The Meaning of Leaf by Denise Robbins

By Denise Robbins

This is a story about a leaf named Finnegan.

In the beginning, all Finnegan knew was the red of his mother, and the red knew all of him. She hummed songs in the evening, whispered dreams in the morning. She painted over everything. Every shape, every word, every thought was red. You never know how many different shades of red there are until you live in a world where there is nothing else.

And then, Finnegan grew. When he grew large enough to stretch his neck, he could stretch past his mother, the flowering shroud, past her sturdy red petals, past the treasure she held deep, the bundles of filament and stamen yet uncovered, past all of that to the rest of the world. The world! With its mysterious movements and colors… the world beyond his mother, beyond the red, provided endless fascination.

“Oh!” he cried, as the clouds shifted and the sky turned dark. “Oh!” he cried as mysterious pink figures came close to examine his form, and “oh!” as their fingers stroked his skin. For a long time, “oh” was the only word he knew.

Soon after, brothers and sisters began to appear in fits and spurts. Diminutive buds grew to mature leaves, replete with curved veins leaning away and coming back together to a tip. In their form, Finnegan saw himself. He found his twin brother underneath his feet. He found his mirror. As more brothers and sisters formed, as they discovered one another, the air filled with laughter that came in waves.

And there was Grandfather Trunk, skin rife with valleys weaving in and out, connecting together in lemniscatic landscapes. Grandfather Trunk rarely spoke, but when he did, his voice boomed and shook and reached deep down into your venation patterns, and you got a senseGrandfather Trunk knew everything there was to know, everything that was or will be.

Grandfather Trunk said no more than one word at a time, in a groan or a crackle that came with the wind.

“DAY,”​ he said on the day when all of the brothers and sisters had finally found their way into the world.

“PRAY,”​ he said when the rains battered down and caused the whole world to sway back and forth.

Finnegan, on the other hand, was far more talkative than Grandfather Trunk. He asked his mother for the words of whatever he could see. He wanted to know everything. He learned what he could, and, as the oldest and wisest of the children, he passed on his knowledge to all the others.

“Did you see that?” Finnegan asked the other children one day, as a cloud shifted into the shape of a leaf just like himself.

“See what?” they asked in unison.

“Look up!” he explained. “Look at the cloud! It looks just like us.” It was one of the new words his mother taught him — cloud — and the word tumbled in his mouth. She also taught him “sky,” and “rain.”

Later, with more words to color his sentences, he could put meaning to his observations. When he saw a similar cloud one week later, he told the others: “Here we are so close to the ground. Yet our form is reflected in the heavens above. Perhaps that is our journey.”

They murmured in deep respect. Their admiration warmed Finnegan’s veins.

“Yes, this is our journey,” he asserted, confirming his place as a storyteller of the leaves.

“This is the story of how we eventually join our brethren in the sky.”For Finnegan, these were the happiest of times, even during the worst of times.

Even as the wind blew, as he watched some siblings ripped from their home and carried to the mystery beyond the white pointed fence, never to return. Even as the sky tore into two and battered Finnegan with thick bullets of gray and pulled him down, and even as he shook to empty it of the gray refilled and battered him again and again and the gray covered everything and became everything and red stopped existing, if only for a moment. Even as the weeks passed between the rain and the heat took his breath and sucked out his heart and the air disappeared, leaving fuzzy waves of emptiness in its wake.

In the winds, he learned how to fly. In the rain, he learned how to hold. In the heat, he learned how to breathe.

During one particularly strong storm, Finnegan relayed his lessons to the others.“This is the story of spring,” he said.

“This is how we learn to be strong. Hold fast, brothers and sisters, and we will be all the stronger. Have no fear.”

“FEAR,”​ Grandfather Trunk boomed back.

The word made Finnegan tremble unmanageably, the fear in his own veins brought to fore. His brothers and sisters tittered and wailed; many lost their grip and were swept up by the winds to places unknown.

He pushed away his worries and gulped.

“Yes, fear,” said Finnegan, “fear is necessary, but we must live with our fear.” He regained his confidence as he spoke.

“This is how we become a story of survival.”

Again the children tittered, and cried as a few of their siblings lost their hold and fell away. But the leaves that remained held all the stronger.

Yes, it was the happiest of times. Until the mothers started dying.

When the first mother died, nobody knew what to think. First, she lost the ability to speak. Then, a curse of brownness tinged the edges of her red petals. What turned to brown soon began to wither. As the brown curse spread closer to her heart, her petals curled and shrank until they were no larger than a few drops of dried blood.

She died in silence. She fell to the ground with barely a wisp of wind. They named her as she fell. Her name was Florina. Finnegan’s brothers and sisters wailed in sorrow for days. Only after the fifth passage of the sun did Grandfather Trunk speak a word.


That is all he said. But Finnegan knew what he meant. The death of Florina was pre-determined, it was necessary, it was needed. Once he explained the meaning of the mother’s death, the children felt proud of their grief. They made jokes, they laughed, their tears turned to happiness.

They didn’t realize it would happen again.

Then the next mother died, and the next, and the next. Eventually, there was no other conclusion other than that the brown curse would come for all.

Finnegan’s brothers and sisters repeatedly asked: Why was this happening?

“This is about more than our mothers,” Finnegan said. “This is a story about summer. Look at those pink creatures there — they are called people. Look how happy all the people are to take shelter underneath our wings.”

