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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Outdoor writing contest second place: River Leaves

 (Molly Quinn/The Spokesman-Review)
(Molly Quinn/The Spokesman-Review)
By Audrey Merritt Senior at The Community School

They came to me waterlogged, crumpled up in tight balls that were soaked through with the river. Sometimes the ink would be preserved enough so I could still read them as I carefully untangled the dripping paper and spread it out on the flat, dry rock on my side of the bank.

But other times they were so ruined that they would fall apart in my fingers, the blue and black smudges dotting the paper like tiny bruises.

I never knew when those poems would come. I had to keep the shades of my trailer’s back window open at all hours so I’d be sure to see when one was winding through the plastic bottles and cardboard boxes, slowly bobbing along toward me. I didn’t know who wrote them – they were never signed or anything. But the handwriting never varied. The poems were always about quiet, natural things like woodlands or birdsong, and I liked to imagine the poet sent out his words for me, knowing how much this luckless girl needed them.

I was a barely adult nobody in a garbage-strewn trailer park. The only bit of the outside world I saw was the oily river that wound between the chain link fences separating my trailer park from another. But through that river, he gave me mountain breezes, ocean spray, and light filtering through dense evergreens.

It was during that odd time when the weather can’t seem to decide whether to hang onto summer or move into autumn that the poems stopped coming. I wasn’t too surprised at first, because of their irregularity, but as days grew into weeks, I began to grow anxious. Without the glimpses of the outside, I felt a gloom settling in. Fall came on full swing, and I practically lived next to the window facing the river. In the end, on one of those rare, sunlit mornings, I was rewarded for my patience with a bright blue wad of paper, and somehow, before I even dashed outside and spread it out over the flat rock, I knew it would be the last one. I read it carefully, tracing the blotched ink with my fingers.

F all treads softly upon the careworn soul –

O ut of memory’s depths the dead leaves whirl,

L onging for fading dreams, nevermore whole

L ingering on in the wind as they swirl.

O ften as a chill Fall solemnly brings

W inter lies in wait, so eager to claim

T he time-weathered faces that Fall now stings,

H oping an old, sun-loving heart to tame.

E ven now, the branches begin to turn,

R eturning to bones as their children fly

I nto the air and sky, which then can spurn

V ast streams earthward – as I silently spy,

E ach little leaf drops, and with a shiver,

R uns, runs from Fall, away with the river.

For some reason I couldn’t explain, this poem felt connected to me, almost like the words had come up from somewhere deep inside me and it took the poet to bring them to life. I cringed at the corniness of the thought. But still, I felt an unsettling tug. There was something about this poem. … Then I saw it – a hidden clue, a message that spurred me out of the dank trailer and out into the chill, fresh morning. I jumped the chain link fence, as I always did when collecting the poems, but this time I didn’t stoop down at all. I turned on the riverbank so I faced upstream, and, still clutching the poem in my hand, followed the river.

At first, ratty weeds and grasses pulled at my sandals, lodging in between my toes along with bits of aluminum and concrete. I had to keep routinely kicking out into the air to get rid of the ubiquitous junk. It was the treeline in the distance that kept me going. The forest, I reasoned, wouldn’t feel like this. Yet for all my depending on it, I wasn’t really sure when it was that I reached the forest, since I noticed it coming on gradually. I couldn’t remember exactly when the fences disappeared, when it was leaves, not soda cans, crunching under my feet. Or when the dappled sunlight shot through gaps in the trees, illuminating everything around me for a moment as I passed through. But I do remember when I noticed the river had quickened and become clear, like flowing glass. I couldn’t help but stop and stare at the crystal water tumbling over pebbles and tiny, bright fish. As I watched, one lone leaf dropped from a branch above me, landing on the water’s surface and careening out of sight.

A sharp squeak behind me made me flinch and drop the poem into the river. I started to wade into the river to try and catch it, but the little blue wad was already far beyond my reach.

“Don’t bother.” The weak voice was accompanied by another squeak. I whipped around, the cold water still running around my ankles. It was an old man, seated in a rickety wheelchair whose wheels squeaked again under his faltering grip. Perhaps old was a bit of an understatement. This guy was ancient, with a white cloud of frizzled hair that already seemed to be trying to lift him to the afterlife. A small path wound behind him to some destination I couldn’t see. I remembered the poem – but as I briefly looked back, I realized it was long gone.

“Don’t bother,” the man repeated, then smiled faintly. “But it’s good to know that someone read them. That’s why I sent that last one.”

“You? You’re the poet?” He didn’t need to answer. “Thank you,” I thought I sounded a bit lame. “No, really. You gave me all of this,” I said, gesturing to the trees and the river. He shook his head minutely.

“I didn’t give it to you.” He bent down to pick up a leaf and held it out to me. “It was always here.”

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