SUNY Jefferson

Sleigh Bells Ring Again

Barbara Briggs Ward

Chester hadn’t heard the sleigh bells since he’d sold most of his horses.  Because the bells had been in his family for generations, he didn’t include them in the sale. Instead, Chester stored them in the barn along with the sleigh that carried so many kids living in foster homes through the backfields. When his wife died, that part of his life went with her. Besides a couple of horses, Chester kept the cat that slept at the end of their bed for as long as he could remember. Anna had insisted.

They never had children, leaving Chester and the cat Anna named Barley to be the only ones rambling about the old place. It was because they’d never had children that those sleigh rides meant so much to Anna and Chester. After every ride, they’d treat the boys and girls to hot chocolate and cookies. The highlight was a visit from Santa with his bag full of presents. Not once did any of the children connect the bearded sleigh driver to Santa Claus. They never wondered where Chester was when Santa came.

That’s the magic of Christmas, proven true again on the night of a great blizzard some eight months after Anna passed away.

It stormed most of that day. The snow kept tumbling down as Chester sat at the kitchen table finishing a bowl of soup he’d made earlier before going to town for a few things. It wasn’t until he opened the refrigerator for more milk that he realized he never picked any up. The grocery had been too busy for Chester. Between the storm and the holidays, stores were crowded. The countdown was on.  But you’d never know it looking around that kitchen. There were no signs of the holiday anywhere in the house. There was no towering tree or smell of nutmeg or cinnamon. There were no gifts or cards. Christmas didn’t exist anymore in the old house. The dining room, with its built-in china cabinet full of dishes that would be set around the oak pedestal table welcoming those who made it home, was quiet. And that’s how Chester wanted it.

             It wasn’t until the lights flickered on and off more than once hours later that Chester got up from his chair in the front parlor. He’d tried to read the paper, but he kept dozing. 

             “You get your best sleep in that old chair,” Anna would tease.

             That was one thing that hadn’t changed. But he was wide awake now. The howling wind made sure of that. Chester decided to see how bad it was outside.

Bundled up in his old, wool jacket, it took all his might to open the back door and, when he did, in rushed the snow. He scrambled for the scarf he didn’t think he’d need, told the cat to stay put as he was swallowed up in winter’s fury.

Getting his bearings, snow covered him from his head to his boots. His beard was whiter than ever. His eyebrows became immersed in ice crystals. Hugging the side of the house, Chester made his way to the shed. Using his boots, he pushed aside enough snow to get inside and find a shovel although it was a plow he needed. Snow storms were common. This one was coming straight out of the north. Chester was aware it’d be one for the record books. His intention was to clear around the back door, so it’d be a little less snow he’d have to shovel in the morning. That changed when he heard what he was certain were screeching brakes and then a thump. Even with nature’s rage all around him, Chester sensed someone needed him. Aware of his surroundings, he understood that particular someone had to be near the barn. That’s where the road took a sharp curve and, on a night like tonight, that could prove fatal to anyone foolish enough to be out in it.

Without hesitation, Chester stepped into the white abyss. It took his breath away. Fighting to stay standing, he tucked his scarf into his jacket as best he could. Using the shovel as a staff and relying on memory to guide him, Chester inched his way through the drifts. A few times he became buried in the stuff, but he kept pushing while searching for the light kept on in a window in the barn. It was Anna’s idea. She felt it gave the place a welcoming feeling to those passing by. Tonight it proved vital. Thankful the power hadn’t gone out, Chester pinpointed the light. Using it as a reference, he trudged over where flat rocks spread underneath then up an incline to the back of the barn.

 

Now he had to get around to the front.

             The wind changed making visibility a bit better. Rounding the far corner of the weathered structure, Chester found the gate to the barnyard. It was wide open. That’s when he saw the headlights. That’s when he heard a voice calling for help. It was a man.

             Instinct told Chester to go inside the barn for a flashlight. He always kept a few inside the door for emergencies.

“They better work,” Chester said out loud as he put the shovel to task in front of the sliding wood door.

The wind produced a sort of whirlwind where he stood. That churning snow created a clearing in front of Chester. Taking the handle end of the shovel, he began slamming on the long board acting as a lock. It needed to be lifted up and away from the latch. The person in the car must have heard Chester. He was yelling as the board popped out of place. With one mighty heave, the door slid back and Chester was inside. Fumbling about, Chester found the light switch. The barn lit up like a lighthouse in a storm.

There was no time to waste. Being in that place with familiar smells of hay and old wood brought back memories of when the farm was a working farm. It’d been a good life for Chester and Anna. The fields provided for them. It was hard work from sunup to sundown, but they wouldn’t have changed a thing.

“The Lord has blessed us,” Anna said more often than not.

