I first noticed it on Sunday — a sycamore leaf, the size of a spread hand and the color of cured tobacco, was stuck in the stems of a cotton plant at the edge of the driveway. Surprisingly, it was still there Wednesday morning, having withstood a couple of days of stiff wind and one day of sustained rain. Obviously, I was meant to take note. I got out of the car and walked to the edge of the field for a closer look.
A picked-over cotton field looks like a phalanx of badly-drawn stick figures. Nearly every stalk has at least one boll left that looks like a head with tufted white hair escaping from its hard brown helmet and the various angles at which the spindly stems pierce the air make it appear as though the infantry is advancing at full speed, spears and pikes flailing at the ends of skinny arms. This one, though, the one cradling the sycamore leaf in its arms like a placard, seemed to be less warrior, more prophet. And the question becomes, I thought to myself, what has it been sent to proclaim?
I got back into the car, squinted my eyes into the rising sun and headed toward town. As I rounded what we call the bad curve, the bag of Christmas gifts I’d placed in the floorboard fell over and squished, I was sure, their carefully-tied red and white bows. Using one hand to maneuver behind the ditches while I leaned across the front seat trying to reach and right the bag, I muttered to myself,
“Why do I always do this? I knew when I put it there it would probably tump over! I knew it and did it anyway! What made me think that the law of centripetal force was going to be suspended just for me?”
It was not the first time I’ve had that conversation with myself. Not even the first time that morning. I regularly try to do too much with too little and move too fast for too little and, as a result, have proven over and over again that Newton’s laws of motion, among other things, are called laws for a reason.
Both hands back on the steering wheel, I took a deep breath, reminded myself that squished ribbon would not make any difference to the children who would be opening those packages later in the day, and watched the still dew-wet landscape slide swiftly past the car windows.
But the cotton plant prophet would not leave me alone. He kept crying out in the wilderness at the edge of my mind as I greeted my co-workers, turned on the computer, read the newspaper. He kept hoisting that sycamore leaf above his head and shouting, “Behold!” He kept staring at me as if at any moment he was going to have to declare me, in all my stubborn ignorance, a viperous Pharisee.
I finally conceded my ground, took my second deep breath of the morning, and leaned back in my chair to stare out the window at the ginkgo tree, its golden leaves a thousand mirrors of clear winter sunlight. I did not have to close my eyes to reconjure the morning’s encounter: sycamore leaf, dry and brittle, turned on its side and captured in the defoliated stems of a dead and abandoned cotton plant.
Look again, the prophet said. Look more closely at the leaf dry and brittle. It is whole, not one lobe or rib broken. It was lifted by the wind from the ground to which it had fallen, carried gently to this spot and left to drop again. In its first descent, from the tree where it grew, it was aging, but still supple. It was easy to fall and remain in one piece. The second fall should have broken the leaf, but it didn’t.
The laws of nature being what they are, the leaf should have torn along its veins like perforated paper. Its thin edges should have caught on the sharp bracts and broken into bronze-colored dust. Its smooth blade should have cracked like dried mud. But, miraculously, it did not.
I laughed out loud. Of course. It is Christmas. The season of miracles. The season when virgins have babies and stars become GPS devices, when angels speak English and astronomers outsmart kings, when things fall without breaking.
Finally! said the prophet, stopping just short of calling me rebellious and stiff-necked. But there is one more thing: Christmas is the season of miracles, but it is also the season of prophecy. You need not concern yourself with the nature of the leaf — whether it is prophecy foretold or fulfilled — only with the imperative that in order to see either you must watch.