The Light Tree

Flash Fiction July, 4

In the middle of town, there’s a tree with a string of lights wrapped around it; Christmas lights, from the looks of it. Years ago, it used to be lit up every evening and the tiny lights would glitter through leaves and branches, making this one small city-centre corner look like it’d dropped in from an unearthly fairy-world. In the middle of winter, the streets would be coated with a thin layer of silver-white ice and the tree would glow gold against it, sparkling and melting the frost off the branches.

Then one night the batteries ran out, and no-one troubled to replace them.

Back then it was quite a short tree, about the same height as an adult of average build. It wasn’t difficult for someone to make sure the strings remained untangled, occasionally altering the way they hung.

These days it’s tall, highest branches easily skimming the bulb of the lamppost standing a foot away. The lights hang there, forgotten, unfinished.

These days it’s lit up in the darkest hours of the night by the streetlight, not dozens of twisty turny lights. Every evening like clockwork, the streetlights come on at 6pm, just as the winter night is getting really dark. Leaves cling to this tree in winter, and the ones at the top glow a strange shade of amber under the light.

I wonder sometimes if it’s a fire hazard.

It’d be an impressive sight but for the dozens of similarly identical trees clustering the footpath; tall and spindly, leafy year-round. Only the colour changes.

The way the lamp glows over the leaves isn’t as otherworldly as the fairy-world lights; I’m disappointed in how the light is too far away to cast any real glow on the icy path as I go skidding along, hurrying through the street to another meeting or picking up another dinner that won’t remain hot in this weather.

I like to eat in the little cafe-restaurant opposite the street corner when I’m working a late shift. From this vantage point I can see people hurrying by the tree, never pausing to notice it or take a photo that manages to contrast dense dark asphalt with the gold above it. They used to, when there was something worth noticing or photographing; now, they all rush by. I almost don’t blame them; there’s nothing very special about a tree that just stands there. It’s not an attraction any longer.

Besides, it’s the inner-city. People are too busy with their lives to idle. Sometimes, sitting alone in the cafe with my dinner and a book, I wonder why I do it. Then again, as I pay the bill and bolt back to the chilly darkened office, I’m not one to talk. I stop idling as soon as I notice I’m doing it.

As I sit in my solitary office cubicle and drink lukewarm tea, I look out the window that leads the eye to the street. At this time of night the work isn’t challenging, just quiet and calm. From here I can see the occasional halo from the streetlights in the misty rain, punctuated with the odd car drifting past. I can just about make out the headlights glittering, and can conclude the rain is only getting heavier. There’s something reassuring about being in the warmth of the office when it’s raining like this; my own apartment tends to run to the chill side of things and I’ve never liked having to drag the lone heater from room to room.

My thoughts drift more at home – here I have a sort of tunnel vision, almost supernaturally able to focus on what I’m doing – unless the night’s made up of these components. Nights like these are the ones where I’m wandering through my thoughts, picking and choosing them at will, collecting them all into a heap and pacing through work items that still need to be done.

A colleague speaks to me, but she may as well be speaking from across the room. The open-floor plan lets her voice carry, but the various pieces of equipment and numerous space dividers muffle things a bit.

After the shift finishes I pour myself a last cup of tea, this time in a travel mug, and head out the door to the blazingly bright bus stop. It’s far from idyllic, there are people slouched over zombie-eyed and standing around, shoulders stooped as though it’ll shield them from the rain. It never does, of course.

The bus is equally as bright, and I find myself counting the trees as the streets pass and lapse into suburbs.

Some of them stand, ruffling lethargically in the breeze. Instinctively, I reach up to tuck my scarf in under my collar, angling it to cover as much of my neck as possible. Few of them are tall enough to reach the bulbs of the lights, and fewer still look solid. These ones look scrawny, as if they’ll snap given enough wind or a heavy enough layer of ice. I don’t like it.

We’re almost at my stop when I see it: a row of trees, tall and spindly, each one reaching to just below the top of the streetlight. Each one is backlit by a glowing bulb, the leaves turning colours and patterns under the light. It occurs to me that I don’t know what colour the leaves are: I’m not awake for them in the morning. This is the only time I see them.

Peering into the gloom, I can make out thin black wire strands wrapped around branches, car lights reflecting off littler lights that give no light.

It seems this is a popular way to brighten up the city then.

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