Every so often, I'll be posting a piece of writing here -- essays, introductions, short short stories, etc.
The Winter Wraith
Henry sensed resignation in the posture of the Christmas tree. It slouched toward the living-room window as if peering out. There was no way he could plug its lights in, cheer it up. The thing was dryer than the Sandman’s mustache, its spine a stick of kindling. The least vibration brought a shower of needles. Ornaments fell of their own accord. Some broke, which he had to sweep and vacuum, initiating the descent of more needles, more ornaments. The cat [LR1] took some as toys and batted them around the kitchen floor. Glittering evidence in the field indicated Bothwell, the dog, had acquired a taste for tinsel.
Mero had told him not to take it down. She had a special way she wrapped the ornaments when boxing them and he wasn’t about to argue for doing it by himself. At the end of that first week she was away in China, though, the presence of the tree became an imposition. He described it in his Friday journal as, “A distant cousin, once accused of pyromania, arriving for an indefinite visit.”
In the middle of his work, in the middle of the grocery store, when walking around the lake with the dog, the spirit of that sagging pine was always waiting by the front window in the living room of his thoughts. Then Mero finally called on FaceTime from Shanghai. Her image was distorted as if he was seeing her through rippling water. In a heartbeat, the picture froze, but she kept talking. He told her he missed her and she said the same. She said Shanghai was amazing, enormous, and that she liked the young woman who was her translator and guide. She asked about Bothwell[LR2] . Henry spoke about the freezing wind, the snow. She told him to be careful driving, and then he told her about the tree. “It’s shot,” he said. “I gotta take it down.”
Suddenly the call cut out and he couldn’t get her back. He wanted to tell her he loved her and hear her voice some more, but in a way he understood[LR3] . It was like dialing another world. The distance between Ohio and Shanghai made him shiver.
He called Bothwell and the border collie appeared. “Do you want to go for a walk?” he asked. The dog’s blue eyes [LR4] were intense and it cocked its head to the side as if to say, “What do you think?” So Henry put his coat and hat and mittens on, and out they went, over the snow, across the yard, through the orchard, past the garden, into the farmer’s winter fields that surrounded the property. Corn stubble and snow stretched out to the horizon in three directions. It was sundown, orange and pink in the west, a deep royal blue to the east where he spotted the moon.
They headed toward the windbreak of white oak about a quarter-mile into the field. The frozen gusts that blew across the open land sliced right through him and he struggled to hold closed his jacket with the broken zipper. They entered the thicket of giant old trees. Under the clacking, empty branches, last light turned to mist and shadow. He sat down on a fallen log and looked to the west. Bothwell sniffed around and then sat behind him to escape the gusts that eddied among the trees. Henry had a hell of a time lighting a cigarette. Once he got it going, though, he made an executive decision. The first part was to open a bottle of wine when he got back to the house; the second to dismantle the tree and get rid of it by the following afternoon.
He pictured how he would do it. Put the ornaments in a pile on the dining-room table. Cover them with a table cloth to hide them from the cat and leave them there till Mero got back. Pull the lights free. Grab off the cursed tinsel in handfuls. Kick the tree in the spleen and wrestle it to the floor. Remove the base. Drag the corpse through the dining room, the kitchen, to the sliding door. Deposit the remains out back in the snow. Burn incense to mask the odor of rotted Christmas. Sweep and vacuum. Two hours for the whole ordeal, he figured, and spoke into the wind, “Adios, motherfucker.”
Then Bothwell made a strange noise and Henry felt something behind him. He stood up quickly and turned, glimpsing what looked in the dimmest of light like a wolf. Gray and tan, bushy coat. It skulked around a tree and disappeared. He knew there were no wolves in Ohio, but the creature was too big for a coyote. The idea of it sneaking about[LR5] in the dark sent a shot of adrenaline through him and his heart pounded. He called to the dog [LR6] and they left the trees in a rush. Somewhere between the smoke and the wolf, night had dropped. Unable to see where he was stepping, he twisted his leg on corn stubble and his knee began to ache. He hobbled toward the light of the house, peering over his shoulder every few yards. By the time he reached the kitchen he could hardly walk. He pulled the cork on a bottle of Malbec standing on one leg.
Grabbing a glass and the bottle, he hopped into the living room. The tree was waiting for him. As he sat on the couch, a shower of needles fell, followed by an ornament. It hit a branch on the way down, shattering into three jagged scoops and a handful of glitter. He watched it happen, knew it was the ornament Mero had bought for their first Christmas together. He decided in an instant that he’d wait till spring to tell her[LR7] . Bothwell came in and curled up by his feet. Henry drank wine and turned on the TV.
