People I Wanted To Be

Overview

Gina Ochsner's award-winning, highly acclaimed stories have appeared in such publications as The New Yorker and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. In her eagerly anticipated new collection, Ochsner deftly examines the harrowing moments after a life or love slips away and discovers that the human heart can be large enough for anything.
A Russian couple come to accept their infertility by bidding farewell tot he ghosts of the children they never had. A disgruntled husband buys...

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Overview

Gina Ochsner's award-winning, highly acclaimed stories have appeared in such publications as The New Yorker and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. In her eagerly anticipated new collection, Ochsner deftly examines the harrowing moments after a life or love slips away and discovers that the human heart can be large enough for anything.
A Russian couple come to accept their infertility by bidding farewell tot he ghosts of the children they never had. A disgruntled husband buys a talking bird that he hopes will restore love to his marriage. Twin sisters learn to prepare bodies for burial in their Hungarian parents' funeral home, but when faced with a death of their own, they must learn to prepare the soul. Glowing with warmth and sparkling with imagination, these stories are rendered with a deep understanding of human resilience as well as an unerring belief in small, daily miracles.

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Editorial Reviews

Janet Maslin
It's not that Gina Ochsner tells ghost stories. It's just that strange, occult phenomena crop up in her narratives at pivotal moments. Whether they are set in Eastern Europe or the Pacific Northwest, the tales in her second collection drift into an invitingly macabre fantasyland where desires are thwarted and tempers frayed.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
In this offbeat, affecting follow-up to her debut collection, The Necessary Grace to Fall, Ochsner assembles a host of oddballs whose touchingly resilient hopes and small leaps of faith fly in the face of almost certain disappointment. Set mostly in Russia and Oregon, the collection is steeped in a perversely funny Slavic fatalism woven through with strands of Pacific Northwestern unflappability. Ochsner's misfits range from a Czech illustrator whose rebellious sketches come to life and won't stay put, to a young woman who does a brisk business in catapulting strangers' "wounded, rusty" hearts over her back fence and into an abandoned dump next door. When the tone shifts abruptly from carefully observed realism to clever fantasticality, the transitions between stories can be jarring, but incongruity-the tension between small, improbable miracles and the damp, chilly world in which they suddenly occur-form the luminous heart of this collection. In "When the Dark Is Light Enough," an old woman, beaten to death by her nephew, lies stiff on a slab in the morgue, "caught smiling in spite of a mouth full of broken teeth.... Her arms had been flung open. They'd looked like wings." Ochsner knows that vindication and inspiration often come from unlikely places, and she can capture this contradiction gorgeously in a gesture. Agent, Julie Barer. (May) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Elegantly unsettling fiction by Flannery O'Connor Award winner Ochsner (The Necessary Grace to Fall, 2002), who charts some strange goings-on within emigrant communities. There's a touch of the darkly magical in stories like "Articles of Faith." Set on the Finnish-Karelian border, it shows three miscarried children coming to haunt the awkward, ten-year-old union of Russian Irina and Finnish Evin. The desire for a child haunts another couple's relationship in "A Blessing." Siberian expatriates Vera and Nikolai, now living in western Oregon, adopt a dog in the hopes it will teach them about caring for the children they plan to have. But Vera is suspicious of the unusual-looking Shura, who reminds her of the forsaken wilds of Siberia. After a windfall of riches suddenly arrives in their lives and she becomes pregnant, Vera insists on getting rid of the dog, whose pale eyes reflect a landscape "she'd spent her whole life trying to get away from." Another aspect of Russia shadows the Czech street-worker who narrates "Signs and Markings." He ponders his nation's sad history of occupations (most recently by the Soviet Union) as he tells of his love for a politically correct nurse who already has a child and doesn't want another. When she finally leaves him, he must surrender the notion that happiness is about procreation and embrace the unremarkable life within his reach. In the chilling "A Darkness Held," sadistic Sister Clement has been pushed by her students down a metal staircase outside the school where she has taught for ages. Recovering alcoholic Imogene McCrary, at 38 still bearing psychic wounds the nun inflicted on her as a schoolgirl, agrees reluctantly to teach the class in herformer teacher's absence. Imogene's young charges react to the bad news with a verbal shrug: "Is this going to be on the test? Because . . . we always talk about essential mysteries on Wednesdays." Ochsner's keen eye for the macabre is frequently evident here. Eleven stories that possess restraint and edge: a powerful combination.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618563722
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 5/11/2005
  • Edition description: None
  • Pages: 220
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

GINA OCHSNER is the author of two collections of short stories, People I Wanted to Be and The Necessary Grace to Fall, both of which won the Oregon Book Award. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker and The Best American Nonrequired Reading . She is a recipient of the Flannery O'Connor Award, an NEA grant and a Guggenheim, and the Raymond Carver Prize.

