The shop doesn’t have many customers, I can count on one hand how many things we’ve sold since I started, and I don’t even need all my fingers. Business is deathly slow. Thankfully, there’re plenty of other things to get up to, mischief to find in the mounds and drawers and buckets manoeuvred into every possible space. There’s so much stuff the floor is different colours depending on where you are. There’s not a day that goes by without those winding paths through the valley shrinking somehow, even though nothing’s been added. At least, I don’t think anything has.
I hate Chronos, the cat. And I know you’re not meant to say that about animals, but really, who’s bloody idea was it to domesticate cats? He’s a wee shite and if he’s not careful will be getting a spraying any day now. As for Madam Norna.
Well, she’s still an enigma, wrapped in the throes of a mystery. She doesn’t seem to take interest in anything, and is always unflappable, even when faced with the outlandish and unbelievable requests of customers who come into the shop with her wee business card. I was beginning to think she was a…a what d’you call them, Wiccan? You know, prescribing various herbs and candles and incantations to make the problem disappear. Not that I know much about these things. But that theory doesn’t fit right, doesn’t explain all the weird.
Anyway, one day I was cleaning the glass counter for the third or fourth time when I heard the bell ringing above the door. Since any customer is now a source of interest my head snapped up and I saw a woman and a wee lassie come in, gazing around them as if they’d just entered Wonderland. They both made their way to where I was standing at the counter, and I could’t help but notice the strained look on the woman’s features. She reminded me of some of the students in the year above me at uni when they were trying to do their thesis, or every student I know during exam time.
The lassie was no older than eight or nine, and as is typical with young bairns, or adults with the mentality of one, was preoccupied with the shiny things beneath the counter. The woman handed me a familiar wee white card and told me she was here to see Madam Norna.
By now I’m all caught up on the procedure for this kind of customer and we all headed up the stairs to where the Madam is always waiting for us. The delicate hand motioned the two customers into the front room. I now have a ritual that I must go through before I get to listen to this week’s dose of strange, so I beelined for the kitchen to make the tea. I’ve got making tea quickly down to a fine art, and you can bet it’s going on my CV. I make the tea and take it in, having managed to find some juice for the wee lassie. As I hand it to her, I notice she has all these trinkets hanging from her bag. Some were what you’d expect, miniature dolls, fluorescent love hearts, cartoon characters, that kind of thing. But there was one in particular she was holding in her hands, completely besotted. This keyring was one of the most hideous and disturbing things I’ve ever seen in my life. It was a small straw scarecrow, complete with tattie black hat and roughshod clothes that’d been made out of scraps of mismatched fabric. Prisoners are dressed better. It’s hands were thin sprigs of straw and were splayed out unnaturally. The face was the most disturbing, probably because it didn’t have one. All that was there were indents made to look like eye sockets and a mouth. You’d think it didn’t have any facial expression, but the more I stared the angrier it appeared.
The wee lassie was infatuated with it, but the haunting look of its wrathful face was enough to set my hairs standing. Even just remembering it gives me the willies. I tried to distract myself by pouring the tea, but you know when the eyes of a painting seem to follow you round the room, it was like that but worse. Thankfully, the woman, a Mrs Morgan, began to tell her story and offered me a proper distraction.
According to her, in the last month bad things kept happening to people she knew and she was beginning to feel like she was cursed. All the while she clutched this silver cross hanging from a chain around her neck, twirling it this way and that, fidgeting almost. The Madam inquired when this had all started. Little did we both know there was a list. Her neighbour was ran over the morning she’d been talking to him; one of the teachers at her daughter’s school, the wee lassie, fell down a flight of stairs on her way to speak to her; one ae her pals had been mugged on her way out shopping; and the closest was her husband, who was now in hospital with quite serious injuries after he’d fallen off a ladder doing some work on the roof. Mrs Morgan wasn’t taking all these things as unfortunate coincidences, she was acting like they were all her doing, as if the world revolved around her.
I would’ve laughed if the atmosphere in the room hadn’t been so dour. Madam Norna, ever the professional, started asking questions about what had changed in the last month to precipitate these events, if she’d bought something new, like furniture or jewellery. Mrs Morgan shook her head.
In the moment of silence that followed this answer I noticed the Madam’s eyes wander over to the wee lassie’s bag, where the creepy scarecrow hung. She then inquired where it’d come from. The woman glanced over, oblivious to whatever the rest of us were getting from it. She casually shrugged her shoulders and said they’d found it at a car boot sale, her daughter Emily had liked it and so there it was.
After complimenting the “craftmanship” the Madam asked if she could keep it a while. Why the hell she’d want to do that was beyond me. No one in their right mind would buy it, and obviously this woman wasn’t in her right mind.
She turned to her daughter, somewhat reluctantly as if she knew what the outcome of this request would be, and quietly urged Emily to give up the scarecrow. It was like someone flipped a switch in that wee lassie. She’d been so good and placid ever since entering the shop, she’d never fidgeted, or touched something she shouldn’t have, she’d just sat there drinking her juice and playing with that bloody straw man. But as soon as the suggestion was put to her that she had to let someone borrow it she turned rabid.
Her wee fist closed tightly around the scarecrow, openly glowering at the Madam, stubbornly refusing to hand it over. Her mother tried to coax and persuade her, but she wasn’t budging and eventually Madam Norna gave up. She told Mrs Morgan to return in a few days and then she’d receive the solution to her troubles. There wasn’t any more detail than that, and I’m beginning to realise there never is.
Before they both left the shop, Mrs Morgan asked to use the bathroom, and I’ve never felt such a dread in my life at the thought of being alone with that bairn. The Madam attempted to make some conversation, but the lassie was having none of it. She stood there, stone still and silent, with her wee hand firmly wrapped around that scarecrow. She could keep the damn thing for all I cared, I couldn’t understand why the Madam wanted it anyway.
Mrs Morgan returned, not quickly enough fae me, and they began to make their way down the stairs back into the shop. Before I could follow, Madam Norna grabbed my arm gently and pulled me back, placing something scratchy in my hand. She ordered me to put it somewhere in the shop. You can probably guess what it was, and how much I enjoyed having it anywhere near me. From of a pointless sense of hope that I was wrong, I glanced down at what she’d put in my hand and the angry straw face glowered back. He was grotesque, his arms and legs stretched and positioned in an unnatural way. I stared blankly at my boss, wondering what I’d done or said to piss her off. Perhaps she’d heard my constant string of curses to Chronos, the cat. She just smiled in her nonchalant way and shimmied off.
She never gave me any further instructions on where to put in the shop, and I treated it like a grenade with the pin taken out. Throw it anywhere, the first place ye find. Mrs Morgan and her daughter, Emily, were still in the shop when I got down, and instinctively I kept my hand hidden from the wee lassie, who didn’t seem to have noticed her favourite trinket was missing, but I wasn’t about to tempt fate or her wrath.
Mrs Morgan’s superstitious theories started getting to me. What if it was cursed? Holding it couldn’t be good. Then again, she wasn’t hurt, just those around her, so maybe after work I’d visit the shitty landlord we have. It was like it was burning a hole through my hand as well as my sanity. I was glad to see them both leave, and almost instantly I tossed that tattie old scarecrow in the nearest basket with all the other random items that don’t have a home.
After reliving myself of it I felt a lot better, and I got on with my day, always giving that basket a wider berth than was sanely necessary. The hours ticked by until it was home time, but as I was leaving I walked by the basket and gave it a cursory glance. What I saw, or rather didn’t see, caused me to back up and scrutinise the contents. The scarecrow, which I’d tossed carelessly on top of the pile, wasn’t there. With a growing twinge of panic I began to search the other baskets near, in case I’d just mistaken which one it’d landed in. The longer I couldn’t find it, the more anxious I became.
“Is the scarecrow gone?” I heard the Madam’s velvet voice ask from the door up the stairs.
I told her the story of where I thought I’d chucked it. Chronos padded over to help me look, sniffing all the contents, but he had as much luck as I did. In typical fashion the Madam wasn’t phased, it’s like she didn’t care it’d vanished. She just ominously reassured me that we’d see it again.
Tae me, the scarecrow was like a spider. You’re too afraid to kill it, but at the same ye want to know where it is, you keep your eyes on it, and you get more afraid when it disappears. As much as I didn’t like it, I wanted to know where it was. Emily couldn’t have taken it because I’d only put it in the basket after she’d left. What did it do, sprout legs and run away?
The thing is, Madam Norna wasn’t wrong. As instructed, a few days later Mrs Morgan and her daughter Emily reappeared. Except this time her arm was in a brace, and when I asked what’d happened she told me she’d fallen out of bed during the night. Seemed innocuous, perfectly plausible, so why the hell did it sound the opposite?
The answer was swinging from Emily’s bag as she walked up the stairs to meet Madam Norna. Beside the heart and cartoon character was the scarecrow, as if it’d never been removed. My legs almost stopped taking me up, and I was in half a mind to fake an excuse and retreat to the land of sanity outside the shop. I hesitated at the top of the stairs, and I’m positive the Madam noticed. She told me I didn’t need to make any tea, I could just come straight in.
If I ran then, outside, or even down the shop, I’d never have answers. The crazy thoughts going through my head would win. There had to be some explanation for this, a debunking. And I was going to need that if I ever wanted to sleep again. I followed her inside and just as she was about to sit down, Chronos flashed past me and made a beeline for Emily’s bag. Somehow, he managed to remove the scarecrow and obediently deliver it to Madam Norna.
Once the lassie noticed it was gone the feral gaze returned and it was directed solely at my boss. Undaunted, the Madam handed a candle to Mrs Morgan, labelled only with a `P`, and told her to burn it for two hours or more in her house, and with that her bad luck would disappear. Before Mrs Morgan could even reach for the candle her daughter demanded the Madam return the scarecrow. My Boss shrugged gracefully, pretending she didn’t know what the lassie was talking about.
Mrs Morgan warned her daughter not to be so rude, but Emily was insistent that Madam Norna had stolen her scarecrow. Mrs Morgan looked across the table questioningly, unsure what to believe, and I couldn’t blame her. I was more stunned than she was when my boss held up both hands to show they were empty. No scarecrow in sight.
Inhaling deeply, Mrs Morgan tried to placate her daughter, but her words fell on deaf ears and the glaring continued. They took the candle and left, but the backwards scowl Emily threw at the Madam was enough to turn someone to stone. When I glanced at my boss again I saw she had the scarecrow in her hand. I mean, what the hell? How? Can I add magician onto the list of possibilities? In her other hand was a box of matches. Delicately she drew one out, dragged it along the edge to light it, and set the wee man on fire, before tossing him carelessly into her fireplace.
I’ve never been so happy to see something burn. I would be an ijit for not asking why she was burning a small straw man. All she said was that it was necessary for all the bad things that were happening to Mrs Morgan and those around her to cease. Was she implying that scarecrow was actually cursed? That it had caused all those people, including Mrs Morgan herself, to get hurt? Why? How?
I don’t have a good poker face and giving me one of her sideways glances she inquired if I believed they were all coincidences. I answered it was either that or a spectacularly shite stroke of bad luck. She didn’t say anything in reply, but by the upwards curve of her painted lips I could tell she was sceptical about my answer. I told her I was more curious as to how the wee lassie had managed to get it back. Madam Norna informed me that she hadn’t. When I scoffed that it must’ve used its straw legs to run out of the shop all she did was smile, with a sinister edge, and told me I had a lot to learn.
I mean, what do ye even say to that? A lot to learn about what, demon bairns and handmade miniature scarecrows someone should’ve though twice about? I suppose in short, I didn’t get an explanation or any answers. Things just get weirder in that shop. The only normal things in there is the clutter. How do people even find out about her? I’ve never seen any business cards in the shop, or on the counter, yet there’s always someone that turns up with one. And it doesn’t seem like my boss leaves the shop much to hand them out.
Every time I go to work it’s like I leave reality at the door. There’s the outside world, and then there’s the one in the shop where up is down, and black is white. I don’t even know why I keep going back. The money? ‘Cause it’s good money. Or is it the hours I spend rummaging through all of it, the memories, the trinkets, the coins, the stories. As far as jobs go, I’d rather work there than MacDonalds.