Tuesday, 04 October 2022

F Fic, Non-fic

Gifts of Straw

by Shawn D. Brink

 

He watched the rook as it paced along the edge of his field. He kept a keen eye on that bird because he knew their reputation for slyness.

Ever vigilant, he had never let any bird get even a single kernel of grain from his field. All birds feared him because they knew he was among the quickest of his kind.

The bird that dared come foraging in his field was as good as dead. In a flash, he would make quick work of any such intruder, jumping down from his perch and instantly destroying the trespasser.

Such handiwork happened quickly. In fact, it happened far too quickly to be perceived by the naked eye. That was the magic of scarecrows, quick as lightning and unnoticed by the farmers.

He watched that rook through his crimson eyes that were actually red buttons sewn onto his burlap sack face. Of all his feathered enemies, he hated rooks the most. They were the most intelligent species and therefore potentially the most dangerous.

The scarecrow raised a straw-stuffed arm and pointed at the suspicious bird. "Go away," he said with the earthy voice that was indicative of his kind.

The rook cocked its head and stared at him with bulbous black eyes. It did not go away.

"Go away!" the scarecrow barked.

He was not a patient scarecrow, but in this case he had to be. He would not be able to kill unless the bird entered his field. That was a rule, and it was absolute.

"I know why you are so mean," the rook croaked in rook-like fashion.

"I am not mean. I am a protector of my creator's crops."

"Ah, you speak of the farmer."

The scarecrow nodded.

"You work for your creator?"

Again, the scarecrow nodded.

"I see. So what does he pay you?"

"He does not pay me anything," the scarecrow answered.

"He doesn't? Well, what does he do for you then?"

The scarecrow thought on this, but thinking is not an easy thing for scarecrows. Their brains are slow moving things since they are only made of straw. Finally, he shrugged.

The rook scoffed, "So you work all day and all night in the field to keep his precious crops safe, but he gives you nothing in return?"

The scarecrow said nothing. He was too busy still trying to make organized thoughts on the subject.

"And on top of that, your creator has neglected you, hasn't he."

"No, he has not!" retorted the scarecrow.

"Sure he has. Anyone can see that just by looking at you."

The scarecrow looked down at himself. He did not understand what the rook was saying. He looked as he should after all, a proper scarecrow.

"You are so thin. So much of your straw has fallen out and blown away and your creator has not bothered to re-stuff you."

He realized that the rook was correct. He was terribly thin. It was true that when his creator had made him, he had been stuffed with fresh straw. Over the seasons however, his insides had drifted away bit by bit, carried away by wind and turned into dust by time.

He thought back to a particularly blustery storm where he had lost quite a bit of himself. He remembered watching sadly as pieces of him blew past the border of his field which was the end of the world for scarecrows, a border that his kind was not allowed to cross.

He shook his head in order to break free of these thoughts. Rumor had it that rooks where quite manipulative animals after all. He did not want to fall prey to any of their mind games.

"I am lean. That is true, but my leanness only makes me quicker," he said as he narrowed his red-button eyes at the enemy.

"No doubt," the rook answered sounding very meek. "However, I am concerned that if you become any thinner, you yourself might blow away in the next storm and cease to exist. If that happens, do you think that your precious creator will resurrect you? I think not. I believe he will simply throw you away and create another to take your place."

With that statement reverberating around in the simple mind of the scarecrow, the rook turned and flew off. "I'll be back my friend," it said as it disappeared.

The rook was gone, but that last statement remained and haunted the scarecrow as he sat all alone on his perch. It recycled over and over in that straw brain of his, making him wonder if he was destined to become the object of a repeat visit. He hoped not, but had heard stories about such birds and their reputation for harassing his kind.

