Under The Peach Tree

Vivien awoke under the mottled ambers of her large peach tree. A flurry of questions entered her head as she rose in the fading light. No. Not fading light. Morning light. Cobwebs strung with dew drops littered the grass around her. She staggered to her feet, pulling wet leaves out of her brown curls.

Vivien could not remember falling asleep in the grass. She remembered the lazy saturday afternoon whereupon she had begun a walk in the nearby wooded ravine. She remembered the purple snowberries ripening in tunnels of underbrush, the acorns falling from high up in the oaks. And she could remember the man on the bridge as she looked out over the forest canopy, the sky growing dark. He was riding a tall unicycle, rather oddly.

Vivien’s heart leapt again remembering the man pausing and putting his foot on the railing of the bridge. She thought of how if his foot slipped even one inch he would plummet down into the abyss of maples.

But that was all she could remember. How she had come home and fallen asleep in her own backyard was a mystery.

Vivien groggily stumbled to her back door and knocked. She was shivering.

“Where have you been?!” her roommate Cassia stared at her in horror. Then she looked around shiftily and pulled her in the house and sat her down on the kitchen bench, covering her with her own bath robe. Cassia’s muscular legs showed under her silky neglige. She had been some kind of athlete before Vivien had met her, and the meat on her extremities had never worn off. Her fluffy slippers nearly bounced as she spewed “I was worried sick when you didn’t come home yesterday. Police have been searching the park for a murderer! God you look awful. Why are you all wet?”

“I…don’t know. I guess I fell asleep in the backyard….I’m not sure what happened.”
“Well you get changed and I’ll get us some coffee and a slice of the peach pie I made yesterday, and we can see if we can sort it out.”
“Just coffee for me. I’m not very hungry.”

Cassia was a jumble of information as Vivien tried to remember the events of the last few days. Bits and pieces came to her out of the fog, but it was difficult to figure out the sequence of events. The police had found a body beneath maple bridge. It wasn’t such an unusual occurrence, it being a popular site for suicide, except that there was a witness who said they saw someone there who pushed him. “He was on one of those bikes with one wheel…”

“A unicycle?”
Vivien’s brain snapped open. She could remember the man on the unicycle. How strange!

Cassia continued on about more of the days’ events as Vivien struggled to keep herself composed and remember the very things Cassia was telling her she’d done. They had done some yardwork together in the morning. “I did all those rotten peaches! Yeek! And you pruned a bunch of the bushes along the drive. We put them into the bonfire pile for friday.” Cassia looked out the window. “Hey! Did you light the fire without me?”

Vivien looked out the window and saw the black flattened heap outside. “No.”

“Then who lit our fire? That’s so weird.”
“Well, I guess it could have been me. I think it’s mostly yesterday that I can’t remember very much of.” Vivien checked the time. “Oh crap! I have to get to work.”
“Are you sure you should go to work? I mean…you look like you’ve been tumbling in a dryer.”
“I think I’m fine. It’ll be good to get the scoop from locals, anyway.”

Vivien had to run to get to her shift at the bakery on time.  She was a barista and ran the register. She knew there’d be plenty to hear about the cops trawling the ravine for evidence. Half of it would be gossip, but any scrap of evidence would help her figure out what had happened to her. She had to run past maple bridge to get to the bakery and saw that it was open. She thought walking on it might jog her memory, but for some reason she felt an overwhelming sense of danger just looking at it. She continued on to the bakery.

“That’s her!” screeched a voice from the corner window table. A long bony finger pointed in Vivien’s direction.
“She’s the one I saw!”
“Oh don’t be silly, Margie. You’ve had your coffee poured by Vivien a hundred times.” Miles, Vivien’s boss patted Margie on the shoulder.
“Oh yes of course,” Margie smiled a vacant smile. “ Well, she looks just like her!”
“The man probably fell by himself. I mean, who rides a unicycle on a bridge like that? It’s asking for trouble.”
“You saw someone who looked like me, Marge? What did I…I mean she…do?” Vivien asked as she put on her apron and shuffled behind the register.
“Never you mind dear.”
“Do they know who the man is?” Miles asked. “The one who…who died?”
“His name was Ryan Crawford,” another white haired woman said. “Apparently he was in town to see an old flame. What was her name? It was like a constellation.”

