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Some Sketches of Country Life

1. Commerce with Children

The stick is our first best friend.

Clutched like hands, sticks are the most constant of companions to tots as well as bigger boys and girls. A stick is a weapon, a guide, an aid to walking, a pointer, a building material, a javelin—and more.

Sticks obey our commands and adapt to our whims, are the toys that, for our sheer enjoyment, God has spread all over the surface of this green-brown Earth. Is it any wonder children love them so? Of course they do not see the sharp consequences of this love, nor the sandy grime that has usually rubbed off on the lower part of their palms, nor the sometimes scornful looks of those who would say, “Put down that dirty thing, put down that dangerous thing.” Indeed, this blind, pure love of theirs, if nurtured, can remain until adulthood. Perhaps this is why the Stick Man has enjoyed such unexpected success in our district. Since before any of the parents can remember, he has made his living year-round through the selling of his wares.

For of course each of those parents is but a child grown up, reliving the freedom of days past every time his or her young ones scurrying up and down grassy inclines, hop-stepping amongst the bramble. Waving to their elders whenever they make eye contact. Waving sticks.

“This little beauty is perfect for back-scratching,” the Stick Man will say. Or, “These two are a matching set—perfect for mock sword fights.” Always full of suggestions, he’s happy to provide consultations while wearing those fingerless gloves of his and that knit cap he sports in all seasons that has kept us from noticing whether he has any hair, or what color it might be. (P.S., there’s always a fine dusting of pinecone threads, of pollen, of crushed acorns in the cotton fibers of this cap, as if he has been walking through tunnels made of leaves.)

The Stick Man’s enterprise may have started as a form of public sympathy or capitalist-charity—the way one “buys” a pencil from a blind man. In the end, though, it is clearly the beauty and functionality of the sticks that have enabled him to thrive. His “secret,” as he will tell anyone who listens, is to collect them early, just after their fall, thus preserving his goods before rot, weathering, and insects can have their way. Yes, he will divulge information such as this if you venture to that shack of his on the shaded hillside, two miles from the nearest human road. Both workshop and abode, it is as thoroughly stick-fashioned as the home in the Three-Pigs’ Tale.

And this dwelling is just one instance of how the Stick Man, even without intention, is so at home in the world of youngsters. In fact, they will often include particular sticks of his in their wish lists to Saint Nick.

But the Stick Man himself is no fantasy figure to them. On the contrary, he is immanently real, as evidenced by the way he not only understands their games but also invents new stick-based ones for their benefit. Many of these you may be familiar with: Lean-to Toss, The Elf Lady’s Beard, Fountain of Sticks. One could even claim that this is his chief role among children—to contribute to their wonder but never to usurp it by making sticks a province of adulthood like so many other things. For example, one might logically suppose that a large portion of the joy in playing with sticks derives from the finding of them—(i.e., the careful stalking of the inert) and that therefore the Stick Man’s vocation has undermined this excellent pastime.

Oh, but that would be far, far from the truth of the matter. Running gleefully, their knuckles holding fast over the knuckles of the sticks, the under-ten crowd races to the Stick Man when they come across items of interest. They then trade with him or, in the case of the younger ones who have not yet been introduced to the ways of commerce, freely give their findings as gifts. He is the Stick Man, so he gets the sticks. Such is the simple structure of their thoughts on the matter.

2. The Estate Clowns

Newcomers to the great house are encouraged to look up. There, hanging by their straps from rounded wood pegs, high over furniture heavy with inlay and bubbling refreshments, are pairs of German-lensed field glasses. Their purpose, one of the hosts will invariably explain, is to aid window-seat observers in identifying members of the troupe as they roam the vast grounds. After all, one does not want to become needlessly excited over spotting a slow-moving band of wild turkey or a family of boar as it roots for bulbs in the morning mist. Such errors are more common than you might think.

