Old Man Bittner—I’m reaching for a first name, Otto? my older brothers would know—is lying bleeding on the front step of our house, on our farm north of Springside.
I’m four, or one, or have yet to breath earth’s air. It’s impossible for me to have this memory, yet there it is. It’s a story I hear, told and retold over passed potatoes and pork and after supper crokinole in a small dining room where there is no television and never would be.
Old Man Bittner saw the storm coming—too late. Closer to our yard than his one room log house, he made a break for it, running as fast as old farm legs could carry him. Legs used to squatting beside milk cows, legs bent and bowed from carrying rocks to the edge of his 40 acres at the top of the river hill, legs used to walking, not running, over rough black waves of dirt and stubborn lumps of sod.
And he was old, old as clay. So when he saw the storm form north and west, beyond the Whitesand river, saw it start to move in on him, he stood and watched—watched the clouds turn grey-green and heave and roll like a swirling slurry, thick as phlegm.
Old Man Bittner watched too long; having seen it all before, having lived through Saskatchewan storms, he would, as he always did, take in the measure of the thing and gauge his time. Not about to be rushed by God and Creation, he’d know when to step clear with his heavy boots, in time for shelter, if need be—shelter as a last resort.
The first stone stung the right side of his face and surprised him and he looked up to see a scattering of crystal seeds sown by an impossible hand. And then silence; a massive lung, its breath held. There were no birds in that compressed air. The second stone, large and angular, struck his head. And before he could break into a run they were on him like they were on Stephen, tearing his sweat-stained cap away from his head, breaking skin and sinking into his flesh.
And he ran; a hunched, staggering, wobbling figure, his arms shielding his head. Tripping over ridges in summerfallow, climbing through a barbwire fence, past the dugout and up to our house, beaten. My father heard the thud on our step and went out to find Old Man Bittner crumpled against the wall.
The storm was passing. A few remaining sprays of rain fell on drifts of white ice, and the air came back bright and ringing with birds. My father stepped through the front door and before he could reach down, Otto Bittner turned his clotting head up and said, "God sure gave me a lickin’ today." That was the way Old Man Bittner played it. He’d lost one.