night like a child, with my lights up, staring at every bare corner of the room. I looked from one end to the other, the sole maple leaf I had purchased in my hand, consumed with the realization that I was alone and surrounded by emptiness rather than smiles.

Momiji

Aimi’s crankiness after returning from the market had increased every day for several years without fail. Minoh Falls was infested with tourists, the clicking of the cameras completely overpowering the dreamlike sizzling that accompanied the maple leaves into the fryer. She pretended the clicking cameras were crickets that were too loud for autumn. The tourists didn’t understand the time and preparation it required to collect the precious yellow leaves from the maple trees, salt them in water for a year, dry them, and then fry them up in sweet sesame tempura batter. She scowled at their ignorance.

The “crickets” weren’t there when she and her sons (son?), Hibiki and—

Aimi paused to rest on a rock, her parka tighter around her waist than in previous years. What was her other son’s name? Dear Husband would have known, but she forgot his name too. He had died long ago and would have been there, unlike Hibiki, who abandoned her.

“I work here now,” he had said, his voice as distant as his face. “I told you to come. I found you a place not too far from where we are. It’s lovely here.”

Iceland sounded too cold to be lovely.

“What will I do there? Fry maple leaves? Leave Osaka? No, I can’t. My friends are here. Your father is here.”

“Dad’s gone,” he said.

“He’s still here,” she spat.

She had not spoken to Hibiki since. She could not count the number of leaves she’d fried since then. He was different as a child. He never left her side, always helping, picking leaves, helping her with every step. She saw him grow up before her beneath the waters of Minoh Falls, sprinkling sesame seeds into the batter. She hadn’t tasted one since he left. She could not convince herself that they would be as sweet.

He had a point, she thought to herself. She was letting every thought, every memory slip away with each battered leaf and sold them at the markets. She had become cantankerous, worried, and so very tired. Passing by the entrance to the house, a face looked back at her from the mirror. It had age spots, and wrinkles drawn in like a child drawing lines in the sand with a stick. She didn’t recognize what stared back at her. She didn’t recognize the frown that permanently clung to her cheeks.

She sat down and waited for the soup on the stove to be ready. She wondered if she should read some haiku, a novel, a newspaper even? The ability to determine the time or her age was gradually slipping away. The sun was always white and yellow now and looked to be setting and rising at the same time.

“You are losing your grip,” Yoko would say, sitting one booth over from her.

“I’m as sharp as ever!” Aimi retorted, stretching out her arthritic hands before preparing another batch of leaves.

Yoko only laughed. “Are you going to tell me about your daughters again? And how you are only going to pass off your secret recipe for the leaves to them?”

“Everyone knows the recipe for the leaves,” Aimi replied. “And I will tell my sons some day!”

“You never tell anyone. You never will. You bury it in your chest, if you even remember it.”

“Of course, I remember it,” Aimi replied. “You mind your own business! Here come those damned tourists. Stop bothering me, I don’t have times to swat at both you and them!”

Yoko laughed, shaking her head. Aimi hated to feel the condescension of others and so she did her best to pretend Yoko did not exist.

Sons… is there another?

She tried to think of her other son, but she could not remember anyone except Hibiki. She already lost the name of his children, wife, and where he lived. She only remembered it sounded cold. Or did he sound cold?

Even that was a mystery.

Aimi wondered what there was to do, and realized, with the sun almost up that she had to go and make the maple leaves in the market. She noticed the temperature dropping as she descended that long staircase that led up to the house. It was almost as frigid as night. Mornings were so strange in autumn, with the light purple against the clouds.

She wondered if she was being too harsh telling Hibiki “no” so suddenly. Her dear husband was a good man who always said things always end up the way we don’t expect and not to fight it too hard. He certainly did not expect to die of cancer.

“My poor husband,” Aimi thought to herself. She thought it terrible to be alone. Yoko was more pest than friend and Hibiki, despite abandoning her, was still her son.

“Perhaps, it will not be so bad in the cold,” she said to herself.

It was dark when she reached the market. No one was stirring. She looked up at the line of trees, realizing that night had come and that she, absentmindedly, had confused evening for morning. Panicking, she whirled about, looking for the way back home, but it was all a blur.

She fell to the ground, losing her footing on a loose stone. She began to pant as she crashed into the hard ground, unable to stand. Her packages of maple leaves were all around her. She had even fallen on one and crushed it.

Aimi’s eyes filled with tears. “I don’t know where I am, what I’m doing here. I shouldn’t be here. Something is wrong. I don’t remember what I was thinking.”

She lifted a bag of maple of leaves, all her pain falling away in that moment.

“So pretty,” she smiled to herself. She opened the bag, removed one and crunched down. “How sweet!”

