Raw from her parents’ recent deaths and a crushing divorce, an anthropology professor is now faced with losing her chance at tenure and decides to spend her fall break in Sleepy Hollow, New York in a desperate final bid to publish a groundbreaking paper: locating the disputed site of the original Headless Horseman Bridge. But Sleepy Hollow is not new to her; as a child she was hounded by dreams of the valley's ghosts: a rotting, headless trooper, a gaunt, gliding man in black, and a terrifying Woman in White. When she discovers a horseshoe in the riverbank of the dark, Pocantico River, however, the dreams come rushing back, and she is forced to question the difference between dreams and reality, and the boundaries of space and time...
O F D R E A M S T H A T W A V E
B E F O R E T H E H A L F - S H U T E Y E
Full in the passage of the vale, above a sable, silent, solemn forest stood;
Where nought but shadowy forms was seen to move as Idless fancied in her dreaming mood:
And up the hills, on either side, a wood of blackening pines, aye waving to and fro,
Sent forth a sleepy horror through the blood…
— The Castle of Indolence
IN THE BOSOM of one of those spacious coves which indent the eastern shore of the Hudson, under the solemn, iron shadow of the Tappan Zee Bridge, there lies a small New York suburb, or rural port called Tarrytown -- a Manhattan sleeper community which peers lazily at the boats steaming up and down the river from the retired comfort of the Hudson's woody heights. The town is bisected from north to south by Route 9, one of the oldest roads in the country, which climbs up the rising hill country for a half mile before descending into the dells of the Pocantico River Valley.
The Pocantico is a dark, sluggish creek which winds its way from the Hudson into the Westchester hinterland, broadening and narrowing in turns as it snakes around cyclopean boulders and fallen trees before fading into the heavy darkness of the Rockefeller State Park Preserve. About a mile upriver from the village which borrows its name is a silent, shadowy glen which the Dutch settlers called Sleepy Hollow.
Unlike the crowded streets of its suburban namesake, the Sleepy Hollow Valley has retained something of its mystic reputation: the sun is blotted out by tall pines and craggy hills matted with cloaks of moss. A strange whim of the atmosphere smothers the soft sounds of hooning birds and purring cicadas, but – through some trick of ventriloquism – amplifies the disembodied rustlings of unseen creatures from the farthest sides of the valley as if they were stirring just behind you.
Although some hikers flock to it as a sublime or even romantic spot, many find it oddly gloomy; to others it is entirely off-putting and alien. Centuries after the local legends of the Headless Horseman or the Wailing Woman in White were first murmured around a snapping fire, Sleepy Hollow is still something of a twilight territory plagued by unsettling sights: odd lights flame in its night skies, hulking shades prowl its woods, and slimy serpents churn in its rivers and lakes. It also has the uncanny power to reunite a lonely hiker with some long-lost region his soul in the sudden span of a moment, repairing broken souls like a kindly handyman who runs his hands through his beard as he discerns the way to set things right. Of course, not everyone wants broken bones to be set back, and some people resent the handyman's meddling. For this reason some people return there frequently as if they had found the key to a forgotten garden where dying men can refresh their spirits. Many others enter it laughing and carefree but leave it with clenched eyebrows and a stony resolution never to go there again – chased out by whatever they heard rustling in the bushes of their subconscious.
Of course most people were introduced to Sleepy Hollow by the story of the hapless carpetbagger Ichabod Crane – a Connecticut schoolmaster who was spirited away by the ghost of a German trooper who roamed the Hollow in desperate search of his severed head. It was a story patched together from its author's life experiences, European legends, and local history. But at its core were uncomfortable truths and unsettling realities: stories of the Woman in White whose ghost wails just before snowstorms; the rumor that a soldier buried in an unmarked grave was scouring the roads at night; and the narcotic influence that the perfect place can have on an imagination at the perfect time – the magnetic allure that can drag a vulnerable spirit from interest into obsession, and from obsession into a new reality that transcends our present understanding of physics and time.
Throughout the last century this story has been reinterpreted by films and picture books and musicals – adaptations which have led many back to the source material – and some back to its hibernating inspirations. That’s how one woman was introduced to this quiet, close-knit kingdom of Nature, a castle of clouds watched over by supernatural agents. Somehow she felt that they had traveled home with her after her first visit to that quiet cove, and she thought she knew what they needed: they needed to make sure that she and all other travelers who tarried there for a time would honor the graves they had trampled. Were they willing to let go of the waking world and be swallowed up in eternal dreams? Were they able to accept the sacrifices needed to pass on into something wider than imagination and deeper than time? The answer to these questions would determine whether their lives would end like a fairy tale or a horror story, and her story began on October 26th at noon.
OCTOBER 26TH; NOON.
“The immediate cause, however, of the prevalence of supernatural stories in those parts, was doubtless owing to the vicinity of Sleepy Hollow. There was a contagion in the very air that blew from that haunted region; it breathed forth an atmosphere of dreams and fancies infecting all the land… Many dismal tales were told about funeral trains, and mourning cries and wailings heard and seen about the great tree where the unfortunate Major André was taken, and which stood in the neighborhood. Some mention was made also of the Woman in White that haunted the dark glen at Raven Rock, and was often heard to shriek on winter nights before a storm, having perished there in the snow…”
“The dominant spirit, however, that haunts this enchanted region, and seems to be commander-in-chief of all the powers of the air, is the apparition of a figure on horseback, without a head. It is said by some to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannon-ball, in some nameless battle during the Revolutionary War, and who is ever and anon seen by the country folk hurrying along in the gloom of night, as if on the wings of the wind… the ghost rides forth to the scene of battle in nightly quest of his head, and that the rushing speed with which he sometimes passes along the Hollow, like a midnight blast, is owing to his being belated, and in a hurry to get back to the churchyard before daybreak.”
—Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
“So where is it, again, that you’re planning on travelling to during Fall Break?” said a person not in the story to the Professor of Early American Studies, soon after they had sat down next to each other in the faculty lounge of a big, public university in a big, West Coast city.
The Professor was young, neat, and careful in her choice of words.
She was almost thirty years old, but already had the air of a much older person – an atmosphere which was partially the defensive fabrication of a closely-guarded loner and partially the natural result of an unexpected divorce, a distaste for grading anthropology undergraduate papers, and the worn sobriety that comes from burying both of your parents in the same year. She had a somber gravity about her like an old, locked closet which could be hiding musty antiques just as easily as a horrible family crime. In some ways she was unremarkably average: she had medium-length, medium-brown hair, was of medium height and medium weight. But her eyes were striking – a smoldering dark brown that burned like a tree scorched black by lightning.
“New York – just north of the city. I’m working on a little project that’s a carry-over from my dissertation, and I have some research to do there.”
“Really?” said another person – a tenured Professor of Cultures, Societies, and Global Studies sitting at the same dining table under a blazing fluorescent light. “Like the Bronx, then? I have a friend from grad school doing a one-woman show about hypervisibility in Latinx trap culture at Keating Hall on the 26th. You should check her out if you have time, her name’s—”
But the Professor of Early American Studies cut her off.
“No, I’ll be in Westchester, and I wasn’t exactly planning on networking this weekend.”
“It’s always a good time to network,” said another person, helpfully and without sarcasm, from across the room.
“You should at least connect with her on LinkedIn,” said the Professor of Cultures, Societies, and Global Studies in a measured tone – as if warning the Professor of Early American Studies against performing an act of heresy. “Her name’s” – and here she gave it, along with several credentials.
“You’re right; it wouldn’t hurt to network,” she said with repressed annoyance through a thin smile.
“Where in Westchester are you headed?” asked another person at the table who had not yet chimed in – Professor Bracebridge from the College of Agricultural Sciences who rarely found himself invited into such conversations. He was a fine healthy-looking old gentleman, with silver hair curling lightly round an open florid countenance. He had bright, blue eyes, a wide, warm mouth, and a round, contented figure like the caricature of John Bull on a bottle of English beer. It so happened that he was personable and friendly and didn’t recognize the invisible boundary that the humanities’ faculty had carefully curated between them and the less abstract fields of science.
The three looked at him for a moment as if a chair had spoken, but then the spell was released and the Professor of Early American Studies replied, “Tarrytown area. When I was an undergrad I did a capstone on dark romanticism's rejection of Enlightenment philosophy in Washington Irving,” – here she stifled a mirthless chuckle – “at the time I thought it was pretty high-minded, but I looked closer into my thesis once I got into grad school and realized it was actually very problematic.”
“Yes. Problematic. So I ended up retooling part of it for my dissertation.”
“What was that on?”
“Homolatent masculinity in Irving and Longfellow. It took aim at how they were actually considerably overrated by the Formalists and how a more sophisticated analysis of their works shows that they were actually tremendously reflexive.”
The young Professor of Agricultural Sciences calculated the geography and smiled knowingly.
“Hey, wait a minute – you’re going to Sleepy Hollow.”
“It was called North Tarrytown until 1996, but yeah, that’s where my Airbnb is located.”
“And the fall break lasts until November 2nd,” – here the Professor of Early American Studies felt her blood warm as she waited for the inevitable comments – “so you’ll be there over Halloween?”
The young Professor of Early American Studies took a slow, shallow breath and looked away for a moment.
“It’s actually going to make things pretty inconv—”
“You aren’t excited? You’re not going to check out the holiday stuff there? I'm sure it'll be the perfect place to spend Halloween!”
The Professor of Early American Studies winced.
“Not a bit. I think it’s actually… concerning to reinforce the celebration of colonizer culture and religious superstitions by indulging in that kind of stuff. I think it would actually be much more valuable if the town started holding a literary festival focused on encouraging young writers in the City instead of propping up more dead white men who don’t actually deserve their places in the canon.”
Professor Bracebridge nodded to himself, digesting her words.
“And you don't think that you're propping them up by writing about them?”
“Actually, I'm placing them within a context and subverting their messaging.”
“Of course, of course... And you’re really just going to spend Halloween Night in Sleepy Hollow at the library?”
Here the Professor of Early American Studies perked up; her eyes flashed.
"Actually, no – I’ll in the field. I’ve already done a lot of manuscript research online. I’m going to… Tarrytown to do practical, archeological research. I’ll be taking extensive notes about the place-names mentioned in Irving’s stories. So I’ll mostly be outside doing a field survey of one of the rivers there.”
“Really? Looking for what?”
“I’ve actually been able to most of my research remotely – from books and maps and microfilm – but the last part of my paper centers around investigating the original location of a bridge that was abandoned after the Albany Post Road was relocated sometime after 1794. There hasn’t been much research done on it, so it might be a wild goose chase – there might not be any traces left of it after 230 years – or it could be a significant historical discovery.”
His eyes shined shrewdly.
“Ah… the covered bridge, you mean?”
“They didn’t have covered bridges back then.”
“The Headless Horseman Bridge, though?”
“The one that Irving was referring to in the story, yes.”
“But it’s real, huh?”
“It was real.”
“And it really has – uh – stories associated with it? Ghost stories and stuff?”
Bracebridge looked closely into her unblinking eyes. He thought he saw something soft, nervous, and guarded. He decided to step back and cede the ground.
“Anyway, that sounds fascinating. I know that you’re, uh, subverting his legacy, but it seems like you have a lot of interest in the story itself.”
The Professor of Early American Studies nodded slowly. A series of memories and feelings rippled somewhere deep beneath the surface of her consciousness like a half-dead sea monster thrashing unexpectedly on the ocean floor before falling once more silent in the black waters.
“I liked his stories a lot as a kid. You learn to see things differently – er, see them more clearly – in grad school, though. I think it will get some attention from the journal I’m submitting it to.”
Bracebridge looked closer again. His face softened.
“When was the last time you were published?”
“Last winter,” she said with a pause and a repressed frown. “And I need to have either a very original or very newsworthy publication this year if I have any hope for making tenure. So it’s very important for me to stay focused.”
The older professor sighed for her and grinned sympathetically.
“I’m sure you’ll come up with an absolute home-run. But take my advice – enjoy the holiday, too. Don’t take yourself – I mean your research too seriously.”
He smiled – somewhat sadly – and stood up out of his chair (causing the Professor of Cultures, Societies, and Global Studies to feel tremendously relieved), picking up his coffee mug and heading out to his 1:00pm class.
“Have a good time while you’re there – and hey: watch out for the Headless Horseman!”
He said this last part as if it had just occurred to him as the perfect thing to close with.
While the Professor of Cultures, Societies, and Global Studies rolled her eyes at this, the Professor of Early American Studies felt what little warmth she had harbored for the old man’s kindness freeze over into a strange discomfort…
OCTOBER 28TH; THAT MORNING.
“The chief part of the stories, however, turned upon the favorite spectre of Sleepy Hollow, the Headless Horseman, who had been heard several times of late, patrolling the country; and, it was said, tethered his horse nightly among the graves in the churchyard. The sequestered situation of this church seems always to have made it a favorite haunt of troubled spirits…
“To look upon its grass-grown yard, where the sunbeams seem to sleep so quietly, one would think that there at least the dead might rest in peace. On one side of the church extends a wide woody dell, along which raves a large brook among broken rocks and trunks of fallen trees. Over a deep black part of the stream, not far from the church, was formerly thrown a wooden bridge; the road that led to it, and the bridge itself, were thickly shaded by overhanging trees, which cast a gloom about it, even in the daytime; but occasioned a fearful darkness at night. Such was one of the favorite haunts of the Headless Horseman, and the place where he was most frequently encountered.”
— Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
The morning after this exchange took place, the Professor of Early American Studies was driving up the swells and dips of New York Route 9 in a car rented from La Guardia. As she drew further from the clangor of Long Island and rose into the Hudson Highlands, she slowly began to feel the grip of an inner tension loosening. Something else – distant and familiar – started to replace it: a dizzy openness that reminded her of the first time she had visited Tarrytown. It was the feeling of a homecoming, but she had no friends or family waiting for her – just a series of closed houses and meaningless street names. But this yearning hum of home vibrated deep inside of her and drew her forward as surely as a magnet draws a bent, rusted tack.
And yet, she still seemed weighed down by a fog – insensitive to the delicious autumn scenery that flew past her: the crowning of the sun over the eastern hill country, the clean, blue sky ribboned here and there by pink wisps of cloud, and the pot-bellied oaks and maples, their black trunks furry with green moss, glowing with golden warmth from their luscious foliage.
She felt the rise of the road viscerally with each twist and turn, but her eyes never strayed to the scenery on either side. She kept the radio set to WNYC’s NPR station, pulling her mind away from these vestigial pangs that she both failed to understand and refused to resist with the subdued mélange of breathy-voiced, middle-aged experts calmly debating the significance of global events without arriving at any consensus.
She rounded the bend where the town of Irvington gave way to her destination, passing the gilded sign – announcing “Welcome to Historic Tarrytown, Settled 1644” – situated in the shadow of a rain-stained memorial for the town’s Civil War dead. A few more turns of Route 9, and she was passing Patriot’s Park. Today it is an airy village green with a quiet brook bubbling through it, but over two centuries ago it was a tangled, stagnant marsh named Wiley’s Swamp, and the rustic bridge that used to cross the brook was the site of two fateful encounters: the historic capture of Benedict Arnold’s British handler – the tragic Major John Andre – in the early autumn of 1780, and the fictitious encounter of Ichabod Crane with the Headless Horseman in the early autumn of 1790. Although she tried to brush off the romantic thought, she was now aware that – for the next rolling half mile – her rental car would be retracing the famous between the schoolmaster and the goblin.
