"Wake up," yelled Lucy.
"Quiet down out there," moaned Lief. "I'm safe and warm right where I am."
"Wake up," yelled Larry. "It's time to come out."
"Maybe if I stay silent," thought Lief, "they will go away and bother someone else."
Lief noiselessly went back to surveying his comfortable abode. The pipes bringing nourishment were operating just as expected, as were the pipes taking his wastes away. Inspecting the walls, everything was in order. Lief felt protected.
"There is this one line of discoloration," he thought. "Unusual, but I'm sure it's nothing."
Lief couldn't resist pushing against it ever so slightly, hoping perhaps to shove it deeper into the wall so that it would return to the same subtle lime green as the rest of the wall.
Far more suddenly than anything ever happened in his world, a line formed in the middle of the discoloration. The line shot out in both directions and started to separate. Terrifying rays of light blazed from the separation and flooded into Lief's snug vault.
"Help me," screamed Lief. "Something is invading my home. I can't stop it."
"Relax," said Larry. "It's just the sun."
"I don't like the sun," moaned Lief. "Make it go away."
"Everybody look," twittered Lucy as she fluttered about. "Lief's bud is opening and he's coming out."
The rest of the leaves turned ever so slightly toward Lief, some rustling against each other. Lief heard muffled welcomes from far away, much further than he ever imagined that the world extended.
"They've got a late bloomer," said a leaf on a branch below. "Gonna be that much harder to find some sun."
"Stop your grousing," said Lucy, "and give our newcomer some cheer. There's plenty of sun for everyone."
After he got used to the glare, Lief did grow to like the feel of the sun. The warmth made him want to uncurl and stretch.
"Look how big I'm getting," Lief boasted to everyone nearby. "This is really fun."
Life was good again, but slowly Lief noticed something was wrong. The warm sun, whom he decided was his friend, seemed to be leaving. He grew hungry and felt his skin tighten to the cold. Then it started to get seriously dark.
"Who is taking the sun?" shouted Lief. "I decided that I like the sun. Please leave some for me."
"Don't be afraid," said Lucy. "I was afraid, too, when it happened to me the first time. But the sun will be back. Don't worry."
"But I'm really scared."
"It's easier if you go to sleep. Just listen to the forest's night sounds. You'll be asleep before you know it, and the sun will wake you up."
"I can't wait. I want the sun back now."
"You have much to learn, but a whole season to learn it. Let everything unfold around you as it has for longer than we can understand."
The crickets lulled Lief to sleep and he dreamed of what a wondrous world he must have entered if all this can happen on just his first day.
Lief came out of a deep sleep to a "Good Morning" from Lucy.
Light was breaking through the night and Lief was starting to feel better, but then he awoke with a start.
"Something cold and wet is trying to eat me," he howled over at Lucy. "It's icy fingers are all over me."
Larry woke roaring with laughter.
"Hush," grumbled Lucy. "You were just as scared when you were first covered with dew."
After Lief realized it was just water, he actually grew to like dew. "Tastes refreshing," he even thought.
One fine day grew into another after that with Lief unafraid of the dew or even the dark. Then came the day when the sun seemed to be having difficulties and the rest of the leaves began a commotion. Something was wrong.
"Everybody hold on," came a low rumbling sound from inside the branch.
"Hold on against what?" asked Lief, but the branch didn't answer.
"You'll see," said Larry, "and for a scaredy cat like you, it's going to be a doozy."
The commotion of the leaves grew into a riot. The wind tore at Lief but he hung on with all his might.
Lief could barely make out Lucy in the din.
"Don't worry," she yelled. "It'll pass."
Just when Lief felt it couldn't get any worse, a fearsome flash of light pierced the sky, and a moment later, his entire world shook with an explosion. Balls of water began to beat on him while the howling grew deafening. He thrashed incoherently in all directions, bashing into other leaves. He was terrified and helpless.
"Pray to the tree," came a voice barely audible above the bedlam. It may have been Lucy, but Lief wasn't sure. He didn't know what a tree was, but he did his best to pray to it.
Lief couldn't tell if the praying helped subdue the rage all around him, but it did help his nerves. Praying brought on the thought that something or someone understood the awful turmoil, and he drew comfort from that. He wasn't sure if the calm originated from inside or outside, but the din began to diminish.
