Only A Stranger

by Diana

I step from the cold autumn darkness into light and warmth and music. It is as I feared; there is a party of some sort in progress. Everywhere are decorations which I presume are meant to be festive. I see a bounty of food and drink to be had and well-dressed people partaking liberally of both. The unavoidability of stepping into all of this makes my insides knot and my hands tremble; I have no taste or talent for such things. Solitary by nature and by necessity, I do not know how to comport myself in their midst without offending someone, unknowingly or otherwise. To be witty and convivial is for me an impossibility under the best of circumstances, let alone this night, for the walk from town was a long one and the ride in the coach before that longer still. My arms ache from carrying my bags the entire way, my head aches from having had very little sleep, and my stomach aches from having had even less to eat. At the moment I crave nothing so much as nourishment and rest, a chance to wash the dust of my journey from my face and hands, and the discovery of my host, that I might begin to gather together the facts of this macabre mystery.

For there is undoubtedly a mystery in this town, so full of grim silence, closing shutters, and suspicious unseen stares. Not a soul passed me in the streets earlier. I saw no one tending the sheep and geese and chickens all about. Even the dogs seemed to cower in shadows. Secrets grow to ripeness in this place where terror is everyone’s closest companion. They have even built a watchtower that they may better guard themselves and their loved ones from harm. Very strange.

Obviously the reason for my presence is both real and pressing. I am needed here. My abilities are needed here.

But I must have information, details, answers to my questions. So I seek out Baltus Van Tassel; only let me find him and begin my search for the author of this town’s dark troubles and all may yet be well. For their sakes, as well as my own, I will persevere. . . in spite of these revels.

I weave my way among the merry-makers, noting details as I go which might prove useful later in my investigation. Ahead of me, a circle of onlookers has assembled to play a game of some sort. A blindfolded young woman seems bent on trying to catch whomever she can, though for what purpose I know not. I cannot see all of her face, but I am able to tell well enough that she is beautiful. Her figure is trim and pleasing, her dress is the color of spring sunlight, her hair the color of flax. It flows down her back like a glorious golden waterfall. Many a smile and an admiring glance are cast her way, the more so since for the time being at least she cannot see them. One man in particular harbors a comfortably proprietary air where she is concerned; it is evident in the wide berth the others give her when he draws near.

But they are nothing to me (no, not even this radiant girl in their midst, I tell myself firmly). My purpose for being here is my only concern. Skirting the edge of the game cautiously, I continue my search, unsuspecting of my fate.

* * * * *

It is a foolish game and for a moment I have no wish to play it; my heart is heavy with fear for our little town and the dark menace that rides amongst us, cutting down whomever it chooses. But all of the children are here this night, hoping that the laughter and frivolity of a party will keep at least one monster at bay, even if only this evening. So I allow Brom to tie the blindfold over my eyes and spin me gleefully around. For Sleepy Hollow’s children, and for their frightened mothers, I will play my part well.

"The Pickety Witch, the Pickety Witch, " I cackle, my arms outstretched, "who’s got a kiss for the Pickety Witch?"

All around me I hear the children muffle their laughter behind their hands. I hear the rustle of long skirts as women move away from my searching fingers, the scrape of boot heels as the men lunge closer, silently daring me to capture them, perhaps hoping that I will. I know one man feels he need not waste time on hopeless hoping; Brom believes himself to be the one I will eventually lay my hands upon. His unbridled confidence fills the room like an odor. And if I know our good townsfolk, everyone else believes it as well. I imagine them making a show of narrowly avoiding my grasp, then removing themselves to the growing ring of onlookers to watch the inevitable played out before them.

But this is a night for unquiet goblins and restless spirits and though Brom does not know it yet, the Pickety Witch will be no man’s easy prize. She is of a mind to do her own choosing. I just as artfully dodge his artful attempts to be caught and let my thoughts travel beyond the reach of my fingertips. Who to catch instead? Who should it be? I call upon my white magic, sifting through the essence of this person and that one, until–

My questing hands find a masculine face – high cheekbones, smooth cheeks chilled by the night wind, a strong jaw.

Silence. The very room holds its breath, caught by surprise. I sense a bright flare of disappointment in the stillness; Brom. He is as angry at being made to look a fool as he is at not being chosen, but on this night so full of portent, Fate has taken the matter into her own hands. Her will be done.

