hen leaves have turned to blood and rust
And morning forms an icy crust,
When fireplace logs in town are sold
And farmers harvest pumpkin gold,

I think of Irving's haunting prose
(Evocative of E.A. Poe's),
Of superstitious New York Dutch,
Of rival lovers' feuds, and such,

Of those who e'en today dare boast
Allegiance to their famous ghost,
That bogeyman of Kaatskill dread:
A mounted corpse without a head.

'Twas in a wooded countryside
That late at night the Thing would ride,
A soldier, per official lore,
Reliving battles lost in yore.

Denied by fate eternal rest
It roamed each night in lonely quest,
Now here, now there, throughout its realm
Of walnut, locust, birch and elm.

Adjacent to that haunted wood
A Sleepy Hollow schoolhouse stood
Where knowledge flowed from slate and rod
Imparted by one Ichabod,

A pedagogue quite smug, quite vain
(The school lads called him Icky Crane),
A gangly pile of joints and limbs
Employed to teach young Jacks and Jims.

Unlike the Sleepy Hollow Boys
Whose farmers' builds accorded poise,
This Master Crane was slight of frame;
No feats of brawn would earn him fame.

But what he lacked in strength of arm
Bod substituted learned charm.
The valley ladies aahed and oohed
Whenever he was in the mood

To snippets of the bard recite
Or thrill them deep into the night
With Cotton Mather's witchcraft lore
And talk of ghosts and phantom gore.

So vivid was his direful talk
That later, when he'd homeward walk,
His agitated heart would quail
At bogus phantoms on his trail.

His faculties were so deceived
That once or twice he had believed
The wind to be a demon's sigh,
An owl's hoot? a banshee's cry!

A branch on branch's mournful groan?
A murder victim's dying moan!
A stand of trees to be, instead?
A cemetery's risen dead!

But dawn would sweep away the ghosts
And Bod would wake to mortal hosts,
To families that gave him bread
And with whom daily prayers were said.

For custom saw him weekly dwell
In hiking distance from the bell,
In homes of scholars in his charge
Quite like a vagabond at large.

Bod added to his meager lot
With shillings that he fair begot
For teaching local Jills and Janes
To sing God's holiest refrains.

Dutch parents could not help but praise
Bod's vocal skills and saintly ways,
Unconscious of his darker plot
To prosper via wedding knot:

Bod sought out homes with daughters fair
In hopes he might one day ensnare
A pretty thing to warm his bed
To mend his socks, to keep him fed

On crullers, cobblers, cakes and pies.
His appetite could always rise
To honor any quantity
Of farmhouse generosity.

The housewives craved his week-long stays,
His talk of art and French ballets,
His flattery, his skill at whist,
His rare refinement in their midst.

Oh, to extend this happy state!
But Cupid had another fate
In store for Ichabod, it seems:
The very woman of his dreams!

No woodland haunt or midnight hag
Could so upend our dear protag;
No mortal girl could half compare
With Balt Van Tassel's only heir.

Katrina was the beauty's name
Whose reputation duly came
From causing young men's hearts to yield
At what her petticoat revealed.

For Ichabod there was no lass
As pretty as young Kate Van Tass',
A mere 18 with shape divine.
"By God," said he, "I'll make her mine."

But there he ran afoul of odds
Forgetting all the country clods
Who similarly worshiped Kate
And plotted to make her their mate.

Of them but one rose to the front
A brutal lad named Abe Van Brunt.
Brom Bones they called him to his face,
And at Kate's side he sought his place.

Oh damned be he who teaches songs
To girls to whom his heart belongs;
No good can come of teachers' pets
And all that prejudice begets.

In love's arena Bod had plied
To have Katrina for his bride.
He wooed by song, he wooed by stealth,
Emboldened by her father's wealth.

As Katie's hands played o'er the keys
Bod fought the weakness in his knees;
So apt a pupil, he decreed,
Will further private lessons need.

All this Brom Bones watched in a state
As Bod increased his hours with Kate.
He'll not, Brom promised, on my life,
Have my Katrina for his wife.

So Brom and those in his employ
Inflicted mischief on our boy.
They mocked his name, they trashed his school,
They tried to make him look a fool.

"Tut, tut," Bod said of childish deeds.
"What crude young men this valley breeds."
"I'm tired," Bod yawned, as if quite bored,
His rival lover's deeds ignored.

And thus by failing to resist
Bod found himself by Katie kissed!
"Oh, what a man," the beauty sighed,
And linked her arm with his in pride.

Brom looked, Brom saw, Brom seethed, Brom boiled;
He kept his musket finely oiled.
What might have ended on that note
Was spared by what Van Tassel wrote:

The message read, "Come one, come all,
Attend our Country Harvest Ball.
We promise each, from far to near,
The grandest party of the year."

Bod saw his chance to seek Kate's hand
And nose about his future land,
While at the party Brom would find
His way to Katie's heart and mind.

The fateful night soon came to pass;
Bod primped and preened before his glass
As elsewhere Brom fine-tuned his plans:
For Bod there'd be no wedding banns.

Bod guided Powder from his stall
And nudged him gently toward the ball.
Brom mounted Devil, spurred him forth:
Van Tassel's castle lay due north.