He woke suddenly hours later to the dark, in bed. His mouth was dry. He had no recollection of getting off the couch and coming upstairs. Looking at the clock, he saw it was only 3:13. He laid his head back on the pillow and closed his eyes. That’s when he realized there was a quiet but distinct rhythmic noise coming from downstairs. He could barely hear it, like a voice whispering a touch too loud. The first thing he did was call to Bothwell for courage. The dog was already at his side of the bed. Henry sat up, put his feet on the floor, and listened. The voice continued mumbling on and then broke out into a cry for help: one long, extended scream diminishing into silence, followed by a loud thud.
Henry jumped up, his heart racing, his hair—what there was of it—tingling. He reached for the wooden baton he kept behind the night table next to the bed. At the top of the stairs, he stood aside and let the dog go first. He took each step slowly, protecting his bad knee and in no hurry to find out what was going on. Before he reached the bottom, it struck him that the noise must have been coming from the TV he’d never turned off. This made him brave and, holding his weapon in front of him, he limped boldly into the living room.
The light was still on. “Great,” he said, gazing down upon the fallen Christmas tree. Although it had slouched so long toward the window, when it fell, it went over backwards, across the middle of the living-room floor. Ornaments everywhere. The useless water in the metal base had soaked into the carpet. The dry needle fallout was epic. He looked at the dog. The dog looked at him. Henry stepped forward and kicked the tree. It shuddered, dropping more of itself. He shook his head and looked across the room. The TV was off.
He and Bothwell searched each of the downstairs rooms, just to be on the safe side, then Henry started a pot of coffee. He decided not to wait for morning but to dive in right then, dismantle the thing, and get it out of the house. While the coffee brewed, he cleared the dining-room table and took another look at the remains. Leaning against the archway connecting living room and dining room, he told himself he’d just have to get his head around it[LR8] . He went and poured himself a cup of coffee and came back to sit on the couch. The cat, Turtle[LR9] , was at the other end. It struck Henry that she’d probably sat through the entire misadventure—the tree weaving, gasping, calling out for help, and then crashing to the floor. He remembered her sitting in the same position when he’d lumbered down the stairs. “Please, don’t get too worked up over anything,” he said to the cat. Turtle looked at him and then stood. At that moment, the TV came on. Henry lurched and grunted in surprise. The cat jumped down from the couch, and he saw that she had been lying on the remote.
His hands found the needles sharper than when the tree was alive. He fetched the rubber gloves from beneath the kitchen sink and put them on. The work proved exhausting, all that bending and the often tedious exercise of untwining an ornament hanger from a branch. At times he had to wrestle the dead weight of the thing, rolling it to retrieve ornaments crushed beneath it, lifting it to open the sharp branches so he could reach in and rescue the angel from where she’d fallen into the belly of the beast. Don’t forget the icicles, he heard Mero say in his mind. Plastic icicles, thin as pipe cleaners, perfectly transparent. There were six. After locating four, he said, “Fuck it,” and gave up.
At sunrise of a bitter, overcast day, Henry dragged the tree through the dining room and kitchen, then out the sliding door. Despite the fiercely howling wind, in his haste to finish the job he left his jacket inside and was dressed only in a T-shirt. As he slid the corpse over the fresh fall of snow, it left a wake of brown needles. Depositing it next to the garden shed, he took a few steps back. He’d made sure earlier to slip on his boots, so he charged forward and kicked the tree. His boot slid under the trunk and lifted it into the air. His next move would have been a crushing stomp to the midsection, but when he brought his foot down, the bad knee of his other leg went out, and he slipped on the snow and fell. [LR10]
After sweeping and vacuuming and moving the coffee table and chairs back in front of the window, he lay down on the couch and grabbed the remote. Not even 10:00 am and he found Jack Palance in black and white, The House of Numbers. He maneuvered the couch pillow under his head, then closed his eyes and let the sound of the twins-and-prison plot lead him to sleep. He woke at 4:15 pm and glanced at the window. From his supine position, all he could see was the dark gray sky.[LR11] He heard the wind, though, and before he got up and looked, he knew it was snowing, big flakes angling down from the west.
He went to the kitchen and made a fresh pot of coffee. Still dazed from sleep, he leaned against the kitchen sink and stared out the window. He watched the empty branches bend, and in the distance, across the field, [LR12] the world filled up with snow. “The new ice age,” he said to his reflection. When his gaze shifted to the garden shed, he blinked and looked again. He leaned over forward to get his glasses closer to the glass. For a moment, he went so numb that even his knee stopped aching.
This time he put on his jacket and hat and mittens. He called for Bothwell and together they went out the sliding door. The snow was on its way to becoming ice and the wind was fierce. Covering his face with one arm, he made his way toward the garden shed. He believed the tree was still there, just covered by a small drift. When he reached the spot where he’d dumped it, he turned his back to the wind and looked down. Seeing a rise in the snow, he toed the white mound but felt nothing beneath it. A minute later, he’d cleared the spot, pushing the snow aside with his boots, and was staring at frozen ground.
