Two Stories

Gina Ochsner

 

[Table of Contents]
[Editor's Note]
[Masthead]
[Guidelines]
[Resources]

From the Bering Strait

Up here at the top of the country, the half-light gets trapped between double paned
windows. The light freezes and sticks between the glass like a cold sap. The birds, too, have a hard time getting around. Sometimes the ice catches them in mid-flight and for days they are stuck crooked in the freezing sky. If they are lucky, a warmer rain will unfix them, and if they are luckier still, none of their bones will snap from the shock of sudden flight, and they will fly south where they belong.
      It wasn't always like this. We used to have springs of wet snow and starlings, springs of impossible, violent blue skies. But slowly it became clear as each year passed that winter was stealing days from spring, until eventually, the thaw stopped coming altogether. Those were the years the fish froze solid in the water and our children stopped growing.
      I remember the last true spring. The thaw came in the middle of the night, like the bridegroom for the bride, my wife, Dolores, says to anyone who wants to hear the story of the Last Thaw. There we were lying in our bed. The sun had set early, so the sky was black and thick as liver. We heard a groaning like some huge animal was sleeping below the ice and beginning to wake, to claw its way out. Then we heard a terrific crack, like the sound of a bone snapping, only much louder. We lay still in our bed, afraid to breathe because when the break-up happens, for a moment you're not sure if it's the thaw or an earthquake. Then I leapt out of bed, ran to the kitchen, and brought back a bottle of wine and two glasses.
      "American Beauty," Dolores said, touching her glass to mine.
      "Royal Princess," I said.
      This was the game we played, naming prize winning roses from the rose catalogues. This was how we welcomed spring, planning our gardens, worrying over the beds, the mulch, the enriched soil fortified by worm castings.