Vivien looked up. “How do they know that about him? I mean. How do they know he was in town to see her?” Vivien asked.
“Friends of the deceased.” The white haired woman said, “Sounds like he was part of the circus. Such an interesting fellow!”

Vivien busied herself with making lattes and change behind the register. Her work became methodic and gave her some time to think on the crime. In her nervous gut she felt she had to somehow be connected. But she couldn’t imagine what purpose she might have had for pushing someone off of a bridge. Had she snapped that night, lost control of her mind, and then done unspeakable things? She had awoken in her backyard. Perhaps she had some type of mental disease she had not known of until the age of twenty five.

“Excuse me miss.” Vivien snapped to attention. “I’m Detective Stirling Hale. I’d love a cup of drip coffee, and if you have a few moments, I’d like to speak with you.”
Vivien’s heart dropped into her stomach. Then she blushed. She couldn’t tell if it was because she was suspected of murder or if it was the exquisite cut of the man’s jawline.
Detective Hale surprised Vivien with his nonchalant demeanor. They sat down in the corner and he opened a small note pad. “So,” he cocked his head. “what were you up to last night, Vivien?”

Vivien tried to keep her resolve. She palmed her mug and stared into its contents. She had seen shows on tv about detectives who could read your micro expressions to know if you were lying. Even a small glance could give her away. But Vivien was not the lying kind. And she looked up into Detective Hales eyes and said, “I was on Maple Bridge.”

She explained to him how she couldn’t remember much else, but that she did see the unicycler there, precariously footing the railing, and how she’d awoken in her backyard the next morning with no recollection of the rest. She was ready for Hale to slap her in irons and take her away when he raised one eyebrow.

“So you may have done it. But you have no motive. And no proof.”
Vivien sighed relief. “Exactly.”
“So you’re either insane, framed, or unfortunate.”
“Um…yes, I guess so.”
“Any other important information you’d like to tell me?”
Vivien thought back to the morning. “Oh, the bonfire was lit in our garden. And we aren’t sure who did it. Cassia said it wasn’t her.”
“Yes. My roommate.”
“I’d like to have a word with her. Could I come by later today?”
“Sure. I get off at two.”

Cassia wouldn’t be home until five o’clock, but Hale came at four. Dried leaves crunched under his boots as he He looked over the garden, the peach tree, and the fire pit.
“What was in here?” Hale asked.
“Peach tree remnants,” Vivien laughed.
Hale combed the ash with a gloved hand and pulled two metal things out. A caribiner and a worn metal button. “Recognize this?” He held up the button.
“Umm. Yes! It looks like one of the buttons that goes on one of my sweaters!”
“Were you wearing it last night?”
“No. It should be in my room. I haven’t worn it for ages.” Vivien stared at the button. “Actually I think I lent it to Cassia last.”
“What color is it?”
Hale squinted his eyes.

The front door slammed from inside the house. “Viv, I heard a policeman came to the bakery today! Are you alright?”
“Fine! I’m out here!”
Cassia looked through the window and froze.
“It’s ok,” Vivien reassured her, “We’re just going over what happened last night.”
Cassia came outside slowly. Vivien noted how it was so unlike her to do anything without a spring in her step.
Hale said hello and shook her hand.
“I have a couple questions for you, Cassia.”
“I don’t know anything,” She retorted.
“I didn’t say you did.” He smiled.
“I’m just curious about whether you would know anything about a man dressed in black, who rides a unicycle.”
Cassia took a deep breath. “No.”
“Except what you told me this morning, Cassia.” Vivien said. “He’s the one who fell off the bridge.”
“Oh, right. Suicide probably.”
“I don’t think so.” Hale said.
“Oh, that’s right. An old woman thought she saw he was pushed?”
“True. But again, I don’t think so.”
Cassia fidgeted.
“I got a call from the coroner this afternoon. The man didn’t die from a fall, though he was certainly bruised very badly. He died from poison.”
“Poison!” Vivien put her hand to her mouth.
But Cassia just stared at Detective Hale.
“Yes. A crude form of arsenic.”
Cassia bit her lip.
“But I remember him on the bridge! I remember him…” Vivien’s memory slowly materialized like a mist being lifted. “I remember trying to stop him, and shouting ‘Hey!’ I just barely got to him to see him go over the edge. His eyes. He was terrified as he went over.”
“What did he look like?” Hale asked.
“He had a beard. And he was dressed in black. A stocking knit cap, a sweater…”
“Yes, that’s what the dead man was wearing. And did you see him fall to the ground?”
Vivien looked into the distance remembering. “No. His legs sort of caught in the scaffolding of the bridge before he went down and he slipped under the bridge.”
Detective Hale squinted, then smiled again. He looked behind him at Cassia.
But she had slipped away while Vivien had her recollections.
“Damn,” Hale said.

