by Liam Hogan
“There he is.” the farmer nodded.
I looked up to the brow of the hill, where the crucified figure stood under a steel grey sky, shirt sleeves flapping in the wind.
“And what exactly do you want me to do?” I asked, not for the first time.
The farmer smirked. “Just touch him. If you dare. I’ve got twenty says you can’t.”
I couldn’t see the snag. The ground was muddy from the recent rains, but I’d been through worse. I shrugged, and climbed up onto the gate.
“Just touch him?” I asked again.
The farmer rubbed at the stubble on his chin. “Well now, if you feel that’s not enough, I’d be much obliged if you could uproot him and drag him back down here. He’s served his time.”
I looked out over the field from my perch. The wheat was ripe, but there wasn’t a bird to be seen. I wonder why it hadn’t been harvested yet; the neighbouring fields were strewn with bent straw.
I dropped lightly over the other side, a satisfying squelch as my boots took purchase, and started up the hill. It all seemed a bit too easy. Farmers like MacGaskill didn’t give away their hard earned money for free. I looked back to where he stood, resting his arms on the gate, and he gave me a cheery wave.
Perhaps there was a bull loose in the field. Just the sort of ‘joke’ a farmer might try on a townie. I couldn’t see one, but that proved nothing. You could have hidden a small battalion behind that hill. I felt my heart pounding and wondered how fast I’d be able to run if push came to shove.
The ground was drier on the slope, and I’d just begun to pick up my pace when my army-issue boot struck something and I had a sudden and all-to-vivid image of being thrown through the air, my limbs shredded by an anti-personal mine or an unexploded cluster bomb. I slowly raised my boot to see the piece of flint hidden beneath.
The wind stroked the wheat, making the heads bend in waves that sped towards the foreboding figure ahead. I scanned the darkening horizon, pretty bloody stupid, marching to the top of a hill in the middle of a storm! I slowed my pace, reluctant to keep going, even though my brain was telling me to get it over with quickly. Touch the scarecrow and back down the hill before the rain and lightning began, to hell with uprooting it, the farmer could do his own dirty work.
I imagined him appraising me from below, seeing my faltering steps, judging me on my weakness. I tugged the collar of my coat up and stamped my feet a couple of times to chase away the feeling of cold.
An odd noise it made, like distant mortars being fired, the whump-whump which would be the last sounds you ever heard if they were on target…
But this was crazy! This was rural Bedfordshire, less than a hundred miles from London, not some god-forsaken Afghan hell-hole! And yet I could feel the hairs on my neck stand on end and my breath caught in my throat. Perhaps the farmer was just plain psycho and was waiting with a double barrelled shotgun until I was silhouetted against the sky before letting fly. He’d seemed sane enough, if a little taciturn, in the pub last night. Until his eyes lit up when he’d heard I was ex-services and he’d casually suggested I drop by his farm on my way out of the village.
Maybe it was the land itself. What might be buried under the soil? Carcasses from the BSE epidemic? Anthrax spores? Or a mass grave from a Viking raid, the bodies with their arms tied tightly behind their backs before being dispatched with cruel blows of the sword or axe?
I shook the images from my head. You wouldn’t farm on contaminated land and if it was some ancient burial mound, well what of it? The bones were hardly able to hurt me now.
I must have been about half way up that bleak and desolate hill, when I ground to a halt once more, raising my hand above my eyes to get a better look at what awaited me. I was approaching the scarecrow from behind. It wore tattered trousers and a jacket with the arms half rolled up, leaving the shirt sleeves free to flap about the wooden pole. The head was made of straw beneath a grey cap, but it almost looked like there was hair there as well. Christ! Maybe it wasn’t made of straw at all. Maybe it was a corpse, left to dry in the wind, its heart rattling around its empty chest, its eyes rotted and…
Goddamnit! Anyone would think that I was a little kid, listening wide-eyed and open mouthed to ghost stories around the camp fire. It was just a scarecrow, an inanimate object to frighten away the birds, not grown men, not me. I slowly took another half step forward.
Maybe… maybe it was better if I just asked the farmer what the catch was? He could hardly refuse to tell me, could he? I was in no fit state to negotiate the hazard, whatever it might be; my heart was racing, my back was slick with sweat, and my left leg trembled as if it had a mind of its own and was busy remembering past injuries, past nightmares. I should ask…
And then I was marching, almost skipping, back down the hill, at full speed, grateful for every step I took away from the dark shape behind me. As I neared the gate I slowed, suddenly wary of the farmer’s reaction, but he just stood there white faced, without a trace of a grin. He held out a dull grey hip flask which I gratefully received, taking a good gulp of the fiery liquid, before hopping back over the fence.
The farmer eyed me narrowly. “It sure is something, isn’t it?” he asked.
I nodded slowly, uncertain exactly what he meant.
