The Grave Robber's Christmas
By: Steve Carr

Cold, harsh winds rattled the panes of glass, and funneled down the stack of the old stone chimney, whistling like a shrieking cat as they passed over the large iron pot's scorched lid. Inside the pot a gray foul liquid boiled and bubbled, while underneath, blue and yellow flames rose up from burning elm logs, spitting specks of red and white embers that popped and crackled before disintegrating in the damp, cool air of the room.

Sitting in the pine rocker in front of the fire, her back hunched over, Miranda nimbly sewed and stitched the piece of linen that lay across her lap and over her knees while humming a Christmas hymn she once heard when just a young girl so many years ago. The moldy floorboards beneath the rocker's rails creaked as she teetered to and fro, her shadow cast like a dark rocking apparition on the cabin's front door. She heard the sounds of her daughter gently sobbing coming from her son-in-laws bedroom.

When her son-in-law, Efram, opened the front cabin door, the blast of air from outside made the fireplace flames shoot upward around the pot's belly and sent a shower of sparks toward the ceiling.

"Close the door you damn fool," Miranda croaked without looking up from her sewing.

A very big man, both in height and weight, Efram slammed the door, causing the pots, dishes, and unlit oil lamps on the shelves along the walls, to rattle and clank. He strode across the room, leaving muddy boot prints on the floor and dropped a small burlap sack at Miranda's feet.

"To add to the dinner pot," he said.

"What's in it?" Miranda asked.

"Just a couple of turnips. Was all that I could get," he said, going to the fire and holding his hands, palm down, over the steam rising from around the lid. "From the smell of whatever you got in the pot already, even one turnip will help."

"You're so useless. Here it is, Christmas Eve and we'll all be starving," Miranda said turning the piece of linen over and examining the stitching on a sleeve.

"I can't be blamed for the bad weather that has killed all the crops," Efram said gruffly. "Only the rich bastards in this region will have goose for their Christmas meal."

"Explain that to the rumbling in your poor children's empty stomachs," Miranda said.

"Damn your soul to hell," he replied as he turned about, grabbed the snow shovel leaning against the door frame, and went out.

#

The sound of Efram's wife, Adele, scraping the edge of the butcher knife up and down the leather razor strap attached to the side of the fireplace was almost lost in the din of her six malnourished children playing games at the large oak table. Under her breath she counted each stroke of the knife while perspiring from the heat of the roaring fire and steam from the pot. All the while huge tears rolled down her pale, sunken cheeks.

"It's been decided," Miranda said to her while breaking a thread between her black, rotten teeth. "Nothing more to be crying about."

Adele continued sharpening the knife until her six year old son, Nathan, yelled, "I've won! I've won!"

"Did you win, my love?" Adele asked, briefly stopping, and turning to see her son being lifted up onto the shoulders of his two older brothers.

"Yes, Mommy, I won fair and square," Nathan said as he was carried around the room with his older sisters dancing behind.

"Okay, children, time to settle down a bit," Adele said. "Soon your father will be back in to have his supper and kiss us all goodnight."

"It's Christmas Eve, Mother. We're going to eat tonight also, aren't we?" Mary, the oldest girl asked."

"We're all going to have something to eat," Adele said.

"Where has daddy gone?" Nathan asked.

"He didn't say where he was going," Miranda said. "Most likely to beg drinks at the tavern."

#

Sleet blew at a slant across the muddy, barren cemetery alongside the church. Efram coughed and wheezed as he pitched shovelfuls of dirt and snow from deep in the grave onto a mound along its perimeter. At last, there was a clanking sound as the shovel struck the outside of a wooden casket. Efram sat the shovel aside and using his bare hands dug around the casket until he found a latch, and then opened it. A female corpse dressed in fine satin lay on silk padding, her hands crossed over her shriveled breasts. Around her rotting neck was a gold necklace and on one of her withered fingers a ring with a small blue sapphire. Efram removed the necklace and ring and put them in his shirt pocket and closed the lid.

"Now my children will eat," he said.

He climbed out of the grave and shoveled the dirt back on top of the coffin, patted it down, then headed home, his head down against the wind and sleet.

#

As Efram sat at the dinner table, Miranda raised the lid from the pot and stirred the brackish water with a large wooden spoon. The children sat around the table with their father, with the exception of Jack, who stealthily walked up behind his father and hit him in the back of the head with a wooden mallet. Efram slumped unconscious head-first onto his empty bowl. When he awoke a short while later lying on the table. His hands and legs were tied, his mouth was stuffed with a turnip.

"What's happening?" Efram mumbled unintelligibly, struggling, and unable to free himself.

"We're going to eat proper-like this Christmas Eve night," Miranda said.

"Nathan, you won, so you get the first cut."

Adele handed the child the butcher knife, then kissed her husband on the cheek. "This is your last Christmas, my beloved husband," she said. "

Efram tried to expel the turnip as his garbled words "the jewelry, the jewelry" went unnoticed.

"Go to your grave knowing that your family will be cared for," Miranda said, staring into his terrified eyes. "Adele is a handsome woman and will find a husband who will provide for her, me and the children."

"Let the Christmas game and the dinner to follow begin," Miranda announced.

Nathan sliced off his father's hand and threw it in the open pot. Then each child took their turn.

Before cutting out his beating heart, Miranda said, "I've made a shirt for your bones to be buried in." She held up the one she had been sewing and tossed aside the bloody shirt he had been wearing. The jewelry fell out of the pocket and onto the floor.

The End

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