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The Leaves Dead Are Driven

In the late afternoon of August 18th, 20—, as he reclined comfortably on his upstairs bed, Wentworth Thomas—Dr. Thomas to students at his university, Wen to his colleagues and friends, Wennie to no one but his wife Marguerite, who really should have been home by now—set on the nightstand the book he had been perusing, rubbed his eyes, replaced the glasses he had removed when he lay down (few of life’s miracles matched his no longer needing glasses to read, as long as he held the book reasonably close), and, glancing upward, saw not one, but two spiders hanging from the ceiling, their threads invisible, appearing to float freely in the late summer air. Two at once was unusual, but not unheard of. Since arriving in Vermont after completing his graduate studies to begin what he thought would be his first but what was now, over three decades later, certainly his only job, and definitely since acquiring this venerable New England cape some two years after their arrival (and such a relief it had been, too, after the noisome, student-ridden duplex they had endured in those early years), he and Marguerite had accepted the ubiquity of spiders in old houses and learned to tell the difference between the harmless and the suspicious: the latter stunningly exampled by the plump, dark, sharp-legged creature dependent outside the window of the downstairs bathroom for the past week, the former defined by the small wispy creatures floating just beyond the heirloom cedar chest that sat at the foot of the bed. Even the suspicious ones generally moved slowly, and all were much easier to deal with than the cockroaches that, in his and Marguerite’s native south, plagued even the most immaculate of homes.

So he regarded the spiders with equanimity. He let his gaze wander to the ceiling itself; there appeared to be the beginnings of a web, but then, it might just have been the afternoon sun, angling in through the gabled window to his left, highlighting a patch of dust. (He needed to break out the vacuum cleaner, but it was such a bother hauling it up the stairs.)  The spiders remained motionless. They were not going anywhere, and if they did, they would land on the floor and not on him. Content, he removed his glasses, set them on the pillow beside him that retained the impress of Marguerite’s head, and retrieved his book—And Gladly Teach by Bliss Perry (1934), a late-life memoir by a minor man of letters who had also served as the editor of the Atlantic Monthly and was, therefore, a relevant figure in Thomas’s dissertation on the role of that magazine in 19th and early 20th century American literature. He had found the book at an estate sale decades ago and had not looked at it since completing his dissertation, or at any other volume associated with the never-published document that had occupied five years of his mortal life.  He didn’t know why he had pulled it off the shelf—perhaps the memory that Perry, a professor at Princeton and then Harvard, had summered regularly in Vermont. He had always meant to go back and see if the volume spoke to him differently now that he himself lived an hour and a half from Perry’s summer home.

As Thomas returned to the author’s memories of Woodrow Wilson, there was a knock on the downstairs front door. He did not move to answer it, and the knock came again. By the third knock, he realized that Marguerite would not be answering the door because she had not yet returned from wherever she had gotten off to. The default of his world was that she was there; sometimes it took an outside intervention—an unexpected and, he was forced to admit, unwelcome knock on the front door—to remind him when she was not. With a sigh, he put the book down, put on his glasses, and went downstairs, absently noting the accumulated grime on the steps, and how many of the runners needed replacing.

He opened the front door to find a young man, sporting a rather severe haircut that seemed at odds with his long shorts and t-shirt. Then again, Thomas had seen enough students, both male and female, with exotically buzzed hair—yet another contrast to his own youth, whose two main hairstyles were long and longer, a propensity he had indulged well into middle age, until Marguerite finally suggested he was looking perhaps a bit too much like a roadie for the Grateful Dead—to know that their hair, like their clothes, lacked both rhyme and reason, all bets off. Less characteristically, the t-shirt bore no artwork or message, and rather than the flip-flops employed by most self-respecting undergraduates, like the shorts, in all kinds of weather, artfully dodging patches of ice in their all-but-bare feet (Marguerite: “They think they’re invulnerable, don’t they? They’re just going to live forever.”), he wore substantial socks with equally substantial tennis shoes. A backpack was barely visible above his narrow shoulders. Behind him a bicycle lay on the ground.

