Thoughts of the Mad and Discarded
A leaf, cruelly shucked from its peaceful perch, spun towards the earth in a mad sort of way. Its soft green skin had distorted into a rusty shade of red, and it was stiff and full of sorrow. Whirling like frantic helicopter blades, the discarded leaf burrowed into my hair and spoke to me. “Love me,” it pleaded. I turned and stared, having to tilt my neck at an incredibly unflattering angle to see where it had landed. Carefully, I pulled it from my unruly curls, wary of crinkling the blades lest they crack.
Love me. What an odd thing to hear, especially from a leaf. But, then, maybe that isn’t so odd, for who does not want to be loved? Who, when their dreams fade to doubts and their happiest memories turn sour like spoiled milk, doesn’t wish for a moment where they feel known and whole?
I learned in a chemistry course that the reason leaves change color is because, as it gets cold, the trees transfer energy and nutrients to their trunk and roots by halting the production of chlorophyll, the main chemical in leaves that reflects green light. Every color we see is due to the fact that certain chemicals absorb certain light wavelengths, so an object’s color is proportional to the light frequency being reflected. Yellow leaves are common in autumn because the carotenoids reflecting those frequencies already exist in most plant organisms. When green fades, yellow naturally takes over.
Anthocyanin, on the other hand, is the chemical responsible for redder pigments in plants, and it is formed anew each year. While yellow carotenoids protect the plant from oxidation, the scientific purpose of red anthocyanins is unknown. It is hypothesized that it could be produced to protect the organism from certain harmful light frequencies or even that it delays the organism’s leaf-shedding stage, but I like to think the plant just has a taste for beauty. If I am going to go to sleep for a while, I imagine it saying, I might as well take someone’s breath away first.
If that’s the case, red-turning trees are really just delaying sleep, but maybe that’s the night owl in me speaking. As a child, I was always afraid of going to bed because I knew my older siblings and parents would still be doing fun things downstairs, and I didn’t want to miss out. Though I’m no longer subject to the bedtime of my childhood, not much has changed. Still, my most productive hours are late, late at night when the rest of the world has gone still. I like to think of those “midnight” hours as my secret hours—the hours no one else has to recharge and think and take long walks on the empty streets, smiling in awe at how peaceful the city feels when no one is in it.
Maybe that’s really why plants produce the red-pigment-making chemical. They are recharging. They want to feel productive one last time before sleeping for a quarter year. If I were a tree, I think I’d do that, too. Maybe I’d be a maple or an oak or even a river birch, though they change to a yellow-ish orange instead of a red. But that seems more fitting, anyway. Let’s go with that.
There were river birches growing in my childhood home, in the backyard sprouting near the stream and another in the front yard near the garden where we would go searching for four leaf clovers. Mama planted white phlox at the tree’s base one spring, and though they were supposed to be deer resistant, one morning all the little white petals were gone. The deer ate the blue hyacinth she planted right after that, too, so she decided to play dirty and make all her boys pee on her garden flowers. Apparently deer have an aversion to human urine. War is war, and no one messes with my mama.
River birches typically have three trunks sprouting from the same place, with paper-thin leaves that catch the sun in the afternoon and parchment bark that we used to peel off as kids to write nonsensical glyphs like we thought the ancient Egyptians did.
In the summer, the tips of their branches would be littered with massive moth cocoons that Mama would cut off and burn right there on the driveway. We felt bad for killing the moth babies, but the cocoons attracted other nasty bugs, like assassin beetles which are poisonous. Also, if the moth caterpillars hatched, they’d eat the river birch leaves into a trashy-looking lace like Japanese beetles do in June to the maple trees and rose bushes. Mama always hated that.
Japanese beetles are pesky creatures with green-brown iridescent wing-covers to protect their gauzy and rather fragile wings beneath. Their interiors are stuffed with a yellow-green paste that smells like corroded metal, and their six knobby legs always gave a delightful amount of resistance before tearing off. So did the wings. Mama used to pay us a penny per Japanese beetle we killed, and eventually we got disturbingly creative with our execution methods. Ranging from bleach baths to a rose thorn stabbed through the beetle’s crunchy exoskeleton, we were efficient and rather profitable killers. The summer I was nine, I earned $6.34.
Should I be ashamed of this beetle torture phase I went through? Should my mother for encouraging it? I don’t think so, but maybe that’s because I really am ashamed. Am I? I do acknowledge its cruelty, but so what? Maybe I’m cruel. In Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, the older brother who tortured squirrels was painted in this terrifying light, like he had a bit of evil festering in his blood and skin, like if he didn’t torture animals, he’d have to torture people. But I don’t feel like I have evil in my skin.
I’ve always wondered. Do crazy people know they’re crazy? Or is insanity a kind of state of being, like sleep, where you don’t know you are dreaming until you wake up?
I don’t think I was obsessed with killing things, not like Ender’s older brother, anyway. The torture was a means, an occupation. One cent a beetle. And Mama’s trees and roses were important; they were beautiful, and those beetles were ruining them.
They needed to die.
My hands would smell like dead beetle for hours afterwards, even after washing twice with soap, but I used to like the smell. I would bring my fingertips to my nose to get a whiff of the sickly sweet metallic odor, and I would smile. It had been a productive day.
Eventually the beetle problem got too bad for Mama’s little mercenaries to keep up with, so she bought beetle traps from Home Depot. We forgot about it and stopped torturing them, possibly because we got bored of it, possibly because we grew up and got real jobs that paid better. But years later the beetles got bad enough again that Mama explained the economic opportunities to her young sons, my younger siblings, and a new reign of beetle torture began.
One day, my siblings came into the living room after playing outside, chittering excitedly about all the fun they’d had. They asked me to read them a book, so I pulled one off the bookshelf and sat on the couch. They sat around me and on my lap, and I crinkled my nose. What was that smell? Then I recognized it, the sweet beetle stench lingering on their fingertips.
