The fireplace was made of stone, stones the size of skulls, small skulls, set in cement. Smooth, the round, the blues and gray of buried slate. And there were flutes of branch, or tibias, buried into the cement. And I thought of our little bungalow, and of our black cast-iron belly stove, and for the first time in my life, I wished they had held onto it.
—Do the stones get hot? I asked.
No one answered.
Thea was tending to the fire. The logs were white and black and smeared with amber sap. And they were moldy and sweet smelling. She wore a pair of suede mittens. And when she went down on her hands and knees I saw, beneath her pleated kilt, I saw a little of her cheek. And I saw Dawn, then, and she was watching me.
—It’s our only source of heat, Thea said, piling the logs and then lighting the kindling, and then placing it so.
—Is there something I can do? I asked.
—We have loads of blankets, she said. Dawn? Stephen, take one for your lap. In a couple of hours we’ll be roasting.
Dawn was mumbling to herself. She reached inside an old, battered trunk. I could smell the cedar on the wool. She sat herself on the sofa and covered her lap. She started rubbing her hands together, to make warmth. As she rubbed her rings were making clicking sounds. She knew it was annoying her mother, who was still on her hands and knees. Then she said, if you stand next to the window you can see your breath. You can make frost on the window. We don’t come here too often in the winter any more. Just to flush the toilets.
—Thank you, Dawn, the mother said. Believe me, Stephen, it gets like a sweat house in here.
The girl was still all bundled up.
—I can tolerate just so much discomfort, she said.
And I thought she said the so rather deliciously, if somewhat like a college girl.
—May I see your rings? I asked.
I thought at least this would stop the clicking noise.
—Dawn? the mother said. Get some glasses down. And the pear brandy.
I was beginning to get the impression that we were there, for the most part—that is, aside from flushing the toilets—that we were there for my sake alone. When she returned I offered her my mittens.
—I’ve been keeping them warm for you.
She left the snifters and the brandy on the coffee table. And then she pulled the mittens off my hands. But as she did this, she made a face as though to say, I still think you should keep your distance.
I poured the brandy. I took mine and took a little taste, and then I put it down in one shot.
—Sometimes the pipes get frozen, she said. And you have to make into a meat-loaf pan. And then you have to take it outside and dump it.
—Winning, Dawn! the mother said, still on her hands and knees.
And it was difficult to keep my eyes from beneath her kilt.
The girl took a little sniff and then a sip of her brandy. She licked her lips, and then she put it down in one shot.