The scarecrow could only just remember his maker. Really, it was little more than impressions –a curve of a smile, the whisper of straw under fingers, the heavy burden of the piece of coal that had been pressed into his chest for a heart. And a sense of warmth, inviting and safe, like the light of a sunny day. The scarecrow liked sunny days. He liked rainy days too, if only for the fact that they did a better job of keeping the crows away than he ever did.
The scarecrow did not like crows. They sat on his hat and shoulders and made a mockery of his non-life’s purpose. They laughed at his nice green coat and pulled out his straw when they could get their wicked little beaks on it. If the scarecrow had had the use of his limbs, he would have waved his arms and jumped up and down until every last crow in all the land had taken wing for good. Sadly, the scarecrow did not have use of his limbs. It was a marvel he even had use of his brain, seeing as he hadn’t one to speak of.
Instead, he hung from two crossed poles in the middle of a courtyard framed on three sides by squat, tile-roofed buildings, and on the fourth by a low archway of stone. It was a secluded little corner of the world, with no clear need for a scarecrow. There was no corn to protect in the courtyard: indeed, there weren’t any farms for miles and miles in any direction. But there were plenty of crows.
The scarecrow often wondered at the nature of this state of affairs, following a curious train of thought whose tracks in fact only went in a circle. Was he there because of the crows, or were the crows there because of him? The scarecrow couldn’t find the answer because there was no way he could ask anyone. Whatever the power that had chosen to gift him with a mind had not seen fit to do the same with a set of vocal cords.
There were people the scarecrow could have asked his troubling, circuitous question. The courtyard did see visitors from time to time. The crows, for one; although they did not count to the scarecrow’s way of thinking. No, the visitors that mattered to the scarecrow were of a very different variety of two-legged. He had not given up, you see, on his maker’s returning.
It isn’t a particularly interesting existence, not-scaring crows. And so the scarecrow lived for those times when some wandering soul would wander into his courtyard. Far better to spend an evening listening to the breathing of a wanderer taking shelter from the elements than to suffer the torments of black-winged nightmares. Sometimes the people came in pairs or groups, though most often they came alone. The scarecrow particularly cherished the memory of three tiny children who visited one fine sunny day, kicking a ball off the walls and even the scarecrow’s own head. He hadn’t minded; not only could he not feel pain, but he had been completely enchanted by the sound of the children’s laughter. He had been sorry to see them run off at the summoning calls of their parents.
For a few seasons, there had been a scruffy, street-wise dog who had spent the nights under an overhang in the courtyard, until suddenly one night she hadn’t returned. The scarecrow still missed her. Even if she did have four legs, at least she had hated the crows as much as he did.
Many of the visitors took particular interest in the scarecrow, unusual as he was, hidden away in the middle of city streets. The man or woman, having caught their bearings and registered just what it was hanging in the center of the small space, would walk right up to him, gazing at his face with a vague kind of curiosity. Sometimes they would laugh, softly to themselves, a sound far less cruel than the laughter of crows. Then the man or woman would walk all around the scarecrow, taking in his nice green coat, his stripey pants, the handkerchief hanging from one pocket. They would marvel at the straightness of his crossed poles and the tallness of his tall black hat.
And then, sometimes, they would sit down at the bottom of his standing pole. Just sit and keep him company for a time. Or the pairs and groups would come to sit and talk in the sun. There was one bespectacled fellow who would always bring a book with him and spend hours turning its pages. The scarecrow enjoyed reading over his shoulder.
Some visitors were not so nice.
One crisp autumn evening, a man and a woman came into the courtyard, dressed in gaudy costumes and likely on their way to a grand party. The woman pranced right up to the scarecrow and swiped the hat off his head. Laughing, she gave it to the man, who swept it onto his own head. Then they had run off, hand and hand, into the night.
The next day the crows began pecking at his head mercilessly, pulling out his straw and dropping it on the ground.
The scarecrow hoped for a rainy day soon.
When the clouds did come, however, they brought the first snow of the year. The scholarly fellow who often read with the scarecrow visited next, clutching the top of his coat closed against the cold. It seemed he had lost the top button of his coat and was doing his best to keep out the elements while negotiating a heavy bag with one arm when it really could have used two.
