Husk and Sheaf by Suzanne J. Willis

Spring had stretched the daylight hours and dried the damp-weather rot in my hands by the time the old woman, Emmeline, began visiting the orange grove. By then, I knew enough to see she wasn’t well. I had been placed in the grove to scare away the mynahs pecking incessantly at the fruit. At first, I couldn’t remember being made, or recall the hands that sewed my body and my clothes. Who was it that stuffed me full so I plumped out like a real man?

I was much more than an ordinary scarecrow, though, beyond all the rags and lopsided limbs. It wasn’t straw or old newspaper inside me. The tokens that shape me are the memories of others. Dried lavender, tickets stubs from concerts and train journeys, remnants of wedding veils, locks of hair from mourning rings. Even a tiny bird’s nest brought home by a child for his ailing mother sitting in the centre of my chest. Carefully stowed cogs from music boxes and wind-up toys served as my ballast.

I’m the only memory-keeper there is.

It’s the old letters—some only fragments, some pages and pages long—that made me who I am, words flowing through me akin to blood. I was their guardian and the tales coursing through me were my teachers. At the close of each day, I was more than I had been the day before.

So when Emmeline arrived, I was curious about all these things that comprise human lives. She was so old that her mind had started to slip and she mumbled to herself, pallid eyes staring into the distance. Occasionally, snatches of her sentences reached me and those snippets awoke the words inside me, making them sing and soar. Making me feel and think and know. The sweetness was tantalisingly brief and left me craving.

When she stopped, I demanded more, but it made her weep. I brushed away her tears with the edge of my coat, and then I tried pleading with her, but that was beyond her way of thinking. I sifted through the words running through me, to find the right way to seek more. None were quite right, until I found a letter between old friends…

Penny for your thoughts? I whispered to Emmeline as the orange blossoms swirled around her in the breeze. Their scent, sharp citrus and sweet pollen, made me think of a long-ago wedding feast of wild boar stew studded with pomegranate seeds, eaten in a summer orchard.

She smiled as, from the open tips of my disintegrating fingers, I shook a shiny copper coin and pressed it into her hand.

I smiled back and clumsily stroked her hair, silver and fine as a cobweb. The days, years, decades that had woven through her fluttered under my fingertips. Time is its own sweet song; dirge, waltz, sonata, a lonely piano in the dark hours. It tasted just as time always has. Like mist on a cold morning, carrying the promise of far-away snow and woodsmoke from cosy hearths, but fleetingly insubstantial.

Emmeline slowly handed her past over to me. Piece by sweet piece. Once she had someone to listen, her mumbling dissipated. In a voice that might have once been musical she reminisced—walking the streets of the dark city that smelled of cigarettes and waffles with her lover: a homeless woman singing hymns in a subway tunnel, her voice chasing Emmeline around corners and down stairs: black cats slinking through cemetery groves and white ones curled on cracked leather chairs in an ancient library.

All the while I stroked her hand, its skin paper-fine, and listened while she unburdened herself. Those memories were the marrow of life, sating me long enough to smile, never enough to be truly full. All through the spring and summer I listened, until she had nothing left for me to take.

That last day, Emmeline’s words faded and she fell into a gentle doze. In the late afternoon sun, I relished her thoughts that were like aged wine, brined olives, slightly soured milk.

All spring and summer I listened, for the price of a penny. A coin to pay the boatman to cross the silver river that tastes of stars; to go to the foggy shore that smells of everything but time. The shore that I can never know.

I left her in the orange grove, clutching her penny and drifting in and out of sleep. The last to listen to her, the last to understand. I left her there, hollowed, unencumbered. Free.

That night, I crept away, to the banks of the river that ran black and sluggish across its mossy bed. Yellowish moonlight silhouetted the trees and the strange shapes that lined the embankment. In the gloom, those lumpen forms were a silent warning. I shuffled towards the closest one, stopping short as its faded cotton shirt—clearly once identical to my own—became clear.

