The sugar maples dropped their leaves in the course of a single day. It wasn’t even a full twenty-four hours. The trees had been awash with color in the late afternoon—a spectacular, rich, golden panorama, tinted with accents of crimson and rose. The next day, all the leaves lay on the ground. Whatever the biological process, whatever the mechanism which determined when the maples shed their leaves, it operated with clockwork efficiency and thoroughness, Nature’s equivalent of blitzkrieg.

McCarran walked amidst the naked trees, a carpet of gold at his feet, drinking in the scent of autumn, wistful, aware of the ephemeral nature of all things, of the fragility of beauty. He was assaulted by a deep and abiding sense that time never rested, that change was the only constant.

He bent and picked up one of the leaves, held it to the light. He was amazed, as always, by its purity of form, the depth and integrity of the color, so perfect a complement to the crisp air and the gentle warmth of the sun.

McCarran heard someone scuffing through the leaves nearby and looked up. It was Walter Isakson. He, too, apparently, had been moved by the sight of the leaves laid out upon the ground. He had, in fact, collected several of them, held them clutched in one great fist like a bouquet of flowers he intended to offer to some imagined lady love. McCarran wondered if perhaps Walter was not beset by the same reflections as himself, lamenting the passage of time and the transitory glory of all earthly things. It was a whimsical conceit, no sooner thought of than dismissed, but it left a faint smile lingering on McCarran’s lips. For, of course, Walter was thinking of no such thing.

“’Lo, Walter,” McCarran greeted him. “You’ve come too late to admire the foliage, I’m afraid. It was superb while it lasted. But we shall have to make do with what we can salvage from the ground now.” McCarran spoke in the special tone he reserved for small children and animals, as to one whose understanding was strictly limited. Walter might be in his thirties, fully grown and an imposing physical specimen at six feet three inches, but his mind remained that of a young child.

Walter held up the bouquet. “I’m collecting them,” he announced. “One by one. It’s hard.” Walter pursed his lips and shook his head. He wore a baseball cap, turned backwards, and a red-checked flannel shirt. “Some are hidden beneath the others. That makes it especially difficult.”

“Of course it does.” McCarran waved this inconvenience away with airy superiority. “Here. I found one myself. You’re welcome to it.” McCarran offered Walter the leaf he had picked up.

Walter examined it. He took his time, appraising the specimen as a jeweler might a precious stone he was considering making a bid on. “Not right,” he concluded at last. “It’s close. I can see how you might make a mistake. But it’s not the right one.” Walter resumed his search, bending, stooping, sorting through the fallen leaves, discarding the greater part but occasionally selecting one and adding it to the bouquet.

McCarran felt vaguely miffed that his leaf had been rejected. It was a foolish reaction, he knew, childish, yet he could not help but feel that Walter’s refusal represented, in part, a rejection of himself. He watched surreptitiously as Walter continued his quest: select a leaf, discard it, select another, retain it. Finally, his curiosity piqued, McCarran asked, “Walter, what are you doing?”

Walter looked at McCarran, frowning. He turned the cap around, settled it more firmly on his head. He appeared astonished by the question, the necessity of asking anything so self-evident. “Collecting leaves,” he said. He resumed his occupation.

“Yes, I can see that. But why are you so selective? Why do you distinguish between one leaf and the next?”

“Why?” Walter scratched the stubble under his jaw. “How else am I to gather the leaves from one particular tree, and not the others? It’s hard, I tell you. It’s as hard as…” Walter tried to think of some suitable analogy, “…telling one raisin from another.”

McCarran smiled, his good humor restored. So that was it! Leave it to the truly simple to impose so daunting a task upon themselves. “And when you’ve gathered all the leaves, what then? What do you intend to do with them?”

This time, Walter did not bother to interrupt his work to reply. “Put them back where they came from,” he announced. The streamlined precision of his logic, the seamless manner in which he had constructed his case, left McCarran without any comeback. He could only nod, as if all were now made clear to him, his doubts resolved. The wisdom of fools was, after all, wisdom derived from an uncluttered mind and, therefore, not to be challenged. Rational analysis would add nothing to the discussion. McCarran let Walter be, a man as content with his lot, as thoroughly satisfied, as any McCarran had yet encountered.

The following morning, when McCarran again strolled down to the park, all of the trees remained bare. All, that is, except for one. This maple bore a full complement of leaves, a canopy of gold all the more resplendent for the absence of any competition. Every leaf appeared to be in place. It was as though Walter had assembled a giant jigsaw puzzle, fitting each piece into its proper position till none remained.

McCarran saw no sign of Walter. His work completed, he had gone home. There, no doubt, he had taken up some equally implausible task. Unaware of its impossibility, he would persevere until this, too, was at last accomplished.

Zetetic separator

—Canfield aspires to worry less, for which purpose he has taken up the study of children, and to laugh more, for which purpose he has taken up the study of politicians.

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