The storm hit Courtland County with such a wicked swiftness, the townships in the forest were reduced to nearly standing still for days, just as the holiday season had come to town. The winter wind howled, pelting the windows of every house with snow and the roads nearly impossible to drive on. The weather forecast had said that this had been possibly the worst storm since the icy days that ended off the year 1922. Now, over sixty years later, the ghostly memory of that storm remained only in the minds of few and a whole new generation found out the hard way that life in this county was cruel in winter and the roads through the trees were twice as ghastly as they already were. Through the forest, it was almost as though the air itself was moaning in a chorus of curses of cold and ice. Christmas Eve would not be the picture perfect image of snow mounds and delicate icicles sparkling in the moonlight but rather a blizzard of miserable weather spent in front of a glowing hearth in hopes that it would drown out the sound of the wailing wind. Since dawn, the cold had been oppressively bleak. The white billowing clouds that had cast the whole of the county in snow since early this morning had turned a dusty grey by the afternoon and the encroaching darkness seemed to paint them deeper shades still. In the distance, the lights twinkled on and the township began to glow in preparation of nightfall. Somewhere, on the howl of the winds, a church bell sounded in ominous tones. Darkness would fall soon and yet there were no displays to come on. There were no radio stations here that played those cheerful songs. There was barely anything that might suggest what day it was at all. This place seemed to enjoy keeping to its darkness.
Jean had not been interested at all in coming to this place for the holidays. The city, an hour and a half’s drive away, always had so much more to offer and at least there, he would have been able to see his friends still. He had just reached the age where the activities that had once been the highlight of his Christmas vacation from private school had become strangely shameful and childish. Once upon a time, he would have been delighted to go skating in one of the open rinks that were prepared for just this day. He would have begged to go to the large winter festival that city hall put on every year. There was a time when he could barely stand to wait to see the horse drawn carriages and race to get into the lineup to get the small cup of hot chocolate that they gave out. No, those days, precious as they might be in a few years, were behind him now and instead he had been much more interested in passing time with friends who liked playing video games. There were holiday specials on TV that he had begged to watch if only because it would allow him to stay up later and later each night. Perhaps this was why his parents had insisted that this year he accompany them to Grandmother’s drafty old house in Courtland County. There was no television here and his grandmother had precious little that she cared about except her books. Jean enjoyed reading but he highly doubted that any of her old lady books would be of any interest to him.
In fact, he was quite convinced upon his arrival that there was very little at all that would interest him about being here. Though he did like his grandmother, she was a strange woman and she lived in a house in the middle of a forest. It was eerily silent there at night, no matter what season it was. The house itself felt as strange as its owner as well. It was large and filled with many nooks and crawlspaces where heat simply refused to go, even in the dog days of summer when the humidity would choke the air everywhere. It was the only place he could remember having to bring a sweater while he was still wearing shorts. At least in the summer he could ride his bike around the forest trails as long as he didn’t go too far. This house and visiting it was even worse in the winter when there was nothing more to do but sit before the fire and hope that his grandmother had books that might have some adventure stories but they were all so very old. Otherwise, there was precious little to do but spy on the town below. There were so many windows in the rooms, the rattle of the harsh wind in the trees was impossible to escape. And it was as though the bluster of winter had been trying to get in and went it succeeded, it sounded almost like words whispered throughout the halls at night. Each time the chilly air would shake the house in its gale of snowflakes, it would creak and moan like it was breathing. It was creepy and dark and cold. More importantly, tonight, it was filled with a gathering gloom devoid of any cheer that the holidays might otherwise bring. His grandmother, odd woman that she was, had no tree and no lights, just like most of the houses he’d seen here. She had made small efforts to welcome them but it was limited to tacking up holly vines around each window and a very small gift left for them to open up before they went to bed this evening if they chose to.
Jean watched with a sigh as the last light of day faded from view on the horizon. Christmas Eve had settled on the land now as the last of the ground shadows had grown to cast everything in darkness. From the vantage point in the forest, Jean could see the lights of the town but only in the centre square was there any hint of the festive season at all. He frowned at his reflection as he watched the snow swirl about on the ground. He thought of his home back in the city and how every lamp post would have a wreath on it for blocks. There would be red ribbons cresting each and every street sign in certain neighborhoods. And the lights. Those wonderful lights that he loved no matter how childish he felt looking at them, they would be everywhere around him. Tonight, looking at the shadowy wasteland that was this rotten county, he wished that he could be at city hall listening to the clopping of hooves on pavement and the joyful sound of carolers belting out those old songs in their costumes. He might have been feeling stupid as a kid too old to be there but nearly anything was better than being here.
“You would think that this place would want to be cheerful,” the young man reflected, looking out the window at the town. “I’ve never seen a town that wouldn’t put up decorations or lights. There aren’t even any trees around. Why is that, Grandmother? They do it in the town square but I can’t see any houses in town that do that here.”
Jean looked to the elderly woman sitting in front of a large fireplace. The glow of the embers before her made the lines of her face seem deeper, more ancient that it felt like she already was. She looked tired and like the cradle of sleep was just about to take her. Still, one only had to look at her eyes to know that she was wildly aware. They flickered bright as the crackling flames before her. Jean sighed to see that look on her face. She was caught in one of those moments where her mind was somewhere far from here. Somewhere in the past.
“Bad luck,” the old woman said suddenly, still staring at the fire. Her eyes flickered with a kind of brilliant light and she smiled before looking at the boy. “It’s terribly bad luck here to string lights up. Courtland County is a place best left to sleep on this night.”
“But it’s Christmas Eve, Grandmother,” the boy said, coming to see her now. He sat in front of the fire, looking at it glumly.
“So it is,” she nodded. “The spirits will be restless tonight. No sense in teasing them so. She does so hate those wicked lights.”
“Sounds like Halloween, Grandmother,” the boy sighed, impatiently. “That’s when there are ghosts flying around. Christmas is when Santa is supposed to come.”
“You still believe in old Saint Nick?” his grandmother smiled. He shook his head.
“No,” he said, vaguely insulted. “That’s little kid stuff and I’m already twelve. Dad says that next year I’ll have to start growing up. That it’s time to start real school.”
“Oh child, your father, bless him, knows little of being grown up and there’s only so much you learn in school,” she shrugged. His grandmother looked down at him. “And who told you such rot about Halloween being the only time for spirits?”
“Everyone knows that,” he replied, looking at the orange embers of the fire. The way they glowed hot against the black charred wood made him think of the small amount of candy he still had stashed in his room. He missed that now. His grandmother had not really prepared much in the way of a Christmas feast either.
“It is rather presumptuous to assume what everyone knows, darling,” she sighed, looking into the light of the fire. “There was once a time, not that long ago for someone like me, that everyone knew that this was a time of ghosts. Where they spoke freely and they told such stories. Back then, everyone could hear them on these cold, horrible nights. We shared the best ones by the firelight to keep them happy, of course.”
“You sat around telling stories?”
“If we didn’t tell what we’d heard, the ghosts would speak for us. They do so hate having to tell the same tale twice,” she said, her thin lips twitching into a small smile. “Occasionally, when they are properly annoyed, they might feel the need to liven it up a bit.”
“Is that how you passed the time before TV was invented?”
“Oh child, how terribly boring those stories are,” his grandmother laughed. “All the same stories over and over with different people telling them. Heavens, how dreadful to have to spend a night such as this watching something as dull as a flickering screen telling you all the tales you already know.”
“So what’s a story that you know, Grandmother? Something different?”
“Is that something of interest to you, darling?” she smiled to herself. “Oh I’m sure that those would just put you to sleep. All my stories are old, child. All those old ghosts are still telling them up in the old house in the forest hills.”
“The mansion!” Jean gasped.
Oh the forbidden mansion! He’d never seen it but Jean had itched to find a way to find out more about this infamous house for as long as he could remember. He’d heard tales of what it was supposed to look like. That it had once been a beautiful house built by a strange man. When his sons were born, he built more room for them, adding separate wings for the house that they might play and have everything they ever wanted. The house, it was said to him, was vast, spiraling and maddening to try to wander through. He wished dearly that one day he might find a way to wander up to that forgotten place in the hills to see if it stood there still. If he could try to get lost in those empty halls and see what once was. What his grandmother once saw with her own eyes! She lived in that house and was there when it was built. She was there too, it was said, when tragedy struck and the house began to become the monstrous maze that it would eventually be. He had asked many times but it was made clear that there was nothing more to say about it. It was a topic that he was never to pursue but he’d ached to ask about for years, especially after he found out that Grandmother had lived there. Still any information about it was locked away like a shameful curse. The house that his parents spoke of only in whispers when they thought he was asleep. His whole life this strange structure had loomed in the background, a family secret that was hidden in deliciously cruel plain sight.
“Please Grandmother, please!” he whispered eagerly. “Tell me about that house. Tell me about the mansion!”
“I seem to recall that your parents disapprove of such talk,” she said, evenly. There was a twinkle of mischief in her eye. “Such things could get your old mémère into a bit of trouble.”
“Oh please Grandmother, they’re not listening right now and I’ll never tell a soul, I promise,” he begged.
The old woman leaned over the arm of her chair, looking around conspiratorially before letting her shining eyes settle on him. He waited anxiously to hear her answer. After so many years, finally he would know. He would hear of that house that taunted him so!
“There are eyes about this house, child, this you already know,” she said, quietly. She beckoned him forward and lowered her voice so that it was barely audible above the crackle of the fire. “The story of why there are no lights strung up here, of why the festive days are muted, all start with that house, darling. You are a boy two years older than I when I came to live there. I should think you are old enough to know this tale now. If it pleases you to hear it, I’ll tell you tonight when the clock in the sitting room downstairs strikes ten. I will tell you how the spirits of that house will not allow those lights to shine on Christmas Eve only then.”