The Sacrament of the Leaves
Miss Roberta Hessmeyer occasionally peeked out of the picture window to make sure that her rapidly aging father had not overtaxed himself. Brown, mauve, crimson, maroon, yellow, leaves all over the place, bountiful - and the reverend Pastor Oswald Hessmeyer had taken them on with what little strength he had left, an autumnal ritual he enjoyed. He was retired twenty years now, Roberta sighed, as she watched him scrape off the rake spokes with his tennis shoe. He had forgotten to put on his socks. She always wondered if he quite knew what he was doing, and she fretted that he so often forgot not only his socks, but her name. His ankles looked powdery and bone thin. She worried about his watery, yellowed eyes. She worried about the weather, how it might seep into his lungs or set off his allergies. And yet so far it had proved a gracious and mild Fall.
Here we are, she marveled, a week before Thanksgiving and you can still go outdoors in short sleeves. During that easy, ephemeral moment, all seemed well. She snapped a perfect arch from another chocolate chip cookie with her front teeth, chewed slowly and swallowed. Oh, so good. She felt such pleasure must mimic redemption in some small way even if Dr. Spiegel had warned her to stay away from sweets. It had dimly begun to dawn on her that men had warned her against sweets since the day she was born. She never married despite sufficient if not abundant opportunities. None of the eligible bachelors had met the approval of her stern, devout and adoring father. And she had capitulated, boy after boy, even if at one time she could not get dreamy Dru Henderson, his sandy, windswept hair and hazel eyes, out of her mind; she had actually pined over him and took to her sick bed for a month. And, of course, he married somebody else, a regular tramp from across town who wore tight blue jeans and t-shirts.
Roberta had never lowered herself to dress like that, though she knew she might have turned many an eye. She stepped into the bathroom and gazed at herself in the full-length mirror. Frumpy in baggy, ill-defined sweat pants and smock. Not the body she remembered, rather the body she had watched broaden inch by inch. Her father always insisted on dresses only, modest dresses, and a constant yellow ribbon pulling back her hair. A mother might have made some difference, but Roberta did not remember her mother beyond a few out-of-focus smiles. Mrs. Hessmeyer had abandoned the family when Roberta was only six years old. Strangely, her departure did not disturb the young girl much. Her father had so dominated the household that his wife’s existence hardly mattered. Roberta’s mother, another leaf scattered by the wind. Pastor Hessmeyer rarely mentioned her name.
Roberta devoured another cookie and unlocked the front door. She liked the dry, cool air sweeping across the porch. She unfastened the ribbon, shook free her hair and allowed the fingers of the wind to caress it.
“Daddy,” she called, “are you all right? Maybe you ought to take a little break.”
He didn’t hear. His back was toward her as he furiously raked more leaves into discrete little piles. She descended the rickety wooden steps and approached him. She placed a hand on his shoulder and he gasped with fright. When he turned and saw it was Roberta, he angrily threw down the rake.
“Don’t sneak up on me like that,” he hissed.
“I just thought you might want to take a break. It’s nice on the porch. We could sit and have some coffee.”
Pastor Hessmeyer shook his head. “Can’t you see I’m working against time? Every day I rake the yard clean and by the next day they’re back. Not many left, but this is the fifth time I’ve been out here. I’ll get every last one of them. Infidels! I’m raking in the infidels, Ru-, Ru-”
”Roberta,” she said. “Daddy, are you taking your medicine?”
“Roberta,” he said. His daughter. But instantly his mind shifted back to the leaves. “Legion infidels. I’m converting them to the fold. My congregation. Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Remember that little man, that deacon we had once, who slipped a few dollars out of the plate every Sunday. What was his name?”
“Mr. Canetti. He died about thirty years ago, Daddy.”
“Canetti. Italian. Figures. Agent of the Pope.”
“He was trying to help pay for toys for his children at Christmas. They didn’t have any money. He was one of your most faithful. A few dollars here and there, nothing much, a few leaves.”
“No soul can go unaccounted. That’s the mission. I must rein in every leaf. Heathens. How many can there be?”
But he did not object when she crooked her arm in his and steered him up the steps to the porch, where he eagerly collapsed into the wicker rocker.
“Want some coffee?” she asked.
“The Church has its work cut out, I tell you. Yellow, brown, red . . . they look so foreign.”
“I’ll go make us some coffee.”
Pastor Hessmeyer wiped his brow, tried to catch a few deep breaths. “That was some God-awful music, those hymns we sang. I never understood third-rate music in the house of God. Why not Beethoven or what’s his name’s ‘Unfinished . . .’”
But he had to let it go. He gazed at the mounds of leaves in the front yard. How’d they get there? Mosques. Synagogues. Temples. He stood shakily as if before a lectern.
