Inge’s youngest child died during the night, quietly. That left four children still living, and another, beside this one now, dead.
Inge’s first died of a fever years earlier on the boat from Norway. The sailors buried her mid-Atlantic, a tiny shrouded body dropped into the lapping water. Inge heard the splash as a slap: a holding to account of her failings. She stood alone, still and silent at the railing while the pastor and informal congregation of passengers finished their last prayer. The pastor shook her hand. ‘Take comfort,’ he said. ‘Everything is God’s will.’ Inge went below and lay motionless in her berth until the next morning, her back turned against the noise of all the languages and lives in the shared married and family third- class cabin. The pastor’s voice echoed in her mind: ‘God has his reasons.’
Inge’s second child was her first born in Canada: a girl name Hilde, now
grown to a woman. Hilde lived in town and had no interest in the farm. Wilbur was third and he was away being a soldier. Inge worried every day for having him so far away. Then came the twins, Einar and Karl, who were asleep in the next room, pressed tight together, huddled and warm under thick blankets on an achingly cold February prairie winter morning. That made six; six children in total.
The birth of the baby dead only a few hours, the last child, had come as a surprise. Inge thought there would be no more. It was twenty-five years from her first and she and her husband were more old now than they were young. Only a few months earlier Inge had glanced up while ironing Sunday shirts and saw an unexpected face in the little mirror tacked next to the kitchen stove; she was startled by the grey, haggard woman looking back. Inge thought it was her mother, long gone many years.
This was why it didn’t occur to Inge she was pregnant, even though she had been many times before. Mary MacRennie, from the farm one over, eyed her up and down on a Friday afternoon. They were making soap in Mary’s kitchen with lye from the ash barrel and strained fat from saved drippings.
‘Inge?’ she asked, stirring the heating pots and seeing the new fullness of her friend’s body. ‘Have you got yourself again in a family way?’
Inge looked so shocked Mary laughed.
‘You’re not are you?’ Mary said. ‘Oh my, Inge, you are.’
Inge told Edmund that night she was pregnant again. He was happy, but he knew she was not.
Inge and Mary made the soap before Christmas, and it was only a Saturday early in May that the twins were sent running to get Mrs MacRennie. They chased each other across the yard, past the henhouse and through a windbreak of quaking aspen to the next farm. The boys were always in motion. In the few photographs that still exist of that time, from picnics or barn raisings when the whole town came out, at least one of the twins is just a blur, unable to stand still even for the few seconds of an open shutter. Mary was rolling out a pie crust when they rushed through her kitchen door.
‘Come back to yourselves boys,’ she said, smiling.
Karl and Einar were eleven. They wanted a new baby, but in the same way they liked it when the cows calved in the spring.
Mary packed up a few things in a small net bag. She sent Karl out to the fields to tell her husband where she had gone and walked to Inge’s with Einar.
‘Now,’ she asked him, ‘what have you been thinking about names? Horseshoe, or maybe Apple Pie?’
Einar reached for Mary’s hand, even though he was big now.
Inge had already taken the good sheets off the bed. She’d laid down an old flannel blanket over a large piece of cloth Edmund had waterproofed the month before, brushed with boiled linseed oil. Mary sent Edmund back to work, leaving the women to their own.
‘We’ll keep Einar handy,’ she said, ‘in case of needing him to get you.’
Edmund stopped by the barn on his way, making sure the horse was fed and watered, and the saddle ready. Mary put the boy to cutting kindling outside the kitchen door.
‘Now Inge,’ said Mary, once Edmund and Einar had left them alone. ‘All the babies you’ve had already, this one’s going to slip out. We’ll be having a cup of tea in an hour. Let’s see how far along you are.’
She was right, and Inge pushed the small body from her own a few minutes later, the pain so familiar she didn’t need any unnecessary crying from the surprise of it. Mary helped guide the baby out directly onto the soft flannel. Inge looked down at the bloody mewling infant between her spattered legs. She sighed. Inge always thought the same thing when her children were born, even when she tried to not think it: of dressing rabbits in the kitchen, and the raw, skinned bodies haphazardly splayed in the red-stained, white enamel sink, helpless and so vulnerable.
‘She’s gorgeous!’ Mary said.
Inge took a deep breath, feeling her lungs open into parts of her body that had been borrowed the last few months. The baby was a girl, with all her fingers and toes, and a strong cry. Mary lifted her to Inge’s arms. The baby instinctively turned her head, rooting, and latched at Inge’s breast, her little mouth a perfect pursed seal, suckling a nipple turned the colour of livid plum since the last weeks of pregnancy.
Mary had a jug of warm water for washing ready and a basket of folded clean rags. She went to the kitchen for the teapot, returning with two cups of tea laced sweet with sugar, almost like it was any other afternoon the past twenty years, except for the tiny new person in the crook of Inge’s arm. Inge and Mary’s ritual, the baby then the tea, had started when Hilde was born twenty-two years earlier and continued through the nine deliveries they’d had between them since. ‘There’s nothing better than that first cup after you’ve got a new baby out,’ said Mary, ‘just to catch your breath.’ She passed the biscuits. ‘Sláinte,’ said Mary, raising her teacup.
Inge knew Mary was waiting; ‘Skål,’ she answered.
Mary dipped her biscuit in her tea. ‘I just love a decent biscuit,’ she said. ‘Give me a Norwegian birth any day—good biscuits. Remember that Russian family? Sweet Jesus! What was that? Some hard mean thing not fit to dip into a cup of tea.’
Mary went on, talking for both of them: ‘Brits, Scots, the Irish. The French, they’re good. But not so much Yvette Proulx. Everything that woman made was burnt, God rest her.’
Mary crossed herself and drank her tea. Inge closed her eyes, just for a minute, sitting on the bloodied oilcloth nursing the baby, naked except for an unbuttoned chemise for modesty, holding the teacup in her free hand. She was sure the fatigue must be showing on her face already, working its way from deep inside her. After all these years living next to each other, Inge knew that* *having children was harder for her that it seemed to be for Mary, who thrived with each new baby. Inge never talked about it, and Mary never pried, not too much; the MacRennies and Sorensons were good neighbours, which is a blessing on prairie homesteads, and both families knew it. When Inge opened her eyes, Mary was watching her, silently mouthing the final words of a prayer. ‘Right,’ Mary said, brushing crumbs off her skirt, ‘just one more biscuit and
we’ll get it all tidied up.’
The baby was named Magda, after Edmund’s mother, and they had her baptised a week later at the Lutheran church in town. After the service, everyone gathered in the church hall to catch up on news of cows and grain prices and letters from those away. The women passed around plates of butter cookies and poured boiled coffee. Inge, old enough to be Magda’s grandmother, wished they could just leave and go home. She asked Hilde to hold the baby.
‘She looks better with you,’ Inge said, when Magda was in Hilde’s arms. ‘You’ll have a baby of your own soon, four years married.’
‘Three,’ said Hilde.
Inge worked a loose thread in the sleeve of her dress and pulled it free, smoothing away imaginary wrinkles. They said nothing for a minute. Hilde watched her mother’s hand ironing, elbow to wrist, then straightening cuffs.
‘I’ll add some fabric in the store’s next order,’ Hilde said, ‘so you can make yourself a new dress when you have time.’
Inge looked at her dress. The cotton was good: a durable plain weave. The buttons came from an old shirt of one of the twins: Einar’s, or maybe Karl’s.
‘This is fine for another year,’ she said and her eyes flitted around the church hall. ‘Is it not four years now?’
Hilde spoke to the baby: ‘Only three.’ Inge fingered a button at her collar.
‘Think of the cost, Hilde,’ Inge said, pausing. ‘No, there’s no need wasting money when this is still serviceable. Better you save for your own baby. I’m sure it will happen soon.’
The pastor’s wife offered them more coffee, working her way through the crowd.
After a minute Inge spoke into the silence: ‘I hear you’ve got a woman coming in to do the laundry?’
Hilde adjusted the baby’s bonnet. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I have a woman coming in to do the laundry.’
Across the room, the men shook Edmund’s hand, and one of them said something quietly so that they all laughed, Edmund included, and they clapped him on the back. Magda started to fuss.
The twins took to having a new baby in the house. They danced and aped at the cradle, trying to outdo each other making her laugh. Edmund played with Magda too, hiding his face behind his hands, then peeking out. He had played with all the children. Inge kept Magda clean and fed. She picked her up when she cried and rocked her in the rocking chair, patting her back. Inge waited for the blackness to descend over her, but this time, with this baby, it wasn’t as quick to come.
Mary made a point of visiting Inge’s kitchen every afternoon those first few weeks, taking her knitting or a bag of socks to darn. The baby was fine, but Inge could tell Mary wanted to make sure she had settled. There’s a difference, Inge well understood, between taking care of a baby and caring for a baby.
On one of those afternoons in Inge’s kitchen, Mary told Inge a story about her own boys, how years before they’d taken their sister’s dress from the clothesline and put it on the dog.
‘Ah well,’ Mary had said, laughing, ‘even then you can’t help but love them.’ Inge looked surprised. Magda was napping in her arms.
‘Do you love all your children?’ Inge had asked.
It had never occurred to Inge that she needed to, or even that she was supposed to love them all. Edmund left for Canada while she was pregnant with the first child, the little girl who died during the Atlantic crossing. Inge had sent a telegram when the ship docked in Montreal so Edmund would know he had only one person to collect a week later. Her train finally pulled at the tiny Saskatchewan station after a week of forests and mountains, thick clouds of black flies and, for the last day and a half, broad, flat plains. The station was more a collection of wooden planks hammered together to make a short platform and a wind-buffeted shed for the stationmaster, who was also the grain agent. A box of peonies grew on the shed’s one window ledge. The grain elevator stood tall next to the platform and two men were outside doing figures on a scrap of paper laid flat on the top of a barrel.
‘Only you,’ Edmund had said on the station platform, hesitating before
taking her hands in his own. ‘Yes,’ she answered.
She was standing next to her steamer trunk. The train conductor had lowered it down from the baggage car.
‘There’s only me.’
She didn’t know what else to say.
They had met each other two weeks before they married. His aunt knew her mother.
‘The boy is a hard worker,’ the aunt had said, sitting at Inge’s parents’ kitchen table, ‘with a land grant in Canada. He has a full 160 acres all in his own name.’
The aunt’s hands clasped her bag firmly on her lap.
‘The Erikson boys write their parents the soil is good but there are very few women. My brother thinks he needs a wife before he goes, a local wife They want a girl who can make lutefisk; one who comes from a hard-working family.’ Mama nodded her head, calculating the cost of one less mouth to feed, with Papa sick. There was quiet in the kitchen. The aunt looked around, inspecting
for dust, and could see none. She turned back to Mama, satisfied.
‘Edmund’s already arranged the plough and team of horses himself. It’s only the wife he’s needing. He’s quiet, but he’s a good boy.’
Mama offered Edmund’s aunt a slice of apple cake to go with her cooling tea. Inge was not asked her opinion, nor was Edmund. Inge’s mother said she would be wise to be sensible. Edmund sailed a month later, expecting to save enough money to send for his new wife within two years. It was impractical he
left her pregnant; that had surprised them both.
Two years later exactly, as a young woman standing on the train platform after the long journey from Norway, across the Atlantic and across Canada, how could Inge explain the time that had passed to her husband, him nearly a stranger to her: the iron tablets, the prescribed nature walks, the tonics? None of it made any difference to the suffocation she felt through her pregnancy and then afterwards, the dense fatigue and darkness that wrapped around her like a fog rolling up from the harbour, never lifting. She spent her nights awake, unable to sleep until dawn and her days had no sense of time passing. Inge didn’t know what she was supposed to do with the small person who followed her every movement with big eyes and then, as months passed, held unsteadily to her skirts.
