And darkness breathe a newer light

In the wondrous year that synchronized sound came to feature-length motion pictures, Lucinda considered her grandmother a relic from the old country. This was the land of the free and the home of the brave, a country of opportunity which had transformed her father into an important man of finance. The young girl, due in no small influence from her parents, didn’t think ancient superstitions had a place in their modern home or world.

“It’s for protection,” her grandmother said as she hung the bauble from the window latch.

“Protection from what?” Lucinda watched her grandmother in the light of the little dancing clown lamp on the dresser. The girl’s stomach was, thankfully, less full now from their Christmas Eve feast, her Granna Mag’s first in the United States, and could stretch out comfortably.

The old woman sat on the edge of the bed. “It is the dark of winter, child. There is more moving around on this night than your jolly elf.”

Lucinda considered the bauble. It was a blue glass ball which reflected the dim, warm light from the lamp. “It looks like an ornament. Why not hang it on the tree?”

Granna Mag patted her granddaughter’s rosy little cheeks. “It is best here. Should something unwanted come along, this,” she indicated the glittering ball, “will scare it. It can absorb some ill mischiefs. Some things,” she made a funny face, “see their reflections and are frightened off.”

“It seems a silly thing,” Lucinda smiled.

“Do not ignore the old ways,” Granna Mag said, suddenly serious. “Your father and mother have all but forgotten their upbringing. They have no respect for what they do remember. Respect is a proper thing. It is important. Grandmother’s know these things.” The woman traced a wrinkled finger down the white scar beneath her left eye. “I am thankful to meine Großmutter.”

Lucinda crinkled her nose at the ugly, jagged line. “It still seems childish.” She raised to her elbows. “It won’t keep Santa away will it? I asked him for a great big dollhouse, I saw it at Gimbels, I want it so bad, and-”

“Such things, such trivial things,” the woman shook her head. “I am happy to be here, with you and your parents.”

“Of course you are,” the girl said. “This house is nicer than your old one.”

Granna Mag kissed her on the forehead. “I am blessed with you, the greatest of all gifts.” She tucked the bed covers around Lucinda. 

“I’m sorry you have to do this,” the girl said.

“Do what?”

“Put me to bed,” Lucinda said. “Mommy has that servant girl do it.”

“Marcy.”

“Who?”

“The house girl,” Granna Mag said. “The woman who watches after you, cooks for you, puts you to bed. How do you not know her name?”

Lucinda shrugged her shoulders. “Whoever she is, Mommy and Daddy gave her and the butler-”

“Lyle,” her grandmother informed her.

“I guess. They have Christmas off, probably spending it with their families or something, as if we don’t need them here.”

Granna Mag stared at the bauble strung from the window latch, a flash of worry on her face. “Yes, it is needed here.” She smoothed her granddaughter’s blankets. “I pray you sleep well.”

“Good night, Granna.”

“Good night. Dream of your sugar plums.”

“Leave the lamp on, please,” Lucinda said.

“Certainly, dear.”

Her grandmother’s skirt swished as she departed the room. She left the door partly open. 

Despite excitement, despite thoughts and wishes of dollhouses and candies and dresses with crisp ribbons, as soon as Lucinda closed her eyes, she was asleep.

#

The orb of light which shone in the glass ball attracted the cat. This cat, Snooker, was already denoted as a long-haired grey annoyance by Granna Mag. “Ghastly creature,” the elderly woman had said of the cat, often, in the few days since being acquainted with it. The utterance was often followed by the evil eye. “Loathsome, Kater.”

Snooker mostly hissed in response, acknowledging no love lost between them.

After Granna Mag had retired to her room at the far end of the hall, Snooker strolled casually, no need to creep, to Lucinda’s room. It lingered in the small opening afforded by the ajar door, purred, rubbed its back on the jamb.

Its purr stopped when it caught sight of the glowing ball at the window. Snooker, entranced, eyed its newfound prey and emitted a whispery half meow.

Like a soldier on the battlefield, Snooker slithered along the length of the bed in deep shadows to peer around the post. The cat stalked quickly across the floor to the wall. It meowed and, when the blue ball with the light beamed to its center did not flee, jumped to the sill.

The cold of the window glass made the cat bristle before it stretched its leg to paw the glass ball. 

