"Though he had seen many specters and been more than once beset by Satan, he would have passed a pleasant life in spite of the devil and all his works if his path had not crossed a being that causes more perplexity than ghosts, goblins, and the whole race of witches: a woman."
-Washington Irving, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"
By the time Adrian thought better of the whole thing he was too deep into the forest to turn back. It was late October, and the moon was full, and on a dare he’d agreed to walk to the harvest party rather than go by horse, and to take the old forest trail past the cemetery instead of the new road, and to prove it by bringing back a sprig of the bleeding white flowers that grew there.
At the time it had seemed important to prove that he could do it. After all, he was a man now (in his own estimation, at least). Old enough to be married, in fact, and hadn't that been the very reason he wanted to be at the harvest party to begin with? Because Abigael Williams would be there? And Connor Blithe had accused him of being a coward right in front of her, so Adrian couldn't let that go unanswered. Abigael would want no coward for a husband.
It did not occur to him until later that Connor had never proved himself any such way and so, perhaps, was in no position to challenge Adrian on the topic. Nor that, while Adrian was out here in the brush and the mire, Connor was already at the Williams' barn, with Abigael's attention all to himself. Now Adrian leaned against a fir tree, watched the white moon creep through the branches, listened to the call of the whippoorwills, and wondered if he weren't the stupidest man in Virginia.
Dead leaves crackled under his boots. He wore a blue wool scarf that his mother had made for him, and he hugged it tighter around his neck. She’s insisted. If only he took after his mother these things wouldn’t happen to him, but he was his father’s son, and he couldn’t help being a Burns. Burns: A name for fools and madmen, his mother had always said. And when Father objected that it was a good Ulster name Mother reminded him that all it meant was "Son of Bran," for the family was descended from Bran mac Maelmorda.
And Father said, "So? Wasn't he a king?" And Mother said, "Yes, but he wasn't king for very long, now was he?" And, somehow, that was always the end of the conversation, though father would occasionally add, when she was out of earshot, that she was just a heathen Catholic besides, so what did she know?
Though he never said so while his father was around, Adrian was of the opinion that his mother had the better part of the argument, because what had their branch of the Burns line ever been remembered for except running off half-cocked and meeting a bad end? Wasn't that why they'd come to Virginia (and, before that, to Ulster from Galloway) in the first place? To escape the Burns family curse?
It hadn't worked, of course. Five years ago, for example, Adrian's father chased after a bear armed only with what he realized too late was an unloaded rifle. It might have been a fairly respectable way to go, at least by Burns standards, but rather than let the bear kill him he'd insisted on trying to run away. Witnesses recounted he made a good show of it, but when it came time to climb the tree he trusted the wrong branch and fell headfirst into a pond that turned out, after all, to be less than a foot deep. Popular legend has it that in the old days you always buried a Burns man on the spot he died, so the rest of the hunting party spent some time debating whether or not to drag him out or leave him in. Both options presented some merit
Adrian cleared the thorny brambles from the path with a stick. A persistent owl, unseen in the nearby trees, seemed to be following him, for he was sure it was the same plaintive cry he heard now that he had half a mile back. It was probably a bad omen, but he was still glad for the company. He was thinking about his father's bear as he walked. Most of the bears ought to have settled in for winter’s sleep by now, but it would be just his Burns luck if he were to run into the one who hadn't.
And on top of that it was late October, not quite yet All Hallow's but close enough that the woods would be thick with spirits. His mother had not bothered trying to talk him out the expedition (exposure to three generations of Burns men had long since taught her better), but she had advised him to bring a Jack lantern to light his way and frighten off old ghosts. He wished now he'd listened to her. Connor had told Adrian that he'd met a genuine Black Shuck in these woods last October, and that the ghostly hound had left footprints that glowed like hot coals in the dark and smelled of sulfur. Adrian had not believed him. The Shuck was a story from the Old Country, so what would it be doing all the way out here?
But Shawnee Bill once told Adrian about the winter his uncle became possessed by a spirit the Shawnee called the wendigo, and had taken to the eating of human flesh, and had run off like a mad animal into these very woods and supposedly still lurked in them, and that was an American story, so Adrian put more stock in it. Now, as he tugged his scarf closer and peered over his shoulder, he had to admit he expected equally as much to encounter one ghost as the other.