When the baby died on the ship, Inge felt no tears, though she wanted to
be able to cry. At least she wanted to be able to do that. She knew she was disappointing the other mothers, women ready to come to her with cool compresses and soft words in all their different languages. She lay in her berth with her back to the cabin through the long day after the baby was buried in the dark sea. For hours, she willed herself not to roll over, or open her eyes, or ask for some water to drink, even though she was thirsty. She didn’t think she deserved to be comforted. Inge felt the child’s final convulsions before dying as a deserved reproach: eyes fluttering, unfocused; tiny spasming hands held up in supplication; body burning with heat; too weak even for a feeble cry. The miniature husk of a corpse left behind, visibly empty of soul, was tangible proof to Inge of her incompetence. She hadn’t wished the baby ill will ever, but she’d felt the same towards her from the baby’s first day of life to her last: uncertain, confused and at best, only pretending to be the child’s mother. She had failed both the baby and Edmund. It wasn’t an accident the child was taken: ‘God has his reasons.’
On the train platform two weeks later, Inge had raised her face towards the
grey sky. She felt a first few drops of rain land. How could she tell Edmund any of this? How could she tell him she hadn’t been good enough to be the mother of his child, of her own child? She couldn’t.
‘Yes, only me,’ she said
Her mind couldn’t think of the right next words. ‘No. You didn’t, I mean, you—’ said Edmund. ‘It’s going to rain,’ Inge interrupted.
‘Yes,’ said Edmund, looking at the sky, ‘it’s the rainy time of year. But you—‘
Inge couldn’t let him forgive her that easily. That was what he was about to do.
‘Your mother sent you socks,’ she said. ‘Blue with white stripes. They’re very nice. We should go before the rain comes.’
It was many years before they spoke of it again.
A few months later, settling into her new life in Canada, Inge was pregnant again. Just as before, the tiredness came in pregnancy and lingered after Hilde was born. Inge felt like her body did the motions of living while her spirit was somewhere else, but it was familiar and she expected it, so she managed. Inge couldn’t hide everything from Edmund, but she got from day to day.
Hilde stayed; she didn’t die like her older sister.
‘A bit away with the fairies,’ Mary agreed about Hilde as she grew up, ‘but isn’t she so clever with her arrangements of flowers, and a pretty girl too.’
Inge pointed out dropped stitches in Hilde’s knitting and unravelled socks to let Hilde start again. Hilde scorched collars when she ironed, which Inge said was confusing, considering the simplicity of the task.
‘How do you ever expect to be—,’ asked Inge, searching for the right word in English, ‘to be practical?’
As she got older, Hilde grew even prettier. She wasn’t smart, but she was clever. In the summer she was nineteen, a week after the annual church picnic at Macaw Lake, the widowed town storekeeper came to call on a Sunday afternoon. He asked to speak to Edmund, alone. Hilde, since then married three years, now stood behind the counter at the general store and ordered all the Ladies Goods and Sundries, which she arranged carefully in the shop window, as well as the seasonal displays of farm equipment and also baking supplies. Her windows received compliments from the salesmen and once, a special award from the Blue Ribbon Manufacturing Company in Winnipeg, displayed on the wall behind the cash register, next to notices about store credit. The lace at Hilde’s cuffs and collar was now always store bought, often in a shade of pale pink.
After Hilde, Inge’s next child was Wilbur. The pregnancy had been different from the first two. Edmund and Inge finally had time for their quiet version of courting in the years after they were married. Winters are long in Saskatchewan; they eventually had enough nights sitting together by the fire to be at ease. A young Jim MacRennie knocked at the door one evening, bringing over a new book Mary had just finished: *Tom Grogan *by Francis Hopkinson Smith.
