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 t...