After a moment of regarding the scarecrow thoughtfully, a moment when he truly had all of the scarecrow’s sympathy, the scholar put the bag down and strode purposefully toward the scarecrow. The scholar pulled a penknife from his pocket, reached up to the scarecrow’s face, and with a sickening “snip!” severed one of the scarecrow’s button eyes from the burlap of his head.
When next the scarecrow saw the scholar, his coat stayed closed of its own accord.
The crows taunted him without end, but after about a month of practice the scarecrow found he could still see out of the missing eye if he tried. Mostly, though, the views this effort afforded him were little more than the wall behind a coat-rack, and often the strain of the trick heated his coal heart so much that he feared all his straw might soon go up in flames.
One frosty night, one weepy visitor made off with his lacy handkerchief. But it was in the depth of winter that the greatest blow was dealt.
The scarecrow was minding his own business –once again pondering the great question of “am I here because of the crows?”– when a small person of indeterminate sex huddled into the courtyard. This person was grossly underdressed for the weather, even the scarecrow could see this, and it seemed that his or her extremities were quickly turning blue.
This person, upon spotting the scarecrow’s nice green coat, soon leapt upon him, wrestling the jacket from his arms.
“Not so rough!” the scarecrow wanted to say, but of course he was without vocal cords. And now he was without a coat as well.
Sighing, the scarecrow resigned himself to weathering a long, cold winter.
It was indeed a long, cold winter, and when spring finally dawned, rosy and damp and full of hope and promise, the one-eyed, hatless scarecrow with no jacket didn’t quite believe it. Sometime during the long dark, a mouse had found shelter inside his left leg, and now an entire family of the varmints had taken up residence. They made the whole leg itch something fierce. It was a strange feeling, the scarecrow mused, not really pain because he had no capacity for that, but an uncomfortable feeling never-the-less.
There were times when he found himself wanting to curse the maker who had left him here in the courtyard as fodder for the crows. There were times he did flat-out curse the maker and all the maker’s kind.
But spring did bring with it hope and promise, though not the kind the scarecrow might have preferred.
The day was settling into dusk, and the crows had gone home to roost. The scarecrow was left to ponder a variant of his worn-out old questions, that is, what his purpose became when there were no crows about to attempt to scare. Without a purpose, did he cease to exist? Perhaps it seems to you a silly thing to wonder, when the mere act of wondering proves that one exists. But then, you are a human with many purposes that lead one into the other, and not simply the one of scaring crows.
In the dusky dying light, the woman appeared to be only half there as she stepped into the scarecrow’s courtyard. She had a travel-stained bag slung over a shoulder and wore a coat that seemed almost entirely made of pockets.
Her attention was fixed on the archway that gave entrance to the courtyard and she ignored the scarecrow entirely. Slowly, she began to walk the perimeter of the small space between buildings, muttering under her breath as she went.
The scarecrow felt indignant. Granted, he was no longer quite as grand as in days past, dressed only in his shirt and trousers with one of his eyes missing, his straw picked out so his head sagged inward and his coal heart sat nearer to his belly, but surely he deserved some interest. Even amid the nonexistence brought on by purposelessness, he had rights. And although he couldn’t hear the words the woman was muttering, he didn’t like them. It seemed as if she were tampering with something fundamentally not meant to be tampered with. If he had ever been any good at scaring, he would have sent her packing.
Unfortunately for the scarecrow the woman continued about her business, blissfully unaware of his resentment. She walked out the edge of the courtyard three times, muttering all the while, before sitting down on the ground in front of him, at the base of the pole that held him up. There, she finally took her bag from her shoulder and laid it between herself and the scarecrowpole, using it as a cushion. And then she went to sleep.
The scarecrow glared at her, trying to will her unpleasant dreams. He himself did not sleep; it was going to be a long night of watching her.
A long night, but not quite as uneventful as the scarecrow had imagined. Around about four in the morning, when everything is quiet and peaceful and nothing good ever happens, a hulking figure found its way into the courtyard. It appeared to be searching for something, sniffing the air in a rather predatory manner, its long snout reaching out ahead of the rest of it, towards the woman. Then it sat back on its haunches, apparently surprised to have found her.
