Every year in January, Cast of Wonders highlights some of our favorite episodes from the previous year. It’s a great chance for us to take a bit of a breather, and let you, our listeners, catch up on any missed back episodes with new commentary from a different member of the crew.
Today’s episode is hosted by associate editor Karissa Sluss.
Widow Bones Makes Her Rounds
by Gretchen Tessmer
“Brom Bones too, who shortly after his rival’s disappearance conducted the blooming Katrina to the altar, was observed to look exceedingly knowing whenever the story of Ichabod was related, and always burst into a hearty laugh at the mention of the pumpkin, which led some to suspect that he knew more about the matter than he chose to tell.”
– The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,
by Washington Irving
With everything that happened, I don’t know that I would describe myself as blooming. Willing, I suppose, and certainly compliant. But a flower doesn’t need to bloom to be plucked.
After all, pretty is as pretty does, my father used to say. He didn’t say much else and I’m not sure if he meant it as a compliment or an insult. I’ve never really understood the phrase anyway. Are we predisposed to act in certain ways? If so, it would be a relief. My actions turned midnight-moon-macabre some time ago and I’d hate to think it’s all my own failing of character.
The phrase rushes into my head this evening, as I stand at the gate of the church graveyard, dressed in my usual widow’s weeds—black skirt, hooded cloak and leather gloves, with silver forks clutched in either hand like talons. The weather is autumn-chilled and gloomy. In Sleepy Hollow, the trees change color in late September. But it’s October now and they’re bleeding out onto the ground, as if a restless soldier took a sword through the woods, slashing veins on his way through.
I stand on a thick, wet carpet of cherry, carrot and straw leaves. Sleet drips from the slate skies above, trying to drain the landscape of color, but the sunset spills out from its precarious perch on the horizon, giving the whole Hollow an eerie, rose-colored glow that entertains its shadows sideways. Sleepy Hollow is an eerie place and autumn is an eerie season, filled with hauntings of both mind and soul.
Reverend Van Duyne leaves the church late. He’s long-winded in his prayers, but I know he has doubts like the rest of us. He puts confidence on every Sunday like a boiled wool coat, warm and familiar, his voice conjuring up all those same sermons we’ve heard over and over again since before Cotton Mather’s time. Fire and brimstone and damnation. The coat wears thinner on nights like this, when the invisible world encroaches so seamlessly it becomes hard to reconcile what we believe with what we see.
The witching hour approaches. Reverend Van Duyne quickly descends the icy steps of the chapel, with his collar thrown up against the chill of a frostbite breeze. He catches sight of me, hovering like a dour raven at the gate, giving me a short glance and a stiff nod. He knows my business here is direful but someone has to do it. And not everyone is so comfortable in the company of ghosts.
“Good evening, Widow Van Brunt,” he greets grimly, using my dead husband’s surname, rather than the customary “Widow Bones” that I hear from most of the Hollow. I have no preference between the two, but one is more accurate than the other.
The reverend doesn’t wait for my reply. He knows from experience that the chapel yard offers no impenetrable sanctuary. We must face our past sins… or be prepared to run from them. His feet scuttle fast across the wooden bridge that spans the murky, muddy swamp at the bottom of two hills, flanking the church like twin sentries. He pauses on the other side, alert and listening for any movement in the cluttered speck of forest growing out of the swamp, as the old willows and elms groan in intermittent sprays of icy rain and frosty breeze. He shivers, admirably swallowing back any childish fears, and continues up the white stone road that leads to the snug safety of his sister’s red brick house. The road is slick as snot, with a slow, steady sludge of rain dripping down and matting the sugar maple leaves like blood stains.
I watch him go, my eyes peering out from under the hood of my cloak. I wonder if he truly believes half of what he says on Sundays. Leaving God out of it, you would think that chivalry might compel him to take my place this evening. But fear is a dowdy little thing, isn’t it? Especially when the dead rise and speak once more.
I loiter in the violet-orange twilight. Another quarter hour passes before I hear the howls.
