"Please, sit down. Before we start, I want to tell you that I don't normally see people on such short notice, and at this late hour. I don't want you to think that we can make a habit of these kinds of sessions."
"Thank you doctor, I appreciate it. And it won't happen again."
"There was such urgency in your voice on my machine, that's the only reason I agreed - that and curiosity - why did you need to see me so badly before the end of the Autumnal Equinox? What could not wait till tomorrow? And may I ask you what that strange thing is that looks like a mummified pterodactyl?"
"I'll answer both questions in a moment, I'll explain. There's not much time. Let me start with my father."
"I used to think that I learned everything I know from my father, because he taught me nothing.
"For twenty-five years, every single weekday, my father would go out to sell Encyclopedias. The only people who bought them were the ones who never read a thing. He had digested each volume and would impress the illiterate by his ability to recall any detail from those pages - the lengths of rivers, the names of battles, when roads went from dirt to asphalt. They thought that was knowledge - a stockpiling, a kind of having. Smart meant you could impress by mere possession, which is as close to tangibility as thinking gets.
"But every night my father read the stars with some graph paper, a drawing compass and graphite pencils, ephemeris tables, and that thing you were asking about, called an umbrella - an astrological device of his own creation."
"What's an umbrella?"
"The word was a compound of Umbra - Latin for shade - and Bela Lugosi, who played Dracula in the 1931 movie. Originally he was going to call it an umbracula, but in a rare concession to reality he opted to pay tribute to the actor who played a monster, and not the monster itself. It was a strange, obnoxiously furtive object that shielded the user from light - that's where the Dracula part of the name came into it. My father was a big fan of the old Universal horror movies. If vampires were real they would've made him rich, buying up all those umbrellas.
"So, the umbrella - nice word, I'll give him that - it was really a kind of half-inverted cane, half-tent. There was some black fabric fastened to a collapsible frame of thin wooden ribs radiating from the tip of the cane, and included apertures for a periscope and a telescope that extended through the fabric to the outside of the covering. You pointed the bottom of the cane upwards, pressed a button and the ribs opened wide above. Then your head and shoulders were concealed under the umbrella, and you could access the periscope if it was raining or snowing, to see ahead of you, or the telescope to view the heavens without any nearby light source getting in the way.
"He'd chart the courses of planets, ascensions, degrees in houses - I never understood it. Then he'd spend Saturday and Sunday standing too close to me with his old man smell, the scent of stewing idle perspiration rather than the sweat of hard work, talking too loudly with his old man voice, a cartoon voice with newsreel loudness, about his older-than-man revelations. As though, he, of all people - an encyclopedia salesman - should have uncovered some key to understanding existence, while so many brilliant minds before had failed."
"Tell me about that."
"He liked the big headlines in the sky, if you will; he often spoke of eschatological orbs, apocalyptic twinkling and the long unrolled milky maps of fate. He said he knew the courses of our lives. He said he knew me, and he knew himself. He wrote a little song that he used to sing sometimes, in a cracked baritone like a rubber tire groaning into the jaws of a garbage truck:
The will of the stars
cannot be unmade
like sunlight into umbrella shade.
But the will of the stars
I've learned to know
like moonlight into umbrella shadow.
"What did you think of all this?"
"I think facts were tacks that pinned the world down in place, and the stars were magnets that drew the facts out so my father could rearrange the world the way he wanted. He wanted to have knowledge that nobody else did. Knowing public facts in encyclopedias was one thing, but possessing secrets - that was another. And the best way to know things that nobody else does is to determine that things are not what others think they are. It made him feel important and powerful even if times were hard. Even if he was broke (and we often went without), he had stars in his pockets. And even if the facts were against him, at night the stars would rise out of his pockets into the sky and pull out the overdue bills and failures and the other tacks. But I'm just guessing about his motives because he was not exactly open. We did not ever talk about who we were, but only what we knew, and we were like a Beanie Baby enthusiast and a numismatic with a specialization in ancient Roman currency starring in a very boring student film. When I grew older, I began to laugh at his nonsense in secret, and then finally, three months ago, at the dinner table."
"What triggered this open display of anger?"
"It was the Summer Solstice - June twenty-first. He told me he had read in the stars that the world was going to change in three seasonal phases, and the first was going to start this very evening. He said it used to be flat, then it was round, and now it would become another shape. He said it was the will of the stars that they would hide in long mourning coats and that no sun would rise. He said he had calculated a list of dates for the remaining three stages of the end of days, occurring on the equinoxes and solstices, something had ascended, something else had entered a seventh house… "
"How did he react?"
