I am the last to abandon the warmth of my cousin’s farmhouse to join in the fun. I step across the expanse of frozen earth to where the tractor’s dark shape looms near the black silence of the barn. Sparks, glowing like orange confetti, spew from the exhaust and flare away into the chill winter night. The mighty power of its engine causes the tractor to rock fitfully. Its narrow front tires are turned in my direction as though it has been waiting just for me.
Excited voices seep from the trailer hitched behind the tractor as I climb over the side and fall onto a bale of hay. When I am settled in, my cousin drops the tractor into gear and the trailer lurches forward. He swings into a wide turn to the left and eases out onto a field of stubble. My cousin makes another wide turn (to the right) to avoid some rows of withered, still-standing cornstalks. He runs parallel to the farmhouse and momentarily toward the county road. Then he angles to the left again where the cornrows end and jounces out across the open field.
It is down to minus-five degrees. The wind out of the north chills us as we near the opposite side of the field. My cousin coaxes the tractor down a small slope onto a rutted dirt road, then steers it to the left in the direction of the line of woods. To our left, cornrows reappear. Corn leaves, crepe-paper thin, make ghostly apparitions under the soft light of the moon. Behind us, on the county road, headlights arc briefly, then wink a bright and momentary gleam of yellow as a car turns in, then backs out again. An oblique yellow light, infinitesimal as some distant star, glows from one of the farmhouse windows.
“There’s the Big Dipper,” someone whispers, pointing to a place in the sky.
We follow the rutted path to where a stand of trees starts up, galumph on through, then bounce back out into a large clearing. Todd, my cousin’s son, begins to sing: “Away in a manger, no crib for His bed…” Others join in: “The little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head…” Soon, we are all caroling, our voices swelling to fill the air under a canopy of sky that holds sway over all below. We finish with that carol, then continue with the joyous choruses of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “The First Noel.”
In the end it is not the tractor that fails us, but the trailer. Todd, realizing that one of the trailer tires has gone flat, yells for my cousin to halt. The tractor grinds to a stop and everyone gathers in a huddle near the tractor to discuss the situation.
Not I, however. Standing stock-still, I turn an eye toward the celestial arena above me and stare in awe at the enigmatic ribbon of stars stretched across it. Except for the weak breeze of voices over by the tractor, it is so quiet the world seems abandoned. Sentimental recollections of a long-ago time when life was not so complicated revive in my memory. I recall a Christmas Eve more than 50 years past and how my father, his voice merry with the trickiness of his claim, summoned his children to a farmhouse window to witness Santa’s flight across a starry sky.
Over by the tractor, a consensus has been reached. We will leave the tractor and trailer behind temporarily and walk back to the house. Fragmenting into groups of two or three, our voices calling out intermittently in the tingly darkness, we hike back along the rutted road and open field to the farmhouse.
Memory of That Night
The ride ended too quickly. But I’ll always have the memory of that night–the way dried corn leaves rustled as a strong north wind ripped through them, the way my breath rose in the magical silence of a cold night. And I’m certain that, from time to time, I’ll hear again the dignified snore of an old tractor’s engine as it gouges its way across a lonesome stretch of cornfield.
Barbara Weddell writes from Kentucky.
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