Monday, October 31, 2011

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

There is a very old saying that fact is stranger than fiction and I’m sure you have encountered true stories that are far more bizarre and fantastic than those invented by the imagination. But then there is the story I am going to tell you today. I don’t know whether it belongs in the realm of fact or fiction. It is taken from various eye witness accounts of the events surrounding the area known as “Sleepy Hollow,” and concerning the Van Tassel girl, the schoolmaster and the horseman. But if it’s scientific proof or absolute certainty you want, that I cannot provide for you. I can only tell you what happened as near as I have been able to determine, and leave the question of believing it to you…

It may not come as a surprise to you (though perhaps it will) that New York as it is today is very different from how it was a few centuries ago. Nowadays, we think of skyscrapers and subways and the City That Never Sleeps. In those days, New York was almost entirely farmland and fishing villages. And close by the Hudson River, there was a little community known as Tarrytown, where the residents lived a very happy and peaceful life, and, come nightfall, avoided at all costs the wooded area known as Sleepy Hollow.

There were no wild animals or dangerous terrain in the woods and, in fact, by the light of the sun they were quite picturesque. But come nightfall, under the light of a full harvest moon, these same woods took on an air of foreboding which, as it always does, gave birth to legends and ghost stories, all of which I investigated in the course of my research. Some spoke of a lady in white, scorned on her wedding day, who had been seen calling out for her beloved, or the spectral dog who prowled the night. But most of the stories that grew from the imaginations of the townsfolk concerned a Hessian rider who had lost his head during the War for Independence, and rode nightly through the Hollow in search of it. Most of the sensible people of the region knew these stories and dismissed them as childish fancy, fit only for frightened children at Halloween dances…but they still reined their horses when they felt themselves drawing nearer to Sleepy Hollow.

Close by the hollow itself was a small village which bore the same name. And it was to this quaint, rustic backdrop, shrouded in mystery and fantasy, that Ichabod Crane came that fateful day.

Physical descriptions of Ichabod Crane are usually very similar. The first time you saw him, one farmer reported, you might, for a moment, think that a scarecrow had run away from his post. He was tall and almost impossibly thin. Six feet of solid skin and bone. He had large, nimble hands and even larger feet, which farmers often joked would come in useful when it came time to plant their crops. He had a smallish head with a largish nose that came almost to a perfect point, so that you might imagine he’d make an excellent weather vane. And when you were told that this apparition was to be the new schoolmaster, you wouldn’t be in the least surprised.

Yes, Ichabod Crane was that rarest thing in those days, a learned man. His books were his constant companion and he imparted their knowledge to children nearly as well as his absorbed it himself. His mind was quite keen and he seldom forgot anything he read. This was both fortunate and unfortunate, as it meant he absorbed the fantastical, the supernatural and the horrifying with far greater aplomb than would be healthy, especially for one with so active an imagination. The result being that you will never, if you live to be a hundred and seven, meet a more superstitious and fearful man than Ichabod Crane.

Some thought it odd that a man of learning would feel so overwhelmed by these superstitions, which we all know are based solely in ignorance of the world around us. When asked about this, the pedagogue would smile that awkward, wan smile for which he was known and say something like, “Well, of course, I take it with a grain of salt,” (this phrase usually compelled him to throw a pinch of salt over his shoulder, for fear of evil spirits), “but it is a mistake for science to assume it knows everything about the world in which we live. And, after all,” he would add, knocking on the nearest piece of wood he could reach, “one cannot be too careful.”

But despite his odd appearance and superstitious nature, Ichabod Crane was well admired throughout the village. He was gifted musically and would sing the loudest and the finest in church on Sundays, and offered music lessons to the ladies of the village in order to supplement his meager schoolteacher’s pay. He was charming, witty and quite elegant by the standards of the common farm folk he now lived with. He never failed to kiss a lady on the hand when they were introduced, nor doff his hat when one entered a room. Indeed, several of the ladies of the village (mostly the middle-aged ladies with no husbands and a talent for cooking too much food) found Ichabod very charming and he became very popular for this reason.

A little too popular, some might say.

For there was one pretty young maiden in town who had taken a liking to Ichabod’s gentility and bearing. An enchanting, alluring young vision named Katrina Van Tassel, daughter of the wealthiest man in that part of the country, and every bit as attractive as was the idea of being son-in-law to so rich a man as her father. It is therefore hardly surprising that Katrina would be the apple of every bachelor’s eye between Tarrytown and New Jersey. But though she had many suitors, there was one who stood head and shoulders above the rest.

And, no, I don’t mean the schoolteacher.

You see, before Ichabod Crane had come to town, all evidence indicates that Katrina had eyes only for Brom Bones. Big, strong, handsome, rough-and-tumble Brom Bones. Some thought he was nothing but a bully and, in truth, he did have a hot temper and a tendency toward jealousy, which is why so few of Katrina’s other suitors ever dared to make time with her. But he wasn’t really a villain deep down. Don’t get me wrong; He was a show-off, a braggart, a bit of a tussler when he’d had a few too many mugs of ale. But it was more a sense of mischief than malice that motivated him, and beneath all that bravado was a good heart that Katrina felt sure she could bring out.

When the lanky schoolmaster arrived on the scene, however, it is known that she was seen far less often with Brom and took many a moonlit walk with the pedagogue (a very old-fashioned word which means “school teacher,” but which it is impossible to describe Ichabod Crane without using). One or two thought she had lost her mind in throwing over Brom for the sake of Ichabod, but most recognized that she was just trying to make Brom jealous and maybe teach him a lesson about the right way to treat a lady. For as handsome and seductive as Brom was, Ichabod was an equal amount dapper and refined. Of course, had it come to blows, Brom would’ve reduced the schoolmaster to splinters with one punch, but Brom was too much of a gentleman for that. And Katrina didn’t approve of violence anyway, so Brom had to find other ways to exact his revenge on Ichabod Crane.

The following is an excerpt from the diary of a Sleepy Hollow housewife, who offers her account of a fairly amusing example of Brom Bones’ “vengeance”:

Mr. Crane came over today for my singing lesson. As he often does, he demonstrated the lesson himself, which was much higher in pitch than I would have thought him capable of singing. But just as he hit the highest note, a loud yowling sound, like an animal, rang through the house. Both Mr. Crane and I at first thought something had gone horribly wrong with his voice. Until we heard the sound of Brom Bones’ laughter just outside my parlor window and the yapping of the dog he had trained. A very mean trick to play on so lovely a man as Mr. Crane!

But, to his credit, Mr. Crane did not become angry with Brom. He merely chuckled quietly to himself and continued the lesson as if nothing had happened. A most curious man, this Ichabod Crane!

This reaction to such treatment was, I gather, fairly typical for Ichabod. The exception would, I suppose, be found in an old police report from this time, signed by Ichabod himself, along with the local magistrate, which states that Brom and his gang broke into Ichabod’s schoolhouse and knocked things over, rearranged the chairs, even tore a few pages out of Ichabod’s more “fantastical” books (from his personal library, of course, and not intended for use by his pupils) and pasted them on the walls. Ichabod’s rather extreme reaction was probably due to his initial assumption that evil spirits had done it, but when it was revealed to be the work of Brom and his “Sleepy Hollow Boys,” as they were often called, he at least made a show of being mollified.

Pranks of this nature were, I suppose, inevitable for a man like our friend the schoolmaster, but he took them in good humor. As his consolation, he had the thought of Katrina Van Tassel, and her father’s farm, and the good fortune that undoubtedly lay before him.

Poor Ichabod. He had no inkling that he was merely being used as a pawn in a game Katrina was playing with Brom. For all her admirable qualities, she was deucedly mischievous (a trait she shared with her admirer, Brom Bones) and something of a coquette, and didn’t for a moment foresee any unpleasant consequences from her actions. It was just a bit of fun, she would say with a light laugh. But she didn’t know how firmly the schoolteacher had pinned his hopes to this new prospect which he little suspected was nothing more than a cruel joke.

A biography of Baltus Van Tassel, Katrina’s father, describes the old man as being “very sociable and generous. He was never happier than when his home was full of people having a good time. He loved to host parties and dances for his friends and neighbors.” But of all the festivities this rotund farmer held throughout the year, his favorite was the Halloween dance. Every October 31st, the entirety of the village was welcomed into the Van Tassel estate for the finest food, music and frivolity of the whole year. It was a dance to which Ichabod Crane was particularly looking forward. His skill at singing was matched only by his dancing, and he felt certain that tonight he would sweep Katrina off her feet and make her his own. He donned his best (indeed only) formal suit, busied himself at a piece of cracked mirror styling his hair, then set off on a borrowed plow horse, Gunpowder (whose name, no doubt, spoke to the power of his youth more than any fire he currently possessed), in the direction of the Van Tassel farm.

Ichabod had visited this fine estate on one or two occasions, but never failed to be spellbound by the beauty (and profitability) of the farmland. Nor the luxury of its interior and the almost unimaginable breadth of the buffet table. You see, despite his lanky build, Ichabod Crane was one of the world’s great eaters and absorbed succulent and savory foods better then he absorbed knowledge of the occult—a hobby and hindrance which, obviously, made his venturing forth on All Hallows Eve something of a challenge, but which he braved for the sake of Katrina.

