Middle School Grand Prize
So many brown leaves. No yellow.
Although it was still the middle of September, summer was fading quickly. I was no longer gazing into summer’s hot sticky mask of lemonade and camping that it usually put on in late July, but was watching the mask’s removal, which revealed the cold, drafty truth that lay behind the eyeholes.
I sat up in the tall paper birch tree out front, gazing over the roof of our short house to the multicolored countryside beyond. The tree had been green and lush several weeks ago, when I could’ve sat amongst the viridian foliage and never been noticed, but now the sturdy branches were cold and almost bare, crisp leaves in warm autumnal shades falling steadily.
While shards of cold wind pierced my skin, I tried not to listen to the racket below in the kitchen. Mom was supposedly doing the dishes, but I knew this was only something to busy her hands while she embarked on another of her tearful daydreaming sessions. Her daily speculations of the war’s casualties, which any day could include my father, were expected.
But there in the tree, I wasn’t thinking of war, or the terrible things Dad could be going through thousands of miles away in Afghanistan. My mind was instead working determinatively to ignore any dismal thoughts, and I turned instead to the only thing that kept me sane during times of sadness: happy memories. Eyes closed and hands encasing one another, I seemed to enter the moment visualized: a happy, silly, wishful time when I was four years old, come home from preschool terrified over something completely ridiculous a classmate had told me about moles.
“Moles are nothing for you to worry about,” Dad had reassured me in a soothing voice as I sobbed a story of mole world domination. “They’re peaceful creatures, and live underground. If they even come up here, it’s at night or in the rain.”
I refused to believe him, and with a sigh he left the room, returning a few minutes later with a shoebox filled with photographs. I looked meekly at the box, and followed Dad outside, where he began to dig a hole next to the paper birch sapling planted on my birthday.
“There,” he said, covering the box’s surface with dirt and patting it down, “Now the moles can know all about us, and won’t hurt us.”
Smiling at the mound of earth, I therefore composed a beautiful, original melody as a peace treaty.
Twinkle, twinkle, little moles
How I wonder where you go
Furry, furry, way down there
Digging, digging, everywhere
Twinkle, twinkle, little moles
Don’t come up and scare me
I opened my eyes, and all memory faded away. The birch tree had grown, and I was fourteen years old, wishing to go back in time. Rain was beginning to pour down about my face, and my hair was plastered to my tear-stained cheeks.
A sudden inspiration removed me from the tree, and my feet were suddenly skidding down the slick wood until I excitedly touched down on the soggy yellow grass. My toes sank into the squelching mud and became clogged with the slimy stuff, but I ignored this and sank to my knees. Mom would be livid to see my dirty dress, but I didn’t care.
Scratching and scrabbling at the ground, I mirthlessly flung handfuls of runny dirt behind me until my fingers touched the smooth surface of a very familiar cardboard box. The digging became frantic, and then I could finally lift it from the ground. It was wet and soft, the lid itself promptly deteriorating in my hands. Mom’s old Polaroid photos were muddy, ripped, and streaked with bleeding color, but it was beautiful, and my heart seemed to overflow with painful wishes. Rifling through the box, I finally uncovered a long forgotten peace letter Dad had written.
The humans from above would like to send their respect for your homely, underground community, and should shake your paw in an understanding treaty of peace between us. Shall there be no war between the people of above and the critters of below. We should forever live in harmony, on and within the world to which we have all contributed.
With a little laugh, I placed the soaked paper back amongst the pictures, and knew what I had to do. Breathing deeply, I began to scoop mud into the box, burying the mementos, and looked to the thin wooden folds of the birch tree, scavenging in the bark until I unearthed a ripped paper packet containing a single seed. When the tree was still small, I had hid the leftovers here so as to not lose them.
I hid the seed in the mud with a shaking hand and set off for the other side of the yard, where a new hole was dug and the box was buried.
I went inside and then, weeks later, something new emerged from the ground in that very spot: the tiny sapling of a paper birch tree. That was also the day that the postman came to the door looking grave. He bore a solemn letter that told of my father’s discovered body in an Afghan field.
I sat near my sapling for hours after that. It was simple. Mom was telling Grandma now. There would be tears. Dad would never come home.
When the sun came out, I smiled down at the growing tree, thinking of happy past and not lonely future. On the day of an ended life, another came to be. That tree grew into one even larger than its fellow across the yard, and remained for a long time. One day I sat on the grass, watching my children clamor in it, plotting an attack on the enemy mole camp across the way. The box and its treasures were long gone by then. The twins dug and dug, but all they found were roots. And another seed.