Copyright © 2014 by Brian Bixby
I went to see my cousin Bob, his wife, and family this Christmas season. Generally, I’d been avoidin’ Bob. He keeps his house so warm that he and his wife often prance around in their skivvies. It was uncomfortable for me, bein’ a widower and all, and Bob’s wife not bein’ entirely homely and all, so I stayed away. But I was married agin, newly wed, even, so it was OK.
Well, Bob was still the same. He and his wife were wearing nothing but nightgowns, and the three kids were nekkid. But they was little kids, so that was OK. My wife, who was born in Boston but for all her education sometimes just doesn’t know when to keep quiet, asked my cousin, “Why do you keep the house so hot?”
Well, his wife just gave a little laugh and got up and left the room, the kids trailin’ after her. Bob watched her go, and then turned to us. “Don’t mind her,” he said. “She knows I’m goin’ to tell the story of why the house is so warm, and she’s heard it too many times.”
And this is the story my cousin Bob told us. He swears it’s true, and Bob’s not a lyin’ man. But I dare say he may have stretched the truth a mite, here and there.
It all began several years ago, that winter we had that was so cold. You remember that, Andy? Cold snap set in early December. And then we got snow, and it got colder. The snow got so hard that the highway department’s plow broke, and they had to send to Albany for a replacement. And it broke, too. Haven’t had such a tough snowfall ever since.
Well, the cold that went with it was no picnic, either. Back in those days, I was livin’ in the ole family place, where my brother Jason keeps house now. It was so cold in the barn there that the cows were givin’ ice cream. Tiger the barn cat chased a rat out of the barn and they both froze solid. Had to bring Tiger into the house and warm him up by the fireplace. He thawed out, all right, but hasn’t been right in the head ever since. Sort of like Cousin Farley.
Even since Ma had died, Pa had been pretty cheap about heatin’ the ole place. He kept a fire running in the livin’ room, and that was it. We all had to double up in bed to stay warm. I had to double up with my sister Myrtle. Now I see the way you look, Andy. Wasn’t nothin’ like that. It’s the Wheelers over at Four Corners who are like that. Besides, sometimes Myrtle’s boyfriend would come join us and I always made room for him.
Well, it got so cold that it even drove the ghosts indoors. The graveyard’s right there by the church, so that’s where they all went. They say the church pews were full of ’em, and Parson Munroe kept the heatin’ system goin’ in the church ’round the clock out of kindness to them. Though if you ask me, I bet he just didn’t want them in the parsonage.
We hadn’t heard anything about this. It had been too cold to leave the house with no less than six layers of clothing, and we hadn’t seen anyone outside the family for a week. So it was a surprise to us when a ghost showed up in our livin’ room, trying to keep warm. We thought it was kind of an imposition. We hadn’t asked the ghost to come visit. But you don’t turn away a neighbor. Though at first no one could figure out who the ghost was. That kind of killed conversation, not knowin’. You wouldn’t want to bring up the ole scandal about Selectman Harris if this was one of his kin, now, would ya?
So the ghost was standin’ near the fire, and we all began to notice somethin’ unusual. Seemed the fire wasn’t givin’ out as much heat as usual. Pa piled on more wood, but it got colder and colder. Finally, we realized that the ghost was suckin’ up all the heat. Well, that was a mite of an inconvenience. But we didn’t know what to do about it, not knowin’ the ghost’s name and all. Can’t treat a ghost like a total stranger when it’s suckin’ up all the heat in the house. Got to get on speakin’ terms with it first.
So we was in a quand’ry. And then Aunt Minnie stood up out of her rockin’ chair and said, “Hey, you, Sibbel Rowe. You just take yourself off out of here. Bad enough you come visitin’ without an invitation, but stealin’ all the heat out of honest people’s fireplaces is just plain rude.”
Well, wouldn’t you know, it was Sibbel. We hadn’t recognized her, because she looked just like the pretty young thing she’d been when she was 17. Guess ghosts have their vanity, too; Sibbel didn’t want to come back lookin’ like the wreck she’d been when we’d last seen her.
