Saturday, October 1, 2011

It's Good to be Afraid -- 02, October

02,October– Night

The scarecrow was glad for the early onset of night. The boredom of the day had passed. Being observed out here in the dark was almost impossible. The sun had been a baking force of anger throughout the day, and now there was a cool breeze and dew had begun to cling to his body.

After a time, the scurrying noise from last night returned, and suddenly the boy burst out from the corn rows. The scarecrow remained still for a moment, feeling the boy's gaze on him. Then he snapped his eyes open, smiled and dropped from the post.

“I waited all day!” The boy said. “I kind of thought maybe it was all a weird dream.”
“Wouldn't I be more of a nightmare?” The scarecrow asked. He withdrew the sickle from its hiding place, then stretched and examined its glint in the moonlight.
“No. Why?”
“I don't exactly fit most people's criteria for something they would like to meet alone at night.”
“I'm not most people,” said the boy. “I'm a weirdo.”
“You look pretty typical to me,” the scarecrow told him.
“I'm a weirdo. That's what they always call me at school. At least they used to. Now they don't even call me that any more.”
“Hmm, is it better to be hated or ignored?”
“I'm not sure. At least I haven't gotten beaten up in a long time.”
“Perhaps they're afraid of you.” The scarecrow grinned. “Regardless, my friend won't call you a freak, but even if did, it would only be out of good humor.”
“Is he here?” The boy asked. He looked around, even though they were clearly alone.
“No, but all we have to do is wait.”
“I've already waited all day!”
“And I as well, but a friend comes when he comes, not when you want. Let's go up the hill, to where we can see the road better.”

With that, he disappeared into the rows of corn, and the boy had no choice but to quickly follow behind, before he lost sight of him.
They journeyed only a little ways away until they found themselves beneath the shadow of a water tower. The scarecrow had just grasped the rung of a ladder with his right hand when the boy called out “Hey! We're not allowed up there.”

“Not allowed?” Asked the scarecrow. “Why not?”
“It's the rules. Only grampa goes up there, and sometimes when he hires a worker.”
“Hum,” the scarecrow said. “Rules.” He seemed to be trying the word out, like an unfamiliar flavor. “I suppose we can see well enough from here.”
He took a seat on the cold ground, and the boy joined him. The two sat watching the road, and the boy found that time spent waiting wasn't so bad when it was with a friend. He told the scarecrow about school, about his teachers and what he planned to do with his Sunday.

“Did you get to see your mother before she left for work?” The scarecrow asked, remembering their brief talk from the day before.
“No,” The boy said.
“Did you sleep in?”
“No, I got up, but. . . she was too busy.”
“Oh, busy, busy lives. I'm going to have a lot of things to do myself, soon.”
“Oh.” The boy sounded dejected.
“Maybe, if you could help me, it wouldn't be quite such a busy time.”
“That would be awesome! Is your friend going to help, too?”
“Oh yes. We're all going to work together. In fact, do you see something ahead there?” He pointed with his mangled hand to where the road crested a rolling hill.

“Are those headlights?”
“Lights, yes, I believe. And a head. . . well, sort of.”
The light was approaching slowly, swaying back and forth as it neared. “Is it Jack?” the boy asked.
“It is,” the scarecrow told him.
“Is he nice?”
“Nice, hum?” The scarecrow seemed to consider this, once again tasting the word like something unfamiliar. “He is. . . a tricky one. He won't do you harm, but I have to encourage you never to make a deal with him.”

As the light drew nearer, it became apparent that it was some sort of lantern carried by someone walking. The scarecrow stood then and waved his arm toward the road twice in a wide arc. The light rose into the air in mutual acknowledgment, then started across the field.  The scarecrow walked down the hill, and the boy kept close behind. The two parties met near a wooden fence at the side of the road.

“Jack,” the scarecrow said.
“Aye, 'lo, good 'eve,” the other replied. He was a tall man, gaunt, and very old. He looked to the boy to be at least as old as his grandfather. He had a long chin that pointed straight down to the center of his narrow chest. Above it was a hooked nose that resembled the crescent moon shining just overhead. What the boy had perceived as a lantern was actually a hallowed-out pumpkin, and inside, the source of light seemed to be a single glowing ember.
“And who's this, then?” The old man asked, turning the pumpkin's light fully on the boy's face.

The boy winced away, suddenly feeling shy.
“He's a friend,” The scarecrow said.
“Ahh, a day into the season and ye've made a friend already, have ye? And who are ye, friendly boy?”
“William,” he responded quietly. “William Samuelson.”
The scarecrow clarified, “His family owns the farm.”
“Ahh! Fine place to live, this time o' the year, eh boy?”
“It's fine,” the boy agreed. Jack laughed at this response. “And just who are you?” The boy asked, suddenly finding courage.

“Ye don't know who I am, me boy? I am Jack O' the Lantern.” He held the lit pumpkin up once more, as if it hadn't been the most obvious thing in his possession so far. “Ye do know who Jack O' the Lantern is, aye?”
“I know. . . I know about carving pumpkins.”
“Pumpkins!” Jack laughed again. “When I started, it was turnips, back in those days. Then I came to ye country one day, and oh, pumpkins a plenty. So much easier to carve, and they keep me ember from singein' off me knuckle hair.”

The ember. The boy took a closer look, feeling less scared all the time, and indeed it seemed to be a single ember emitting all the light, but how did it stay hot for so long? “What is it?” The boy asked.

“A single cinder,” Jack said, “From the Devil's fire. Gave it to me to light my way, he did. A friendly gesture.”
“Friendly? Indeed,” said the scarecrow.

Jack laughed again. The boy was starting to think maybe he was just a funny guy, and not laughing at his expense after all. “Y'see dear boy,” the old man said, “Ol' Jack here cheated 'is way out of Hell, but they don't let cheaters into Heaven, neither, so now with no where to stay, I go wherever I like.”

“You cheated the Devil?” the boy asked in wonder.
“Aye!” Jack laughed again.
“He's had less favorable names than, 'O' the Lantern,” The scarecrow said wryly.
Jack laughed again. “Stingy Jack, oh aye. They did used to call me that back once upon a time. Suppose I was, suppose I am. Ah, yer a good lad though, ain't ya?”
The boy shrugged, and Jack laughed again.
His smile narrowed, though, and once again addressing the scarecrow, he asked, “So, 'e really lives here, does 'e?”

The scarecrow nodded, then turned to the boy. “Jack and I need to go and have a talk. You can meet me back at the pole tomorrow night, though, and we can start talking about how you can help with our business, okay?”

“Ohh,” Jack interjected. “The lad's going to be helping us out, is 'e? He's not going to be afraid?”
“Tomorrow's Sunday,” The boy said. “I have school in the morning, so. . .”

Jack had turned the pumpkin away and was shining it down the road. Though it contained only a single ember, the lantern cut a long sharp swathe through the night, turning the road into a tunnel of darkness. The boy found himself wondering what was out there, beyond the light, in the cool night air. “I can come see you, though,” he found himself saying, “For a little bit at least.”

“If you are certain," said the scarecrow. "Fear might keep most people away from the night. More prudent people, you might say.”
“I'm not afraid of the dark.”
“It's good to be brave,” the scarecrow told him, “Sometimes it can help the people around you. But fear can keep you alive, when you listen.”

“I'm not afraid,” the boy responded as he backed into the corn. “And I'll see you tomorrow.” The ears of corn slid together, obscuring the two figures, but he could still hear them discussing something in hushed tones as he slowly made his was back to the house.

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