All the stories he'd ever heard from the grandmothers and grandfathers in the village came back to him:
How a headless man loitered near the crossroads some nights begging for alms, and how if you didn't give him a coin he’ll chase you with his long legs that never tire, until you're lucky enough to pass by a churchyard, at which point he'll vanish in flames.
How Archibald Bale once shot at a coyote that turned out to be a witch in disguise, and how she'd come howling and scrabbling at his door every night since, until he shot himself with the very same rifle last May.
How Lena Hall vanished ten years ago and then appeared to her mother in the middle of the night to tell that she'd fallen down an old well and broken her neck, and turned her head all the way around to prove it, and how the men did in fact find her bones down the well when they went looking.
And hadn't his own mother, always so practical and never one to truck with idle foolishness, always hung a horseshoe over each window and laid a broomstick over the threshold to keep the spirits out, and looked askance at any candle that burned a little brighter for no reason?
Adrian wondered what that sound was, and realized that his teeth were chattering. He made them stop.
The forest seemed to have gone quiet. He didn't like that. He decided he would whistle to pass the time, but it suddenly didn't seem like a good idea to be the only thing making noise. Instead he thought about Abigael. It would be less than an hour before he reached the Williams' now. Was she waiting for him? Was she even, perhaps, worried about him? Would she run to the door to greet him, and look amazed when he made her a present of the graveyard flowers and commented to Connor that a brisk night walk had done him good? And now Miss Williams, have you saved me a dance? I really think it's time you and I—
Adrian almost walked into the fencepost. The post was all that was left to mark where a fence must once have surrounded the old graveyard. Though it was dark, Adrian could just make out the markers, as crooked in the ground as that post, leaning this way and that. Nothing, it seemed, could stand up straight in this place. Many of the graves were unmarked, just heaps of earth increasingly hard to distinguish as the shrubs and weeds crept in. Most of these, he knew, were those who had died in the first winter here, the Williamses and Brightlies and Campbells from the Old Country. There were a few Burnses here too, of course.
They said that the cemetery was the reason they'd had to move the village after that winter. Supposedly the last person buried here was a little Taggart daughter not more than five years old. How her mother had wept, they said, and thrown herself into the grave and asked them to bury her alongside her little gone, so that it took two stout men to pull her out.
Only problem was, the story goes, the girl turned out not to be quite dead. So she woke up a few hours after the box was buried, and they said her screams were loud enough to raise everyone in the town. And they tried digging her up again, with her mother pawing the hard earth until her fingers bled, but it was too late. And her little ghost still screams every night, they said, and the spirit of her poor old mother, dressed all in black, walks the old graves, watering the ground with her tears, and from them grew the little white bleeding flowers the place was known for.
Adrian was not sure if he believed the story, but just a year ago the Hutchinson widow, who had never been one for gossip or for ghost stories, had tried to move into one of the abandoned cottages at the graveyard's edge, and came back after a week because she said she couldn't stand the sounds of the sobbing and the screaming at all hours. In fact, Adrian could see her cottage from here...
He shook his head to snap himself out of it. There were no ghosts in the graveyard tonight, as far as he could see. He'd collect his bounty and be gone, then. Forcing his feet to move, he passed the crooked fencepost and tramped between the overgrown plots. Many of them were small. He remembered that white lights called ghost candles are supposed to appear above the graves of children. He walked a little faster. The familiar owl called out again. It had become a comforting noise, by this time.
There, in the grass, near a grave with a rare stone marker, a patch of the white flowers bobbed in the night breeze. Bloodwort, they were called. An ugly name for such a pretty little blossom, though Adrian knew it was because the juice in the stem was red as blood. It was too cold and too late in the season for such blossoms, but here they were anyway, as they always were.
Adrian's fingers stopped a few inches from the flowers and he glanced at the headstone. He couldn't make out the name on it. Was it right to take flowers off of a grave, even if they'd only grown here by themselves? He'd come all this way, and without them he'd have no way of proving it...
And then he heard it: a low, plaintive cry on the wind. He'd mistaken it for an owl's shriek before, but now there was no taking it for anything but a woman's sobbing voice. And a moment later Adrian realized the truth: It wasn't a natural woman at all.
He jumped up, whirled around, backed away and almost tripped over the grave. His heart sped up and blood pounded in his ears. He strained to listen; there was nothing now. Perhaps he'd only imagined it? Perhaps—
There it was again: long, low, and cold as the grave dirt beneath Adrian's feet. His knees knocked together, and his bones rattled, and his blood turned to water. He turned, he ran, he stumbled and fell and stood and ran again. Let Connor or Abigael or anyone else call him a coward if they wanted to. Some things were simply not worth being brave over.
Slipping, scrambling, and scampering, he ran to the widow's cottage. The door stuck, but one firm push opened it, and he slammed it behind him. He looked around for a stray horseshoe or broomstick the widow may have left behind, but there was nothing but an old bed. The keening cry came from outside again, and Adrian reflected that a bear actually didn't seem so bad right now. For that matter, he'd take the Black Shuck, the wendigo, the headless man, and any number of graveyard spooks all at the same time. Anything but the banshee.
He'd heard the stories all his life: Some said she was a ghost, and others a wicked kind of fairy woman, and some said she was another sort of thing altogether, one there were no words for except those invented to try to name the unnamable: bane sidhe, baboan sith, caointeach, the Washer of Shrouds, the Woman of the Tombs, the White Lady of the Highlands.
All stories agreed on two points, first being that to hear her cry was the worst of all omens, and second that she had a predilection for certain families, and she'd set her eye on the Burns clan a long time ago. There was some dispute about whether she'd had a hand in Adrian's father's death, for some said it was an ordinary bear who chased him to his death while others contend that the animal had made cries no natural bear would. But it was well documented that she'd come to the Americas to spirit his grandfather away, and that generation after generation of Burns wives heard her call on the day their husbands died. Adrian's mother had heard her...
And now he heard her. Now here he was, alone, in the middle of the night, in the most haunted patch of land in the most haunted state in the country during the most haunted month of the year, with nothing between him and her but the rickety walls of a tumbledown cottage that would not last another winter. Damn Connor, Adrian thought. For that matter, damn my fool Burns pride and my cursed Burns name and my stupid Burns luck.
He peeped out the dirty window. There seemed to be nothing outside, but of course that didn't mean she wasn't there. She could make herself as thin as the air, if she wanted to. Some said she could even seep through the cracks in the walls, and hover over your bed, and let you breathe her into you while you slept...
Palms sweating, Adrian grabbed the remains of the old bed and pulled it toward the door. It might not keep a ghost out, but it was the Burns way to act on a problem, and the only options were to barricade himself in or make a break for it. Remembering that his father had opted to run, Adrian elected to stay put.
He screamed, of course, when a pair of pale, cold hands grabbed his ankles from underneath the bed, but he also kicked and fought and thrashed and swore. He felt it was a family obligation not to die peaceably or quietly. Then the hands disappeared and the figure of a woman with wild hair rose up. He sank to his knees, making an attempt at a prayer but uncertain whether he ought to go the Catholic or Presbyterian route. Then the woman lit her lantern, and he tabled the debate.
"Abigael?" Adrian said, blinking.
She had a somewhat ragged look about her, like someone too long hiking while ill-prepared for it—her hair in particular was a fright—but it was definitely her. Adrian rubbed his eyes just to be sure. Then she started beating him on the shoulder and removed all uncertainty.
"Idiot!" she said. "Louse! Cad!"
"Ow! Ow, Abigael, stop it!"
"You kicked me," she said. "I'm bruised."
Adrian rubbed his shoulder. "So am I, now," he said. "Anyway, it wouldn't have happened if you hadn't scared me."
“You scared me first!"
"All right, so we were both scared and we're both bruised. That makes us even, right?"
After a few seconds’ consideration, Abigael nodded. Then Adrian blinked again. "Abigael, what are you doing out here?"
She opened her mouth, closed it, opened it again, then sat on the bed (it creaked under her) and turned toward the wall. "I was looking for you, if you must know."
"You never showed up at the party. I was...worried." She said the word in a hurry. "And I thought you might have gone and done something stupid like let Connor goad you into coming out here. So when I saw how late it was getting I snuck away to come find you."
Adrian sat on the bed too (it creaked some more), a respectful distance away. "But what are you doing in here?"
"Hiding." She surprised him by turning around and throwing her arms around his neck and burying her face in his shoulder. "Oh Adrian, I heard the banshee!"
Startled but with enough sense to pat her on the back in what he hoped was a comforting fashion, Adrian said, "So did I."
The lamp was burning low, but he could still see her go pale. "That means we're going to die."
"Not necessarily. Not both of us, anyway. Probably just me." He'd meant to reassure her, but instead she sobbed and wailed, crying into his scarf. Unsure what to do, Adrian kept one arm around her and waited for her to settle down.
She finally broke off crying when she saw what was in his hand. "Are those for me?" she said. Adrian hadn't realized until now that he'd actually picked the flowers from off the grave outside and had been carrying a dainty white bouquet ever since.
"Oh, um, yes, I guess they are."
"That's very sweet of you..." She took them from him and inhaled the scent. Adrian wiped the bloody sap on his trousers. Outside, the night was cold and silent. Even the wind had stopped. Adrian and Abigael both strained to listen.
"I don't hear her anymore," Abigael said.
"Do you think she's gone?"
"One of us should go look."
"...which of us, do you figure?"
"Couldn't say. Best to stay here until we sort it out."
An hour later they were still in the cabin, nestled on the old bed, using Adrian's coat as a blanket. Abigael had beat the old mattress until it was something like clean, and since one of the windows was broken the old cabin smelled like the forest rather than like a musty, unused house, and all told it was actually almost pleasant, if you ignored the angry ghost woman outside. Abigael was wearing his blue scarf. They talked only a little. Mostly they just listened.
"I'm sorry I missed the party," he said.
"I suppose I'm missing it now too," said Abigael. "Father is going to be furious."
"You think he's noticed you're gone?"
"You think he's going to come looking for you?"
"You think if he found us like this he'd beat my skull in with a stone?"
"Well, that's Burns luck."
Abigael shifted against him. He did his best to contain himself. "Adrian?" she said. "You didn't come all the way out here and get yourself into this mess just to impress me, did you?"
Adrian wasn't sure what to say, so he didn't say anything.
"Because if you had," she continued, "that would be stupid. Stupid, and thoughtless, and selfish if you think about it."
"But it would also be sweet, in a way," she continued. "And romantic. ...a little." She put her head on his shoulder. "So is that the reason?"
"Well..." Adrian said, and then he swallowed his tongue. Abigael sighed.
"Adrian, we might die..."
"Even so," she said. "That being the case, well, don't you think it would be a terrible shame if we died without you ever kissing me?"
Adrian froze. "Um...do you think it would be a shame?"
She looked at him. He flushed. Something like the cold hand of the banshee had a hold of him and try though he might he couldn't shake it. Finally he managed to lean down and give her a quick peck on the lips. She stared at him. "Is that the best you can do?"
“It's the best I have done. So far."
She craned her face toward his. "I think you can do better. I'm quite confident of it. You don't want to let me down, do you?"
He certainly did not, so he summoned up all his Burns courage and kissed her as long and as hard and as fully as (he imagined) any man ever did kiss a woman, and when he was done she seemed a little short of breath, which he could only take for a good thing. They lay very close to one another now, and Adrian was thinking certain thoughts that were purely inevitable under the circumstances and were surely only exacerbated by the very real and very prominent chance of death hovering nearby. He dared a few more kisses, and even let his hands go to places he was distinctly certain they were really not allowed. But Abigael made no objections.
"Adrian?" she said after a while, her voice a bit throaty. "Promise me something?"
"Of course," he said, though he was fairly certain this was the kind of talk that could lead a man into trouble in this situation.
"Just promise me you'll be mine," she said. "You will, won't you?"
"Of course I will. Why do you think I was out here to begin with?"
"You really promise?"
He held her hand. "Yours forever. On my family honor."
She seemed to think about this for a moment. "All right," she said. "Then help me out of these clothes."
He stammered. "Do you think we should?"
"I said it, didn't I?"
"Your father will have it in for me as it is..."
"I don't see him here."
"You'll have a hell of a lot to explain to whoever you marry..."
"I wouldn't be anywhere near the first woman. And if tonight is any indication I probably won't live to see a wedding day. Besides!" She punched him in the shoulder again, hard. "You just made me a promise! You mean to tell me you're going to let me marry any man but you?"
"No," he said, rubbing his sore shoulder. And then, louder: "No, now that you mention it. Not by a damn sight."
She smiled at him. "Then give me a hand with these."