“Were you just killing Japanese beetles?” I asked, and they nodded with proud grins. “Why don’t you go wash your hands?” I suggested, now abhorred by the smell.
“We did!” they assured me.
“Can you do it again?” I made a face as my youngest brother, Caleb, wriggled his fingers near my nose to prove he’d washed. The beetles’ offensive metallic stench mingled with the fresh breeze scented bathroom hand soap, and I kindly pushed his hands away. “Please wash again, Caleb. Your hands still smell like them.” He sniffed his hands and shrugged but pattered away to do as instructed.
When they all got back, they informed me on all the creative ways they’d thought of to kill the beasts. Noah pulled the wings off and then tested for the minimum amount of legs it took for them to walk before poking a thin stick through them like a kabob. He got twenty on one stick, he told me proudly. Rhett stuffed as many in his hands as he could and then shook them around like a maraca to “dizzy” them, he claimed, before throwing them on the pavement and crushing them with a rock. Japanese beetle paste, he called it. Caleb didn’t like the feel of the alive beetles in his hands, so he made Noah catch and drop them so he could crush them with his foot. “You can’t just stomp on them,” he told me. “You have to slide.”
At first, I was terrified for them. My brothers are crazy, I thought, but then I remembered how much fun I’d had doing the same thing at their age, feeling powerful, productive, and slightly silly. I remembered telling Mama at the dinner table about my own creative torture ideas. Had she been thinking the same thing about me? She probably had, but she never said anything to me about it or asked me to stop.
I wonder sometimes if I am incapable of feeling compassion. Do all children torture bugs? I don’t think so. Does the fact that I did make me horrible? Does it make me crazy?
I recently found out that a close relative of mine was diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, and, for a while, I was paranoid I had it too. Signs show throughout my family, in my siblings, in myself. We tortured bugs for goodness sake. But then, if I am incapable of any sort of empathy, why does it hurt so much when I think of how my parents splitting up is affecting my still very young siblings? Do they feel as abandoned and discarded as I do? Like the fragile helicopter leaf that clung to my hair. Love me. Want me. Please don’t leave me alone.
Maybe the reason trees turn red really is to delay the leaf-shedding stage. Maybe the leaves are just terrified of what will happen once their branches let them go, once they are left alone and discarded. Separated. If I were a leaf, I’d cling on as long as I could, too.
River birch leaves don’t seem to have any problem falling. They shed long before many other trees even have a chance to start changing color. They seem to be fine with being separated from their families, or maybe they have just come to terms with their loss. They accept it, embrace it, and let it change them, turning their disappointments into a thing of beauty. Maybe I should try harder to be like them.
My family used to make fun of me for collecting leaves. I would bring them home and press them in books and then tape the preserved plants up on my ceiling. They made fun until they saw what I had created: some sort of impressive, mad-looking plant-collage, swirling and rippling over my head like a castle or a portal into a different land, a better land, a peaceful land. It took years to fill the whole ceiling, and now my younger brothers sleep in that room. I like to think of the dried plants as angels, guiding them, watching them. I live too far away now to do it, myself, but I hope they look up and smile at the plants before falling asleep. I hope it makes them feel wanted. I hope it makes them think of happy times.
I suppose my family never really was perfect. We were always a little too crazy and a little too loud. We used to go white water rafting a lot where we’d drive up to West Virginia and rent a massive raft from an outfitter. They’d bus us down to the New River, and we’d unload the supplies from the trailer and heave the rafts into the water. Some of the rapids we could hear from a mile away, and I remember my insides fluttering at the sound and anticipation. Rapids are caused by large rocks or obstructions in the river flow which force the water into turbulence. The river would swirl and churn, sometimes forming incredibly dangerous eddies and whirlpools which could suck objects in and flip them around like an endless washing machine.
Our tour guide always had a spiel they liked to give about not “freezing” when the rapids came. What they meant was, paddle when the guide says to paddle. If you do what the guide says, usually no one falls out in the dangerous parts where limbs can get torn off by the rocks below. The trick is to keep paddling. If the raft has a higher velocity than the rapid’s backflow, there’s no way it’s gonna flip. But if you get scared and stop paddling, the boat turns, a corner catches, and all eight of you get thrown into the wild water.
On one such rafting trip, we had a guide who, for some reason seemed to like us and our adrenaline-seeking ways, because he always took us through the harder part of the rapids. “Risk it for the biscuit,” he said in his thick West Virginian accent. My brothers and I loved that, so we made it our war cry as we paddled like fiends through the raging waters as the boats behind us watched quietly and took an easier route.
Before and after each rapid, we would all stand and raise our paddles above our heads, wooting like orcs from The Lord of the Rings. The image’s amusement was enhanced by the fact that all my brothers were shirtless. That’s how I like to remember my family: kind of crazy, kind of loud, and burning with an energy no one can take away.
I’ve thought a lot about it, and I cannot decide if my fear of narcissism is justified. I want to be stronger than what has been hardwired into my genetics. I want to be stronger than the fragments that have been made of my family. I am tired of feeling abandoned, but maybe it’s time to be as the river birch, always looking towards the sun and accepting with dignity the changes life imposes on it.
I’ve thought a lot about it, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the world really is just a little mad. I don’t think this madness is a bad thing. It is a human thing. It means we are all full of life. We are full of silliness and sadness, fear and freedom. We all probably have been and all probably will feel discarded. We are and will be loved. Like the trees and the beetles and the rivers, we are living, and we are crazy for it.
About the Author
Keturah is from southern Virginia with its trees, rainstorms, dragonflies, and fairies and is currently studying chemical engineering at Brigham Young University.