As the sun set, he became drowsy. He replaced the day's worries with his dreams. They were dreams that thankfully did not include rooks.

~~~

The next day was a scorcher, but he did not mind. His creator had not given him an aversion to extreme temperatures. He was just as effective on broiling days as he was in deep freezes.

His red button eyes glared at what he was seeing. That bird had once again ventured to the edge of his field.

"I trust you slept well?" the rook cawed.

The scarecrow did not give an answer. From his perspective, it was better not to fraternize with rooks. They were simply too devious.

"Ah, don't be grumpy. I have been thinking about you a lot since yesterday, and I think I have finally figured out why you are so glum all the time."

The scarecrow simply stared at him in response. He was determined not to fraternize.

"It's because of your lot in life," he continued. "You exist day after day after day, and every day you are required to do the same monotonous job. Only one task is given you: keep the crops safe. That's your whole purpose in life."

"It's a job that I do very well," the scarecrow answered momentarily forgetting his ban on fraternization.

"No doubt," the rook answered. "But what I don't understand is why you bother to do it so well?"

"My creator made me for this purpose. That's enough for me. It's all I need."

"Ah, good point. However, just like you said yesterday, you do it for free. Why?"

The scarecrow did not like where this was headed.

"What does the creator pay you? Do you get a share of the harvest? Do you get a percentage of the profits?"

"No," the scarecrow answered. He was a bit surprised in the disappointment that he heard within his own voice.

"Well, no wonder you are so melancholy all the time. I would be the same in your shoes to be sure."

He looked down at his bare straw feet. His creator had not given him any shoes. It was so hard to follow these birds as they spoke. It made his straw-stuffed head ache.

"And on top of everything else," the rook continued, "you're so very thin. I swear you might just blow away on the next wind never to be seen from or heard from again."

His eyes traveled from his feet to the rest of him. He was a sad looking shell of what he had once been. It was true.

"I will leave you for now, but do consider me to be a friend. When I return tomorrow, I will bring you a token of my friendship."

With that, the rook turned and flew off. The scarecrow watched, putting an old work-glove covered hand above his red buttons in order to shade them from the glare of the sun. He watched the rook diminish into a small black dot upon the blue sky before disappearing altogether.

Now that he was alone, he had time to ponder the rook's words. He thought about nothing else for hours. Finally, as the sun was setting, he realized that the rook spoke the truth. He did much for his creator and received nothing in return.

He began to dislike his creator. He tried not to dislike him, but his new knowledge made it difficult. That night, he did not sleep well.

~~~

The sun rose and the scarecrow forced open his red buttons. He was not ready to wake up.

As soon as his peepers adjusted to the morning glare, he saw the rook. It was standing there at the edge of the field just out of range of the scarecrow's world. A small pile of fresh straw sat in front of it.

"Good morning friend," it said in its usual throaty way.

The scarecrow, just like the day before, did not return the greeting. Strangely, he did not hate the bird as he had in the past, but he was not interested in getting especially chummy either. Besides, it was the morning after a poor night's rest so he did not feel like exchanging pleasantries.

He did however acknowledge the little pile of straw that sat at the bird's feet. He stared at it. He coveted it.

"I told you yesterday that I would bring you a token of my friendship."

The scarecrow was listening but his focus was on the straw. It had been so long since his creator had given him any fresh straw. In fact, after thinking hard, he realized that he could not remember his creator ever giving him fresh straw. Now that he saw some just out of reach, his body began to beg for it.

"Ah, I see that you are interested in my gift. It is a fine little specimen, isn't it?"

The scarecrow nodded. The hunger gnawed at him like a starving dog gnawing on a dry bone. He suspected that he knew where this was headed, but knowing that scarecrow brains are simple organs and prone to misunderstanding, he was nervous making a definite conclusion. After all, why would this rook, his sworn enemy, offer up such a gift?

"I just want to be your friend," it said as if it knew his thoughts.

The scarecrow nodded again. He was unsure about this offering. It went against his very existence.

"You must promise that since I come with a peace offering, that you won't harm me if I enter your field to present it to you. Are you willing to make such a promise?"

He paused. Then he nodded. He decided that he would allow this, but would remain vigilant in case of trickery.

"Good. I will take you at your word," the rook said as he picked up the pile of straw within its beak and hopped into the field.

After a few hops, it stopped, and stared at the scarecrow as if caution was ruling its movements. Its onyx eyes stared intently. The scarecrow stared back, remaining still.

After a moment, the rook half hopped, half flew to the scarecrow and perched itself on top of his straw hat.

The scarecrow shivered. It took all of his will power to refrain from doing what he had been made to do. It went against his very being.

In the end, he did not strike. The bird had been right, he was a scarecrow of his word and he had made a promise not to harm this creature, at least for the moment.

The rook dropped down from the hat onto the scarecrow's shoulder and leaned forward, staring him straight in the face. The scarecrow could feel his straw-filled heart pounding. He could feel his instincts fighting against the promise that he had made. In the end he refrained from acting on his urges, but only just barely.

The bird stared into those red buttons and those red buttons stared back. A tumble weed bounced by on the edge of the field. Otherwise, there was no movement.

Finally, the rook broke from the stillness. It moved in quick rook-like movements, stuffing the straw into the scarecrow by way of his open flannel shirt collar.

Words could not express the high that the scarecrow felt at that moment. Now that he had finally received his gift, a gift that he had never received before, not even from his creator; he realized how famished his body was.

While in the throes of ecstasy he heard the bird croak, "I'll be back tomorrow." Then it flew away, leaving him to the whims of his straw-rush.

~~~

The high slowly diminished into a general state of mellowness. That night, he slept well. In fact, it was the most restful night that he had ever experienced in his life. He awoke refreshed.

That morning, he reevaluated his loyalties. Never before had anyone given him such a gift, never ever.

He thought about his creator and realized something. His creator had been neglectful.

He still felt a warm spot in his chest where the new straw sat. The rest of him however was still old and cold. Every inch of him with the exception of the spot that had the new straw, craved what that small spot possessed.

"Well, don't you look chipper this fine morning."

The rook's voice shook him from his thoughts. He put one of his old work-gloved hands to his forehead in order to shade his red buttons so that he could see clearly. He looked and was surprised.

His new friend had brought a friend. Two rooks stood on the edge of the field. Two piles of fresh straw sat in front of them.

"Good morning," one of them shouted.

"It is indeed," the scarecrow responded. He was unsure as to which rook was the one from yesterday and which one was the newcomer. They all looked alike to him.

Besides, he found it hard to focus on the rooks. What drew his attention were the straw piles at their feet.

"We come with gifts!" one of them cawed.

"You may enter my field," he said as he extended his hands to them.

He could not believe that he was going to get more new straw. He wanted it of course. He yearned for it and anticipated the high that would follow.

He could not believe that these rooks were so kind. He realized then that his creator had brainwashed him into thinking that birds were evil creatures. Now he realized that the real enemy was the ever-neglectful creator.

"Before we enter your field, we need to come to an agreement."

"Yes, yes of course," he answered quickly. "I won't harm you, just bring me the straw."

"Thank you for that," one of them responded with a chuckle. "But we need something more."

"What do you mean?" he asked. This delay in gratification irked him.

"Now don't be cross," the second one said. "It's just that we are now friends and friends help each other.

"What do you mean?" he said again, this time in a gruffer tone.

"We aren't asking for much, just a little quid pro quo."

The scarecrow's burlap chin began to quiver and if his eyes had been more than just red buttons, they would have shed tears. He desperately wanted his fix. He needed it. He hoped that whatever the price was, it was something that he could afford.

"We ask for nothing that you don't already have at your disposal."

"What is it that you want from me?" he was quickly growing short on patience.

"We just want a little grain from your field."

"Out of the question!" he responded automatically.

He knew what happened to scarecrows that allow birds to get at the crops. They get torn apart and fed to the cattle or perhaps given to the chickens as nesting material.

Both of the rooks looked at him with forlorn expressions. Their eyes pleaded with him. He looked away so that he did not have to see them begging. Their request was simply something that he could not grant, at least not as long as he wished to continue living.

"What else can I give you in exchange for the straw?" He was desperate. He wanted that straw. He needed it!

"You have nothing else that we want."

He looked back at the straw piles. They looked heavenly.

"We will never tell a soul, cross our hearts and hope to die."

He fidgeted on his perch and had it in mind to just come over there and take the straw by force, but knew that he would fail. The straw was just beyond the field, just beyond his reach.

"We won't require much, just a pile of grain half the size of our straw. What do you say? Can we strike a deal?"

"No," he sobbed. He wanted to say otherwise, but he could not.

The rooks looked at each other. Then they looked at him. "We need grain. We came to you in good faith as friends, but if you can't help us, then I guess the rumors are true."

"What rumors?"

"Scarecrows are incapable of friendliness. They are just too brainwashed by their creators. They are simply too focused on protecting fields to have time for friendly relations with others."

He huffed at them and watched as they picked up their straw piles and turned away. It appeared that they were leaving!

"Wait!" he screamed just as they were disappearing over the ridge. "Come back! I will pay your price!"

He covered his lips with his gloved hands the instant those words came bumbling out. For goodness sakes, what if the creator had heard him?

They returned to the edge of the field, once again dropping their precious cargo in front of them. "You will pay us the agreed upon amount of grain?"

He nodded vigorously.

"Good choice friend."

They entered the field. They filled him up. Then he watched as they took their payment. He knew that he should not be allowing this, but honestly, he did not care much. He had what he wanted and at that moment, nothing else mattered.

