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Off in the Fields
“We are here to watch you, as you are not worthy of any other existence.”
The elder crow listened intently to the far off calls of familiar birds while she worked to train her nephew to keep watch in her own field which held a dangling scarecrow. The wooden pole that held a ragged old straw body had weathered over the years and was falling apart piece by piece. Based on his training, this alarmed her nephew.
He was nervous of the task before him being that this particular lumpy body was like all of its kind, a lost soul that was once human. It was up to him to one day take over the responsibility of standing guard and like every other crow he wasn’t really sure how they had become entrusted with this duty. Keeping the farmers and all other humans in the dark and playing on their ignorance was all part of the job.
The elder crow was pleased to see her nephew’s instincts already helping him along as he squawked, “We’ve got to get that old farmer Bill to replace that pole.”
“And how shall we do that?” she questioned for his benefit.
“Follow me,” he flew over one of the farm hands and landed on the decrepit wooden pole and started pecking away bits with his beak.
She happily played along cawing, “You’re coming along fine my boy.”
“I can’t wait to take over!” the budding youth cackled eagerly.
“You say that now…” the crow’s aunt replied, hopping about before she was shooed away by the farm hand. They flew above to watch their progress and she went on, “If that pole falls he could pool his energies and possibly escape.”
“No scarecrow has ever escaped,” the young male crowed back feeling the wind ruffles his feathers.
The two lit on the branch of a nearby pin oak bordering the expansive land.
“That particular soul is the most mangled unchanging thing that ever was. Don’t give him the chance to even try or we’ll all be sorry.” The aged bird was satisfied that she could tell she had gotten through to her nephew.
He stared ahead for a moment and then asked, “Is that why we’re not allowed to talk about what happened to my father?”
“Enough!” his aunt sharply snapped. “You have a job to do, now hush and observe.”
They looked out to the golden cornfields that were being harvested and watched as farmer Bill was led through his crops and shown the damage. He gave some orders and saw to it that they were carried out by nightfall. The scarecrow was soundly secured on a sturdy new piece of wood and even more awkwardly dressed over its fresh stuffing.
“And they think we’ll be scared off by that ridiculous get up?” the young male laughed.
“As long as they play their part, I don’t care what the farmers across all the lands think,” his aunt squawked seriously.
As the stars came out and the dead awoke, the birds waited patiently. It wasn’t long before the scarecrow’s consciousness began to return. The wind stirred along with a low moan that emanated from the cloth prison. The thing was never really sure of anything except the emptiness. That all consuming feeling of despair always had the same effect; it struggled to break free but to no avail.
The hours began to pass by with only the cool night air to soften the low wailing of the monster’s moans. Despite her nephew’s anxiety, the elder bird held her post calmly.
She kept her watch silently cawing lightly just once at midnight, “Lucky for the humans that that thing has no memory or sense of self. But it doesn’t make him any less dangerous.”
The straw figure was watched by at least one pair of beady black eyes all through the night. The elder had grown used to the pitiful sight of lost souls trying to escape and then crying out when having given up. Despite all of this, no matter how much pity she started to feel, the knowledge of the creature’s true nature always gave her the strength to keep watch.
As the first bright rays of the sun broke the surface of the earth, she turned to her nephew and saw his relief. “You’ll get used to this. We all do.”
“But he seems so sad. Maybe he feels remorse. What if there was a mistake?”
“No mistake. When that straw body was walking flesh, it showed no mercy to the victims it sought and tortured for pleasure. As you continue to watch over time pieces of the past will find their way to you and shed light on the whole situation, and when you have guarded one scarecrow as long as I have you will have no doubts about your role.”
The young avian admired his aunt and took heed of her words. Though he respected her he couldn’t shake the thought that there was more to the story and continued pondering it during training day after day and week after week.
The young crow’s nerves calmed with experience but his suspicions were always there. The duties of pretending to fear the sight of the straw being by the sun’s light always gave the birds a laugh; how gullible human beings could be. But the nights were another story: long, hard, and anxious.
The end of October neared and each sunset helped the crows ready themselves for whatever lay ahead. The veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was thinning and would be virtually nonexistent soon.
As Halloween dawned clear and calm, the elder aunt wearily swooped down to rest beside her nephew on his favorite tree. “Dear boy, I fear my time is growing short. You were brought on to fill my place and tonight will be the test of your strength.”
The dark male ruffled his feathers and shook his head, “Already? What if I’m not…what if he escapes?”
She lovingly pecked his neck and cawed, “He won’t. You’re a smart bird, make your father proud.”
The young bird cocked his head as she clumsily flew away, wondering why his aunt refused to tell him of his father’s death.
The rest of the day he enjoyed teasing the farm hands a bit while he flew and filled the air with his cackles and cries. It felt good to enjoy the safety of the day and he knew that the night of October thirty first was always a fateful space of time for all the crows standing watch.
He flapped on the wind to flock with some of his kind and tried to focus on the bright sky and the others around him instead of his growing fears.
“Are you ready for tonight?” one of the females squawked at him.
“I hope so, how about you?”
