Except for the rotting straw poking randomly through the cloth and extending from the cuffs, the scarecrow was entirely black. Its pants and boots and jacket were black, its shirt was black corduroy, its hat was of wide black felt, and its evil face was burlap dyed inky black.
And God, that face! A wicked, leering mouth slit in the molding burlap, attempting to yawn open evilly but stitched shut jaggedly with thin red cord (the one smear of color on its personage). Crooked nostril slashes that seemed to flare and pulsate when glimpsed from one eye’s corner. And the creature’s eyes…Somehow a master seamstress had affixed two large shimmering black beads into the deep recesses beneath a glowering puckered brow. The eyes stared, and watched, and sparked, and feigned life.
We first spotted this abomination the very beginning of autumn, a mere speck far beyond the fences in Old Man Harper’s cornfield. Sharp Willie, Skinch and I pulled up hard on our bicycles as we all espied it at once. It was perched on a post, arms outstretched, sleeves flapping, and the post was only slightly taller than the highest corn stalks. We had not noticed it on our previous gambols down the lane. Now the farmer had harvested the corn near the post and made it visible to our curious teenage eyes.
“Whoa. What’s that?” ask Sharp Willie. “Is that a freaking scarecrow?”
“Look at its coat flapping,” noted Skinch, wetting a grimy forefinger with his tongue and raising it into the still air. “There ain’t no wind.” He shivered.
“There must be, up there,” I said. “Can’t see it too well, but it’s the most elaborate straw man I ever laid eyes on. Let’s ditch the bikes and come back when it’s a little darker and when Old Man Harper is in bed. I gotta get a closer look.”
“Yeah, we’ll bring matches,” added Sharp Willie, grinning like the moron that he was. “In case we wanna burn it.”
Willie was the most destructive kid I ever knew. Sometimes he was even cruel. I mostly only hung with him because he knew every dirty joke in existence–and what they meant. I had no intention of letting him burn anything (hell, that idiot might set the whole field ablaze) but I knew I could talk him out of it when the time came. I could talk his little ferret face out of or into anything I wanted. He just needed to be included.
Skinch, on the other hand, was already scared of the thing. I could see him trembling as we pedaled away, and once he even wiped his dirty sleeve across wet eyes. I waited for him to try some lame excuse about chores and maybe not being able to come back with us that evening, and then I shamed the shit out of him in front of Sharp Willie. I would broach no cowards in my ranks.
After supper, we each asked to head over to one of the other’s houses for the night. It was not a school night, and I honestly believe each of our mothers was glad to be rid of us. I know mine was. Her two jobs had made her old before her time, and my constant shenanigans in middle school had made her weary beyond caring. My younger sister was a pink-frilled angel, but when the principal pulled my poor mother weekly from housecleaning or waitressing, it was never to praise the little one’s good grades. I knew mom’s best evenings were the ones from which I was absent.
I sidled around the edge of the churchyard in the gathering gloom and met up with Skinch and Willie at Collyer Bluff. I could see Skinch biting at his lip and still trembling. “C’mon baby,” I snarled, and we turned our worn tennis shoes west. Old Man Harper’s land started over a mile down the road, and it was reasonably dark when we reached the rusting wires that passed for his fence. These were easily skirted and the hilltop lay directly ahead of us.
We followed a path of downed stalks and as we topped a slight ridge, the outline of the scarecrow stood out in stark relief before us, flanked by the last red and golden rays of sun and white clouds in the autumn sky. We all stopped involuntarily. I knew Skinch would have turned and fled had I not shamed him so savagely. The faux man was a good deal larger than we had believed, and his pants and coat yet fluttered in what seemed to be still air. And, I kid you not, several nearby crows chose that moment to begin cawing madly. Gooseflesh crawled under my neck and suddenly my flannel shirt was wet.
This brief twinge of terror notwithstanding, I brought my shoe up against Skinch’s backside and motioned both he and Sharp Willie forward. It took us a long time to cover the thirty yards between us and the pole, and the features of the scarecrow grew creepier with each step. By the time we were ten feet away, I was wishing we had stayed home and done schoolwork. The atmosphere of dread was palpable. This was mostly due to the eyes, which shined and glowed although the dying sun was well behind the eerie head.