"He said you'll see, my boy, when you're a few days older, when you understand the forces of the stars on the lives of men. Then I said, oh we'll see all right - by the light of the sun… "
"Thanks, my allergies are really acting up - it's the start of mold season, and this feels like… it's going to be a really bad one."
"My father woke me by slapping my back, like a laundress beating a wet rug. It's odd when old people are strong, like freak weather is odd. And speaking of, it was this past June, a really hot one, you remember. I grumbled out of bed and he dragged me to the window with his old man grip, a grip always too tight as if holding on for dear life, and there were no stars; they were blotted out completely. You could see nothing. It was like having your eyes turned around in their sockets, staring into the dark wall of your brain. It was like holding his damn umbrella over your head."
"How did you feel?"
"You would think it would feel like a dream, but it struck me as more actual than anything I'd ever experienced before in waking life, and that made it all the more unnerving - to think that reality was the same as this overwhelming garbage dump of night."
"How did your father act?"
"I don't remember. And then I finally had to fall asleep. When I woke, it was definitely morning, but outside the windows it appeared the house had sunk into a tar pit. I found my father sitting on the edge of his bed, looking about to moan, looking so secret and so left behind. I thought I'd go outside and see if the world felt any different, now that it was ending. I went downstairs and opened the door. And it's a funny feeling, when you can't see past your eyes."
"Yes, thanks. But then I saw a little line of light, sort of like a phosphorescent rope, a few hundred feet away. I went towards it and hit my head on something thick and heavy, like a saddle… I reached out for the rope. Plain daylight cast rings across my fingers. I slid out from under the darkness covering the house and I saw that it was a gigantic leaf."
"Where do you think it came from?"
"I don't know. But the world used to be flat, and then it was round. Maybe now it's some other shape, with undiscovered angles or curves covered in monstrous forests with monstrous seasons. Maybe if it's the will of the stars some new maps will need to be made."
"It was miles and miles of glossy green with veins bigger than redwoods. It was the size of all the cemeteries in the world put together, with raggedy borders. It draped our house and the whole valley behind it. It was just luck, I guess, that the tip was so near to us, otherwise I might not have seen any light at all. I went back under the leaf and found the door and then my father. He seemed uncharacteristically humble, almost sane and appropriate. I took him outside, showed him what had really happened. As the leaf was drifting toward us, from a vast, unknown wild, it must've blacked out the stars - it certainly was large enough. It must have hovered for a while and then settled down on the land. I told my father, well, the world's not ending, but you were partly right, the stars did go out, and I'll give you that, and I meant it as a compliment. But he didn't want to hear it.
Maybe there was some father nearby celebrating his omniscience because he'd been telling his son that a giant leaf was going to drift on the valley. But my father was always about stars, never about leaves. And he was always about being 100% correct. He flared up and told me to get out and not come back. He told me I had never understood a word he'd said. I took the umbrella out of spite I guess."
"And that's how our people found you wandering the streets?"
"Yeah, that's how."
"Do you still think that everything your father said was nonsense?"
"Yes. Even if it's true, that doesn't mean it isn't nonsense."
"Do you always - excuse me, how strange. It looks like some kind of big storm on the way, doesn't it? Some kind of black clouds over the city. But it wasn't on the weather this morning… "
"Doctor, what's wrong?"
"The sky is going dark, I can't believe it. There's something massive in the sky. But I can sort of make it out, thanks to the streetlights."
"Here it is. Let me see - is it orange?"
"Yes… orange, and brown and gold and red… and look, some stars show here and there through holes in the… the leaves… are there more leaves behind this one? And that crunching and smashing sound, like bones grinding and ships wrecking, what is it? What's going on?"
"What do you mean?"
"I saw the green leaf in June. It was a single, stray summer leaf from a single heaven-sized tree. But it's September 21st now. And if there are many leaves, and what tree doesn't have many leaves, and if there are many trees, and what tree stands alone out in the undiscovered wild, then all those autumn leaves are going to come down upon us, blown by whatever monster wind plays with monster trees. God knows how many leaves, how deep they'll settle on the land, blocking the sun, damming and contaminating the rivers, spreading fires, choking the air with a million acres of mold.
"That's why I had to see you tonight - I wanted someone to understand. I didn't want to be alone. I couldn't go back to him."
"I'm sorry. I know we have fifteen minutes left in our session, and I am supposed to be there for you. But I don't know what I'm feeling right now. Those dead leaves clouding the sky, flying, falling… it's too terrible for words. Please give me a minute. I need to watch this with my eyes open, breathe deeply and get a grip. Perhaps you could also use this moment to reflect on how you are feeling, too."
"Well you know, doctor, I think it's impossible to look deep inside yourself, but it's easy to look up and pretend you're doing just that. Here, take this umbrella and stick it -"