* * * * *

It is the blindfolded young woman I saw moments ago. Her small, soft hands capture my face, cup it, hold it gently, as if it were the face of her beloved, to be treasured above all others. Within the embrace of those hands, the frustrations and worries and fears I carry with me all of the time, like a heavy pack that will not be laid aside, seem to fall effortlessly away. She has taken them from me with her very touch and soothed the weariness from my limbs and from my soul. No one has held my face in such a manner since–

(Mother)

But I cannot think of that. It is a darkness from my past that has no place within the presence of this exquisite vision, gently curved and curled and scented and gowned. Lucky the man, I find myself thinking instead, who feels the gentle grasp of these hands whenever he chooses! If I were he I would stand thus in her embrace forever. Light and life pour from her like melted gold into all of the empty places inside me, filling them with riches beyond measure. What spell is this which she weaves so effortlessly that dismantles my well-intentioned reasoning? I am powerless to prevent it; everything that is within me opens to her as unthinkingly as a flower to the sun, seeking the healing of her nearness. I had a firmly-fixed purpose when I stepped into this room but it has evidently deserted me. All thoughts of finding my host and retreating to my accommodations as quickly as possible have flown. I would cheerfully now renounce my own hard-won beliefs before I would break this woman’s playful embrace.

It is as if I have known her forever, but I have yet to learn her name.

* * * * *

"Is it Theodore?" I ask the question the game demands even though I know it is not Theodore; the thoughts coming up my arms from my fingertips are ones that are unknown to me – thoughts of weariness, the weariness of travel, of urgent business and beyond that echoes of life in a city and the frustration of preaching beliefs to those who will not listen. Determination burns in this man like a flame; this is his chance to prove himself at last. Prove himself? I follow these feelings back and see fleeting images – a cardinal soaring into the sky, a brilliant flash of red. He mourns to see it go. It spins. . . a cagebirdcagebirdcagebird, and beyond that–

A red door, tightly closed.

Pain. Sorrow. Fear. Always the fear of one kind or another. What is uppermost in his thoughts at the moment is a fear of us. We are many strangers, to be watched warily for any sign of the unkindness he has so often encountered. He would escape to his room if he could, hide there until everyone has gone home. He wishes only food and rest and a quiet conversation with my father about–

The murders.

My lips part in surprise. He has been sent to help us! And I have not been kind to him already, making him the unwitting fool in this silly amusement. He has come to rid us of the cause of our troubles, not be the butt of someone’s misspent prank at his expense. Such things have happened to him before. I see it in flashes of remembered humiliation.

"Pardon, ma’am. I am only a stranger." Soft voice. Soft words, gently spoken. Please do not embarrass me, they beg. Please do not show me to be awkward and nervous and fearful to the rest of those gathered here, even if all those things are what I am. Please do me no harm. I am but a stranger, not worthy of notice. Only release me and let me be on my way for I am–

Only a stranger. Not worthy of your notice.

We will see about that. I know that if I release his face, he will be away and the moment to make amends will be lost, perhaps forever. So I will not harm you, my faceless stranger, but I will not let you go just yet either. I would show you if I can that you have nothing to fear from the Pickety Witch.

With my hands upon his face to guide me, I lean close.

* * * * *

"Then have a kiss on account." With my face still caught between her small hands, she leans forward. The scent of honeysuckle drifts to me from her hair; I breathe it in without thinking, hold it inside for as long as I can, just to claim something of her, however fleeting. She is close – so close! – I feel the brush of her skirts, a startling intimacy. It would be nothing, the work of a moment, to slide my arms around her slender waist, to draw her across that last little bit of space to rest against me and never let her go. The very thought of doing something so daringly impetuous unnerves me completely; to have this bright, beautiful being in my arms would be everything I once believed of heaven and salvation.

Her lips are soft against my cheek for an instant–

And my world explodes. Giving, acceptance, wisdom, caring – she is all these things and more. I know it irrefutably without knowing how I know. I see/feel/sense that she is not content with her lot as it is and as everyone else believes it to be, that she longs for more than to be the chattel of a childhood playmate, carelessly won and soon forgotten. She needs to be a helpmate to the one she chooses to love, a partner with him in this battle that is life, his source of wise council and unimaginable strength. So many things of measureless value to be given to whomever holds her heart!

And yet. . . just as surely as I know all these things, I also know she needs someone to need her, to adore her, to worship her as being so much more than the rest of us. She needs someone to comfort and understand her.

Understand her power.

Understand her. . . powers.

Powers?

Before I can even begin to make sense of what I have experienced, she draws away, and it is as if the parting clouds on a winter’s day which allowed a single, dazzling ray of sunlight to pierce the chill have closed again and all is once more stark and cold. I am suddenly alone, more alone than I have ever been before, bereft and blighted and barren. Only the lingering glow of her remembered touch is left to warm me. Its absence – her absence – is almost more than I can bear.

