Emily savored the last moments of her trip in brief lapses of peaceful enjoyment, staccato little pieces of sensation and awareness.
She looked out the window and saw the scarecrow. She sat in the booth at the diner and sipped her coffee. The black warmth in the cup slowly thawed her chilled bones. Her stomach was full from the turkey club she finished moments ago. They were all small bits of peace before setting herself for the final leg.
The scarecrow stood in the universal dampness of March and shivered against the harsh winds.
Emily Stratborough interrupted her journey to her sister's house in Kerhonkson, New York with this brief food stop. The Stoneridge Diner was in the center of the village of the same name. Stoneridge rested one town south of Kerhonkson and about ten miles south of the southern-most Catskill Mountains. Emily thought she was pretty close to her sister's new home, but she decided to ease her hunger here at the diner instead of Julia's house. Julia tended to smother guests with care. Emily wanted to relax when she got to the house. She didn't want Julia running around trying to fix her lunch. Emily fixed things, whether lunch or her sister’s life. The older sister fixed what needed fixing or worked herself into a snit trying. Emily was sure that if Julia knew Emily hadn't eaten, she would busy herself in the kitchen, making Emily nervous with busy hands and helpful banter. Emily had told her sister she would eat along the way. Emily dug out the cash for the bill and tip. She placed the tip on the center of the sticky tabletop.
It was almost a year since Emily saw Julia last. The infrequency of their visits made Emily think a lot more about childhood events then she cared to.
There was the time with the fight over the new Barbie doll resulting in the doll being torn limb from limb in a childish tug-o-war. There was Emily secretly trying on one of her older sister's braziers when Emily first started her girlish bloom.
Emily found herself lost in nostalgia--her eyes staring in the general direction of the scarecrow behind the diner--as the older cashier patiently waited to give Emily her change. Emily looked at the scarecrow through the scratched, greasy diner windows. Emily took her gaze away from the scarecrow and shook herself out of the childhood memories long enough to get her change.
She walked out into the drizzly gray, hugging her raincoat to herself. Her face pinched against the rude carelessness of the chilled wind. She lit a cigarette and trotted to her car, keeping her head low. Emily watched as the gray-haired cashier woman walked into the field behind the diner. She had an Irish Wolf Hound on a chain. She tied the latched the dog chain to a stake between the diner and the scarecrow. The dog immediately began barking viciously at the scarecrow.
Emily got in the car. The Nissan Sentra's water-beaded windows shut out the husky patter of the wind and rain. The car was quiet and dry.
Emily looked at the scarecrow as she started the car. The engine zipped to life. Someone had dressed the scarecrow in a long, red raincoat whose length disappeared into the tall meadow grass growing in the lot behind the diner. A hedgerow of yew separated the lot behind the diner from the open expanse of the neighboring horse ranch. A red rain hat hid the thing's eyes. It looked as if it took a siesta. It looked at its feet as though embarrassed.
Emily thought there was something strange about the scarecrow.
Emily figured it out as she backed out onto Route 209 and headed north. She couldn't see the scarecrow's support planks--that was it. Usually, scarecrows looked like a crucified bail of hay to Emily. This one's arms lie akimbo and blew gently in the whipping wind. Emily also wondered why the silly thing was sitting out in the middle of an empty lot. Emily bet nothing grew there since the construction of the diner. The Stoneridge Diner looked a couple of decades old. Emily reasoned that the hay man must be a left-over from Halloween. She watched the scene disappear in the rear-view mirror. The dog continued to bark.
Emily put out her cigarette in the car ashtray. She popped a peppermint Lifesaver in her mouth, making the turn for Old Route 32. Julia always gave her a big frown when she saw Emily smoke or smelled smoke on her. Emily guessed that her clothes probably smelled like cigarettes too, but there wasn't much she could do about that. She sucked on the Lifesaver and hummed to the Fleetwood Mac playing on the local rock station.
When residential areas occasionally opened into large undeveloped stretches, Emily looked out into house-less meadows for horses, cows, or deer. Emily lived in Hoboken for the last five years. Animals that were common sights to her when she lived in the wilds of Ulster County, were now novel points of interest. Emily looked in the fields for animals. There were now cows or horses. She did see a now familiar sight; a dog staked out in a yard, barking at a scarecrow.
A scarecrow with a red hat and raincoat, its arms at its side.
The locals must all buy them at the same scarecrow store, Emily thought.
She crossed a small iron bridge over a stream marked by a green sign reading; Ver Noy Kill Creek. Emily turned the Nissan onto Willowcreek Drive. Julia and her husband David owned the second house on the right. Emily pulled the Nissan along side her sister's Dodge Wagoneer. David Mulberry's Geo Tracker was not in the large, gravel parking area in front of the house.
