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Wheatfield with Crows

Sometimes when he sketched out what he remembered of that place, new revelations appeared in the shading, or displayed between the layering of a series of lines, or implied in a shape suggested in some darker spot in the drawing. The back of her head, or some bit of her face, dead or merely sleeping he could never quite tell. He was no Van Gogh, but Dan’s art still told him things about how he felt and what he saw, and he’d always sensed that if he could just find her eyes among those lines or perhaps even in an accidental smear, he might better understand what happened to her.

In this eastern part of the state the air was still, clear and empty. An overabundance of sky spilled out in all directions with nothing to stop it, the wheat fields stirring impatiently below. Driving up from Denver, seeing these fields again, Dan thought the wheat nothing special. He made himself think of bread, and the golden energy that fed thousands of years of human evolution, but the actual presence of the grain was drab, if overwhelming. When he’d been here as a child, he’d thought these merely fields of weeds, but so tall—they had been pretty much all he could see, wild and uncontrolled. But when he was a child everything was like that—so limitless, so hard to understand.

In the decade and a half since his sister’s disappearance, Dan had been back to this tiny no-place by the highway only once, when at fifteen he’d stolen a car to get here. He’d never done anything like that before, and he wasn’t sure the trip had accomplished much. He’d just felt the need to be here, to try to understand why he no longer had a sister. And although the wheat had moved, and shuddered, and acted as if it might lift off the ground to reveal its secrets, it did not, and Dan had returned home.

Certainly this trip—driving the hour from Denver (legally this time), with his mother in the passenger seat staring catatonically out the window—was unlikely to change anything in their lives. She’d barely said two words since he picked her up at her apartment. He had to give her some credit, though—she had a job now, and no terrible boyfriends in her life as far as he knew. But it was hard to be generous.

Roggen, Colorado, near Interstate 76 and Colorado Road 73, lay at the heart of the state’s grain crop. ‘Main Street’ was a dirt road that ran alongside a railroad track. A few empty store fronts leaned attentively but appeared to have nothing to say. The same abandoned house he remembered puffed out its gray-streaked cheeks as it continued its slow-motion collapse. The derelict Prairie Lodge Motel sat near the middle of the town, its doors wide open, various pieces of worn, overstuffed furniture dragged out for absent observers to sit on and watch.

Every few months when Dan did an Internet search, it came up as a “ghost town.” He wondered how the people who still lived here—and there were a few of them, tucked away on distant farms or hiding in houses behind closed blinds—felt about that.

“There, there’s where it happened,” his mother whispered, tapping the glass gently as if hesitant to disturb him. “There’s where my baby disappeared.”

Dan pulled the car over slowly at this ragged edge of town, easing carefully off the dirt road as he watched for ditches, holes, anything that might trap them here longer than necessary. They’d started much later than he’d planned. First his mother had been unsure what to wear, trying on various outfits, worrying over what might be too casual, what might be “too much.” Dan wanted to say it wasn’t as if they were going to Caroline’s funeral, but did not. His mother had put on too much makeup, but when she’d asked how she looked he was reluctant to tell her. The encroaching grief of the day only made her face look worse.

Then she’d decided to make sandwiches in case they got hungry, in case there was no place to stop, and of course out here there wouldn’t be. Dan had struggled for patience, knowing that if they started to argue it would never end. It had been mid-afternoon by the time they left Denver, meaning this visit would have to be a short one, but it just couldn’t be helped.

As soon as he stopped the car his mother was out and pacing in front of the rows of wheat that lapped the edge of the road. He got out quickly, not wanting her to get too far ahead of him. The clouds were lower, heavier, leaking darkness toward the ground in long narrow plumes. He could see the wind coming from a distance, the fields farther off beginning to move like water rolling on the ocean, all so restless, aimless, and, by the time the disturbance arrived at the field where they stood, the wind brought the sound with it, a constant and persistent crackle and fuzz, shifting randomly in volume and tone.

It occurred to him there was no one in charge here to watch this field, to witness its presence in the world, to wonder at its peace or fury. No doubt the owners and the field hands lived some distance away. This was the way of things with modern farming, vast acreages irrigated and cultivated by machinery, and nobody watched what might be going on in the fields. It had been much the same when Caroline vanished. It had seemed almost as if the fields had no owners, but were powers unto themselves, somehow managing on their own, like some ancient place.

Dan took continuous visual notes. He itched to rough these into his typical awkward sketches, but although he always kept sketching supplies in the glove compartment he couldn’t bring himself to do so in front of his mother. He never showed his stuff to anyone, but his untrained expressions were all he had to quell his sometimes runaway anxiety.

So, like Van Gogh’s “Wheatfield With Crows,” Dan saw long angular shadows carved into the wheat beginning to lift out of their places, turning over then flapping, rising into the turbulent air where they became knife rips in the fabric of the sky.

“She was right here, right here.” His mother’s voice was like old screen shredding to rust. She was standing near the edge of the field, her head down, eyes intent on the plants as if waiting for something to come out of the rows. “My baby was right here.

The wheat was less than three feet tall, even shorter when whipped back and forth like this, a tortured texture of shiny and dull golds. At six, his sister had been much taller. Had she crouched so that her head didn’t show? Had she been brave enough to crawl into the field? Or had she been taken like his mother always thought, and dragged, her abductor’s back hunched as he’d pulled her into the rows of vibrating wheat?

Out in the field the wheat opened and closed, swirling, now and then revealing pockets of shade, moments of dark opportunity. The long flexible stalks twisted themselves into sheaves and limbs, humanoid forms and moving rivers of grainy muscle, backs and heads made and unmade in the changing shadows teased open by the wind. Overhead the crows screeched their unpleasant proclamations. Dan could not see them but they sounded tormented, ripped apart.

His mother knelt, wept eerily like a child. He had to convince himself it wasn’t Caroline. He stepped up behind his mother and laid his hand on her shoulder, confirming that she was shaking, crying. She reached up and laid her hand over his, mistaking his reality check for concern.

A red glow had crept beneath the dark clouds along the horizon, and that along with the increasingly frayed black plumes clawing the ground made him think of forest fires, but there were no forests in that direction to burn—just sky, and wheat, and wind blowing away anything too insubstantial to hold on.

Suddenly a brilliant blaze silvered the front surface of wheat and his mother sprang up, her hands raised in alarm. Dan looked around and, seeing that the pole lamp behind them had come on automatically at dusk, he turned her face gently in that direction and pointed. It seemed a strange place for a street lamp, but he supposed even the smallest towns had at least one for safety.

That light might have been on at the time of his sister’s disappearance. He’d been only five, but in his memory there had been a light that had washed all their faces in silver, or had it been more of a bluish cast? There had been Caroline, himself, their mother, and Mom’s boyfriend at the time. Ted had been his name, and he’d been the reason they were all out there. Ted said he used to work in the wheat fields, and Dan’s mother said it had been a long time since she’d seen a wheat field. They’d both been drinking, and impulsively they took Caroline and Dan on that frightening ride out into the middle of nowhere.

Ted had interacted very little with Dan, so all Dan remembered about him was that he had this big black moustache and that he was quite muscular—he walked around without his shirt on most of the time. Little Danny had thought Ted was a cartoon character, and how it was kind of nice that they had a cartoon character living with them, but like most cartoon characters Ted was a little too loud and a little too scary.

“I never should have dated that Ted. We were all pretty happy until Ted came along,” his mother muttered beside him now. She hadn’t had a drink in several years as far as he knew, but like many long time drinkers she still sounded slightly drunk much of the time—drink appeared to have altered how she moved her mouth.

This was all old stuff, and Dan tuned it out. His mother had always blamed ex-husbands and ex-boyfriends for her mistakes, as if she’d been helpless to choose, to do what needed to be done. Just once Dan wished she would do what needed to be done.

When Dan had come here at age fifteen it had been the middle of the day, so this oh-so-brilliant light had not been on. He hadn’t wanted to be here in the dark. He didn’t want to be here in the dark now.

But the night his sister Caroline disappeared had also been bathed in this selective brilliance. That high light had been on that night as well. No doubt a different type of bulb back in those days. Sodium perhaps, or an arc light. Dan just remembered being five years old and sitting in the back of that smelly old car with his sister. The adults stank of liquor, and they’d gotten out of the car and gone off somewhere to do something, and they’d told Danny and Caroline to stay there. “Don’t get off that seat, kids,” his mother had ordered. “Do you hear me? No matter what. It’s not safe. Who knows what might be out there in that field?”

Danny had cried a little—he couldn’t even see over the back of the seat and there were noises outside, buzzes and crackles and the sound of the wind over everything, like an angry giant’s breath. Caroline kept saying she needed to go to the bathroom, and she was going to open the car door just a little bit, run out and use the bathroom and come right back. Dan kept telling her no, don’t do that, but Caroline was a little bit older and never did anything he said.

The only good thing, really, had been the light. Danny told himself the bright light was there because an angel was watching over them, and as long as an angel was watching nothing too terrible could happen. He decided that no matter how confusing everything was, what he believed about the angel was true.

Caroline had climbed out of the car and gone toward the wheat field to use the bathroom. She’d left the car door part way open and that was scary for Danny, looking out the door and seeing the wheat field moving around like that, so he had used every bit of strength he had to pull the car door shut behind her. But what if she couldn’t open the door? What if she couldn’t get back in? That was the last time he saw his sister.

