Aphelion Issue 296, Volume 28
July 2024 --
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Watcher of the Corn

by Tyler R. Lee

Joseph Crenig made his way up the old, creaking steps to his bedroom, tugging at the collar of his button up shirt for the last time today. He loosened the black tie around his neck, shed the black blazer and tossed onto his bed before taking a seat at his desk. He had just come from burying his father. The cancer had been eating away at the old man for quite some time, so it was no surprise to the family when the day finally arrived. Still, Joseph lamented that never seemed to make it easier on anyone.

In his hand he held an old, red, leather journal, cracked and worn from time. As he examined it, he thought of his father, who worked this farm, by himself aside from Joseph and his mother, right up until his body would no longer allow it. Until his strength failed him one day in the middle of the pasture, where Joseph had found him before had died of heatstroke. Instead, he got admitted to the hospital. They told him it was time to slow down, that his cancer and his age were not about to allow him to continue working so hard, but he always said he couldn’t, and kept working.

Joseph remembered always asking why they didn’t hire help, but his father always just said “we can’t.” The boy smiled when he remembered his father saying, “we have the scarecrow.” Then, the smile vanished. Joseph hated that thing. It was creepy. “I get that they’re supposed to scare the crows,” he had told his mother one evening after coming in from the cornfield, “it’s in the name, but...it always gave me the shivers.” The boy visibly shook when he thought of the cornfield’s watcher, the bag for a head that looked like old, leathery skin when you saw it from a distance. It’s eyes...empty. How it always seemed to be watching whoever was near.

His focus came back to the leather notebook. His mother had given it to him once they arrived back at the house. She said it was a journal from his father. His last will said to give it to Joseph when he died. The boy wasn’t to read it or even know about it until his father had passed. Confused, he asked his mother what it said, but she told him she had respected his father’s wishes and never read it. He wondered what he could possibly have written that Joseph wasn’t allowed to know about until now?

Gazing out his window, he was afforded a brilliant view of the cornfield...and the scarecrow, perched atop its wooden cross. He lamented with a grimace how that thing was, and still is, the reason he pulled the curtains closed every night. After staring at the journal for a few more minutes, curiosity took him and he turned to the first page with writing on it.

I didn't know what else to do. I couldn't tell anybody. Who would believe me? So, I got this journal to write down what I've seen. It's taken me this long to accept the truth. I don't know how to explain what has happened, what I've seen. But, I'll do my best.>

It all started around 17 or 18 years ago. Marisha and I were just getting back from running some errands in town. The sun had just started to dip down behind the cornfield. As I pulled the old Chevy up next to the barn, I saw it for the first time. The scarecrow in the cornfield. Right there in the middle of all the high stalks was my brother Jimmy, trying to prop up the damned thing. I could hear him cursing and carrying on all the way from the outside of the five acre field. He had said he would find one for us, and it looked like he had come through. I made my way into the field as the sky painted everything orange while it continued to sink behind the corn.

When I found Jimmy, he and the scarecrow were involved in a one-sided wrestling match, so I offered my help after I watched and let out a few laughs. Together, we easily got the thing up on the wooden cross posts we had set up a week before in anticipation. As we wrestled it up, I asked where he found it, and he told me a flea market out in Upton, about an hour south. Said a crotchety old man at the back of the market had him just stood up next to his booth. Jim asked about purchasing the scarecrow, and the old man seemed thrilled.

Once we got it up and properly affixed to the stand, I yelped and pulled my hand back, nearly falling off the ladder. When Jimmy asked me what the problem was, I looked to my hand and found that I had sliced my palm on something. It was bleeding up a storm, and Jimmy told me to get down so we could get it wrapped before I passed out. Before I stepped down, I looked over the scarecrow, trying to see what I had caught my hand on, but I didn't see anything. The only thing I noticed was how damn terrifying that thing was.

