Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Another Scarecrow Harvest Festival Preview

Nunce and Hapax
Today I’m posting a couple more pages-in-progress from the scarecrow book I’m writing and illustrating for my son. It’s a slow process as I’m juggling this book along with a job and kids plus general house maintenance. A pretty common situation for most working artists, really. But I’m still aiming to finish it by Halloween, or Christmas at the latest.

As I mentioned in an earlier post,  I came up with back stories for most of my scarecrow characters. I posted a few of them on another blog but unfortunately didn’t have time to keep up with it. Once this picture book is done, however, I’ll put all the stories together in a companion book.

For now, though, here are a couple of their stories.

Nunce: Each scarecrow in the River Valley receives a unique Animating Name that imbues them with life. The short names by which they are commonly known are but a tiny fragment of this true, longer name, which can take several hours to speak. These names are small pieces of power from the Autumnal Powers themselves.

Nunce is the scarecrow who sits at the desk beside the Powers, transcribing their words into Animating Names. There are far too many scarecrows in the Valley for Nunce to deliver every name herself. Instead she passes the name off to her servants, the wugs, for delivery. The wugs resemble simple bird drawings- little more than a rounded body with two sticks for legs and the vaguest suggestion of a beak. The wugs are paper-thin and can float easily on the wind like fallen leaves, or slip under the door of a house.

(Wugs, by the way, were inspired by the Wug Test of Jean Berko Gleason, a psycholinguist who studies, among other things, language acquisition in children)

(Nunce’s original name was actually Nonce, a term for a word that is coined for a single use. Nonce is also, unfortunately, British slang for a pedophile, so I changed the spelling a little to distance the name from that connotation whilst keeping the same basic linguistic concept).

A couple of Wugs

Hapax: Another scribe for the Autumnal powers alongside his sister, Nunce. But while Nunce takes words directly from the lips of the Autumnal Powers, Hapax- and his own army of wugs- scour the libraries of mankind to find mortal words to give character to the Animating Names.  Sometimes he comes across written words that are known today only from a single use in a dead or forgotten tongue. Perhaps other references to the word are lost. Perhaps it was created for a single, special occasion. Whatever their origins, these single-use words have a particular potency. They are given to scarecrows of special import. Those who serve a key function in the River Valley. The scarecrows who guard the fields set aside for the dead, for example. Or scarecrows who inhabit fields marked by significant events, important battles, and geological anomalies.

Dwizzen and Cucupha

Dwizzen: The story of Dwizzen is really the story of Elihu March and Thomas Steiner, two young men from farming families in the River Valley.

When Elihu was five years old, an accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. Though his father was compassionate, his brothers and children from neighboring farms mocked him relentlessly for his disability, calling him useless and a burden.  One boy did not, though. Since he first learned to talk, Thomas Steiner struggled with a severe stutter that made even simple sentences difficult. He felt a deep kinship with Elihu and the two became fast friends.

In Thomas’ father’s field was a copse of trees used as a windbreak that the boys often used as a refuge from the mockery they endured on a daily basis. Thomas would carry Elihu to the trees in the early morning where the latter would spend the day with the books his father bought for him. At night Elihu would regale Thomas- and eventually some of the other farm children- with the things he had learned. He told them tales of the giant birds that had once roamed the Valley and left their fossilized footprints in the brownstone.  He told them of the preacher who had tried to build a metal messiah. He told them of the great city to the west that was the center of the world where every language was spoken. He also helped Thomas work on his stutter by giving him poems and speeches to read slowly out loud.

One day Thomas and Elihu went out to their landlocked island after a strong nor’easter had blown through. Several trees had been knocked down and Elihu noticed that a small army of seedlings had sprung up on them. He’d read books on botany and was keen to study the new sprouts. Soon he noticed that the plants formed micro-environments on different parts of the fallen trees. The flora growing on top of the root-ball was different from the flora growing in the pit, which was different from the mosses, lichens and liverworts growing on the roots themselves, which were all different from the other plants in the copse. Elihu took careful notes on his findings and with the encouragement of his father and Thomas he submitted them to a botanist at the nearby college. To his surprise the professor wrote back, impressed with his work, and invited Elihu to give a lecture on his findings. Word of his research soon spread to other members of the faculty and to other universities of the River Valley. He received more offers to speak about his discovery and was soon making a regular lecture circuit. At first, he was carried into the halls on Thomas’ back, but soon one of the professors donated a wheelchair so the boy could get around easier.

