Disclaimer: I don't own Batman, or Scarecrow for that matter.
A/N: This story is a project that I have been working on for some time, using the best parts of the Scarecrow's various origins to create an in-depth Crane backstory. Aspects of both Scarecrow: Year One and Batman Annual #19 have been used in this piece, and I hope to remain true to his character while exploring other, lesser-known characters from both comics.
Trigger Warning: Bullying, child abuse, violence, and character death in later chapters.
You would not easily guess
All the modes of distress
Which torture the tenants of earth;
And the various evils,
Which like so many devils,
Attend the poor souls from their birth.
- Percy Bysshe Shelley, Verses On A Cat
If Mary Keeny cared about one thing, it was her family name. And why not? The Keenys were a proud line, and for a long time they faced disaster with the grace of God and the patience of saints. Family legend held that a Keeny had been aboard one of the first ships to reach the New World, long before they settled in Georgia. She saw the good times, before everything went to rot with the Great Depression and several members of her own line ended their lives like the cowards they were. Killing yourself was a mortal sin. She knew that, and their souls would writhe for it. But she prevailed, guided by faith and trust in the heaven above her, and there she was. Sixty-three years old, and she didn't need a walking stick or wheelchair. She was made of sterner stuff than that. No Keeny would suffer a retirement home, not while she breathed.
There were disappointments and mistakes along the way, of course. Marion, her daughter, was a widow, and at such a young age. But she kept to the faith and endured, bringing her own daughter Karen up to follow in her footsteps. Karen, though, was a creature of degraded morals and low values. She was, to put it bluntly, incorrigible. Whenever Marion had her eye off the girl, she'd go off to parties in town, drinking and smoking and spending increasing amounts of time with men whose values were as lacking as her own. None of that would have happened if Mary had been in charge of the girl's upbringing. When she was a girl herself, parents knew how to deal with brats like Karen. The cane was a start. Spare the rod and spoil the child, as the Good Book said.
For all she tried to live up to her mother's example as a girl, Marion's hand was too lax, and as a woman she was a failure. While not stupid like Karen, she had grown self-indulgent, devoting herself to perfumes and jewelry. Somewhere along the way she had acquired silly dreams of leaving Arlen, shedding the shadow of her mother, and becoming a society lady, preening in front of the bathroom mirror and eyeing pretty things in department stores. She let Karen get away with wandering off, and as a result what scraps of dignity were left in the Keeny name were utterly worthless. Little things became scandalous. Sometimes Mary wondered why she still cared.
The old woman glared at the dark-haired girl, who was cowering on a dirty bed with a hand on her stomach, partly covered by a striped brown blanket. She was in the family way. With all the men Karen saw, this was bound to happen. She had tried to hide it, and it helped her that Marion was so neglectful. However, five months in, it reached the point where Marion noticed, gave her a good long cursing, and hauled her to the old Keeny manor to stay with Mary.
Marion herself paced beside the bed, arms crossed, glowering at her terrified daughter all the while. She took Karen's pregnancy even more harshly than Mary did, although the old woman suspected that the disapproval came in part because the scandal would hurt her reputation in the Arlen social scene. Mary could smell the faint scent of roses, which she strongly suspected was Marion's perfume.
"Who did this to you?" Marion asked, Karen flinching at the vicious note in her voice. "You're lucky we don't disown you this instant."
Mary joined her daughter, narrowing her eyes and watching the stupid girl quiver. "Was it someone from Arlen? A rich boy with too much money and time on his hands? Give us a name. If he lives in town, we might be able to have a conversation with his parents about this problem."
"His name was Gerald Crane. He wasn't from around here. He said he was visiting, but his family lived a few towns over. He was on break from the Navy, he said."
Karen's voice trembled and she looked to the floor. She had every right to be afraid. It was all Mary could do to keep from smacking some sense into Karen. In all her years as matriarch of the family she had never seen something like this. It was insulting, no, a disgrace. All of her hard years of work seeing to it that the family was well taken care of and securing God's blessings blown on a granddaughter who had children by men she barely met.
