The Angel'sThe Crow-People
The Angel's The Crow-People
by Kaitlyn Lynch
by Kaitlyn Lynch
There was always something about the scarecrow in the far right corner of the farmer’s field that made his skin crawl. The farmer’s daughter he liked, however. She was beautiful and pale and fragile, and when she stood out in the cornfield when the wind was blowing real hard, if you looked just right you couldn’t tell her apart from one of the tall stalks planted right there in the earth. Yellow-haired and reaching up towards the heavens, swaying in the breeze. The only difference was that the corn just stood there all vacant-like day in and day out, and she would never be seen without a smile on that pretty face of hers. It wrinkled her nose and showed off the freckles under her eyes.
He swore she was made of sunshine and whatever it was that Granny put in the moonshine that made his whole body warm right down to his toes. Sunshine and real moonbeams, maybe. Everything lovely on God’s green earth. And all in a white sundress.
His name was Henry, and hers was Annamae. Her father, the farmer, his name was Tucker Dilworth, and everyone in town had hated his family back as long as anyone could remember. The thing of it was that no one could remember why. Tucker himself was a miserable old man, and it seemed like he’d just been born that way. Like he’d just come out of the womb wrinkled and cussing and drunk as Cooter Brown. It was a miracle a man like that could’ve had anything to do with making someone as lovely as Annamae. She must’ve been all her mama. Not that anyone would know, of course, since her mama ran off close to the day Annamae was born and didn’t have either the heart or the good sense to take her baby with her. No one blamed her for taking off on Tucker. Folks questioned her leaving Annamae behind, but when that little girl started to grow up, just about everyone selfishly thanked her poor old mama for blessing our little town, even if it wasn’t what she meant to do.
Henry was the most thankful of all, since he and Annamae were born the same year, so he had the gift of growing up side-by-side with her, and sometimes even hand in hand. From the time they were children on, they were near inseparable. Only had eyes for each other. Everyone knew that they’d wind up getting married one day, if ever her daddy would loosen his grip on the things he called his own to allow it.
Nights, Henry would go to sleep and he would find his dreams wandering down a path that always led to Annamae. She was even lovelier in his head than she was in person, if that was possible.
But sometimes, the dream would follow a darker path to the farm, all the way through the high winding stalks of corn, and he’d find himself standing face to face with that ugly scarecrow. He’d blink, and all the stalks of corn would become Annamae — thousands of exact copies of her, glassy-eyed and lifeless, swaying in a frigid night breeze. He would try to cry out, but find his mouth held shut, stitched tight. So he would try to claw at the threading and rip the sutures out, but then find he was unable to move his hands or arms. At some point, Henry would realize he was trapped inside the scarecrow on its pole, and he was looking down at his own body. Watching helplessly as whatever now had control of him looked back up at him and smiled.
But then he would wake up, and then he’d go about his day like nothing had happened, even though it’d given him the cold sweats and set his heart racing. And then he’d forget the dream ever happened to begin with, and that would be that. Henry would forget about the scarecrow.
The scarecrow never forgot about him.
* * *
“Annamae!” Henry stood at the edge of the Dilworth farm, a handful of wildflowers held tight in one sweaty palm. “Annamae, come out here!” Yelling that loud made his voice sound like it was being pulled out of him the way a horse pulls at a plow when the blades are caught on roots. He could go closer and not have to shout so much, but the last time Annamae’s daddy caught that boy on his farm he dished out a tongue lashing everyone could hear for miles, and Henry was afraid this time he’d get out a real whip. “I’ve got something for you!”
Annamae peeked her head out from the dairy barn, hot summer breeze whipping her corn silk hair around her face like little halos going in and out of view. She dropped the wooden pail down in the mud and straw and lifted up the hem of her dress before running barefoot and full speed towards where Henry waited for her. He nearly dropped what he was holding when he caught her up in his arms, spinning her around, a tangle of hair and limbs and smiles. He set her back feet-first on the ground, gently and oh so carefully, as though he were afraid she’d shatter if he dropped her on the wrong edge.