“Renounce and repent,” he cried. “The Kingdom of the Lord is at hand. And he smote the wicked Israelites for their golden idols. You cannot pass through the eye of a needle and enter the Kingdom.”
When Roberta returned with a tray and two steaming mugs of coffee, she found her father back in the yard chastising a pile of leaves.
“Daddy,” she cried, leaning over the railing, “here’s some coffee. Let’s just rest for a while.”
“The work is perilous,” he replied softly.
She watched him hobble toward the steps as she sank into the Adirondack chair. The tray was set on a wicker table between them. Steam twirled from the hot coffee. He was taking his time. She had to get back to her apartment and dust some before Mrs. Hereford and her sister visited. It was burdensome to live separately, for she felt obliged to drive over and check on her father every day, often twice or three times a day. Only recently she had found him wedged between the toilet and bathroom wall. He couldn’t pull himself up. She would prefer to live in the house, had even attempted it, but it didn’t work out. He followed her from room to room, preaching, ranting, ordering her to wear less revealing clothes. “Those boys are only after one thing,” he would warn. “The pleasures of the flesh wither whereas the soul blossoms eternally.”
At one point she lost her temper and snapped, “Daddy, I’m sixty years old. There are no pleasures of the flesh. I’ve never known them. I’m your convert. Why did my mother leave?”
He was wearing a soiled, ribbed undershirt and baggy khaki trousers. His mouth hung open as he quivered and simply stared at her. And the next day she rented a cramped, affordable apartment in a quiet but run-down section of town. Hardly home sweet home, but luxurious for a nun – which is how she had come to think of herself.
“Don’t scorch your tongue on the coffee,” she said. “It’s hot. I have to go soon. Mrs. Hereford and her sister are coming by.”
“You baptized them both. Don’t you remember? They were Professor Hereford’s girls.”
“At the seminary?”
“Yes, you found him slumped over a desk in the library. He died while reading a dirty book.”
“Infidels. Look at them all out there. I’ve got to get back to work, Mrs. Hereford. This is good coffee. I always add a little chicory. I keep telling that child of mine that Dru Henderson is a devil in disguise. Too many muscles. And you remember when they found him in the vestibule pressed up against the little girl.”
“That was me, Daddy,” Roberta sighed. “I really have to go now. Don’t strain yourself with those leaves. Rake a little more if you want, but then come in and watch television or read your book.”
“Wheel of Fortune.”
“It comes on around six. Do you hear me, Daddy? Don’t work too hard. You look pale.”
“Round and round she goes, where she stops, nobody knows. That woman is a temptress. She’s going to burn in hell. Like all the others.”
“I don’t want to hear it, Daddy. Ok, I’m going – ”
”Hereford. He was looking at pictures of naked women. I saw them. You know, if you take the ‘w’ off ‘women,’ you get ‘omen.’ Harlots!”
“Like Mary Magdalene?”
“Mary. Naked Mary.”
“I’ve got to go. See you tomorrow. Try to rest some. And don’t forget your medicine.”
Pastor Hessmeyer watched Margaret or whatever her name was walk across the lawn to her car. He thought he saw her kick a few leaves in one of the piles out of place. He looked at the rake he had propped against a porch column. “What the hell?” he said, closed his eyes and fell instantly asleep in the rocker. Roberta honked as she drove away. The honk, in her father’s dream, became the howl of Satan as Jesus Warrior flung him into an endless abyss.
He awoke about half an hour later, startled to find himself on the porch. “I have been transported,” he mumbled as he adjusted his glasses. “My leave-taking will not be without precedent. And that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which art in heaven, neither the son . . .” His joints ached and he had to press his palms against his thighs in order to rise from the chair. “Leverage,” he chuckled. “There are remnants still. For the devil walketh about like a roaring lion.”
Pastor Hessmeyer took a deep breath and clutched the handle of his rake; at that moment he thought he saw a stirring in the mounds. He squinted, tried to focus on individual leaves. Faces! The leaves swarmed with faces. Young Jack Sycamore, the pastor’s first christening out of seminary, later to die in Korea. Elizabeth Elmstead, thirteen years old when leukemia took her, one year after confirmation. She smiled sardonically at Pastor Hessmeyer. “I have sinned,” she whispered, “where is your justification?” Sammy Oaker, confirmation class of 1959, the cut up who could never remember The Apostle’s Creed or what it meant. Killed instantly in a car crash out west. “Without fail it is impossible to please him,” Sammy sighed. “Faith!” Pastor Hessmeyer cried, “Faith! Not fail.” Then sweet Rachel Willow, nine years old, who died in the church one Sunday, long ago, no one knew why. Her heart had stopped beating during the pastor’s sermon. And so many others. Faces. He stood panting on the porch. The leaves were ghosts! Spirits.
