by David Barr Kirtley
This story originally appeared in the June 2003 issue of Realms of Fantasy. The illustration is by Scott Goto. Learn more about the story here.
The ancient Greeks believed that the heart -- the center of the human body -- was also the center of consciousness. Most people nowadays believe that the brain is the seat of our thoughts, holding as it does our personality and all our memories, and those people are right. But the ancient Greeks were right too, in a way. Some residual awareness of self does reside in our hearts -- an immortal soul, if you will. I know this for a fact.
All this, I'm afraid, is a rather long-winded way of trying to explain why I could still move, and think, and feel, when I awoke from death on that chill October evening in 1789, without a head.
The first thing I noticed was darkness. Then wet dirt pressing me down. Panicked, I clawed my way from a shallow grave. My burial must have been perfunctory; they hadn't put me down very far, maybe two or three feet. Six feet is customary, you know.
But even once I was free of the clinging earth, there was still darkness. I crawled through dry grass, which I could feel brushing against my bare palms. I could feel the breeze and the great void of open sky above me, but still this absolute blackness oppressed me. I thought something must be wrong with my eyes, so I reached up to feel for them, and accidentally jammed my fingers together in that empty space atop my shoulders.
Then I felt carefully around my collar bone. The skin ended an inch or so up my neck, torn roughly away. Nothing but a gaping hole there, and down inside my throat the flesh was spongy. Abruptly I drew my hand away.
I was headless.
So of course I couldn't see. I had no eyes. I climbed to my feet -- in fact, it was easier to balance without a head. I took a few halting steps and immediately slammed into the rough trunk of a tree. As I rebounded, my knees struck against the smooth, solid face of what could only be a tombstone, and I toppled over it. Fortunately I didn't hit my head. Being headless had some advantages.
But still, if I was going to get anywhere I would clearly need to find my head. Or at least a head. Anything with eyes would do. That presented a definite problem though. People don't just leave spare heads lying around.
I crawled along the ground, feeling my way with my fingers. I clambered over a jagged wall of piled rock. At last I began to move across lumpy furrows of dry dirt; I was in some farmer's field. My first thought was dread, that I was wandering far from civilization and would soon be lost in a dark wood, where I would certainly perish.
My second thought was a bit more reasoned. Civilization was the last thing I wanted to encounter in my present condition, since "civilized" people would likely run screaming from me. Furthermore, I had already perished, and was missing my head besides, and so I should hardly fear anything that the woods could threaten -- squirrels, owls, maybe a fox.
So deeper into that field I went. I wandered into a patch of growing things, crops of some kind -- dry, winding, vines; leafy. And scattered among them were heavy, bulbous spheres, large as a man's head.
Pumpkins! Large as a man's head . . .
I pulled one from its nestled resting place, tugging hard to snap it free from the greedy, grasping vine. Then I placed the vegetable orb atop my shoulders.
You've never had a pumpkin for a head, have you?
No, I didn't think so.
It's an odd sensation. Think about when you make a jack-o-lantern. You take a large knife and cut deep into the pumpkin's flat-toped dome, wrenching the blade back and forth as you carve a jagged circle -- one clumsy slice after another. Then you seize the stump of stem at its base and you tug. With a great crack the whole thing comes loose, pulling with it --
A stringy mess of orange pulp and hard white seeds. Then you reach down into the pumpkin, with your bare hands, and pull out great handfuls of the stuff. It makes kind of a popping, tearing sound as it comes free. Your hands are wet and dripping -- you have to wipe them off, but no matter how much you wipe, your skin is still sticky and tingly. You make a pile of all those pumpkin innards. You look at it and think it's gross.
Well that's what was inside my head: all those seeds and that gummmy orange pumpkin flesh. It was a poor excuse for a brain. Those little seeds, like grits in oatmeal; I couldn't think straight. And the thing had no eyes anyway, so I still couldn't see. I took that pumpkin head and hurled it away into the night and heard it shatter across the furrows with a satisfying splat.
I don't know how long I wandered in darkness. Those looping vines seemed to stretch deliberately to snag at my ankles. Again and again I stumbled. Finally I fell against the chest of a man, caught myself on his shoulders.
Pardon me, sir, I said -- or tried to say, but then realized I had no mouth either. I was sure the man would flee in terror, but he just stood there, stock still . . . unnaturally still. Perfectly rigid. His arms were stretched out in either direction, stiff and horizontal. Pleadingly I groped for his hand, but when I found the cuff of his shirt, it was stuffed with straw. He was only a scarecrow.
