Black Lung Hay Fever
by S.E. Casey
Visible waves of heat rose from the sea of wheat. Buoyed by the updrafts, motes of chaff the size and shape of locusts hung in the air. The yellow field wasn’t much to look at, not a tree, rock cropping, or silo to provide any point of reference in the hill-less landscape. Yet, the old-timers sitting outside Jasper’s Corner Store stared into it day after day as if vigilant for some sinister arrival.
The lone landmark of the flat field was a useless totem, only visible at sunset and easily dismissed. The silhouetted figure would only appear against the backdrop of the crimson pre-night sky. Stuck in the same pose, the scarecrow’s arms were raised toward the heavens as if exalting the coming of the night. Set up on a riser, its legs were similarly splayed, assuming a wide base as if trying to stand without aid of its pole.
The sunset’s straw specter had been marooned out in the field the same way for so long, it barely registered with Randall’s residents. The durum wheat had soured long ago, useless even as livestock fodder. Indeed, the scarecrow not serving the town any practical purpose, they didn’t even have a name for it. Even the old men, the only people in town who would have witnessed any activity in the fields, never called it by name. Sipping their beers, they would sometimes trade short quips of childhood memories of the former industry, but if they remembered what it was, they never spoke it.
The backlight of the setting sun obscured any of the scarecrow’s features. It was just a smudge against the horizon, its details hidden from the town. If its eye buttons had fallen off, or its denim overalls had been eaten away by weevils, or its straw hair had blown out from under its floppy palm hat, no one would know. If its burlap mouth was torn into a smile or a frown, no one remembered.
Strangely, it was only in the short interval between day and night that its outline was visible. During the day, the distortions of the blaring sun bent the white light around the straw figure, hiding it in plain sight. Despite being lashed to a post, under the sun it disappeared with the deftness of a master illusionist.
It was the hottest day of the summer. In the Midwest drought season, it hadn’t rained in weeks despite the humidity. The sun seemed late to set as if it took on a sadistic personality and wanted to beat down the land for some extra time. Against the delayed crimson sky, two shadows stood in the middle of the field. Many distrusted their eyes, believing it to be some optical illusion, a product of the heatwave. However, as the background color deepened, there could be no doubt. Squatting beside the field’s scarecrow was a smaller one, it too, arms raised and legs splayed like da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.
The town reacted dully to the news unwilling to be jolted out of their afternoon routines. Camped out under the share of the corner store, the old-timers sipped their beers. Under the wide brims of their weathered cowboy hats, their stares were pinned to the new addition on the horizon. However, they seemed neither surprised nor worried.
How anything new could be built so far out in the disused field was a mystery. The ground was too rutted and overgrown for even the most rugged trucks or jeeps. The large threshers with the crawler treads was the only way it could be traversed. But with no need for these vehicles since the crop went bad, long ago had they been sold off to farmers in faraway places, scrapped for parts, or simply left to rust out in abandoned barns.
A few of the townsfolk asked the old-timers if they had seen anyone entering the fields.
The old men shook their heads. They hadn’t.
The twin dark profiles of the two scarecrows returned the next day and the day after that. Whispered rumors spread around Randall.
It came to a head at noon on the third day, an angry woman barreling onto Jasper’s porch.
Vivian Traylor didn’t need to get the attention of the men. In her fury, she could hardly be missed.
“You know what’s out there don’t you? Have you seen Violet? Did she go into the fields? Was she taken?”
Vivian’s daughter had been missing for three days.
However, if her accusation surprised them, the old-timers didn’t flinch. They shook their heads. They hadn’t seen anything.
Vivian stood her ground. She was a rare single mother in the god-fearing community. She hadn’t been raised in Randall nor did she have any relatives in town to vouch for her. As an outsider, she bore her loss alone, perceiving a lack of sincerity in any of Randall’s rescue efforts.
The town froze for a long minute. Vivian continued to fume. The old timers continued to sit, but didn’t drink their beers. Those shopping at Jaspers stayed inside. No one dared to step out onto that shivering porch.
Vivian finally bent down to look into the old men’s eyes tucked under their cowboy hats. Her body language softened. They were telling the truth. Wiping away her tears, she allowed them a reluctant nod. Shooting a disgusted glance to the many who watched her from the windows of Jasper’s, grocery bags in their hands, she limped off the porch toward the field.
The scarecrows were hidden in the glare of the midday sun. Still, Vivian strained for a glimpse among the waving stems and spikes. It was impossible to pinpoint exactly where to look despite seeing them every sundown. It was as if the mind held two distinct memories of the field—one in the day, the other at sunset—and was incapable of overlaying the two. The ocean of wheat remained inscrutable, only the contrast of the red end-of-day sky would reveal their location.