“What’d you bring me?” she asked breathlessly, smile wide on pink cheeks, hands clasped behind her back.
Henry returned her smile and licked his lips, looking her over once before answering. He saw her every day, and somehow it still always seemed like a miracle that he was allowed to look at her with his own two eyes. Up close like that, even. It almost felt like a sin. “You’ve gotta close your eyes.”
Annamae let out a little giggle and clapped two tiny hands over her eyes. She began to bounce on her heels as she waited for her surprise. “It must be something awfully special.”
“Oh, it sure is, just you wait.” He hitched up the legs of his trousers and bent down, one knee grinding into the dirt. With one hand he offered up the bundle of wildflowers, and with the other he reached into a jacket pocket and pulled out a loose ring. Small, gold, with one tiny diamond set right into the center. It wasn’t much, but at least it was something proper. It was more than his momma had ever gotten, even. Taken him saving whatever he could scrape together from farmhand work and errands and odd jobs since he was old enough to understand chores were things he could sometimes ask for payment for. Folks in town never had much to spare, but whatever anyone did have, they were always real generous with. “Okay, go ’head and open your eyes.”
Slowly, Annamae uncovered her face, and then her eyes fluttered open. When she saw what Henry was holding, a gasp so powerful it nearly knocked her clean off her feet tore through her. She lunged at Henry and threw her arms around his neck, and he rose to meet her halfway, both of them laughing.
“Are you asking me what I think you’re asking?”
Henry simply nodded as he looked at her, both of his arms wrapped so tightly around her it was like he was trying to trap her forever in this moment.
“Yes! Yes, of course!” They both burst into fits of laughter again, but this time peppered here and there with kisses. The wildflowers lay forgotten somewhere near their feet. Henry was still holding the ring so tightly the little metal spokes holding the diamond in place had begun to bite into his palm, but he hardly felt it.
When they finally broke apart, Henry unclasped his fist and delicately slipped the ring onto Annamae’s waiting finger. And then they just stood there for a moment, Annamae admiring the ring and Henry admiring Annamae. The both of them were smiling so wide it seemed like their faces would shatter into a million tiny pieces. Slowly, the laughter hidden behind their teeth ceased, and a hush fell over the both of them.
“What d’you think my daddy’s gonna say about this?”
Henry chewed at the inside of his cheek and stuck both his hands deep inside his pockets. “I don’t expect he’ll like it very much. But you’re a grown woman, and he’ll just have to make do without you.”
Annamae nodded solemnly, still looking down at her left hand in quiet awe. “I suppose so.”
* * *
Telling Tucker Dilworth about their plans to marry did not go over near as smooth as the two were hoping, and they were already planning on it being a bumpy ride to the end of the rainbow. When Annaemae walked into her daddy’s house wearing an engagement ring, he threw a fit so loud it scared all the birds out of the fields, and anyone walking by the farm on any side could hear him hollering to high heavens. Annamae just stood there the whole while, hands clasped in front of her, head down, eyes on her feet, taking it all. She knew in her heart her daddy meant well. He just didn’t have the words to express it sometimes. Her heart was golden, and she didn’t altogether have it in her to consider the fact that some other people might have hearts made of coal.
But as upset as he was and as much as he screamed, he couldn’t change the fact that his little girl had her heart set on marrying Henry Olsen. She cried herself to sleep that night.
Henry went home and dreamt of her, like he always did. This time, though, the dream had Tucker Dilworth, front and center and fifty feet tall, screaming in Henry’s face, standing between he and Annamae and telling them that, as long as he was alive, he would never allow his daughter to run off with some worth-nothing no-account.
In the dream, Henry possessed an unworldly strength, and when reasoning and then arguing with Tucker didn’t seem to do any good, he slashed the old farmer to ribbons and watched as he dissolved into puddles of what looked like tar. It smelled like how anger feels. Raw and rotten and mineral.
It should have made Henry’s stomach turn.
But he only knew that he’d won. He only felt pride.
In the brief moment just before he woke up, Henry looked down at his own hands, and saw that they were made of straw.
