In the deepest darkest corner of the strange house’s basement, stood a squat sooty stove. The stove had originally been installed more than a century before when the house’s inhabitant (a veritable giantess of a woman named Aunt Mountain) had decided that she needed her own den for hibernation. She had lived many winters in the small strange house and they had never become friends, not that the house was friends with many of its inhabitants, but it could generally be coaxed to a point where it would permit them some of the comforts associated with domestic life. At the very least, after several winters of drafty windows, icy cold floors, and chills that lasted months, the house would usually relent (or grow bored?) and allow small fires to stay lit and even, after some time, allow the windows and doors to be plugged and shielded against the icy blasts that tore across the nearby tundra.
Some of the house’s inhabitants would pretend to enjoy the tundra winds, inhaling deeply from the gusts that would burst through the cracks in the house’s stonework (cracks that would never exist when it was summer and the house was a sweltering pit in desperate need of any sort of breeze). The tundra winds also brought along with the cold wild scents; smells of elk fur, wolf howl, and the fermented bite of hot blood on white snow. Aunt Mountain had tried to enjoy the smells, she had tried to travel back along them and enjoy the felty rub of antler on antler, to lick the salted crust of blood off the crisp crackle of ice. She had even tried to find warmth as a wolf, curled sleeping in the den, floppy paws and puppy nips belying the fact that it wasn’t really a very cozy life to insinuate yourself among a pack of snarling beasts. And so Aunt Mountain suffered terribly. Her freezing hands would crack and bleed and no amount of beef tallow rubbed into her knuckles (morning and night, and three times a day during full moons) could alleviate the pain. Her lips cracked in sympathy to her hands and eating became painful. Her head throbbed in time with the wind gusts and anytime she tried to escape her torment with a few minutes of sleep the house would creak and settle noisily, or a shutter would fly open, or, on several occasions, a piece of timber would fall crashing from the roof. These pieces of timber were small, to be sure, the house would not jeopardize its own well-being, if that were even possible, but, Aunt Mountain noted the pieces did seem to be unnecessarily sharp, and well-aimed.
After many hard winters of cracked hands, bleeding lips, a pounding head, and broken sleep punctuated by near death, Aunt Mountain had had enough. She woke one morning and immediately raised suspicion by not putting the black dented kettle into the hungry fireplace. Not only was she too nervous for her chicory coffee, she was still too sore from the day before when she had put the dented black kettle into the cold fireplace (the fire blew out every night during Winter and somehow became damp and mildewed in the process) only for the damp and mildewed wood to flare into lively flames and lick her arm. She didn’t even bother to rub her parsley salve (1 bunch parsley, spoonful of honey, 3 fingers of brown whiskey, a pinch of pine resin, and 2 mouthfuls of melted ice, stored in the roots of an elm tree in an earthenware jar for two turnings of the moon) on the burn this morning. Instead, she went straight for her coat and pulled it on over her long johns, thick pants, woolen jumper, itchy but necessary scarf, her second favorite pair of mittens (a raven had made off with her favorite pair when she had washed them and set them out to dry after the floorboards had warped in the night and tipped the contents of her chamber pot right all over them), 2 thick pairs of socks darned and re-darned at the toes, and topped herself off with a grey hat that in better years had been handsome but was now simply tired.
Without even a look behind her at the small strange house Aunt Mountain set off. The door shut behind her with some difficulty. The house wanted to be clear that it was more than happy to see her go, but couldn’t entirely hide the fact that it was very curious about what was to happen next. Aunt Mountain stomped down the mossy stone path, her thick boots clomping uncomfortably as the blood returned to her nearly frost bitten feet. The boots were a size too small for her anyway; boots large enough to fit had been impossible to find for many years. And she couldn’t be entirely sure, but it seemed that any boots she brought home seemed to grow smaller when she slept. Or maybe it was her feet that grew bigger every night. With a practiced swing, she hefted her knobbly walking stick in front of her and used it to prod open the gate. She bared her teeth at the smooth impression along the uppermost plank of wood, so inviting for curious hands – such blasphemy! And she turned smartly down the twisty snow-covered road, chin held high, for Aunt Mountain was a proud woman. The sun had crossed much of the sky before she returned to the small strange house dragging a huge bundle behind her with long leather straps. Aunt Mountain was as strong as she was proud and she had turned down with a scowl all the offers made by eager-to-please men to help her home with ‘that mighty fine burden.’ It had been many years since she had allowed a man to talk to her, well, except of course for the men who came up the twisty road, placed their curious hands on the friendly gate, and came down the mossy stone path and in through the door to be in the small strange house. But those men were different. A Necessity.
