Tar Spots · Dave Gregory

Maple trees on Homewood Avenue shed foliage as I return from the supermarket with Hannah, my fourteen-year-old niece. A week’s provisions fill our backpacks. Proud of the gray, faux leather boots she got for her birthday, Hannah walks next to the sidewalk, kicking clusters of fallen, crinkling leaves.

I suggest raking the lawn when we get home. “Let’s build a massive pile, then jump in.”

She throws her head back and clucks her tongue. “I’m too old for that.”

“No one outgrows jumping into a pile of leaves.”

Her nose remains elevated. “Besides, these are gross. They’re covered with black dots, big as quarters. It looks like a disease.”

Hannah’s right. I recall trees on this street bursting red and yellow each fall, now black and brown dominate. “It is a disease. A mild one. Just a fungus, really. They’re called tar spots.”

“Are they contagious?”

“Only to maple trees. Blight doesn’t kill them. It scars the leaves, that’s all.”

“That’s all?” She tucks a dark strand of hair behind one ear. “It ruins everything and looks like cancer.”

Her statement is chilling. We know all about cancer. “You’re right. It isn’t fair. Summer’s end should be serene and colorful before snow buries everything.” I stop and survey the neighborhood, its charm undiminished after living here twenty years with my wife. The houses are in good repair, front yards are decorated with interlocking brick and carefully tended gardens. Most porches have pumpkins on them. “It’s a lovely afternoon if we can see past the spots.”

Hannah stops and faces me. She tilts her head, raises an eyebrow and gives a look that says adults aren’t so smart. “You remind me of Mrs. Sharma, my fifth grade teacher, she called death a beautiful end to a long happy life, with loved ones gathered and our affairs in order. It was nothing like that when mummy died. Everything turned upside down.”

“It certainly did.” My sister Brenda died three years ago and I miss her every day.

“This is the same thing. There’s no beauty, just fungus and rot.”

“Well, that’s not . . .”

“Is death ever beautiful?” Hannah doesn’t let me answer. She walks on, emphasizing her words by kicking fallen leaves. “Innocent people get murdered. War obliterates everything. We eat and breathe poison. Animals are slaughtered. Dead whales have stomachs full of plastic. Brushfires, triggered by the climate crisis, burn koalas and kangaroos.”

I fall in step with Hannah and commiserate. “I agree. Pain is everywhere.”

Hannah’s scattering leaves waist high. Her voice rises above the swishing and crunching. “Pain? Children starve in Africa. Refugees drown crossing the Mediterranean. Tractor trailers collide with school buses.” She throws her arms wide. “Nothing gets a beautiful death. Not even leaves.”

My niece isn’t always morose – she excels in school, her laugh is as lovely as birdsong – but she spends too much time on the Internet, watching grim videos that didn’t exist when I was her age. It can’t be healthy. Hannah’s father never recovered from Brenda’s death. He filled the void with alcohol and neglected Hannah until my wife and I took her in.

Hannah bends and plucks a single red leaf from the ground. The backpack compromises her balance. I reach for her but she straightens and smiles – and waves her prize. “Look, I found a spotless one.”

On grassy hillsides in my youth, I sought four-leaf clovers, believing they brought luck. Hannah thinks a fallen leaf, untouched by blight, signals hope for death without misery.

For one happy moment, she’s blinded to the coming disappointment.

Dave Gregory is a Canadian writer who worked on cruise ships and sailed around the world for nearly two decades. He is an Associate Editor with Exposition Review and his work has most recently appeared in Exile: The Literary Quarterly, and Firewords. Please follow him on Twitter @CourtlandAvenue.