Excerpts > Gina Ochsner
A Blessing
Gina Ochsner

Though they already had a temperamental cockatiel named Fluria, Vera and Nikolai wanted a dog. They thought that they would like to have children and because they thought raising a dog might teach them things raising a cockatiel hadn't.  The dogs listed in the classifieds were too expensive, pure-breds most of them, so Nikolai went to the local pound where he and Vera had figured among the dogs, they'd find a good candidate. The cries and yelps of the dogs, some of them with broken tails, several of them with pinkeye, all of them doomed, bothered Nikolai.  Something about the way the dogs and cats were kept in small cages reminded him of the camps, the outposts people got sent to when they said or saw things they shouldn't, and Nikolai turned on his heel and walked past the volunteer workers hosing down the cement, past the Humane Society's posters reminding the responsible to neuter and spay, and out into the bright daylight outside.

Before they had emmigrated, they had lived in Novosobirsk, a wide open city of wind in the heart of Russia. There were no pounds or societies.  There, if you wanted a pet, all you had to do was set a dish out.  Then you'd have more dogs +than you would know what to do with.  Except those dogs were savages—you had to be careful which dog you chose and careful, too, to get rid of the dogs you didn't want. In Novosobirsk the unwanted dogs were left to roam unless they became too aggressive and then they were shot.  Even so, it was not uncommon for people to take in an animal gone wild, a dog or cat, say, and keep it in the kitchen.

The family that had been brought in to occupy the vacant flat next to Nikolai's and Vera's, had come from a failed collective farm.  They couldn't bear to be separated from the animals and brought their two goats and all their chickens to live in the kitchen.  At night, when everyone else was asleep, the chickens would make strange gurgling noises that over the years Nikolai interpreted as their quiet sounds of contentment.

Nikolai walked until he was just a few blocks from their apartment building.  It was white out, a winter white that was so white, it hurt the eyes.  He sat on a bus stop bench and rubbed the back of his neck.  He knew Vera would be angry if he didn't show up with a dog.  Nikolai kept his eyes at the ground, willing a dog, any dog, to appear. Nikolai reached into his coat pocket and pulled out his tobacco papers. Sasha, Vera's brother, came walking by.  He'd tagged along when Vera and Nikolai had immigrated, and it seemed everytime Nikolai turned around, Sasha was shadowing him.

"What's new?"  Sasha sat next to Nikolai on the bench.  Sasha had the kind of eyes that showed more than two thousand years of oppression and as a general rule Nikolai considered his brother-in-law bad luck.

"Nothing."  Nikolai said mechanically.

"Really, what are you doing?"

"Looking for a dog."  Nikolai offered him a drag on his cigarette, but Sasha shook his head, then stood up.

"Good luck," he said and started walking. Sasha was on his way to the gym where he was taking karate classes.  Sasha wanted Nikolai to call him Sam nowadays and just yesterday he asked Nikolai to call him Karate Sam.   "I am ex-peer-ee-men-ting," Sasha would sing out, lifting his leg slowly into a karate pose, whenever Nikolai asked him why he wished to pay thirty-five dollars a month to get his ass kicked.  Nikolai flicked the butt of his cigarette between his forefinger and thumb, watching it land in the street. He was thinking of giving up, of telling Vera there were no dogs at the pound, an outrageous lie, when he heard it: a tiny whimpering, a sad and pathetic sound of a very small animal.  He looked at the crows wheeling over the sidewalk and then walked toward a trash dumpster where he saw something round and furry.  At first, Nikolai thought it might be a small rat or a kitten.  He heard that whimper again and bent down for a closer look.  It was a puppy, he decided, but it was so young, its eyes still hadn't opened, and Nikolai knew that it couldn't have been properly weaned and would certainly starve or be eaten by the crows.

Nikolai scooped up the puppy with one hand and held it inside his scarf, against his collarbone, and sighed, imagining what Vera would say when she saw it.  The puppy burrowed in the hollow between his collarbone and shoulder and Nikolai felt its tiny breath on his neck. Nikolai could feel his face lifting into something like a smile, though he was not a smiler by nature.  But he was happy in this moment, and happy that he could know it, could know that something so small as finding a dog that needed finding could change him, even just a little bit and he wondered who held the patent on that tiny miracle.  Nikolai laid his chin on the puppy's head, felt the tiny bones of its skull against his jaw.

"Shura," Nikolai whispered.  "If you make it through the week, I'm going to call you Shura."


When he returned home, Vera met him at the door.  Nikolai pulled open his coat to show her the puppy.  Vera stepped forward and held her breath, her hands frozen in mid-air as if she were about to sneeze.  "You got this at the pound?"

"No.  I found him on the street."

"Street dogs are savages.  They eat children."

"He's not a savage.  Besides.  Street dogs can turn out to be as good, if not better, than a kennel dog."

"Well.  It's on your head." Vera said, finally.  She turned to a large stack of mail and handed Nikolai a fat envelope.  It was full of foreign currency and the return postmark listed the address of distant relatives living in the heart of Siberia.   "There must be a mistake."  Vera said, taking the envelope from Nikolai and slapping it on the kitchen counter. "These are second cousins on my mother's side.  I can't imagine how they managed to save this kind of money or why they are sending it to us."

Nikolai, still carrying the puppy in his coat, went to the freezer for their special occasion vodka. Vera shook her head when he offered her a shot and he wondered at her capacity to be dour when he could find a reason to rejoice.  Nikolai put some dishrags in the oven and set it on warm and pulled Shura from out of his coat.

Vera frowned when she saw the puppy. "He's missing a tail.  What's a dog without a tail?"  Vera demanded, and she poked the puppy with her finger at that place where a tail should have been.  "How will we know if he's happy or not if he has no tail to wag?"  She asked Nikolai and it seemed to him that she was accusing him of something.

"At least he's not missing any legs," Nikolai mumbled and wrapped Shura in the towels from the oven. He rubbed Shura's coat, which reminded him of new snow, stark white with the exception of a thin black stripe that started at the tip of his nose and ran the length of his back.

"I'll bet he's a Siberian Husky.  Look at that mask. He looks like a raccoon," Nikolai said, placing Shura in the crook of Vera's arm.  Her back went stiff at feel of something warm and living and Vera wrinkled her nose. "He's so little, it's scary," she said, her shoulder dropping slightly as she brought the puppy in closer to her body and trained the nipple to his mouth.


About a week after Nikolai brought him home, they discovered that Shura's most unusual feature was his different colored eyes; one brown and one a blue so pale it appeared white.  At first Nikolai thought he was blind in the blue eye, and wondered if the fact that he had that blue eye was a clue or a key to some mystery that was up to him to solve. When Vera held up Shura's chin, she marveled at how clearly she could see herself in his mismatched eye.  But as she studied that blue eye, she thought she caught glimpses of things she shouldn't have seen—other people's faces, the wide expanse of tundra and fescue grass, standing water refracting jigsaw pictures of the sky, all that water wobbling with no place to go-- and looking at him unnerved her.

One evening Shura hid under their bed and whimpered all through the night.

"Maybe he misses his mother," Nikolai said, lighting a cigarette and rolling it between his forefinger and thumb.  Nikolai knelt on all fours and attempted to coax Shura out by pulling a red string over the floor.

"It's like he knows something is about to happen," Vera said.  She looked at Shura hiding under the bed, looked at him, her eyes narrowing.

The next morning they found their beloved Fluria dead at the bottom of her cage.  Nikolai picked her up by her wing and carried her out to the trash bins behind their apartment while Vera climbed back into bed, pulled the covers to her chin and wondered what else Shura could see with his blue eye.


As far as dogs went, Shura's behavior did not seem much out of the ordinary.  He needed to be let out for a walk once in the morning and once at night. He had a favorite toy—a mechanical mouse that he batted around the floor or carried by the tail everywhere he went.  And though his ordinary behavior seemed to make up for his strange looks, something else about Shura besides the visions she saw in his blue eye put Vera's teeth on edge, but what that was, she could not quite determine.  She wondered if Shura's mother also had felt that unnamed feeling, that indistinct fear, and had also known that this dog was different and if that wasn't why she had abandoned him to the cold.