There was no yesterday or tomorrow. That crisp maple leaf was so delicious, alone in that moment. There was nothing else but sweetness.

When the Whiskey is Finished

He would do it as soon as the whiskey was finished, he thought to himself. Each swig further fueled his angry; he could feel it. He was boiling.

Jake Barnes was sitting in his truck, his body still warm in his winter overcoat. He was parked in the middle of his, his, maple syrup farm. The rows of maple trees extended on forever, with the leaves covering a spacious amount of ground like a carpet of orange, some crystal snow having dropped here and there between the leaves.

It was his farm. He had bought it. He had bought it from right under Brett’s nose. Brett was a terrible businessman and an even worse syrup maker. Jake had understood the business from day one, and if Brett wasn’t Geoffry’s son, the old man would have left it to Jake. He knew it. He worked longer hours and, better yet, had ideas. Understood the business. Brett inherited, however, on nothing but blood.

A maple leaf fell onto the hood of his car.

Jake was patient, though, and worked and saved and sweat, waiting until Brett couldn’t handle the pressure of business and his own ineptitude, and then bought it from him in a deal with Janice Diehl’s backing. And even after Brett was nothing, Ashley still stayed with him.

That made him sick.

“You don’t have to be with him anymore, Ash,” Jake said to her as Brett stormed off into town, leaving behind a legacy that was once his. “Come be with me.”

“What are you talking about? Are you crazy?” Ashley screamed back at him. “I love him, Jake. He’s my husband.”

“I love you more than he does or can. He doesn’t care about you; he’s never cared about anything. The farm is mine now, I know how much you’ve loved it. You always have. It was just a high school crush, it meant something then, but this means more now,” he said pointing to himself.

She shook her head in disgust and followed Brett into town.

“Ashley!” he screamed after her.

He waited for her. He waited every day, while working and slaving and building the business into a profit-making machine. His was the best maple syrup in Vermont and almost sold half of his makings to restaurants, he was in such demand. They were fine dining restaurants too, the kind that might one day boast a Michelin star.

But Ashley still did not come. He hadn’t pleaded with her since. She needed to be reminded perhaps, that there was no shame in choosing him over Brett, in making the right choice.

Another leaf fell.

He saw his opportunity one day as she was exiting of the grocery store, her cart filled with discount items.

“Ash, it’s me,” Jake said.

Despite having imagined a thousand times in his head what he’d say given the opportunity, his tongue stuck to his cheeks. She made him feel like a child, warm and sweet, and utterly ridiculous.

She said nothing but tried to walk around him.

“Ash, please,” he said grabbing her arm. It was then that the button on her overcoat popped and he saw a distinctive shape, he had not thought he’d see one her. He released her in shock, as though she was diseased. “You’re pregnant?”

“Yes, why shouldn’t I be? Everyone knows.”

“With his?”

Ashley turned red, miraculously damming up her fury.

“Yes! His! Brett’s! I love him! Leave me alone, Jake. I don’t need or want any more of your bullshit. Quit acting like an asshole all the time. I don’t love you.”

“But he’s nothing. No job, no ambition. You’re working now and pregnant? I can offer you everything. I truly love you. I’m not using you.”

“I love him, not you. Leave me alone,” she said, before storming off into the parking lot.

Another leaf fell.

For the next few months, Jake did nothing but recede into his past and analyze every action he did or did not take, especially around Ashley.

Why it was that Ashley could not accept his love but would accept Brett’s? In every measurable aspect of success, he surpassed Brett. Brett’s extroversion had won the hearts of teacher and student alike in high school, but that had changed with his successive failures. He was depressed and never left his couch.

Jake had sacrificed everything to make sure the farm that Ash had always professed wanting to spend her life living on and raising her children on, thrived. He was a success, a exemplary human being.

Another leaf fell.

He sat there in his car, the news that she had given birth to twins and was happy as a lark burning him inside and out. Brett was there in the delivery room, holding her hand, the only time he had ever been of use to her.

He wanted to talk to someone, someone like Geoffry, who knew things. He couldn’t talk to Ernest or William, they were old and wise but worked for him. He hadn’t a soul in the world to confide in and had been on his own since he was sixteen. So he festered.

He would put a stop to it. That’s what he would do.

He had to. That was what he was going to do as soon as the whiskey was finished. He would fight Brett and win Ashley back. That’s what she wanted. As soon as the whiskey was finished, he would do it. He imagined it, the moment when she threw aside her life with Brett and join him, with her children, embracing a better life that he had prepared for them.

Another leaf fell.

His whole car was covered in maple leaves and he could no longer see through the windshield. The whiskey was finished but he did not move. He was thankful that no one could see him crying alone with an empty jar of spirits in his hand.





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2 Responses to “Maple Leaf Souls”

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    […] This is part three. Read the suite from the beginning. […]

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