And, indeed, Ichabod was the life of the party. He and Katrina moved across the dance floor like swans on the surface of a lake. Brom Bones tried to cut in, but could not keep up with the improbable grace of the pedagogue. All attempts to upstage or outshine the schoolmaster were, therefore, doomed to failure and Brom had no choice but to admit defeat…

For a while, anyway.

After all, Brom might not have been able to compete with Ichabod in grace or bearing. But his rival did have a weakness which Brom could exploit…and it was Halloween night! So, when the night was dark outside and the full moon rose in the sky and the men began the practice of entertaining their host and fellow guests with stories of the supernatural, Brom Bones stepped forth to seek his ultimate revenge on Ichabod Crane.

“I know most of you have heard the stories of Sleepy Hollow,” he said. “But, perhaps, for the sake of our new friend, Mr. Crane, you will not begrudge me repeating them here.” The crowd consented, never tiring of hearing the exciting stories. And there was no question which story was to be the highlight of the evening: The Tale of the Headless Horseman! I remind you at this point that the facts leading up to the horseman’s demise are entirely factual and beyond question. It is only after his death that we enter the realm of uncertainty:

“I need hardly tell you,” began Brom, setting the scene, “of how bravely the men of this territory fought to earn our freedom in the days of the war. And we most certainly know of the Hessian soldiers who were sent to cut them down, and of how courageously we beat them back. But never make the mistake of underestimating your enemy, and in truth, it must be said that the Hessians fought to the last man. And even when that last man was the only one still alive and still on his horse, he fought with the strength of ten, until one of our own grandfathers swung his sword and sliced off his head with one swipe.” A statement like this would have elicited cheers and huzzahs from the crowd, in which Ichabod Crane joined, half-heartedly, already beginning to turn pale.

Brom saw his rival’s cadaverous pallor, and with a grin, continued his story. “But mark my words! He didn’t fall. His head lay severed at the feet of his horse and blood streamed down his body. But he did not fall from his horse. He stayed rooted to the spot, and some who were there that day say he even spurred his horse and shouted a command because the steed rode off into the hollow. Our men did not give chase, believing the horseman to be dead. But answer me this, if he was truly killed, how did he come to be seen riding madly through the woods the following year? And on many cold, dark nights since?

“It’s true! The horseman still rides! You see, he lost his head that fateful night and he will never stop riding until he finds it. And if he cannot find his own head, he will find another that suits him just as well. And how do I know all of this?” added Brom, in a sudden inspiration. “Because last year, on this very night, I met this fearful apparition in Sleepy Hollow.” Spurned on by the excitement of the moment and the spite for his rival, Brom began improvising madly. “He charged full speed toward me, swinging his sword maniacally over his headless body. Laughing a wicked laugh that seemed to come from deep within his soul! But I wasn’t afraid. I spurred my best horse, Daredevil, and we rode like thunder to the covered bridge just past the old churchyard. For that cemetery is where the horseman’s power comes from, and once you cross the bridge, he cannot touch you.

“So let me caution all of you, that if you find yourselves riding through Sleepy Hollow tonight, do not stop, do not rest, do not slow down until you reach the covered bridge by the old church. Or else you might find yourself unwittingly assisting the Headless Horseman to…get a-head!” Of course, two hundred years ago, this was a new joke and the men laughed cathartically at the witticism, releasing their fright over Brom’s story. Even Ichabod Crane managed a hollow chuckle, which belied the fierce pounding of his heart upon hearing this account of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

A legend he little suspected he was about to become a part of.

From here onward, accurate accounts of what took place become fewer and farther between and we must rely on guesswork and conjecture. It is a matter of record that Ichabod Crane tarried after the other guests had left, in the hopes of having a private word with Katrina. It is well known that the schoolmaster set out on his way home a mere five minutes after this interview was terminated. I cannot say what passed between the two during this time, but we can draw conclusions from the morose countenance he wore when he reclaimed his mount from the stable. Yes, I believe that his hopes for Miss Van Tassel were dashed that night, and perhaps Katrina learned the dangers of playing with men’s affections, or perhaps not. We shall never know for certain. All that is known with any certainty is that Ichabod Crane left the Van Tassel farm, without stopping to admire it, a few minutes before midnight on his way home.

Among the diary entries, official reports and other verifiable documents I uncovered while trying to solve the mystery surrounding this story was the following account, to which no name was signed nor date given. I include it only because it is the only existing account of what may…or may not…have happened to the schoolmaster when he rode through Sleepy Hollow that night:

It was the very witching hour when Ichabod Crane found himself passing through Sleepy Hollow on his way to the Von Ripper farm where he had his lodgings. As the chill of the night air surrounded him, he gradually forgot his despair over Katrina, and his proper nature took over. Meaning his fear and superstition. He tried to persuade his horse to move faster, but all the spark had gone out of Gunpowder and he plodded along at his own pace. With each moment, Ichabod’s fears compounded. He started at the sounds of crickets or a bullfrog in the old mill pond. Once he was certain he heard approaching footsteps, only to see a couple of bulrushes blowing against a hollow log in the wind. This actually motivated Ichabod to smile and, as if to prove to himself that he wasn’t afraid, he even began singing one of his favorite psalms.

