Ms. Solevacj's Leaf-mould

June 9, 2019
Ms. Solevacj was in the middle of her 72-lap morning mile, the early sluggishness in her muscles burned off, leaving her feeling strong, a machine gliding through the water. This was why she swam, to reach this Zen-like headspace, her mind and body simultaneously relaxed and stimulated. In this state, and only in this state, she could think clearly, almost calmly, about the Smiler virus.
She hadn't been quite so calm as she was getting into the pool. The lifeguard, a favorite former student named Daniel, had walked over as she pulled on her goggles.
"You okay?" he said. He was fidgeting, like he didn’t know what to do with his hands, like he was still in sixth grade.
"I see the bronze hens have gone smiler," she said. A group of women not so many years older than her were lying on their loungers by concessions, sunglasses on, smiling up at the sun.
"They were like that when I came in the day before yesterday," Daniel said. He crossed and uncrossed his arms, ran a hand through his short, bristly hair. "I don't want to turn into that."
She should have given the poor kid a hug, but she was scared, too, and it just came out: "I think we know how this is going to end."
Daniel took half a step back. "The news said they're working on a cure, maybe--"
"Too little too late." She couldn't believe she'd said that.
Daniel turned away. She watched him for a moment, saw him wipe his face with his hand, but instead of apologizing or saying something kind, she slid from the lip of the pool into the cold water.
She'd be calmer after her swim. She'd tell Daniel what she thought was happening, that this was the cycle of the world. He'd appreciate talking about the virus in a biological context, it would soothe his mind as it did hers. He had always loved talking about the leaf-mould, a concept she'd read about years ago in college but hadn't used in her classroom until she met Daniel five--no, six--years ago. He had always loved talking about the leaf-mould.
She reached the deep end and executed her flip turn smoothly, pushing off, arms stretched out, gliding through the cool water.
Despite her fears, Ms. Solevacj imagined the virus and its effects would be an improvement for the vast majority of Earth. For humans, though, not so much. She didn't like the idea, of course, but she also didn't believe the increasingly hyperbolic news reports that the virus was engineered by Russia or China or rogue bioterrorists. People needed someone to blame, but she doubted it was man-made. The virus appeared to be spreading all over the world simultaneously, a phenomenon current science couldn't explain. Even stranger, the virus seemed to be hitting the elderly first and working its way down to the younger generations. Hopefully, it would stop before it claimed everyone. No known treatments existed--antivirals, antibiotics, steroids, and quarantine were equally ineffective--and there was no time to develop a vaccine. The virus would claim her soon enough--it had been into her age bracket for several days now. The bronze hens were at best five years older.
The virus wasn't engineered, she suspected, at least not by humans. When the earth engineered something, it was called evolution. A word she loved because it implied, in a quintessentially human way, order in the essentially random process of mutation which constantly changed the world. In fact, her favorite topic to teach was the earth's lifecycle, and she thought words like evolve helped soften some of the overwhelming and sometimes brutal realities of life for her young students.
She taught her middle schoolers about the leaf-mould in her favorite biology unit. It seemed to engage the students more than most lessons. Last year's had nearly gone badly, though.

"Leaves," she had been saying to that class, "like all living things, follow a very particular life cycle. Today we're going to talk about the magic of the leaf-mould." She pointed outside, at the naked trees under the grey January sky. "Many people think winter is a sad time of year, snow outside, no leaves on the trees, long, dark days, the cold. I think winter is a wonderful time, a time of hibernation, of preparing for the coming spring." Winter was an inconvenience for her swimming as the indoor lanes were often crowded, making it more difficult to hit her rhythm, but she managed. "Summer ends, leaves fall, insulating the ground, keeping the earth below warm enough for all the creatures that depend on it to live--worms, bugs, all the little forest creatures. In the spring, those same leaves decompose into the earth, nourishing the roots of the trees from which they fell, to grow and fall again. It's a continuous cycle."
A heavyset boy in the back had raised his hand.
"Yes, Rory?"
"Leaves end up back in the tree they came from?"
"Many of them, yes."
"So"--he looked around, one eyebrow raised--"isn't that cannibalism?"
"No, Rory, it's not." Ms. Solevacj marveled at the unchanging nature of eighth grade boys. "Cannibalism is a barbaric and unhealthy ritual. The leaves' lifecycle is a sophisticated form of recycling. The magic of the leaf-mould is the rich biodiversity it creates. There's more than just leaves in the leaf-mould, there are bits of everything, all mixing together, making new things over the slow odyssey of time."
"Sounds like cannibalism," Rory said. A number of boys in the back laughed.
"Thank you for that comparison, Rory. Does anyone else have an analogy they'd like to share? George? Tim? Andy? You all seem to be interested in the subject."
None of them did, but Ms. Solevacj remembered feeling quite pleased nonetheless. Rory was not a strong student, but at least he was listening. Unfortunately, that turned out to be his only contribution to the class and she'd had to fail him. No, that wasn't right. The principal had spoken to her, making the case to pass him. One of his parents was on the school board. She hadn't failed Rory, she'd given him a D.
As she reached the end of the pool and turned, she realized she was looking forward to giving that unit again next year. She was glad Rory wouldn't be repeating. Ms. Solevacj made another flawless flip turn, glided through the water, and smoothly began her strokes. Before she reached the end of the pool, the Smiler virus switched off her consciousness. Absent other instruction, her body kept swimming.
Daniel paced back and forth along the pool, thinking about Ms. Solevacj, about how she must be pretty freaked out to veer from her usually cheery outlook. He had been sure she would say something about the leaf-mould, the interconnectedness of all things, she could tie that to pretty much anything. Whenever he thought about the leaf-mould, he thought of his newt. It was a trigger for him, probably because he had found his newt on a bed of leaves wriggling through the loam. How he had loved that newt. Thinking about it as he paced soothed his mind.
An hour later, Daniel noticed Ms. Solevacj was still swimming. He walked around the pool to check on her. They often chatted after her swim, catching up on their summers or talking about the upcoming year. She felt like family, like the cool aunt he never had. Daniel was sure he wouldn't be studying herpetology--he might not have even gone to college--if she hadn't taken such an interest in him.
Ms. Solevacj was still swimming well, her stroke smooth and regular, but she normally swam just the one mile. She was twenty or thirty laps past that, maybe more. Daniel caught up with her, walking just ahead of her where she'd see him when she took a breath. She'd give him a little wave and apologize later for being a little harsh with him. When she turned her head, though, Daniel stopped. Her lips were pulled high into her cheeks in a garish smile. Her real smiles were nothing like that.
Daniel wasn't sure what to do. Ms. Solevacj was a small woman, he could probably get her out of the water. The news channels said not to disturb the smilers, though, that not enough was known about their condition, they might resist or be violent. It was best to let them continue doing what they were doing if they weren't harming anyone. The bronze hens hadn't caused any trouble for days. It was weird, but they were harmless, and Smilers were everywhere.
But this wasn't just anyone, this was Ms. Solevacj.
Daniel ran along the pool to get ahead of her and dropped into the shallow water. He waved his arms back and forth under the water but she didn't slow down. Daniel backed up against the side wall as she swam past.
He grabbed her shoulder as her left arm pulled back, right as her face turned up. This close, he saw her front teeth were chipped and slightly translucent. Most of her teeth in back were capped in silver. Her arm rolled forward and he tried to hold on, to stop her, but she was much stronger than she looked.
Daniel watched Ms. Solevacj swim to the end of the pool, flip, and swim toward him.
Ms. Solevacj loved her morning swim, and she seemed to be just fine in the water. Yet it felt wrong to leave her in the pool, wrong as her friend, wrong as a lifeguard. But Daniel wasn't sure how she'd react. Could he get her out? What would he do if she struggled or fought back or bit him? If he did get her out, would she flop around on the concrete like a fish? He couldn't handle that. He decided to keep an eye on her for a few more laps, to just let her swim.


May 2, 2010

For his ninth birthday, Daniel asked for a penguin. He had asked for one for his sixth, seventh, and eighth birthdays as well. He stood behind those, lined up on the coffee table, and told his mother, "A real penguin this time."