Numbering as many as ten at any one time, as few as three at others, the estate clowns usually maintain a respectful distance unless approached; in such cases, though, it is best to avoid movement that can be misinterpreted. If you can manage this, then these performers, regardless of weather conditions or your station in life, are apt to perform a wordless antic for your pleasure.

Often their spontaneous resourcefulness takes on ingenious forms. If a clown finds you staring at him as he bleeds from elbow or knee, perhaps the result of a light fall, he will incorporate this mishap into an impromptu scenario. He will point at your own elbow quizzically, as if to say: Are you fortunate enough to have sustained a bleeding wound, too? Oh, no? Then he might clutch his belly in his arms and sway, roaring a silent laugh in ridicule of your imagined envy.

While the rich man’s family refrains from active patronage of the troupe, they do tolerate its presence, giving it free run of the parkland that surrounds the manor. Granted, once in a long while a rug-beating maid, high on an overlooking balustrade, must shoo the clowns away from the rose garden. However, as a haphazard source of entertainment while one is picnicking or engaging in a “nature hike,” they cannot be surpassed. Their unassuming ways rarely interfere with typical outdoor pursuits like birding or butterfly collecting. Yet during the two-week hunting season the clowns make themselves scarce. They seem to know instinctively when this is.

3. What Must It Be to Be the Stick Man?

 . . . when what you cherish most is always being trampled underfoot without a second, or even a first, thought?

Moreover, what do you dread if you are the Stick Man? That the verdant world will hold its own against death and entropy, and maintain its integrity, with no parts dropping off for your easy harvest? Do you despair of calm seasons in which winds do not wrack the upper boughs so violently? Do you wish every rainfall to be a hard one?

In our long summers, the Stick Man allows the sun to dry the storm-tossed sticks—he cannot let them stay wet for long because of the ever-present risk of rot. In winter, he brings them to the farthest radius of his peat-fire’s warmth, speaking to them the whole time, reassuring them that he will always keep his person between them and the flames.

This speaks, of course, to the great intimacy he has built with his stock. If there is infestation in any stick, he knows it straightaway: he holds it to his ear, sniffs at it, watches it carefully during what is termed the “holding-over” period (he will not sell a stick until he has observed it for at least a fortnight). His typical working method is to save larger branches and, since he eschews the use of tools, to break off sections with his hands, working with the natural fault lines and points of weakness.

Perhaps you have heard of the sticks that make up his special collection? These are sticks that have been blessed with exceptional patterns in their bark or that stylishly display the signs of having been beaver-chewed; sticks with scarlet maple leaves still attached that make for excellent centerpieces; woodpecker-pecked sticks that are considered totems of good luck; lightning-struck sticks that give off a fine, charred aroma.

Besides these, there are yet other, even more precious sticks that he keeps in reserve as a vintner might. These are largely sticks that have separated from trees while still green, which the Stick Man has kept in cork-lined bins. Often, as a gift for an anniversary or a birthday, someone will inquire about the availability of such a memento stick; it is said that each stick contains to some degree the smells, the air, the feel of the year in which it fell.

(It is also said that the trees protect him. That they are grateful for the way he treasures their lost members. The way he redeems these from their inevitable swallowing by the soil. The way he honors the fallen and the dead.)

4. A Subspecies of Forest Minstrel

Traditionally the clowns are considered neither employees of, nor trespassers to, the vast estate. Rather, they have come to be viewed as a form of native wildlife. They do not practice seasonal migration, though, spending the most desolate part of winter under the old carriage bridge at the south end of the fishpond. There they huddle together, covered in layers of dry grit. When one of them needs to venture forth to satisfy any one of a number of primary needs, he is usually seen with others clinging to his back or legs. While such physical attachment is ostensibly to preserve body heat, it is commonly acknowledged that this hopelessly awkward form of locomotion is mostly for the audience’s benefit.

