16Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, answered and said to the king, O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter.
17 If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king.
18 But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.
19 Then was Nebuchadnezzar full of fury, and the form of his visage was changed against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego: therefore he spake, and commanded that they should heat the furnace one seven times more than it was wont to be heated.
– Daniel 3:16-19
The house was too large by far, but she didn’t think that would matter in the end. They would fill it, eventually, each of those dusty chasms of rooms would eventually be inhabited. She would also not be there so much. Eventually. It would be her turn soon to inhabit the bigger world, but for now, she was needed in their home. Greatly needed, Ezra assured her.
The reservation Greta felt about this new start was a cold thing at first, but she pushed it down when Ezra kissed her on the cheek and beamed.
“Home at last!” he said. A cannon boom of a proclamation. His voice bounced against the walls and tall ceilings.
She echoed it back in a smaller way. Home. At last. They began to wander the rooms again. They had bought the house a month ago, only weeks after the wedding, and fall had settled in since. The sunny rooms of early September were damp and chilly. Home at last.
Upstairs, his daughter Jana stomped from room to room, ready to claim one she liked. This was her first time here as they’d come without her to look after Ezra had the job. Greta found herself listening for the sound of her feet to stop to show that Jana had found the place she wanted, that she had stuck her flag in a bit of the house.
Her eyes traveled over to Ezra to see if would go check on her, but he only smiled, pleased again at his discovery of this place. They were only a few inches apart in height, though Ezra was a tall man, and his slenderness made her feel too big for any space they were in together, even one this large and otherwise unwieldy. She thought of the story of Jonah as she looked up at the rows of ceiling beams not unlike a ribcage, and imagined herself in the belly of an impossibly large fish.
“I’ll just go see how she’s doing,” Greta said, hoping he caught the hesitation in her voice and would tell her not to go, that he would take care of it. Jana had been especially mutinous today, most of her anger directed toward Greta, but Ezra did not want to make a big deal of it. “Don’t fuel the flames,” he said, obviously proud of himself.
The carpet on the stairway was maroon, worn down, wood showing through in places like a broken bone showing through skin.
Greta stopped at the top of the stairs.
“You can go away,” called Jana from down the hall. Last room on the left. Greta stepped back. She’d let Ezra know where to put Jana’s thing.
It was his turn first. He had gotten his dream job here two months ago so they moved, and it would be her turn soon. Maybe she would work, or maybe she would study. Whatever she decided when her turn came around, he would support. That was what he said. When Jana was older and less angry about her mother leaving and her father marrying Greta of all people only a few months later. When things were settled, it would be her turn. Greta loved the plan.
And really, she loved the house. It was something they would grow into, like the pair of shoes her mother would buy her at the start of the school year that were a bit too large then, but perfect before long. It just required a bit of patience.
Ezra took them to dinner the first night, and Greta knew, from the first look at it, the place would be too much for Jana. It was a nice restaurant, a bit expensive, a spot for an intimate date, for impressing someone.
It was quiet in the restaurant, full of couples whispering to each other. The host, a young woman with the look of a model, stared at Jana for just a second too long, trying to make out what to do with a child of seven, her hair stubbornly unbrushed, wearing the same dress she’d worn for the past three days. But Ezra’s good moods were famously impervious to outside influence and he cheerfully greeted the host and asked for a table for three. He had said over and over as they drove into town how excited he was to get to know the area and settle in. He had jangled his keys and whistled as they walked up to the restaurant. He was going to have a good time and be seen doing it. He ruffled Jana’s already messy hair as the host showed them to their table and she swatted him away.
They were seated and menus, the dishes written out in glossy cursive, put in front of them. The waiter poured them water into elegant glasses.
“What’s this?” asked Jana. She touched the menu with one finger like it was a dead animal.
“It’s Italian. You love Italian food,” said Ezra, not looking up from his own menu. His daughter scowled.
Greta leaned over and pointed, speaking softly.
“That looks like shit,” said Jana. “Like something you’d make.”
For just a moment, Ezra’s good mood flickered out. He turned his dark eyes, now narrowed with anger, a boiling heat behind them just barely contained, to his daughter and frowned.
“Now, enough of that. You don’t speak to your stepmother like that.”
At the word, Jana was off, sprinting right for the bathroom door, which she slammed behind her. Several patrons looked their way.
Greta’s head dipped and a blush rose to her cheeks. She set her hands in her lap and stared down to avoid the gazes of the other people. She deserved their condemnation, she knew. She would not fight Jana’s anger. She would let the people stare and think she was a bad parent. She was. She was worse even, not really a parent at all. Just bad.
“Let’s just order,” whispered Ezra, calm again so quickly, his hand on her knee. “She’s safe, she’s fine.”
Greta exhaled and reached for her husband’s hand. She wouldn’t have to go get Jana. The other people had already stopped looking.
By the time their dishes came, Jana had slinked out of the bathroom and returned to the table. She slumped like a ragdoll in her seat but was silent. Back at the car, Ezra hugged her, though she sat with arms rigid at her side; on the way home, he stopped at a fast-food place for a kids’ meal for her.