Scarecrows, frozen where they stood, in varying states of decay. Dozens of them, just like me. Only they were so still, with not even a forgotten sentence to breathe life into them. The night breeze scattered scraps of parchment from the split seams of one propped against a tree. Water stained, the ink was spider-webbed across the paper’s surface, the words now illegible.

On the far bank, the mouse-nibbled remains of another reclined, forever sleeping. The closest one, with coat still a bottle green and torso intact, crouched as though looking at its reflection. I sat beside it, watching the water ripple and distort the reflected night sky.

Creature of star-flecked night, chasing a hollow moon, and ever-ebbing tides…A memory uncurled in me. A memory of my own, richer and more real than the borrowed ones. Of Emmeline, floating downriver on a raft of sticks and autumn leaves. Barely alive and waiting for me. The scarecrows scattering the bank stared blankly at me. It felt like an accusation. Or a premonition. I shivered.

They were me. Previous incarnations, filled and emptied and left to decay on the riverbank. It was Emmeline who had made me and Emmeline who would unmake me again and again and again. We had been here dozens of times before, she and I. Bound together in an endlessly repeating dance.

I felt her before I saw her, reclined on the raft as it rounded the bend, hair fanned out like mist. In her outstretched palm, my penny glinted in the moonlight. The night smelled of autumn—cider apples and ash trees felled for firewood—but of putrefaction, as well. The raft bumped into the bank. Her chest barely rose and fell as the last of her breath in this life wheezed in and out.

Penny for your thoughts, she croaked.

Not a question, but a command that tugged the stories inside me towards her. I began to walk forward, recollections of those dozens of lifetimes that I had lived before reminding me of what would come next.

Taking the coin and popping it my mouth, its copper like blood on my tongue.

Lifting her from the raft and walking with her into the river, the currents she has ensorcelled embracing us, dragging us under.

The future radiance of unborn stars swirling around us as the water rips the memories from me, flooding back into her.

Emmeline’s wrinkles receding, hair becoming thick and dark, her eyes bright and cruel.

I was her memory-keeper, the crucible for her phoenix-magic. I would be emptied, an unthinking, unfeeling poppet and the last thing I would see is her beautiful, young face smiling at me before everything darkened and died. In my first lifetime, decades before, I had known no better and simply let her wash me away. But every time after that, I fought, the river churning around us. Each time a little harder, with the weight of memory—of taste and smell and story—behind me. Every time, she had won.

This time a coin and a short, borrowed life were not enough to buy my submission. I took the coin from her palm and placed it over her rictus grin, instead.

Her clawed fist clamped over my wrist, pulling me towards the raft, stronger than she should have been so close to death. I slipped in the mud and fell towards her.

This is destiny, my paper-man. Her nails dug into me and I felt light-headed, compliant, almost. Inside me, the letters shifted. The words stirred. They didn’t want to belong to her, either. She struggled against the soft rot of my hand and the soft insistence of the stories inside me as they pulled away from her.

You can’t give all this, Emmeline, and not expect that we will want more.

Her eyes widened at the sound of my voice and her grip loosened, for just a moment. I stepped back, ripping my arm away from her. My hand, the fabric finally eaten through, stayed in hers. Tiny pieces of paper fell from my severed wrist. The words, viscous and shining, bled into the night. They swam in the darkness and disappeared on updrafts into the world beyond her reach. She rasped a scream, the coin clanking against her teeth, tried to rise from the raft as her skin withered and desiccated. The river flowed swiftly and called for a payment of its own. The inky current rose, waterlogging the raft, dragging her down and away.

Far away, a train whistle blew and unseen animals rustled through their nocturnal lives. With an old coat-ribbon I staunched the word-bleed from my wrist and left that graveyard of the forgotten guardians, walking downstream towards the open shore.

Of the stories and memories of others I may be made, but this lifetime is mine.

This story is mine alone.