Sometimes our affection for Kansas can be dulled by familiarity. No stretch of meadow seems inviting, no carpet of prairie is miraculous, no sunset enchanting, no moon a pearl. All seem swathed in a commonness.
Autumn is the moment for rediscovery and reunion. It carries a certain expectation, as though we are meeting an old friend again, one who has been away, who is perpetually busy with no time for idle talk, but we are persistent, and he has agreed to meet us for coffee at the terminal before his plane leaves.
You look well, we tell our friend Autumn, admiring his complexion, his cool and relaxed spirit, the warmth of his sun.
Compared to what? he asks.
And without letting us answer he admits that his Aunt Summer had left most of us out of sorts. She had been uncooperative and cranky and stingy with the rain; it was moisture enough when cousin May showed up and poured out ten inches of rain in a series of agreeable downpours that lasted off and on over four weeks. Ten inches! Thirteen times it rained, thanks to her generosity.
And then Auntie pronounced cousin May a spendthrift and sent her packing after a disagreeable and gusty spat, then settled in without so much as a true heat wave. The sum of Aunt Summer’s visit, which did seem to stretch on, was to leave everyone with the feeling that they had been in a stagnant tomb for months. There were times last month when I thought she’d never leave.
And now that I am here, said our friend Autumn, people seem relieved to have me but anxious about my departure.
They have never accepted my schedule which, after all that late work in New England, allows me only a stopover here.
I can only stay a moment, you know. There is just enough time to help things along, to get things in order before youknow- who starts throwing his weight around. He blows in every year with his bags of frozen wind, his tattered satchel with its snow and ice mists and doom-sprinkled skies. We never know when he’ll show up but it is usually in the dead of night, riding an Alberta Clipper.
Must you always be looking at the clock? we say, ordering more coffee. Beyond the tarmac the woods blush red and orange, alive with the scuttle of tenants. It is a soft morning, with vapors rising in straws of light through the trees, and pink clouds folded against a pale sky.
Autumn, ignoring us, went on. I like to start each day with a surprise, he said. Why, just the other morning I overslept and had only enough time to throw a scarlet blush across the east before first light. It was color I had left over from the day before, when I did the sugar maples; there wasn’t time to mix anything else. It turned out pretty well, don’t you think? Later that evening I threw in some gold from the cottonwoods and a hint of russet from the sand hills tallgrass. It made quite a sunset.
And what of the moon lately? we asked.
Like it? said Autumn, reaching for the cream and sugar.
The trick is in the timing, he said. By six o’clock or so I have the sun down against the tableland beyond the central hills. As its brilliance fades, the light is washed against the entire dome above. In the east the sky softens and is almost moist, like felt in a fine mist.
Against this, Autumn continued, I bring on a plump moon, a glorious, yawning moon that is pure pearl. It lifts slowly in a magnificence that announces dusk, in an orbit whose ellipse, away from us, gives it the appearance of shrinking with night’s advance.
Timing is everything, said our friend. The arrival and departure of color, the relentless press of darkness against light, a general slowing of rhythms – all seem to excite the ambition to tidy up and fasten things down before everything freezes and is still.
Autumn glanced at the clock and declined more coffee. A fellow must keep an eye first on the day at hand, he said. The best I can do is manage the schedule I’ve been given, remember my color charts and watch the thermostat. Then I hope for a respectable show, one that keeps promise alive and all living things within the pull of gravity.
We couldn’t think of a thing to say.
Autumn smiled and patted the table and stood, extending a hand. It was good to see you again, he said. He would be leaving now, and it would do us no good to ask him to stay.
It would throw off his timing.
Note: A version of this column was published a year ago. – JM