I know I teased about a project I was working on before Christmas last year. Well, here it is! I was working on a submission for the Black horror podcast, NIGHTLIGHT, whose creator is Tonia Thompson. I had to wait a while before I could publish it on my site. But without further adieu, here is the story, The Deacons’ Girl. If you would like to hear the audio narration, click here.
There aren’t many people that can claim what the Deacon family bloodline can.
We know where the head of the Hessian is. You know who the Hessian is. You must know! The Hessian is who Washington Irving called the Headless Horseman. My family, 10 plus generations removed from enslavement, know where it is. It was my paternal beyond great-grandfather who saw the Continental soldier blow the head off the Hessian with a cannonball. He, Grandpa Deacon, joined the Continental army for his freedom. He was in the woods, scouting, as the family story says. He saw the Hessian wound other soldiers before the Continental soldier marred by the Hessian’s sword killed him with a cannonball and powder.
The story goes that the cannonball met the head of the Hessian with the force of a ripe melon thrown against the wall. The type of thud which assures you whatever you hit was dead—or should be. Supposedly, Deacon stood there, watching the blood pulse and pump from the bloody stump where the head once was. Grandpa Deacon said he watched one of the soldiers pick the head up by his short black hair. The family story says the Hessian’s eyes looked at him, through him, at nothing. Grandpa Deacon is supposed to have said, “Them eyes had to be coal black, jus like that ole neighin’ horse!” My soul shivered when this story was retold. All I could think about when this story was whispered loudly, when I was forced to recite it was the bloody trophy long dead soldiers carried with its eyes open, seeing nothing along his final walk in the winter bare woods. I had nightmares frequently about the mouth of the Hessian hanging open in the shape of a scream to protest his dispatched burial. Its eyes open as the cold dirt filled the open mouth and covered the open eyes.
He was too scared to move, but kept watching. From where he stood, he was able to tell where they took its head. The family story goes my great-grandfather saw these soldiers bury the Hessian head in what his own mother called the Han’t Woods. “They buried that demon head deep in that ole black dirt of them Han’t Woods,“ she’s supposed to have said. “Don’t nothing come out there alive and talk.” My grandfather, Thomas, told me this. Just like he had told his son: my Daddy. My family, with all its other trauma, had to keep the secret of where the head of the Hessian lay.
Grandpa Deacon is supposed to have stayed in those trees, trailing behind the soldiers. From his perch, Deacon saw the macabre procession take the cold, bloody body of the Hessian to this big black walnut tree. They threw it in this hallowed out space in the tree, tossing the head in after before covering the head, severed from its body, with soil. He waited until they disappeared over the horizon. Deacon went to the tree, now a grave, musket in hand. The story said he saw the dirt they packed into the tree begin to pulse like a heartbeat. He was only supposed to scout, looking for Redcoats. He was to relay the position of the Redcoats. He was the best scout his regiment had, which is why he got a musket. I would often wonder what he would have done had something come out of that tree–a musket would not have stopped it. He feared the commander of his unit would tell his old master he didn’t obey a direct order. If that happened, he wouldn’t get to be free. All his promises to his wife and their new baby would be for naught.
My family, both slave and free, came from upstate New York. They knew the legend Irving told wasn’t a legend–it was a curse. We couldn’t tell anyone growing up. I remember at Halloween how everyone would get a costume, real or imagined, deciding what they wanted to be. I couldn’t dress up, and after fourth grade I stopped asking. I couldn’t go trick or treating until I was old enough to sprint over Gallows Bridge, over that big body of water called Lake Hollow. Or as the locals call it Hollow Lake. They call it that because of the legend that no one seems to believe in but us.
My paternal grandmother, her too a granddaughter of Deacon, would make me wear a gris gris under my costume: wormwood, new grave dirt and rose water. This is how my Mama found out I had allergies. There were blood red splotches all over my chest and neck where it touched me. She said the gris gris made me ‘invisible’ to the dead.
I remember being in first grade when we moved to the other side of a bridge in Albany where water was. “Demons and spirits can’t cross water, Avery.” That was the only answer my parents gave me. Every fall, I had to recite to my grandfather what not to do. “Avery?” I would have to look up at him because he was so tall. He was always so serious when I had to repeat the instructions. “You remember what to do?” I would take a deep breath in, remember his exact wording.
“ Don’t go in the woods.
Don’t let nobody know you know the Hessian is real.
And is real angry at our family.”
We could have given the Hessian his head back, but we didn’t. My better than 10-time great grandfather, the slave that saw this all happen, could have given him his head back. Deacon could have made all this go away. He could have made us normal!
I grew to hate and fear Halloween. My sister, Tamera, drowned when I was 11, and she 17. The police report my parents requested from the Albany Police Department said my sister had water in her lungs . I remember my grandfather fighting with my mother, telling her the real reason why she died. “She didn’t listen! Tammy didn’t never listen! She dead cause she was being fast!” I was so mad listening to the grown-folks’ conversation from the heating vent in my room. As much as I loved my grandfather, I hated him then. I had enshrined the last memories I had of my sister. I held dear the memory of the last night Tamera went out: Halloween. She did her hair, put her makeup on. “Ryan and I are going out. I don’t care about some damn curse!” I sat on the side of the bathtub, thinking how pretty she was, and I wasn’t. “It’s some ol’ homespun family shit Grandpa made up to keep his kids underfoot!”
The red dress she wore had gold trim along the slender red straps, stopping a little above her knee. “Ryan’s favorite color is red and the Chinese say that red is for luck, so I’ll be fine!” She didn’t wear the gris gris Grandma made her. Tamera wasn’t allergic to it like I was. She just didn’t believe in it. “I make my own destiny,” she’d say, telling my parents the same thing when they asked why she didn’t wear it. Tamera looked at the shades of bronze, false lashes with a cat-eye liner, blending a little bit more at the corner with her finger.
She wore the gold Bali earrings Mama gave her for her seventeenth birthday.. Her hair was down, freshly relaxed and curled under. I watched her make faces in the mirror, pretending to pin it up before letting the length fall all over and past her shoulders. “Hot to death!” She said turning in the mirror. I knew she was going to the Bridge after a movie with Ryan. She wasn’t supposed to go! She had no protection. She had no business going where Mama and Daddy told her not to! Especially on Halloween night! Her legs were long and smooth, feet bare on the bathroom tile. Tamera had been itching to wear the gold Nine West heels she had saved up for.
They were going to see some movie, I think it was the last Mission: Impossible, Ghost Protocol. “I’ll be back later, Ava.” She had winked at me, and left the bathroom with the ease breezes have. Then she jumped in her boyfriend Ryan’s red Mazda to speed away.
I woke up to screaming and beating on the door of my parents’ house on All Saints Day. Ryan was screaming about blood, a horse, and Tamera. They weren’t that far from Gallows Bridge, Ryan said. “I wanted to show her the Orion constellation.” he said, sniffling and half screaming. “The best place to see them was near the dark woods about three miles from the Gallows Bridge.” As he cried, I watched him from the foyer on the stairs. “Tam said she didn’t wanna go home yet!” His face was in his hands as he sat on the navy couch, now ruined with memories, and probably my sister’s blood on his shirt.
His car was on the other side of the bridge. Ryan said he heard a horse, heard hooves. “I saw Tamera look up. She was scared, and told me to run.” Ryan still didn’t move his head from his hands. “ We ran towards my car, ran towards the bridge. I parked at the bottom of the hill.” I stood there in my Supergirl nightshirt and bit my lip. I felt hot tears roll down my face as Ryan spoke. The tears brought me comfort so I didn’t wipe them away. “She screamed, I turned to go get her! And this big black horse, the red eyes,” he moved his hands from his dirty face. “Something was behind her.” He focused ahead, looking at me I was sure. “I saw this dude on horseback grabbin her hair and,” he swallowed air, scared to go on. “Tam was screaming, trying to get away.” He looked at my parents again on the couch. “There was this wind that blew and knocked me out. I opened my eyes and,” he paused, seeing her head leave her body again. “her head was–gone.”