As soon as the car pulled into the driveway, Jana ran out and into the house with her food clutched to her chest.
Something was wrong, Greta knew. She felt inside her that first night in the new house, the windows open, the smell of wet dirt and trees filling the room, Ezra beside her. Dark hair against the white pillow, his mouth slightly open. Why he had chosen her when his wife left, she didn’t really know. She suspected it may have been a matter of proximity. She was so very there when Eva left. But whatever had started it, he loved her now, that she knew. It was that she could not yet trust it to last and didn’t know what to do if he stopped.
The heat that was in her chest, her anxious brain was going to overtake her. It would soon be too much, she felt, but she didn’t know what to do about it.
The boxes they had yet to unpack made a labyrinth through the house that she wandered in the dark stillness after everyone else was asleep. The furniture, still covered to keep it safe during the move, felt like ancient giants, asleep now but ready to lumber awake and follow her.
Greta stood in the kitchen, her eyes closed, body tense, waiting for a noise that never appeared.
Briefly, the fire that she felt inside of her died down to what she felt was a safe level. Contained. She returned to her husband and her bed.
Their shoes squeaked on the linoleum floor of the school. It was winter break and everything was still clean from the once over the school had been given after the students left the week before; lemon smelling, glue smelling. A shine to everything. Reflections from the lights shone on the floor, making Greta think of lights that it used to be said lured people into bogs.
The principal, a sturdy little woman with a scrubbed clean face, took her keys and opened the classroom door, flipping on the overly bright lights.
“This will be Jana’s room,” she said. “Mr. Pine’s class.”
Inside, the desks were in rows, the shelves full of books. Artwork was on the walls. Greta’s heart thudded, threatening to ignite her. She shouldn’t be here. Her throat felt like a hand was around it. Jana looked up at her in accusation, clearly ready to boil over even after only minutes in the school. She should have told Ezra that, busy or not, this was one chore she could not do for them.
Jana looked feral these days and Greta caught the principal staring at her, the grubby and torn dress, the tangled hair, the feet in their shoes without socks. She knew what kind of impression this gave. She used to be the one doing the judging, watching the children who came into her class, Jana herself one of them not long ago, keeping an eye for things that could be problems. A little dirt was nothing, an occasional cut or scrape the same. Ill-fitting hand me downs were a shame numerous children burdened but as long as the clothes kept the kids warm and covered, it went unremarked on. But some things couldn’t be explained. She remembered hearing that burns, especially cigarette burns, rarely if ever have a good explanation.
“Are you excited for school?” the principal asked. She smiled, trying to get Greta to look up at her. “What was your last school like? Do we have records from her last teacher, Mrs.-”
“Fuck this,” said Jana, and turned and walked down the hall alone.
“Oh my,” the principal whispered.
“It’s her mother…her mother left and it’s been-” She choked back a sob, thinking of Eva, too warm and too standoffish by turns, far more beautiful than Greta felt she herself ever would be, with shining hair to her waist. A nice woman? No. A good woman? How could she judge, especially in her place?
She felt a hand on her shoulder and it was the kindest thing she could remember in so very long and it made her feel like a melting block of ice. At first, for just the briefest flicker, Greta saw everything in the iciest blues. But then, orange and red ravaged her vision, like the boldest of fires. Her palms began to sweat. She knew she was about to incinerate everyone, and begged with whatever was inside herself doing this to be calm. The smell of the principal’s perfume reached her nose. She could hear the hum of the fluorescent lights.
“Let’s go check and see that she’s okay, shall we?” asked the principal. Greta nodded and let herself be led back down the hallway.
“You are having a bath tonight,” said Ezra to his daughter at dinner.
He’d brought home fried chicken for them, talking about how much fun he used to have getting take-out with his family when he was small, how they’d make picnics in the living room and watch movies. The boxes weren’t unpacked yet so this was an easy meal and Greta was grateful. They all sat around the table, no picnic attempted, and the noise of the rain should have been a balm, should have extinguished the tense mood, but it didn’t.
“I’m not,” said Jana.
Ezra crossed his arms and set the full weight of his gaze on his small daughter, who took it like Atlas with the world on his shoulders. Greta could tell this would be bad and her body began to prepare. The heat began at the back of her knees this time. The dizziness was like bees in her head. She thought of witches being burned at the stake.
“You are.” Ezra’s voice sharp as an arrow, ready to find its target. He made a show of attempting a kinder voice. “You smell, sweetie.”
“Make me,” said Jana. “I don’t care.”
The spark caught. Ezra stood from the table, and Greta grabbed his elbow as he turned toward Jana.
“No, Ez. Ez, it’s okay. Tomorrow? She won’t-”
“Get up,” he said.
His chair fell back as he lunged and Jana jumped away from him.
“No, no, no,” Greta whispered.
But the child was already in his arms, caught at the waist and carried toward the stairs.
