Among the Stalks

By Alexandr Bond

(From Issue #4 October 2020)

It comes again. More powerful than the night before, the dreadful sound mingling with the wind and shifting rustle of the corn that surrounds the farm. I stare out one of the windows for hours but can discern nothing from the swaying stalks with their sharp edges. The dark sky, with its far away pinpricks of light, hiding anything that might serve to explain this growing nuisance, this encroaching sense of doom that pervades my mind like some cyclopean horror. I have never felt such fear before and it worries me. Is this…? No, I must get a hold of myself. It would do me no good to fall apart now.

I first heard the sound about a week ago, a deliberate motion in the dead of night as though there was something alive out there. But when I checked the next morning, I found nothing that would suggest proof of my ridiculous notion. What could be out there? As I peered from the dreary, rotted porch, all I saw had been a seemingly endless sea of corn; that and that awful scarecrow.

When the sun rises, the wind begins to die down only somewhat, as is common in these parts. The swaying of the corn lessens and I feel myself relax—as though my very being is tied to them and in some way, I suppose it is. I lean back in the ancient recliner as my wits return to me. I should go outside but memory reminds me why that would prove fruitless. Instead, I sink deeper into the scratchy, tawny fabric of my chair until I can no longer tell it apart from my skin, and my thoughts turn morose.

I don’t know why, but I am thinking about my father. He named me Oscar after himself. I came to both hate and revere the name as I did the man that passed it to me. He had strong hands, a leathery face, and thought little of me. I was just another achievement and a lackluster one at that. But he is gone now, and I am all alone in the world, alone with my questionable thoughts and that which stands among the stalks outside the safety of my farmhouse.

Picturing that ramshackle scarecrow brings an unnatural heaviness to my limbs, an itch throughout that does nothing but repulse the calm that has only slowly begun to reclaim my body. I shake my head to clear it but only seem to shake things up more. Sighing, I force myself to fall asleep as my night had been spent listening for a sound that might never come. Now, blanketed by the elongating streaks of morning light, I feel sleep reachable and after a few moments, I grasp it.

I don’t normally dream, never have really. But recently, I’ve been seeing vague images in my mind while I slumber. Amorphous shapes, things crawling along invisible suspended planes, and a shambling creature with no face. I hear sounds as well. Ripping fabric, squelching limbs falling away before something terrible, and a low whimpering din that echoes for what seems like forever.

It is that echo that eventually wakes me. I sit up feeling less than rested and internally grumble. This has got to stop soon. I peer around and see that the sun is higher in the sky, much higher than it should be. I think I slept most of the day. Grumbling some more, I stand up and decide I should at least move around. If I looked in a mirror, I fear my lassitude would begin to show.

As I drift through the house, memories scream out at me. Pictures adorn the mantle of the dust choked fireplace while ashes and soot, like dark grey snow, cover the floor inside it. This filth spills outward, mixing with the film of grime that has slowly been building upon the aged hard wooden floor. It has become increasingly difficult to tell what the surface of the wood had originally looked like. This place is in quite a state. It should be cleaned soon. I glance briefly at each picture. They are filled with smiles, laughter, and good times held dear to one’s heart. I enjoy looking at them. If only I was in them.

I move away from the fireplace with its barren hearth and step out of the room, turning my back on the recliner, the antique furniture that clutters the floor-space, and the window that looks out upon the field beyond my door. So much corn and that scarecrow… Why can I not just take it down? Even now I feel as though it is watching me. I move my head from side to side, dislodging such a thought before it could take root. There is no life in that scarecrow. It is nothing. Less than nothing.

Refocusing my thoughts, I enter the kitchen and find it in just as shabby a state as the parlor. I should not let it get like this. In truth, I had inherited the property recently from my father. Much of his effects are still in the house, but that is no excuse. I had intended to put everything in order but when I began hearing that frightful noise, my thoughts succumbed to wild fancies born of the many strange tales I have heard all my life. I must confess: I am a thinker. Since I can remember, it seems that is all I have ever done. As such, my mind has grown bold in its scope of things, adding validity to the most minute of notions, turning a spark into an inferno, a whisper into a scream. Such an imagination I possess that it almost seems I can will my thoughts to life. That however, can lead to some troubling ideas.

Returning my attention back to the kitchen, I peer first at the long wooden table with its beige linen cloth, then the counters, with their canisters and appliances. All of them look like they have seen better days. They are my responsibility and as I stare at them, I wonder if this is all worth the trouble. Hearing no answer and not seeing anything to tempt me into remaining, I turn away and head upstairs.

