Bearing Witness

Jeffrey DeVries
Featured Image: Cottage in Winter (oil on canvas) © Isabel Tennant 1981

I stood in the dark, my breath fogging the glass, to watch the snow whirl in tornadic bursts that nearly obscured the barn in the fading daylight. For twenty-four hours it had been falling, and the wind had scoured parts of the yard clean while piling snow in drifts against fence rows and buildings. With every gust, the loose shutter I’d meant to fix all fall banged against the siding.

Tanya, my wife of four years, edged up behind me, wrapped me in her arms and laid her cheek in the dip between my shoulder blades. I patted her hands.

“I like being snowed in with you,” she said.

As I turned to her with a smile, to return her embrace, the phone rang. It was Dad.

“Ethan, I’m calling to ask a favor. I thought maybe we’d go check on Mary Sneller.”

“In this weather?”

He snorted. “Yes, in this weather. If it was sunny and seventy-five, we wouldn’t have no reason to check, would we?”

I held the phone to my ear and walked toward the window over the kitchen sink. Mary’s house was a mile down the road, but I couldn’t even make out the horizon, much less her house. Everything was swirling whites and grays. Plus it was getting dark. Dad lived about a half-mile up the road the other way.

“I don’t know, Dad. There hasn’t been a plow gone by all day. The road looks belly deep in snow. I don’t think we can get a car out.”

“We’ll take Bear and Lucky.”

Then silence, but for the soft rise and fall of his breathing. I looked at Tanya. She had her brown hair tied back in a loose ponytail, and a wisp had escaped to caress her right cheek. She wore a thick cable-knit sweater. A small bump showed she was four months pregnant. She looked warm and inviting, and I didn’t want to leave her. I could hear my mother behind him telling him to tell me that Mary didn’t have anybody else, just us, and that if she were as old and alone as Mary, she sure hoped her neighbors would look after her.

I shrugged at Tanya, blew out a deep breath, and said, “I’ll go saddle up Bear, Dad. Meet me in the barn.”

“Atta boy,” he said, and I could hear the smile in his voice. “I’ll see you in fifteen minutes.”

“And, Dad?” I said.


“Be careful, okay. It’s dangerous out.”

“That’s why we’re checking on Mary,” he said, and the phone went dead.

I walked to the back closet. Tanya padded down the hall behind me in her stocking feet.

“What’s he got you up to now?” she asked.

I turned toward her while I pulled a knit cap onto my head. She stood with her arms crossed, resting on her belly. She tried looking grim, but the corners of her mouth turned up toward a smile and mirth glinted in her eyes. Dad exasperated her with his demands, but he also amused her to no end.

“He’s got it in his craw that we gotta check on Mary Sneller,” I said as I swung my arm into my barn coat. “What with the storm and the power out, he’s worried about her.”

“Mary isn’t going to need your help,” she said. “The storm don’t mean a thing to her. You know once winter sets in, she don’t come out anyways ‘til the spring thaw. And the power being out—well, shoot—she didn’t even get electric strung out to her farm until two years ago. She’s lived her whole life without power.”

“Yeah, but she’s old,” I protested as I grabbed a pair of gloves off the closet shelf and shoved them into my coat pockets. “And she’s alone.”

Tanya grinned. “And your dad wants a little adventure, he wants to play the hero, but he doesn’t want to do it alone. He needs you as a witness.”

I sat in a chair by the back door, pulling on my boots, and I said, “Now, look, that ain’t fair.”

“No, it’s not,” Tanya said. “Dad needs you as a witness, but you aren’t going just for that. You want to play the hero, too.”

I rose from the chair and put my hands on my hips. “What do you want? You want me to stay home?”

She crossed to me, took my hands off my hips and slid them around her waist. Then she took my face in her cool hands, kissed me, and said, “No, I want you to go. I’m just teasin’ you. Mary’s going to be just fine, but it won’t hurt her to hear from you. And you and Dad, well, you just wouldn’t be the men I love if you didn’t insist on riding into the middle of a blizzard to check on a neighbor. You go, Ethan. And I’ll be waiting for you with supper when you get back.”

I zipped my coat and went out. The wind nearly ripped the storm door out of my hand. I pushed it shut, then pulled my head down into my coat and crossed to the barn, kicking through a waist-deep drift to slide one of the doors along its track.

From the dark, the warm smell of hay and manure and livestock wafted up to greet me. The quiet, wet sounds of the cows floated from the back of the barn. Closer, a soft snort commanded my attention, and when I flipped the light switch, Bear stared at me from his stable door and nickered. He was a big bay. His ears twitched and he stamped.