“Greta!” he called. “I need your help.”
Her breath felt like bellows in her chest. Stoking, stoking.
Jana screamed at the top of her lungs and the room nearly went black.
Again, her husband used her name like a spell. It summoned her this time like he knew it would. She pulled herself up from the chair and dragged her feet to the bottom of the stairs. Ezra and Jana were at the top. Jana screamed and kicked and punched at her father, but he was a man full of the strength of anger and pulled her from view toward the bathroom. Greta thought of Joan of Arc and she shook as she climbed the stairs.
Upstairs, hot water was flowing into the bathtub. Jana flailed against her father as he struggled with the buttons of her dress. Steam covered the mirror like moss growing over a forest floor. Greta’s neck was flushed with heat and she saw beads of sweat on Ezra’s hairline.
“Help me get this off her.”
For a moment, she and Jana locked eyes and it was like before, when she was just a little girl in a little desk in her classroom, drawing and sometimes even smiling. It was like when she had briefly caught a glimpse of Jana and her mother as they walked up the school, Eva staring down the other parents as she snubbed out her cigarette.
“I won’t.” Greta’s voice was weak, but he managed to hear her over the water. His face froze in a look of annoyance.
“Come on. She needs this.”
“Ezra. Love, please. Stop. You’re hurting her. This isn’t okay.”
The distraction gave the child the upper hand. She reached up with her dirty fingernails and raked them down her father’s face. He wailed and clutched his cheek as Jana darted out the door and to her own room, fleeing to safety with a slam of her door that rattled the second floor.
That night she could not stay next to him and pushed herself over to the far side of the bed waiting for the even breaths of sleep. When they finally came, her body uncoiled. Greta sat up as quietly as she could and then put her feet on the cold floor.
She walked slowly to the dresser where she’d put her small box of private things and opened it.
Inside, a few applications for schools, a few letters.
A postcard that showed a damp, cobblestoned European city. Her shame was that it was addressed to Jana but she’d kept it.
Wish you were here. -Eva
That night, when she finally slept, curled in a ball as far from Ezra as she could manage, she dreamed of starting a fire in the middle of the living room, the contents of the box as tinder, that took the whole house.
The next morning, Ezra woke early for work, the still and calm of the early fall morning shattered by his alarm. Greta, yanked from her dream, was surprised to find herself cold and unburned. Ezra stretched beside her in the bed and leaned over for a kiss to her forehead. Her body had moved toward his in the night. She went downstairs and made him a cup of coffee and brought it to their bathroom, where he was investigating his face as he stared in the mirror. The scratches went from temple to chin, even lines of puffy pink skin.
“This is going to be impossible to explain,” he muttered, turning again to get a better look.
Greta had nothing to say. He was right.
“I shouldn’t have done that. I feel like an ass. She just got me so riled up. Like Eva used to.”
Greta clutched at a corner of her robe.
“You should say you’re sorry.”
He let out a lengthy sigh.
“You’re right. Of course.”
Sinking down to sit on the edge of the bathtub, she listened to him knock on her bedroom door and get no response.
Not long after Ezra left, she threw up in the bathroom sink.
She knew what this meant. It was too soon, far too soon, but it was here. There would be no turn for her. All the turns were Ezra’s, and their son’s, because from that moment she knew what her child was. This was the end of her existence as the person she currently knew. That was her first thought. She had been, without any say in the matter, transformed, and was desperate to claw back to the woman she had been last night.
Maybe this was, she thought for the first time, how Eva had felt.
She wandered the house all day listening for Jana, who made little noise. Greta found that the thought of food made her ill, so she went to sit outside and soak up what sunlight she could like a plant. Around noon, she made a sandwich and put it and a handful of potato chips on a plate outside Jana’s room.
Ezra worked late that night, it was just Greta and Jana for dinner.
She went to Jana’s room in the evening and knocked on the door, speaking Jana’s name as a soft question. She held her breath in the silence that followed and then a small voice called for her to come in.
Jana had made a fort in her room from various blankets and pillows and sat in the middle of it. She’d brushed her hair and had on a large tee shirt. Her face and hands were clean. Around her were candy wrappers, the remains of her fast-food meal from the other night. The plate Greta had left earlier sat to her left, scattered with crumbs.
Greta wanted to tell her to pack, that they didn’t have long before her father came home, to just get the most important things and meet her at the car. She wanted to grab the keys for them both to run. But there were too many things they could not escape. If everything was to burn, they would have to pray to not be consumed.
Jana had her mother’s long hair. She had the memory of her mother like a sacred burning flame surrounding her heart. There was a baby now, secret in Greta’s belly. A baby, half Ezra.
She held out the postcard to Jana.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t know why I took it. I’ve been a little bit scared.”
Jana’s hair fell in front of her face and she looked up through it.
“It’s okay. She’s not coming back. I don’t want it.”
“Can I come in?”
After a long moment, Jana nodded, and Greta, trusting as martyr, stepped a hesitant foot inside.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash