In the corner of a dark room sat a man, rocking his chair slowly; he played with a small knife. It was Friday today. Today was the day he had been planning for some time now. It had to happen today. The agony had reached up to his head, and if this continued even for a day more, it would burst through the veins in his temple. Joe had gone through every inch of the plan twice before pouring cheap whisky in a dirty glass to soothe his scurrying thoughts. He rocked his chair back and forth, waiting silently for the moment when Anna would push through those wooden doors.
Anna Johnson was a young countryside girl who had grown up on a farm with five brothers and an old mother, who was in a wheelchair now. She had not seen them since she had eloped from home at the age of seventeen. She missed them sometimes, but remembering those stuffy nights in the cramped farmhouse, which was not even big enough for two people, let alone a family of seven, she would calm herself by making herself believe that things are going to change for the better. It turned out well initially, but later, year by year, things started hurtling downhill for her. As she was headed home right now, her thoughts conformed around an escape plan from this hell. She knew Joe wouldn’t miss her, but he wouldn’t like the idea very much. Who would take care of the girl then?
Thursday evening. 19th September 1978.
It was still snowing outside. The storm hadn’t passed by, and the forecast said it would last for another week. Visibility was near about 15 meters, and the wind was behaving like it had been trapped inside the earth since the beginning of mankind, and it now had a chance to avenge itself. Everything had been shut off, the government gave the orders, and nothing could open till the storm had passed. Little Kayla sat down by the window of an old despairingocated on the town center’s outskirts, trying her stuffed doll’s broken eye buttonll.
She wondered when her Dad and Anna would return home, it was getting dark, and the fire was starting to burn out. She wished her father and Anna would stop fighting. Their fights would really get heated up these days, and it would follow the regular pattern – beginning with an argument over a frivolous issue, then escalating into an intense shouting match, followed by throwing items at each other. Finally, Anna would leave the house crying. The silence after each fight would last for two days before Anna would sheepishly come back from her abscondment and settle back into her normal routine noiselessly. After a week, the same pattern would be repeated all over again.
Kayla would always be pushed out of the room by Joe, asking her to lock herself in her room. Kayla wouldn’t budge at first, but then when Joe’s glare would fall upon her, she would obey meekly. She would grab her doll and slowly, wiping away her tears, would climb back into her room upstairs. She would still hear them shouting at each other after she would shut the door, and then would come the clattering sound of the iron pan slamming against the cold floor. It was always about the same thing – a woman. Kayla couldn’t understand who this woman was and how she could create a conflict between Joe and Anna. She couldn’t remember the last time they had spent their time as a family sitting around the fire, reading a book, talking, sharing stories, laughing – just being happy together.
Their fight had started on Wednesday, just like any other day, over how Anna had overcooked the rice and had burned the beans because of her absent-mindedness, or so Joe thought. Joe had come back early from work because of the warning about the storm being sounded at the forest camp, where he would chop deciduous trees for a living. He had carried a bundle home and thrown it on the ground as soon as he entered the house to a burning smell from the kitchen.
Here was the opportunity he was waiting for to spark off the fight he wanted. Smiling to himself smugly, he entered the kitchen to find a flustered Anna fumbling her way with the dishes. Startled by his approach, she backed up in the corner with a knife in her shaky hands. She knew what was coming her way, and she started to brace herself for it. She knew that he knew. She could tell by his evil grin. He had come to know about Mark. She was afraid of what he’d do if he flew in one of his violent rages. The burn marks on her legs, the belt straps etched onto her back, and the gashes on her hands were enough to remind her to keep her distance from him.
Joe was an apathetic person who would always complain about how putrefying things were around him. Mixed with alcohol, these grumbles would take the form of brutishness on his surroundings. But he was not always like that. Certainly not before his wife Maria had died. Maria had died giving birth to Kayla. It was one of those cases of negligence on behalf of the local doctor. But Joe didn’t believe that; he blamed Kayla for her death. Kayla had killed his beloved Maria. If there were no Kayla, Maria would have still been alive, and they would have continued with their life unperturbed.