Beneath him, a man and a woman leaned against the tree trunk in bliss. Their hands stroked the cool ground as they nestled into the corners of the tree’s roots. Their smiles did not need translation.

“See how much they love us?” he continued. “This is what happens in summer. Our mothers must die so we can grow. We must grow to protect the rest of the creatures on this earth. Our mothers’ love for us becomes our love for all else. This is how things must be.”

When the brown curse came for his own mother, the words did not come so easily. The red, his mother, that was once his world, eventually began to shrivel and shrink just like all the others.

“Why?” he whispered, quietly, so the others would not hear.

His mother never answered. She had lost her words.

While her stamens and pistils withered, Finnegan did not cry. He prayed and sang, he carried the entire tree into song.

His mother’s life dwindled; his voice grew louder. The moon shrank and swelled alongside.

Her last moments happened while Finnegan was asleep. He woke up and she was gone. Nowhere to be seen.

He never remembered to give her a name.

For a time, Finnegan fell into silence. He did not want to put this loss into words. He did not want to admit the vulnerabilities in his own stories. But as the others began to prod and question, he knew he must put on a strong face.

“Yes,” he said eventually. “It is true my mother died for us. Just like yours. This is how things must be. Just like Grandfather said.”

Once the words left his mouth, their trueness grew to form. His sorrow turned to pride. His role had returned. He was ready for whatever came next.

And what came next: the winds brought not death but relief; the sky ceased its torrents and the clouds calmed as if they all fell asleep. The people came in laughing droves.

The next message boomed down during these moments of peace.


Finnegan translated Grandfather Trunk’s word. “More!” he cried to the others. “He means it is time to move on and remember there is more to live for.”

And there was. It was a joyous occasion when the seeds came and went. The small hard berries dotted the leaves like hundreds of red eyes. The animals followed: squirrels hopped from branch to branch, stuffing dozens of berries in their cheeks until they began spilling out;white-tailed deer stretched their necks and chomped noisily on whatever they could reach; robins perched and feasted until their bellies ballooned around their legs. The berries that remained fell to the ground, where they were quickly scavenged by mice and rabbits. Every creature on the planet was in one great race to bask in the fruits of their tree, it seemed. This was their moment. Their vindication. All of the pain of losing their mothers, it was worth it to know that it was all part of a book that would be written, pages of a new life yet to be unfolded.

When the first leaf began to turn, it was time for yet another change and yet another story.

For a nearby sister had taken on a shade of crimson at her edges, and then as days passed, the red crept further down her venations, to her stem, radiating with brilliance no one had seen since the mothers had gone away.

Finnegan and his siblings cheered and cried at its beauty.

But what could it mean, this red? Was this a sign from the mothers? Was this a harbinger of their return?

Finnegan had no answers, but the red soon touched all of his brothers and sisters. Colorsrolled through the leaves, bringing the entire tree to a fiery form. They admired each other’s fulgent shades, the way they sparkled in the sunlight as if the tree had transformed into a bundle of rubies.

The world reacted in kind. Admiration was seen in the faces of the dozens, perhaps hundreds, perhaps thousands — who could tell? — Of the people who came to visit. At sunset, families of squirrels would gather at the base of the tree, silent, unmoving, to pay their respects. Birds would line up on the white pointed fence and tweet songs of praise. All of the mice would emerge from their hiding places to join the ritual and watch the evening rays filter through the tree’s red shade.

This bliss would not last. The first sister fell away in a windstorm on a cool fall morning, along with dozens of other siblings, a turbulent affair with so many red leaves flying through the air that it appeared to onlookers to be a blazen sunset though it was not yet noon.

The other children began to fall away more blandly.

Their transformation was opposite of their mothers; while the mothers slowly lost their radiance before decaying to a brown and listless death, as their end grew near, the children grew more brilliant in color by the day, a culmination of themselves, seeming to reach for a strong, liberated life, until they broke free of their home and fluttered away.

But the dream of freedom was soon quelled. Anyone could see that the leaves, once liberated, degraded into death at a pace unmatched by the mothers. And of course, it was learned that this fate would eventually come to all.

“FALL.”​ Grandfather Trunk boomed for the last time.

Finnegan did not know how to react. But he had to come up with something.

“Yes, fall,” Finnegan explained to the others. “This is a story about fall, also known as autumn,” he explained.

He thought deeply. “The story of fall is a story about how we all must fall. Just as with our mothers, to fall is our destiny. To fall is to be complete.”

When he faced his own end, these words did not come so easily.

He held on admirably. Even as the frost came and went, even as the icy winds blew, even as the red engulfed him. He dreamt of becoming one with the sky. He dreamt of molding into the bark of the tree. He dreamt of being plucked from his branch by a young girl who would preserve him in between the pages of an old book, perhaps a book of sonnets, and set him on a cream-colored matte and hang his framed form on her bedroom wall to admire for years to come. He dreamt many dreams and many endings, but in each of them, he would not let go. He would not let himself fall. He would hang on until the end of eternity.“

This is the story of the one leaf that beat all the odds,” he said

About Denise Robbins

Denise is writer and environmentalist based in Washington, DC. Her work has been published in local publications including Red Tent Magazine, McSweeneys, and The Fable Online. Denise also co-authored a non-fiction book called Rising Tides: Climate Refugees in the Twenty-First Century that was published by Indiana University Press in 2017.

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