The Scarecrow by Andreas Smith

Mr Thorpe sells the family farm to developers, but is he ready to cut the threads of his past?

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A field of snow. A scarecrow in the middle of the field. He's been here a long time. He scares nothing. A bird sits on his head - a robin - and then flies off. The sky, white, cold, a winter sky, hiding the sun like frozen drapery. The scarecrow tilting to one side, grinning out of its ragged sackcloth face. At the edges of the field tufts of grass and little mounds of ploughed soil show through the snow.

The man claps his bare hands and breathes in, breathes out, watches his own breath-cloud linger in the air. A crow flies out of a tree at the far end of the field, startled by the sound of the clap, which the man can no longer hear. The crow traces an old circle in the air and then settles again in the same tree.

Is it the same one? Can it be possible? the man asks himself. He will interrogate his mother, since he can't believe that the old man, his father, got by without making a new one, not for so many years. And yet he could swear he recognised it - him, Jack, with his crossbeam body, the two long pieces of wood which he himself had helped his father hammer together once, on a spring morning, when he was a boy. The scarecrow's corduroy jacket, which had belonged to his father and was already worn-out when he gave it to the scarecrow, they had pulled over its wooden arms and fastened the buttons. Are these tattered dirty strips of cloth that same jacket? His father had shown him how to make the head from sackcloth, stuffing it with wood-shavings and goose feathers to form a ball which his father had then fixed to the top of the cross with nails and wire. The eyes were mother-of-pearl buttons. He had sewn them on himself, guided by his mother's gentle voice. It had beamed a happy smile at him, stitched in by his mother using bright white wool. But this head here grimaced at him like a skull, its smile now grey and ragged. Still a smile though, still the same happy Jack his father had hammered into the ground, one spring morning, a long time ago. Jack had been a family effort. If it is Jack, that is. He would ask his mother, get her to answer this one question, at least.



Two men dressed in dark suits were shown into an office. They sat at a table and drank tea. Then the woman who had given them tea brought in a bottle of champagne and four glasses on a tray. As she left another two men, lawyers also in dark suits, stepped into the room. Everyone was jovial, so far as anyone could tell from the vigorous handshakes and pats on backs.

Mr Thorpe stood up and said: "Thank you, gentlemen, pleased to meet you all again. You already know each other, I believe, so no introductions needed. Anyway, we're all men of the world, and we know what's what: an excellent job all round, and certainly a satisfactory agreement. I've been given excellent reports all along the line. [he glanced at his lawyer and lightly nodded.] The negotiations were carried out in a fair and professional manner. I think both parties can be happy with the arrangement. My mother, if she'd had full use of her faculties, would have been in total agreement. I'm sure of that. I'm sorry that I couldn't be here myself during the negotiations but it's a long way and, well, it was impossible for me to travel at the time. I regret, of course, that the attitude of the locals wasn't exactly friendly: one would have preferred that they had seen eye to eye with your plans. They always exaggerate, these people, as if we were devils out to destroy the beauty of the countryside, but they themselves are blind to the new beauty you'll soon be creating in its place. A pointless delay, but we progressives always win in the end, despite all their howling and banner-waving. Still, the sale has now gone through, and I'm glad. What? Oh yes, not quite gone through. Should we get on with the signing, then? No, that won't be necessary - I've studied the document and trust your professionalism implicitly. It's a sad day, of course, but a relief, a big relief. You've seen the state of the farm and the buildings. I had a last look round the old place this morning. The place is a wreck. The barn will barely need a push and it'll be over. The house would have been salvageable, certainly, though violated - God only knows what scum have been squatting there and for how long. That's my fault. I should have had it secured and watched. But I shouldn't bother you with all this. The demolition begins in the spring? Strange, but I felt nothing, nothing at all. Except for the old scarecrow! Don't laugh, I think it's the one I helped make when I was a boy. A fine piece of work. Jack! Listen to me, I'm getting sentimental. Let time and men move on. The world here isn't mine anymore. My world is elsewhere. Here? Ah, as quick as that: a stroke of the pen and it's signed away. May I keep it - a souvenir? Our signatures are rather similar, don't you think? I wish you all the luck in the world with your new... what was it you called it? ...your new 'shopping, entertainment and leisure complex'. Ten generations of Thorpes have farmed here, but what's the use anymore? It's a beautiful spot for a day out shopping and enjoying yourself, though. Let's drink!"

He poured the champagne. The four men clinked glasses. Everyone drank.

Once Mr Thorpe had left, the developer couldn't help remarking that Mr Thorpe was a bit of an odd one, in his opinion. The two lawyers nodded their heads at that.



"Shall I take you to your mother, Mr Thorpe?" the nurse asked.

They were standing in the doorway of the nursing home in which Mrs Thorpe had been living for nearly seven years. Mr Thorpe could see that it was the sort of place that could easily gobble up a moderately well-off resident's savings in just a few years. Which was why he was here. The letter from the director of the home had warned him that he could no longer guarantee a place for his mother. Her finances were, as the director had put it, in a parlous state and required urgent attention. Of course, they would see to it that she was found a place in a comfortable, though cheaper, establishment run by the local authorities, if that was what Mr Thorpe preferred. Of course it wasn't what he preferred. What his mother thought about what should be done with her own life was no longer her concern.

"I think I'm capable of recognising my own mother, nurse, thank you," he replied and walked into the room.

The woman he approached, slumped in an armchair, seemed startled as he spoke to her. She shrank even further into herself, hedgehog-like, as if surprised by some beast.

"Mother?"

The nurse was quickly behind him, had glided silently over the thick pile of the quality carpet: "This isn't your mother, Mr Thorpe. She's over there, in the corner."

"I haven't... I haven't seen her... not... not for a long time," he stammered.

The nurse said nothing, turned on her heels, and walked away.

Mrs Thorpe was sitting in the corner on her own, upright in an armchair. Her head moved slightly from side to side on her long neck, like a bulb on its stalk in a light breeze. She seemed barely conscious of her surroundings, although her son immediately saw that she had maintained her old dignified bearing, straight-backed, aloof.

"Mother!" he said, smiling at the old woman.

She didn't respond, just stared at him with the searching and confused eyes of a child trying to place the shapes in a jigsaw puzzle. He pulled up a chair and took her hands in his, but she immediately withdrew them.

"Mother, it's John, your son. Don't you recognise me? Mummy, it's me. It's John."

Again there was no response.

"I've come all the way from Australia to see you. I've sold - we've sold - the farm. Everything'll be fine from now on. You don't have to worry about money. You can stay in this lovely place for as long as you like. Until you get better and then you can visit us in Australia. Meet your grandchildren. I've told them all about you. They love you, Mummy. They can't wait to see you."

He sat back and waited for her to speak. Nothing. The same confused eyes. He hadn't realised she was so far gone. Was she deaf? Was she blind? He turned round, but the nurse was no longer in the room. He felt hot, unbuttoned his shirt collar and pulled down his tie.

"Mother, Sarah says hello. She can't wait to meet you. One day she'll come to England, she told me to tell you. She has the most ridiculously romantic notions about England. Straight out of a novel. I married a romantic, Mother."

He laughed aloud at his own remark and then silenced himself when again there was no acknowledgement of the greetings from across the ocean.

"Mother, it's me, John, your son. Don't you recognise me? I recognised you straight away, even after ten years."

His voice sounded like a whine, even to himself.

"Mother, don't be angry. It's as much your fault as mine. You weren't always in here. You had plenty of opportunities to visit us instead. You know I had a career and a young family. It's not that we didn't want to come. Time goes by and things don't get done... but here I am now. I'll make it up to you, but you have to make some effort too."

The nurse had returned and he could hear her talking to one of the residents, so he tried to get her attention, waved at her without success. It really was a nice place, he thought, as he looked at the chandelier behind him, hanging like a gigantic illuminated artichoke from the ceiling. That blasted nurse: he didn't like her attitude at all.

He turned back to his mother: "Mother, it was snowing last time I was here too, for Dad's funeral. Do you remember? Everything was white."

She sat there like a mannequin, her head still swaying almost imperceptibly from side to side, her eyes fixed on his.

"Mother, the scarecrow... the scarecrow," he said slowly, emphasising every word. "Do you remember the scarecrow we made together, when I was a boy? You gave him a big white smile. Do you remember him, Jack the scarecrow? There's one there, just like him, only this one's ragged and his smile is grey. Is it Jack, Mother? Tell me, is it Jack? Is it Jack out there in the field? Is it -"

Suddenly she snapped into life. Her mouth fell open and her eyes moved, scanning his face. The jigsaw seemed to fit together; everything came flooding back to her, in an instant.

"Jack, is it Jack, out there in the field?" he asked once more and then sat back, waiting for her to speak.

"I know you! I know you!" she shouted. "You're the meter man. I paid you a long time ago. I paid every penny."

He stood up, horrified. But she went on: "Now get off my property!"

Everyone in the room turned to see what the disturbance was about. The nurse rushed over: "Now, now, Mrs Thorpe, sit back. Don't worry, it'll be fine." She felt her forehead and tried to calm her. Then she said to the son: "I'm afraid you'll have to leave now, Mr Thorpe. It's getting late and you've ... you've upset her."

He saw that his mother was no longer aware of him - the bulb swayed on its stalk, the eyes were focused on nothing. He left without saying another word.



Jack watched the field and sky with his button eyes. Patches of snow lay on his head and shoulders. He felt cold but smiled anyway, happy to exist. The field was quiet and soft and white. He listened for the slightest noise, ever alert for the scratching and scurrying of the field creatures. They were all asleep now, hidden away in holes and burrows for the winter. An owl hooted. Once he heard powerful wings beating behind him, but it was impossible to turn and look. And then it was quiet again. The stars in the sky turned slowly. He knew them all now, but couldn't hear any of them. It's enough to drive you mad, he thought, knowing them all. And not being able to hear them. He listened. Nothing. The world seemed tilted. Or was it he who was tilted? He was sure he would fall over one of these days. There was plenty of time, though, plenty of time for that.