How is it that my life can change so completely in an instant? What rationalization will I use to explain this to myself? And how am I to possibly go on from here without her?

* * * * *

I step close – for a moment we are close enough to embrace – and, with my hands as my guide, I touch my lips to his cheek. It’s as if I can taste his surprise, the electricity of this unexpected intimacy when he thought never to experience such a thing.

And for me the world stops.

We run together like ink and water and become one. He shadows and deepens me and I lighten him. I am sunlight in his dark-seeing eyes, sunlight shafting down through thick-grown forest trees, warming him, easing his cares, lighting his way. He fears my touch. . . and yearns for it. His thoughts of me are a poet’s thoughts, gentle and wondering, as innocent as a child’s, as deep as a man’s. I see it clearly that no one has kissed him in love since

(Mother)

The ache of that knowledge is almost palpable. He has missed this so much and not even known it. He has not let himself know it; it has no place in his life or in his thoughts. It surprises him that–

–that I would lose my heart so easily. I never thought it would happen–

He longs to hold me, to shelter and protect me. To adore me. And he is filled with hopelessness.

Because I could not possibly notice him. To me he is nothing, only a stranger, humorless, awkward and poor. How little he values himself. How little he thinks others value him.

What manner of man is this?

* * * * *

She steps away from me and, reaching up, removes her blindfold.

My mouth opens – I don‘t know why. I suppose I thought to say something to her but I don’t remember what and it doesn‘t matter anyway; no sound will come. I am incapable of it, incapable of movement or thought or reason or action. All I can do is fall willingly into her exquisite eyes, as deep and still and serene as twin forest pools.

Flawless. She is flawless, a vision, an impossible dream suddenly impossibly close. She glows in the midst of these assembled people like a pale candle, steady and bright and brave against the dark. There is no one who is her equal. There is no one who will ever be her equal.

Still I cannot speak. I cannot think. I can only stand in front of this room full of strangers and worship her in silence. For a moment – for just this one moment – there is no one but the two of us for each other. I can believe that she was meant to be mine and that she will deign to accept me for her own. Oh, to belong to this springtime incarnate! The darkness I carry inside of me could not long survive against such incandescence. I want only to banish all of these people to a place far away, to gather her to me and be gathered close to her in turn, to cherish and be cherished.

As I gaze at her with doomed, foolish longing, her eyes change; the laughter in them fades and softens into something else, something more. Can this look possibly be meant for me, this solemn and thoughtful understanding, this sad acknowledgement of a loneliness that perhaps we share? And how do I know these things?

I am undone.

A kiss on account?

I have no right to think it, no right to wish it or hope for it, but may it be so!

* * * * *

By the time I draw away and reach up to remove the blindfold to look upon this stranger who is no longer a stranger for the first time, I know that our drawing away will be only a temporary thing, the matter of a few hours or a few days. It remains only for me to see the face of my beloved, for so he is now, though he doesn't even know it yet.

Black hair. Black brows. Black eyes. Weary eyes. Haunted eyes. Dazzled eyes, dazzled by me. I have seen such a look before, but never have I felt so dazzled in return. His is the darkness of the night and the perfect pallor of the moon. His thoughts, which I took to be so full of years, give the lie to his age. He is not much older than Brom or Glenn or Theodore.

His lips part but no words come. I find my poised longing, my very happiness rests upon those parted lips, the straight, severe upper one with its intriguing, well-defined twin peaks and the fuller softer lower one. I wish that I might kiss those lips, might taste both their severity and softness again and again. Soon, my love. As soon as may be managed.

"I. . . I am looking for Baltus Van Tassel." He stammers something at last, though not what he meant or wished to say, and a trace of color creeps into his pale cheeks. Because of me. Wonder of wonders! And still written plainly upon his face, for all the world to see, is his utter bewilderment at the havoc I have wrought in his previously well-ordered universe and his surprised yearning for someone who is, after all, only a simple country girl. Brom and his friends have seen me grow up, have teased me and pulled my hair and allowed me to join in their games and pranks when we were all children together; I hold no mystery for them. Familiarity breeds, not contempt, but not this poignant wide-eyed wonder either. His simple, unspoken homage disarms me completely. It is the finishing touch.

I am undone.

What madness is this? I don’t even know his name.

He is, after all, only a stranger.

 

 

Fiction
Sleepy Hollow