Emily was sure that Julia saw the Nissan coming. Her house sat toward the northern end of a large, wild rectangle of a field. The access road was visible across the field.
Sure enough, Julia and her three-year-old son, Jason, were out in the rain before Emily could get a second foot on the gravel. Emily got out of the car. As she slammed the door shut, a black figure intercepted Julia and her son. It was a big Labrador Retriever. The dog sniffed at Julia's feet and wagged its tail furiously.
"Your dog?" Emily asked, surprised that David had changed his rigid stance on pets.
"No, it belongs to a neighbor. Get out of here Sampson, Go!" Julia urged the dog. The lab gave a playful yip and ran away.
"Come on you clowns, lt's get out of the rain," Emily scolded, jokingly. She handed Jason her Purse. "Take my bag, my man" Jason giggled shyly and then ran back to the house with purse in tow.
"Need help with your suitcase?" Julia asked with a smile.
"No, we'll leave it for now. Let me just get something off the passenger seat," Emily said. She reached back into the Nissan and pulled out a bottle of wine. "Come on, I'm soaked!"
They bolted inside. Emily shook the loose drops off her rain jacket and handed it to Julia to put on a hanger. Julia and Emily hugged in the warm, dry safety of the foyer.
"How are you?" Julia asked.
"Okay, very busy," Emily said into her sister's ear as they pulled apart to get a good look at each other. "How is everybody here?"
"Oh, you know, David has work, and I have Jason," Julia said with a tired sigh. "David's on the road a lot."
"It can be, but I'm too busy to think about it most of the time," Julia said. "How about some lunch?"
"I'm fine," Emily said, running her fingers through her wet, shoulder-length hair.
"How about some tea then?"
"Now your talking."
Emily took a towel to her wet head and joined Julia in her sitting room for tea. A fire burned in the wood stove, throwing off a pulsating heat. Emily liked Julia's house. It was small but organized. Emily thought it wouldn't be trite to call the raised ranch cozy.
"I thought you were going to start working with the church again," Emily stated.
"I was," Julia said. "the R-C church in Kerhonskson burned down, so did the Episcopal church, St. Andrews."
"Really? That sounds strange. What was the cause?"
"It was reported as lightning damage in both cases," Julia said, sipping elusively around the edges of her hot drink.
"Sounds like you don't think that lightning was the cause," Emily suggested.
"Well, the fires took place several weeks apart. I've never seen a building catch fire because of lightning before. To happen twice in such a short period of time--and just to churches--is weird," Julia said.
"Yeah, it is." Emily twirled the handle of her cup as though trying to find the cool side of the tea. "Didn't they have lightning rods? I thought all churches have those."
"Me too, but apparently these two places didn't. Maybe they had them, but the wires weren't hooked up right."
"Maybe Rip Van Winkle's bowlers don't like churches," Emily offered.
"You know the little men Rip Van Winkle found playing nine pin in the mountains? They generated all that thunder and lightning."
"Oh yeah, that story took place in the Catskills. This area is just full of folk lore. I'll tell you the strangest thing. Our next door neighbors, the Sumners. They own Sampson. Well, they never put the dog out on a line, they have neighbor kids walk him or he runs loose, but every time it rains I see the dog tied up in their backyard," Julia said.
"Poor dog," Emily said with a chuckle.
"Poor Sampson is right. The Sumners are very superstitious people. Don't stand behind Mrs. Sumner if she spills the salt. Putting the dog out like that seems like a ritual habit with them," Julia said.
"Maybe the farmer's almanac says to put the dog out in the rain if you want to cure warts or something," Emily said, both women laughed.
Then the pleasant interruption of Jason's goose-step into the sitting room distracted Emily and Julia from the their conversation.
"God, he's so big now," Emily said. Jason sat on his mother's lap, a Power Ranger doll in his small fist.
"Mommy? Can we open the window?" Jason asked in a squeeky voice.
"Oh, I think it's raining a little hard for that," Emily offered.
"He means the blinds on the picture window," Julia translated.
"Yah, blines," Jason agreed.
"There's no sun out today, Jay. He's like a plant. He lives for sunlight. Loves to sit in a patch of it and play," Julia said.
"No, Mommy, saw sun," Jason said, crawling off Julia's lap and pointing toward the picture window that was the eastern wall of the sitting room. Long vertical blinds were drawn against the visual chill of the gathering storm.
"Okay, let's take a look," Julia said, standing. Julia crossed the slender room to grab the chain for the blinds.
Thunder rumbled in the distant mountains.
The blinds revolved in place to a position that revealed the clean glass of the window and the drab green of the meadow beyond.
The evenly mowed flatness of Julia and David's backyard ended sharply about fifty yards back. An eruption of tall grass and meadow reeds marked the end of their property and the beginning of the common field shared by several houses in the neighborhood. Behind this knee-high wall of wild growth, Emily saw a scarecrow dressed in a red rain slicker and hat.
Emily stood up quickly and went to the window.
"What is it, Em?" Julia asked as she hunched down to comb Jason's hair with her fingers.
"I've seen that before," Emily said, staring out the window. The scarecrow reminded Emily of the Gorton's Fisherman, the guy on those frozen fish boxes. It was a silly image that did not ease her sudden discomfort.
"What? The scarecrow?"
"Yes, I saw it in town today," Emily gasped, putting a soft hand against the clammy cold of the wall-window. "Have you ever seen it before?"
A torrid wind--silent to the two women on the warm side of the glass--blew the loose edges of the scarecrow's hat and coat around. The figure underneath the coat did not budge. Air demons bounced around in the wind rushing the window, shaking it in its pane. The violent vibration of the window startled Emily away from the glass.
"Yeah, I've seen it in the Sumners yard sometimes. Sampson hates it, always barking at it," Julia said, turning from the window and grabbing a brush from a lamp stand. Jason clenched his teeth against the scratch-and-pull of the brush's bristles.
"Is it the same one?"
"I don't know, maybe," Julia said, tilting Jason's head to make sure all his thick, sandy locks were behaving. "What's the big deal? It's just a scarecrow. I told you the folks around here have some strange ways. Maybe they put it out to scare the rain away."
"Come back another day?" Emily asked.
"I know what it is," Jason said absently as he plopped down on the oriental rug that covered the center of the room.
The sisters looked at each other.
"What is it, Jason?" Emily asked.
"It's the rain peoples," Jason said. He tossed the blue Power Ranger in the air, trying to get his plastic playmate to take flight.
"What are you talkin' about kiddo?" Julia asked with a laugh and a gentle stroke of the boy's head.
"I dunno, Petey tole me about the rain peoples," Jason replied.
"Peter's the little boy whose family lives across the lot from the Sumners. He's a bit older, maybe six or seven," Julia said with a little worry starting to creep into her brow. "What did Peter tell you, honey?"
"He tole me the rain people come. You gotta put out the dog," Jason said.
"You don't have a dog," Emily said with a confused smile.
"No, we don't. Pete Flanger's family does. What else did Pete tell you, Jay?"
"Nottin'" Jason concluded, twirling the Power Ranger on the rug.
"What....?" Emily started to ask her nephew when the phone rang.
"What now?" Julia sighed. She got up from her crouch in a stiff stretch and walked to the adjoining kitchen. Emily had balked at Julia's offer of sugar for her tea. She got up and followed her sister into the kitchen to find the Sweet-n-Low. "Yes, Mrs. Sumner?" Julia asked loudly into the phone. Emily stood next to her sister and silently mouthed the brand name of the sweetener. Julia pointed toward a ceramic jar. "Slow down, Mrs. Sumner. What are your trying to say?" Julia stepped toward the breakfast nook and then quickly stepped back to grab Emily's arm. Julia was pointing at something through the kitchen window.
The window looked out over the backyard. The location of the scarecrow instantly drew Emily's attention. The scarecrow was still in the high weeds; it looked a little closer. There was a second, shorter scarecrow in the meadow. It wore a red hat and raincoat.
"Mrs. Sumner...uh-huh...yes, but...yeah, but we don't have...." Then Julia took the receiver away from her ear, letting it dangle loosely in her hand. "She hung up."
"Where the hell did the other one come from?" Emily asked, nervously.
Outside, the gloomy sky swept the damp meadow with a gust of chilling wind.
"I don't know, and how did it get there so fast? We were just sitting in the other room looking out the window. We would have seen anyone walk out into the field and stick the thing in the ground," Julia said. Emily saw that her sister was correct; both the kitchen and the sitting room looked down over the vast flatness of the field. Emily didn't think anyone could sneak up to the spot where the scarecrows stood, even through the deepest part of the wild grass.
The larger of the two scarecrows, what Emily thought was the original scarecrow, was now at the edge of the un-cut part of the field. When Emily was in the sitting room, the first scarecrow looked like it stood a good ten feet back from the edge of the manicured lawn.
The thing had moved. Emily was almost sure of it.
"What did Mrs. Sumner say?" Emily asked.
"Oh, she said that They were here, and I had to show Them a dog," Julia said.
"I don't like this. Something's going on here," Emily said, hugging her slender arms to her chest.
"I agree. What's going on is a joke. Maybe, it's Petey Flanger. Well, I guess he's too young, but I think it's only a prank," Julia said. She put a calming hand on Emily's shoulder. "Come on, let's see if Jason is as spooked as we are."
"I hope not," Emily said with an uncomfortable laugh.
Jason played quietly with his action figure.
"How are you doing there, Jay?" His mother cooed. "Do the rain people scare you?"
He looked out the large window and then looked at Julia and shook his head. Emily laughed again. The laugh warmed her a little. Emily couldn't help but kiss the boy's pink cheeks. She bent to plant one on him and then straightened. Emily looked out the window.
She took two quick steps backwards, nearly spilling her cooling tea off the end table.
"What is it, Em?" Julia asked. She turned and saw it too.
Three figures stood out on the rear of Julia Mulberry's property, no longer content to wait in the tall grass of the meadow. The original scarecrow towered above the other two. It was in the lead. It stood by the now-naked dogwood tree Julia had planted in her backyard.
Emily put a hand to her mouth. Perhaps to stifle a scream, she wasn't sure. She looked at the figures. Underneath the tall one's large rain hat, Emily saw wisps of shoulder-length brown hair being tossed with the edges of the hat in the wind. Another strange thing caught Emily's eye. She stepped to the window to get a better look.
Emily saw skin peeking out from under the hat.
"Oh my God," Emily gasped. "Those aren't scarecrows."
"What? Are you serious?" Julia hissed. "Is that skin?"
"They are people," Emily said, looking at Julia. The sisters shared a silent moment, the warm air of the sitting room suddenly brilliant with the suggestion of fear.
When they looked back to the yard, four figures lingered out on the back lawn.
"Oh, shit," the two women said in unison. The lead figure, the head scarecrow, was only fifteen feet from the back of Julia's house.
"Jason, why don't you go play in your room," Julia urged her son. Jason stood up and dragged his toy reluctantly from the room. He stamped out in silent anger at his banishment.
Emily watched this and smiled. The boy was adorable and for a short moment the occasional longing for a family made Emily forget about the presence in the backyard.
As Jason disappeared from sight, the two sisters looked back toward the window.
The head scarecrow person was only five feet from the window. Emily and Julia started back from the glass.
"I'm going to call the sheriff," Julia gasped, quickly shaking herself from her stunned state. She trotted quickly to the kitchen.
Emily was panicked. She saw one of these things at the diner. Why weren't the patrons of the Stoneridge Diner frightened by the sight of these rain people? The folks in the greasy spoon had to be locals. They had to know what was sitting out there in the empty lot.
The image of the old woman cashier staking the wolf hound out behind the diner with the rain person stuck in Emily's mind. Maybe, a dog kept the rain dudes away.
"You're nuts," Emily whispered to herself. "Too many horror films, Em." She felt the information was important. Part of her wondered if an image of dog would hold enough talismanic to stop the halting on-slaught of the rain people. She turned to go to the kitchen to look for a picture of a dog, no time to tell Julia her thoughts.
Emily was caught short by a crashing sound just behind her. She flinched and ducked for fear of being hit with broken glass as the picture window shattered into thousands of razor shards. Emily screamed.
The rain man who looked like the Gorton's Fisherman stood in the sitting room with glass splinters at his feet and rain splashing from his long coat. The canvas coat was the color of dried blood.
Emily saw his long, brown hair drooping down under his hat. She saw the white skin at the man's chin. He wore a tight-lipped scowl, his mouth a slit in his drift-wood face. His hat was pulled low. Emily couldn't see his eyes. He stood a head--or hat--taller than Emily.
Emily's instinct was to flee. Then she thought of Julia and Jason. Her own safety became secondary.
"Jule, grab Jason and get out!' Emily screamed.
Julia was standing in the archway to the kitchen. The phone receiver dropped form her hand. A plaintiff cry escaped her mouth. She blinked, breaking her paralysis. She moved to do as her younger sister ordered when Jason appeared in the kitchen. The little boy spotted the rain man. His face dropped like the butt-flap on a pair of flannel long-johns.
"Mommy! The rain peoples," Jason gasped from the far side of the kitchen, in the doorway to his room.
Emily watched as Julia ran toward her son.
A red blur filled Emily's vision. She was suddenly knocked
hard in the back from behind and sent tumbling to the rug. In a flash, Julia was also thrown to the floor in the wake of the Gorton Fisherman's invisibly quick movement through the house. He moved with no sign of leg or arm movement. Two other meadow fisherman entered the sitting room in the same instant their leader flashed into the kitchen.
