Her Own Self

A short story by Dora Dueck

We have to leave this evening, he whispered. We can’t put it off.

His words touched her like unexpected flame and she recoiled, she was an ember already, she was anguish through and through, she was crouched against the cradle of their son. She knew what was coming.

Oh, she said. She skimmed the boy’s cheek with her fingers and then, as if her child had finally grasped the inevitable—the urgency—he died.

They trudged with a rough, hastily-made infant casket to the graveyard, the wind in their faces a whip. It was a Thursday afternoon in November. It was 1929. It was a village in the Omsk settlement, east of the Urals. It was the USSR. It was their firstborn, their David, and he would never be with them on their flight.

Her husband and her father carried the box between them. They moved slowly, as funeral processions do. Slowly, she thought, but their walking was false and the air as if burnt, her feet raising ash. As if no one would guess at their scheme to sneak away this night, hurry not through fire but frost. Who would it fool but themselves, and it might be slow but it was much too fast, this walk like a prod at her back, quickly, quickly now, we must prepare to disappear, to flee.

So brown it was, as brown as death, the day so brown, the stench of it, and where could she rest her mind so she would not think of him, stiffening, the decay of him, no—no!—she could not keep up. And her sister Trude was not there.

See, Trude? she was thinking. Shovels like knives, attacks of dirt like birds, those nasty swallows diving for our heads when we were young, remember how terrified we were? The shovels blurred, they lifted clods like thunder. The noise would frighten him and she wanted them to stop.

Come, Marta, her husband said.

Her arms were long and heavy. Their emptiness pulled them downward. They wished to claw the grave apart again.

Come, Marta, Hermann said, we’re done.

He waited with her at the mound while the others drifted away, though not a mound but a wound, the hole filled but not filled well enough. They did a sloppy job of it, they left an indentation, they scattered the soil like pebbles. A mess. The boy’s name on a narrow piece of wood stuck at the head of it. Her David.

Come, he said.

Was it too late to find him again, to find him pink, not blue and violet while heaving for air?

Hermann took her hand.

Marta let her hand be taken. How can you consider leaving now? she gasped at him. I don’t know how you can even consider it.

Marta, he said, and his voice was iron against which she was straw. He and her father in their unbelievable haste. Flowing on and on, this plan of theirs, a torrent around or over or through whatever it met, the plan they had planned for weeks, pining and proposing, everything difficult—impossible—in Russia now. A perpetual undertone of Stalin and his decrees. Exit passes granted for some; why not try for them too? If there were passes for some there should be passes for others. They would abandon everything. House, horse, wagon. They would give the horse and wagon to the man who drove them to the station, one station beyond the nearest to avoid recognition or suspicion. Just layers of clothing and baskets of food and money sewn into hems, the clock and the Bible, pretending indifference, slow and sluggish like this funeral had been while their hearts raced and raced, while they raced away from her boy.

Hermann rocked, shifted from one foot to the other. Marta, he said. Louder. The brown rot of the cemetery bracken congealed and pressed like a plaster on her pain. She shuddered and they turned, they walked away. She could not bring herself to look back, though she wanted to very much.

Was there a prayer? she asked.

Why yes. She felt his glance, his surprise.

A good prayer, Hermann said. A blessing.

She could not ask him what was said, not while her husband advanced along the street and expected her to keep up with him.

But Trude never saw him dead, she said.


My sister Trude! As if he did not know the name! As if he did not hear her bitterness.

Oh, he said, and now his tone was tender; young.

You’ll see her soon, he said, and you can tell her everything.

ALL THAT FALL IN 1929, her people crept into Moscow. One thousand there by the beginning of October, three thousand by the tenth, five thousand by the middle of the month. This according to Oskar Trautmann, Secretary of State for the German Foreign Ministry. And every day the number grew alarmingly. This according to the Soviets. Mostly Mennonites but other German-speaking citizens as well. They travelled by train but in a manner of creeping nevertheless, heads down, loamy fear and stealth in their arrival. They found—somehow—dachas or rooms to rent, never mind the exorbitant rates for summer cottages entirely unsuitable for cold. They hoped and they prayed—the women in particular, who had little else to do but cook and worry and pray—not to be lodged in these crowded, unsuitable lodgings over winter. They wanted to be noticed just long enough for some brisk official to glance up, and down again, to pound a stamp brimming with ink upon the precious passes with their names. Otherwise they wished to be invisible.

