1. Blink

We forgot to drop off the gas bill until 4 am, but that was just an excuse. Really, we drove out because we wanted to be in the storm.

The usual thunderstorm things happened: rain blowing in on us, which was a refreshment at first, then a call to close the car windows; the asphalt no longer gray, but black as a racer snake; the sudden smudged beauty of ordinary brake lights.

Just as we passed the Catholic cemetery, dozens of yellow leaves leapt out. It was like driving through a swarm of butterflies. We heard them tick hard against the windshield and the grill.

“I guess summer’s over,” my companion said.

I realized then that my friends and I had been hinting at it for days, mentioning the early dusks and the brassy look of the so-called silver maples. But this was decisive, this blast of dead leaves. The precision of it! I’d torn August off the calendar that very day.

The storm wasn’t through. We had to pass the cemetery again on our way home. A knotted strand of lightning dangled. The sky turned a pearly blue where nothing existed except that bluer thread. Maybe the thread touched the traffic signal where we were about to stop. We could only try to make sense of details too fast to follow. The bright and pearly blue vanished. Darkness then, and the memory of trees thrashing in silhouette.

The traffic signal had been working fine before. Now it stammered out a red panic.

2. Murmuration

Sunday morning, September the second, starlings passed the kitchen window. When the supply should have run out, it didn’t. On and on they flew, a dozen ripped seams at a time in a silver sky. Once outside, we couldn’t see them at all. But the noise! A high-pitched rustling, as of water heard in a dream, told us to keep looking, and after a moment our eyes picked them out, dark leaves among the golden ones. They’d come to rest in our neighbor’s cottonwoods.

A moment later they took flight again; but each tree remained full, because the tree beyond it refilled it with more birds even as it emptied. Minutes on end we watched, the same spectacle renewing itself, and then my wife said, “That’s nature for you. Fascinating, yet boring.”

I had not until this episode realized the cottonwoods had gone gold. My back yard is defined by pines. They stay the same color. I had to raise my eyes to see the gold flickering like flimsy coins. Now the cottonwoods were rustling at their own lower pitch; it seemed like the same song I’d heard from the starlings, but played on a different instrument. It made me recall that I’d already seen the sumac down the road reddening. I told my wife the changes had sneaked up on me.

Her smile was wistful. She must have noticed long ago.

Gordon Grice’s nonfiction pieces have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, and others. His books include The Red Hourglass and The Book of Deadly Animals.

Photo by Elizabeth Fackler