The ball swung gently on the string.

Snookered meowed at it and batted it once more.

The glass ball swung higher. The string slipped over the latch and the glowing orb clinked on the window frame, hit the sill and tumbled to the floor to shatter.

Snooker leaped, its back arched and its shadow giant. The feline landed on its feet and dashed for the door.

The girl slept, undisturbed by the commotion and oblivious to the shadow growing in the window.

#

Lucinda woke with the feeling of a night’s sleep. Her little eyes opened slowly, fluttered as the laughing mask lamp did now. The stuttering light stopped. She glanced around at the dark shapes hidden at the edges of the room as she knuckled at the sleep that wanted to enchant her eyes.

Dark hung outside the frosted window. She did not notice the bauble gone.

The house was quiet enough to send a shiver down the child’s spine. Lucinda didn’t hesitate to push free of the covers, but she did wait the barest of moments before putting her feet to the floor. Her legs dangled over the side of the bed as she wondered if Santa had visited yet or not. Should she risk investigating, should she gamble being caught awake?

She would.

Lucinda would gamble and risk it all.

The hardwood was as cold as its sheen when she hurried, on tiptoe, across it. She opened the door wider and spied into the darkened hallway. A multitude of colors glowed at the far end, shining up from downstairs. It was the lights on the Christmas tree, but the amber color that wavered was from the fireplace.

Did her dad light a fire?

Not that she knew of. He could have after she had gone to bed, but the fireplace wasn’t usually lit overnight.

Lucinda’s eyes brightened.

Santa Claus. Did he…yes, last Christmas, their first in the house, she had awoke to a cozy fire in the hearth. Then, like now, she was the first to wake. It couldn’t have been her dad. She knew, definitely, it hadn’t been the house girl or the butler (whose names had already slipped her mind).

The floor colluded with her as she crept down the hall, holding the flow of her nightgown tight around her. Not a creak did it sound, no alarm did it raise. She made it past her parents bedroom, denying herself the swiftness of running. She wanted to break cover to rush and see what goodies had been delivered. But it would be of no benefit to her to stampede if said goodies were in the process of being placed with care beneath the Christmas tree.

At the corner of the stairs, Lucinda heard the crackle of the logs in the fireplace below. She smelled the embers, the needles of the unwieldy fir tree decorated with a rainbow of lights, tinsel, strung popcorn, paper chains, and handmade ornaments. 

The hall behind her was still darkened, her parents’ bedroom impenetrable ink beyond its doorway. Likewise was Granna Mag’s. Lucinda was still in the clear.

She slid around the corner and thrilled at her bare foot touching the first step. Below her she could see the Christmas tree in all it’s radiance before the front window. There were no presents piled high around it, though. Her heart sank. Could it be Santa Claus had not yet arrived at her house?

Lucinda moved lower down the stairs. The hearth came into full view and there, between it and the tree, was a large, dark bag. The girl nearly jumped for joy.

He was here! Santa Claus was in her house.

She turned to retreat up the stairs when a thought occurred: when would she ever get a second chance to peek into Santa’s toy bag? She could even select something special for herself from the endless gifts it supplied.

Lucinda had heard her father speak of once in a lifetime opportunities and this was the very definition of one.

She took the remaining steps silently, but with a greater urgency. She didn’t know where Santa was, he could be anywhere in the house or, what seemed most logical to Lucinda, on the roof tending to his reindeer. Time was limited was the truth of the matter.

With a glance left and right through the darkened house, Lucinda abandoned the stairs. As she approached, she could see the wear and tear on the bag, something she supposed was to be expected with centuries of use. It appeared coarse, maybe burlap, and that made her wrinkle her nose. Surely Santa Claus would use finer material.

Lucinda was thinking of what acceptable material to suggest in a letter to the North Pole when a head rose from the toy bag.

Stringy, thin shocks of hair sprouted from the head which sat upon a broom-handle neck. 

The girl froze. She realized it was not a toy bag, it was a dress of some sort, a baggy, billowy dress of rank fabric like Granna Mag wore in the old home country. This was an ancient woman, a crone, a hag if one ever lived, and Lucinda could feel it in the pit of her heart this woman was some of the ill mischief her grandmother had mentioned.

