The Hopeful Wanderer – Guard Against

As I passed through a night dark farm, the door of a wood shed near the farmhouse rattled from the inside. A voice from within yelled, “Let me out! Let me OUT!”

I stopped at the door, hand on the cold iron latch, but didn’t open it. “Who’s in there?”

Something heavy slumped against the inner door. “This farm’s guardian. A scarecrow.”

Raising an eyebrow, I asked, “What’s a guardian doing locked up in the wood shed?”

“The farmer gave up on the harvest. Stored me in here.” The voice sounded more angry than plaintive. A thump like a slammed fist made me jump. “I ask you, what’s a scarecrow without crows to scare?”

I shrugged. Unable to argue with that logic, I pulled the door open.

All at once, I was face to face around the edge of the door with a bright orange pumpkin, light from within casting two broad black exes for eyes in stark relief. Body made up of an orange raincoat and red shirt. A trail of holiday lights led away from the back of the scarecrow’s neck into the shed.

The scarecrow’s head tilted as it looked me up and down.

I raised my hands. “Easy…”

“You’re no crow,” the scarecrow observed. A warm scent like decaying pumpkin pulp drifted to me. “More of a wren, I’d say. Now I have work to do. Leave this land.”

The scarecrow thumped and jerked away, headed for the withered cornfield I had cut through earlier. The holiday lights clicked along the ground in its wake, until somewhere inside the shed, the cord popped free from the plug.

The pumpkin in the distance blinked. Blinked. And went out. The scarecrow’s silhouette vanished in the darkness.

“Hey, you’re welcome,” I muttered.

In the trees overhead, a crow cawed.


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The Hopeful Wanderer – No Choice At All

A twinkling deep in the desert brought me to a choice. One that appeared as one light from a distance, but separated into three as I drew near. Beneath the star-splashed night sky, a lone figure stood. Cloaked in black. A bird’s face for a mask. Bone, etched with secrets and mystery.

A trio of candles sputtered upon an iron candelabra. The figure held the candles out toward me.

From beneath the mask, a deep voice reverberated with the tones of the desert. “You may choose, Wanderer.”

“What are the choices?” I asked.

“Blow out the candle that burns with your name, your path, or your past.”

All things I wanted. I considered the candles before me, but none of them showed their secrets. Closing my eyes, I hovered my palms over them, feeling for cold spots. Listening with my other senses. Nothing came to me.

Except.

The barest whisper. Replace me, replace me, replace me… Coming from inside the mask or… from the mask itself. Along with the scent of decay.

When I glanced back up at the figure’s face, the eye sockets of the mask wept tears of blood down the beak. One or two sizzled where they dripped onto hot wax.

“CHOOSE.”

In one huge breath, I blew out all three.

The desert grinned sideways at me.

From the darkness, the figure’s deep voice came. Distraught. Reproving. “That’s cheating.”

A bright flash of orange sparks and blue smoke illuminated the figure for a second. The mask had morphed into the rotting skull of a long-dead bird. The beak clacked once at me and then the figure vanished.

These desert haunts were canny foes. Annoyed at myself for falling for the usual tricks, I scuffed my toe in the sand. “Well, I think I won in the end.”


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The Hopeful Wanderer – Tree Huggers

From my angle, arms wrapped around several tree trunks as if holding on for dear life. Just arms, it seemed. Their bodies

hidden

or

gone.

I stood in the middle of a forest wrapped in arms, hyperventilating. Because I could feel a pull, a tug, a call to join. And when I walked around to the other side of the first tree, I found a person… hugging it.

Only. Tree bark overlapped the man’s outline. He had his face pressed so deep into the tree that the bark had conformed to him. Or he to the bark. His hands held on tight, with a white-knuckled desperation.

The other hugged trees had more people pressed against them. As if they had all wandered in from the same direction and just pushed themselves into the side of a tree. Every one of them breathed, but I could not guess at how.

Tugging the shoulder of one woman, I managed to pry her grip from her tree. She pulled away with a sucking pop, her whole front peeling out of an impression the shape of her body.

When she turned to me, she had no face. Just the pattern of wood grain dug into her skin. I stumbled back, but she made no moves to attack or leave. Just stood there. Lost.

I had pulled several others from their trees before I noticed the first few had quietly pressed themselves back into place in their indentations. I watched, helpless, as the rest followed suit, one by one.

I could not save them.

All this time I had avoided looking at one particular tree. This one empty of a hugger. I longed to wrap my arms around its trunk and remain here forever. So instead of rescuing everyone, I saved myself and walked away.


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The Hopeful Wanderer – Lent Shape

On the outskirts of a forgotten town, I found a person with a white sheet draped over them.

The sheet covered their entire body. They stood in front of a burnt out building on the side of a gravel drive. Just stood there. All day. No one else came or went. And I sat on a stone wall on the other side of the drive, watching. Waiting to see what they would do.

But in the end, as twilight began to creep up from the horizon, I gave in first.

Gravel crunched beneath my shoes, echoing loud off the nearby building. I approached the seeming specter at an angle, going slow, as if to avoid startling a wild creature. The enshrouded person did not move away.

“Hey,” I said. “What are you doing out here? Are you okay?”

As if to face me, the head turned, tracking me. They made no reply.

I crouched down in front of the person. Even this close, they smelled like nothing more than laundry detergent. “I won’t hurt you,” I said. “I’m just going to check.” Hand shaking, I took the rough hem of the sheet and lifted, peering beneath to see the person’s face.

No one was inside.

Within the human-shaped space underneath, reddish evening sunlight filtered through the cloth on the other side of where the head should have been.

I dropped the hem and backed away, breathing hard.

A muffled voice said, “No one sees me without this on. You were watching, so I stayed.”

Then the sheet made all the motions of someone opening it up. Invisible arms pushed the cloth off and it fell into a heap at my feet.

“Where…” I turned all the way around, but I was alone with the pile of cloth, “…did you go?”


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Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash