Tilting At Windmills: The Accidental Invention Of Autumn - Encore
Published: October 7th, 2022
By: Shelly Reuben

Tilting at Windmills: The Accidental Invention of Autumn - Encore Columnist Shelly Reuben

I was thinking and thinking and thinking about what to write in honor of autumn, and then I realized that I already HAD written it. So I am bringing back this little story…which says it all.

Once upon a time, the President of the Universe sat in his office and looked down through the clouds at planet earth. All things considered, he reflected dispassionately, he was satisfied with what he had done. He read through the items on his Project Management Sheet:

Land mass to ocean ratio. Check.

Atmospheric pressure. Check.

Gravity. Check.

Weather, temperature, seasons…

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A cacophony of noises disturbed his concentration. The President of the Universe closed his eyes, clenched his jaw, and hissed, “Not again.” Then he rose from his chair, and began to leap from cloud to cloud.

When he arrived at Altocumulus # 9, he paused to look through the gateposts. He observed his niece Ariella, pretty as a poppy in a maelstrom, and his nephew Hamish, frantic as a beekeeper being attacked by a swarm of bees.

Thirteen-year-old Ariella was angrily kicking the small nimbus cloud that the President of the Universe had given her a week ago, and screaming, “Rain! Rain! Why aren’t you raining? I want you to rain NOW!”

Fourteen-year-old Hamish was glaring at his sister with hatred, knocking books, potted plants, and sketchpads off their tables, and maniacally shouting, “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!”

The President of the Universe took a deep, frustrated breath. Both children, he realized, were spoiled. They needed discipline. They needed structure. They needed purpose. And they needed him.

He pushed open the gate, grabbed one child in each massive hand, tucked him (or her) under an arm, and sprang off Altocumulus # 9. Then he leapt from cloud to cloud until he was back in his own office, on his own cloud.

Half an hour later, his niece and nephew were seated opposite the President of the Universe at a large, sturdy table on which he had arranged huge multi-colored pots of paint, small glass jars filled with paintbrushes, and enormous sheets of vellum paper. His instructions to them had been unequivocal. “You are not to leave this table until you have created something beautiful.”

He glared at his nephew, who had artistic talent, but used it to draw pictures of complex mechanical devices that chopped off people’s heads.

“It must be beautiful,” the President of the Universe repeated with emphasis. Then he returned to his own desk.

Ariella looked at her brother. “Oh, my,” she whispered, temporarily compliant. “What do we do now?”

Hamish pursed his lips. “Well,” he said, a little less churlishly than usual, “Uncle is omniscient, he is omnipotent, and he’ is in a really, really bad mood. So we’d better do exactly as he says.”

And they did. Or, at least, they started out to.

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Meanwhile, The President of the Universe had resumed study of his Project Management Sheet.

“Where was I?” He murmured thoughtfully, his eyes scanning the page. “Weather, temperature, seasons. That’s right. Three seasons in all. Spring, summer, and winter. Spring brings rebirth, regeneration, and renewal. Summer means growth, abundance, and fruition. Winter is death, dormancy, and rest.” He frowned. “But … but … something seems to be missing. I wonder if…”


The President of the Universe jerked his head toward the area where his niece and nephew were working. Or, rather, were supposed to be working. But, instead of creating something beautiful, they were squabbling, and fighting. With flailing fists, they had overturned their table. Papers flew, jars shattered, brushes clattered, and pigment from paint pots was pouring into the clouds below.

Rosy Blush into cumulonimbus clouds. Mandarin Orange into altostratus clouds. Fuchsia into cirrocumulus clouds. Gold Nugget into stratus clouds. Mellow Yellow into cirrus clouds. And Vermillion into cumulous clouds.

As the paint fell, it assimilated with the molecules of water that composed the clouds, and quick as a blink, all of the pretty white fleece was transformed into angry shades of orange, purple, gold, yellow, and red.

The President of the Universe dropped his big knuckles to the top of his desk and glared at the hooligans he had the misfortune to call nephew and niece. Then a passion (not unlike the one he had experienced when he created volcanoes) began to throb acrimony into his heart. Thunder roared, the firmament blackened, and lightning bolted across the sky. Terrified by these emotions, every cloud in the troposphere inhaled vaporous mists of paint. Then they gasped, coughed, choked, and exhaled what seemed to be an interminable deluge of multi-colored rain. The rain fell, and fell, and fell to earth.

Happenstantially, because in stories that begin “Once upon a time,” all things are happenstantial, these events transpired at the very instant that summer was supposed to turn into winter. That transformation, however, was delayed, because the earth was far too busy absorbing an avalanche of paint.

Needful to say, mere seconds after the President of the Universe had been overcome by outrage, his anger dissipated and was replaced by curiosity, reason, and perhaps … just perhaps … a little, tiny, smidgen of regret. He looked down, and began to study the world below.

Rain obscured his vision, so he snapped his fingers. The rain stopped. The clouds grew white and fluffy. The sun shone. The sky turned an exquisite opalescent blue.

And earth…ah, well…earth. It was not the predictable polychromatic orb that he had last seen. It had become instead a thing of wonder. A thing of majesty. A manifestation more glorious than anything he had ever before imagined or seen.

Trees were no longer summer green, they were a panoply of color. Not the colors on the color charts for the paint pots that he had given the children. New colors created by sunlight streaming through translucent leaves that fluttered against a bejeweled blue sky.

The President of the Universe observed flecks of gold scattered over green lawns; burnished red foliage mirrored on the surfaces of silver lakes; tides of purple leaves clustered against the bases of lovely old cemetery stones; feathery gold and copper fronds fanning out in front of short stubby shrubs; and shafts of sunlight spearing through bright yellow, rusty brown, and pale pink canopies of trees.

He leaned over his desk, mesmerized, hypnotized, entranced. He smelled the rich, intoxicating scent of a season he did not know. A season that would come after summer, linger to reflect on its glorious past, and then surrender to the inevitability of the cold weather to come. He saw what he liked. He liked what he saw. He knew that it was needful. And he knew that it was necessary.

Spring. Yes.

Summer. Yes.

Winter. Yes.

And yes to this new season, too. He would call it “autumn,” for no reason other than that it was a pretty sounding name. Autumn. Yes, the President of the Universe nodded. Very much yes, indeed.

Then he reluctantly let his eyes drift to his niece and nephew, who were terrified about his response to their misbehavior and trying to hide behind a fleecy pink cloud. Instead of scowling at them, however, he smiled. His smile widened and he said, “You have done what I asked you to do. You have made something beautiful.”

The next thing he did, and you will be surprised at this, because you wouldn’t think that the President of the Universe would patronized such a place, was to say, “If you comb your hair and wash your faces, I will take you out for ice cream sundaes.”

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And that is exactly what he did.

I could tell you more about Ariella and Hamish. Why they were living with their uncle. If Hamish every stopped drawing mechanisms that cut off heads. If Ariella ever stopped kicking rain clouds and having tantrums. Maybe someday I will.

But today … today, I only have time to tell you how two perfectly obnoxious children accidentally invented the most beautiful season of them all.

And how the President of the Universe was glad.

Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2022. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com