For eleven months of the year the three generations existed in harmony beneath the same roof. That tragedy had befallen the family seven years ago no lodger or patron in the establishment would ever suspect or admit. But lodgers were few and patrons fewer. And that’s the way the McGuires liked it. For with just enough business passing through the inn to supplement the livelihood the small farm provided, there was less in the way of temptation on offer to the marauders who had been plaguing establishments like theirs for many years. These bandits had struck them on two occasions, terrifying the children and the grandparents.
To combat prospective attacks, Tim McGuire, the forty-eight year old proprietor had extra strong bolts fitted to the inside of the doors and windows. These bolts McGuire would methodically shut and lock before the last patron left for home each evening. For the bandits, historically, had only ever been known to strike when premises were emptied of clientele.
The first frosty days of December and the approach of Christmas brought with them the usual sense of trepidation. As the days ticked by towards December 21st – the shortest day and longest night of the year – the time when the veil between the living and the dead was at its thinnest – Tim McGuire felt his family’s uneasiness.
Whenever he spoke to Maeve, his wife, she considered him through petrified eyes. And, at his touch, she flinched. His three children, two girls and a boy, obeyed his orders as they always did. But the way they hung their heads and kept their eyes from his undermined his paternal authority. His elderly parents likewise altered their behaviour towards him. His father, who had, when no longer able-bodied enough to run the inn and guesthouse, given McGuire the right of ownership to the premises, fidgeted when his son drew near. The old man wiped his palms down his waistcoat, or made this open-mouthed clenched-teeth expression, as though he were suffering indigestion. While McGuire’s old mother, unable to hide her fear, dropped her eyes to the ground and clutched her heart whenever he looked her way. But it was McGuire’s brother, Frankie, who disturbed him worse than any of them. His brother’s face was the face of a man who had felt before the pitiless eyes of Death fall upon him.
To cope with such unjust alienation from his family, McGuire did what he had done these past seven years – he busied himself with putting up the Christmas decorations. And then there was the Christmas tree. Each year McGuire left the cutting down of the tree till December 21st. Traditionally, all the family, including the grandparents, got themselves to the city and the markets for those special extras they needed for the Christmas dinner, the things they didn’t grow on the farm or couldn’t themselves produce.
On the morning of the 21st, McGuire remained in bed, awake, listening to Frankie and their father harnessing the two Clydesdales and hitching them up to the carriage.
Unseen on the other side of the house, he could picture his father under the bony moonlight holding the animals steady by the bridles, while Frankie pulled the carriage forward by the shafts; all the while, their elderly father whispering softly to the two bay mares.
Not until he heard the forced gaiety of his family boarding the carriage, followed by the clomp-clomp of the horses’ hooves and the carriage wheels rolling down the dirt track and out onto the road did McGuire get himself up and into the day.
He left the house and stepped into the courtyard and across the cobblestones and to the outhouses. There he dug out the whetstone from under some old bridles and bits in the barn. Throughout the year the stone’s pores had become clogged with dirt and grime. So, before he could use the stone to sharpen the axe, he had first to clean it. A job he found deeply satisfying.
He first of all soaked the whetstone in kerosene. He then wrapped it in a towel, put it in the old brick oven and baked it at a steady heat of 250 degrees. When the oven had done its job, he removed the stone, unwrapped the towel and brought it into the courtyard to cool off. Still not yet daybreak, the light of the moon was ample. And from the ink-black sky there shone another light. Although a cold, sharp morning, the glow that came from the star of Bethlehem infused McGuire’s heart with warmth.
He set about sharpening the axe-head. Holding the head at a 23-degree angle, he drew one side of the blade away from him and over the stone’s surface. He did the same with the other side. The silver of the sharpening axe-head caught the heavenly glow pouring from the sky and glinted.
While admiring his work by holding the axe before him, a flickering flame burning in the small window of the loft caught McGuire’s attention: Frankie’s room. His brother had left a lamp burning. Cursing aloud his brother’s stupidity, but with the satisfying heft of the axe resting on his shoulder, he made his way across the yard and into the house.
Voices. He thought he had heard voices. Like a cat, he worked his way stealthily into a darkened corner of the living room. From there he watched the panicked and unmistakable shadows of his brother and his wife jump about in the flickering light thrown from the lamp in the window. So, the two had remained behind.
Something, a force outside his control, gripped him. Fully aware of his actions and even of their terrible consequences, he rushed to the kitchen. There he picked up the half-full bottle of kerosene, dashed back to the living room and let fly from his hand the green bottle up into the open loft. Despite their screamed and agonised pleas to help them, the two succumbed quickly to the killing flames.
Next McGuire sat down and awaited the return of his family.
Eventually midnight chimed on the old clock. And with its chimes appeared a ghostly figure, a woman’s. And all about her there materialised others: men, women and children, their faces filled with fascination and fear.
McGuire clenched hard his teeth and pressed his palms against his temples, a vain attempt to lessen the thrumming in his ears. He had heard the woman speak the same words six times before. But was compelled to listen to her always.
“Having cold-bloodedly burned his wife and brother to death in this very house on this very date, almost one hundred years ago,” the woman said in this cheery voice, paused and smiled. “Tim McGuire waited all day for his family to return from their Christmas shopping. They returned just after midnight. Tim McGuire put to use the axe he had earlier in the day sharpened to chop down the tree for the Christmas festivities.”
McGuire watched the horrified faces of the strangely dressed people gasp.
The woman smiled before concluding her story. “None of McGuire’s family rejoiced that lovely Christmas morning. Nor did they ever again celebrate another Christmas.”
Short Story Sunday Festive Special
This story is part of Short Story Sunday’s ‘5 Days of Christmas’ Festive Special which features an original festive tale each day in the four days before Christmas leading up to the grand finale with a very special fifth and final story on Christmas Day.
Don’t Miss Day 3: Tune in tomorrow for Day 3 of our Festive Special which features a beautifully haunting piece of flash fiction about a mysterious Christmas card.
Optimise your reading experience
If you are reading our stories on a Desktop PC or MAC the sidebar will display. If you would like a more immersive reading experience we recommend viewing the site from a tablet or mobile phone as this will automatically remove the side bar and display the story in full screen.
Want more stories?
Find out more about our free monthly ‘Short Story Sunday Club’ here.
Share your thoughts
If you would like to share your thoughts on this story, you can do so below.