For a long time, she’d never connected that word on paper with the word as it’s said out loud. When she read it, she’d pronounced it in her mind as “mizzled” — like “puzzled”. So gentle when pronounced that way, like the papery sound of the aspen leaves above her, trembling and shimmering in the breeze.
But the real word: mis-led. Heavy, solid, cold. So fitting to the feeling in her stomach and chest as she sat by the river, re-reading the letter. The letter he hadn’t even left on her desk, merely handed to a library aide, addressed to her. She tore it to bits.
As she released the scraps from her hands, the breeze picked up, ruffling her hair the way her mother used to do to comfort her. The slender trunks of the aspens leaned in the wind, bending down over her head. The leaves rustled harder, like applause. The bits of the letter blew away, following the river. And she cried.
As the scraps of the letter blew down the river, they got caught in the branches of the trees that they passed, some near the spot where she’d sat, some further down. The aspens bent to and fro, in a wind that somehow ignored the surrounding grasses and shrubs. The whisper of the leaves continued, all along the river, down into the meadows, out towards town, and in the opposite direction, too, into the National Park that lay next to the town.
Out there, deeper in the wilderness, the aspens rustled around the cabin as he packed his bags into the trunk of his car. His artist-in-residency was over; time to head back East. Checking the cabin one last time, he spotted a book on the desk, next to a box of stationery. It was The Complete Poems of Whitman; she’d inscribed it to him on the cover page. He picked it up and hefted it in his hands for a moment, then dropped it back on the desk. Librarians, little bookworms who live only with their eyes: good for keeping warm at night in small towns on the off-season, but not for much else.
A scrap of paper tumbled with the leaves outside, bouncing off the tires of his car. If he’d looked, he would have noticed the National Park Service logo on it, the same as the letterhead on the stationery. Is a Dear Jane letter more cruel than a face-to-face breakup, or kinder? In either case, the result is the same.
He drove out of the park with his windows open, to smell the wind and the greenery. As the road turned a bend, following the river, he spotted a stand of aspen on the riverbank, caught in the late afternoon sun. The leaves seemed to glow as from within; the silver-gray of the trunks and branches were bathed in a warm, pinky-yellow hue. He thought he could hear the susurrus of the leaves as the trees waved to him in the breeze (but how could he hear them? — they were too far away). He braked, pulled over to the side of the road. From where he was parked, the tumbling of the river reflected back the sun in white sparkles that flashed in the blue water.
If he wanted to capture this, it would have to be now. The light wouldn’t have this quality for long. He grabbed his camera and the case of lenses from the back seat, and scrambled down the slope to the river.
That night, she dreamt she was a child again, running through a meadow on a bright warm day. The stands of aspens quivered as she passed near them, and from somewhere nearby she heard her mother’s laughter.
A park visitor called his car in early the next morning. A young brown bear, perhaps attracted by the smell of road-trip rations, had poked its head through the car’s still-open windows. It was intently disemboweling the back seat upholstery when the visitor drove past and spotted it.
The rangers found his camera at the foot of a stand of aspens below where the car was parked, and the lens case near another stand further down the river. But of the photographer there was no sign, nor did anyone ever see him again.
Painting:The last rays of the sun. Aspen forest (1897) by Isaac Levitan. Sourced from WikiArt.