But his tranquility was short-lived, for a short time later, he heard a sound behind him which he knew for certain could not be bulrushes. A timid glance over his shoulder confirmed that there was another rider on the path to town. Ichabod tried to call to the rider, cordially, but the other gave no reply. Wary of this traveler, Ichabod spurred Gunpowder who grudgingly began to trot with more speed, in the hopes of putting some distance between himself and the stranger. But the stranger matched the speed of Ichabod’s horse and remained the same distance behind. Then, Ichabod reined Gunpowder in, planning to slow down and let this other ride pass. But, as before, the stranger slowed down and continued following Ichabod apace.

His heart pounding as though it were about to burst out of his chest, Ichabod’s neck continuously turned over his shoulder to keep an eye on this eerie companion. Finally, the path came into an open area where the trees did not obscure the moon and it threw the image of the strange rider into relief. And Ichabod beheld a tall, powerful rider all in black, with a long black cloak on a horse blacker than the midnight sky. But his imposing figure is not what caused Ichabod to pound his spurs into his horse’s ribs and take off at high speed.

For you see, the horseman was headless!

Looking over his shoulder as they raced on, Ichabod saw the Headless Horseman pick up speed and begin to chase them through the Hollow at top speed. Ichabod perceived a large, round shape on the pommel of the Horseman’s saddle. His head! thought Ichabod. He carries it with him until he finds one he likes better! Ichabod rode his horse harder than he would have ever thought possible until, at last, he was in sight of the old churchyard and the covered bridge. With one final crack of the whip, Ichabod tore across the bridge and didn’t stop or look around until he was well on the other side. And as he turned his head, he saw, to his horror, that the Headless Horseman was actually hurling his severed head through the bridge and straight at Ichabod. He perceived flames erupting from the head as it roared straight for his own, and Ichabod Crane was too terrified even to move out of its way and

The mystery document ends here.

We return now to the world of evidence and hard facts. The following morning, the sun rose on Sleepy Hollow as it always had. The good people arose and set about their work as they always did. Only at the Von Ripper farm was there any change in the usual routine. For their lodger, one Mr. Ichabod Crane, did not come to breakfast. Nor did he appear for luncheon or dinner. The children assembled at the school but their master did not arrive. Later that evening, however, Gunpowder did return, riderless.

The very next morning, the men of the village assembled to search the Hollow, a search which ended when they came to the covered bridge which separated the town from the old church. Masses of hoof prints in the earth spoke of a chase and a struggle between two men on horseback. To the side of the road, the schoolmaster’s hat was found. And, all around the scene, pieces of a shattered pumpkin shell complete with a melted ball of wax stuck to one large piece: A jack-o-lantern. No other trace of the schoolmaster was found.

So, my readers are asking, what happened to Ichabod Crane? Well, it’s difficult to say. Certainly the circumstances of his disappearance were somewhat fantastic. True, Brom Bones did seem to grin a trifle too widely at the mention of the pumpkin shell found on the scene, leading many to suspect that he knew more about the incident than he was letting on. And, yes, there were some who traveled to other parts of the country who claimed that they had met Ichabod Crane, settled down with a nice widow and her children and taking up the practice of law…

All that we know for sure is that Ichabod Crane was never seen in Sleepy Hollow again. Shortly thereafter, Brom Bones and Katrina Van Tassel were married. And every Halloween when the master of the Van Tassel Farm invited his guests to regale him with scary stories, the first one to stand up would invariably relate the tale of the old schoolmaster, never failing to omit the fact that those who had chanced by his now abandoned and rundown schoolhouse swear that they can hear a soft, angelic voice singing that same psalm that the pedagogue was so fond of.

We may never know the truth of what happened in those woods that night, but to the people of Sleepy Hollow, it is a matter of absolute fact that the poor, unfortunate schoolmaster was spirited away by the Headless Horseman.


