Sunset had fallen on the countryside, and the warmth of the day was fading with each passing moment. Vespers of an autumn breeze whispered through the fields, setting the amber stalks of corn into a somber dance… yet with each swaying step, two interlopers were revealed, standing stark and defiant against the motion of their surroundings. In seeing their still forms, one might almost believe that they never breathed nor blinked. Such was certainly the common belief, perhaps shared even by the figures themselves, which made it all the more surprising when one of them spoke.
“My arms hurt, Frank.”
The second figure remained motionless, though a flicker of expression may have crossed its face.
“Frank, my arms hurt.”
“Damn it, Jed!” With a shuffling of cloth and straw, Frank turned to face his partner. “When they sent you here, they said you was the best choice! You said you knew the rules! Now, shut up before someone hears you.”
Silence returned to the field, broken only by the rustling of currents through the corn. Even a nearby stream, which burbled happily in the hours of daylight, seemed to have hushed itself in preparation for the dusk. This night was an important one, and its task was all but sacred.
“Aw, who’s going to hear us, Frank?”
“S’not the point! What matters is if someone did. We ain’t supposed to talk.”
Jed considered this, though the contents of his head were hardly suited to higher reasoning. “Well, so what? It’s a stupid job, anyway. Ain’t nobody passed yet that hasn’t laughed at us.”
Frank sighed, removed his hat, and scratched at his leathery skin. “Look, Jed, that may very well be. Fact is, it don’t matter one bit. It’s got to be done, you understand me?”
“Good, you… what the hell you mean ‘no?’ Ain’t no-one ever told you the story?”
The straw around Jed’s neck made a rasping noise as he shook his head. “Folks keep saying I’ll learn it when I have the need. I’ve been starting to think they don’t know it, themselves.”
“Oh, they know it, alright.” Frank cleared his throat and made a spitting motion at the ground, though his lips remained dry. “They know it, sure as they know their own mamas. Just that… well, it ain’t exactly pleasant talk.” He sighed again, as much from the frustration of having to speak as from the thought of his next words. “See, there was a time, some many years ago, when these fields were beset by a plague. Not a plague of illness, mind… no, this plague came as winged beasts from the sky. Black as night, they were, with voices like something from a nightmare.”
“Crows,” whispered Jed. His eyes scanned what little of the horizon he could see beyond the cornfield. “I’ve heard tell of them. Figured they were a children’s tale.”
Frank shifted his weight, adjusting the rigid stick on which he rested his arms. “That they may be, but there’s truth in the stories. Crows are real enough, even if one scarcely hears of them in anything but legend these days. Back when their terror was at hand, they’d descend on these fields and eat their fill, leaving precious little for the folk who toiled with the seed. It brought a hardship on the land, leaving everyone desperate.”
“My arms still hurt, Frank.”
Frank rolled his eyes. “We’re talking, ain’t we? Have a rest. Hell, sit down, for all it matters now.”
“Thanks, Frank.” Jed dropped from his post and crumpled to the ground, suddenly looking very much like a lifeless pile of rags. “So, what happened?”
Though he opened his mouth to speak, Frank hesitated. On any other night, the words were just a story… but on this night, they might be something more. “You keep a listen for anything amiss, alright?” Jed nodded, and Frank resumed his tale. “It was a dark time, to be sure. Dark enough that some reckoned they might employ a darkness of their own.” He closed his eyes and recited the secret verse, known only to those who stood watch in the field:
Gathered they the walls of green
Left to dry by day
Shaped into a sentinel
In clothing was the hay
Set upon tormented fields
Against the demons’ caw
Given life by darkness
The men of naught but straw
Gave to them the hallowed charge
Upon the darkest night
Paid the price for vigilance
When absent was the light
Gathered they one of the young
For empty demons’ craw
Taken by the darkness
The men of naught but straw
“Straw men,” whispered Jed. “Straw men, like… like us, Frank?”
Frank’s expression grew colder as he shook his head. “Don’t you be thinking that way. The straw men were something… something other than living, Jed. Scared the crows away, they did, but at a terrible cost. They were dead inside, see? Stayed where they were meant to, like statues… save for one night a year, when they’d come alive and have a reaping. Only, it weren’t corn they took away, but a child. One child, left outside past sunset.”
“Children are outside past sunset all the time, Frank!”
“Not on this night!” Frank hissed. He lowered his voice even further. “On this night, the children wear masks! The straw men can’t see those who hide their eyes, not unless they look at the straw men first!”
Jed fell silent, chastised. The sky had darkened considerably, with only the most tenacious rays of the dying light still piercing the walls of corn. Somewhere in the distance, a woman’s voice called out for her son.
“I still don’t get it, Frank.”
Frank sighed yet again. “Don’t get what?”
“Why we’re out here. Why we got to stand here like this. Why folks laugh at us. I mean… we’re straw men. Right, Frank?” In response, Frank launched a kick at his companion’s leg. “Owwwww! What’d you go and do that for?!”
“If you was a straw man,” Frank said, “do you reckon that would’ve hurt? You’re flesh and blood, Jed, so how can you be a straw man?”
“Well, I mean… it’s pretend, ain’t it? I fill my clothes with straw and play make-believe, right?”
Frank tapped a gloved hand against the side of his hat. “Up here, it might be pretend… but here,” he thumped his fist against his chest, making his stuffed shirt crackle, “it’s all real. That’s what matters, Jed.” He swung his arm wide, gesturing to the fields around them. “You want to know why you’re out here? It’s so that fear don’t come back. Even one child being taken keeps that terror festering, keeps folks in mourning. Might as well have the crows back… but if someone goes to stand watch, then the straw men don’t come walking. They can all rest easy. They can laugh at their fear and get on with their lives. Now do you get it?”
“I get it, Frank,” Jed hurriedly replied. “I’m here to stand watch. I get it.”
“Good. Now, back up on your post. We got a long night ahead.”
Jed retook his position, and Frank readjusted his own. The wind had died with the sunlight, leaving the corn fields completely still.
“Sorry.” Jed closed his mouth. “Only… what happens to them, Frank? To the children?”
“You know,” pushed Jed. “The children that they take away.”
Frank turned to regard his companion. The poor boy was hardly out of his youth, with only the barest hint of stubble on his chin. Even in the darkness, an earnest innocence twinkled in his eyes. “You sure you want to know, Jed?”
Jed turned to meet Frank’s gaze. “Yeah, Frank. I’m sure.”
As he had done before, Frank reached up to remove his hat… only this time, his entire head came away, leaving a rigid cluster of yellow stemming from his shirt.
“They become straw men, Jed. They become straw men.”
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