Driving beyond Patriot’s Park, she made a couple of ascending turns before she reached the summit of a rising ground adjacent to Sleepy Hollow High School – the approximate spot where the two riders first caught a clear look at each other in the moonlight, free of the vines and brambles of Wiley’s Swamp. Suddenly, the road descends here and plunges towards the Old Dutch Church several hundred yards off in Sleepy Hollow. Even in a car you can feel gravity pulling you faster as you wind toward the Pocantico River. At some point before the 19th century, the original Albany Post Road was straightened into modern Route 9, preventing the route of the chase from being followed precisely – but it can be replicated. The change happens at the fork between Route 9 and New Broadway Street; by turning right at New Broadway, you can follow the path of the colonial-era road which made a sideways S-shape: curving up to the river and crossing it a few hundred yards east of the church, running west along the river’s natural curve, and sweeping northward towards Albany, passing the front of the church, and continuing to run in step with modern Route 9. The first turn in the S happens at the intersection of New Broadway and Crane Avenue, and it was around here – straight out from Crane Avenue, and 100-some yards upriver from the modern bridge – that the original span is theorized to have crossed the Pocantico. Even at the time Irving penned the story this bridge had been abandoned to decay for over twenty years, and although some amateur historians have tried to locate the stone foundations, no serious inquiry has ever been mounted.
If you travel to Sleepy Hollow yourself and walk along the riverbank behind the church, you will quickly find -- some fifty yards upriver from the modern bridge -- a suspiciously convincing set of stone piles across from one another within sight of the church. Some prominent scholars have argued that this is unequivocally the site of the colonial era bridge, that no inquiry is needed. The Professor of Early American Studies was basing her entire paper on the hypothesis that these were the footings of the bridge that replaced the original. She was convinced by three pieces of research: an engraving of the bridge by Amos Doolittle, the silversmith, a letter from James Kirke Paulding to Guilan C. Verplanck describing its location, and a map drawn by the Hessian captain, Johann Ewald. All of these artifacts suggested an as yet undiscovered location further upriver -- just east of Battle Hill.
For a moment she remembered the first time that she’d driven up this road – almost twenty years ago. It was a vacation with her late father during one of his custodial weekends. They’d driven from Youngstown, Ohio through Pennsylvania and across the Tappan Zee Bridge in a single day (with only two bathroom stops) in search of the site where her favorite story took place. She remembered watching the cartoon with Bing Crosby narrating a tale that uneasily tempered humor with terror, and cocksure romance with crippling rejection. It was funny, sweet, and scary – and brooding there, folded up in its dark heart was the figure of the Headless Horseman clattering down the woodland road in his billowing scarlet cape, saber flashing overhead. He was a strange villain: determined but mindless, dauntless but indiscriminate. He struck her as frighteningly tragic – an anonymous ghost trapped in limbo after being killed in another country’s war. He was terrifying but pitiable, and she fell in love with his story immediately.
She remembered feeling butterflies as they dipped down the hills and rose with the swells, and then shock as she recognized the Dutch Church from one of books in her collection of illustrated adaptations of the story (she only had six at the time, but it was up to forty-eight by the time she sold them all after her divorce). Its white steeple and gable shone in the bright, October day like a beacon in a storm. She’d felt her skin prickle as they neared the modern bridge and shivered audibly as they bounded over the Pocantico – still believing at the time that this was the exact spot where Gunpowder had carried Ichabod Crane over the river (…only for him to look back and behold the goblin rider rising in his stirrups in the very act of hurling his head at him). She remembered getting out of the car with her father and peering over the stone guardrail into the black, sluggish river below. She had expected something broader and cleaner and quicker; this gloomy creek buried in shadow exceeded all of her expectations, and she told her father that she was absolutely certain that it must still be haunted…
But the Professor of Early American Studies tried to avoid sentimentality. She was hungry for professional security, and these wistful memories did absolutely nothing to slack her appetite. She kept on Route 9 instead of turning right, sped disinterestedly past the ironwork statue of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman, and crossed the modern bridge in front of the Old Dutch Church without a blink or glance. She wasn’t here to gently unearth some dead thing rotting in that Old Burying Ground; she was there to drag it by the hair out of its shallow grave, dig a new grave – deep and true – and bury it there for good.
Another mile further, and a few turns, and she had arrived at the Airbnb she had scheduled for the week. It belonged to an older couple who were aware that she was in town for research and understood that she didn’t plan on being entertained or visited. Without a word she grabbed her carryon, travel bag, and knapsack, found the latchkey, and walked up the stairs to her suite.
It was located above an unused garage in their backyard. A 1990s-era three car garage met the family’s needs, while this simple brick structure dated back to the late 30s and operated as a gardening shed on the ground floor. The rooms above – a kitchenette, half-bath, and bedroom – were all that she needed. The only window was a half-moon transom looking out over the shaded street. The only lights were a desk lamp by her bed, two vanity sconces in the bathroom, and a stained-glass pendant hanging over the kitchenette. Even with all of them turned on, she had to admit that it was a strangely dark place. There was no table, but she could turn the bed into a workspace in no time. She felt no discomfort at the idea of sleeping with her notebooks, reference guides, and laptop piled around her.
It was almost 10am by the time she set her gear up and unpacked her books. Without a glance at the golden leaves outside of the window or a moment’s reflection, she injected the flash drive, opened her manuscript, and began adding thoughts that had occurred to her during the tedious drive…
THE THERAPY JOURNALS OF MADISON GREY-KILROY, AGE 22
The first time that the Horseman came to me in a dream I was six years old. In my dream I was running around with my friends on a wooden play-set – swings, monkey-bars, slides, and all – set up on a wide, open ground just on the other side of a church I didn’t recognize. A woods, darkened by deep green foliage, surrounded us on all sides in the distance, but it was maybe a quarter-mile away, and I couldn’t imagine a less threatening place, even though I wasn’t sure where I was and the sky was heavy with low-hanging, strange purple clouds.
I don’t remember seeing him leave the forest, but when I turned around and saw his figure there, I somehow knew that he had come from the forest. But what I saw held no comparison to any of the portrayals that I had soaked my imagination in to that point.
The Headless Horseman, to most people, is synonymous with power and speed and might – the embodiment of physicality and masculinity divorced from thought or reason. He is opaque with blackness – as impenetrable and unknowable as midnight – only scored here or there by flashes of scarlet in his horse’s demonic eyes or the crimson lining of his voluminous cloak. He represents mindless violence: an almost a fascistic threat of savage tyranny; a jackbooted, German soldier in a high-collared, blood-red cape; a mounted storm-trooper with no reason – or face – to appeal to. But what shambled quietly up to the play-set was nothing like what I expected. It seemed tired more than anything – wearily patient. Instead of charging out of the trees with its saber flashing in the grey light of the overcast sky, it simply appeared like a rising mist and watched with its invisible eyes as my friends obliviously tore around the swings and monkey bars.
It was dressed like no Horseman I had ever seen in the many books or movies I had checked out of the library: instead of towering in a black leather suit or slashing about in a scarlet cape, it leaned wearily over in a faded green jacket with rust-colored lapels and dust-whitened jackboots. Cracked leather hostlers held two heavy-looking pistols, and a tarnished saber clanked rustily in its scabbard. Instead of a flamboyant cloak, its bent shoulders were bare, and instead of a sword or jack-o-lantern, its bloodless hands clenched the reins of his horse, as if desperately hanging onto something it knew had already been lost. The horse, too, was far different from what I had seen in my picture books: unlike those steaming, black stallions – the very animus of power and aggression – it was a silent, shambling old thing, grey with white spotting (what I would later learn to call a dappled grey), with horrifying, sightless eyes – milky and bulging.
The Horseman spurred this animal onward with a light kick in the ribs, and they lumbered forward towards me while none of my friends noticed. They crossed into the bed of woodchips, approached the top of the slide where I was standing, and when my ankle was within arm’s reach, it stuck out its waxy, white hand – and I woke up…
OCTOBER 28TH; LATE AFTERNOON.
“A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere. Some say that the place was bewitched by a [Bavarian alchemist], during the early days of the settlement; others, that an old Indian chief, the prophet or wizard of his tribe, held his [shamanic ceremonies] there... Certain it is, the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie. They are given to all kinds of marvellous beliefs, are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air. The whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions; stars shoot and meteors glare oftener across the valley than in any other part of the country, and the nightmare, with her whole ninefold, seems to make it the favorite scene of her gambols.”
— Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
The sun was starting to decline towards the horizon’s blue belly when the Professor of Early American Studies decided to give herself a moment of relief from transcriptions and scans of out-of-print genealogies to explore the banks of the Pocantico for signs of the old bridge. She was within a quarter mile of the Old Dutch Church and decided to set out on foot with a bundle of field tools – a trowel, paintbrush, several probes, a measuring tape, handpick, spool of mason line, sandwich bags, field notebooks, and a collapsible survey transit – in her knapsack. She hadn’t had lunch yet, and it was nearly time for supper, so she stuffed her pockets with protein bars and started eating them as she walked away from the house on Munroe Avenue, turned on Palmer, rushed across Route 9 during a lull in traffic, and crossed through the Old Burying Ground on her way to Douglas Park – a woody dell along the Pocantico’s eastern bank where several historians had hypothesized the foundations of the colonial-era bridge might be hidden under centuries of rubble and moss.
The town was in the throes of the week of Halloween, and while some of the locals resented the influx of tourists to what they had viewed as a nothing more romantic than a convenient hub for Manhattan commuters, most of them embraced the ubiquitous festivities and houses down every street sported freshly-carved jack-o-lanterns, gauzy ghosts fluttered from the porch eaves, and rubber skeletons peered from beneath hooded, black crape robes. The Professor of Early American Studies didn’t resent or disdain this; she simply didn’t notice it. Instead, she munched on protein bars as she made a dash for the shady trees on the other side of the river, thinking about little more than her plan of attack: she would start on the eastern bank and work her way north, three yards at a time. Her goal was to eliminate two hundred yards of the bank before she called it a night, to continue her way along the eastern shore until she came to the edge of Douglas Park, and then – if no results came up – she would turn her attention to the western bank, moving southward, three yards at a time.
The village hummed and glowed with modern life; horns honked from time to time as New York commuters rolled in from work, and the baritone drone of a ship horn groaned from the Tappan Zee. The Old Dutch Church overlooked all this activity like a sleeping idol, snugly perched atop the same knoll it had watched the Hudson from for the past four centuries. Its stone walls and white-washed gable glowed orange in the setting sun – a searing solar eye which had passed over it 120,000 times since 1685. Its walls had stood solemnly over the countryside as the HMS Savage’s cannonballs fell on Tarrytown, as Lee’s dragoons ambushed raiding parties in Dobb’s Ferry, and as Washington established his battle lines at Chatterton’s Hill, allowing his army to catch its breath while General Howe’s Hessians forded the Bronx River.
During the Revolutionary War, Westchester County was a wasteland of vigilante justice and savage anarchy. Clamped between the Patriot stronghold at Peekskill and the British Headquarters in Manhattan, it was commonly called the ‘Neutral Ground,’ but was in reality a brutal no-man’s land of lawlessness. Dozens of bloody skirmishes were recorded between Patriot and Loyalist militias, at least one full-scale battle at White Plains, and countless raids on civilians by roving bandits: the Patriot-adjacent Skinners and the Loyalist Cowboys – either of whom could switch sides for the right price. Tarrytown was raided by the British twice and shelled at least once, leaving the townspeople rattled enough to order a series of fortifications along the Hudson heights. One of these mud breastworks – an angled wall held in place by posts and planks – was thrown together on the hilltop just behind the Old Dutch Church where a three-pounder cannon was trained on the narrow wooden bridge as a sturdy defense against Cowboy raiders, British landing parties, and Hessian troopers.
Passing the rust-colored colonial headstones, the Professor of Early American Studies barely noticed the small metal placard dedicated to the nearby grave of a Hessian soldier whose decapitated body had been discovered on the Albany Post Road in the cold spring of 1778. Irving’s Headless Horseman is described only as a ‘Hessian trooper’ – one of the dragoons who frequently scoured the no-man’s land for provisions and rebel militiamen. These dragoons were part of the fearsome Jaeger Korps of rangers who were expert scouts, specializing in shock tactics, reconnaissance, and guerrilla warfare.
The mutilated corpse of one of these soldiers had been discovered wallowing near the Church after a skirmish, and was buried at the expense of the Van Tassel family. Although they were zealous Patriots, they were motivated by gratitude to a different Hessian dragoon who had saved Elizabeth Van Tassel’s infant daughter from their house after the British had torched it one November night. The Jaeger dragoon rushed back into the home and brought them a featherbed and quilt to warm them as they waited for help. As the ash from the burning house mingled with the falling snow, Elizabeth watched the Hessian ride away, never having learned his name or identity – only that he had dark eyes and curly, black hair; and when a corpse dressed in the same green uniform was found without a name or identity, she repaid the debt to her rescuer by burying his countryman in consecrated ground.
Instead of pausing over this quiet spot, the Professor of Early American Studies hurried along to the place where a romanticized replica of the colonial bridge – with its guardrail made of tree limbs – spanned the boulder-choked Pocantico just upriver of the spot she suspected the original had stretched. She crossed it without raising her heart rate or giving the golden scenery a glimpse, and calmly tumbled down the rocky bank in her hiking boots and cargo shorts like a park ranger sent to recover a camper’s dropped trinket. She mingled matter-of-factness with entitlement, as if she was doing nothing out of the ordinary – but with the subtle defensiveness of a woman who was prepared to resent any inquiries into what she was up to, a woman quick to point out that she had every right to be there.
Creeping her way over fallen branches, around mossy boulders, and through bobbing cattails, the Professor of Early American Studies eventually found herself at the edge of Douglas Park and jotted a few comments down in her notebook before she removed a probe from her knapsack and began exploring the piles of brown stones just beneath the surface of the green water, checking for irregularities that might be caused by human activity…
Two hours later, she had meticulously weeded her way fifty yards upriver without any significant discoveries. This didn’t surprise her at all, but she wasn’t entirely able to stifle the disappointment and self-doubt that were beginning to slither into her mind. The golden afternoon had begun to mellow into a rosy sunset which was now deepening into a strange purple dusk. She was a few minutes away from her planned cut off point; in a few minutes she would make her way back to the bridge and thence to the Airbnb where she would transfer her findings – negative or otherwise – into a formal report.
It didn’t occur to her that the spot where she currently stood might very easily serve as a fine place to build a bridge. It was at a slight bend in the river where the opposing banks were briefly pulled back from one another, and the land slopped down on both sides as if reaching out with open arms to one another for weary consolation – an ideal place to throw together a rustic bridge made of hewn logs and stone foundations. The Amos Doolittle engraving showed a squat, plain structure – maybe thirty feet long and only two yards above the water – made of logs and supported by triangular trusses on either side, nestled into a weedy, broad section of the river bank, with the black belly of the Pocantico lumbering grimly beneath it. Looking around her, the Professor didn’t notice that – by using her imagination to delete some of the trees and rubble around her (especially one massive, lightning-stricken oak whose black carcass loomed over the spot like a gibbet laden with bloated corpses) – she could have recognized the rough curve of the river from Doolittle’s engraving.
The light was still coming through the trees in the west, but it was increasingly pale and violet, and she knew that this current section of riverbed would be the last she could realistically examine before darkness would settle on the woods. There were very few sounds other than the lapping of the river against the stones: no birds calling overhead or insects buzzing in the underbrush. Nature seemed watchful – conscious of her movements as she slid her probe into the black water between her feet.
There was a clink of metal on metal.
Somewhere in the trees overhead a black bird let out a throaty screech and tore into the sky.
She wasn’t excited at first; it could easily be an oil drum from the 1920s, a hubcap from the 1970s, or a spray paint can from last year. She pulled back and slowly drove the probe home again, poking her way back and forth. Whatever it was had a curved shape. She tapped a few more times. It didn’t feel like steel or tin. It felt, she thought, like rusted iron. Bending down, she reached into the river and followed the probe with her bare fingers. Her hand submerged into the opaque liquid, wedged between two limestone shards – slick with black algae – and felt something rough and curved. She gave it a tug, but it didn’t budge at first: there was a sharp resistance, as if it wasn’t willing to be awoken from its sleep. She pulled again and met with even more resistance. Her hope was that it might be a ring bolt riveted to the side of a forgotten foundation, and she gave it one third and final tug before calling it a day and returning when there was more light to see it by.
Instead, she found that it was now loose and rising to the surface in her hand.
In the purple dusk around him she recognized the C-shape of a horseshoe. It was far too encrusted in rust and slime to identify its age or provenance, but it didn’t have the heavy, U-shaped appearance of the shoes used for a farmer’s workhorse. No, this was lighter and rounder, like those used in racing or hobby riders. The park had several horse trails, and it wasn’t unusual for a hard-riding thoroughbred to throw a shoe from time to time, but they weren’t made of iron and wouldn’t have built up so much rust even if they were thirty or forty years old.
She held it up to last beam of light in the west, turning her back to the deepening gloom spreading like spilled oil from the east. Gently scratching at the rust with her handpick, she exposed a patch of what appeared to be hand-pounded iron. Hammered, iron shoes were phased out by factory-made, steel shoes in the mid-19th century, so even if this wasn’t a colonial-era artifact, it suggested that the land she was standing on was being used by travelers before the Civil War. It wasn’t what she was looking for, but it was a clue.
She opened a Ziploc bag, slid it around the shoe, and stuffed it in her knapsack.
She was about to turn around and head back to the bridge when she was struck by the feeling that she wasn’t alone. It wasn’t a sound or a sight that alerted her to the stranger watching her from the top of the western riverbank – just an instinct. She turned awkwardly to the left and looked up as if she knew exactly where to find the eyes that were taking in her every movement.
The pearly, violet light was still strong enough to distinguish the figure of a man watching her with his arms folded in front of him like bat wings. He was skulking in the shadow of the blackened oak, with its two shattered limbs reaching into the foliage above, as if in an outrageous prayer. He was too far away to see any features of his face, but the Professor could see that he was dressed entirely in black, that he had a moppish tangle of red hair and sideburns, and that he had a sickly, fish-belly complexion. His eyes were hidden in the shadows, but the Professor had no doubt that they were honed in on her.
Standing, as he did on the western bank upriver from him, the Professor knew that she couldn’t hope to cross the replica bridge without running into her strange overseer, and while she knew she had nothing to fear from some leering local who merely frowned on outsiders digging up historical artifacts, she instinctively made the decision to walk downriver towards the modern bridge – humming with traffic and doused in the red glow of streetlamps.
It was for the best, anyway. Going across the wooden bridge would send her back through the cemetery, which was probably under close watch by the police during Halloween; she didn’t want to be caught breaking curfew there. She clamored back up the bank and started down the narrow path towards Tappan Avenue. She was looking forward to getting back to her room where she would soak the horseshoe in a mineral spirit bath overnight and see if she could free it from decades of rust.
She could see the glimmer of street lights between the trees up ahead, but impulsively looked back one last time to see if the red-haired man was still watching her. At first she thought he was gone – and maybe it was just a trick of the eye – but just before she turned back, she thought she caught a glimpse of a sickly white face gliding smoothly between the trees along the opposite side of the river…
THE THERAPY JOURNALS OF MADISON GREY-KILROY, AGE 22
For thirteen years I had nightmares about them coming to me. Often they were worse than nightmares: I would wake up and see a shadow – huge, misshapen, and towering – lurking in the frame of my bedroom door, watching me sleep. I would close my eyes and hope that it went away, or that my vision would re-focus if I squeezed my eyes and waited for my mind to sweep out the fog of sleep. But every time I peered from the sheets I could still see the black hulk of a headless man filling the door-frame.
Other times the dreams were surreal – especially as I grew older. When I was sixteen I found myself in a rocky valley at the foot of a cliff face. The sky was dark with scudding clouds and the wind moaned softly in the trees around her, swaying back and forth as snow began falling down around me. Something about the rock wall was revolting to me – like the smell of death – and I found myself staring expectantly at a cleft in its base. Something was inside of it – something still and lifeless, and I longed to be returned to my bed. But somehow I knew that I must look, and that I was meant to meet whatever it was that seemed so thin and cold inside the rock.
I moved forward, hoping that everything would fade away, but the closer I got, the more I could tell that it was a woman, and that it was dead. I would walk up to within a few feet of it, and my eyes would well with frightened tears as I waited for the white hand to stir, but one look at the strange purple fingers and the bloodless white arm told me that I must reach out and turn it over if I wanted to see its horrible face, but I thought I knew – somewhere inside of me – what I would see, and I would throw my hands over my eyes and scream. I dreamed this several times, but I could never bring myself to turn the body over much less touch it, much less to stare into its cold eyes.
Sometimes I would be running as fast as I could down a forest path alongside a river at night. I was trying to reach some thing or place that I knew would bring me back to my bed, but I never knew where or what it was, and I had no idea whether I was getting closer or even running in the right direction. It was always late at night, and the sky was a deep, velvet purple and the moon rising into the clouds behind me in an amber haze. I would glance behind me and see the man gliding behind me with his feet hovering above the ground. He was tall with long, willowy limbs and his face hidden in shadow, but the moonlight coming behind him would glow in his hair, and I could faintly make out the deep shadow of his deep-set eyes against what appeared to be a pale face mottled by dark warts or rotten sores of some kind. I would suddenly reach a bend in the road where a long wooden bridge crossed the river at a point where the opposite banks sloped down to the broad, black water. I knew that I must cross this bridge to get away from the tall, thin man floating behind me, and I would leap for it and run as fast as I could, but before I was half way across it, there would be a horrible, echoing thunder and a shrieking, whirring sound – like the whine of mosquitos – and I would feel intense heat all over my face as everything went black. The last sensation I would have was the sharp, stabbing pain of his bony fingers grabbing me by both shoulders, digging his sharp nails into my flesh, and dragging me to the ground with his weight…
I had these dreams for thirteen years, but the night before I left for college – I was eighteen – I had one last nightmare and I haven’t had any since then. I was laying on the ground and was slowly, sluggishly coming to my senses as if I’d been knocked unconscious. I opened my eyes and saw a rock formation looming over me like a waiting sepulcher. Molten moonlight splashed over its craggy surface, pooling quietly at its base. Soft flakes of snow were drifting through the trees and gleaming like sapphires. At first I tried to stand, but my head was still slushing with blood, and I only got as far as sitting up and leaning against one of the boulders. I looked down around me and noticed that I was wearing clothes that weren’t mine; reaching up I felt that my hair was different – long and ginger-colored – and felt myself begin to panic at the thought of what I knew must happen next – how I must be pulled from the ground and dragged away into a black, limitless gulf.
Just at this moment a plashy tramp by the side of the Rock caught my ear. I slowly turned to see him watching me from his saddle with his light cavalry saber gleaming in the soft light of the moon. No, not watching. He was aware of me, I felt sure, but he was bent achingly over the pommel, his throat ending in a pulpy, purple gash. Dark stains soaked his collar, which had been torn open in the blast, and down the front of his shirt. The exposed skin was the same marbled white as his hands – hands which suddenly both reached out to me, as the moon shone through his long nails...
OCTOBER 29TH; THAT MORNING.
“I can still remember the weird romance we heard from the venerable Old Pompey at Carl’s Mill, that goblin haunt in the heart of the Hollow, of the itinerant pedagogue who had the misfortune of courting a country coquette and who was so unceremoniously expunged from the face of the earth the morning following his doomed application.
“There was apparently much talk in the town that he had been spirited away by the roaming figure of a headless dragoon, a specter which had already appeared to him twice and had much troubled his dreams. No word was ever heard from the poor varlet, and whether or not the wide-eyed suppositions of the Dutch wives hold any water, it had certainly been accepted as a canonical history, much honored at their firesides and whispered over their spinning wheels.
“It has hardly been thirty years since the melancholy schoolmaster strolled upon the quiet hills of Sleepy Hollow, but the last time that I myself tarried in that witching part of the world, I was regaled by this legend with the same dreadful gravity and awe that one might expect to hear a Scotchman murmur of his witches or a German speaking of the Wild Huntsman in hushed and pensive tones.”
—Washington Irving in a letter to James Kirke Paulding, February 1813
The following morning the Professor of Early American Studies arranged a meeting with Mrs. Van Brunt, one of the curators of the Philipsburg Manor, to authenticate the horseshoe. She was a little old woman whose thick glasses magnified her dust-colored eyes. The Professor handed it over, and the curator eagerly fingered the shoe which had been freed of rust by being softly scoured with brass wool after soaking in mineral spirits overnight. Her eyes gleamed with interest as she held it under a desk lamp and rocked it slowly in the golden light. Certainly not steel, the scrubbed iron was still brown and barky with age.
“It’s definitely antebellum workmanship,” the old woman sighed softly, turning the shoe over in her wrinkled hands.
“Possibly, quite possibly... though I’d say no earlier than… oh… the 1760s. No later than, say, 1830. No caulkins… No toe clip… Definitely antebellum. It’s English work, though. American shoes don’t have this kind of fullering – you see here? The shape is definitely more along the lines of an Army farrier than what you’d see from a village blacksmith,” tracing these details with the tip of her pinkie, she turned it around for her guest to see.
The Professor of Early American Studies glowed with satisfaction. She saw her chances for tenure – for clinging that much longer to the stability and advancement that her soul starved for – within grasp. A publication verifying the original location of a literary icon like this was sure to attract her chair’s good favor. Her eyes sparked – a smoldering dark brown that burned like a tree scorched black by lightning.
Suddenly, the old woman glanced up sharply, looking through the window at something – something standing under the tree outside the museum doors. The Professor was still poring over the shoe and didn’t notice the worry in the curator’s wrinkled face before she looked away from whatever it was and turned back to her guest.
“You’re looking for the colonial bridge, then?”
“Yes, yes… I didn’t say that did I?”
“No,” she said in a low, slow tone, “no… I just had a hunch. You’re working by yourself?”
“Yeah, it won’t take more than one person to do the work I’m planning. And if this shoe is any indication, I may be pretty close.”
“How far upriver are you?”
“Two-hundred meters up from the bridge.”
“The modern bridge?”
“And when are you doing this?”
The Professor of Early American Studies suddenly felt a wave of irritation stirring inside her.
“Anytime that there’s enough daylight,” she replied stonily.
“I see, I see…” Mrs. Van Brunt murmured, watching something over the younger woman’s shoulder. The Professor turned to look at the window behind her but was distracted by the curator’s next words: “Be very careful not to be in that place alone after dark.”
She looked back at the old woman curiously. But there was nothing more that need to be said, apparently. The old woman handed the shoe back and didn’t make eye contact.
“Is there any particular reason why?”
“The rocks are slippery with moss by the river, and the Pocantico is a dangerous place to be by yourself… at any time of day.”
She sighed in exasperation.
“Late 18th century, though?”
“Late 18th century... Probably made by an Army smith. I’ve seen others like it dug up in excavations on Chatterton’s Hill. The British 17th Light Dragoons and the Hessian Jaeger Korps were deployed there at the Battle of White Plains.”
The Professor of Early American Studies hurried outside to return to the riverbed and continue her work. But the old curator’s eyes trembled behind her fishbowl lenses. She didn’t like the pockmarked face – or the smooth, gliding movements – of the tall, thin man in black who had been watching them from the shadow of the ash tree outside, and who was now following the scholar from a distance…
OCTOBER 29TH; THAT EVENING.
“27 March 1778 – Despatches to Continental Head-Quarters,
“Independence Fort, Peeks Creek
“Sirs: Reports of a very Heat’d Action held yesterday morning on the Albany Post-Road by the [Old Dutch Church] in Tarey-Town. An alarum was rais’d by the Committee of Publick Saftey in [Yonkers], and a Rider sent to alert the Post-Road Watch. Cptn. Martling, along with six Men of the 3d. West-Chester Reg’t, were at that time keeping the Watch from the Redoubt overlooking the Bridge … when the Messenger aroused them with the Intelligence that Committee-Members had descried a Mounted Party of some 30 Tories and Hessians making high speed up the Road under the Morning Darkness. It is surmis’d that they had Designs of taking and Fortifying the Church there in Preparation for a Landing Party, as a Frigate – the notorious Roebuck – was sighted off of Sing Sing that same Morning. Cptn. Martling propos’d that the Raiders were to have sign’lld their success … by the Ringing of the Church Bell … thereby prompting the Roebuck to issue a Party of Marines ashore.
“Martling prepared to make a stand from the Breast Works on the Hill overlooking the Brook there. Having so few Men-under-Arms, and no Ammunition for the Redoubt’s only Gun, a 3-pdr field-piece, he saw fit to send the Rider to rouse a company of [Connecticut] Privateers whose sloop, the Spider, was anchored in the Tarey-Town Docks. The Rider return’d with 17 Sailors and five Continental Marines, under Cptn. Erasmus Craven of Mystic Harbour who brought with them Grape and Cannister [artillery rounds] … from their Vessel.
“By the time the Privateers arrived at the Hill under the Church, a fierce Action was already underway, and the Tory riders had made their way across the bridge and were attempting a [flanking maneuver] against the Fort. Cptn. Craven [unintelligible] to have the Gun loaded … and personally discharg’d it into the Raiding Party, which successfully repelled them back across the Bridge. Dawn was coming at this time, and the sound of the Gun had alerted the locals to the Battle taking place in their Neighbourhood. The leader of the Raiders – a Tory major named Samuels – was Killed in the first Volley, and his [lieutenant], a young German, led a second Assault on the Works by making fast on the Bridge with Pistols and Sabres drawn.
“Cptn. Craven waited until the troopers had approached the Bridge and fired a round of Grape at them just as they clamber’d onto the boards... The Grape broke their Charge and left five of the Germans and two of their Horses dead on the Bridge. Nine of the Enemy were Wounded and six were Captured. Two of these later died of their wounds. Cptn. Martling reports three of his men Wounded in this Action, and one of the [Connecticut] Sailors was Shott through the Head. Captn. Craven … is to be commended for his uncommonly ferocious Gallantry in coming to the Defence of the Town.