If You Liked My Story, You Might Enjoy:
  • The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949) This Disney double feature consists of two stories with practically nothing in common. First, Basil Rathbone tells a comic adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows,” then Bing Crosby tells and croons the story of Ichabod Crane. This is notable for being one of the few Disney animated films to end on a less-than-happy note.
  • “Shelly Duvall’s Tall tales & Legends” (TV) Charles Durning narrates and Beverly D’Angelo and Ed Begley, Jr. star as Katrina and Ichabod.
  • Sleepy Hollow (1999) Tim Burton made Ichabod Crane a scientist and a policeman who is sent to Sleepy Hollow to solve the mystery of the Headless Horseman. A loose, but enjoyable adaptation of Irving’s story which includes a chase scene closely inspired by that which appears in the Disney version (Burton often includes these little homages to Disney films as he himself got his start working on their animation staff).
For More Great Stories, Click HERE

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Ghost and the Girl

This story is based on the ghost stories of Ireland, the land of the Banshee, changelings and other supernatural spectres you wouldn’t expect to come from the same place as leprechauns and tin whistles. The main plot is from “The Fate of Frank M’Kenna” by William Carleton, but I have lengthened it and changed small details. One thing I really wanted to convey was the idea that it’s not the ghosts of our dearly departed who need to move on: It’s us. We keep the dead on earth because we can’t let them go. We try to keep them alive for our own selfish reasons and deny them the reward they deserve. I’m not saying we should just erase your dead friends and family from our minds, but, as this story shows, by dwelling on death, we risk missing out on life.

M’Kenna had two sons. The oldest, Tom, was a good boy, clever, hard-working, obedient, and the greatest pride of his father’s life. The youngest, Frank, was willful, defiant, independent and the greatest shame of his father’s life. He refused to go to church, shirked his chores and did pretty much whatever he wanted regardless of his father’s words. Finally, one winter’s morning, Frank had planned to go hunting hares in the woods with a few friends. This, for Frank’s father, was the last straw. “If you don’t come with me and your brother to church, then I hope you never come back again!”

He didn’t mean it, really, it was said in anger, but it still hurt Frank’s feelings. “Whether I come back or not,” he said, “I am going. Now!” And he took up his walking stick and made his way to the forest. Frank’s father instantly regretted what he had said, but he let the boy go and he and Tom went to church.

Frank and his friends spent most of the day pursuing a particularly tricky hare who kept leading them deeper and deeper into the woods. As time wore on, it began to snow. Soon it turned into a blizzard. A terrible snowstorm, the worst seen in years. Frank’s friends wanted to go home at once to avoid getting lost in the woods. But Frank, still seething from what his father had said, was determined to catch that hare after all the trouble it had put them through. His friends tried very hard to convince him, but in the end, they had to give up and run home, leaving Frank alone in the storm.

Frank didn’t come home the next morning, and his father and Tom organized a search of the woods. It was difficult as the ground was covered in a good foot and a half of snow, but the people of the village searched high and low through those woods only to find no trace of Frank. They set out again the next day and the day after that, as the weather got warmer and the snow began to dissipate. On the fourth day after his departure from his father’s house, Frank was found. The snow had melted to reveal his body, lying curled on the cold earth, frozen to death.

There was a house very near where the body was found, owned by a man named Daly, and his own front door was taken off its hinges and used to carry Frank’s body back to town. The funeral procession was a sad one, M’Kenna and Tom sobbing the loudest and begging God and Frank to forgive them their harsh words toward the boy. The body was dressed in Frank’s finest clothes (except for the trousers; they couldn’t find his Sunday trousers, so they had to make do with another pair) and laid to rest in the earth.

It happened that Daly had a daughter of about fourteen who lived in the small house with him and who had, without her father’s knowledge, seen the young man’s corpse being carried away. The night after the funeral, Rose, for that was the girl’s name, woke her father with a terrible scream. When Daly went to see what was the matter, Rose swore that she had seen Frank M’Kenna standing in her room. Daly searched the house and saw no trace of the boy and assured his daughter that Frank was gone to his rest. Rose agreed and went back to sleep.

But the very next night, Frank appeared again. Another scream, another search of the house, another return to sleep for father and daughter. This happened every night for many days. Soon, Rose learned not to scream and instead simply covered her head in the bed sheets, only to find Frank gone when she looked out again. The nights wore on and Rose actually got used to Frank’s visits. So much so that, about a fortnight after his first appearance, she actually dared to speak to him.

“Why are you here?” she asked. “Why are you haunting this house?”

“This house was my C√≥iste Bodhar[1],” said the ghost of Frank M’Kenna. “The door bore me to my final rest. I have business on earth that I must complete before I can move on.”

“What is it?”

“My Sunday trousers. It might seem like a small thing, but it is important to me. My friends took them before my body was dressed for my funeral and have since been fighting over who gets to keep them. None of them may keep them. If I was not buried in them, they must be given to charity.”