The origin of the clowns’ presence on the estate is often discussed but rarely debated: emotions do not run too high on the subject. They have lived there, harmlessly and aimlessly, since the time of the rich man’s grandfather. It is variously considered that they are a subspecies of forest minstrel, a band of gypsies who specialize in outmoded forms of vaudeville, or perhaps common street performers barely above the level of mendicants who were forced to leave the great city owing to “conditions” and who consequently took the railroad line to its last stop—the village station twenty miles distant. Some visitors, sipping lemon tea in the conservatory as they scan the lawns with the eagerness of children, embellish their speculations with romantic touches. These guests (who themselves have often just disembarked from the same train that features in the clown legends) offer conjecture that the feral performers are holdovers from the age of court jesters, back in those days when the note to the property had been held by a true nobleman.

If such guests remain until the evening, and drink sufficiently of the wine stores, and the subject of the clowns is once more taken up, the following thought is occasionally voiced as an addendum to that earlier conversation: that a jester was dismissed for an unsavory joke at the nobleman’s expense but, being so far out in the countryside, there was no other source of employment for him, and so he roamed the orchards and woods, his small family in tow, hoping that the nobleman would reconsider. To that end, he continued to perform his amusing hijinks. His descendants, no longer aspiring to reinstatement, nonetheless persist in a somewhat vestigial fashion. They battle chickadees over water rights at the pedestalled birdbaths. They do pratfalls into the marble fountains. They play dead in the middle of croquet tournaments.

For self-identification, the clowns sport whitish face paint (one hesitates to use the absolute term “white” for what is usually such a grimy shade). This makeup is said to derive from natural sources such as birch bark and ashes. An unnamed substance, most likely a form of animal fat, facilitates application. Without these distinguishing pale bands around their eyes, mouth, and nose, the clowns would no doubt have been shot as poachers long ago by the game warden.

5. And What of Your Humble Narrator?

At this point I shall allow myself to interrupt myself, in response to, and in anticipation of, any thoughts of yours that may intrude upon this meager narrative. Are they really clowns, Mr. Ludwig? And what of you, with your bags of words, and pencil points that need licking, and the lines on your face multiplying with each cup of re-heated coffee? How do you pretend to sit apart from all that you chronicle in this community of your choosing? To this line of questioning I can only shake my head, nod vigorously, shrug, turn my back, giggle, and weep openly. But since you cannot see or hear me, unfortunately it is not feasible for you to pair these gestures to your wonderings.

To be less frustratingly vague, no, perhaps they are not clowns. It’s possible, I confess, that that is a mere interpretation (their paleness a sign of illness, their buffoonery a form of habitual convulsiveness); the fact that it is an interpretation shared by many reflects its hold on us but not its veracity. Indeed, it is entirely likely that I am the true clown and simply projecting myself onto the landscape that lies beyond the bow window. The only thing deserving of certainty: I am waiting for that mystery which reconciles, that terror whose approach one welcomes, and if I keep at it—dutifully composing this and my other accounts—then I will summon the attention that I long for and fear. This is what happens, I’ve been told, when one hovers too long between servant and master.

6. The Stick Man’s Dream and How it Led to Flames

The Stick Man has a dream he recalls so frequently that he sometimes wonders why his mind bothers to force it upon him at night, given how determinedly it occupies his daytime thoughts . . .

A woman about his age arrives in the district purveying rocks; she is quickly dubbed “the Stone Woman.” Like the Stick Man, she perfects a spiel that promotes a variety of purposes for her goods. However, she has made one grave miscalculation. To earn a living in the same community that already supports a Stick Man, she is forced to lower her prices by roughly half of what she would like to charge. Consequently, she must haul twice the amount of merchandise. The toll this additional weight takes on her spine is devastating, and in turn hastens her financial decline.

In the dream, the Stick Man offers to sell one or two stones for her—on consignment. For some reason, she takes this as a lewd proposition and scorns him. He can only watch forlornly as prospects for a peaceful mercantile co-existence and, let us be frank, a wife, both slip away.

