Under the Elm

A crack like black lightning split across the sky and was gone in a blink. He looked up into the leafy canopy of the elm tree he was sitting against. A smile crossed his face. The bark pressing on his back was warm, as was the sunlight filtering green through the leaves.

“It’s a beautiful day,” he whispered, watching a magpie land several yards from him.

A grimace of pain cracked his calm face, and the magpie fluttered off when he coughed. With a sigh, he looked down. The bloody bullet wound piercing his left lung shone wetly in the light.

“This red really does ruin this. The color just doesn’t fit in with all of this nature.” He saw that blood was pooled beneath him.

“Really ruins me, too.” He closed his eyes, leaning his head against the tree. Tears stung his eyes. The sorrow he felt was as much for himself as the stain he was creating on the grass and the field. Dust blew into his face and he opened his eyes, seeing the road a short distance away. Even the road was beautiful to him. It seemed to cut a neat line through the grassy field, with a barb wire fence on the far side. But nothing seemed familiar.

The silence was almost deafening, and he realized apart from that magpie, there had been no other signs of life. His mouth opened, but closed again as he realized he was going to apologize to an empty field for scaring everything away.

“But I didn’t scare everything away. It was the gunshot.” He touched his wound. The blood clung to his fingers and almost glistened in the sunlight. His arm dragged itself back to the grass. It felt heavy and stiff, almost like the wood against his back.

“He should be sorry. He shot me.” His eyes glanced across the sky. He couldn’t see the sun, so he wasn’t sure how time was passing. “It must be above the tree, hidden by the leaves.”

“Maybe I deserved to be shot. I can’t imagine someone shooting me just for the hell of it.” His head touched against the bark as he closed his eyes. “In that case, I’m sorry. But I’m still not happy about being shot.”

He looked down at his feet. At least his brown boots fit in with the grass. His eyes narrowed. He recognized that unique finish of the leather. “Who the hell did I rob in order to afford Berluti boots?”

His slacks were also of excellent quality, if not dirty and bloody, as was the blue silk shirt he wore. “Well I’ll be damned. I was mugged. I’m some millionaire hotshot, and someone decided they wanted what I had.” He felt smug, having figured out why he had been shot.

Something in the sky caught his eye. It was gone in a flash, but it had looked like a hairline crack running through the blue. He grimaced, pain shooting through his chest. The pain subsided as quickly as it had come, and he just sat in silence, letting the elm tree hold his head.

“I still have my wallet.” He could feel that familiar lump of leather underneath him.

“I wonder if anyone’s looking for me.” He glanced at his hand. No ring. Well, at least he wouldn’t be leaving a widow behind. But what if he just wasn’t married yet?

“What if some poor, beautiful girl is worried that I haven’t come home to her yet?”

His hands clenched woodenly into fists. “Oh, that bastard. Shooting me when I’ve got a pretty girlfriend or fiancé worried sick about me at home.”

His back straightened, and he ignored the shot of pain as he sat up straight. “What if we have kids? There’s no way she can raise them on her own. She’s only a waitress. Or, I’m sure she would be. That cold hearted bastard. Making me leave that poor girl and our children all alone.” He slumped back against the elm.

“Or maybe I have a huge life insurance policy, and she had me killed for it?”

He sat in silence for a while, listening to the quietness of the field, and the soft rustle of the leaves being played with in the breeze.

“She wouldn’t do that. She loves me.”

“If there is a she. I probably live alone. Just got mixed up with the wrong guy trying to make a quick buck.”

He sighed, pressing a hand against the bullet hole in chest. The red blood seemed to be slowing down. Which was good. He was already tainting the field enough.

“Although, I’d hope I’d be smarter than that. But, here I am. Shot. In a field.”

Whichever the case, he had obviously caused someone enough grief to make them shoot him.

“So, I suppose I had it coming.” The elm only rustled in response.

Wondering how much time had passed, he noticed he didn’t wear a watch. “Or, whoever shot me stole it, so I couldn’t keep track of time.” The sun was still out of his sight, and the shadows weren’t changing. He glanced around again, just to make sure the shadows hadn’t moved, and his eyes were drawn to the road. The dust cloud from a vehicle coming up the road didn’t surprise him.