___

When we walk outside, even the hairs in our nostrils freeze stiff and it hurts to breathe. And here's another problem: our words and tears turn to ice on the tips of our tongues or in the corners of our eyes. It's hard to tell them apart, too, because when they chip off and fall, they look like little slivers of glass caught on our mustaches, sleeves, and the tips of our shoes. To cope with these problems, we have by unspoken consensus decided to try not to talk or sweat or bleed or cry. We have come to discover that exposing any of our bodily fluids is a very dangerous thing to do. Still, sometimes we make mistakes.
      Last week, Mushie broke into the pharmacy and helped himself to a packet of codeine tablets and a few cc's of morphine. Then just yesterday he did himself in on anti-freeze. It had to have hurt like hell, like swallowing a Cuisinart jammed on high, but maybe, for a minute or two, he felt warm. They say that's what happens when you die, just as you are dying, even as you are freezing to death, for one split euphoric second, you are on fire.
      I knew something was wrong when I saw his dogs tangled up in front of the pharmacy. They were baying and howling, trying to push through the front door of the pharmacy, but Mushie had left them hooked up to the sled and the sled was jammed up in the frame of the door. I unharnessed them and they tripped over each other, trying to get to Mushie.
      In the puddle of liquid that surrounded him I could see the striations of neon green and cobalt blue. If a peacock feather melted, maybe it would look like this. I smelled the plastic gallon jug of antifreeze. It smelled oily and little sweet. He had curled himself into fetal position so I rolled him to his knees, put my hands under his armpits, and dragged him outside to the sled. In this weather, he could have drank Freon and died quicker. This is not at all how I'd do it, I thought. And yet, I couldn't deny that with the way the colors seemed to melt around him, he was transformed somehow and that this was beautiful. I strapped him onto the sleigh. I rubbed off a few drips of antifreeze from around his mouth and pushed his eyelids closed with my thumb. I didn't bother harnessing the dogs. They followed the sled for about a mile and then veered off towards their kennels.
      When I reached home, I wrote down on one of Dolores' yellow Post-it pads what I saw when I found Mushie. The puddle, the way he was hugging his knees, the way pearly drop of those brilliant colors of the Caribbean, that's what I actually wrote, colors of the Caribbean, pooled out around him like an oil slick. I wrote all this down because I thought it was important to remember, and because, of course, it would be too hard to say.
      That night I carved a sculpture for him. I carved him with the flaps of his hat fastened down over his ears, his eyes squinting against the glare of the snow and laced tight against an invisible wind. That is the hard part—capturing motion, suggesting something that's not really there. I used a penknife for the lines in his face and around his eyes. If you keep a small pan of lukewarm water nearby, all you have to do is dip the knife once, lightly tap it against the side of the pan, and then the knife is warm and wet enough to make fluid cuts in the ice.
      I worked on Mushie all night and through the next day. His hands were the hardest for me to sculpt. I wanted to show him as he was—one hand gripping reigns and another holding a bottle or the whip, but for some reason, I couldn't get the fingers right. In the end, I hid his hands in the ruff of his dogs' fur. He is leaning forward on the sleigh, one elbow resting on the headboard, his other hand cradling his favorite dog, the lead, Skete.
      I kept the garage door open so the wind could blow in flakes of snow. I sprinkled the dogs' coats with water because I wanted the snow to attach to the guard hairs so their fur would look fuzzy. It had taken me all day to shave long narrow slivers. Getting the fishhook curl into the ends of the shavings was the hardest part. I used one of Dolores' sewing needles as sort of a curling rod and exhaled slowly so that the ice would warm up slightly, curl, then refreeze. I was done and I let the wind score the ice a bit to give it the weathered look. Dolores came out, that yellow Post-it stuck to her index finger. She hadn't bothered to put her parka on, just her ratty old sweater. She looked at me for a long time. She folded her arms across her chest, bit her lip, and shivered.
      "You're jealous. You're jealous he's dead," she said. Her words fell onto the concrete and shattered into jagged pieces.
      "What?" I asked, covering my mouth with my hand. "Could you repeat that?" But of course she couldn't. She snapped off the garage lights and stepped into the house. I turned the light back on and kicked the pieces into the old snow drift outside the garage.
      People seem to think this cold must have happened over night, that one day we just woke up and found ourselves in this mess. But when I look out all around me, I'm nearly blinded by the unending gray light and I know, it's coming, and will keep coming, as regular and steady as my breathing. The blank sweep of the ice stretches on.
      Dolores and I stay up late and we watch the television weather reports. On night they showed a segment about some gardener in Anchorage who coaxed some dwarf roses into bloom. Outside, the ice fell from the sky like old salt.
      "The dirty bastard," Dolores said. I wheeled the TV out of the bedroom that very night. So now, I watch the TV by myself. The eerie blue-green incandescent glow of the screen is the same strange shade of blue that the snow reflects under the arctic light. People think snow is white, but if you look carefully in the shadows of the snow, you can see that it is really blue. When I go outside for a smoke, I think of those explosive blue skies of spring, Bering blue.

___

The weather bureau sent a team of researchers up here to study the freeze patterns. We all laughed as best as we could without freezing our lungs. You may have heard this kind of laugh before. It is a tortured sound, you wouldn't even think a human capable of it, but you'd be surprised. Anyway, they came in with their helicopter mounted with a special engine heater and all of their equipment—thermometers, barometers, dopplers, radars, and small satellite dishes. They even built a greenhouse. We couldn't figure out why. Up here, even in a green house, it would be too cold for anything to grow. But they wanted to experiment and they insisted that certain northern hybrids of roses were suited for inclement weather. We all nearly lost it that time. The corners of my wife's eyes froze shut for two days. It was a laughless cry, though. And then she got sick and wouldn't get out of bed. One day, to cheer her up, I brought her pictures of roses.
      "I almost forgot what they looked like," she said. She traced the edges of the roses with her finger. I taped pictures of roses all over the walls while she sat, propped up in bed, thumbing through the rose mail-order gardening catalogues like Burpies and Jackson and Perkin's and watching the gardening channel on cable TV.
      "Fertilizer—that's very important," she muttered. I could barely hear her, she was so weak, and I knew what was happening to her—I could almost see it—the gray creeping past her ankles and up her shins. She tapped at a white JFK prize rose with her index finger. "You gotta feed those things—they're like people, you know."

___

My wife's mother calls almost every day. She wants to know what the hell is going on up here. I tell her that we are on the edge of a new ice age—a new millennium of freeze, that it is coming for her next, does she have enough light bulbs and toilet paper? The silence on her end of the phone is heavy and then she asks me if I'm still going to AA. I tell her that I quit because it was getting too crowded. She calls because she wanted to talk to Dolores, but talking is dangerous and Dolores is too sick to move.
      More than once I'd thought of packing up and leaving. I was out the other day fueling up my Dodge. But before I could even get the gas through the funnel, the liquid had frozen solid. That's when I thought to myself that we could really be in trouble up here. And it's not that we don't have heaters or electric blankets, fireplaces and microwaves. In fact, one of the researchers has a tiny sun lamp. But it's as if even with all these things, people can only take so much of this blistering cold. The thought that when you wake up that it is out there waiting for you is almost too much.

___

There's a funeral every other day, it seems, but nobody cries, of course. When our daughter died two months ago, I carved a swan family out of a huge ice block. The mother and father swan are nudging the swanlet into flight. The swanlet looks like it is flying right up out of that stump of ice, flying right out of this place.
      "It's like the phoenix," Dolores said, dabbing at her eyes.
      "Yesterday it was 80 in Phoenix—don't even talk to me about Phoenix." I said, running my fingers along the neck of the baby swan. She'll never melt away in this freeze, and I think that there's something perfect about all this cold.
      Mushie found them, our daughter and her three high school friends, on the way back from working out his team. The dogs started whining and pulling against their harnesses. They pulled Mushie towards what he thought were some dumb-shit optimistic ice-fishers. When the dogs saw them, they howled and tangled themselves up in their reigns and refused to run. But the girls, they were sitting in a circle, holding hands, listening to Bob Marley. They were frozen still, bluer than blue, Mushie said, and the radio was still playing. Energizer batteries. Sometimes, it's the small things that really amaze me. I wrote to the CEO of the Energizer Batteries and told them how impressed I was with their batteries. I explained how my daughter's radio played forty-eight hours straight, no problem, in the middle of an arctic freeze when everything else froze solid. The president wrote me back on Energizer stationary with that drum-pounding pink rabbit on the top, thanking me for my interest in the product. He wished there were more customers like me.

___

The weather bureau researchers are packing up and getting ready to leave. They're tired of the cold and they're afraid of what it could do to them. Someone threw an ice rock and shattered a square of the greenhouse and they've interpreted this action as a sign. They're leaving on the Swedish freightliner tomorrow even though they didn't finish collecting all the data. They're leaving in a flurry of equipment and print outs and the knowledge that maybe they've failed here. Still, it wasn't hard to get them to talk, once I gave them a bottle of gin and some long straws.
      Two of the researchers thought that the ice caps had expanded and where we all thought we were living on frozen steppe, or permafrost, was actually an ice shelf, like an extension of Greenland. They explained that the cold was not only working above the ground, but below it as well, pushing the soil south and replacing it with ice, as far down as you'd care to dig, everywhere ice. There were some other theories; the polar disparity theory, the alien conspiracy theory. But my personal favorite came from the guy who brought the roses in. He attributed the cold to mass-hysteria. That's right—we're all hallucinating the freeze.
      "Well, then, aren't we all a bunch of crazy fuckers," I said. He laughed, a choked sort of laugh and he forgot to cover his mouth with his scarf or mitten. Later, they had to load him on the freighter with a very real oxygen mask strapped to his face.

___

I check in on her every hour. Sometimes I read to her. I lean over and put my ear to her mouth to feel her breath because she's so still and turning such a strange shade of gray, I'm not sure she's alive. But today she caught me by surprise. I leaned over and she grabbed my arm, clenched it tight and pulled me down to her.
      "Are they in bloom yet?" She asked. I wanted to buy her a whole garden of roses. I wanted to throw ice blocks at the green house. I wanted to rip up the roses that were in there, grind the stalks up in my mouth, chew them up and spit them out.
      "Well, are they?" She asked again. I looked at her lying there, at her purple lips and the tiny pearls of snot frozen on the end of her nose. I looked at her, held up by her pillows, and I lied to her.
      "There's a very small, small but sturdy bud on the Jacob's Ladder."
      "That's a climbing rose, a trailer."
      "Yeah. Maybe in a couple of weeks, it'll open, three weeks tops."
      Sometimes I hate myself, I really do. She looked at me for a long time. She shouldn't do that—her eyes could freeze—and I was just about to remind her when she shut them at last. She collapsed against her pillows and the entire bed shuddered.
      "I'm cold," she said. I put two more blankets on her, turned up the thermostat, and then I went outside.

___

I think about what Dolores might be feeling, how it feels to slowly freeze. I think about how your heart still tries to beat as it always did, but there is a tightness as if papîer-maché or plaster of Paris has been slathered over your heart and has now solidified. Your heart is fighting like a bird from within the shell, fighting to break free from the weight of the cold. And then your heart, over time, doesn't fight as hard as it did the day before. And so it goes, and so it goes, until one day your heart just stops. Literally stops cold. And it's true what they say, it's true that when the cold consumes you, it consumes you completely, takes you as if it had been waiting for you your whole life. And when it does, all you can do is feel the weight of it crushing your chest, and you close your eyes then, and allow yourself this once to dream of the sun.

 

___

Still Life in Ice

When she was a lab assistant, it was Eva's job to notice patterns. Her trouble was that she couldn't stop bringing her work home with her. In everything she did or saw, she noticed patterns: in the weave of the tablecloth, in the stone of the fireplace, in the measured sweep of the clock's hands, in the way that Norm's turning off the bush radio signaled the quieting down, the tucking in, the dropping of night's hasp.
      One day while ironing a shirt, Eva held up the iron and looked at it, the series of small holes for steam, the two pour-spouts at the top of the curved handle, that long hollow of space. She studied the flat of the iron, thinking that by doing so she would find some clue in the pattern of the holes. Some patterns could be counted on and made sense, like Norm's morning rituals or the even gaps in between his front teeth. Then, in her notebook she noted other patterns that, though occurring often enough, too frequently never made sense:

For every loss, there is a second,
sometimes more painful loss to follow.
Occasionally, the second loss may produce or
inspire a third loss, as loss begets loss.

      After a while Eva became so adept at noticing patterns, they began to wear on her. While running test after test at the lab—cell blots, titrations, glucose checks, and thyroxin indexes—she would get bored, draw a little smiley face on a memo pad, and write: Be back in five minutes. If she was in a bucky mood, she'd write Kiss my ass, and go to the can where she'd sit, thinking. When Barrow Diagnostics fired her, she was relieved because she had just written in her notepad that she was running out of patterns to notice at this laboratory, which seemed too small, even for Barrow, Alaska.

___

When Eva married Norm, she liked him because the river ruled him, and when she was around him she felt the river in her as well. There was something steadying, elemental, and pure in him that reminded her of math, of the mad march of numbers, falling against each other like chips of ice, in clean even increments. "When you turn from the river, then you've forgotten how to live," Norm would say to her. Eva had to agree. She liked the way that life turned around the sudden drop of winter: the freeze-up when the ice folded in buckles, then the thundering roar of break-up in spring. Sometimes, late at night when she turned off the radio, she thought she could hear it coming, quiet at first like the thrum of the heart's pulse, and then louder, the ice jamming the riverbed and the earth turning and grinding itself down.
      For over fifteen years they had lived in Whitehorse, British Columbia, the lower tundra of mud and mosquitoes. Norm ran a river barge up and down the Yukon, bringing the necessities--refrigerators, fuel, beer, and sometimes even used pick-up trucks and engine heaters-- to people living in towns so small they didn't have roads. Norm would tie off, throw out some planks, and unload the supplies, leaving them out in the snow.
      At first, Eva liked his strange work schedule: on the river from 4 A.M. to nearly midnight during the long light of summer, only six hours, maybe less, as fall approached, until his work tapered off altogether when the ice came in October. After a while she noticed that his schedule became another strangely consistent pattern of inconsistency: home later and later in the fall when the river let him off earlier and earlier. Sometimes in winter, when the river had frozen solid, when he should have been home all day, he stayed away days on end. Eva would wait for him, hold dinner for him, and wonder where he was, sure that he had grown bored with her, sure that he was having an affair.

___

Now, at thirty-nine, Eva is willing to admit that she is slowly cracking up. It's there, she thinks, in the lines around her mouth, the long, straight one across her forehead. Bit by bit, cell by cell, she is falling apart. At night she lies in bed, Norm's long form barely discernible in the dark. She can feel her teeth moving in her gums. If she lies perfectly still, she can feel them move to the time of Norm's slow, deep breathing. She thinks about snapping on the bedside lamp and writing in her notebook, but if the patterns are holding, and she has no reason to believe they won't, she should have plenty of time to record these small slips.
      How and when she began to lose it, she's not sure. She suspects her body began to betray her, to fail her in all the small ways, sometime after Evan was born. When she stands in front of the mirror in her old dance leotard, she suspects it's her son's fault that she is such a mess. She pinches her stomach, the flesh riding over her hipbones, and eyes the eight-grade school photo of her son that Norm has insisted they leave out. Eva studies the picture of Evan, that thin hint of a mustache above his upper lip, and Eva feels her heart drop for in spite of that fuzz, he was still only a child. Eva sets the picture back on the dresser, turning the image of her son toward the wall. Eva had never thought having the picture out a good idea. Why remind themselves of their loss? As one loss hastens the next, soon everything begins to look like loss, the sharp smell of it clinging to the curtains, the tablecloth, her hands.

___

Small things prey on her, too. Norm's dream in which Eva hears the washing machine in the garage thumping against the pantry wall. An uneven load, and Eva goes to investigate. She pads out to the garage in her floppy green slippers and bathrobe, carrying a huge mound of laundry. In the dream, she pushes open the pantry door with her elbow and dumps the laundry at Norm's feet, where she calmly begins separating the whites from the coloreds. On top of the washer/dryer combo sits Norm's sweetheart, a petite woman--a synchronized swimmer, no less.
      "Who swims in Alaska anyway? And synchronized swimming? Come on." Eva remembers teasing Norm once.
      "It's a very athletic sport," Norm said in such a way that Eva knew she'd made a mistake, that she might pay for it later.
      And she does, for in the dream Norm and the sync-swimmer go at it, bumping in time to the spin-cycle rhythm of the wash.
      "Tell me again about that dream you had--the one with the swimmer," Eva asks Norm one day while she rinses boiler onions under the tap.
      "That wasn't my dream. You dreamed it," he says evenly. Eva turns back to the sink and wonders if he is playing a trick on her.

___

Since she's been fired, Eva has turned her attention up and out, keeping notes on the moon, which has always seemed a strange paradox:

The moon is the earth's only natural
satellite, rotating around the earth
in a fixed and regular cycle. The moon
may appear to move faster at certain times
of the night, slower at others, but,
in fact, the earth's velocity is constant, and
therefore, so too is the moon's orbital velocity.

      She thinks what a great word paradox is, how it is one of the few words that not only rolls in your mouth when you say it, but rolls in the mind, round and luminous like the moon. This blank-faced moon that stares, unblinking, down at her, is the same moon that witnesses the sorry events of everyone else's lives as well. Despite the few pounds of rock removed, drives of a golf ball, and big steps of man, the moon changes more than it has changed itself. It is the moon that pulls at the tides, leaving jellyfish stranded like dropped coins and fish gasping. The moon that incites dogs to howl, short tempers to ignite, and the unborn to leap. But Eva likes looking at the moon, likes even better to think that because she can understand one small thing about the moon, there is hope she can understand other small things as well.

___

Of course, Eva had not planned to outlive Evan, and his sudden death complicated a pattern she had taken for granted. In her notebook she made a list of all the women she knew who had not suffered any great tragedy. In another column she kept a running tally of all the women she knew who had lost a child. She put a star next to Stella Travers' name because she had lost both of her children at the same time in a car accident. It bothers Eva that even with her notebook and lists, death is not tidy. The ends do not fold neatly at the edges like a well-made bed, and she knows of no clean crisp numbers she can match to death.
      Sometimes she wonderes what Evan was feeling that day, the dogs howling at the door and Evan locked in their garage, seatbelted in the car with his favorite hockey stick, the car running. She wishes she could have saved him. Since she didn't, she wishes she'd seen him once more before he died. She would have asked him to forget how she'd been a hard mother, frustrated, distracted, and at times mean. And if he couldn't forget, she would have asked him to forgive her for those failings, and for not knowing that he had been planning to do this thing for months.
      "Good thing he didn't drown himself in the river," the sheriff said to her the day she found Evan in the garage, "or we'd have never found him."
      "Could you turn off those flashing lights?" Eva asked the sheriff and scraped at the ground with the toe of her boot. Even though the thaw had come, the ground was still hard, too hard for a burial in Whitehorse.
      Later, at the funeral home, a woman who'd lost her son, a bush pilot in the Dawson Range, found Eva and gripped her shoulder. "Good thing you have the body," the woman said. "At least you have that."
      "Yeah." Eva heard Norm's voice behind her, felt his hand on the small of her back. "Good thing," he said, steering her down the steps of the funeral home and toward their car while she blinked and wondered at the dogged capacity people had for finding good in things immutably bad.

___

Now she prefers living up here in the upper tundra 350 miles within the Arctic Circle. When she walks, she hears the crunch of her footfalls on the ice. In high tundra the earth is firmer, and she knows that no matter what, with so much ice, her weight will be supported. In the lower tundra, it was different. She used to walk the riverbank with fear and fascination as each step sent the ground quivering.
      A few years back on an Easter Sunday, a woman wandered into the marsh with her three children and reemerged with none. Things like that happened in the flats, and no one knew whom to blame, or if blame was even necessary. Drilling machines, people, dreams, dogs--they could and had simply disappeared, taken by the mud and pressure, the earth's desire to call back its own. After Evan died, Eva gladly left with Norm for the high country.

___

The moon exerts a gravitational force on
large bodies of water. However, some bodies
of water are affected more than others.

When they first moved to Barrow, Eva was determined to make a fresh start. She bought a self-help tape called, "How to Rekindle Your Marriage." She wrote Norm little love messages, wifely missives designed to let him know that she was thinking of him, even when she wasn't. She'd write notes like "I love you," and then "One day at a time." But after a while she thought, Who do I think I'm kidding? She took down her inspirational notes, trading them for reminders and instructions that would bring results, "Don't forget to buy dog food." At first Norm would return the favors, sometimes even drawing pictures. Her favorite was an enormous mosquito humping a turkey and below, a caption: Alaska—where the mosquitoes are big enough to stand flat-footed and fuck a turkey. But lately his notes, too, have taken a more practical turn. Taped to the oven door one day is a piece of paper on which Norm has drawn a finger with a red string around it. Underneath it reads in bold red letters: "Did you turn off the oven today?" The finger looks like a cock, and Eva can't look at Norm's sign without smiling a little.
      Remorse slicks like oil that can't be scrubbed off, and she thinks it is highly underrated and more useful than most people know. Losing Evan has taught her this, and she would love to see Norm fall apart a little. She'd like to see some evidence that he is sorry. When she looks at him, she can almost hear the smooth whir of his internal machinery going tick, tick, tick like the clink of the oil derricks. She'd like to stop it, to crush that mechanism, the spring inside Norm that has keeps him going and going, as if nothing at all has happened.
      Eva fingers Norm's note. How would he feel to be the one to discover a body, her body? she wonders. Eva envisions the tragic accident from all different angles: first, the look of shock, then horror, as Norm interprets the scene-- the smell of gas, the red oven light on. Then Eva, her legs buckled underneath her body, her cheek resting on the oven's wire rack.
      "What are you doing, Eva?" Norm, home early, catches her by surprise. She's sprawled across the kitchen floor, one leg twisted over the other in a death pose.
      "Back exercises." Eva scrambles up from the floor and adjusts her shirt. Norm scratches his head, then steps around her to reach into the refrigerator for a beer.
      "Are you OK?" Norm studies her, and she realizes how hard it must be for Norm to be Norm, how hard it is to be married to her.
      "Sure. I'm fine." She nods and takes a swig of his beer. "Really."
      When he looks at her like that, his eyes turning soft, she wants to wrap her arms around him and comfort him. She wants to whisper quiet words from childhood and draw him into the center of herself, into that darkness where all things get lost, where everything gets ground to nothing. But something always pulls on her and she doesn't know why, but that space between them seems the most impossible to close. She remembers a science demonstration of magnets when she was in the third grade. Why should two metals repel each other? she had wondered, and left for her homeroom feeling sick to her stomach, convinced the science teacher had tricked her.