They kept coming, her people, like a trail of ants after sugar, some thirteen thousand by mid-November. Creeping about, begging desperately for permission to leave.

A quivering mass, Marta’s people in Moscow’s environs that fall, and all the while, beyond their capacity to influence or follow it, the terse laborious dance of diplomacy: Canada, Germany, the Soviet Union. Tangling in reference to stubborn would-be emigrants who could not fathom collectivization, the necessary rules, the grand socialist ambition. Kulaks! Humiliating their homeland in the eyes of the world, as the Soviets reckoned it. The other countries sympathetic but with troubles of their own. The stock market crash, for example. And nationalist resistance to refugees.

Marta’s sister Trude and husband Johann and their daughter had crept in two weeks before she and Hermann had. They came with Johann’s parents, they disembarked at a station near the city which they heard had places to stay. By the time Marta and Hermann and the sisters’ parents arrived at the capital, lodgings at that stop were full. They got off at a station further out.

For this reason, Marta never saw her sister Trude again, and though she sent word of David’s death, of the specifics she could tell her nothing.

IN MOSCOW THEN. And waiting. The refugees written into lists, their representatives strategizing for attention from Soviet bureaucrats.

Hermann tried to be of use. He watched at the station for new arrivals, assisted them if he could. What he did was dangerous. Lurkers had been arrested, imprisoned. Marta implored him to quit and, reluctantly, he did. One day he shoveled coal to earn a few rubles, on another he worked for a meat cutter. The man refused to pay and threatened to report him to the police. Hermann said he enjoyed those hours in spite of this and declared that once in Canada he would find work as a butcher. His optimism made Marta anxious and she was grateful when her father said, Let’s get there first.

She was even more anxious when Hermann asked her to join him and a friend on an excursion into the city. She gulped, said No, but he went anyway.

When he returned, Marta begged him not to describe it to her parents.

But can’t I talk with you? he asked. My own wife?

Yes. Yes of course.

They sat on a bench outside the cottage, in the chill, each staring ahead as if dusk were a landscape. He told her what they saw, he and his friend, strolling down avenues. Views of the Kremlin from a bridge. A man playing an accordion on a street corner in the Arbat. Sweet music, he said, which in those moments had made him long to stay instead of leave. And after that, the circus.

The word circus riveted her like envy but she resented him and what he had seen and the money he had spent. He seemed mesmerized by the tremendous spectacle of their people in Moscow, the sudden largeness of the world. His soul, she thought acridly, suited a Soviet’s! They were fleeing the communist upheaval and in the midst of it he smudged—erased—the memory of his small dead son buried near a leafless acacia, the ground bleak and probably dusted with snow. Wide-eyed at bears in jackets and hats! Clowns! She wondered how she would find the strength to forgive a visit to the circus, for nothing, she thought, could be forgiven or overcome these days, nothing good sprang out of the bad. She drew her coat tightly around herself, crossed her arms, stayed silent.

This silenced him as well, though birds—hidden, unafraid—twittered in the bushes. The earth was damp and the silence spread between them like fog.

Then Hermann said, Oh Marta, I looked and I laughed and all I wanted was David beside me. I pictured him old enough. Pointing and laughing like the youngsters in the seats nearby. He’ll never see it and I could have cried.

It was the most beautiful thing she had ever heard. She breathed in, held the breath, felt soft. Grateful and buttery. All was forgiven. She leaned against him and tears swelled in her eyes, though he would not see them for the light was gone and they faced into the dark. She decided she would treasure these sentences forever, her man Hermann hungry like that, hungry at the circus for their boy.

IN LATE NOVEMBER the situation with the clamor of refugees in Moscow reached its dramatic peak. The Soviets began to remove them. They started in the dachas and rooms nearest the city. They told the people they could return to their former settlements, said that all would be well. Rumor had it the trains of these promises ran northward and faraway instead. To Siberia. Many had fled from villages in middle Siberia, but now the word seemed dreadful, like jagged ice.

