Prairie Snow

     Henry spied him the moment he stepped from the rail car. “Peter!”  He hurried over.

Peter stopped, smiled.  He was gaunt faced, tired looking.  But the smile was Peter’s. 

     “Peter!” Henry Harrison croaked in his throaty bass.  His gray eyes brightened; his face transformed into a warm, welcoming smile.

     Dropping his bag, Peter extended his hand.

     Henry grabbed hold, pumped it vigorously.  “It’s wonderful to see you!  Wonderful!  How’s the shoulder?”  He gave Peter’s sling a serious appraisal then rotated his eyes back to Peter’s, questioningly.

     “Not a hundred percent but better, lots better.  I can’t begin to tell you how happy I am to see you, Henry.  I thought this train’d never arrive.”

     “There were a few anxious days last September when we weren’t sure we’d ever see you again.  It was a real hard thing, Peter, waiting to hear.  But, that’s all behind us now.  It’s good to have you back.”

     Motioning the way, Henry reached for Peter’s duffle bag.  “Let me get that for you.”

     “That’s OK, it feels good to be able to lift it myself.  The past couple of months have been the longest of my life.  Hope you don’t mind putting me up for the night.  My connection home isn’t till morning.  Guess I have one more night’s wait before I see them.”

     Henry smile broadened.  “How about some lunch?  We have to pick up Margaret at the VA hospital, then I thought we might take a drive.”  He stopped, waited for Peter’s look.  “Think you can stand a few more hours travel?”

     Peter grinned.  “Think the bank can manage without you?”

     “It’s in good hands.  You may have met Steven Clark.  Decided it was time I think about taking it a little easier—let a younger man do some of the heavy lifting so Margaret and I can take a trip now and then.  We thought a country Thanksgiving sounded wonderful.  How about you?”

     Peter’s response was a look down to gather himself, a slight nod.  As they threaded their way through Union Station, Henry verified Peter’s earlier communication.  “She doesn’t know you’re coming?”

     “No.  They promised me I’d be there for Christmas, but I decided that was too long.  Then an unexpected seat opened up on a flight from London—a couple of real long days ago.  So I took it.  I couldn’t call; I just had to go.  Besides, I wanted to be close enough to home to make it seem real before I did.”

     Henry stopped, held the lobby door as Peter shouldered his way from the building, felt the bite of Nebraska’s November air for the first time. 

“Well, let’s not keep her waiting, shall we?  I can’t wait to see the look on her face!  This is wonderful!  Just wonderful!” 

     The usually reserved banker rubbed his hands with excitement and chuckled.

    

     She walked slowly across the yard helping the small boy pull the sled.  Bundled up on it sat the baby.  Behind the baby was a bucket of nails.  In her free hand, Elizabeth carried a hammer.  Snow fell steadily from the gray clouds overhead, but because it was not yet deep, the sled would occasionally bog down, grate irritatingly on the ground beneath until it found powder once more. 

     “This may not do your sled much good, Tommy,” she said to the boy softly as the runners hit ground once more.

     Then silence.  The world was so still, so calm, she hated to speak.  This was the perfect snowfall.  Without wind, without force, it fell with gentle deliberation, as if a blanket were being draped upon the earth to cover its bareness.  The snow’s peacefulness was matched only by the dignity with which the earth received its finery.  It did somehow seem irreverent to speak, to intrude upon the intimacy of the spell.

     Not so susceptible to the mood, Tommy said, “It’ll be OK, Mom.  Grandpa said it could take ‘bout anything.’ Besides, Angie can’t walk that far.”

     Beth smiled at the serious look on her son’s face.  He reminded her of his father—in so very many ways.  Already, he could think a thing through effortlessly, as if it were as much apart of him as Peter’s eyes, his hair.

     “Won’t Ben be surprised when he gets home and finds the fence fixed?  He won’t have to walk so far to get the cows tonight.”  Watching Tommy nod in reply, Elizabeth suddenly realized that the dog was nowhere in sight.

     “Homer!  HOMER!” she called.  She stopped, looked around, and called again.  “Homer?  Tommy, have you seen him?”

     Tommy, too, stopped, cupped both hands to his mouth, and yelled, “Homer.  Here boy.”

     A whimpering scratching sound answered from inside the barn, followed by an echoing bark.  “Can you go let him out, Honey?  Oh, Angela, get out of those.”

     Tommy took off running towards the barn; Elizabeth bent to remove nails from the baby’s hands.  Somehow,  Angela had turned and tipped the pail, spilling nails over her lap, the sled, and the snow beneath. 

     “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.  I did so want to get out of the house for a while.  It’s so pretty out, and the two of you won’t get cold on a day like today.

     “Look, Angela,” Elizabeth said, as she knelt beside the sled.  Look.  See.  See what Mommy has.  See the pretty snowflake.”  Catching one in the palm of her hand, Beth held it for her daughter to see.  “Pretty.”

     “Preey,” the violet-eyed girl mimicked as she bent to touch the snowflake with her lips.

     “Yes, pretty,” Elizabeth repeated and waited while Angela extended her hand, attempting to catch a snowflake of her own.  Elizabeth picked up the last of the nails as Homer bounded over and nuzzled her. 