He did not want to see Kayla’s face, she disgusted him. How could he look at the face of the person who killed his wife? But it was Maria’s dying wish that he would take care of Kayla and let nothing harm her. It was Maria who bounded Kayla’s life to his own. Since that day, his bitterness for Kayla only grew. He couldn’t look after her when she was an infant and needed someone to take care of her. That is when he found Anna sitting out in the cold in front of a church. He made a simple offer to her – look after the baby girl, and in return, Joe would give her lodging and food.
When Joe met Anna outside the church, it was like a blessing for her. She had come to town a day back, in the back of a truck. Her last penny was paid to the truck driver, and she had neither lodging means nor food with her. She took shelter in the church and prayed for a miracle to happen. In her last station, she had narrowly escaped death at the hands of a drunken businessman, who wanted to assault her in the tavern she worked in. Her last-minute savings could only get her as far as Alaska. Desperately hoping for a miracle, she came across Joe. Joe seemed like a rugged lumberjack but with a soft yet grieving heart. Left with no other option than starving unto death, she took his offer but presenting her only condition that she be offered a single room, howsoever small, for just herself. Joe agreed.
Anna slowly started to take charge of the situation of the house. It was in shambles. Joe did not like to see the baby’s face, and he would leave her crying in the corner, calling out to Anna to see what’s wrong with the baby. Along with taking care of baby Kayla, Anna looked after the entire house – cooking, cleaning, washing – it had all become her responsibility. She liked it at first. Joe was very respectful of her boundaries and gave her and the baby privacy by leaving the house for long hours. This continued for three years.
Embittered by the passing away of Maria, Joe took up drinking as a solution. He stayed at the tavern till closing hours, spending his life savings on petty gambling and cheap whiskey. After each glass, he’d curse Kayla more for the death of Maria. The thought of killing Kayla in her sleep would often pass his mind. Putting a pillow on the child’s head and muffling her screams till there was no more air left in her lungs to cry out seemed like a possible reality. After the tavern keeper would ask him to leave, he’d end up standing outside Kayla’s room contemplating the possibility. Anna would occasionally find an inebriated Joe standing outside Kayla’s room in the middle of the night. He’d stand there motionless. She would then take him inside, take off his shoes, and put him to bed. Joe then would grab her hand and not let her go.
As this went on, Joe started abusing Anna – cursing her and sometimes even go as far as hitting her. Anna then felt it as an obligation to make Joe happy. As hard as she tried, she would fail. Joe remarked that she could never be like Maria. This was when she came across Mark. Mark was their neighbor on the other side of town. One day, during the evening church prayers, Anna found Mark talking to a group of middle-aged women about household frivolities. Anna stopped by to listen to him, and she was taken aback by his modernistic opinions.
A woman demanded equal rights as a man, and she had never heard that before. She was always taught to submit before a man’s needs, but Mark strongly opposed that belief and instead proposed that women be treated equally. Not realizing that she was just rooted in one spot staring at Mark and that the other women had already gone. Mark walked up to her with a calm face asking how he could help her. Transfixed by his gaze, she asked how much truth was in what he just said to the other women. Sensing domestic problems on her behalf, Mark calmly answered that every word he spoke was as God had wanted it to be. Since then began the rendezvous between Mark and Anna, she would feel safe around him, she shared her life’s stories with him, and he found good company in young Anna.
One day, Joe’s truck happened to pass by the church where Anna and Mark would meet. He was sitting on the edge of the truck when he spotted Anna talking to a stranger outside the church. Afraid she would tell everyone of his strange ways, Joe got anxious. He returned by the same way again next evening, deliberately this time, and he found Anna talking to the same stranger. Joe’s suspicions grew; he could no longer trust Anna. Anna had betrayed him.
20th September 1972.
Kayla was playing with her doll; she was exasperated by the adult’s behavior and thus, preferred her inanimate doll to the grown-up couple. The storm had subsided today, it was snowing lightly, and you could see tiny little snowflakes accumulating at the window pane. Kayla remembered Anna talking about Maria, but she couldn’t relate much to her. Since the beginning, Anna had always been there for her and was the only mother she knew; the rest of the story was too complicated for her. She suddenly saw Anna, bundled up in her jacket, entering the house, getting excited she left all her things and rushed to meet her. But Kayla wasn’t the first one to greet her.