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Read an Excerpt

ARTICLES OF FAITH

THE GHOSTS of the three children set up residence in the kataa next to the fishing rods and burlap sacks of potatoes, behind the shovels and rakes. “Not kataa,” Irina corrected Evin when he tried to describe the footprints in the sod. “And not sarai,” she said, broadening her stance and placing her hands on her hips. “Shed.” They were working on learning proper English, teaching their ears the subtleties of intonation, pitch, and diction. Though they lived in Karelia, which was shared by Finns and Russians, they had agreed he would drop his Finnish and she her Russian so they could carry a new language between them. But that had been when they were first married, nearly ten years ago, and now it seemed to Evin that English was simply one more language with which to misunderstand each other. And when they wanted to nettle each other, he’d noticed, they would retreat to their more familiar languages.
Last night they had listened to the shattering of glass. All night long they lay beneath their covers, guessing: bottles, or jars of the winter pears in heavy syrup she’d made the year before; kholodets, the meat in aspic, she guessed in Russian. A souvenir rifle, Evin’s metal reel casing, his tackle box, he offered in Finnish. Finally they kicked off the covers, dressed in their thermals and boots, grabbed the flashlight, and went out to the sarai. The latch, a red-and-white fishing wire looped in a knot, had come unhooked, and the door wagged open and closed. Inside, puddles of broth and brine had begun to freeze at the edges.
“Maybe it was the neighbor boy,” Irina said, and went to find a broom. Evin considered the boy from the other side of the laurel hedge—motherless and hollow-eyed, with a tendency to skulk—and shook his head. Through the window he saw movement in the pear tree just behind the shed. It was the ghosts, he decided, their ghost children, climbing the tree limbs and watching them mop up the shed. When he felt a prickling sensation, the hairs lifting along his forearms, he knew they’d come into the shed, passing themselves off, as they always did, as sudden shocks of chilly updrafts or, if it was daytime, as shafts of light, motes of dust, scraps of sky.
As he bent for a broken bottle, the neck a jagged collar of teeth, he could feel quick pushes of air around his elbow and the backs of his knees. Last week, while picking stones out of the little potato field, he had felt them behind him, and all the rest of that day Evin had kept jerking his arm, throwing out the point of his elbow to see if he could catch them unawares, maybe finally glimpse them. Now, as he reached for a bucket for the shards, a draft lifted the hair off his forehead.
On her papers Irina was listed as Karel, and therefore a Finn. But her mother had been Russian and Irina had received a Soviet education. By the time she met Evin, she had forgotten what little Finnish she had once known and preferred to think in Russian, pray in Russian, and shout in Russian. Russian was a roomier language, and what was language anyway but vague ideas looking for clothes to wear?
“English,” the matchmaker who lived near the lumberyard had insisted. All the offices in the yards were adopting the English-only rule, and Irina had better learn it if she wanted to work her way into the lumber office, especially if she wanted to find a hardworking and sober man who’d strayed across the Finnish-Karelian border.
And so they lied—a small lie. Vaina, the matchmaker, told Evin Haanstra, a thirty-eight-year-old bachelor, that Irina had passed second-year English courses with a troika. “A three—nothing to sneeze at!” Vaina told Evin more than once. Evin shrugged. For him, speaking English was like stomping around barefoot in the dark. But if Irina wanted to speak English, fine, and if it convinced Aila, her supervisor at the lumber office, to give her a promotion, that was fine too. He wanted a Russian girl, that much he knew. The Finnish girls never even gave him a nod, and he liked the way Karelian girls knew how to wear makeup and even flirt a little. And so he paid Vaina what she asked, a month’s wages. She pulled out a work pencil, one of the thick square ones used in the yard, and licked the nib.
“You have a rare soul,” Evin said in Finnish, and Vaina, seated behind her blocky desk in the corner of the office, translated the message to Irina. The translation was not the best—Let’s have radishes in the shower—but the match went through anyway. Irina stitched the family icons of Saint Seraphim, Saint Boris, and Saint Gleb, and of course the Theotokos, Mother of God, to the stays of her wedding dress, and in the end everyone agreed that it was a good match, all thiings considered. Evin had provided everything he had promised: a small house outside Petrozavodsk with a plot for potatoes and even a ssssshed that doubled as a coop for her geese. The only thing he hadn’t been able to give her was living, breathing children. And for this, he knew, Irina harbored a small cache of anger.

