This page contains:
- Animal cruelty/death
- Child abuse
- Drug use
Harry first noticed the trees in May, when he went out in the purple dusk to hear the woodcocks dance. The sun had set an hour ago. Along the maples’ tangled arms flickered a slight luminescence, like the nave of a candlelit church. By its glow he could see what he usually couldn’t: the male woodcock bulleting upward, wings whistling, to his parabola against the blue clouds.
He watched for another hour, until he was confident the light came from the trees themselves. Against night’s dark lid the canopy shone, so soft an untrained eye might not notice. Maybe it was some new foxfire, spreading north with the dying winters. Or maybe an electrical disturbance, an ozone fit kicked off by the burning taiga. He’d lived in the little cabin beside the Field Station for two decades, watching it change, ageing beside it. Very little surprised him anymore.
At home he shucked his boots, then settled in with a book on bioluminescence. He ignored the cardboard boxes heaped neatly in the corner. The university had not officially asked him to leave. But he was getting too frail to maintain the Field Station by himself. Undergrads came to chop and dig every weekend, as well as, often, his granddaughter Ava, who was too polite to call him old but whose regular visits—it was a five-hour drive—spoke for themselves.
Ava’s father, Harry’s son-in-law, had brought him the boxes. Bill had been sober for four years now. Last year he’d invited Harry to live with him. Harry couldn’t decide if it was a genuine offer or a bid to get Ava to speak to Bill again. He wondered if she resented him for considering it. He wondered if he resented himself. But he was old; he would have to leave sometime. And maybe he didn’t have to forgive Bill to live with him.
He’d begin tomorrow. He was always beginning tomorrow.
Setting down the book, he switched off the light. Through the window, soft as starshine, the trees’ orange glow touched every corner of the room, the old photos and books, four walls the exact size of a life.
The next morning, when dawn still stood white and chilly in the lowlands, he visited his wife's and daughter’s graves. They grew at the bottom of the maple slope, in a wind-sheltered dell. For Lisa he’d planted an arch of raspberry canes. When she’d learned the cancer was terminal she’d demanded it, making some black and unrepeatable joke about him eating her fruit. She’d even helped him choose the spot, bare head wrapped, shaking with pain and laughter.
He’d never had the chance to ask Junie what she preferred. After the crash, she hadn’t woken up. Juniper would have been too on the nose, and besides it wouldn’t grow in such wet woods. So he chose nannyberry, because its dry fruit tasted like bananas, which Junie had loved. He hoped he wasn’t being selfish, burying her here instead of in a normal cemetery like Bill had wanted. He wished Lisa had been there to advise him, though he was grateful she’d never had to watch her daughter die.
He touched the raspberry’s naked whips. Every day he visited the dell. When his undergrads had found out, they’d thought he was morbid. One eighteen-year-old had even suggested therapy, to process. You can’t mourn forever, she’d said, very young and benignant. It’s not healthy.
A thump from up the slope startled him: the familiar sound of Ava’s Civic door. Of course, she’d come to talk about the lights. He heard the plash of her boots as she crossed the brook, then the bright, dry snap of a branch as she entered the hardwoods. Five minutes later she’d found him. Her face was clouded. Before she spoke, as always, she brushed the furled buds of Junie’s nannyberry. “Hi, Mom.”
She turned to Harry, hugged him. “Have you seen the trees?” she said. “My PI is freaking out. She says it’s not fungal and not atmospheric. It’s worldwide, did you know? In the Amazon it’s so bright you can read a book by it.”
Even now the glow was faintly visible, an orange thrum on the bellies of the branches. He said, “Some things in nature resist explanation.”
“Don’t give me that crap,” she laughed. “What’s your theory?”
“You think I’ve got a better idea than your PI? Is it because I’m old?”
She laughed again, then socked him gently on the shoulder. Ava had moved out two years ago when she’d started her PhD. He had never asked about living with her. He knew she couldn’t afford it.
“Hey, I peeked in the window and saw you haven’t packed yet. I thought you were moving out?”
Moving out, she said carefully, rather than moving in with Bill. Her circumspection shamed him. He wished she would just be angry. He wasn’t sure if he wanted it for her sake or because it would license his own anger. “I haven’t decided.”
She gave a small, pained smile. “Right. Can I birdwatch with you for a little?”
Above them, a clutch of yellow-rumped warblers was twitching along a big hickory. The trunk’s shaggy bark seemed pearly, smoothed by light. The birds’ black claws stood out as if on frosted glass. Ava swung her binoculars around on her shoulder. Harry raised his too.
For her last two years of high school and all four of undergraduate, Ava had lived with Harry at the Field Station, helping him with the monitoring he conducted for the university that leased the reserve’s three hundred acres of maple-hickory woods, cattail marsh, and wet meadow. She was fleeing Bill, whose drinking had gotten worse after the accident, and who could barely offer his daughter the solace of a hug for the loss of her own mother, so deep was he sunk in his own self-recrimination. All those years, as Bill’s guilt had hardened into denial, Ava had wandered the dappled shadows of the reserve, gathering the woods around herself. Their green light had held her.
Harry’s chest pinched. He watched her as she gazed up. “You can see it,” she said. Her voice had a quaver he hadn’t heard in years. “A light in the wood. Like burning.”
It took two more weeks for the world to pay attention. First a third-pager in the Times by their reporter on the quirky nature beat; then a below-the-fold feature on the light’s effect on rural industries; then, finally, a headline: TREES RUIN SLEEP ACROSS NATION. This was an exaggeration. The light was too subtle to keep anyone but birds awake.
Still, he knew the story had gotten big when Bill used it as an opening. you see these tree lights? crazy! bet ava has some good theories.
Even by text, he could smell Bill’s craving for pardon, which had never quite extended to an apology.
so you think about my offer? it’s limited-time.
Maybe he was too hard on him, Harry thought sometimes. After all, Bill had loved Junie too.
going once, going twice!
He put down the phone without replying.
By day, the trees’ glow was still muted. But at night, the woods shimmered in perpetual twilight. The naked branches shone like the white pith of a flame.
He was surprised there wasn’t more panic. Maybe it was because of the quality of the light. Diffused through the new leaves, it lent the maple slope a hazy, underwater feel, or the cloth-soft atmosphere of Faerie in an Edwardian novel. It did not blaze like a burning bush, vengeful, foreboding. It merely seemed sad.
The locals seemed to agree. One evening Harry found a group of them standing in a circle among the trees, wearing sage crowns and holding tapers. “Forgive us,” they chanted. “Forgive us.” He didn’t bother asking for what.
Every week the trees grew brighter. On the news, the ecologists’ grumbling turned slowly to alarm. Gouts of confused bats poured from caves at midday, flapping themselves to starvation. Leopards missed their pounces. Some night-flowering trees stayed tightly furled while their pollinators buzzed past. The talking heads avoided calling it climate change, for fear people would stop paying attention, but they were clearly worried. They were joined by the astronomers, whose dark-sky areas were being polluted.
Harry wondered at their calling it pollution when it seemed so natural, distinct from glare or a city’s skyglow. It gave the trees so little agency. Maybe they had just decided it was time to burn.
Only the agricultural and industrial sectors celebrated the tree-lights. More light meant longer hours.
Harry hated agreeing with businessmen, but he liked the lights too. For half the night he wandered the dimly greening woods, tracing their worn paths like a thumb brushing a familiar cheek—up the kame spined with oaks, down the sandy kettle, threading the dam the beavers had heaped in the marsh’s mouth. Here was the dell where Junie and Lisa had taken Ava for picnics, which Ava had cleared of buckthorn the weekend she’d first left home. “You let it grow over,” she’d accused. She had not cried, only hacked at the glossy shrubs for hours, over and over, destroying their foundations, uprooting everything. And here was the yellow birch Harry had seeded, alone, after.
He tried to imagine his life without these things, waking to different birdsong, alien leaves. His brain refused. Maybe he was just unable to face change—though he’d known what his life would become without Ava, when she left; though he guessed what might happen to him now, if the trees continued brightening.
Bill’s week-old text still blinked on his phone. Harry knew Bill wanted Ava to absolve him, and he hoped caring for Harry might convince her. The thought stung: Junie might have wanted it too. She forgave and forgave, right up until her death. Did Harry cling so close to her because he felt guilty for keeping her from Bill? Or did he simply feel guilty for clinging? Most people mourned their loved ones in graveyards, dedicated, ceremonial spaces they visited only sometimes. Surely living atop the dead, among Lisa’s raspberries and Junie’s nannyberries, was excessive. Not healthy, as his student had said.
He brushed the birch’s boughs as he did every spring, smoothing back its new leaves like a child’s soft hair. In the tree-lights, they shone gold.
By the time Ava returned three weeks later, twilight had brightened to the pale glow of a winter’s cloudy afternoon. Her face was haggard.
“No one knows,” she said. “We’ve run every test we can, checked our results against teams in Brazil, Russia. Nothing. If we can’t figure this out, what good are we?”
