City Starlight & The Cemetery
Katrina Eilender. New Jersey, United States.
I can feel the anxiety radiating through me as I paddle the kayak with slow, wide motions. What am I anxious about, you ask? Nothing in particular. That’s what is so frustrating about it- I feel it all the time, even on perfectly nice, ordinary days. I take a deep breath and try to absorb some of the tranquility of the environment around me. The sun is almost done rising, the sky a fiery orange, with only the barest strokes of indigo around the edges alluding to the fact that it had been dark just a few minutes ago. The human world is often relatively quiet at dawn, but here in the marsh it’s the loudest time of day. Birds call and swoop down to fish, insects of a thousand types buzz with renewed fervor, and frogs make their unmistakable guitar string twangs as my kayak glides by almost silently. It’s hard to imagine that only a few decades ago these wetlands didn’t exist in the city.
I start to feel better as I dock the kayak at the drop spot and climb out into the already- busy street. Bikes zoom by in the cycling lane, the trolley trundles past, and there are people everywhere, even at this hour of the morning, striding confidently to their destinations. A crowd has gathered around some kind of holo-projection, and my curiosity gets the better of me, so I head over to check it out. It’s a pop-up presentation on the history of the neighborhood. Unfortunately, I only get to watch the first few minutes before I remember that I’m already late to work.
Max has already opened up shop by the time I arrive. “Joss, late again. What a surprise.” He rolls his eyes and makes a gesture of frustration with his laser fabric cutter.
“I know, I’m really sorry Max. Honest to god I tried. I just-”
“Oh, spare me the spiel. It’s fine. Just get back to work, we have a lot of orders to fill by this evening. Everyone wants an outfit for Stellar Night.”
I start constructing some blouses according to the patterns projected on the screen, and once in a while a customer comes in and I have to show them all the fabric options and take their measurements and all that. A few online orders roll in too, nothing too complicated. Clothes making is repetitive work, but it’s also creative, and I like doing it. It clears my mind, helps me feel focused.
When my lunch break finally arrives, however, I’m eager to head straight to the used bookstore across the street. Little echoes of my earlier anxiety return as I smooth my hair and step back to look at my reflection in the window. I force myself to stop stalling- my lunch break is only an hour- and step inside.
The jingle of tiny bells follows me as I push open the door. My heart swells a little as I look around. Stacks of precariously stacked paperbacks, floor to ceiling wooden shelves absolutely crammed, comfy reading chairs in the corner. I have so many happy memories here.
“Joss! What’s up?” Nora has emerged suddenly from behind a bookcase, long dark hair piled on her head and chunky sweater sleeves rolled up.
“Um, I was just looking for something to read during my lunch break. Do you have anything on the history of the neighborhood? This morning there was a pop-up history exhibition that looked cool and it reminded me.”
“I saw that too!” Nora replies, running her fingers over the shelves. “It was fascinating, especially all the stuff about the battles to get cars banned. That movement started right around here. I’ve got something perfect. It’s about the change in the urban design of the area over time and the accompanying history, causes, effects, anecdotes, all of it.” She hands me a short, thick hardcover, clearly at least a few years old. “So, what about yesterday’s book? What did you think?” She asks. I am silent for a moment, unable to look away from the afternoon sunbeams lighting up her eyes. A fly buzzes nearby, the spell breaks, and I regain my powers of speech.
“It was epic! A mix of sci-fi, philosophy, mythology,- and the short story as a medium served him well..I especially loved the one about AI… what did you think?”
“My favorite was the one about the killer angels. But I agree with you on all the rest- it was almost like poetry, but less tiresome, and more thought provoking. It’s my favorite book of his-”
“Yes!” I exclaim, “some of his others were a little heavy handed, but this one works very well.”
We talk on and on, riffing off each other, and by the time I pay for my book and leave, my break is almost over. I run back across the street, almost getting hit by a bike, but I only have time to inhale a few quick bites of my cheese sandwich before the alarm from the sorting room starts blaring.
Max is already in the sorting room, fiddling with the machine controls. The sorting machine is key, it separates the old clothing into categories, types of fabric, quality level, and packs them neatly into bins so we can remake them. But we have a particularly cheap, old model from right after people stopped buying new garments, and at least once a week it gets horribly stuck on a piece of fabric and grinds to halt. Getting the machine unstuck is slow, delicate work, even more so because Max is insistent that we manage to recover the offending scrap of velvet or cotton or polyester or whatever it is without tearing it. He’s stingy that way. But even such an annoying job can’t wipe the smile off my face today. As I work, I replay my conversation with Nora over and over again in my head.
The rest of the afternoon passes by in a rush of deliveries and customers. I close up shop promptly at 5, and wait for Max to write me my check. “Enjoy your weekend.” I smile at him as I head out the door. I’m tired, and think of sleeping on the trolley, but by the time I get on there’s an air of festivity around, and I decide to enjoy the sights of the city instead. Everyone is rushing around like crazy, trying to get things done before sunset. Luckily, there’s no line at the bank-cum-post office. “Sheila, hi. How are you?” I ask, plunking my check down on the counter between us. She knows the drill. “Good, good. We’re having our annual Stellar Night barbecue tonight, Sydney will be there, and Maya- a bunch of people. You should come.”
“Of course I’ll be there. Thanks for inviting me. Last year’s was awesome.”
“So, what’s going on with you?” Sheila asks as she scans my check and deposits it into my account. “You look over the moon today. Have you finally gotten yourself a girlfriend?”
“No.” I laugh awkwardly , and suddenly I find myself blurting out everything about my conversation with Nora, and how happy it made me.
“You know,” she replies, “Sam first asked me out on Stellar Night, all those years ago. The first one they ever held. It wasn’t even that popular back then, not like it is now. But even so, it was the most romantic thing I’d ever seen. It feels like yesterday, and yet here we are, I’m an old hag now, and he’s an old wrinkly man!” Sheila laughs, and twirls a strand of silver hair around her finger.
“I’ve never heard that story before, that is so romantic.” I sigh and lean on the countertop. We both seem to have the same thought at the same time, and I blush beet red. “You should try your luck with Nora. Invite her to the barbecue! You never know if you don’t ask..”
I open my mouth to give my standard refusal, but something stops me. I might be going crazy, but maybe it is worth a try.
“You know what, I think I will. Thank you! I have to get back before the bookstore closes!” I shout on my way out the door. What a day this is shaping up to be. Am I really doing this? Now? After so many months of not even daring to imagine? I step off the trolley and run right to the bookstore. I know that if I allow myself to hesitate even a little, I’ll lose my resolve.
“Oh, hi! You’re back!” Nora smiles so genuinely that it almost makes me stop in my tracks. My heart is pounding. My words tumble out of their own accord, fast and nervous and barely intelligible. “I was wondering, if you, um, wanted to go to a Stellar Night Barbecue with me tonight. I think it could be fun, there’ll be good food-”
“As, like, a date?” She asks, her eyebrows raised.
Time slows down. I can feel the blood rushing in my head. I have a decision to make. “Yes, as a date.” I say, slowly and with conviction. Courage is not the absence of fear, but the fortitude to continue on despite it, I remind myself. I can endure this moment of silence.
And then she grins, and says “Yes, I would love to! It’s my favorite holiday!” I can’t quite believe it, at first. I give her the address, we agree on a time to meet, and oh my god this is really happening.
I spend hours overthinking my outfit, and when the doorbell rings I am unprepared. My housemates tease me viciously as I run to answer it, hoping that Nora doesn’t hear them. She looks beautiful, of course. Beautiful isn’t even the right word. Radiant.
The long walk up the stairs to the roof is a little awkward, mainly because I didn’t have time to clean the house much, but Nora doesn’t seem to notice the mess. We’re too busy talking about movies, books, places we’ve been and things we want to do. Our voices bounce off the walls of the stairwell, overlap, weave together to form a kind of melody. Holding her hand feels like how just-baked cookies smell. If that makes any sense.
We walk over the bridges between roofs to get to Sheila and Sam’s building. Their roof is surrounded by a white iron fence and lots of baby plants waiting to be transplanted to the neighborhood garden. The little gate creaks open, and everyone calls out hello. Sydney is grilling bean burgers and Sheila is spooning her signature chilli into bowls. Old 2030s pop music is blasting, stuff I remember from when I was a kid.
“Wanna dance?” Nora asks, taking me by surprise. No one else is dancing yet, but we do it anyway. We dance, stupidly, flinging our limbs around, having fun. I don’t feel a single drop of fear. A few people cheer, and some join us. Her skirt spins, she dips me low and I twirl her around.