It was a fitful sleep, and Henry tossed and turned all night until the sun rose and found him sweating though his bedclothes. He woke with a start and bolted upright, tangled in the damp, sour sheets.
He tried to forget about the dream as he rose and dressed himself.
Things like that tend to stick with you, though, like a piece of chewing gum you’ve picked up on the bottom of your shoe. Every third or fourth step and you feel that little suction and hear the smack of it as you’re walking, and no matter what else you were thinking of before, your mind can’t help but jump back to the girl you passed a mile back, walking along with the bubblegum and chewing it like she was a cow with a wad of cud in her cheek.
That was how moving through town with this dream itching at the back of his mind felt. Every couple of feet, it would pop back up, waving and hollering and demanding to be seen, when all Henry wanted to do was put his blinders on and trot right along to the farm to see Annamae in peace.
When he got there, however, it seemed like the farm was the least peaceful place on earth at the moment. Dozens of people crowded the house at the center of the property, milling around, weaving in and out of the rows of corn. Following huge invisible lines, heads down, wringing their hands, just moving for the sake of moving, it seemed. Like ants on a hill.
As he got closer, his heart began to pound in his chest, the irrational waking sleep feeling of the dream ringing loud in his ears. He began to call out for Annamae, and, one by one, hands in the crowd pointed towards the farmhouse as the people they belonged to stopped to stare at Henry as he passed by.
He moved through the crowd, still calling Annamae’s name. At the doorstep of the farmhouse, he began to hear an unearthly wailing coming from the inside. The door hung open on the hinges. Henry stepped over the threshold and followed the crying through the house. He stopped at the door to Tucker’s bedroom.
Inside, Annamae was kneeling on the wood floor, holding her father’s broken, lifeless body, covered in his blood, and screaming at the top of her lungs. A white nightgown covered her frame in place of her normal sundress, but it was stained with large splotches of bright, vulgar crimson. Everywhere else her skin had sallowed so much from grief or shock it matched the color of the fabric. Her hair had once been tied back into a loose braid, but pieces were now loose and hanging limply around her face. She looked like a child’s doll which was once beautiful and pristine, but had been dragged through hell by one wrist and would shatter at any moment.
Henry couldn’t tell just how long she’d been sitting there like that, nor did he dare to ask. In truth, the thought didn’t cross his mind until much later. In the moment, seeing the two of them there like that, splayed out in such a gruesome scene, the only thing he could think of was himself. Himself and that damned nightmare.
Surely, if he were somehow responsible for this, he would know? He would have woken up covered in blood? There was certainly an abundance of it in the room; everything was completely drenched in blood spatter. The floor, the walls, the window. If Henry had been the one who had done this horrible thing, he thought, there would have been some trace of it in his own room.
And there was not.
But there was that dream. And that felt like responsibility.
“Annamae ...” he finally croaked out after standing there watching her, open-mouthed, for how long, he did not know.
Annamae’s head shot up. For the first time since he’d arrived, he could get a look at her face. Her normally sunny disposition was muddied by tears and the blotchiness that came with, and a few spots here and there of her father’s blood on her cheeks and nose. “Henry,” she gasped, and rose to her feet. She lunged at him and wrapped her arms around him. Henry was now also covered in Tucker Dilworth’s blood.
He could only stand there for a few moments before something like muscle memory kicked in and his own arms closed around her with slow, jerky movements.
She buried her face in his shoulder and began to sob softly.
Henry could only stare over the top of her head at her father’s body where she had left it lying in the middle of the room. It was odd to see him so silent. Every inch of him was a wet russet. He looked almost like a very large newborn baby, Henry thought, all twisted up like that, with his nightclothes the same color as his skin. Well, he did if you ignored the fact that his guts were spilling out the front of him.
In his mind’s eye, Henry could almost see the blood sucking back up from the puddle on the floor, the ropey tangle of viscera piling back into Tucker’s abdomen, the slashes sealing back up. And then this imagined version of the farmer’s corpse rose with still-dead eyes and raised one limp arm to point at Henry accusatorially. When his mouth opened and Henry could nearly feel his eardrums tremble with guttural, hallucinatory bellowing, he shut his eyes tight and buried his face in Annamae’s hair, trying to shake off the nightmares once and for all.