Before Thomas could say out loud how can I help you while grumbling silently what do you want, why are you disturbing me, the young man introduced himself as Cody Manchester, representing VFA, Vermonters for Accountability, canvassing the neighborhoods of the state to inform its undoubtedly concerned citizens of the organization’s unceasing pursuit of environmental justice, social justice, justice all around. Thomas’ first impulse was to shut the door and go back to his book, but he recognized this young man—not Cody Manchester and his absurd haircut specifically, but The VFA Canvasser, others of whom had knocked on his door before. Marguerite always invited them in and chatted amiably, concluding the visit by writing the young idealist a check, always making it clear—wise woman, in this as in so many other ways—that it was a single donation and not the first installment of regular payments.

Cody Manchester ended his introduction and waited expectantly in the doorway. With a sigh, Thomas invited him in.

The ensuing conversation, seated in front of the wood stove that would not come to life again until late September—unless the weather turned early, always a possibility—began pleasantly enough. Young Manchester enthused, in a pleasant voice whose accent betrayed no particular origin, about the good works of VFA, in particular the sweeping environmental justice bill recently passed by the progressive state legislature and signed into law, albeit reluctantly, by the mildly conservative, deeply pragmatic, and widely popular governor (the last of the old-fashioned New England Republicans, whose main mission in life was to avoid spending any money on anything for any reason). Millions for weatherization; millions more to shift low-income residents to electric alternatives, away from the historic reliance on heating oil (another adjustment from the South, where the shadow of the Tennessee Valley Authority loomed large and electric home heat was more common than not), still more millions for upgrading public buildings. No more mercury-laden fluorescent light bulbs; farewell to the plastic shopping bag. Universal composting! Thomas made polite sounds of acknowledgement, even asked an occasional question designed not to spark debate—the last thing he wanted, surely—but to signal his attention.

As the young man began enumerating the disproportionate effects of climate change on marginalized populations, the phone rang. Not ungrateful for this pause in his education, Thomas arose, stiffly, wondering if his joints were as audible to his young visitor as they were to him. He fumbled awkwardly through every pocket of his clothes before he realized the phone lay on the side table by his chair. He retrieved it, excused himself, and went in the kitchen to take the call.

It was their daughter Miriam, who lived in New Mexico but had been visiting in Vermont for the last two weeks. The in-law apartment on the far side of the house had fallen into such disrepair, and Thomas had fallen into such paralysis at the amount of work that needed to be done, that Miriam had, unprompted, as wise as her mother, set up in a nearby Air B&B. Perhaps that was where Marguerite was.

Thomas had always been a good father, he believed, and loved his daughter to the point of agony. But the conversation quickly became unpleasant—why could she not take him at his word that he was just fine, what business was it of hers that there was a stranger in the house—and ended abruptly. He returned, agitated, to his seat by the extinguished stove, and when Mr. Manchester resumed his disquisition, moving obviously towards a request for a donation, Thomas’ responses grew curt, then aggressive, interrogating the suddenly confused young man as he would a student in a thesis defense, at one point even suggesting the viability of nuclear power, a debatable proposition which accomplished its task of flustering this naïve interloper, this annoying boy, although it did nothing to calm Thomas, who with one hand tapped the side table nervously as with the other he dug his nails deeper and deeper into the arm of the chair. Why was Marguerite not here to deal with this?

Finally Cody Manchester departed, and Thomas regained some equanimity by attending to a household task he had meant to do for the longest time: removing the rug that lay before his chair, worn beyond care and stained in the bargain, the swirling pattern that Thomas had never understood or appreciated all but erased. He would consult with Marguerite as to what should replace it. He took it down to the basement, still unfinished after all these years, whose steps creaked in both the journey and the return, and where the spiders had thoroughly established their kingdom. When he returned to the living room he carefully checked his clothing, face, and scalp for cobwebs.

He had intended to go back upstairs and resume reading but became distracted by the late-afternoon light pouring through the large double window by the front door. The light at this time of day was never less than remarkable, unlike any other place he had ever lived. It wrapped the enormous maple tree in the front yard—the one tree they had always been determined to keep even as they pruned and cut and tended as best they could all the other growing things that, left unchecked, would eventually consume their property—in an amber haze, the leaves rippling in the wind that had grown stronger, audible through the partially open window. Notwithstanding his indifference to the incessant calls for communal action that bombarded his quiet life, there was no denying the increasingly unstable weather. More wind, humidity that felt like his southern childhood, an absence of extreme cold, temperature swings of forty degrees in a day. But not this day in August. Today the breeze was properly gentle, and the light expectedly grand.