"Gerald Crane." Oh, Mary knew about Gerald Crane. He had quite the reputation as a hooligan and a disgrace to his family, wasting their well-earned money on drink and clothes. To their credit, they had tried to fix the stupid boy. Eventually the Cranes, God bless them, had gotten fed up with him and kicked him out, hoping that his enlistment in the Navy would calm him down. Unfortunately, it only let him meet like-minded companions, and gave him even more of a taste for drink. He could be a charmer if he wanted to be. No doubt Karen had fallen for his sweet talk. The couple would have been an appropriate one if it hadn't been so sickening and if it wasn't her family. "Of course. And what did you think of him? Thrilled by the bad boy, were we?"
Karen shook her head, still trying to force out an answer. "You're wrong, Gran. He's not as bad as you think he is. He loved me. He said he'd keep in touch, even though he had to leave. He gave me a present to remember him by. We'd been seeing each other for a few days, and he was leaving Arlen pretty soon."
Of course she'd defend her lover and partner in sin. Mary wasn't moved in the slightest. Part of it was Karen trying to deny that she did something wrong. The girl rummaged in her pocket, taking out and fingering a small, crumpled photograph. Mary squinted to get a better look at the man who had intruded into their lives so rudely. He was in his mid-twenties, with a shock of red hair and sturdy features, smiling while holding up a mug of beer. Noticing, Karen put it away in a rush and shuffled back on the bed to protect it.
"He gave you more than one gift, I see," Marion remarked on seeing the picture. "What a generous man. We may have misjudged him."
"Loved you, did he?" Mary leaned into the frightened girl's face. She did well to be scared, and Mary had it in mind to terrify her. Fear was the best way to make sure that mistakes weren't made twice. "Did he now? And where's this perfect gentleman now that you turned out to be with child? He used you and left as soon as he was done with you. You aren't the first person he played for an idiot. Oh, I know all about the things Gerald Crane gets up to. See, this is what comes of relations of that kind. Godless. You make me sick, girl. If it was up to me, I'd treat you like Gerald's parents treated him."
This time Karen was cowed into silence. Good.
"The Cranes are a fine family, but he turned out a miserable hedonist. He and his friends would go around town, get filthy drunk, and do all kinds of idiot things before morning came and they turned sober. But the Cranes had none of it, and out he went. Not that he saw the error of his ways."
Knowing Gerald, he was probably miles away from Arlen by now. He was a stinking coward, unable to face up to his role in what happened, leaving it to the Keenys to pick up the pieces of what he broke. The only traces of his being there were the baby in Karen's womb and the photograph tucked in her pocket.
The girl was crying now, holding her belly as if to clutch the thing growing inside. The scene might have been touching if it hadn't been so nauseating. The family agreed to let the infant be born and hold a meeting about what to do with it once it was. Mary, as the head of the family, would make the final decision as to its fate. Marion, although she hadn't seen it, hated the baby already. It would, as she claimed, make a lovely embarrassment and a sign that she couldn't control her own daughter. Karen's pregnancy didn't just make her look like a wastrel, it made her mother look like a fool. She didn't just want it adopted or handed over to some family with the means to look after it. No, she wanted it dead. It didn't matter when or how. The sooner it died, the better.
"When I was a girl," she told Karen while looking on with disgust, "we had a dog. Whenever we found it with a litter of spare puppies that we couldn't afford to keep, fathered by some filthy mutt off the street, we simply put them in a sack, took them to the riverside, and threw them in." Her voice was hard and cold, and her hands twisted together, as if she wished she had the infant's neck in her grip. Mary's influence on her was strong enough that she didn't want the infant destroyed before it was born, but she saw no reason to keep it.
Karen looked appalled by the idea of killing a child. Her maternal feelings were frankly amazing to see, especially considering how much trouble the thing had gotten the girl into already. For all the screaming and beatings that Mary and Marion had given her, she didn't understand that the baby was a problem to be dealt with.
"Mom, it isn't his fault." She showed so much concern for the welfare of something that hadn't even been born yet. "He hasn't done anything wrong. Maybe the Cranes will take him."
"No. We won't burden them with your mistake," Marion replied, not bothering to look at Karen while she spoke. She held a pearl necklace, toying with the little jewels between her fingers. "The Cranes have their own problems without an extra mouth to feed. Besides, they moved away years ago."
