Calli scuffed among the leaves that day, that pink striped hoodie day, darting here and there with this leaf and that stem-gripped by toddler-pudged thumb and pointer. “Daddy, most beautifulest of all!” a yellow spade-contour cottonwood. “Daddy, Daddy, the most beauitfulest of all!” a crimson five-lobed maple. “The most beautifulest, Daddy!” a dun scalloped sassafras.
“They can’t all be the most beautiful, Calli.” Impatient, an edge to my voice, as I turned, looking for Mark, knowing he wouldn’t be there, damning him for abandoning us, whittling my heart to splinters for caring.
“Yes, they can, Daddy, yes they can. See? Look at this one!”
“All right, Pupcake, all right, I see.” Be quiet, Calli. I need to think. My husband, your papa, doesn’t love me anymore. I have to think! Can’t you just for once be quiet?
“No, you don’t. You just make-believing to see.”
A blade of truth slipped between my ribs, gashed my soul.
“Then show me, Calli. Teach me to see.”
“I can’t, Daddy. All-growed-up eyes forget how to see.”
The truth-blade twists.
“I don’t want to forget, sugar. I don’t want to be all-growed-up.”
“And there’s the problem.” Mark’s deep voice.
I turned. There, his silhouette, broad-shouldered, trim-waisted, cock-stirring, backlit along the top of the ridge. Arms folded across his chest, battling to hold in the disgust, and losing.
“Why did you ask me here, Thomas?”
I stumbled towards him, my life pounding in my throat there beside my heart. “You know why.”
He stepped away just as I reached him, just as I reached out for him.
“Papa, Papa, see, the most beautifulest of all!” Calli’s excited trill as she held aloft a bouquet of dead and dying autumn.
“They’re leaves, Calli. Just leaves.” He brushed her offering, and her, aside. “Dead leaves, dead love.”
“Mark,” I hissed, “don’t hurt her like that!”
“She has to grow up sometime! The world’s a rather nasty place.”
“My god, she’s four, Mark, four years old! She can grow up later. Let her be a kid today.”
I reached to lift her into my arms.
“No, Daddy! Dead leaves, dead love!” Calli pushed at me, turned and skittered down the side of the ravine.
“Calli!” I shouted as she tumbled, swallowed in the depth of crackling browns and golds. I ran toward the rippling roll farther and farther away. And then that bounce, that crack of pink on stone cold gray.
“Calli!” I shrieked and stumbled, tumbled after, clutching at the bouldered hope I knew was in vain. I had to look; I couldn’t look.
A universe below, moss scraped free by tiny silent hands, ashen stone impaling impossibly angled pink. And on her face, her bouquet of death, yellow, brown, crimson, the beautifulest of all.