Frost salted the orange and yellow leaves still clinging to the boney limbs of the front yard trees. A layer of newly fallen leaves blanket the yellowing grass. Inside, the weak exhalations of luke-warm air from our dilapidated heater took off a minimal edge of the cold we were accosted with unexpectedly.
“What happened to our Indian Summer?” I asked Brock when we sat down for breakfast. I blew on my hands, rubbing them together to warm them.
“Looks like winter’s coming early. We really need a new heater.”
“Well, that’s not going to happen any time soon. Can we build a fire?”
“Let me make sure the chimney’s clean first. Tonight for sure.” Brock promised.
The primary source of heat, at one time, was a coal-fired boiler which warmed radiators standing guard in various rooms of the house. The previous owners, who had lived here for decades, converted the heating system to a more modern forced-air heater, but they didn’t install an adequate number of vents to warm the entire house. They also didn’t bother to empty the coal room. It is still, to this day, filled with tons of coal.
Later that evening, with the kids tucked in their beds, Brock gathered split wood, kindling and matches and built a cozy, romantic fire for a cold, drafty evening.
“Should we throw on a shovel-full of coal to kick up the warmth just a notch?” Brock asked.
“Does it still work?” I asked, clueless as to the shelf-life of such an antiquated fuel.
Brock smiled, “Coal doesn’t expire. It will make the fire nice and toasty. I’ll be right back” He took a bucket downstairs to the coal room in the far back corner of the basement.
I was bundled up in a blanket close to the fireplace when he returned. He tossed a shovel-full of the black chunks of fuel onto the fire. At first it died down a bit, but soon it was blazed brighter and hotter than any fire I’d ever seen.
“You’ve made it angry,” I teased as I backed away from the intense heat the flaming coals produced. Even with the added distance, I was hot from the fire’s fierce glow. We both gazed into the flames, as people are generally drawn to do. As we stared, the fire began dance and swirl upon the glowing coals.
“Did you see that?” Brock whispered.
Our eyes stayed focused on the hearth, hypnotized by its intensity.
“It’s standing up!” I whispered back, horrified. The fire rose until it was a figure standing above a skirt swirling in a white-hot mound, arms flicking out of a torso of yellows and reds, a head rising as a flame atop a candle, but with a face. With eyes.
“Pss, ftt, spz,” a woman’s voice sputtered. “Pss . . . where issss my . . . baaay . . . bee . . .?”
“Did you hear that?” I whispered, eyes still trained on the fire, unable to look away.
Brock stood and took the fire poker in his hand. “What do you want?” he boldly asked the glowing form swaying side to side, dancing in the recesses of our hearth.
“I sssssaid . . . where issss . . . my . . . baaay . . . bee?” Her voice was filled with sparks and sizzles and wind. She raised her arms above her flickering head and crossed her hands in front of her face just as Brock thrust the poker into the coals. Her body exploded with the disruption, and soon the flames shrank back to contain themselves to the wood and coals distributed across the floor of the fireplace.
“Oh my gosh! We have a ghost!” I finally managed to say. “Did you know about her?”
“No,” Brock answered. “This is the first time I’ve used this fire place.”
“Well, that was exciting! Who do you think she is? And what’s the deal with her baby?”
“I have no idea.”
* * *
The next morning, we wondered if maybe we were a little too caught up in the excitement of the size of the fire. Maybe our imaginations were too lively. Maybe we didn’t really see a woman in our fireplace. We decided we would build another fire that very evening to prove to ourselves there was no ghost.
After the kids were tucked in their beds, Brock once again gathered the wood and matches for a fire. In a few minutes we had a roaring inferno burning in our fireplace. But it stayed in the shape of a fire. No woman.
“Nothing,” Brock said, and he sounded disappointed.
“Maybe you have to put coal on it,” I suggested.
Brock took up the shovel, but it hit the bottom of the bucket with a metallic clang. “It’s empty,” he said. What happened to all the coal that was here last night?”
“Maybe you used it all on the fire,” I said.
“No, I only used a couple of shovels full,” he paused and looked around the room. “I’ll just go down and get some more. It’s not like we’re going to run out any time soon.”
I nervously waited for my husband to get the coal and come back to the living room, the entire time worrying that the woman would return to the fire before he did.
Soon enough, he was back with the bucket. He shoveled coal onto the fire, and within a few minutes, the flames grew arms, a torso, and a head out of the skirted mound below.
“Pssst . . . where issss . . . my . . . baaay . . . beee . . . ?” the fire figure asked in a windy whisper.
Brock was ready with the poker, but I held up my hand and motioned for him to put it down. I wanted to know more.
“Tell us about your baby. Maybe we can help you.” I said.
“Help meeee . . . find . . . psssst . . . my baaay . . . beeee!”
“How?” Brock asked.
“Build a . . . ftttz . . . fiiire . . . every . . . niiight!” She folded her arms across her chest and sank back into the flames.
“How can we help her find her baby by building a fire?” I asked, mystified.
* * *
The next few nights were much the same. We tucked the kids into bed, and then went to work building a fire. Each night the bucket of coal was mysteriously empty. Each night Brock went down to the coal room for a refill. Once the fire was going hot and strong, the fiery figure appeared.
“Where’s . . . sptz . . . my baaay . . . beee?” she moaned each night.
“Build a . . . ftttz . . . fiiire . . . every . . . niiight,” she instructed before she settled back into her bed of coals.
On the fourth night as she began to dissipate, I called to her, “Wait!”
She looked at me curiously, her head tilted to one side as if she was waiting for me to ask my question.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Mary,” she whispered.
“And your baby? What’s his name?”
“He wasssss . . . taken . . . before . . . ftttz . . . I . . . naaaamed him.” She bowed her head and her shoulders shook. Smoke rose from her face, but I wondered if it was really steam from her sorrow’s tears.
I began to look for Mary’s baby in every closet, every corner, every nook of our home. I knocked on the walls listening for places that didn’t sound hollow, I looked in the heater vents, I looked behind the radiators and under beds.
Once I found a small pile of bones with a tiny skull in a heating vent, but it was just the remains of a wayward mouse, not a baby.
* * *
On the seventh night, Brock wanted to give up.
“No,” I insisted. “We have to help Mary find her baby.”
“Have you considered that maybe Mary died a crazy old woman? Maybe there is no baby. She doesn’t even know his name. Maybe she’s just trying to get us to bring her to life every night with the fire because she’s lonely. Maybe she’s just using us.”
“Maybe,” I conceded. “But maybe not. Maybe she can’t rest until she finds her baby. Maybe we can help her to finally let go of this world and go on to a better one. Let’s just try one more night.”
“Okay, but this time you’re getting the coal.” Brock knelt down near the fireplace to start the fire.
“Fine,” I said. I grabbed the pail and shovel and turned to leave. The floorboards creaked as I crossed through the living room, the dining room, the kitchen. I told myself it was just because the house was so old. The floorboards always creaked, during daylight hours too. I was just noticing it because it was night time. But I couldn’t but help but feel a foreboding I’d never before experienced as I descended the stairs into the basement.
I felt my way toward the hanging bulb in the middle of the open room at the bottom of the stairs. It was so dark I couldn’t see the pull string for the light, so I stuck my free hand out in front of me, swinging it around in the area I believed I would find it. After a few wild jerks of my arm, I felt the string make contact with my hand. I clutched it and yanked down.
The light clicked on, and I immediately looked all around, making sure I was alone in the basement.
Sheesh, you’re paranoid, I chided myself. But knowing I was being ridiculous didn’t help to calm me down. I still had one more light to find in the pitch-black coal room before I could fill my bucket and go back upstairs.
The gloom increased with each step I took toward the coal room. I opened the door with a long, loud creak. I glanced over my shoulder again, making sure I wasn’t being watched or followed or attacked. There was nobody there, of course, so I continued forward, free arm reaching out for the string just as it had in the previous room.
This time the string made almost immediate contact with my hand, as if it was searching for me instead of me searching for it. I pulled and the blackened room gave way to a slight glow. The low wattage of the hanging bulb emitted just enough light for me to see the immense pile of coal before me.
I set the bucket down on a relatively flat place in the corner, and then took the shovel in both hands and thrust it into the pile of black chunks. I dumped one shovel full into the bucket, then a second, then a third. The bucket was nearly full. One more, I decided. I heaved the shovel blade into the shadowy heap, but my shovel stopped dead as soon as it broke into the pile. I tried to force it further into the loose coals, but there was an obstacle preventing movement.
An ominous void filled my chest, and I knew I had happened on something sinister.
“Brock!” I screamed. “Brock! Come down here!”
I heard the floorboard creak above my head, and within moments he was by my side. “What’s wrong?” he asked. I could hear the panic in his voice.
“There’s something here,” I said, just loud enough for him to hear.
We both knew, of course. We both understood what it was we had found, even before we extricated it from its black and shadowy tomb. But we had to finish the job. Mary was waiting.
Brock took the shovel from my hand and scraped the chunks and dust away from a tiny box. A shoe box, decades old. It was tied shut with some twine which disintegrated as soon as he tried to unknot it. Brock put his hand on the lid, but I stopped him before he opened it.
“No,” I said. “Don’t look. Let’s show Mary first. And then we should bury him.”
Brock nodded. As we made our way back up the stairs, he said, “I’d always wondered why the previous owners didn’t empty the coal room when they quit using it.”
The fire was burning nicely in the fireplace when we came back with the box and the bucket of coal. I tossed a couple of shovels full onto the fire. While we waited for the fire to gain momentum, we knelt before it, the box on the floor between us and the flames.
“It’s the coal,” I said. “The coal is keeping her alive.”
The coal that buried her dead baby.
The fire spit and crackled, and Mary rose from the flames. “Where . . . is my . . . baaaay . . . beeee?” Mary wailed.
Together, we picked up the box, turned it toward the flames, and removed the lid.
The fire burned brighter, and Mary’s head swelled with flames. She swayed in the fireplace, her arms licking out toward the box. “My . . . baaaay . . . beee!” Her head tilted forward, and her height shrank down, as if she was falling to her knees.
“We can bury him the back yard for you,” I offered. “Then you can rest. We found your baby.”
“No,” Mary whispered. “No . . . pleasssse . . . give . . . him . . . to meeee.” Her arms reach out. They touched the box. Within seconds the coal dust on the dry, brittle cardboard ignited. We had no choice. We quickly placed the burning box on the grate in the fireplace. Mary’s body engulfed the cardboard coffin, burning it away until the small bones were exposed. They too—dry, brittle, partially decomposed—lit easily, and soon they burned to dust.
We watched for nearly an hour as the fire burned itself out. At last the final flames flickered in a pile of ash.
“Look,” I whispered.
In the remaining wisp of smoke, a single figure, a mother holding her newborn child, wafted up from the bed of spent coals. Serenity filled the room as together they drifted up through the chimney to be released into the brisk autumn air.