“I Remain Your Most Devtd. Servant,
“Coll. Pierre Van Cortlandt, Commandant 3d. West-Chester Reg’t of Militia, Whiteplains.”
— New York Public Library Archives: The Van Cortlandt/Van Wyck Family Papers
After an entire day of rooting around the site of the discovery, the Professor of Early American Studies was sure that she had found the lost site of the colonial bridge. Admittedly, there had been as many as three different spans erected over this general area before the road was straightened out into its current configuration, but there was unquestionably evidence of some pre-industrial workmanship at the bend in the river under the blasted oak tree.
So far she had uncovered what appeared to be the outline of a crude foundation on the eastern side of the river, and – with the help of a rented metal detector – had located nine rust-choked iron spikes resting in two parallel lines along the bed of the brook – signs of a bridge which had been abandoned to rot, fall, sink, and disintegrate in the river. She took thorough notes, pictures, and samples before turning in for the night to translate her shorthand into academic prose.
As she walked down her hosts’ quiet street, she found herself glancing back and forth, noticing the decorations in the yard – skeletons’ bony limbs jutting out of the grass, foam headstones with cheeky epitaphs, gauze ghosts bobbing from the trees. She noticed the amber grins of jack-o-lanterns beaming at her from the deep purple shadow of their porches. She watched the warm, golden windows where families could be seen moving back in forth with muffled conversation leaking out of the glass. One group – late to the trend – was bent around their freshly bought pumpkins, cutting eyes and noses out of their tawny skin, while another was shouting and jumping over some kind of board game. She sensed the liquid warmth pouring from these encased portals. She felt the vibrations of connection and community and belonging. Although part of her smarted with the faint burn of jealousy, she mostly watched them with the same appreciative detachment that you might feel examining masterpieces in a museum: she saw them, recognized their value, and passed on without feeling any claim to their universes.
But somehow she didn’t feel the gravity of the orbit she was being pulled into – somehow she wasn’t aware of the tides pulling her out to sea – nor did she sense the subtle approach of danger all around her, tightening its perimeter like a pack of wolves encircling a campsite – their eyes glinting in the dying embers of the sleeper’s campfire.
As she climbed the steps up to her room she thought for a moment that she saw someone standing watching her from behind a lamppost. From the corner of her eye she thought she saw a mop of red hair – flaming orange in the electric beam – spilling down the front and sides of a mottled, bluish face, whose eyes were hidden in their shadowy sockets. But on closer look it was a scarecrow decoration tied to the pole. She walked up the stairs, unlocked the door, and stepped into the black room. Red light glowed from the single transom window – an eye-like half-circle directly across from the street lamp – and she was oddly relieved to turn the light on and find nothing waiting for her. She wasn’t sure what she expected, but the instinctive relief unsettled her…
After three hours of arranging her research with academic rigor, she found herself leaning back onto the pillows and closing her eyes for a few seconds of thoughtlessness… Just a moment without self-control… A quick break for the tension that had been holding everything together for days… months… years…
In the strange purple vapors that veiled her eyes she saw a room – a room swathed in darkness except for a transom window that glowed like a watchful red eye. The dusky light brushed the surfaces of the walls and furniture in reddish umber – a twilit sepia that vaguely revealed the outlines of its barely hinted-at contents. Here was a hazy band of dark reddish brown that must be part of a wall. There was an absolutely opaque rectangle in it – as impenetrable as black velvet – that must be a doorway. She watched it closely, knowing that it had something to show her – that something must enter by it.
At first she thought she saw something stirring in the blackness – shadows breeding shadows; subtle movements like peering down into a pit at night and realizing that it is carpeted in snakes, quietly churning in an undulating pool. But then the movements grew less, and something was slowly coming forward. No – it was already there. Maybe it had been there all along. It was human in shape but somehow huge, misshapen, and towering. In the dull, crimson light she could detect a shoulder and an arm inside a coat with an unpturned cuff glinting with two large buttons on one side. The cuff ended in a pale, mottled hand with cadaverous fingers. The light glowed through the long nails at their ends. The head was swallowed in shadow – no, it simply wasn’t there. She could see the savage, purple wound on the tattered neck. Charred, marble-sized punctures indented the bare throat – some coming as low as the collar-bone – as if the injury had been created by a gigantic shotgun, eating the head away in a spray of searing lead balls.
Her entire body prickled – but with a strange, foreign emotion. A sort of prepared anticipation, as if she understood what had to happen and was ready for it. She slid off of the bed and took a step towards the door. The figure in the shadows didn’t move. She took another step out of sheer curiosity – she had to know who he was and what he wanted and how she could help. The third step came slower: she now realized that, even without a head, the figure loomed powerfully over her, and she could detect a commanding, wide-chested frame beneath the sun-faded green jacket. But she was ready – eager even – for what had to happen next. Was she? Should she be? Was something invading her mind and overwhelming her reason? Something deep inside fought back like a caged dog in a flooding basement. “Awaken,” it seemed to moan from somewhere in the base of her skull. The fingers on the bony hand – outlined grotesquely in shrunken white skin blotted at the palms and fingertips in inky purple – suddenly stirred like a waking spider, reaching out spastically towards her as the legs bounded from the shadows and the clatter of its boot heels dashed her out of sleep.
She bolted up in bed. Her head swam with blood as her heart stomped between her ribs. Nothing else was in the room with her. She was sure of it. But the dream had unsettled her, and she spent the rest of the night watching – watching the door – and entirely unsure whether she was hoping or dreading that she would recognize his silhouette watching back from the murk…
OCTOBER 30TH; BEFORE DAWN.
“The revenue arising from his school was small, and would have been scarcely sufficient to furnish him with daily bread, for he was a huge feeder, and, though lank, had the dilating powers of an anaconda… His appetite for the marvellous, and his powers of digesting it, were equally extraordinary; and both had been increased by his residence in this spell-bound region. No tale was too gross or monstrous for his capacious swallow…”
— Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
She woke up well before dawn and quickly dressed to explore the woods at Raven Rock in the heart of the Rockefeller State Nature Preserve. She had never been there, and although she had finished her research on its legendary Woman in White, she thought that a personal visit to the site could possibly be useful. She wanted to go as early as possible, however, so she could get back to exploring the river before nine o’ clock. One half hour was probably all she needed, and while the eastern horizon was still an ashy grey, she set out to catch a glimpse of the famous rock formation before moving on to more pressing matters.
She went to unlock the door, but her plans were momentarily disrupted by two unnerving discoveries: firstly, the door – which she had locked every night – was ajar, letting in the clammy morning air and swaying limply in the draft. Secondly, the horseshoe, which she was positive had been packed away in a Ziploc bag, was laying on the threshold, preventing the door from closing.
Apparently she was sleepwalking; it wasn’t very surprising considering the stress she was under to finish her paper and keep tenure within her grasp. The fact that she had opened the door, though, left her unsettled: she could have broken her neck tripping down the stairs. She decided to put a chair in front of the doorway before she went to bed that night, and left the apartment in a rush.
There are three stories about the shrieking ghost that haunts Raven Rock. The bleakest describes a young widow collecting firewood who is caught in a blizzard during the worst winter Sleepy Hollow ever knew. Driven to find shelter by the whipping sleet, she huddled in the flinty abscess of the Rock and waited for a warm morning which never came in her lifetime. Another tells of a beautiful Delaware maiden who was chased into the rushing snow by a lustful warrior bound to avenge himself on her body. Instead, she threw herself from the top of the monolith onto the ice and stones below, preferring the freedom of death to slavery. The third comes from the Revolutionary Era and tells of a teenage girl from a patriotic, Whig family, who fell in love with an enemy soldier during the spring of 1777, after Washington’s Continentals had been driven from White Plains and across the Hudson. With Westchester now being fought over by ruthless bandits – the Patriot-aligned Skinners and the Tory Cowboys – the young woman found protection in the arms of a lieutenant in the Crown Forces who had helped free her father’s cart from the mud after a summer shower. He courted her in secret, away from her family’s eyes, and they met in the shadow of the thickets and grape vines on the western bank of the Pocantico, not far from the old church bridge. They fell in love and became inseparable, but her frequent absences aroused her mother’s suspicions, and when her secret was discovered, she was thrown out of her house without a single possession.
She sent a letter across enemy lines asking her lover to meet her at Raven Rock where they could examine their options and decide on a future. Perhaps she would leave with him for the British camp in New York; perhaps he would leave with her for the American camp in Albany; perhaps they would leave everything behind and create a new world together in the fertile frontier. But it was not to be: the messenger was shot by a sentry, the message lost, and what began as a mild, misty day in the winter of ‘78 suddenly whipped into a cataclysmic snow storm. She waited for him in the satin wedding dress that she had saved for him, and as the sleet drove her back towards the Rock, she laid down in an effort to conserve her draining body heat, wondering when he would ride up and take her away – north to Albany, south to Manhattan, or west to a new life in the frontier. She may have been imagining this future when she drifted off to a black sleep. She was found later that week by a patrol of dragoons – frozen to the ground and encased in ice that matched the white of her dress and bloodless face. She has ever since haunted the Rock with her screeching wail – a terrible indictment for her absentee lover – when snow storms brew over the Hudson…
Raven Rock is located in a particularly quiet part of the Nature Preserve called Buttermilk Hill. During the Revolution, locals would hide their cattle in its shadow when Cowboys were spotted on the prowl, giving the slope its bovine name. Even today, however, Buttermilk Hill is an unsuitably pleasant name for this shadowy glen, and everyone refers to it by the name of its monstrous monolith. It is the largest glacial erratic in the country – a 600 million year old relic of the icy juggernauts that carved their way down the Hudson Valley, strewing the wild landscapes with cyclopean debris. The formation still has an unnerving, magnetic influence on travelers who are often unaccountably disturbed by its immense size and strange, house-like dimensions. It is not an irregular pile of boulders or a sloping promontory, but a flinty non sequitor – a black block of craggy granite – rising like a gloomy manor house out of the maples surrounding it. Even today, the funereal silence around it is only broken by the strangled croaks of the namesake ravens who nest along its flat top – massive scavengers who glower defensively at hikers from these perches, only leaving their posts when they detect the stench of death wafting in from a carcass in the woods. Its face is large and sharp, but there are several clefts in its base where a desperate woman might attempt to find shelter.
One suspiciously coffin-shaped den has been closely connected to the story of the Woman in White, and is often cited as the identical place where her body was found frozen in her stony shelter. Whether she was a luckless mother, a desperate victim, or an abandoned lover, there is an unquestionably feminine energy stirring at its base and watching from its heights. Hikers sometimes smell a rustic perfume – like sweet musk and lavender – near its foot, or catch of fleeting glimpse of a huddled Thing in White with its back to them. Some have felt a warm breath on the back of their ear as if someone was about to whisper a secret to them, or have felt fingertips trailing drown their spine in a strangely intimate way. Few people visit Raven Rock without their minds being clouded by a strange depression, and several suicides have been reported there since the 1920s. It seems to stew with an angry, bitter atmosphere that weighs on the minds of those who see it; it has some power over the mind that infects the imagination with bizarre nightmares and unsettling forebodings.
She had been to Sleepy Hollow three times before – once as a 10 year old girl, once as an 18 year old college student, and once as a 26 year old professor. She had never been to Raven Rock, however, and although she had seen pictures of it online, walking towards this 65 foot-wide tomb had a worrisome effect on her senses: each step she took seemed slower than the last, and the closer she came to it, the more she seemed to become sensitive to the movements of unseen animals prowling through the underbrush or the unseen wind stirring in the trees. She felt as though she were driving through a city she had lived in ten years ago, and had just passed her old house – the dizzying feeling that it would be very easy and natural for her to choose to pull over, park in the driveway, and try the handle to a door to a house where strangers lived. And who knows who was waiting for her on the inside?
She left her car in the parking lot and proceeded down the trail that led to Buttermilk Hill. Things were strangely quiet and she noticed herself become increasingly sensitive to the vacuum of energy: in a place so drained of living activity – no insects buzzed, no squirrels barked, and no birds sang – something had to take its place, and a curious part of her soul seemed to have its eyes wide open in nervous concentration. Even the street where her Airbnb sat was murmuring with wakening animal life when she left it, but this shadowy park in the heart of a nature preserve was reserved and watchful.
With the absence of sights or sounds, she found her mind wandering in distasteful directions. She thought of her father who had driven her across Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York to visit the site of her favorite story, remembered his kind eyes and the subtle sadness that weighed perceptibly over him. She thought of her parents’ divorce when she was little, how they assured her that she had no responsibility for the separation, but how the guilt haunted her more than any ghost. She thought of her father’s own last, lonely walk – how one morning he drove his car to a state park, walked down a long, wooded trail, and sat at a bench looking out over a lake, and of how – as he watched the dawn gleaming in the black water – he shot himself through the head. She also thought of her mother, already dying of cancer at the same time, and how the news of his suicide robbed her of her strength. The spiral began immediately, and three months later she was also dead. And this coming on the tail end of her own humiliating divorce. She thought of her ex-husband – the tidy little man with the dark beard and horn-rimmed glasses whom she met in the gender studies class which he was teaching. He was just a G.A. and only a few years older than her, but she was struck by the conviction with which he spoke about weighty matters: justice, equality, truth. After she graduated they met for drinks and she moved in with him two months later. They were only married for two years before he disappeared one morning with most of his belongings and no note. She eventually tracked him down at his new girlfriend’s massive, gated home. She was disgusted that he sent her – the tall, blond CFO of a women’s pro basketball team – outside to confront her, answer her questions, and ask her to leave while he watched mutely from the upstairs window with empty eyes. She’d felt shame burning through her whole body – for all three of them…
It was still early in the morning, and although the sun was coming up through the trees, a vestigial gloom leftover from the night still clung to the rock, which was silhouetted against the rosy sky in deep purple murk. It looked like a grim, shuttered house brooding – seething – over its unspeakable history with barely suppressed rage. It was horribly quiet, yet a low-frequency energy seemed to be humming from the stony heart, pulsating angrily like the frantic, bitter breaths of a scorned woman. She was the only person in the park that morning, and every time she took a step, the crunch of leaves and gravel seemed conspicuously loud. A dank film of violet mist hovered around the monolith, shifting wakefully in the wind, and as it rolled across the Rock, she thought she spotted someone lying at its base.
She was suddenly aware of how alone she was.
Squinting through the early morning shadows, she wondered whether she was seeing things accurately: there was something dark and still huddling in an oblong crevice in the stone – it was deep enough for a person to crawl into it and lay down to sleep. Maybe it was a homeless person, she thought. Maybe a lost child (she couldn’t get a gauge on their size, gender, or age). Maybe someone who was hurt – or had been hurt. Maybe badly. Maybe worse than badly. Maybe someone who was hiding on purpose, who didn’t want to be found, who wanted to sleep in peace and would lash out at a vulnerable stranger with a vicious rage.
She stepped closer and began to see movement. Thank God, she thought, at least they are alive. She suddenly knew that she would not be able to keep from screaming if she had found herself alone in the shadow of this rock with a corpse. But who were they and did they need help? She could now tell that they were at least five feet long and petite – a woman. Suddenly, she was aware of a strangely sweet odor – like musk – and the faint scent of lavender…
She, the other woman, seemed to be shivering terribly – rippling with subtle tremors that could barely be detected in the gloom around her. But why was she shivering? Cold? Sickness? Something worse than sickness? Terror…
She wondered if she should just call someone right now – the police, or the park rangers – and have them wake her up. Was she even asleep?
