Associate Professor of English
A woman strides through a steep field. She wears shorts and a halter-top, or possibly, a dark brassiere. Her bare flesh is as pale and sculpted as marble. Her arms appear vigorous and strong; her back curves slightly with muscle; her thigh is taut. Hers is a supple body in motion, caught midstep by the photographer’s need. The flesh of the woman’s left buttock is bare, exposed by her ripped shorts. A kerchief hangs from her waistband. Her hair is blonde, not naturally so, and yet she’s no phony; the bleached white light of her hair is beautiful the way that Marilyn’s hair was always beautiful, her divine, defining aura. Naturally hers.
This woman is untamed, elemental, so her glance declares. She looks over her shoulder at the photographer’s lens—at the photographer. Her gaze is erotic, bemused, and a bit impatient. Her glance signals Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” when this passing image of a woman was ready to be seized and shot. You, again? her eyes flash. Get on with it! The photographer must be a man. Maybe he is her neighbor or a cousin from the next town over; maybe he is an old high school mate who remembers well their sophomore struggle in this same field, his joy at her adolescent fear and fight. She escaped. Now he hides from her behind his camera, his latest hobby. He wants only to take her picture, and she lets him tag along through the tall grass, but only behind her. Dismissive, she says, “You’re always fumbling with your annoying gadget!” He laughs. “Don’t you touch me again,” she warns, and winks. Maybe this snap-shooter is an older man, a family friend, avuncular, a vexed Humbert Humbert in pursuit, sweating with shame and lust on a day of sun and locusts. There she goes, he thinks, out of the frame, away from him, his own grown Lolita … running in the wind, in the pollen and dust, a flower in flight.
Blurred in the photo’s background is a scarecrow. This figure wears the usual rags and scraps for clothes, the cast-offs of a real man. His top hat tips, like his form, to the right. He might be toppling off the hillock, permanently off-balance on this mons pubis of verdant meadow that he guards. His outstretched arms are at an angle with the woman’s arms, which makes evident the emptiness between them. Their arms will never touch or tangle. The scarecrow’s face appears—as it should, in such a dizzying moment—animate. His look is quizzical, fixed, or fixated, undeniably, on her. Between grass and a haze of trees, he stands where a scarecrow always stands: on the margin of cultivated space. Lone Hayman. Lonely Hodmedod, Tattie Bogle, Scare-Beggar. Effigy, yes, but no snowman. His corpus has true purpose: to protect this fertile soil. Not merely from crows, but from all that threatens seeds, sweet corn, lush fruits.
Despite the scarecrow, the photographer persists. The shutter clicks.
Pilferer, Hayman thinks. Thief.
When he first stood in the ancient fields of Greece, Hayman dressed nobly, as a god! He was Priapus, son of Aphrodite, and his cypress spear—his phallus cursed to eternal and impotent erection—was the only weapon he needed to guard against intruders. Even the poets praised him, a stiff and fearsome sentinel. “Guardian Priapus, lord of the Hellespont,” Virgil once hailed him, “Watchman against thieves and birds!” … Now, the scarecrow’s dignity hangs off him in scraps. He hears the sound of beating wings. Grackles. Red-winged black-birds. Quails, crows, sparrows, doves. Cotes and flocks, quarrels and plagues, herds and hosts of predators like this stranger circle the girl … the loveliest nymphet green-red-blue Priap himself could think up. At dusk, shadows will dart and dissolve in the trees. The woman, too, will dissolve from this picture. She will melt into flesh-folds of time, her form shapeless in a cotton dress and felt slippers. Crows’ feet will mark her face. He will be no use to her then; she will be of no use to him. On the other side of the hill, only a click away, she fades—
Who, really, is the subject of this snapshot?
Is my subject the woman’s radiant face? Is she, with her familiar stride, something of my younger self? Or is my subject the scarecrow whose out-of-focus image confronts, threatens, and doubles the anonymous photographer like a fogged mirror that betrays aesthetic claims? Is Hayman the negative—or proof—of a real man’s desire? Maybe poet Kahlil Gibran best suggested the unsettling bond between male threat and thrill:
Once I said to a scarecrow, “You must be tired of standing in this lonely field.”
And he said, “The joy of scaring is a deep and lasting one, and I never tire of it.”
Said I, after a minute of thought, “It is true; for I too have known that joy.”
Said he, “Only those who are stuffed with straw can know it.”
If the scarecrow is a psychological mirror, then this snapshot is the photographer’s self-portrait, and his lament … I shall be dumped where the weed decays. Is he scared to be liable and exposed? He should be. The photo presents a fugitive desire and loss. Even this stolen memento of the woman he harried is no longer his own to hold. The decisive moment of the photograph may have been, after all, not the woman’s face turned to flirt infinitely with the camera, but a discreet warning passed from one straw man to another while the heat of the woman’s glance stops Time.
Only fear one thing. A lit match.
The photographer remains forever in her light: strung up, torn, ready to burn in the super-voluptuous flame he will not survive.