He guessed she had come to him for comfort. For Ava that had always meant action, proof that she had a handle on things. He loved that she trusted him enough to give her this: not solace, but a whetstone.
“Do you want to help me chop a dead maple?” he asked. “It’s a test I’ve been meaning to do.” This was a lie. He could no longer fell a tree by himself, much less buck it for testing. And after that first book on bioluminescence, he had done no more reading, experimenting. Every time he tried his mind slid away, towards the light.
If Ava saw through him, she didn’t say. Together they tramped to a sugar maple whose trunk had been recently split by lightning. It would die soon. “We’ve tried this,” she protested, but weakly.
Hefting axes, they chopped. Harry hacked the undercut; Ava, taller and more solid, sawed through from the other side. Though he tried not to, he had to keep stopping to pant. He saw Ava wince, watching him.
As they leapt back to let the maple fall, she took Harry’s shoulder. “Watch the canopy.”
The trunk creaked, snapped clean, and landed with a shudder in the leaf litter. At just the same moment, a pulse of light fizzed through the woods. After, Harry could swear the trees burned brighter.
Following Ava, he leaned over the stump. She traced the rings with practiced fingers. The wood was pale gold, all light quenched. “Snuffed,” he said, and she nodded.
“Like I said, we’ve tried it. Every time one’s cut, the rest get brighter. It makes no sense!”
“And you’ve ruled out pathogens, fungi—”
“We’ve ruled out everything.” She sat back on her haunches and pressed her hand’s heel to her face. “And it’s not as if they’ve stopped logging. I guess you don’t see it much here yet, since this is a reserve. But in Manaus it’s getting unlivable.”
“What are your next steps?” If he got her to talk through it, he could help her find her strength. It was how they’d survived those first awful years.
“My next steps?” She laughed a little, then looked at him. He knew, then. “I live in the city—I’ll be fine. But you should leave.”
“I came to tell you that you should. That it’s okay.”
She held his eyes, balancing her own pain up and away, like a caryatid. When had she become such an adult? To carry the stone of her hurt while freeing a hand to help someone else; Harry had not taught her to do it. Nor had Lisa, whom she hadn’t really known; and Junie had died too soon. Maybe the woods themselves had, this remnant of a once-great forest, which grew straight and did not bend or mourn, despite the press of so much humanity.
He was drifting. He shook his head, then looked at her. “It’s not.”
“I wish we could offer, I’m so sorry. But even with your social security check and Katie’s salary, we could still just afford a one-bedroom …”
“The perils of dating a history PhD,” he joked, because her face was wet marble. She looked down. He touched her shoulder. “You never have to apologize to me.”
“I know. But … this tree thing is going to be bad. So just promise me you’ll go, all right? I don’t have to see him. It’s fine.”
“Have you ever considered that I don’t want to live with Bill either?”
“I can’t lose you, too.”
The knife was swift and unexpected; his heart cramped on it. He looked at Ava and knew that she’d meant it that way. Yes, she was an adult now, unafraid to use the weapons he’d given her against him for his protection.
“Okay. I promise.”
She slumped forward, elbow on the damp stump. On her back the orange light pressed like a stone.
She slept over that night, in the trundle bed Harry kept for her. He pulled a blanket over the window. For the first time in weeks, the cabin eased into darkness.
He thought of the decades he’d lived at the Field Station, the long shudder of Lisa’s death, the brutal punch of Junie’s. Like a torn mimosa, he’d curled up, then withered into himself. His heart became a closed fist. Outside, life went on: the cattails clicked in the marsh, the yarrow lifted its balmy perfume. Through his silence the robins whistled. He had shut them all out. Like a cuckoo-clock marionette he’d left the cabin on the hour, taken readings for the university, then swiveled to march back inside.
Until Ava came, sixteen and betrayed, her heart so hard he was afraid for her. Taking her hand, he had led her beneath the soughing sea-green of the maples. He had given her birds’ eggs, coin-bright mushrooms, tubes of loamy soil, until her eyes softened. She opened, relearned how to trust. He swore it would be her strength.
But to believe in her openness, he had to face his own. So he let the spring woods cut him. Their green light pierced him with arrows; their green smell split him in two. In his sealed heart, a crack widened. He walked in, and through. He entered his grief as if for the first time, and it did not feel like death. I could live here, he thought, kneeling between Lisa’s raspberry and Junie’s nannyberry, their cool leaves touching his shoulders like a laying on of hands. I could live here.
Later that day Bill texted again. if ava’s the problem just explain it to her. i’ve changed, harry. don’t you get that i’m trying to help you?
He did not reply.