Ryan knew about the legend. He knew about those woods. They were halfway home. She was almost over the water. I remembered how shaky his voice was. How dirty his clothes still were, the splotches of blood and mud on his green Polo shirt. He was in a Bellevue psych ward in New York City for three years because no one believed him, and his parents were scared for him.
He said when he came to on the side of the bridge, Tamera’s headless body, still in her pretty red dress, was in the water. She was found in a similar fashion as my grandfather’s brother, my great Uncle Tuck. Drowned, but he had no head.
My family knew. We always knew. We kept the secret to save ourselves.
For my sister, for Ryan, for Uncle Tuck, I needed this to be over. I decided a week before Halloween, after my eighteenth birthday, I was going to send it—whatever it was—back to Hell. Or wherever things like this come from. My grandmother, Ethelle, being the old conjure woman she was, told me the best way to catch a hant. She told me I would have to wait until the sun goes down or right when it comes up. I was going to take a gris gris she made me and go. I had her garden shovel and my iron nails for protection. It was three days before Halloween; I woke up at about 5 in the morning. I looked at the ceiling, breathing deep. “I’m going to go Tammy. It’s going to end!” I got dressed in all black, a sweatshirt and pants. Both things belonging to Tamera that I convinced my mother to let me have.
I walked downstairs through the dining room and the kitchen going to the backdoor toward my grandmother’s shed for a shovel. With my gris gris, my nails and the shovel, I started out and towards Han’t Woods. I walked, careful to avoid the bridge. The sun wasn’t up. My footsteps were brisk through the leaves as they crunched under my feet. I grabbed my shovel tighter, flexing my right hand around the oak handle. I concentrated on my steps, ignored the itching around my neck. There was the crunch of leaves behind me, and a quick trotting. I took a deep breath and held it, felt my hands tense around the handle. I exhaled and continued through the ever dense grass. I lost my footing and tripped. I clutched the shovel, baring up on it to be upright again. The trotting got closer, louder, and I laid on the ground, eyes closed. My Grandpa said that you would need to be still when you came across an angry horse, the worst thing you could do was lay down on the ground. But I couldn’t get up! There was a whinny and stomping of hooves near my raised left shoulder. “Avery!” I couldn’t move. I looked up to see Mr. Curtis riding on his sienna-colored horse, Cinnamon; the early morning sun giving me an outline of his face covered by the floppy hat he wore. “You know better than to be on the ground when you hear a horse!” I relaxed my gaze, and studied Cinnamon, refused to move. “Be careful, little Miss Deacon. You best get home!” He clapped the reins of the horse and trotted away.
I stood up, leaning on my shovel. I held the shovel tighter to ignore the itching. I remembered what my grandparents said as I wandered towards the oak and elm trees. I knew the tree had to be big. It had to be old. The soil around it had to be soft and loose. My stock were all farmers, people of the earth–I knew what loose dirt and packed dirt looked like. I closed my eyes and prayed to my Grandpa Deacon, begging him to help me. It got colder as I walked. The weather report on Channel 7 said today was going to be better than sixty degrees, but I felt my teeth chatter against my bottom lip. I knew the light wouldn’t reach where I was going. I heard crows and something else running behind me, a squirrel maybe. But it was too quick to be anything else. I cursed because I didn’t think to bring gloves. The trees seemed to grow and move as I walked. I just knew they would start following me–I half wished they would. I closed my eyes, counted my steps to keep myself concentrating on where I was going.