The next day, Rose told the villagers what Frank’s ghost had told her. Indeed, she was correct. Frank’s friends had been fighting over the trousers, but, after Rose’s testimony, they were promptly donated to the local parrish. The people were astounded by this news of Frank’s visitation. And all the rest of that day, it was all anyone talked or thought about. And that night, Frank appeared to Rose again, and she told him that his wishes had been fulfilled.

“Thank you, Rose,” said Frank. “Now perhaps I can go to my rest.”

But, curiously enough, he did not. That night he and Rose went on talking for a while before he vanished. She told everyone of their conversation and, once again, the ghost of Frank M’Kenna was all anyone was thinking about all that day. He appeared again and again in this way and he and Rose talked on all sorts of interesting subjects. God, Heaven, angels and so on. Rose learned more about the life after this one than any living human being has ever known. And every day she hungered for her meetings with Frank and every night she reveled in them.

It is said that we often hurt the ones we love and that’s precisely what Rose was doing. After many, many visits and many, many talks, Frank felt bold enough to ask Rose for a request.

“Of course, Frank,” she said, for she was quite fond of him by this time. “Anything you like.”

“You must forget about me.”


“I told you when we met that I had business with the living that needed to be finished before I could move on, and that was true. But now something else is keeping me bound to this plane.”

“What’s that?”

“You. You keep me here. Every day you wait for me to appear. You long for the wisdom from beyond the grave which I grant you. And when a living soul clings too tightly to the memory of one who is deceased, it prevents that spirit from moving on.”

“But, seeing you is the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to me.”

“You are very young, Rose. Too young to dwell on death. There is so much wonder in this world, and we only get to know it for a short while. Let me go, Rose. Live your own life.”

A tear rolled down Rose’s cheek. “I’ll miss you, Frank.”

“Don’t be sad, Rose. We’ll see each other again. But hopefully not for a very long time.”

Rose smiled in spite of her sadness. She lowered her head and closed her eyes and whispered “goodbye.” When she looked up again Frank was gone.

That was the last time Rose ever saw Frank. She stopped looking forward to his visits and occupied herself with other pursuits. Frank left this world for good and all, but Rose didn’t quite keep her promise: She never forgot Frank entirely. And let’s hope none of us ever forget the wisdom he passed on: There is so much wonder in this world, and we only get to know it for a short while. 

So know it well.


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[1]  Pronounced “KOE-shta-BOW-er,” meaning  “Death Coach.”

Friday, October 14, 2011

Joseph and the Coat of Many Colors

I sincerely hope that my inclusion of a story from scripture among those of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen doesn’t offend anyone. The fact is, whether you believe in the absolute truth of the Bible or not, you can’t deny that it is full of some very excellent stories from which we can all learn a lot. Since this blog is dedicated to great stories, I thought it would be appropriate to include one of my favorites from the Old Testament.

Many, many years ago…actually, longer ago than that…no, that’s not long ago enough. It was so long ago, can I put this? Remember John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln? Remember when Columbus "discovered" America? Remember when Mel Gibson was cool and not just crazy? Yeah, waaay before that.

It was a long time ago; I just want to be clear on that point.

In any event, all the years ago we just got done discussing, there lived a man named Jacob who had many wives and twelve sons. They were all fine boys who wanted to make their father proud, but Jacob’s favorite was Joseph, because he was born late in Jacob’s life, at a time when he thought he would be unable to father any more children. So Jacob doted on Joseph and lavished affection on him. This, of course, made the other brothers (each of whom had a name and personality of their own, but there were eleven of them and we haven't got all day) very jealous and angry at Joseph. Now, technically, it wasn’t Joseph’s fault that his father played favorites, but that wasn’t the only reason they had an axe to grind.

It was also because they had a lot of wood to cut down and if they didn't grind that axe they, huh? Yeah, okay, you may be right. Still, you can't expect all the jokes to be good. Moving on:

The main reason Joseph's brothers disliked him was that he was born with an unusual talent for interpreting dreams. This was all well and good, but then Joseph took to interpreting his own dreams: “Last night I had this dream where the twelve of us were all out in the fields harvesting corn, and we each had a sheath of corn in our hands. Mine was tall and sturdy and gold, but the rest of you had shriveled, green sheaths. And then, the strangest thing haeppened. All your sheaths turned and bowed to mine. I wonder if that means that someday I’m going to be in a position of authority above the rest of you. What do you guys think?”

What they thought was that Joseph was full of himself and they didn’t like the idea of having to bow to their own brother. But the final straw was when Jacob gave his favorite son a gift: A wonderful coat in all the colors of the rainbow, and one or two colors he'd never seen before. It was a beautiful, multi-colored coat (which, curiously enough, did not clash with anything Joseph owned) which made the plain, brown, sheepskin coats of his brothers look quite shabby. And when they saw Joseph, parading around in his new coat-of-many-colors, talking about how important his dreams said he was going to be, they resolved to get rid of the smug jerk once and for all.