The party swirled in sound and light;
Bod felt it was his lucky night.
The music played, the laughs rang free;
Brom steeled himself for what would be.

Bod proved to be expert at dance
And prized his prospects at romance.
Brom lurked in shadow, jawbone set
As Kate enhanced a minuet.

But then they rested lute and lyre
And Kate and friends lounged near the fire.
"Why, Kate! Who's this?" her friends all teased
As Bod and Brom about her breezed.

The conversation turned to ghosts
And Bod chimed in with empty boasts.
Brom seized the hour and spoke, in faith,
Of Sleepy Hollow's premiere wraith:

"They say he's buried near a church
To rise each night in gruesome search,
His goal, at someone's mortal cost:
To reinstate the head he lost."

Bod laughed, a high-pitched nervous squeal,
Diminishing his planned appeal.
Bod had to ride alone that night
At thought of which his face turned white.

Kate studied him with shaken eyes
And saw not matrimony's prize.
The points Bod's charm and brains had won
Were by his cowardice undone.

Much later, as the eve wore on,
The cool coquette suppressed a yawn.
Bod cornered her and pled his case,
But his were words she'd not embrace.

No longer did poetic lines
Or artful hand-drawn valentines
Excuse Bod's lack of Brom's physique:
No girl of dash long loves the meek.

With somber soul and heavy heart
Bod felt it time to best depart,
To mount his borrowed steed and ride.
"She'll not," he sobbed, "e'er be my bride."

'Twas well upon the witching hour
When Bod assumed the haunted bower.
The ghostly tales that livened talk
Now all around him seemed to stalk.

His horse advanced, a cautious gait;
Bod's thoughts no longer dwelt on Kate.
The gnarled limbs of trees reached out;
Bod gamely fought his need to shout.

The woods then opened in a plot
Some called its most accursed spot,
Which chilled our hero to the bone,
Convinced he was not quite alone.

Who of us would not be afraid
Alone within this silent glade?
But then! A sound! Bod heard a clop!
He raised a hand, his brow to mop.

He squinted, peering in the dark;
If only he'd a match to spark.
That shadow, there, what could it be?
A fiend from hell, or just a tree?

Imagination can be cruel
Bod laughed for being such a fool;
But then a cloud the moon unveiled
Whose light the creature then detailed.

Bod gawked at this unholy sight,
A silent horseman in the night
Whose mortal wound compelled him stare:
Above its neck was naught but air!

Such visions can't be of this world;
A flowing cape around it furled.
Compounding Bod's bucolic trap,
Its head it carried in its lap!

The monster's stallion stamped and neighed
As Bod, in terror, gaped and prayed.
The creature bore a fearsome shape.
"By God," Bod cried. "There's no escape."

On instinct Powder spun around
And galloped off toward safer ground.
The phantom steed at once gave chase:
To Goblin Bridge the four would race.

Foreseeing his untimely death
Bod felt the spectral horse's breath,
But kicks to Powder's haunches gave
A respite from an early grave.

O'er hill and dale the riders dashed
As stones and horseshoes sparked and flashed,
Illuminating, play by play,
The lots of predator and prey.

When Bod and Powder felt most doomed
The bridge's sanctuary loomed.
They crossed its planks in record speed
And from a certain death were freed.

But then Bod had to pause and look,
And saw the ghost across the brook
Raise to the Sleepy Hollow skies
What seemed a head with blazing eyes.

A lover spurned can live or die;
Perhaps Bod knew his time was nigh.
How else explain his silent wait
On what God deemed to be his fate?

The monster also seemed to pause,
As if consulting occult laws,
And then unleashed from gloved paw
A jack-o-lantern cannonball.

The fiery missile pierced the night,
A streak of orange in deadly flight,
Till crack of gourd and bone gave chill
To all that heard, then all lay still.

A day went by, or maybe two
Before the valley locals knew
That Bod had vanished from the earth:
And so the legend saw its birth.

He'd left Van Tassel's in a huff,
The victim of a girl's rebuff,
But had he met with fouler play
Twixt midnight and the break of day?

They combed the landscape, up and down.
They searched as far as Tarry Town.
They pondered every shrub and tree.
They dragged the mighty Tappan Zee.

They studied clues near Andre's Ridge
And hoofprints found near Goblin Bridge,
But all they found of kith or kin
Was half a pumpkin's mocking grin.

A year went by, then five, then ten.
Bod's schoolroom boys grew into men.
Katrina's children came in time
Though life for her was ne'er sublime:

She missed a man who sonnets knew,
Who could not split a log in two,
Who swooned to hear her play and sing,
Who prayed she'd wear his wedding ring.

The years rolled by, the legend grew,
Remembered by a precious few
Who'd been there on that fateful night
When Bod had vanished from their sight.

And once each year, or so I'm told,
When Kaatskill Mountain nights grew cold
And thoughts of ancient times held sway,
Old Katie Bones would rise and say,

"When autumn's moon is ringed and pale,
Do not forget us, and our tale;
Remember Ichabod, and toast
To Sleepy Hollow's headless ghost."

Copyright© 1999, 2014, 2016, 2020 by Steve Bryant. All rights reserved.

Contact: Steve Bryant