There I was, surveying my kingdom. Everything my eyes fell upon was mine and owed me deference. And yet, some of my subjects refused to honor their fealty. My eyes grew sore and anger stirred in my chest. How dare they not live by my prescription.
Are they engaged in more important endeavors? Are they struggling with other issues, making weeds and trashcans unimportant? Do they suffer malady to which weeds and trashcans are unassailable tasks?
Doesn’t matter. My eyes are sore and I am entitled to their conformity. And since! they will not acquiesce—regardless their circumstance—I have no choice but heap upon their heads an enormity of shame.
None shall offend my royal senses without recompense. I will have satisfaction, for I am so entitled.
Mass upheavals of long-maintained societal structures and paradigms marked those dark days. A strange virus swept through the globe like none before it in a hundred years. The effects of defunded public education in America had never been so evident as millions followed misdirection and listened to whichever voice pleased them most. It was the youth, however, that suffered more than anyone else. K-12 teachers and college educators were forced to rethink, reimagine, and repackage entire course curriculums — most turning to a program etched into the annals of history, Zoom.
As American society reckons with its apocalypse, Dr. Ellen Sterling teaches poetry to an online class of dedicated English students attending the illustrious Fresno University. Several faces bathed in the electronic glow of computer screens smile and greet their professor warmly. A young Lauren Dial listens intently to the Job of the Week! to learn that Makenzie DeFrame, class of 2011, has just completed law school and passed the bar exam. Lauren has no intention of becoming a lawyer, but the story of DeFrame fills her with the wonder of all the places her degree would take her. She is not unique in her wonder, for her young baby-faced classmates, too, shine with hopes of a bright and glorious future.
The optimistic conversation starkly contrasts the conversations just outside their doors, but the cheerfulness was not meant remain as Dr. Sterling soon introduced the confessional poem.
“The confessional poem” she tells them, “demands of those standing before its altar to place upon it the deepest, darkest, and most sinister secrets hanging like skeletons in their locked closets. The secrets must be true. The confessional poem will know instantly if your offering is blemished and unacceptable.”
Dr. Sterling seeing the color drain from such young and pure lambs, offers them a glimmer of hope. “Though this form is known to reside in the realm of Shadow, humor might be applied to lighten its burden. Humor has seen many souls safely down the River Styx and through that terrible Valley of Death.”
The glimmer is momentary, and she returns them to the architecture of the Underworld. She says, “Any structure may safely bear your secret through Hel and Hades’ realm. Sonnet, villanelle, sestina, or even free verse. Even stanza and rhyme are left in your hands. Rise to the task.”
The screen shifts and the professor introduces her students to the deeply tormented exemplar of confessional poetry, Sylvia Plath. The very name of this complex patroness summons her spirit into the virtual space. A brief summary of her life burns onto the screen.
“Demons waged war on me.” The specter says, “I kept them at bay for thirty-one years, speaking their names through spellbinding poetry. Once, the infernal spirits came close to seizing my soul. My body slept in a tomb for three days until I emerged triumphant over Death itself. But the war continued, and in one final campaign, I wrote of my descent into madness. None of it had been enough, and ‘during one of the worst English winters on record,’ the malevolent devils prevailed against my spirit.”
The screen shifts once again, and the patron recites a poem. Her voice carries the agony of a father taken too soon but his oppressive presence erodes all sympathy. He is a Nazi and a devil. His ghost inhabits her husband, and their marriage becomes a candle burned to its last. Dr. Sterling, tour guide of the confessional form, rejoices in the father’s demise–it satisfies holy justice. Enraptured, she sings the song of the confessional, “Ooh, ooh, ooh . . . you bastard, I’m through.”
The spirit fades, and the guide prods her baby birds to see if they have picked up on the tools they will need for their inevitable earthly plummet. Their feathers ruffle and they shake out their wings. Dr. Sterling holds hope for their safe landing. Failure would be as rain on a wedding day or a free ride down the river Styx when they’ve already paid the ferryman. A brief scuffle between Luke and Mary ensues as the class is brought to the ledge–that gate into the lands of the Unknown.
Dr. Sterling watches her students, one by one, begin their journey into the Shadow. A smile graces her face as they depart. She knows they will make it through to the Other Side, and there she will be to receive them.
It’s made to look right, and at first glance it does, but on closer inspection something seems off. One can’t quite put their finger on what exactly is wrong, but the sense of wrongness only increases and never fades. It’s like the uncanny valley or the verisimilitude of the thing comes too close to replication, but its otherness invites primal fear and revulsion to the surface. Something in the heart and soul plead with the mind not to believe the eyes, and, yet, neither can one look away. To blink is to give opening for the sinister heart of the unsound thing to strike.
The veil between worlds unfurled itself and lay open like a door before him. Beyond was the grey space. A muted world where lost souls and marauding spirits linger or hope to find passage into the land of the living. Crudely, a place he called the Deadlands.