As July passed, the corporate world’s delight eroded to a panic matching the ecologists’. Forest industries stopped functioning. To operate their bunchers, loggers donned blackout sunglasses. Trucks keeled off service roads in British Columbia. Maine’s pulp mill workers struck en masse. The light was blinding, eye-melting. In the Amazon, companies tried sending automated loggers to clear-cut space to dim the margin enough for manned machinery. When that failed, they tried burning. The trees just blazed brighter.
The news did not know how to talk about it. Act of nature, act of god, reaction, revolution. No one said climate change anymore, because the light seemed the trees’ decision. Even if it wasn’t, they were clear-cut anyway, in vaster and vaster retaliatory swaths. No one mourned them, save the people who always had, who had never been listened to anyway.
At first Harry wondered at this. How could the world willingly slaughter millions of living beings, without remorse or a breath for grief? Then he thought, oh.
What had first seemed a local effect quickly turned global. Even in reserves with no logging, the trees grew steadily brighter, as if sympathizing with their fellows in the dying rainforest. In the small towns near the Field Station, farmers began shrouding orchards in blackout, or toppling their lines of windbreaks. Harry knew because he still had to drive for groceries once a week. He wore sunglasses now too, especially when facing west, where an amber halo beat on the sky over the State Forest. In one place an arm of smoke reached ominously up to strangle the light.
When he pulled up before his cabin, he was not surprised to see a bank of cars beached on the grass like fish. Atop them sat his neighbors in hats and dark glasses, canisters of gasoline under their arms. His heart shivered like a flame.
“We came to warn you,” said one man, sliding off the hood. “These woods are getting too bright. We can’t live like this. You have to understand.”
“It’s a reserve,” said Harry.
“You saying trees are more important than human life?”
“They’re not killing you.”
“They’re killing our livelihoods. That’s the same thing.”
“Not these trees,” Harry said. Slowly he shouldered his grocery bags and walked towards the cabin. “Whatever you do here, you’ll do with me in it. Think about that, you and your human life.”
Beneath his glasses, the man’s mouth scowled. Harry didn’t realize how ready he was for them to do it, to lie down and be swallowed by the glow, until, still scowling, they packed their gas canisters in their cars and left with an indignant rip of turf. He was left alone before the cabin, every cell in his body shaking with light.
As he was unloading the groceries, his phone beeped.
did you get my last text? said Bill. i’m not going to ask again. what did ava say?
harry, are you getting these?
That night, what the clock said was night, Harry put on his sunglasses and went out. He lay down between Lisa’s raspberry and Junie’s nannyberry. Squinting, he looked up. Light pooled in his eyes and mouth, warm, surprising. He was seventy-four now, like a middle-aged hickory or very old willow—no elder in these woods, but no upstart either. Raspberries lasted a decade, nannyberries four. Junie’s shrub would outlive him, as Junie should have.
If he raised his arm, the glow smoldered through his sleeve. It could almost have been bark.
True to his word, Bill did not text again, but at the beginning of August Ava called. Harry assumed it was her, because she did it five times in a row, refusing to be fooled, insisting he pick up.
When he finally did, she said, “You’re still there.”
“For fuck’s sake. You promised.” But her anger sounded tired. “Are you all right? Can you still drive? Get food?”
“I have enough,” he said. After the neighbors’ visit, he had only made one grocery run. He’d bought in bulk: brown rice, vitamins. Meat was easy; the light confused the rabbits. “What about you?”
“I’m all right. Katie bought tint for the car windows so we can still drive. But my eyes hurt all the time.”
“We still don’t know what it is. They convinced people to stop logging the Amazon, at least. But it’s not getting any dimmer. The supply chains are all fucked.” He heard her swallow. “It feels like an apocalypse. How do we do this?”
“You’ll figure it out. You always have.”
“Sure,” she said.
He wished he could hug her. Phone reassurances sounded cheap. He could not twist his imagination into the anxious shape Ava’s must take every morning, as a young woman with years ahead of her who had been promised a world—a broken one, but a world. His words had never been equal to her losses.
As for himself, he needed none. All the world he wanted stood outside, among the trees. The thought should have bothered him, then it bothered him that it didn’t. Then he gave up and simply let it be what it was: a comfort, like warm light through a window.
He told Ava about the woods. “The heliotropic plants aren’t fooled, but the mammals are. The deer run into things, and the rabbits just stay in their burrows until they’re so hungry they can’t.”
“What about the birds?”
“We’ll see during the migration.”
