Mark Rickman



I remember a story in which a fair and beautiful maiden brushed her long blond hair while sitting in front of her dressing table mirror. While she brushed, the image of a mysterious man wearing a dark cloak appeared in the corner of the mirror; coming nearer and nearer and nearer and nearer until…

   It’s not often I find it a comfort to have a bald head but it does mean I don’t spend much time in front a mirror. Certainly not enough for any supernatural being to waste its time on me. At least, that’s how I felt until last night when the scarecrow nodded back.

   I had yawned and got to my feet to draw the sitting room curtains and go to bed. Before doing so, I looked through the window at one of those magic nights we country folk get now and then. The moon was full and low in the sky silhouetting the flittering bats and the switching tail of a cat extending a cautious paw at a dark patch among the last of the flowering shrubs. The field on the other side of the track I bounce my Land Rover along every morning bore a vestige of the golden harvest that was partly gathered in. The scarecrow standing around ten or fifteen yards behind the hedge looked impassively back at me. 

   Stretching my arms sideways in a parody of his posture, I gave the tattered, poorly stuffed and badly dressed old boy a nod. ‘In case you hadn’t noticed,’ I told him, ‘the crows have roosted and the bunny rabbits are all tucked up in their burrows. It’s time for you and me to go to bye-byes, mate.’ And after a quick look round the field, the scarecrow nodded, put both hands to his left cheek in a sleeping posture and sank to the ground behind the fence

   I stood still, my arms remaining stretched out. Is that what I really saw? I wondered. If so, what do I do about it? I stared at the empty space the scarecrow had occupied. Should I assume that the stuffing had fallen out of his central nervous system, leading to a collapse? Or that a family of field mice had been gnawing at his ankles, bringing him to the ground? Or even, while my wife is away and not watching over the whisky bottle, I’ve had one too many and am seeing things? 

   If it’s none of those and from what I saw I didn’t think it was, do I cross the road and come face to face with the hooting owl and all the other ghosties and ghoulies that howl, creep, leap and go bump in the night?

   I laughed a little nervously, wondered why Brenda was never around when I needed her, drew the curtains and went to bed. Next morning, in some trepidation, I drew the curtains back. The scarecrow was in place, more or less. He seemed to be standing a little closer to the hedge than when I saw him last night. Which meant he was standing a little closer to me. The impassivity of his expression had given way to a leer and his arms had turned slightly forward, as though reaching for me. The twigs representing his outstretched fingers twitched in the light breeze. Having seen no evidence of a light breeze, I didn’t dare give him a nod.

   Picking up the telephone, I dialled my sister-in-law’s number. Brenda answered. ‘I can’t be doing with you right now,’ she said. ‘ Sandy ’s baby’s due any time.’

   ‘And you want to be in at the kill,’ I suggested.

   ‘Only you would say a stupid thing like that,’ she snapped. ‘Goodbye!’

   ‘No,’ I shouted. ‘Don’t put the phone down, Brenda. I’m sorry! I’ve had a very nasty experience.’

   ‘You’ll have another one if I get back and find you’ve mucked up my kitchen.’

   ‘You’re more likely to come back and find I’ve been done away with by  a scarecrow.’

   But Brenda wasn’t listening. Not really. ‘I should be back tomorrow if all goes to plan,’ she said. ‘Diddums can tell me all about his nasty dreams then.’

   ‘It wasn’t a dream,’ I shouted at the dead telephone, my eyes fixed on the scarecrow. ‘And stop calling me Diddums. You know I don’t like it.’

   The scarecrow’s eyes met mine as I returned the telephone to its cradle. Did he have eyes last night? I couldn’t remember. Did he have a mouth? He had one now. How else could he leer? Did he have fingers? I hurried my breakfast, got in my Land Rover, and bounced down the lane, looking the other way. According to our local historian who is very proud of it, the milestone at the end of our lane had stood there for a hundred and fifty years. I hit it at forty mph, sent its shattered remains across the road, and burst a tyre.

   That night, I warmed up the shepherd’s pie Brenda labelled Tuesday and listened to my messages. The first came from Dave, my brother-in-law.

   ‘Hey, Dick, it’s a boy, he weighs as much as that old carp we caught last year, and they’re all doing well. Well, maybe not the carp. By the way, I don’t know what you were drinking when you met your walking scarecrow but if it’s that good, have another on me. Here’s your old lady.’

   ‘We’ll have a bit less of the old lady, if you don’t mind,’ I heard Brenda say before she turned her attention to me. ‘Heat up the shepherd’s pie,’ she ordered. ‘The baby is beautiful. It’s been a long night for all of us so don’t ring back. I’ll see you the day after tomorrow. I know you won’t miss me. You have your walking scarecrow for company.’

   ‘Walking?’ I said aloud. ‘I never said it was walking. I said it came closer to the hedge.’

   For it to appear at all, I reminded myself, the scarecrow would have had to stand up. To come closer to the hedge it must have walked. I nibbled at the shepherd’s pie, pushed the plate away, walked back into the sitting room and gazed bleakly through the window. Brenda was leaving me on my own for two more nights. The Land Rover was laid up in the garage waiting a tyre. My nearest neighbour didn’t like me and the next one to him lived across the field beyond the scarecrow. The same leering, walking scarecrow who by now was about to break through the hedge, his greedy fingers reaching for me. Me, Brendaless and alone. 

   I thought back to the story of the fair and beautiful maiden with a shudder. I couldn’t remember how it ended. I only knew that every night she sat brushing her hair, the image of the mystery man wearing a dark cloak came closer and closer until disaster happened. What would have happened if she stopped brushing her hair? Better yet, what would have happened if she unbrushed her hair? Would she have thrown the whole thing in reverse, turned the clock back and been saved? Would the cloaked man have receded? Be defeated? Run away and try to find another victim?

   Very likely he would. The question was, how could I apply it to my scarecrow? I went back to the shepherd’s pie, comforted. I knew how.

Next day I left the curtains drawn. That evening I threw them back and shouted, ‘Come on! It’s time to get up and scare all those crows,’ and watched the scarecrow stiffen, step back and look for the birds that weren’t there. Next morning, I peeked through the bedroom window and saw he was halfway across the field, looking disconcerted. I left the curtains drawn, walked down the lane and picked up the Land Rover. That night I threw the curtains back, repeated the call, and saw Brenda’s taxi coming up the lane.

   I kissed her when she walked in. She looked at me critically and said, ‘That ruddy scarecrow is nowhere near the hedge.’

   ‘I know,’ I replied, ‘and if that fair maiden had unbrushed her hair, I bet she would have lived to be ninety.’

   Brenda didn’t reply. She has an uncanny knack of knowing when no reply is possible. She did say one thing when we went to bed. She watched me take off my shirt and said, ‘I don’t know what it is, but you look a little younger tonight.’

   ‘Turning the clock back,’ I said smugly. ‘It does it every time.’

   Again, Brenda didn’t reply.    



©2007 Mark Rickman

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