It is quieter here, now, than it has been at any other time before.
Our voices amplify along the trail, their clear sounds gamboling between twig and bough and returning to us under the silver cathedral sky. The stillness of the air punctuates the end of every comment.
I have seen these very aspens rustle themselves awake, but there are no winds at the moment to rouse that shimmering laughter. Even so, they light the way through this loop of forest with slim trunks as luminous and distinctive as their celebrated crowns. The red ones surprise me still. At this hour they look as though they have snagged the copper fleece of the coming sunset as it brushes through the woods and prepares to take its place.
I round a corner and notice the stream of gold coursing to the side: a gilded rivulet of fallen leaves. The girls are caught in an eddy, drawn to fill a coat pocket or two, and Y walks toward me as they examine and exclaim.
“I have something for you.”
A satin scarlet coin for my own pocket, which makes me smile. He remembered.
A half-mile ahead there will be a hollow, dark and green and hushed, the home of a live fairy tale that the four of us will walk through with appropriate watchfulness and respect. There will be a steep ascent on which I’ll have to pause many times, feeling the burden of a changed body, and there will be a dozen more sights to which we call each other’s attention: a field of tall grass bright with the brushfire of autumn color, a hidden pond, a colossal stone.
But here in the middle, as I feel the absence of the usual cerulean sky of all previous years, I spy something new to me.
The gray clouds and the haze from distant wildfires direct my eye to the blue mountains beyond, each ridge highlighted by the filtered sun. On a sunnier day they would be one deckle-edged mass; in this late afternoon light they are a silent nod to the multilayered dimensions of beauty in creation, and for a second I have the curious feeling of wanting to spring lightly from this overlook, feet skimming treetops, and go as far as I can see — and, once there, farther.
Lowering the camera, I turn back to the trail. Here, too, the colors are more vivid for being overcast, and the upcoming bend in the path is dappled with more aspen-light: rich, open, beckoning. It’s the kind of bend anyone could travel without fear, for everything about it promises that what lies ahead will only be better and more magnificent. Quick as our littlest who dashes merrily down these forest lanes, you could run as though there were arms waiting to receive you and someone to hear the gladsome shout, “I’m almost there; I’m coming home!”
And without warning, a swift, odd pull of the heart pulls me forward then, as if around this curve — and perhaps the next — I might actually enter into the welcome of the One I’ve waited to see all my life. As if this next succession of steps could really be the last passage Home.
I halt, stung.
The trio of beloved voices approaches behind me, and I blink back the sharp, brief sheen of tears — but there is no bitter tang in them.
The girls’ cheeks are glowing. I slip Little Jo’s hood more securely over her ears as Y comes up with the walking stick.
I take his hand, and we walk on.
* * *