"Curl round the fire, dears, its too cold not to for you tiny ones." Great-ol-Gran smiled in the wispy light of the fire. The hairy mole covering her right cheek had a topography not unlike the moon, weird and soothing, in the warm orange living room. "Grandmother Huff is in bed already, so you two are to settle for me this evening. Toffee? Tea?"
Emma giggled, "Gran! It is past our bedtime and we haven't tooth brushes." Emma looked sidelong at Cliff. "We don't, do we?" she asked.
Cliff replied, sullenly, with a far away voice that they did not, in fact, have tooth brushes. His voice was quiet. He hugged his knees. The fire's reflection danced clear and nimble in his eyes.
Their clothes hung close to the fireplace, strung from a clothes line tied to the curtain rod and a nail hammered into the center of the door frame. Also hanging from the nail in the doorframe was something that looked like a poorly flattened blue shooter marble.
The curtains were velvet, and layered gold then green and covered the whole wall with the window. Even if it were noon, even if the winter storm were letting any light unto earth, the curtains wouldn't let it into this room. Thunder rattled the rack of tea cups.
"Think you two are staying here this evening, then," Great-ol-Gran sighed. "I'll put the kettle on."
"I'll do it, Gran." Cliff said.
"Aren't you a dear! Can you reach?"
Cliff got up, crossed and rubbed his arms. "Yes, Gran." He said, and stepped lightly out the room.
Gran sat quietly, her head cocked. When the sound of the kitchen door opening and closing faintly reached her she drew herself up under the purple and green, hand sewn blanket. "Emma." She began. Thunder rolled. "How is Cliff doing?"
"Yes. In school." Gran said.
"Fine, I think."
"Not really. Not that he talks about." It was Emma's turn to let the fire's reflection dance in her eyes.
Great-ol-Gran sighed. Thunder rolled in off the moors --its tail seemed to catch on the roof-- and rocked the house. The wind picked up, knocking the sleet and snow more bodily --audibly, loudly now-- against the house.
"I think he's in trouble with some bullies." Emma said just as the silence was about to settle. "He wouldn't tell me anything, but he's got bruises on his arms and back again --not from John and Jason, they've been busy with who-knows-what lately. There's this one boy, he's not in his class, but he shouted at Cliff as we were leaving the yard yesterday. He had a really London tone about him. Not in a good way."
Great-ol-Gran nodded. They let the silence settle, this time, and it settled tired in the carpet and the blankets such that when Cliff returned with goose flesh, a timid smile, and a tray with the steaming teapot and three mugs, no one managed to say anything. He set the tray, a simple oak thing with brass handles, on the (similar) table by Great-ol-Gran's chair.
Great-ol-Gran reached down, and handed Cliff a small, crocheted, lap blanket. Cliff huddled by her feet, snuggling like a cat, staring at the fire, as Great-ol-Gran poured them all tea. She slipped a toffee into hers, and stirred it with one of her lacquered wooden sticks. She handed the children their own steaming cups, and they held them gingerly, quietly, as the sleet whipped against the house.
They all stared quietly at the warm fire. The fire danced softly in the children's eyes. Great-ol-Gran closed her eyes. There was a boom of thunder, the sound crashing through the house, from the chimney, out through the door.
"When I was your age, Emma, we didn't have electricity." Great-ol-Gran said. "Trains were the best way to travel, but they scared the horses and blackened cities." She sighed. "We ate Hawthorne jelly and I collected eggs for the Bakers --that was their name-- down the hill. One morning, though I suppose you could have just as easily called it night time. I couldn't sleep, anyhow. It was a wet, late night, and our windows were drafty, but this was summer, so the voice of the wind was still loving. It woke me, the wind, and I couldn't get back to sleep. I dressed and I walked down the road in the dark. Just when I started to scare, the wind would come and push me forward, reassuring me, urging me on. When I came to the hen house, things turned sour."
Cliff and Emma turned to face Great-ol-Gran, and the fire caressed their shoulders, through their covers.
"I took the lantern from its hook, and lit it with a match. I'd saved up and saved up and I had my own match box. There was the a fox! It stared at me, cornered in the back of the hen house, brown muzzle and orange fur and black eyes. And do you know? I thought to myself: that poor fox. First night out and it got itself caught by me. Out loud, I asked: What are the odds? I swear, that fox shrugged. I shrieked and shrieked until Mr. Baker --I never knew his first name-- he came, then left to get his gun. I helped patch up the side of hutch later."
Cliff nodded. "That's what you do to things like that." He said to the fire.
Great-ol-Gran frowned, unseen. "Cliff, what do you mean?"
"The fox was bad, so it got killed."
"The fox was hungry."
"It was stealing."
"It was taking what it needed."
"It was stealing. It was bad."
"It wasn't bad because it was stealing. It was bad because it didn't know when to stop. It would've eaten all the chickens and then everyone would've been eggless and it would've starved anyway."
Emma interrupted, "How do you know it wouldn't have just taken one chicken?" She sniffed. "Maybe it was a clever fox who would've raised a family of chickens for its own."
Everyone was silent for a moment, then, everyone laughed, even the wind: Whooping, whopping banging against the walls and the fat shutters that guarded the windows, far beyond the curtains.
Cliff was the first one to stop laughing. He watched the other two, a smile held on his mouth, but not in his eyes, as they sighed and wiped at happy tears. Cliff said, "