"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 it was too late 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 by the old forest trail past the cemetery rather than on 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.
But that was then. Now Adrian leaned against a fir tree, watched the white moon creep through the branches, listened to the call of the whippoorwills, and thought he might be the stupidest man in Virginia, which was surely not good for his marriage prospects either. Dead leaves crackled under his boots. He wrapped the blue wool scarf that his mother had made for him tighter around his neck. If only he took after his mother’s side of the family 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 name, an Ulster name, Mother reminded him that if Ulster was so good they’d never have left and 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 was right, 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. Burns men always met bad ends, no matter what the country. Five years ago 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 by Burns standards, but rather than let the bear kill him he'd insisted on climbing a tree and 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 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 he heard the same plaintive cry now that he had half a mile back. It was probably a bad omen, but he was still glad for the company. It was late October, not quite yet All Hallow's but close enough that the woods would be thick with spirits. Connor had told Adrian he’d seen a genuine Black Shuck in these woods last October, and that the ghostly hound had left footprints that glowed like hot coals 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 he lurked in them to this very day, and that was an American story, so Adrian put more stock in it.
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 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.
Lena Hall had 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 she turned her head all the way around to prove it, and the village 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 brighter for no reason? These woods were thick with spooks; every Virginia man knew that.
Adrian wondered what that sound was, and realized that his teeth were chattering. He made them stop. He decided he would whistle to pass the time, but it suddenly didn't seem like a good idea to make so much 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. It was all that was left of a fence that once 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 girl turned out not to be quite dead. So she woke up a few hours later, and they said her screams were loud enough to raise everyone in the town. 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 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 thing, 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 drifting 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. 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 beneath Adrian's feet. His knees knocked together 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 about.
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: 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 it...
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 that didn't mean she wasn't there. She could make herself as thin as air if she wanted to. Some said she could even hover over your bed at night and let you breathe her in 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, trying to think of a prayer but unsure 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 looked like 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! Stop it!"
"You kicked me," she said. "I'm bruised."
Adrian rubbed his shoulder. "So am I," 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."
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) 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 been stupid and 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 again), a respectful distance away. "But what are you doing in here?"
"Hiding…" She surprised him by turning around 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 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?"
"Almost certainly." 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. Don’t you think it would be a terrible shame if you never kissed 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. 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.
"Promise you'll be mine," she said. "You will, won't you?"
"Of course. 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 the first woman. 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. 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.
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. He opened the door. The night air tickled him. The glowing woman was only a few feet away, 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 took her hood off and once the glare was out of his eyes Adrian saw her properly.
"Abigael?" He blinked, confused.
"I was so worried when you didn't come to the party," she said, running up to the door. "I snuck out to come find you. Adrian, what are you doing out here? Where are all of your clothes?"
"Abigael…if you're here..."
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. "Just...don't come any closer."
"Adrian..." said a voice in his ear. “You promised. You held me in your arms and you promised we'd be together forever. It doesn't matter if you thought I was someone else, does it?"
Adrian swallowed. He wanted very much to scream, but he couldn't. Instead he said, "Run away, Abigael. Run as fast as you can. Now!” And then he turned around.
She was pale, and blue about the lips, her eyes red from night after night of weeping and wailing. Her silvery-white hair blew all around her, and even wrapped around him, dragging him into her icy embrace. "Mine," said the banshee. "Forever."
Adrian opened his mouth to scream...
But they were both gone before he could, leaving behind only the petals of the 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 and cracked his head against a tombstone that night, a stone that turned out to belong to his immediate forebear, one of the first settlers in the region. 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 dark October nights when the mountain folk lay a broomstick across their threshold and huddle around the fire.
There are certain things that the so-called reasonable explanation doesn’t account for, most prominently the stories of Old Mother Williams (so she was called by everyone in town ,though she was no one's actual mother, for Abigael Williams never married) about the night she went out looking for Adrian Burns, and how what she saw in the widow’s cottage has loitered about her worst dreams ever since. Nor did it account for the disappearance of the banshee, for no one had heard her chilling cry since Adrian had gone.
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 ghost of a young man with a blue scarf who wanders through the woods. Sometimes he will stop at the boundary of a yard or fence and call out, asking people to open their doors and help him, but none have dared, not even Old Mother Williams, who sees and hears him more often than anyone.
Now and then people will wake to find a bouquet of bleeding white flowers on their doorstep the next morning, wilting but still fresh. They dispose of the blossoms somewhere far away from their property, and shiver as they do, and say a thankful prayer for their blessings. And the good fortune of their families.