Then, too, Vera could tell that Shura preferred Nikolai and she simply could not forgive Shura for choosing her husband over her, for not cooperating with her on this one fundamental thing.  Maybe Shura liked Nikolai better because he let him up on the couch where the two of them would sit watching soccer matches.  Nikolai even let Shura in their bedroom at night where he would sleep in a tight ball at the end of their mattress.  Vera remembered reading about a dog somewhere in the South, in Kamchatka, maybe, who had by popular vote been elected the new magistrate.  In the South such craziness made sense and Vera supposed that Nikolai was just the kind of man who would vote for a dog if he could.

Still, because she wanted to show Nikolai that she was trying, that she could be a good mother if she put her mind to it, Vera talked to Shura, holding him in the crook of her arm.  She ran through her huge repertoire of stories, some true, but all of them grim, and explained the difficulties of living, pressing him to her heart so that he could hear its even beating.


One day they won a free subscription to National Geographic and another envelope stuffed with rubles arrived from Siberia.  With the money from her relatives Vera and Nikolai decided to buy a new TV and basic cable service, a luxury they had never even dreamed of having.  But after the cable man hooked up their service and left and Vera switched on the TV, she discovered that they had access to all of the channels, even the X-rated ones.

"What could this mean?"  Vera asked Nikolai.  But whenever she brought evidence of such strange phenomena to her husband's attention, he would merely roll his eyes heavenward and shrug.

"Maybe it's a sign," he said to her that evening when she persisted.  They were just about to take Shura out for his walk and were pulling on their boots.

"I don't like this," she said to Nikolai, pulling out from the toe of her boot a ten-dollar bill that hadn't been there that morning. "He makes me nervous," she said, her jaw locked, her breath whistling through her teeth.

"What's not to like?"  Nikolai asked.  "We should be on our hands and knees thanking God for a dog like this.  He doesn't bite, he doesn't bark, he doesn't beg and he even kicks up the dirt to cover his own messes so we don't have to pick it up.  So what if he looks a little strange?'

"Nikolai—your R's—you're rolling them again."  Vera said, pulling on her other boot.

Nikolai threw up his hands.  "He's a good dog," he said, kneeling at Shura's side and scratching the thick fur on his white chest.  Shura rolled onto his back, his tongue hanging from the side of his mouth, and whined.

"I'm not so sure," Vera said, studying Shura's odd eye.  In his eye she saw herself reflected, as if reflected from the back of a spoon, her face distorted and her lips puffy. She remembered wintertime tales from the old country of hungry wolves in the woods and overturned sleds. "Good dogs easily go bad."


One night when the sky was thick and dark like a pocket sewn shut, Vera awoke to the sound of scraping and scratching.  Mice, she thought, because when she rustled the covers and switched on her bedside lamp, the scratching ceased.  She was tempted to shrug the noises off, but then she remembered the stories about St. Seraphim of the famed Sarov Forest; of how he never slept for fear he would miss something important, a sign out there moving among the trees with the ever-changing red and white bark. She settled back into the covers and listened to the mice.  Her eyes fluttered and she heard the soft dropping sound of rain and the beating of wings.  "Fluria?"  She called even though she knew these were not the wings of a house pet, of say a parakeet or cockatiel. The scratching started up again, only this time, it was much louder and Vera woke with a start.

"Kolya—wake up!"  She jabbed at Nikolai with her elbow.  From outside their window she could hear loud wailing that seemed to rise and fall like the angel wings from her dream.  She climbed out of bed and crept to the window.  On the street below she could see the dark forms of dogs, a whole pack of dogs, twenty, no, maybe even thirty dogs, huddled together, dark as soot.

"Kolya, come quick!"  She whispered.

Below their window, the dogs threw their heads back and continued to howl and bay, but at what she could not tell.  The fog was as thick as mud and she could barely see the moon.  She wondered if the neighbors on either side of their apartment could also hear the noise and she held her breath and waited a moment to hear if anyone else would stir.  Shura wasn't on the bed and the bedroom door stood ajar. Vera pulled on her slippers and went out to the kitchen and switched on the light.  There was Shura, his front paws on the window, his nose pressed to the pane, watching the pack below.  They are all down there for him, she realized.

Vera snapped her fingers.  "Shura—come!"

Shura turned and cocked his head to one side.  He flattened his ears and wagged his stump of a tail, but he didn't leave the window.

Vera froze and wondered if she should punish him or let him be.  She locked her eyes on his and finally felt her shoulders slacken and she sighed.  How important could it be, really?  She asked herself and then all the dog proverbs rolled in her mind: Every dog has his day . . . better let sleeping dogs lie . . . , so that's where the old dog is buried.  Vera turned and padded back to the bedroom.

Early the next morning snow began to fall.  By the time Vera took Shura out for his walk, there were no traces of the huge dog pack that had waited for hours, waited for Shura below their apartment windows.  Vera was tempted to forget the whole incident.  Who would believe such a strange story anyway and why tell it?  But by the time Nikolai came home from work, Vera had changed her mind.

"There's something fishy about him," Vera said to Nikolai and put her feet up on a chair.  "There was a whole pack of dogs waiting outside for him last night.  And Shura just stood by the window watching them."

Nikolai held the teakettle under the faucet and then set it to boil. "Maybe they want him to come out and join the pack," he said evenly.

"No—that's not it.  It's like he's their leader already, even though he isn't out running around with them.  You should just hear the noise they made."

"What the hell do you want me to do about it?"  Nikolai turned to Vera.  It was the first time in a long while that Nikolai had been sharp with Vera and her face flushed, whether from anger or embarrassment, Nikolai couldn't tell.  Then she shrugged.

"I don't like the idea of this dog anymore, that's all I'm saying," Vera said at last. Nikolai felt his shoulders go slack.  He was tired of Vera, and tired of trying not to admit it to himself.  Since they'd moved here, she'd changed, and he was tired of trying to keep up with her.

"I'm not sure dogs and kids are so great together."


"I'm admitting that I was wrong about us, the dog and having kids."

"You're not admitting anything."


All that week, the dog pack gathered every night into the wee hours of the morning. Nikolai snored evenly in their bedroom while Vera sat in her rocking chair, next to the phone, sure that a neighbor would call asking her if she heard the commotion, too.  When the phone calls never came, she wondered how it was that a pack of dogs could gather in the middle of night, in the calm of the night-time silence without rousing one other single soul.  Maybe she was hallucinating. Maybe there was nothing at all going on but her own mind playing silly tricks on her, female hormones flaring up in strange ways, for there was no denying her body was changing on her. At first, she thought she had a flue something common that for some reason wouldn't let go.  But after several nights she knew it was something more serious.  A horrible bug, a long, slow poisoning, or something worse.  Then Vera would pull her old blue bathrobe around herself a little tighter, tuck her chin to her chest and wonder what it was Shura thought about, what moved behind that placid blue eye.  Did he think about other dogs? Did he feel the pull of the wilds at his shanks? Did he wish to mate, to den, and to hunt, to smell the scent of the quarry at the back of his throat and the backs of men's knees at his nose? Did he notice stars in the sky, and if he did, could he read in their unfurling the celestial stories of other dogs and hunters chasing the hunted across the ocean of the sky, retelling ancient histories and evoking old geographies?  Did he know what he was or did he think he was another version of her, a Vera with fur and a few more legs?


One morning after she'd been up all night listening to the dogs and then later, had been throwing up in the bathroom, Vera had an epiphany.  She was not the sort of person to have epiphanies, this much she knew aboutherself, so she took her small revelation seriously. Shura had approached her, ears up and eyes bright and she knew that he wanted her to pet him.  She swallowed back the bile and brought her hand down, ready to stroke his fur.  But just as her fingers brushed the longer guard hairs, she stopped, and pulled her hand back. She couldn't touch him without looking into that eye and seeing those things she'd rather not see and looking at Shura reminded her of forgotten promises and a terrible sense that she'd betrayed herself somehow.  And what Shura was exactly, whether not quite dog, or more than dog, she couldn't tell and she knew that she could not keep on like this.