(When he awakens, he recalls, smiling, how this dream-woman pried a head-like stone up from its own wormy footprint. “Put down that dirty thing,” he had shouted at her. “Put down that dangerous thing!”)

In real life, the Stick Man has also suffered the occasional setback, mostly in the form of calumny. In the tavern at the inn that time, and for reasons unknown, the minister’s elderly son railed for hours, saying, “I will not have those dead fingers in my house, those bony forearms, those shanks, those elbows with knots in them! They are the skeletons of trees and he has hoodwinked us all into bringing them indoors. Yes, I will say it straight out: he has made of our homes a horrible mausoleum! The woods cannot be permitted to come into our midst without first being made useful, either as fuel for a fire or in the form of, say, a footstool. Otherwise, we might as well sleep under blankets of thorns and moss ourselves . . . ”

Fortunately, most in attendance knew that this gray-eyed lecher had been helping himself to Irish coffee since breakfast, and so attached little lasting importance to his words.

Still, others found in it food for thought. These are no doubt of the same class that claims that the Stick Man keeps his most prized possessions from the public, that they will be revealed only upon his passing. These, it is hinted, are the purest of death-dealers: spears, spikes, darts, and stakes. (Not that one can fault the Stick Man if this were true, given how the forest that spreads broadly throughout the district has become so fraught with mischief. What with how the park rangers have taken to banditry and those stray dogs to wolvery.)

Was it the malice of such suspicious folk, then, that we sensed was at play when we first heard of the catastrophe? Many like to recall what they were doing when the three-year-old came back from the woods, practically swooning with the news: “Stick Man on fire! Stick Man on fire!

In response, more than half the village populace walked the two miles with sloshing buckets in tow, their shoulders bowed symmetrically under the strain. Of course, had the quaint shanty really caught fire, it would have been reduced to pointy little ashes long before they had gotten half-way there.

The truth behind the little one’s report of flames? Well, apparently, one day, there had been a truly dirty stick. Let us imagine that someone, a woodsman perhaps, had expectorated on it. It is from this contamination that the Stick Man’s fever had sprung. Further investigation revealed that the three-year-old’s incorrect description of this state of affairs stemmed from having heard her mother once remark, on a similar occasion, that so-and-so was “burning up.”

Needless to say, the villagers did not want to carry the water all the way back, but neither did they want to waste it. This is how, then, the Stick Man’s pond was created. Later it was stocked with fry, and now farm-folk and village-folk alike enjoy the sport of stick-fishing there during three of our four seasons. Lacking access to the rich man’s pond, they are grateful for the chance to hunt their own swift shapes beneath the surface of their reflections.

7. A Word of Caution

The clothes of these estate clowns do not resemble conventional clown attire. Instead, they seem to be the real-world antecedents for those humorously ill-fitting, torn-and-patched items worn by their distant stage cousins. That is to say, their clothes are sewn—or sometimes taped or glued—together from other fabric sources: burlap sacks, rags, tarpaulins, millinery discards, and the like. To their credit, the clowns maintain a dignity despite such meager adornment. Indeed, they use their bedraggled appearance to enhance their comic impact.

As many have commented over the years, their costumes and their lives are seamlessly wed. So much so that sometimes, when one beholds them, the idea arises that it’s not simply their clothing that has disintegrated but their very selves inside—not the flesh, nothing as gruesome as that, but somehow their substantiality, their being.

Such existential views are possible in part because the clowns, remarkably, seemed to have lost the power of human speech altogether. Several of the village elders claim that this is a natural outcome of so many generations being raised with such single-minded devotion to the art of pantomime; that is, the clowns’ hands and faces have evolved to the point of being so fully expressive that vocal cords have become utterly superfluous, as retinas are to certain cave-dwelling fish. Some of these rural raconteurs have gone so far as to claim that the clowns are no longer capable of meaningful human action as well—only parodies of the same.

In conclusion, it should be noted that visitors today might still be fortunate enough to witness the remnants of this famous troupe. The best time for viewing the estate clowns is invariably the fall, when they are consumed neither by the lethargies of summer or winter, nor by the overactive, erratic behavior occasioned by spring. During autumn, their white countenances can be discerned from hundreds of yards away as they busy themselves collecting blood-red leaves for their winter blankets.

A word of caution, however: if possible, try to notice them before they notice you. Otherwise, locked in their gaze, you might find yourself audience to a deathly accurate mockery of your very essence.

8. Song of the Stick Man

Would that my tale had ended with the Stick Man’s feverish incident. Still, my recounting of it should help readers understand why no one was quick to respond when they heard that his shack was again aflame. This time, though, it was truly so.

There was an official inquiry, of course, as well as some popular but unproven accusations. Of these, I ought to note the one against the minister’s son and his friends: angered by how the village “came together” over the Stick Man’s illness, they purportedly resolved to beat him unconscious and leave him inside his shack as they ignited it. No doubt the most horrible aspect of such a scenario is that it would have been his own sticks—his own loved ones, as it were—who consumed him.

Despite his legal exoneration, the arrogant callousness that the minister’s son betrayed in the tavern soon afterward sealed his guilt for many. Brushing foam from a pint with a hirsute back-of-hand, he remarked, “Can’t understand what all the fuss is about. If you’d been there to witness it, you’d know it was a bonfire like any other.”

“He’s dead,” little Mary Whitehorse screamed, “and you killed him!”

This last statement, while understandable, certainly does not reflect Mary’s possession of any conclusive knowledge, for no body has been recovered, only bones. Some have used this as evidence that the Stick Man robbed graves or waylaid and murdered lost travelers. More sympathetic factions argue that he simply studied bones as a craftsman might, as a way of working their organized mystery into his own handiwork. (And, I should point out, no spears, spikes, darts, or stakes were found, although of course that does not mean that they did not burn with the rest of his stock . . . or were not simply removed beforehand.)

The children, as one might expect, cared not for forensics and slander but for legend and song. Here are the verses that they composed, only hours, it seemed, after poking tearfully through the ash-stain that his shack had become:

Stick Man goes up . . . goes up in fire!

Stick Man rises . . . rises to the sky!

Stick Man flies . . . watch him go higher!

Stick Man’s gone . . . but never said—goodbye!

9. Postscript

Two nights ago, the Stick Man–provided sticks disappeared from village homes.

All the sticks. All the homes.

But how had someone infiltrated the dwellings and done this bit of business so efficiently, so silently? Fear quickly announced itself among the ranks of the cowardly and the brave alike.

There was no milk delivery this morning, and all day long the birds have been oddly tentative in the treetops.

Should I have admitted at yesterday’s town meeting that I’d seen the Stick Man meeting with the estate clowns shortly before the conflagration, when I was out for one of my daybreak strolls about which I have never ever told a living soul?

As you might be able to appreciate, it is a tricky position in which I, Louis Ludwig, consequently find myself. On which side of the equation do I align myself? With the villagers, my so-called neighbors . . . or with the face-painted magickers and the one who now, I both dread and delight in imagining, is their new leader?

It is a grave choice that I must make, as are all that involve ultimate allegiance, and now you must make it as well. Please, please, tell me how you will decide, so that then I may follow suit.

But wait. Presently there is a knock at my door. A knock, yes, it’s true, a knock that makes no sound—

About the Author

Peter Gutierrez’s dark fiction has been published off and on for about twenty-five years. A longtime writer for Rue Morgue, Peter has had his work appear in various anthologies and online journals, and he has had both a short story (“A Different Kind of Sunshine”) and a poem (“Anteroom”) in the long list of Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year. He lives and works in New Jersey, which never ceases to be a source of inspiration.