Steve's Online Fiction


A ghost story for Christmas...

Goode Farm

CHARLIE KEPT DIALING. His daughter's line was still busy. Outside, ice fingers scraped the living room window, but every time he turned nothing was there. Just the dark edge of a shadow in rapid transition, momentarily and vaguely perceived. The busy signal was a hollow sound, echoing through some vast empty belly of communications. Charlie held his thumb over the telephone's cradle button. He turned quickly and saw the sharp profile against the icy pane before it passed again, intent on its stalking of the house. He thought he saw the awful hook of the nose, the sharp point that might have been a horn. Needle teeth, or was that simply the tiny icicles, frozen against the pane?

He lifted his thumb and dialed. Again the hollow buzz. No doubt she was trying to call him at home. She would never have expected to find him here, at the old homeplace. He hadn't been here in years. No one had lived here in eight, nine years. Even though he still paid for the phone, the heat, the lights. Just in case.

'Who do you expect to call?' It seemed as if his daughter asked that during every conversation. She thought he had lost his senses; perhaps he had. His sister Ellen had not called, had not told him she was ailing, had not even invited him home for Christmas. She had been the last one to live in the old Goode farmhouse, and he had just shown up unannounced.

He had found Ellen propped up in bed that Christmas morning, staring at the ice patterns in the window as if seriously attempting to decipher them. Nineteen seventy-eight. Ten years. That long ago.

Another shadow passed the window. This time Charlie did not bother to turn around. He heard the icy tap on the glass, the rustle of a paper studied and studied again, the soft laughter but barely suppressed within the broad face of bright red. There was no need to turn around.

The heavy fall of snow was beginning to break up, dissolving into a white mist made brilliant by the final, more determined rays of the sun. The farmyard--littered with agricultural machinery, ancient kitchen appliances, iron bedposts and railings, stained wooden crates containing one family's miscellaneous artefacts--was slowly blanketed, his rusted childhood topographies momentarily obscured. But still there, Charlie Goode reminded himself, always there.

He had a sudden vision of an archaeologist's excavation, one of the amateur digs he had been on over the years. But this was a dream excavation, the earth suddenly no heavier than snow, so easily removed to reveal what lay within. He could see himself as a child, digging through the snow, removing it a layer at a time, and, finally, finding the dead body of the calf he had been raising that year, frozen to the ground, its green eyes crystal. He had grown up obsessed with looking under things, trying to find out secrets, driven to reveal every hidden corpse. Finally his call went through. The ringing was another hollow sound, as if an impossible distance away. Charlie ignored the sharp tapping on the glass behind him.

The connection was a bad one, his daughter's voice clouded, hoarse, cold. At least, he wanted to pretend that the ragged connection explained the distance in Marie's soft, short sentences.

 'I'm afraid there was just too much snow,' he said again, as if to convince her through repetition. 'I will probably be stuck out here for days.' Then, 'You two are the only ones who know I'm out here.' No doubt his daughter was considering that with some pleasure, thinking he might starve out on the old farm, with no neighbors for miles, and if the phone lines went down . . . 'It was a good thing I was bringing food over to your house,' he added quickly. 'No chance of starvation.' He made a strained chuckling sound.

 'Of course. A very good thing.' His daughter's voice dropped, as if suddenly smothered. Charlie imagined miles of telephone line swallowed up by an infinite white snake of ice and snow, their voices wandering the length of its belly. He pressed the receiver to his ear so firmly it hurt, but still he could barely hear her. The cold, whistling air smothered her voice.

He asked her about any news, how his grandson Robert was doing. She apparently heard him; he could hear the murmured drone across the line, but he failed to recognize most of the words.