Bright and early the next morning, the twelve sons of Jacob went out to tend the flock. Everything was going just fine until Joseph’s brothers grabbed him, pulled off his coat and threw him in a deep pit. The flock was, of course, outraged, and agreed to give very little wool come wintertime as payback. The brothers were just about to leave him down there, when some travelers passed. Travelers in the rather unsavory habit of buying young people to sell as slaves. The brothers thought about it and decided that there was no point in letting Joseph go to waste, so they pulled him out of the well and sold him to these slave traders, who dragged him away to sell him in Egypt. Then the brothers slaughtered a goat (further incensing the flock) and rubbed its blood and insides all over Joseph’s coat, which they brought to their father as proof that his favorite son was dead.

Which is just about the yuckiest thing we've seen in any of these stories, huh?

But now we leave Jacob and his eleven remaining sons and go to Egypt, where Joseph was quickly bought by a man named Potiphar, captain of the Pharaoh’s guard. Being naturally hard-working, Joseph soon outstripped all the other slaves of Potiphar’s home and  Potiphar was so impressed with Joseph, that he promoted him to the position of head servant, making him Potiphar’s right hand man. So everything was actually going pretty well for Joseph…until Mrs. Potiphar.

Hmm...this bit's going to be hard to do if I want to maintain my G-rating, huh? Well, bear with me:

Mrs. Potiphar was not what you might call a faithful spouse. This, coupled with the fact that Joseph was young and very handsome with one of those "winning smiles" you so often hear about, meant more than a few unsavory glances in his direction. Joseph rejected her, of course; he’d never do anything like that, but Mrs. Potiphar was determined to get what she wanted. One day, when they were alone together, Mrs. Potiphar reached out and grabbed Joseph roughly by his clothes. He ran away, causing his clothes to tear off in the woman’s hand. So when Potiphar saw Joseph’s bare chest under his torn garment and his wife crying out, lying that Joseph had attacked her, he assumed the worst, and put his most trusted servant in prison.

Yes, things seemed to be going pretty bad for Joseph once again. But somebody was watching over him in that dingy cell. Somebody was looking down on Joseph and preparing to lift him up into the sunlight. And this was done, as it usually is, in so roundabout and unlikely a fashion, that many people would say that it was just a coincidence, or a lucky break, or just one of those things. In any case, what happened was this: Joseph had two cellmates, both of whom had previously served the Pharaoh. And one night, both woke up having had strange and disturbing dreams. Joseph, being somewhat adept at interpreting dreams, offered to tell his companions what their dreams meant.

Of course, the last time Joseph had interpreted anyone's dreams, it had gotten him betrayed and sold into slavery by his own brothers. Still, he reasoned, that was unlikely to happen again, so he gave it a go.

“I saw a vine with three large, ripe grapes,” said the first prisoner, the Pharaoh’s cupbearer, “which I plucked, held over Pharaoh’s cup and crushed into wine. Then I gave the cup to Pharaoh and he smiled. Then I woke up.”

(Which people always say when they're telling you about a dream, don't they? Why? Of course you woke up! That's how every dream in the history of mankind has ended.) 

“The three grapes mean three days,” said Joseph. “Three days from now, Pharaoh will pardon you and return you to your old job.”

Now it was the turn of the second prisoner, a baker, who was understandably hopeful upon hearing his companion's dream. “I was carrying a basket on my head with three fat loaves of bread. Then a big black bird came and started eating the bread, I lost my balance and dropped everything. That’s when I woke up.”

(See? What'd I tell ya?)

“I’m sorry,” said Joseph. “I am so very sorry. But the three loaves also represent three days. Three days from now…Pharaoh will have you executed.” And, sure enough, in three days’ time, both predictions came true. The cupbearer was pardoned, the poor baker sentenced to death, and Joseph was alone, and beginning to feel like that's how he'd be for the rest of his days...

But, once again, somebody, somewhere had other plans for Joseph, and this time they involved a very useful ally: The Pharaoh himself. The God-King of Egypt, the supreme ruler of the land. For shortly after pardoning the first servant and executing the other, Pharaoh had a strange dream of his own. None of his advisors or wisemen knew what it meant, but then the cupbearer was bold enough to mention that, during his stint in prison, he met a man with a gift for interpreting dreams. Desperate for an explanation, Pharaoh had Joseph sent for and the poor boy was brought before the king and asked to interpret his dream:

“I was standing on my pyramid," said Pharaoh, "looking out over my land, when I saw seven big, fat, healthy-looking cows pass before me. But right behind them were seven thin, sickly, undernourished cows. Right before my eyes, the skinny cows ate the fat cows. Which, strangely enough, did not make them any fatter. So what does it mean?”