The ghosts always rise from the church graveyard at sunset’s end. The spirits buried here are older, unsettled and anxious to start their night’s haunting. The first is the wailing spirit of a Weckquaesgeek woman in an unmarked grave, over there, by the bare-limbed tulip tree that’s been struck by lightning too many times to call it coincidence. She screams out her grief, wringing her copper hands and pulling at strands of her long, black hair. Her anguished cries tear at the pit of my stomach. Her pain is centuries old, deeply rooted in an evil that chased her children away from this place and forced them to leave her bones. I would comfort her if I could, but I know my efforts would be paltry relief. Still, I give her what I can—a commiserating glance, our eyes briefly meeting over the tilted, weather-heaved gravestones, before I hasten on my way.
In the afterburn-glow of those last strands of sunlight, I step between mossy stones until I find a tomb etched with Latin phrases and Dutch names, all ending in Van Tassel. On my way past, I sink my thumb into the first letter of my father’s name, scraping out the jaundice lichen. I use the blunt edge of one of the silver forks to dig out old mud dauber nests in the V of our family name.
I don’t linger there. My father, unlike the other men in my life, has been good enough to die and stay dead.
My destination lies behind the tomb, at a pauper’s plot, given to a stranger by my father in recompense for crimes committed against him.
And oh, the crimes were many.
Ichabod Crane has risen already, sitting tensely on the stone that bears his name. He’s as tall and lanky in death as he was in life. But he’s paler, with skin the color of drying deer bones. The threadbare clothes he was buried in are as ill-fitting as on the day he appeared in Sleepy Hollow, too eager to win me over, too foolish to understand the consequences of wanting a girl who would never want him back.
“Katrina,” he wheezes, wind whistling through the never-healed slit in his severed throat.
“Hello, Ichabod,” I answer with just his name. He wants more. He wants an apology or an answer or maybe a higher purpose. Don’t we all? But I have nothing for him, and his affection for me has cooled considerably since his untimely end. Any words I offer will be met with the same ragged-throat reply: “I won’t listen to the lies of a filthy murderess!”
He’s risen from his grave this night, as all the ghosts do, to finish what he couldn’t finish in life. And that would be an ugly business. Vengeance is always ugly.
As I stand in silence, his rage grows like tangled briars in the underbrush.
“I won’t stop with just you,” he promises, spitting out words between crooked, half-rotten teeth. “When I’m through tonight, this cursed Hollow will be cleansed of all its iniquities.”
I still say nothing. I’ve said many things before. In my past attempts, I’ve tried to coax, flatter, soothe his anger. None of it worked and the ending is always the same —his reckless charge, intent on my demise.
If you weren’t so damn predictable, my dear, perhaps I would have liked you more.
With a primal shriek that echoes across the countryside, he pushes himself off his gravestone, lumbering in my direction. I clutch my silver forks steady and keep my eyes on Ichabod Crane’s living corpse as he sprints the short distance between us. He will go for my throat like a godforsaken vampire. With his long, stringy hair, and famished, sunken eyes, he fits the part.
Or so I imagine. I’ve never encountered a vampire, though one of the girls in town was visiting a cousin in Manchester the year they dug up Captain Harris’s wife and burned her remaining organs to ash in a blacksmith’s forge. They said the dead woman was draining the captain’s new bride dry. I don’t know if they forced a stake through Rachel Harris’s heart, but they should have. Just to be safe. I can’t say it works on vampires but it certainly works on Ichabod Crane. His tattered coat boasts more than one jagged hole at his breast, cut into the fabric by my silver forks, to add to the mess of mangled scars marring the skin beneath his lapel.
He lunges so fast, snarling at me like a wild animal. But I’m not afraid. We’ve done this before (so many times, Ichabod) and, whatever my character failings, I haven’t died yet.
Ichabod reaches me in a fever, yanking back the hood of my cloak and grasping at my braids with dirty fingernails. His clammy hands are greedy and curve around my neck in a hideous embrace, his breath cold and stinking of bloated fish and mealworms. We wrestle, falling to the ground, his hands scratching and teeth gnashing. I cry out as his fingernails dig into the soft skin at my cheek but I’m stronger. Much to his dismay, I’ve always been stronger.