Marta’s sister Trude and Johann and their girl were among those who were rounded up first.

Canada said a final No, then Germany said Yes. Yes to the five thousand or so still waiting. The refugees spoke German, after all, and there was kinship in that.

On account of this, and their location, Marta and Hermann and the elderly parents received the coveted permission to leave. From temporary barracks in Hammerstein, Germany—interim asylum only, Germany had said—the four of them sailed to South America. They had wanted Canada, which said No but then accepted some refugees anyway, not many, and not, for sure, those who were sickly or infirm like Marta’s parents. They could choose between Paraguay and Brazil. Marta’s father and Hermann chose Brazil.

They were barely four months settled in the Brazilian rainforest when Marta’s mother died. Her father twisted his hands, said it was because of Trude. Because she and Johann were forced out of Moscow in a box car. Told they could go home. We know what probably happened, he said, where they were carted to instead. Mama’s heart was strong enough for our good news but not strong enough for that.

Why was it necessary to repeat, over and over, the fact that Trude and Johann missed the miracle? Why did her father treat her like a schoolchild who would not learn her lessons? Heart! she spat back at him. Mama’s heart was ailing for years! It’s hot here, and humid, that made it worse!

But he was right, Mama had been miserable with grief. Every morning she draped a shawl around her bones in spite of the heat and said, I hurt because our Trude isn’t here.

I’m sad too, Marta would say. But once she added, her tone peevish, My David isn’t here either.

He was a baby, her mother said.

Marta had held back tears until her eyes burned with the effort. How many years did a child have to exist in order to matter?

AFTER MARTA’S FATHER died, she and Hermann migrated again, to Canada, where they had placed their hopes years earlier when they abandoned their village in Russia. Hermann’s second cousin in Winnipeg helped them with the paperwork. They settled in the cousin’s city, in a rented room. It was winter and people commiserated with her but she had memorized some English words. I not care about cold, she said, I glad to be here.

Hermann found work as a butcher, just as he had forecast in Moscow. He came home every evening cheerful and satisfied. He was skilled with his knife and genial with customers and his boss was pleased with him. The man loaned them money to buy a tiny house in Winnipeg’s West End. Everyone likes to be friendly with the butcher, Hermann’s second cousin would say, just like the old days in Russia, and he would laugh, and Hermann would laugh, and the two men would amble into a rehearsal of the Soviet campaign to liquidate the kulak class. The exchanges proceeded predictably: Weren’t we destined for exile anyway, we kulak farmers?—Like a herd of pigs to the slaughter.—So we exiled ourselves.

His boss was proud of Hermann and Marta was too. She looked forward to supper, to her husband’s stories about the day. He had a large memory for names, faces, conversations, and when he recounted these, her life seemed full of incident too. She had made a few friends at church but no one close enough to visit with during the week. She felt bashful because she had been unable to conceive again.

In Marta’s opinion, Hermann had a nearly perfect head, and his face was round and his forehead, which she loved especially, was round as well, and high. His teeth were white, like pearly stones. She remembered how people had said her David resembled his father. But sometimes, when she overheard her husband in the foyer or parking lot at church, or even across the table, she wished his voice were not as loud and avid as it was. She imagined herself wrapping her hands around his wonderful head to quiet him. She felt his stories could be shorter, more compact, without losing essentials. It seemed he could not stop talking about what had occurred in Moscow in 1929, about that tragical but—for them—amazing event, about the wonder of their release. He recited the chronology, related anecdotes in their tiniest detail. Like cracking walnuts open at Christmas, she thought., digging out every compartment of the shell. Not wasting a speck of nut meat. He had pieced it together in a notebook, even the political maneuvers behind the scenes. Someone he knew had uncovered newspaper clippings of that year and he copied the relevant headlines. The New York Times: RED ‘GRAIN BATTLE’ AT CRITICAL STAGE. PEASANTS STILL RESIST.—WOULD-BE EMIGRES SENT BACK TO SIBERIA.—AWAIT CANADA’S ACTION ON SOVIET EMIGRANTS.—5,000 EMIGRES TELL OF SOVIET RIGORS. He made notes on what the articles said.

How did he keep them straight, the many strands of it? How the Mennonites coordinated efforts, who spent time in the Lubyanka or the prison in Butyrka, names like Otto Auhagen and B.H. Unruh and Mikhail Kalinin (Stalin’s marionette, it was said, whose own wife was jailed while he remained loyal to the Soviet cause), Canada’s then-prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, and Paul von Hindenburg, president of Germany. The names of the suburbs where the despairing and hopeful congregated, and which lay closer to Moscow and were thus cleaned out first. Perlovka, where Trude and Johann had rented, and Kljasma, of course, where she and Hermann stayed. Their birch-lined lanes and lodgings, his mind a map of every place their people had been. And what had happened backwards in Mennonite history as well, long before their escape, in Reformation Europe and into antiquity and into the Old Testament itself with Israel’s exodus from Egypt.

What Hermann held together of their history, what he relayed to others, was not insignificant; Marta knew she ought to appreciate his speaking of it, his efforts to keep it alive. In comparison, her recollections were monochrome. They bled into a hazy sheet of wintery grey with smoke and the chuff of trains running in and out of it. Only a few memories pierced her with any kind of clarity: the day her David turned ill, the curl of his hair wet around her finger, the day he died. And sometimes, a fleeting image of her sister.

Now and then she wished their son’s death figured in her husband’s repertoire but usually she was glad he left it out. It belonged to them, after all, not to the masses of the waiting who were split apart to be banished or rescued.

Perhaps by now, she thought, it belonged mostly to her.

When Marta complimented Hermann for his capacity with history and his knowledge of the Moscow story and the Mennonites’ release—for she knew others were drawn to him and not to her—he said, It’s like the animals I work with at the butcher shop. I see the beast from all sides and I take it apart. I see the sections too, what they are and where they belong. I see every piece I cut off. And I see the whole animal.

I know you’re also an excellent butcher, she said.

DURING THEIR courtship in Russia, Hermann had informed Marta, though imprecise about the source of his view—the minister, she assumed—that marital relations ought to be undertaken once a week. A weekly expectation, he said, reddening. The frequency he proposed seemed less than she had anticipated from the hints of married women around her but she knew nothing about the matter and was relieved that he did. She agreed and he fixed on Saturday nights.

Now Marta sometimes yearned, vaguely, to touch Hermann in a different way, to stroke his back or tug at his ears, to slide her arm around his waist perhaps, but they remained reserved with one another. Though outwardly gregarious, Hermann was also fastidious and he kept the rule he had requested. Their intercourse neither compelled nor gratified her, but she submitted—graciously, she felt. He grew erect swiftly, took her swiftly, seemed to vanish in the process. Afterwards, returned to her, he was curiously meek, as if she had humbled him.

After seven years in Winnipeg, a pregnancy finally occurred and Marta and Hermann had a girl. Eleven months later, they had another girl. Marta was overjoyed with the existence of their daughters, who were lively and attractive. She devoted herself to them. She believed herself less shy, more fluent, now. I’m like a window wider open, she ventured to Hermann. A window in summer I mean, she said.

As teens, the girls were sometimes mistaken for twins. I’m Ella the elder, Ella would say, while her sister chimed, I’m Susanna the second. When they fought, as siblings will, Marta admonished her daughters to cling to each other, to get along. Now and then she mentioned her sister Trude, how she and her sister had been close in age too, how they had married in a double wedding: Trude and Johann Derksen, Marta and Hermann Epp. How they lived in the same village, Trude moving to her husband’s family home and Hermann moving to Marta’s. In those days, she said, couples started like that.

Trude used to say I was the prettiest, she told her daughters once.

Well, were you? Susanna asked. She gazed at her mother with a sharp look of appraisal.

How should I know? Marta said. I didn’t like it when she talked like that. But Trude had a baby first and it was a girl and the baby was healthy. Our firstborn died, as you know.

The girls were generally disinterested in their parents’ accounts of previous places and times.

Your stories are just about escape, Ella flared.

Not my stories, Marta said. Your father’s.

She’s right, Susanna defended her mother. They’re Dad’s.