Something pulled her on, though, and even though she began grinding her teeth and shivering herself, she couldn’t help but walk towards the trembling sleeper in the rock. As she passed through the bank of mist, things began to clear. She was only a few steps away from touching her. She didn’t want to reach out. Why was she shivering so much? It was a crisp morning but not that cold – the shivers were now convulsions, now a shuddering fit.
She reached her hand out to wake the sleeper, and then she screamed.
The scream was echoed back at her – an inhuman, female shriek boiling with centuries’ of seething rage, an animalistic howl that bounded angrily from the house-like walls of Raven Rock.
The woman on the ground was being torn to pieces – pieces that came flying wildly at her.
The shivering body was a flock of greasy ravens gorging themselves on something in the cleft, and as she reached out to them, they rushed forward, slapping her with their massive wings – she didn’t realize how large ravens really were, with their wingspans the length of a man’s arm – and knocking her to the ground with their stabbing beaks.
The flock crashed through the trees and tore into the sky, croaking gluttonously and filling the forest with the rushing volume of their chaotic rage.
She was still covering her face with her hands and shivering in a ball when the quiet returned. She could still hear the insect-like vibrations of their rustling wings as they watched her from the trees, but she felt safe enough to look up and back away from the monolith. Pulling her hands back she found that they had been sliced her in several places and that blood was already welling in the shallow lacerations.
She couldn’t stop shaking, but closed her eyes, took a stabilizing breath, and raised herself up.
One raven – it seemed as large as a chicken, staring at her through a cloudy, blind eye – still stood grimly on one of the boulders in front of her, monitoring her movements like a ghoulish sentinel. When she finally forced herself to break contact with its dead, fish-like eye, she peered into the cleft of the rock and shuddered.
It was full of yellow bones and pink strips of flesh of some animal. Animals – she could see that more than one skeleton was represented here. But what kind of animal was it…?
Although she didn’t know enough about anatomy to guess anything about the long thigh bones and broken ribs scattered in the cleft, the reddish light was strong enough that she could see one distinguishing detail: they were scored by teeth marks.
In particular, she recognized the parallel tracks of incisors – which appeared to be large and sharp – and she had the nauseating sense that she had come upon a lion’s den. She caught a glimpse of something round that looked – even in the shadow – like a skull. It was notched and slashed all over with teeth marks as if a starving man had ravenously peeled away the flesh in a fit of unquenchable hunger.
Her stomach suddenly snarled loudly and she realized that she hadn’t had any breakfast. Staring at the skull – oddly round with its sockets facing forward and culminating in a square jawbone – she felt her mouth begin to water impatiently.
She turned away.
Walking back to the main trail she couldn’t help but notice the signs of some recent struggle: something heavy had been dragged through the underbrush here and deposited in that cleft, because the soil was plowed up – as if by dragging heels – and the leaves and twigs pushed to either side in a jagged streak that lead back into the woods in a direction far from the trail. Following it with her eyes, she watched the leaf-strewn path fade into the blackness and wondered if anything could be watching her from the shadows behind those grim, swaying trees. She stared until she thought she saw the faint, grey blur of a face – gouged by two black sockets – looking back at her, but she turned back towards the trail and kept walking.
The screech of ravens started to build around her as they fluttered back to their meal – evidently there were still lashings of flesh to be gobbled – and she quickened her pace and wondered why she had been so unsettled. She had obviously stumbled on a place where animals hid themselves when they were sick and dying. Some wounded or dying deer had dragged itself from the woods, bunkered in the cleft, died, and been consumed by the ravens. It was all very natural.
What she couldn’t get over, though, was the smell. It was old and musty and reeked of mold. She had taken part in several disinterrments where 19th century coffins had been raised from the earth and broken open by researchers. They all had a uniquely heavy, sweet, spoiled odor like bad milk: the reek of corpse wax – the festering, molten weeping of human fat as it rotted under dead skin. And of course, animal skulls aren’t round… A small, ancient part of her brain spoke up while the rest of it was still reeling, and it told her to stop shuffling and to run. To run, not because she was smelling the remains that she had seen gnawed and discarded in the rock, but because whatever she was smelling – with its centuries’-old stench of mold and rot – might still be prowling the woods around her…
OCTOBER 30TH; THAT EVENING.
“It is remarkable that the visionary propensity I have mentioned is not confined to the native inhabitants of the valley, but is unconsciously imbibed by every one who resides there for a time. However wide awake they may have been before they entered that sleepy region, they are sure, in a little time, to inhale the witching influence of the air, and begin to grow imaginative, to dream dreams, and see apparitions.”
— Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
It was an easy thing to pour herself back into research and the reassuringly predictable motions of academic rigor for the remainder of the day. She cataloged artifacts, sent faxes from the library, emailed questions to colleagues, forwarded a draft of her paper to her editor, and FedExed several boxes of artifacts to her university’s archives. She’d found a pewter spoon, some broken spectacles, two cartridge box buckles (one from a light infantryman in His Majesty’s 43rd Regiment of Foot, and one from New York’s 2nd Continental Regiment), the socket of a French bayonet, the firelock from a pistol, a hatchet head, a penknife, two ringbolts, and the remnants of at least four clay pots, not to mention all the terribly corroded iron spikes. All of these she forwarded ahead as evidence that this area of the river – near the blackened oak tree where the river was black and deep – had seen considerable traffic and could be considered a favorable candidate for the colonial bridge’s forgotten location. It was almost too much! It would positively floor her department head, and she knew that tenure was finally within reach; she could smell it like an expectant feast sprawled over a table in a room whose doors had just opened for her to peak in – a feast that was steaming and fatty.
She forwarded the articles as soon as they were cataloged, photographed, and described. But not the horseshoe; the horseshoe she kept. Inexplicably she felt that there was no need to part with it yet. It stayed in her apartment where she could see it, and it made her feel somehow guarded – or watched...
That night she had no trouble falling asleep. She left the transom open and the delicious coolness of a late October evening trickled into the apartment and drew the feverish heat out of her brain as she drifted off. Tossing between nods she saw a series of images flitting behind her half-shut eyes: she saw herself as a child, peering over the railing of the Route 9 bridge while her father rested a protective hand on her shoulder. She saw him turn around slowly and walk down the road towards the cemetery. Now the scenery was changing around him and he was in a woods at daybreak, and he was now emerging from the trees onto a knoll overlooking a lake warming in the sun’s red light. Now he was sitting down at a bench to watch the black water transform into a gleaming sheet of blood, just before filling his mouth with a pistol barrel and tearing out the back of his head…
The scenes changed more rapidly now: she was in a hospital room where her mother was hearing the news; her grey, loose skin suddenly lost what color it had as she clapped her bony hands around her mouth and her eyes bulged helplessly out of her cadaverous face. What change was happening now? The already dry and stringy hair was falling out in tufts, and the flaky skin seemed to be dehydrating, stretching tightly over her skull before turning an awful, awful white – then green then a strange purple. Here it began to bloat and blacken, then tear away from the bones, melting along with her milky eyeballs into a brown, lonely skeleton…
And now she saw the uncomfortable glare of her little husband as he watched her from behind his horn-rimmed glasses and nervously twisted his fingers into his dark beard from the safety of a second-story window. She felt that she must speak her mind to him, but as she shouted she realized that his beady eyes and fidgety fingers were suddenly morphing and growing as shadows began to lengthen around him. In the deepening darkness she saw his form stretch out into a tall, thin figure with a small, round head topped with wispy red hair and sporting an unnaturally wide, toothy grin. She couldn’t see his eyes in the darkness, but the moonlight outside gleamed on those teeth and she thought of how they seemed large and sharp. And now something seemed stirring inside of his black clothes – a struggling, rustling movement under his jacket. Convulsions started jerking his shoulders back and forth, and as the smile widened, he reached up with two large, white hands – strangely blistered and marbled with rot – and peeled away the folds of his coat as a flock of greasy black birds thrashed their way out and darted for her eyes…
This last dream shocked her out of sleep and she sat bolt upright in bed, scanning the suite for anything that could reach out for her with long, bony fingers. There was nothing to be seen in the dark red light floating in through the transom. She settled back down and looked up at the ceiling. Nothing. A meaningless cheese dream.
The Professor of Early American Studies sighed in justified relief. It was exactly what it seemed to be. Things were always – ultimately, inevitably, predictably – exactly what they seemed to be.
Turning over in bed, she caught her breath and stifled a scream when she realized that she was facing the bare back of a man.
Panic flooded her body and she tried to avoid giving herself away, but found her shallow breaths shuddering loudly through her clenched teeth as horrified tears welled in her eyes.
He was not thin or fat, but had wide shoulders and his ribs were padded in muscular flesh. Strength and weariness equally vibrated from him, and she seemed to know that he was very tired and that his face must be clenched in a heavy, troubled sleep. As she began to adjust to the reality of what she was experiencing, she was suddenly aware of his smell: a warm, masculine blend of campfire smoke, worn leather, and pine needles. She saw one white ear protrude from the side of his head, while his curly, coal-black hair glinted in the faint light. Who was this stranger sleeping so naturally beside her, and what did his face look like? As she began to collect her thoughts, the building curiosity grew stronger than fear.
She wanted to soak up and share his nightmares, to suck the poison from his restless body. She shifted forward without thinking and reached out to press herself into his back, to rest her hand on his clenched shoulder, to peer over it into the face which was turned away from her. She reached out and pulled herself up. She looked on his face before her hand reached his shoulder.
She immediately knew that she shouldn’t have looked, for his shoulder was cold and mushy, and when she leaned over to gaze on his sleeping face, there was nothing to see: the head had been entirely eaten away – there was nothing; just a raw, rancid stump. The pillow where the head should have been – where it had been seconds earlier – was soaked through in rotten, black blood. Panicking, she looked around her saw that the sheets around her were also stiff and sticky with coagulated gore that now clung to her like tar.
She shrieked herself awake and groaned to find her shirt and sheets steaming with sweat. The grey-blue light of early morning was coming in through the open window, and glinting coldly on the horseshoe she had apparently left on her bedside table…
“I am indebted to you for introducing me to that worthy wight Lockie Longlegs, whose appearance I shall never forget striding along the profile of a knoll in his red night cap, with his flimsy garments fluttering about him. His very uncouth appearance called to mind, most identically, the figure of a phantom from my own bygone days as a mere stripling: an itinerant pedagogue who sojourned in one of those long-established Dutch communities on the banks of the Hudson.
“He was something of a rogue, with a capacious appetite for ambition, and although he foraged his way into the affections of the old dames, it was no small relief to the venerable town fathers when he vanished without hardly a trace one night after an all-too disheartening interview with a country coquette – a shrewd and formidable creature who had charmed her way into his fertile imagination.
“It is true that some of the Dutch wives ventured to suggest that he had been spirited away to the Infernal Regions by the local tribe of goblins, and there are still loitering plough boys to this day who rush home to their mother’s petticoats, flying like a wild shot, babbling with tales of having seen his melancholy spirit, striding along a hillock in a high gale, the skirts of his great jacket flaunting about his lithe frame, so that it gave the appearance of a scarecrow absconded from its garden watch.
“The venerable Master Longlegs looked the very picture of this same dreamy interloper, and I must regale you with his entire tragical history. I want breath and time to discuss it as it truly deserves and find that I am far too eager to get on with the rest of my budget of news. It is a tale which I mean to one day tell in the full scope and style which it so richly deserves.”
—Washington Irving in a letter to Sir Walter Scott, 8 November 1817
Whatever delusions the night had brought melted away with the rising sun. All these had been mere terrors of the night, phantoms of the mind that walk in darkness. In the rosy light streaming through the transom she found no reason to be apprehensive. She awoke to a fine autumnal day under a sparkling, blue sky, aromatic with the bright, musky fragrance of fall. It was her last full day in New York and she made the uncharacteristic decision to put her research aside for the entire morning and spend it exploring the local festivities. And perhaps she would do the same when evening came. Indeed, she decided to go to a reading of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” at the Old Dutch Church, followed by an appearance of the Headless Horseman and a public gala at the high school.
She left the apartment at nine that morning and made her way down the shady avenue, dappled in the morning sun coming through the scarlet maples. The air was clean and cold, and she had dressed for the weather by putting on a deep purple shift and a snow-white cardigan. Throughout the day she visited the local antique shops, book stores, and boutiques, meeting the shop owners and making cheery small talk with the customers. She savored two cups of coffee and read part of a novel at the Muddy Water Café, bought a necklace and a framed lithograph at the Pretty Funny Vintage antique shop in Tarrytown, and enjoyed a leisurely lunch at Horsefeathers.
This restaurant is just south of Patriot’s Park, and before she returned to her room to drop off her shopping bags, she meandered along Andre Brook as it wound its way through the dells and under the stone bridges. Somewhere nearby this very spot was the site where the rough logs that crossed the brook while the park was still Wiley’s Swamp. Forever lost to time due to the lack of stone and iron in its construction, she hadn’t even considered investigating its location, but there – on the edge of Andre Brook, between two of the arched bridges – as she stared into the drifting, dark water, she felt that it could have been at no other place.
With her eyes closed she could sense how the slopes on either side of her must have been choked with thickets and brambles, how the sky must have been blotted out by swaying maples and tulip trees, and how four lengths of pine trunks – split down the middle and laid cut-side up – must have been laid across the brook here at this narrow, shallow area. She could see how four crude posts made of beech limbs must have been hammered into the ground on either side of the split logs to hold them in place, and how the wood must have been heavily dented and gashed by hooves. She could feel the clammy air rising from the black waters, and could hear the buzzing rattle of cicadas in the trees overhead, the murmur of crickets in the briar patches, and the belching of frogs in the cattails. Overhead she could see a handful of stars winking from the deep purple sky, while a golden crescent moon disappeared behind a bank of black clouds. She could see how there to the left – by the side of the creek where the slope rose and overlooked the bridge – a rider could wait for his victim to approach it. This was the same spot where Major Andre’s captors had been idling when he rode up to them as he crossed the bridge – a spot forever connected to the mournful story of his decapitated career, his sham trial, and his pathetic execution. It would be a spot that locals both feared and respected because it represented their ability to repel invaders – a spot haunted by the memories of crime and war and revenge. The lurking rider would be gathered in the gloom of the thickets, but still visible enough to strike terror into the traveler’s soul before rushing forward to pounce.
But now her perspective was suddenly somehow moved to the side and was watching the bridge from that very spot in the thickets. Something caught her eye in the trees down the road – a dull, orange light that bobbed slowly behind the trees. In a moment she realized that it was a lamp of some kind coming down the road, and within a few seconds she saw a horseman emerge from the trees and stop at the foot of the bridge.
