By Gerald Richards – Brandon, Man.
It happened often in my youth: it happened after a house party; after Christmas day at Grandma Duncan’s; after a Christmas concert at the village hall; after a card party at the Anderson’s or Walts’; after we had eaten the last of the sandwiches and cake – after we had said our thank-yous and goodbyes, it was time for a sleigh ride home.
While we struggled with parka zippers and overshoe snaps, pulled on hand-knit toques and mittens, and tied the drawstrings on the hoods, dad went to the barn to get the horses. He led Bob and May out and hitched them to the sleigh.
The sleigh was a wooden rectangular box with sides about 3-feet high. It was painted green on the outside and bright yellow on the inside. Most of the year, that box, mounted on wheels with the same sunflower yellow spokes and steel rims, was used to haul wheat and potatoes, but in winter, dad and my older brothers lifted it onto the sleigh runners, removing the tailgate boards to haul coal and groceries, and all of us from place to place.
Dad circled the team and sleigh in the barnyard, stopping in front of the nearest door. We climbed into the box, the older ones going over the sides and the younger ones through the open rear end.
We stood in our places around the sides, some hanging on, keeping moist lips away from the metal strip along the top edge of the box, others balancing freehand on the hay in the bottom of the box. Mom always sat on the chair that dad had put in the front, with a blanket over her lap and around her legs.
When we were all set, Dad swung his legs over the side and took up his usual spot, standing beside mom.
He tightened the reins, and the team stepped off, causing the sleigh to jerk forward. The steel runners found the iced track, and Bob and May settled into their leisurely trot. Dad relaxed his tension on the reins: the horses knew the way home. As we slid along the trail, the box rocked from side to side.
We talked in whispers as if we didn’t want to shatter the crystalline silence of the frozen landscape while passing through it. In the broad moonlight, we saw jackrabbits, frightened from their cover, zigzag across the open fields. A covey of partridges took flight. A snowy owl passed silently overhead and alighted in a willow clump.
The air was fresh and still. Our breath frosted the fur trim on our parka hoods. The teams’ nostrils and muzzles were whiskered in white. In the distance, a coyote called. Here and there, a neighbour’s kitchen windows made yellow holes in the night, while the smoke from the chimney rose straight upward.
On those special nights, the air had a special smell. Even now, some 50 years later, sometimes when I go outside on a cold winter night, I can detect that odour in the air, and all those moonlight sleigh rides come back to me.
I see my family gliding along in the box of sweet smelling hay. I hear the horses’ hooves crunch the snow rhythmically in time to the jingling of the tugs’ metal links. I feel the bite of the frost on my face and the sway of the sleigh box under my feet.
I am young again, and all is right with the world.