He felt better standing up, his joints eased, his muscles looser. Perhaps he would go for a walk. A brief jaunt to clear his head. If Marguerite returned before he did, she would not have to wait long until he got back.

When Thomas exited his house, locking the door carefully behind him, putting his keys in his right trouser pocket and tapping the pocket for reassurance that his right pocket was in fact where his keys were, he saw that his visitor’s bicycle still lay in the front yard, encroaching on the driveway. Confusion (didn’t the young man need his bike to make his rounds?) gave way to rationalization (maybe he was canvassing the rest of the neighborhood on foot) and then to annoyance (typical youthful disregard for other peoples’ property). He started to move it out of the way of his car but then remembered he was walking, not driving, so he left the bike where it lay and made his way down the street, past the handful of houses that, although of various designs and ages—their little village was the opposite of a planned community—nonetheless managed to look more or less the same as his and Marguerite’s cape. Behind him the street curved past their home and headed up into the hills, where the houses quickly yielded to scattered trailers and modest seasonal rentals, the trees grew even thicker, and the road turned to dirt. Before him the street intersected with Route 22, two lanes of pavement that, in Vermont, passed for a main road. He turned right and kept walking.

Not long after they bought their house, a friend Marguerite had made at a theater event in Montpelier (by and large, it was she who acquired their friends, which suited him perfectly well) told them over a very pleasant dinner that, many years ago, there had been an item on their village’s town meeting agenda proposing to limit the number of unregistered vehicles that could be kept in one’s yard. The measure was soundly defeated, even as the town had, years before that, rejected a proposal to complete paving on the road that ran west of Route 22, away from Thomas’ neighborhood, over the mountain to the ski resorts on the other side. There was too much traffic driving too fast as it was, the townspeople ruled. Apparently they didn’t care how many cars accumulated as long as they were stationary.

The legacy of the town’s decision ran for half a mile along the main road: one or two decently maintained dwellings but mostly a string of spectacularly dilapidated houses, several displaying multiple vehicles that were clearly going nowhere, and at least one of which was obviously abandoned. No zoning laws here to complicate life. The contrast with the more venerable homes (more privileged, as his younger colleagues would undoubtedly correct him) along his own street was sharp enough, but he had never ceased to marvel at the fact that, to the right heading north, overlapping with the last of these mini-junkyards was a summer riding and tennis camp for children and early teens, modest in appearance but, as Miriam had discovered the one time she investigated the place as a summer activity for her own daughter, jaw-droppingly expensive. Word was that the children of U.S. Presidents had ridden there, and captains of industry sent their offspring to improve their backhands. All that was visible from the road were the courts and paddocks and a large playing field, but the hills were filled with the rest of the camp and its prosperous campers, a number of whom were now on display, enthusiastically serving their tennis balls, safely helmeted while trotting their horses in careful circles.

Thomas had instinctively moved to the left-hand side of the road, strolling beside the battered houses and their hopeless cars. Casting his lot with labor as opposed to management? On some level, perhaps, but more likely just to put some distance between himself and the happy campers, the cheerful instructors, the air of contentment that was, for him, fingernails down a blackboard. So much for clearing his head.

After the camp the houses were more unevenly distributed but regained some of the cultivated rusticity that had no doubt led the campers to Vermont, and their parents to open their checkbooks. These houses were interrupted at one point by a small lot with a small building, a display model of a so-called “tiny house,” a freestanding single-room dwelling with a solar panel in back that was half again as big as the house. He thought this was an ongoing project maintained by engineering students at his university, but he wasn’t sure. The tiny house abutted a graveyard that was, by New England standards, neither especially large nor especially old, but large enough to extend back from the road beyond the line of sight and old enough to have a few scattered headstones that appeared on the verge of collapse. Shacks, summer camps, large elegant homes, small technological innovations, elderly graveyards. Chaos? Charm? Thomas could never quite decide. He had a vague memory of some recent incident at the graveyard, something involving local teenagers; he thought it was tied in some odd fashion to the tiny house, but he wasn’t sure. He had an even vaguer notion that there was something else he was supposed to know about the graveyard, but he wasn’t sure about that, either. He would try to remember to ask Marguerite when she got home.