Still, our blood ran cold, and not just because Sibbel was stealin’ all our heat. You see, up until then, no one knew for sure that Sibbel was dead. Her husband Tom had said she’d run off with some Boy Scout troop leader. And then he’d gone and drunk himself to death. Well, he was no great loss, and Sibbel, dead or alive, was better off without him. I was glad to see his ghost warn’t with her. Still, this posed a problem. The only way any of us knew of that you could lay a ghost was to send it back to where the body was buried. And none of us knew where Sibbel’s body was. Probably Tom had killed her and dumped her in an old quarry, but there are a lot of those around.
Sibbel hadn’t taken kindly to Aunt Minnie’s words. She slid over to Aunt Minnie. Yeah, slid. It’s like she moved without moving her legs. And then she touched Aunt Minnie.
Aunt Minnie let out a scream and fell to the floor. She was taken all over in shivers. Next thing we knew, she was getting’ cold and turnin’ blue. Great-Aunt Rose declared this was an emergency that even witch hazel wouldn’t cure, and we took Aunt Minnie to the hospital. Only time I’d ever seen the car on skis, by the way. Well, at the hospital, they put all sorts of heatin’ pads around Aunt Minnie. They seemed to help a little. Aunt Minnie went from blue to purple as some blood got flowing through her. Good thing she wasn’t in any shape to see herself. It was awful. You should never wear purple after Labor Day, and Aunt Minnie would rather have died than be caught wearin’ purple. Seein’ she seemed to be dyin’, maybe she knew.
Parson Munroe came by the hospital to see Aunt Minnie. She was one of his most faithful church members, havin’ got herself confirmed at age two. They say the only time she ever missed a Sunday service was on leap years, she could never quite get the hang of those. So we told the parson about Sibbel Rowe, and he agreed to come help us out. Which was pretty big of him, Sibbel bein’ a Methodist and all.
We got home. Sibbel didn’t show until nightfall. Parson Munroe stood up, pointed at her, and in his best preachin’ voice said, “Sibbel Rowe, thou art dead and should be lying in thy grave, awaiting the Final Judgment.” He did it swell, you could almost see the Final Judgment comin’ at you.
But Sibbel was a ghost, and maybe they don’t appreciate oratory. She slid over to Parson Munroe, and whispered in his ear. Parson Munroe turned the color of a deadly toadstool, and rushed out of the house without even takin’ his coat. Well, he didn’t get more than ten feet before he froze in place, and we had to bring him back in to the fire to thaw him out. And then we had to tie him up, because he kept tryin’ to get away from Sibbel as fast as he could. Cousin Harold and Uncle Jack carried him back to the parsonage and left him there with his wife. And that’s the last anyone ever saw of Parson Munroe, or his wife.
The next morning it was so cold the sky cracked when the sun came up. And Great-Aunt Rose stood up at breakfast and said, “Enough of this nonsense. I’m going over to Northfield to get Jane Stevenson.” We all tried to talk her out of this, but no one could ever talk Great-Aunt Rose out of anything. So she bundled up under fourteen layers of clothes, and set out on foot to get Jane Stevenson.
Jane was the wonder of the county, not in a kindly way. Her mother had been a reckless one with strange ideas. They say she had been reading a socialist tract, and thought it was so funny that she died laughing, but not before giving birth to Jane. With a start like that, you couldn’t expect Jane to be normal. And she wasn’t. Her right eye was always lookin’ off to the side. The doctors examined her, gave her condition some long Latin name, and said there was no point in fixin’ it, because if they fixed the right eye the left would start lookin’ off to the side instead. The joke that got started even then was that Jane could see around corners.
More importantly, Jane could see ghosts. I mean all the time, not like what was happenin’ right then. She talked funny, too. They say she could say “antidiseststar . . . somein’” real quick four or five times in a row. And she’d meet people and tell them their futures, often bad ones. People blamed her for the dam collapsin’ and washin’ out ten or twelve houses, I forget which. It got so that no one in the county wanted to be named Jane. Mothers refused to give that name to their daughters. Women already named Jane suddenly remembered they had another Christian name and began usin’ it, which is why Al Faye’s wife goes by Johnson.