Its face, made up of an old feed bag filled with straw, had two large eyes cut in the bag and a mouth that had been sewed shut. The bag was filthy and worn, giving it the appearance of old leathery skin wrapped around a skull, sagging in some places, pulled tight in others. Atop its head was a dirty, brown, wide-brimmed hat. The rest of it looked to be made up of an old pair of jeans, tattered boots, a flannel shirt, brown gloves, and a long, brown, rain coat, all filled with straw, evident by the abundance sticking out in several places on each piece of clothing. Whoever had made the scarecrow had sewed and tied the clothes in certain places in such a way that made the limbs and the torso seem human. Like it wasn't just straw shoved into old clothes. It was standard for a scarecrow, but something about it unsettled me.

Over the next few weeks, Marisha and I were astounded by how effective the scarecrow was. After placing it in the cornfield, we never saw so much as a mosquito land anywhere near our corn. Crows would fly over, some would land on the barn, occasionally. But not a single one dared land in the field. Needless to say, we were quite happy with what Jim had found for us.

I first believed something to be wrong during the next year, around the same time. That first season had held no issues. I had walked through the cornfield countless times with no issue, aside from the scarecrow always being able to unnerve me. I swear it always looked like it was watching me. Originally, I thought it was the wind blowing the bag-head around, just my imagination, nothing else. But later, I started to believe something else.

It was the middle of the night. Marisha was already in bed, but I couldn’t sleep, which wasn’t unusual for me, even back then. I was having a glass of whiskey to relax me, when I thought I saw something, a black shadow, run underneath the kitchen window. I nearly dropped my glass as I jumped back. Everything went completely quiety. So quiet, I swear I could hear my heart beating as I leaned over the sink to look out the window. Nothing.

Certain I had seen something, I slowly opened the window and leaned my head out, cautiously. Nothing. Not a sound, not a cricket, owl, or even wind. It was dead quiet, like a black void had been placed over the farm. It unsettled me as I pulled my head back in and closed the window. It was dark tonight. Darker than it seemed it should be. And it felt like the darkness, the silence was infecting the kitchen. The lights seemed dimmer, like the darkness was slowly choking the room from outside.

I was about, to write it off as myself finally getting tired when I heard the cry from the barn. I didn’t hear the glass shatter as it hit the floor. I’m pretty sure I was already out the door, shotgun cocked and ready before the shards had spread fully onto the floor. Despite the terror and pain in the voice, despite the fact that I had never heard him make such a sound, I recognized my brother’s voice.

I dashed into the barn, waving my gun at whatever might be hurting my brother. My brother who I thought had left hours ago. However, what met me in the middle of that old barn was not something my shotgun could combat. The only thing I saw was the grizzly scene of Jim, eyes wide with fear, mouth open, blood still bubbling out of his mouth as he gasped his last few breaths as he hung there. Jimmy, a fair sized man of some strength, was pinned to a wooden beam with nothing but a pitchfork through the stomach. His eyes met mine just before the light went out in them. Then, his head drooped, blood still running from his lips.

Shocked is the best way I can think to describe my feelings, my reactions at the time, or lack of reactions. I just stared, wide eyed and horrified. A minute later, an hour later, or 10 years later, I heard the side door to the barn slam open, causing me to jolt back to reality in terror and misfire my shotgun at the ground. However, instead to investigating what had caught the barn door, I made for my brother, hoping in vain that I could get him down and save him. It took everything I had to pull the pitchfork from his body and the wooden beam. When his body slumped to the ground with a thud, I knew he was dead.

Jimmy’s funeral didn’t give the closure funerals are supposed to provide. I wasn’t surprised. At that time, police were still investigating his death. The questions and accusations thrown my way in the beginning were hard. But the lack of anything the police turned up after I was no longer a suspect was worse. Initially, it was my home, my barn, my pitchfork, and no other fingerprints, DNA, or anything found at the scene, so I was naturally a suspect. However, eventually, that led police nowhere, and they moved on. If only I could have. Hell, some of the townsfolk stayed suspicious of me to this day. Their stares, their whispers, they aren’t as quiet or subtle as they think. But it wasn’t me. Someone had been in that barn. Someone had ran out the barn door as I tried to get Jimmy down from where he had been pinned. But who? I wouldn’t know for quite some time.

