An acorn falls. It caroms through the tree, careening off leaves, limbs and twigs, bouncing and jouncing and ricocheting like a pinball boxed back and forth, up and down, hither and yon, and each ping and each pong carries it lower and lower until it boinks free, embraces gravity’s pull, straightens its trajectory, picks up speed and kerplunks atop the feathered crown of one Gallus gallus domesticus, also known as Chicken Little. You know the rest.
Each election year the fable of Chicken Little should be required reading for reasoning voters of all stripes. More than merely a children’s nursery rhyme, it’s a cautionary political tale about the dangers of jumping to conclusions or believing everything one hears, and illustrates the ease at which the populace can be whipped into mass hysteria by judicious use of catchphrases. (“Cut-and-run,” “tax-and-spend” and “flip-flopping Christmas-hating traitorous godless scum-sucking liberal” come immediately to mind.) And it’s been on my mind lately, not so much because of the rancid political affrontery we’re increasingly subjected to but because it seems the sky is actually falling.
It began almost a week ago, when I hustled out the front door to go to work. Overhead was a ceiling of moon-washed clouds rent and torn as if by talons, and through the jagged rendings the glittering lights of unknown stars were set against the midnight velvet of deep space. So deep, and so perfectly void of color, that I stumbled in a sudden baptism of vertigo. Brought short by the frost-rimed fender of the car, I gaped at the spectacle until I felt gravity’s hold lessening. For a moment it felt I might break free and drop into that celestial vacuum, spinning and purling endlessly toward the farthest edge of the galaxy, no more than a terrestrial mote that once was sentient.
When the moment passed I started the car, cranked on the heater and took a hard pull of coffee. The sudden infusion of caffeine and warmth jolted me back to reality. Headlights swept the night away. At the end of the block I stopped, looked both ways and began to go. That’s when the sky fell.
A shimmering net of golden leaves engulfed the car. They skittered down the windshield, danced in the lights and ticked like the toes of mice on the roof of the car. Already dazzled by those depthless tears in the night sky, I was unnerved by their unexpectedness on so calm a morning. Adrenaline pounded through my veins. It was better than the coffee, and I rewarded it with a queasy laugh.
By nightfall clouds eclipsed the sun. A crump of thunder echoed through the darkness. By the time I crawled into bed rain drummed on the roof. It was falling still when I arose the next morning.
Another type of falling, one which would have discomfited Chicken Little had she been out wandering the Kansas prairies. But another type of sky-falling took place last weekend at the county fairgrounds where we were engaged in the first Art in the Barn sale. Had she been there, this falling would have propelled the skittish fowl into veritable paroxysms of panic.
It was on the last day of the two-day sale, getting on toward afternoon when wan shadows filtering through the dense cloudcover stretched long and thin. Taking a break from the crowds, I walked to the truck to retrieve my camera. I almost there when I heard something hard strike the ground with a solid plunk. More followed, and a few plinked off the truck. It was like hail only larger, and as I stooped to identify the culprit several nailed me in the spine. They were small acorns, about the size of my thumbnail, which identified the tree above me as a pin oak. A steady shower of acorns began falling.
Under that assault it’s easy to imagine how a young impressionable pullet would believe the sky falling. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Whole acorns and empty shells laid a fine sediment over the grass. It was then I noticed what Chicken Little had’t—a flock of hungry grackles busy in the canopy.
Much later, after the sale was over and the barn emptied out, I was very tired and wanted to go home, but stronger still was the pull of the area below the fairgrounds, where Juganine Creek disappears into woods so thick no summer can dispel the gloom. All the yammering I’d done with the hundreds of visitors made me crave a moment’s reprieve. I told Lori I’d be home shortly and drove my truck around the outlying buildings to where a broad opening in the woods framed a deeper darkness. Silence was an explosion when I turned off the engine.
Night was descending, and a cold mist that bled away the colors. Sidestepping silvered puddles, I stepped under the canopy and made my way to a sharp bend in the creek. When my path was blocked by a tangled mass of vegetation I hesitated, and closed my eyes and listened.
At first I heard nothing, and then sounds slowly filtered through the roar in my head; a trickle of water, the whisper of light rain high in the trees, a trill of a cricket or a tree frog. Slight, subtle, delicate, the tones fell like the descending notes of a canyon wren, and becalmed me.
The harsh caw of a crow injected itself. Looking up, I saw a river of blackbirds flowing down from the north. A yellowed leaf drifted down to join others at my feet, and then others, until the ascendant shadows were flecked with their shapes wordlessly, soundlessly dropping.
Don’t look up. Autumn is here. The sky is falling.