     Standing away from Homer’s wet tongue, she dusted snow from the knees of Peter’s old jeans, the ones she wore belted and cuffed over her boots.  The coat she had on was an old chore coat of Ben’s, faded blue with patches here and there.  She had twisted her hair up and donned a stocking cap that covered her ears.  From a distance, she could have been mistaken for a child herself, so unfeminine was her appearance.  Only if a stranger saw the beauty of her face would they have known her to be the mother of the children beside her.

     She and Tommy took hold of the rope to continue their trek into the pasture when they heard the car.  As it drove slowly towards them, Tommy looked to his mother.

     “Who’s that, Mommy?”

     “I’m not sure,” she said a bit unnerved.  Dropping her side of the rope, she stepped around the sled towards it.  “Tommy, keep Angela out of the nails, Honey, please?”

     Since the day the telegram had arrived telling them Peter had been wounded, she struggled with fear that some new catastrophe might beset them.  Her nerves were often raw.  She dreaded the possibility of that ‘other’ telegram.  The appearance of an unfamiliar car unnerved her.

     The gray Buick stopped just inside the farmyard.

Elizabeth watched apprehensively.  Her stomach knotted.  Her mouth went dry.  Her throat tightened.  The back door swung open.

Peter’s blonde head emerged.    

     Fear evaporated into disbelief, disbelief into joy.

Peter crawled from the car smiling his irrepressible smile.  The next minute she was in his arms, laughing and crying all at once, holding on to him tightly just to be certain that this, that he, was real.

     How can you describe the moment when life returns?  The green of spring on an April morning, the taking of a first breath, the restoration of those we love to us.  Each moment is miraculous.  It is happiness and light, joy and sweet melody.  It is all that is good and perfect in this world:  a child’s laugh, a fragrant flower, the delicate wings of a butterfly; honey on the tongue.  For when two truly become one, they cannot be apart, separated from one another without an emptiness, a hollow ache of the soul, that nothing—nothing can fill save the return of the other part of themselves—so complete is that joining. 

So it was for Peter and Elizabeth.  On a gray, snow-filled November afternoon two days before Thanksgiving in 1943, the emptiness died, completeness was restored.  For Peter, her lips on his brought him back to himself.  His healing became complete.

When finally he left off kissing her, he looked deep into her eyes, drank his fill; then reaching up, lifted the cap, freeing the rich auburn hair, allowing it to tumble down to her shoulders.  The smile on his face faded into a solemn expression of his love for her as he adjusted the brown tresses and kissed her once more with all the passion his months of loneliness could allow.  Then, pulling her tighter with his one good arm, he whispered, “Oh, God, I have missed you so much.”

Several minutes passed before Beth could compose herself to speak.  When she did, she cried, “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?”

“I didn’t know myself till a few days ago.  This surprise was your aunt’s idea.”

“Oh, Peter,” she whispered tearfully, gently touching his sling.  “Your shoulder.”

“It’s OK, Honey.  It’ll be good as new before long.  Just let me look at you.”

“Oh, not like this . . . I’m . . . we were . . .”

“You’re gorgeous,” he said and kissed her again.  Finally, looking past her to two small children watching from the sled, he asked, “Where were the three of you going anyway?”

Wiping her cheeks, Beth followed his gaze.  “To fix the fence in the pasture for Ben.”  She took his hand and led him towards the sled. 

“Tommy,” his mother said.

Tommy studied the rope in his hands, preferring it to the man that had been kissing his mother.

Peter stopped Elizabeth with a touch and knelt before his son.  Tommy’s serious expression needed no explanation. 

“Tommy, I don’t imagine you remember me much, do you?”

Tommy shook his head. 

“Well, I remember you, but not nearly so grown up.  You weren’t much bigger than your little sister when I left.”  Peter’s eyes followed the little girl Elizabeth lifted from the sled and a new ache filled his soul.  The need to hold her flooded him with overwhelming force, but he looked back to his son, waited for his eyes.

The small face lifted.  Tommy looked squarely at this stranger.  “Are you a soldier?”

“I was.  Now I’m a farmer again, just like Grandpa.”

“You know my Grandpa?”

“All my life.  He’s my father—like I’m yours.”

Tommy eyed him suspiciously. 

“Do you still like Hershey bars?  We used to share them sometimes.”

“We did?”

“We did when Mom’d let us.  Think she’d let us now?”

Tommy looked to his mother then, smiling despite himself, nodded.

Peter reached into his jacket and produced the candy bar.  Unwrapping a corner, he took a small bite then handed the rest to his son, smiling at the light that filled the boys eyes.  Standing, he turned to Elizabeth.

“Show Daddy what you have, Angela,” Elizabeth cooed.

The dark eyes of his daughter met his own.  She extended her hand to him.  There in her mitten lay a soft downy snowflake.  “Preey,” she said.  “Preey.”

“Oh, so very pretty,” her father agreed as he gazed into violet eyes.  “You are so very pretty,” he whispered.

For the first time since that morning in the hospital, Peter nearly broke down.  Through tears, he reached for his daughter.  Angela tucked her head against his neck as she studied the snowflake.

The ache Peter had carried inside for so long disappeared.  Holding his daughter for the first time, he looked into his wife’s eyes, bent again to kiss his wife.

At that moment, his life took on a deeper, richer meaning than he’d ever known it to have.  God had graciously answered his prayers.  He was home.  

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