~~~

The portion of straw had been doubled as compared to his previous experience. Therefore so had his rush.

The feeling was almost too much. He felt as if he were on the verge of a meltdown, one glorious meltdown.

That night he slept in a haze. His straw heart was pumping with such ferocity that he could see it vibrate his chest with every beat. His brain was delirious. His only clear thoughts related to concerns about how he was going to get more new straw tomorrow.

He thought about his next fix and lamented the fact that he felt sure that they would want more of his grain. He had so much grain this close to harvest, still he worried. What would happen after the harvest? How would he get his fix then without anything to barter with? His high quickly morphed into a bad trip.

He woke up the next morning, still a little drunk. His head felt light and his limbs felt heavy.

There on the edge of the field, he saw them. He squinted shut his red buttons and re-opened them, wondering if he were seeing double.

He saw four of them standing on the edge of the field with a pile of straw in front of each one. He breathed in deeply and caught the aroma of their gifts. The scent enticed him.

"Good morning," one of them called out. "I trust that you are ready for the breakfast we bring?"

The rook's voice sounded strange from the scarecrow's semi-intoxicated perspective, as if he were listening to them through a long tunnel. He nodded nonetheless.

"And of course you will allow us to eat breakfast as well?"

He assumed nothing less. He bid them to come.

They entered his field and filled him up. The last thing that he remembered before blacking out from his four-pile straw-gratification was seeing them gleaning their payment.

