Thursday, December 25, 2008


How well I remember those winters, so much fiercer than the ones we have had up until Global Warming has brought more snow and moisture to our air. I remember the thumping of the Tree of Paradise as it was blown by the wind against the kitchen window, a cadence kept up throughout the day, as the old kitchen stove blazed fiercely, carrying its burden of pots and pans.

"Let me in! Let me in!" the wind was saying, "Let me in before I blow the house down and freeze the flesh from your bones with my wintry chill!"

The kitchen was the warmest room in the house, and Mom would ladle her soups from the pots, soups that warmed the body and kept away the cold, soups that seemed to thumb their noses at the freezing temperatures outside. There was bean soup with its flavor of onions, cooked to a smooth and hearty texture. There was potato soup, made hearty with a dollop of milk and thickened with flour to just the right consistency. Those soups would take away the chill from the air and make the howling of the wind outside seem far away.

Eventually, someone had to go out for wood, as it was stored in the shed outside. Hubert always claimed that he thought his name was "Get Wood" until he was eighteen years old. The unlucky woodgatherer was chosen and given his or her marching orders! Then the door would be opened and the blast of snow and wind would swirl through, battling the waves of heat from the blazing stove and sending shivers down your back.

It took a fierce blizzard to keep me inside back then, before I became the weather-conscious cowering weakling I seem to be today. I ventured out to the orchard in wind that could have downed a plane and tramped through the snowdrifts in shoes that barely covered my feet. Snow and wind exhilarated me back then, as I explored the wonder of a frozen world covered with a blanket of white. I was frequently joined by my nieces and nephews, who would join me in a snowball fight or in the joy of sliding down a hill into Red River Valley, where the snow was so deep, it was a struggle to stay upright.

When Christmas rolled around, the entire family arrived, driving cars of various vintage. Herman's car always managed to make it in the snow-covered driveway, even though it sputtered and complained. The kids would spill out of the car, eager for a Christmas at the Farm. Soon, they had all arrived, all eleven of my brothers and sisters and their families. The quiet farmhouse reverberated with the sounds of their happy voices. Mom had made soup in her largest kettles, had mixed up a meat loaf, peeled a mountain of potatoes, and there was always enough to go around. She would send me to the cellar to bring up the jars of corn, beans and apples that she had canned at harvest time.

How I hated to go to that dark, cold and eerie cellar, with its hanging curtains of spider webs and its pile of potatoes growing weird white arms that reached out to grab you as you passed. I would hurry to the shelves of canned goods and try to carry all of the jars at once, trying not to smash them on the earthen floor as I scurried back up the stairs. There were ghosts down there; I knew they were there. I could feel their presence and the hair on my arms would stand upright and a chill would come over my body. Who were they, these hovering spirits who came back from the dead to wither my soul and covet my body? Who were they?

One Christmas, I told Bud about the spirits. He scoffed at me and told me I was being silly. "There aren't any ghosts in the cellar!" he said emphatically. "It's too chilly down there! Ghosts like to keep warm!"

I wasn't sure about that, because I didn't know where Bud got his information. "Yes, they are there!" I insisted. "I can show you!"

So Bud and I went into the storeroom where Mom kept the jugs of milk. It was as cold in there as it was outside, and not much warmer when we opened the cellar door. Bud followed me down the narrow wooden stairway and swatted away the cobwebs that would hit you in the face as you descended. I led him to the center of the cellar and motioned for him to stand quietly, so the ghosts would make themselves known.

"You can't make any noise," I whispered. "They hide if you make noise!"

Sure enough, after we had stood quietly for a few moments, a long, low, horrifying moan came from the corner of the room, behind the huge mound of potatoes with their earthen smell and their pale white arms.

"See!" I hissed. "I told you!"

The moan came again, a tortured sound, as though some spirit was suffering the horrors of Hell. I gulped and stood as close to Bud as I could get, resisting an urge to sprint back up the stairs.

"It's just the wind," Bud explained. "It is coming through the cracks in the door."

"The door is over there!" I replied. "That noise is over here, behind the potatoes." I was shivering violently and began to cry, tears dripping down my cheeks. Bud was beginning to exasperate me. Why was it grown-ups were so dense?

"Okay," Bud said. "The fun's over! Come out now!" His voice was firm and I began to believe that even a ghost would not dare to defy Bud when he spoke with such firm authority. I braced myself for the sight of decaying, emaciated bodies...perhaps even piles of skeletal come marching out of the darkened corners of that dank and odorous place.

After a pause, I saw a movement behind the potatoes. Once again, I struggled to stay where I was standing and not run screaming up the stairs. Then, in the cavernous darkness of that cellar, I saw the skinny figure of my brother Deed emerge from the stack of potatoes, grinning from ear to ear.

"You're scaring your sister," scolded Bud. "Just come on out of there and behave!"

Properly contrite, Deed moved toward the stairs, but couldn't resist a triumphant glance in my direction. I swore to myself that I would pay him back with a torturous revenge that would make him suffer an agonizing death. Bud moved toward the shelves of food.

"Now what did Mom want?"

"Two corns, two beans, three apples!" I replied, my voice still trembling, and helped him locate the food. Despite my relief at finding out that the moaning came just from another prank by my tormentor, Deed, I was still not convinced that evil spirits did not inhabit the cellar, so I hurried with our task and was happy to trot up the stairs.

Throughout our years on the Farm, my neices and nephews played in every corner of every building. We explored the barn, climbed the rafters, wandered through the cow barn with its row of hanging iron stanchions. We wandered through the chicken coop, hunting for eggs, and played in the attic, where the stovepipe from the kitchen emitted enough heat to keep us warm, but we never went near the cellar. We knew instinctively that there were forces at work in the cellar that were too terrible to behold. In that damp, dingy darkness, there were the slight rustlings of souls long gone, souls contemplating past deeds too evil to allow them a moment's rest.

We knew, as we played on that long ago Christmas Day, that there were events in this world that were beyond our comprehension, that although we played in a world of sunshine and happiness, there was a world of darkness and suffering somewhere beyond. Just as Charlie's heart thumped an uneven rythmn of swishing beats, just as the water in Dead Man's Cave was dark with murk, we knew that the world was not always a happy playground, that even as the adults kept us safe and warm, there was a cold darkness hovering in the distance, howling with the winter wind like a pack of wolves lusting for blood at the door.

These thoughts were chased away by the delights of the table, when Mom would sit us down and present us with her soups, her breads and her apple pies. We would silently down the food set before us and thoughts of the darkness of the cellar would fade into the timeless glory of a Christmas Day spent together.