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THE LEAVES FALL IN SPRINGTIME
by Robert Gray
I am here only as an observer, watching the world through vicarious eyes. --Anonymous
as it begins to dip. It’s nearing five in the evening and on the cusp between hot and less hot. This is winter in New York City, and I’ve come to enjoy this scrap of time. The progression has been slow, not the all-consuming apocalypse suggested. For me, it was four springs ago, standing in my yard with a rake, when I realized something was wrong. My house was framed with spruces and oak. In my backyard, a thin creek split a new housing development that was being built. The rake felt heavy and odd in my hands, many leaves unfinished, yet dying. Every house that formed the circle of my cul-de-sac had lifeless trees. I told myself that perhaps because of the construction, some vital roots were cut, which somehow linked the trees in my yard to my neighbors. It took months to realize the truth. The world was dying. During the following fall, the news defined the word atrocity, with bubbly newscasters and big words like "oxygen deprivation." Villages in southern Africa, more affected by "oxygen deprivation" than other continents, began slaughtering animals. I remember seeing the pictures of elephants piled in shallow red pools, and a video of a lioness, who, after protecting her babies by hiding them under brush and mud, fought more than twenty men armed with rifles. She fought until there was nothing left of her but rags. The camera cut away leaving the unsettling feeling that the cubs had been spotted. It seemed the villagers went mad; perhaps the effects of what scientists and psychiatrists said can happen when there is not enough oxygen provided to the brain. These slaughters spread worldwide, and experts were televised offering conflicting viewpoints on how oxygen can affect the brain, each with a welldesigned presentation. Ideas trickled down onto wildlife associations. The most popular allowed hunting to run without permits, and a list of animals-"nonessential to the existence of humankind," as I remember the newscaster saying--was offered to the sport. This kept the slaughter somehow civilized. The incidents were barely mentioned. It was happening in our own country, but no one so much as glanced into that abyss. I seldom see even a bird anymore. Sprays of light filter through naked tree limbs, resembling scars. It reminds me that a boil is spreading across the world, for everything reminds me of this necrotic earth. Not many people are outside; less appear as the days pass. Buildings pump artificial oxygen, and people herd to the fresh, cool air.
The impenitent sun cuts a seething purple and red wound into the sky
THE LEAVES FALL IN SPRINGTIME
It's a commodity now, the air, packaged and sold. For $5.95 a gallon, you can stay alive. Now there's a slogan. Some cars pass because of rush hour but traffic is light. It is recommended that people stay inside unless necessary. I should comply, but there have been no laws to abide or break, at least not yet, so I choose my own will. People, however, get offended and sometimes violent; it is, after all, their air I am stealing. A single breath is a burden, yet another reminder that oxygen is a privilege, not a right. But I revel in it. I'm not sadistic or suicidal; I am becoming a nomad. Like the rest of the world's inhabitants, I am losing my home. For others that dare the elements, it's becoming ever common to wear personal oxygen tanks, and, as I sit on this bench, I see a woman with a small tank on her back, a fashionable statement that says, I'm rich, good looking, and I carry my own air. Across the street, a man strides with impatient indignation. A well cut suit clings to his trim body. A briefcase dangles from his fist. When he passes, I see a small tank on his back, a transparent tube connected to his mouth. He looks at me, and I hold my stare. His face puckers as he taps his tube, signifying I too should be wearing an oxygen pack. I turn away disinterested. The suited man continues with his life, as if normal. It perplexes me. A man carrying a folding chair passes. I am inspired and delighted that he is not wearing an oxygen tank. He seems pleasant enough, smiling as he walks by me, though a deeper look into his eyes reveals a weathered hardness that frightens me a bit. I wave and offer him a pleasant evening, but that is only a mechanical response I cannot seem to relieve myself of. The man moves under the shade of a once grand willow tree, now a grayish mesh of black veins spiked into the ground, and stands on his chair and looks around, finding no one else's attention except mine. He looks directly at me. He yells, not at me, but in my direction. "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have sent us a message from God's own mouth. The white horseman tells us that God has given us the opportunity for greatness, but we have banished him, so therefore we must be banished. FOR WE ALL ARE WICKED." The preacher man pauses and looks at me. I nudge my chin for him to continue his harangue, though his words do not inspire me. I never attended church in my adult life, but I've been to enough weddings and funerals to know that he was not preaching with the assurance of a studied man of God. People begin to gather; an audience is forming. They point and laugh to each other. A woman snickers and whispers to a man standing next to her. They each offer a middle finger, unbeknownst to the chair-bound preacher man. "The red horseman came next, and with his blood-stained sword, he told us all to kill. Kill the animals. Kill everyone. Kill until there is nothing left to kill. Take everything from this earth and give back nothing." "And then the black horseman sits atop His Mountain, watching the world die. He holds tanks of oxygen, and says, 'How much will you pay?' And