Mary sighed, frustration mixed with a little pity. Her granddaughter had so little idea of how the world worked. Marion's idea would be brought up again later, when Karen wasn't there to hear. Although murder was a sin, preserving the family name from the disgrace of a child born outside of wedlock might be worth it.
Her daughter's motivation was probably selfish, granted. Getting rid of the newborn, Mary assumed, would cover up the embarrassment, provided that the body could be hidden so that it wouldn't draw unwanted attention. Karen was midway through her pregnancy and the child would be born in four months or so, maybe a little earlier. None of them knew exactly when the birthing was supposed to happen. If God was willing, all of Karen's beer and cigarettes might kill the child in the womb and save them all the trouble of deciding what to do with it. Unfortunately, Karen reported it kicking and moving from inside. The thing, whatever it would turn out to be, had already shown something of the Keenys' strength.
Karen, face still buried in the pillow, whimpered as her grandmother left her side, the old woman's face as grim as the black of her dress.
"I hope you enjoyed that night with dear Gerald Crane." Mary grabbed her yellowed, dog-eared Bible from a wooden counter and crossed herself. She didn't even like talking about him. No daughter of hers would indulge in sin like Karen had. She would have a word with Marion, telling her to keep a closer eye on the girl and spend less attention on worldly things. "I tell you, he won't give a second thought. Chances are he's found someone else already. This creature could very well be stuck with you for life. You can barely afford to keep yourself alive. What do you suggest we do with the little brat, then? No one will want it. You don't have the money to keep it. If it dies, it'll be for the best. You had better hope that it does."
Barely able to look Mary in the eye, Karen couldn't lift her voice above a whisper, "I'm sorry." She hid her face behind a ragged brown pillow, muffling her sobs. Mary wasn't very impressed by her display. It was an apology made out of fear, not honesty. Such an apology was worse than none at all.
"Apologies won't change anything. You're fortunate that Marion and I are here to look after you. If we weren't, you'd probably be a homeless dissolute like your beloved Gerald. You certainly have his moral standards." Mary folded her thin arms, glaring at the girl with all the hatred in her, burning with the disgrace of her granddaughter bearing Gerald Crane's son. Karen quivered under the sheets, grabbing a pillow and clutching it, as if it could protect her. "Next time, I want you to remember the pain you suffered whenever men sweet-talk you. Remember the agony you'll feel, the disgrace you caused us. Understand?"
Karen nodded, but with a strange jerk, as if the baby was kicking again. She covered herself with the blanket, shaking her head and rubbing her stomach. She flinched with pain for a second, her face contorting. "I made a mistake. I get that. Please don't let Mom hurt him, Gran. It's my fault, not his."
"Call the wretched thing what it is," Mary replied, "an it. We'll decide its fate when it's born. It can stay until that long. Perhaps it can comfort you. If it lives, I can only hope that it doesn't inherit your disgusting morals."
She walked away with a measured gait, still carrying the Bible under one arm while Marion followed her into the family living room. It was vast, but empty, a sign of the Keenys' lost wealth. Many of the more expensive goods were long gone, sold off during the bad years. Paintings and photographs hung on the walls, slowly gathering dust as time worked away at them, and the wooden furniture was broken in places.
In better days, it had been the mansion's beating heart, alive with a lit fireplace and joyous hymns ringing in the air, back when being a member of the Keeny family had meant something in Georgia. Now the fireplace was dead and cold, the portraits gray for want of cleaning, and the air silent. The house was alive yet, but in the way a dying animal is alive, waiting for the birds of the air to come and pick the bones white. Mary, who was old enough to see the good times, was all too aware of how the Keenys had slipped. Karen's indiscretions and Marion's self-absorption aside, things hadn't been the same for the line since the thirties.
"For the life of me," Marion said to her mother, "I don't know why Karen became so fond of that little brat. The thing's caused nothing but problems for all of us, but the thought of any harm coming to it sickens her."
Mary sighed, looking at the statue of a small cherub, one of its arms cracked. "In my day, we didn't attach ourselves to children. I had a sister and a brother. One died of whooping cough in the winter of 1916 and the other was a stillborn. We buried them and carried on with our lives. My own son caught the measles before he was a week old. Mourning something that never lived at all was a waste of time. That isn't even considering the suicides of my parents back during the stock market crash. The Lord giveth and taketh away as He pleases. It isn't our place to complain."