By the time a year rolled around, Marisha and I realized we couldn’t work the farm all by ourselves. Jimmy had been the backbone of the workforce on this farm. With his death, the other few that had worked for us left. Not only that, but Joseph had been born just a few months after the tragedy. We needed help. Thankfully, Samuel, Jeffey, and Kent Johanson, three young 20 something brothers visiting home from college, agreed to come on for the summer, giving us a little more time to find more permanent workers, and providing help during the time we really needed it.

They were solid boys. Hard workers, polite, always got the job done. Stumbled into work a little late on occasion, sometimes with a little alcohol left in them from the night before, but they always finished their work and they did it well. Never complained, neither. Well, only Samuel, the youngest ever complained, and only about how the scarecrow creeped him out. His brothers teased him a bit, but I always told him I agreed, but it did its job better than anyone. I’d even poke fun at the boys, telling them they better hope I don’t find out the scarecrow bails hay and shucks corn as well as he scares crows, or they’d be out of a job. That always got a laugh from them.

In mid-august, the last week the boys would be on the farm, it started again. Samuel was out on the tractor baling hay that afternoon while his brothers mucked the stalls in the barn. Apparently he’d won a bet with them so he got to be out while they had to deal with the shit. Anyway, it wasn’t until we heard a crash out in the pasture that we knew something was wrong. The boys were there first, much faster than myself, so they saw the tragedy before I did. What I noticed was the tractor that had ran through the eastern fence, collided with a tree, and came to an abrupt halt as smoke emanated from the engine. Before I could ask what the hell was going on, I saw Jeffrey and Kent.

The two boys were knelt over something that had painted the scattered hay and ground around them red. My stomach dropped as I approached, my mind going to the worst possibility for why the tractor had gone rogue. Moving closer, I heard the sobbs and desperate cries from the boys. Once I was standing over them, the crushed and lacerated form of Samuel answered any questions of what had happened. The lump caught in my throat forced me to look around the open field, werely. I don’t know why, but something pulled my mind to the cornfield, scanning the tall stalks off in the distance. It was too far to tell, no way I could have logically saw what I thought I saw, but I write it here anyway. For a moment, I swear I saw something enter the cornfield. My eyes darted to the scarecrow, but it was too far away and angled too awkwardly to truly see anything. When I came back to my senses and remembered where I was and what had happened, I turned back and helped the boys move their little brother’s body.

I wish I could say that was the only tragedy the Johanson family would endure. That losing their youngest son and brother was all they had to deal with. But, the following week, both Jeffrey and Kent came back to the farm to pick up some personal tools and such they had left. We made some small talk, and my wife and I offered our condolences once again. Even Joseph, just starting to walk, gave them both a hug before we made our way to town, leaving the boys there to gather their things.

We made it back to the farm that night, a little after the moon had rose to bathe the fields in a pale light. As I turned into the driveway, that same pale light reflected off of something halfway down the old dirt path. As I drove, I found it was the chrome bumper on the front of the boys’ old Ford pickup truck, hood up, no one in sight. Immediately, Marisha and I shot each other worried looks. I stopped at the truck and told Marisha to take Joseph to the house and for both of them to stay there. After she drove off, I inspected the truck. Under the hood, everything seemed fine. In fact, the truck seemed in great shape, especially considering it was a good 15 years old. The boys had certainly kept it up quite well. Eventually, I noticed a wet trail behind the truck. When I went down to my belly to get a better look underneath, I saw the gas line had been cut.

Worry growing more and more in my gut, I made my way to the barn. Perhaps the boys had thought to fix the truck themselves, and the barn is where I kept most of my tools. As I did, a familiar sensation crept over me. It was quiet. Eerily so. And it seemed like the moon had dimmed and darkness was slowly engulfing my farm. I walked down the road towards the barn, watching the stalks of corn sway in a breeze I couldn’t hear. As I stared into the field, it seemed so dark, like a deep forest waiting to swallow anyone who entered. Each time the stalks swayed, it looked as if something inside was making their way out, pushing them aside as it exited, bringing the darkness with it. My stomach tightened with each step as I anticipated something reaching out from the stalks and pulling me into that darkness.

