Sunday, November 7, 2010

A selection from "Scarecrow's Sunrise" by Gef Fox

Scarecrow’s Sunrise
by Gef Fox

he sackcloth of a long night’s sky turned to a bruised crimson of a
coming dawn. Mazy, a Munchkin farmer, looked through the window
of his workshop and frowned with fatigue and fear. The Good Witch of the North would return when the sun fully rose, and Mazy had yet to finish the scarecrow she had requested he fashion for her. She had been very clear in her request: Have the scarecrow ready by morning. When I return, you will be rewarded for your efforts.
A headless effigy stuffed with straw lay atop his workbench, as he stood with his back to it. All four boneless, lifeless limbs stretched out from the body, as if racked in a Munchkin’s answer to a torture chamber. The construction of the body had been easy enough. She even provided the clothes to be used. Mazy was skilled in making strawmen, as many watched over his vast cornfields through Munchkinland. This, however, was the first time he had ever made one for someone else. This time for the Witch of the North, no less.
The Good Witch, he reminded himself as he peered through his window.
Before turning back to his task, he noticed the Good Witch’s Tick-Tock Man standing guard at the end of the cartroad to his farm. The mechanical servant had been a stoic guard since the previous evening when Mazy began his work on the scarecrow. A watchful eye afforded by the Witch to be sure no one disturbed him. Mazy couldn’t fathom why it was necessary for a guard to be placed on his property for such a menial task, but that was before he had witnessed the result of his latest creation. He needed to finish the scarecrow and he was running out of time.
“What manner of witchcraft have I tangled myself into?” he whispered.
He stared at his work. Next to the body, above the neck, sat a burlap sack stuffed with straw and bran, as if severed from the body by an axeman. It rested on it’s side, detached from the body, adorned in a singed cap. A single painted eye stared in Mazy’s direction. When it blinked, the old corn farmer winced.
“Be calm, you old coot,” he said.”’Tis nothing but a scarecrow.”
But it wasn’t just a scarecrow. Not this time. The burlap sack which was to be the head was the third Mazy had used through the night. The heads were always the finishing touch—start from the bottom and work your way up, he always told himself. Now, his hands tremored at the thought of going near the thing. The abomination, he thought.
It was well into the night when he started on the first would-be head. He painted a meager grin—a curved line to show a smile was all it was—on the stuffed sack. No sooner had he lifted his narrow paintbrush from the fabric, however, when the grin erupted into animation.
I can’t see! I’m blind!” it cried out.
Mazy’s heart leaped in his throat and he had visions of an early grave. He snatched the screaming sack by it’s scruff and hurled it into the fire of his stove. He watched it vanish in a fury of flames and sparks. It took ten minutes for his pulse to come back down to something less than a hummingbird’s heartbeat.
Calmed, and sure the apparition of a talking burlap sack was due only to a case of nerves from working for the Good Witch, Mazy started again with a second sack to fashion. Serving the Good Witch of the North was a more intimidating experience than he’d first suspected.
When he started on the second would-be head, he stuffed it with straw and bran by the fistful, as if stuffing a turkey with onions and breadcrumbs. Once he had the general shape of the head he wanted, he reached for his paintbrush again and set about painting a mouth. Nothing fancy this time—if the previous curve of black ink could be called fancy. With a deliberate slash of his brush, he drew a simple straight line. It was less a mouth than a mark to show where a mouth should go. Mazy watched it for a moment, then carried on when he was satisfied there would be no strange movement.
He dabbed the brush into a jar of black paint, ready to start on the nose next.
“What just happened? I felt burning! Am I burning?”
Mazy’s body shuddered and he fell from his perch on the stool. The brush flew from his fingers and struck the wall across the bench. A streak of wet black paint tattooed the wall. He snatched the panic stricken sack with his own panic stricken hands, his heart sending waves of terror through his limbs even more so than before, and hurled the sack into the waiting flames of the fire. It’s screams were silenced by the rush of flames that engulfed it whole.
He looked back at the scarecrow’s puffy, clumsy, and still headless frame, wondering if it too would spring to life. It didn’t move.
“Oh, this is some foul witchcraft,” he said. He wiped his brow while his body trembled.
An ember in the stove cracked like a gunshot, and Mazy let out a yelp akin to a scalded dog and fled into the chilly night air outside his workshop. His goose-fleshed skin became awash in pale blue moonlight. A million and one stars winked knowingly above him. Minute by minute, his breath steadied, as did his heart.
“Ozma, preserve me,” he prayed aloud.
At the mouth of the cartroad, movement. Mazy’s heart bounced in his chest once more, as a shadowy form approached. The Tick-Tock Man came into view with a lurching march. It stopped only inches from the old Munchkin farmer. Mazy took a step back. The Tick-Tock Man looked downward slightly to meet the farmer’s face.
“Is it complete?” it asked with a voice made of mechanical hums, whirs, and clunks. Nothing close to a living voice, but unmistakable. And nothing like the unholy sounds that had come from the scarecrow’s two would-be heads.
“No. No, it ain’t. And it ain’t gonna be,” Mazy answered with a faltering defiance.
“You made an agreement,” the Tick-Tock Man said. It’s gear-ridden face stared blankly.
“Aye, I agreed to make a scarecrow. But, I didn’t agree to have the buggerin’ thing come to life. That Witch of yours has cast a horrible spell on my work, and I’ll have none of it.”
A puff of steam flitted from the side of the Tick-Tock Man’s head.
“You made an agreement.”
“Wizard’s whiskers! I heard you the first time.”
“You must complete your task. War is coming.”
“What? W-war? What in Oz are you on about?”