"This dog has to go." Vera said later that morning to Nikolai just as he was leaving for work. It was the way she said it, her voice measured but tight, that made Nikolai suspicious.  There's something else, he thought.  Something she's not saying.

"But I thought we agreed a dog would be good for us." Nikolai said, putting on his coat.

"He's not good for me.  And if we do have children, I ‘m not sure I like the idea of this dog around kids.  After all, people are more important than a dog."

Nikolai's eyes swept over his wife, noting her stance: her back rigid, her elbows out and fists on her hips, the swell of her stomach.  Nikolai took in a sharp breath through his nose and  held it. He wanted to argue: It depends on the dog, or maybe it depends on the people.  Instead he exhaled slowly, waiting for necessary grace for the next breath.  "We could give him to Sasha," he said, quietly.

"No.  I don't ever want to see him around," Vera said. Nikolai wrapped his hand over the doorknob and squeezed. It's strange, he thought, when you can't think of one thing to say to your wife, not one, let alone the one thing that might bring a slow repair.  Even stranger that she could love him, her husband, but couldn't love something loved by him.  In their seven years of marriage he had never doubted her heart, her capacity for finding room in it for the things that mattered.  Nikolai thought of calling Sasha, then, of going to karate classes with him that night simply to get away from her. He opened the door and looked over his shoulder at Vera.

"Alright," Nikolai said at last, "it's on your head," and closed the door behind him.


Once they agreed upon their decision, Vera noticed changes in Shura.  Each night, the dog pack still howled and waited for him, but Shura didn't seem to care as much.  He paced around the kitchen day and night, sighing. "Lie down!"  Vera would command, but she couldn't help feeling a little guilty.  Shura could not help being the way he was. It's not his fault, she'd remind herself, but would silently mouth, It's not my fault, as she beat her pillow with her fists.

Shura grew skinnier by the day and began to look so sickly that Vera gave him table scraps, and then even choice pieces of meat, but he steadily lost weight.  She felt herself moved to pity for Shura—she didn't want to be a bad person doing bad, selfish things.  But then she'd look at him and instantly turn angry.

"Eat—eat if you know what's good for you," she'd say, prodding Shura with her foot. But even through her thick stockings, when she nudged him she felt the barrel of his bony rib cage. He'd stare steadily past her, as if he were looking through the room and beyond it.  The blank sweep of his stare reminded her of the flat land of ice fields, except in that country you could look forever and not see a thing.  You couldn't help but wonder who had gone before you over the ice, who would follow, what mysteries, what life could spring forth if only the sun would burn a little longer and give it all half a chance.

But then one day in late February at twilight when the whole world had gone blue, Vera caught Shura's gaze and blinked.  As she continued to stare, she thought she saw in Shura's odd eye the face of her grandmother, long since gone.

"O.K.  That does it."  Vera said, scooping Shura up and slinging his front legs over her shoulder.  She carried him down the three flights of stairs and around the backside of their apartment building.  She didn't wring his neck like she'd wanted to or throw him onto the freeway underpass where she knew he'd never survive the fall.  Instead, she carried him like a child in her arms, carried him down their street, for over a mile, carried that dog until, out of breath and her back aching, she half-slung, half-threw Shura onto the sidewalk.  She wiped her hands and stamped her feet all the way back home, surprised to find that she was crying.  When Nikolai returned home from work, he found Vera sitting at the window, pushing the rocking chair slowly with her feet.  She had changed back into her nightgown and her ratty blue bathrobe.

"Are you feeling alright?"  Nikolai asked, shrugging out of his overcoat.

"I put the dog out today.  I thought you should know."

Without a word, Nikolai put his coat back on and went to find Sasha.


