Autumn in Madeira by Jacek Yerka
"Almost there, Miss!"
"It is so kind for you to bring me out here, Mr. Purnell," Miss Lyon said, trying to fan away the August heat.
"Aw, Miss, Mr. Purnell is my Pa. Call me Jake, everyone does."
"Um, thank you. I'm sure the Conscientious Ladies' Journal readers will be quite interested in your business."
"Of course they will. Purnell Plantation isn't called the 'Foremost Purveyors of Fashion Foliage' for nothin', you know."
"Why have you taken that epithet upon yourselves?"
Jake shrugged, taking a corner at speed. "Superior products. We have the best silk leaves on the market."
Miss Lyon held onto her unadorned fedora. "To whom do you sell them?"
"Milliners in the city, mostly. Some go to the dry-goods stores for the ladies what like to trim their own bonnets. There it is, home sweet home. What do you think?"
"It's rather small, for a plantation, isn't it?"
Jake sighed. "Well, it used to be bigger, but times weren't so good a few years back, and my Great-Grandpa had to sell off a lot of the land."
Miss Lyon attempted to take notes as the sedan bounced toward what looked like an autumnal island in a field. "Who owns it now?"
"Dunno. No one's seen them since they carted it away."
"Carted . . . what?"
"The land." Jake squinted as he accelerated. "Sorry, Miss. I have to take this slope at a bit of a run."
Miss Lyon grasped the edge of her seat as Jake drove the sedan up and part of the way into a ramshackle shed.
"Here, Miss," he said, opening her door. "As you can see, we have a bumper crop this year."
"How do you define that?"
"The garage is so full of leaves that I can't fit both bumpers inside."
Miss Lyon looked around, shaking her head. "I--this is nothing like I imagined."
"What did you expect?"
"Acres of mulberry trees, in straight lines--"
"Mulberry trees? I think we have a couple, in the back. But there's much more demand for oak and maple leaves."
"Mulberry trees for the silkworms."
"Silkworms? Can't abide the pests. Last time they invaded, we lost half the orchard."
"And overworked, underpaid women picking the cocoons apart with ragged fingernails, painstakingly spinning, weaving, painting, for the vanity of those who value appearance over conscience."
A brilliant orange leaf fluttered down from above. Jake picked it up, his brows knit together. "Why would we need any of that, Miss? The leaves grow, and we pick them."
"Silk leaves grow on trees?"
Jake handed her the leaf. "Sure."
Miss Lyon turned away, putting on her spectacles. She peered at the leaf, stroked it with her fingers, crushed it in her fist. When she opened her hand again, the leaf lay whole, undamaged. "This--this feels like silk. And doesn't crunch like a dry leaf should. But it can't be natural. Leaves on trees certainly should not have turned colors yet. It's summertime."
"I'm no expert, Miss, but if I know anything about fashion, it's that one must look forward. We harvest green leaves in February, for the spring hats, and colored in August."
"How, um, convenient. Will you please show me the rest of your facilities?"
"Right this way. You're going to like this, Miss. The latest technical advancement." He led her to another shed. A tree was growing out through its leaf-covered roof. Jake opened the door.
"Stand back, Miss, and watch this." He pulled a rope next to the door, and the roof panels swung inward, depositing the leaves on the floor. "Clever, don't you think? My Pa's applied for a patent on it. Purnell's Patent Leaf Collector, he's calling it."
"What happens next?"
"Why, then we sort them by color, size, and quality, pile 'em into the auto-mobile, and deliver them to our customers."
"So, you expect my readers to believe that silk leaves just grow on trees, and turn colors in the summer so the milliners will be ready for the autumn styles?"
Jake shrugged again. "It's true."
Miss Lyon threw her hands in the air. "My readers are no fools. What else will you claim? Does wax fruit grow on trees, too?"
"Certainly. My cousin Alfred grows the best wax fruit in his orchard. Would you like an introduction? Apples, grapes, he grows it all. Looks good enough to eat, but mind you don't, Miss."
"I suppose the bonnets themselves grow on trees, too?"
Jake folded his arms. "You don't need to jest, Miss."
"Oh, are you going to tell me the truth now?"
"Bonnets grow on vines, not trees. And not in this climate, either. My uncle Larkin has a vineyard down south, and it's a sight to see, Miss, when the bonnets blossom out in the spring, all bright colors and different shapes. Uncle Larkin has been around the world, collectin' seeds, he has. The cloches bloom bright red, and the boaters are yellow. Those little fanchons were orange, but they only grew one year, and Uncle figures they were just a fluke. They all ripen to that nice straw color, and then we pick them."
Jake looked upward, a small smile on his face. "I went to help out a couple years ago, and I could have stayed there forever." He looked at Miss Lyon again. "But Ma and Pa need me here. I'm the only one that can drive the auto-mobile."
Miss Lyon kept looking around at the trees, the sheds, the summer meadow surrounding the autumnal island, disbelief etched in her face. Jake considered.
"Here, Miss, what you need is a free sample. That hat of yours could use a little perking up, don't you think? I'll just shimmy up here and pick you some fresh leaves, and my sister will fix them right up. She apprentices with a milliner when we're not harvesting." Jake climbed a ladder to the roof of one shed, and soon disappeared into the brilliant branches of a maple tree.
Miss Lyon took some deep breaths, and looked around again, this time to find out if anyone was watching her. Whether she believed the young man or not, there was only one thing to do when confronted with a pile of autumn leaves. She gathered her skirts, took a few running steps, and jumped.
For Magpie Tales