The other day I was out for a walk in the west end. I hadn’t thought ahead to bring my camera, or even my phone – it started out with me going to grab a coffee, but after the coffee had been successfully grabbed I just kept going. I headed along College until Dundas so rudely veers north and cuts it off, then through the resultant tangle of streets wedged between Bloor and Dundas and High Park. I took alleyways and changed direction almost randomly, but always ended up facing the slowly setting sun.
I hit High Park around five o’clock. Instead of my normal reaction, to take the variously winding, thickly treed trails as an invitation to meander, I cut straight across, ignoring signs warning of poison ivy and indigenous plant replacement projects. Hopping the marsh at the north end of Grenadier Pond and wending my way up a steep sidewalk, I realized I was in a part of the city I had not visited before. The houses here were large and new, belonging to the rich. I glanced past the spread of extravagant houses down a narrow street, I saw what I can only describe as a gentle housing gradient; each house slightly smaller, slightly older than the previous. New designy mansions gave way to post-war bungalows and then to those even older. As the road began to slope downhill again the houses got larger again: old art-deco apartments and once-great stone manors now split into dozens of apartments.
I was so absorbed by the shifting architecture that it took me a long to to notice that the layer of leaves on the ground had grown much deeper than anywhere else I had been; more than the usual rain-flattened layer on the sidewalk, the huddled piles in the gutter. This was ankle-deep and getting deeper. Brilliant red and yellow sugar maples mixed with ruddy black oaks, tossed together with ash leaves spotted with mold and spade-shaped birch. As I rustled onward through the leaves. Although I felt the sidewalk continue to follow the curve of the hill down into the ravine ahead, the mass of leaves stayed level. I persevered until I was up to my waist, then stopped and stood, half bemused and half defeated.
I could make out the top of a sign for a parkette up ahead, and past that, a roof of weathered blue copper shingles, breaching the sea of leaves. The house itself was buried to the eaves. I stood a little longer and took in the whole scene. I was so engrossed, and listening to my iPod, that I didn’t notice a small gray-haired head next to me. She was almost up to her neck in leaves, and was speaking.
I popped my earbuds out and awkwardly apologized. She smiled and ran her hand through her thin hair before launching into a story so eloquent it seemed rehearsed. Maybe she does this a lot.
In a soft, slightly accented voice, she told me about Healey MacMillan and Maggie Temple. He was the chief urban planner in Toronto in the late 1930s, and this was his revenge. At the outset, the story was one I’ve heard countless times before, she may have even used the phrase ‘star-cross’d lovers’. As a young man he had loved the eldest daughter of a lumber baron who lived in that house. (she gestured towards it, her hands lost in the leaves) Something went terribly wrong between them, she didn’t know the details, but she did tell me how MacMillan, after years of research and subtle manipulation, crafted his retribution in the streets themselves.
Showing a monumental lack of foresight found only in the heartbroken, MacMillan laid the streets down in a series of bizarre convolutions, varying wildly from Toronto’s staid grid. The streets channeled the easterly autumn wind and twisted it, hurtling around corners and down tree-lined avenues. In addition to the standard banks of dark cloud and rain, they gathered rolling tumults of leaves all across the West End and were funneled together to here, to Maggie’s doorstep. The winds, now a wet, howling gale, collided with each other and deposited his gift to her. My volunteer guide wasn’t sure if this had been his intent, if he had considered the leaves, or just wanted the petty revenge of rattling her windows and sending cold breezes down the manor’s halls.
It doesn’t matter now, she said. The Temples moved away some time after the war, and now a rich couple uses it as their summer home, paying exorbitant amounts for the leaves to be trucked away each year after MacMillan’s gift arrives in full. Almost on cue, a breeze shivered past us, rustling the countless leaves. I thanked my guide for her time and decided to leave before the wind picked up.
I headed north, hopeful to find Bloor Street and a subway station. The sun had set half an hour ago and my belly was empty.