*This was for a short story contest where you had to start with the sentence, “By the time I stepped outside, the leaves were on fire.”
By the time I stepped outside, the leaves were on fire. The remnants of hours spent raking now filled an old drum, surrendering to the heat of a controlled fire. This was one of my favorite parts of the fall season – the near-ritualistic burning of the leaves. The smell, one of musky, sweet smoke, brushed with a hint of dampness, always offered moments of nostalgia in its embers. The warmth of the fire offered its own gift of comfort and memories, a sharp contrast to the chilly mountain air of the Shenandoah Valley. I took a sip of hot apple cider, whose fragrance reached my lips well before the taste of times past had. I stared through the dancing flames and back into a different time.
I was a little girl, heeding Grandpa’s warning, and staying far back from the controlled fire on his property. I had spent most of the morning helping gather the unwanted leaves and brush. I wasn’t strong or old enough to use the wheelbarrow, so all I carried what I could in my arms against my chest. The earthy smell filled me as I clasped my offering. It was little help in comparison to that of my older siblings who pushed their wheelbarrows with strength and might.
This 1820’s farmhouse, with its original floors which creaked under the weight of our steps and its pocket doors used to contain the mountain heat, sat on 11 acres which I desperately wanted to discover. Every year since I could remember, my parents would bring us here, leaving us to help out around the place while they went off to celebrate their anniversary in Gatlinburg or the like. We would get the same lecture each trip: “Be good. Don’t fight. Listen to Grandpa.”
As the years passed, I grew stronger and able to help more around the house and property. As my siblings went off to college, I was left behind as the lone helper. I became enthralled with the lifestyle of owning a property like this. I became great at fishing, catching us dinner many times from the pond nestled towards the front of the property. I mended fences, rode the lawn mower, groomed the horses and learned many of Grandma’s recipes.
On the last night I was there, we sat outside on the front porch, rocking in the chairs he had made for him and Grandma as a wedding present. I didn’t have many memories of her. She had passed when I was just a toddler. Cancer had taken her quickly. Now, here I was at 18, sitting in the chair made for her, and although I didn’t remember her, I felt a closeness to her in this spot. I held my first attempt at making her homemade apple cider with both hands, embracing the heat it offered onto my ungloved hands. Grandpa, now in his seventies, rocked beside me, a blanket covering his arthritic legs, and hummed an old hymn just loud enough for me to notice. He stopped, leaning forward in his chair, and pointed out across the pond. A family of deer stopped to admire us from afar before dashing off.
“I’m going to miss this place,” he said with a cracking voice. He turned to me, tears welled up in his eyes and finished his thought with, “but I know you will take good care of it. It’s in your bones.” With that, he rose and went inside.
I continued to rock on the porch alone, staring at the stars that were now starting to peek through the night sky. I didn’t grasp the entirety of the words he had just spoken. It would be another nine years before I did.
By the time Grandpa had passed away, my siblings were all married and had moved off to various places. James and Vera headed to the west coast. Trish and Nathan headed to the Midwest. My parents had retired a few years before and now resided in Charleston. I had never left the area. I went to the local community college for a year, but quickly decided that school was not where I belonged. I longed to be on a farm. Taking everything I learned from helping Grandpa, I landed a job at Anderson Stables, grooming horses, and caring for the land. The owners, a couple in their late 70’s were not sure I would be able to handle the demands, but after just two days on the job, they were convinced.
This job was where I met my husband. He was one of the horse trainers. I can’t say it was love at first sight, since when he first saw me I was covered in mud and soaking wet after having to take care of a fallen branch despite the weather. He had stopped by to make sure the gates were latched and the owners had everything they needed in case the electricity went out in the storm. He saw me struggling with dragging the branch to a place out of the way and quickly offered a hand. That was the beginning of our love story, but our story didn’t truly take off until the day I received the news of my grandpa’s death.
His death was not surprising and was a welcomed healing to the suffering he had been feeling both physically and mentally. However, when the lawyer reading the will announced that I had inherited “Rabbit Run,” a name I gave the old home back when I was seven, I could scarcely believe it. My family, on the other hand, were not shocked or even dismayed. They hadn’t been in the house for years and had no interest in such an upkeep. I, however, welcomed it with opened arms.
Now, as I stand in front of my husband and the flames rising just above the top of the drum in front of him, I think back to all of the falls I spent at Rabbit Run. The brush I picked up, the fish I have caught, the fences I have mended, and all of the many small chores which kept this place going. The leaves we are burning fell with the purpose of making room for new ones. Memories will fade like the vivid color of flames on the leaves while they are still on the trees, and become replaced with ones we make for ourselves.
When the fire has ceased, we cross the creaking wooden floor, and head to the front porch. The mountain air is colder than usual tonight, so we wrap ourselves, him in Grandpa’s blanket and I in Grandma’s crocheted afghan. We rock side by side and I hear him hum a familiar song just loud enough for me to hear.