Her words kept Chester going as he found a flashlight. It worked. Chester headed out towards the road. This wasn’t the first time a car had misjudged the curve. In this weather, there was no curve.

“Over here.”

Shining the light ahead of him Chester could see the vehicle embedded in a snowdrift was probably why the man was alive. It cushioned the impact. Chester could tell it was a pick-up. The outline of something in the backend caught his eye. It was a Christmas tree.

“It’s my leg. It’s stuck.”

             Again the wind turned, making visibility a crap shoot. Trying to walk was near impossible. But Chester didn’t stop. He couldn’t. He was needed. Chester tried shouting back, but that wind took his breath away, so he let the flashlight be his voice. The closer Chester got, the more the man shouted.

             “Over here. I’m over here!”

Despite the whiteout, Chester could see the truck was partially in the road. This pushed him even faster. If someone came around that curve, the person inside would be in harm’s way. That didn’t matter to Old Man Winter, who seemed to turn up the fury as Chester reached the truck. Aiming the flashlight at the driver’s seat, he could see army fatigues and a young man in pain.

“You okay, son?”

The wind carried Chester’s words. It did the same to the sound of an approaching vehicle. Chester didn’t wait for an answer. There was no time. He knew the roads. He knew blizzards. He and Anna had been through the worst of them. He’d even proposed in a blizzard; got right down on his knee while cutting ice on the nearby river in 5 below zero weather and asked her to be his wife. Whenever they told the story, no one could believe Anna was out in that kind of temperature. But after being around the couple, it was evident how much they loved each other. They did most everything together.

The thought of Anna gave Chester the strength to reach down into that truck and release the man’s leg. In one huge lunge, Chester pulled him out and carried him back to the barn. Even the sound of whatever it was trying to stay on the road hitting the fender of the truck and continuing on didn’t stop Chester. He never slowed down, even when the wind tried desperately to knock him down. The old man kept going with the young man in his arms.

As the snow kept coming in sheets, Chester held his own against a force capable of bringing down trees and holding people hostage in their homes. He charged through the barn door and didn’t stop until lying the man down on a bed of hay. The structure was like a sauna to the two of them nearly frozen to the bone. With his hands stinging, Chester pulled the door shut. Unbuttoning his coat, he laid it over the young man.

“Hope I didn’t do you any harm son. There was no time to dally.”

             It took a few minutes for a reply.

             “You saved my life sir. I heard someone hit my truck.”

             “I’ll check your leg. Hurtin’ anywhere else? I see a cut above your eye but nothing serious. Don’t worry about a truck. What matters is that you’re okay. That snow bank saved you.”

Chester was kneeling now. “Don’t want to hurt you. If I do, let me know.”

“Are you a doctor?”

“Heck no. But I have brought a few calves into the world.”

“This is your barn?”

“It has been for generations.”

“Got some cows? Horses?”

Chester didn’t answer. It was getting personal.

“The leg’s not broken but you should get an x-ray. These old eyes play tricks on me.”

Sitting next to the young man with his back to the door that led to stanchions and pens and stalls, Chester looked around. It felt good to be in the barn. Shutting his eyes, he could hear Anna calling him for dinner.

“You sleeping, sir?”

“No. No.  You from around here?”

“Yup. I got back yesterday. I’ve been overseas.”

“Are you home for Christmas?”

“Yes. I’m home for Christmas.”

“Stationed at Drum?”

“Yes sir.”

“Come up 81?”

             “Yes sir.”

             The wind interrupted. The power went out but only for a second. The conversation kept going.

             “I saw a tree in the back of the truck.”

             “It was to be a surprise for my little girl.”

             “Christmas is about surprises. Does your family know you’re coming?”

“No. That’s another surprise.”

“How long you back for?”

“Longer than most. My daughter’s having surgery.”

“That’s a heck of a Christmas present.”

“That’s what I told my wife. Our Nora’s only four.”

“Life isn’t fair sometimes.” Chester thought of Anna, dancing around the kitchen with her hair flowing, the smell of jasmine all around her. She loved to dance. She’d wrap her arms around Chester and pull him up from the table to her dance floor.

“Mind my asking what the surgery is for?”

“It’s her eyes. The doctor says it’s inherited.”

“Mustn’t be your side, or the Army wouldn’t have taken you.”

“Our daughter’s adopted.”

“I’ve know a lot of adopted kids over the years.”

“Did you adopt?”

“No. Only at Christmas you could say. Anna and I never had children. We couldn’t.”

“Anna’s your wife?”

“Yes.”

“She died?”

“A little over eight months ago. Every Christmas we filled the place with adopted kids.”

“That’s when adopted kids really miss family.”

             “You adopted, son?”

             “How did you know?”

             “I can hear it in your voice.”

             “It took me awhile to accept the fact I didn’t have parents.”

             “That’s what I’d often hear. Some never accepted it.”