Normally the graveyard was his turnaround when he went for a walk—he had come well over a mile from his house, and he was tired, perhaps more tired than usual. Dealing with the young man’s unwelcome visit had him starting from weariness. But instead of turning back, he kept going for another half mile until he got to Pushcart Lane, a dirt road off to the left, one of the many side roads he and Marguerite had explored in their first years here but had largely forgotten and ignored ever since. And then he did something he had never done before on foot: he turned onto Pushcart Lane and kept walking.

From those early explorations, Thomas thought that there were more houses back here somewhere—no matter how primeval the forest, how almost comically remote the landscape, as long as you were on a road, you seldom got that far from a house, a cabin, a trailer. But as he made his way down this particular road, there was nothing but trees.

Then to his left, barely discernible behind the trees still heavy with leaves, a house, clearly abandoned, glassless windows set in rotting wood. In recent times Vermont real estate had lost its mind as people for whom remote meant, not isolation, but freedom from the office, bought questionable properties sight unseen for absurdly inflated prices as they fled the cities for the bucolic safety, however imperfectly imagined, of northern New England. He smiled as he imagined a flatlander (it had not taken long after moving to the mountains to acquire both slang and attitude) making such a purchase and arriving to find a dwelling such as this. He hoped the realtor made a healthy commission and spent it all on something unnecessary.

The road curved to the right, and as he followed it he came upon something else he more or less knew was there but had more or less forgotten: another facility for horses, but not poshly declasse like the camp back on the main road. Although in better shape than the house he had just passed, this was equally abandoned. Two small red-frame buildings, a couple of benches scattered in the untended yard, a small, empty corral. Some almost life-sized but willfully cartoonish images of a horse and a cow leaning against a split-rail fence with several rails missing. And just beyond the corral, what looked like a freight container, on the side of which was the image of a shield bearing the letters “I A” and the legend, THE SHIELD OF QUALITY AND VALUE, all above the more prosaic acknowledgement, Veterinary and Agricultural Supplies. The container rested in the grass and brush at an odd angle, as if a whirlwind had plopped it down randomly and then just as randomly moved on.

Thomas paused to take it in, struggled to make sense of what he saw. Then his body reminded him in no uncertain terms how far he had walked, and how tired he was. He walked over to the fence, noted a pile of what he took to be equestrian equipment near one of the red buildings—bridles, stirrups, a saddle that, in the hands of his imagined gullible urban escapees, would no doubt be restored and proudly displayed by someone who had never been within a good hard yard of a horse—and leaned against the fence, monitoring himself for chest pains, shortness of breath. He had neither, but he was so tired. Without a further thought he sat on the ground, leaned against the rickety fence, and closed his eyes.

Before what seemed like a single moment had passed he heard a percussive sound on the ground behind him, accompanied by a snort, then another. He opened his eyes, pushed himself up, and turned around to behold a pair of yellow horses—palominos? He knew nothing of these things—in the corral that had been empty just moments before. Not yellow, but golden, with eyes that seemed absent of light. Nonetheless the horses stared at him. He felt it. He closed his eyes again and still felt it. He heard more thumping at the ground beneath his feet; when he opened his eyes again the horses had turned and were moving in perfect unison toward the far end of the corral, where they turned, immaculately, as one, walked back towards him, and stood, their vacant eyes staring. He did not understand, but he was not afraid. What was the poem he had taught so many times? There was nothing that was not there, and what was there were these two creatures forming one perfect thing that stood calmly before him, and himself, now risen, sequestered in their gaze.

Then they turned and walked away. He followed their progress without blinking until he realized they were on the other side of the corral. There was no gate and they had not jumped. They were simply on the other side, no longer in unison but moving with increasing speed into the dense, untenanted woods.

He looked at the empty corral, the abandoned objects that surrounded it. The shield of quality and value. Then he turned and retraced his steps back to the main road. Disoriented by his—experience?—he was even more careful than usual, when he reached Route 22, to look right, then left, then right again, but the road was empty in both directions. As he walked back to his home, a cold breeze struck. He felt the chill and longed for a jacket.

