The rattle, low in the breeze, is just discernible over the thud of his work boots. There are no snakes out here in the fields, the rattle is just the common, pleasant whisper of the drying stalks he has come to know the past month. It is early September, the corn is underripe, and the bounty is yet to be harvested. The work on the farm is difficult but pays the bills, and there is always a need for more hands before the maze opens for Halloween. This was the opening that he needed and the chance he received.
There are five work hands total, but unlike the man, they are all related to the owners of the farm. They only accept non-related workers who are really in a bind, penniless, possibly with criminal history, and usually without family, and for that the man is grateful. Good Christian folk were harder and harder to come by, and there was much to be said of their hard-working family, and the small fields they tended. The faded linseed-stained barn, the old two-story grey house, all made a very picturesque scene in the dusty country side. The nearest home was another farm, about thirty miles down the road, and the trip to town took two hours on a good day when the truck could bear it. This would be inconvenient if the man had a home to go to in the city, but as he was bunking in the barn, the whole arrangement was rather ideal and brought a certain sense of tranquility with its slow, quiet, country life.
“Just me ‘n the corn,” he hums, wiping sweat from his brow. The others have all gone inside to escape the heat, but he figures he’ll put in a few extra minutes of care. He can’t say thank you enough for the job. The rustle continues, seeming a bit louder now, likely a result of the wind picking up. He decides, on a whim, to venture a little farther into the field where the path has already been cut for the maze. Planning starts early May, every year, as it is important to get it laid out right to grow in time for harvest before the maze opens. This makes harvest harder, hand-picking the ears to leave the stalks up rather than running through with a combine, but there’s also something a bit old-fashioned in that notion that the man can’t shake. It’s almost- charming.
Humming a tune to himself over the increasing rattle, he picks his way through the maze, keeping an eye on where he is and trying to spot any stalk damage or pests. He makes a sharp left, work-rough hand brushing aside some tilted stalks of corn that are beginning to brown. The dry scrape of stalks fills his ears as he wanders deeper, the sole figure on the path, enclosed on either side by more and more corn. At last he reaches the center where a scarecrow minds its post as guardian of the crop.
It loomed over the stalks, a dark figure considerably larger than the other (less eerie) scarecrows that were moved about the field in rotation. This one, this was The Scarecrow, king of the Halloween maze with its faded burlap skin, dusty duds, and a matching hat. When he had asked about the king, and why it was put up before the maze was open to the public, the owners just smiled their sweet old-people smiles and assured it was a tradition of theirs, a welcoming of the holiday and the harvest. Couldn’t argue with that logic.
The man scratched his ear a bit as he looked away from the looming figure. The rustling seemed even louder now, louder than he recalled it ever being, but the wind had not picked up much that he could tell. Maybe the wind was less noticeable between the walls of corn, or the heat had simply gotten to him? Either way, he decided, time to head back. The crunch of his battered Brahmas on the ground as he makes his way over fallen leaves grows disconcertingly more difficult to hear, and he quickens his pace, chastising his cowardice. He stops berating himself when the maze- doesn’t end. It couldn’t be, he’d walked this path a thousand times the last month, he thought. Screwing up his face with determination, he set off to the center, avoiding the king and turning back to leave again. And again. And again. The rustling is louder now, increasingly so, as the sun begins to set and strew rays of pink and red against the sky.
He is sweating, staining his shirt with the salt of his pores and shouting for help in his confusion. It’s the heat, he insists. The heat has gone to my head! But no matter what he tells himself, the rustle persists, and he cannot leave. He is stuck in a loop, racing through the paths, tearing through the stalks without a care of what he damages or tramples at this point if it means escape.
The rustling gets louder and louder. How can he still hear!? He can hear nothing but the scrape, the drag of drying plant skin against skin. Like flesh, left to become jerky, dried in the sun. Like the scarecrow, withered away in the dust and September sun. He runs, and stumbles, and runs some more. He cannot hear his own screams over the pounding in his heart, the relentless scrape-rattle-shhhhh of the stalks. They whisper the truth he does not want to accept. This is a dangerous path, full of twists and decay, and it will consume him like so much fertilizer that came before.
Did you ever wonder, the corn whispers, why the family chose a miserable soul like you for help? His eyes widen, inaudible shrieks tearing from his throat as desperation and terror consume. He tries cutting down the nearest stalks with his pocket knife, hacking and hacking, to no avail. The noise just grows, grows, swallows him whole.
The madness, the absurdity, the fear consumes. He takes the knife to his ears, punctures his ear drums till his vision blurs red and he deafens, thinking that at last, there is silence! He collapses to the ground, weeping with exhaustion, but then . . . scrape-rattle-shhhhh. It is in his mind. He curls up against the cooling earth, the sun setting low, and he claws and claws at his deaf ears that still hear the dreaded scrape, the hearkening of his demise. Blood loss and hysteria overwhelm him, all is but a blur to his weak eyes, when a distinct shadow directs his gaze upward. The king has moved before him.
He whimpers, helpless, acrid puddle forming as he wets himself and faces the inevitability of his fate. He is frozen on the spot. Through his dying consciousness, he can just make out the figure of the strawman come to take his flesh, to take of him and sup as restoration for what he provides, a sacrifice of man for the sacrifice of earth. The straw king has become so thirsty in the maze, blistering and drying out in the sun, his straw sinews crackling with wear in the dirt and winds. What better beverage to sate a mighty eldritch thirst than that sanguineous red, darker than the sunset’s painted sky, the reds of the dying light?