Irina withdrew her little calendar from the kitchen drawer and circled the numbers of the days she was fertile. On the days circled in red, she pulled the calendar back out at night and drew an X at the bottom of the square, after she and Evin tried to make a child. Now she flipped through the calendar and sighed. All those X’s and still no children. All those months, each one passed as another exercise in grief.
Irina snapped off the light and squeezed her eyes shut. Evin was still out in the shed sweeping up that mess, while all around her, in houses in other fields, couples were making love, making babies without worry or even much effort. It made her sick. People who didn’t care either way would finish their business and drop off to sleep, some of them pregnant already. Irina considered her supervisor at the yard office. Aila had once confided to Irina that she had a deep and abiding fear that she would make a bad mother and that she had never wanted children. Now Aila had a little girl, and her biggest concern was how to get rid of the weight she’d gained from the pregnancy.
Anger bloomed in Irina’s chest, the muscles along her jaw tightening. A bad joke, this life. She’d always believed hard work brought you what you wanted. That’s what she’d been taught, that’s what she had come to expect. In Karelia, a divided land of upland and rock,water and forest, the soil would give if you just worked hard enough. Irina sighed. Now the hardest work Aila did was to sit behind her particleboard desk and clench her butt muscles when she thought no one was looking. But the way her face gripped at her mouth as if she’d heard a dirty story and was trying hard not to laugh made it obvious to Irina.

Evin had first noticed the children a few months ago, on his way out to the sarai to check his fish drying on the racks. He loved his shed, a rundown shack of peeling tarpaper and shingles. He loved the smell of the fresh sawdust Irina spread over the floor, the drying rowan and cowberries hanging in swatches. He loved the diesel fumes and the oil that beaded up as a dark resin along the old boards on hot days. He even loved the smell of the lake salmon and the scent of the mud from the lakes on the tips of his fingers. He was thinking of all this when he opened the door and instantly smelled something new: a clean, brisk aroma, like the rush of air from a freezer when the door is yanked wide.
Then he observed the rattling of his rods, the tarpaper peeling from the boards. At the same moment he felt a shift in the air, and he knew that whatever it was had passed by and gone outside. Evin followed it, stood next to the birch tree, and pointed his nose north, toward the swamp. The air was still, as if it were holding its breath. Evin thought he could just see the outlines of three children as they jostled one another and kicked their feet in the tree. He stood without moving for a moment, then jumped, reaching for their ankles.
It must have been the cold, Irina had said matter-of-factly, her eyes flat and gray. Evin had stumbled into the kataa, breathless, anxious to tell her what he’d seen. Irina had just driven the geese through the yard and into the small pens Evin had built for them, and she was now killing and dressing them, one by one. “Those couldn’t have been our children out in the tree.” She clapped a goose between her legs, pulled its neck alongside its back, and gave a hard twist, falling backward on her heels.
“It could be the cold,” Evin agreed in Finnish. They both knew that the cold could make you clumsy, make you silly, wishing for the impossible. The lowering frost could make you see things, make you parse figures from the shadows.
But that night he heard the back door rattle open and shut as gusts of wind plied it. Later he heard laughter, a liquid sound like water bubbling over, and then, near daybreak, a bumping around the hearth and a whoosh, whoosh, as if they were taking turns sliding down the flue.