He had never seen a woman's body before, with the exception of an elderly, somewhat cracked aunt who had miscommunicated her intentions to bathe and subsequently furnished him with more evil memories at the age of five than any banshee ever could. Abigael, of course, looked nothing like that. She looked delicate and fragile all of a sudden (though he knew she was nothing of the sort). She made him think of the paintings he'd seen in books, but he thought the idea too foolish to say out loud. Then she put her hands on his trousers, urging him to pull them down. He froze again.
"What is it?" she said. "Come on, fair's fair."
"I know, but..."
"It's nothing I haven't seen before."
"When we'd go swimming in the creek as kids. We were supposed to turn our backs, but I always peeked."
He undressed in the corner and, still feeling foolish, turned back to her. She smiled. The old cottage was much colder now, but Abigael made an extra blanket of her cloak and invited him under it. The nestled in together. Adrian was unused to feel of naked skin. It was soft but slippery and somehow both warm and cool at the same time. He wasn't sure where to put his hands.
"Aren't you going to kiss me again?"
"I guess I should..."
"You'd better do more than guess. Here, like this." And she kissed him, and her mouth was warm, and it went on for a long time, and as he eased into it he felt better. The wind was whipping up outside again and the old cottage shook and leaned, but Adrian and Abigael held onto each other tight, and by the little light left in her lantern the old place took on quite a cozy appearance. Adrian dotted little kisses onto Abigael's lips and sometimes strayed lower. They twined around each other and his hands finally found the place where they should come to rest. The old bed had grown very warm indeed.
"You know what to do, right?"
"Of course I do."
"Well you've never done it before..."
"How do you know?"
"A woman can tell. Here, I'll help."
"What says you know so much?"
"My mother explained it all to me. She said, 'You'll have to find out someday, God knows, and the sooner you're resigned to it the better.'" Abigael frowned. "What do you think she meant by that?"
Adrian suspected he knew, but also that Abigael was much better off not.
Her hands were busy beneath the makeshift blankets, and Adrian jerked when her fingers came to rest down below, but he didn't pull back. He did know what to do, of course. ...mostly. The fine mechanics of it, particularly as pertained to her anatomy, were something of a blur. His spine tensed up when they came close together, and then he felt...well, there wasn't quite a word for what he felt then, or for the sound that Abigael made then. It was a very small sound for how long her mouth stayed open. But Adrian had sense enough to know that it was good.
The next part came easily. Or, better to say, naturally. The old bed had held them both so far but he began to fear they might be taxing it a bit too hard and he considered easing up a little, since if it broke they'd hardly have an easy time finding a replacement, but certain inclinations tabled that idea. If anything, they shortly embarked on what seemed to be a race to push the old thing beyond its capacity. The Widow Hutchinson, of course, was a widow only by virtue of having been married three days before her husband (a much older man) took his leave of her and the world, and popular rumor held that he'd married her due to being weary of life and desiring a last inclination to push him off the dock into the next world, so odds were this was the most exertion it had ever had to bear.
Adrian pushed the hair back out of his eyes (it was lank with sweat now, as was hers, though he thought hers still very pretty anyway). The lantern was on the floor, so he wished he could see her better, but something (besides the pale white coolness of her naked skin) stood out even in the gloom. "Your eyes," he said.
"What about them?"
"Don't tell me you're just noticing now?"
"I always noticed. But tonight they look different. I wonder if—"
A noise came from outside. They both turned at once. They heard a thump and a crunch and the sound of footsteps. "What was that?" Abigael said.
"Probably a fox. "
"A big fox,” Adrian added. "Huge. Biggest of all time."
There was a light in the window. Abigael held onto him tighter. Adrian sat up. Was it the ghost lights on the children's graves? Whatever it was, it was getting closer. He found his trousers and his boots, putting them on again in spite of Abigael's objections. "Don't go out there," she said.
"I have to."
"So that it doesn't come in here. Just wait a second."
He peeped through the dirty window. The light was faint and silvery, and as it came closer he saw the outline of a figure within it. His heart sank when he realized it was the shape of a woman, bathed in the ghostlight, and that she was coming straight for the cabin.
"Stay there, Abigael."
But Adrian was already at the cabin door. Whatever was out there he'd face it like a Burns. Which was to say, courageously, and for less than a minute.
