Spirits in the Night, Exchanging Chances
Daniel W Cheely
Copyright 2016 – All rights reserved
The spirit that comes to surround him,
calls to the spirit that is within
“Time to let go,” it says with a grin.
“Time to move on, give up… and give in.”
Standing on his porch at dusk, he examined the lands that surrounded his multi-story home. He traced the outlines of the trees with his eyes before gazing down upon the green grass. Falling snow was clothing the bare branches while covering the grass with a frosty blanket.
Oswald valued his privacy. He wanted to be left alone in his remaining years so that he could have uninterrupted companionship with the love of his life; his dearest Gertrude! Darkness was soon to descend. Like a sentinel, Oswald got into position. The husband. The protector. He was a preserver of the solitary life he had chosen for himself and his wife. So he stood guard against the spirit that was to come.
Through the thick lenses of his glasses, his pupils seemed extraordinary in size. He looked out in the distance like a watchful owl. A pipe hung out of his mouth, just below his fuzzy little mustache. This small, unassuming man was no match for the spirit’s strength. He knew this, so he told himself that the reason he stood outside on his porch in the cold of the night was for this smoking pleasure. But that wasn’t the truth. The fact was – he felt more in control when he stood outside and watched as the spirit came into being. Even though he could do nothing to prevent its arrival, he could heed its warning when he saw it in the distance. Far away, soon to approach, soon to…
Oswald watched as the glowing figure took shape. The falling snow seemed to gravitate toward its radiance. He could see that it had a face, but it was too far away for him to make out any features. If only it would stay away. But it would not. Before he knew it would come to him and take over his home and get him from within.
KNOCK ! KNOCK! KNOCK! KNOCK!
Startled at the knocking sound, Oswald jumped and almost dropped the pipe from his mouth. It came from within his house. He turned around toward the front room window. On the window shade, he saw the silhouette of Gertrude. Her shadowy arm was waving for him to come inside. Her concern for him made him smile.
“I know what you’re thinking, Gert,” he said to her, even though he was really talking to himself. She could not hear him. “I’m an old fool for standing out here like this. Well shucks dear, let me be the fool then!”
Oswald’s smile quickly faded as he turned away from the window. He saw a mass of glimmering light, closer than before. He felt like raising his fist at it. He felt like screaming and ordering it to go away. But he knew that any tantrum on his part would do no good. He would appear foolish. On cue, he turned to the window to check and see if Gertrude watching. Whether he played the part of the old codger or not, she always seemed to be able to read his thoughts. She knew him for the fool that he was. But this was okay. She loved the old fool!
But Gertrude was not at the window at this time. Again, Oswald smiled. He loved her for loving him. It was for her that he needed to stop this menace. He felt like he had to do something. He had to…
A glowing figure stood close to his premises. Slowly it rotated its head. Its black eyes would soon take aim at him. But not if he could help it.
Oswald slammed the door upon entering his house.
“I couldn’t look at it no more, Gert. I had to come in.”
He held her presence in his vision. Kneeling beside the fireplace, her hands stretched forward before the flames. She always had cold hands. No need for sweaters. The rest of her body was always comfortable at room temperature.
“How many times do I have to tell you not to hold your hands so close to the fire? Your skin will burn right down to the bone!”
Part of him felt like walking over there and shoving his wife away from the fireplace. Not only on account of the flames, but also because of that…legend. Yeah that’s what it was – a fable. A silly thing, he had to admit, but it had to do with that dreaded spirit. It was said that it could enter one’s house via the fireplace. It could descend with the wind and then leave its presence behind! This was mostly a tale for the kids. But it really didn’t matter how the spirit would enter their home. The fact was that there were many ways that it could occupy their premises.
Oswald let his wife be as he wandered into another room. He picked out a book from a shelf and thumbed through the pages. But he was preoccupied with thoughts of the spirit and so he did not take in anything that he read. He might as well have been staring at the crack that ran across the ceiling. His house was full of these cracks. He would have to take care of them one day.
Oswald returned to the living room. Gertrude was no longer seated by the fireplace.
“Ha! She listens to me after all.”
He surmised that she had wandered upstairs, perhaps to take a warm bath. “A much safer way to warm yourself dear,” he shouted up the staircase. What a good woman! Feeling so safe in her securities; snuggling by a fire, soaking in a tub. It made him feel good about himself as the protector. But who was he kidding? The spirit was probably outside his door by now.
And there would be nothing he could do about it.
Defeated, he wandered down to his basement bar and poured himself a glass of bourbon.
The spirit had been at their home before. He remembered the way its face pressed up against the glass of their windows. He recalled its eyes peeking out from behind the curtains. Surely he could not forget the glowing mass hovering in the corner of the living room!
One time when the spirit was at its worst, Oswald took action. He was able to lock the housebound spirit in their attic, high above the living room and just a thin floor above their upstairs bedroom. He thought about it at night when he failed at sleep and ended up staring at the thin ceiling. As with the library ceiling, there was a crack running its course. Night after night, it seemed to grow. Soon came the creepy crawlers; spiders, centipedes – abandoning their attic home, slipping through the crack. Creatures that had once roomed with the spirit had been descending upon him like a midnight nightmare.
Finally he could take it no more. One morning, he stormed up to the topmost floor of the house, exorcised the spirit from the attic and banished it from their house for good. But…not for good. It would return, as always.
Oswald took the final sip of his drink. As he placed the empty glass down on the bar, he heard the voices of “the ones who summon.” These beings didn’t always accompany the spirit, but when their black forms did appear, they ushered the spirit in with harmonic ease. He heard their song. It was a haunting melody. He rushed to the basement window, looked out and saw them, standing in the snow, donning black robes. He rushed to a second window and saw footprints in the snow. The footprints led to his front porch.
“Gertrude!” he shouted as he ran up the stairs. His poor wife, upstairs all alone! “Gertrude! The spirit is here! Where are you?”
Once again, she appeared before the lit fireplace. This time, she wore a wool cap and gloves. Even though the gloves provided her warmth, she still held her hands before the fire. She was singing. It was the same eerie melody that “the ones who summon” had been singing. It was the song of the spirit! She was inviting it in.
“Gertrude, how can you sing that? Stop it!”
She turned not to greet him. She held her post and continued with her singing.
In panic, he yelled toward the back of her head, “Can’t you understand? The ones who dress in black are right outside! And the spirit has made its weight upon the snow. Footprints, leading to our house! It’s here, and you are inviting it in with that song! Stop it now!”
Without distraction, she continued to sing and sing and…
BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM!
“Gertrude, do you hear it pounding on our door? Damn it, will you listen to me?”
Oswald reached over and took her gloved hands in his. He pulled the gloves off, only to uncover the fleshless hands of a skeleton.
“My god!!” Oswald yelled. He spun her around. Underneath the wool cap was a skull with holes for eyes and a vacant mouth void of speech and song.
And the knocks kept coming.
BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM!
Oswald screamed and ran to the table that stood against the foyer wall. He leaned his head down on the tabletop and wept. Even his own wails could not block out the haunting chorus of “the ones who summon.” The sound of the heavy knocking overcame his wails as well. Next to his hand was a music box. It was one of Gertrude’s heirlooms; a treasure to her once vibrant eyes. Gently, he wound the knob.
It was such a sweet melody, contrasting sharply with the eerie song of “the ones who summon.” It made the sound of the loud knocking more bearable.
“Oswald? Oswald, I am here!”
Upon hearing his wife’s sweet voice, Oswald stood up and looked into the mirror that hung on the wall above the table. Through the reflective glass, Gertrude smiled at him. She was beautiful. Her silver hair was shiny. Her face was tender and loving.
“Gertrude! You’re a sight for frightened eyes! Your face was so horrid down by the fire!”
Gertrude shook her head. “No Oswald, that wasn’t my face. That was the face of suffering; of longing. Of refusing to let go. Those are the things that truly haunt you. They come at you like shadows.”
With that, he turned toward the fireplace. The skeleton corpse of his wife was gone. For this he was relieved. He then turned back toward the mirror and was immediately thankful that the delightful vision of his wife remained in the glass. But his moment of joy was fleeting. He knew what she was going to say next.
“You have to let me go, Oswald. It’s been three years ago tonight – December the 24th. It’s time to move on.”
“I can’t let you go, Gert. I need you. The spirit is here. It wants me!”
Gertrude looked at him knowingly. In life and in death, she could see into his soul.
“And here you were the one that was supposed to keep me safe from the spirit.”
Her words caused him to cry out remorsefully. “You’re right dear! I am a coward and a failure!”
Again Gertrude shook her head. “No dear. You’re not any of those things. You are just confused. It is true that you wish to keep the spirit away from me. But why, Oswald?”
“I can’t answer that question, Gert. I just can’t. It’s too painful. It reminds me of the….”.
Oswald wept. He couldn’t say it. He wouldn’t say it. But of course he would. Gertrude was there to help him.
“Speak, dear. For you speak the truth. What does the spirit remind you of?”
Oswald struggled to speak. Finally, with Gertrude’s help, the words leapt off of his tongue.
“It reminds me of the night you left me!”
A tear appeared on the face of Gertrude’s reflection.
“I’m sorry for leaving you at that time of the year. Unfortunately, it was my time to go. But dear, can’t you see? The spirit is good. You must let it in. The spirit represents love. Let the love in and you won’t be lonely anymore.”
He hung his head and wept some more. “I can…try. But I need your help. Will you help me?”
But the image of his dearly departed wife was no longer there in the glass. But…was that her voice coming through the music box? I will be with you always. Did she really just say that? Oswald had to believe it was her voice. He needed to. He walked to the window and looked out at the church choir. Dressed in black robes, they were currently on the third verse of Silent Night. A sigh broke through his frown. Even in happier days, he had always found this tune to be such a sad and haunting. He then walked toward the door, for the knocker was still beckoning him. He took a deep breath and opened it.
“Hi Mr. Rosewood,” said the little boy who stood at the door. “My mother sent me with this – a gift package!”
It was eleven-year-old Tommy from three houses down. He lived with his mother and father on the same urban street as Oswald ; a street with many colorful lights that had lit up in succession when the old man had stood out on the porch earlier in the evening. There was the plastic, light-up Santa Claus figure from way down the block. There were various lights on the various porches. And there was the glowing snowman with the rotating head at the house next door.
Oswald accepted the package and invited the boy inside. Together they sat by the fire. Kids that were Tommy’s age believed in the spirit of the fireplace – Santa Claus. He had to smile at that thought.
Placing the box down on the floor, he opened it and began pulling out the items one by one. “Let’s see what we have in the box. Ohh, a bottle of red wine! And here are some cheeses! Oh look, here’s a little cloth elf with tape stuck to the back of his hat!”
“Yeah,” Tommy said, “That’s so you can hang it on the wall.”
“Or the window,” Oswald said, “We used to have hanging elves like this. We would hang them on our windows so that they would look in on us. We also used to have Santa statues by the curtains over there. And there was a big bright, decorated tree in that corner.”
“What happened to all the stuff?”
“When my wife died, I put it all away in the attic. Later on I took it all down and tossed it all away.”
“Are you ever going to replace them?”
Oswald thought about that question for a minute. “I don’t know. Honestly, I really don’t. Maybe someday. Not all of us are able to welcome the spirit in such a way.”
Tommy looked confused. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know, son. I’m just an old fool. But Gertrude loved me that way. She always did.”