The Scarecrows

The first scarecrow I made looked like my father. When he died, my mum and I did not know what to do with his clothes. At first, we left them in the closet where they had always been, but after a while my mother couldn’t bear the sight of them anymore. She moved them to a chair in his office, a room she never entered, and left them there. Sometimes at night I would walk in and look at the chair and imagine it was him, crumpled up into a ball, hiding his face from me as if we were playing a game of hide and seek.

But then I would reach out my hand as if to tell him I was right there, and I would touch the pile of clothes and find nothing but fabric and dust. The smell reminded me of death, and I began to have nightmares about the pile slowly taking on a life of its own and crawling to my bedroom door. So, I decided it had to go.

It did not occur to me to donate the clothes or throw them away. Instead, I brought them to the old garden shed at the back of the house and dropped them on another chair. For the first few days this felt like a good solution. Neither my mother nor I mentioned my father or the fact that all the things in the house that used to remind us of him had quietly disappeared into the back of cupboards we never opened. Slowly every memory of him was removed and we seemed the better for it. It was no longer my parent’s house, but my mother’s.

I had forgotten about the clothes in the garden shed until a week after hiding them away. My mother complained about the many leaves that had accumulated in our backyard and asked me to remove them. Autumn had started and our garden no longer looked green and full of life. I had opened the door to the shed to get the leaf rake when I was met by the musty, dirty looking pile of clothes that still somehow belonged to my father.

I stared at it for an hour. I couldn’t or didn’t want to move. The cold autumn wind blew past me into the shed and swept up the dust from the clothes, making me unable to breathe. I was afraid to inhale something that was still partly my father, something that could remotely be him. Leaves started to be blown in as well at this point and the only thing that seemed logical to me at that time was to mix the leaves with my father’s clothes.

My hands almost aggressively stuffed my father’s jacket, his trousers, a white shirt, even a pair of old working boots that had been standing in the shed for years. I stopped when I saw that I had created a figure that resembled my father on the damp grass floor. I didn’t cry. It all made sense to me, this was a logical thing to do when someone grieved, and I wondered why I hadn’t seen more scarecrows in the village.

It took me three hours to sew all the openings to his clothes shut and to tie them together. It was dark by the time my father’s scarecrow was erected onto a stick. And it was  midnight by the time I had found a suitable place for him. My mother didn’t look up when I finally came home, and she didn’t ask me where I had been.

The second scarecrow I made was of the little girl who washed up upon the shore. I didn’t hear about it on the news, which my mother had been obsessively watching since the vote in June. I heard about it from the woman behind the register at the local Coop. She wasn’t talking to me, but she talked loudly and in an exciting manner so that  practically the whole store could hear her story.

The girl was found on the beach, near the scarecrow of my father. No one had ever attempted to remove him in the time since I had put him there. No one talked to me or my mother about it, even though they all knew it was my father. They recognised his clothes; he was a local handyman who often fixed-up people’s houses. It seemed that the village just accepted his presence and therefore by default also his absence.

The girl on the other hand wasn’t like anyone in the village. Her skin was dark and her hair was half hidden by a scarf. No one knew what to do with her and no one thought about calling the police since people didn’t like the authorities interfering with their village life. So, she was left there in the wet sand until she suddenly disappeared after two days.

I hadn’t taken her. I also didn’t know who had and no one seemed keen on speculating who it might have possible been. People seemed more pleased with the fact that the strange occurrence was gone. But I was taken over by grief once again and I didn’t know why. The only logical thing I could think of in response to this feeling was to make another scarecrow. I took some clothes from the local second-hand shop and I stuffed them with sand from the beach. At night, I put her next to my father.

The next morning another body had appeared at the feet of the scarecrows. A man this time. Middle aged with dark brown hair and skin that resembled the wet sand underneath him. People became unsettled and words such as “foreigner” and  “unwanted” began to be thrown around as if those who had washed up on the beach were bad omens. Some believed the scarecrows were responsible and a clear divide began to establish itself within the village. Those who wanted to protect the scarecrows and those who wanted them gone.

Those who wanted them gone argued that the beach belonged to them and them alone, and someone couldn’t just put up these scarecrows without permission. Those who wanted to protect the scarecrows said that sand couldn’t belong to anyone since it wasn’t anyone’s to own and thus it was the scarecrows’ right to be there. I said nothing.

My mother continued to watch the news. She didn’t notice me making the third scarecrow, which resembled the middle-aged man whose body had also disappeared after two days. I fashioned his hair out of leaves, green and voluminous. My mother was still watching the news when a third body washed up on the beach. It was a young woman, her clothes torn apart by a pair of hands or the waves of the sea.

People in the village started to fight. Graffiti had appeared on the wall of one of the houses of those who supported the scarecrows. GO and AWAY it said. I stared at it for a long time and wondered where the scarecrows could possibly go. I made another scarecrow, resembling the woman with the torn skirt. I made her hands out of twigs and wrapped small pieces of fabric around them. I put her next to the little girl and the following morning another body had appeared.

At this point the second-hand shop owner refused to sell any more clothes, because he realised they were used for the scarecrows and he was of the strong opinion that they needed to go. They didn’t belong, he argued, no one wanted them here. They didn’t contribute to the village and brought only problems.

But I couldn’t stop making the scarecrows and so I started making the clothes out of plants as well. I fashioned a whole suit out of leaves for the dark coloured businessman who showed up on day ten. I made a blanket out of flowers for the baby three days later, and a t-shirt out of grassy weeds for the mother. I formed their eyes out of chestnuts and showed them to my mother who was still watching the news.

After a couple of weeks half the beach was filled up with scarecrows. Underneath the words GO and AWAY someone had painted a smiling scarecrow. The other half of the beach was now occupied with parasols and sun loungers. Those who didn’t want the scarecrows at the beach often sat on those loungers and tried to have fun while the scarecrows gazed at them from a distance. Half of the village no longer talked to the other half. Everyone was angry.

On the first day of autumn a fence appeared around the beach. No one was allowed in and no one knew if the scarecrows were still there. Someone had painted over the words GO and AWAY and over the smiling scarecrow on the side of the house. My mother had turned off the news.

 

Written by Veerle de Jong

Veerle de Jong received first place in the 2019 One Book One Campus contest. Students of Utrecht University College and Utrecht University alike were invited to create a response to Ali Smith’s Autumn. We thought Veerle wrote a wonderful story about a carefully constructed world that sutures heavyset themes such as xenophobia and mourning. The spectral presence that is felt throughout the story is subtle yet undeniable, and is but one of the aspects that resonates Smith’s writing. Congratulations on behalf of the Paratext Team!

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