The coal in the fire grate pulses a scalding infernal heat that bakes our exposed faces and hands. Through our clothes our trunks and limbs are feverish. We sweat.
“There’s someone out there,” my husband says. He stands, climbs up our stairs, flings open the door, and goes out. We’re all awakened as our backsides feel the rush of the cold breeze that descends the stairs, swirls, and settles on us from behind, the stagnant warm air of our house let out with the door left wide open by my husband.
And so I have to rise from this bench. The baby stirs in my womb as I carry us up the stairs into the stinging frigid air. But my husband—the one who shovels coal into and out of the first floor of our small house, once our main room, with the windows boarded, the door padlocked, and all that coal piled up—if it were up to him and God, he’d simply give our coal away. He listens with his heart to their desperate pleas. When the wind is calm, our chimney advertises with a tall column of thick smoke, and the cold brings them. I don’t doubt their genuine sincerity, our neighbors, but we have the children to think of: Carl, Gustav, and Sara. Carl sits on the bench and looks at his hands as he holds them out, a gesture he copies from the neighbors who languish in our hot basement when they deal, hesitant to leave as their bodies thaw. Gustav trembles on the bench, his back curled from the intrusive cold until he becomes a question mark. And he can sleep like that, not much difference in him asleep or awake. The youngest, the brightest, Sara, keeps busy with the broom and she will one day turn up her nose at our grime. The black coal on our hands, faces, and clothes. We melt ice in a pitcher to drink, the well in the square frozen solid, so it will be weeks before we can heat up a tub to wash in. But we have warmth, we have soup, we have tea.
My head spins as I lift each slow boot, rising in strength, and I climb up, out into the frozen air where I feel a lift from the raw atmosphere. I can see through his clothes, his form hunched, this beggar. He holds an empty bucket. He comes to us with nothing but an empty bucket. And he won’t look at me, because he knows. So he continues to talk, and he tries to barter when he has nothing. Promises he can’t follow up on. Will he pay for coal when the weather turns? Or will he come back on his knees three or four more times before spring? The church steeple tolls and I’m worried for my husband’s reputation. He likes making babies, but what can he do to keep them? It’s as easy as the syllable ‘no.’ And my husband listens to me, more afraid of me the larger I become.
“Go back into the house,” I say. “We ought to lock our door and wait it out these next few days. We have all we need and our regular customers have been taken care of.” My husband wants to excuse himself but the man can’t stop with his story. “Go,” I say, and my husband descends the stairs to sit with our children.
“Do you have any money?” I say to the waif and he stands quiet. He is skinny. His clothes are light. The wind plays in his hair and chills under his skin, cheeks like red apples, fingers stiff, his nose gray and it will blacken.
He sees that I’m pregnant and he’s embarrassed that he’s summoned me from my nest. He’s heard about me and so he says nothing. But still he won’t turn and go. The bells in the steeple have finished tolling, but the clappers clang about in the wind that howls. The baby in me turns, and twists back, from hunger, though I think maybe, impossibly, the baby senses this merciless cold.
I wait him out and the ghost does talk, a whisper at first, desperate, but then as I stand unmoved, he curses us. This from a penniless consumptive wandering Jew. His damning rises on the wind and he stares into me with eyes aglow like burning coals. He clenches his teeth and spits. His frozen fingers crack into fists, he stamps the hard packed earth, and he directs his hate at me, like I’m the creator who made all there is.
And I accept it. I listen and grow large, the baby within me becoming a man, as if months have sped by, years, my belly stretched out with each word. I balloon out and up, more gravid, and my knees tremble under my increasing weight. I am larger. I am massive. “No,” I say, “No. No,” my voice thunder. And the ground is shaken with my giant’s laughter.
His eyes widen, and he drops his bucket, the empty implement carried away in the wind like a stray leaf. He is frozen, still hurling scorn, while my girth expands and tumbles over him. He is silenced and smothered beneath me. Mercifully, never again will he be denied, and never will he know the cold, never again.
John Minichillo’s work has appeared in Mississippi Review, Third Coast, the anthology Next Stop Hollywood (St. Martin’s), Monkeybicycle, Necessary Fiction, Smokelong Quarterly, Everyday Genius, and Hint Fiction: an Anthology of Stories in Twenty-Five Words or Fewer, with work forthcoming at FRiGG, Emprise Review, Triple-Quick Fiction and The Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction. He writes and teaches in Tennessee.