I forced my eyes open and saw Han’t Woods. I knew it had to be them because the trees were dense and there was no trace of the oncoming dawn light. It was graveyard dark. I was thirsty, so thirsty. I licked my lips. My mouth, tongue and cheeks were parched deserts.. I exhaled so hard my teeth rattled in my ears. I closed my eyes, stood still, trying to listen or sense where to do next. Closing my eyes was the only thing my grandma taught me how to do when I was scared, and I was frightened out of my mind. I needed to focus. Closing my eyes made me ignore what I was seeing and go to what I was feeling, which was more reliable. I stood still, and felt a hand take my right one, moving towards my wrist. It started to drag me forward, even with it feeling as if there were bricks in my sneakers rather than feet.
I shifted the shovel to my left hand, eye open to follow my unseen guide through the dense grove of trees. I blinked fast to adjust to the early light which stabbed holes through the canopy of trees. The hand was firm in its grasp as it lead onward, willing me not to fall. As I walked, the hands on my back infused heat and strength into me, allowing my eyes to remain open. I started to count the light strands through the canopy. There were no more sounds. No crickets. No birds. Only my footsteps.
As I covered more ground, . I began to hear whispers, sudden and harsh. I couldn’t make out what they were saying. I couldn’t focus on this and not fall prey to the woods. There were more whispers, louder than before. My eyes stung, itched almost as bad as my neck and chest. I knew I was on the verge of tears, but I was too stubborn to let them fall. I welcomed the harried scamper is squirrels but there was nothing. I wanted something to fill my ears rather than the silence.
There were ever darker trees, the warmth of hands and my steady footfalls towards this tall, black walnut tree atop this small hill. . It was an obelisk above the other trees which surrounded it. I tucked the shovel under my left armpit as if it were a protective Teddy when the wind started to whistle. I was almost there.
I tried to ignore the throbbing in my feet, but they were tired. My left arm and shoulder ached from clenching the shovel. My wrists and back were burning from being pushed and dragged to my final destination. As the heat increased over my back and hand, I wanted to believe they were infusing strength back into me. I needed it as I approached the black walnut tree. It was easily as tall as a two-story house, and the color of soot.
Big, old, with the earth around it almost swept clean like something had come in and made its home there. I shifted my shovel in my hands and started to dig, “Grandpa Deacon, Uncle Tuck, Tamera–help me!” I hissed. I dug, ignoring the swelling signs of the wind. The gusts hurled me chest first against the thick stump of the tree. I felt the blood break through my cheek as the bark dug into it. I couldn’t scream, I couldn’t see with all the dirt and debris being flung.
I began groping around in the dark. I wished for the hands that guided me here to help me search. My grandmother’s gris gris was burning, no longer content to provide the distraction of itching. My head and ears rang; I couldn’t breathe. My chest ached from being ragdolled into the tree. I looked up to find I was knee-deep in the hole I made and hadn’t found anything! I dug faster. I began pleading for the world to stop. I needed more time. I needed the itching to stop. I needed the tightness and burning in my chest to ease. I had to find the head.
I began to wonder if the Hessian caught me, would he kill me. I thought what it would be like to have my head severed, to feel what Tamera felt for the last time. My hands were raw from digging. I closed my eyes from the pain, and my left hand brushed against something hard. I opened my eyes with the wind blowing and saw what looked like a hip bone. The wind still blew with the same strength that hurled me against the tree. I was sure if I stood taller in the grave I dug, I would have been thrown into another tree.
There was at least four or five skeletal pieces! I dusted dirt from them, and found a piece of a red cloth. “Where is it?!” The wind sounded like a locomotive: loud and oncoming. I tried to steady my breathing, clutched my chest. The bruise was bigger than I thought, I couldn’t breathe as deep as I wanted. My eyes watered from the chill the wind gave. The cold ripples inched down my back, reminded me how alone I was, reminded me of exactly where I was. Among the wind, I heard hooves.
I was able to climb out of my waking grave in time to see it, even while it was still way off. The stabs of light let me see what I thought was a horse’s head. The horse was charcoal black. I knew what I was seeing probably was what Grandpa Deacon saw. There was no rider’s face I could see. “I thought the horse could smell me, knew it could.” The rider wore a cape with a high collar, the hood obscuring the face. The clothing dark and leather-looking. The cape was long as as dark as the horse he sat on. The horse bucked and neighed as the hooded rider pulled the reins, the boots he wore crusted with clay.
I stood and waited; I wanted to make sure this was what I thought it was. My eyes held open by the wind, my right hand wrapped around the iron nails for protection. The wind akin to a train whistle revealed the rider had no head.
I left the shovel and started to walk slowly towards the direction of Gallows Bridge. The wind stopped long enough for me to hear my heartbeat in my tightened chest. I tried to remember the way I had come, needed to be calm enough to remember. I gulped air and began to dart around trees to follow the stabs of light. I looked over my shoulder, and saw the horse turn with flattened ears. I screamed when the rider clapped the reins.
I ran towards Mr. Curtis’s farm, which was the landmark to lake and the saving grace of the bridge. I started at a full sprint towards Mr. Curtis’s farm. I heard the hooves behind me, that sound of hard rain with the incessant angry neigh of a horse. My chest still wasn’t loosening, I couldn’t feel the gris gris. My chest began to feel like I swallowed fire! It began to ache to inhale. I ran! I didn’t know how far the Hessian was behind me.
I looked over my shoulder, saw the red eyes of the Hessian’s horse. Another scream ripped through my throat, more fire put in it. The horse rode down on me as if it carried the fury of a tsunami! It might as well have had wheels as fast as it ran after me. My feet ached and my pace slowed—like I was in cement. I clenched my fists, summoned whatever energy lingered in my body! I heard the hooves go past me as I hid behind a tree. I demanded my lungs not to burn. Told my knees to loosen. Screamed in my head for my feet to not ache.
I ran in the opposite direction, knowing there was a shortcut to Mr. Curtis’s property and the bridge. I couldn’t hear anything, even my own steps. I kept going. “Don’t fall! Don’t fall!” I repeated as I ran, feeling no extra speed or strength. I tripped over a tree root but when I got up, my feet slid from under my own weight. The leaves damp and slick from the night before gave me no extra help. I ran over the cognitive map of the area by Mr. Curtis’s property, assured myself that when I could see it, I would be okay. The Hessian would not take my life, not like this.
I got toward the end of the darkest part of the woods. I ran over a fallen branch, and heard neighing.
I looked over my right shoulder, saw him steadily closer to me, the eyes of his horse as red as Tamera’s dress the night she left the world. His sword unsheathed, the sound louder and similar to my grandmother sharpening her kitchen knives. But it was light, the sun was at my chest. I could see the outline of the bridge over the foggy horizon made by the lake and sun.
Is this how Tamera ran? Is this how Ryan out ran her, let her fall behind him? Was the last image he had of his high school sweetheart the Hessian’s sword slicing into the flesh of her neck? Separating her head with the face made pretty hours earlier? Did she scream when the Hessian grabbed her hair? Was Ryan able to help her while the Hessian pulled her from the comfort of the ground? Did Ryan watch as the blood coated the sword, the rage against our family assuaged, quenched, for a moment, with the blood of my sister?
My heart beat against my bruised chest. Whatever protection my grandmother’s gris gris gave me was gone. I couldn’t feel it anymore against the itching of my chest. My lungs felt like I was taking breaths of sulfur and fresh volcanic ash! My legs were heavy. My feet were about to break off they hurt so bad.
My eyes itched. I felt my hair fall over my shoulders, long free from its ponytail. My body softened and went limp, collapsing under my exhaustion towards the slick, muddy leaves of the meadow. There was no more hiding in the forest. No trees. No stabs of light. My eyes were heavy, I saw the bridge–closer now. I couldn’t get up. I felt my knees break, the hooves closer. My hands went forward, spent of energy and everything went black.
There was this warmth that infused into me, hands, three or four sets of them. The whispers came again, furious and soothing. My hands were wrapped in other hands with pants being pulled up like a naughty child having a tantrum. My head was swimming, I couldn’t focus, and my eyelids fluttered before being forced open. The bridge was more solid, more fog was being burned away by the morning sun. The heat from earlier wrapped around my knees, infusing strength into muscles and bone. I got to my feet again, half-carried and half-drug to the bridge. My feet thumped over the oak planks, The hands and warmth left me to stand in the middle of the safe harbor of Gallows Bridge.
I saw the fury of the Hessian manifest in the horse. The horse stomped its hooves and neighed loudly. I clenched my chest. I felt the bruise once more, comforted by the heartbeat and warmth beneath. Tears flowed from my eyes, either from relief or panic. I watched the Hessian on this horse the Devil has to keep in his personal stable. He clapped the reigns with more force, frustrated at my escape. The horse neighed with more insistence, still willing itself where I was. It was still unable to get more than a hoof on the aged planks under the dark, muddy hooves. The agitation of my getaway was evident in the volume of the whinny the horse gave.
The horse traipsed and trotted around the entrance to the bridge, stopping before a support beam. The sword hacked at the support beam and I watched chunks of the dark wood fall into the water! The chopping of the bridge left me frozen. I thought this was the way the Hessian saw fit to kill Tamera, Uncle Tuck, and who else knows! The Hessian guided the horse to the other beam, and as his sword glowed white hot, he wielded it with the same ax determination on the opposite side. I screamed, stuck in the spot I was left in, desperate to move!
The Hessian was determined to destroy the bridge with me on it!
As the blows of his sword connected with the wood of the bridge, flames ignited on the right side. They traveled up the structure as if it was a birthday candle. The fire lapped towards the rail where I stood catching the sleeve of my sweatshirt. The heat was hotter than any oven door I could open. The entrance which had been my salvation, cracked and crumbled into the water!
The hands grabbed the back of Tamera’s sweatshirt, while I put out the fire on my sleeve. I was pulled with the force that knocked me down and I was sure I was bruised behind. The flames crackled and roared, as the structure creaked and groaned consumed by the insistent heat. The inferno overtook the roof of the bridge, and a support beam fell near my head. I swatted at the embers in my hair. I couldn’t scream, my throat still hurt. The swinging stopped as the flames on his sword changed red then white! I felt splinters in my hand, and the gouge from the nails I gripped.
I coughed as I was dropped on the lake’s the muddy bank with the care of a beached whale thrown up by an ocean. The bridge was burning. My way to get back to Han’t Woods was gone.
The air was still. The crackle of the fire consuming the bridge was the only thing to be heard along with the call of the crows. My face bled. My hands ached. I had splinters in my elbows and backs of my thighs. I swallowed a scream in my throat, the curses that threatened to wake the dead in that old black walnut tree.
The Hessian turned with almost a flourish and at full gallop, rode back towards Hant’s Woods. I failed. I must have dug on the wrong side of the tree. My Grandmother Estelle told me when we went to visit the graveyard where the Deacons all rested why certain stones faced away and toward the sun. “Those that’s gon see the Lord’s return always faces north, Avery.” My grandmother had said. “Those that ain’t, well, they faces the south—away from the sun.” I dug on the south side of the tree!
I sat watching the bridge burn. My soft cries of the frustration from my rescue became a howl. This howl came from my throat in fury and rage, reminding me of the ache in my chest. The still, fire-warmed air reminded me just how helpless I had become. My family was cursed. There could be no more denial. No more reasoning away. I, like my Grandpa Deacon centuries earlier, would never be free.
The Deacon’s Girl is going to be turned into a novel. The release date is October 2020. Stay tuned. -JBHarris