Great-Aunt Rose came back with Jane the next evenin’, just before the sun set and the sky froze over again. It had been a tough day. Some of the sheep had gotten out of the barn and had turned into freeze-dried mutton standin’ in the pasture. Aunt Hecuba said at least that meant we’d have meat on the table as soon as Pa fired up the chain saw.
Once again, it was evenin’ when Sibbel appeared. Sibbel and Jane stared at each other for a long time. You sort of got the impression that maybe they knew each other pretty well, and seein’ as Jane was known for seein’ ghosts, maybe they did.
Jane finally spoke up. “Sibbel, this has got to stop. Your ectoplasmic rampage transcends the parameters of your quiddity.”
Sibbel looked confused. I guess the rest of us did, too.
Jane got exasperated and raised her voice. “Sibbel, you can keep the parson if you want. I never liked him much. But you’re going to give back Minnie and stop haunting this place, you hear?”
Sibbel slid over and whispered something in Jane’s ear. And then Jane did something I’d never seen her do before. When Jane looked at you, she looked at you normally. She faced you, which meant her right eye was off lookin’ ’round corners, so to speak. But this time, she turned her head so she was lookin’ at Sibbel out of her right eye. And in a low voice, she said, “Well, then Sibbel, I guess I’ll have to take yours. And then where will you be?”
Sibbel tried to back away, but Jane was faster, and grabbed her. And then the two gals got to wrasslin’. I’ve seen girls wrassle in mud and jello, but I’ve never seen a fight like Sibbel and Jane goin’ at each other. Made me a bit hot under the collar. Oh, there were foul blows aplenty, and torn clothes, and screeches and all. It would have been fine entertainment, if it hadn’t been so frightenin’. Jane got lookin’ savager and savager, and the house shook with every blow she landed on Sibbel.
Well, at the end, Jane was sittin’ on Sibbel. Jane had most of her clothes torn away, and scratches all over her, and was bleedin’ quite a sight to see, while Sibbel had kind of gone all clear, so you could see through her. Jane leaned down, and whispered somethin’ in Sibbel’s ear. And then Sibbel was gone, just like that!
Jane stood up. She looked over at all of us and announced, “You won’t be bothered by Sibbel anymore. And Minnie should recover now. But I’ll tell you: none of this would have happened if Clarence there hadn’t gone messing around with a married woman.” And with that, she just turned about and walked out the door.
Well, most of the family began givin’ Clarence a hard look or two. He was goin’ to be in for it. I already knew that Clarence was a bit of a tom cat, so I paid no attention. What worried me was that Jane had gone out without her coats and sweaters, and her clothing was pretty ripped up. So, stupid me, I grabbed Jane’s coats and dashed outside without one on myself.
I didn’t have to go far. Jane was standing by the gate, lookin’ around. I thought she was maybe frozen in place, but she turned right around and gave me a smile. I got all kind of warm at that, and offered her her coat.
She thanked me and took it, but didn’t put it on. And I noticed that I didn’t seem to need a coat, either, which was weird, because I could see frozen clouds droppin’ out of the sky and breakin’ on the ground. But you can see that on any real cold day. So I turned to the business at hand. “Jane Stevenson,” I said, “I want to thank you on behalf of my family for what you did. So call me a fool, but just what did you do?”
Jane laughed. And I noticed that her eyes weren’t quite right. Which is to say, her eyes were quite right: the right eye was lookin’ at me, just like the left. I’d never noticed before, but Jane was actually kinda nice lookin’.
She said back to me, “Sibbel tried to drive me off like she drove off Minnie and the parson. So she told me I didn’t have a soul. She was right, but it was pretty mean of her to bring it up, ’specially the way she was using hers, haunting people. So I took hers from her. Once I’d beaten her and taken her soul for my own, she had to do whatever I told her to do. So she’s going to fix up your Aunt Minnie and go back to her grave from now on.”
It made sense, though I have to admit my attention was wandering a bit. I was lookin’ Jane over, standing there with a lot of her clothes torn away, and decidin’ that her face wasn’t the only part of Jane that was a mite attractive. So I said to her, “Well, I want to thank you again, Jane. And seein’ you came all this way, maybe I should walk you home.”
