Originally published on Dec. 5, 1994.
Autumn is rich in mingled images.
Leaves driven by an evening wind take to the street together — rushing columns of them, swirling mobs, a dry brown confusion flying on ahead, hesitating, then turning furiously back upon itself.
It was an autumn night in Cairo 24 years ago, the wind blowing in sharp from the desert. A man ran through the street outside the hotel, rending his garments. Then another. Then 500, flung like brown leaves on a gale of despair. Then the millions running, while loudspeakers above the market stalls cried news of the leader’s passing.
For luck, there’s no better thing to carry than a buckeye. It fits the pocket, is smooth to the touch, becomes shinier when rubbed for wishes. They can be found a short walk from our house, several blocks down the hill where a creek bends alongside the road beside a golf course.
The horse chestnuts that shaded our Paris street, the Route de la Reine, were of the same family, the genus Aesculus. In autumn their leaves turned a rich, yellowish-copper. On a Sunday afternoon we would walk up through the Bois de Boulogne to the Longchamps track, through air as fresh as wine, to put a few francs on horses whose names we liked. And after they ran last we’d walk back, picking up the fat brown nuts to rub in our pockets while we remembered home.
The first clouding of cataracts has begun to show in the eyes of the bird dog, Rufus. It’s nothing to be concerned about yet, and may never be. He still sees well enough, Dan, the veterinarian, says. And, anyway, it’s his nose he mostly depends on to tell him about the world.
In his last year, his 14th, the old beagle, Slats, slipped through a door as guests were leaving. Frail and nearly blind, he was gone several days. We cruised the whole quarter of the city, dreading to find him at a curb. But good people discovered him in the stairwell of a business 60 blocks away, fed him, called the number on his collar. Afterward, he slept on his rug in the bedroom again, his legs twitching, giving little yelps as he dreamed of being young, in open country.
Each late afternoon the crows come back to the city from the fields where they’ve gone to feed. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of them. Through the latticework of leafless branches, you see them rowing stately across the deep of the sky, crying out to one another — or anyone who’ll listen — their coarse celebration of another day completed.
In December twilights the pond was mirror still. Rolling away on every side was the woodland, and it was wilder then. I’d begun a half-year of living with silence. Mornings I wrote. Afternoons I walked. At day’s end, I would go down the curving lane to the pond and sit on the dock, watching the sky turn saffron behind the oaks. Often, just before the light went out, a family of crows would come low over the trees, trailing their reflections across the water. They’d cry out as they spied me there, and I’d cry back. Many days it was my only conversation.
“I remember something about men on the moon,” my daughter said the other day. “And something about leaves.”
“You can’t,” I told her. “You were only 2.”
“I do though. It isn’t clear. But there was something.”
That afternoon he had raked up leaves for them to jump in, saying to be careful, because there might be sticks in the pile. That night he’d held her in the bend of one arm, pointing to the moon with the other, telling her — his own pale eyes bright with astonishment — that men were walking there. That was the last night of my father’s life.
More than 20 years ago, that’s been. But in the richness of autumn it had come back. So there is immortality, after all.