‘It’s about a bold Irishwoman who takes over her husband’s identity when he dies to carry on famously and support the family,’ said Jim. ‘Mary loved it.’ Edmund read aloud to Inge that winter while she knitted. They looked up English words they didn’t know in the dictionary. The year after that, he read her *The Day’s Work *by Rudyard Kipling, all short stories. She liked Edmund reading to her. The farm was doing well too; the harvests had been good. Edmund planted saplings next to the house, someday to bear apples and pears for his wife. Inge felt secure. She was content. She wrote her mother to say that yes, she was tired in the pregnancy, but not tired in the same way, and not tired
Wilbur’s birth in the early spring had been easy. When July and August winds baked the prairies, Inge bathed Wilbur on the covered front porch, keeping him cool, while Hilde played with her dolls. When there was no one to see her except Hilde and she was certain Edmund wasn’t in the house, Inge would hold her son up to her face, close her eyes and breathe deeply the smell of his skin, especially at his neck. She couldn’t explain why she did this and she couldn’t think what the smell exactly was either, but there was warmth and the honey orange of a Chinook sunset, and the freshness of a new crop of wheat coming up, all mixed with something indescribably satisfying, and she couldn’t believe she had never smelled it before.
Now he was twenty years old and Wilbur was in Europe. His last letter home was postmarked from Amiens, in France. Wilbur, Mary and Jim’s oldest son Angus, and the other boys from Unity and the nearby farms were all part of the 1st Battalion, Canadian Mounted Rifles, Canadian Expeditionary Force. The schoolteacher in town had specially ordered *The Atlas of Western Europe *from the Department of Education catalogue. When new letters arrived, people visited Miss Monahan at the schoolhouse to search the atlas for postmarks.
Inge had not been able to hide the fear in her face when Wilbur and Angus came home after signing up, the boys triumphant and boisterous, filled with the bravado of adventure. She said there was no need for him to go when there was so much work on the farm, but Wilbur laughed and said they were Lutherans, not Mennonites or crazed naked Dukhobors protesting the war outside the legislative buildings and anyway, he and Angus would look out for each other. The boys had been away nearly two years now.
Inge and Edmund’s twins were next, born when Hilde was eleven and Wilbur nine. Hilde claimed her brothers from the beginning as if they were her babies, fussing over their clothes and arranging their soft curly hair. Mary MacRennie told Hilde it was her extra important job, and that Hilde was to be a great girl with the twins and her younger brother Wilbur too. Inge had to stay in bed for nearly a month. She hadn’t expected two babies and had hemorrhaged in delivery, then was ill with infection. On top of that, so sick sometimes she didn’t know where or who she was, the dark emptiness had returned and wrapped around her in a stranglehold. The infection cleared after a few weeks, but she wept for hours and hours, day after day. Edmund spoke with Mary and Mary arranged to have a wet nurse, even though the eight dollars each month was a real strain.
Despite there being two of them, the twins had needed Inge less than any of
the other children, and this made it easier. Einar proved to be good-natured and Karl not as much, but he tried. They both loved Hilde, and as they got older, the boys were happy to work on the farm with their father when they weren’t in school.
Last came Magda, the unexpected baby, born that year, in May of 1916, delivered by Mary and followed by a cup of sweet tea. Yes, Inge was tired, but she was always tired. She worried, but Inge always worried. On the other hand, the farm and her family were well. Inge could only wait to see what would happen.
August that year was solid with unmoving heat. Inge rested in the afternoon* *shade of the front porch, Magda in her cradle. Edmund and the boys were at work in the barn. Inge rocked the cradle with her foot, fanning herself, sweat staining her dress in crescents under each arm. Magda babbled and chewed her hand.
That morning, Mary had run through the windbreak, all one hundred and eighty pounds of her, apron flapping, hair flying loose from her hairpins. She was waving a letter from her son Angus. Wilbur’s letter would arrive a few days later. The newspaper headlines for the past month had been nothing but the Somme Offensive. Nearly every farm was waiting for a letter, and praying not to see the telegraph boy instead… *buried Jack McCabe and his cousin Frank, who died next to each other so we buried them same. Please tell McCabes it was quick and boys felt nothing. Frank had only received photo of new baby. Frank was proud and glad to see such a fine looking child. Say so to his wife. Do not worry yourselves as all others well. Wilbur here beside me, writing to the Sorensons. Thank you for chocolate and tobacco, which was greatly appreciated. Kiss everyone. Say to boys they need to help Daddy do my share of the work. Pray we see each other soon. With love, Angus. *On the porch that afternoon, thinking about the letter, Inge felt her breath come easier. She was sad for the McCabes; they were good people, but her son was alive on the date Angus put pen to paper.
At her feet, Magda smiled, or at least it seemed like she smiled. Inge was
surprised: Magda, she had never noticed before, looked like Wilbur had as a baby. Magda’s eyes focused on her mother and she reached out, touching Inge’s mouth. Inge took Magda’s hand away. Magda did it again. Inge pretended to nibble the baby’s fingers and Magda squealed in delight.
Inge went inside and at the kitchen pump, filled a shallow basin with water. She brought the basin back, moving slowly through the hot air, and laid it down on the porch. Even the first pump water was warm. Inge undressed the baby, lowering her carefully. Inge smiled a second time when Magda kicked out to splash with her feet. They played, Inge gently bobbing the baby up and down, little waves rolling over Magda’s stomach. When she finally picked Magda up out of the basin, Inge leaned her head down tentatively, then brushed her nose across the baby’s skin to take a delicate inhale of Magda’s neck before latching her to nurse.
After the harvest, with the weather still fine but cooling, Inge made herself a new Sunday dress. It was a dark shade of green from the length of poplin Hilde sent out to the farm. The note tucked inside said: Mama, It’s already paid for, so please use it for yourself. Hilde. Edmund visited his daughter at the general store later in the week to collect a crate of canning jars. On a whim, he brought black velvet piping for the dress, choosing from the spools Hilde showed him. Hilde gave him a twist of hard candy for the twins: mixed root beer and butterscotch. Inge agreed that the trim at the cuffs added to the dress, and she kept to herself about the extra cost. She made Magda a little cape with the leftover material and velvet edging, even though Magda didn’t need it.
The weather turned and the cold autumn winds started. Inge learned a few of Edmund’s songs, the ones he had sung to the other children. She sang with Magda on her knee after everyone left for school or the barn. Inge took her out twice a day to feed the chickens, the baby’s favourite thing to do. Mary MacRennie brought over a collection of Beatrix Potter books no one in her house was reading anymore.
‘I’m saving them for grandchildren,’ she said, ‘but that’s still a few years away. No harm Magda getting some use.’
Inge was awkward at first. She had to ask Mary the meaning of some of the very English words.
‘What,’ she asked, ‘does kertyschoo mean and why does the rabbit not listen to his mother?’
Mary told her. Inge thought the books too fanciful, with dancing animals in waistcoats having feelings, cats hosting tea parties and sly foxes reading newspapers. Magda seemed to enjoy the sound of her mother’s voice. Inge kept reading, and one night the twins decided they weren’t too old they couldn’t look at the pictures as well. Edmund listened from his chair by the fire.
At the church Christmas pageant that year, Inge enjoyed herself so much she managed to compliment Hilde’s altar design without saying the wrong thing. She didn’t need to go over her words in her head with regret, like the usual conversations with her older daughter. Inge held Magda in her arms the entire evening, even when Hilde offered to take her. Edmund whispered in Inge’s ear as the twins delivered their lines as the Magi and she delighted him when she laughed. Everyone admired the baby’s green cape with black velvet trim.