“Hey, Bear,” I said as I scratched his forehead between his eyes. “You want to take a ride, don’t you?”

The horse shook his head, bumping his nose against my face. I smiled.

“You are as crazy as the old man,” I said. “Neither one of you recognizes a blizzard when you see one.”

I grabbed a halter, slid it over his head, and led him to the tack room where I began to brush him. The barn was a symphony of noises in the storm. The wind rattled the windows and doors in staccato bursts that had all thirty Holsteins on edge. In the back of the barn, the cows’ tails swished as they snorted their disapproval. Timbers creaked and moaned, and occasionally the goats bleated.

Bear leaned into the dandy brush, enjoying its scratching along his back. As I finished, he lowered his head and pushed out a long, fluttering sigh. I draped the saddle blanket across his back and dropped the saddle in place. Moments later, I had it cinched, replaced the halter with a bridle, and we were ready to go.

Outside, what daylight we had was fading fast, and the churning snow continued to obscure everything. Sitting atop Bear, my face seemed to catch the full brunt of the wind, and I squinted against it. We edged forward toward the road, and suddenly, like a ghost rising out of thin air, the silhouette of a horseman appeared thirty yards before me. I nudged Bear with my heels and we approached.

Slowly Dad’s features emerged. He sat broad-shouldered in his brown canvas coat. A red and black flannel, fur-lined trapper’s hat perched atop his head, its untied ear flaps hanging down to his neck. He wore black-framed glasses that collected snow, and periodically he rubbed the lenses with the back of his glove to clear them of moisture. Lucky, his enormous dapple grey, stood still as a statue beneath him.

Dad grinned. “Nice evening for a ride, ain’t it?”

“Couldn’t imagine one better.” A sudden gust blasted us head-on, forcing us to turn our faces down and into our coats. The horses, too, turned their heads away.

The gust passed, and Dad said, “I guess we better get on with it. I don’t think we want to follow the road, though. I tried it coming here, but you can’t make out where it starts or ends, so I cut across the alfalfa field instead.”

I looked toward the road and saw what he meant. Steep drainage ditches ran along both sides of the road, but chalky snow dunes masked them dangerously. There was no telling what lay beneath the blanket, and wandering only slightly off course could lead to a horse breaking a leg.

“How ‘bout we cut through the stand of sorghum I left up, then cross Pell’s soybean field and come around to Mary’s place from the other side?” I suggested. “It’s a little longer, but no ditches to worry about.”

“Sounds good. And maybe the sorghum will help break this wind a little too.”

We turned the horses up a rise behind the barn. Near its crest, we plunged through a gap in the hedgerow, pushing the horses through a chest-deep drift. Out the other side, we slid between rows of dried sorghum. The papery leaves rustled and crackled in the wind. We rode abreast, several rows between us, and we could not see each other, but in the gloaming we could each see the waves of movement along the dried sorghum heads where the other passed.

Bear didn’t much care for the way the wind swished and snapped the plants. His ears twitched, and he clamped his tail down tight against his backside. I leaned toward his head, patted his neck and whispered reassurances. I couldn’t see how Lucky was handling things, but Dad was a better horseman than me, and Lucky a fine stallion. I pictured Dad sitting erect and at ease in the saddle while Lucky walked with his head up, ears forward, tail arched, the two of them taking this ride like it was a stroll through the park on a fine spring morning.

That was the way with Dad. Tanya had spoken the truth when she said he saw himself as a hero in his story. Not in an arrogant way, mind you. He just had a certain swagger about him, an easiness in his own skin that made him master in just about any circumstances. An easiness that I envied. He was the youngest of seven sons who’d used boxing gloves to settle family disputes. At twenty he’d been drafted into the infantry. His tour in Europe had included the Battle of the Bulge and the emancipation of the Dachau concentration camp. Back home, as a welder in Whiting, Indiana, he’d pulled double shifts and made extra cash by arm-wrestling any fool in the plant willing to challenge him. After five years, he’d picked up stakes with his young wife and moved to the farm in Newaygo, Michigan, where he still lived.

He was strong of body and of spirit, and even now, getting on toward seventy, he was square-shouldered and barrel-chested. But for all that power, he was as gentle a man as I’ve ever known. I’d watched him deliver and bottle-feed calves. From behind my bedroom wall as a child, I’d heard him crying when Mom miscarried at eight months and he lost his only daughter and my only sibling. I’d watched him flirt with old widows at church to help them remember what it felt like to be young and beautiful again. I’d seen him care for his own mother, moving her into his home when dementia set in and caring for her until the end.

I turned to watch off to my right where the rippling sorghum tops parted to let him pass. God, I loved that man.

Maybe ten yards from the end of the field, we stumbled across a little three-prong buck that had bedded down to get out of the storm. We were upwind of him, and the voracity of the wind through the sorghum must’ve covered any noise we made because we were almost on top of him when he sprung up like a jack-in-the-box and bolted to our right. Both horses reared, but we reined them in, trotting them forward until we slipped into open field.

The wind blasted ice crystals against our exposed faces, and now darkness had just about settled in. It was bitterly cold. My face hurt, my fingers were growing numb, and frankly, I kept picturing Tanya looking warm and soft and alluring at home. I walked Bear up close to Lucky so Dad and I could see each other. His glasses were getting iced over, and I wondered aloud if I looked as glum as he did. But he smiled, and we kicked our horses forward.

The Pells had harvested all their soybeans and turned the field over, and now it lay frozen solid in ridges and valleys, making treacherous footing for the horses. Plus it was hard to see, so despite the fact that the wind had scoured most of the snow off this open field, we made slow, miserable progress.

After the field, we crossed a wide culvert and got up on County Line Road, which was unplowed. Two hundred yards more, around a bend, we came upon Mary Sneller’s place. In the dark it was merely a squat silhouette, but I could easily picture the hundred-year-old frame house with its gray, weather-beaten tar shingle siding. It had only two rooms, originally—a tiny bedroom and one other room that served as kitchen, dining room, and parlor. Just two years ago, when Dad had talked Mary into finally hooking up to the electrical grid, we’d built a small water closet off the back of the house so she wouldn’t have to use the privy anymore.

Through her one front window we could see the dull yellow glimmer of a lantern burning. We walked the horses around the lee side of the house to get them out of the wind and tied them off to a clothesline pole. Then we stepped up on her porch and Dad knocked on the door.

“Hey, Mary,” he shouted as he knocked. “It’s Mart and Ethan. Just checkin’ to make sure you’re all right.”

A moment later the door swung open, and there stood Mary, all five feet, two inches of her. Her thinning white hair framed her face, her bangs tucked back with bobby pins. She wore about six sweaters and three pairs of pants, all of which fell in loose wrinkles and folds, much like the skin of her face and hands. She waved us in and slammed the door shut behind us.

“Lordy,” she said as she took our elbows and steered us across her house toward the wood-burning stove glowing in the back corner, “what’s got into the two of you? Have you lost your God-given sense? What, out gallivanting on a night like tonight.”

She pulled two chairs next to the stove where her rocking chair already sat. She directed us to sit down, and produced two chipped enamel mugs from a shelf above her sink. She thrust them into our hands, grabbed off the stove an enormous, blue speckled coffee pot that looked to be as old as her, and filled our mugs.

Dad smiled, leaned back in his chair, and took a sip.

“Now that’s some fine coffee, Mary,” he said. “Thank you.”

“Thank you my foot,” Mary said. “You shouldn’t be out on a night like tonight, and you know it.”

She turned toward me and pointed a gnarled finger in my face. “Ethan, you ought to know better. If this one wants to be a fool, you’ve got to step in and save him from himself.”

I smiled and said, “You might as well tell me to go outside and tell that wind to stop blowing. It’d be just as likely to listen to me as this old goat.”

Dad laughed. “You’re both pretty rough on an old man. Especially one who brought you this.”

From an inside pocket of his coat, he produced a thick slab of chocolate cake wrapped in waxed paper. He peeled back the paper carefully, barely smudging the dark, rich icing. Somehow the old man had managed to transport it all the way here, on horseback and through a blizzard, without damage.

“A gift from Janet,” he said, “who passes along her greeting and her regrets that she cannot be here with us to share it.”

Mary held her hands over her mouth, as if pushing back words, and in the dim light I thought I saw her wide eyes brim with tears. After a moment, she sucked in a deep breath through her nose and said, “You tell Janet thank you so very much.”

She rose again from her chair and took the half-wrapped cake from Dad as carefully as if she were taking hold of a newborn. She set it on her table and divided it into thirds, serving it to us on mismatched china plates she grabbed off the shelf over the sink. When her back was turned, Dad winked at me.

We ate our cake and drank our coffee while the wind whistled through the eaves. The small house was draftier than our barn—the cold seeped through the rough cut wood floors and around the doors and windows—but it was warm by the stove, and Mary, well, Mary was as animated as I’d ever seen her.

We talked about local happenings of no particular consequence. Mary asked if we’d heard the rumors that Bill Brown, the township clerk, had mislaid a stack of checks from people’s property taxes, and Dad shared a story he’d heard about the baptism font at First Baptist springing a leak during last Sunday’s service and how all the people in the front two rows got their feet baptized, but there was only a few drops left in the pool by the time of the service. They were supposed to be baptizing the Schenkel girl, so they had to cancel the baptism because those Baptists don’t go in for just sprinkling. Mary asked if we’d heard that her neighbors, the Pendergrasts, planned to plant oats instead of corn next spring, and that led to Dad making an off-color quip about how he thought Danny Pendergrast had already sown his wild oats when he was younger, and that made Mary cackle and call Dad a wicked man.

As they talked, I noticed that Mary’s woodpile beside the stove was running low, so I quietly excused myself and slipped out the door. The wind was still blowing, but the snow had quit and the overcast was starting to break up. I hauled in seven armloads of stove wood from the back of the house and piled it inside for Mary. It was enough to last her a couple of days.

Then Dad rose, and that signaled it was time to go.

“Well, we’re glad you’re okay, Mary,” he said. “Bad storm like this, with everybody trapped inside, we just wanted to know you were okay.”

“Better than okay,” she said. “I was okay before you set out to come, but I’m grateful you did.”

Dad nodded. “Thanks for the coffee, Mary.”

“Yes, thanks,” I said as we crossed to the door. “It was nice visitin’ with you, Mary.”

“No, thank you,” she said. “And now you ridiculous, wonderful men better get on home to your wives. That’s where you belong.”

“I reckon that’s about right,” Dad said. “Goodbye, Mary.”

Outside the wind had died to a breeze, and the overcast had cleared completely. We mounted Bear and Lucky and began our return trip. The quietness of the starlight dropped down around us, and a half-moon sparkled on the snowy fields. We rode in companionable silence for a while, and then Dad spoke, asking me about Tanya and the pregnancy, how she was doing, could she feel the baby moving yet, was I making sure she wasn’t working too hard around the house. He grew quiet, and I could tell his mind had drifted back to Mom’s miscarriage so many years ago. He turned and looked me deep in the eyes and told me that Tanya was a good woman and that I was a lucky man, and I told him I knew.

Then we were back at my farm. We sat our horses facing each other between the barn and the house. I could see the flicker of candle light through the dark windows, and my mind went to Tanya inside, waiting for me. Bear whinnied and swung his head toward the barn, as eager to be warm and inside for the night as I was. I pulled him up short and turned his head back toward Lucky, who stood still as a statue, his breath pooling in front of him. I asked Dad if he wanted me to ride him home.

“Nah,” he said. “I may be getting old, but I ain’t feeble yet. I can get home on my own.”

He clicked his tongue and pulled the reins to the right. He was three lengths away when I shouted to him. I had to ask.

“So this whole trip to check on Mary . . .”

He swung Lucky around so he faced me again.

“Yes, son?”

I paused. I looked at my windows, where I knew Tanya was waiting for me. Then my eyes moved to where the wind had piled snow as high as the windowsill. I half-laughed and shrugged at him.

“We went out tonight—in the middle of a blizzard—just so you could give her some chocolate cake?”

He smiled, the same waggish smile he’d given Mary earlier that night, right before producing the cake from his pocket.

“Someone might put it like that, but I wouldn’t.”

“Well, how would you put it?”

“I’d say we went because we were being neighborly. Good night, son.”

He turned, gave Lucky a soft kick in the side, and rode into the night.

And even now, thirty years later, I love that picture of him: The vaulted heavens, chockfull of stars glinting like brilliant chips of ice, beam down on him as, chin up, shoulders squared, he sits astride Lucky but rides a wave of gentle joy. And though Dad’s been gone now for over a decade, in my imagination he lives on, the hero of his own story, and as Tanya, my lovely Tanya, put it all those years ago, I am his witness.

Jeffrey DeVries teaches English and journalism in Illinois.  His writing has appeared in various publications. “Bearing Witness” is a paean to his grandfather and father. His grandfather was one of seven brothers, a wild group who lived and loved hard, and who grew up settling disputes in the backyard with boxing gloves. He spent a career making steel tankers in Northwest Indiana.  Until he retired, he won money arm-wrestling all challengers at the plant. He also tenderly cared for his arthritic and wheelchair-bound wife until she died in her early fifties. He begat Jeffrey’s father, an equally strong and gentle man, but of a quieter breed, who lived in the shadow of his larger-than-life father. These deeply beloved men inspired this story.

Isabel Tennant (1922-1986) was a visual artist from Perth, Ontario, Canada.