Black frost: the coming and the going

We drive home through a storm of birds, swooping and chattering low over the road as they sweep from one abandoned cornfield to another, resting on their way south. We squinch our eyes and tighten our muscles, breathless until we are sure the car will not collide with soft, small bodies. Then, caught up by their flurry, we hurry on. For the wind has suddenly shifted; the clouds have spread and are scudding across the sky to some unknown destination beyond the horizon, taking the last wisps of Indian summer along with them.

The world all at once doesn't smell the same, the rich, pungent odor of drying leaves and musky autumn vegetation is gone, the bite of a new chill is sharp and clear in our nostrils. We need no weather radar or sophisticated instruments to tell us that the long, dreamlike fall is over and we are in for a hard freeze.

Somehow, without our paying much heed, the daylight hours have shortened greatly and the sun is already low in the sky. Time is short, for we must rescue the remaining fruits of summer from field and garden, and store them away in their own snug, warm places before nightfall. Sharp memories now, of long-ago childhood autumns when this last harvest was gathered in desperate haste for fear the precious food might be wasted and there would not be enough to last through the long, harsh winter. My children will never fully understand this, having grown up with plenty - too much perhaps. Yet something urgent is communicated, for they fly to dig warm clothes and mittens out of blanket chests , remembering my tales of bundling in snowsuits to save the late harvest from the frost.

By now my husband is back from his day in the city, and he trades office clothes for a tattered mackinaw, signals the children to jump into the old wooden wheelbarrow, and trundles them out to the garden. Together we gather our treasures and marvel at the strange way of growing things - a pumpkin that has welded itself to the chicken-wire fence, forgotten cucumbers climbing a sunflower stalk, acorn squash that has successfully hidden all summer under the rhubarb.

We load the barrow and bushel baskets and go back for more, toting everything into the carriage shed and tucking them up for the night in tarps and blankets. Already the first star burns through the dusk, and the children must carve jack-o'-lanterns out in the yard. It is not quite Halloween, but the pumpkins were theirs to plant and tend, so we help them with sharp knives and scooping, and gather up the seeds for toasting in the oven.

The house feels warm and steamy, and we pat each other's cheeks as they glow with the first tingle of winter, feeling smug and satisfied that all and everyone are safely gathered in. My heart lurches as I remember the marigolds have not been covered with the old sheets and bedspreads that have sustained them through the light, white frosts of early autumn; then I shrug and start to cook supper, for tonight no sheet will suffice. This is the end of summer flowers - their leaves will be black by morning.

And they are. I am out early at the clothesline, the grass crunching underfoot, everything covered with ice crystals just beginning to sparkle in the morning light. It is still - there are no bird calls, although I know many birds are staying with us; they wait respectfully for the full rays of the sun to see what has survived the night. But there is one sound - a steady, gentle pelting.

I see that all at once the leaves are falling from the mulberry tree. By early afternoon they are all down, piled russet and olive on the browning grass.

This is the last tree in the yard to lose its leaves - winter has begun.

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