• • •

Up there in the birch, a sickly thing that Evin had promised Irina he’d chop down. Sometimes in the shed. Of course she knew the children were there. She wasn’t blind. She saw how the wind riffled the blackened leaves, how it missed certain patches, those dips and grooves in the limbs, the best spots for sitting. On still days she’d seen a wiggle in the topmost branch. Twice she’d heard the shout of laughter, once a tiny, gasping cry. Now that the frost had set as a sheer veil over the field, she sometimes heard their little feet scraping over the ground. She would have loved to gather them into her arms, bury her nose in the napes of their necks, taking in their warm, oily smell. She would have loved to run her fingers over theirs, cup her palm around their heels, or count their toes. She would have done all these things and more, but they were not real, she knew. Real enough to displace air, but not real enough to hold, to kiss, to rock.
Perhaps she had not given them enough attention during their earliest days, and perhaps that was why they were here now, trying to be noticed. While they were in the womb, as sinew was meshing with the soft, trellislike bones, there must have been too many moments when she was thinking of other things—her geese, Evin’s fish, the lumberyard. Perhaps she didn’t pray steadily enough. Perhaps she and Evin were speaking their separate languages and there was a pause, a word dropped, and that was the moment when the babies were lost, when their tiny hearts grew weak, stopped fluttering, and she didn’t even know it.
All summer long and into the fall, a short season marked only by a change in the wind’s strength and direction, she knitted sweaters and mittens and thigh-high socks for them. But they weren’t cold, she finally decided. If they were, they’d curl up in front of the fire she fed every night until looking at the flames began to pull her toward sleep. They weren’t cold, just curious. She could feel their little eyes drinking in every detail of color and substance, every movement, so that later at night they would have something to dream about. She hoped they weren’t watching and listening to everything she said and did. The English she used around the house—it wasn’t so good. And while she never used to bother with matters of modesty, she’d recently taken to shutting and even locking the door to the toilet.
She hoped they were not huddling under the bed or hiding in the closet on the days circled in red. At the ends of these days, she put away her knitting early and she and Evin went to bed. She would pull up her nightgown to her navel, the signal for Evin to unbuckle his trousers. Even with her eyes squeezed shut as she prayed earnestly for conception, for the perfect forming of fingers and eyelashes, elbows and roots of teeth, an uneasy feeling would wash over her. It was a creepy feeling the Karelians described as jaa ssa veri, to be living among the dead, seen by the unseen—an expression having to do with ice in the blood.
Afterward, Irina would pull her nightgown back over her hips and straighten it around her knees. Evin would kiss her quickly on the forehead, for luck, and then thump down the stairs and out the back door to the shed, where, she knew, he’d rearrange his spinners and lures. She would lie perfectly still, her whole body tightened into a hard fist as she listened to the dogs barking. From that moment forward, her every thought would be fixed on keeping what was inside her from spilling back out. She even followed Aila’s lead, clenching the muscles of her butt into fierce knots, as well as that female muscle Vaina had told her about with a wink. Irina practiced squeezing that one too, while she lay flat on her back.
At last, when she thought that whatever was supposed to happen had had long enough either to do it or not, she would kick her legs out from under the covers. She’d rise from the bed and kneel in front of the icon of the Theotokos, a raised metal image of Mary holding little baby Jesus. It was difficult, looking at Mary. Irina would feel that familiar anger, faithful and unbidden, like a dog at her heels. Here was one more mother who hadn’t even tried. But then Irina would make the sign of the cross and bend to kiss the little Jesus. This was when she’d feel the children drawing near, and she could sense that they were sad. “I’m sorry,” she would have liked to tell them, for she was sure that she was to blame in some way. Then she would climb back into bed, a shiver taking hold in her spine, her hands clammy. She’d hold her breath, waiting for the children to go back out to the shed.

