Harold was bright with changing leaves and the yellowing grass in the park. The small park was raked and free of the falling leaves that covered the other parts of the tiny town. The school yard alone had five piles of leaves, while the gas station held another two that were chest high on Cormag. Being situated on the edge of the woods, at one end of the valley meant that for such a tiny town, it usually had more than its share of leaves. This year, however, it seemed that there were much, much more than previous years. The men had begun making and stuffing scarecrows with them and selling them from the grocery when they ran out of ways to get rid of them. It was likely that every resident in the valley, in all of the different towns, had a scarecrow decorating their front walk by now. Barnaby was having regular leaf burns and still they kept piling up in brilliantly colored piles. They all agreed this was the most leaves they had ever seen fall in the small town of Harold.
Far from being dismayed, when they spoke of it their eyes lit up and they became a bit more animated than they had been the moment before. It was like watching a child talk about the impending arrival of Christmas. They whispered back and forth between each other about it being time, and about what else they had to do to prepare. Even reluctant Cormag seemed to have acquired an extra hustle in his step. Barnaby had become positively effervescent.
The valley people who were regularly in Harold noticed the excessive leaf fall as well. Their towns didn’t have this many leaves, they told the men. Everyone noted the excitement on the men’s faces when they talked about the leaves. Later, the passers-through wondered what could possibly be exciting them about the leaves, when clearly, it was just more for them to clean up, and who wanted more work? Some thought maybe the forest fire a couple of years back had somehow made the ground more fertile and this year all the trees in that part of the woods had more leaves. Some blamed a windstorm they were sure had blown the leaves off early and all at once, even though there had been no windstorm. There were at least a hundred, different, outlandish theories. Whatever was causing the leaf pile up was making a wonderful conversation starter amongst the valley folk. The three gentlemen’s excitement was contagious.
Pumpkins had been set out at the post office and the gas station and piles of the orange squash were available at the grocery. Cormag had even consented to put up a few other decorations in his gas station. The town was ready for Halloween and Thanksgiving after that. Barnaby hoped that the first frost would hold off until November, and Diarmuid wondered if the winter squash would come in soon. Cormag grumbled about having to shovel snow yet again this winter.
Every year they organized several quaint, rural festivals in Harold. Each season had something that warranted tourist travel to their little hamlet, and they capitalized on that to the benefit of all the residents of the valley. The following weekend was usually busy with tourist traffic. The leaves were at peak fall color and that meant people driving up from the far off city to come and take pictures and gather perfect leaves for scrapbooks. The whole rigamarole was slightly lost on the men, who didn’t understand how taking a few leaves from the valley back to your apartment surrounded by stone and steel would really help you feel the Autumn, but they indulged the visitors in their exclamations about how beautiful it was, and took their pictures in front of the vibrant trees. The tourists exclaimed over everything it seemed, from the beauty of the leaves (which they were right about) to how they just knew they couldn’t live out here so far from everything (which they were also right about). The three men knew that the tourists would exclaim over a harvest festival located so conveniently on the drive home as well. After all, they did every year.
There were rarely any returning visitors to the festivals the men planned. It seemed like it was a thing those from the city did once, to say they had. Sometimes it was to take their bored kids out in nature because, as they said, it was good for them. Barnaby had been taking note of those who did return, and so far, the longest stretch was three years, and then they never appeared again. The men kept hoping for someone who returned every year, someone who would learn their names.
Valley residents were enlisted to bring crafts, baking, and anything else they could think of to the festival, and on Saturday morning the small neatly raked park had a market and common area set up. Shortly after Barnaby finished setting up the dance floor, and the band from four towns over began playing, shiny city cars began rolling into town. Enchanted as always with the picturesque town of Harold and the friendly locals who always doted on them, they bought food and crafts, danced to the band and exclaimed over all of it. By the end of the day when the last tourist had said their thanks and goodbyes, all had made a tidy profit. The valley residents packed up their part of the festival with tired, satisfied smiles and bid the men good evening. Barnaby, Diarmuid and Cormag (who even seemed enjoy himself a bit) sat on the bench under the stars that were coming out and chatted over glasses of beer made by a woman from the next town.
“I’d say that was a sound success, for us and for the others, don’t you think?” Barnaby asked.
“I do, indeed, old friend,” said Diarmuid, raising his glass.
“I wish you would stop planning out these crazy things with no notice,” said Cormag. The other two laughed and slapped him on the back, causing his beer to slosh slightly in his cup.
“You are nothing if not consistent, Cormag,” added Barnaby.
“We’re all consistent, we’ve been here nigh on forever. How can we be anything but?” asked Cormag with a tone of irritation.
“Oh, dear boy, that is just the way it is. No need to fret, is there really?” Diarmuid said, “I do hope she liked it, though.”
“I hope so as well. Gentlemen, I believe our work this evening is done. Shall we walk?” asked Barnaby.
Nodding, the three men stood, cups in hand, and began their walk down the sidewalk. They crossed the short distance to Fancy, and paused at her walk. Sitting in the front window of the house was a small Jack-o-lantern, a candle flickering inside. They looked at each other in turn, surprise in every line of their faces. They had not put it there.
“Well, dear sirs, I do believe she did like it,” whispered Cormag.
“I can’t believe it is time,” said Diarmuid.
“Nor can I. I hope it goes as it should,” responded Barnaby.
Cormag smiled, “How else could it go? Because it must be done, and we are here to do it.” Barnaby smiled in response.
“That we are, reluctant friend, that we are.”
With small, yet formal, bows to Fancy, they turned and headed back to their homes together, in silence.
The men had indeed been in this town, or one just like it, for a very long time indeed. They had weathered many centuries together at this point, and moved in the well worn ruts placed by time. The latest events promised to throw big rocks into those ruts and bounce them right out of their quiet lives. For the first time in their nearly 800 years of ushering in the Autumn, they had a sign that their tenure may be ending. They knew things had to proceed quite carefully from now on, in order for things to return to order. Their excitement balanced itself with meticulous attention to detail. They knew what should happen, but they didn’t quite know how it would. Also for the first time in nearly 800 years, they were doing something entirely new.
About a week after the harvest festival, and the day after Halloween, the Jack-o-lantern on Fancy’s window disappeared. Barnaby was surprised but not overly concerned. Cormag reverted to his surly self. Diarmuid merely got a small line between his eyebrows that let the others know he was concerned. With the end of this journey seemingly near, all three couldn’t help but think back to how it began.
This is part two of who knows how many in this as yet untitled story, which began last week with Population: 3. and continues on with The Sentencing, Journey’s Beginning, A Visitor, The Tree, and Barnaby’s Task. They are all grouped under the Changing Leaves category. This story is perhaps novella length, and just something I had fun writing. It’s certainly not finished, and I’d love to hear if you have questions, comments, or suggestions. I’m planning on posting parts of it every Tuesday until it’s all here. Thanks for reading!