I looked down at Willie’s hands. He had been holding a box of matches, but he slipped them back into his pocket. Skinch clutched my arm and leaned heavily against me; he was having trouble standing.
“This is ridiculous,” I scoffed. “It’s just a big ugly bag of straw, for Chrissake!” I stepped forward and touched the straw extending from the cuffs. I pulled several pieces free. “See, it’s a damn hopped-up hay bale.” But I stepped back rather too quickly when a glint of light suddenly flashed from those huge black beads.
I collected myself and said, “Go on, Skinch, shove your little sissy hand into its shirt. Go on, baby.”
Willie snickered, and Skinch, who hadn’t caught the glint of light, stepped forward tentatively and then boldly, all the while staring up at the black leering face, and thrust his hand into the corduroy shirt. Instantly he squealed in abject horror and staggered backwards, his hand covered in a thick sticky red mass.
“God almighty!” shrieked Willie, and all three of us backed away a dozen paces, staring from the monstrous dark figure to Skinch’s hand and back. Then, as we were about to turn and run, I took possession of my faculties and grabbed Skinch by the wrist. I carefully examined his bloody hand while he whimpered and shook.
“These are chicken guts,” I stated calmly. “Someone stuffed a dead bird into that thing. That’s all.”
Skinch slowly raised his fingers to his nose. Then he laughed nervously. “I thought it was my blood. Or that thing’s. Geez.”
“Now I’m thinking we should burn it,” snapped Willie as he retrieved the matchbox from his pants. That was not what I thought, but for some reason my voice would not work, and Willie had marched back to the pole before I could protest.
He struck a match and a tang of sulfur hit me. Skinch and I looked at each other in fear and then we charged Willie. He held the flame to the black coat cuff but before the fire leapt to the inky sleeve, Willie dropped the match and twisted toward us. “I’m caught!” he yelled. “God, I’m caught!”
I wanted with all my soul to believe he had gotten his shirt tangled in a section of the wire holding the scarecrow onto the pole, but I saw, even in that weird gloom, that the creature’s hand, fashioned of a workman’s glove, had closed on Willie’s arm.
Skinch was already halfway down the hill, shrieking like a madman, and after watching the scene before me a moment more, I quickly outpaced my craven friend. In that moment more, I saw a petrified Willie pulled into the body of the hellish thing on the pole, while its eyes glowed pointedly at me.
I did not stop running until I reached my doorstep, where I fell panting and fevered. My mother found me there much later, and had the doctor in. I lay delirious for two days and learned later that Skinch had also taken to his bed. Within another day the entire town was searching for the missing Willie. Skinch and I got our story straight and said we had been together, but that Sharp Willie had not been with us. We really didn’t know what else to say.
I convinced my mom that I was well enough to join the search party, and I made sure to be assigned to those scouring Harper’s corn field. The fall sun was bright, and a dozen men and boys were with me, but I shook uncontrollably as the scarecrow came in to view. One townsman thought my fever had returned, but I held my breath and moved up the hill. I had to know. The whole aspect of the wicked thing had altered; it had certainly changed its position on the pole. I stayed a dozen paces away, and no one else came that close, so only I saw that the heavy glove was wet and streaked with something thick and dark. This time I did not look at the eyes.
That night I pulled the covers close about me and listened to the last of the search party tramp down the street in frustration. Surely this was a nightmare. In the morning all would be real again, and autumn would continue without incident. I started to drift off into a hazy state of calming disbelief. I closed my tired eyes. At that moment I heard Skinch’s mother beating at our door.
She couldn’t find her boy.
John Kiste was fed a steady diet of Poe and plots from Universal horror movies as bedtime stories while growing up and has been writing creepy tales ever since. He won The Times Reporter’s Halloween story contest three times and had one of his ghoulish fairy tales published in the recent anthology, Modern Grimmoire. In his spare time, he performs a one-man show as Edgar Allan Poe throughout northeastern Ohio.
Image by Caroline