* * *
They buried Tucker Dilworth that week. The whole town went to the funeral, but it was clear they were only there for Annamae. The sheriff looked around for some leads, but it was hard to accuse anyone of murdering a man everyone hated.
Annamae and Henry were married only a few months later. It might have been called disrespectful. Folks just figured Annamae wasn’t used to being on her own and the change wasn’t a welcome one, so she solved the problem the only way she knew how.
What no one expected, though, was for Henry and his new wife to pick up and move right after the wedding. It seemed like one day the town woke up and the Olsens were just gone. No forwarding address and no goodbye, just an empty house where two people used to live.
It didn’t make much sense, how someone could just pick up their whole life and take off like that. Henry must’ve had more money squirreled away than anyone ever knew about, or his folks did and left it to him, or Tucker Dilworth did and left it hidden under a floorboard somewhere for Annamae to find. People hoped they’d have gone somewhere life was a little easier. A little less rough around the edges, maybe. Where you didn’t have to break your back in a field from sunup til sundown just to get by.
But whatever the case was, from that point on, there was a hole in the town. An empty place that was shaped, quite frankly, like Annamae. Henry was an alright fellow, but, at the end of the day, he was painfully average. Put more space between the two of them, more years, more people, and it wasn’t likely they would have made it.
But for as much as that boy might have lacked, he sure did love Annamae twice as much as everyone else who knew her. And that was a feat by itself.
Things tried to carry on like normal without the Olsens around. And, in some ways, they did. The sun still rose every morning and set at night. The crops still gave fruit, water still flowed. The children grew up.
But something hung heavy in the air around the old Dilworth farm, and it was impossible to ignore. For as much as folks used to ignore it when Tucker was alive, now that he was dead and buried and Annamae gone it was wholly abandoned. It was like the whole place was covered in the stench of the grave. No amount of scrubbing at the floor of that bedroom would get the smell of death out, even when you could no longer see the blood.
No, something just was not right, and the thing of it was that no one could explain it.
It’s like you have a rock, you might say. You have a rock and that’s where you sit every day. Just to rest your feet and pass the time, and maybe tell a story or two. And, over time, you and the rock become very familiar with each other. You know all the hollows and chips and flat planes of the rock. But here’s the catch: the rock knows you too. It knows the sound of your voice and the feeling of your warmth. And so when one day you stop coming back, you might miss the rock, sure. But more importantly, that rock gets to missing you. And while that little rock was only a fragment of your whole life and your twenty-four-hour days, your coming back again over and over was the only way the rock could tell that anything was changing, that life was progressing and that the world was alive.
So you leave and you forget all about the rock. Find a new rock, maybe.
The rock doesn’t forget about you.
But no one cares about a little rock. No one cares about a dirty, beat up old scarecrow either.
If people watching that scarecrow in what used to be Tucker Dilworth’s cornfield watched carefully enough, they might notice it moving, piece by piece, a little every hour. It, like everyone and everything else, had gotten so used to having Annamae around that now, with her gone, it began to miss her. Miss her and long to have her back, and you could almost say that it seemed like that scarecrow was trying to get down from its pole to go out and find her.
But no one paid any attention. Not like that. Not enough to notice anything. And that would be if people were going by the old Dilworth farm, anyway.
Which they weren’t. So that scarecrow pretty much had the run of the place.
And when it had wholly disappeared from the pole, no one noticed. They didn’t even notice when it began to make its way through the tall corn to the edge of the farm.
The first time anyone noticed anything was wrong was one day when Annamae was looking out the window of her brand new house with her brand new husband, and she spotted the scarecrow coming right at them over the horizon.
But what sane person would believe they were seeing a scarecrow standing up all by itself, of its own volition? And furthermore, walking? And even more than that, walking towards them? So she closed the curtains and locked the doors and told herself it was just the lingering effects of what had happened to her father.
And then she tried to forget about it.