As I entered the barn, I noticed over one of the waist-high gates that the tractor had fallen off the blocks we had set it up on to replace the tires that had been ruined from the accident. I rounded the corner to get a better look and vomited. The tractor was setting on Jeffrey’s chest, his sternum crushed inward, his mouth, chest, and the ground around him stained in blood. Without even thinking, I yelled for Marisha to call an ambulance. I tried in vain to lift the tractor off of the clearly dead boy. It had taken a winch to lift it, obviously. Once I was out of breath and sobs began to move up my throat, a thought occurred to me and I ran to the barn door to look outside. My heart nearly leapt through the sobs and out of my throat when I looked to the scarecrow and saw nothing.

As if possessed, I dashed into the cornfield, no weapon, no nothing. Just me and a cold fear who’s source I still wasn’t ready to admit. When I made it to the area where the scarecrow normally stood high atop its post, I found Kent, impaled twice on splintered pieces of the scarecrow’s post through the throat and heart, with that evil thing laying on top of him. In that moment, I don’t know if it was the shock, or if it was real, but the face turned towards me, it’s black eyes looking at my soul, feeding off my fear. It looked through me. I fell back in fear, then made a break for the house.

The police ruled the boys’ deaths just like their brother’s. Farming accidents. Samuel fell off the tractor and was run over and cut up by the machinery it was hauling. Jeffrey was just looking for tools around the tractor when he bumped into it, causing it to fall off the blocks and crush him. Kent was taking a shortcut through the cornfield and the old scarecrow post broke at the base, fell, and the young boy was unfortunately in its way. Accidents. What else could they possibly have been? The looks and whispers from the town increased, obviously. Mr. and Mrs. Johanson, after losing all of their children to our farm, never spoke to us again, and barely made eye contact when offered condolences. I couldn’t blame them. I certainly didn’t believe it all to be accidents. Not anymore.

Over the next few months, it became clear that finding someone to help on the farm was going to be nearly impossible. 4 deaths in two years, all grizzly, didn’t paint a great picture for the workplace, or the family that lived there. I didn’t help things much. I spent much of my time in the barn. I didn’t eat much, I couldn’t sleep. All I did was stare at the scarecrow I’d propped up in there. I couldn’t bring myself to put the thing back up in the field, but I couldn’t avoid it. There was something about this scarecrow. It was all connected. My brother’s death. The deaths of the Johanson brothers. All of it. All connected to this damn scarecrow. Whenever I stared at it, it stared back. No matter where I stood, it always managed for the bag to get turned around to just the right angle to lay its empty eyes on mine.

Marisha became incredibly worried about me. Why wouldn’t she? She was taking care of Joseph all by herself while I spent all my time in the barn with that damned sack of straw. But, I just couldn’t stop. I had to know what this thing was. And how to stop it from killing, if I could.

Around the following spring, I decided it was time to do something. I remembered that Jimmy had gotten the scarecrow at a flea market in Upton. I drove out there one day and asked around. Without much info to go on, my search was limited to asking about an old man who sold scarecrows or at least a single scarecrow at some point a couple of years ago. My first day there got me nothing but “I don’t know” and “sorry.” A couple days later, I made the trip again. This time, a young lady selling antique clocks gave me my first break. I had to buy one of her higher priced clocks, a castle with a dragon that would pop out of the draw bridge like birds would on those old cuckoo clocks, but she told me that the only guy to sell a scarecrow was Mr. Smithers. “Yeah, thing creeped most people out,” she had said. “Surprised he actually sold it to someone.”

She gave me directions to where she thought he lived and I made my way there. It was pretty far off the beaten path, several miles outside the city, then several more down an old back road that lead into the woods. As I drove, the trees seemed to grow closer to the road, snuffing out more and more light, attempting to choke the very life out of the road and whoever drove down it. I had no problem seeing the scarecrow coming from a place like this. When I arrived, it was late evening, the sun just starting to sink beneath the trees. I saw a yard that hadn’t had the grass cut in a couple of seasons, surrounding a house that looked like it was going to fall in on itself.

