“The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis” by Karen Russell
Vol. 10, No. 4
First published in Conjunctions:55, Urban Arias, “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis” is narrated by a young adolescent named Larry Rubio who, with his three Anthem City, New Jersey, buddies Mondo, Gus, and Juan Carlos, discovers a scarecrow lashed to an oak tree in the city park. As always in Karen’s work, the narration is heartbreakingly empathetic and intimate, but the boys are nonetheless clearly drawn as violent bullies, and the scarecrow is an unsettlingly lifelike—or deathlike—doppelgänger of one of their victims, the titular Eric Mutis, an epileptic outcast who may have suffered abuses at the hands of adults that far outstripped the traumas doled out by our protagonists. It’s revealed that Eric vanished from Larry’s school and neighborhood prior to the appearance of the scarecrow, a disappearance silent and unremarked at the time, which later becomes mysterious and troubling.
“At first I was sure that the thing tied to the tree was dead, or alive. Real, I mean,” Larry tells us. The scarecrow’s “face looked like a brick of sweating cheese…The chin was pocked with a fiery braille of blemishes and cuts, so convincingly nasty that you half expected them to ooze.” With echoes of a waxwork or puppet, the scarecrow nevertheless has classic elements like a stuffing of hay (some of it old and rotten, with a “jellied black look”; some of it frightening fresh and golden). As hard as the boys try to make the effigy an object as easy to deride as Eric had been, mutilating and mocking it, they can’t escape the terror it inspires. Terror, and, for Larry, debilitating guilt.
Described that way, the story sounds emotionally wrenching, and that’s undoubtedly true. This is a Karen Russell tale, though, and that means that with each jolt of sorrow or anger, with each queasy thrill of the unheimliche that the reader experiences, comes the ecstatic experience of Karen’s rich, delightful prose, her knack for conjurings of character and of time and place that are so evocative as to feel almost physical. In the context of our Urban Arias issue, the setting of this story was particularly complex and intriguing: It occurs in a wilderness within the city, “the ‘deep end’ of Friendship Park [that the boys] called Camp Dark. Camp Dark was Anthem’s lame try at an urban arboretum, a sort of surprise woods bordered by gas and fire stations and a condemned pizza buffet.” The park is a manmade zone as dark and savage as any deep forest of fairy-tale despite its detritus, its “condoms and needles…and the silver shreds of Dodo Potato Chip bags and beer bottles.”
This bewitching story addresses many of Karen’s biggest themes: identity and the complexities of growing up, innocence and aloneness, people in search of their souls. Like so much of her work, it locates a perfect balance between the comical and calamitous, the familiar and the fantastic. Enjoy your visit to Anthem—but beware of the Cone.
Bradford Morrow, Editor
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by Karen Russell
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THE SCARECROW THAT WE FOUND lashed to the pin oak in Friendship Park, New Jersey, was thousands of miles away from the yellow atolls of corn where you might expect to find a farmer’s doll. Scarecrow country was the actual country, everybody knew that. Scarecrows belonged to countrymen and women. They lived in hick states, the “I” states, exotic to us: Iowa, Indiana. Scarecrows made fools of the birds, and smiled with lifeless humor. Their smiles were fakes, threads. (This idea appealed to me—I was a quiet kid myself, branded “mean,” and I liked the idea of a mouth that nobody expected anything from, a mouth that was just red sewing.) Scarecrows got planted into the same soil as their crops; they worked around the clock, like charms, to keep the hungry birds at bay. That was how it worked in TV movies, at least: horror-struck, the birds turned shrieking circles around the far-below peak of the scarecrow’s hat, afraid to land. They haloed him. Underneath a hundred starving crows, the TV scarecrow seemed pretty sanguine, grinning his tickled, brainwashed grin at the camera. He was a sort of pitiable character, I thought, a jester in the corn, imitating the farmer—the real king. All day and all night, the scarecrow had to stand watch over his quilty hills of wheat and flax, of rye and barley and three other brown grains that I couldn’t remember (my brain stole this image from the seven-grain Quilty Hills Muffins bag—at school I cheated shamelessly and I guess my imagination must have been a plagiarist too, copying its homework).
This mission had nothing to do with us or with our city of Anthem, New Jersey. Anthem had no crops, no silos, no crows—it had turquoise Port-o-Pottys and neon alleys, construction pits, dogs in purses, bag ladies with powerful smells and opinions, garbage dumps haunted by the wraith white pigeons; it had our school, the facade of which was currently covered with a glorious psychedelic phallus mosaic, a series of interlocking dicks spray painted to the scale of Picasso’s Guernica by Anthem’s tenth-grade graffiti kings; it had policemen, bus drivers, crossing guards; dolls were sold in stores.