That was a little embarrassing.
Only a scarecrow, but still tall and proud, guarding over his fields with watchful eyes. Eyes! He hung there, bound like our Savior on a wooden cross, and this scarecrow too was my savior, because as I groped my way up his torn wool shirt I found it. His head. A fresh ripe autumn pumpkin, with a carved face.
I ripped away the shirt and the straw and that ridiculous hat they'd put on him, and gently worked the pumpkin free. Then, with a rush of excitement bordering on ecstasy, I placed it atop my own shoulders.
I could see! Not well -- everything was dim and gray and hazy, but nonetheless I could see. I looked out over the fields, and the trees, and the stone walls, and the churchyard, and the steeple, and the houses of that small village. I danced a jig under the wonderful white light of the looming gibbous moon. The inside of the pumpkin had been scraped clean -- blessedly empty of seeds and gunk. I still had no brain, no memories of who I had been, but nevertheless it was a tremendous improvement.
A teensy triangle was carved between my eyes, and through it all the smells of the night came darting in -- cold air, and dry leaves, and pumpkins -- pumpkins everywhere. I was grinning, I couldn't stop. I mean really, I couldn't. My mouth was just carved that way, but what did it matter? Why would I want to do anything but grin? I had a head. I could see and smell and . . . speak? Yes. I sang a little tune off the top of my head.
Off the top of my head. It felt good.
I stole through the outskirts of the village, crouching in the shadows of cottages. Then a spot of brightness caught my eye: one lonely candle glowing warm and orange, seen through the frosted kitchen window of a tall mansion. That gave me an idea.
I padded closer, eased open the back door, and crept inside. It was dim in that old house. With my murky vision, all I could make out was the candle flame itself, beckoning to me like a distant beacon. I felt my way down a narrow hall, up a few shallow stairs, and through a doorway into the kitchen. I crossed the room furtively and laid hold of the candle. I pried the dome off my pumpkin head and planted the candle down inside, pushing hard to make sure the hot wax stuck. Flame filled me with a pleasantly warm burn, and lit my empty eyes with flickering light. I could see much better now!
But then I saw . . . uh oh.
I was not alone. A young couple sat at a table in the corner. I had interrupted their intimate conversation. The young lady was pleasantly plump, with a lovely pale heart-shaped face -- currently frozen in shock. The young man was dark-haired, broad-shouldered, and tall. Together, their wide eyes stared at me, tinged gold in the reflected light of my fiery gaze.
"Um . . . pardon me," I mumbled. "I was just looking...I don't suppose you've seen my head?"
The young lady practically screamed her head off.
"Devil!" The young man seized a hardwood cane that lay on a nearby counter, and charged me, swinging. His violent blow was forceful enough to splinter my neck (if I had one). As it was, the cane whistled through the empty air between my shoulders and my pumpkin head. The momentum carried the young man around in a circle, and with a massive crash he plowed into a bureau.
There was a modest carriage house adjoining the mansion, and a fierce night-black stallion was tethered there. I yanked him from his stall and leapt onto his bare back. My head didn't know how to ride a horse, but my body remembered; I knew it in my heart. As I burst from the stable, the young man came chasing after, cane in hand.
I galloped through the moonlit streets of that sleepy village, and behind me the young man screamed bloody murder. People emerged from lighted doorways to watch me pass. "Stop him!" The young man's angry voice swept along in my wake. "That horseman, stop him!"
"He has no head!" a woman shrieked.
Then I was out beyond the streets and into the shadowy forest. I kept on at a canter until I was certain there was no pursuit, then I tied my newly-acquired horse to a tree. I sat down on a fallen log and hung my pumpkin-head in my hands.
Oh, the way those people had looked at me! I was a monster to them. A freak. A devil. I had been so proud of my ingenuity, of my candlelit jack-o-lantern eyes and nose and mouth. But now those all seemed so pathetic. Only a real head would do. Only with my own head back could I walk through town respected, with my . . . head held high.
But how would I ever find it? Usually when you've lost something, the best thing to do is try to remember when you last saw it. But that wouldn't help me, because I couldn't remember anything. I didn't know how my head had become separated, or when, or where. I would have to enlist the aid of someone more knowledgeable, perhaps some local historian.
I spent a few nights moping about in the woods, trying to work up the nerve to brave the village once more. Finally I stole back under cover of dusk. My first candle, the acquisition of which had caused me so much trouble, had burned out after only a few hours. So the first thing I did was swipe a few spares, not to mention a tinderbox, from the porch of an old lady. Then, eyes aglow, I set my sights on the schoolhouse. I reasoned that if anyone here would be familiar with local lore, it would be the neighborhood schoolmaster.
