Family stories beyond about two generations ought to be taken with a grain of salt. But they ought to be taken, all the same, in the same way that myths must be taken. There is a kind of truth in them, even with the embellishments required to fill in gaps. This one concerns a great, great grandfather, a mild winter, and a wager. A good combination, I should think.
It was, in fact, the mildest of winters in a part of the world where children’s tales involve ice maidens and ravening wolves, along with the occasional stark reminder that they’re not entirely fictional. Snow comes early and often, and once the rivers and lakes freeze over they generally stay that way until the spring thaw. Even today, in the deepest countryside, horse-drawn sleighs are not rare in winter time. This particular winter the snows came late, and the air smelt of autumn into late November. By the first couple of weeks of December, the waters had just begun to freeze, and a decent amount of snow had finally arrived, enough to change wagon wheels for runners in a land where roads were usually just a fond memory by this time.
My great, great grandfather, call him Jekab, lived out his life there, fortified against the deathly winters with buckets of vodka. And the summers, come to that. This was not a poor man, as these things go; he had a troika, a three-horse wagon, and any man who could use three horses just to get around was pretty well off. Jekab even had his own little piece of land, a rarity in that time and place. To be sure, he worked it himself, with help from the family. You wouldn’t call him lord of the manor, but he was lord of the local tavern, for sure. The long winters left farmers rather little to do beyond experimenting with various percentages of blood alcohol. Jekab’s usual comrade in these endeavors was a sometime roustabout and usual layabout whom we shall call Gint.
This particular winter’s afternoon found Jekab and Gint sitting at their favorite seat at the tavern, overlooking the river. Snow poured from the sky relentlessly. The talk turned to a particularly alluring miller’s daughter, God bless and protect her, who happened to live at the mill just across the river. As it happened, the ferry that crossed from just that point had finally shut down due to icing, and the nearest bridge was at least five kilometers away. Snow already covered the icy river to a depth above the boot. Still, Jekab expressed a desire to pay a visit to the lovely young lady, never mind his wife and children at home. Gint, with his usual gift for claiming the obvious, scoffed.
“The snow’s up to your ass out there!”
“You’re the ass,” Jekab responded,”Knees, tops.”
“But you’ll fall on your ass after two steps, then where will the snow be?” Both men roared with laughter at the thought of it, tears streaming down their faces.
Silence returned gradually. Jekab looked straight into Gint’s rather bleary eyes. “I’ll take the troika, you stupid shit.”
“You’d drive all the way to the bridge for her on a day like this?” His eyes widened, truly impressed with such dedication. But Jekab just waved away his words, as if they were no more than summer flies.
“Don’t be daft,” he said. “I’ll cross the river here.”
There ensued a lively debate about the thickness of the ice on the river, with Jekab insisting that if it could support all that snow, it could support a troika, and Gint pointing out that the weight of the troika would be added to the weight of the snow. In the end, a wager was made.
The two men, along with a handful of the curious, stood in front of the tavern. Jekab harnessed his horses to the troika and climbed aboard, turned it toward the river, and gave the reins a firm and resounding slap. Off they went.
It must have been quite a sight. Steam rising from the horses’ nostrils, the troika’s runners cutting through the mighty snow bank onto the river, Jekab swathed in fur, urging his horses into the blinding storm at the top of his lungs. Then – silence. They all disappeared. All of them: horses, troika and great, great grandfather. None of them was seen again until the spring sun melted the ice against the bridge down river.
Gint had won his bet, but lost his friend. Life is like that.