I doomed him with a kiss.
The room spun as we danced, Ichabod with his long arms around me, holding me closer than he should. My cheeks were flushed with joy and drink, my stomacher loose enough that I could laugh and breath and nibble the pies and pastries with impunity. We were surrounded by townsfolk and by music from a band visiting from Ebenstown. Fiddle-song, drumming, and rattles, clapping hands and stomping feet filled the air in my Father’s house with harvest pleasure, rising like warm fog up to the ceiling beams. The light was orange and raving, and I smelled sweat under the luscious scents of cinnamon, pumpkin, and hot butter.
Ichabod’s jacket was rough under my fingers, but I held tight, knowing that any moment – any moment – the song would end. I would curtsy and whirl away, to dance with Peter Folms, or Mr. Van Sutton, or Bram. Probably Bram. I closed my eyes and let Ichabod spin me, felt his hand gentle and firm at my waist. With my eyes closed I heard more clearly how he breathed, smelled his perfume of tobacco and sugar – how he loved Mother’s honey cakes and cruller! I let myself smile – honestly, truly smile – and squeezed his hand.
The last shriek of fiddle cut away, and I looked at him, up all the way past his pointed chin and angular, monstrous nose, to the dark, beautiful eyes. Oh, Lord God, they were all I saw. He bowed, and I forgot myself. Instead of stepping away and bending my knees, I waited as he brought his lips low enough that I might peck my mouth against the very corner of his. Before he reacted, I flushed deeper and drew in a long breath of him, then turned and pushed away through the crowd.
I knew, immediately, that I had acted a fool. Oh, I am silly and impetuous, to measure a small kiss against a man’s life!
The first man I loved was Albert Van Curen, who had quiet hands: a cousin who came to visit my mother when I was only eleven years old. He was sweet to me, and offered me honey-sticks and peppermints he brought from the city.
Just past dawn on a fine Sabbath morning, I climbed out of the carriage on Father’s hand. As my tiny boots crunched down into the snow, I realized the long shadow creeping around the edge of the iron gate was no shadow. It glistened black and pulpy red. Curious, I tugged away from Father and dashed to the corner.
It was only Albert’s head. His hair had come loose of its ribbon and splayed all around his pale face, wet and dark. He grimaced ferociously, and below the grin frozen blood and ripe tissues and bone jutted out of his neck like a riotous wedding bouquet.
When I was fifteen, I eloped with Mr. Darius Breed. We rode out of the Hollow on his prissy white mare. I was looking for romance and sweeping adventure; Darius to avoid Father’s disapproval.
The moon was a sliver between thick-leaved branches, hardly casting light at all. I was warm and alive in my half-cloak and riding gown. “Be calm, my darling,” he murmured, petting my hair and squeezing my hip. “Soon we will be far outside Tarry Town and married and together as husbands and wives are meant to be.”
“I shall die before then,” I swooned.
Darius paused his mare and as the wind snapped with sudden cold, he said, “Katrina, my love, do you hear that?”
I stared out into the black woods. A whip-or-will called, but all else was silent. Only the whispering wind, my breath mingled with Darius’s, and a percussion of dull hoof beats.
“Pursuit!” Darius hissed, and kicked the mare into action. I shrieked and grabbed the thick white mane. We thundered down the road, Darius’s breath hard and hot in my ear. He laughed and promised his horse could outrun any staggering Sleepy Hollow pony – even the stallion Daredevil that belonged to Bram Bones.
But we did not put them behind us. No – the galloping chase grew louder as the wind in my face bit like the first winter gusts, full of frost and blue-frozen fire.
Behind me, Darius twisted to look. He yelled, garbled and high-pitched with panic. His horse screamed, too, and I fisted my hands in its hair. I would not look next to us, from whence rolled such waves of cold and heat that I felt feverish and dizzy. There was panting and heaving behind me and below me as the mare raced forward, Darius shoving closer to me, pressing us both lower on the mare’s neck.
My cheek rubbed hard against the wiry hair, my fists rigid, thighs taut and back arched and shaking. All of me shook, and I held silent and close, my heart thundering as loud as the horses’ hooves as we clattered past the Churchyard.
A grunt, and then a sharp, heavy weight pushed into my back. Sprays of blood pattered my neck. Darius slid off the horse, dragging me with him.
I screamed as I fell, landed hard. I rolled off of him onto the cold road. “Darius?” I whispered. “Darius!” I tripped on my skirts and I scrambled to shake him. My hands found his coat, his soft, velvety coat, and my gaze traveled up his chest – his still, silent, empty chest – and the nothingness over his shoulders.
