DANCES WITH LEAVES

It was a thoroughly ugly day. That's Ugly with a capital "U". A Monday, of course; a cold Fall day that made you feel like there'd be nothing but more bleak weather until Spring. It had rained all night and this morning the sky was full of dirty gray overgrown cotton balls oozing cold water. They hung so low I felt like they might brush against my head if I stood up straight, and they moved in a slow menacing march as if they were looking for a likely victim to dump on. I pulled my coat a bit closer, as much to ward against any viciously-aimed drips as to keep out the cold and wind.

The wind always seemed worse downtown, I guess because it bounced around among all the buildings like a ping-pong ball. The buildings mostly butted right up against each other in order to get the most bang for the mega-bucks charged for prime real estate, but the architecture of each was distinct and the façades were all a different distance from the street. That meant there were all sorts of nooks and crannies and niches to catch the wind and send it blowing in another direction.

Head down against the wind, I hurried on along the street. As I reached the cross-street I glanced up to check the traffic light before I continued and noticed a bunch of leaves blowing around in one of those recesses. They were kind of pretty, a touch of color and nature in this sterile concrete-and-glass setting. I smiled, rejuvenated a little by the unexpected beauty. But I was already late for work so I scurried on.

I made it through the morning without any major hassles, and at lunchtime was surprised to walk outside and see a much nicer day. The sun was tiny and bright, giving off a lot of light but more promise than actual warmth. The clouds had been washed clean, and they must've been made from wool because they'd shrunk. Now they flew fast and high, seemingly lost and confused at the change in their status. It was, however, just as windy as ever.

I bought a foam-box lunch, complete with flimsy plastic spork and a napkin so cheap it merely smeared the grease around my mouth instead of actually wiping it off. I sat on the cold edge of a now-barren stone planter to eat. But the food was tasty, the sunlight cheered me, and I was getting to the good part of my book. Though I suspected that the handsome and charming hero who'd finally noticed the girl would yet turn out to be one of the tentacled aliens bent on conquering Earth.

I paused to think over the clues, staring off into space. My eye was caught by the movement of another whirlwind of leaves across the street. They swirled around and around so that first I saw a big golden leaf, then a small bright red one, now a trail of medium-sized brown leaves with one huge sickly-green leaf in their midst. Next time around they'd changed positions so that the green and yellow leaves tumbled around each other as they passed by, while the brown leaves circled the red one. It was hypnotizing in a way, relaxing to watch even with all the rapid motion. I went back to reading and the next time I looked up the whirlwind was gone.

Working as an accountant is stressful. All day long I deal with hard numbers, columns of figures that must balance, and people who expect me to make the calculations come out to their advantage. It's interesting work but there's little flexibility in the math or accepted standards, no beauty or individual expression in the black-and-white solutions.

I need to get away from it at times so I prefer to sit alone outside and read during lunch. I like the fresh air and quiet. Well, okay, the air stinks of exhaust fumes, and garlic and rancid grease from the Chinese restaurant; there's the constant sound of traffic, people chatting as they walk by, and at least once a week someone manages to set off a car alarm in one of the nearby high-rise garages. At least I'm out of the office for a little while.

I know all the good spots, too. When the weather's pretty I like to sit on the planter in the city-run park, but if it's too hot there's a nice bench under a shady tree on the upper level of the park. If it's really windy there's a place about halfway up the concrete steps between levels where the wall blocks the wind, but it's in full sun and can be too bright. In case of rain I can perch on the end of the raised flowerbed under the covered entrance of the bank, but it's so low it hurts my back to sit there for very long. Not to mention my tush.

My co-workers think I'm nuts for reading sci-fi, they seem to think it's all about shooting invading aliens with ray-guns, with a few robots thrown in for good measure. I doubt they'd understand that aliens are people too, even if they don't look like us. They sure wouldn't be interested in exploring the galaxy and seeing its wonders. But I like to expand my mind with new and different ideas and as far as I'm concerned they can stick to gossiping over the tabs or reading the latest psycho-babble best-seller. I like a little escape from reality!

Over the next several days I spied several leaf-filled eddies in odd corners as I made my way to and from parking lot, work, and lunch. The weather was iffy this time of year, often windy whether it was cloudy or sunny, cool or warm. The vortexes were interesting, fascinating in some weird way. They were full of motion and cheery color and seemed to have a purpose of their own, totally oblivious of the people walking by. I found myself speaking to them as I passed, "Good morning little spiral," or "Hello gorgeous spinning red leaves." I know it was my imagination, but I swear that some of the fluttering leaves looked like they were waving at me.

I began trying to keep mental track of exactly which niches contained leafy dust-devils, but there seemed to be no pattern. I began looking for them rather than looking at them as I passed. Instead of reading I began going for walks at break, longer treks at lunch time. I explored areas of downtown that I'd never paid attention to before. Within a few short blocks of the business district proper the buildings were more spread out, with alleys between them leading to small parking areas behind. Sometimes I could see dust blowing along the alleys, or sandblasting the corner of an old brick structure, but never any revolving leaves.

So I concentrated on the area near where I worked. Whenever I saw a leaf-filled vortex I'd stop to watch for a few minutes, always fascinated. I continued talking to them, too; but now I carried on whole imaginary conversations with them. Not only did I complement them on their beauty, I'd ask them how they were doing today, what they thought of the weather, and why they'd chosen that particular spot. I even began telling them how my day was going.

Not surprisingly they didn't answer, though I swear they did respond. Maple leaves would flutter opposing points while slender pecan leaves nodded their tips repeatedly; both seemed to be beckoning to me. Short fat poplars twisted on a flat plane; left, right, left, right. Once I even saw a big Magnolia leaf, edges curled toward its back side making it almost tubular, perform several loop-de-loops.

The wind didn't seem to move any faster, but the activity of the leaves certainly seemed to increase while I watched. A dozen small yellow leaves would suddenly begin cascading around a larger brown leaf, which in turn was spinning on its long axis as if trying to direct them. A beautiful crimson leaf wove a zigzag pattern at the top edge of the coil. Two leaves tumbled around some fixed point between them, outer edges barely touching. They reminded me of dancers from some grand old musical; the bronze-colored one I called Ginger, which made the orange leaf Fred by default. Out of the corner of my eye I think I saw them bow to me as I walked off.

I enjoyed my walks immensely and looked forward to greeting my "old friends" wherever I found them. After a couple of weeks of my new hobby I walked outside at noon one day to find gray skies weeping a steady, cold rain. Disappointed, I went back inside to grab my book, then came out again and positioned myself under the bank's sheltering entrance. I scanned the buildings visible from my perch but between the haze of the rain and the people scurrying through it I could see no corkscrews of foliage so I settled down and began to read.

After a few minutes the rain slacked off, but I stayed put. I hadn't brought my umbrella and if I went walking it'd be my luck I'd be four blocks away from work when the deluge hit. That would give me a choice of getting thoroughly drenched or being late back from lunch, and neither appealed to me.

The wind picked up and I shivered. I tried moving closer to the wall but that didn't help. I looked across the street and saw colorful leaves twisting in a corner by the insurance company. I waved; someone walking by returned the gesture so at least I didn't look like a total fool. I went back to reading.

An icy gust of wind blew across my feet, depositing gritty dust in my shoes on its way past. I laid my book down on the edge of the flowerbed and bent to empty my shoes, shaking them to get rid of the dirt. That's when I spied the coil of leaves in the corner opposite me. Obviously they'd flown in on the wind. I smiled at their stately gavotte and welcomed them to my temporary shelter. As usual their antics increased as I watched.

There seemed to be rather a lot of leaves in this whirlpool and their movement was incredibly intricate, almost like they were showing off for me. A flotilla of tiny scarlet and golden leaves flowed in a complex network reminiscent of weaving a basket. An oak and maple whirled together down the middle of two distinct lines, pausing now and then to intertwine with members of the queue on their way. It looked like some kind of autumnal Virginia Reel. There was a square dance, too; brown, yellow, russet, and auburn leaves appeared in a square pattern; then a diamond shape on the next rotation. Another time around they'd put their stems together to form a star. Individuals spun and twirled their way around and through the other groups.

I slid along the edge of my seat to get a better view. I'd never dared to get so close before and held my breath hoping the leaves wouldn't scatter at my approach. They didn't, and in fact if anything they frolicked even more. I got the definite feeling they were performing for my benefit.

After a few minutes of watching, entranced, I reached out letting just the tips of my fingers brush against the circling current. I'm not sure exactly what I thought might happen – but I was not prepared for what did. I was suffused with the sheer joy of riotous movement, the thrill of elaborate maneuvers flawlessly executed. I sensed the delight of impulsive improvisations and a communal spirit of cooperation. I also perceived an attitude of pleasure at the awareness of my own enjoyment.

Slowly I moved my hand deeper into the orbiting stream. I was half afraid the intrusion would disrupt the displays, but the leaves moved deftly around my fingers, gently brushing against them. A few even used them as a jumping off point for a new movement. I was so spellbound that I couldn't have removed my hand even if I'd thought of it, which I didn't.

Not until a large deep-red maple leaf wedged itself between two of my outstretched fingers and I got a clear impression of communication with an intelligence. It didn't speak in English, or indeed in words of any kind. I suppose the best way to describe it is mind-reading. It conveyed delight in having given me pleasure – maybe in part because my own thoughts were filled with my appreciation.