Maybe he tells them, Ella said, but they’re married so it’s like she’s telling them too.

But technically, countered Susanna.

They argued over it as if Marta was not there.

Who cares about technically, Ella said, I’m tired of all that escape. All those people in a heap like sheep.

HERMANN DIED in 1979, age seventy-five. The girls had left home, had married. Then Marta found herself thinking more and more frequently about her sister, whose destiny beyond Moscow she had never known for certain. One night in a dream she spotted Trude at a vast distance and ran to her but her sister dissolved before she reached her. She wept when she woke and hoped that Hermann, if he was somehow aware of this, would not mind her tears or her desire for her sibling. It seemed intolerable now that they had been separated for decades. Perhaps Trude was—or had been—a widow too. If alive, Trude and she ought to be growing old together. Reminiscing. Not about their time in Moscow, but the years they shared in the village, in the home of their childhood and youth.

Then Marta realized she had never forgiven her sister. Not sufficiently, at least. It troubled her.

PRISCILLA, THE NEW pastor’s wife at Marta’s church, was friendly and solicitous. She surprised Marta by recalling her name after meeting her only once. This made Marta bold and she invited the other woman for tea. Priscilla said she would be delighted and that very week she was there, sitting at Marta’s table. Marta still felt bold but she was nervous too. I invited you here for a reason, she said, picking up the teapot but setting it down without pouring. Her arm trembled. She said, I’d like to tell you something I’ve never told anyone else. I’d like to be done with it.

Certainly, Priscilla said. She smiled. She touched the rim of her saucer. This is lovely china, she said. And the cookies look lovely too.

Thank you. Marta searched Priscilla’s face. She needed to be sure it was safe to proceed. The other woman smiled again. She seemed not overly curious but tolerant. Willing. Marta raised the teapot again and her arm was steady enough to pour. She liked the dark orange of the tea in their cups.

I noticed that women tell you things, Marta said. I mean, someone mentioned that they do.

You’ve all made me feel so welcome.

It’s nothing about you. It’s nothing critical.

Oh no, I didn’t imagine that at all. I’m here as a friend.

Marta said, It was in 1929, back in Russia where I was born and lived until we got out. She gestured at the cream pitcher and sugar bowl and poked the plate of anise drops and almond crisps closer to her guest. She took a sip of tea, carefully because her daughter Ella told her that she slurped. Then she said what she believed it was time to say. She looked past Priscilla’s ear while speaking, out the window at the sparkling line of snow on the deck railing, at sparrows playing in the apple tree, the tight bare branches like a nest against the bright blue sky. How busy and teasing they seemed to be, those little brown birds. She stole a peek at the other woman now and then and Priscilla nodded but did not interrupt except when Marta mentioned the whooping cough.

Ah, pertussis, she said. And no vaccination then.

Yes, I’ve heard that’s what it’s called.

I trained and worked as a nurse, Priscilla said. Until my husband took up the ministry. Then I felt I ought to be more available to him and the church.

Marta’s story began, of course, with her and Trude as sisters. Their double wedding and Trude’s baby girl and half a year later, her own baby David, long and thin, not as robust as Trude’s child but a boy who seemed intelligent, who would surely get sturdier as he grew. Trude’s daughter got the whooping cough. And maybe they didn’t understand the science of contagion, she said, or the proper words, but it wasn’t as if they didn’t know anything about diseases. Es steckt an, they would say: it leaps and sticks. So, for a while, Trude kept her daughter away.

But one afternoon she had the girl in her arms when she came over and they visited again with their precious children between them. Thanks be to God, Trude said, she’s better.

Trude’s daughter toddled around the room. Mama had gone outside, maybe to the barn to speak with Papa. Marta remembered later that the clock chimed three. She remembered saying, But she’s still coughing. She had David close to her, against her breast, and he was placid and content. There was no heave between the girl’s coughs but the remnants of illness were there, like lint on wool.

Her sister was annoyed. If she’s over the worst, Trude had said, she’s better. She paused and added, You’ve got Mama. Trude was jealous of Marta living in the family home with their parents. She was miserable in her husband’s parents’ house for she and her mother-in-law did not get along.

