Chilled To The Bone

The frigid wind wound through the eaves of the old townhouse, humming abreast of the French windows and quivering the finely shaven slivers and powder scattered about the porch where Arnold sat, notching another flute with a cold knife and a colder eye. The wind helped him tune it with each nick of the knife, breathing into the flute steadily so his old ears could hear the note changes accomplished by a millimeter adjustment, his knotty fingers pressing and lifting from the holes intermittently. Leaves trembled in the yard, beneath the old oak tree, and the homemade windchimes that adorned his lawn rattled like bones. It was near suppertime, and the sun was setting over the gable roofs of his neighbors’ houses. In Summertime the sidewalks were always busy with people walking dogs and joggers running in twos and threes. Now, with Autumn rusting and disrobing the world, nothing walked the sidewalks except the tumbling leaves.
And the livid figure of Mrs. Harper.
“Arnold,” she called from the landing of his steps. “Do you have a moment?”
Arnold did not look up from his flute, his old face etched with concentration and age. He knew what Mrs. Harper looked like, and did not need a reminder. He had seen her enough times in the town hall meetings, scowling at everyone while decreeing herself the eminent member of the Leewood Historical Society. And he did not say anything in reply, for he knew she would take it upon herself to speak to him regardless of whether he had a moment or not.
Naturally, Mrs. Harper walked up his steps without his invitation, her clogs clopping hard upon the wood. She wore a black bonnet over her silvery-blonde hair, and a black coat that hung down to her knees. Beneath it her white dress clung snugly to her skeletal frame. She was in her late fifties, but her makeup and her designer purse belonged to a socialite of a younger age. She had been a rich man’s trophy wife once upon a time; now she was a rich man’s widow.
“Arnold,” she said in the same condescending tone with which she spoke to everyone, “you cannot have those windchimes on your lawn. They have not been approved by the Historical Society.”
Arnold said nothing. He continued scraping away at the flute; listening to the winds through the narrow instrument.
Mrs. Harper pursed her red lips in vexation.
“Do not ignore me, Arnold,” she said. “We will be pressing for fines if you do not have the windchimes removed by the weekend. Do you understand? The garish things cannot be allowed to stay!”
The only sound from Arnold was a snort, and the scrape-scrape-scrape of knife against flute.
Mrs. Harper crossed her arms, shifting her hips to one side. Often this had an effect on people around town. It was the same as seeing a tiger crouching, ready to pounce. But it had no effect on Arnold.
“We have already been very generous,” she said. “We could have started the fines last week, but some of us chose instead to give you one more warning because we like to be perceived as fair about these sort of things.”
“Fair, huh?” he said, his voice as rough as a blade on bone. “And was it fair when you all killed her?”
Mrs. Harper sighed with impatience. “We did not kill your wife, Arnold.”
“The chill got in her bones,” he said. “And once it got in, it never left. It will never leave.”
“That has nothing to do with us…”
“You would not let us put in a new heating system last year,” Arnold said. “She died of the cold.”
Mrs. Harper appeared unmoved. “We all have the same heating system, Arnold,” she said. “None of us have passed away from the cold. Anne was simply sick.”
“And the cold made her sicker,” Arnold said, still not looking up from his flute and his knife. “She died because you are all too mulish to let anyone live the way they want. You’re all arrogant and self-righteous.”
More slivers of flute fell as the knife quickened along the sleek white instrument. The knife’s blade looked like black glass. Mrs. Harper eyed it distastefully.
“If you didn’t like it, Arnold, you could have simply packed up and moved away.”
Arnold did not have to look up to know that a disdainful scowl creased her face— the same knowing scowl that she wore as her customary attire for town hall meetings.
“And how could we do that when no one was willing to buy this house?” he said. “We didn’t have the money to move if we couldn’t sell the house. We were both retired. We were both living on a fixed income. And no one wanted our house because people like you wouldn’t let them have any control over it.”
“It is a historical residence,” she said simply. “You knew the complications when you bought it.”
The wind hummed against the house, piping in the flute; scattering dead leaves. Mrs. Harper shivered and hugged herself. Arnold breathed in deeply, and exhaled, as if matching the wind’s restlessness.
“Who can really know the complications that come in life?” he said; more to himself than to the unfeeling woman in front of him. “When we bought it, Anne was young and healthy. But as she got older, the cold got in everywhere. This old house…you didn’t even let us weatherize it. And the chill snaked in from wherever it could. And all because you are all too…” He took another deep breath and exhaled. The wind teased some notes from the flute, as if taunting someone. “Well, there is no mercy in this small town. No one cares about anything but power over their neighbor. People like you think that if you can control someone’s house it means you have the world by the ass. But you don’t know anything about power. You may be cold-hearted, but my heart’s grown colder over the last year. Colder than any of you might want to know…”
Mrs. Harper shook her head impatiently. “Just remove the windchimes, Arnold. If you don’t, we will fine you. And none of us want that unpleasantness.”
“The windchimes stay,” Arnold said. “She always liked to have some, but you high and mighty fools never let her have any. Now she can listen to all the music she wants.”
Mrs. Harper clopped forward angrily. “Then you better make sure you have enough to cover the fines,” she said. “Because we’ll be fining you every day for the rest of your life!”
He finally looked up from the flute. He did not see her, and yet saw her well enough as he remembered her through all of the town hall meetings. His hands continued scraping away at the flute with the knife.
“I am willing to pay any price,” he said. “Any price it takes.”
Mrs. Harper staggered back, nearly falling down the steps. “What did you do to your eyes?” she asked in horror.
Arnold listened to the winds, and the flute, and scraped another sliver from the flute. White dust fluttered from the knife’s edge, like snow. “Any price it takes,” he said. “The windchimes stay.”
His frostbitten eyes looked down again at the flute and the knife, seeing neither. Mrs. Harper left the porch, feeling stricken. Clopping unsteadily along the walkway, she paused to look at the rattling windchimes. They were strangely proportioned things, and rattled with strange music. Some were small as fingers, whereas others were long as a woman’s arms and legs. They were lacquered dark brown, yet there was something wrong about their texture and shape. They did not seem to be made of wood, and the ends of many of them were knotted with joints. They reminded her of something, but she could not think of what.
Halloween decorations, she suddenly realized.
The shock was too much. She hurried away from Arnold’s house and went down the street. She could hear the piping notes of a flute faraway. The music followed her home, and no matter how many layers of clothing she wore she could not warm herself against the chill of the rising winds.

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