“Where?[LR13] ” he said to Bothwell, and although he laughed, a current of fear cut through the confusion. He looked up quickly and scanned the darkening yard to see if the thing had been blown away. The wind on the plains was strong enough—over the summer it had lifted a table on the patio and flipped it, turning its glass top into [LR14] jagged, ice-like chips. Seeing no sign of the corpse in the distance, he started back into the orchard to check the shadows beneath the trees. He and Bothwell walked around the entire property but found nothing, save that at some point he’d left the garage light on.
Entering the garage through the side door, he found instant relief from the snow and wind. Bothwell followed him in. Henry looked over the stacks of unopened boxes he’d never unpacked after moving in two years earlier. It was all books, thousands of them. He smelled their damp molder and had a memory flash of the warehouse scene at the end of Citizen Kane. A scrabbling sound followed fast by a desperate squeal came from far back in the hangar-sized structure. The dog barked. Henry flipped the light off and they headed into[LR15] the house.[LR16]
Later, sitting in his office in front of his computer and sipping coffee, he leaned back and took a break from the irritation of his writing. His thoughts wandered and he pictured the Christmas tree miles away in the dark, slouching through drifts to the edge of Route 70 and sticking out a branch. “Cali or the North Pole?” Henry considered the desiccated pine’s journey west—the truckers, the rest stops, the mountain vistas—until his[LR17] reverie was interrupted by a horrendous clank that shuddered through the house from somewhere below. Bothwell leaped up from where he was lying near the door, his ears at attention.
Henry wished he’d brought the baton upstairs. Still, the noise didn’t sound like someone forcing a door or window. It had that unmistakable sense of finality to it, as if the God of Trouble had smote some major appliance once and for all. “Burst pipe? Water heater? Something electric?” He ran through a list as he limped downstairs, Bothwell leading the way. The lights in the hallway, living room, dining room, kitchen all came on when he flipped their switches, and he was grateful for that. He looked around to see if Turtle had knocked over a vase or picture frame, maybe slid a glass off the counter in the bathroom, but for once the cat was innocent. The front porch door and sliding door in the back were both locked. He ran the water to check for a lack of pressure but the flow was steady and strong.
The dog followed him around the kitchen as he searched for the flashlight. “This is unparalleled bullshit,” he said to Bothwell, who could barely hide his excitement over the promise of action at such a late hour. It took Henry twenty minutes to go through the various kitchen-junk drawers, checking each at least twice before he found the flashlight. Another ten minutes went on locating [LR18] batteries. The beam it emitted when finally operational was a vague pretense of light. He found the baton where he’d left it in the living room and then went into the hallway, to the basement door. He opened it. “Forsake all hope,” he said to the dog.
Standing at the top of those worn steps leading into darkness, an image of the tree returned to him, and this time it wasn’t headed west. This time, it had never left. A reek of dampness and subtle mildew rolled up and engulfed him. He thought of the horror movie basement cliché as he flipped on the light switch and took his first step. Turtle appeared out of nowhere and brushed past him, a black blur diving down the stairs. “No!” he yelled after the cat, but that was pointless.
The house was over a hundred years old and he’d never heard of a “wet basement” before they bought it. Back in Jersey, where they’d come from, the words “wet basement” would have been a deal-breaker. But old farmhouses weren’t built with rec rooms or indoor Ping-Pong tables in mind. The basement was basically a foundational necessity, a place to store things raised up on pallets, since water was expected at certain times of the year. Henry had to duck as he stepped beneath the lintel. There was one dim lightbulb hanging from a chain in the middle of the main part of a concrete chamber.
He used the baton to rip down a prodigious cobweb as he made his way from one appliance to the next, laying his hand lightly on each to see if it was trembling with life. The water heater was fine and the dehumidifier was doing its thing[LR19] . Then he touched the furnace. It was silent, no vibration, stone cold. “That ain’t good,” he said. The dog sat down on the bottom step, as if reluctant to commit a paw to the underground. Henry flipped on the flashlight and moved toward the dark recesses of the cellar and the adjoining concrete closet without a door, a narrow space where the fuse box hung.
Often, during spring, the water rose in that niche as high as four or five inches, and he’d once seen a toad hop out of it into the greater basement. Luckily the ground outside was frozen and the floor dry. He ran the beam of the flashlight over the different fuses to see if one had popped, but they were all unmarked and he really had no idea what he was looking for[LR20] . Mero was the one who always dealt with the fuses.