“I left you two in the car, Dan. I told you two to stay. Why did she get out?”

Dan stared at his mother as she stood with one foot on the edge of the road, the other not quite touching, but almost, the first few stalks of wheat. Behind her the rows dissolved and reformed, shadows moving frenetically, the spaces inside the spaces in constant transformation. He’d answered her questions hundreds of times over the years, so although he wanted to say because she had to go to the bathroom, you idiot, he said nothing. He just watched her feet, waiting for something to happen. Overhead was the deafening sound of crows shredding.

There used to be a telephone mounted below the light pole, he remembered. He and his mother and Ted had waited there all those years ago until a highway patrolman came. Ted and his mother had searched the wheat field for over an hour before they made the call. At least that’s what his mother had always told him. Danny had stayed in the car with the doors shut, afraid to move.

He guessed they had looked hard for his sister, he guessed that part was true. But they obviously did a bad job because they never found her. They also told the officer they had been standing just a few feet away at the time, gazing up at the stars. What else had they lied about?

The brilliant high light carved a confusing array of shadows out of the wheat, Dan’s car, and his mother. His own shadow, too, was part of the mix, but he had some difficulty identifying it. As his mother paced back and forth in front of the field, her shadow self appeared to multiply, times two, times three, more. As the wind increased the wheat parted in strips like hair, the stalks writhing as if in religious fervor, bowing almost horizontal at times, the wind threatening to tear out the plants completely and expose what lay beneath. Pockets of shadow were sent running, some isolated and left standing by themselves closer to the road. Dan could hear wings flapping over him, the sound descending as if the crows might be seeking shelter on the ground.

“She might still be out there, you know,” his mother said. “I was so confused that night, I just don’t think we covered enough of the field. We could have done a better job.”

“The officers searched most of the night.” Dan raised his voice to be heard above the wind. “They had spotlights, and dogs. And volunteers were out here the rest of the week looking, and for some time after. I’ve read all the newspaper articles, Mom, every single one. And even when they harvested the wheat that year, they did this section manually, remember? They didn’t want to damage—they wanted to be careful not to—” He was trying to be careful, calm and logical, but he wasn’t sure he even believed what he was saying himself.

“They didn’t want to damage her remains. That’s what you were trying to say, right? Well, I’ve always thought that was a terrible word. She was a sweet little girl.

“I’m just trying to say that after the wheat was gone there was nothing here. Caroline wasn’t here.”

“You don’t know for sure.”

“What? You think she got plowed under? That she’s down under the furrows somewhere? Mom, it’s been years. Something would have turned up.”

“Then she might be alive. We just have to go find her. I’ve read about this kind of thing. It happens all the time. They find the child years later. She’s too scared to tell all these years, and then she does. There’s a reunion. It’s awkward and it’s hard, but she becomes their daughter again. It happens like that sometimes, Danny.”

He noticed how she called him by his childhood name. Danny this and Danny that. It was also the only name Caroline had ever had for him. But more than that, he was taken by her story. To argue with his mother about such a fairy tale seemed too cruel, even for her.

He barely noticed the small shadow that had fallen into place not more than a foot or two away from her, a dark hollow shaking with the wind, perhaps thrown out of the body of wheat, vibrating as if barely whole or contained, its edges ragged, discontinuous. At first he thought it was one of the large crows that had finally landed to escape the fierce winds above, ready to take its chances with the winds blowing along the ground, but its feathers so damaged, so torn, Dan couldn’t see how it could ever fly again.

Until it opened its indistinct eyes, and looked at him, and he knew himself incapable of understanding exactly what he was seeing. If he were Van Gogh he might take these urgent, multi-directional slashes and whorls and assemble them into the recognizable face of his sister Caroline, whose eyes had now gone cold, and no more sympathetic or understandable than the other mysteries that traveled through the natural and unnatural world.

His mother wept so softly now, but he was close enough to hear her above the wind, the hollowed-out change in her voice as this shadow gathered her in and took her deep into the field.

And because he had no right to object, he knew that this time there would be no phone call, there would be no search.

Originally published in Dark World: Ghost Stories and reprinted in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2014.

About the Author

Steve Rasnic Tem’s last novel, Blood Kin (Solaris, 2014), won the Bram Stoker Award. His next novel, UBO (Solaris, January 2017), is a dark science fictional tale about violence and its origins, featuring such historical viewpoint characters as Jack the Ripper, Stalin, and Heinrich Himmler. He is also a past winner of the World Fantasy and British Fantasy Awards. A handbook on writing, Yours To Tell: Dialogues on the Art & Practice of Writing, written with his late wife Melanie, will appear early in 2017 from Apex Books. In the Fall of 2018 Colorado-based HEX Publications will bring out his young adult Halloween novel, The Mask Shop of Doctor Blaack (note that Blaack is not a typo).