It's Violet's first birthday and Greta has made a strawberry cake with Rosie's help, the tart berries lining the top of the cake in a snowflake design. Rosie herself has lined the two rows of strawberries along the base of the cake and she happily announces this to Hans as he carries it out to the blooming, Spring garden, and her excited trill of laughter carries with the breeze; not too cool but not yet quite the floral balm of a Nantucket summer. Greta picks up Violet from where she crawls happily on the grass, presses a loud kiss to the sunny roundness of her baby's cheek until she giggles before settling her on her hip.
Violet is one, already . Greta can hardly believe it's gone so fast, for the third time, and she finds herself looking solely at Violet's face (memorizing her in this moment) as Hans sets the cake down, already singing in a low timbre and he’s a lovely singer, Hans. Violet's attention falls to the way her Papa lights the candles on her cake and Greta looks on, smiling as Violet giggles with glee when her family begins to sing to her and Greta laughs at how happily overwhelmed the one-year-old looks; she doesn't know whether to focus her attention on the cake or her singing siblings but Violet is smiling wide, clapping her hands together with Rosie and Henry and her parents when they finish their own delightfully off-key rendition of Alles Gute zum Geburtstag .
Greta has never been more aware of the fragility of time ( mortality ) now that she is a Mother and her children's birthdays are always a reminder to her, sometimes sobering, often something nearing hopeful . Today, Violet is one-years-old. Henry will be three by the end of the summer and Rosie, her firstborn, has just turned five that winter. Not long before Rosie was born, Greta was starving in Germany and had a dead brother, dead parents and a presumed dead husband and by all rights, Greta should have probably been (almost) dead then, too.
But now, in 1952, Greta's husband most certainly isn't dead, quite the opposite in fact as he finds himself strapped with three young children, a future she knows neither of them gave much thought to when they married but Greta stops herself short; she tries not to think of before at all.
She tries not to think of the life she had before her children, knows if she lets herself linger in the past too long she will find herself lost ( a ghost ). And though she tries to be present in moments that she knows she should be content with being happy , she finds herself distantly focusing on Hans cutting the cake with care, chuckling when Rosie warns him not to ruin her strawberries and she decides she wants to think of him before their children, even less. He was far from a hero in her story, then, a much stronger villain than savior. He was different then, she was different then, so many things were different. It was wartime.
There was a war.
Hans had (has) done inexcusable (inescapable) things during the war effort, not really for a war at all but now —
But now Hans's voice startles her into looking at him with wide, near guilty eyes as he passes her a piece of cake and she flushes at his raised brow but he only smiles at having caught her distracted, trails his hand over her shoulder after she takes the plate from him, rests his palm comfortingly warm (heavy) on the back of her neck as he sits beside her with his own piece of cake in front of him. Violet reaches for her Papa and Greta automatically loosens her arms, helps her baby as she navigates to Hans's lap, fingers reaching out to pluck Violet's yellow day dress back into place as easily as a mother duck grooms her chicks. With his hands full of Violet, displaying much more interest in her Papa's cake than her own, Greta allows herself to sneak glances at her husband from beneath her lashes; can't help but look at him during these moments of domesticity but would be embarrassed to be caught observing (admiring) him.
Because Hans has never been more beautiful to her than he is now, in 1952, a father to three gorgeous, curious, thriving children. She has been waiting (fearing) for the moment that Hans will get bored; it was difficult to imagine, objectively near impossible to reconcile the Hans Landa she met in 1935 as the Hans Landa beside her now, in 1952, settled in domestic life, carrying a cake. Greta has chosen to separate him into two men; one she can't (won't) forgive and one she can. She tells herself that she has been married for nearly fifteen years but not always to the same Hans Landa and while she knows Hans would take great pleasure in reminding her that she has divided him into two men to make loving him easier for her, she also knows that he values her forgiveness in this life, in this marriage, in 1952, just as much, if not more than her.
(He is but one man: a sum of all of his choices. Is his destiny, his final judgement, for her to decide? Does he press his Fate’s string into her hands and tell her to cut? )
Just now, Rosie is squealing after Henry has dashed her cheek with cake-sticky fingers; eyes playful and dark like Greta's though mischievous as his Papa's, nose scrunched with laughing victory. Rosie looks at her Mama, indignantly five and furious because Rosie is quite particular and likes things to be ordered and manageable right down to how her plaits are done (double deutsch) and the way her toast is cut (triangles) and how her socks are worn (double folded). Greta looks at her boy and tries for disapproval but settles on a smile for him instead, even as Rosie's scowl deepens. He doesn't have the care to look shamed nor contrite; not Henry, no, not their boy.
Henry has bright cheeks and feral, toothy grins and when he's being scolded he always looks he's on the edge of laughing because he’s desperate to share his secret; that he knows just as well as his parents do that he is as charming as he is naughty . At three, Henry is already maddeningly, endearingly and cleverly manipulative and Greta is the weakest to his wiles, she knows, just as her boy knows it better . Maybe, it’s because when she looks at Henry, she can see him long ago, in another place, as another little boy looking very much like him, perhaps a little more shy and with not nearly as much love as he deserves.
Does he deserve all of this? Any of it? A voice asks.
Do you deserve this?
Greta shakes her head, dips her fingers into her own piece of cake and leans over the table to gently tap Henry's nose with it, icing sticking to him, just so she can hear his delighted laugh and stop hearing that voice.
Henry full-belly laughs as he aims for a second round at painting his sister’s face with cake and Rosie shrieks as he gets her again but still listens when Henry tells her to do it to him so they can match and he holds very still, eyes somber as she dashes his cheeks with cake, a strike per cheek, like a pair of Indians preparing to dance around a fire. Greta smiles as Henry then adds the final touches to his sisters war paint, both of their faces solemn as he paints two more lines down her nose and when he's finished, they both look at each other and dissolve into uproarious laughter.
Henry takes Rosie’s hand and swings it back and forth and they laugh together as easily as they fight and though Henry is the younger of the two, Greta knows that he can manage to make Rosie feel as secure as she does irritated and it’s all very familiar to her.
Another burst of laughter, this time from Rosie and there’s a cool feeling on the tip of her nose and Greta turns to Hans on instinct, asking him what is he —
He does it again, a larger dollop of icing this time, right on the cupid's bow of her mouth and Greta shrieks in surprise as she tries to evade his hand coming for her again, streaking her right cheek.
"He’s got Mama! Papa’s got Mama!"
Rosie is crowing, standing on the bench seat, hands on the table as Henry imitates her bouncing, cheering in time with his sister. Greta has her own plate of cake in her hands now and quickly, while Hans is turning back to her, she pushes the entire thing into his face. Violet giggles as the aftermath dollops in thick globs onto her hair and forehead and lap and they're all going to need a bath but the surprised expression that Hans wears on his face is worth it. Rosie's eyes are comically wide as she watches her Papa slowly lick his lips, his face entirely covered in cake, even some of his hair and Greta is reaching over with a cloth napkin to make sure there's no cake sticking in his eyes, still laughing as she moves closer to him, fusses over him.
"I'm sorry--" She laughs, keeps laughing as he sets Violet down on the grass and pulls her suddenly into him, tickling at her ribs as she tries to squirm away from him, digging his face into her neck, smearing the remnants of cake and icing all over her as he makes a playful roaring sound, like he's attacking her; like he does with the children. He holds her still just so he can put a dollop of icing on her nose and cover it entirely with his mouth, sucking it away messily and Greta squeals then, just like their daughter. She tries to avoid his chasing mouth, can barely evade him he has her laughing so hard as he tells the children they better run while he eats their Mama and comes for them next and Rosie and Henry laugh while their Papa presses snorting, dramatically monstrous kisses all over their Mama's face and neck and Rosie and Henry are giggling and then Rosie is saying ewww and pulling Henry towards the fig trees and Violet is under the table, collecting spilled cake and it’s somewhere between panting laughs and Hans’s fingers settling from pinching to petting at her waist, lips pressed to hers in a proper, icing and strawberry kiss that Greta hears the voice again, needling her, asking her —
Does he deserve this?
Do you deserve this?
Greta, covered in cake, kisses her husband and doesn't answer.
The children do indeed need quite the scrubbing and Greta strips the three of them down before they get inside the house, clothes scattering over the closed deck and she uses Violet’s cake covered dress to swat playfully at Henry’s bare bottom as he runs past her and into the house, his delightedly wicked giggle following him through the kitchen and disappearing out the swinging door, to Hans, she knows, where he’s running the bath water.
“Don’t run.“ She cautions Rosie but she’s already chasing after her brother and the door swings back as she speeds through it and Greta is catching Violet by her hand and settling her on her hip before she can follow suit.
“Papa needs a bath, too!” Henry announces to Greta with a splash, giggles when she places Violet in the washing tub beside him, kisses both of them for good measure and Rosie pouts for a moment before Greta turns to her and kisses her last but not least of all, peppering her face with them until Rosie protests and wiggles away.
“There! All kissed and cleaned! Time for bed!” She exclaims and pretends to look confused when they protest loudly.
“Do you mean you’re not finished with your bath?”
“We just got in the bath!” (Henry).
“And we still need our supper!” (Rosie).
“Hmmm. Well, if you want to play in the bath and have something to eat for supper, you’re going to have to play with Papa.”
She knows it’s far from a punishment for them and she places her hand on Hans’s shoulder as she leaves, feels a lasting shiver when he slides his hand lighting quick up past the hem of her dress towards the back of her bare knee, hand squeezing but not gripping as she moves away, finger pads ticking down and away from her calf and there’s a second of frisson, a thrum of sensation and she’s biting down a smile as she enters the kitchen. He had kissed her thoroughly in the garden, slipped his tongue past her lips and had her flushed and twisting his oxford in in her fists and whispering for him to quit it not long after he started, his palm full of her breast, teeth nipping at her throat, eyes a challenge because he enjoys seeing how far he can get; playing with her as he does. He has never lost interest in his pursuit of her, not once, and Greta has to admit she admires how well her husband preys.
He can entertain the children better than she can, she thinks as she listens to the sounds of Hans transforming into a great white shark and then a great king octopus and then a giant squid and the sounds of their children’s delight is enough for Greta to keep smiling as she prepares a hearty chicken stew, a recipe known by heart. When Hans has moved the children upstairs to the nursery, successfully keeping all three of them out of the kitchen to his credit, Greta begins on a quick set of dinner rolls. She’s always enjoyed cooking and had attempted to cook for Hans in their early marriage despite the staff but he had humoured her then because he knew his young wife was hoping to impress him. Those were the days that Greta had never seen Hans so much as boil an egg.
Now, in 1952, Hans can and does cook but Greta finds she prefers to take it on, enjoys these moments that Hans has the children mind her peace just as much as she does purely for the desire to give something to her young family. She teaches Rosie, Henry too if she can get him to be still and focused for long enough, just like Helena taught Greta. She does her best to teach her children everything Helena (not her mother), taught her.
Dread, cold and fluid (like the ink of a giant squid) slides down her spine with a wary, steady rush.
The thought of her is quick to be chased by others rushing to cover it, smother it and Greta is shaking her head like she’s trying to clear it, protect herself against that voice —
Do you think she can see you now? It says.
She's pulling the fresh, sweet loaf from the oven, setting it on the cooling rack, flour dusted hands wringing her tea towel when she answers back —
No, she can't see me. She's dead.
She's turning on the wireless, tuning quickly to the right classical, soft operatics filling the kitchen and she thinks there , it's gone now —
Did you know she can see you?
She closes her eyes tight as she wrenches the tap on, lets the cold water pour over her wrists while she leans against the counter with both elbows and feels cold sweat pooling in her lower back.
No, she can't see me. She's dead.
Greta straightens as the back of her neck continues to prickle, shoulders rising with anxiety and she's grabbing the kettle, filling it, setting (slamming) it on the stove top with a sharp exhale and she's pressing her fingertips hard to her brow, shielding her eyes when the voice says --
Did you know she can hurt you?
No, she insists ( pleads ). She can't see me anymore, she can't see me anymore and she can't hurt me anymore because she’s --
Hans finds her with a white knuckled grip on the kettle, her opposite hand covering her eyes and while her bare arms are golden and freckled with Nantucket sun, her face is ash and he's stepping towards her, arms banding around her waist like great anchors, tightening like weights ( chains ) as she startles and her fingers are clutching and then relaxing at his forearm. She puffs out a laboured breath, heart thrumming too loudly for her own ears and she drops her head forward like it's tethered by an invisible marionette's string and he's the puppeteer. He presses his lips to her upper vertebrae, nose rubbing against the downy hairs there, knows every fine hair on her arms stands on end, reaching with static. He slides one hand down her arm, to her wrist, grip sure as he loosens her tight fingers from the kettle and he hums a soft, comforting sound as he massages the circulation back into her palm; lifts it to his mouth for a humming kiss and her skin is warm under his lips.
His words are carefully dulled, no more than a lazy suggestion as he runs his nose up the back of her neck, behind the ridge of her ear, dips his head and soothes his lips along her temple.
"I can handle the rest. "
He knows it's not what she needs (wants) from him, even as he says it.
And she's shaking her head already, tries to step forward and away though he follows, holds tight.
"No, I need to finish this."
I can only control this, she says and it would be cruel of him not to let her try.
He exhales against her neck and Greta knows he won't push her as he presses easy kisses to her skin, aligns his chest with her back, keeps his left arm firmly around her waist while his right slides up her torso and across her collarbone, holds her to him as she rests her chin on his forearm, fingers pulsing against her shoulder and hip both and she feels better by the smell of him, the feel of him, like a great Anaconda, squeezing her. Sometimes, she thinks, she'd like it even better if he would just smother her .
She thought that. She jerks in his arms.
She thought that.
The voice didn’t say that.
She thought that (said it).
And she is all shaking exhale and dry throat and Hans is pressing his cool palm to her forehead when he asks,
"What is it, Greta?"
"Where are they?"
"In the nursery."
"But Violet, she can't be alone-"
He's turning her to face him, arms tight around her back, palms sliding up her spine to cup her shoulder blades; presses her to shelter easily against him, to tuck right into the perfect space between his chin and collarbone and she closes her eyes and inhales him. Hans runs his knuckles over her cheek, tilts her face to look at him, fits his lips smoothly, easily over hers; rests his lips on her forehead.
“Tell me, Greta.”
She presses her nose into his chest (
), leans back and peers up at him, smooths his collar between her fingers, tongues at her worry-bitten mouth and she’s about to tell him, she really thinks she is and
And little steps are flying down the corridor, too quick and heavy to be anyone else but Rosie and Greta turns away from her husband back towards the sink and his hand lingers on her hip even as Rosie is bursting through the swinging kitchen door and demanding to know when Hans is coming back to play pirates with her and Greta can feel Hans’s eyes questioning her as she busies herself intentionally away from him.
She does her best to ignore it ( him) but it isn’t easy to shake ( him) off: the feeling of being watched —
She breathes easier again when he goes to collect Henry for supper.
Does he not press on her ribs, thumbs tracing her sternum, like d'Angelo did when he sculpted David? When he is inside her, is he not Euripides shaping Madea?
Hans won't tolerate her disappearing (hiding) from him, not in their bed. He'd started this by taking the coverlet off their bed and folding it in neat squares and her fingers had trembled on the buttons of her nightgown because she knew just what kind of mood he was in and she craves this ( needs this ).
He commands so easily.
His hand comes to rest on her throat, squeezes along the sides and towards the back of her jaw, forces her head straight and makes her watch .
Greta looks down the twisting (writhing ) line of their bodies, flickering in shadow as they move like two eels in moonlight. The sight of him covering her , pressing her down , of the still-defined line of his hips as he rocks back and forth, his opposite hand pulling and digging into the flesh of her buttock, pulling her higher, greedier , is almost too much. He's steady in his movements, hitting deep but without haste, settling into a pulsing, full grind down ( down, down ) as she comes up, up, up and he tastes like electricity ( thunder ).
She gasps wet, whining for him, rising as high as she can for him. Knowing that he wants this just as much, to pleasure her ( for her, only for her), has her blood spiking, cheeks and neck and chest flushing prickling pink with it. Even now, after years of being in bed with him, the sense of sanctity is entwined with the forbidden when he is (they are) like this and Greta would be lying if she said it wasn't the forbidden that has her pulsing hot against him like she is Medusa turning him to stone; taking his come and his pleasure like she would his life .
She wants everything he will give her and he presents himself unto her as the most pious of worshipers with the richest of offerings.
His mouth is a crooked, delightedly cruel thing when he smiles down at her, for he's found it, this secret, forbidden part of her just there and he's victorious, knows only he has the key to unlock this; to release her.
He knows he only has to say the words and she can't hide from him, not here, not with this, never with this.
"Beg me for it."
He doesn't have to carry on, never has.
She whines instantly, (please, please, please) voice near drowsy with it, with this . She wonders if he might think her entirely weak to him in these moments ( yes ) and if that’s true then surely he wants to give this to her just as badly as she wants to take it from him and is that not in and of itself, a weakness?
Hades may have stolen Peresphone from the meadow but for all his declarations of godly might and right, he stole her because he had to have her and is there not some weakness in ( need ) possession? Hades was just as powerless against his hunger for flesh as every god and mortal man but does Persephone not then hold that power that Hades has submitted to her, for her , to forever hold closest to her heart, caged in ribs?
Eve has always been blamed for taking the first bite but didn't Adam want her to, mouth watering, ready to taste after she did?
Adam knew the fruit was forbidden and wanted to taste it, too.
Adam wanted to fall ( down, down, down ) from Paradise but he needed Eve to fall first,