The rooms here are hardly any better than those downstairs. I shuffle from one to the next, really looking at my surroundings for the first time and feeling that somehow I was cheated. Shadows and emptiness fill the rooms, echoes of my movements bounce off the walls and return to me wrong, hollow. And for a moment, I wonder what I am doing here, where I am. It all seems alien even as it is familiar, like waking up in your own room yet everything had been moved an inch to the right. The walls feel off, too tight yet their voids frighten me. So much can happen in nothing.

The last bedroom on the right is the largest. I push open the door and shamble in. Dust chokes the air. It lies heavily on the furniture throughout the room. My eyes move from one piece to the next. Each was handcrafted, the amount of care clearly visible in every angle. I set a hand upon the smooth surface, seeming untouched by time’s millstone. Why couldn’t he have shown such craftsmanship with me?

I have not dared touch his bed. It looms in the corner of the room, the navy-blue quilt still resting on it. After his death, I toyed with taking it for myself; the whole room is finally mine. His hands built this room; I can see his touch in every line of the bedposts, the sturdy rafters, and even the lamps on the nightstands. This is his domain and I am not welcome here. The veracity of the thought shocks me.      

Backing out of my father’s room, I stop before a window and glance through it. I stare past my reflection with its tan skin, gone all dry and scratchy, and my dark beady eyes, and gaze upon the sharp expanse that lies before me. I lose track of how long I stand there, the wasteland of corn sapping my attention until finally I start to sink to the floor. Jerking sharply, I regain my composure and begin to turn away when a flicker of movement catches my eye. Could it be what is making that sound? Indecision prompts a moment of hesitation but ultimately, I need to find out for myself.

I move as fast as my body will allow, trying to contain my thoughts from bounding ahead of me and descend down the rickety stairs. I reach the front door but pause. My thin fingers are hovering over the French handle, but they go no further.

Why did I stop?

I command them to move but they are frozen in place, in space, disconnected from me. The slightest twitch radiates from my fingers to my arm and soon I’m trembling.

What could be out there?

It is that question that fills me with trepidation, a haunting respite that breeds new, vague phobias. Uncertainty is my adversary, a faceless menace that steals my courage and mocks me. My fear shames me and it is for that reason I harden my nerves and force myself to grasp the door handle. With an almost violent motion, I twist it and pull the door open. If I turn for but a moment, I am undone. I keep my gaze forward and before I can ponder anything else, I step outside.

A soft breeze assails me, teasing me with its susurrant voice, but empty promises are poor succor to an already unhinged mind.

What good would it do to follow its beckoning hand? To allow it to lead me astray? I was born lost.

There I go again with such dire notions. I quash my rampant imagination and focus on the task at hand.

I stand on the unsteady porch, the boards, rotting and weather beaten, sag slightly under my weight as though time has finally caught up with them. A bench swing sits idly to my left, its xanthic cushions concealed by a heavy layer of dust. It seems this whole place is succumbing to decay. I add it to the list of things I resolve to attend to once my worries and delusions are revealed to be nothing more than my own wild daydreams.

I move down the short steps and onto the barren earth that acts as my lawn. Not ten feet away begins the field of corn. To my far right is a path cut into the crop that would lead me, eventually, to the main highway. I turn away from it and survey the land around me. A sharp forest encloses the few cleared sections of acreage on all sides. Within the clearing lie the house, a garage, and the barn. What I saw came from near the barn. I move with steady purpose, willing the preemptive conclusions in my head to quiet.

This side of the house is mostly flat, a few windows and sun baked siding long since bereft of paint. The barn, if one could call it that, is a glorified shack. Any red hue it once held lay faded. I can’t deny the structure is sound though, the building seeming none the worse for wear despite its appearance, another one of my father’s creations. I stop at the entrance, ignoring the slight tremor in my legs.

The door, with its x-shaped panel of faded white wood over the worn red vertical slats, is open ajar. I feel my thoughts already coming up with reasons and certainties, none of which remain within the realm of logic for longer than a minute. With each idea, I descend more and more into this madness that I have been wading through for so long. I let it continue for a few moments more before reeling it all back in. Despite their contrasts and shifting loyalties, my thoughts amount to one thing: I’m terrified of what could be in there. I know what should be in there. But with the door open, I am faced with this cold specter of uncertainty.