Up until that point I could've told myself that the whole thing was a figment of my over-active imagination. Then I got the clear idea that I should withdraw the leaf from the vortex. Very gently I pinched the leaf between my fingers and slowly pulled my hand out of the wind. With my other hand I grabbed the end of the stem and held the leaf before me. It looked like a perfectly ordinary maple leaf, one of those glorious red colors that defy simple description, except that it had a good-sized brown spot on the right point.

"Call me Maple Spot." The thought came through clearly. For simplicity I shall use quotations as if our exchange were really in human words; it's easier than continuing to describe thoughts.

"Is that your name?" I asked.

"It will suffice as an individual designator," Maple Spot replied. "What is yours?"

"Sarah," I told it.

"The sound is without meaning," it replied. "I will refer to you as 'Two Eyes'."

We had a short discussion of tree names and human anatomy. Maple Spot sent me an image of its species; the less said about their looks, the better. Let me just say they're really ugly, on the outside. I suggested that 'two eyes' described any human, but of course I was the first human it had interacted with.

"'Blue Eyes' would be a little better description for me," I told it. "Though it's hardly unique."

"I sense that you define 'blue' as a color, but I am unclear what that means," Maple Spot said.

"Um, colors are different spectrums of light waves," I told it. "Colors are pleasing to us. Don't your people see them?"

"Yes, we perceive the differences, though doubtless in another way than you," it told me. "Would you allow me to view them from your perspective?"

"What would I have to do?" It never occurred to me to refuse.

"Cease your thoughts, as best you can, and I will enter them. It would be more efficient if you directed your eyes toward the colors; I wish only to visit instead of control your physical essence," it said.

So I looked at the whirlwind and tried to let my mind go blank. It's hard to do at any time, even harder when I had a zillion questions spinning through my brain like the leaves in front of me. I concentrated on them, let myself be mesmerized by their motion; for a moment I felt a curious tickling sensation in my head, and then I realized I was again looking at Maple Spot in my hand.

"Yes, I see!" it said. "The colors add a new dimension of beauty and esthetic pleasure. It never occurred to us that our exhibition would be gratifying to the indigenous people. This is a concept we will have to explore more fully."

"How did you do that?" I asked. "Get in my head like that. This leaf," I shook it gently for emphasis, "isn't your physical body. How do you transfer your mind?"

"Any intelligent being can do it," Maple Spot replied. "It isn't difficult, but it does require some training. My body is nearby, relatively speaking. A group of us are taking a relaxation period before we return to our regular employment."

"You're on vacation?" I asked. "And you came here? What's so special about Earth?"

"The winds," it said simply. "Some of my people like to ride the winds across vast distances, and your planet generates a great deal of wind. But your peoples' advance in building techniques has inadvertently created these pockets of spinning winds which allow us to move within them. This is a group experience, and highly sought after."

"But don't other planets have wind, too?" I asked.

"Yes, of course. But few have the combination of strong wind and above-ground architecture which creates these small whirls. They allow us the controlled and yet spontaneous movement within the wind," it replied.

"You like to dance in the wind." I sent an image of human dancers.

"Yes, 'dance', that is what we do. Would you like to try it?"

"Oh, yes, please!" I replied. "But you said it takes training…"

"We have been aware of your attention for some time. We attempted to engage your interest, but were not sure if you wished to communicate. Your mind is strong. Based on that, and the ease with which I entered your thoughts, I believe I can impart the basics quickly. However, I sense you have responsibilities at the present time, and privacy would be advantageous. Perhaps another time would be better."

"Tomorrow is Saturday," I told it. "I don't have to work and my apartment would give us privacy. I don't suppose my address would mean anything to you."

"I will be able to find your mind," it said. "I do require something living to inhabit, do you have something appropriate in your domicile?"

"There's the ivy my grandmother gave me," I told it. "It's a plant, not intelligent, will that do?"

"That will suffice nicely. When you are ready, call out with your mind and we will begin your lessons. If you would be so kind as to put me back into the wind I will tell the others of our contact and we will dance for you."

Carefully I inserted the leaf into the rotating wind, and watched as Maple Spot found its place in the ongoing performance. The display they put on for me was breathtaking and I applauded heartily before retrieving my book and returning to work.

I woke up early Saturday morning, excited about the upcoming contact and training with Maple Spot. I reasoned that if my mind were to go gliding on the wind in a leafy body, my body would stay behind here in the apartment. That must be why Maple Spot wanted privacy. So I dressed in comfortable clothes, fortified myself with a hearty breakfast, and made a pit stop before sitting down on the couch and sending out my mental summons. The flowerpot full of ivy sat on the coffee table in front of me, and also an African violet I'd borrowed from my neighbor.