Joseph thought for a moment, then said, “For the next seven years, Egypt will know prosperity like never before. It will be the best period of food production in history. You will have more food than you know what to do with. Which is good, because the following seven years will be years of famine and desolation. So, if I were you, my liege, I would set up some kind of rationing program to set aside the extra food to distribute during the famine. You should fine a wise, discerning man to oversee it all.”

“You are the only one who was able to inerpret my dream,” said Pharaoh. “So who could be wiser and more discerning to you?” And with a word and a wave from Pharaoh, Joseph was pardoned of all his crimes, lifted up from the bonds of servitude and appointed as Pharaoh’s right hand. He was given a palace to live in, gold and jewels. He had many servants, rich clothing, a really hot wife (which is another story altogether), and in all of Egypt only Pharaoh was above him. And, as Joseph had predicted, for the next seven years, there was plenty of food for everyone…also, as he had predicted, the following seven were difficult. But, thanks to the system Joseph had put in place, no one went hungry. Everyone had plenty to eat, thanks to Joseph…

Everyone in Egypt, that is. But the famine stretched far beyond the borders of Pharaoh’s domain. In fact, back in Canaan, where Joseph was born, people were hurt the most. Poor Jacob, his eleven sons, and what was left of the flock were on the verge of starvation, and Jacob himself was old and getting very weak. Knowing that there was plenty of food in Egypt, the brothers went there to see if they could collect some food to bring home for their father.

There is, of course, a reason why all eleven of them left their ailing father alone but for one particularly loyal sheep instead of some of them staying behind...but we don't have time to get into that right now. Maybe if I hadn't wasted so much time with stupid jokes earlier in the story. Oh well, on to Egypt:

They were brought before Joseph and they explained their position and made their request. Now Joseph recognized his eleven brothers at once, but between the years of servitude, the hot Egyptian son, the new clothes and the traditional makeup of Egyptian royalty, none of them recognized him! And when he realized this, Joseph, in his grace and wisdom, did what only seemed natural under the circumstances:

He messed with their heads.

“So,” said Joseph in his Deep Scary Voice, “you expect me to just hand over Egypt’s precious food to you simple farm folk because you give me some sob story about a sick father? Why should I? What are you? Spies? Here to see how strong our defenses are?” The brothers then began to beg, plead and grovel in a fairly revolting display of pathetic toadying and he relented, as he had always intended to, instructing them to take as much as they needed…while they were doing so, however, Joseph went to his home, partly because he didn't want them to hear him laughing over his prank, but mostly because he had something else planned.

Once at his home, he found a silver goblet adorned with jewels, and snuck it into the sack of one of his brothers. Then he waited until they were ready to go home and told them to stop. “My silver cup is missing! One of you must have taken it! I will search every one of you until I find it!” Joseph and his guards searched the bewildered brothers, only to find the cup in the sack of Joseph's brother, Benjamin. “You will be thrown in prison for the rest of your life for this crime!” bellowed Joseph, and then something happened he had not expected. Actually, ten somethings.


“You can’t!”

“Please, don’t!”

“Take me instead!”

All ten of the other brothers stepped forward to defend Benjamin. Each one insisting that their brother was innocent and begging for leniency. “Many years ago,” they explained, “we lost one of our brothers. It was our fault. And we have missed him ever since. We cannot bear to lose another member of our family.”

That was all Joseph needed to hear. For now he knew that they were truly sorry for what they had done. And when someone you care about is truly, truly sorry for something they did to you, there’s really only one thing you can do: Forgive them. Joseph revealed his true identity to his brothers and they were overjoyed to see him. The twelve brothers were reunited at last and they embraced each other over and over as Joseph told them his remarkable story. They felt guilty hearing the hardships he had endured, but Joseph forgave them all. In fact, he did a lot more than that. He invited them all to come and live with him in Egypt, and Jacob joined them and the whole family lived in happiness and prosperity forever afterward.

Or, to put it another way, they all lived happily ever after!


If You Liked My Story, You Might Enjoy:
  • Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1999) This video version of the popular broadway musical by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice stars Donny Osmond as Joseph
  • Joseph: King of Dreams (2000) One of the first direct-to-video features Dreamworks animation ever produced. An attempt at a follow up to the highly successful (and, in my opinion, far superior) Prince of Egypt. Ben Affleck, Steven Weber and Mark Hamill lend their voices
  • VeggieTales: The Ballad of Little Joe (2003) Hey, they’re all video releases, huh? Weird. Anyway, the popular children’s video series turned the story into a western. Very entertaining.

NEXT WEEK:  "3 Silly Stories (featuring Leroy!!)"