Karen was softened by youth, in her opinion, and had a weak heart. She hadn't seen death like her grandmother. Mary, even in her childbearing years, never mourned the loss of a baby. She knew enough about death to understand that crying over the dead was useless, and it was best to leave the matter to God.
Marion gave a grim nod. "If God is willing, it'll be dead of some childhood illness anyway within its first month. I hope so. The only reason it wasn't aborted was because I knew you'd throw a fit." She didn't say it, but Mary could hear the resentment in her voice. She hated the manor as much as Karen did. If she wasn't afraid of Mary's displeasure, not only would the baby be dead but Marion would abandon her worthless daughter and witch of a mother and leave Arlen for good.
Mary couldn't disagree. Her religion made her refuse abortion as a possibility outright and reluctant to have the baby killed once born, but nature's hand would do the ugly work just as well, and no one could blame them if it happened. Mumps, measles, diphtheria - she knew that there were many ways a baby could die before the end of its first year. "God willing. Given our fortunes as of late, however, it will live."
"Then let me deal with it my way." Marion dusted off the painting of some stone-faced ancestor in an old army uniform, clutching his musket. Mary didn't remember for the life of her what he was called, and her memory had remained sharp with age. She would have to check the family tree later. It didn't do to forget one's own history, especially during dark times. She decided that, if the baby was born, it would be a Crane rather than a Keeny. The Keeny name had too much honor behind it to be wasted on something that would most likely be buried in the family plot given a month's time.
Even earlier, if Marion had any say in the matter.
Autumn in Arlen was warm, the wind swirling through the maple trees and blowing leaves onto the path leading up to the Keeny house. A flock of crows, on a nightly trip to their roost not far from the manor, blotted out the crescent moon with their dark bodies. Their harsh caws, an alarm call against predators, rang in the night air and worried the superstitious. Any stranger who passed by while walking to town would have noticed an even more unsettling sound from the upper window of the mansion, pulled his coat together with a shudder, and hurried along on his way. Inside the decrepit place, so ancient that it should have fallen apart years ago, a woman was screaming. If he stopped to listen, he would have heard an old woman's harsh curses. If the screeching didn't drive him off, that would.
Mary Keeny's reputation as the town crazy woman preceded her, a fact which didn't bother her in the slightest. Being a recluse suited her. She was too old and tired to bother with the outside world unless she had no choice. She spent much of her time alone in the mansion brooding over the past, watching the house fall apart and the dust gather. The slow degradation of her line was a nuisance to her. It got worse with every passing generation. Marion, although promising as a girl, was now something of an arrogant socialite and a minor annoyance to her mother. But at least Marion had the God-given sense to avoid strange men. Who knew what the child would turn into, if it lived? She didn't even want to think about it. As of now, they had quite enough problems dealing with the newest, uninvited member of their family.
Despite her loathing for the infant, she settled on something of a compromise with Karen. four months after her granddaughter came to stay. The newborn child would be allowed to live, on the condition that it stay under Mary's care. She was old and frail, her legs shaking when she walked, and could use a household servant who was young and strong. The fact that she spared the baby's life would give it an obligation to shut its mouth and do as it was told. She wouldn't even have to pay it.
Of course, she'd succeed in raising it properly, the way Marion had failed to raise Karen Keeny. She knew all the old ways of dealing with children, ways that Marion wouldn't try. Karen didn't want to give it up at first, as she claimed to be afraid of what Mary would do to it, but she was in no position to make any decisions. As far as Mary was concerned, the girl was immature and foolish.
So Karen gave in, begging Mary to take good care of the baby. She would, but in her way. Marion stood beside the bed, fuming, still convinced that Mary should simply dispose of the filthy thing. Mary liked her idea better. She despised the child, of course, and shared Marion's belief that no good could come from a baby born out of wedlock. However, getting rid of it would be a waste of spare muscle. She was growing old, suspecting the beginnings of arthritis in her weary bones, and couldn't do household work as well as she used to.
"You're making a mistake," Marion told her mother as they watched over the screaming teenager. "There are ways to get rid of it."