But Annamae was that scarecrow’s whole world. It didn’t know how to live without her. It didn’t know how to forget her.
* * *
“I’m just going for a walk. I should be back before it gets dark.”
Henry was sitting in the kitchen with a newspaper. He didn’t reply more than raising a hand to wave goodbye, didn’t look up from the column he was fixated on that moment. Annamae shut the door behind her and started away from the house, into the woods surrounding them. This place was so different from the farm. She loved Henry so much, but some days she wondered if she did the right thing, marrying him. Leaving like that.
If only her father were still alive to tell her what to do.
But that was the problem, wasn’t it? When her father was alive, he did nothing but tell her what to do when she only wanted to be free to live her own life. And now she had her own life and she didn’t know what to do with it.
Lost in these thoughts, she wandered further and further away from the house, out into the dark unknown, out into her spiraling thoughts.
Back in the kitchen, Henry was still sitting with his newspaper. His mind, too, began to drift off. Float back to his old place, and the Dilworth farm. To the night when Tucker had been killed, and Henry had been beset with that awful dream.
His eyes had drifted up from the paper to look out the window and, just as Annamae had a few weeks before, his gaze settled on what looked like the old scarecrow in the distance, coming straight towards him. And just as Annaemae did, he convinced himself it was a trick of the light, his eyes projecting his fears into the dimming night sky. He stood and closed the curtains over the window and then went back to his reading, heart pounding against his chest.
Annamae was still out on her walk when Henry heard the knocking on the door. He figured it was his wife, though it did occur to him that it was strange she’d be knocking instead of simply letting herself in. Still, he rose from his seat in the kitchen, crossed to the front door, and opened it.
He expected to see the sweet, smiling face of his wife looking back at him. Freckles, rosy cheeks and all. Instead, Henry found himself face to face with the scarecrow from Tucker Dilworth’s farm, the size of a man, tattered, and standing straight up as though still supported by an invisible pole.
Horrified, Henry stumbled backwards from the door and tripped over himself. As he scrambled across the wood floor, the scarecrow progressed towards him, into the house, staring down at him with its dark, cold, hungry eyes. Its chest heaved with shuddering, soundless breaths. It looked almost human, like a thing which was trying very hard to be a man but had taken a wrong turn somewhere in remembering, and instead became a monster. For a moment, Henry wanted very desperately to believe he was dreaming. That any moment, he’d wake up in bed beside Annamae and, with all the lights on, the scarecrow would fade into the shadows as it had so many nights before.
But the sun was going down over the horizon outside. It would soon be dark, and there were no lights to be found now. It might be a nightmare, but it was no dream.
Still crawling backwards, nails digging into the floor, Henry’s mouth hung open and he tried to grasp at speech.
“What are you doing here?” It was maybe a nonsensical question to ask of the thing—he more likely should have asked what it was or how it was alive, if to speak at all even made sense—but when Henry spoke, the scarecrow’s stitched mouth opened as well, and echoed the same words back to him in a dark, hollow imitation of Henry’s own voice. He felt bile rising in the back of his throat, growing more and more horrified by the second and fearing that there would be no escape for him this time from the sick fantasy world he had visited so often in his sleep. “What do you want?”
This time, as the scarecrow repeated Henry’s words, one lumpy, half-rotted arm rose and pointed at the wedding portrait resting on the mantle.
“No!” Again, the two spoke in unison. “No, she’s mine, you can’t have her!” It slowly began to dawn on Henry exactly what it was that he was facing in his living room. There was a shadow which fell across the burlap sack face of the scarecrow, but even through the haze Henry could begin to make out features which were as much a resemblance of his own as could be made out of stuffing, his own hair the color of dirty straw.
It had been him who’d had the dream of killing Tucker Dilworth, after all. And there hadn’t been a single living person on the farm that night apart from Annamae and her daddy. But the scarecrow had been there, out in the field. And there were folks who believed that, when you’re asleep, it’s really your soul that’s still awake and leading your mind through the spirit world.
Looking at Tucker’s dead body, broken and mangled on the floor of the farmhouse, Henry had felt responsible, hadn’t he?