Soon Trude’s girl began to fuss and Trude rolled her handkerchief into a short fat rope and stuck the end of it into the girl’s mouth as a soother. Outside a horse snorted, impatiently it seemed. Someone had entered the yard. Marta laid David in the cradle beside her chair and went to see. Then her father appeared and Marta returned to the house and she saw the cloth soother in her David’s mouth. The interruption was not important but her boy had been quiet when she lowered him into the cradle and she had not been absent but a minute.

Trude said, He started to cry. Marta yanked the disgusting twist of handkerchief away from her boy and seized him to her shoulder. She was not thinking of illness but of her sister’s interference. Couldn’t a baby squawk a bit?

In the course of time her David got the whooping sickness and since he was not hearty yet, he died. Then she remembered the rag in his mouth, soggy with his cousin’s spittle.

It’s terrible, Marta told Priscilla, to hear a child with the whooping cough.

I can imagine, the other woman said.

Marta said she would not go into how they left their house and farm behind, how they went to Moscow and how they got out. There were many of us, she said. My husband used to keep track of all that. Though I never told him any of this.

She meant the rag and the two Soviet police who knocked at their cottage door in the Moscow suburb. She was the only one in the dacha that morning. She knew the police arrested certain men or cajoled them into signing for the return of their homes. She thought they wanted Hermann or her father but they kept asking about her brother-in-law Johann. She kept her head lowered but she felt how they scoured her with their eyes. She said her husband and father would soon be back to speak to their request. She spoke as if they were due any moment, though she had no idea if this was true. Johann Derksen, they said. Johann Derksen.

He doesn’t stay here, she said. Of course she didn’t say that she knew he was a hot-head, or maybe a leader of something.

Where is he then?

She said he was further back along the line, closer to Moscow.

Where then? Where?

She felt sure, later, that she had not uttered street names or places she had heard in connection with her sister and her husband. She did not know a number so she could not have said a number. Did they even have a number? She had been terribly frightened. She said the station, she may have said the street. She did not think she said the street, but she may have. A gee-yupping or yell at the road finally distracted the officers and they left. Later that evening, when her father and Hermann returned, they reported that the Soviets were clearing out the Mennonites and would be coming their way. They said that Johann had been discovered and detained, that he and Trude were taken to the station, put on a train. Marta’s mother began to wail.

Marta did not mention the men at the door. They seemed irrelevant now.

She had barely shut her eyes that night when other knocks jarred them awake and they scrambled up, sure their summons had come. As expected, the police. Though not, she noticed, the ones who had been at the dacha that morning. These men were friendly with news. Their dear leader Stalin and his comrades had decided they could go, they should prepare for transport to the border.

Mama had pushed herself forward, wheezed, But Trude and Johann?

No one replied. What would these men know of Trude and Johann? And then in the moment before she thrust it away from her, Marta felt the ecstasy of vindication, like a difficult clasp she had been pushing on that finally clinched and closed. Trude had ruined her life and maybe, via the morning police, she had ruined hers.

Just for a moment, Marta told Priscilla. Just for a moment, this awful thought. After that, I was sorry for them.

Priscilla seemed unperturbed. She seemed to accept that Marta might feel guilty over her brief uncharitable glee. She did not speculate whether it was Trude’s fault that David died or whether Marta could have given Johann and Trude away. She asked, Is there anything else?

Marta said, No. She reached for the teapot, saw her hand, the river of blue vein high under the skin, the brown spots, the thin gold wedding band, and she was ashamed of her oldness.

Oh no thank you, Priscilla said, waving away the tea. I’ve had enough. Thank you very much. I must get these wonderful recipes.

Marta put an almond crisp onto her plate, ate half of it. She had no appetite, the cookie was too sweet, but she did not want the pastor’s wife, who was on the larger side, to feel badly that she had eaten three or four. Though perhaps she was entirely fine with herself.

Priscilla bent and pulled a small volume out of the purse at her feet. It looked like a diary. She read something out of it that sounded like a poem or a Bible verse. Marta could not concentrate, she was exhausted, but the words had a soothing effect and then Priscilla gestured across the table as if reaching and she lifted her other palm as if expecting a ball to drop into it and she was praying, it seemed, though she kept her eyes open, her focus on the kitchen. It sounded as if she was talking to Marta or perhaps to God, who might be perched on her hand, and it sounded as if what Trude and Marta did so long ago had been crumpled together and dropped into the garbage.