people are lined for miles. And dead bodies scatter the mountainscape, those too weak to endure His Mountain. And the black horseman laughs and points to the dead as he turns people away." More people gather, sixteen in all. It is now something of a spectacle, but the crowd is no longer mocking him. They stand in silence, arms folded and brows furrowed. I hear the hissing of oxygen tanks as deep breaths are inhaled. I take steps away in an attempt to disengage myself. The crowd hasn’t seen me, and I am relieved. I cannot tell if the preacher man can see the crowd's anger, but my senses tell me that’s exactly where he's aiming. He looks over the crowd and smiles, not in mockery, but in understanding. He sees something I cannot, yet I feel something I cannot express, perhaps they are one in the same. The preacher man raises a plump finger in the air and continues. "Behold the pale horse. On that horse sits Death, and all of Hell follows in HIS Wake." His finger bounces upon each head in the crowd. "The pale horseman sends you all a message: YOU will ALL die in fear and in hate." A bellow of curses is returned, but the preacher man does not back down. He continues until the din drowns his voice. He looks at me and smiles and opens his arms to embrace the crowd. I see zombies, lifeless relicts that advance toward the preacher man, and I feel weightless. I am stuck to the ground like a balloon tied to a chair. From the crowd, a policeman emerges and relief gives me weight. The officer moves forward as if to block the crowd from the preacher man, and, for a moment, I see the entire human race in this officer. Maybe the world does still have a chance at life. The officer turns from the crowd to the preacher man, who still has his arms spread, only more relaxed. Their conversation begins at a level I cannot hear, but all at once the crowd laughs and points and hums on their oxygen. The preacher man steps down from his folding chair, gently folds the chair up, and turns away from the crowd and towards me. I pity this man, for his words were admirable despite the lackluster delivery. I guess it was not packaged well enough to be believable. I give him a smile that is meant to reassure the preacher man, but my smile quivers and slopes and never reaches a crescent. I did not hate this person, and I imagine a part of him is like me, but there was no comfort in his situation, and I could not allow myself to promote his failure. His eyes hold mine, and I see a silvery flash in the blackest parts, and then he turns back to the crowd, unfolds his chair and mounts it in one fluid motion. The officer pulls a baton and smacks it in his open palm. He does not advance. Perhaps he is also curious of what the preacher man will say next, an idea that transcends the uniform, a job, and settles somewhere in the human condition. "And then came the Fifth Horseman, the white horse that carries our savior. He comes to offer rebirth, but weeps at the atrocity of man. He raises his hands to God and tells his Father, 'I am not of this world anymore. Let their fate be their own.'"
THE LEAVES FALL IN SPRINGTIME
The rapacious crowd howls insults and throws out gestures, and the preacher dips his head in prayer. Someone moves forward and kicks out his chair, and the preacher man hits the ground, sending a cloud of orange dust in the air. He is on his hands and knees now, trying to regain himself, and the police officer moves forward. The preacher man reaches for the officer, not as a threat, as a plea for help. The officer reaches out, but two other men, in such a quick moment, knock the officer down and take his baton. The officer scrambles but is not quick enough to restrain the baton's essence. The preacher man is hit hard in the lower back, which levels him flat. The baton strikes again ... and again, working its way to the back of the preacher man’s head. I'm not sure if I can hear his skull crunch or if the image simply creates vibrations in my ears. Either way, I shiver and watch, sickened. My body skids with each muddy whack. The crowd surrounds the preacher man, and I believe the officer is trapped, too. I should go indoors; I can't draw a breath. The air contains a copper taste that fills me with a sense of flying and a strong urge to vomit. My steps are quick. I don't want to be noticed by the crowd. Thankfully, they still do not notice me. Once the park is a blurry shadow, I turn to see the crowd, still circling their prey. From this distance there is nothing to fear. I believe the men are dead, and heat runs through my arms as I remember the lioness. Has reason become so transfigured that preachers and police officers have become enemies? I do not want to live in this world anymore. It has become a gutter, void of any aesthetic value. There is no shine, no moment that fills me with hope. This is insanity, a headstrong leap into the dark ages, the biblical end of all things, yet people have decided to create invisible circles that can only be entered with declarations of conformity. All's I want to do is to sit outside and enjoy the days as a human being, perhaps touch a leaf and not have it crumble to dust or see a bird not served but soaring. I can only hope that one day life will become life again.