By Annibel Rarick
Night falls quickly that Tuesday, but not before the sky fills with gold.
A thousand camera shutters capture the sunset, crimson bleeding into tangerine behind a spidery outstretch of trees, like delicate fractures in glass. The colors linger in the sky for the better half of ten minutes, like they are reluctant to let in the dark, but oil paint shades of pink and violet can’t fight forever. Before long the night has chased them long into the ground, leaving the lawn cold-shouldered and bare.
It is only in their absence that the candles start to glow.
There are so many, each one a firefly dancing on its own. Buttery light spreads across the lawn, slowly at first, a trickle from a faucet, before the floodgates open and suddenly the entire field is aglow. For every flicker that the wind hushes out there is another one to light it back up. Flames separate beating hearts, buttoned away under coats. It’s hard to tell which one was first.
There is a stage, or something close to it, in the eye of the hurricane, the crowd unfolding like the petals of a flower around it. The platform is a few feet above the brittle grass and that much closer to the stars. When the gates first open and people pour onto the field, candles unlit and the sky still pink, the speakers are playing the opening chords of a Bruno Mars song. By the time the sun slips behind the cobwebbed treeline, it’s something by One Direction. It’s hard to hear the music from across the field between, but the suggestion of it is there, like the faintest of promises. Whispering, can you hear it?
It’s not long before the lawn is full to the brim, too many people for the chain link fence to contain. Twenty degree weather prompts coats and scarves that take up half the space. The crowd divides into huddles, a candlelit constellation. Some linger on the outskirts, others near the stage. The sound of their grief is its own symphony, louder than the whistle of guitar strings through Bluetooth speakers. The volume on the music is lowered by an invisible hand. Somebody else takes the microphone, and that’s when the speeches begin, on the precipice between a dip-dyed sunset and the inky blanket of night.
Voices carry over the field, sentences hopeful and heartbroken, slipping under the skin of every person listening. More than one cries. The January air is searing, freezing teardrops on eyelashes and beneath masks, but no one makes a move. There are empty spaces here on this field that candlelight can’t fill, but there’s something about standing under the same sky that eases that absence. Lessens it, temporarily. This moment exists out of time. There is no way to tally the minutes, except by the words left unsaid.
Three speeches later, the sun finally ends its game of tag with the moon and sets completely. Underneath the new cloak of night, the constellation of candles shine even brighter. Sunkissed flames, freckling the lawn. The speeches end under an ebony sky. Afterward there’s a hum in the air, a song of conversation and breath that is hard to place, but easy to hear.
Then it’s over, the end as dizzying as the abrupt leech of color from the sky. The petaled crowd starts to disperse like pollen threading through the air in the spring. The firefly candlelight is replaced with the lights of car taillights and turn signals, a different kind of beauty. The music starts up again, playing the same songs as before. Bruno Mars, used as a bookend. Without stirring words from the loved and lost to fill up the space, the music is much louder than earlier. Loud enough that when Castaways from the Backyardigans starts to play, the laughter reaches all four corners of the field. Just like grief, joy is contagious. Some people start dancing. Others slip away with their iPhone flashlights to guide them home. Still others linger, wrapped in blankets, sweatshirt sleeves knotted around their shoulders, by the stage. That’s where the pain on this field is the most raw, under the halo of one of the field’s light posts. That’s where the night seems to end and the new day to begin.
By the time the sun dawns again the next morning, there are no traces of the night. The stunning sunset of pink and yellow is bound only to photographs and memory. Field empty, candles snuffed out, flowers long gone. But that’s the beautiful thing.
Even in their absence, not one person forgets they were there.