CAROLYN THEODORE BURTANSKI stood in nothing but her socks and underpants and stared at the white smoke spilling its way up the wall of her storage closet. The smoke came out in burps and trickles, liquid-like, rising along a thick gray wire toward an electrical box. At first sight, awe rose in her heart, which spoke to the glory and presence of God, a pillar of smoke here in her closet, but then a familiar pang sliced through the glimmer. Judgment—Carolyn lifted a trembling hand to her mouth, the closet filling with the smell of molten wire—this is most certainly judgment.
Before finding fire in her closet, Carolyn drowsed on the couch with her journal on her breast. A cold cup of tea rested on a plate she’d painted as a girl—horse faces—and the plate lay on the bare wooden floor. She’d started awake to the sound of pops and knocks and hisses near the entryway. It was morning, which meant a time for prayer and journaling, especially in a new house with strange cupboards and mirrors and smells. Duty and diligence, her father would have said, were what mattered in this sinful life. Diligence and duty to the Lord would carry her through this time of great transition. She liked least the mirrors in her new home, the way the lighting or tint made the wisp of gray in her temples somehow more blatant, in the same way the smoke seemed blatant as it climbed the wall of her closet. She could change the mirrors. She could change anything she liked now that Father was gone. But now this smoke.
Carolyn first thought the noise was someone tapping on her door, which made her sit very quickly upright from her repose on the couch. She’d met no one in this new town but the postman and the woman at the gas station—a girl really, with a ring jabbed through her left nostril, who had poked at her phone while Carolyn paid with exact change for two yellow apples, a gallon of whole milk, and a box of Honey Nut Cheerios, the last an extravagance that filled Carolyn’s heart with guilt. Unsweetened Cheerios were perfectly adequate for sinners. That is what Father would have said, and Scripture said it, too, in the letters of John. Confess your sin! This verse spoke of believers, not unbelievers, which meant that even Carolyn still needed forgiveness every minute of every day because of the total depravity inside her.
Carolyn had nearly brought the Cheerios back to the store to be freed of such guilt. Her shoes ground the grit on the pavement, reminding her of the time her father made her return a pair of bright blue plastic hoop earrings that made her feel alive. Father spurned them as “adornment,” which was in Scripture, too. Carolyn swallowed deeply, reassured herself, and strode with her cereal and apples away from the store and that old way of living.
This was a new town, with new thoughts. New life was here for her. Father was glorified in heaven now, and Carolyn was determined to enter a time of rebirth, a renaissance as full-fleshed as a tiger lily. She had sold the home where she lived with Father, moved twenty miles down the highway, bought a two-bedroom home—optimism was key, she knew—and had already begun practicing her freedom by performing her duty and diligence to the Lord wearing nothing but her underpants and socks.
She felt guilty as she slipped out of her jeans and blouse and lounged on the couch with her Bible and tea and journal, her clean-shaven legs, her flattened breasts. But how wonderful it was to lie on a couch half naked while praying. It felt dangerous and liberating not to hide oneself from the Lord, and to eat sweetened cereal for breakfast—two bowls of it. She would no longer hide behind fig leaves. She was tired of fig leaves. She even tried slipping out of her underpants too, but the thought became horrible. It felt like nearly losing one’s footing at the edge of some deep chasm, the surge of fire piling up in her veins.
Everything about the last four weeks felt both beautiful and horrible, carrying both blessing and pang. The postman in town, for instance, had seemed perfectly nice, but a motorcycle was the only vehicle parked outside the small office, which meant it belonged to him. Carolyn felt moved to disapprove of the vehicle’s large exhaust pipes, shining and thick and chromed in the sunlight, the hard curves of them, their blatant openings. But the postman did have clean teeth and clean nails on his ringless hands, which displayed diligence, and she forgave him the extravagance of his motorcycle just as she would forgive herself, as God forgave. Carolyn promised herself she would work toward nakedness before the Lord, a resolution which reassured her for the present. She prayed and journaled and dozed.