Joe heard the door unlock, and he tightened his grip around the knife. One slash below the throat, and the deed was done; simple enough. He started approaching the door. The door opened and in walked Anna, freezing from the cold; she hurried to close the door, not noticing Joe standing in the shadows. She sensed his approach and turned around in response. His hand was already raised to throw a blow at her, to which she ducked immediately. Sensing danger, Anna let out a cry for help. Kayla was still on the stairs when she heard Anna scream, making her climb down two stairs at a time. By the time she reached the living room, she had witnessed Joe and Anna involved in live combat, Joe with the knife and Anna defending herself with everything in reach. The lampshade and pillow proved unworthy objects in front of the knife, making Anna search frantically for objects to withstand the knife’s blows.
Kayla watched the whole scene with her mouth open, and she could not believe her eyes. At first, she thought they were fooling around, but Joe’s strikes did not look like he was carrying out a practical joke. This time protecting herself with a curtain, Anna jumped around the entire house to avoid Joe’s advances. Joe made a firm strike this time, tearing the curtain and throwing it away. The curtain landed in the fireplace, and it did not take seconds for the cloth to catch fire, making it burst into flames. Suddenly, there was an orange hue about the room – everything around the curtain started catching fire. It happened too quickly for either one of them to realize the consequences resultant of their fight. Kayla saw the fire immediately but was too scared to shout out loud; she ended up being rooted onto the spot.
Joe realized at once that the house had caught fire, and it was spreading into every corner of the house. This distracted him away from Anna; she seized this opportunity to strike back at him and ended up hitting him with a glass vase on his head. Taken aback by the blow, Joe retracted a few steps and tripped onto the burning carpet. Suddenly, he was caught up in flames, and his pants caught fire first. By this time, the fire had spread, and the entire living room was engulfed by the flames – the couch, the curtains, the carpet, the doors. The smoke was too strong, making it difficult for the three of them to breathe. Seeing Joe catch fire, Anna turned immediately, her eyes searching for Kayla. Kayla was still rooted on the spot below the staircase, the smoke making her eyes watery and making her cough reluctantly. The burning couch blocked the way to the main door. Seeing Kayla helpless, Anna rushed to her rescue. She picked her up and ran upstairs. The fire had not reached the staircase yet, and they still had time.
When Anna picked Kayla up, she realized that Kayla’s frock had caught fire; it started lighting up slowly. Anna reached up the bedroom and locked the door to save them from the fire and Joe. She still hadn’t noticed that Kalya’s frock had caught fire and made her sit on the bed. Immediately, the bed lit up in fire. And at the same moment, Joe started banging against the door, he had seen them rush upstairs and followed them.
Screaming and howling, Joe tried slamming the door open but in vain. Taken by shock, Anna reacted as per the situation –firstly, wrapping up Kayla in a blanket to stop the fire and secondly, searching for an object, like a chair, to put up against the door to hold back against Joe’s slamming. Now his pitch reaching the top of his voice, Joe put all his brute force to open the bedroom door. He was successful. With the knife still in his hand, he stood at the doorway. The bed by now was completely in flames. Anna grabbed little Kayla, wrapped her up in the blanket, rushed to the window, yanking it open. She then kissed little Kayla, wished for her to have a good safe life ahead and threw her out in the snow. Seeing this, Joe rushed to the window, but suddenly the floorboard cracked, and before he could reach the window, the entire floor cracked open, swallowing them both in flames underneath. The entire house looked like a firecracker show in the dull white background. Shouts, howls, wails could be heard from inside. But, it was too late now.
Saturday. 21st September 1972.
The story of the burning house had spread all over the town, and people had gathered around the remains the next morning, trying to get a glimpse of what was left of the house. Mark was one of the first ones to gather around the house. He mourned the loss of Anna quietly. On the north side of the house, he saw a tiny object wrapped up in a blanket. Curious, he started walking towards it. On a closer look, he saw that it was actually baby Kayla wrapped up inside the blanket with her eyes shut. The snow had saved her, made her survive the entire night, healed her burns. He picked her up and took her home without a second thought. She was going to be the only memory he’d have of Anna. Kayla slowly opened her eyes at Mark’s touch, grabbed his hand like she was reassuring him, and shut them back again. She’ll never forget the night before. It’d be etched on the scars on her back for the time to come – she was just a child, the little snow child.