He had plenty of time to visit his daughter these days, although he seldom did. He had 'professionally retired' himself from his teaching position. Although he had liked, perhaps even admired, children, he had felt temperamentally incapable of instructing them. The world had developed a new and faster pace with which he could never be comfortable. His world lay somewhere else, beneath layers of dust or earth. Now he occupied himself collecting things'antiques, Civil War memorabilia, Indian artefacts; exploring ancient campsites; making headstone rubbings. His habitual reticence was broken only in those few social occasions in which he felt it necessary to express his determined ignorance of contemporary literature, newspapers, and television. He took great satisfaction in finding things which had been lost, but which no one else had any desire whatsoever to find. He remained perennially restless, and yet was restless for nothing.

He had convinced himself that this house held no more meaning for him than all the other ruins he had passed through during his life's observations. He had been a fool. The sharp nails on the window, the rustle of paper and dark flowing robes, told him so.

The murmuring at the other end of the line apparently had stopped. 'Merry Christmas, d--Marie.' He had thought to say 'darling', but it would have made her even angrier. 'Perhaps I can get out of here by the New Year.'

 'Don't. Bother.'

The words were so distorted, so ethereal, he felt safe to pretend. 'I can't rightly hear you, Marie. Better put that grandson of mine on before we lose this connection entirely.'

A sharp clunk as the receiver dropped on its cord, rebounded, and bounced once against the wall. Ever since she was a teenager, Marie had done that when she was mad.

Charlie had never understood how someone like himself, who had been a child and still remembered so vividly being a child, could do so badly with children.

He risked peering around at the window behind him. Out where blowing snow chased after the darkness, he almost expected to see his mother angrily chasing his father away from her children, as she had so many Christmases ago, in anger and madness gone raving into the drifts and the night.

He had lived long enough to realize that sometimes an absence evolved into a presence. Thoughts which had never been spoken, actions dreamed but not done, all the shortcomings and late hours and ill-timings in a life sometimes demanded form, and walked.

His hand caressed the receiver. All Charlie could think about was apologizing. For everything.

 'Granddad, it's Robert. What's wrong with Mom?'

Charlie Goode sighed. 'I can't be there for Christmas, again.'

 'The snow?'

 'I stopped by the old farmhouse yesterday afternoon. Just--I'm not sure why--I hadn't been here for over two years and I was thinking about the season and before I knew it there was a good three feet of snow about the house. It must have taken hours to accumulate such an amount. I don't even know what I was doing all that time--perhaps I'm growing senile'I'm sure that must be what your mother thinks. Three feet, Bobby! And I did not even notice that it was snowing!'

 'Granddad. Well, she is pretty angry.'

 'I have always had quite a talent for making your mother angry.'

 'Oh, she'll be okay. It's just that sometimes when something happens to change your plans she thinks you did it on purpose.'

 'I broke promises to her, Bobby. I broke promises all the time. I did not mean to, but I still did. I was simply too much inside my own head. Your grandmother was the good parent. I just never had that particular talent.'

 'You're fine with me.'

 'I have never had opportunity or cause to argue with you, Bobby. Parents have to argue with their children at times, and yet must be able to preserve a relationship during those disagreements. I was never able to do that. And Christmas, the holidays were the worst. I was never good for her at Christmas time. I never knew how to give her what she needed.'

Robert said something back, but his voice suddenly stretched out into a high-pitched whine. Charlie imagined he could feel the telephone line stretching, until it was so thin it finally broke. Or had been cut by sharp fingernails, needle-sharp teeth. All that remained was the snow, speaking softly to itself within a snake's empty belly.

Outside the wind had a raw throat, veined with ice. But Charlie's rocker creaked more loudly than the wind could scream. Such drama and noise seemed right for Christmas; certainly it was typical of the Christmases he had spent in this house.

Collections filled the house. Ellen, always in awe of their parents, had left the things untouched. Plaster figurines'fawns and birds and young ladies in their finery'peered out at him from every obscure shelf and alcove. Thimbles, salt shakers, perfume bottles, music boxes, polished stones lay scattered in a lack of order which he found irritating. Lord knows he had his own collections, a mob of them, but he also appreciated the value of catalogue and arrangement. He looked around for a cleaning rag. Christmas for Charlie had been Christmas as envisioned by his father: a time of remonstrance, petty accountings, and small terrors. Back when winters were harsher than any that might be imagined by a child of today's world. Back when Christmas party hats were worn jauntily, yet with much anxiety. Back when Christmas music was slow and mournful, and a dark, crooked shape tapped at cold windows.

