The Old Elm


     Henry Platt walked his dog Sharon down Edgewood Avenue, following the curve of the road around Edgewood Cemetery. Street lights tried to burn through the thick fog and Henry was pleased he’d worn his knit cap for the walk. The chill in the air was harsher than usual.

     Sharon pulled on the leash, nose to the pavement, head swinging back and forth. When she reached the granite curbing of the sidewalk she paused, then continued on. Henry glanced through the wrought iron fence and saw eternal flames, the memorials disturbing in their red containers and reflecting in the fog dampened headstones and markers. He couldn’t understand his wife’s fascination with cemeteries, in general, but Ellen seemed particularly obsessed with Edgewood. Lately, she’d even begun making a photo book about the cemetery on the computer.

     Henry shook his head and let Sharon lead him along the sidewalk’s edge. The dog walked on towards her favorite spot, a giant elm which had grown over and around the iron fencing, pushing some of the iron tops down and out towards the road.

     The tree, twisted by years of harsh New England weather, had thick roots which spread out and split the concrete sidewalk before it burrowed under the street. Henry hated the tree.  Ellen loved it.

     Sharon climbed the granite curbing onto the cracked concrete, nosing about the roots. She never ‘went’ on the tree, she just sniffed the hell out of it for some reason. Henry usually had to drag the dog away. Otherwise, she’d stay there all day. Henry stood on the broken sidewalk, his breath curling around him in the cold air. Henry looked at the tree, trying to figure out why Ellen liked it so much.

     The damned thing looks like it came out of a ‘B’ horror movie, he thought.

     The October wind had stripped the elm of its bright leaves and left the bare branches smothered by the fog. He looked at the gnarled stubs of severed limbs, amputations sealed with tar. The fog clung to the tree’s bark and twisted around the outstretched branches.

     Ellen had a picture of the cemetery when it was first set aside as a public burial ground in 1876. The tree could be seen in it. It was a hundred years younger, yet still ugly. The elm had grown for decades, its roots spreading out and feeding upon generations of New Englanders buried within the iron boundaries of the cemetery.

     He wondered how old the tree really was.

     Henry stepped closer to it. He looked at the old headstones nearby, that portion of Edgewood having had no new occupants for decades.

     “Bet it’s been a long time since you’ve had anything fresh, huh?” he asked.

     Sharon whined, brushing against his legs.

     “Ready?” Henry asked, surprised. In the dark, predawn of the morning he turned away from the tree, stumbling over Sharon’s leash and letting go of it.

     “God damn it!” he swore. He landed hard, cracking his knees and slapping his palms on the concrete. “Sharon!”

     Henry looked up and saw the dog. She stared at him, her leash trailing behind her.

     “What’ve I said before?” he asked her. “Don’t wrap that God damned leash around me.”

     Standing up painfully, Henry brushed his hands off on his khakis.  Droplets of blood smeared the fabric and had splashed against the ridged bark of the ancient tree. He shook his head at Sharon.

     “Christ, dog,” he muttered. He picked up the leash and turned to leave, tripping again.

     His head bounced off of an exposed root and Henry let out a groan. He tried to roll and get his feet under him but found he couldn’t. Bright white stars exploded in his vision as he sat up, head throbbing, spinning in the early fog. The pain in his head caused his stomach to churn, and he hunched over, vomiting his morning toast and coffee between his legs and onto the concrete. Henry closed his eyes as he retched again.

     He to spit the foul taste of bile out of his mouth as opened his eyes. Henry blinked away tears as he focused on what had tripped him the second time.

     A pair of thick roots constricted around each ankle. The bark pressed against his athletic socks and slowly cut off the circulation to his feet. Another root snaked out, wrapping around his left wrist. As the bark touched the exposed flesh images slammed into Henry’s mind.

     He was the tree as a sapling while Indians butchered one another by it, giving the elm its first taste of blood.

     Other scenes flashed by, each one agonized as it arrived, searing his thoughts before vanishing. Henry saw Puritans butchering Indians. Puritans murdering Puritans. Colonists killing redcoats. Redcoats slaying colonists.  Murder after murder, the tree calling the killers near, feeding upon the spilt blood.

     A son stabbed his father to death, burying the man near the tree, and laying the first marker in what would become Edgewood’s forest of headstones.

     All the while the tree grew, aged, and slept longer after each feeding.

     Yet Henry’s blood had awakened the tree.

     And the dark fluid had reminded the tree what it was to be hungry.

     A scream ripped out of Henry’s mouth as the tree dragged his right foot into a thin crack in the sidewalk. The leather and fabric of his sneaker ripped and Henry felt his flesh tear as well, bones crunching. He threw up again, the vomit drowning another scream. Sharon snapped and growled at the tree, scratching at the roots.  The tree ignored her as it pulled Henry’s hand in after his foot.

     Henry, his mind burning and shattering with the pain, struggled against the tree. He flailed with his right hand at the roots, the sidewalk. His thoughts became frenzied, the bones in his hand breaking with each powerful, yet futile blow. As his blood flowed into the earth and spilled onto the thirsty roots, Henry could sense the tree’s deep satisfaction.

     Blackness swarmed across Henry’s vision, and he collapsed against the sidewalk.

     Sharon watched for a moment as more and more of her master disappeared into the earth. With a last whine she fled for home, tail tucked, the purple leash is dragging through blood.

     The tree continued to feed, the fog still heavy as the last of its meal was pulled down. A few feet further down the sidewalk, beneath the concrete and a yellow fire hydrant, the tree wrapped a strong root around the hydrant’s automatic shut off valve and crushed it.

     Water exploded out of the ground, roaring across the asphalt of the road and the concrete of the sidewalk.  The headstones of the cemetery were sprayed, and the last remnants of Henry Platt were washed away.

     In the distance, police cruisers wailed in response to Ellen Platt’s frantic 911 call after the return of her blood splattered dog and the absence of her husband.

     The tree ate greedily, the old hunger awakened.

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Nicholas Efstathiou

Husband, father, and writer.

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