The chimney spirit spent the night eating my words.
I lay in the dark staring at the stippled ceiling, miniature stalactites hanging over me. I could hear the spirit choking, the letters desiccating its tongue. It wheezed, gasping, and for a moment I wondered if I should bring it a glass of water. But in its desperation, it must have swallowed the flames in the hearth to quench the dryness of its throat.
A cold wind rattled through the house as the fire extinguished.
I buried myself deeper beneath the blanket and pinched my eyes, hoping sleep would take over. Arching my back, I turned and stretched so my feet extended off the edge of the bed.
But soon, there was a wailing, like wind whipping down the chimney. Lying there, a cold sweat prickled on my neck as I realized the noise was not the wind, but the spirit: crying.
I listened for, what seemed like, half an hour, waiting for the sobs to cease. It choked, gagging on ashy mucus until finally I cast the blanket off of me and stood up, the lamentation and chill unbearable no longer.
The bare wood was ice against my feet as I lumbered down the hall, my eyes bleary. The fireplace was nearly black, a few coals nestled in the hot ash like jeweled eggs, as I entered the kitchen. I bumped into a chair, the leg scraping across the floor with a groan.
The spirit’s wails snuffled to a whimper at the noise and soot shifted down the chimney.
“Why are you crying?” I asked softly. I waited; my arms folded over my chest. The chimney spirit and I had not conversed much over the years: the obligatory terms discussed as to when to light the first fire of the year; giving thanks in the form of cherry wood for all the bats and birds shooed away, saved from a suffocating death. I shivered, waiting for its answer.
More soot tumbled down onto the ashes below.
“Would you mind building the fire again?” I asked finally, growing impatient. I wondered why I had bothered to check on the spirit in the first place, longing for the warmth of my bed. “It’s too cold tonight to go without a fire.”
I tried envisioning the spirit as a child in need of comforting, curled up, hugging its snot-encrusted knees, but as a chill seeped into my body, all I kept seeing was the selfish demon that ate my fire and robbed me of warmth each night.
After a while, I sighed and began gathering the kindling from the bucket near the hearth. “I’m going to rebuild the fire,” I announced. “Please don’t consume this one until the morning.”
“Will you be burning more of those letters?” its voice croaked bitterly, a dry cough punctuating the question.
“The letters? What do you know about that?” I asked, trying to remember what I had burned and when. Had it crept out of the chimney and into the bucket where I kept the kindling? “What have you been doing?” I demanded, straightening at the invasion of my privacy.
“I ate them. All of them. Every word, every sour letter.” A shuddering gasp rattled against the brick.
Sitting on my knees at the hearth, I hesitated, unsure if I should begin placing the split wood in the ashes, my chapped hands invading its home.
“Ate them? Why would you do that?”
“How could you be so cruel?” the spirit shrieked, its shrill voice echoing up to the rooftop.
“Cruel? To whom?”
“To me!” it screeched, like a wounded rabbit in the talons of a hawk. “Making me eat those wretched words of yours.”
“What makes you think I wrote them?” I asked, annoyed by the spirit’s assumption. I sorted through the kindling, cracking a few twigs as I waited for a response. A stink bug crept along the bark, awakened from its winter stupor by the warmth of the house.
“Those were written to you? But they were in your hand,” the spirit spat, a coal popping in the hearth.
“My father,” I explained. “We have similar writings, similar hands. But the similarities end there,” I muttered, crinkling newspaper in long strips to interlay between the kindling.
“I see,” hissed the spirit.
A silence grew in the darkness as the spirit digested my words. I waited, the box of matches heavy in my hand. After a few minutes, I yawned and resumed building the fire. I tossed the piece of wood into the hearth and watch the ashes plume around the disoriented stink bug.
“Promise,” the spirit demanded, snatching my wrist in its scaly claw.
“Promise,” I lied, striking the match. The embers flared red with its breath. Once the wood caught, bark and sap crackling in the flames, the spirit withdrew to the inner recesses of the chimney and I, once more, to my bed.
Shelly Jones, PhD (she/they) is a Professor of English at SUNY Delhi, where she teaches classes in mythology, folklore, and writing. Her speculative work has previously appeared in Podcastle, New Myths, The Future Fire, and elsewhere.