“It is a road, after all.”

The car came to a stop parallel to the elm tree, but the dust cloud kept speeding on, leaving the car behind. A black and white blur landed in a flash of feathers at his feet. He broke his gaze away from the car, and found himself face to face with a magpie. It warbled loudly in his face, and cocked its head, looking at the gaping wound in his chest.

“Hey!” he yelled.

The magpie ignored him, its head darting forward, tearing a red morsel from his chest. He watched, awestruck, as the magpie tossed the bit of flesh, his flesh, up into the air and catch it in its mouth, swallowing it. He tried to move his hands, to shoo the bird away, but they just twitched on the ground beside him. He glanced at his arms. Still attached. So, he just couldn’t move his arms.

“Get away from me you damn bird! That’s my flesh you’re eating!”

The magpie ignored him, and ducked in for another piece. A giant crack ran across the sky. Desperate for help, he glanced over at the car. A sharply dressed man and woman had gotten out and were walking toward the elm tree he was leaning against.

“Get this bird off me!” he wailed.

The magpie warbled around another mouthful of flesh. He watched sullenly as the bird swallowed again.

The man and woman had reached him, looking down with disgust. They had said nothing, and he figured they just hadn’t heard him. His voice was rather raspy now. The magpie glanced up at them, let out a muffled warble, and went back to its feast. He started to speak, but was interrupted.

“Tsk,” the sharply dressed man said, shooing the magpie away.

“Whew, he stinks!” said the woman, pinching her nose.

“Excuse me?” he asked with indignation, from the elm tree.

They both kept ignoring him.

“Well, detective?” the man said, as if making a statement.

“Well, Sheriff,” she began, “I think he’s been dead at least a few days.”

He sat in shock. Cracks spidered across the sky. “…been dead? What? No, no, you’ve got it all wrong!”

The sheriff talked right over him, as if he wasn’t even speaking. “Hmm, wonder where his partner got off to. He’s got more of a head start than I’d like.”

“I wonder if he’s the one that tipped us off,” the woman said.

“Hmm, likely. Send us the wrong way, while he just keeps getting farther away with the money from the bank.”

The elm tree was still holding him up, but it seemed to be doing a worse job of it. The cracks had spread throughout the sky, and pieces of blue were falling away. They landed, tearing away the green of the grass and trees. His mouth slowly worked open and closed, like a cow chewing its cud. This didn’t make sense. The magpie had been joined by several others, and they watched him from several yards away, their little eyes full of hunger.

“But I can’t be a bank robber. I’m too smart for that, and I have two kids and a fiancé that works in a diner!”

The women knelt down, holding out a sketch. “Yup, it’s him alright. Poor bastard. Does all the legwork for his buddy and all he gets in return is a bullet.”

“I knew I was smart!”

“Just goes to show crime doesn’t pay,” the sheriff said.

“Well, unless you’re the one doing the shooting. I’m sure he’s got loads of money. That I was smart enough to steal. But I wouldn’t have stolen that money. Because I have a family.”

“Well, Sheriff, where do you think the other one ran off to?”

“Or did I steal that money because I do have a family? I needed more to support them.”

“We’ll widen our search. Call in the coroner. May as well get this body out of here. No one wants it, him not having any family and all, but it’s kind of ugly sitting here. Such a beautiful tree he died against. Odd place for a tree like this though.”

He sat in silence. The forest and the clearing had disappeared. Only the elm he was leaning against had stayed the same. They were in a back alley courtyard, surrounded by towering, and apparently, abandoned and decrepit buildings. The magpies were still watching him. “No family? So that’s it. I am alone. I robbed a bank, got betrayed, and now I’m just ugly and alone.”

The detective and the sheriff walked back to the car, and he could hear her muttering something into her radio. The magpie was sidling back over to him, the others following behind.

“Well. I guess not completely alone, stupid bird.”

He sighed as the magpie happily pulled more flesh from his chest, and his eyes glazed over slowly as he looked around at the old buildings. “This is a strange place for a tree.”

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