How Horace Lost His Ears
A contemporary Hudson Valley Ghost Story in the spirit of Washington Irving set in Beacon, New York
Copyright © 2009, by Ben Royce, firstname.lastname@example.org
Based on the Japanese fable “Hōichi the Earless”
More than two hundred and fifty years ago, travelers in the Hudson Valley would take the Mountain Road to get to the ferry at Fishkill Landing. They call it the service road now, it runs up Mount Beacon to the reservoir. It was also known as the King’s Road and it led to the King’s Highway, which later was the Albany Post Road, and is now Route 9. Instead of going all the way around, they’d go straight over.
Unfortunately, the mountain haunts were good hiding locations for highwaymen, also known as road agents. They would descend upon lonely walkers and even the occasional stagecoach, in tight spots on the mountain and sometimes even venturing onto King's Highway itself. We know their famous demands today, which have entered common usage: "Stand and deliver!" or "Your money or your life!" These were no Robin Hood-type heroes, but desperate, cruel, and hard men. Many an early Hudson Valley settler who put up a fight with little more than a bayonet or had nothing besides a few pinches of tobacco to mollify the land pirates met their bitter end up on Mount Beacon, with no one to lament their passing, or even to know what became of them.
And that mountain has been haunted ever since. There are some strange trees up on Mount Beacon that have contorted human faces in their bark, echoes of spirits of long ago lost travelers. There are many strange things to be seen and heard up on the mountain. On dark nights you can sometimes see small ghostly fires, even if you're standing on Main Street. I live right off East Main, near the old movie theater, and so my view of the mountain at night isn’t ruined by street lights. Many a time I was standing on a side street in the dark, and I saw a distant wispy light out of the corner of my eye. But when I turned to stare at the mountain, there was nothing. Other times the lights hover above the trees, or flit about, pale lights which the old mountain men of Fishkill and Matteawan called demon-fires. And, whenever the winds are up, a sound of great shouting comes from the swaying trees, like a mortal struggle under the branches.
In former years the lost travelers were much more restless than they now are. They were only mournful at first, but became angry and bitter with time. They would rise about in the night, and try to trick people into coming up the mountain, all the better to get people to trip down steep paths or ravines. Other times they wouldn't even attempt subterfuge, but merely try to yank people down and off the paths boldly. Eventually locals knew not to venture up Mountain Beacon after nightfall.
As Matteawan and Fishkill landing grew and merged, many churches sprung up and new cemeteries as well. And in one of those cemeteries, which I will not name for my safety and the safety of Beacon's residents, lest some foolish teenager try to exhume the stones, an effort was made through various arcane divinations to learn the names of some of the lost travelers. Their names were written on stones and buried, and services were performed there on behalf of the spirits who were so identified. After the stones and the names they bore were committed to the earth in as close a semblance of a Christian burial concerned residents of more than a century ago could muster, the lost travelers gave less trouble than before, but they continued to do strange things at intervals, proving that they had not found the perfect peace.
This is where my friend Horace enters the picture. Horace was a poor musician who lived in Brooklyn but had family roots in the Hudson Valley, and was fond of old folklore about the Valley. Horace was also blind. He moved beyond the usual Braille versions of standard Washington Irving fare like Rip Van Winkle and the Headless Horseman and, with the help of a kindly old librarian who would read to him, and who remembered an old book in a non circulating area of the Brooklyn Library, he found mention of the lost travelers of Mount Beacon.
Now my friend Horace wasn't that good of a guitar player, but he had an excellent memory and excelled at storytelling through music. He grew enamored of the rich stories of traditional folk music and gravitated to the works of the likes of our very own Pete Seeger. Horace imagined Beacon to be some sort of capital of Hudson Valley folk music, and he deduced that Beacon must be his future home. So one morning I woke up to a blaring cell phone and before I could finish making my morning coffee I found myself reluctantly agreeing on him sleeping in my home office until he could get his bearings. I warned him my place was small and it wouldn't be for long, but he was always of a cheerful and clear disposition, so I knew he wouldn't be that much trouble, Horace was hard working and always was able to find an odd job from a local business to carry him through.
He was excited when I relented and declared he would sing for me the new song he was writing, about the lost travelers he said, which at first I wasn’t sure what he was referring to. As a new resident of Beacon he said, he felt it his duty to add to the folklore of the area with such a song. It was a strange and quirky line of thought, but again, my friend Horace was very disarming in his cheerfulness.
He performed a rough version of the song for his girlfriend at the time, before he left Brooklyn with nothing but a duffle bag and his guitar. He told me he could hear her sniffle with tears in her eyes. But he was sure that the tears weren't for him, but for the lyrics of his song. As I said I had a soft heart for Horace, but I also had a soft heart for such storytelling traditions and musicians in general, and I was much impressed by the wonderful storytelling skill of the man. In return for food and lodging, Horace, in my mind, was only required to gratify the local Beacon citizens with a musical performance on certain evenings, when otherwise disengaged.
One night just a few weeks ago this September, I went on a blind date, and I left Horace alone. It was still hot that night in September; and the blind man sought to cool himself on the porch before my little office that had become his bed room. The porch overlooked a small garden and there Horace waited for my return, and tried to relieve his solitude by practicing on his guitar. Midnight passed; and I did not appear. But the atmosphere was still too warm for comfort within doors; and Horace remained outside. At last he heard steps approaching from the front gate. Somebody crossed the garden, advanced to the front porch, and halted directly in front of him, but it was not me. A deep voice called the blind man's name, abruptly and unceremoniously, in the manner of an officious messenger:
"Yeah!" answered the blind man, frightened by the menace in the voice, "I am blind, I cannot know who calls me."
"There is nothing to fear," the stranger exclaimed, speaking more gently. "I have been sent to you with a message. We have heard you perform about town, your voice carrying on the wind, and there is a party, of celebrating men and women, happening up on Mount Beacon. We wish to have some music, and having heard of your skill in reciting stories as if a bard of old, we now desire to hear your performance. So you will take your guitar and come with me at once up the mountain where the mirthful group is waiting."
Horace hesitated, but agreed. He donned his sandals, took his guitar, and went away with the stranger, who guided him deftly, but obliged him to walk very fast. The hand that guided him was iron and cold; and the noise of the stranger's stride proved him strangely dressed, as if in heavy leather, maybe a motorcyclist. Horace’s initial alarm was over: he began to imagine himself in good luck. For, remembering the retainer's assurance about a "mirthful group," he thought that the crowd who wished to hear the folk music could not be less than a gateway to Hudson Valley authenticity. Presently the stranger halted, and Horace became aware that they had arrived at a large gateway. And he wondered, for he could not recall mention of a large gate on the mountain, except the abandoned machinery of the old Beacon Incline Railway. "Crispus!" the stranger called, and there was a sound of clanking; and the two passed on. They traversed an open space, and halted again before some entrance; and the stranger cried in a loud voice, "You inside! I have brought Horace." Then came sounds of feet hurrying on stone and wood, and doors opening, and voices of women in converse. By the language of the women Horace thought them quite strange in accent, as if from Old Maine or Old Boston.
Horace could not imagine to what place he had gone. There was a casino up on the mountain once, but that he thought was demolished. Perhaps his information was wrong. Maybe he was in ruins. Little time was allowed him for conjecture. After he had been helped to mount several stone steps, upon the last of which he was told to leave his sandals, a woman's hand guided him along interminable reaches of polished planking, and past doors too many to remember, and over widths amazing of rugged floor, into the middle of some vast room that smelled of tobacco and wet leaves. There he thought that many people were assembled: the sound of the rustling of heavy clothing was like the sound of leaves in a forest. He heard also a great humming of voices, even children, talking in undertones. And all of the speech was this odd old New England sort of speech. He could also make out German he thought, or Dutch, and was that some West African language? Yoruba? Hausa?
Horace was told to put himself at ease, and he found a stool ready for him, it felt like it belonged in an old saloon. After having taken his place upon it, and tuned his instrument, the voice of a woman addressed him, with a strange old accent, saying,
"Tell us the tale of the lost travelers of Mount Beacon, to the accompaniment of the guitar."
Now Horace had not finished the song completely, he had practiced it many times by himself, still trying to get it right, but he had told many people that he was working on such a song, so he was not taken aback by the request. But Horace ventured a question:
"As the whole of the song is not finished, what portion do you want to hear?"
The woman's voice cracked, as if heavy with emotion:
"Recite the story of the woman and child plundered on the wintry night, the pity of it is deep."
Horace did not remember telling anyone about this passage, he had only been practicing it a few nights before. But perhaps someone had walked by the front porch and heard him sing it. So he lifted up his voice, and chanted about a woman who needed to venture against her better judgment into a cold winter night to get to Kingston, wonderfully making his guitar to sound like the howl of the wind in the branches by bringing his fingernails against the guitar’s body, the shouting and trampling of men, the thumping of musket barrel into snow. And to the left and right of him, in the pauses of his playing, he could hear voices murmuring praise: "How marvelous an artist!" "Never in decades have I heard playing heard like this!" "Not in all the Valley is there another singer like Horace!" And so fresh courage came to him, and he played and sang yet better than before, and a hush of wonder deepened about him.
But when at last he came to tell the fate of the fair and helpless, the piteous perishing of the women and children, and the death-leap off the mountain, with the infant in her arms, then all the listeners uttered together one long, long shuddering cry of anguish. They wept and wailed so loudly and so wildly that Horace was frightened by the violence and grief that he had made. For much time the sobbing and the wailing continued. But gradually the sounds of lamentation died away. And again, in the great stillness that followed, Horace heard the voice of the Old New England accented woman.
She said, "Although we had been assured that you were a very skillful songwriter, and without an equal in reciting stories, we did not know that any one could be as skillful as you have proved yourself tonight. We are pleased to say that we intend to bestow upon you a fitting reward. But we desire that you shall perform before us once every night for the next six nights. Afterwards we will probably be satisfied. Tomorrow night, come here at the same hour. The man who tonight guided you will be sent for you. And there is something else. It is required that you shall speak to no one of your visits here. We command that no mention of this evening be made. You are now free to go back to your residence."
After Horace had duly expressed his thanks, a woman's hand conducted him to the entrance of the building, where judging by the hardness of the hand and creaking of the steps, the same iron-gripped leather-clad man, who had guided him before, was waiting to take him home. The man led him to my front porch, and there said to him goodnight.
It was almost dawn when Horace returned, but his absence had not been observed, as I, coming back at a very late hour after my date, had thought him asleep. During the day Horace was able to rest, and he said nothing about his strange adventure. In the middle of the following night the stranger again came for him, and led him to the party in the woods, where he gave another folk story recitation with his guitar and with the same success that he had his previous performance. But during this second visit I discovered his absence. And after his return in the morning I asked him what happened.
"I was worried about you Horace. To go out, blind and alone, at so late an hour, its dangerous. Why did you go without telling me? I could have gone with you. And where have you been?"
Horace answered, evasively, "Sorry, I had to attend to something private. And I had to do it in the middle of the night."
I was surprised by Horace's reluctance to tell me what was going on. I felt it to be unnatural, and I suspected something was wrong. I feared that the blind man had been duped by some con men. I did not ask any more questions. But I resolved to keep watch on Horace’s movements, and to follow him in case that he should again leave after dark.
On the very next night, Horace made to play guitar on the front porch, and then suddenly, quite late, he made to leave. I followed him. Even worse, it was a rainy night, and very dark. I made it down Tioronda Avenue, then a left on 9D towards the mountain. But what was strange was he walked very fast, considering his blindness and the wetness of the road. I lost him around where 9D takes a sharp right towards Cold Spring. I looked down the road, but he was gone. Could he have gone down Howland Avenue, could he have gone up the mountain? It seemed impossible.
But up the mountain, I could see some of those ghostly fires that appear sometimes on nights like this. I was turning to go home when I was shocked to hear a guitar, playing, up the mountain. It seemed ludicrous, but yes, there it was, very distant but definitely it was Horace’s voice, and his guitar. Mount Beacon is a hard hike under any conditions, but in the dark, and the rain, I was stumbling and winded. I was amazed a blind man could do it as I struggled up the slope, guided mostly by his voice and guitar. The rain had cleared a little and there was a parting in the clouds a bit. The moon was not out but my eyes had accustomed to the dark, and there, in the starlight, I discovered Horace, sitting alone on the wet ground on Mount Beacon, furiously playing and singing. Something about travelers and highwaymen, it was nonsense, to be doing this.
Those ghostly fires on the mountain I had known for awhile, but they were always fleeting and distant. But now I saw them up close. They were dim, but they were behind him, and about him, and everywhere in the trees, the fires of the dead were burning, like candles.
“Horace!” I whispered hoarsely.
He didn’t seem to hear. He was playing furiously, straining to make his guitar rattle and ring and clang. More and more wildly he sang out about people beset upon by thieves on the mountain long ago. I finally made my way up to him, and spoke directly into his ear
“Horace, come home with me right now.”
He scolded me, "Don’t interrupt, in the middle of this party, can’t you see I’m performing?”
It was so weird, I couldn’t help but laugh. I grabbed him by the collar, and brought him down the mountain, stumbling into trees and slipping on the gravel. I helped him out his wet clothes, and demanded to know what was going on.
He hesitated, but he could sense how alarmed I was, so he relented, and he told me of the man in leather with the iron grip and everything he had been told to do.
So I said, “Horace, my friend, you are in great danger. You should have told me immediately about this so-called party on the mountain. Your love of folklore has brought you to a strange and disturbing situation. You weren’t visiting any building up on the mountain, you’ve been sitting in the mud and in the rain. All you have heard was illusion, except for the voices of the dead. Furthermore, you’ve obeyed them, and now you are in their power. If you obey them again, after the interruption I served you tonight, they will yank you to pieces right up there on the mountain. But they would have destroyed you, sooner or later, no matter what. Tomorrow night, I can’t stay with you, I have a second date. But, before I go, it will be necessary to protect your body by writing sigils upon it."
I have neglected to mention that I am a lapsed Wiccan. It is probably a defect of my character that I flit from passionate belief to disenchantment with various religious beliefs throughout my lifetime, but sometime around the surge in Harry Potter mania, I divorced myself from witchhood. In my brief time as a Warlock, I learned many a thing about alchemy and grimoires and the spirit circle and sigils. Sigils are nothing more than symbols for a specific purpose. And for Horace, it would be protection.
I had Horace strip to his skivvies the next day, and with a simple sharpie (the implement is not important, despite what hucksters will tell you), I began the laborious task of filling his skin with standard thoughtforms of fortitude and forbearance. All over his skin, from the soles of his feet to the top of his head, I scribbled. It took very long, but my thoughts were filled of my date that night, and I lost track of time. I finally realized I had very little time to prepare for my date. In haste I instructed Horace what to do:
"Tonight, as soon as I go away, you must seat yourself on the front porch, and wait. You will be called. But, whatever may happen, do not answer, and do not move. Say nothing and sit still, as if napping or meditating. If you stir, or make any noise, you will be torn asunder. Do not get frightened, and do not think of calling for help, because no help could save you. If you do exactly as I tell you, the danger will pass, and you will have nothing more to fear from these ghosts."
After dark I went on my date, and Horace sat on the porch, and did exactly as I told him. He laid his guitar by his side, and closed his eyes, and assumed an attitude of meditation. He remained quite still, taking care not to cough, or to breathe loudly. For hours he sat like this.
Then, from the roadway, he heard the steps coming. The leather clad figure passed the gate, crossed the garden, approached the porch, and stopped, directly in front of him.
"Horace!" the deep voice called. But the blind man held his breath, and sat motionless.
"Horace!" the voice called grimly a second time. Then a third time, this time savagely.
Horace remained as still as a stone, and the voice grumbled, "No answer, that won't do. Must see where the man is."
There was a noise of heavy feet mounting upon the porch. The feet approached deliberately, and halted beside Horace. Then, for long minutes, during which Horace felt his whole body shake to the beating of his heart, there was dead silence.
At last the gruff voice muttered close to him, "Here is the guitar, but of the bard I see only two ears. So that explains why he did not answer. He had no mouth to answer with, there is nothing left of him but his ears. Now to the party those ears I will take, in proof that I attempted to bring the bard, as far as was possible."
At that instant Horace felt his ears gripped by fingers of iron, and they were torn right off.
Great as the pain was, he made no noise. The heavy footfalls receded along the porch, descended into the garden, passed out to the road, and ceased. From either side of his head, the blind man felt a thick warm trickling, but he dared not lift his hands.
Before sunrise I came back. I hastened at once to the porch, stepped and slipped upon something clammy, and uttered a cry of horror, because the clamminess was blood. But I saw Horace sitting there, in the attitude of meditation, with the blood still oozing from his wounds.
"Horace" I cried, “what happened?”
At the sound of my voice, the blind man felt safe. He burst out sobbing, and tearfully told me about his adventure that night.
"Horace, I’m so sorry, its all my fault," I cried, "all my fault. Its completely my fault. I was too distracted by my upcoming date, which didn’t go very well anyways. Everywhere upon your body I wrote the sigils, except upon your ears. I was just thinking about the upcoming plans I was so excited about what turned out to be an awful date and it was very, very wrong of me not to pay as much attention as I should have."
With the aid of a good doctor, Horace soon recovered from his injuries. But within two weeks, Horace had moved out of Beacon, scarcely saying goodbye to me. His good natured cheerfulness had disappeared, such was the grim horror of his experience. Last I heard of Horace he was in Denver, and he hadn’t even touched a guitar since that night he lost his ears. In fact, his guitar is still sitting on my porch where he left it, to this day. I still see the flitting fires on the mountain, but I grow more wary of them since their visit to my porch. And I expect to never see Horace again.
picture source: Jason Rosoff