Suddenly they began to spiral in dizzying circles, the faces lost, but mouths now, bloated with screeches, wailing, moans, curses . . . until each voice blent into a heinous, grisly dirge of suffering. Pastor Hessmeyer fortified his spirit, prayed for divine assistance and lifted his lance. “Lord, give me strength.” He trotted down the steps with the determination of a man half his age, a Quixote of lawns and crabgrass, and rushed toward the first heap of leaves. But the moment his rake made contact, all noise ceased, as if the demons had evaporated on the spot. Silence solidified around him like soft cloth, and it even seemed that time itself had momentarily frozen. He poked at the leaves. Nothing. He poked again. Not a face, sound, no swirling . . . only the leaves themselves that he had swept into place. He leaned against the rake and smiled. “Thank you, Lord,” he said. “It’s time to finish the job.”
Just then, from a car passing on the street, a youthful voice bellowed, “Hey, a**hole, get a Lawn Boy!”
But the reverend Pastor Hessmeyer heard nothing. Nor did he register any passing car. He walked toward the northeast quadrant of the yard and proceeded to rake the lawn clean once again. Not much of a job since only a few renegade leaves remained. This would be the final reckoning, surely. He, of all men, aged and meager, would shepherd them all into God’s ubiquitous lap.
Visits from the Hereford sisters, infrequent as they were, depressed and set Roberta on edge. Both had reached their mid-forties with little fanfare and little tumult; both had married identical men and produced identical children; both had more or less given up on any semblance of fitness or feminine charm. At sixty, one could understand, but they were too young to give up. Worse, they had absolutely nothing to say. Their words fluttered about like leaves in a gentle maelstrom. One might mention the weather, the other a teacup she found at a garage sale. “And do you know I just had to have it. It was so precious.” The other would aim the needle at another stitch. “Why, I was just saying to Lucy Honnicut that her asters look, well, more purple this year.” And on it went, Roberta smiling and nodding, desperate for some appropriately inane reply. At least they never stayed long. And the sordid death of their father was never mentioned, although Roberta felt it swim in the room among them like some giant dark fish. She felt relieved that they left before darkness set in. It seemed to come earlier every year.
The minute she waved goodbye from her front door, she pranced to the phone to call her father. She would demand that he take it easier and check on his medication. He could not remember her name, so how could he remember to take a pea-sized yellow tablet? She expected to wait; sometimes she had to call five or six times before he answered. But this time he didn’t answer at all, a first. She plucked her jacket and handbag from the hall tree, slid into the Saturn and once again began the dismal trek to his house. “This is wearing me out,” she mumbled. She hated feeling irritable and uneasy all the time. “Daddy, why are you leaving me?”
When she pulled up to the curb she was stunned to spot her father lying flat on the ground in the front yard. “Oh my God,” she screeched and flew out of the car. She clutched her lower lip with her thumb and forefinger and approached the prostrate man. “Daddy?”
Just then the same automobile full of rowdy teenagers zoomed by, and one of them cried, “He ain’t dead, lady. We checked. We’re the good Sumerians.”
“Samaritans,” mumbled Roberta. “A different species.”
Pastor Hessmeyer opened wide his eyes and they actually glittered. “Hello,” he said cheerily.
“Daddy, why are you lying on the ground? You know what the doctor said about your lungs.” Roberta reached into her pocket and retrieved the chocolate chip cookie she had stationed there for emergencies. She wedged the entire disc into her mouth and chewed madly for peace of mind.
“My dear,” Pastor Hessmeyer said, “I have vanquished the Beast. Not one stray minion on the lawn, can’t you see? And my four final mounds have been consolidated into one. By what hand? I don’t remember doing it. It’s a miracle, Miss--”
“Then why are you lying on the ground? You’ve got to start taking better care of yourself, Daddy. This is killing me. Come on, let me help you up.”
“No, no, no,” the pastor protested. “If you look up you’ll see one final leaf dangling from that birch. It’s fighting for its life. No gust has been able to detach it. I’m waiting for it to fall. I’m waiting to grab it as it falls. One leaf, Ruthie, then it is finished.”
“Daddy, this is insane. You can come out and find that leaf tomorrow. It’s almost dark. You won’t be able to see it in the dark.”
“If the eye offends, plucketh it out.”
“I’m going inside to get you some warmer clothes and heat up a can of soup. Is minestrone ok? You like minestrone.”
“Bay leaf. My throat’s a little sore.”
“Ok, bay leaf. When I get it ready, you’re coming in with me, do you hear? And Ruthie was your mother’s name. I’m Roberta, your daughter, your only daughter, your daughter.”
“Child, why do you assail me?”
“Good grief,” Roberta moaned as she hurried up the stairs into the house. Hurrying, always hurrying. She felt worn out and old.
Pastor Hessmeyer resumed his lonely vigil. “Woman, thy name is . . . is what?” He couldn’t remember.