By the time the other leaves stopped shaking, he found himself stuck to Lucy.
"What is the tree?" Lief asked her. "Show me."
"I can't," she replied. "No one has ever seen it, but we believe it is where our branch leads, past lots of other leaves."
"If no one has ever seen it, what makes you think so?"
"Our branch doesn't say much, but he once said we are all children of the tree."
"I'll believe it once I see this tree."
That's the other thing the branch said, that one day we will."
Lief wasn't sure about this tree, but every time the wind shook the branch with its explosions and water, he prayed to the tree. After a while, he stopped fearing the turmoil, and even grew to enjoy the water that soaked him, particularly on hot days.
One of the reasons Lief liked Luiz was because Luiz didn't fear the wind, not even his first time. Ever since Luiz had emerged from his bud, quite some days after Lief, he had feared nothing. Lief wanted to be like Luiz.
But the day for bravery, the day Luiz would be remembered by all the leaves, came on a day without wind. On a lazy afternoon, all the leaves were laying about soaking up the sunshine. One word came down the branch to change everything, "Caterpillars."
"Where?" cried Larry in a panic that Lief had never seen in him.
Even Lucy was beside herself, "Can't run. Nowhere to hide."
They didn't have to wait long. A train of legs appeared on the branch under distant leaves, undulating its open maw directly in their direction. The branch gave the order to emit the pheromone that tried to repel caterpillars.
"Too hungry," exclaimed Luiz. "This one is too hungry."
"Your pheromone," shouted Lucy. "Luiz, where's your pheromone?"
"This guy is going to chew through all of us," said Luiz softly, "killing many of us, or he's going to eat just one of us."
"No Luiz," shouted Lucy. "All for one."
"Not in this case," said Luiz as he slowly turned full width to the caterpillar. "One for all."
The caterpillar reared up on its rear legs, its antennas caressing Luiz.
"Young and tasty, just how you like it," yelled Luiz at the caterpillar. "Come and get it you filthy slime."
The caterpillar collapsed on Luiz, powerful mandibles tearing great gashes out of Luiz's side and stuffing one piece after another down its round, grinding jaws. Luiz cried out in pain, but never released a drop of pheromone.
As the caterpillar neared the stem, Luiz turned to the leaves behind him and moaned, "I love you all. I love the tree."
The caterpillar, stuffed and happy, released the branch with all but two feet. Hanging like a great sausage, the caterpillar started spitting all over itself until it was completely covered by a grey slime. So ended the horror, except that it was not over.
Another caterpillar emerged from under the same leaves as the first and just as hungry.
Lief thought of the heroism he had just seen. He remembered growing up with fearless Luiz. When the wind came even at night, Luiz would spread full width and ride up and down the branch, daring the wind to tear him off.
"That is the way to live," Lief whispered to himself.
Lief turned to face the oncoming caterpillar, only to see two more squeeze out from under the far leaves. He quivered for a moment, but then spread as wide as he could and turned off his pheromones.
"I'm coming to join you Luiz", he bellowed. "Your buddy is coming."
The three caterpillars saw Lief at the same instant and started shoving each other as they bored down on him.
Just as Lief felt the first bite, the branch suddenly swung down and powerful talons tightened on the branch next to Lief. Before he realized what had happened, a lightning-fast beak snapped up the nearest caterpillar, and just as quickly the remaining two. With hardly a sound, the talons released and the huge bird bounded into the distant leaves from where the caterpillars had emerged.
The silence hung for the longest moment, and all the leaves turned to face Lief. He straightened to his full height, proudly showing the caterpillar's bite mark. Then he drooped, remembered Luiz, and said softly, Thank you Luiz, for showing me how to live."
Days later, Lief said to Larry, "That bud sure is taking its time turning into a leaf. Kinda late in the season, too"
"We've all been thinking much the same thing," Larry said.
The bud grew larger and larger, and Lief started to worry. Then one day it seemed to burst open, but instead of being a leaf, it was a horrid mix of distorted colors, mostly white, unfolding like a cancer. Lief was relieved when it stopped growing, but it smelled funny and worse, it attracted bugs. The white jumble didn't say much, preferring its own company and the bugs'.
"Next thing you know, it'll attract a caterpillar," said Larry.
"I don't think so," said Lucy. "It seems to get along with the bugs that visit it."
"That's what I mean," said Larry. "They're plotting something, that deformed leaf and his bug buddies. They're up to no good I tell you."
"The white thing said 'Hi' to me just the other day," said Lief. "Seemed friendly enough."
"Don't associate with their kind," said Larry. "They're not like us."
"There are several of them on our branch," said Lucy, "and they don't seem to be hurting anyone."
"And if Lief gets friendly with them," snorted Larry, "there's no telling how many more will show up. They're ruining our branch."
Larry woke one morning, happy to see that the strange white growth had shriveled into a brown knot. But his mirth was short lived. The knot started to expand, to grow larger and larger until the branch hung down under the weight.
"Make it go away," Larry told the branch, "or it will break you and everything will be for nothing."
"No, everything has been for that," replied the branch in its cryptic way of explaining things.
Larry stayed suspicious as the growth suddenly changed colors and became a huge dark red ball. The branch hung and pulled with all its might, but just when Larry was sure the interloper would break the branch and kill them all, the red ball simply let go. The branch sprang up and the red ball careened down through the leaves below.
"Good riddance," announced Larry. "That strange guy almost ruined the whole place."
"I'm not so sure," said Lucy. "Somehow I feel it has left on a grand adventure."
The days had grown as long as they would and had started to get shorter again when the grey hanging sausage that was left of the caterpillar that ate Luiz started to stir. First just a quick shake and then a crack in the grey skin.
The next day, the crack spread and legs started dangling. Then colors as breathtaking as a rainbow. The colors stretched down and unfolded into two elegant wings that started pulsing slowly.
"Where am I?" the delicate, handsome creature asked.
"On a branch," answered Lucy.
"Am I a leaf?"
"No, you are to fly into the sky and show your splendor to the world."
"Do I have a name?"
"Yes," interjected Lief. "It's Luiz."
The days continued getting shorter and colder.
"What's that brown I see along your edges?" asked Lief. "Are you getting sick?"
"No, I'm fine," said Lucy. "I'm just getting old."
"Is that because you came out of your bud before me?"
"Partly, but mostly because it is the natural order of things."
"I don't like it. You're getting stiff and crinkly. You can't flap around as well in the wind with me."
"No, and soon the wind will take me away."
"No," cried Lief. "You can't leave me. Was it something I did? I'm sorry."
"We had a fabulous summer full of surprise and wonder, and now it is coming to an end."
"But I don't want it to end. Why can't summer last forever?"
"Summer is ending, but you and I are not. We are just changing."
"Changing into what?"
"Part of us changed into this branch? Did you notice that it grew a little thicker and stronger? That was us."
"And that big red ball that dropped off the branch?" asked Lief. "You keep talking about that. Do you think some of us changed into that?
"I believe that down to my stem," whispered Lucy. "Somewhere down below us, somewhere far away, it is even now our messenger into the future, getting ready to be part of the next summer, with some part of us inside."
"Do you think we will even become part of the tree, if there is such a thing?"
"I believe that just as much. I feel we came from the tree, and someday we will go back to the tree."
A wind colder than any before it blew through the leaves and some started letting go. Lief noticed that he was also getting brown along his edges, and even had big dark splotches all over. One morning, he noticed that Larry had quietly left during the night.
"I'm afraid," Lief muttered over to Lucy. "I don't think I can hang on much longer. I'm afraid of falling."
After a long time, Lucy whispered with a weak, cracking voice, "Falling is just floating. Nothing to fear if you trust the wind to take you to where you are supposed to go."
A moment later, Lucy let go into a surprise gust and tumbled into Lief. Lief felt the last of his strength give way, and he was tumbling, too.
"Help me," he cried. "I'm falling."
"We're free," cried Lucy. "It's going to be all right."
The tumbling stopped and Lief was on his back, rotating slowly. He couldn't tell where he was going, but the branch, his home, was fading away. Lucy had drifted away, and he realized that he would have to do this alone.
The landing was much gentler than he had expected. He was surrounded by leaves, and that made him feel that he had arrived where he was supposed to be.
Lief looked up and said, "I can see the tree.", and then the wind blew him away.
Copyright © 2014 Peter Shikli