With a growing tremor in my hand, I fling the door further open and let the afternoon light spill upon the filthy floor. The shadows stretch dark and deep, hiding the highest corners from my sight. Spider webs drape like ghostly lace from the rafters, their predatory architecture fascinating if you aren’t food. I look from one side to the other. Everything appears as I’d left it from the last time I came out to the barn. Nothing seems out of place and I let myself expel some of the tension gripping me. I shut the door and turn only to halt in my tracks, my eyes fixating on the beast before me.

I stare at the cat in sheer wonder and surprise. Like hunched darkness, the animal crouches on all fours, its thick tail twitching back and forth while its golden eyes bore into me, through me; as though it is trying to divide the secrets from the stuffing I call a brain. I inch toward it, curiosity driving me when I hear a low growl emanate from the creature. It grows in pitch until it sounds like a lion, great fury in such a small thing. Cautiously, I move closer and the cat lets out a great hiss, as sharp as the stalks that enclose us. Before I have time to react, the beast turns and flees. I don’t want it to go. What if it is the cat I’ve been hearing? Without letting my mind wander, I hurry after it, slipping into the wall of maize.

The blade-like edges of the corn cut into me leaving fabric and bits of flesh clinging to them. I fight the urge to turn back. Instead, I glance around for the feline. A black blur of movement streaks in front of me. I push through the dense foliage in pursuit. The deeper I delve into the field, the stronger my sensation of tightness becomes. The looming stalks seem to reach out for me and I recoil, slipping past them as I try to keep an eye on my quarry. I’ve spent a lot of time out here and in all honesty, I’ve grown to abhor it. The oppressive closeness of the corn fills me with such a desire to seek an escape, it borders on the pathological. Had I known, and if I had any real say in the matter, I’d never have chosen such a place to live. A shadow slides across my eyes and I stare up at its source: a crow. I’ve grown to loathe them as well. Returning my attention to my goal, I survey the ground for any sign of the cat but find none. The beast has eluded me.

Grumbling to myself, I start making my way back to the house, but it becomes obvious after a few minutes of walking that I must have gotten turned around. I glance up, straining to see if I can spot the tip of the roof but all that surrounds me is this vile corn, swaying innocently in the mild breeze, its edges brushing against one another making a scratching noise that attacks my mind from every direction. A building crescendo that falls away to an echo only to be picked up again a moment later. Self-repeating until an origin is impossible. My chest heaves as I clasp my head but that won’t make the noise stop. The breeze is the conductor and it is blind to my suffering. I flee from the sound, hoping I will burst free from this vegetative prison. I don’t know for how long I am running but, when I exit into a very small clearing, I fall to the ground in relief.

It takes me a few minutes to realize where I have stopped and when I do, my exhilaration quickly sours. Against my better judgment, I lift my head and peer up at the scarecrow that stands before me. Fastened to two large pieces of wood, one vertical, the other horizontal, my creation looms above me, a failure. Three crows, a murder in the making, perch upon its outstretched arms, tearing pieces away.

Gazing at it now, my revulsion is palpable. The birds have already undone much of my work. The stitching around the waist is frayed while the pieces that connected the head to the rest of the body are gone. How the head is staying upright is anyone’s guess. To my surprise, the eyes are still intact. Like faded dark glass, they stare down at me. I shrink beneath its accusatory gaze.  

A squawk from one of the birds breaks me out of my inspection and I peer at it warily. I think they know how much I dislike them.

Sparing the scarecrow one more contemptuous glance, I twist away but as I do, I stop dead in my tracks. What was that? Rotating my head back, I look at the unkempt thing. For the briefest of moments, I could have sworn the head had just moved.

Eyeing it intently, I try to deny my imagination. But as I stare at the scarecrow I can’t remember if it always leaned at that angle or not. Could the jostling of the crows have caused this? Did it move at all? The harder I gape, the more doubt claws at me. A subtle trick of the light and I’m convinced it truly twitched. The crows caw repeatedly before taking flight, causing the bound thing to shudder.

I can stand no more. I hurry away, my path known only in my memory as I retreat back to the safety of the farmhouse. Once I break away from the corn, I waste little time in heading inside and shutting the door behind me.

To quell my plaguing thoughts, I perform my afternoon routine, but the persistent ruminations continue to besiege me, unbidden and each time revealing some new avenue my imagination has taken to weaken my certainty. Even my normal mental distractions seem ineffective against this evolving onslaught I wage against myself. The daily mundane tasks I set for myself have become second nature, leaving my mind to wander to unsound shores.  Even worse, memories of my father well up unbidden, our time spent together both cherished and agonizing. On his last day, we had fought. Could all this be guilt?