During the six months the children had lived in the yard, Evin had noticed that they preferred to play in the kataa. Maybe because it was where Irina kept the geese, and, longing to see more of their mother, they curled themselves around Irina’s many hooks and knives as well as his tools, his rods and reels. That was the only way he could explain it, why they would prefer the cold, the cracking frost that pinched the nose and eyebrows and squeezed down on the ribs. Still, it bothered him that they were out there, and every night for the past week, after Irina drifted to sleep, Evin had crept from his bed, heated up mugs of hot chocolate, and set them along the windowsill of the shed.
For the children were astonishingly normal in some ways. They liked the hot chocolate he brought. They also liked to play games and practical jokes. One of them—or maybe they were taking turns—moved Evin’s eyeglasses so that when he woke in the morning, all he could see was a watery world of light and shadow. This morning he was on his hands and knees, feeling around for the frames. Just when his fingers brushed the rims, he felt a small current of air and his glasses skittered out of reach. Evin laughed, sitting back on his haunches in surrender. He remembered being a boy, teasing his father in the small ways children do.
“Pull!” A fierce shout rose now from behind the laurel hedge, and Evin jumped to his feet. The neighbors, the father and his seven-year-old son, were out in the yard. Evin could hear the man teaching the boy to shoot at clay pigeons, only they didn’t have a launcher, so the father was standing behind a pile of stones and lobbing up a clay disk. They didn’t have a ri- fle either, so the boy threw a rock at the clay pigeon as it plummeted back to the ground. The man was teaching his son the importance of aim, of watchfulness. But the boy was a bad shot, and Evin could see how this frustrated the father, made him wring his hands.
From behind the bedroom window, Evin watched another disk climb the air slowly, then fall gracelessly, the air being too thin for such birds without wings. The exercise seemed absurd to him. Evin recalled his lovemaking sessions with Irina: they were grim affairs, lacking joy, which, he had discovered, was not the same as passion, which they also lacked. Over time these sessions had begun to feel like a chore, what people did to prove to themselves they still felt and behaved the way married people should. But what went wrong, he asked aloud, when these children, these shapes now sliding across the floor, were sorting themselves into being deep inside Irina’s belly?
Evin spread his fingers over the glass pane and watched the man with his boy.
“Now!” the father shouted, and the boy cocked his arm and launched a rock. Evin saw the rock skate past the disk.
Maybe Evin loved fishing too much. Maybe, his mind spinning with floats, flies, reels, and bait, he hadn’t wanted a baby badly enough. Maybe he’d wanted one for all the wrong reasons. “Live,” he had prayed the last time that Irina had had contractions and begun to bleed. “Too soon,” she had gasped, and he had realized he wanted that baby to live so Irina could fi- nally have the child she so longed for. He had wanted her to have that child so she would finally be happy. So full with love for a child, he imagined her heart would spill over with extra affection, enough even for him.
Evin rocked forward, leaned his weight on his palms. A timid snow was falling. It wouldn’t last long, but the boy was excited anyway, sticking his tongue out in joy.
“Watch now! You’re not watching!” Evin could hear how the father’s frustration had tipped to anger. Maybe after the thaw Evin could ask the boy if he’d like to go fishing with him. He’d seen the way the boy watched him as he worked the hoe, seen how his eyes, hungry for the sight of a woman, followed Irina when she was in the yard with the geese. Those were the moments when Evin permitted himself to imagine that this boy was his son.
“Oh, forget about it!” The father threw up his hands in defeat. Evin stepped back from the window. He slid the glasses from the perch on his nose and set them on the table, so that later the children would have something to play with.

She loved the children in the shed. She just wished they would take what they’d come back for, whatever that was—her affection, her blessings—take it and go away, leave them alone. Irina stepped cautiously out into the snow, holding a steaming pan of bread wrapped in a towel. They would be five and three and two years old by now. They’d have questions and might want answers. Well, what was she supposed to say? Something in her made her want children, she could not help that. And something in her wouldn’t let her have them. For some reason her body spun children with flawed architecture. Irina stepped through the crust of ice over the yard. With the first one, the end had happened so early in the pregnancy that she could have fooled herself into thinking she’d never been pregnant at all. But with the second she had felt her body changing, the blood throbbing behind her fingernails and in her gums, a swell in her stomach. Just before she miscarried there had been movement. Then nothing but heavy stillness. When she thought of that one, she imagined a cup of milk going sour, curdling and flaking to paste. The last one she doesn’t allow herself to think about.
She unhooked the fishing wire, pushed open the door, and waited a moment for the geese to scatter. She withdrew a handkerchief from her pocket and brushed some sod and feathers from the top of a crate. Then she set the bread down. Careful to keep her eyes from the top shelves of the shed and from the limbs of the tree, she turned for the house. Still, she could feel their little eyes fastened on her as she passed by the birch. Irina stopped short at the foot of the tree and counted the last of the leaves. She closed her eyes and imagined a baby tucked in the hollow between her neck and her shoulder. She pictured the tiny fingers that would curl around her own, the feet like the petals of a rose. And the soles! Irina paused to rub her forefinger and thumb together. Soles with the softness of skin that has never touched the ground.
How she longed to have the faith, the imagination, to believe that it was still possible. Then it might not be so hard. She might not hate other mothers so much, might not resent Aila for giving her grief about her hours. The time off hadn’t been her fault, she told the children in the tree. Not her fault that she’d been calling in sick so often. Who wouldn’t feel sick—sick in the heart, in the spirit?
And angry too. Irina scowled. “Proch otsyda!” Scat! She waved her hands as if trying to frighten crows from a perch.
“We did what we could! What else is there?” She shook her skirt at the tree. Then she pulled a sharp breath through her teeth and held it. She heard a furtive rustling in the hedge and the crack of frozen leaves. They were leaving. Irina turned on her heel, then bit her lip so hard she drew blood, for she spied the neighbor boy behind her, retreating through the frozen stand of laurel.