He’d always been afraid of the scarecrow on the Dilworth farm. He thought it was because it was a spooky-looking old thing.
“Please.” The words fell off Henry’s lips covered in thick, bitter saliva and desperation. “I love her.” But this declaration too was repeated by the creature with his voice, his face. His love. The only thing it lacked was his fear.
He never figured that it was really the dark half of himself he was really scared of. What it was he was capable of. What he would be willing to do because of how much he loved Annamae.
And now that darkness had taken on a mind of its own, and it had decided that Henry himself couldn’t be allowed to have Annamae. Not if it meant only one of them could. Not if it meant that the other one would be without her.
Maybe all this time the fear was what made him human, a heart rattling against fragile bones, rather than a monster pretending to be human.
But men can die.
As Henry watched in horror, the scarecrow reached into its own chest and pulled, from the place where a heart should be, a scythe covered in dried blood from amongst the rotting hay.
That was the last thing that Henry Olsen ever saw.
* * *
Annamae woke up in the woods around the house days later with a gash on her forehead. She didn’t know how she got it, only that she was freezing and worried sick -- or at least thought that Henry would be, about her. A person can only imagine what a night or two out between the trees would do to a delicate little thing like that girl. Sundress all stained and muddy, fair skin gone blue with cold, twigs and dirt matted into her corn-silk hair. Another reminder of how far away from home she was, of how unforgiving the great open wilderness was compared to the little town she’d known her whole life.
She stumbled back to the cabin, bare feet cut up from the rough covering of the forest floor, and found the front door hanging open. At first, she thought Henry went out looking for her, and nearly turned back around to try and seek some other sign of life to help her.
But a voice scratching at the back of her head told her there was no help to be found. No one would come for her now if they hadn’t already. They were all alone.
So she ignored how fast and hard her heart was pounding and the fact that she felt like she might fall over at any moment, and stepped through the door.
It didn’t feel like her home. But then again, it really never had. It was just some strange place with four walls and a roof that Henry had shuffled her off to with quiet promises of a better life. Better than what, though? She’d always been happy with the way things were back home. No one ever seemed to yearn for more the way that Henry had. No one ever left. People just lived and died and were buried in the same fields where their father and their father’s father were buried, and that was the way of the world.
No one wore a gold wedding ring.
Maybe that was the beginning of the end.
Once she was over the threshold, Henry’s body greeted her, bloody and broken like her daddy’s had been all those nights before. While the first sight of blood had brought her horror, made her sick, made her cry and scream until there were no tears left in her eyes and her throat was raw, this scene brought a strange sense of relief. It was like pulling the knife out of an open wound. Messy and foul and it hurt to look at, but then you knew the worst was over and, soon, the pain would cease.
Maybe she had never really loved Henry as much as he loved her. She didn’t hate him. She cared for him, felt a tender affection towards him her whole life, even now. But maybe she only loved the fact that it was someone loving her, and cared less about just who it was. That was the side of herself that she kept hidden.
Nobody ever saw either the scarecrow or Annamae ever again after that. It was like they both just disappeared. No one ever could make sense of just what happened to the Olsens, either. When Henry’s body was finally discovered, it had sat, rotting, in the cabin for months. People came to town, looking for Annamae, but the Dilworth farm had sat empty for so long by then it, too, felt like a decomposing corpse out in the middle of all that corn.
Some people decided that Annamae lost her mind, killed Tucker and Henry both, and then ran off to God knows where. But the old superstitious bunch, the wrinkled old folks who sat in their rocking chairs all day and all night and looked like they were preserved until you saw them breathing, they told tales of things that dreamed of being human. Creatures that wished hard enough until they came alive. But people have hearts and souls, and scarecrows only have stuffing.
The younger ones laughed the stories off and instead threw stones into the windows of the Dilworth farm, making Annamae into a legend, a thing which was once alive but is now a ghost forever. Some of them, though, wondered if the pole in the cornfield ever had a scarecrow. And if it did, what happened to it.
In a way, they seemed to take each other’s place in the world. A straw man, and a man made of straw.