I noticed quickly that the area was, or used to be, a farm. There was a field west of the house that went a couple hundred yards to the tree line. However, it was littered with weeds and brush, having not been used in years. Right there, in the center of the field, stood a cross post. Perfect for a scarecrow. The wind blew through the grass, whispering words unheard as I stared at the unusable field. For a moment, I hesitated, taking the slightest of steps back. Suddenly, I was brought back to reality at the loud caw of a crow, landing on the empty post in the field. Knowing I had come too far to turn back, I moved forward and knocked on the door, not surprised by the rotted, hollow sound the door made.

It took a few tries before I heard movement behind the weathered door. Eventually, it creaked open and behind the door stood a man who’s face looked to match the weathered and rotted house he lived it. Liver spots speckled his face and mostly bald head, as well as his bare arms. He wore an old pair of bib overalls with no shirt underneath. Surprisingly, for as old as he appeared, he stood up relatively straight, standing only an inch or two shorter than myself. The voice that came out was a mixture of a bullfrog’s croak and a raspy whisper. “‘long way from the main road, son.”

I hesitated for just a moment, watching both of his milky eyes move over me just once, then lock onto mine. When I spoke, I got straight to the point. I asked him if he ever sold a scarecrow at the flea market in Upton. His affirmative answer came in the form of a frown cracking the old skin around his mouth. He closed his eyes, turned into his house, and simply said, “come on in. Sounds like we need to talk.”

The inside was a mess, to say the least. After seeing what the place looked like from the outside, there were no surprises on the inside. The carpet was filthy, the walls were rotting just like the outside, and the multiple animal heads on the walls hadn’t had diligent upkeep. It was dim, the only bare bulb flickering every couple of minutes. He sat down in an old armchair that cracked when he made contact with it. I took a seat on the nearby couch and stared at him.

We both sat in silence for far too long. When I made to say something, he beat me to it. “You don’t look like the guy I sold it to. Well...a little.”

“That was my brother,” I responded. A look of what seemed like sorrow hit is face, and he simply stared at the floor. After another few moments, I asked, “what is that thing?”

“How many?” he asked, seemingly ignoring what I had asked. His question caught me off guard. I asked what he meant. “How many people has it killed?”

I exploded with rage, catching even myself by surprise. “You knew it would kill people?” I yelled as I stood up. He kept his eyes averted to the ground as I continued. “You knew what that thing was when you sold it to my brother? It killed him! With a pitchfork! Then it killed three young boys just trying to help me on my farm!” I seathed and started to pace his living room. I couldn’t even think straight, couldn’t even find the right words beyond that point.

“I’m sorry,” he finally croaked, which did little to ease my anger. “I had to get rid of it. It was the only way.”

“You had to give it to someone else?” I was still yelling, but I needed answers, so I was trying to calm down and get him talking.

“I did,” he responded. The look of hurt on his face calmed me a bit more. I sat back on the couch and waited for him to continue. “I’ll try and explain as best I can. When I was a boy, This area was our farm. Big cornfield off to the west. Belonged to my daddy. We had a bad season a number of years ago and we were going to starve if things didn’t look up. My daddy went to an old woman who lived further up in the woods. People called her a witch. Most who didn’t still believed she was. They all said she could do miraculous things, but they all had a price. Daddy didn’t care. We was gonna starve, so he went and asked her for help. He came back with that scarecrow, with its empty eyes. After he put it up in our field, our next season was bountiful. It was indeed a miracle. Riding a high, we hired some more workers, tried to expand. That’s when people started dying.”

Now we had come to exactly what I needed. I looked on, eyes never wavering from his face, and waited for him to continue.

“At first, it was the workers. Dead in the field. Throats slit, disemboweled, gruesome deaths. But soon, anyone that stepped into that cornfield met their end on this farm if they ever stuck around. We couldn’t figure out what was happening. But daddy had his suspensions. He and I both went to see the witch, to ask her what was happening. Her shack was deep in the woods, surrounded by dark, dead trees and a deadly quiet. Nature isn’t quiet, son. But this place had no noises.