AFTER PRISCILLA was gone, Marta made a fresh pot of tea, had herself a cup. Now she was famished but instead of cookies she ate a piece of toast. Priscilla’s words had disappeared and Marta chided herself and her brain, shabbier every day. Something about water, it was, a stream or spring. Whatever it was she felt lighter, as if her memories had been steel but were now bamboo. But she was not thinking of her sister while chewing her toast; she was thinking of Hermann and the only vacation they ever took together, just the two of them. Seven years before the cancer. They had driven south through the United States, roughly following the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. They stayed in motels and sometimes ate in restaurants instead of cooking on the propane camp stove. Hermann exclaimed about whatever they saw, whole states full of cornfields it seemed. He was impressed by everything. They stopped at whim for longer views or when he needed to rest. He did the driving.

One day, near the coast, they parked and walked along a trail. It was a broad green path with the distant shimmer of water. They went too far along it to get back to the car before they were caught in a shower. The rain came as if out of nowhere and was fierce. They had to let it soak them. Then, just as suddenly, the sun flared out of the sky, hot and merry, as if the whole episode had been a joke.

Look at you, she had said, because Hermann’s cotton shirt, which was bluish-green, was glued to his shoulders and chest and his nipples looked like peas popped out of their shell. This amused her and she reached up and touched one of the peas.

Well, he said, look at you. He tugged on a strand of her hair dripping on her forehead and then she looked down and saw her white blouse sticking to her just like his shirt had stuck to him, and sure enough, her nipples had risen too. He noticed this and moved a finger to poke at one of them but then he lowered his hand without making contact and he laughed. Both of them began to laugh in a way they were not used to laughing. Like silly teenagers, she thought. Good thing no one was near them on the trail.

Marta remembered that while she was laughing and shaking her limbs to loosen her clothes, she felt as if she had never lived in Russia, had never been an immigrant. A feeling like being an only child, perhaps, and accustomed to holidays, a light-hearted person for whom a rain like this, comical and refreshing, might be the pattern of her life. She had felt she possessed a history of her own, separate from the crowd event of the Moscow refugees. Her own self seemed obvious; seemed transparent or glistening.

How strange to recall this now. For she had also known, as if opposites could be true, that she could never dislodge herself from the history to which she belonged, the miracle event in which she was submerged. She was one of myriad ordinary lives, not truly discerned by anyone else. Everyone had suffered. Some more perhaps, some less. They were together in the swarming, in the suffering—she and her son, her husband, her parents, her sister—and someday they would be together again in the unquenchable bosom of the dead. She had not minded the simultaneous recognition of her familiar anonymity.

The walk and rain had happened on a Saturday. Hermann and Marta felt aged to one another by then and sometimes skipped their weekly couplings, but that evening, lying in their double bed in the Sleep E-Z Motel with its neon sign flashing through a slit in the curtain, Hermann had reached for her. He tapped her nipple and they both laughed in the giggling way they had laughed that afternoon. By now he took longer to get hard and he was longer inside her, but while he moved, she wiggled under him and she felt something nice, like two or three bubbles floating up from her middle and breaking open. She had giggled again, as if chasing after him, and that night she slept as well as she had ever slept.

About the Author

Dora Dueck

Dora Dueck is the author of four books of fiction—All That Belongs (2019), What You Get at Home (2013), This Hidden Thing (2010), and Under the Still Standing Sun (1989)—as well as stories and essays in a variety of journals and the soon-to-be released nonfiction book, Return Stroke: Essays & Memoir (2022). This Hidden Thing was Book of the Year at the 2011 Manitoba Book Awards, while What You Get at Home won the High Plains Award for short fiction. Her novella "Mask" won the 2014 Malahat Review novella contest. A lay historian and former editor, Dueck grew up in a Mennonite family in Alberta, resided later in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Paraguay, and currently lives in British Columbia. She writes an occasional weblog, Borrowing Bones, at www.doradueck.com.