He found a rag and picked up the objects in the collections one at a time, wiping them, rubbing the wooden shelves with the little bit of polish still left in an old can. There was such a litter of objects that Charlie could not tell where he had and had not cleaned.

So many odd surfaces that dusting was futile, and yet he continued to dust'just like an old bachelor, he thought. It helped him ignore the dark figure outside, creeping from window to window, tapping at the pane, cackling. Charlie continued to lift and dust, move, wipe, and replace each item as precisely as possible. The farmhouse had become like an Egyptian tomb, its furnishings waiting patiently for an afterlife where they might be used again. And Charlie could not imagine ridding himself of so much dust.

So this is what my Christmases have come to . . . Now, whenever he saw a wreath at Christmas time, he thought of funerals.

 'Saint Nicholas has a servant. His name is Krampas.' Charlie's great-grandmother had taught the story to her children and it had been passed down the generations, told every year with great ceremony. 'Krampas handles the bad children in behalf of the good Saint, the ones who have disobeyed their parents all year.'

Every year on Christmas Eve, just as the afternoon light was beginning to fail, their father would come to them. 'Watch by the window,' he told them, then disappeared into the back of the house.

Minutes later, they saw a ripple of dark by the old woodpile. The dark swept the glistening snow, but did not appear to touch it. Charlie always said that the dark was cloth.

 'No . . . no,' his sister replied. 'It moves like no cloth I have ever seen. I swear it's a shadow, a shadow with a mind of its own.'

The shadow teased them for a long time, then as darkness began to fall, the shadow moved out from behind the woodpile, walking like a man.

Or almost a man. 'Krampas!' Charlie said, grasping his sister's hand.

His sister nodded silently. They could see very little, but now and then Krampas would turn his face and look at them as he prowled the snowy dark outside the house. The dim light from the window, aided some years by the moon, always revealed a terrible vagueness of features. They would not have been half so frightened if they'd only been able to see his face, once, clearly. A crookedness in the nose, two burning absences for eyes. Something gleaming when the dark mouth opened.

 'We've been good, haven't we, Charlie?' his sister said in a quavering voice.

Charlie said nothing. Only Krampas knew. Only Krampas decided. Even now, Krampas raised the terrible long list in his hand, studying it, cackling over it. His ice nails rattled the paper. Such a long list'it was impossible! Charlie never could imagine what all might be on such a long list.

The first year or so they had run from window to window trying to follow his progress. It had been a game. But very soon they realized it was not the game they had so naively imagined.

Every year Charlie and Ellen spent a near-sleepless Christmas Eve waiting to see if Krampas had left switches or toys hanging from the tree and stuffed into father's old white work socks. It was the annual summation, when the wicked were punished and the just rewarded.

 'It is wrong, it is not what Christmas is about!' they heard their sweet-smelling mother crying out during the long night, arguing with their father. She always smelled of cinnamon and sweet-cakes, with subtle strains of flowery perfumes. But she was too soft somehow, as helpless as they to change things.

 'Here, we'll decorate the house even more beautifully than last year,' she told them bravely each year, as if to compensate for the Krampas outside. Charlie helped her with the doorways and windows, standing on a ladder while she handed up cloth streamers and fresh-cut boughs.

The arch over the stairway was hung with lush green boughs thick as jungle growth, with stuffed monkeys and fake bananas attached. The boughs were so long you had to duck and push your way through. Upstairs, Ellen's door had been decorated with crystals and glass beads that shimmered from the slightest draft. Charlie's door was wrapped in layers of overlapping cloth, all of them varying shades of blue, so that he always imagined himself entering a series of spatial dimensions every time he opened his door. Multicolored bunting, dangling masses of metal and painted glass, artificial flowers and vines, panels painted with scenes from their storybooks, adorned every door, window, and passage through the house, like magical gateways from this world into some other.