The hag’s head dipped back down. Lucinda watched the ruffle of the dress as the woman swayed on her haunches. The hag’s lips smacked.

A wet shiver went through Lucinda and the smallest squeak of fear squeezed from her.

Still squatting, the hag swiveled slowly. Her warty, creased face came into the light of the fire. In her hands was Snooker, belly half eaten. She chewed. Her dripping lips smiled under her moldy eyes and hook nose.  

Lucinda’s breath came in bursts.

The hag swallowed what was in her mouth and absently tossed Snooker into the fire. She rose, but did not stand fully erect. Her back was hunched, her legs were bent. The crone’s arms twitched like antennae tuned for sound.

She pointed at the girl. “Consider well and bear in mind,” the hag said, her voice the clacking of dried sticks or aged bones. “What our good Gah-Gah-Gah-” she gagged and heaved a putrid wind. “God!” the hag spat the word. “God! God for us has done!” Then she emitted a sound which was part laugh, part shrill wail that made the child’s bones ache.

Lucinda ran to the stairs. Her feet tripped over themselves, tangled in her gown. She fell up the stairs, banging her chin and yelping like a kicked pup.

The hag was at the bottom step. From the billows of her dress she drew a knife stained with an eternity of suffering. 

“No!” Lucinda kicked at the hag’s reaching hand. 

“But mark,” the hag leered at her, flakes falling from her decayed pupils. “Mark how all things came to pass.” She licked her blistered lips. “Won’t you taste sweet, my pretty one.”

“Daddy!” Lucinda cried. She twisted and managed to find her footing on the chilly steps. “Mommy!” The woman’s laughter followed her ascent. 

At the top she judged the distance to her parents’ room. Granna Mag was closer, her room (the guest room) was right there, and she ran to it. She plunged herself into the darkness and slammed the door. The key was in the lock and her hands fumbled it. It wouldn’t turn and fell out. Lucinda quickly picked it up. She plunged it into the keyhole and turned. The sound of the tumblers and lock sliding into place didn’t keep her heart from leaping in her chest. She tested the handle, frantically gleeful when the door wouldn’t open.

Lucinda’s shaky hand felt along the wall and flipped the switch on. The brightness made her cringe as did the smell in the room. It was the earthy scent of her grandmother, of the old world she had brought with her, a fragrance sunk deep into her skin and clothes. Lucinda didn’t like it, and, if the crone had not done it, this odor would have brought tears to her eyes.

On the far side of the room, Granna Mag remained asleep in her bed.

Lucinda ran to her. “Granna!” But the woman didn’t wake. Lucina could see that her grandmother’s eyelids were only partially closed, the way the woman preferred the window shades in the afternoon when she napped. The whites showed of Granna Mag’s eyes.

“Granna Mag,” Lucinda clutched at the blankets in a storm of salty tears. “There’s a monster, Granna! And the servants aren’t here!”

From the other side of the bedroom door, slow, deliberate, came the words, “Consider wise…and bear in mind….” They were followed by the scrape of the knife on the wood grain and a macabre chuckle.

Lucinda flung off her grandmother’s covers.

Granna Mag had been sliced open from gullet to groin and stuffed with tinkly, foil-wrapped candies soiled with dollops and clots of ruby red blood. The dead woman’s head flopped to the side, to stare at her granddaughter, and her lifeless mouth yawned open, crooked.

The child screamed until her throat constricted and had sobbed itself raw. Her cries of “Help,” of “Mommy,” of “Daddy,” were little more than a frog’s croak which dwindled to a butterfly’s shriek. Her parents would not be her rescuers. Whether she actually realized it or not, she knew her parents had suffered the same fate as her grandmother. 

Lucinda collapsed on the floor. Her body, involuntarily and completely by memory, drew fetal. 

Fingers oozed under the bedroom door. Arms followed. The hag’s head, pliable like putty, slid through the slender space between door and floor like a snake. She reformed and pulled the rest of herself through on her rickety arms.

The hag drew her knife as she intoned, “Thy cradle here shall glitter bright.”

Suffused in tears, the child only perceived a blurry shape coming towards her.

Lucinda could hear, though.

“And darkness breathe a newer light.”

The hag smiled and bent to her task.