He went less for the pike and perch than for the stillness of the water and the quiet. But for all the water, there were never enough fish. To go to Ladoga, though, or even Onega, to inhale the sweet dampness that hung like a cloud over the dark water, was a kind of healing.
He went there to get away from Irina. She had developed the habit of having too many habits. For example, pressing her mouth into a frown. He’d once loved the way she didn’t need a reason to laugh, the way her laughter erupted from her and could fill an entire room. And her stomach, flat and hard like the back of a shovel’s head. But since they’d married he had witnessed her slowly turning quiet and cross, packing herself full of blintzes and sweets. Now her stomach had gotten spongy.
Evin brought the hoe down hard into the soil. Hope only filled you with expectation. At night Irina buried her face in her pillow and cried. In the morning he’d rise early, go to the lake, and make it his home for a day. He’d tuck the reel between his elbow and his side and watch for the possibility of grace, a bit of heavenly kindness dropped here on the flat surface of the water, shown there in the fierce span of an eagle’s wings here in his tired heart, which still managed to want what it wanted.
Evin stopped and leaned against the hoe. He was talking to the tree now, but so what. All this waiting for a group of cells to divide without any help from him. All this believing that someday he would have something he could hold in his arms, a proof of his love, something that he could spend the rest of his life showing his love to—all this had worn him down.
Evin craned his neck. Something on the top branch wiggled, and a small flurry of leaves drifted onto his head and shoulders, then piled at his feet. He heard a whimper and, a few seconds later, a sneeze so close to his ear it raised the hairs on the back of his neck. Then the deliberate crack of a branch, a fluttering from the laurel hedge, a pair of small white hands.
“Wait!” Evin called out.

It was nearing Christmas. Though it was only three in the afternoon, the sun had blanched to a faint and fading light. The freeze was so deep that the trucks and haul lines in the yards ran twenty-four hours a day to save the engines. The pike and perch were frozen solid in the lakes, and it was time for all things dying to be done. This was what Evin was thinking one afternoon when he climbed the stairs to the bedroom and nudged Irina’s elbow. “I’m going to cut down that tree now,”he said.
“Then cut it,” Irina snapped. She pulled the covers over her head and burrowed deep into the bed, where she’d been for the past three days.
Evin trudged down the stairs and out through the yard. Nothing seemed to know its end until it was too late. He recalled the quickness of his wife’s hands, how they did not falter, how her geese never had a chance to honk. And now here they were in the shed, hung up for winter, thick in their shells of ice.
He moved his tackle box, rearranged his rods. Finally he grabbed the ax and went to stand under the tree. He studied the splay of limbs and how they separated the sky into bolts of color that were quickly dissolving into night, first in swatches of rose, then lavender, then ashy blue. Each of the last leaves stood out sharp and true above the children dodging and darting around one another. Evin put his hands on his hips. There was something important he wanted to ask. What was it? he thought, but his lips formed the word Why?
Behind the hedgerow the neighbor had switched on his sulfur lights. The yellow-orange glow cut hazy circles in the lowering frost. Evin stood on tiptoe, squinting at the man and his boy, who were sitting on their back steps. The man was teaching his son how to weather the cold by stamping his feet and holding his breath. But even from this distance Evin could hear the boy’s teeth chattering. The man began reciting philosophical axioms and then reading a fairy tale about cold and bundles of matches blooming like flowers of fire.
“Now just listen, listen to this,” the man said as he read. He clasped his hands together at his chest for dramatic effect. “‘Mother, I am coming!’ the little match girl said, lighting match after match to preserve the image of her mother held in the halo of each flame.” He unclasped his hands, licked the tip of his finger, and turned a page. The boy’s jaw had locked, and his hands were cupped to his face.
Evin turned back to the tree. Whether or not he and Irina were granted their wish, whether they ever had real children or just these ghosts, he would have to learn to content himself with what he had. He would give in and believe that this kind of faith could satisfy him and these children here, slipping among the shadows, were tokens of such faith. He would continue going to the lakes, picking stones from his field, doing what he’d always done, because there was nothing else he could do. He stopped to consider the falling light. And then, because it felt good to be doing something rather than nothing, he cocked his arm and lobbed the ax as far as he could out into the frozen potato field, where he heard it land with a small thud. He stood on tiptoe to see if he could catch sight of the blade glinting, and turned for the shed.