And yet outside at every window, ice nails rattled, needle teeth snapped. His mother spun and danced her way through their newly decorated passages, singing and hugging them, filling them with her warmth, her sweet smell, and yet she was compelled again and again to cast furtive, pained glances out the window where dark Krampas skulked, his face flushed, excited, his eyes burning dark, his list of transgressions clutched in long, icy fingers.

Charlie was not there the Christmas Eve his parents disappeared. He had long since escaped to other towns with their odd jobs and occasional college classes when he could afford them. He was no longer proud of leaving his family in that manner; in fact he now felt he had been irresponsible and cowardly. But then, he had been young, and needed his independence.

But Ellen had been there, college age herself and yet still there, still helping their mother hang boughs and bunting to transform the old farmhouse into some dark and fairytale world. Later she would tell him again and again how their father had climbed wearily into his Krampas suit for his cold annual prowl about the farmyard, how their father had shrunk so the past few years the dark robes had become much too large for him, how the black cloth and even the yellowed nose and horns hung loosely from him, like a shedding layer of dying skin.

And how their mother and father had argued, long into the night and on into Christmas Day: she, finally fed up that he would do such a thing with their only remaining child practically an adult herself and he, so obsessed with the tradition, with the need to do the 'right' thing. It had snowed all that night, blowing so hard that even when the day did come there was very little light outside. And still their father insisted on being Krampas, insisted on stalking the windows and holding up his list, shaking it in his fist.

Their father had blown out the door like a flapping old crow, Ellen had said. Their mother had chased him, determined, this Christmas at last, to keep Krampas away from the house, from Ellen. Perhaps if Charlie had been home she'd have kept Krampas away from him as well. As they passed from the house the hanging boughs and bunting shook madly, she said, as if all the doors to all the worlds had suddenly been forced open. She never saw either of them again.

Charlie thought of that Christmas morning he had found her, staring out the frosted windows.

Just as he stared out those iced windows now, at last an old man himself, with no better talent for parenting than his father had had. Maybe if his wife Alice had not died . . . Christmas was a tomb, a house decorated in headstones and memorials. He had done his daughter and grandson a favor not coming; he had grown up a dark, grim old man.

The fall of snow had slowed strangely, as if the dark had thickened, making friction against the flakes. A distant black oval appeared to form near the center of the snowy pane. Charlie leaned forward in his chair, peering into this dark space, imagining movement there, slow like molasses. Then the arms reaching out towards the window, the billow of dark robes, the sharp and crooked face, the horns, the white list in one hand, the long dead branches of the switches in the other. Krampas, his father.

Charlie sprang out of the chair and grabbed the coat he had left in the closet by the front door. Then he stopped, and peered down at the floor of the closet. The axe was still there, the sides of the blade rusted, but the very edge still gleamed. He picked it up and pulled open the door.

The icy wind sprayed his cheeks with dots of burn. He squinted to see; in the dim yard dark vertical shapes seemed to move sideways, pushed apart by the near-horizontal drive of wind and snow. At the side of the house something moved, seemed to grow taller. Long, ice-decorated arms swung up and out. Charlie pushed his feet through reluctant drifts towards the lean shadow, the axe raised chest-high, ready.

As he pushed closer, snow gathered in the hollow chest of the dark figure, now leaning away from Charlie, and the wind, in fear. Then with sudden rage it whipped back, dark eyes burning, icy fingers darting.

Charlie swung at the legs. The arms slapped out in frenzy. The shadowed face shook and spat. And Charlie chopped and chopped with the axe, crying out from the painful burning that spread across his face and through his ungloved hands, dodging the slap and sting of Krampas's arms, the bite of Krampas's teeth, avoiding the bright red highlights in Krampas's dark eyes.