The crickets and cicadas continued to whirr from their hiding spots, and the quiet trickle of the brook over small boulders was muffled by the seas of cattails and brambles on either side of it. She looked closer at the horseman’s saddle where the light was emanating. It was coming from an antique-looking lantern hanging from the pommel. His figure was bent and wiry (he was too tall for his saddle and too impatient for his impulsive, gnarled horse), and he hunched over the horse’s neck, peering into the dark. He wore a red stocking cap almost to the bridge of his nose, and clenched a whip in his right hand like a sword. The lamp threw a ghastly orange light over his furrowed face: it was framed by red hair and sideburns, and she saw that the unwholesome skin was rotten with ulcers. His glassy eyes bulged in shock on either side of a large, bent nose, and the thin lips peeled back to reveal two rows of long, yellowed teeth, before the nocturnal atmosphere was shattered by his screams…
She opened her eyes and saw a manicured park watered by a sleepy brook and clamoring with the happy shouts of school children. The night sky above was no longer crowded out by trees and dark tentacles of cloud. It was blue and expansive.
Suddenly, she was aware of a strangely sweet odor – like musk – and the faint scent of lavender…
She frowned and continued on her way.
Just as she was crossing Pierson Avenue onto Bellwood Avenue, she caught a familiar face as it left the Philipsburg Manor Museum. It was the mousy old curator with her wide eyes magnified all the more by her enormous glasses. She was dressed in a period costume and humming “The Black Nag” to herself as she walked. When she caught a glance of the Professor of Early American Studies, she dropped the tune and her face noticeably blanched. The Professor of Early American Studies – who was not currently in the frame of mind of a Professor of Early American Studies – smiled and changed her direction.
“Hi, Mrs. Van Brunt! It’s good to see you; are you acting in the play tonight?”
Mrs. Van Brunt was surprised by her tone and appearance, and suddenly seemed to forget the fears that she had been harboring for the young academic. Maybe she had been mistaken after all: she seemed so much more friendly and sociable.
“Hello, dear! Yes, yes, all the museum staff are on call for the play tonight. I’m just taking tickets, though. I’m not much of an actress.”
“I was planning to see it when I get back from my hike later today. What time does it start, again?”
“You’re hiking… Where at?”
“I was just going to go to Douglas Park one last time. I said ‘hiking,’ but it’s really just a stroll. Across the cemetery. I thought I’d take in all the atmosphere before tomorrow.”
“That’s when you leave? Tomorrow?”
“In the morning?”
“And you’ll be going straight to the airport, I hope?”
“What time are you going on this walk?”
Once again the Professor of Early American Studies began to chafe under the rapid fire questions, and started to regret this newfound sociability.
“Just in a couple hours.”
“Three o’clock or so… Early enough; early enough. That’s good; that’s good… Just be careful not to stay there too long, not when it’s getting dark…” here her face visibly shuddered and then a flash of hope brightened her huge eyes, and her mouth broke into a smile, “…the play starts at six, you see, and I’d so hate for you to miss it!”
The Professor of Early American Studies looked somewhat incredulously at her, but admitted that if she didn’t want to miss it, she should keep her hike on the short side. She smiled, nodded, and turned to go.
“Oh, and dear!”
She looked back over her shoulder.
“Do you still have that iron shoe from the river?”
She turned around. Now her brows were furrowed in unmistakable annoyance. Her eyes flashed – a smoldering dark brown that burned like a tree scorched black by lightning.
“Of course I do. Why wouldn’t I?”
“You found it, you photographed it, it’s all recorded… Why do you still need it?”
“Because I found it… Listen, if the museum wants to buy it, you can have one of your rep’s contact me here—” she was in the act of pulling a business card from her wallet but was shocked by the old woman’s involuntary gasp. She looked up and saw her crossing her hands over her mouth, as if she had accidentally given away a terrible secret.
“No, no, no,” she recovered herself, “we wouldn’t want it. Just – if you change your mind and don’t want to deal with the TSA when you get ready to board – just consider returning it where you found it… Old things often have very bad memories… Sometimes they’re best left forgotten…”
The Professor of Early American Studies barely swallowed the scowl that darkened her face for a moment.
“I suppose,” she said in an attempt to end the awkward conversation, “but sometimes they’re best dragged into the light and fresh air.”
Returning to her rooms she looked down at the horseshoe. It still sat where she had last found it, on the nightstand. She picked it up and held it to the afternoon sunlight coming through the transom. She could see the hammer marks where the smith had shaped it, and two or three shiny gashes indicated where it had struck stones during some centuries-dead gallop, of a centuries-dead horse, spurred on by a centuries’-dead horseman. It gleamed in the sun like a crucifix in the light of a stained glass window. She tucked it carefully into her knapsack as she changed into khakis and hiking boots one last time…
“CODIFIED COMMUNITY: SLEEPY HOLLOW’S FOLKLORIC ETHOS”
BY MADISON GREY-KILROY, PHD., AGE 28
“Ghosts” – to Irving – represent culture, community, and fellowship, and ghost story telling operates as a social ritual meant to strengthen and weld communities through their shared narratives. A town which perpetuates its unique legends, then, must be a socially and spiritually healthy place where bonds and connections continue to be fostered. Ichabod proves to be cocky and vain when in company, but existentially woeful whenever alone: he loves listening to wild tales by the fire, but dreads the necessitated walk home by himself. Ichabod – by nature a self-seeking, individualistic lone wolf, with no concern for community or fellowship – is forced to confront his vulnerability and uprootedness whenever he is alone: he is forced to realize that he is himself a ghost.
His confrontation with the Headless Horseman is a confrontation with reality – a glance into a mirror, a look exchanged with his Doppelgänger. Like Andre, the spy, and the mercenary Hessian, Ichabod is yet one more casualty of Sleepy Hollow: a community that kicks back against invaders, users, and opportunists. Andre had sought to subject the community for his king, the Hessian for pay, and Ichabod for his ambition, and all three are lost into the vortex of Sleepy Hollow’s terrible revenge. This is the “legend” of Sleepy Hollow: the moral that those who take advantage of our hospitality – those outsiders who seek to use and disenfranchise us for their own personal gain without any investment into our community or fellowship – will be promptly evicted, or otherwise, destroyed.
OCTOBER 27TH; LATE AFTERNOON.
"What passed at this interview I will not pretend to say, for in fact I do not know. Something, however, I fear me, must have gone wrong, for he certainly sallied forth, after no very great interval, with an air quite desolate and chapfallen... Could that girl have been playing off any of her coquettish tricks? Was her encouragement of the poor pedagogue all a mere sham to secure her conquest of his rival? Heaven only knows, not I!"
— Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Professor Bracebridge was locking his office up just before he headed home for Fall Break. He and his wife lived in a quiet country house overlooking the Columbia River, shaded by sleepy pines and sheltered by a rolling ridge woodland. Their daughter and her new husband, three older sons and their three wives, and a romping troop of six wild grandchildren were all due to arrive that evening for a long weekend stay, and he had never been more eager to leave the heat and fumes of the city behind him.
Humming as he walked down the deserted hallway, he carried his briefcase in one hand and twirled his keys in the other.
Rounding a corner, he smiled at the Professor of Cultures, Societies, and Global Studies as she locked her office and turned into the hallway.
“Good afternoon to you!”
She uneasily returned his stentorian greeting with a reedy “Hello,” and settled in for what she expected to be an uncomfortable ten minutes as they walked together towards the parking lot. She resented the unwavering ease that he seemed to experience at all times, and had never engaged him in a one-on-one conversation even though they had shared every workday lunch hour in the same room for the past three years. She would have preferred the awkwardness of a searing silence to his chummy small talk, but it was not to be.
“Where are you headed to for break? Staying around here?”
“No. I’m heading a panel at a conference in Sacramento, so I’m driving down there tomorrow morning.”
“Ah… No rest for the weary!”
“You and Madison, too; the two of you are absolute workhorses; you’re always on mission.”
The Professor of Cultures, Societies, and Global Studies smarted at the use of her colleague’s first name. She wondered bitterly if he used her given name when he referred to her, too.
“Professor Grey-Kilroy has a tough road to hoe.”
“It sure seems like it. Sounds like she’s pretty worried about getting tenure.”
“Serious academics always are.”
Professor Bracebridge – a retired farm supplier who had only gotten his master’s degree to improve his understanding of his clients’ needs, and who now worked as an adjunct for something to do – didn’t notice the vitriol in her tone.
“Without a doubt… without a doubt,” he said lowly, thinking of his colleague’s clenched jaw and anxious eyes as she had described her hopes for publication and remembered the gossip he had overheard a few months earlier about her parents’ deaths and her humiliating divorce. His normally jovial face folded in worry. “I hope this paper she’s working on helps her out. It must be a tremendous burden.”
“It is,” said the Professor of Cultures, Societies, and Global Studies with a snakish hiss, “but it’s not going to help her a bit. They’ve already decided next year’s assignments, but they’re holding out because if her research is any good it’s going to help the University.”
“But if it helps the University, they’ll consider tenure?”
“No. It’s all decided. I know because I’m very close to Dr. Washington and Dr. Aziz, and they told me that the department has never considered her as a serious candidate. They’re just using tenure as a carrot to get more work out of her. It’s all bullshit.”
“Why don’t you tell her, then?”
“Dr. Aziz told me that in confidence. And don’t you tell her. I shouldn’t have even told you, but you owe it to the rest of us to understand what we go through every damn day.”
“But you have tenure.”
“I didn’t always.”
“So what is next for her?”
“Another job somewhere else in May. They’ll make the announcements in December, so she’ll have all spring to get her CV ready.”
“You’re not worried about her?”
“It’s not my fault; it’s the system.”
“But can’t you give her advice, or advocate for her with Fatima?”
“Dr. Aziz doesn’t need me to meddle with her department. Besides, it’s all settled. She never stood a chance; her research is outdated and reflexive.”
“Reflexive. She isn’t talking about anything new or useful. Just rehashing the same tired old tropes, perpetuating the worship of useless, old things and backwards, dead men.”
“But isn’t that part of what anthropology does?”
“Dust and bones…” she muttered under her breath, half in response to his question, and half as a curse in his direction.
They were in the parking lot now, and the sun was setting coolly over the campus, spreading its long, red fingers up into a bank of strange, purple clouds. He made a parting farewell to his colleague, the Professor of Cultures, Societies, and Global Studies- as she veered off into the maze of cars, only nodding jerkily in reply.
Bracebridge stared off into the shifting mist overhead and thought for a long while. He felt strangely eager to return to his family and to hug his daughter as soon as she walked through the door and fold her tightly to his chest…
HALLOWE'EN , LATE AFTERNOON.
“NOTICE: TWENTY POUND REWARD. Twenty Pounds Sterling will be offered for any information leading to the apprehension of the notorious Captain Erasmus Craven, late of Mystic Harbour, who so recently became the object of outrage when his pernicious and most infamous ruse was uncovered by the families of Boston-Town. As the name he lived by was a most diabolical alias, it is unlikely that he may be discovered under it. He is rumoured to have left the state by sea and may be fleeing for Philadelphia or Long-Island, although a [freed slave] named Silas reports sighting a man of his description outside of New-Haven, where he was journeying Eastwards down the Boston Post-Road.
“He can be easily reckognised by his unusual Appearance: he is exceedingly Tall and Lank, over Six Feet in height and weighs but Ten Stone. His hair is of a Flaming Red colour, and he sports large whiskers of the same. His hands and feet are uncommonly large, while his frame and limbs are long and lithe. His head is small and ronde with a nose of the Hebrew type. His Countenance has been sordidly defaced by the French Pox, and is of an un-wholesome, grey compleksion which is said to resemble that of a Toad. He is now believed to have emigrated to New-England from Glasgow before the Late War under an unknown Name, and is said to speak with a Scotch brogue.
“He is of a dangerously sly disposition and not at all to be trusted, having made the Fool of many honest and virtuous ladies from the very Best Families of New-England, and made Cuckolds of their Husbands while they were at sea. He is a Swindler, Thief, and Man-Slaughterer, who should be approached with the most serious care, and only by two or more Men under Arms, as his voracious appetite for personal advancement has proven murderous on more than one occasion.”
—The Norwich Packet, 27 September 1788
It was, as I have said, a fine autumnal day; the sky was clear and serene, and nature wore that rich and golden livery which we always associate with the idea of abundance. The forests had put on their sober brown and yellow, while some trees of the tenderer kind had been nipped by the frosts into brilliant dyes of orange, purple, and scarlet. Streaming files of wild ducks began to make their appearance high in the air; the bark of the squirrel might be heard from the groves of beech and hickory-nuts, and the pensive whistle of the quail at intervals from the neighboring stubble field.
The Professor of Early American Studies made her way through the Old Burial Ground, looking at the rust-colored headstones as she passed them by with cautious, lingering eyes, as if she feared the opinions of the dust and bones buried under them. Here were the graves of Caterina Van Tassel and Eleanor Van Tassel – the former had granted her name to Irving’s flirtatious heroine, while the latter had lent him her bewitching looks, fighting spirit, and cunning guile. There was the grave of Brom Martling: town blacksmith, Revolutionary War hero, and wild-hearted daredevil. A small pumpkin was perched on top of his small headstone – a local October tradition, identifying Irving’s model for the sham Horseman. Names like Van Ripper, Acker, Van Eyck, Paulding, Van Wart, and Philipse peered at her from the brown-stained stones, watching and wondering if she understood.
And there, again, in an otherwise unremarkable patch of grass was the black metal plague with the words HESSIAN SOLDIER gleaming across its face in gold lettering. She stood over it for longer than she could remember, mulling over the idea that only a few feet of dirt stood between her and him. In her mind’s eye she could see him flying across the rolling countryside on a dapple grey charger, under a golden full moon as deep purple clouds scudded across the sky. The landscape on either side of him is a blur – stones flying, sparks flashing with every bound. He is wearing a forest-green jacket with dark, cherry red facings, and caramel-colored buckskin breeches. The yellow moon glints on the scabbard of the saber clattering at his side. His tight, black boots shine as he spurs the horse on, leaning over its flaunting mane with both hands twisted into the reins. Then the road bends and a wood appears, swallowing them into its black, open mouth.
She realized that she hadn’t noticed whether the rider had a head or not. It didn’t seem to be important any more…
As she moved across the Burial Ground, she looked up at the Dutch Church which was slumbering in the sunlight like an old tomcat, greyed by years of hard work and content with spending the rest of his life asleep until that day that he passes into an even greater rest. Its peaked windows glowed rosily in the late afternoon light, and its steeple – like a blue witch’s hat – rose watchfully over the town as porches began issuing forth trick-or-treaters and a centuries’ old ritual once again moved invisibly in the atmosphere.
Overhead the moon was faintly stamped into the blue sky like a silver coin, and the wind was brushing restlessly in the trees. She followed the path down the western bank of the Pocantico until it arrived at the wooden bridge under the swaying canopy of creaking ash trees and maples. She crossed the span and eased down the riverbank until she was standing amongst the massive boulders and fallen trees. Looking up she felt the woodlands stretching over her like watchful parents. Somewhere in the distance a whippoorwill moaned sweetly to the silence around them.