Mr Thorpe told the taxi driver to stop and wait for a few minutes. He climbed out of the back of the car with a large can in his hand. It was a cloudless night, bitterly cold, the black sky speckled with stars. The only lights visible were from a farmhouse a mile or so away, but the snow lying on the fields, hedgerows and trees made the countryside glow. He climbed over the fence into the field. There it was, right in the middle of the field. Mr Thorpe lingered by the fence and looked at the dark shape of the scarecrow against the snow. Jack's head was cocked to one side on his leaning tattered body. Thorpe walked across the field, which was silent apart from the sound of his feet crunching the snow. He looked at the sky again. There was the Plough, turning slowly through the heavens. He thought about his childhood obsession with the stars, an obsession he'd long ago lost. What were their names? He'd known them by heart. He closed his eyes tight and tried to picture the page of the astronomy book where he'd read them. Yes, yes, of course he hadn't forgotten: "Alkaid, Mizar, Alioth, Megrez, Phecda, Merak, Dubhe." His breath dispersed across the field. He stared at the Plough again, looking for Mizar in the middle of the tail, searching for its double, Alcor, the friendless or abandoned one, as the Persians had called it. His eyes were still good: he could make out the double-star just as well as when he was a child, standing in this same field at night. He looked at the scarecrow's grinning face. Happy Jack, always smiling, come what may. All these years out in the open and he knows nothing, can't even name a single star... And then he quickly circled the scarecrow, splashing petrol all over it, till the can was empty. He stood back a short distance, took a crumpled ball of paper from his pocket and set it alight.

"Goodbye, Jack. It's for the best."

Jack grinned and grinned.



"To the airport!" he told the taxi driver. As the car weaved its way along the deserted country lanes, he could see the flaming scarecrow lighting up the snow with orange; he could see the thick black smoke drifting across the sky; he could see the decrepit barn, a shadow in the distance; he could see the outline of the house; he could even see Alcor. Then the smoke obliterated the country and the stars, and he could see nothing more.

6 comments:

  1. This is a bittersweet story of a middle-aged man coming to terms with severe dementia in his elderly mother.

    For me, the story finishes with more questions than answers.

    I am unclear as to the protagonist’s exact motivations for burning the scarecrow - was it because his mother no longer remembered having made it with him? Is he transferring his frustration to the scarecrow? The arson on the property seems a bit reckless for a middle aged man who just sold that same property. Also, why really has he not seen his mother for a decade, since his father’s funeral? The son blames his family obligations for keeping him away, but this seems like deflection and some deeper avoidance. Why did her mother not visit him? Why did she not move to Australia to be closer to her son and grandchildren? Did she just make bad choices or was there something else?

    I suspect the intent is for each reader to fill in these details for themselves.

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  2. I feel like I understand this man. In burning the scarecrow he has severed connection with his mother, who now seems herself like a scarecrow, “ Her head moved slightly from side to side on her long neck, like a bulb on its stalk in a light breeze.” He had enough of a connection to her to come, sell the farm, and fund her stay at the facility. That’s dutiful. But he didn’t connect to her for so many years. His immature statement that mother could have come and visit her son is ridiculous. He’s grasping at straws to settle his conscience. This is a story that is more common than I’d like. Well done!

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  3. I also had the same questions as Adam. However, June clarified a lot. Andreas, your prose is crisp and clear. I wonder whether you might try expanding on this story. Jack's family dynamics seem bleak, but interesting. I would be curious to know more.

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  4. This is the somewhat bleak tale of a man selling his heritage for 30 pieces of silver. He has a difficult time confronting the fact that everything has now changed: the listing farmhouse, his mentally vanquished mother and so on. Or, perhaps it is the solace he takes in the changes which is challenged by the ever-present Jack, the scarecrow, whose tenure on the old farm extends back to Thorpe’s childhood. Destroying the scarecrow by fire is a metaphor for erasing the intrusive past from his memory. Near the end of the prose, Jack’s apparent sentience is possibly contained wholly in the MC’s mind. Thorpe is good at denying reality, such as when he levies blame on his elderly mother for never having met his wife and children. As the developer suggests early on in the story, Thorpe is “an odd one.” Poignant, slightly disturbing fiction. I liked it very much. Thanks for writing, Andreas.

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  5. For a while I thought Jack was Thorpe's Rosebud, but it wasn't so. Was he destroying his past by destroying Jack? I expected Thorpe to twirl his mustache at some point. Oops, I see BT has already advanced that point.
    Mr. Mirth

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  6. I enjoyed this a great deal. The first thing that struck me was the pace and sentence structure. The beginning, with the very short, unembellished, adverb-free sentences set an immediate sense of portent and urgency. This worked really well. As the story goes on the sentences loosen up a bit, allowing for more emotion and feeling to come in with the increased description - this also worked well for me. All this and the metaphor of the scarecrow, which as others have said, is an effective way of mirroring the relationship with the mother also works very well.

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