At first nothing happened and I began to despair. Maybe I had made the whole thing up after all. Then it occurred to me to grasp an ivy leaf and immediately I felt Maple Spot's thoughts. It was pleased that I had called, and ready to teach. I can't describe the process in words; it was a matter of letting your mind relax and becoming aware of all living things, then moving its focus into one of them.

I practiced by inhabiting the African violet. It took a few tries before I got the hang of it. I must say it was an odd experience at first; I was aware of the chlorophyll moving through my veins, of breathing in carbon dioxide and exhaling oxygen, and I could feel air currents move against my many surfaces. It seemed perfectly natural once I got used to it. At Maple Spot's urging I experimented with moving the plant's leaves, first one and eventually all at once. I'm sure it would've looked funny to see both plants trembling without any breeze if anyone had been there to watch. As long as the two plants touched I could perceive Maple Spot's mind as I had when in my own body.

Next I moved into a blade of grass in the small plot in front of my apartment. You'd think this would be harder as I couldn't see it from the couch. It's not, you'll just have to trust me on this; you don't see it, you feel its presence. Maple Spot explained that the target had to be living, but the less intelligent it was the easier to control. We experimented with several shrubs and a patch of pansies until I felt comfortable with the process.

"The trick with leaves," it told me, "is occupying one while it's still attached. When you detach from the tree it will live for a short time if you maintain the gas exchange."

"Okay, I have to breathe, I can do that," I replied. "I understand wiggling to break free, but how do I find the spirals of wind?"

"I will be your guide," it said. "We will choose a pair of connected leaves so I can accomplish this. If at any time you feel uncomfortable or frightened, simply let your mind go back to your own form. Are you ready to try?"

I was. But there was no way to be prepared for what I experienced. The exhilaration of flying on the wind, learning how to control my newly inhabited form so that I spun and moved through the stream was marvelous. I could have done this all day! Maple Spot showed me how to move through the currents, sensing the other minds who'd found a suitable whirlwind, and join in the dance with them.

The others welcomed us gladly, and the feeling of camaraderie and acceptance was so overwhelming I would've cried, if I'd had eyes. They taught me how to tap into the communal consciousness to find my own place within the movements. Maple Spot broke apart from me and I continued alone, but very much a member of the whole. I felt clumsy at first, afraid I would spoil the choreography. The others clustered around me, assuring me that there was no wrong way to move, many of them briefly touching me to better communicate their support.

I accepted their assurances and let myself blend into the pattern. More practiced minds led the movements, and I was content to merely follow along. It was an absolutely wonderful experience, and I could see why these people traveled far to enjoy it. All too soon I felt myself tiring; they bade me farewell, and thanked me for joining the dance.

I let my mind snap back into my body, and "woke up" on the couch again. I lay there for a few minutes re-living the experience. Then I sat up and touched the ivy, re-establishing contact with Maple Spot.

"Now I understand," I told it. "Thank you for a most wonderful gift."

"My time here is limited," it said. "The winds will weaken, and the leaves will cease to live. I will have to return to my employment as well. But now that you have learned the process there is no reason why you cannot continue."

"I certainly will!" I said. "I hope we will dance together again sometime. Maybe next year."

"There is no need to wait so long a time."

The short story is that Maple Spot arranged for me to be transported to its space ship, which was in orbit around Mars to avoid detection from us earthlings. Its "people" turned out to be a varied lot, from many different planets. Though they hadn't thought humans ready to join them, they readily accepted me.

I allowed them to experience the color and movement of their dance through my eyes. They'd never considered the concept of performing for the benefit of others, and they were thrilled at adding another dimension to their performance. Colors turned out to be tricky; what my human eyes saw as "red" was different when visiting Maple Spot's mind and another color entirely when I viewed it through the eyes of a different species. We agreed that we should choose colors as perceived by the intelligences for which we danced.

I regularly take mini-vacations now, a couple of days off work plus the weekend. I tell my colleagues I went caving; but not that it was on a planet light years away, flying in intricate formations through the most spectacular stalactites and stalagmites in the body of some strange "bat". I say I was rafting on a mountain stream – when I was really tumbling over a miles-high waterfall as a "fish" while weaving a complicated pattern on the way down. I was exploring a forest …swinging from tree to tree like some alien lemur-like Tarzan. Or hiking over ice floes; running to the tops and leaping from them to soar to the next in concert with a hundred other "flying squirrels".

Next time I promise them I'll go camping on the prairie; but as some kind of insect, hopping and gliding through an endless field of "grass". My co-workers wouldn't believe the places I've really been and the amazing things I've seen. They ask if I've made friends - oh yes, a great many.

Here on Earth it's nearly Fall again, and I'm excited to meet them all in our winds. The wondrous dance, in all its varied forms and places, goes on. I am thrilled to take my own small part in the performance. And talk about escaping from reality!