SCARECROW | In Rebekah Graves’ short story, a loved one makes an unusual return.
by Rebekah Graves
‘That scarecrow is hideous, Mum,’ Dana said.
‘Scare-row,’ little Olivia echoed, perched atop Dana’s hip.
‘There’s no beauty contest, love. So long as he does the job – those pumpkins are my livelihood. The uglier the straw man, the better.’ The older woman, Sabine, stuck her tongue out, lips pulled tight with wrinkled fingers. Her granddaughter Olivia let out a squeal of laughter.
‘I wish you hadn’t used Dad’s clothes,’ Dana scrunches up her nose at the checked shirt and flat cap.
‘He shan’t be needing them anymore. Best to put them to good use.’
‘It’s been less than a year–’ The beeping of the microwave cut Dana off.
‘Milk, milk, milk,’ Olivia wriggled wildly, black coils bouncing.
‘Yes, yes, my little Olive.’ Sabine tests the milk. It burns hot on her wrist. ‘You’ll have to wait for it to cool. Shouldn’t you be heading off now, love?’
‘Oh, god. Yes.’ A hurried kiss on the cheek and Olivia’s comforting weight pressed to her chest. ‘She’s got a nasty rash; the cream’s in the nappy bag. She’s been a bit grizzly, there’s teething powder in the front pocket in case. Please, none of your herbal remedies. I don’t want Olivia exposed to anything toxic.’
‘Have a good meeting, love. Don’t worry about us – we’ll get along just fine.’
‘And you know how Jobe and I feel about Halloween. No spooky stories, pumpkin carving or, well, you know.’
Olivia’s tiny, chestnut-coloured hands reach for her milk bottle.
‘Yes, love. You’ve mentioned it once or twice. Olivia, say bye-bye to Mummy now.’
‘Bye,’ Olivia says, her attention still firmly on the bottle.
‘Your Mummy wasn’t always such a grouch,’ Sabine tells Olivia as her daughter’s expensive BMW careens out from the drive. The milk is a soothing warmth on Sabine’s wrist. ‘OK, all ready to go. Let’s have a nice long sleep. Grandma has an important guest coming today.’
Olivia obliged her grandma and the little one was down within minutes, the sought-after milk only half-drunk and cooling by her crib.
‘Well, let’s see what Dana thinks will work better than my toxic remedies.’ Sabine inspects the pot of cream. ‘Ha, nothing more than alcohol and moisturiser. Let’s add bit of Grandma’s magic.’ Sabine opens her kitchen drawer and produces an old jam jar crammed with yellow and red leaves. Using a mortar-and-pestle she crushes them to a sandy consistency. She empties the pot onto a slate then adds a pinch of powder. With a little mixing the herbs dissolve.
‘What Dana don’t know, Dana won’t mind,’ Sabine scoops the ointment back into its pot. The lid closes with a satisfying pop.
‘Now, onto important business.’ She hooks the baby monitor onto her hip, slips on a pair of dirty brown boots then makes her way across the pumpkin fields. Dana was wrong when she said it had been less than a year since her dad had passed. It was one year to the day. Not that Sabine could blame her. Whilst her husband was eking out his last breathes, little Olivia was screeching her first. Sabine, running from one end of the hospital to other, was caught between life and death.
‘Hey there, Charlie, Today’s the day.’ The scarecrow stared blankly back through button eyes. ‘Oops, you’re losing your tibia.’ Sabine tucked the bone back into its trouser leg and tied the cord tight around a branch.
Collecting the bones had been difficult. They’d been allowed to bury Charlie on the property, Sabine insisting on a natural burial; a willow coffin and cotton shroud. They planted a silver birch above him, his decaying body giving life to the young tree.
Three days ago Sabine took her shovel and dug beneath the sapling. It was gruelling work, even though she’d requested a shallow grave. The rain had run hard that October and the ground was heavy with it. Charlie’s bones were light in their pall. Sabine lay them out. Dry and papery in her hands. Silver birch, like children, grow quick and tall in no time at all. Using her pocket knife Sabine pruned the tree, thinning out branches growing too close together, and removing those close to the muck.
Now the hard work began. Sabine had tied each bone together with string and birch. The task had taken hours and her palms cramped before the end. When she was done it was hardly possible to tell the remains of bone and birch apart. This was what stood before her now. Stuffed with straw and dressed in Charlie’s clothes.
“When she was done it was hardly possible to tell the remains of bone and birch apart. This was what stood before her now. Stuffed with straw and dressed in Charlie’s clothes.”
The seconds tick by on Sabine’s gold watch: one twelve, one thirteen. The minutes last a lifetime. Cool autumn wind pricks her ears.
