One Who Was With Me
A novel by Conrad Williams
E X C E R P T
The scarecrow had no mouth, but that did not prevent it from talking. It turned on the spike driven into the frozen ground, the hay that filled its sackcloth crackling with frost, tearing in places as it wrenched itself around, and glared with its mushroom eyes at Joe. Sticks that were meant to suggest unkempt hair were nothing more than an insane crown of dead wood. Lice festered around the scales of a pinecone nose. Black fabric under the chicken-wire frame that preserved the shape of its head shifted as if lips were forming words beneath. Joe found himself hoping they were lips. And then, once it had spoken, wishing above all else that it was unable to make any sounds whatsoever.
“Where is your daughter?” it asked him, and the sound was breathy and arid, that of dead things; old desiccated creatures found spinning in the cobwebbed corners of forgotten rooms. The scarecrow was squirming on its post, coat-hanger shoulders writhing under a great grey cloak. The perishing black rubber gloves flailed, and through the rents in the fingers Joe could see chewed sticks, discolored and dewy with rot.
“None of your business,” Joe managed, though the air carrying those words was as limp and cold as the dying breath of an old man. Nonetheless, he jerked his head around, hunting for a glimpse of his girl’s red shirt among the sunflower stalks. She had been right behind him as they walked back from the boulangerie; she wore a brown moustache from the pain au chocolat she had been burying her face into. They had been talking about their plans for the afternoon: they were going to corner off a bit of land for her so she could grow her own fruit and vegetables.
“Why did you come here? There is only death for you here.”
He didn’t want to speak to it, but he seemed to have no choice. Every time he turned away, he turned toward, as if the scarecrow was some kind of organic magnet drawing his attention back no matter where he attempted to look.
“We came because we were…too scared to stay at home. We came because we needed a fresh start.”
“Fresh start,” the scarecrow said, its mouth gluey on the words, as if such a concept were alien to it. And probably, that was the case. What could something built of odds and ends and forgotten things know of freshness?
One of the scarecrow’s feet, a misshapen, dried curl of old slipper jammed onto a toothless broom head, planted itself uncertainly in the ground. Whatever wood created its skeleton creaked and groaned.
“What are you doing?”
“I mean to step with you a while,” it said through the fungus greening its mask. The bulging mushroom eyes gleamed with some kind of mucus as it regarded him. Shadows came and went and Joe had to cling to the belief they were cast by birds flying overhead, and weren’t the flutter of eyelids.
“I won’t step anywhere with you.”
“You won’t have a choice. And anyway, I mean to show you something.”
“Nothing you could show me would be of any interest to me.”
“It’s not about interest. It’s about how you understand your life. It’s about how you intend to cope with what is brimming around your ears, if only you would look around you and testify to the threat.”
“Walk with me.”
There was an awful wet popping sound, the nubbly crack and grind of butcher’s bones failing beneath a dog’s jaws. The scarecrow succeeded in lurching away from his post, but it was incapable of forcing itself upright. It hulked and tottered, as if forever on the verge of lurching into the soil.
Joe tried to spy movement beyond the hungry scarecrow face. He looked back toward a thicket of low trees, little more than wild bushes tangled together really, because there was a see-saw ride there in the shape of a dolphin that Grace had taken a shine to, but she wasn’t near him, and suddenly his eyes were back on the scarecrow, as if that beggared thing had taken hold of his sleeve to swing him around.
—“Where is my daughter?”
“That’s a part of it,” the scarecrow said.
—“If you know where she is…if you’ve harmed her…”
But the scarecrow was concentrating on its gait, stumping one foot and then the other into the hard earth of the fields. It was bad enough watching it lurch and stagger like that, a movement that affected every part of its body and turned it into a series of angular, spastic shapes. Each movement was preceded and succeeded by a momentary freeze, as if the scarecrow was gathering what strength it possessed to be able to make the next uneconomical, violent thrust forward. What made it worse, as they left the fields behind and met the concretized walkways of the village, was the sound its lumbering feet made on the stone. Retorts flew up around them like gunshots, along with little chips and splinters of the road’s surface. Some kind of hardened, calcified curls protruded through the failing soles of those pathetic slippers, like long, misshapen nails. Like…horn.
But despite its lack of poise, it did not lose step. It was always abreast of Joe, so that, should he turn his head to view the creature, its jerking, hooded features were always parallel to his own.
They somehow made it to the large wooden door of the Romanesque church next door to his home. The sun-bleached stone had lost much in the way of straightness in the hundreds of years it had stood here, but it remained sound.
“You brought her to the house. You should have left her at home. And after all, I am but a jumble of crow-bitten sticks.” It twisted and bent toward him, its face warping into the grotesque approximation of a smile. One of the mushroom eyes folded beneath a loose spike of chicken wire, scoring it lightly. Was that blood, rising out of the cut? Joe turned away so as not to find out.
“Death is here,” it said.
“This is home,” Joe said. And again, to himself: This is home.
“This has been home to many. This is no home of yours.”