"We'll be back tomorrow," he heard them shout as he lost consciousness. "We'll be back."

~~~

"Wake up, friend."

He did not open his red buttons. He preferred to keep them closed. He wanted to go back to sleep.

"Wake up and greet us."

"I don't want to," he mumbled.

He was surprised at the incoherency of his own words. They were slow and slurry.

A weight landed on his head and suddenly the rook's voice sounded very close. "It's time to get up."

How dare they enter my field without permission, he thought to himself. How dare they!

His brain was commanding his red buttons to open, but they only partially obeyed; opening only enough to give him a blurry image.

He could feel the one who stood on his head as its talons dug into his sensitive scalp. He decided that he would shake his head to remove the unwanted intruder, but just like his eyes, there was only minimal response and not enough to do any good.

"Come on, sleepy head. We haven't got all day. We are all quite hungry."

Suddenly, he heard a great commotion of bird caws. That, in combination with the fact that he felt something wet and smelly dripping down his hat and onto his face, gave him the motivation to finally open his eyes fully. What he saw shocked him.

As far as he could tell, no other rooks had entered the field with the exception of the one who stood on his scalp. However, the edge of the field was another matter entirely. From the edge of his field all the way back to the ridge, he saw nothing but black feathers and grey beaks; an entire murder.

His brain wanted to tell them to go away, but his mouth would not communicate this command. Only a sad garbled mess issued from his lips, not words but gibberish.

"Ah, our friend is waking up a bit," announced the one that was perched upon him.

Again, he tried to speak. Again, only unintelligible garbage came out.

"It sounds like our good friend the scarecrow is offering the grain in his field for our feast. Isn't that right friend?"

That was most certainly not what he was saying! That was not what he was trying to say at all!

He heard the one on his head give out a malicious chuckle. He could feel a beak tickling his ear and he knew that he was about to receive an intimate message.

"So, you always prided yourself in keeping your field free of us birds? True, at one time, you were the fastest of your kind and the best at your job. Too bad you're so stupid."

Again, the scarecrow tried to shake his head so as to remove the unwanted rook, but it was a sad attempt. Nothing changed.

"I do believe that you have been duped," the voice in his ear continued.

He winced as the rook pecked once at the side of his head. He tried to swat at it, but his arms felt too heavy to move.

The bird chuckled again. "Don't feel bad. You are not the first of your kind that we have fooled and I am sure that you won't be the last. We just want your grain for our survival. It's nothing personal."

By now the rage within him was so intense that he would not have been surprised to see his straw body spontaneously combust under the heat of his anger. Rage-filled or not however, his feelings amounted to nothing. He could not fight, not in his current condition.

"Brothers and sisters!" the rook shouted to the flock. "Today we feast!"

At that, the entire murder of rooks entered the field and began to pillage the grain. They were ravaging his field quicker than a plague of locust.

He wanted to stop them more than anything. He rallied his strength, and let out his fiercest war cry, but in reality it sounded more like a moan of despair.

The last thing that he saw with those red buttons of his, was a group of about a dozen rooks. They dove upon him, knocking him from his perch and shoving wads of straw into his body from every angle all at once.

He was overdosing and he knew it, but there was no way to escape. His straw heart was racing out of control, seemingly unable to stop, but then it did.

It stopped beating mid-pump. Those red buttons glossed over as the rooks continued to gorge.

~~~

The farmer sat upon an old wooden stool. In front of him, on a workbench sat his new creation. The components of the creation were simple; just straw, burlap, and some old clothes.

The clothes were from his own wardrobe. He always used his own clothes for these projects because he liked his creations to be made in his own image.

He turned and looked behind him. A sorrowful expression covered his face as he looked upon what had been tossed in the far back corner of his workroom. There, in a disheveled heap were the remains of the last scarecrow.

The farmer was sad as he looked upon those remains. He had liked old Red-eye. That scarecrow had done such a great job for such a long time.

"Sooner or later, so many of them tend to fall away," the farmer said to himself. "Sooner or later so many of them give into temptation."

The farmer was disappointed, not because the birds had ravaged his field, but because another of his creation had strayed. He never wanted any of them to fall from grace. He wished that they would remain his loyal subjects indefinitely.

Still, he always created them with free will. After all, what good does it do to create something that is loyal to you not because it wants to be, but because it has no choice.

The farmer wiped away a tear. If old Red-eye had only realized the error of his ways in time and repented, he would have been forgiven. But now it was too late. Old Red-eye was no more.

Slowly, he got up from the stool and sauntered over to the lifeless pile. He picked up the beak-pecked, burlap face. He pulled out his pocketknife. With two quick swipes he removed what he needed.

He held those red buttons in his calloused hands knowing that they would make nice peepers for the new creation. With a sigh, he turned from the old to make things new.


Shawn was born in Clovis New Mexico but currently lives in the Omaha Nebraska area. He is currently building a following with two novels to his name. His first book, THE SPACE BETWEEN, was published through Martin Sisters Publishing (MSP) in 2013. In 2015, due to positive sales of that first book, MSP released the sequel entitled THE DEVIL’S REVENGE. In addition, he has numerous stories in publications such as SPECKLIT, FLASHES IN THE DARK, THEME OF ABSENCE, and now TWJ Magazine. His novels have been described as a mixture of Ted Dekker, Frank Peretti, and Dean Koontz. Be watching for the third in THE SPACE BETWEEN trilogy coming soon. In order to learn more about Shawn, please visit his website at www.shawnbrinkauthor.wordpress.com.

 

 

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