This fable appears in the Religious Life section, but not all visitors go there, so I am reprinting it here:
The River Leaf
The river leaf began her life not knowing the river at all.
She burst forth one day, the tiniest of red buds on a giant old tree known as red maple. She could see other tiny buds around her, knew she wasn’t alone, and felt
the hard brown branch on which they all saw each other for the first time. It was a big branch, thick and long, and it stretched out over something they couldn’t quite see. Yet, from the beginning, they were surrounded by the river’s voice without
knowing what it was.
The tiny maple bud pushed up and out. She unfurled, and spread. She inhabited the air around her like a fan. Sometimes she stood still, seeing the multitude of other leaves filling out this old tree in garments of glory. Some
of them were close to her, touching her, and she felt glad. Sometimes a slow breeze moved them all together and apart, together and apart, and they knew themselves to be dancing. And sometimes a loud wind thrashed them together without mercy, and they could
only bend and blow with it until that wind blew itself out and left for other trees. Rain was welcomed for its softening, its cleansing, and its nourishment.
And always the river sang, just below their knowing.
Days and weeks went
by in the rhythm of wind and light, rain and dark. The maple leaf grew large, with a stem powerful enough to stand up to the wind, to taste the rain, and to laugh at the strong breezes that sometimes arrived suddenly with no warning at all.
all the time the river was singing, going only one way, unnoticed by the leaf and her companions on that one strong and hardy branch.
Then one day the maple leaf felt a new feeling. It was the cold. It began slowly at first, but then – everything
was filled with it – the wind, the rain – even her stem where she was attached to her branch. The cold made her feel shaky, and then – and then – she noticed that her color was changing. She could hardly recognize herself. Her green
was going. Yellow – what was that? And now red was seeping in. Who was this red leaf? She was so taken up with her own changes that she forgot to look around her, and when she did, she was shocked to find that all her companions were looking unfamiliar,
different shades of different colors, like herself.
Finally she was all red, a shining, luminous red, but she still found it hard to think of herself that way. What could she do but say yes to this new color? But wait – something else was
happening. Her stem – her proud strong attachment to the tree – was loosening. It was coming away. She felt unsteady. Everything familiar had disappeared when she wasn’t looking, it seemed. The red maple leaf tried to huddle and cling to
the only familiar thing left in her world – and she couldn’t.
The coldest wind of all came. And the river still sang.
The red maple leaf floated for what seemed an endless time, and to her it was. She was lifted one night –
not quite gently - from her old battered branch, and placed on the invisible wings of the wind. There was nothing to do but move with this unfamiliar current that she could neither see nor hold onto. But it moved her somewhere, and all she knew was that she
was still alive. Nothing else was left. As she floated downward and downward, a new voice came into her hearing, the voice that had always been there, faint and distant. The red maple leaf seemed to hear this voice for the first time as she was laid on its
moving sound. The river took her with a violent shiver.
Where once she had stood still, moving only to the wind’s whim but always feeling secure in her solid connection to the branch, now the red maple leaf was swiftly swung into a fast
moving current. Nothing held her but the water. Shapes she had never seen before passed into her knowing but she could no more choose to hold them or stay with them than she could get back to her branch. Who could know how big the world really is? she thought.
And here I was thinking that my branch was the world, and that I would always be firmly attached to it.
The red maple leaf wasn’t alone on the water, but her companions were now not the familiar shapes of maple leaves like herself, or the
squirrels who had raced by her often enough to be considered part of her tree. Passing her in the swift flow were sticks of all sizes, leaves in shapes she’d never seen before, white foam that threatened to envelop her completely. Then there were the
birds – ducks and herons and hawks and loons. Beneath her were the strangest shapes of all – creatures actually under the water, moving with it or against it: fish, beaver, otter, mink, snake. Some of them moved above and below at will, she saw.
But the red maple leaf could not choose her path in the river. She could only move as the river moved her, and no amount of resistance could change this truth.
Gradually, the red maple leaf found that the river not only had a flow, but a rhythm
of its own. Light and dark changed places again and again, just as they had when she was lodged in her tree. She could count on that. Then she noticed that the river had faces other than the fast flow. She was often pushed into eddies where she had little
spaces of motionless and soundless slowing while the river swirled her around more softly and became quiet, almost like a lullaby. The red maple leaf treasured these times especially, though she knew they would not last – and she knew that she’d
come to them again. She also became aware that whenever the river came to a corner, its voice became louder and its flow a little faster, as if making an effort to take the turn. And that when the turn was done, she could expect a slowing down, a restful,
slowing movement when she could rest on the water.
Once she was mistaken for food by one of the underwater creatures and was pulled under before being rejected for that purpose. For awhile, she was fully immersed in water. No air. Strange shapes
and sounds. After that immersion, the red maple leaf began to think of herself differently. Her world had changed so completely that she could no longer think of herself as a red maple leaf. She realized that she had become, instead, a river leaf.
river leaf continued to flow with the river, each day surrendering to wherever it took her. She began to enjoy the sun on her surface, and even the cold breezes didn’t seem as bad as when she was high up on her branch. Sometimes the river took her into
crevices and corners, stuck in the debris that was floating along with her. She never knew how long she’d be there, but she knew that the river never stopped, and that she would move into its flow again. That fact, like dark and light, was to be trusted.
And one more thing she realized was also to be trusted: the river flowed in only one direction. She would never see her branch, or her tree, again.
The river’s voice became the river leaf’s song. The river’s adventures were her
adventures. She knew herself now only as belonging to the river, not to the tree, that faint memory. One day, she noticed that the current was slowing and slowing, and she could no longer see the familiar scenes along the river’s edges. She could only
see a vast expanse of water, and it was no longer moving.
Gradually, the river leaf came to rest among the tall striped grasses where the river became the lake. She felt hidden there, safe – but not in the old way of being attached to the
tree. The river leaf felt a fullness, a completion of something she couldn’t quite name, but the grasses helped her to know it, and to hold it. No more wanting anything else but what she had, no more wanting to be anywhere else but where she was.
One more change awaited the little river leaf who’d lived the fullness of her days. Now even the red began to fade – the red that was once so strange and threatening – and then familiar. A crystal coating of white covered her one
night, and just before morning she saw that she had been painted in the most delicate of lacy patterns, and beneath those patterns, she was no longer red, but gold. She was astounded at her own beauty, knowing that she had not made herself so, but that she
had been made so. And that she was ready to begin again.
And the river sang her into ending, and later – into beginning.