The doctor announced time of death at one fifteen. But surely his actual death was earlier. One fourteen. When was the last time she wound this watch? Is it running slow? Or worse, fast – and there’s an infinity of minutes to wait. One fifteen. What if she’d done something wrong? Maybe the bones weren’t in the right positions. She’d studied obsessively but was no physician. One sixteen. A crow caws and flies over head before circling back and landing on the scarecrow’s shoulder.
‘These damn things never work, shoo, off you go.’ The crow squawks its objection as it departs. One seventeen. ‘Come on, Charlie.’ One eighteen. Tears burn in Sabine’s eyes, threatening to burst. Sabine hadn’t cried all year. Not even at the funeral. She thought they were all dried up after the monsoon she’d cried after the diagnosis. She glanced at her watch. The face was too blurred though watery eyes.
‘Well, I thought you’d be happier to see me?’ It was Charlie’s voice clear as day.
Pushing tears away, she looks up. A transparent vision of Sabine’s dear Charlie is cast upon the scarecrow’s blank face. Kind brown eyes and snow-white hair. Ghostly fingers and feet wriggled to life.
‘Charlie!’ she thrusts her arms around hay and bone. ‘You’re late. You awful man.’
‘I missed you,’ Charlie whispers and Sabine felt the cool wind as his breath.
‘I missed you, too.’ Sabine releases the scarecrow. Charlie placed a hand to his wife’s face.
‘I can feel you,’ the pair say in unison.
‘It tickles like static.’ Sabine presses her hand harder into his palm. The static stutters and fades as Sabine passes through the translucent hand.
‘I suppose that was too much to ask,’ she says, ‘that I could actually touch you?’
Charlie shrugs. ‘We’ve got enough. Tell me everything, about you and Dana and–’
‘Dana is her same stubborn self. A little sadder. We all cope in our own ways. She’s determined you’re in heaven. That brings her a lot of comfort.’ An electric cry bursts from the monitor. ‘Oh goodness, I’ll be right back. There’s someone I want you to meet. Don’t go anywhere now.’
‘Where do you think I could go? Five minutes with me and she’s already running off.’ That familiar tut of his tongue. Sabine hadn’t realised how much she’d missed it.
Olivia ceased her crying as soon as her grandmother poked her head through the door. A quick nappy change and they were both out in the pumpkin fields, Sabine in her brown boots and green winter coat, Olivia puffed up in a red playsuit and matching wellies.
‘Olive, meet your grandpa.’
Olivia smiles, reaching out to the spectre.
Love and amazement were written all over his face.
‘That’s right, Grandpa Scarecrow.’
‘She’s an early talker.’
‘Oh, she’s awfully clever. Aren’t you my love?’
Olivia reaches for Charlie, tiny fingers wrapping solidly about his thumb. The longer Olivia holds her grandfather, the more solid he becomes. Her hands grab at his face and it comes into glorious colour, wrinkles and all. Olivia lets go. Sabine holds her breath. But nothing changes. Instead, her love steps away from the scarecrow and stands in full life. She pushes in tight to him, Olive tucked in between, and kisses his lips, soft and warm on hers.
‘A very clever girl,’ Charlie says when at last Sabine lets him go. ‘How did she…?’
Sabine shrugs. ‘She was born the same day you died. Maybe there’s a connection? Now, don’t tell your mum about this, she’s gotten mixed up in that new religion and won’t abide any sort of magic.’
‘How long do I have, Sabe?’
‘Not long, an hour, could be less. The birch is still a sapling, Next year we’ll have longer.’
‘Then, if it’s alright with you, can I hold our granddaughter?’
The three spend a glorious hour together in the golden autumnal light. Olivia laughs almost as hard and heartily as her grandpa. When the time comes to say goodbye it is not a sorrowful parting, but filled with yearning and excitement for the next year.
Dana returns in the early evening to share dinner, Olivia shouting ‘mapa scare-row’ repeatedly as they eat.
‘Hey, Mum, did you use anything weird on Olivia’s rash?’ Dana calls from the living room later, as Sabine washes the dishes.
‘I used the cream like you said.’
‘But it’s all gone. I mean completely gone.’
‘I suppose modern medicine has its advantages.’
Dana glares at her mother. And Sabine knows it despite the wall between them.
Ten years later, a girl, no older than twelve, stands in a pumpkin field with two scarecrows – one dressed in a checked shirt and flat cap, the other with muddy brown boots and a green winter coat. She waits with her grandmother’s gold watch.
Rebekah Graves | @rebekahcreates | todayiwrote.co.uk | @rebekah_creates
Rebekah is an aspiring novelist living with her husband and two cats in the East Midlands. When she’s not writing you’ll find her at a sewing machine, volunteering at the local library or wandering around woodlands.