In a decorative iron grate, mere inches from the ornament-hung branches of a Christmas tree, a flaming log shed its light on the room. An arm reached into the fireplace from the side opposite the tree, dropping a new log onto the coals. It flared up instantly, crackling loudly. A volume bar appeared on the basket, the indicator dropping from one-third to one-quarter its maximum, and the crackling subsided. The indicator vanished, and the illusion of a cheery fireplace resumed, fooling eye and ear, but leaving no soot on the wall above and leaving the tree unscorched.
Hank put the remote on the arm of the couch, then stretched out, his feet sliding under the coffee table, his spine bowing into a teenager-ish slump that would be comfortable for only a few minutes. He sipped the egg nog that had not long before been ceremoniously placed beside the cookie plate on the coffee table, the traditional sacrifice to St. Nick by a couple of little boys who weren’t quite sure on which side of the naughty-nice line they stood. The nog was warmer than he liked, and lacked rum, but he could not stir himself from the torpor of a well-run Christmas eve to amend it.
“Ho ho ho,” Janet said quietly as she lowered herself onto the far end of the couch. Before Hank could straighten himself, she had laid down to rest her head on his chest, one arm thrown over his thighs. “Is this what we’re watching?”
He put an hand on her side. “Why not? It reminds me of Christmas eve when I was a kid.”
“I thought watching Grinch took care of that.”
He gave her a little squeeze. “I’m a man of many facets. Besides, there’s really nothing else on.”
She snuggled in, and they sat for some minutes, watching the flames and saying nothing. Just as Hank’s back was starting to override his enjoyment of the extended moment, Janet sat up. “What was that?”
Hank reached for the remote and hit mute. He had heard something over the crackle of the flames, but he had dismissed it as the aural equivalent of seeing faces in wood panelling. They sat together, utterly still, Janet with her head turned towards the children’s bedroom, Hank with his closed eyes towards the Christmas tree as he concentrated on his ears. Neither heard anything but their own breath.
“I was sure…,” Janet started.
“Yeah. I heard something, too.” Without looking at the TV, he pressed the remote again. The MUTE caption vanished, replaced by the noise of the fire. There was also speech, though. It was not unnatural, merely unexpected and easily overlooked. The directional microphone which picked up the popping of sap and even the susurration of air being drawn past it on the way up the chimney was not bringing the content of the emphatic whispers to the speakers, but once heard as human speech it was undeniable. Hank pressed the button again, and it vanished along with all else the TV’s speakers were offering.
“That’s funny,” he said. “I never heard that before.”
“Turn it back on. I want to see if I can hear what they’re saying.” He did, slowly raising the volume until he was worried it might wake the kids. It did no good; the voices were still overridden by the roar of burning. The rhythm of the words was all that really came through.
“That sounds like an argument,” Janet said. Hank nodded. “Isn’t this on a loop?”
“I thought so,” he said. “Something like a two-hour cycle. I know I heard someone moving around a couple of times, but this is… weird.”
They both stood, moving in unconscious unison to the far side of the coffee table where they posed, heads cocked in a posture of strenuous eavesdropping. The whisperers did not get louder, but whatever was being said seemed to become rapidly more venomous. At last, one of them said “Liar!” loudly enough to be clearly audible. Hank and Janet turned to look at each other. He held up the remote, and added one more click to the volume.
There was the sound of movement, and now the voices were not whispering but they were far enough from the microphone that the words were still too indistinct to be understood. There was no question now that it was an argument, and a very heated one.
“Should we call someone?” Janet took a half-step in the direction of the telephone, bringing her closer to Hank.
“Who? The cable company?”
She broke off as the TV produced a human sound clear enough to be understood over the fire’s noise, but it was just a simple, meaningless syllable: “Hwua!”
They both froze, staring at the fire. Now there was plain, over the homely crackle, the sound of feet on boards which ended in a damp crunch and a thud. Then, no sound but the fire for a few seconds until under it rose a rattling sob composed of only indrawn breaths which ended abruptly with another crunch. Dark fluid flew onto the fire, sizzling on the decorative grate and steaming on the bricks at the back of the fireplace.
Hank and Janet both shouted in surprise. He dropped the remote and went to the phone as she ran with a sensible mother’s instinct towards the boys’ room, to intercept them if they came to see why Santa had made such a noise. While Hank waited to get through to someone, reassured by a mechanical voice that his call was important to the cable company over and again between snippets of public-domain seasonal music, the logs burned down and slowly faded to a bed of deep red coals in a field of black.
The Fire is So Delightful ©2015 Dirck de Lint. The fire which follows is drawn from the Youtube channel of PBS Newshour, and is not quite the same as the one which put this story into motion.