In her underpants and socks, Carolyn was crouching near the front door to peep through the eyehole when she heard the hisses behind her in the coat closet. She spun and pressed her back against a cold smooth wall. It sounded like there was an animal inside the closet, a raccoon perhaps, scratching and nosing its way between emptied cardboard moving boxes. Had it gotten in during the move, or prior to? She terrified herself with the thought of unpacking a box expecting books and horse plates and finding a live raccoon. Carolyn was perfectly unprepared to deal with wildlife—she was alone and half bare, although her socks were quite thick. She pictured a raccoon, its pin-like teeth clenched on the floppy toe of her thick sock, and immediately looked around for something to cover herself with, rooting through the half-unpacked boxes in the living room. Father would have wept and fasted if he’d seen her today, praying half dressed, uncovered, her open mouth pressed scandalously into a musty couch cushion with her rump in the air, talking to God as if he were an intimate, as if she had nothing to hide.
She missed her father’s presence now, his certainty. She’d acquiesced to his leadership for thirty-six years of life. The closest hissed again. She missed his strength. Carolyn found herself wondering what Father would have her do about this noise in the closet, and then she did a thing that startled her out of her panic: she caught herself turning toward the empty house to call out Father’s name, to ask him what to do. She clamped her mouth shut, angered by her lack of resolve, and dropped the red blazer she’d dug from a cardboard box.
“No,” she said loudly, lifting her chin and turning slowly to point the breasts God gave her at the closet door. “What would the father do.” She proclaimed it as fact, because she already knew the answer. Oh yes, she would turn over this new leaf, this new bloom of triumph and change. The closet knocked and popped and hissed. Carolyn narrowed her eyes at it, balled a white-knuckled fist. “Get behind me, Satan,” she declared. “I am an indwelt daughter of the living God.” And then she strode boldly forward, expecting a raccoon, and yanked open the closet door to pillars of smoke, and awe, and then waves of judgment.
The house on fire was new to her, but the oldest in the neighborhood. It was a small brick home with two wooden additions. The realtor said the oldest stone core of it, now the kitchen and adjoining washroom, once a served as the entrance cottage to a tunnel used in the Underground Railroad. Carolyn enjoyed that idea very much. The house had good energy, good vibes—which was not something her former church would approve of doctrinally, this talk about vibes or spirit or feelings—but the well-planted little home possessed a hum in its bones that spoke of liberation and safety in this cosmos. The walls of the brick portion were a foot and a half thick, solid and well mortared. The exterior was painted cream, with black shutters and wild hedges of fiercely blue hydrangeas bursting messily around the windowsills.
The home’s old hum, along with its hydrangeas, let Carolyn know she was home before she even crossed the threshold. She took only one slow walk through the empty rooms, taking in the echoes of its wooden floors and arches, its small kitchen with a tiny, use-worn oven, a single bedroom with dappled shadows on the old and fragrant wallpaper. And that was enough. Carolyn tucked her shoulders back and strutted out the door, feigning nonchalance as she turned to the realtor before letting herself back into her car.
“Please offer the sellers eighty-five percent of their asking price,” she told the woman in heels and pantsuit. Carolyn had read in a magazine that eighty-five percent was a confident but not offensive offer, particularly if buying from her positon of advantage. “That is a cash offer,” Carolyn said, and then quickly exhaled and let herself down into the seat of her Camry and locked herself in its silence while the realtor thumbed her phone by her car. The hydrangeas spoke again to Carolyn from the border planting. They supplicated themselves in the breeze, heavy on their stems, wet with hunger and worship. That blue, she thought. The hue carried both blessing and pain. She couldn’t take her eyes off of it. She would paint the entire interior, walls, cupboards, cups—everything—to match the hunger and hope of those terrifying hydrangeas.
When Carolyn was a girl, before her mother passed when she was ten, she used to sit in church between her mother and father and look out the pointed stained-glass windows, over the heads of the congregants, over the heads of the glassy and angular depictions of saints, out toward the blue and free and noble heavens. She watched the endlessness of it and felt tremendously loved. God called his creation good. And God had made her. She felt his delight. She’d doze between her parents, and then her father would nudge her gently, or squeeze her knee, and she’d wake and smile up at him—caught in the act but uncondemned—and her father would smooth her hair and pull her close. She loved the smell of her daddy’s jacket, the way it carried intimacy and protection in its lemony starch, its earthy musk.
When mother died, the nearness ceased. Carolyn had thought it through many times, imagined describing her father’s change to imaginary confidants, but the last twenty-six years of her life could really be summed up in a single phrase—a lack of nearness—a diminishing father, and with him, a diminishing God. Love became duty. Joy became assent. Intimacy became diligence. Church replaced God. But her father was dutiful to her, she would remind her imagined confidants, and he was diligent, and many fathers have done worse by their daughters.