I still recall what he told me when I was young, new. ‘Oscar, you will be the best thing I e’er made.’ Such pride he had then. He would read to me in those early days, his strong voice echoing off the kitchen walls with the dreary renderings of Poe or the watery obsessions of Melville. I would listen with rapt attention, my mind wandering to far off places, dark castles or wide-open seas. Instead I am left here, with only what my father made surrounding me.

‘I expected you to hold up better. I’m not really sure what to do with you now’ Those were his last words to me, his eyes never meeting mine before finally turning his back on me. Even after, I still wish to please him, to take care of this wretched place and that dreadful crop with its persistent secrets that continue to haunt me.

When the sun finally sets, this fear, this growing nyctophobia swells like a rising tide within me. Will the sound come again tonight? In the past week, it has come four times and deep inside, I know it will again. I still cannot say what is causing it and that bothers me the most. Darkness invades the parlor where I am sitting, my fingers gripping the aged armrests of the ancient recliner as the minutes tick by. The swaying of the stalks beyond my walls fills the night with their incessant scratching made worse by the occasional creaking of the house itself. I strain to listen past the noises for the one I dread most but for the first half of the night, I detect nothing out of the ordinary.

I feel myself relax. Perhaps my worries are only authored by my imagination. I lean back into the chair and seek out sleep. It comes quickly and I succumb only to be awoken a few moments later by a loud clatter.

I sit up turning my head from side to side. What was that? It comes again. With terrible, sudden certainty, I know the origin of the sound. With caution in my movements, I walk out of the parlor and into the kitchen.

The silvery light of an almost-full moon sheds enough illumination for me to make out most of the objects. Nothing seems out of place. I survey the room and stop upon two yellow orbs near the floor in the corner. I involuntarily take a step back, my retreat prompting the floating lights to advance. I continue to back away until the kitchen counter stops me. The orbs draw ever closer until they finally stop in a patch of moonlight. I feel relief and shame in equal amounts as I stare down at the beast, the same cat from earlier.

When my mind begins to calm down, I can’t help but wonder how it got in. I take a tentative step toward it, certain the creature will flee again but it does not. When I am a few feet from it, I finally notice it has something in its jaws. A mouse perhaps? I reach for the cat but it emits another loud hiss and scampers away to hide in some dark corner, dropping its prize in the process. I pick up its trophy and bring it into the light to better examine it. Within a moment, I let the object fall from my hand as surprise and horror strike me. It was a finger from my scarecrow. The stitching still clings to the sun-dried flesh, the bone protruding like a white worm. I look around for the cat frantically as if it could answer my questions.

It is not the cat but the flickering light that draws my attention. It is coming from the parlor. Before I have time to think, I rush back in but stop just past the threshold. A fire is in the hearth, its orange flames licking up the dust that rains down upon it from the chimney. My aversion to fire urges me to cringe away but I am transfixed by it. So much so that I almost fail to notice that my recliner has been moved. With great effort, I shift my gaze and focus on the old chair. Since taking over the farm, I’d moved the chair to face away from the fireplace as I had no reason to use it, but now it has been moved.  No, I realize, not just moved. Returned to its original position.

Before I can wonder why, I see the cause and almost crumble. There is a figure sitting in the ancient recliner, a figure I know all too well. My scarecrow, my father. I take note of his appearance, rotted flesh and exposed bone, a finger missing on his left hand and the same clothes he died in still adorning what is left of his body. I can do nothing but stare in horror. And then he stirs. Like a slow boil, he rises from the chair. Like some old Dullahan from Celtic lore, he holds his head under his right arm, his dead eyes staring at me.

Our last encounter replays before my eyes. I had finally freed myself from the pieces of wood that bound me among the stalks. So pleased, I rushed to show my maker, my father. I found him in the barn, working on another scarecrow. When he saw me, the happiness I expected became horror. He attacked me. What could I do? Rage at his rejection had filled me. When I had finished, I wanted him to feel what I felt. I placed him where he had placed me.

“I made you. How could you?” His eyes seem to say.

“You made me want. How could I not?” I reply silently.

Without a murmur, he gingerly picks up one of the burning branches from the fire, a stalk of corn to be exact, and throws it at me. I’m too slow. My dry sackcloth skin catches fast and soon it starts to consume my straw. As I am engulfed, I want to scream but he never gave me a mouth. A final thought fills my mind before all is ashes. I just wanted to be like you.      


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