He appears as a small dot on a distant ridge. An indistinct silhouette against the only piece of blue, struggling to maintain its position in a sky determined to eliminate any patch of colour and replace it with streaks of grey.
The dot moves back and forth on an unnecessarily circuitous path, as if the village was determined to hide itself. He stops to consult his map and then looks to the sky in vain to locate a compass direction. Folding the map and returning it to his pocket, he climbs over a fence and takes a more direct route. Gradually the dot forms itself into a walker, intent on not letting the difficulties of the journey become an impediment.
The dot grows steadily larger and more defined. And then he appears fully formed breathing hard. He stops next to the path and takes out a poster and fastens it firmly to the nearby telegraph pole, hammering nails into the top and bottom in a well practised fashion. In the centre I can see a picture and, in a large font, the word ‘MISSING’ emblazoned across the top.
He looks at the poster and then his eyes are drawn upwards. Moss and lichen encrust the majority of the surface of the pole. At the top, the remains of wiring once used to connect the village to the outside world move ineffectively in the swirling breeze, tapping out an unheard message with their loose ends against the encrusted surface of the pole.
Then he steps forward to the brow of the hill and his eyes close momentarily as the wind blows small items of detritus into his face. He waits. The unforgiving wind eventually relents and he wipes away the debris from his face before he tentatively opens one eye.
The village is laid out below him in the valley. He scans the fields leading down the far side of the hill and his face droops as he takes in this apotheosis of rural decay. Neglect has turned the approach to the village into scrubland. Where neighbouring valleys boast well tended fields of cereal crops or lush green meadows and herds of grazing sheep or cattle, those in front of him seem to thrive on the decay that characterises most of the nearby area. Even the vermin have taken to skirting the edges of these fields and venturing into the far distance to find less harsh environments. Completing in one fell swoop what generations of feral cats have failed to achieve.
He is reminded of the barren landscapes in the westerns he used to watch as a child. He half expects to see tumbleweed blow across his field of view and vultures circling the skies, waiting for some starving creature to finally give up the will to live and transform itself into mere carrion. He stares into the sky at the birds circling above him and decides they look more like crows than vultures. But he takes a second look just to make sure.
He squints at the pale sunlight vainly trying to elbow its way through the streaks of grey which criss-cross the sky. He takes out his map again and compares the cartographer’s icons with what he sees laid before him. Despite the lack of any confirmation from the existence of any signposts he seems satisfied.
Then his eyes settle on the child further down the hill, running round the group of scarecrows. He fixes his stare on the spectacle and his ears detect the faint trace of the child singing to herself. He shakes his head and wonders at the need for scarecrows in such a bleak setting, but the incongruity seems almost in keeping with what he has seen so far of the rest of the area.
He zips the anorak up to his neck, hauls the pack onto his shoulders, shrugs for a couple of moments until it sits more comfortably, then sets off. His dark red hiking boots squish their way through the mud and yellowing grass, splattering stains onto his newly purchased puttees. He looks up and tries to maintain a straight course towards the child. She shows no acknowledgement of his existence until he is almost upon her. Then she stops running and thrusts forward the rag doll she has been clinging to.
‘This is Maisie. Would you like to say hello?’
He stops in his tracks, taken aback by the sudden recognition of his presence in this land that seems so bereft of any sort of civilised contact. He looks from the doll to the small child. Both are dressed in exactly the same outfit. Bright pink in deep contrast to the surrounding field. The child’s boots are caked in the mud that permeates the whole area but despite her perennial skipping, none has found its way onto her dress.
He tries to peer around the side of the doll but the child has her eyes turned down to the ground. He looks back at the doll and decides to follow the girl’s lead.
‘Hello Maisie. And what is your name, little girl?’
But the child brings the rag doll tight against her chest and skips off in a series of random circuits of the scarecrows.
He glances around the field and wonders why anyone would want to protect the desolate field from flocks of birds. And indeed why so many scarecrows were needed.
A screech from the skies causes him to look up at the circling crows and think that whatever the reason, the crows showed a distinct reluctance to set foot on the little vegetation that the surrounding offered. A murder of crows. He remembered from school. That was what a group of crows was called. But what was a group of scarecrows called? Up until now he had never needed to know. He had never seen more than one isolated scarecrow at a time.
His eyes return from the sky, and he takes a sudden step back as the girl is standing close in front of him once again, the doll thrust forward.
‘Maisie wants to know who you are.’
He breaths in and out slowly to slow his heart. ‘I’m Brian.’
His eyes narrow. The doll remains thrust towards him in an intimidatory fashion. He tries to look into the small girl’s face and feels the pressure to say more.
‘I’m looking for my friend, Alan.’
The doll remains firmly thrust forward. Beads of sweat start to form on Brian’s forehead and he pulls off his rucksack and extracts one of the posters, pushing it towards the doll.
‘He’s gone missing. The last postcard I got from him said he was coming here. I don’t really know why. He just said he had some business that was long overdue. But he didn’t say any more. Then there was nothing. I’m trying to find him.’
His body visibly relaxes as the doll is removed from his direct line of sight and returns to being clasped tightly to the little girl’s chest. But the girl does not respond.
He stammers, ‘So have you seen him?’
The girl turns then continues her skipping dance in and out of the scarecrows and the unfamiliar song returns to her lips.
Brian watches her, waiting for a reply, but the dance continues. He looks at the collection of scarecrows. Several now have crows sitting on their outstretched arms. Then they fly off as the girl passes close by, only to return to find a suitable perching place when she has moved on.
He turns his attention to the scarecrows. He looks into the faces he does not recognise. Each has a frozen smile painted simply across its crude face mask. He shivers. Seemingly they are guaranteed to keep away everything but the crows, some of which are perched on the outstretched arms pecking at any part that takes their fancy. He looks them up and down noticing the clothes each is wearing. They form a sharp contrast to the view of the village. They are as new as the village is old. As fine as the village is drab. He longs to ask about them, but knows that another encounter with the girl and her doll is unlikely to bring any resolution.
Brian bends down and lifts the rucksack onto his back and starts the walk down towards the village.
Then the girl stops in front of me, Maisie thrust upwards into my face. I try to call after Brian, but the tape across my mouth holds firm behind the crude mask.
She smiles. ‘Maisie says not to worry. Your friend Brian will be joining you soon. Then we can begin.’
I watch her run down the side of the hill into the village, overtaking Brian but not acknowledging him. I turn my eyes to my companions. Our numbers grow each day. But all we can do is wait.
I look up to the sky and stare at the black clouds marshalling themselves overhead. A pale dead moon is peering through the streaks of grey. The whole scene blurs as the inevitability of it all overcomes me.
I think it’s going to rain today.