And we were city boys. We lived in projects that were farm antonyms, these truly shitbox apartments. If flowers bloomed on our sooty sills, it must have been because of some plant Stockholm syndrome, a love our sun did not deserve. Our familiarity with the figure of the scarecrow came exclusively from watered-down L. Frank Baum cartoons, and from the corny yet frightening “Autumn’s Bounty!” display in the Food Lion grocery store, where every year a scarecrow got propped a little awkwardly between a pilgrim, a cornucopia, and a scrotally wrinkled turkey. The Food Lion scarecrow looked like a broomin a Bermuda shirt, a broomwith acne, ogling the ladies’ butts as they bent to buy their diet yogurts—once I’d heard a bag boy joke that it was there to spook the divorcees. What we found in Friendship Park in no way resembled the Food Lion scarecrow. At first I was sure the thing tied to the oak was dead, or alive. Real, I mean.
“Hey, you guys,” I swallowed. “Look—” And pointed to the pin oak, where a boy our age was belted to the trunk. Somebody in blue jeans and a T-shirt that had faded to the same earthworm color as his hair, a white boy, doubled over the rope. His hair clung tight as a cap to his scalp, as if painted on, and his face looked like a brick of sweating cheese.
Gus got to the kid first. “You retards.” His voice was high with relief. “It’s just a doll.” He punched its stomach. “It’s got straw inside it.”
“It’s a scarecrow!” shrieked Mondo.
And he kicked at a glistening bulb of what did appear to be straw beneath the doll’s slumping face. A little hill. It regarded its own innards expressionlessly, its glass eyes twinkling. Mondo shrieked again.
I followed the scarecrow’s gaze down to its lost straw: dark gold and chlorophyll green strands were blowing loose, like cut hair on a barbershop floor. Some of the straw had a jellied black look. How long had this stuff been outside of him, I wondered—how long had it been inside of him? I looked up, searching the boy scarecrow for a rip. A cold eel-like feeling was thrashing in my belly. That same morning, while eating my Popple breakfast tart, I’d seen a news shot of a U.S. soldier calmly watching blood spill from his head. Calm came pouring over him, at pace with the blood. In the next room, I could hear my ma getting ready for work, singing an old pop song, rattling hangers. On TV, one of the soldier’s eyes was lost behind the sticky pink sheet. The camera closed in; a second later the footage switched to the trees of a new country under an ammonia blue sky. I couldn’t understand this—where was the cameraman or the camerawoman? Who was letting his face dissolve into calm?
“Let’s cut it down!” screamed Mondo. I nodded.
“Nah, we better not.” Juan Carlos looked around the woods sharply; he looked up, as if there might be a sniper hidden in the pin oak. “What if this”—he pushed at the doll—“belongs to somebody? What if somebody is watching us, right now? Laughing at us…”
It was late September, a cool red season. The scarecrow was hung up on the sunless side of the oak. The tree was a shaggy pyramid, sixty or seventy feet tall, one of the “famous” landmarks of Friendship Park; it overlooked a ravine—a split in the seam of the bedrock, very narrow and deep—that we called “the Cone.” Way down at the bottom you could see a wet blue dirt with radishy pink streaks along it, as exotic looking to us as a sea floor. Condoms and needles (not ours) and the silver shreds of Dodo Potato Chip bags and beer bottles (mostly ours) had turned the Cone into a sort of sylvan garbage can. The tree spread above it like a girl playing at suicide, quailing its many fiery leaves.
Years ago, before we started loitering here in a dedicated way, the pin oak had been planted to commemorate an Event—there was an opal plaque nestled in its roots. We knew this much but we didn’t know more—some delinquent, teenaged forefather of ours had scratched out everything but the date, “1957.”
The plaque looked like a lost little moon in the grip of the tree’s arachnid roots. I always felt a little cheated by the plaque; it was a confusing kind of resentment; I didn’t really care about the “why” of the tree at all but I didn’t like how this plaque was an open secret either, a mystery that was always itching at us. It bothered me that we were so poorly informed about the oak’s first purpose that we did not even have the option of forgetting it, using our patented June 1 method, whereby we expulsed a year of school facts from our brains in spasms of summer amnesia. (Harriet Tubman—did he invent something? The War of 1812—why did we fight that one? For tea? Against Mexico or Sicily?) Forgetting was one of my favorite things to do at Camp Dark; I felt like a squid, sending jets of inky thoughts into the Cone. The plaque was illegible, but the oak’s glossy trunk was covered in gougings that you could easily read: V hearts K; Death 2 Asshole Jimmy Dingo; Jesus Saves; I Wuz Here!!! We’d added ourselves:
MONDO + GUS + LARRY + J.C. = CAMP DARK
The “deep end” of Friendship Park we called Camp Dark. Camp Dark was Anthem’s lame try at an urban arboretum, a sort of surprise woods bordered by gas and fire stations and a condemned pizza buffet. THE PIZZA PARTY IS CANCELED read a sign above a bulldozer. These central acres of Friendship Park were filled with young deciduous trees and naive-seeming bluish squirrels. They chittered some charming bullshit at you too, up on their hind legs begging for a handout. They lived in the trash cans and had the wide-eyed innocent look and threadbare fur of child junkies. Had they wised up, our squirrels might have mugged us and used our wallets to buy train tickets to the true woods, which were about an hour north of Anthem’s depressed downtown, according to Juan Carlos—only Juan Carlos had been out there. (“There was a river with a purple fish shitting in it,” was all we got out of him.)
girl crush/unknowing bff/idol/hero forever
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