Thomas and Elihu grew ever closer and soon their friendship developed into something more. When Elihu’s father passed away, the two of them moved into his old farmhouse together. They wed the next spring with a ceremony in the old copse of trees where they had spent so much time in their youth.

In time the expanding town bought up Elihu and Thomas’ land to make way for expansion. When the couple moved to a new farm, they took one of the old, tipped-over logs with them as a reminder of their home. Weathering and cracking had given the stump the rough semblance of a face, so Thomas and Elihu thought it would be only appropriate to give it a body as well. The log head was too heavy for the body to hold up, but as it happened, Elihu was looking to obtain a new wheelchair and gave the old one to the scarecrow, whom the Autumnal powers named Dwizzen.

Recently Dwizzen’s chair has been fitted with bicycle wheels to make it easier for him to navigate his fields. Like his human creators, Dwizzen is interested in the succession of plant communities. He has seen neighboring fields go fallow and give way to meadow then savannah then young forest. He often ponders what will happen when his own field is finally reclaimed by the land. Perhaps he himself will become the nursery for a new forest.

(The design and backstory for Dwizzen were inspired by the ecological concept of pit-and-mound topography.)

Cucupha: this scarecrow had been guarding his fields for many decades without anything very interesting happening. Until the day something finally did. One early spring morning, a group of strange men came to the fallow meadow adjacent to his cornfield. They worked for many days, on what exactly he did know, for the project was guarded day and night and he dared not approach close to see what it was. When they left at last, he crept to the meadow and discovered a giant arrow of poured concrete lying flat in the grass, pointing to the West. He spent many a night staring at it from the edge of his field, wondering what it could be for.

One day a strange bird flew over his field. It was larger than any bird he’d ever seen before. Its wings were stiff and dark. The creature did not have any feathers that he could see.  Only smooth, white and gray flesh. It flew in a straight line, not swooping or banking like other birds. Cucupha was frightened by this odd creature, but he knew he had to do his job. He ran out into the open field, waving his arms to spook it. The bird did not cry out or swerve away as others did, but Cucupha’s efforts must have worked, for instead of landing to steal his crops, it continued on its way until it disappeared in the distance.

Things were quiet for a while after that. But a few days later another odd stiff-winged bird flew overhead. Again he ran out to spook the bird, and again it continued on its unwavering path to the west. Later that night another odd bird flew by, lower this time. And again he made a ruckus to scare it away. Then another the next day. And another. Soon there were strange birds flying overhead almost every day.

Where were all these avian aggressors coming from? It soon dawned on him that they had only started appearing after the men built that concrete arrow in the meadow. It must be some sort of beacon to the birds, he reasoned. Surely the men must have been jealous of his fields- the best fields in the River Valley- and had put up the arrow to summon the monster birds to devour his grain. But Cucupha would not allow that. He began to spend more time at the concrete arrow, waiting for the birds to come so he could chase them away.

When the farmer noticed Cucupha wasn’t in the fields anymore, he put up a new, non-living scarecrow. This didn’t bother the old scarecrow, though. Now he could devote more time to chasing off the monster birds.

In time the farmer moved away and the fields were left fallow. Meadow grass moved in to replace the grain. But Cucupha never noticed. All that mattered to him now was keeping the strange birds away.

By now readers may have figured out that the strange birds were actually airplanes. In recent years, the River Valley Postal Service has started using these new technological marvels to transport mail across the continent. The only problem is the long trips are difficult to navigate. While pilots can guide themselves by landmarks on short voyages, it’s all too easy to get lost on the long journey from coast to coast. To help their pilots, the Postal Service has erected a series of large concrete arrows all across the country. The markers are large enough to see from the air, and some are even lit up at night with torches. You can learn more about the Postal Service Arrows here.