Jane laughed again. I was getting to like that laugh. And she put on a look of mock embarrassment as she replied, “Why Robert Clark, if people saw us walking together all the way back to Northfield, they might think you were courting me.”
I took her by the arm. “Well, they just might.” And three days later we went over to the Northfield church and put an end to that type of talk.
Well, I didn’t really see what Cousin Bob’s story had to do with why he kept the place so warm. But my wife, she got tied up in the unimportant details, like women always do. So she said to Bob, not thinking he might take offense, “That was quick work.”
Bob didn’t hold it against her. No, he laughed. “You might say that. Jane said it was predestined, but I don’t know about that. All I can say is that if it had jes’ been her looks, it might have taken me another week or two. But there was this other thing. Seems that when Jane took Sibbel’s soul, she took on Sibbel’s powers, but for some reason she’s explained to me a hundred times and I still can’t figure, some of them got reversed. Sibbel could suck heat out of room. The heat just pours off Jane. She heats the whole house up, and brings soups to a boil, and I hardly burn any wood for fuel from one year to the next. A man just can’t miss an opportunity like that now, can he?”
“It had been too cold to leave the house with no less than six layers of clothing” — You mean “…with less than six layers…”
Is this set in the present or not? Early on I assumed the present, and the fact that he refers to the town snowplow means that it can’t be too far in our past. Yet there are bits that imply this may be well in the past.
Where are all the relatives that used to live in the house, like Aunt Minnie? Are they living elsewhere now, or all dead, and Bob has the house now with his young family?
It sounds like the speaker has been going to Bob’s for some time, but presumably all his kids are less than “several” years old, as it’s “several” years ago that this took place. If he’s got three kids, and the youngest isn’t a newborn, the oldest has to be at least three, so “several” here has to be at least four years.
“six layers” — You are right, that is what Bob means; it’s just not what he said.
The story is littered with things that are meant to sound humorously anachronistic, rather if a family from the 1890s were to be magically transported to the near present. But it is supposed to be set in the recent past.
In the present of the story, Bob is not living in the old family place, but in his own place with Jane. Would YOU want to stick around with this family? But you have a valid point that this could be made clearer; I will so amend the story.
That untangles some of the chronology. “Several” is a deliberately vague term, which to some families can mean last year, and to others can mean fifty years ago. Let’s stipulate that Bob’s kids are all toddlers, at least, and that he and Jane lived together as a married couple for some years before having kids. So the “past” of the story is maybe a decade or more earlier than the “present” of the story.
Thoroughly enjoyed, I just love that opening image . . . and then you kept it up all the way through. Truly, you are becoming a man of many voices. (Ever dabbled in ventriloquism?)
As my grandmother would tell you, when she turned her hearing aid back on, I can’t keep my mouth shut, so ventriloquism is out. 🙂
I was trying to think of which writers inspired the style. The tall tale in a country vernacular goes back in American letters at least as far as Twain and Bierce, and Manly Wade Wellman wrote many a supernatural fantasy story in a similar vein, though as I recall he was sparing of dialect. The structure, on the other hand . . . I didn’t realize until I’d finished it that I used almost exactly the same structure for “On Huckman Causeway”: frame with main story, kicker at the end.
I had identified the American Tall Tale type, complete with voice–which you carried very well.
I am terrible at long responses from my iPad, but I do want to say how cute and charming this story is. Loved the dialect..so cute…and loved so many of your imageries like the cracked sky and frozen clouds…you made the temperature contrasts so interesting. Have not read anything quite like. Excellent devices. Loved the witch hazel line too. My grandmother always had witch hazel around and you don’t hear about it so much these days. Did your grandmother cure everything with it? Fun fun story…just off the top of your head?
Thanks, Judy. Just off the top of my head, indeed; developed the idea in my first half hour awake in the morning, and then just sat down and wrote most of it over the next hour and a half. We had witch hazel at one time, but, as you said, it’s all but vanished.
And a merry Christmas to you, too.