He tries to pin me down but I push him off, both of us rolling in the wet scattering of scarlet leaves. His hands are vicious, fingers attempting to dig at my eyes. I shut them tightly. But after years of practice, I know where to aim without looking. I drive one of my mother’s silver forks into his heart and twist. He screams bloody murder, falling away from me, writhing, wretched and dying again.
I get to my knees, catching my breath while pushing the wayward strands of my ruined braids back behind my ears. I wipe thin scratches of blood from my cheek. I reach over and pull the fork from his chest, whispering,
“I didn’t kill you, Ichabod. Not that first time. And foolish and insufferable as you were, you didn’t deserve to die like that. So, for your sake, I took vengeance on the one that did the deed. But that’s enough! Stop rising up in all your unholy terror or I’ll kill you again.”
He curses me with his last breath before returning to the grave for another year. But I’m cursed twice yearly and I take little offense. It’s wounded pride and men seem to need to get these things off their chest, whether they’re living or dead. I would stay to watch him melt back into the earth but I still have to travel to the new cemetery on the other side of the Hollow.
My dearly departed husband, Abraham Van Brunt, known as Brom Bones from the day of his birth to the day of his premature and certainly suspicious death, will rise before midnight. He will be less intent on vengeance and more intent on whines and moans of “why did you do this to me, Kat?”
I always answer the same: “Because you deserved it.”
Then he’ll curse me too and we’ll have a fight about it. I’ll tell him I never loved him, that I’ve never loved any living man—which will kill his spirit faster than a silver fork plunged deep in his jealous heart.
As usual, I cross the bridge over the swamp at the same moment as the Hessian soldier. We’re headed in different directions but we have similar business to attend to. It’s all the same silver shades of midnight-moon-macabre. Ever gallant, he dismounts from his monstrous horse and bows to me. I curtsy in the pleasing manner of Dutch girls who are raised for parties, marriage and mending by the fire. I pull off my leather gloves, before extending my bare hand. The Hessian takes it. But he’s been headless for so long that any kiss I feel pressed into my palm must be imagined.
Still, it’s a pleasant fiction. Here is the rival poor Brom and Ichabod were truly up against. As I may have mentioned, I’ve never loved any living man. I’m afraid I prefer the strong, eternally silent type. But men who are too busy chattering on about how they “profess not to know how women’s hearts are wooed and won” can hardly be expected to hush their mutterings and listen to the inner workings of my haunted heart.
We tarry on the bridge. The clouds scuttle away, revealing a full harvest moon and a beautiful night beneath. The moon’s glow reflects off the swamp’s surface. Smoke from village chimneys wafts in the air, mixing with fainter scents of pumpkins and ripe apples. A barn owl hoots from the woodland. The Hessian adjusts the saddle cinches on his mount, preparing for a long ride. I stand close, stroking the horse’s velvet nose.
The routine is familiar and I savor it – the single perfect moment of my year. At this hour, on this bridge, with him. As my headless horseman prepares for his night’s journey, I start to smile.
About the Author
Gretchen Tessmer is a writer based in the US/Canadian borderlands of Northern New York. She writes both poetry and short fiction, with work appearing in Nature, Daily Science Fiction and Strange Horizons, among other venues.
About the Narrator
Kate Baker is the Podcast Director and Non-fiction Editor for Clarkesworld Magazine. She has been very privileged to narrate over 350 short stories/poems by some of the biggest names in Science Fiction and Fantasy for multiple venues. Kate won the Hugo Award for Best Semiprozine in 2011 and 2013, the British Fantasy Award for Best Magazine in 2014 and the World Fantasy Award for Special Award: Non Professional in 2014 alongside the wonderfully talented editorial staff of Clarkesworld Magazine. Kate is currently situated in Northern Connecticut with her first fans; her wonderful children. She is currently working as the Director of Operations for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Follow her online and on Twitter.