"How about we start with something smaller," she said, "like a goldfish."

"I want a penguin."

"Penguins aren't pets, honey."

"I'm your pet," Daniel said, waddling across the living room, arms angled out from his sides. "I'm a penguin."

"It's a good thing you're so cute," his mother said, pulling him in for a hug. "How about we go to the pool? I hear penguins love the water."

Daniel played penguin at the pool all afternoon, walking stiff-legged across the concrete deck and tipping headfirst into the pool. He skimmed the pool floor, holding his breath as long as he could, gliding, toes pointed backward, turning slow circles through the bright and silent water.

Daniel's mother sat in the sun, smiling and laughing with her boyfriend. The lifeguard, familiar with Daniel's routine, kept a reasonably close eye on him.


May 2, 2011

For his tenth birthday, Daniel's mother got him a one gallon aquarium with turquoise blue gravel, plastic plants swaying in the clear water, a half-buried treasure chest, and a beautiful dark purple betta with red streaks along its fins. 

"I thought we should start with something easier than a penguin," she told him, "and work our way up to more complicated pets." It was a good idea, practical and logical like she tended to be, but that didn't lessen Daniel's tantrum, or save the betta.


May 2, 2012

On his eleventh birthday, Daniel's mother took him to Penguin Cove at the zoo. Daniel raced along the glass, pausing here and there to press his hands and face against it, studying each of the penguin species on display: the pink-faced Humbolts, the king penguins with bright orange bills and breasts and ears, and the smaller black-and-white Gentoo. He was taken by the southern rockhoppers, the smallest and fastest penguins, and rather dramatic with their long yellow eyebrow plumes.

"You think I could be a penguin lifeguard?"

"I don't think penguins have lifeguards."

"They could hire me."

"You would make a good zookeeper," his mother said, wondering what kind of income zookeepers made.

Daniel watched a southern rockhopper hunch and hop across the concrete diorama, wings flapping for balance, then plunge into the water, its long yellow eyebrows trailing behind its head.

"That one, Mom!" Daniel's finger followed the little penguin as it darted through the water. "I want that one."

"You know," his mother said, taking him by the arm, "why don't we just go to the pool?"

Daniel pulled away. "No, Mom, c'mon--"

"Penguins are endangered, Daniel. They're not pets."

"I can take care of it!"

Hoping to avoid a scene, she didn't mention the betta. Instead, she said, "Where would you keep it, honey?"

"In our pool."

"We don't have a pool."

"That could be part of my birthday present."

"Clever boy."

"I can take care of the pool and the penguin and everything."


May 2, 2013

For his twelfth birthday, instead of a penguin or a pool, or even a trip to the pool, Daniel's birthday present from his mother was a float trip. She thought it sounded peaceful and beautiful, and invited her latest boyfriend along. She anticipated drifting beneath broad canopies, picnicking on a sandbar, perhaps napping in the sun. She was surprised by the industrial nature of river float tourism, their canoe logjammed among a boisterous armada of howling innertubers with neck-strap coozies. Daniel's mother also discovered her boyfriend wasn't quite as interested in her as she'd thought.

Daniel didn't like the river traffic, and he wasn't a fan of the boyfriend, but he hated the river itself, the unseen threats lurking beneath the murky surface, the dented beer cans and foil bags corralled in scum-glazed eddies by downed branches. He much preferred the glittering blue water of the community pool.

"I need to pee," Daniel said after an hour on the water.

The boyfriend dropped his head to the side as he dipped his oar into the water. "Take a dip."

Daniel was not getting in the water. He looked at his mother. She sipped her beer and looked away. "I can't hold it."

"Jesus, kid." The boyfriend rammed the canoe into the muddy bank.

Daniel hopped out and raced for the woods.

His mother said, "Watch out for poison ivy."

"And copperheads," added the boyfriend.

Standing in the dim light, arcing his stream back and forth across a broad maple leaf, he spotted a bright red newt slipping through the loam. He finished peeing quickly and picked it up. The newt seemed happy to see him, walking across his hand and up his arm.

"Hey little buddy," Daniel said. He thrilled at how its tiny orange fingers flexed in his palm, how the tail curled around his pinkie, how its throat pulsed as it looked at him with dark, wet eyes.

When it jumped from his hand and scuttled under the wet leaves, Daniel dropped to his knees, smearing them away. "Don't run away, little buddy," he said. "I'm your friend." He found it burrowing among the leaves. "You," he said to the newt, "are way better than a penguin."

Suspecting his mother wouldn't approve, and fearing her boyfriend might handle the newt like he handled the canoe, Daniel put it in his pocket and smuggled it home.

Daniel pulled the betta’s aquarium out of his closet and made a cozy little terrarium for his newt, gathering leaves and dirt and a few rocks and sticks from the back yard. He even made a little lagoon. He left the plastic plants and the treasure chest in his closet.

Daniel carried the newt with him everywhere. He should have asked Ms. Solevacj how to care for the newt, but it was the beginning of the school year and he didn't realize he could trust her yet. He should have visited the local pet store, where he would have learned the newt would only eat the kibble he put in its terrarium after it evolved from the eft stage into a fully aquatic adult, that red efts mainly ate worms. But he didn't, so within a week the newt starved to death. He was crushed.

Unsure of what to do, Daniel kept carrying the newt with him.


A week later, after Ms. Solevacj's sixth grade class packed up and ran off in the usual fury of roiling energy, she realized one of her students was still sitting at his desk. His head was down.

"Daniel?" She knelt by him. "What's wrong?"

He wiped his face with his hand and drew the other out from under the desk. Lying on his palm was a dead red eft. Very dead, it had begun to smell.

"Daniel, I'm so sorry."

"Why did he--" Daniel covered his face with his hands.

"I don't know, Daniel." She had plenty of theories, but now wasn't the time.

Daniel was weeping quietly, head bent into his hands, his shoulders shaking. "I gave him food."

"Red efts are very shy," Ms. Solevacj said. "They're notoriously finicky about eating."

That was when she remembered the leaf-mould. She said, "Bury him somewhere special, Daniel, somewhere you think is beautiful. Do you have a favorite tree? You can put him there, and sit by the tree and think of him. His body will nourish the tree, and in the spring the new leaves will remind you of him. In the fall, those leaves will fall and turn into soil and new leaves will grow. He'll be alive in your mind, but he'll also be alive in the world."

Daniel was still crying as he looked up at her, but his lips also held the hint of a smile.


Daniel's mother found him playing with the dead newt, sliding his limp body in and out of the lagoon. She didn't ask where he'd gotten it; she was preoccupied with the fallout of breaking up with her boyfriend, who was coming by later to pick up his things.

"Christ Daniel," she said. "Throw that away. Or flush it, or whatever."

Daniel buried the newt, aquarium and all, in the sheltered ground under the low scratching branches of a holly tree in the far corner of the back yard.

"Maybe you'll come back, like Ms. Solevacj said stuff does."

He checked on it a few nights later, hours after bedtime, digging in the dark, hoping it had come back to life. The newt looked like it was sleeping on the tiny shore of the lagoon. Daniel moved the newt to the water, still hopeful.

The next time he checked, the water had yellowed and clouded.

The last time he checked, the water had darkened and thickened and begun to smell. His mother found him there under the tree, rocking back and forth over the reeking tank, pajama knees caked with dirt. "I'm sorry," he kept saying. "I should have left you in the leaf-mould."

"Daniel," she said. She would have said more, said something sympathetic perhaps, but she gagged on the smell. She stood behind him, nose in the crook of her elbow, while he pushed the dirt back over the aquarium, sobbing as he carefully patted it down.


May 2, 2019

To celebrate his eighteenth birthday, Daniel asked the pool manager if he could close the pool on his own.

"Sure, bud," the manager said. "No parties, though." He knew Daniel wasn't that kind of kid. "And no skinny-dipping."

That night, Daniel locked the gates, checked the locker rooms, dragged lawn chairs back into place, dropped the umbrellas, adjusted the chemical levels, and turned off the pool lights. He sat on the concrete lip at the deep end, next to the high dive, pulled on his flippers, mask, and snorkel, and dropped into the water. He spent hours skimming the pool floor, arms at his side, rising slowly for air, angling back to the depths, the world cool and grey and quiet under the moonlight.


July 4, 2019

Like all its victims, Daniel felt no pain when the Smiler virus claimed him. Other than the smile, no obvious physical change marked his transition. One step he was thinking about his newt, wishing he'd known it would have eaten earthworms or crickets, the next his mind was locked on the image of his red newt on the glistening leaf. He was no longer conscious of himself or what he was doing. He didn't remember his duties, or that he had been a lifeguard at all. After the virus took him, he just kept pacing.

The day after the virus took Daniel, a pack of boys led by Rory came to the pool. They laughed and splashed in the pool, raided the snack bar, and wrestled for dominion over the diving board. Typical teenage boy stuff, mostly harmless until Rory noticed it was Ms. Sovelacj swimming laps and decided it was time for a little revenge.

He set his Coke down on the lip of the pool. His buddies knew the look on his face. They nudged each other and waited. Rory walked over to a landscaped area beyond the last row of vinyl loungers.

"What are you doing," one of the boys yelled, "taking a dump?"

Rory yelled, "Suck it!" from behind the hedge. He emerged carrying a concrete block and walked to the edge of the deep end.

As Ms. Solevacj swam past, Rory swung the block away from his stomach, dropping it on her head just as her smiling face turned up from the water. "That's for the D."

His buddies laughed, fist-pumping and high-fiving him. Rory picked up his Coke and was walking past the high dive, his buddies close behind, when Ms. Solevacj's limp body came to rest at the bottom of the pool. She had nearly finished her fifty-third mile, by far a personal record.
Rory upended his soda bottle, tonguing the last of his stolen Coke. The lifeguard turned at the shallow end and walked back. Rory, annoyed by the lifeguard's smile and his perfect white teeth, had an idea.
"Check this out," he said. He bent forward, holding the bottle behind his back, squinting as if looking for the catcher's sign.
The other boys fist-bumped and hooted.
"Throw your heater, Ror!"
Rory wound up, the pale side of his raised thigh emerging from his red trunks as he drew his knee to his chest. He pushed his leg forward, swung in a wide arc, and hurled the bottle. It whistled through the air, end over end, and made a loud crack when it struck the lifeguard's mouth, breaking off several front teeth and stamping a red arc across his upper lip. The bottle fell and shattered across the concrete pool deck. The lifeguard walked across the shards, his gait unaltered.
"Lame," one of the boys said.
"Shut it," Rory said, shoving the kid into the water. Rory took off for the high dive yelling, "Cannonball contest!"
Daniel continued walking his laps beside the pool, back and forth, back and forth, thousands of times a day for endless days. He did not notice the ribboned flesh of his soles or the click and scrape of his heel bones on the concrete.
January 21, 2020
Daniel finished walking the lap, turned and started back toward the deep end. Just over halfway down the pool, at about the six-foot mark, he stopped. Something red glowed in the growing murk. Although it was actually Rory's red trunks, to Daniel's virus-addled mind the red in the brackish water matched the image of his red newt slipping among the wet forest leaves.
Daniel stepped forward, reaching to hold his newt again, to stroke the delicate ridge of its mouth, the soft jowl beneath, and fell statue-like into the pool. Daniel slid along the slick pool bottom into the deep end, where he bumped into Rory and what remained of Ms. Solevacj. She would have reveled in what was happening in the pool, and Daniel would have loved hearing her explanation. Rory less so. Ms. Solevacj would have said something like this:
Over the years, the pool water will evaporate into a spongy green batter. The algae, nourished by our bodies in this stagnant soup, will filter out the chemicals. Rain and snow will fall, roots will crack the concrete, trees and plants will grow, creating a nutrient-rich loam that will become home to many creatures. Including some, Daniel, which will look very much like your beloved newt.