“She’s probably just here in the kitchen.” Vivien walked in through the back door with Hale behind her. They searched the house but the only thing left of Cassia was her peach pie. Vivien sat down in front of it and put the fork in its pink guts. She brought the fork, with a jewel bit of peach on the end, to her mouth.
“Stop!” Hale lunged forward and knocked the fork out of her hand.
“I think I’ve figured out what happened.”

Detective Hale had spent the last day speaking with two people who could shed light on the murder. The Ring Master of the HollyHock circus where Ryan Crawford had come from, and the coroner who had inspected his dead body. The Ring Master explained that there had been an acrobat named Cassiopeia who worked in his circus. She, and her partner and lover Orion did the the trapeze and high wire acts together. Apparently the two of them weren’t just a circus act. They had swindled a great deal of money from the spectators at the different cities they had set up their tent. Then one day Cassiopeia took off with the money, and left Orion to be caught by the police. He’d spent several years in prison.

“Cassiopeia is Cassia!” Vivien exclaimed.
“That’s what I think too. Cassiopeia and Orion are constellations. Perfect names for a duo swinging on a trapeze up in the sky.”
“That explains her strong muscles.”
“And I think Orion came to find her and she poisoned him with arsenic.”
Vivien looked horrified.
“I spoke this afternoon with the coroner about the properties of arsenic. It could be made from something as simple as peach pits. I’m guessing this pie is laced with it. The arsenic in his body was so strong just a whiff of it could put you under.”
“Oh!” Vivien pushed the pie away from her. “But Cassia wanted me to have some this morning! Why would she?”
“Because you witnessed her murdering Ryan Crawford.”
“But I only saw him on the bridge. At least from what I can remember.”
“No. The look of terror you saw on the face you saw falling was not terror from death. It was terror of being caught. Only you would recognize your own black sweater.”
“My own…” Vivien’s eyes went wide.

“Cassia put Ryan’s body, dressed in black, at the bottom of the ravine under the bridge. She waited until dark, dressed in a disguise and the same black clothing to fool anyone else into thinking she was him. She waited until she saw someone on the bridge to witness her riding Ryan’s unicycle onto the bridge, then plunged off the side in a controlled acrobatic swing.”
“And she didn’t fall. She must have hooked her foot onto a line when she put her foot on the railing.”
“The caribiner.”
“And then she clung like a spider under the bridge. Oh my god.”
“But she didn’t expect her witness to be you. And when you said, ‘hey!” she thought you recognized her.”
“But that still doesn’t explain how I ended up in the back yard without any memory.”
“No, it does. I believe Cassia came back to the house to burn her black clothing and the evidence of the arsenic she had made. She must have gone inside or hidden while you came up to the bonfire that had really started crackling. Then the fumes from the arsenic must have knocked you out cold and taken your memory, which is something arsenic can do if it doesn’t kill you. The coroner confirmed that for me.”
“She must have been so relieved when I couldn’t remember anything the next morning.”
“Unfortunately I think she still meant to do you in.”
“The pie.”

Vivien looked out at the peach tree. Its clawing branches seemed to reach for her.

Bridget headshotBridget Beth Collins

is the artist behind Flora Forager, the mother of three wild boys, and a believer in everyday magic.

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