A Winter’s Tale by Mark Ivan Cole
Old George couldn’t see Jack’s house from here. He was always grateful for that. On warm summer days, he could almost forget that his Damn Brother Jack lived just over the hill. On cold nights, a ghostly plume of chimney smoke would remind him, though. George’s stomach clenched whenever he saw that smoke.
Brothers George and Jack were enemies from Day One. Couldn’t stand each other. As young men, they fought fiercely. As old men, they stopped speaking but the bickering continued. Nasty Brother Jack had trained his dogs to do their business in front of George’s gate. Old George was sure of it. Every time it happened, he would shovel up the mess, walk down the road, and fling it over Jack’s gate.
There was only one road from town, and George lived a little further out. Anyone passing by got called in to Suddenly Friendly Jack’s place for a visit. By the time the visitors left, it was late, so they hurried on. Old George knew Jack did this just to spite him.
No travelers would pass tonight. It was Christmas Eve and the world lay under a blanket of snow. A million stars joined the moon on this silent night.
Old George sat by the window, warmed by the fire and a mug of hot cider. Despite himself, he looked for that plume of chimney smoke. He couldn’t see one. A certain smugness settled in his belly. Maybe tonight he could just pretend Jack didn’t exist.
Outside it was quiet and cold. No smoke? Not a whiff? Old George tried to imagine why.
Jealousy soured his stomach. What if some kindly folk had invited Lonely Old Jack into their home for Christmas? The fools! Didn’t they know that he would drink their eggnog, eat their roasted goose, and then play “poor me” so he could take home the mincemeat pie and mashed potatoes?
Old George grumbled into his half cup of cider and glared out the window. Even a wisp of smoke would show no one was being that nice to Undeserving Brother Jack. There was no such smoke.
There must be another reason.
A sprig of hope sprang up in George’s chest. Ugly Old Jack had moved away! Packed up everything and gone! Old George could take that little house apart timber by timber, cut it up for firewood and burn it! He could tear that dratted chimney down and heave it into the woods!
George sipped the last of the cider. Then he looked for smoke. Still none.
Maybe the reason was simple. Maybe Lazy Old Brother Jack just wasn’t prepared for snow. That was probably it. Such an idiot.
Old George glared out the window, willing that plume of smoke to rise. It didn’t. He watched. He fretted. His own fire went cold. Finally, he got up, pulled on his boots, and grabbed his coat and hat.
He stood by the door, debating. He looked out the window. Still no smoke.
Resigned, he donned his old gloves and filled a sack with firewood. It wasn’t the lump of coal Jack deserved, but it would have to do.
He stepped outside and shut the door, shivering in the night air. Stomping a path took awhile. By the time he reached his gate, he was breathing heavily. Steam rose from his coat and hat. The firewood weighed a ton. He looked up the hill. No smoke.
George rammed his gate open. He stomped down the road to Jack’s gate, half hoping to see tracks leading to town. Nope.
Old George put a hand on the gate and checked for smoke one more time. Nothing.
It took several minutes to force the gate open.
Old George grimaced and trudged up the steps. He could hear Jack’s three dogs barking and whining inside, scratching on the door. What a ruckus.
Old George steeled himself. “Jack!” he bellowed over the barking.
Ornery Old Brother Jack did not answer.
“Jack! Open up!”
George’s throat hurt. Dogs barked and scratched.
The door wasn’t locked. Old George stood aside, opened the door, and let the dogs charge past. They disappeared around behind the house, only to come bounding back, barking and whining. Inside, the house was dark.
“Jack!” yelled Old George. “It’s George!”
The dogs were in already, heads down, ears down, wagging tails low to the ground, restlessly circling round and round.
“Hell, Jack, it’s freezing!” said Old George, stomping his boots and coming inside. “Why are you in the dark? You drunk?”
He knelt down by the fireplace and opened the sack of wood. With practiced hands, he built a stack in the hearth and lit it. Finally, he stood up and looked around. His brother Jack lay on the bed, one foot sticking out from under a ratty old quilt. George tucked the foot under the quilt. It was stone cold.
“What’s with you, Jack?” he said.
“Don’t know,” croaked his brother. “Just hurts.”
“Where?” said George.
“Everywhere,” said Jack.
“How long since you ate?”
“Don’t matter,” croaked Jack. “Dogs gotta eat.”
Anger burned. “Don’t be such an idiot, Jack!” Old George looked around. A shriveled braid of garlic hung by the window. “No food,” he growled. “I’ll be back.”
“Sit,” said Jack.
Old George’s next reply got stuck. Couldn’t come out. For a minute, George couldn’t breathe. The dogs whimpered. One got up on the bed and licked Jack’s face.
“Just sit,” said Jack.
Old George pulled up Jack’s chair and sat down. “Sure you don’t want something? Soup?” he said. His hands wouldn’t stop shaking.
“Nothing,” said Jack. “Just stay.”
“Stubborn old coot,” muttered George.
“Sorry George,” whispered Jack.
“For what?” croaked Old George.
“Everything,” said Jack. He turned his head to look at his brother. A thin grin spread over his face. “Gotta say…” His voice trailed off.
Old George sat mute.
Jack sucked in a breath and tried again. “Warmest I felt in years,” he said. He let out a long sigh. “It’s good.”
Old George nodded. Jack said nothing. The dog on the bed nudged Jack’s wrinkled cheek but got no response. All three dogs started howling.
Something hard in Old George’s heart finally broke.
Hours later, the house was dark, save for a faint glow in the hearth.
Old George stood up and covered his brother’s face with the quilt. The dogs looked at George.
“Come on, boys,” he said. They followed.
Out on the moonlit snow, all was calm, all was bright.