He’d always figured winter for the beast that would finally claim him. So why did this autumn feel so much like a burial? Deep in the woods he trudged, his stride never before so short, his pace never before so slow. Leaves fluttered down from tree after tree. They felt to him like dirt atop a coffin.
“So old man January, with all your blizzards and your tumbling temperatures, you lose out to November’s fading beauty.”
Maples were happy to disrobe. Oaks reluctantly followed. The pines, to show they too were willing to play their part, shed a few needles. The trillium were long dead. Likewise the bellwort. A deer nibbled through the debris in futile search for fresh shoots.
It was early afternoon. But the sun was pale and there was still enough canopy to flood the ground with shadow. The hour and the light were at contretemps.
“Good evening,” a voice said.
He turned to see Miss November ambling toward him. Her hair was red – dyed surely. She was adorned in a brown and orange dress and she walked with a stoop. As she came up to him and reached for his arm, he could see her face was powdered white and her lips were the hue of her hair.
“Are you tired?” she asked.
It was no lie. His bones were feeling the hilly terrain he’d covered.
“Come with me,” she said.
It didn’t sound like an order. But there was no other option. The wind picked up and more and more leaves cascaded down. Someone in his condition would be easily buried by them.
Her cottage was not far. It blended so easily into the forest that he did not see it until they were at its door. It was tiny and the outside walls were painted in the colors of the autumn foliage. She ushered him inside and into the solitary chair that sat before the flickering fire.
“Such a task to keep the hearth aflame,” she said. “I’m not as young as I used to be.”
He was cold and the fire did help a little. Besides, he didn’t feel he had a right to complain.
“Lived a good life, have you?” she asked.
He didn’t respond. He expected he would have to answer for his years on earth, but not so soon, not while his weak heart pumped and his turgid blood still trickled its way to his extremities. He was alive after all. Miss November surely knew that. He’d have preferred a coffee to an interrogation.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I get ahead of myself. Would you like something to drink?”
She did bring the coffee he’d requested though it was lukewarm and strange tasting.
“I brew it from crushed acorns,” she explained. “And that’s possum milk and maple sugar. It’s late in the season. I must make do however I can. I’m not young any more you know. And nor are you.”
“So I won’t live long enough to be winter’s prey?”
She let out a loud crone cackle.
“Oh he would like to think that he’s the executioner but really, he’s nothing but an undertaker. Sure, he drops all that snow as it suits him but always too late. You’ve seen the leaves, I’m sure.” He nodded. “I’d match my falling beauties against his white stuff any time. And people appreciate my work. Who wants to die alone beneath some wide and white, all shape, no content, monotonous landscape? Nature, mankind – it’s all of a one. He doesn’t understand that. I don’t just blanket everything with no thought for the likes of the lovely round poplar crowns or the scaly ridges of white maple bark. He buries the connection between all living matter. I celebrate it. I swaddle you in leaves, in pine needles but also in yourself, myself, every self.”
She bent down, opened a cupboard, extracted some old parchment.
“I have your records here.”
“But I’m not dead yet.”
“Nor will you be. I thought you understood. You’ve spent your whole life in these woods haven’t you? Did you ever once get the feeling of being in a mausoleum?”
“Of course not.”
“Even with the twigs you snapped with your boots. Or the leaves you crunched. Or the fox feeding on the rabbit. Or crows and their carrion.”
“No. It’s the cycle of life.”
“So welcome to the cycle. You’re part of it. So you lose a little of your identity and, for a time, you start thinking like a juniper. Is that such a bad thing?”
“No, of course not.”
She opened up the parchment.
“But first we have these preliminaries.”
“I was anticipating being already dead for this bit. And, you know, I haven’t quite let go of what they taught me in Sunday school when I was a child. St Peter. Pearly Gates.” She cackled. “You mean there’s no St Peter?”
“Of course there is. And there’s Pearly Gates as well. They’re just not in your future.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You’re right about one thing. If you’re touching the hem of St Peter’s garment, then you’re definitely dead. In this world at least.”
“But I won’t get to see him?”
“No. That’s not how it works. There’s no come-one come-all afterlife out there with the door wide open, streamers hung, balloons filled, all your favorite foods laid on, awaiting your arrival. The afterlife is your own doing. It’s something you create yourself. Christians go through life believing and consequently they make for themselves a Holy Trinity and heaven. It’s like a retirement plan. Every service, every prayer, they put a little something away. That’s what religions do. Hindus get a bunch of Gods. Muslims, just Allah. With nothing but the tools of their subconscious, their soul if you like, they build. Atheists make nothing along the way. So they expect eternal nothingness and they’re not surprised when it all goes blank. And you, in your own way, you’ve taken a different route. Nature’s been your god. And you’re a little bit Cemmonus, some Nantosuelta, a dash of Artemis, a little Gaia. You’ve helped maintain all that you see around you. You’ve done your bit to keep me in business. Actually, I am your business.”
Head bent into the parchment, she began to read from it.
“We have to do this now because, if we wait, you’ll have no consciousness of being you. And then I’d just be talking to myself. So let’s get started. Don’t worry. There’s not a lot here. It will be quick. You were born eighty three years ago. You were raised in the city but, as you grew, you found your true calling in the woods. You went on boy scout camps. You joined hiking clubs. You became a forest ranger and married a woman with a similar affinity for the wild. It got so you were uncomfortable in the presence of crowds, of buildings, of just about anything man-made. Except for the children of course. Your wife died twenty years ago. You were good to her all those years you were together. Two of your three offspring followed you into the National Park Service. A third though went to law school. She married a Jewish man and converted to his religion. She already sketching out the blueprints for her particular world to come. You were never a great man just a good one. You had your faults, your weaknesses. But you treated your family justly and your surroundings with care. You never saw yourself as master of all you surveyed, merely its partner. Now, a phase of that partnership is coming to an end.”
He nodded his head.
“Yes, I understand that. I’m an old man. My body is weak. My time is short. Tell me, Miss November, will I…will I ever see my wife again.”
“You’ve been seeing her every day. You will always see her.”
She gently took his arm and helped him up from the chair. He couldn’t remember ever feeling as weak as he did at the moment. His head spun from the effort of rising and he would have toppled onto the cottage floor but for her support. She opened the door and they stood together on the step.
“So what now?” he asked. “Do I find a spot to lie down in where the leaves will fall on top of me and the ground absorb my body?”
“Exactly. Isn’t that what you always wished?”
“Yes but it’s not as easy as that. As much as he might want it, a man cannot totally break from the outside world. I’ve had to eat. I’ve read books, listened to music. Someone else built my house. I even had electricity and modern plumbing installed. And I’ve been sick. My heart has let me down more than once. And the cancer of course. It’s been eating away at me for years. There were times I thought there’d be nothing left of me to bury.”
“Oh there’s enough.”
He stumbled off the step and away from the cottage. She followed him at a short distance. He was like a bear scouring out places for a suitable den. He wanted to rest his tree against a tree trunk, that he knew. And ideal would be a flat, grassy space between big roots where his body could get comfortable.
He suddenly stopped and turned toward her.
“I’m not afraid of dying. And I can’t say I’m sorry that it’s about to happen. But I only wish my children were here to say goodbye.”
“But they are.”
He looked around.
“I don’t see them.”
“Of course not. Your eyes are closed. But they’re here. Surely, you can feel them.”
He was puzzled. His eyes were wide open. What did she mean?
“They’re at your bedside. You’re breathing your last. One clutches your hand. The other two are kneeling as if in prayer. But it’s more like heartfelt thanks. There’s so many who wish they could be here to pay their respects. Your wife, of course. And the bear cub whose life you saved, the crow whose wing you wrapped so it could repair – they send their regrets. They’re something other now.”
His legs were so weak, they could barely hold him up. He staggered drunkenly. Miss November once more grabbed his arm, turned him, directed his frail body to a nearby tree trunk whose soft grey bark would make the perfect pillow and whose splayed roots offered room enough for an old man.
From sheer will, he summoned enough strength for those final few steps, before falling into his bed in the roots of that mighty oak.
At that same moment, one child stretched the sheet up over his head. A second whispered, “Farewell, old man.” The third looked once more at the scrap of paper in his hand. It was a map of the forest, with an X somewhere in the middle, and an instruction, “Bury me here.”
[John Grey is an Australian born writer, works as financial systems analyst. He has been published in Weird Tales, Tales of the Talisman, Futurdaze and the horror anthology, What Fears Become with work upcoming in Potomac Review, Hurricane Review, and Osiris.]