By Jennifer Frost
One Christmas Eve, Old Martha sat alone, her cat asleep by the fire. She remembered her grandmother’s Christmas tea and the old tales of ghosts who haunt on the eve of the most sacred day of the year. Young Martha and her sisters hung on Grandmother’s words while Mother stood back, sniffing in the half-dark. “Ghosts don’t exist,” she said.
Grandmother’s eyes sparkled in the firelight. “You won’t say that tonight when Old Nick chases you up the stairs.”
“Better wait until midnight when the Messiah has been born and the entire world is safe for a day from the evil spirits that live in the dark.”
Mother bent forward to stir the fire, saying nothing.
Grandmother told the girls of spirits who visit wicked children on the night before Christmas to reveal futures filled with sadness and ill luck. Those naughty boys and girls shivered in their beds, weeping with fear and dread as the deep sleep of death crept in. They awoke on Christmas morning transformed, thanking God for their deliverance, and turning to their parents in love and obedience. And every Christmas thereafter, they remembered that haunted night when they came so close to a very sticky end.
Father took the Bible and read the Nativity passages, verses extolling the long ago night of the Savior’s birth. With the close of the sacred story, the hosannas of angels ringing, the clock sounded twelve, and they damped the fire for the night. The children slept snug, their arms wrapped round each other, dreaming sweetly of roasted meats and Christmas pudding. No harm could come to them on the day the Good News was told.
Old Martha held the cat in her lap, remembering the sisters she’d outlived and family far away. A gale blowing outside rattled the windows; Martha rose to fasten their frames. Outside, a black figure stood in the snow, the blizzard obscuring it with gusts of wind and ice. “A lost stranger will not survive,” thought Martha. When she opened the door, the stranger stood on the doorstep, snow melting on his shoulders.
“Could you take in a wanderer on Christmas Eve, Madam?”
“Please, Sir,” said Martha, bidding him enter.
Martha poured tea and hung his coat to dry. The man took off his hat, tall and black with a narrow brim. His hair glistened in the flickering light. He smiled as he sipped his tea. “Your name, Sir?” asked Martha.
“I am Harris,” he said.
“I’m pleased to have a guest this evening.”
“Merry Christmas, Madam Martha.” Martha searched his face, but his gaze was on the fire, the cat warming herself on the hearth. “A game of cards?” he asked. “As we wait out the storm. An old tradition from my youth on Christmas Eve.”
“I never gamble on cards, Mr. Harris.”
“Nothing untoward, dear Martha. Just this bowl of oranges which sits on your table. We will divide them, and they will be our riches for tonight.” Martha agreed and Harris drew a deck of richly decorated cards from his pocket, fanning them for Martha to see. Each card bore the image of some cavorting figure and a numbered symbol on the top right corner. “An unusual deck, I’ll admit,” said Harris, “But just right for this particular game.”
Harris shuffled the cards with lightening fast hands and spread them in an arc upon the table. Then from his pocket he drew one last card, decorated like the rest but showing the grim figure of Death, scythe in hand. Harris hid it in the deck and reshuffled, the cards dancing between his fingers. He placed them in a stack on the table. “Draw to make pairs. Draw the Death card, you lose an orange.”
Martha nodded. “Those rules are plain.” And so they played.
First Martha lost an orange, then Harris. Back and forth, until Martha grew tired. Wins and losses were even on both sides, and the cache of oranges remained equally divided. Martha yawned. “I’m afraid I must retire, Mr. Harris.”
“The storm is as wild as ever.”
“An old woman cannot have a bachelor to stay, even in the worst conditions.”
“I shall freeze.”
“The winds have slowed. You will find your way to Bly’s farm on the road to town.”
“One last game, Madam Martha. This time, if I am left with the Death card, I will go. If you hold it your hand, you will come with me, and we will see if we make it to Bly’s farm.”
The wind howled louder than ever, slamming shutters and sending an icy draft. Martha realized she was making a pact with the Devil. She agreed to the game. The cards were played, and pairs were made, lying face up on the table. When Martha drew the fateful card, her heart raced, but she stayed calm before the Devil. A log popped in the fire and Martha reached in with the poker to shift it. As she bent over the cat, Martha slipped the Death card into the animal’s collar, straightening before Harris noticed her movements.
At last, all the pairs were made, and both players had matched all their cards. “And where is the Death card, dear Martha? Play it now, for the one who holds it comes with me.”
“I do not have it, Sir, and if you say you do not, then let’s see if my little cat will find it.” With this, Martha took from her pocket a golden bell and shook it above the table. The cat, hearing this, jumped up from the hearth, showing Harris the Death card in her collar. “I suppose it is the cat who will go with you tonight,” said Martha, the clock striking twelve from the mantle. “You can leave me now.”
The devil had been outwitted, and he was furious. He rose to his full height and filled the room with a wind so strong it put out the fire. And then he was gone, the door left open in his wake, snow flying in and covering the floor. Martha rushed to close it, leaning back in relief to find the cat asleep by the blazing fire. No sign of the now departed visitor.
Martha damped the fire for the night and retired to bed, wrapping herself in woolen blankets. She slept well and dreamt sweetly of her sisters’ arms around her. At dawn, she awoke to the peal of bells and the mewing of the cat wanting milk on Christmas morning.