When Thomas came to the graveyard he turned and went in. The handful of overturned markers still lay haphazardly; the ones that stood, still stood. He wandered frantically among the stones, stopping at one, then another: not, as he normally did in graveyards, pausing to note the dates and speculating as to what sudden catastrophe lay behind the short lives, and what more prolonged suffering lay behind the rest. He did not know what he was looking for. When he reached the end of the lot he looked up and regarded the wall of trees that lay behind the graveyard, trees that had no leaves. He turned and went back to the road.

At the camp, the riders were gone, the players retreated. The unpopulated tennis courts appeared covered with trash. A closer look revealed that the courts were covered with leaves, as if the trees behind the graveyard had propelled autumn a quarter mile south. The various houses on the other side of the road were as they had been except for one whose roof had caved in, the house and the small barn beside it both charred by an obvious fire. Everything was quiet. Even so small a village as his maintained some minor background noise: cars sailing by, always too fast; children indiscriminately roaring around their yards; the bell-punctuated hiss as passing tourists stopped at the village store and checked the tire pressure on their rented minivans. But the only sound as Thomas made his way home was a low hum issuing at regular intervals from the tiny house, a sonic hammer and nail.

Thomas turned toward his house. As he approached, he was unsurprised to discover that the maple tree stood bare in the garden. A bicycle lay in the yard. Where had that come from? The house itself was covered with—snow?

No: cobwebs. The entire house was draped as if with gauze, with lace, with every thin colorless thing, covering the roof, obscuring the windows, hanging down the outside walls, barricading the front door.

When Thomas reached the entrance to his home he took his keys out of his pocket, but he saw through the cobwebs that the door stood ajar. He pushed against the filament, but it would not yield. He used his keys to slash an opening and stepped inside.

What covered the outside of the house filled its inside. The cobwebs netted the walls and the floors and the furniture. Oddly, there was no dust, as if the house had been granted a sorely-needed cleaning before the webbing began.

He walked across the living room and looked out the window at the unfenced yard that rose and, he had always thought, tapered quite elegantly into a small hill. The bare branches of the leafless trees moved in the wind that steadily increased. One afternoon the previous autumn, as he and Marguerite sat in the garden, the maple tree not yet completely bare but the ground well-carpeted with its leaves, she had remembered Shelley’s poem. If winter comes, can spring be far behind? He had smiled and made a joke he hoped was affectionate—old literary couple, we—but silently he was overwhelmed with the core knowledge that the leaves were dead, and the maple tree would die, and so, sooner or later, would they. In his campus office the next day, paused between classes and unencumbered with student appointments, he wrote:

Tomorrow it will be cold.
If the wind shakes
The birches behind our house

Their branches may bend, their leaves
May flutter like an emergent swirl of starlings.

The October sun may arrive at an angle
Even more elegant, radiant.
But from our garden the trees will look

Even farther away. We will feel the wind
Instead of watching it.
The grass will not need mowing.

The bird paused on our fence
Will vanish behind our roof

Our house our home
Beneath the shaking, bending birches
That one day must come down.

Now, instinctively, he moved toward the stairs, once again using his keys to cut through the webbing. He climbed the stairs that no longer creaked, cut through the webbing that curtained the bedroom doorway, entered, and lay on the bed that was blanketed with cobwebs, as was he.

Where two spiders had hung from the ceiling there was now one, grown to the size of the cedar chest that remained at the foot of the bed. He lay quietly, expectantly, as the giant spider made its inevitable way towards him. It perched on his upper chest. With two of its legs, it brushed aside the webs that covered his face; with two more, it pried open his mouth. It opened its own mouth—a mouth that, in a final oddity, lacked any protuberances that looked as if they could bite—and ejected the same colorless filament that had buried his world. The cobweb filled his mouth and worked its way down his throat into his lungs. Just before Thomas stopped breathing, he remembered where Marguerite was, and what had happened in the cemetery, and what lay beneath him in the basement, wrapped in the worn-out rug.

About the Author

F. Brett Cox is the author of The End of All Our Exploring: Stories (Fairwood Press, 2018) and Roger Zelazny (U. of Illinois Press, 2021). A native of North Carolina, Brett is Dana Professor of English at Norwich University and lives in Vermont with his wife, playwright Jeanne Beckwith.