Hey, the scarecrow thought toward the woman, looking with unease at the large fangs of the figure as they glinted in the moonlight. Hey! Wake up, lady. Wake up if you know what’s good for you!
The figure began to creep forward on all massive fours, nostrils flickering as it continued to sniff at the woman.
Danger! the scarecrow thought at the woman. Nasty great danger with big pointy teeth! Wake up!
And, strangely enough, the woman woke up. It took her no more than a moment to register the presence of the figure and devise a plan of action. This plan consisted of leaping up suddenly to flick the figure on the end of its long snouty nose with a cry of “Ha!”
Surprised, the figure sank back on its hind legs, blinking at the woman.
“Creature,” the woman intoned in a low, commanding voice, “I send you back to your master with no memory of where or when you found me. Now go!” The figure was soon engulfed in a silvery light more concentrated than the rays cast by the moon. Just before the figure disappeared with a pop, the woman added, mush more sweetly, “But tell old Cal hello for me!”
The danger so shockingly dealt with, the woman turned to regard the scarecrow. He hoped she wasn’t about to make him disappear too.
Instead, the woman said, “My thanks, friend. If not for your warning, I might have become hell-hound chow.”
Questions toppled over each other in the scarecrow’s burlap sack of a head. What was a hell-hound? Why was it keen on making the woman a meal? But most importantly, she could hear him?
The woman frowned at him. “Strange. In my dream, I heard your voice quite clearly. Now all I can make out is a slight buzzing at the back of my mind…” She took a few steps toward him so that she stood right in front of him. Then she walked a full circle around him, one hand trailing over the waistband of his stripey pants.
“Someone did a half-hearted job of making you alive,” she observed finally, a note of disapproval in her voice.
The scarecrow whole-heartedly resented the intimation that he was not wholly alive.
“Well,” the woman was saying, unaware of his ill feelings, “that wasn’t their primary intention, I suppose. They wanted a guardian for this place. The fact that you came to be conscious was likely incidental. You may have done that all on your own.”
With only vague recollections of his maker, the scarecrow had no memory of how he came to be in the courtyard.
The woman was still talking, “And here I come, casting my own protection spells over this place, destroying the enchantment over it and you. If I had realized the place was already looked after and left well enough alone, the magic that made you would never have let that hell-hound in at all.”
Magic? the scarecrow wondered. How utterly ridiculous.
But then, he supposed it was rare for a scarecrow such as himself to even be able to wonder and make conclusions about such things. Perhaps he was magic. How odd that in all his many musings he had never thought to question the very faculty of his thought.
“Ah, you’re buzzing again. Well,” the woman said, pushing up her sleeves, “one good turn deserves another, I should think.”
She pulled a slim silver chain from one of her many pockets. A tiny ticking clock hung from chain. She fastened it around the scarecrows neck, muttering (more spells, he supposed) under her breath. If the scarecrow could have blinked in surprise, he would have. It was the first time a person had given him something, rather than taking his things away. But she wasn’t finished.
With a faint smile, the woman pulled one of the green buttons from her worn coat and fastened it to the scarecrow’s face. How she made it stick, he wasn’t sure. More magic, apparently.
“And now for the grand finale,” she said, her smile spreading into a great grin that transformed her pretty, forgettable face into something much more grim.
Once again, she walked around the scarecrow, this time a full three times and muttering all the while. Finally she stood in front of him; raised on tiptoe her face was even with his. And then she breathed on him. The sound of her breath rattled through the cosmos, bouncing off stars and slingshotting around planets.
A sudden heat flared painfully in the scarecrow’s belly. His coal heart was on fire! Slowly it rose back to the height a heart should be, just left of center in his chest. The fire was spreading in little tentacles out over all his body, the nexus at that ember in his chest. With a horrible squealing, cracking sound, the crossed poles broke and the scarecrow fell to the ground. He was aware of nothing but the pain and the odd bubbling feeling all over his burlap head, his arms and legs, for a very long time.
Eventually, in the rosy light of late dawn, he was able to roll himself onto his back, all his limbs aching. The woman was gone. With a shaky start of breath, he sat up and looked at himself. Feet. Hands.
The scarecrow had become a man.