For the next three days Vera did not miss Shura, not even a bit.  The dog pack went away and everything seemed almost normal again.  Though she still slept lightly through the night and she still threw up, when she heard the mice scratching in the walls, Vera actually smiled with relief, because here was one more thing that had gone back to normal.

But small miracles started to visit them once more: Vera found quarters in her shoes every Tuesday and Thursday and Nikolai smelled the warm scent of roses in full bloom even though it was still only February and cold winds prevailed.  They won small and large cash prizes from sweepstakes they did not recall entering, and they regularly received free samples and promotional gifts through the mail and were instructed by the Postmaster to keep them in accordance to a finders/keepers law they'd never heard of.

One night, Vera dreamt of the woman of Kursk who swallowed a cat.  Around midnight, while the woman slept, it put its paws into her open mouth and simply crawled down her throat.  She must have awoken, then, unable to breathe, unable to scream, a terrible moving weight in her chest.  But the cat continued the descent to her lungs where it started breathing for her.

Vera awoke then, and shook her head slowly, as if she were still feeling that small animal stirring in her chest. She thought she had felt Shura's warm breath on her face, his paw on her mouth.  She pushed the covers back and swung her feet to the floor.  Such things happened in this world of invisible birds and immutable stars.  Such things could happen. She caught her balance against the bed frame as she carefully touched the end of the bed.  There was a small depression in the blankets as if Shura had been there, curled up, and sleeping at the foot of the mattress while they had slept.

"What's the matter?  What is it?"  Nikolai cried when he saw how pale his wife's face was, as if she'd been visited by ghosts.

"Nothing.  Just a very bad dream." Vera reached for her blue bathrobe and put it on.  "Do you remember the cat-woman of Kursk?" Vera asked staring absently out the window.

"What are you talking about?"

"I don't know.  That's the last thing I was dreaming when I woke up just now," Vera said, rubbing the back of her neck.

Nikolai studied his wife.  "Maybe we should move.  Maybe we should just leave here, leave everything behind."

Vera touched her throat and thought of all her potted bulbs she was planning to force, of her icons hanging in the hallway, the flask of holy water in the broom closet.  She swallowed hard, but still couldn't shake that oily feeling that maybe they'd done something to deserve this kind of luck, but what that was, she had no idea.

Vera smoothed the end of the bed with her palm.  "We did the right thing."  Vera turned to Nikolai.  "Didn't we?"

Nikolai sat next to Vera and raised his arm as if to put it around her shoulders, then let it fall to the bed.  He had loved Shura, had found in him a companion who loved him in return as only a dog can, simply and innocently.  And Nikolai was angry, angry that Vera's failings cost him, that she couldn't accept good things for what they were, and because of it, others had to suffer.

Nikolai pulled out his tobacco papers and began rolling a cigarette.  "We could get another pet, a fish, maybe, what with Fluria gone and now Shura . . ."

"—No."  Vera interrupted, pulling her robe tighter around her rib cage.  She was thinking of the ice fields again, of life under the crust and of how terrified she was, not knowing what was really there, afraid that even if she could know, she wouldn't make any sense of it.  "No more pets." Suddenly she was very tired and was sick of talking.  Vera hoisted herself from the bed and padded toward the bathroom.  "Besides," she called over her shoulder "I think I'm pregnant."

Nikolai held his cigarette between his forefinger and thumb and watched the paper burn to ash.  He couldn't help feeling like some joke had been played upon him, something he had never thought possible, and then he felt guilty for thinking such things.   He knew he should feel something, happiness, joy, even, but he felt sad, and then, sad for feeling sad.  He exhaled and put out his stub in the ashtray on his nightstand, determined to not be angry, to not hate his wife a little.

"Vera," Nikolai called starting for the bathroom where he could just see the edge of her bathrobe.  She was standing in front of the mirror, checking her stomach in profile.  In the mirror, Vera saw Nikolai advancing.  She felt her stomach stir, the flutter of wings, and with her foot she nudged the bathroom door shut.

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