Competition Winning Story: Leaves

By Alice Penfold

She was a leaf. Weathered from the stormy nights, when the evening exhaled its shadowy smokes and clouded the light into sleeplessly lying, she felt herself fragmenting. Like a commuter carriage, crying for extra space, her own branch was overcrowded; each being jostled to stay rooted. Stemming from her withering spine, yellowing wrinkles were beginning to spread across her paper-thin skin - tea-dipped, discoloured from dry routines.

Time had continued to pick at her skin. Her once smooth hues of blushing emerald were jaded, now, worn down by the relentless demands of raining hail, shouting down onto her exposed flesh and leave her no choice but to stay the clinging victim, with no power to overthrow the self-appointed dominance of the sky’s ever-replenishing army.

Of course, she knew, too, to look for the glowing moments that had passed during the rolling days. The summer week when a gentle gust had embraced her and her fellow passengers, a breeze that helped her breath as the yellowing light lay glimmering on her resting self. Although she had been grown to reside alone, she had found herself waving, for no reason except the affecting season, at those delicate souls that shared her space, who had been thrown by the thundery hands of fate to take a similar route to her own.

She had to take her leave, soon, as the wind wound through the thinning air and the tug of moving on became too strong. It was a fallacy, she knew, to think she could choose when the crossroads of her next step would come. Stoned by one stormy encounter – not from firing above, this time, but by a rocky rebellion below – she was made redundant, her stem splintered near completely from its grip on her tree’s outstretching arm. A merciless creature, dressed in leather boots and armoured in a buttoned up coat, had screechingly raised a rough-edged rock above its squealing head, and thrown, thoughtlessly, towards her shaking place of residence. Having stampeded to pieces the peace of the ending autumn bodies below, it was only natural that this creature would find more victims. As the boulder bombed through her fragile frame, she realised in an instant that she would have no choice but to let go. Like a trying toddler gripping to the reaching bars of a climbing frame, her own joints already weakened over repetitive efforts to stay on the known road, she knew her next path was coming. This wasn’t a place that she could cling to forever. Despite the ever-going, ever-growing weeks that she had been wishing for a natural break in the cycle of her clouded days, the harsh reality of choice still left her frozen.

Drops continued to descend. Weighed by polluting pellets bulleted from the smudged skies above, she was soon to lose her grip. Yet the expected route – the fall to the crunching floor at the base of the trunk – was, to her, simply not an option. Layered in spongey tiers, iced with winter’s whitening chill, previous leaves lay in infinite wait, forgotten in their likeness; they each added to the padding under frantic feet and heavy heels. She knew the well-worn path would keep her too downtrodden.

It was an unexpected ray, piercing through the defensive skin of the leafy barriers above, which made her see a less predictable path. To her right, fighting the biting attacks of the unrelenting gales, clung another, his stem half-torn from the stability of a separate branch, a metre or so below. She could not say for certain, but if it had not been for the sun’s brief triumph over the smoky smudge of haze that suffocated her surroundings, she did not think she would have spotted him.

Waving, she leant forward, slightly, letting the breeze catch and bring her to his attention. They connected.

As the hazy cloud consumed the final desperate daylight hours, she knew that time was flowing too quickly away, like sand spilling through the gaps of a broken sieve. The wind switched direction, taunting its paper-thin victims, the rain washing away each leaf’s vibrancy; a howling chill ripped through the swelling vein on her left side, leaving her stomata sweating for breath. Now, then, was the moment to go. Taking a deep breath, she let her stem loosen its grip on the spindling twig to which she had been clinging for too many identical hours and felt herself snatched by the unstopping storm. She was wading through treacle, every step forward stealing the air from her frailing frame. With perseverance against nature’s forces, though, she changed her direction just a fraction, in order to pass by the one leaf who had caught her sight from so far away. Her shimmering edges brushed past him and she embraced the tingle of his touch that, for too long, her lonely routine had forbidden her from feeling.

He felt it too, they knew. Soon, whilst the grey-smudged skies were increasingly subsumed into unseeing obscurity, he found the strength, too, to loosen his desperate hold on the bark below. He wrapped his being around her crumpling skin, the tiny hairs of her skin stroked by his midrib and margins. They twisted as one through the attacking shadows, fighting away the bulleting rains and grip of ever-going gusts. Together, too, they mustered the strength to plough through the night and to reach the spot that few fellows had been able to reach before. It was a quieter patch – the challenges to reach it leaving it far less travelled – by the edge of a trickling river. They rolled down towards the earth – like footstepping down each rung on a rickety ladder, their certainty of success increased as they approached, hearing the twinkling notes of the water chime against the rocks underneath. There, they settled, letting their pores drink and their bodies stretch along the cool pebbley surface, sheltered from the wind’s ferocity by the protective arms of the stream’s largest evergreen. Their union, they knew, had made all the difference.