Night after night I ride through the woods of Sleepy Hollow. I fear I am riding my horse Sable to exhaustion, for her head droops low whenever we stop, and at the end of each night she can barely trot. I know the riding tires me, yet I have no head to hang. And that is why my poor horse and I are condemned to run through the forest for eternity, growing more weary by the hour. I search for my head, so I can go whole into my next life. By logic, I know that if I have not found it after these many years, it must have been reduced to dust by the cannonball that carried it away, but still I long to have my head, to be complete. Long ago, I thought death would be a rest from the hardships of life; now, galloping through the same stretch of woods year after year in search of a head that no longer exists, I realize that the very lack of purpose that made me despise my life was a blessing.
Tonight is like any night, a blue-tinted full moon hanging among the stars, a soft wind whistling through the trees, and the ever-present desire for a weight on my shoulders. As dusk falls, I awake, rising out of the ground alongside my loyal horse. I peel off a dusty glove and touch the ragged stump of my neck, feeling sharp spine and dried muscle rising haphazardly out of a mass of clotted blood. Am I really dead? Am I really headless? After a fleeting instant of denial, I come to the same painful conclusion I have reached every evening for forty years: yes.
Sable and I ride down to the site of the battle where I lost my head. I dismount, and run my gloved fingers through the soil, searching for a fragment of bone, a scrap of cloth from my hat, any hint of where my shattered head lies. My fingers leave dark furrows in the dirt, turning over pine needles and pebbles like grim plows. There are no bones but those of a long-dead squirrel, no cloth but a scrap torn months ago from my own tattered cloak. I would weep if I had eyes. I continue my search, slowly walking across the earth, trying to concentrate on feeling the dirt, feeling for my head, my only hope of rest. Sable walks alongside me, my only companion in the world.
Without my head, I cannot properly see or hear, yet somehow I can feel the world all around me. Through some ghostly power that makes up for the loss of my head, I feel sights, and sounds, and smells. I know when a bat flies overhead, moonlight shining through its slender wings, and I feel the soft rustle as it dives down to its roost in an old hollow tree. And tonight, I sense a huge man on a huge horse, walking along the path to the house of Van Tassel. It is Brom Bones, of course, riding through my woods as if they were his own. I wonder: since my own head is nowhere to be found, would another's do as well? But Bones is a formidable man even to me, and his horse Daredevil could leave old Sable in the dust. After Bones passes, Sable and I follow him, curious.
There is a party at the Van Tassel house, with food I cannot eat and dances I cannot join. But I can stand outside a window, careful to avoid being seen, and watch the festivities. Warmth, light, and joyful music radiate from the house, running through the wall and into my cold, dark, silent body. When the dancing ends and the guests sit down and begin to tell wild tall tales, I go to the stables and give Sable an empty stall, with a fistful of hay and a bucketful of water that she does not need. Then I sit under a window, my back to a wall, and listen to the fantastic tales being told.
The townspeople brag of their brave deeds, and tell stories about ghosts and goblins of the Hollow. I feel a twinge of irrational pride whenever there is a story about the fearsome Headless Hessian. But soon I realize that the party is ending, and the guests cannot be allowed to find Sable calmly chewing her superfluous hay. I run to the stable, and we prepare to ride. We gallop partway down the path to the village, then stop in a pumpkin patch. We lie down amongst the coiling vines and near-ripe pumpkins, and watch the guests pass. I wait for the last one, resolved to take his head if I can.
There is a long pause in the line of returning guests, and I worry that I have missed my chance at ambushing the last one. But soon Ichabod Crane, the schoolteacher, comes walking sadly along on his scrawny old horse Gunpowder. I hesitate; his is a poor head to forever wear on my shoulders. But it could be years before I get another chance like this, and I am so tired, too tired to wait. Sable and I spring to our feet. I seize a pumpkin from the patch and leap on Sable's saddle, holding the pumpkin on her shoulders.
We follow Ichabod slowly through the damp night. Sable's hooves click on a flat stone, and Ichabod looks back nervously. When he sees us he stops, and squints into the purple darkness, unsure of our existence. Then I raise the pumpkin high, ready to throw it and knock him off his perch on Gunpowder's sharp back. Ichabod panics, frantically digging his heels into Gunpowder's bony flanks. Gunpowder breaks into a weary trot; then he realizes what horrors lie behind him, and starts running with all his strength. I set the pumpkin down between Sable's shoulder blades, barely touch my spurs to her sides, and she gallops off as if the Devil himself were riding her.
Gunpowder frantically scrambles up a small hill, hooves slipping on slick rocks, skidding through a path of pebbles, clawing at the dirt, and finally throwing his weak body over the crest of the hill. Sable takes one leap, and covers in a heartbeat what took Gunpowder several painful seconds. I raise the pumpkin again, but Gunpowder hurls himself forward, and his saddle falls out from under Ichabod and tangles in Sable's hooves. A few swift kicks from Sable's sharp hooves shred the leather, but we have fallen behind. The sound of rushing water surrounds us, a whitewashed church looms up before us, and I know we are almost out of time.
We approach the short covered bridge to the church, a bridge I cannot cross. The church emits a palpable aura of holiness, which sickens me even at a distance. I wasn't religious when I was alive, but now that I am dead, even two sticks on the forest floor, haphazardly crossed by chance, repel Sable and me. This bridge is under the church's spell, and neither my boot nor Sable's hoof shall ever strike its cursed planks.
Now Ichabod is almost under the shadow of the bridge's arched roof. Gunpowder's hoof thuds on a wood plank, Sable rears up in alarm, and I hurl the pumpkin with all my might. Slimy orange shards explode around Ichabod's head, and he falls from his horse, crashing to the ground in a spray of dust and leaves. I walk to his still body, ready to claim my prize. But when I touch his head, he looks up into where my eyes should be with an expression of quivering terror. I wasn't expecting this. I thought it would be easy to take a head from a body, just meat in a human form, but I hadn't prepared myself to rip it from the shoulders of a cowering, scared, and alive human being. I hesitate, then carefully place my hands, one on his chin, one around his neck.
Suddenly, I see a vision of blood, dark in the half-light, running down my arms, as Ichabod screams and I frantically tear at his spine, trying to sever it, trying to stop the screaming. The vision paralyzes me, the sound of the imagined scream ringing in my imagined ears. Ichabod tears my hands away and scampers to the bridge. I can only watch as he runs into and across Sleepy Hollow, past the houses, past the farms, down the road. Sable whinnies and rears up before the bridge, and I realize that she knows as well as I do what we have just lost.
Now it is almost dawn, almost time for Sable and me to retreat back into our shallow graves in the forest. I had my chance to save both of us, and I squandered it with my squeamishness. Maybe the next world is as weary and sad as this one. But for now, all I can think is that I am tired, so tired...
Author's note: Tim Burton is my God and Johnny Depp is His prophet. And Danny Elfman is His high priest.