The Way Home: Variation on an Old Family Story
by Melissa Brotton | 25 April 2022 |
“And where I go you know, and the way you know.” (John 14:4 NKJV)
“Beverly, do finish your breakfast, and gather your books. Grandpa will have the sleigh at the door in just a few moments, and he won’t want to keep the horses waiting in cold like this.” Momma stood up and began clearing the table. She picked up a creamer, covered it, and carried it to the new bright-white refrigerator, a small-town luxury in the early fifties.
Beverly gulped down the last of her buttered toast, then stood up to carry her plate to the white-enameled sink, already filled with warm sudsy water. She took a moment to turn on the faucet to wash her hands and afterward dried them on a flour-sack towel nearby.
Her younger brother, Bill, sat down on the sofa to pull on his boots. He picked up his satchel from the sofa and headed toward the coat-hooks near the door. Beverly wrapped her books with a leather strap and slipped into her wool coat. Just then, they heard the jingling of sleigh-bells as two large draft-horses pulled around the semi-circle drive, leading to the door. Bill and Beverly both put on their mittens and wrapped their scarves around their faces and necks to face this April cold snap. Momma handed them each a lunch-tin on their way out the door.
The horses were just pulling up the drive, and Grandpa called out to them, “Whoa, Dolly! Whoa, Duncan!” The horses halted in perfect obedience. Beverly could see their breath streaming from their nostrils. Grandpa held the reins while Bill and Beverly climbed into the back of the sleigh. They tucked themselves under woolen army blankets. Grandpa clucked at the horses, and they lunged forward as if eager to be on their way to the red-bricked country schoolhouse, seven miles away from their home on the edge of town.
Facing backward, Beverly watched the tracks made behind the sleigh. The snow looked like a blanket of glittering diamonds in the morning light. She admired it for a few seconds but then tucked her head beneath the blanket, her eyes beginning to smart from the cold. Bill kept his head outside the blanket, turning to watch Grandpa and the horses now and again.
When they at last reached the schoolhouse and stopped, there were a few other sleighs in sight, dropping off children. Beverly spotted her friends Ann and Sue. She suddenly felt more eager to get out of the warm blankets. Bill jumped out first and took Beverly’s books while she climbed out more slowly.
They joined Ann and Sue as they walked up the steps into the warm schoolhouse. Just before going in, Beverly turned to wave at Grandpa. He touched his fur-lined cap to her, then clucked to Dolly and Duncan. Beverly watched them head back down the road toward home. Only then did she turn and go inside the schoolhouse.
Once inside, she immediately felt the warmth from a small wood-burning stove in one corner. Mrs. Brynner, the teacher, had been there early to light it. She now stood at the front of the classroom, taking roll. At last, she put down the roll book, picked up a reader, and called for the fifth- and sixth-graders to come forward for their lesson. Bill went forward, as he was now in fifth grade. Beverly pulled her reader out to review quietly for her eighth-grade lesson. She saw Ann and Sue doing the same. The younger children were also getting their books out, as they knew this was the time to review for their reading lesson.
After the fifth- and sixth-graders were finished, it was time for seventh- and eighth-grade reading. Beverly closed her book and stood up. At that very moment, something thudded in the schoolhouse, and a shadow fell over the windows. Beverly and Bill looked at each other. They knew the signs of a snowstorm.
“Students, please take your seats.” Mrs. Brynner walked toward one side of the classroom and looked outside the window. “It looks like we’ve had a drastic change in the weather,” she said, turning around. “Adam, will you and Ted please run to Mr. Baker’s house and see if he can hitch a sleigh quickly to take the Kraiker children home?” The Kraikers lived on the opposite side of town. The two boys rushed to the door and scrambled into their coats. As they opened the door, someone came in with a rush of wind. It was Ann and Sue’s father, Mr. Jacobson. He had not been far away when he saw the weather signs. He would take the Kraiker children and drop off Adam and Ted at their homes as well.
After they left, there were still four children. Mrs. Brynner would need to wait at the schoolhouse until all of the children could be safely transported home. Because Mary and Kenny lived close to where the teacher lived, Mr. Brynner would take them home when he came to get Mrs. Brynner, so that left only Beverly and Bill. Would Grandpa and the horses come for them? they wondered. They watched out the windows. The snow was already swirling down. It was difficult to see out the window because of the whiteout, contours of the land indistinguishable from the sky in the milky weather. Beverly and Bill waited by the window in silence.
The wind seemed to blow harder. It moaned and howled and made the schoolhouse shudder.
“Listen,” Bill said suddenly. “Do you hear it?”
Beverly concentrated. Amid the howling wind, she thought she could discern a different, rhythmic sound, but it was very faint. She continued to listen. Could it really be? The rhythmic sound continued and grew more and more distinct until she knew. “It’s Grandpa’s sleigh-bells,” she cried out.
Bill and Beverly looked at Mrs. Brynner, who nodded to them. They dashed to the door, hurriedly put on their coats and snatched up their things. When they opened the door, the wind took their breath away. They could scarcely see two feet in front of them. They held hands as they treaded carefully down the steps. The ringing of the sleigh-bells had stopped. They knew Grandpa must have arrived. They moved blindly forward until they could see the dark outlines of Dolly and Duncan, snow swirling around their faces. Grandpa shouted to them and jumped down from the sleigh. Beverly climbed first into the back. As Bill was climbing in, he saw Grandpa whisper something into Dolly’s ear and then something into Duncan’s ear. Then Grandpa got into the back of the sleigh with Beverly and Bill and tucked the blankets tightly around all of them. He shouted to the horses, and they immediately started again down the familiar road that would take the family all the way home. Grandpa had no need to drive these large draft-horses. They had heard their master’s close whisper in the screeching wind. The way they knew.
Melissa Brotton teaches writing and literature courses at La Sierra University. Her special areas are nineteenth-century British literature and religious studies. She has published on the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Biblical ecology. She spends a lot of time outdoors, paints, and writes nature stories and poems.