Another puff of steam came out of the mechanical servant’s head.
“After sunrise. A child soldier will come. The child will kill the Wicked Witch of the East. This child will lead an army that will conquer both East and West.”
Mazy’s jaw gaped. He looked eastward through the waning darkness, in the direction of the Wicked Witch’s castle. It was beyond his sight, hidden behind the rolling hills of Munchkinland, but he saw the first hints of sunrise. And clouds coming with it. A red sky, and growing redder.
The Tick-Tock Man turned it’s head and looked in the same direction.
“The child soldier will come on a cloud. The cloud will be her weapon.”
“Great Glinda. Her? The child soldier is a girl?” A new chill swept Mazy’s spine.
“Yes. It has been prophesied by the Great Wizard.”
A feeling of enormity washed over Mazy, one which dwarfed his initial shock at seeing the scarecrow’s heads come to life.
“That still doesn’t tell me why my scarecrow wants to live,” he said.
“It is not your scarecrow. It is a charm of the Good Witch of the North. To guard the child soldier.” The Tick-Tock Man lumbered past Mazy to the doorway of the workshop and pointed to the workbench and the unfinished strawman.
“Do you see the clothes it wears?” it asked.
“Aye, I see,” Mazy answered, and peered through the shadows. He kept a healthy distance from the door, though.
“It is the uniform of a fallen soldier. A great soldier of Oz who died at the hands of the Wicked Witch of the West, in the battle for the Emerald City many years ago. The Good Witch of the North blessed the remains of the uniform. It now carries the spirit of the soldier.”
Mazy stared into his workshop with wonder. “It surely didn’t sound like a soldier when I painted it’s mouth.”
“It will learn. It will take two days for the soldier’s instincts to return. That’s when it will meet with the child soldier to help lead her army.”
Mazy might have run away at that point if his legs were steady enough or youthful enough. Given his state, all he could do was stand in awe.
“This is too much for an old farmhand like me,” he said.
“You made an agreement,” the Tick-Tock Man said once more. “The scarecrow must be ready by morning. The Wizard of Oz has prophesied it. The Good Witch of the North has blessed it. And you, Mazy of Munchkinland, you will build it.”
He watched in stunned silence as the Tick-Tock Man returned to his post at the mouth of the cartroad. Mazy’s mouth failed him in his desire to protest. Defeated, he walked back into his workshop and fashioned the third burlap sack, which was to be the scarecrow’s head. It was this third head with a single painted eye that watched him now.
It was madness. This abomination. An Oz soldier brought back from beyond death to fight once more. And in the form of a strawman, no less. Now, with the sun slowly rising and the clouds to the east more red than ever, Mazy looked at his work and wondered how he could build such a thing. It was madness.
Then a thought struck him, as the scarecrow’s painted-on eye watched him with unwavering attention. Twice now, he’d torched the living head of the scarecrow, and now the third head lived in silence watching him. The second head had the memories of the first—it had felt the fire not once, but twice. Impossible, but undeniable. This third head, which Mazy had intentionally left mouthless for now—he couldn’t bare to hear it’s panic-stricken voice again—would surely carry the memories again. And the single eye saw it was he who had burned him.
“You’re almost finished, old timer. One way or the other,” Mazy muttered to himself. “Finish what you started and be done with it.”
Either the scarecrow soldier would do him in once finished, or the Good Witch of the North would fail to live up to her name if he defied her request when she returned. Paint a happy face, he thought. Paint a face that couldn’t kill.
He picked up his paintbrush off the floor and wiped it clean. With another dab of black paint, he drew a second egg-shaped circle and splotched a pudgy dot in the center. He drew back and watched, as did the scarecrow’s first eye when it blinked into life. The wet paint that was now a pupil lolled around the borders of the newly drawn eye until it aligned with the first. With one more synchronized blink, they both looked up at Mazy with a wide and relentless stare.
The air in the room became dizzying for a second and Mazy had to steady himself with a hand against the workbench.
“You’re almost finished,” he said.
He dabbed the brush in the paint again and drew an upside-down “V” for a nose, with two small dots as nostrils. He watched it wiggle with life and prayed it couldn’t smell his fear. His hand betrayed him as it refused to hold steady when he dips the brush into the black of the pain one more time. The scarecrow’s eyes watched him the entire time, steady and accusing from under the tattered cap the Good Witch had provided. A piece of a dead soldier’s uniform.
Mazy brought the brush back to the scarecrow’s disembodied head and drew, a final time, a simple straight line that would be it’s mouth. He dropped the paintbrush into a jar of water and distanced himself from his workbench. He watched and waited. He stood his ground several feet from the scarecrow and would have gone back even further if not for the heat of the stove permeating against his backside.
The line he drew was squiggled due to his frayed nerves. It twitched. Even from several feet away, there was no mistaking it. Then, it burst into life with a thunderous, “Ooowww!
The cry of pain sent Mazy scuttling to the floor for cover, sure he was about to reap what he had sewed.
“That really hurt,” it said. Still detached from the rest of it’s body, the head remained face-up on the bench, looking towards the cobwebbed rafters.
Mazy tentatively rose from his spot on the floor, confused relieved he hadn’t been killed.
“What hurt?” he asked through a hoarse whisper.
“That...burning. What happened then? All I remember is my first words, and then something grabbed me and put me in a hot place. I was covered in...burning.”
The head fidgeted a moment then rolled to it’s side, so it was facing Mazy and the outline of the stove behind him.
“That? I wouldn’t know about that,” Mazy said, dusting himself off. “It must have been someone with a match.”