Forest of Lights

Because I’m late leaving work, I hustle from the tram station, hoping I can still make it to the Tribute in time. The familiar weight of my oxymask bounces against my chest, as I maneuver the ebb and flow of the crowd, the brass buckle a reassuring touch on the back of my neck. I reach the airlock right as it’s opening for the next wave of commuters, fixing my mask to my face with twenty or so others as we wait for it to desaturate the room. Restless and fidgety, I fiddle with straps, even though it already fits me like a second face.

After an interminable wait, we hit atmospheric equilibrium and the exterior door opens, disgorging us from the underground station on to the street. I hit the pavement with a breath of good air still in my lungs.

The sun hasn’t set yet. Good. They can’t start the Tribute until near darkness, but that changes every year, and dusk is nearly upon us. I have to keep pace with it if I want to make it in time.

The streets are alive with people, as they always are this time of year. Most are heading the same way I am, though some just mill about, happy to enjoy the cooler temperatures. I spot some of the newer model oxymasks, and am unimpressed. Sure, chrome seals and designer fabrics might advertise money, but they’re all flash and wheeze. Give me functionality over form, any day.

A man passes by me as I walk, moving faster than I am despite the extra weight of the kid on his shoulders. Good dad. The little squirt is wearing a mask a lot like my old Mark 7, and as they pass he makes eye contact and flashes me the finger sign for oxygen. I flash him back the double-handed version, and I can tell by the folding of skin under his eyepieces that he’s grinning. And then they’re too deep amongst the gathering crowd for me to see them anymore.

I was about that kid’s age when my dad took me to see my first Tribute. He liked to tell me about how, when he was a little boy, people could walk around outdoors without oxymasks at all. When I asked him why they started, he just said, “Because we weren’t very good caretakers, son.”

I saw him cry once, late at night when he thought I was asleep. He was in the study, reading a book. He slipped it back on the shelf before he shooed me back to bed, but I snuck back in later and found it, a small pocket-sized thing called A Field Guide to the Coniferous Forests of North America. These days it sells for a pretty mint on the collector’s market, but I’ve still got that copy.

I’m in luck, and reach the Memorial Grove before the sun sets. It’s the fullest I’ve ever seen it, thousands of people milling about below the trees. All the ceremonial pomp and circumstance is already underway, but I don’t care about any of that. I’m just here for the trees.

The sun dips below the horizon, and for a moment we’re all in darkness, the only sound the staccato rasp of oxymask respirators as people hold and release their breaths in wait of the tribute.

Then it happens. One by one the trees light up, until countless glowing branches are reflected and refracted in oxymask lenses. You can hear the crowd chant even through their masks as each tree springs to life: oak, elm, ash, maple, eucalyptus….one for each species we lost.

It’s a glorious sight, this forest for the trees, and well worth the trip. I’m glad I came. And like every year, I think of my father, and wonder what it would be like to bask in the oxygen provided by their predecessors, rather than bask in the light of the Tribute, as he once did.

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