She would wait.
Do you care for a seat ma’am?
Vivian spun around to face the old-timers, but she failed to place the gravelly voice with a face. Vivian studied the old men, all Randall natives who despite the town’s demise had never left. There was an empty seat courtesy of Bob Brannum’s passing. Pancreatic cancer had taken him during the winter and his chair hadn’t been sat in since.
Deciding the offer sincere, she declined with an appreciative nod and turned back to the sun-drenched fields.
Under the shade of Jasper’s awning, the men shrugged and sipped their beers.
The spectacle soon drew a crowd. The town was too small for this drama to go unnoticed.
When the outline of the scarecrows materialized against the first embers of the setting sun, Vivian stepped into the field. Ghost-like clouds of pollen haunted in her wake as she angrily batted away the willowy stalks to clear a path. Vivian stumbled badly, the ground uneven and rutty, untilled as it had been for decades. She also battled over the hardened clumps of dead plant matter, twisted gnarls where the crop had died, rotted, and congealed. Only with her maternal resolve did she manage to fight through.
The leering townspeople watched as she disappeared into the jaundiced wheat. Couples held hands, men clenched their fists, and women nervously twisted their rings. They charted Vivian’s progress by the shaking tops of the wheat surface. Soon, however, they lost her trail in the failing light. Even Vivian’s sobbing cries for Violet vanished too, washed out by the call of the nighttime crickets. With nothing else to see, the town would have to wait until morning to know what she would find.
The crowd dispersed excepting the old-timers. For hours yet, they sat and drank their seemingly endless beers.
A rapt audience greeted the sunset. The entire town found an excuse to be idling outside Jasper’s Corner Store. Nothing had changed. Vivian hadn’t returned. Violet was still missing. The old-timers sat as usual, every seat taken except for the one.
In the first blush of sunset, silhouettes of three scarecrows surfaced. Many eyes were cast to the old-timers.
The old men shrugged and sipped their beers.
The blank profiles deep in the field were dreadfully motionless, the summer’s thick humidity holding them corpse-still, not allowing even a flutter of clothing or loose straw. Nonetheless, the town watched the contorted shadows until they disappeared under the pall of a moonless night.
Imaginations stirred. Fantasies inflamed. Anything could be out there in the impenetrable darkness: a grand feast underway, a celebration of lovers, the building of a steeply gabled mansion, a sharpening of knives, a worship of some deranged deity… But no one would ever know. The only thing visible in the sinister theatre was the dull light of the stars hovering above in their meaningless patterns.
Despite the velvet curtain of night being drawn shut, no one went home. There would be no sleep in Randall given the insinuation of this nocturnal menace.
A pick-up truck screeched to a halt off the side of the road. The men that had snuck away from the spectacle exited the truck and grabbed the gas cans that filled its bed. They doused the first row of the wheat field. Retreating a safe distance, the fire chief lit the starter points. Aided by the accelerants, the dry stalks caught quickly. The easterly wind that always seemed to strengthen after twilight propelled the blaze outwards into the heart of the field, the dry husks generously sharing their fire.
The orange flames licked up to the heavens. Yellow tongues burst where the dense tangles of decomposed plant matter erupted, the pressurized compost releasing its dormant energy all at once.
The townspeople could feel the heat, but the smoke and stench were carried away by the easterly wind. The blaze that raced away would be stopped at the Red Elm River that spanned its back border. The asphalt double lane highways that flanked the fields would similarly contain it from spreading horizontally. It would be a peaceful razing, nothing of any practical or nostalgic worth in the burn zone.
The town watched the circus of flame with a hushed reverence. Even the boys stopped running around in their endless games of tag, or pulling at the girls’ pigtails. They sat on the porch of the corner store, legs dangling off the edge, paying more attention than they did in any subject at school. In their formative years, the apocalypse of fire seared into their soft memories.
“Poor scarecrow. At least now he won’t be able to hurt anyone ever again,” little red-headed Ricky Moroge announced to no one in particular.
Eyes hidden under the various styles of weathered cowboy hats, the old men shrugged. Sitting shoulder to shoulder, every seat taken, they sipped their beers in silence. Illuminated by the light of the burning field, no one gave a second glance to the ragged old-timer, hat dustier and floppier than any other, with the horribly straight spine and frayed grin.
About the Author
Not long after celebrating his twenty years of accounting service in a large Boston investment firm, S.E. Casey began to write. As an attempt to quell an unspecific desperation and stave off a growing resentment of everything, he found stories buried in the unlikely between-spaces of numbers, balances, and accounting formulae. This expanding existential collection has been published in many magazines and online publications, which can be found at secaseyauthor.wordpress.
Also, you can follow S.E. Casey on Twitter @thesecasey.