I sat alone on the front steps because my high-minded boyfriend was starting to figure out, about a mile and half too late, that I was a hard one to love.
The evening had been typical, by which I mean excruciating. In the car, he’d wanted to talk about Palestine and Darfur and Megiddo, the site of the Biblical Armageddon. I’d stared out the window at the glades and hollows and wondered whether trees felt pain.
“How can you be so dispassionate?” he said. “Don’t you care about anything?”
When he said goodnight, his voice was brittle. He called me Trina, which I hate, and dropped me at the curb without looking at me. Then he drove away.
So, I sat on the steps and tried to think what to do next, what I could say. It was a hard question and the night wasn’t in the business of offering answers.
I heard the horse before I saw it, hoofbeats ringing hollow on the blacktop, iron-shod, staccato. In the empty street, the sound was oddly flat.
When horse and rider came shambling through the intersection, I didn’t move. I didn’t shriek or cringe, just sat with my knees drawn up and my coat buttoned to my chin, and looked at the man.
His silhouette was massive, broad through the shoulders, severed at the neck. I’d been hearing stories of the Hessian all my life, and his headlessness chilled but did not shock me. The air gets wicked cold after midnight, and Tarry Town has always had its share of ghosts.
He slouched back in his saddle, looking ragged and long-dead. I wondered what it was like to be a mercenary. If the money outweighed the guilt. If you could ever believe in causes that weren’t yours. I half-expected sparks to fly up from the hooves of his dread steed, but the pair only moved patient and slow along the street. At the corner, he pulled the horse up, then swung himself down to stand by our mailbox, darker shape against dark sky.
He stood so long and so still that it got to where I could barely stand it. After seconds or minutes, I left the step and crept forward to stand next to him.
“What are you doing here?” I said, and my voice seemed louder than the progress of his horse.
I was struck at once by the uselessness of speaking to someone who had no ears, but he raised a gloved hand and pointed across to the house where Mrs. Van Brunt lived.
She was an old woman, ninety-six, ninety-seven, frail as lace and gravely superstitious. I remembered unsettling incidents from childhood, times she’d come flapping at me like a frantic, oversized bird, hand contorted to ward off the evil eye. She’d been sick these last years, in the grip of a long death whose progress could be measured by wilting flower beds and by casseroles the neighbors brought. A light shone in the upstairs window. The night-nurse, probably—reading or dozing. All the other rooms were dark.
I turned to face the Hessian. “Are you like death, then?”
For a moment, he did nothing. When he spread his hands, it was a helpless, unmistakable gesture. It is what it is.
I thought for a moment that I smelled blood—a spoiled, cold smell. Then the stench lifted and the air was only clear and chilly.
“Will it hurt when you take her?”
That made him pause. He raised one hand, passing it back and forth palm-down, like a referee signaling no good. Then, with a strange, courtly bow, he stepped into the street and started across to the other side.
After a beat too long, I followed him.
He drew up in front of Mrs. Van Brunt’s low picket fence, where he began to circle and pace, approaching the gate, stepping back again. I had a thought that maybe he paced here often, every night, only no one saw it because they were all in bed. Or maybe they just didn’t know how to look.
After a long, tremulous moment, I said, “Can’t you go in?”
He only pointed once more, hand flung out in the direction of the gate.
I knelt and raked my fingers over the pavement. In the dust, I found a disc the size and shape of a coin. When I brushed the dirt away and tried to pick it up, though, it resisted. I pulled hard and the tether snapped. It was a gold saints medal, tied to the gatepost with a length of crimson thread. When I held it out, the Hessian flinched like I was holding something on fire. I put the medal in my coat pocket, and got to my feet.
In my pocket, I held the medal tight, waiting for punishment, recrimination for my boldness, but the Hessian just waved me back with a gloved hand.
With the house unguarded now, the little gate swung open at his approach. He stepped through. The next barrier was her front door, windowless and heavy. Traitorous. It opened to let him in.
I stood on Mrs. Van Brunt’s brown October lawn, feeling logical and meaningful. Feeling inevitable.
She’d been sick a long time.