It was the perfect afternoon. The wind was blowing, but not too strongly. Just enough to clip the autumn leaves from their spring and summer homes and carry them gently to the ground. Or to Ned’s hands.
Ned was getting too old to be chasing leaves. Time was he could gather fifty fresh leaves in an hour. Now it took him all afternoon, and sometimes an extra afternoon at that if the weather changed. But it was tradition. It was her birthday tradition to have a crown of fresh-fallen autumn leaves. The rule was, they couldn’t have touched the ground. Ned had to pluck them from the air. Juno was their new home, their new tree from which they could hang just a little longer above the ground.
Every year for the past sixty-two years, on September 22nd, he made a little wreath, and decorated it with the leaves he caught. It was Juno’s birthday crown. Never once did she refuse to wear it, even if she had to attend a meeting or run errands. All day it would remain atop her head. She was a queen. His queen.
At last. He saw the shaking leaf, watched the stem thin and thin against the gentle onslaught of wind. He got good at guessing when they would fall. A breeze rolled in from behind him and he knew this would be the one and it was. He carried himself forward as fast as his sore legs could take him, the blanketed basket dangling from his arm. It was almost out of reach. Almost–
He felt his fingertips close over the dewy texture. He had his fiftieth.
There was no sense going home. He was close, and his materials were in the basket. So he sat in the dimming shade of the tree and removed the gnarled wreath from the basket and began pasting leaves to it. Carefully, for his hands shook a little in his old age, he kept the crown golden and beautiful, enough to flutter a little but not lose its leaves. A royal diadem.
When he finished, he carried it straight over to Juno. He could still see two fallen, rotten, half-buried crowns, leafless and bare, sticking from the dirt. He took care where he stood, and balanced the new crown on the top of the headstone.
He knew, somehow, that this would be the last year of the tradition. He made sure not to let his tears touch the ground.
259’s three random writing prompt categories were, “Autumn,” “The Empress,” and, “The very last.”
I swear! I can do happy endings! Really!