In February, the first big storm kept the boys home from school. The freezing cold set in and temperatures dropping to minus forty. On the morning Magda died, Karl and Einar were still asleep. Inge woke late, at six, with Edmund snoring beside her. The baby was in her crib. Inge stretched over to check. It was still too dark to see, but Inge was listening and there was nothing to hear.
The baby wasn’t breathing. Inge stayed motionless for a long moment, and then another, until she was certain nothing was going to change. She got up* *silently, to not wake Edmund. She wrapped herself in her heavy wool shawl, then went downstairs to the kitchen. She could see her breath In the air. Inge stirred the embers in the stove, adding kindling and blowing softly until the fire caught. She dragged her rocking chair close, and went back upstairs for Magda, picking her up and making sure she was properly covered in her baby quilt. In the cold kitchen, Inge sat with the baby in her arms and rocked slowly.
There was no point in crying, Inge told herself, no point. Babies died all the time. At the Larson’s farm, on the other side of the MacRennies’, they lost one this way the year before, during an afternoon nap. At the Olafsons, they’d had a problem with their well and during the summer three of their children died. It happened. Inge continued rocking, pushing against the floor with her foot, slow and steady, the chair creaking back and forth. She adjusted Magda’s blanket, tucking the edges to keep out draughts.
‘Why did you not stay, my baby?’ Inge whispered to Magda.
The wood in the fire hissed like it was slowly sucking in huge breaths and crackled loudly, a series of small explosions as the frozen water in its veins turned to steam. The sound echoed Inge back to the deck of the ship twenty- five years earlier, to the condemnation as the shrouded body of her first child fell from the ship, hit the ocean with a splash and disappeared into the water. She understood the answer she had been given: ‘God has his reasons.’
Inge had let herself forget she didn’t deserve to love her children. It wasn’t for her to decide otherwise, just because this time she felt different. God was angered by her arrogance and selfishness, angered by her hubris. Inge’s grief scourged across her face. It was the little cape to match her own dress that caused this; the cape with velvet trim was an act of arrogance God couldn’t ignore. Inge rocked Magda and she cried and cried until all her tears were gone.
Later in the morning, Edmund and the twins made the tiny coffin at the kitchen table while Inge watched from the rocking chair, her eyes red. They lined it with an old white cotton pillowcase, worn thin with many washings. Hilde had done the edging embroidery when she was a girl, her Queen Anne stitch uneven. When the coffin was ready, Inge stood up. She gently placed her daughter inside, the scent of Magda’s skin in her memory.
Inge had been thinking about God. She wouldn’t taunt Him with a single tear more, afraid he might think she hadn’t been punished enough. God would take another child, and then another, until she showed her acceptance of His will. Inge was afraid God would take Wilbur. She needed Wilbur to come home* *
safely. She would show no more tears, no more indulgence in love. She would protect Wilbur from God.
Edmund fit the coffin lid over Magda. He put on his coat and picked the box up in his arms, the weight of his daughter light. Inge stood still beside the wood stove. He nodded at her, waiting to be sure Inge was ready for him to take Magda away. The porch door closed behind Edmund and he carried the coffin across the yard, the weak sun barely risen, bathing the farmyard in a pale anaemic light. The air outside was bitterly cold and Edmund’s own tears, in this private place, froze on his eyelashes. The animals in the barn made their low, snorting noises. He put the coffin in a burlap sack and hung it over a high crossbeam, out of reach from wolves, foxes and especially the rats. The body would freeze. Edmund and the boys would have to wait for spring for the ground to thaw to dig a grave.
Inside the house, Inge went upstairs. She was still in her nightdress and shawl,
and there were the day’s chores to do. She had the bread to start. There were wood shavings from the coffin under the kitchen table to sweep up. Inge sat on the edge of her bed. Her breasts were leaking. Inge looked down at her veined bony hands, a record of all those years of hard work and she felt inescapably old. The dark heaviness started devouring all the air in the room as it came down around her.