Fortunately for me, he was alone. I lingered in the doorway and watched him correct papers. He was incredibly tall and lanky, with a pendulous head and aquiline nose. He looked up. "Ah," he remarked, in a bored tone of voice. "You must be that Headless Horseman everyone's been talking about. Looking for your head, I hear?"
"Yes," I whispered, drawing closer, and then, "Aren't you afraid?"
He chuckled, and patted a fat black tome that lay on the desk by his side, A History of New England Witchcraft. "I'm an educated man, not some local bumpkin. I'm conversant in various manifestations of the supernatural. Now, on to the matter of your head." He smiled slyly. "I'm prepared to use the full breadth of my erudition to help you reclaim what is yours, but in return you must agree to do something for me."
"Yes," I promised. "Anything. Just get me back my head." I couldn't believe my good fortune. "It's really out there? You can really find it?"
He nodded. "Oh yes, it's out there. It will have been preserved -- fortified by the same dark and mysterious powers that have suffused your body." He rose, and paced around me in a slow circle, scrutinizing my vestments with a cold and focused gaze. "You were a Hessian soldier."
I looked down at my tattered coat and shirt and pants. They were grungy and caked with graveyard dirt. I hadn't paid much attention to them, having been singularly focused on securing myself a head. Even now, studying them, they told me nothing. But somehow this man of letters had seen a piece of my missing past in the clothes. I explained, "I don't know who I was."
"No, of course not." He sniffed. "Not without your head. Nice pumpkin, by the way."
He frowned, an expression of deep concentration falling over his face. He strode to the bookcase and briskly pulled one volume from the shelf. He licked a finger, then flipped through the pages. "It seems I read an account once of a Hessian soldier who lost his head in battle. During the War for Independence. Ah yes, here it is." He paused. "Your head was taken off by a cannonball."
By a cannonball! A cruel sphere of heavy iron had torn my head from my shoulders. How awful. I would have gulped heavily, if I'd had a throat. "But where did it end up?"
"That, pumpkin-head," he said, slamming the book shut, "is what we must discover."
He set to work immediately, consulting books and maps and letters. I watched with a kind of wonder. Since I lacked a real head, I possessed only the most rudimentary cognitive facilities, but this man! Oh, his mind! It was sharp as a saber, complex as a clock. Even when he sat totally motionless, lost in perfect concentration, still I could see that his mind was all awhirl, endlessly processing, collating, refining, and concluding. I hoped desperately that my own head was even one-tenth as clever as his.
"How's it going?" I asked him. "What are you finding out?"
He turned his attention from book to book to book. "I don't know if I should bother to elucidate. It's all probably beyond your comprehension anyway. Just let me handle it. Tell you what, why don't you go outside and toss your head around for a while? I work faster without distractions."
"All right," I said cheerfully.
I tried tossing my head around, like he said, but as soon as the pumpkin got too far from my shoulders, I lost the use of its eyes, which made it hard to catch it again. Fortunately I didn't splatter it. After a while I gave up on that and instead sat down on a rock to think, while I doodled in the dirt with a twig.
I knew now that I had been a soldier. Not such a bad thing to be, all things considered. Honor and valor, bright uniforms and shiny medals, cavalry charges, and all that; the invigorating, fiery smell of gunsmoke drifting across the battlefield. And wartime experiences always made the best stories. I imagined that my head, once I found it, must be full of fascinating recollections.
The schoolmaster and I spent the next few evenings trudging around town, exploring various fields by lanternlight. I wasn't exactly sure what we were looking for, and he didn't seem overly interested in enlightening me. He simply led the way, and I followed along behind, laden with boxes and books and surveying equipment.
"Hey, seeds-for-brains," he barked. "Hurry up, would you? We haven't got all night."
"Sorry," I said. With all the materials piled in my arms, I could barely see where I was going.
"We're doing well," he said. "Certainly better than you were doing on your own. I heard you were looking for your head inside a house. What were you thinking?"
I remembered the young couple I'd encountered that first night. I wanted to explain to him that I'd gone into the house to get a candle, and that once I saw those two, the thing about my head just kind of slipped out. I was still trying to put that sentiment into words when he continued, cutting me off. "You know that girl you saw? Pretty, isn't she? I'm going to marry her."
"That's nice," I said.
"She's rich," he explained. "Very rich. I need the money. Do you have any idea what a schoolmaster makes?"
"No," I said.
"No," he echoed. "Of course you don't."
We clambered over one stone wall, then another. "It's funny," I remarked. "I just assumed she was seeing that other guy."
He stiffened. "What other guy?"
"You know," I prompted, "that tall young fellow. Who was alone with her in the kitchen late at night."
"Oh." The schoolmaster scowled. "Him." He continued in a low, raspy tone. "She didn't tell me he was there. But yes, I know who you mean. He fancies that he might steal her away from me, but I know how to deal with him." He fixed me with a long, hard gaze. "But first we must find your head. Come on."
Eventually our path led back to the pumpkin field. I could see the churchyard where I'd been buried. The small cemetery was dominated by the massive bole and branches of a looming oak tree -- the one I'd crashed into that first night. A great dark hole pitted the center of its trunk.
The schoolmaster paced furiously about, sketching wildly with his quill pen. "Now . . . the cannon would have been . . ." He stopped. "Here." He drew some more figures. "You would have been thirty feet away when the cannonball struck . . . mounted. Hmm . . . forward momentum . . . force equals mass times acceleration . . . carry the two . . . and . . . " His head snapped up sharply and he glared at the lonely churchyard. "Follow me!"
We ran across the furrows, leapt another stone wall, and came to stand before the giant oak. A few blood-red leaves drifted past us as the schoolmaster reached into that hole in its trunk and, with an angry grunt, pulled forth a large, misshapen, blue-black cannonball. "Hold that," he told me, dropping it into my arms along with the rest of my burdens. My knees quivered as I stumbled from side to side, trying to keep my balance.
The schoolmaster reached back into the hole and yanked out my head by its thick blonde hair.
"My head!" I exclaimed. "You found it!" I began to practically vibrate with excitement.
"Of course. I told you I would." He wiped sweat from his brow with the back of his sleeve, then he glared at me. "Would you knock it off with that stupid grin?"
"Sorry," I said. I bent down, and dumped everything I was carrying into a heap on the ground. I reached out with both hands. "Please, let me see it."
"I've fulfilled my part of the bargain," the schoolmaster intoned solemnly, passing the head into my waiting arms. "I've returned your head. Now there's something I want you to do for me."
"Sure, anything." I turned the head around in my hands, looking at it from all angles. It was a fine, well-formed German head. Not exactly handsome, but not bad-looking either. There was something about it that made me vaguely uneasy though. Dare I say the countenance possessed a bit of a sinister cast? I shrugged, popped off my pumpkin head, and raised the recovered human head to my shoulders.
"You know that young man you saw? The one who's trying to steal my girl?" The schoolmaster grinned. "I want you to kill him."
I used my new muscled throat to gasp. "I can't do that!"
Then memories started pouring back. Instantly I knew something was wrong. For these were not memories of glorious battle. These were dark, dismal, awful things, full of fire and black smoke, women screaming helplessly, and blood, so much blood everywhere. On my saber, on my hands . . .
I stumbled, and said weakly, "No."
The schoolmaster was furious. "What do you mean you can't? You're a black specter from beyond the grave, the shade of a Hessian mercenary who killed for money. Well, I've paid your price, phantom. I've given you your head, and now I want to be repaid. We have a deal!"
The women screaming. That was the worst part. I couldn't take their screaming. My God, what sort of monster had I been? How could I live another day, another moment, with these horrid memories? With this fiendish head? "No," I cried, "I won't do it. You can't make me."
He shouted, "What are you? Some kind of coward? Some kind of wimp? Some undead spirit you've turned out to be. They should call you the dickless horseman!"
White hot fury poured over me then. "All right!" I roared, standing tall. "That's it!"
I . . . I don't really like to talk about what happened next. I got very agitated. It's all kind of a blur. I made a scene, started throwing things -- like that pumpkin. It got broken. I try to blame it on that head I was wearing, that miserable Hessian head; it was the sort of thing he would have done; he once slit a man's throat for looking at him the wrong way, and the schoolmaster had given far more provocation than that.
It's an interesting issue actually, this matter of self. Do our brain and our memories make us who we are? Do they define our choices? Or do we really have free will? There are quite a few strong arguments on both sides. For example . . .
But I'm stalling again. I'm sorry.
I have this tendency to ramble. To explain. To lecture. Maybe you've noticed. I try to fight it, but it's who I am now.
It's just one of those things that happens, I guess, when you have the head of a schoolmaster.
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