He had never come across a doorway through the veil before. The idea seemed impossible, but perhaps, if spirits and souls could slip between worlds, it might be feasible for the process to work the other way around.
There was a hesitation in drawing near the doorway. He had seen through the veil, communicated through it, even banished beings back into it, but never had he trespassed into the Deadlands. What would happen? To him? His physical form?
They were sick. Always sick, it seemed. Their withered and pale forms with skeletal outstretched limbs reminded him of molted and diseased birds—almost alien. But he knew they were human. Like those before. All children, and all abandoned by their caregivers.
It was as if this disease, or virus, or whatever the hell it was taking healthy thriving children and twisting them into malformed mockeries of humanity had somehow managed to reflect the hideous nature of the uninfected. Entire communities had resorted to simply turning out these poor souls. Leaving them to die in the streets, or in the wilds, or wherever the most convenient place be for them to die.
Even those left to wander aimlessly in community spaces were ignored and given wide berth by the uninfected. Their cries for mercy falling always on deaf ears. They had always been among the most vulnerable in every society, and now even their natural guardians refused them. Choosing, instead, to insulate themselves from that which might take their healthy children.
Healthy, of course, being a relative understanding. After all, how healthy can one be whose soul has been seared? What soundness of mind can there be in those unwilling to work to end the slow, agonizing, deaths of their children. Society has never been so unhealthy.
Humanity had managed to lay aside its humanness. Whatever the cause—political affiliation, religion, social philosophy, etc.—didn’t matter in the end. Humanity had lost itself, and he was left to do the only humane thing left.
Other men joined him in corralling as many of the infected into a single sobbing cluster of suffering. Malformed and twisted though they were, their fear was unmistakable. He wished there were more he could do, some greater kindness he could offer, but instead gave them the only thing he could give; mercy.
At once, streams of fire spewed out over the children. Night after night the same torment, their pitched screams shattering parts of his souls like glass. He wondered how much of his soul even remained intact.
You mean like a scarecrow? I had one once. Years ago. An antique. I know, I know, how does one find an antique scarecrow? They are, after all, mostly old clothes and straw filling. Yet, there it was.
I had taken a wrong turn trying to avoid the 99 back into town. I followed nameless backroads this way and that thinking I could outsmart distance and beat the traffic home. I failed to take into account that I’m terrible with directions. It was then that I past an old farmhouse which had not aged well in the last century. In front of the place was a wide assortment of antiques which had obviously been part of the house since the day it was built.
I don’t know why I stopped, but I did. Something compelled me to have a look around. The stone grey eyes of a stern old man in his rocking chair on the porch followed me as I looked about. Very little was without rust or severe wear. When I asked the man why he was selling all his old stuff, he just stared silently at me. No. Not at me, through me. I felt uncomfortable and wanted to get out of there, but my anxiety refused to let me leave without a purchase. That is when I saw it; a very old, very worn, scarecrow.
The thing was dressed in dingy overalls, a black duster, and a sun bleached straw hat. It unnerved me, but it was the only thing among his overpriced junk I could afford. Really, it was also the only thing I could fit in my vehicle.
I eventually made my way back home. I caught up with the 99 and crawled through it at a snail’s pace. There had been an accident or something. I saw lights and heard sirens in the distance at one point.
I placed the scarecrow on my balcony facing out onto the empty dirt field next door. I thought it made for a creepy harvest accent–and I was curious to see how long it would take before someone in the community complained about it to the city council.
The next morning the scarecrow had been moved. Not fallen over, but moved in front of the sliding glass door looking in my bedroom. I thought my kid was trying to be funny, so I moved the scarecrow back to where I had first set it. It was not the last time the scarecrow would move without my help. I often found it away from its place, and every time I thought it was my son’s attempt at a prank.
Finally, I confronted my kid. Told him I didn’t think his antics were funny. Of course my kid denied all wrongdoing. Soon after, things escalated. Not only would the scarecrow be misplaced, but also found with dead rodents and snakes stuffed in its pockets or laid at its foot post.
My kid continued to deny this strange behavior, so we had no choice but to have him committed. Things had quieted down for a while, but within a few weeks the scarecrow started turning up all over the house again, and no one confessed to moving it about.
I began having strange nightmares. I would wake up in a panic to the sounds of pained screaming. No one else seemed to notice. Then the whispers started. Disembodied voices emanating from the scarecrow. It urged me to offer up my home and family for its dwelling place.
It needed us…it needed me…and I needed it. It revealed amazing secrets. Insight which transcended our limited understanding of the cosmos. I gave it what it wanted. My home, my family, and my life.
We served it in violence, but it was going too far. I think I came out of my stupor when it asked me to sacrifice the souls of my family to it. I couldn’t do it. I packed it up, took it to the dirt field next to my place, doused it in gasoline, and lit it up.
I had never heard such terrible screams in my life. It’s been gone for a number of years now, but I still wake up from time to time to the sounds of screaming coming from the dirt field next door.