But the last twenty years could also be described as hunger. There was more to existence than piety and potlucks and saddened prayers. Thees and thous. Who desires to be spoken to in such a way? Carolyn felt hungry for the sky in the same way those hydrangeas hungered for it, the knowledge of presence and intimacy, the cosmos indwelt, children flowers reflecting the heavens. In bed alone, in her early teens, she’d read about a Jesus who held children in his lap and ate fish with friends and made wine and drank wine and promised feasts. She could not find a single instance in the entire New Testament of Jesus asking his disciples to keep their distance, or not to talk to boys who smoked cigarettes or were Methodist.
Once, when Carolyn was thirteen, she climbed the scaly trunk of a wintering apple tree that grew behind her mother’s emptied horse stables. It was her mother who taught her to paint with watercolors, and on teacups and plates. Carolyn always painted the horses blue, their black and somber eyes and strong broad foreheads carrying a knowledge of something greater than horseflesh and apples. They were more than they were. They knew who made them. They had something terrible and beautiful inside that sky blue and ocean blue seemed more capable of expressing. Carolyn sat in the cold tree and blew breath into the frozen air. She watched crystals spill across the drifts in the stable. Her nose grew cold and she placed her mittens there. Her mittens collected frost from her breath. She sat in the tree, trying to remember her mother’s voice as they painted plates and teacups together. She couldn’t remember it.
Instead, she recalled a nearly faded memory of a time she felt filled by the presence of the Holy Spirit while lying in bed. She had said to God that night in the darkness, I love you, do you love me back, and then her body began to literally quake with joy. It came from outside her. It wasn’t her joy. It was his. It was him. She remembered kicking her feet under her blankets, she felt so happy and certain of this God called Abba. The experience persisted for over an hour, and as it faded, Carolyn felt what she could only describe in later years as the exhaustion of joy, this deep gladness that seamlessly folded itself into sleep. She felt like a little girl version Moses, when he came off that mountain and glowed. Carolyn never again felt that degree of nearness, of oneness, but she later came to view it as an anchoring experience. No matter how dutiful and cold she would be taught to feel in coming years, she could do no other than believe she might feel that presence again, that God was real and that he delighted in her. She sat in the apple tree until her fingers could stand the cold no longer.
Five minutes later, she warmed her fingers in the kitchen and asked her father a question.
“If God is with us, then why aren’t we happy?”
Her father stiffened in his chair, and Carolyn immediately began to cry. It was a shameful question, far too forthright, but the shame spurred her on. She couldn’t stop. She brought up the verses she’d read under her covers at night. The verse about there being no condemnation for those in Jesus. The verse about reckoning oneself dead to sin. The verses about freedom and love. The verses about grave clothes, and Lazarus, and prodigal sons given rings and robes. The verse about God calling us his children. The verse about God delighting to give us good things of the Spirit. The verse about the Spirit of God abiding with us and living inside of us. The verse about how it’s no longer we who live but Christ living in us. The verse about the angel of the Lord coming down and proclaiming with glory and power that flattened the shepherds—behold, good news of great joy!
Carolyn’s fingers and face didn’t feel cold anymore. They felt hot. “Why aren’t we happy, Daddy? Why is no one happy? Why is church so awful?” The kitchen floor shook as she stomped her feet, her face wet with tears, the lamplight blurry. Silence came over the room. That last thing was the worst, but it was what she most wanted to say. The church claimed Scripture was true, but also seemed to keep its distance from it. Oh, they served, and were diligent and dutiful, but they were like dry bones inside, clattering around on tiptoes and offering frightened, faithless prayers. Carolyn recalled a great uncle rubbing the snout of a beagle into a pile of its own droppings, to remind the poor creature of what it had done wrong. But the look of shame on the dog’s face showed little recognition of the deed itself. The lesson it learned that day was that it was unloved, unclean, and would remain so forever. Carolyn was often made to feel that way in church by the people she loved most.
Carolyn’s father’s chair squeaked as he leaned forward, which made her aware of how still he’d been sitting, how long she’d been holding her breath. Her father bent low in the kitchen, his balding forehead glinting in the light. It was nighttime outside, an hour or two after Saturday dinner, pork chops and cottage cheese and canned peaches. For a moment Carolyn thought she saw in him a glimmer of his old self, thought she saw a glint of wetness in his eyes. How she wished she could embrace him then! How she wanted him to embrace her back, tell her she was loved, wrap her in the smell of his plaid shirt. But as soon as it came, the glimmer faded, and he grinned his false grin instead, the one that formed not too long after her mother died, the grin that only made her feel obligated to smile back at him.
“Carolyn, what do you mean, If?” he asked.
She didn’t understand. She wiped her cheek and swallowed. Her eyes hurt. “If what, Daddy?”
She rarely called him Daddy since Mom died. That it came out surprised them both, but her father quickly swallowed it back and grinned again.
“What do you mean, If God is good?” he said, and then he gently squeezed her shoulder, smiled his tightlipped smile, and sat upright again as if he’d said something comforting or corrective or true. Carolyn felt lonelier than ever in her life. It was terrifying in its depth. There was nothing beneath her. So she grinned for him, excused herself, and covered her shame under her quilts upstairs in her darkened room. She didn’t remember falling asleep, but the next morning a cold gray sun seeped through her window. She stared at the grayness for two straight hours, then rose and dressed for church. She never spoke to her father of her hopes in the Lord again. Perhaps he was right. The Scriptures spoke of suffering too, although she could never bring herself to fully believe that a distant and starving heart was the kind of suffering the Apostle Paul had in mind.
The realtor knocked on the window of Carolyn’s Camry. The woman had blonde highlights and very red lips. She smelled like gum and cigarettes. Carolyn rolled down her window.
“Great news. The sellers responded right away with a counter offer.”
“What did they say?” Carolyn asked.
“They want their full asking price.”
Carolyn looked at the hydrangeas again. Those flowers dripped with knowledge and power. They knew what they were, who made them, what they were for. They were sensual and bold and lovely as the sky that fed them. A handful of bees drunkenly pressed themselves into cone after cone. Carolyn felt stung by her hunger to sink into such life, drip with the waters of it all. She clenched her fists around her steering wheel. She took a deep breath. She refused to ever again be less than a sky-colored flower.
“Forgive me, Father, but I’ve sold your house,” she whispered.
“Come again?” asked the realtor, lifting a pant leg to scratch at her calf.
“I said I’ll take it,” Carolyn said. “I wish to close immediately.”
Three days later, after negotiating confidently to keep the small oven, Carolyn moved in, locked the unfamiliar doors of the empty home, and fell on her face with her arms outstretched on the dusty wooden floors.
“I live here now,” she said to the beams and stones and tunnels.
When Carolyn Theodore Burtanski rushed from her home dressed in underpants, socks, and a red church blazer, she could already hear the sirens of the volunteer fire department coming from two blocks away. The sidewalk felt as hard and cold as judgment itself. The fire had come so fast, so definitively, first the smoke spilling up the wall, the smell of something molten, and then a hiss and pop of flame bursting from where the wire entered the brick wall. It reminded Carolyn of a Roman candle, a firework popping to pieces inside her closet filled with empty boxes. The firemen would later tell her that if the wall hadn’t been solid brick, and if the wire hadn’t decided to catch fire right in the center of all that inflammable mass—they called it an arc fire, which was hotter than the surface of the sun—then they’d be having a different conversation. That’s how one fireman phrased it, “a different conversation,” which struck Carolyn as very familiar and friendly, in its way. The men never even had to use their hoses. When the lead volunteer fireman smiled at her from beneath his black helmet, his brown and reflective striped collar pulled high, Carolyn recognized him as the postman with the motorcycle. It was his white teeth that made her remember him, and then his hands.
As she stood in her socks with her blazer hugged tightly around her middle—her body shivering in the sunlight, which the postman said was just the adrenaline and that it would pass—Carolyn caught him stealing a furtive glance at her bare legs, everything from the hips down that the blazer didn’t cover. His glance wasn’t a leer, though. It struck her as something he couldn’t help doing, which made her want to laugh. She’d seen a flash of guilt in his eyes as he looked at her legs, and she recognized it as such because she knew hunger and guilt so well. A breeze pushed the smell of the man’s jacket her way.
“Hey, Bobby,” said a man emerging from the front door with an axe in one gloved hand and a short section of molten electrical wire in the other. The man was red-faced and breathing heavily, like he’d been working mighty hard on something and was pleased to announce he was finished. He stood on the front stoop, blue hydrangeas swaying on either side of him. He held the wire up in the sunlight as if it were a fish or a serpent he’d caught.
“Welded herself shut from the air,” he said, and Carolyn could only assume he was talking about the fire in some way, although she found herself pulling her jacket more tightly around her body. “She’s fused solid.” And then, still dangling the serpent in the air, he turned to Carolyn and smiled. “You’re mighty lucky, ma’am. These arc fires are terrible hot.” And with that he dropped the fused bit of wire on the concrete at the base of the steps and waddled back inside.
Carolyn looked at the wire. It did look snake-like, with its frayed and open jaws, its metallic scaly middle. It lay there, uncoiled and broken and dead. And looking at the lifeless coil, with the hydrangeas bowing over it as if to sprinkle it with something, Carolyn realized she was already free. She had trouble understanding why. It came from outside of herself, but she felt it inside too. It may have been the adrenaline, but her whole body hummed from her socks to her hips to her chest and neck. She felt like a lightning rod, indwelt with power, aware of something terribly beautiful inside its frame. She felt safe. She felt explosive and dangerously free. She felt like laughing out loud.
The postman turned to her with a clipboard in his hand. Bobby—his name was Bobby—and she would call him that from this moment forward, for the rest of their life together. She knew somehow, even at that moment, that she and Bobby would become lovers, would marry, that her womb would grow taut like a flower bud and then spill life into the bedrooms of this little stone house surrounded by hydrangeas. It would be a baby boy, and then a baby girl, and then perhaps another boy.
Bobby produced a clipboard and pen and asked Carolyn for her insurance information.
She stared at the coil of wire prayed over by the blue flowers. She felt herself buzz and sway. She would confess to Bobby that she had no insurance. And he would be taken aback. No insurance? he’d ask, lifting his eyebrows, and she would shake her head and say, No, no insurance. I paid with cash. I forgot insurance. And he would remove his helmet and whistle at the luck she had today, and then he would smile that smile filled with clean white teeth, would start to laugh, and she with him. They would be deep, aching belly laughs. Their laugher would stir the bees from the flowers, shake the bones of the house.
And then she would ask for Bobby to take her for a ride, immediately, on his motorcycle, she in her socks and blazer and he in his fire helmet. And he would take her. And the motor would rumble and the pistons would hiss and the exhaust would burp and pop as the bike careened over hills between pastures and woods, Carolyn’s blazer snapping behind her like a bright red cape. And neither of them would stop laughing for the entire ride. And in the evening he would bring her home to her anointed cottage and tip his fire helmet toward her and blush in the streetlight, and she would skip up the steps and lock herself in the darkness and strip off her clothes in the entryway.
She would tear open the closet door and lock herself inside the darkness smelling of smoke and ash, hidden door behind door. She would bow her face toward the floor and forgive her father, press her hands and mouth against the grit of scorched plaster scattered across the hardwood.
And she would pray. And the bones of the floor would pop and tremble, and the darkness would hiss and steam, and she would see her father, younger now with a new coat, and he’d be laughing too, laughing with the wife of his youth, glorified and holy and free. And Jesus would be there, laughing and clapping his hands. And Carolyn would know who she was. And her breasts and womb would tremble with power, and the more she worshipped and pressed her face to the floor, the higher her rump would lift, high and blue in the darkness like the flank of a battle horse, every part of her made by God and for God, shameless, righteous, uncondemned, indwelt, rising and opening upward like the maw of a flower overcome by power and light and glory and assurance.
Abba, she would say to the floor, the plaster crumbs sticking to the wet of her lips.
Abba, she would say, Abba, Abba, just tasting the sweetness of that word until the wallpapered closet swirled with baptism and everything became fireball, fireball, fireball.
“Ma’am?” said Bobby, lowering his face into the path of her reverie.
Carolyn blinked in the light, hugged her blazer to herself.
Carolyn lifted a trembling hand to her mouth and let her lips quiver with gladness. She looked at this man, the hydrangeas, felt the serpents falling away and the love pounding inside of her.
“Oh, Bobby,” she said in a whisper. “Oh, Bobby.”
Miriam Cohen talks with Andrew Graff about this story here.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.