Once again she used her knobbly walking stick to knock open the gate, giving it another snarl as she passed through, and then stomped her giantess way down the stone path. She ducked her head as much as her back would allow to avoid a thump on the head from the capricious door frame as she shoved her way into the small strange house, which truth be told, was not altogether unhappy to see her return, curious as it was to see what her next move would be. And what a move it was. The huge bundle dragged on long leather straps was hefted into the center of the house and unwrapped. Knowing the fireplace wouldn’t deign to assist her, Aunt Mountain stacked the brown butcher paper she tore from the bundle into a pile next to her rather than attempt to burn it. And she slowly revealed what it was that had been worth a trip to town, talking to men, paying money, and hauling along the twisty, icy road until her hands bled and her back complained.
A modern, beautiful, lifetime-warrantied wood burning stove. A modern beautiful, life-time warrantied wood burning stove that had nothing at all to do with the small strange house and its inhospitable, hateful, malicious ways.
The house was aghast. Two exceptionally sharp bits of timber flung themselves from the rafters above and narrowly missed Aunt Mountain. She had yet to remove her tired hat, her thick scarf, and her bulky coat, so did not feel particularly concerned. Aunt Mountain stood once again and hauled the modern beautiful lifetime-warrantied wood burning stove, her stove, over to the basement door. She found it to be stuck in its frame and she pummeled it with her shoulder. With a grin that was also a scowl, Aunt Mountain wore the door down and it flung open. She caught herself on the first step before she could be sent tumbling down to the bottom of the stairs and turned to the stove, her stove, and began to pull it down behind her.
And once in the basement, the room of the house that was slightly warmer than the others, with earthen walls impenetrable to the house’s most perverse indignities, unable to crack and let in even the smallest whiff of tundra wind, Aunt Mountain set up her stove. She spent much time selecting the perfect corner of the basement, she gazed for a long time at the instruction manual, although she didn’t read it, and marveled at the novelty of such a piece of equipment that would even allow its secrets to be written down, codified, and dispersed –shared!- with whomever wished to understand it. And then she assembled the beautiful stove and admired the placing of each nut and bolt, the fine craftsmanship of the metalwork – no errant arm searing flames here! – and placed everything exactly where it should be.
The strange house watched and seethed at this act of treason. All these years and none of the house’s inhabitants had ever committed an act so vile, so unnatural, and so flagrantly insulting. Ignoring the house’s accusations, Aunt Mountain went to collect firewood. Like a reverential act of supplication she brought the finest pieces of firewood down the basement stairs and placed them before the stove. And the stove waited, happily subservient and ready to serve. It wasn’t she that needed to do the pleasing, Aunt Mountain realized, it was the stove. That she had bought. That she owned. That was hers. And she gathered up the wood and fed it to the stove and the flame took merrily. And for the first time in many, many winters, Aunt Mountain was warm. After a short time she found she didn’t need her tired hat and set it aside. Her ears began to remember the feeling of blood flow and tingled painfully. And then she unwound the scratchy scarf from around her neck and felt her throat thaw in the glow of the happy flames. And one by one the pieces of clothing found themselves removed from her body, piece by piece they piled on top of each other. Jumper, shirt, undershirt, thick pants, even both layers of socks and her second favorite mittens. Aunt Mountain luxuriated, her pale skin growing rosy pink and pliable in the blissful heat of the stove. The cracked and swollen skin around her knuckles grew soft, and Aunt Mountain found that for the first time that winter her head had ceased its pounding. She ignored the small strange house and stretched back atop her pile of clothes and fell into her first deep sleep of the season.
And as the night wore on, the icy tundra wind licked in through the cracks of the small strange house but left disappointed with no Aunt Mountain to torment. The falling cavalcade of ceiling timber clattered to the floor drawing no blood and blackening no eye. The small strange house groaned and hiccuped but didn’t manage to awaken anyone from slumber. And all the time the basement grew warmer and warmer; and the wood stove did its job happily and cheerfully. And as Aunt Mountain snored, her giantess body draped across the pile of clothes, taking up half of the small basement, she dreamed dreams of heat and happiness. The small strange house grew silent and still for some time, as the moon blossomed overhead and the stars looked down nervously, awaiting the calamity that was to come.
And come it did.
At first, the basement door became stuck fast in its frame. The wood warped quickly and true into the eaves and cracks, growing too large to be moved, no matter the strength of the giantess that might happen to batter it. And then the small, spindly chimney pipe that rose from the basement grew smaller, and smaller still. The wood stove was never sure what it did wrong; its careful assembly and perfection of design had never prepared it for this eventuality. There were no guidelines in the instruction manual that covered this situation. The cheerful little stove only knew that its job was to keep Aunt Mountain warm, to burn the wood and send out heat, and it was a loyal and hardworking little stove, and burn it did. It kept on spewing heat, even as its little chimney choked shut completely. Black smoke billowed out of its cracks and the heat in the little basement grew and grew, and Aunt Mountain, in her sleep thought she had never been so comfortable and cozy and warm in all her life, even as the smoke overtook her and her dreams carried her away from this world entirely.