A horse snorted behind me. I moaned fearfully and dug my fingers into Darius’s jacket, staring at the dark blood streaming out of his neck and spreading. It was everywhere, black in the moonlight – on my hands, staining my skirts and petticoats. Dripping down my neck and under my bodice in long, awful streaks.
I stared at his spilling neck, thinking of Albert Van Curen’s gruesome bouquet. I closed my eyes tightly. Sweat chilled on my neck. The horse and its rider had not moved. They breathed behind me – or, the horse breathed. From the rider I heard nothing.
Everything was silent like I was at the bottom of a horrible, deep, black pit.
And then great hands closed around my arms and lifted me up. I was thrown up and seated over the giant horse’s saddle, sideways across the Horseman’s thighs. His arms came around me and I leaned upright, spine straight as could be as he wheeled the steed about and we took off back toward my Father’s house.
All through the woods he was gentle and firm as he held me. I swallowed whimpers and gasps, clutched my hands together in my lap and stared out at the night as it raced by. I would not turn to glance at him, to see him as headless as Darius, as Albert. Nor could I close my eyes and shut out his strong arm that caged me in or the black-leather gloves gripping the reins.
We arrived at my Father’s house, in the back, and he dismounted, carrying me in his arms. I did close my eyes then. He put me on my feet and stepped close. I stumbled back so that my shoulder blades hit the stones of the house. I felt a blade against my neck, as cold as ice. My eyes flared open, wide and staring. Into his chest. He was so tall and broad. His leather jacket was black and tooled with silver. Clean of blood. The axe head beneath my chin shone like mercury. It lifted, the flat part pushing my chin up. I slowly raised my gaze up over the twisted cloak-clasp to where his head should have been. Behind him rose the forest and the thin little moon.
I panted, chest heaving. I knew I was going to pass out.
The Horseman lifted his free hand and touched my cheek with infinite tenderness. The cool leather was soft. He slid his finger down my jaw, to my neck, and he undid my half cloak. It slithered to the grass. The Horseman ran his fingers down to my collar and caressed the edge of my skin where it met the lace of my bodice. I shuddered, turned my face away. My knees were watery and I smelled old blood, like after the end of summer slaughtering.
I closed my eyes and did not look again until he was gone.
I am loved by a dead thing.
Some women might be jealous, because my lover’s devotion is unending.
He comes on the darkest nights, near All Soul’s Day and the Yule celebrations, at Midsummer, and when the moon is highest. He stands under my window and lifts a hand, beckoning me down. I go.
If I do not – whom shall he murder?
I go, and I ride with him, or walk beside him along the banks of the Tappan Zee. He touches my face sometimes, and wraps his large fingers around my neck. He is not cruel, and some nights I imagine I am happy.
When Ichabod Crane arrived in Tarry Town, I was wrapped in my own disguises: seventeen and lying to everyone that I was ripe and filled with promise. I hardly noticed him at first, because I was not his student, and he was older and gawky and strange. As superstitious as any of the old grandmothers and shifting locations like a goblin to reside with the different families of the schoolchildren from week to week. His nose was too large and from a distance he appeared as long and awkward as a scarecrow. Bram Bones brought me flowers and laughed to me that the new schoolteacher was like a sapling, dug up from the forest and sent in to amble and waddle about. I laughed, too, and touched his hand affectionately because I have never cared if Bram lives or dies.
And then I heard Ichabod sing.
It is not the voice of angels, or of songbirds at dawn. But when he sang at the front of the Church, he told me he loved me, and I felt the layers of silk and gold I’d entangled around my heart fall away. I looked into his warm, earth-brown, stoked-fire eyes, and suddenly thought how I would love him still when I was a hundred years old.
The thought trailing that brought cold terror. I glanced away from Ichabod then, and fought not to glance back. Every time I saw him after, when I was tempted to raise my eyes to his, I was stopped by the cords of his neck, by the soft skin over his jutting Adam’s apple, the stubble where he never quite shaved properly under the left side of his jaw. All that I imagined split in two, drenched with hot red blood, his brown eyes peeled white and empty by death.
I rebuffed him. I lied harder than I ever had before. I smiled silly smiles and flirted the way I always do, no more and no less than with any other man. I would not let him stand out in any way, for my Horseman was perceptive enough to know that I despised Bram Bones. He would know to read any extra attention I threw at Ichabod as true affection, at attempts to save him.
I went so far as to encourage Bram to torture Ichabod with silly pranks and tricks, to convince Ichabod he was being harried by brownies and haunting spirits. I prayed Ichabod would flee.
But he did not. He loved me. And for that one shining moment when we danced together at my Father’s Halloween ball, I loved him, too.
