October Frost

Josephine Johnson is a native of Missouri whose first short story appeared in the Atlantic and who won the Pulitzer Prize with her beautifully descriptive novel, Now in November. Three years ago, she and her husband bought a majestic house a hundred and thirty years old on the outskirts of Cincinnati. In this essay she depicts the explorations which she and her children have carried out in the early autumn on their three surrounding acres.
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The first frost came on the sixth of October after the rains and the coldness. In the morning everything was silver and icy, the tall grasses delicate as glass and blue with a frosty bloom. The earth was sheathed in frost; and after the sun rose, the shadows of the house and trees were blue on the ground, and all around them, defining them, the sun-released grasses turned wet and green. The hard maple at the end of the road had turned gold in every leaf and stood motionless under the morning moon—which looked naked and lost in the blue sky. A solitary crow flew over between the moon and the lighted tree.

The early part of October is a beautiful and uncertain time, cold and wet and dry and warm. The trees have a drying yellow color all over the countryside with only a solitary burning light here and there. Our black kittens move out distastefully into the cold mornings. One is a new, imported kitten, a pure Persian, who seems out of place among the vines and falling leaves and autumn disorder. He was four months old when we got him, and had never been out of the house, but so big already—so enormous, in fact—that we named him Monstro, and he padded about like a furry whale. He regarded each descending leaf with terror, and spent his first days glued to the door like a caterpillar. As time passed, however, he ventured into the long grass step by step, sniffing the menacing weeds and shying away from grasshoppers. He watched the other kitten, Minx, who has a quarter Persian in her blood and an odd wild face like a pine marten, catch a vole, and sat respectfully two feet away, a kind of furry wonder on his big child face. He has caught nothing so far himself except a grasshopper, but this is a great advance for the housebound ball, and he goes as far as the woodpile by himself and even to the edge of the giant grasses in the garden.

We bought him as a companion—and future mate—to Minx, the last of Fuzzy's children, who has the long thin body of her mother and the same sweeping tail, but not the wise Egyptian head or the ancient wisdom. Fuzzy died in August, a slow sad death, of such incredible dignity it was like watching an old queen go down slowly into darkness, and even I, who have none of the vast sentiment that seems to flow from most of the world toward the cat kingdom, cried for three days and can still be dissolved by the memory of that wasted classic head full of twelve years of matriarchal burdens and feral independence, sinking down on its helpless paws. Well, Monstro has quite a place to fill, but his tremendous warm purr, like a giant bee in throat, and his affectionate clasp around one's neck, appeal to the children, and he is quite a sight, moving big and black among the gold leaves, with his innocent gold eyes, enormous and inquiring.

The chickadees and the field sparrows come to the ruined amaranth garden, and the asparagus ferns have turned to a saffron mist in which a few solitary berries hang like red balls and in which the white asters are caught and swim starlike in the dry mist. The great mantes, having laid their nests, have disappeared and only a few gray smaller ones are left here and there, mantis-shaped bits of bark, with the same cold balls of eyes and the long scaly arms. On hot days the autumn crop of butter flies come out belatedly—or prematurely—and among the honeysuckle vines, which know no season, I found a violet tip, newly sprung, almost outrageously colored in new orange, with a purple aura edging its flaming velvet wings. The monarchs burst their jeweled shells recklessly at these late hours, and hundreds of yellow and saffron cabbage butterflies float above the asters, which have a faint honey scent.

As the month draws to a close, the pond life sinks into sleep, the trees are emptying in the wind, but the incessant, jerky, nervous life of the insects diminishes reluctantly. On a warm day, if you open an unscreened window in the mistaken idea that since it is October and winter is coming one might as well get something out of this horrid prospect, the room is suddenly streaked with long-legged and still unsleeping wasps, with wandering humming bees, and the bullet flight of the great bottle fly. It is fortunate that we can't see insects as they really are, a dread toothy bushy crowd of well-developed jaw and claw, to whom we are no more than great big slabs of covered meat.

The Chinese yam, the cinnamon vines, which covered the windows in the west all summer are thick with little tubers that look like fairy potatoes, and the leaves shrivel from a deep gold to curled brown. The potatoes are now startlingly like Idahos and are about three quarters of an inch in length They shower from the vines at a touch; and, having heard that the Chinese found the roots edible, we felt sure the little tubers might provide food, too, and decided to give them a go, leaving the roots for later, and see if the Chinese had a better taste than the Aztecs and their amaranth. Although they would have been more appropriate perhaps to the hidden bins of certain small people Annie and I imagine inhabit the roots of the willow tree, Annie gathered a pan of the tubers, which bounded like dry peas, and carefully, with her small fingers seeming enormous and the knife a giant, pared off the skin and dropped the almost invisible remains in a frying pan with butter. Some we saved without paring and boiled them in their jackets.

I am happy to report that all who contemplate living off the land in the manner of their ancestors can be certain of one meal at least which, if not a square one, is edible in a microscopic fashion. For the little potatoes tasted like big potatoes and with salt and butter they struck the children as something very rare and special, and incredibly edible for costing nothing. We followed this with a few things that someone else had raised with the hoe and plow and the spray—big slices of fried eggplant and the polished green peppers and enormous yams, dry and sweet with brown sugar, and a salad of yellow-pear tomatoes, luminous and shaped like little flasks—and nobody's appetite seemed much diminished by his first course of wild starch.

There comes a moment, usually in the middle of October of each year, when, though much else is drying, disappearing into a stalky color, and the woodpile vines are shriveled and brown and the white fungus hard, the maple reaches its peak of gold perfection. Every leaf is a clashing, moving jewel, leaves of beaten gold, and it shines through the dark pine trees like an army of angels coming down in rays of light. For a day, if there is no wind, it stands there, a great gold burning bush, absolutely still, awesome in the shape of beauty beyond which there is no further shaping, and then the wind rises. That which was before only the movement of a bird is the falling of a leaf. Then another leaf detaches itself and sails downward and then a shower of leaves. In a few hours the gold is thinner, the emptying tree is no longer a burning cloud, the shape of the branches comes clearer and clearer under the descending shower. By morning it is all over and the maple stands gray and anonymous like the framework of a fountain, winter stilled above the great yellow pool of its own leaves.

The far, strange origins of Halloween, when the ghosts of Celts came whimpering in from the frosty pastures and the empty Irish woods, to warm their wasted hands by the peat bog fires and the warmth of their living kin, are lost now in a welter of dime store witches and soapy windows. The ritual and the legend are become prank and established local custom, as does anything that lasts beyond the wonder of religion and of awe. And life, being more precarious, death more widespread, less uncertain, we no longer build the Coel Coeth bonfires as in ancient Wales, and cast the life or death predicting stones, for omen of who lives or dies before the wheeling year brings back Allhallows Day again.

The dual heart within us both rejoices and regrets the passing of this terror and this awe. Or perhaps it is only because we are too old to bob for apples and beg for candy, that we think of Halloween now as cardboard pumpkins in the first-grade windows, of crayon witches all alike, and children in their costumes, distinguished only by the vast lack of imagination displayed in each. Since we are no more rosy-faced among the rosy apples, nor smitten to the heart by gypsy bangles, nor terrorized by painted skeletons, we seek our awe in conjuration of another century when the legend was both real and new, and forget that we could re-create that child to whom the platitude held terror and delight because she herself was new.

Some night late in autumn will come one of those seasonless hours of darkness and warmth when, in the October moonlight, leaves will beat suddenly against the kitchen pane, and a great flowing wind will pour through the barren maple branches. And there will seem to come to one a revelation of enormous freedom out there in the darkness where the witches begin to ride and the bodiless souls go rushing down the wind. Grease will grow suddenly cold and gray in the dishpan, and the baby cries out with pure meanness. There will be a vision of years and years of anxieties unresolved of waking nights, of measles, of heartbreak and decisions, of the responsibility upon us to protest and the responsibility to conform, the burden of example and of kindness, and suddenly will come a knowledge of that freedom we have never known—the weightless, boundless disembodied freedom of the soul who has bartered flesh and blood and made his night pact with the smiling Satan. Is it not very near and close, this hour of the flying leaves, this promise, and this revelation?

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