“When asked about the scarecrow, with a grin, she explained that it guards the family of the head of the house, the one it takes blood from before being staked up in its new home. She asked my father if he had cut himself when posting the scarecrow up, and he nodded. When he asked how to stop it, she let out a cackle I’ll remember until the day I die. More like a horrific shriek from something not quite living, not quite human. She said there was no way to stop it. That the only way to keep it from killing people on our farm was to give it to another. The scarecrow would take their blood and be transferred to them when they staked it up in their field. She also added that if the head of the household, the one the scarecrow took blood from, ever dies, then the scarecrow will come for all who have entered the cornfield, even the family.”

I felt sweat run down my forehead, despite the chill that ran through the house and cut to my bones. He continued. “Before my daddy died, we transferred this curse to me. And for years I kept it here. But, I couldn’t take it anymore. Friends, lovers, so many people over the years have been taken by that damned demon. So, I sold it. I’m sorry, but I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t look at it every time I looked out my window.”

“You killed my brother,” I growled. Silence took over after that.

Finally, the old man stood up, his bones cracking with every motion. “I’m going to grab myself a beer. Do you want one?”

I shook my head, ready to leave, but not knowing what to do. There was no way to stop it. Could I really put this over on someone else? Before my mind could truly deal with the possibilities, a lound, shattering, echoing boom sounded from the kitchen. Hesitating only a moment, I rushed in to find Mr. Smithers lying on the floor, pistol in hand, his brains now decorating the walls of his kitchen. I kept myself from wretching until I got into my truck, then released my breakfast from that morning into the floorboard. After a good vomit, I layed down in the seat of the truck, eyes wide, staring at nothing. What had my life become these past years. So much death, so much blood. I felt tears run down my cheek and onto the seat as I lay there, unable to move. What must have been an hour later, the sun had completely set, I got my bearings. Once my head cleared, I drove back home. I didn’t call the cops, I didn’t call an ambulance, I just drove home.

After much thought, I came to the decision that I can’t put this onto anyone else. It’ll stay in our family. And it has for the better part of the past two decades. Somehow, one day, I’ll explain this all to Joseph, then regretfully transfer this curse to him. Hopefully he’ll be able to keep the thing at bay, having more knowledge in the beginning than I did. But, I won’t tell him until he is of age. I don’t want to burden him with this knowledge before he has to know. And hopefully he will pay his child the same courtesy. God help us all.

Joseph’s eyes were so wide and so intent on the journal, he was sure they would pop out of their sockets. He gripped it with such intensity that the leather was cracking under his fingers. “What is this?” he breathed. “This...this can’t be real. I mean, I’ve always found the scarecrow to be completely unnerving. It terrified me, to be honest.” He looked around the room, trying to find some object to ground himself, his sense of reality being shattered by what he had read. He remembered countless times he swore he saw the scarecrow move on its own. Watch him. “But...but that was just my eyes playing tricks on me,” he tried to reason. “I was afraid of it, so I saw things that weren’t there. But, according to this journal, it was always real?”

He heard his mother’s footsteps on the stairs and he quickly hid the journal in the top drawer of his desk. She doesn’t need to see this. Not today, of all days, he thought. She just lost her husband. As he slides the drawer closed, he hears her footsteps, slower, less rhythmic than usual, stop in his doorway.

“Hey, mom,” he called to her, but she doesn’t answer. Considering what they both gone through today, that wouldn’t normally have troubled him. However, today was now different. He remembered the end of the journal. The end of his father’s tale. He had never, “how did dad put it in the journal, pass the curse onto me. I never cut myself on the scarecrow or anything like that. So...now that he’s dead...what’s going to happen?” He decided that, if anyone could help him, perhaps it was his mother.

As he turned to face her, to ask her if she knew anything about the scarecrow or about his father’s story, his eyes passed over the cornfield out his bedroom window. There, in the setting sun, clear as day, was the giant cross posts the scarecrow always stood on, perched like a dark watcher of the whole field, waiting to pounce on any who enter. And only the posts. The scarecrow...was gone.


2019 Tyler R. Lee

Bio: Tyler R Lee grew up in Wetumka, Oklahoma before moving to the Twin Cities of Minnesota. He has a published fantasy novel, An Unlikely Company, and an upcoming SciFi novel, Load Custom Character. He also has had entertainment media pieces published with sites like Joystiq and Polygon.

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