“We’re gonna freeze our asses off tonight,” he said. When he stepped back into the basement, he noticed Bothwell retreating up the stairs. “Traitor,” he shouted, intending to follow as quickly as possible. As he headed toward [LR21] the steps, however, he realized he had no idea where Turtle had gotten to. He aimed the tepid[LR22] beam into dark corners and made the psss-psss-psss noise Mero always used to summon the cat. After two dozen pssses, he called out, “You can stay down here all winter, then.” As he made for the steps, he heard a meow. He turned and aimed the beam at a spot on the wall next to the water heater.
He’d forgotten the hole there, a roughly foot-and-a-half-by-one-foot gap in the concrete that led into the foundation.[LR23] Why it was there, he had no idea. He wondered if perhaps a pipe had been shoved through from outside at some point. Or a poorly covered-over coal chute, maybe? He stepped up to it and shone the light inside. Turtle’s green eyes caught the weak glow and made the most of it. She was about four feet into the tunnel. He tried another “Psss-psss-psss.” A meow answered. “Come on, Turtle,” he said. “Come on.” Every time he made the psss noise, the cat meowed but stayed where it was. “I hate you,” he told her. The bright green eyes blinked.
When the cat finally moved, she did so slowly. She appeared at the opening and leaped down onto the floor. That’s when he distinctly heard the porch door open with a bang, heard the whoosh of the storm enter the kitchen above. He was sure of it. He felt the burst of adrenaline shoot through him, yet he was stiff with fear. There was no spit to swallow. The harder he gripped the baton, the less he believed he would be able to wield it if he had to. Bothwell backed down the stairs into view. His hackles were up and he was growling. Henry heard footsteps and dropped the flashlight. He managed to creep to the bottom of the steps. “If you leave now, I won’t shoot you,” he shouted. “The police are on their way.”
There was more movement above but he couldn’t track it. Just one slow, clomping footstep after another. Out of some perverse impulse, he made his move. Gripping the baton, he raised it over his head and lurched up the stairs [LR24] in a woefully executed surprise attack. Using his elbows on the door jambs, he propelled himself in a stumble down the hall and into the kitchen, Bothwell barking at his side. “Swing for the fence,” Henry whispered.
The door was wide open and the cold air swept in around him. He went to it immediately and shut it. Only one step ahead of paralyzing fear, he knew he couldn’t rest, plunging into room after room, expecting the intruder in every one. In the downstairs bedroom, he instructed Bothwell to look under the bed. They checked all the closets. When Turtle jumped out from behind the shower curtain, Henry flailed with the baton and destroyed a towel rack.
Upstairs, out of breath, his knee screaming, he made the rounds of all the rooms but found no one. Half-relieved, he said, “What a night,” to the dog as they made their way down from the second floor. Back in the kitchen, he looked for his phone and found it on the counter. Without relinquishing the baton[LR25] , he dialed the police. There was a long span of silence and then the line sparked with static. He tried to get through twice more and gave up. “Here’s another forklift full of shit,” he told Bothwell, tossing the phone on the counter. The dog’s expression as much as said, “You’re getting a little dramatic now.” Henry nodded in agreement and paused to think it through. That’s when he noticed something he’d missed earlier: the kitchen floor was littered with brown needles. He’d been so intent on attack, he’d trodden right through them, never looking down.
He gripped the baton and Bothwell tensed. The trail of brown needles led off into the dining room. Man and dog moved slowly, quietly toward the darkened entrance. He could have sworn he’d left all the lights on downstairs. He stopped and listened. No sound except the wind. Lifting the baton, he flipped the light switch. Instinctively crouching, he tensed against an assault—if only from the sudden light. When Bothwell didn’t bark, Henry knew there was no one there. The house was perfectly still.
“Nothing,” he said to the dog, and decided to make yet another pot of coffee. Before he could move, though, some speck of brightness caught his eye and drew his gaze to the dining-room table. The dark green cloth resembled a miniature landscape, what with the ornaments trapped beneath it. He stepped closer. There were brown needles scattered amid the rolling hills, and in one of the more prominent valleys lay, side by side, the two missing icicles he’d abandoned on the tree. He reached out but didn’t touch them.
“Come on, now,” he said to the ceiling.
He muttered through two glasses of wine, his breath becoming vapor in the especially frigid air of the kitchen, and the cold finally drove him to forsake the bottle. He wrapped up in three blankets and propped himself in a corner of the couch with the lights out. The baton lay only inches away on the coffee table. Bothwell was next to him, curled in a ball, and Turtle stretched out along the rim of the pillow on which he rested his head. After a while, his eyes adjusted and he could see the snow coming down again beyond the window. At some point he heard the heater kick back on and the dog gave a whimper of appreciation. When he shut his eyes to better hear the voices in the wind, sleep took him like an avalanche, and he wound up in the back seat of a cab, streaking along the main street of Shanghai, on his way to meet Mero for lunch.