But he wouldn't let his fool Burns luck put Abigael in anymore danger. Not if he could help it. His palm was cold with sweat as he grabbed the door latch.
"It'll be all right," he said.
Like hell it will, he thought. But he opened the door anyway.
The night air tickled him. The glowing woman was only a few feet away now, and he could see the hem of her cloak flapping and the wisps of her hair floating out from beneath the riding hood. He shielded his eyes and, doing his best to keep the tremble out of his voice, he said, "What do you want?"
"Adrian," the woman said. Adrian swallowed.
"Yes," he said. And then, louder, "Yes, I'm Adrian Burns. You hear that? I'm Adrian Burns, so if I'm the one you're after then you've found me."
"I already told you, I'm—"
"Adrian, it's me." The woman put her lantern down and once the glare was out of his eyes Adrian could see her properly. And when she took her hood down, he recognized her.
"Abigael?" He blinked.
"I was so worried when you didn't come to the party," she said, running up to the cottage. "I snuck out to come find you. Adrian, what are you doing out here? Where are all of your clothes?"
"I...Abigael, if you're here..."
He heard something behind him. He felt a draft on his back. A cold, cold hand touched his bare shoulder. All his hair stood up.
"Adrian?" said Abigael, trying to look over his shoulder. "Who's in there with you?"
"Stay back," Adrian said. "Abigael, just...don't come any closer."
"Adrian..." said a hollow voice in his ear. “You promised. You held me in your arms and you promised we'd be together forever."
Adrian wanted very much to scream. But he couldn't.
"It doesn't matter if you thought I was someone else, does it?" the voice said. "You'll still keep your promise, won't you?"
Adrian swallowed. Abigael, still in front of him, still a few feet from the cottage, looked confused and frightened. "Run, Abigael," he said. "Run away! Just get as far away from here as you can, do you hear? Run!" And then he turned around.
She was pale, blue about the lips, with eyes swollen and red from night after night of weeping and wailing. And her hair, silvery-white, blew all around her, and even wrapped around him, dragging him into her icy embrace.
"Mine," said the banshee. "Forever."
And Adrian opened his mouth to scream...
But they were both gone before the cry came, leaving behind only the petals of the little white flowers, dancing in the October breeze.
At least, that's how the old-timers tell it. Another story, less popular, less widely heeded, says that Adrian Burns slipped on some wet grass that night and cracked his head against a tombstone, a stone that was found, upon inspection, to belong to his immediate forebear, one of the first settlers in the region, and that his body wasn't found for two whole days, and that Connor Blithe cried like a woman at his funeral.
Yes, that's one version of the story, but it's not the version that the old-timers tell, nor the version that's most often repeated on those dark October nights when the mountain folk lay a broomstick across their threshold and sat particularly close to the fire. There are certain things that the so-called reasonable explanation doesn’t account for, the old-timers say, like why there’d be wet grass when it hadn’t rained for weeks, and why no animal would have dragged off a body out in the open like that, and, most importantly, what to make of the stories of Old Mother Williams (so she was called by everyone in town though she was no one's mother, for Abigael Williams never married) about the night she went out looking for Adrian Burns, and how she found him in the old cottage, and how he wasn't alone, and how the thing that she saw in there with him, though half-glimpsed and only for a second, has loitered about her worst dreams ever since.
No, the old-timers say, the only sensible explanation is that Adrian Burns was carried away by the banshee, another victim of the family curse. His unfortunate fate, they note, was not entirely in vain, for as a benefit to the community the banshee seemed to quit the region thereafter or at least cease her wailing, for no one had heard her chilling cry since.
There was, however, a new apparition that took her place, one sighted increasingly often as the town grew and the old mountain trail became a true road and newcomers built their houses there. It was the spirit of a young man with a blue scarf, who wanders through the woods on autumn nights when the moon is full. Sometimes he will stop at the boundary of a yard or fence and call out to the people in the house, asking them to open their doors and help him, though so far none have dared to do so, not even Old Mother Williams, who sees and hears him more often than any other.
And sometimes, just sometimes, people will wake to find a bouquet of bleeding white flowers on their doorstep the next morning, wilting but still fresh. And they'll take the blossoms and dispose of them somewhere far away from their property, and shiver as they do, and be thankful for their blessings. And the good fortune of their families.