They talked for another ten minutes. Trying to sound normal, Harry made parental inquiries: did she have enough money, was Katie okay, was Katie’s family, could she get her meds. The cabin’s atmosphere of golden syrup slowed his thoughts. Yes, more or less, yes, maybe not, because meds depended on supply chains, and those, as she’d said, were fucked.
“I’m sorry,” he said, and she said, “It’s fine.”
At the end of the call, she lingered on her goodbyes. “I’ve been thinking. Katie says the nuclear family’s a modern construction anyway. Generations used to live together all the time. So yeah, money’s tight, but like you said: we can figure it out.”
His heart leapt. It was what he’d hoped for. Yet outside his heavy curtains, the woods were shining. A veery’s dawn call spiraled down through the gold afternoon.
He heard himself say, “That’s okay, Aves.”
“It’s not. We don’t know how bad things will get. The power grids are going. And you’re so isolated out there.”
“I’m not that old!” His vehemence surprised him, as did his lie about his motives. Through the curtains, the glow reached in to cup his cheek. Did he owe her this, he wondered, did she have the right to save him? Outside, the leaves of Junie’s nannyberry gleamed the warm red of palms suffused with light. When did grief become a home?
“Look. If it gets bad, we’re coming for you. Okay?”
“Sure,” he said, distracted. A beat of suspicious silence.
“Okay, Gramps. Love you.”
As summer ended, light blazed from the reddening trees. It sheered off in great metallic sheets like Hopkins’s god, shining from shook foil. Harry ate less, slept less. He felt pierced and filled by radiance.
Ava had been right about the power. It grew sporadic, and the internet even worse. During the ever-briefer gasps of service he read the news. Around the world cities had slaughtered their trees. Country people fled to plains and coasts and metropoles; Brasília, Vancouver, Tomsk were emptying. And still the woods blazed brighter. The foresters must have found a way to keep felling the Amazon, or else no one had stopped them from burning it.
For their part, his neighbors never returned with their gas canisters. He wondered what had happened. He hadn’t driven for groceries in a month.
Slowly he ate down his preserves, strapped on his ski mask and glasses to forage for chanterelles. The woods of his heart were changing, opening, as if the light were a great door he could not quite step through. Most days he spent outside, ending each by lying down in the dell between raspberry and nannyberry. Were he a tree, he could have mingled with their roots.
He watched the animals adjust. So far the only die-offs had been the rabbits. But it was September and the squirrels weren’t hoarding. No swallows gathered on the cables, no tines of geese raked the sky. Daylight never shortened. For them it must seem like an endless summer, through frost now stiffened the sedge.
On her calls, Ava’s voice was tense. “Things are—it’s falling apart in a new way. I couldn’t have imagined it. Hang on. We’ll come for you as soon as we can.”
Up the esker, the maples were an inferno of yellow. On the highest crowns, where the real sun touched, the leaves glowed ruby. Lisa’s raspberry became a red lantern, lit from within. Above it, the slope burned like a bank of prayer candles. One leaf, one flame, for each palm in the Amazon, each jackpine in the taiga: a million souls grieved by no one save themselves.
For hours now he lay in the chilly duff between Lisa and Junie, his kindling sack or mushroom basket forgotten. Even shielded, his eyes throbbed. The shrubs’ leaves were palms of flame laying him down. He was theirs. They held him.
I’m sorry, he thought, tired, grateful. I’m sorry.
Against his curtained windows beat the light, the light, the light.
In November the power died completely. Only his solar battery let him receive Ava’s calls, half-eaten by static. On the very last, before his phone died, he thought he heard her say, “Soon.”
He put the phone down and looked up. Beyond his four loved walls, the world was flame. The naked trees observed their mass: hickories, oaks, sugar maples, lifting a thousand tapers. It might never end. He looked across the room at his scant pantry, the piles of wood he’d laid in for winter. He would wait until he couldn’t. No matter when Ava came, she would be on time. Though at twenty-four, she might not understand that for a while. Some things resist explanation.
From the corner of the cabin he drew a tallow candle. Closing his eyes, he opened the door and walked out. He followed the path past the marsh, down the slope, towards raspberry and nannyberry. He could see the trees through his eyelids, through the fire in his chest. Time to burn.
When he reached the dell, he cupped the candle. Above him the maples’ nave flared, a host of tapers that would, perhaps, finally burn down, long after he himself had guttered into the soil. He would stand vigil as long as he could—for love, for the woods, for the world, for everything that dies too soon and is not mourned. He touched the cool wick, once, to his lips.
Then he opened his eyes and raised it up, to the light.
Editor: Hebe Stanton
First Reader: Kristina Palmer
Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department
Accessibility: Accessibility Editors