___

Part of her problem, Eva thinks one day while washing dishes, is that she doesn't fully yet know who or what she is or what she is becoming. She can only testify to the forces that tug her and the unseen things pressing upon her. She imagines that inside of her is a black hole shaped like an Erlenmeyer flask, wide at the bottom and funneling to a narrow neck without a head. She frowns and catches her hips on the edge of the drain board. Everything seems to have a hollow sound to it: the hum of the refrigerator, the glow of the TV, the edgy and panicked crackling of the radio. The sound haunts her, and she wonders if the emptiness hasn't invaded her as well, if she still has a heart beating in her chest because there's no noise there, nothing moving, and the deepness of that hole frightens her. She opens cupboards, rifles through boxes of saltine crackers, and eats the dry cocoa powder with a spoon, the jumbo marshmallows and cans of peaches in heavy syrup, eats without tasting, stuffing that space inside of her.
      That night, when Norm's steady breathing gets on her nerves, Eva creeps into the kitchen. She picks through his lunch packed with all the things he loves: egg salad with pimento on wheat, a dill pickle, Oreo cookies. She eats it all, her hand moving to her mouth in a steady motion. Afterward, she wipes the crumbs from the front of her nightgown and leaves a note in the refrigerator at the spot where Norm's lunch used to be: "You've been Yogi-Beared."

___

Here's another problem: she can't remember things as well as she used to, and lately she's been seeing things out on the bay ice: tundra swans that don't belong out there and seem doomed to freeze. She will walk out and test the ice to see if it will hold her. If not, she'll get a long pole and push on the birds, try to rock them out of the ice. They'll soar up and away with two or three heavy beats of their wings, then crane their necks at impossible angles and say things like "Thanks a million," or "You're the best, Eva." She'll turn sharp to see if anyone is standing behind her, if it's all some kind of a prank. But the dogs behind her aren't even moving, are bored by the sight of the ice and have curled up, tucked their noses under their tails and squeezed their eyes shut.
      Some days she sees children out on the bay ice. Those are the terrifying days because if they falter there's no saving them. On the worst days, she sees Evan floundering on the ice. She sees the bright turquoise scarf she made for him five Christmases ago. Movement, a flash of color, and she knows it's him, a beautifully sculpted bird bound by ice.

