October Mourning

by Melissa Ridley Elmes

There’s a chill in the air, that specific, cool undercurrent in the light autumn wind that heralds the changing of the seasons. Though the trees have only just begun their annual parade of fiery colors, the sense of quiet ending that comes with the final leaf tippling from the final branch, visibly ushering the world into winter, has begun to creep into the sensibilities of the small creatures who make the trees their home. The birds have begun their annual pilgrimages, the squirrels are darting up and down tree trunks with their mouths full of forage, and below, the rabbits munch until late in the morning and later at night, as though they would fill their stomachs to bursting before the grass browns in the coming cold season. Neighborhood children gather at the bus stop waiting for the school bus, pushing, laughing, chasing one another; trying to catch the few leaves already falling; sharing Pop-Tarts. The outside world is active on this early October morning.

Indoors, a woman stands by the window, calm but not serene, a cup of coffee warming her hand. She is in her early forties, maybe, her face careworn, a few wrinkles settled in around her eyes and upon her forehead. She views the bustling activity just beyond the windowpane, but isn’t really watching. Lost in her thoughts, she is reliving an October morning a year ago. She is waking her child for school. She is making her child’s breakfast. She is urging her child to take a jacket. She is hugging her child goodbye.

Her child is no longer here.

Her child has been gone since August, driven hours away and deposited at college with all his worldly goods in two duffel bags and a handful of crates. How unfair this is. How unfair, to spend nearly a quarter of one’s life raising a child from helpless infant to capable adult, giving over all one’s waking moments to the task, and then to have that child leave so abruptly: one day here, all mess and noise and chaos; the next day gone, the house so silent and still. At least the leaves give advanced warning, changing their colors to remind one it is nearly time for them to take their final departure. Of course, children change too, before they leave, but in so strangely imperceptible a fashion when you see them every day: staying small and growing slowly for years only to become, suddenly, seemingly overnight, taller than their parents and eating everything in the refrigerator. She hadn’t realized how close they were to the last day. She hadn’t understood how quickly it would come upon them. She can’t remember their last morning spent together, two months ago, only those from the year before. Everything from this fall is blurred beyond recollection, like an unfocused photograph snapped from a moving car.

She sips from the mug. She looks through the window as the bus arrives, and the children board single file, and it rumbles away. She thinks of all the mornings putting her own child on a morning bus, watching it go, his face small and smiling out at her through a window somewhere in the middle of the vehicle, then meeting the afternoon bus that brought him back, watching him bounce down the steps toward her, day in and day out, year after year, kindergarten through grade school. Of course, by middle school his gait changed, he trudged reluctantly up the stairs of the morning bus, jumped past all the stairs to the ground from the afternoon bus; and by high school he rode in cars with friends. She prefers to remember the young son bouncing off the afternoon bus. This afternoon, a bus will come and release all those children back into the wild; they will run home, fling their backpacks on counters, tables, bedroom floors, and demand snacks; perhaps, if their mothers are quick, relinquish a hug before tearing away to pursue their children’s activities with the energy and single-mindedness of youth.

What had her child done, all those afternoons? She really doesn’t know. After the snack and the perfunctory hug, he would dash outside and not return until sunset, at her encouragement: it’s such a nice day! Go outside. He played, she supposes, rode his bicycle, climbed trees, and went to his friends’ homes. She hadn’t often pried, hadn’t often asked him where he had been and what he had been doing, because the parenting books suggested that helicopter parenting stifled a child’s independence and ability to cope with things on his own, better to let children have their own lives away from the eyes of parents, as much as possible.

But oh! Those books, with all their advice, didn’t say a thing about how giving one’s child all that privacy led to huge, empty spaces in one’s memories when the child left home, empty spaces between getting on the school bus and getting off the school bus, between getting off the school bus and dinnertime. She was a good mother, a caring mother. She made sure his homework was done, she made sure he had all the things he needed for his various school projects, she did ask him how his day went, each school night when they sat down to supper.

Earlier, when he was very young, he would regale her with stories about his day when prompted, telling her all about what he’d read, the Math lesson he’d learned, who pushed who at recess, who was put in time out, stories that often went on far longer than they should, and sometimes she had interrupted because they really did need to get to bath and bedtime. In later years, his voice changed from childish treble to deep tenor, he condensed his remarks to monosyllables, or perhaps a short phrase if he were feeling particularly generous: How was your day? Fine. What did you learn? Not much. Do you have any homework? No. How are you doing? Pretty well. Anything you want to talk about? Not really. When had their conversations trickled from stories to words? She can’t remember.

So, she fills the empty space between getting on the bus and getting off the bus with the stories she can recall him telling her when he was very young, supplemented with her own memories of parent visit days and volunteering in the classroom. But those empty spaces between getting off the bus and dinner—she has nothing to fill those spaces with. She cannot reconstruct an ordinary day with her son at home past the morning routine, the bus rituals, dinner, and the evening routine. How deeply unfair this is, for him to have left home to construct an entirely new life without her, and not even to have left her with one full school day to remember from start to finish. How she would like to shout to the mothers walking home after the bus left: make sure they tell you everything, every detail, so you know, so you can remember when they’re gone! But their children are so young, they won’t understand yet.

She watches a yellow leaf fall from the tree just outside the window, twirling through the space between branch and grass before coming to rest on the ground. She notes every detail of that twirling leaf, as though it might somehow stand in for her child’s journey in the empty spaces he’s left. She turns and walks to the kitchen to dump the rest of her coffee into the sink, place the mug in the dishwasher, and wonder what he’s had for breakfast and whether he took a jacket with him when he left his dorm room that morning. She sends a text that, like the dozen she’s sent over the past two months, is delivered and read, but not responded to.

A photograph of a statue from a downward angle with a tree and orange leaves in the background.

From Haserot’s Feet

by Beverly Rose Joyce

Melissa Ridley Elmes is a Virginia native currently living in Missouri in an apartment that delightfully approximates a hobbit hole. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Black Fox, Poetry South, Haven, Star*Line, Eye to the Telescope, World of Myth, Reunion: The Dallas Review Online, and various other print and web venues. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Dwarf Star award for best short speculative poem, and her first collection of poems, Arthurian Things, was published by Dark Myth Publications in 2020 and nominated for the 2022 Elgin award.

Beverly Rose Joyce is a poet, photographer, and plein air painter who lives in Brecksville, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, with her husband, Carl, and their two daughters, Mallory and Samantha, along with their two dogs, Shadow and Reggie. She holds a BA in English from Baldwin-Wallace University and a MA in English from Cleveland State University, and she was a public high school English teacher for sixteen years. Her visual and literary art has been published in numerous art and literary journals and magazines, as well as in various anthologies.

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