“If it’s any consolation, that’s further than I, or anyone else from the village got.” He rubbed his hand on the back of his neck. “Even tried to take the tractor up there, flatten the bugger, but… well. We’ll pass it on the way.”
I followed him along the edge of field. We stopped at a gate. “Look,” he said, pointing down to some seed that had been spilled on the ground. It formed a neat line exactly where the gate passed over it. “All the seed on this side of the fence, gone. Eaten by the birds, or mice, or whatever. All the seed on that side of the fence, untouched. Not a single bloody bird, they won’t even fly over the field.” He shook his head. “This is the gate I tried to drive the tractor through.”
There were a set of tram lines through the crop, initially heading straight up the hill, then quickly wavering, before veering dramatically off to one side. I craned my head over the fence and saw the tractor wedged at an angle in the hedge some twenty or so yards further along.
“I was lucky not to kill myself; felt the tractor tip as I wrenched the wheel. Not sure how I got through the hedge, it’s all a bit of a blur, but the tractor isn’t coming out that way. Not unless I cut the hedge down, which I’ve thought of doing, then I suppose I could tow it…” he mused.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “What’s causing all of this?”
He turned and stabbed his blunt fingers up the hill. “That thing. That bloody scarecrow. ‘Best scarecrow you’ll ever have’, the gypsy said. ‘Guaranteed bird free.’” The farmer spat. “Nobody and nothing has been able to enter the field since he put it up. And now all that wheat’s going to go to waste. Damn. I shouldn’t really have expected you to do any better.”
I bristled at this; hadn’t I gotten further than anyone else? But how far had I got? Not much more than halfway up the hill, that’s for sure. “I could get your tractor for you.” I said.
He turned, a pained expression on his face. “Yes? You sure about that?”
I trembled and suddenly realised I couldn’t. Not today, anyway.
“Thought as much. Thanks for the offer, though.” He gazed off into the distance, and I hung my head. “Look, I shouldn’t have done that to you. It was mean. But I could hardly tell you, could I? Had to let you try on your own. Ah damn. Will you come back to the house? There’s hot soup on the stove.”
We trudged in silence to the small farmyard. I felt drained, cold and weary, my mind numb. But as the farmer pushed the heavy wooden door aside a border collie leapt up at us and I felt the warmth of the stove even from the kitchen door.
“Daft pup,” the farmer said, as he stroked the dog’s head affectionately. “Only six months old and ain’t a patch on his mother, but there you go. Refuses to leave the farmyard, never mind going anywhere near the scary man on the hill. Maybe not so daft after all. Make yourself at home, man, I’ll get you a bowl.”
I shed the jacket and thought about removing my muddy boots, but MacGaskill wasn’t removing his, so I left them on. I sat on a wooden bench at the rough table and he brought out a hunk of bread on a chopping board before plonking something more like a stew than a soup before me. I ate ravenously, feeling the warmth and energy flow back.
“Have you tried shooting it down?” I asked.
He shook his head. “You can’t get a steady aim on the thing. Even from outside of the field. Not that my shotgun would do any damage from there.”
“Burning it?” I said between mouthfuls.
“Hah! Well that would get rid of it, but it’d take out the whole crop as well. Besides, you can’t even burn stubble these days without a permit.”
I thought for a moment. “What about the gypsy?” I asked.
“What about him?” the farmer said with disdain.
“Have you tried to find him? Surely he’d be able to take the scarecrow down?”
“No doubt he could, at a price.” the farmer replied. “Which hell, I’d be willing to pay. But they don’t exactly leave a forwarding address. Best I can hope is that he’ll be back next spring. But that’ll be two crops wasted, it’ll be too late to sow by then.”
“Won’t it seed itself?” I asked.
He snorted. “It might. But it won’t weed itself. It’ll be okay maybe for animal feed, but nowt else.”
I was silent, gears whirring in my brain, but with little effect.
“You done?” the farmer asked.
“Err, yes. Thanks.” I handed him my empty bowl. “Look I’m sorry…”
He shook his head. “Don’t be. You did ya best. My own stupid fault. Never trust a tinker.”
At the door I shouldered my pack. “Best be getting on.” I said, as I ruffled the neck of the border collie.
The farmer nodded. “Where next?”
I shrugged, suddenly unable to meet his eye. “Northampton.” I replied. It wasn’t on my route, but the thought of another two weeks hiking, even if it was for charity, left me cold. ‘Walk for Heroes’. Some hero I’d turned out to be. A small detour, to somewhere with pubs and people and rooms with showers, wouldn’t upset my plans too much if I did decide to continue.
And even though my pack was heavy and my gammy leg complained bitterly, I left the farmyard at a brisk jog. I didn’t even look back, averting my eyes from the brow of the hill as I passed, eager to put some miles between me and that damned scarecrow.
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