Bram saw. He dragged me into the library and kicked the door closed. His grip on my arm ached.
“Katrina! I saw that kiss.” He whirled on me and glared. Behind the door the throbbing drums and fiddle and laughter loomed like the promise of Heaven, while I was trapped in a cold, dark Hell.
“It was nothing, Bram, but a farewell.” I wrenched away from him. “I’ve decided to accept your proposal.”
His square jaw unlocked, and he smiled. “Katrina!” He tugged me into his arms. I slowly wrapped my arms around his neck, squeezing, my cheek against his ear as he swung me in a circle. I closed my eyes and imagined his thick neck under the blade of the Horseman’s ax. The blood would coat my skin and stain my dress, slick between us and dripping onto the polished wood of the library floor.
Everyone knew within an hour, because Bram was not capable of subtlety or compassion. He crowed it to everyone. I was spun around and around, congratulations tossed in my face, sometimes with true sincerity, sometimes with veiled jealousy or hatred or disgust. I held my chin, as though waiting for the Horseman’s blade to strike. I laughed. I danced again, faster and harder, and above all things I avoided Ichabod.
When the ball drew closed, when the cakes and pastries were crumbled and all the best silver bare, when the fire was low and the music vanished, when the guests had departed, and even Father and Mother were abed, I went outside into the wide yard. I stood on the cracked, frosted grass and stared up at the near-full moon. It was so cold, but I stood shivering in my yellow gown, hair raised on my arms and neck, shuddering and shivering.
My lips pinched and I pressed my hands flat to my stomach. I did not move as Ichabod approached. His wide shoes crunched through the stiff brown grass. I stared out at the forest, watching for the running shadow of my Horseman.
“Katrina,” he said again, longing harsh in his whispering voice.
I shook my head. “Go away, Ichabod. Bram will murder you if he is jealous.” I wanted to laugh. It was not Bram who would kill the rangy schoolteacher.
“I love you. I know you love me.”
“You don’t, Mr. Crane. You can’t know it because it isn’t true.” I lowered my eyes to the ground. The frost sparkled in the moonlight.
Suddenly, he had me in his hands, his long, tree-like hands. His eyes were there, right before mine as he bent and kissed me.
My breath caught, and I pushed at him. Not here – not out here where the Horseman would see! I thumped at his chest, and finally he released me. His gaunt face was slack, the sharp cheekbones like a skeleton. He was already dead, declared by the draw of his lips, already dead because I denied him.
“Go!” I shoved, painting my face with a jeer. “Go away, Ichabod Crane.”
A flash of silver between the naked trees made me gasp. “Go! Go!” I slapped him.
Shaking his head, Ichabod backed away. I raised my chin again, and smiled the cruelest smile I could. “Go, fool.” A choked laugh spilled from my lips. So he would think me mad, or merely pitiless.
He stumbled, face pale as the moon, and ran away, back around the house to where his dogged horse waited.
I wanted nothing but to sink to my knees and wail. But the Horsemen rode the forest. He would know – he always knew. I lifted my skirts and fled from the house and from Ichabod. I dove into the trees, spinning, twirling in a madcap dance in search of my curse.
The Horseman appeared, standing next to his black shadow-steed. I flung myself at him, and whispered, “I am to marry Bram Bones – I must. It is expected of me. You must understand this.”
His hard hands gripped my hips, the leather creaking as he pinched at my skin through all the layers of dress.
I made myself look up, where his eyes would be. The trees waved sharp twigs at me, and a single black leaf dipped and fluttered toward the ground. “You know I do not love him. But I must marry him.”
We did not move. I prayed that Ichabod was riding away, far away, and that the hurt I caused him would make him pack his things and run to another town.
“Rider,” I whispered. I put my cold hands to his cloak clasp, and in a single motion unhooked it. The great black thing billowed around our feet. My fingers shook as I untied the bindings of his jacket and pushed it away to reveal a triangle of black shirt. I brushed at it, and flakes of dry blood shook off like dead leaves.
But I tore it aside. The Horseman’s hands pulled me closer. My eyes were level with his naked collarbone. Flesh whiter than milk ran under cracked and dried rivulets of blood. I traced one up to the neck, where ragged flesh left off into nothing. My stomach lurched, and I swallowed away bile. I skimmed the edge of his neck, and felt the Horseman’s entire frame shake.
Leaning in, I kissed his chest, and was surprised to find it no more cold than my lips. Perhaps I was freezing to death, caught in his frozen aura. The Horseman encircled me with his arms, which were as hard as stones.
I closed my eyes and rode with the Horseman into damnation.