A man came to America with his family long ago on Christmas Eve. There were six of them, the man with his great brown beard, his wife, two daughters and two sons. They walked off the train and hired a young man and his wagon to take them to their homestead. Whatever they owned they carried with them in large cloth bags.
It was not a long wagon ride, about forty-five minutes. It was a fine spring day, cool, but with plenty of sunshine and blue sky. The prairie spread for miles all around them. Finally the driver pulled his two black horses to a stop. He pointed to a farmhouse a half-mile away across the fields.
“That is Mister Pishsky’s place. It is his job to help you newcomers to find your land and get off to a decent start. I must go on. I have other errands to run and tomorrow is Christmas Day.”
“Can’t you take us up to his door?” asked the mother. “There is a good wagon track there.”
“I have other errands to run. I am late.”
The father grunted and jumped down off the wagon. He helped his wife and children down. Then he gave the driver three coins. “Thank you,” he said. The driver nodded and shook the reins. He wheeled the wagon in a circle and headed back to town.
The family began to walk up the wagon track towards the farmhouse. The bags were heavy. Every now and then they stopped to rest.
“I am thirsty, Papa,” said one of the young boys.
“At the farmhouse there will be a good well.”
“But how much longer will it take us? The farmhouse is so very far away.”
“No, no. It is not so far. Come. Let us go a little bit further and then we will rest again. It is a wonderful day for walking. I thank God.”
They all picked up their bundles and started forward along the wagon track once again. Suddenly the sunlight vanished as if the sun had set. Great black clouds filled the sky and a wind slashed across the fields. It began to hail and then it began to snow. The family crouched down in the wagon track and pulled their bags over their heads.
Soon the wind was blowing so fast and furiously the air was completely white. The father stretched out his hand and could not see his fingers. The temperature dropped and dropped. The children began to shiver.
“Come,” said the father standing up. “We will be warmer if we walk.”
The family tried to walk but they slipped and staggered and grew confused.
“This is the way we should go.”
“No. This way.”
“You are both wrong. The farmhouse is in this direction.”
Finally the father and mother made everyone sit down.
“You father will go ahead to the farmhouse and bring back help,” said the mother. “And I will stay with you children.”
“Papa, will you be all right?” cried one of the daughters.
The father’s beard was covered in frost. “Of course. The house is only a little ways. I will be back in no time. I will take big steps.”
The mother held out a long spool of string. “Hold onto one end of this. I will let the spool unwind as you walk. Then you will be able to find us again in the storm.”
So the father wrapped several lengths of string around one of his hands and began to walk forward. He could just see the ruts of the wagon track and he followed them, his head down. The wind shoved and pushed and tried to knock him down. His face and his fingers began to freeze. He would not stop. The string played out behind him as if he were a fish on a line. The thought made him laugh out loud but snow filled his mouth and he did not laugh again.
He lost all sense of time as he trudged forward. The blizzard howled in his ears. There was nothing but white. He could not see the track anymore but he could feel the outline of one of the ruts and he kept his right foot in it and kept on. The string kept unwinding.
He grew colder and colder. It became increasingly difficult to walk since the wind had shifted around in front of him and kept pushing him back. His breath came in rasps. Only the thought of his wife and children freezing to death kept him going. He fell once and got up. Fell again and got up. Fell a third time and sat there a while, stupefied. Then he hurled himself to his feet with a roar and lurched forward once more.
He counted to one thousand once, twice, three, four times. Still he did not reach the farmhouse. His steps grew shorter and shorter and he walked more and more slowly. Perhaps I have walked past the farmhouse, he thought. Perhaps I have missed it in the storm. I should turn back.
No, do not turn back, a voice inside him said.
I must. I have walked past the farmhouse.
Do not turn back.
He was still arguing with himself when suddenly the string became rigid. He tugged but there was no more of it. If he dropped the end of the string and went forward he might never find his family again even if he did find the farmhouse. He stood still for several minutes while the wind chilled him to the bone.
I cannot go any further, he thought. I cannot let go of the string. I can either stay here and die or go back and die with my family. My God, there is nothing more I can do.
He turned around, fell, got up, and began wrapping the string around his hand as he walked back the way he had come. He would take them all in his arms, he would hug them and kiss them and say a prayer, and then the wind would cover them with a blanket of snow and they would fall asleep. It would not take long. He kept his head down and put one foot in front of another. They were like blocks of ice.
Suddenly a bird sang. A beautiful high sweet song that it repeated again and again. He stopped. He was certain he had imagined it. But it came once more.
It was a lark. He did not know what kind of lark for this country was new to him. But it was a lark. Small they are, he thought. Just thin bones and even thinner feathers. How is it that it has survived the storm this long? How can it sing when the storm is so brutal and blinding? As he thought all this the lark sang once again, as if sunlight had been collected in its throat and released as a sound.
A surge went through the man. My God, he prayed, if the bird can defy the storm, so can I. If the bird can choose to live despite all of this, so can I. He turned around and lurched back to the end of the string. Then he bent down, one length of string wrapped around his right hand, and began to untie the laces of his tall boots. He fought with the numbness in his fingers and the ice on the knots. But one after another he pulled the laces free.
Each was about two feet long. He tied one to the end of the string and tied the second lace to the first. Then he stood up and looked through the frost on his eyelashes into the white of the storm. He took one step. Another step. A third and fourth. He reached the end of the laces. My God, I am not done yet, he said between his blue lips. He stretched out his left hand as far as he could into the driving snow. And he touched a wall.
Wood it was. He scratched with his fingers. Wood nailed and painted. He tied the end of the lace firmly to a belt loop on his pants. Then he leaned forward and hammered on the wall with both his fists.
“What is it? Who is it? What are you doing out in this storm?” A small man rushed around the corner of his house with an iron poker in his hand. He stopped dead when he saw the bearded man leaning against the wall of the house covered in snow and ice.
“My family is caught in the storm,” the bearded man rasped. “Help me get back to them.”
The small man got his wagon out of the barn and harnessed one of his horses to the front of it. The bearded man rolled up the string as they drove into the storm and they found the family huddled up under their bags, wearing all the clothing they had, white-skinned and half-dead. They got them into the wagon and followed their own tracks back to the house before the blizzard filled them in. The family staggered inside and sat in front of a roaring fire where the small man’s wife and children gave them dry clothes to wear and topped them up with hot tea and brought them back to life. The Christmas tree gliitered with warm lights and at the top, instead of a star or an angel, there was a paper bird one of the children had made in school.
For years afterwards people would come up to the bearded man’s homestead in dry and dusty weather. They might ask for directions or a drink of water. They would look at the sign over the front door.
“Most people put up paintings of eagles and hawks when it comes to birds,” they would say. “Or paintings of deer or bear or a wolf if they want a strong animal.”
“Why a meadowlark?” they would ask. “Why that?”