by Jerry Oltion
The Moon Tree lost its top last December. Six feet of perfect Douglas Fir, callously hacked off by some selfish idiot out for a Christmas tree. The branches left behind look like the fingers of an open hand, reaching up to cradle a crown that’s no longer there.
So said the newspaper reporter who covered the story. According to him, whoever did it probably had no idea that he’d vandalized a national treasure. The campus gardeners hadn’t put a plaque or anything special around the tree, probably because they were afraid that somebody would vandalize it on purpose if they knew what it was. Not everybody loves the space program, after all, and Eugene, Oregon, where the tree resides, is a hotbed of political unrest.
No, the reporter figured that the person who topped it was probably just some cheap, selfish bastard who didn’t want to pay $25 for one of the local farm-grown trees. I’m glad that’s the official explanation. It would be a shame if people thought it was done in protest, or worse, in anger.
Especially since we did it to save the world.
I knew it was special the moment I saw it. I don’t spend much time on the University of Oregon campus, but I needed to find a magazine the public library didn’t have, and it was a sunny autumn day so I’d decided to take the long way past the flower gardens. Stop and smell the last of the roses before winter set in, and all that. I’d forgotten that sunny weather brings out the coeds, too. I wound up watching them more than the flowers, and wishing I were two decades younger so they might look back at me with interest instead of curiosity. One dark-haired, pale-skinned young woman with a tight black T-shirt and long, bare legs was sitting on the grass and staring at me with such puzzlement that I felt like walking up to her and saying, “No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you. I’m a genuine relic of the sixties. This shirt is indeed tie-dyed, my vest does indeed bear fringe, and these are real beads around my neck. Get used to it; a lot of people still dress this way in Eugene.” But then my eyes focused beyond her, and I instantly forgot her.
The tree was about twenty-five feet high, but its aura rose twice that; a great, billowing silvery-blue cloud of light, dancing and twisting in the ethereal breeze. I thought at first I was witnessing some sort of lightning discharge, but when it went on and on without dissipating I realized I was seeing a true aura, the strongest one I’d seen since 1972, when a Moon rock had come to SWOMSI—our local science museum—as part of a travelling exhibit.
The lawn had been heavily landscaped, with contoured ridges four or five feet high in places. I stumbled through the miniature hills and valleys toward the tree, not caring where I placed my feet. I must have brushed right past the dark-haired girl, but I felt nothing until I reached the tree and touched a branch, running my fingers over the soft, flat needles. The last three inches or so of each tuft was a lighter shade of green from this summer’s growth. The aura seemed brighter at the edges, too.
“Hey, you kicked me!”
I turned away from the tree. The girl had followed me. I noticed now that she had a pierced eyebrow, the silver ring standing out as she glared at me with her brown eyes. Normally I don’t like piercings, nor the butch, tattooed and booted look she affected to go with it, but the tree’s aura was already working on her, softening some of her features, enhancing others. It was entirely subjective, I’m sure, but that’s the nature of physical attraction.
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Jerry Oltion has been publishing stories for over thirty-five years. He has become the most prolific fiction contributor in the history of Analog/Astounding magazine, with 93 stories there and counting. He has won the Nebula Award, the Seiun Award, the Endeavor Award, and has been nominated for the Hugo Award. He is an active amateur astronomer and writes a monthly column about amateur telescope making for Sky & Telescope magazine, and he also writes a science column for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.