“We never really are, are we? If you’re nervous just remember, The black wings fly mightily on and have the power to quiet their wrongs.”
“That’s just a legend,” another bird called.
“Then how do you explain all of this? How did we end up with this task?” she cawed back defensively. “If you have no faith in what we do, then maybe you shouldn’t be here.”
“Ask the elder’s nephew. What’s your take on this?” the skeptical crow squawked.
At being addressed on such a controversial subject, he hesitated, but was encouraged when he caught the look in the pretty female’s dark shining eye. “I imagine that there has to be something to all this.”
Before any response rang out, he swooped back to his perch and tried to clear his mind.
He sat and watched the sunset that evening which had never been more striking. The cascade of colors that melted from rich golds to soft pinks and light purples warmed the farmer’s irises as he prepared for the few trick-or-treaters that would walk up the long lane to entreat his wife for sweets. It took off some of the edge to see the little humans running about having fun. They would be tucked safe in bed just as all the crows work was really beginning.
The darkness had no effect tonight. There was no wind and it was as if all the lost souls were holding steady, waiting for something. Time eerily moved onward as the witching hour approached. Midnight awakened, and farmer Bill’s scarecrow regained some of his old spirit’s spark.
He was no longer the forgetful mass of despair that his keeper had watched. This being was much livelier as he thrashed around the pole pressing against his back.
“We are here to watch you, as you are not worthy of any other existence,” the caws of the young bird rang out strongly and the stuffed straw form fell still.
The bird was relieved that these words held so much power but his curiosity about the useless being overtook him. Flying down for a closer look, he slowly glided through the cool darkness and gazed upon the dangling cloth head.
The scarecrow jerked up at him and moaned.
Just as the crow was about to re-chant the word of binding, the limp form spoke slowly in a low whisper “Am I not worthy of redemption? Tonight of all nights when I may make amends, you burden me with this pole? How many nights have I stayed? How many lifetimes must I suffer?”
Something in his desperate plea touched the crow and brought up all the unanswered questions he had, but his training was sound and he flew away with a cackle, “We are here to watch you, as you are not worthy of any other existence.”
The gangly form slumped down again. An hour passed and the young crow felt pleased with himself for not succumbing to any tricks or treachery. His fear began to subside just as the moaning started again, but this was not the tone any straw man had ever uttered in its shame.
It nearly sounded of bird calls; the deep, gruff, cawing of a familiar avian. Having been anxious to hear that cry again, the sound of his father’s voice, the young crow flew down to the post and listened as the artificial body heaved and shook.
“Son, my son; feel no pity, allow no shame. The form that holds this being must not rise again.”
Puffing up his dusty feathers, the crow balked back, “How…is it you that speaks father?”
The voice pushed through the stuffed head, “It is no matter. I am gone.”
Waiting for more, the young bird held still but no sound came through. He landed on the scarecrow’s post and leaned in, desperate to hear something else of his father’s words.
A silence separated them by worlds. Time seemed to slow. Then a gloved hand sprang out to grab the guardian.
The dust shook from his wings as he took flight and heard laughter below in the field. This was no longer his father’s voice, but the soul of a being once human. Keeping watch had never been so hard. Scarecrows usually cried or breathed forth sounds of agony. Only on that very night was such a task so trying to the depths of any one’s being.
Three more hours passed away and the watch was filled with many more chants to sedate the beings trapped in the fields. The elder’s nephew was growing impatient and tired. He knew that the farmer would wake in a couple of hours and that the night of the dead would be over for another year.
As if reading those thoughts, the slumping man of straw lifted his fake head and spoke again.
“Couldn’t trick you though you’re young; most nights I can’t find myself, but this night always brings back my hunger. There’s nothing like splitting open flesh to feed one like me. I never liked life when I was living, but the screams! Oh the screams were delicious!”
The weary crow eagerly took to the skies circling and started to caw the trusted words, “we are here…”
“Your father didn’t scream so much,” the demonic voice of the soul in the scarecrow spoke quickly, precisely.
At this the bird slowed his flight. He knew it to be true. Somehow he knew. His aunt chose this form, this being, for him because his father had failed it.
A nasty sound of delight oozed from each piece of straw crammed into the false mouth, “Do you know what happens to one of your kind when we unworthy beings get a hold of you?”
The noble bird had heard myths and stories, but none of the others ever talked about it. It was forbidden.
“You become part of us!”
The laughter emanating from the vile bag of nothingness hit the crow with such a force that he swooped down and pecked at its head. He carefully dodged back and dove down again and again: clawing, tearing, and pecking. The noise was such that the battle cries woke the farmer and then all was still.
A familiar female bird with light in her eyes swooped down to survey the scene. “Heard you had a bad night,” she cawed at the elder’s nephew. She waited in silence and then went on, “You could’ve released that thing or gotten taken yourself. What were you thinking?”
“He took my father.”
Her dark orbs registered the information and she started preening him while lightly crowing, “No one comes back, we can’t change that.”
“But now he’s… he’s…”
“…Part of that thing.” She solemnly bowed her head, “I know.”
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