He lay directly below the recalcitrant leaf, which twisted and curled with the breeze. It taunted him, mocked him. “The Arch-fiend,” he muttered. “It’s time, it’s time.”
But the quality of light darkened ever so slightly. The clouds grew more sober and dense, like great swirls of mashed potatoes in the sky. The wind picked up and howled as it wound through a row of pines. And Pastor Hessmeyer believed the errant leaf itself looked different. It seemed to have changed hue, even texture and shape; yet still it clung diligently to its twig of a branch. Little by little the pastor realized that the leaf was no infidel at all. It was the Redeemer! Jesus’ bearded, solemn face manifested in a leaf! And when Jesus gazed into Pastor Hessmeyer’s eyes, he smiled; and the Pastor smiled.
But the darkening, his failing eyesight . . . suddenly Pastor Hessmeyer saw not one leaf but seven, each flaring out of one stem. He began to tremble in both fear and joy. “And I saw another sight in heaven, great and marvelous, seven angels having the seven last plagues,” he mumbled, “and they had gotten victory over the beast. And the seventh angel poured out his vial into the air; and then came a great voice out of the temple of heaven, from the throne, saying, ‘It is done!’” And now, with the setting sun, Pastor Hessmeyer peered into the sky, and it seemed a sea of glass mingled with fire. The clouds had disappeared. And something from on high fell hard and fast, smacking him in the face. The vial of the seventh angel! Manna! He smeared the sweet liquid across his face in a kind of delirious ecstasy. A light drizzle began to soak his clothes, his entire body. The clouds had not disappeared at all; they had merely darkened with the encroaching night.
“Daddy!” Roberta screamed from the porch. “It’s raining! You get yourself inside this very minute! You will catch a death of cold.”
Pastor Hessmeyer rolled onto one side, then onto his stomach. He tried to lift his chest off the ground, but his arms gave out. Roberta, shielding her face from the rain with her palm, hurried over to help lift him up.
“You silly, silly man,” she said, clutching his feeble waist, yanking him to his feet. “We’ll have to change clothes.”
“A nice dress, remember. And do your hair with the ribbon. Loose hair, that’s fire to a man.”
They hobbled into the house and Roberta pushed her father onto the sofa, when he lay back limply.
“What is all over your face?” she cried.
Pastor Hessmeyer smiled so sublimely that for a moment she wished she could somehow share his pleasure. Chocolate chip cookies seemed a meager option. He looked radiant.
“The seventh angel of Revelation,” he smiled, his eyes closed, his head rocking back and forth. “It is done, child,” he said.
Roberta could not bring herself to inform her father that he had been the object of some passing bird’s impulse. And if she had, he would have taken it as a sign of the Holy Dove. So what difference did it make? Vial? Dove? She devoured another cookie, plopped down beside him. “The word ‘Revelation’ contains the word ‘leave,’” she laughed. “I guess the leaves have gotten to all of us.”
“See, it isn’t so bad, Carmen.”
Carmen. Roberta’s great aunt. She wiped herself off with a towel she had pulled from the bathroom rack, then she dabbed at her father. “You’re all damp. The soup must be boiling by now,” she said abruptly. “I’ll pour you some.”
“You said you wanted bay leaf.”
“Bay leaf? Vile, vile. You made minestrone, right?”
“No, Daddy, but I’ll go get some ready. You just sit there and dry off and rest. You look terrible.”
On her way to the kitchen, Roberta veered off to peek again out of the picture window - how often she peeked out of that window! -, and she noticed that the sole leaf of the birch was still fastened. She decided not tell her father and hoped the wind ripped it off once and for all during the night. She would scoop it off the lawn before he arose the next day. Otherwise, she would find him back on the lawn, waiting, waiting for it to fall, waiting to die. She couldn’t decide if she felt dejected or exhilarated that the leaf had survived, yet she did admire its persistence. And as she stared, she too saw something other than a mere leaf; she watched it sashay on its axis, as if dancing, and it seemed to turn green again before her eyes. Yes, and bursting with veins, drinking the sweet wine of sunlight, exhaling, flirting with every breeze that passed its way, throbbing with not demons or messiahs, but only itself, its own hallelujah, its own heaven and hell, its fullness of being and luminous mystery.
Roberta instantly snapped herself out of this frightening reverie. Her father would have called it a vision, no doubt an evil vision. She would keep it to herself, proceed as if nothing had happened; she saw nothing. It terrified her to think that a common leaf might be anything more than itself, that anything might be more than itself. Everything was already so complicated; we don’t need any more troubles or mysteries. We would all lose our minds. Then who would make the soup? But she did plan to retrieve the leaf when it fell, perhaps slide it between the pages of some old book of poetry, a memento, and perhaps, from time to time, look at it.