She followed the riverbank south, tracking along the edge of Douglas Park. The valley was aromatic with the musk of falling leaves, wet stones, and cool soil, and as she climbed over one black trunk and on top of a flinty hulk of stone. From here she could see both sides of the riverbank with the hills rising over them. She felt at home with the dreaming earth around her; she closed her eyes and drank the sensations in with greedy pleasure. It flowed warmly through her like a golden brandy, opening up her nostrils and pouring into each vein and capillary, feeding them with new life…
The sound of an explosion shook her from her fancies. When she opened her eyes, the light was still blue and bright behind her to the north, but in front of her everything was a shaded by a plummy, violet murk, as if she was peering through strange purple goggles. What was she looking at? A strange bridge she had never seen before, perhaps fifty yards downstream from her perch. It was assembled from mismatched planks of different widths – scraps from the Tarrytown dockyard – laid across two massive beams that rested in stone footings sunk deep in the moss and mud. A crude, rail fence had been cobbled together on either side out of old ship spars, and the whole structure seemed to sag in quiet misery. In the darkness she could faintly see that the structure had two men on it – one limping to the eastern bank and one not moving at all. Suddenly there was a yellow gush of light, followed immediately by a snap-BANG! Then three more in close order: snap-snap-BANG!-BANG! …snap-BANG! The flashes were coming from a mud wall high on top of the ridge on the western bank, not far from the church. A cluster of men in a patchwork of brown, grey, and blue uniforms were firing at a party of riders sweeping around the bend of the Old Albany Post Road and making fast for the bridge.
She could barely see through the dusk and distance, but the yellow glare of another brief flash illuminated the blistered face of a tall, cadaverous man in a red stocking cap and she shuddered. He was doing something to a kind of wand with rope twisted around it – blowing on the end of the rope (and here it glowed red as he blew). Meanwhile, the other men were wheeling something forward to a beveled gap between two of the posts holding the mud embankment together. She couldn’t see what they were moving, but they seemed careful and nervous wheeling it forward.
The horsemen tore around the corner as musket balls flew at them from across the river, thumping heavily into the earth and trees. Some wore green coats with red trim, others wore red coats with green trim, but they all were carrying light, curved swords and the man at their head was one of the former; as they rounded the turn, his cocked hat was blown off revealing a head of curly black hair. They clambered onto the wooden planks with a sound like thunder. Watching carefully, the tall man behind the mud wall pressed his smoldering wand to something behind the mud wall. Before the sound of the explosion could reach her ears, its light whitened everything around her, and the scenery transmuted back into a peaceful autumn afternoon with orange fingers of sunlight pointing to the part of the river where the bridge in her vision had been. Nothing was there now, except a looming, blackened oak on the western bank, near where she had seen the mud embankment, raising its two shattered arms in horror…
HALLOWE'EN NIGHT, TWILIGHT.
“It was the very witching time of night that Ichabod, heavy-hearted and crestfallen, pursued his travels homewards... The hour was as dismal as himself... No signs of life occurred near him, but occasionally the melancholy chirp of a cricket, or perhaps the guttural twang of a bullfrog from a neighboring marsh, as if sleeping uncomfortably and turning suddenly in his bed... All the stories of ghosts and goblins that he had heard in the afternoon now came crowding upon his recollection. The night grew darker and darker; the stars seemed to sink deeper in the sky, and driving clouds occasionally hid them from his sight. He had never felt so lonely and dismal...”
— Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
For the first time, the Professor of Early American Studies seemed to realize that these mounting invasions – coincidences, nightmares, daydreams – were mounting towards something – something physical and determined to meet her. She looked around and saw that the sun was already turning the western sky pink, and the whole of the eastern woods behind her was dark with deepening violet shadows.
The town wouldn’t be hard to get to before sunset, and with the Halloween revelries already commencing, she already felt hopeful of being greeted by the rollicking sounds of trick-or-treaters and the gleam of grinning pumpkins. She worked her way along the Douglas Park side of the Pocantico, looking from time to time over her shoulder to see if anything was tramping behind her.
Although she didn’t sense it, something was shifting in the atmosphere over the town: the sharp autumn air was rapidly dropping in temperature, and a leaden bank of low-hanging clouds was silently crawling in from the northeast, from Raven Rock. Their bellies were pregnant with snow, and they sagged from the weight of their icy burdens, scraping through the tops of the trees. She had her back to the woods and didn’t notice them gliding in. Nothing could force her to remain there a moment longer, though, and she picked up her pace without needing to hear the tinny clatter of sleet falling into the trees north of Douglas Park.
She felt as though she was making good progress; the encouraging glow of streetlights and the setting sun were peeking at her through the trees just around the next bend a few hundred yards ahead – the southern edge of the Park. There she would simply step off of the path, cross between two houses, and find herself on Crane Avenue – a quick walk from the heart of Sleepy Hollow, milling with laughing people and flashing with faces that she need not fear.
She looked back one last time at the broad, black bend in the river where she had found the horseshoe. No one was following her as far as she could tell; she could hear nothing besides the lulling purr of the water and the hushing wind as it stirred the trees overhead.
When she turned back around, however, he was waiting with open arms.
Her face struck him in the breast bone, burying her nose into mildew-saturated wool as he greedily wrapped his long arms around her. She could feel the bones move loosely beneath his soggy, white flesh, and felt his lean jaw digging sharply into her scalp. She flailed in his grip but was surprised at the iron grip of his cadaverous arms: no matter what she did, she couldn’t break free. To her horror, she felt him glide backwards into the thick trees of Douglas Park, dragging her with him: first upwards so that her feet were swinging above the ground, and then smoothly backwards into the woods. She forced one her arms up under his embrace and pounded her fist into the face looming over her – a face she hadn’t yet seen.
Instinctively, she jabbed at his eyes, but her thumb found nothing to pierce, sinking instead into a moist, empty cavity. In frenzied panic, she slapped at his nose and mouth only to find the shriveled lips peeled back into a victorious grin. The nose was as hollow as the eyes. The teeth she touched seemed large and sharp, and they ground together ravenously.
He was hungry, had always been hungry. Hungry as a pickpocket on the streets of Glasgow. Hungry as a confidence man whose successful swindling of the incredulous Tobias Smollett and his editor, Dr. John Moore, led to his being driven across the sea to find new marks in a New World. He was hungry as a quack doctor, defrauding the lonely wives of Boston sea captains with his bogus cures for syphilis, trading his tall tales and flattery for their money – and their diseases. He was hungry as the owner of a privateer out of Mystic Harbor – where he had fled after his secrets were revealed in Boston – stealing the identity of one of his clients’ drowned husbands, and taking merchant ships – British, French, and Yankees alike – as prizes to fill his purse and whet his appetite for wealth. He was hungry when he and his crew traveled over land to a rural port on the Hudson River, rented out a sloop, and used it to smuggle European contraband to the rebels upstate and intelligence to the British in Manhattan. He was hungry when he was begged by an overexcited militiaman to help defend a bridge that could easily be secured by a lousy corporal’s guard; hungry when he decided that he could leverage this simple request into another new start. He was hungry when this chance encounter with a reckless raiding party – whom he easily ground into hamburger at the Pocantico Bridge with four rounds of grapeshot – led to a commission in the Continental Navy, a fine house in Mystic, and a coterie of lonely sailors’ wives slipping in and out of his back door. He was hungry when his many pasts finally found him in September of 1788: hungry when Erasmus Craven’s ailing widow left Boston to visit her sister in Brooklyn, and saw his name printed in the New London Gazette while she was having supper at an Inn. He was hungry when he tricked his way out of the Hartford jail, and left the night watchman (who challenged him as he crossed a street three hours after curfew) tugging on the dirk left in his bowels, and choking on his own blood. And he was still hungry – hungrier than ever before – when he fled across the state border into New York with a new name and a new game: a new woman to swindle and a new fortune to swallow...
How she seemed to realize this, she didn’t know, but a confluence of realizations caused her to shudder in rage and horror, and she screamed as she tore at his rotten, wool jacket while her feet kicked above the ground against the saplings and logs that whizzed beneath them. She could tell that they were gliding quickly above the ground, but she still couldn’t see with her face pressed into his bony chest. She thought of the cleft in Raven Rock, how it seemed like a lion’s den and had been strewn with gnawed bones and smelled of moldy earth – the same sour reek that filled her mouth and nostrils right now.
She desperately reached for her knapsack – for anything sharp or heavy – tore open one of the side pockets and felt her fingers smack against something hard. Gripping it tight, she pulled it out and drove whatever it was home into the vacant eyes.
The gliding stopped, the grip loosened as the spiny hands flew to its face, and she fell to the ground. She must have been three or four feet in the air, and the fall knocked the wind from her lungs, leaving her dazed and overwhelmed by a ringing sound. Her knapsack snagged on the splintered branch of a tulip tree and was torn off in the fall, leaving her without a phone, with its GPS and flashlight, to help her find her way to safety.
Something heavy landed beside her, with a clinking thud.
It was the horseshoe which she had buried into the tall, thin man’s eye sockets.
Looking up into the deep, purple twilight around them – in a part of the woods that she didn’t recognize – she could see a bent, black figure hovering over her. In the faint afterglow of sunset she could hazily make out a whitish face gouged with three ragged holes, framed by stringy shags of molting, red hair, quivering with gluttonous rage. She glanced over at the horseshoe, her only available weapon, but her head was swimming far too much to reach out for it.
The tall, thin man floated to the ground and dropped to all fours, slowly crawling towards her – gently moving his dry, white head back and forth with his nose in the air, making a sucking, moaning sound as he smelled through the gash in his parchment skin. She lurched backward, scooting through the brown carpet of leaves as his long arms pulled him closer to her, but the throbbing in her head pulled her back to the earth: she slumped against a maple tree and closed her eyes as the forest spun around and she heard the crunch of leaves as he rose over her on his knees.
He gripped her by the shirt and pulled her up. She felt his knuckles digging into her. He was real. The physics made no sense. It defied all science. She didn’t believe in visions, or ghosts, or the afterlife. But she felt the sharp fingernails gouging her skin, and felt the pain as they dug in and drew blood. And she felt and smelled the clammy, rancid breath on her face as he drew her closer to his grinding teeth – large and sharp…
Suddenly, the air was charged with a strange, sensual odor – like sweet musk and lavender – and she felt something filling the atmosphere around them, as if the owner to a home had just returned, interrupting a struggle between two rival house-breakers. The Owner had unquestionably arrived, but who she was or what she claimed ownership over, or by what right, the Professor of Early American Studies wasn’t in a situation to guess. Whoever she might be, though, the Professor somehow knew – almost as if she could viscerally taste it – that the Owner was tremulous with a searing rage: an fury that boiled in the atmosphere, radiating like a scarlet signal fire flaring from the top of a rocky peak, summoning a long-forgotten sentinel – a patient watchman who had been quietly standing guard for her for three centuries and more. And almost instantly, she felt the rhythmic vibrations of his arrival.
The pounding clatter of horse hooves on packed earth didn’t surprise her just because she knew that there wasn’t a road near them (even without knowing where they were, she could see the unbroken tangle of briars and thickets surrounding them), but because she thought he had left her. He was the last person she expected to see.
Immediately, she no longer smelled its moldy breath – a uniquely heavy, sweet, spoiled odor like bad milk – or heard the grinding of its ravenous teeth. There was no sound of movement, but she sensed that it had been removed somehow – somehow transmuted into a different expression of itself from a different sliver of its miserable existence. Her mind whirled uncontrollably, and with each dip of her head and closing of her increasingly heavy eyes she saw a different tableau. She was seeing a man – tall but exceedingly lank – whose leprous face was briefly illuminated as he blew onto the smoldering cord of slow-match in the early morning murk… She was seeing a leering, ogling pair of green eyes and a watering mouth illuminated by the strobing light of a fireplace in a wood-beamed parlor darkened by the shadows of dancers and steaming with dishes of roasted meat and cider punches... She was seeing a craven, scowling visage glowing by the red light of a lantern swinging from the pommel of an old horse’s saddle, whose eyes peered anxiously into the darkness that was now drawing a velvet curtain over it all...
As everything faded to black, she could see two galloping horsemen darting down a woodland road – stones flying, sparks flashing at every bound; over the road, plunging down, into the Hollow they raced; over logs, under branches, galloping side by side – with their figures vaguely outlined in silver splatters of moonlight. Through the fog of her fading consciousness she thought she heard a retching scream and a hoarse voice begging for mercy in a chattering brogue: “For Gad’s sake, dinnae come nae nearer! Keep off, ye Deevil! Ye damned bogey! Nae mair! Nae mair, I beseek ye! Begone from me, ye nestie thing! Canna ye lea’e me in peace!?” Among the thundering clatter of hooves she heard the shrill grating of tempered steel against rough leather. Although it was virtually impossible to see in the darkness, she could make out a tall, bony man in billowing, loose garments followed closely by a headless rider – huge, misshapen, and towering – on a powerful grey horse, rushing by like a midnight blast…
HALLOWE'EN NIGHT, MIDNIGHT.
“I mention this peaceful spot with all possible laud, for it is in such little retired … valleys … that population, manners, and customs remain fixed, while the great torrent of migration and improvement, which is making such incessant changes in other parts of this restless country, sweeps by them unobserved. They are like those little nooks of still water, which border a rapid stream, where we may see the straw and bubble riding quietly at anchor, or slowly revolving in their mimic harbor, undisturbed by the rush of the passing current. Though many years have elapsed since I trod the drowsy shades of Sleepy Hollow, yet I question whether I should not still find the same trees and the same families vegetating in its sheltered bosom.”
— Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
When she opened her eyes she saw Raven Rock looming over her like a waiting sepulcher. Molten moonlight splashed over its craggy surface, pooling quietly at its base. Soft flakes of snow were drifting through the trees and gleaming like sapphires. How she had traveled almost four miles from Douglas Park she couldn’t imagine, but as her consciousness began to sharpen, she knew that was the least of her concerns. At first she tried to stand, but her head was still slushing with blood, and she only got as far as sitting up and leaning against one of the boulders. There, behind her, she could see the shallow den connected to the Woman in White story. After this night’s experiences, she shuddered to look closely at it, but immediately saw that it was empty even if it was drenched in sorrowful shadows. No ghostly woman huddled inside, frozen to the ground with her discolored eyes bulging out. Neither was there the sour-smelling trash-heap of gnawed carcasses: it was simply dark and empty – patiently anticipating.
Just at this moment a plashy tramp by the side of the Rock caught her ear. She slowly turned to see him watching her from his saddle with his light cavalry saber gleaming in the soft light of the moon. No, not watching. He was aware of her, she felt sure, but he was bent achingly over the pommel, his throat ending in a pulpy, purple gash. Black stains soaked his collar, which had been torn open in the cannon-blast, and ran down the front of his shirt. The exposed skin was the same pale, marbled green as his hands, and she again saw the cauterized punctures in his throat and chest where he had been gored by grapeshot.
Here was the weary phantom of her childhood nightmares, the dismembered shade who had so quickly been forgotten since leaving for college – since her graduation, her marriage, her career, her divorce, her parents’ deaths. Since that first vision of him shambling out of the woods, she had morphed him into something entirely different, a Shadow of her own inner demons: hungry, desperate, and vicious. In her scholarship she had written of the Horseman as the animus of unfettered masculinity: violently irrational and symbolically divorced from reason. She had written of him as a trope of dominance and power – a fascist archetype in black leather, lashing out in irrational ruthlessness with his phallic sword. He had been savage: a jackbooted Id, a Teutonic storm trooper, deaf to reason and blind to circumstance; pure, raging, destructive emotion; the totem of human brutality; just one of many monsters created by war.
