Shattered Tree

Shattered Tree, Otto Dix 1941
Shattered Tree, Otto Dix 1941

The year was 1959. One year before, the Americans and the Soviets finally decided to blow each other up, taking much of the rest of the world with them. Most of the fire, it seems, was concentrated on the USSR and America, though major population centers of allies on both sides were also hit. One of the sides, though nobody was really sure which, decided that they didn’t want to leave Berlin to be taken by any remnants of the enemy who might survive the nuclear apocalypse. As governments broke down, anarchy began to sweep across the European countryside. Global communications were down, but rumor had it that in Switzerland, whose neutrality had saved them from the nuclear fire, law and order still prevailed. In the mountains south of Munich, I sought to escape the anarchy let loose by the war.

In the late afternoon, I stopped to rest for a moment by a shattered tree on the slope of the mountain looking out across the plains. I saw the river like a shining road leading to a town of white buildings, barely visible beyond the forest. Surely I could find food and shelter there. But across the plains, over another range of mountains, the sky was gray. A storm was coming, and the town was so far off, even the steeple of its church looked no larger than a pin. It was too far.

I looked more closely at the tree beside me. It may once have been a great, tall thing, but now the better half of it was missing, broken in last month’s storms, perhaps. The winds had been pretty mild since then. This tree, like all the others still had most of its red leaves, though a fair quantity also coated the ground. They glistened, wet with last night’s rain. When I squinted, they almost looked like splotches of blood splattered across the ground and sky.

In the valley below, between this mountain and the next, I spotted a small house in a forest clearing. It looked to be in good shape, but its windows were dark, and I could not see anyone moving around in the clearing. Was it abandoned?  I wondered. Perhaps there was some food and water left behind. In any case, it would be a place to sleep, and get away from the storm. I began to make my way down the slope.

As I approached the house, I began to feel uneasy. The house was still dark. There were no signs of life in the clearing. This should have reassured me, but the shadows on the empty porch seemed somehow ominous, and the line of the roof seemed to take on the appearance of a sinister brow, furrowed in hostility.

It was true that the house looked lifeless, but I had heard stories of bandits who staked out such abandoned buildings, hoping to lure in unsuspecting scavengers. Could this be one of those deathtraps? I then recalled rumors I had heard back north, of creatures horrifically mutated by the radiation in the nuclear wastes of Russia, so twisted that no one could even tell whether they had been born human or animal. Could such creatures have wandered this far west? With doubts and fears gnawing at my mind, I stopped and crouched in the shadows at the edge of the clearing.

The rustle of leaves filled my ears along with the creaking of trees, as the wind whistled all around. Even this close, I wouldn’t have been able to hear anyone or anything moving around in the house. The creaking floorboards would be indistinguishable from that of the surrounding trees. Still, I needed a place to sleep. Twilight was setting in, and though ominous, the continued darkness of the house was convincing. Deciding to take my chances, I walked out into the clearing toward the house.

The second step up to the porch groaned as I put my weight on it. I paused for a moment, and when nothing leapt from the shadows, I kept going. The door opened without a sound. It was well oiled; if this house really was abandoned, it hadn’t been for long. I entered the house and walked directly into a hat stand, knocking it over with an apocalyptic clatter. Once again, I froze. My eyes, slowly adjusted to the darkness, and I could dimly make out the hallway beyond this little entryway. A staircase on the left led up to the second floor. A door on the right stood slightly open, though beyond it, I could only see inky blackness. After what felt like ages, hearing nothing but my own ragged breath, I finally stood up. It seemed there was nothing here to maul me, no one here to shoot me for my meager supply of food.

I walked through the door on the right into what looked like a kitchen. Finding a candle on the counter, I lit it and began to search the room. It was a nice little place. The cabinets, table, and chairs appeared to all have been made by hand from the same sturdy oak. They were plain but even and smoothly finished. The light of the candle gleamed off of the woodwork like the ghost of the brass fittings that might have been found in an expensive restaurant in the city. Though I was disappointed to find the cabinets empty, the water was still running. I set the candle on the counter and refilled my canteen, then brought some spare bottles out of my pack and began to fill those as well, when just about three feet behind me I heard the distinctive double-click of a shotgun pump.

The sound came so suddenly, with so little warning, that at first I doubted my own hearing. For just a couple of seconds, I wondered if the wind had simply blown the door closed or if I had really heard anything at all. The voice that hissed, “Keep your hands where I can see them, you filthy bandit,” was deep, but shook ever so slightly with fear. As I raised my hands above my head and began to slowly turn around, I felt a sharp pain on the back of my head before I blacked out.

I woke to find myself sitting in a basement closet with my hands tied behind my back. I had been captured, not by bandits, as I had feared might happen, but by a small farming family. I know this because it was explained to me by the eldest son of the family, who seemed to believe me when I said that I was a simple traveler who meant them no harm. In fact, when I mentioned my destination, his face lit up. It seemed he and his family had not heard that Switzerland still had a functioning government. The boy stepped out of the room and began to argue with his father about my intentions. I began to drift off again, hoping they wouldn’t kill me in my sleep.

They did not, in fact, kill me in my sleep. Indeed, the family began talking about coming with me to Switzerland and invited me to stay with them as they debated whether or not to leave their home. What transpired during those days and the family’s final decision, however, are stories for another time.

Writer: Ian Maeshima
Location: Art Institute of Chicago

This story was written in Salli Berg Seeley’s Explore Chicago class at DePaul University in collaboration with the Chicago Literary Map.

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