Irina pulled on Evin’s workboots but left the laces undone. A small stack of sweaters spilled over the wicker of her knitting basket and onto the floor. She gave the basket a nudge with a boot. Then she gathered the sweaters into her arms. They weren’t finished. She hadn’t set the shirring at the waist on the blue one, and the arms had come unraveled where the children had pulled at them. Still, Irina stumped down the stairs and closed the kitchen door behind her. Then she crossed the yard and stood under the tree, where the leaves had all fallen, bringing the sky back in view. The air had grown stern and piercing. She could hear Evin rattling around in the shed, and in the yard next to theirs she could hear plink, plink, plink, the sounds of the neighbor boy pitching flat rocks while his father read to him from an enormous book.
“I’m ready now,” she said aloud, not caring who heard. She kneeled on the frozen ground and placed the tangle of sweaters at the foot of the tree. The children were not hers to have. Not these ghosts spiriting the house, haunting her dreams, even now kicking in the branches of this tree. Irina felt the cold in the ends of the boots.
“I’m sorry,” she said at last, her hands hanging limply from her wrists. “I’m so sorry. We wanted you all very badly.” She wiped at her nose. But it was time, she told them, pitching her voice to the lowest limb of the tree. Time to be at peace here with this tree, and with her body, though it pained her in a way she had never thought possible. She would throw away the calendar with all the ridiculous X’s and say to herself in every language she knew and as many times as it took until she believed it that whatever was to be would be, what should happen would.
Irina stood on tiptoe and watched the boy next door throw rocks into the air. Perhaps she would be entrusted with someone else’s child for a day or two. Or even just for an hour. And she would love that child as if it were hers, she would give it every good thing, bestow on it every good wish and intention. She would tell him how beautiful he was, perfect in design, how amazing the symmetry of soul and body. She would tell him how glad she was that even if her own children couldn’t sit in her lap and listen as she told stories to the time of her clacking needles, this child could, and what a miracle, what an incredible miracle that was.
Irina tightened the knot in her scarf. She could sense them going quietly now, past the tree and through the short field to the laurels. They were leaving as suddenly as they had come, going back to the lakes, to the dark waters and the frozen marshes, going in a lighthearted flutter of frozen leaves. She tipped her head. Through the limbs of the trees, an early show of stars bloomed against the dark. She could read in the scattering a fist here, an ear curved and set against a round shoulder there. If she squinted she could force a rib to connect to a breastbone, a breastbone to the yoke of a shoulder, and squinting this way she imagined she could compose such children of the very heavens.

Evin pulled the shed door closed and rehooked the fishing wire. What sadness, for he had developed a fondness for, a familiarity with these ghost children, who so often reminded him of himself as a young boy. He would miss their pushes at the elbow, those cold pockets of air folding against his body.
Evin crossed the yard and stopped a few paces behind Irina, who stood with her hands resting on her hips, looking through the tree as far into the future as possible.
Copyright © 2005 by Gina Ochsner. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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Table of Contents

CONTENTS

Articles of Faith / 1 Last Words of the Mynah Bird / 17 How One Carries Another / 27 Halves of a Whole / 47 A Darkness Held / 67 The Hurler / 90 From the Fourth Row / 98 A Blessing / 119 When the Dark Is Light Enough / 135 Signs and Markings / 158 The Fractious South / 181 Acknowledgments / 203

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