Emily had been hit hard. She stood, shaking off the pain in her head and ribs. She coughed up a gob of bloody spit onto her thin lips. Julia appeared to be knocked cold. Her still form covered the linoleum in a heap of cotton print and in-animate flesh.
Rain blew passed the silent forms in the sitting room and brushed against Emily's legs.
The lead rain man stood in the kitchen in front of Jason, throwing a long shadow over the shocked little boy.
"Jay!" Emily croaked loudly. She struggled to her feet. She sucked in damp air through her teeth, an ice-pick of pain jabbing her rib-cage. The house smelled of mildew and snow-dampened forest fires. "Run, Jay!"
Jason was frozen.
The lead spook focused only on the boy.
Emily hated to do it, but she knew she couldn't drag her sister out of the house and grab Jason at the same time. She gave her sister's still form a glance and then stumbled through the kitchen.
The manic wind shook the house with a brutal upper-cut of water-soaked air.
Emily ran passed the giant, manikin-like figure. She bent to scoop Jason up in her arms and run but stepped on the boy's abandoned Power Ranger toy and fell to the floor. She came down hard on her left leg. There was a sickening crack and a shot of pain.
The rain man reached slowly for Jason.
Emily scrambled for the boy, a fixed stare held on his soft face. She grabbed him by his slender leg and pulled him across the linoleum floor toward her. The boy screamed as he lost his footing and fell. He hit the floor with thump, grabbing for the Power Ranger doll. Emily took the doll and hugged Jason to her. Jason screamed for the security of the doll. As the specter reached for the two people cowering on the floor, Emily dragged herself and her nephew into the nearest corner of the kitchen and joined the boy in a scream.
A black figure--moving low and fast--came around the edge of the rain man's coat.
It was Sampson. Emily saw the two lesser ghosts recoil in the dog's wake. The lab placed himself between the lead scarecrow and its intended victims. Sampson growled at the fisherman ghost.
The rain man also appeared to shrink away from the dog, raising his bony hands high.
Then the spindly arms of the living scarecrow came down in a red blur. The icicle hands grabbed the dog by the shoulders as Sampson bit into the wet arm of the rain slicker.
The rain people disappeared with the upper-half of the black lab's torso. The dog's final yelp hung in the air where his head once was. Sampson's rear legs flopped to the kitchen floor with a wet smack. Blood streamed across the linoleum. Jason turned away from the growing puddle and buried his head in Emily's neck. Emily realized she was holding her breath. She took in a shuddering gap of cold air, Sampson's death cry reverberating in her head.
Rip Van Winkle's bowlers had nothing to do with the Kerhonkson churches burning down. Emily was beginning to believe it was part of something larger--a curse--that hung over the quiet New York town.
Emily had the pertinent passage in front of her as she talked to Julia on the phone. The title of the book; Witchcraft in North America glared up at Emily in shiny red print. Emily Stratborough had high-lighted a large section of page 151:
It is unclear what pagan activities the Sylvan family participated in during their 1621 stay in Massachusetts. The only well-documented occurrence traced back to the family surrounds events that took place in the Catskill region of New York...
...the villagers released their dogs in anger. The only member of the family to survive was William Sylvan, family patriarch. William's three children were mauled to death by Ver Noy Kill village's dog packs. Gretchen, Sylvan's elderly mother, was said to have died of fright during the attack.
One week after the event, the entire population of the Ver Noy Kill Village was wiped out by an unusually large and aggressive wolf pack. They were killed during a squaw...
Ver Noy Kill was a village dependant on the Hudson River for it commerce. Though five miles inland, the main trades of village men were water and sea related...
"So David refuses to move?" Emily asked again for confirmation . She was incredulous.
"Yes, he says the solution to my emotional problems isn't to drop our investment in this property," Julia said in a quiet and worn voice. "But we're going to get a dog."
Emily took a deep drag of her cigarette. The skin under her plaster leg cast itched. She looked around for her favorite wire coat hanger.
"What an idiot he is," Emily hissed. "The dog will go just like Sampson.."
"Mrs. Sumner has been very cryptic but she says that a dog shouldn't get hurt. She says we just let if go too far for Them
to turn back with out sacrifice. We'll be okay. Jason stopped screaming in his sleep."
"Good, fucking God, Julia. What a fucking nightmare," Emily growled, ramming the hanger down into the cast. She winced as the tender spot in her chest spoke up. A thick silence lay on the telephone connection as though the wires between them were insulated with molasses. "Do you know exactly what they were, Jule?"
"No, nobody will give me the whole truth. The Sumners just tell me to watch the weather forecasts and put out the dog when it rains."