Before Mary could reply, Karen's screams became louder, and they could see her young body struggle under the blanket. It was time. The baby, clearly a recalcitrant from birth, had decided to spite them all and come out a week earlier than expected. Marion sighed and set to work, snapping at Karen as she cleaned the bed for the birthing and poured out a basin of water. Mary watched, emotionless, as her granddaughter wailed loudly enough to bring down the sky on the mansion. She had been a mother herself, several times, and certainly never whined like this. Karen clearly enjoyed the pleasure of sin but couldn't stand the pain that came with it. Such was the way of so many of her ilk.
"Shut your mouth, girl," she said, bending over as Karen gritted her teeth and fought to stay awake. She felt no sympathy, viewing the birthing as a punishment for her granddaughter's loose behavior. "Maybe this will teach you to think before giving yourself to sin. You'd think you were being tortured from that infernal screeching."
Karen swallowed heavily and looked up, eyes watering, every word a struggle. "It hurts, Gran."
"As well it should," Mary replied simply, stooping to remove the baby and ignoring Karen's panicked screams. It wasn't pretty work, but it had to be done, and she was fairly competent as a midwife. She wished that the last household servants hadn't already left years ago. The effort left Karen panting with exhaustion, but the baby came out alive, confirmed by a quick look at its rising chest. When she finally saw the wretched creature which had embarrassed her daughter so badly, she shared the younger woman's loathing. Marion was self-absorbed, only thinking of her own reputation instead of the family's, but she was right about how hateful the baby was.
It was an ugly thing even by the low standards of newborn babies, clearly underweight and stinking of blood. It reminded the old woman of some kind of small, pale, disgusting creature. Mary, lip curled with distaste, gave it a quick wash in the basin before showing it to her daughter. Karen was right about its being male, at least. It blinked, opening wide blue eyes, and bawled, surprising both women. For a moment it seemed as if Marion, in a fit of rage, would grab the screaming infant and hurl it to the floor. Karen, although too weak to say a word, raised her hand in a plea for her to stop. Marion relaxed, still trembling with disgust, and turned to face Mary.
"Mother, there won't be any good in letting it live. Look at it. It won't last a month. I'm personally amazed that it's still breathing, considering who its mother is. Putting it out of its misery would be kind." They were quiet for a moment, listening to Karen's wheezing in the corner and the newborn's wailing. It had quite the set of lungs for something so small. Looking at the baby, Mary felt a growing desire to smack it. "We should bury it in your atrium and pretend that this never happened."
Mary shook her head, to the other woman's surprise and dismay. "I already made my decision. The baby will live in the mansion with me, and will be raised properly, unlike its parents." Marion grumbled disagreement, but gave in with a nod. "I'll name it Jonathan." It was, rather appropriately in her opinion, named after Jonathan Keeny, her son who had died as an infant. Marion, judging from her pinched face, clearly hoped that the new Jonathan would follow suit and conveniently catch measles.
"As long as it isn't a Keeny," she said, clearly annoyed that her mother was ignoring her advice. Mary didn't care. Marion's arrogance deserved a little punishment, as she was partly to blame. If she had only kept a tighter hand on her daughter, there would have been no baby in the first place. "I am not sharing my name with that thing."
"Since we know who the father is, we can give it his name if it matters that much to you." For once, Mary was all too happy to grant her daughter's request. Mary showed Marion the child, both of them wincing at its loud screams. "Jonathan Crane."
"I don't understand why we're bothering to name it at all. It won't live a week, Mother. Look at how thin it is." Marion pointed out the baby's spindly limbs, which had very little of the usual fat, and ran her finger along the thin bones of its side. She brushed over the soft beginnings of red hair, inherited from its father. "I can count its ribs through that bag of a chest it has. Next month, mark my words, it'll be dead anyway."
Mary wasn't bothered to listen, holding the scrawny boy in her arms as he stopped screaming and looked up at her, saliva gurgling in his throat. His mouth opened in a red, toothless yawn. Despite her lack of maternal feelings toward him, Mary felt a sense of control over the brat.
Oh, she would take care of him. She would see to it that, unlike Karen and Marion, Jonathan Crane would grow up with the fear of God.