BEHOLD THE MAN
Sparrow finches had already begun making a nest in the chest cavity of the dead man. They had obviously won a territory war with the spiders, the thin broken webs draped over the corpse, billowing about it like the remnants of a smoke-colored cape. The little birds buzzed about their new home, jumping in and out of the hollow frame, the faded blue coveralls still draping the body, chirping excitedly as they carried grass to and from the cavity. They were fragile little birds, and there was too much competition from the other birds to build nests in the trees. They had to satisfy themselves with building little houses precariously perched on rock faces, the lower branches of trees, and now this body of a fallen tree-surgeon, still hanging upside-down over the thick branch that had broken his fall and his back.
He had been caught too high up in the tree for the real carnivores to get at him -- the timber wolves, coyotes, the occasional wild dog -- so he had been left to the mercy of the little teeth of the forest, the ferrets and the rats and the crows. The little finches hopping around on the corpse had no interest in the little bit of dried sinew holding the bones together, but they did chase half-heartedly after a few small spiders and the fleas that still clung to his clothing as if hoping to catch a ride with the next person who inhabited the outfit.
The sun sank lower and lower on the horizon. A brisk wind shook loose the few leaves left on the trees, the aspens, the poplars, and the oaks and maples. Flocks of birds rose in the sky and performed complicated maneuvers, preparing to migrate to warmer climes rather than face the approaching tempests. The little group of sparrow finches huddled into the safe shelter of the dead man. They had a home. They weren't going anywhere.
The winter storms raged unpredictably, forcefully, ravaging the forest life and taking a heavy toll. Sparrow finches out foraging for food were caught and lost in the fierce blizzards, creating just a little more room for their nestmates. A few small brown animals ventured out onto the loosely-packed snow, only to change their minds and retreat back into their holes. The trees were draped in white capes and needle-sharp icicles, glistening pastel in the sunrise-sunsets, blinding white the rest of the time. The river cracked shotgun blasts in the distance, freezing, thawing, and freezing again. The little birds pressed close to each other in the dead tree surgeon's chest cavity, the sinewy ribcage reaching up and around them for all the world like the bars of a wooden cage. Bits of straw and grain fell out the body and to the ground whenever the wind blew against it -- field mice and rats began frequenting the area at night to fight for the meager crumbs. One brave rodent climbed up the frozen tree to find the source of the crumbs, but was unable to find sure footing on the thin cold bones to reach the nest. It put together a crude shelter on another branch of the tree and kept a steady watch on the corpse's inhabitants, so steady a watch that the little birds began to think seriously about looking for another home. They eventually flew off one bright, warm morning, a whole forest of empty trees to make a new home in, abandoned by the summer birds.
The body of the dead tree surgeon remained untouched for the rest of the winter, the night scavengers still unable to find a way to reach the body. A particularly fierce wind blew off one long skeleton arm, but that was the extent of the damage the corpse suffered. Sap from the frozen tree's veins crystallized on the blue coveralls, crusting red and brown and gold. The weight of the hardened sap succeeded in pulling the other arm and a leg to the ground just as the river snapped and the spring thaws began. Tibia, fibula, femur, and metacarpals were carried off by wolf and coyote pups for sport, the empty armholes of the corpse flapping noisily in the early-spring gales. Cottony egg cases broke open and larval spiders poured forth to reclaim the desiccated corpse in the memory of their ancestors, unconscious of the little birds hopping overhead in the new leaves and blossoms of the reborn tree, eyeing the swarming, transparent bodies hungrily.
Holly Day is a freelance music journalist living in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with her son, Wolfegang, and her husband, Sherm. Her hobbies include skateboarding, crocheting, and kicking and screaming at vending machines. She may be contacted: email@example.com.