But when she looked at the sagging, ragged corpse clinging weakly to the reins, she didn’t see any of those things. She saw weariness and isolation and years of frantic chasing after vaporized dreams. She wondered what emotion she could have read on his face had he had one. He wasn’t just unable to rationally pursue peaceful conflict resolution – he was unable to share eye contact, unable to whisper a secret; unable to smile back at a friend who has guessed his thoughts; unable to communicate frustration, fear, or love. He was unable to be recognized, to be seen, to be known or make himself known. He was unable to be awoken by the sounds of a fresh fire snapping in the hearth, bringing warmth to a cold winter morning; unable to fall asleep to the restful patter of summer rain on the window of a dry bedroom. He was unable to savor the flesh of fresh-baked rye, brushed over with farmer’s butter by his grandmother; unable to relish the flavor of strong coffee brewed over a campfire by an early-rising comrade. He was unable to smell the sprigs of lavender in his lover’s hair as they huddled in the arbor after the dance; unable to drink in the sensual musk radiating from her throat as her flesh warmed and flushed. He was unable to kiss, unable to speak, unable to cry out in misery.
He hadn’t been severed from empathy and reason; he had been severed from his own identity.
He wasn’t a specter of mindless aggression; he was a phantom of irredeemable alienation. He didn’t tear across the Hollow in search of a head to steal, but in search of a face to recognize him. He was like her in many ways: distrusted, disliked, difficult to understand. They both prowled around the borders of society, looking in with curiosity but keeping a safe distance out of some nameless fear of what might happen if they let go of their power. They were both ghosts in their own ways, and she looked at him in quiet horror as if she were looking into a fractured mirror at a dozen replicas of her own face.
He sat there with his shoulders turned in her direction as jets of steam gushed in regular bursts from his horse’s nostrils. The light from the moon outlined them in golden brushstrokes, dripping down the horse’s legs and forming puddles at his hooves. Looking down she noticed that for all of his demoniacal speed, the horse was holding his right foreleg at an awkward angle and preferring his left side. She moved closer – her head was no longer swimming; in fact she felt strangely light – and saw that he was missing a shoe. She looked around but remembered that her knapsack had become snagged and lost somewhere in Douglas Park, and the shoe had undoubtedly been left behind as well. But on second glance, she saw it glinting in the starlight at the foot of Raven Rock, where she had been laying – it gleamed an inky blue, shining cleanly in the moon glow as if all the rust of three centuries and more had somehow fallen away.
Time seemed to slow and drip watchfully around her as she reached for it, wrapped her fingers around the sleek iron. It was strangely warm and alive. She carried it over to him and held it up. The spongy neck bent over it in a moment of weary relief, and with a light bound, he jumped from the saddle and held out his hand. The moon shone through his long fingernails and the dry webbing that clung to his bony fingers like parchment. She held it out by one side, toe facing up, and he gripped it from the other like a wishbone. For a few seconds they were each holding onto it, and she felt as though they were building a bridge between dimensions cleaved by an incomprehensible gulf. An electric smolder burned warmly between them, and then she slowly let it go – passing it over into his control.
He stood there for a somber moment then returned to his steaming horse. Reaching into a leather saddle bag, he pulled out a pouch and a small hammer, and he bent stoically over the limp leg before tenderly lifting it and running his mottled hand over the hoof like a parson praying over a sick child. One by one, he drove six nails through the hoof until the shoe was fixed in place, and the Horseman stroked the leg several times before standing up. The horse smote his hoof into the ground, and the shoe sparked cleanly against a rock. Something changed in the atmosphere, as if it had been invested with a charge of electricity.
The air was suddenly filled with a warm, familiar aroma – like sweet musk and lavender…
The snow began to float down in shaggy tufts like cottonwood blooms in spring. It clung gently to her hair and clothes, sticking in downy patches to his bent shoulders and his horse’s mane. She looked closely at the clenched hands and bowing spine, and felt the weight of centuries radiating from his bent body. What weighed on him? What had kept him stapled to this two mile radius of earth for 240 miserable years, ranging the hills of an indifferent, foreign country? An impossible search for a head that had been ground to meal by grapeshot – a fleshy pulp of brain matter and bone splinters? No, no, she thought it must be something much different. Something more permanent than dying flesh – more eternal than bone and blood. Her skin began to smart from the cold; she felt its weight as it began to pile around them in drifting banks. A black bird suddenly launched from the top of a spruce tree overlooking them and faded silently into sky, as its wings glinted in the buttery moonlight.
She still didn’t know what had kept him that night, or how the miscommunication had happened between them, but he was here now – here where he said he would be.
He took a step forward to remount, but she rushed forward and grabbed him by the arm. What she felt wasn’t pleasant or wholesome – she felt rotten flesh sliding on dead bones beneath the musty wool jacket – but she didn’t mind. She was rotten on the inside too in other ways.
He stopped moving and turned towards her, surprised. She put her arms around his chest and buried her face into his mildewed clothes. There was no less stench or foulness in him than she had smelled with her face pressed against the pedagogue’s bony corpse, but it didn’t bother her; she recognized the odor in herself and held him all the tighter.
Softly, almost nervously, he folded his arms over her, and they stood there in the cold light of the October moon, pouring silently into one another.
She reached back and touched his hand – living flesh to dead flesh – and brought it up to her lips. It felt strangely warm – or perhaps her lips were cold – as she kissed it once, twice, and three times. She looked up into his face. His eyes were striking – a smoldering dark brown that burned like a tree scorched black by lightning.
She remembered how they met when he helped her father after their cart became mired in the spring mud, and of how they exchanged overly long glances while he and his men pushed them free. He was a gallant young lieutenant in a pine-green jacket with apple-red facings and caramel-colored buckskin breeches. His dark eyes were sad but kind and his smile was strangely tilted as if he was always thinking about two things at the same time. His laugh was deep and soft. His arms were strong; his heart was good. She recalled the short nights in May and June, of how she would linger in her father’s orchard at twilight while the fireflies burned warmly in the fields of buckwheat, and how he would come riding quietly through the woods on the other side of Old Acker’s property. The air was sweet with cut grass and warm rains, and his eyes sparked knowingly as the fireflies pulsated around them. She would dab herself with sweet musk and twist lavender into her glossy, ginger hair; her breath was cool from peppermint leaves, and he would smell of campfires and saddle leather and pine needles.
She knew some German from the immigrant families in Tarry-Towne, and he knew Dutch and had picked up English from the British soldiers. They learned from each other and spent the twilight hours picking grapes and berries in the shadows of the Ackers’ woods, laying in the tall, swaying grass, under the bright blue heavens. They saw such grand castles in the clouds that passed, forever flushing round the summer sky. She thought back to nights when the town held dances, and how – although he could never dare show his face there with his green coat – he would wait for her in the arbor outside, and they would whisper in the darkness dappled by starlight. As the night deepened and then softened with pearly grey light, he would mount his charger and sprint off down the Albany Post Road at a rushing speed, like a midnight blast, owing to his being belated, and in a hurry to get back to camp before the daybreak reveille.
She thought of how he must never have received her summons, and how he lived the final months of his life recklessly at a break-neck pace, volunteering for foolhardy missions that took him back to the fields and brooks where they had courted. She imagined him reorganizing his detachment after his commander was torn in half by grapeshot. It would be understandable to retreat, and no shame or disgrace would come on him if they fired back and made an organized withdraw back into the dark cover of Wiley’s Swamp and thence to their stables at Kingsbridge. She imagined him weighing the danger and rallying a few men who were as reckless as he into a final charge while the loathsome Yankee captain (an ambitious, gangly charlatan who knew full well that he had nothing to lose and everything to gain by taking over command of the militia’s defense) trained a three-pounder field piece loaded with musket balls on the bridge and put match to powder…
In a flash she heard the buzzing, waspy whine of grapeshot, saw the head eaten away from the shoulders in a scarlet mist, and smelled the metallic stench of blood as the vapor settled onto the bridge where he and his horse tumbled down, dead. As the animal clattered forward, it struck its hoof against one of the bridge supports and threw its shoe; it clinked off of the bridge and plopped into the black bed of the river which swallowed it like a restless memory…
She thought of the years – then decades, then centuries – that they had wasted: she in howling anger at having been abandoned, and he in reckless shame at losing her. But here in the molten moonlight, her anger evaporated in a mellow steam of peace and his shame fell from his back like a hefty cloak. They had held onto their misery for so long – hands clenched desperately around it – that they were unable to receive the relief that now filled their open palms like rivers of rain on parched fields. An inconceivable peace folded over them as they opened their rotten souls to one another and to the streaming snow around them. The living starlight burned away the dead dust of centuries; the icy rain soothed the scalding rage and regret, which rose harmlessly into the infinity above them like rushing clouds of mist blown away by a wholesome wind.
He folded his arm around her waist and ran his hand down the white satin brocade until it rested on the small of her back. He placed his other hand gently at the base of her neck, beneath the pile of ginger hair, and brought his fingers slowly around her jaw and to her chin, which he held between his thumb and forefinger. The moonlight gleamed in her eyes: they were a strange shade of deep purple, and they flashed like pools of wine in candlelight. She slipped her hand up the nape of his neck and lost her fingers in his curly, black hair. As they kissed, he gripped her more tightly about the waist and pulled her up off of the ground, hoisting her onto his horse with him. She put both arms around him and pressed her face into his chest. His uniform was forest-green and smelled of campfire smoke, saddle leather, and pine needles. She slid her hands under his jacket and held him by the ribs. They were warm and firm.
At first, when he spurred the horse forward, they bounced roughly down the path from Raven Rock, clattering over stones and scattering gravel at each bound, but as they rose up the incline of a hill, the vibrations suddenly ceased and the air seemed lighter around her. Now they had stopped altogether, and the only sound was the hushing of the brisk air flowing over them as the stars burned on all sides like fireflies in fields of buckwheat. The cold melted away as they rose past the tree line and into the light of the full, gaping moon, while the white satin skirts of her dress rustled in the wind. They were racing faster and higher and deeper – deeper into a black, limitless gulf – and she welcomed the longed for surrender as flesh and bone translated into something incomprehensibly fluid and indivisibly whole...
“CODIFIED COMMUNITY: SLEEPY HOLLOW’S FOLKLORIC ETHOS”
BY MADISON GREY-KILROY, PHD., AGE 28
“On one hand [Irving] loved company dearly (he could be accused of being a clingy friend and uncle), but on the other, he loved being able to go to bed alone, rise when he wanted, do work when it suited him, and leave from place to place without responsibility. Much like British ghost writers M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood, and William Hope Hodgson, bachelorhood suited his independent disposition, but unquestionably fed his imagination with the horrors of loneliness.
“His ghost stories are haunted by spectres of anxiety: headless horsemen who taunt their victims with their anonymity and existential unimportance, loitering ghosts who intoxicate their guests with the alienating liquor of idleness, and mocking ghost pirates who taunt treasure hunters with the meaninglessness of wealth and materialism. But at the core of all of his stories was one lingering idee fixe – an obsession with finding Home and Belonging, with bringing the wanderer to a place of reconciliation and peace with their pasts. Sometimes – in the case of Ichabod Crane – their hearts were too cold and their souls too hell-bent on standing out to receive the gift of community.
“Other times – in the case of Rip Van Winkle, Dolph Heyliger, or Wolfert Webber – they are able to accept their losses, confront the cost of their stubborn pride, and return to the open arms waiting to receive them. This is the most desired for ending in Irving’s works: to come home. But homecoming always has a cost, and sometimes that cost is quite dear…”
ALL SAINTS' DAY
“If ever I should wish for a retreat whither I might steal from the world and its distractions, and dream quietly away the remnant of a troubled life, I know of none more promising than this little valley.”
— Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
The weather reports had not called for snow, but before dawn there were seven-inch drifts in the hollow, and a mixture of sleet was pelting the ghosts in the trees and freezing the jack-o-lanterns in icy shells. Mrs. Van Brunt was worried when the Professor of Early American Studies failed to show up to the town play, but her husband and children convinced her not to put so much stock in her absence. But on the morning of All Saint’s Day they couldn’t prevent her from visiting her Airbnb with a slice of pumpkin pie as a parting gift. She was less surprised than shocked to find an irate Lyft driver sitting in the driveway, calling her phone every ten minutes.
Mrs. Van Brunt contacted the police, but set out on her own as soon as she hung up, rushing with careful, tiny steps down the icy driveway. With her husband and two oldest sons she searched the banks of the Pocantico in vain. The police would later find recently crushed briers near the southern end of Douglas Park, with bits of clothing and hair snagged in them as if someone had been pulled off of the trail and yanked into the underbrush. They would find a strange path of broken branches, shrubs, and limbs strewn along a northwest tack, but no footprints were found, and none of the leaves or undergrowth near the ground were disturbed. In the middle of the park they found her knapsack caught on a tree, and at its base the earth and leaves were stirred up by a struggle. At this point, things became even stranger: they found hoof prints pounded into the damp soil – two pairs of them – which illustrated a frantic race through the woods and towards a bend in the river where the water ran deep and black. The prints seemed to have begun at a spot two hundred yards east of where the knapsack was found, but they appeared to have materialized from no place in particular. Although it was hard to tell, one expert believed that one of the horses only had three shoes; the right foreleg was unshod. But no missing horseshoe was never found.
The tracks, deeply dented a hiking trail, and evidently at furious speed, were traced to a bend in the Pocantico, where they stopped at the river’s edge without any sign of where they riders went from there. On the western bank of that broad part of the brook, however, where the water ran deep and black, was found a red, wool cap – faded and old – and close beside it, poking from the muddy river bank, the browned, moldering dome of a human skull. Closer inspection, and a painstaking excavation found that it was part of a whole skeleton which had been buried under the serpentine roots of a massive, lightning-stricken oak whose black carcass loomed over the spot like a gibbet laden with bloated corpses. Experts allayed public fears by pointing out that it was at least two hundred years old, and that it had only been exposed by the gradual erosion of the soil around the tree’s base. They were the remains of a tall man in his forties who had been decapitated and buried in the clay years before the tree sprouted from the dank earth of his grave. The skull was horribly disfigured by syphilis. The teeth were large and sharp…
This was all discovered after the fact, however: it was a police investigation, not a search party. For after Mrs. Van Brunt failed to find any sign of her friend on the banks of the Pocantico, she had her husband and sons come with her to Buttermilk Hill – she was far too afraid to go alone, and she had decided to look there only as a last resort. They left the car in the parking lot and went down the trail to Raven Rock as the snow drifted down like falling ash from a burning house.
None of the familiar black birds – those croaking, greasy watchmen – were to be seen. The nude trees were clear of their leering silhouettes, and their thorny nests atop the rock were abandoned. The only sign of life came from two sparrows who quietly leapt from their perch at the Van Brunt’s approach and made their way through the trees, effortlessly disappearing into the snowy skies.
The morning sun was covered in snow clouds, but a steely blue light filtered through the tops of the trees like gentle fingers reaching to recover some precious, lost thing.
They found her where they expected to find her, as they expected to find her. Her arms were folded in front of her – not around herself – as if she were holding on to some precious, lost thing, and her purple lips were pressed into a strange, distant smile…