Charlie had Krampas down in the snow, holding on to two of his many sharp arms, the legs two-thirds severed, when he finally saw that it was tree branches he held in his bleeding hands, that same blood dripping off the sharp, green boughs.

With much effort Charlie dragged the tree inside, propping it up in one corner of the living-room. Ice and snow melted slowly from the sharp angles of the dark form, spotting the rug a soft, luminescent pink. Charlie watched the tree a very long time, until the glow from the fireplace made the last of its sinister traces dissolve.

His mother had always kept the attic, and the Christmas decorations stored there, neat and orderly. The boxes were carefully marked by year, with all the ornaments wrapped in old newspaper. After New Year's the decorations were retired to their box and never used again, his mother preferring to make or buy all new ones. Perhaps she thought that made up for the years in which Krampas had left switches, rocks, and dirt instead of presents.

The one exception was the decorations from the year his mother and father had disappeared. That year, Ellen had simply thrown all the decorations into an unmarked cardboard box the day after Christmas. What would not fit into the one box available, she had thrown out. That was the final box in the order'Ellen had never done anything for Christmas all those years she had lived alone.

Charlie prowled and dug through the dust-furred, desiccated corpses of each year's Christmas: an ornate, three-tiered glass tree top from 1936; brightly painted egg ornaments from '42, '43, and '44 (on one egg the faded figures might have been meant to represent Ellen and Charles himself'he couldn't be sure'but he vaguely remembered his mother taking a correspondence course in portraiture for a time); fantastic shapes of baked and painted dough from '46; a glass globe full of liquid and snow flowing over a miniature house by woods from '53; bright red toy soldiers from '40; bubble lights from '54; elves fashioned from painted spools for '39; a variety of wooden dogs and angels and singing children from '47, '48, and '50; clothes-pin reindeer from '38; and all manner of lace snowflakes and miniature teddy bears and Santas and birds and butterflies and Styrofoam snow families from all the years in between.

The rolls of bunting were of many different colors, most of them faded, but Charlie cared little about their condition, fixed as he was on the memories they evoked. He hung them randomly over the doors, making ragged, exotic-looking curtains that scattered years of dust through the house, and felt strange brushing against his skin. The green boughs were more difficult to come by, of course, but several desperate trips through the worsening winter storm gave him a sufficient number. Very quickly windows and doors and hall passages became the magical gateways he remembered.

He nailed a wooden cross to the bottom of the tree, choosing the biggest nail he could find to spike its backbone firmly to the makeshift stand. He stood the brooding figure up in the center of the living-room. Then he took his time decorating his first Christmas tree in years.

It had been so long, in fact, that Charlie at first did not know where to start. He vaguely remembered his mother always beginning with the lights and whatever garlands she had chosen for that particular year (bright red, or white, or blue, shiny metal or dyed popcorn or strung cranberries or woven yarn; one Christmas she had even strung together a huge quantity of sea shells purchased mail order at some expense).

He plugged the ancient bubble lights, their colored liquids either faded or turned a rotten egg color, into several other light strings whose bulbs were of varying sizes. He examined the face of the tree, found out where the hollows were, the dark places requiring illumination. A draught moved through the house. The tree shifted ever so slightly on its base, showing him another face. Branches dried by the fire drooped in defeat. He pulled the light strings beneath and around them to provide additional support. He hung particularly attractive bulbs out on the edges of tree-ribs, along the outer fingers of subsidiary branches. The last of the wiring in one hand, he spiraled his way to the top of the tree, feeding the limbs a bulb at a time. He stared briefly into scattered pockets of dark, needles fanned secretively over key junctures in the trunk. At the top of the tree he hung one large blue bulb like a searchlight, fixing the three-tiered antique tree top behind it.