The colors shift across the expanse of sky, blue spreading and deepening. Exhausted, we all sit down to watch the sunset like it’s a movie. In that moment, it feels like I’m seeing our city for the first time. The skyscrapers glittering, reaching upward, the rows of low buildings lined with trees, the vertical farms in all their lush, green glory. Where all this food originated. The massive cargo ships sailing through the harbor on the evening wind, their lovely contrast of billowing white sails and flat black solar panels. The trolleys dutifully trundling forward over their routes, but mostly empty now. Everyone wants to see the spectacle that is about to unfold.
A city is such an amazing achievement, I marvel. So many different people and systems, all working together in concert, to create a city that supports millions of people without harming nature. We’ve been through some horribly difficult, unjust times, and so have our parents, and before that all the generations stretching back before them. But look around. We’ve come out the other side. Not only did we survive, we built something beautiful.
And that’s when it starts. Lights flickering off, all over the city. The sky grows darker and darker. The first few stars shine down like beacons. Cheers erupt from rooftops all around us, and I yell as loud as I can. When this holiday first started, very few buildings actually turned off their lights. People thought that because they were just a little light in an ocean of them, it didn’t make a difference either way. But most people know better now. Lights go off on every block, in every neighborhood. Each tiny light that disappears seems to reveal its parallel in the navy blue sky, sending out its signal from millions of lightyears away. By the time the sun is fully gone, the expanse above us is the deepest black, painted with hundreds of brilliant constellations. The colors of the milky way become visible, and everyone gasps. It’s magical. Like no other beauty on earth. 364 days a year, you can’t see a single star in this cram-jammed city. But for one night, we all work together to make this spectacle of majesty.
Here I am, drunk on love for the universe, surrounded by friends and starlight. I decide that this moment will never come again. I lean over and kiss Nora, all the butterflies in my stomach taking flight out through my lips. She kisses me back. If all my life so far, all my sweat and blood and tears, have been only so that I can achieve this moment in time, it would all have been worth it. I break the kiss and lay down flat on the rough concrete, staring up at the stars. She leans her head on my shoulder. Humans, I decide, can do anything we set our minds to if we work together. If we have solidarity. Even me. Because I am here alive, unafraid, and I never thought that would be. We are beautiful together.
It’s already pouring by nine am, even though the forecast claimed it wouldn’t start until 3. The rain plunks onto the leaves above, then streams down in rivulets and drips from the branches, almost all of it directly onto Kurt’s head. Or at least that’s how it feels to him.
“Goddamn weather channel, never right. Bunch of foolhardy schmucks.” Kurt mumbles to himself, with great satisfaction.
Today is shaping up to be a good day. Not only was the weather report wrong, but the torrential rain has mostly deterred visitors, so Kurt has been free to tidy the paths, trim branches, and polish the plaques all morning. The more pleasant facet of the job, for him. But of course now he’s gone and jinxed it. The bell rings out clearly through the trees. Kurt sighs and puts his clipping shears down, shuffling slowly down the path toward the front gate. It takes his bad knee some time to kick into gear in the morning, especially when it’s rainy. Management wanted to have visitors sign in on a tablet, of all things, which would then send a message to a smart watch he would ostensibly be wearing. But Kurt put them off that idea quickly enough. It would have ruined everything they were trying to accomplish here! And besides, he thinks proudly, the bell is plenty good enough. I can hear it from any part of the forest, even in the rain. The unfortunate ringers of the bell stand huddled under the big oak, wielding a colorful assortment of umbrellas. Kurt can tell that they have just been squabbling amongst themselves about whether or not to leave, but have stopped abruptly now that he is here. An old woman, an exhausted looking middle aged couple, and a few teenagers stare at him expectantly.
“Hi, I’m Kurt. I’m the caretaker here. I can walk you to the tree you’re looking for, unless you already know how to get there.”
He says this last part rhetorically, because he knows all the regulars, and he’s never seen this family before.
“Uh, we could use some help.” The middle aged man steps forward. “I’m Mark Davis, we’re looking for Richard and Claudia Davis. They’re together, the same tree, I think.” Mark says hesitantly.
“Alright, let’s get going then.”
The family takes one last look behind them at the glittering city across the river before following Kurt into the dark, dense forest. It provides some shelter from the rain, but he can see them start a little at the shadows. There is something about old forests, he thinks as he leads them up the path, that will always give people the strange feeling that they are in a fairy tale, no matter how advanced science and technology get. The human imagination triumphs.
“How long has this place been around?” One of the teenagers asks, ducking her head beneath a low branch. “Well, there’s three different answers. The forest itself has been around for 400 years, give or take. Although it was heavily logged in the intervening years, so very few of the trees themselves are that old. Some of the recently planted parts are only a decade or two old. The reserve is 56 years old, but it’s been expanded a lot since then. The cemetery is only 19 years old, dates back to the Public Land & Parks Act, I’m sure you’ve learned about that in school.”
“Wow.” She replies, looking around at the forest with new eyes.
Now that Kurt is warmed up and in his groove, it’s hard for him to stop talking about the place that has been his life’s work.
“See those mushrooms over there, on that fallen tree? Those are the kind they use to make antidepressants. Scientists used to come here to take samples back when they were first testing them.”
“That’s so cool!” The other teenager, presumably her brother, exclaims. Kurt smiles to himself. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the forest and its history, but generally grieving people don’t want a chatty guide. As much as he likes being alone, it’s nice for other people to see, sometimes, why he loves this place so much.
They arrive at Richard and Claudia Davis’ tree. It’s a young cedar, more than a sapling but barely. The soil it stretches its roots into was a parking lot only a few decades ago. Mark runs his fingers over the bronze plaques sticking up from the ground and looks as if he is about to cry. This is Kurt’s cue to disappear into the forest, leaving them alone with their grief.
Kurt tries to go back to his work. He really does. He even picks up his clipping shears. But his feet move him towards somewhere else, and he knows he can’t fight them, stubborn as he is. As he approaches the regal old beech, he tries to pretend he came for some other purpose. To neaten up the area. But he can’t.
“Hello, Maggie.” He whispers, tracing the line where the soft moss gives way to rough bark. “I’m sorry I haven’t come in so long. Sometimes it’s just.. Too much. You understand. You always understood me, better than I do myself.” He swallows the lump in his throat as he looks down at all the rocks he removed, one by one, when he buried her. Still scattered around here, indestructible.
“I miss you. That goes without saying.You were always wisecracking, my love. Strange as it is to say, I miss being made fun of. I’ve taken myself far too seriously since you’ve been … not here.” He takes a deep breath. Wipes the mist from his glasses.”
“Today I had some visitors that really made me think- wow. Look at the magnitude of what we’ve done. Look how we’ve succeeded, despite everything. You and I, we were pioneers. I, the quiet one taking care of the trees, you giving them hell in all those city council meetings. And now it’s really happened. “We’ve preserved an old-growth forest intact, grown it, created a massive carbon sink, protected biodiversity.” He hadn’t talked this way for years and years, not since people stopped needing to be convinced.
“But you and I both know it’s not just that. It’s more than the sum of its parts, more than numbers on a meter. It’s a place of comfort, a place where the cycle of life can happen. The trees absorb nutrients, distribute some to the younger, weaker ones, talk with each other constantly using tiny electrical impulses transmitted by the fungi, which feeds on dead trees. The microorganisms assume a million different roles taken on by billions of species, and the insects who sing and light up the night and the birds and the deer and the wolves and everything else. We only understand a fraction of it, there is so much more that we don’t even know about yet, that we may never know.”
His eyes crinkle up as he smiles.
“Isn’t it amazing that such a system exists? That we helped save it? That we’re a part of it all? Isn’t it so heartbreakingly beautiful? Humans have such an obsession with straight lines. But nothing is a straight line, that’s missing the point entirely. Everything is a circle. Circles within circles within circles, until the end of time….I know you would laugh at that long, ponderous speech. But all of it is to say, Maggie my love, don’t worry about me. I’m not alone. I’m never alone, here in the imperfect Eden we loved. No one ever is.”
With that Kurt turns around and starts to walk back to the maple grove, shears in hand. It’s time to stop blathering on and go back to doing. He steps forward with confidence, only to trip over a thick, twisted beech root, falling to the ground with a muffled thud. “One more prank, eh Maggie?” He asks, getting to his feet.
And then the sound of an old man laughing fills the air, loud, ugly, happy, in a way it hasn’t for a long time. If you listen carefully, you might even hear the trees joining in.