“Makes a difference knowing you have a place to call home. I almost gave up hoping.”

“Can’t ever give up.”

“That’s what my wife tells me. Our daughter’s going blind.”

“What do the doctors say?”

“Surgery’s a long shot.”

“Life’s a long shot son. That’s where faith comes in.”

“I’ve been afraid Nora would lose her sight before I got home. I was afraid she’d never see me again. I can’t believe the truck went off the road.”

Chester was standing. He slid the door back open.

“It stopped snowing. From what I can tell, your truck is in there pretty good.”

Before Chester could stop him, the young man was by his side.

“You shouldn’t be on that leg.”

“I have to get home.”

The moon was out now as were the stars. But it was one star that made the difference.

“What’s your name son?”

“Paul.”

“I’m Chester, Paul. Up there; see that star, Paul?

 

That’s the Christmas star. I’ve heard if you close your eyes and pray this time of the year, your prayer will be answered.”

             The wind made more little whirlwinds dancing under the moonlight as Paul stood looking at Chester.

             “I didn’t mean to upset you, boy.” Chester felt uncomfortable. Paul kept staring.

             “It’s you.”

“What?”

“The years haven’t changed you. I knew I’d heard your voice before. We stood right here years ago. I was one of those kids up for adoption. It was after a sleigh ride. I stayed back to help you with the horses. Your wife took the rest of the kids to the house.”

“There’ve been so many kids. I….”

“It’s so clear to me standing here. I was crying. I told you all I wanted for Christmas was a family. You told me about the Christmas star, told me I should close my eyes and pray, and I did. A few months later I was adopted. I found a family because of you.”

“And Anna had to yell out the back door because the children were waiting for Santa.”

“Yes. You sent me in the house. I never wondered where you went or where Santa came from!”

“You really are that little kid with freckles and sad eyes?  We wondered whatever happened to you. Anna would ask, but no one gave us any information.”

“It’s me, minus the freckles.”

“Let me get a good look at you. I’ve been so busy ignoring people that I don’t see them.”

“You told me that night to pray. Because of you, I found my family. Now it’s your turn, Chester.”

“My turn?”

“Your eyes are sad. I remember your wife. She was very kind to me. She told me I would find my place.”

             Digging deep down inside a pocket, Paul pulled something out. “Your wife gave me this rosary. I’ve kept it near. I needed to get home to my family. Now it’s your turn.”

             The young man handed Chester the rosary. “Your Anna is right beside you.”

             Chester hadn’t cried. Not once since Anna whispered his name for the last time had he shed a tear over losing Anna. There was no holding back now. Both men shed tears. Both had their reasons standing in the doorway of that old barn.

When Chester spoke, it was from his heart. “Believe in miracles, son?”

“It’s Christmas, Chester.”

“It is indeed!”

“Where are you going?”

“I’m taking you home,” Chester replied, rushing back into the barn.

“But the road’s not plowed.”

“It’s Christmas, remember?”

Chester lifted the latch of the door leading into the main barn. He’d shut it the morning Anna passed away and hadn’t returned. Flipping on the light, he took stock of the place where he’d spent his days. Anna was everywhere. What surprised Chester was the sadness had gone away. He felt content with her memory. She was in every nook and cranny of that barn. Grabbing a burlap bag, he went into a smaller room and came back out as Santa Claus.

Pulling a tarp off a huge object, Chester remarked, “Every Santa needs a sleigh.”

“Come on, Molly,” the old man whispered. “It’s time for another Christmas miracle.”

The horse knew what was about to happen as Chester hitched him up to that old sleigh once again.

             “Where did I put those bells?”

             Looking around Chester felt the holiday spirit as never before. “I remember. They’re in the shed.”

             Back in an instant, Chester unleashed those bells, their music ringing through the stalls and pens and stanchions, up and around the hay mows and out the back door into the night. Climbing on board the sleigh and taking the reins, Chester urged Molly around to the front of the barn.

“It’s the same sleigh,” Paul exclaimed, just as excited as the little boy with freckles and sad eyes. “Those are the bells I think of every Christmas.”

“Yes, they are Paul and surprisingly, this is the same suit. I haven’t had it on in years. Still fits!”

“You brought Christmas to many in that suit.”

“It’s time to do that again.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m bringing a little girl her daddy home for Christmas if you feel strong enough.”

“Nothing could stop me, Santa.”

With Chester’s help, Paul found himself sitting next to Santa himself. Stopping to get the tree from the back of the truck, the two headed across the open field.

“We’ll follow the Christmas star,” bellowed Santa. “The Christmas star always brings you home.”

With bells chiming, Santa and the little boy now grown were dashing through the snow again. Miracles happen when grief turns into loving memories and a jolly old man with a white beard wears his red, velvet suit once more.