Many of the wires were stiff, some were corroded, but he plugged the eclectic assortment of lighting into the outlet anyway. A few of the lights flickered briefly, like matches struck nervously, then died. A burnt rubber smell wafted through the room, then was gone. He left the lights plugged in and reached for the garlands.

He laid the garlands on thickly, like binding loops of rope. Purple and orange and crimson, ancient dried frosting crusted along scattered surfaces like melted bone. He tried to alternate loops of electrical wire with loops of garland, crossing the colors here and there where it seemed most aesthetically pleasing. This process inscribed the dark green tree with six cross patterns, and a spot on each side where several different colors of garland were braided.

Garlands slipped in two places while he examined his handiwork. In the dim firelight the crimson garland looked vaguely shiny, like denuded flesh.

Bright balls of cut-glass snow went into tree cavities just the right size. Light flickering off their surfaces made them seem to spin. Fake candy canes striped red and blue and yellow went onto branch-ends hooked to receive them. Rusting tin soldiers marched down branch spines. Mechanical mice whirled out of a paper sack and nested in swirls of matted green needles. Pink angels with wings of lace played their music boxes resting atop humps of bare grey limb. A fairy of fire-engine red swung a crescent moon from its four-fingered hand. Three branches cupped themselves together as home for a miniature hobby horse. Long branches sighed out to lift wooden cows and butterflies from Charlie's outstretched palms. Painted eggs and clothes-pin reindeer, miniature Santas and amber bears, everything appeared to find its proper place on the tree. Charlie could imagine no other arrangement.

The tree lights flickered and buzzed. The lights in the house burned out. The grab bag of tree lights burned brighter still, eventually so bright their glare obscured the shape of the bulbs themselves, so now it was miniature stars burning within the tree, shining from the glass eyes of every toy face, every fake creature and machine. Multicolored glass globes spun on their wire stems. Wooden figures with threaded joints danced their anxiety.

Charlie watched as the curtains of bunting over the doors and windows fluttered and sighed, riding unseen currents, waving goodbye. The tree's needles began to shift, creating a ripple, a tide, that moved up and down its length, then spread out to the farthest edges of every branch. Ornaments dropped from the tree one at a time, then several, then numbers uncountable. Garlands slipped, edging their way to the floor. The tree seemed to turn another face, more ornaments fell, and then the tree went dark.

Charlie heard, and imagined, the outer layers of green give way. I have not been the best of sons, he thought. The darkness in the house grew cold.

I have avoided my responsibilities. Charlie could hear paper rattling, a very long list being unrolled.

I have stayed away. I have never sent my love. Charlie could hear the long fingers reaching out, scraping at the floor in front of him. The dark had grown darker where the tree had been. The dark fluttered like huge wings, or robes.

I have never known what to do. Krampas turned another dark face: a sharp-edged profile, two tapered horns, a hooked nose. A smile: his needle-teeth reflected red from the fire.

Charlie stopped, trying to shut out all thought. Krampas shook his long list angrily, rattling windows and doors. No, Charlie thought. Krampas reached in to his shadowed body, pulling out a bundle of switches, holding them aloft. Firelight gleamed off shiny spikes and barbs.

No! Krampas crouched, beginning his stalk. Charlie could see an old man's sagging, yellowed skin around the horns, the crooked nose. No! As Krampas scraped his nails along the wooden floor, reaching out to embrace the long lost son.

Winter reached in, lifting the curtains of bunting high towards the ceilings. Charlie fell to the floor as something warm and cinnamon-smelling moved through him from behind. A cold wing scraped his back as Krampas leapt over him, ice nails scraping at the ceiling as he flew desperately for the door. Krampas disappeared there, his screeches blending with the raw sound of the wind, the wave of sweetness fast on his heels, chasing him away. His mother had done what she could for Ellen. Now, finally, she had taken care of him.

Like a gift, the warm sweet smell lingered until morning, until Charlie Goode could close up the farmhouse a last time, at last prepared for the Christmas trip to his daughter's home.

 © copyright 1991 Steve Rasnic Tem

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