___

Eva is losing weight so steadily that people are taking it personally. Every day Norm asks her if she's angry with him, and one day she realizes that yes, yes she is. She is paying him back for being happy when she isn't, for recovering when she can't.
      She would like to feel happy, is certain she would recognize happiness if she felt it. She is not one of those who were born to suffer and who has learned how to like it, nor is she the kind that isn't suffering but wishes she were. The grief counselor in Whitehorse suggested dance lessons—said it could give her that raison d'etre. Even then, Eva shook her head. No. She likes the idea of a martial arts class better. She'd like to pay her fifty dollars and kick somebody's ass without guilt. But then, she'll pull back the curtains and catch sight of Evan's bright orange parka on the ice, his blue scarf, and she knows she has to stay in this house, cannot risk missing him again when he needs her most.
      One day Eva stands at the kitchen window and chews on her fingernails, noting how hunger nibbles at her, gets at her in those empty spaces. Hunger is a pain that resembles only itself, she thinks, as her stomach tightens like a drawstring pulling close. "Breathing hurts now, too," she writes in her notebook. In the distance she sees a bush plane sewing a straight line, a thin white thread across the sky. Then she hears him: "Mom." There's no mistaking Evan's voice, clear as a bell. But it is a pitiful noise and she has never heard Evan sound so sad.
      "Don't move, honey!" She screams, pulling on her boots. She sprints across the snow and out onto the ice without testing it. When she gets to where Evan had been, she realizes it is a bird, stuck in the ice, wintering where it shouldn't. After checking for footprints, for any signs at all of Evan, Eva abandons the bird to the ice and plods back to the house. She stands on the porch, watching the bird, waiting to see if it will become Evan. But the bird isn't struggling anymore, and she knows it might be too late. She fills a double boiler with cold water and marches back out to the bird, determined to save it. She pours the water around the bird, working it free, and carries it inside her coat back to the house, leaving the boiler out on the ice. Later, in her notebook, she notes that it takes a desert, an ice desert even, to produce a mirage.
      When Norm comes home, stamping the cold from his boots into the floorboards, Eva is sitting, gazing out the window, the bird wrapped in Norm's flannel shirt and cradled in her arms.
      "That bird's gotta go." Norm nods at the tundra swan. "Everything it needs is out there." He points to the door with his thumb.
Eva feels a slow cold starting at her feet and spreading upward. She knows she should say something. Instead, she stares at Norm's face. His nose is like Evan's, but not the mouth. If she closes her eyes and concentrates, she can redraw Norm's features, as with an Etch-A-Sketch, sand over the lines.
      Norm sits at the table and pulls a toothpick out of his shirt pocket, and clamps it between his front teeth. Eva turns to the windowpane and traces an imaginary box around her reflection, feels the bird rustle its wings. "Sometimes I think I'm forgetting what Evan really looked like."
      Norm pulls off one boot and then the other. "We could have another kid. It's not too late."
      Eva closes her eyes and swallows. She can hear the soft machinery of Norm's heart going whir, whir, whir. She wonders if she could catch him on the jaw with her fist, knock him clean off the chair, if she swung hard enough. She opened her eyes. "No. No more kids." She leans in toward the window and studies the ice.
Norm sighs. "I'm just saying we could try if you wanted to." He moves the toothpick from the left side of his mouth to the right. "You're not the only one who suffers, you know."

That night, Eva can hear their dogs baying and the clang of their metal tie chains. She stands at the kitchen window. The dark is just light enough and she can see against the endless seam of sky and ice a full moon low and heavy over the frozen bay. She looks at the moon that seems to her one looming and perfect reflection of ice, a perfect sphere surrounded by the dark water of night sky. If it is true what some people say about the moon, true that the moon reflects secret knowledge, symbolizes the unconscious and the making of codes, then what has she learned, what code is she solving, what mystery will she crack?
      Eva returns to the bedroom and climbs into bed alongside Norm, who is asleep already, his back to her. She presses her body against his, surprised and relieved that even now, when it is clear they both are changing, have changed, she still fits.
      She feels her face relaxing, her jaw unclenching. She takes in the smell of Norm's skin, feels a glimmer of calm in knowing that now, when she is feeling so strange, there are some things she can still count on: there are thirty-two holes on the bottom of her iron, the weave of the Herringbone comforter is slightly off, Norm's front teeth have small spaces between them. If the patterns are holding in the morning, Norm will still be there, despite her fears to the contrary.

 
 

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"From the Bering Strait" and "Still Life in Ice" appeared in The Necessary Grace to Fall (University of Georgia Press, 2002).

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Gina Ochsner works and lives in Keizer, OR with her husband and three small children and a Siberian Husky, Sasha. Though Sasha is ten years old—too old for Iditarod racing—he pulls anyway as if he's in training. Which direction does he pull? North, of course, always north. Though Gina has never lived in the extreme cold, for some reason, she can't stop thinking or writing about it, how the cold pushes on the people who live in it, or under it, and how much of life and of living is devoted to a conscious awareness of the terrible beauty of the far North. A collection of short stories entitled The Necessary Grace to Fall, selected as the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, was published in March 2002 by the University of Georgia Press.