By Chloe Ackerman
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Transphobia, verbal and religious abuse from parental and non-parental figures, self harm, eating disordered behavior, drinking, references/allusions to real life laws that affect transgender children, mentions of police brutality, suicide baiting, mentions of internalized transphobia, planned but not executed filicide
When Greta was born, her parents named her Hans, after her father’s father. The first child, first boy, a son. Her father beamed for a month. When had it begun? When she was told at school that she had to sit on the boys’ side? Or as she watched the girls work at their embroidery? When she saw the other girls playing in their smocks, with lace and ribbons and bows, while she fidgeted in dun-colored short pants? “Why can’t I wear a dress, mama?” “Because you’re a boy, Hans. Boys wear trousers and girls wear dresses,” her mother explained. “When I grow up, I’m going to be a girl,” she said, and her mother smiled a very sad smile. “You cannot,” she said, as if it broke her own heart too. __________ “My name is Greta,” she announced at dinner when she was ten years old. She knew what she was igniting. She’d heard her father muttering under his breath about the way she walked, that she wasn’t right. She recognized the disgust dripping off his words, and under that, fear. But she liked the way she walked; it felt right, like the other girls. So she named herself Greta and told her parents at dinner, and watched her father like a dog waiting for a boot in the ribs. She eyed the way his meaty hands tightened around his knife, how he stopped chewing his potato but didn’t look up from his plate. Greta’s mother, brown eyes anxious, shook her head almost imperceptibly. Nothing more was said, the fire Greta expected was only a flare. That night, as her mother tucked her into bed, she smoothed Greta’s hair and told her, “Some things cannot be.” “I’m a girl,” Greta said. It was a fact of the universe. How could her mother call it impossible? Her mother held her close, kissed the top of her head, and Greta felt tears drop into her curly blond hair. “Oh, my sweet Hans. How I fear for you.” She squirmed from her mother’s embrace. “My name is Greta.” Her face set hard against her mother’s sorrow. “Do you know what harm could come to you, my starling?” “I will die if I have to be Hans. What’s worse than that?” __________ From then on, her parents fought. They fought over the amaryllises and daffodils her mother embroidered along the collars of Greta’s shirts. They fought whenever her mother called her Greta. And they fought when her mother announced that she would no longer trim Greta’s hair. “No son of mine will look like a girl!” her father snarled. “Plenty of boys have longer hair,” her mother rejoined. “No one will think anything of it.” “You don’t hear what’s brewing in town like I do. The council wants to ban . . . freaks like him from the village.” Her father had run for council last year but had failed. Greta wondered if he had been too radical, or not radical enough. “You want that? You want our son taken away?” “Of course not, Gregor. I just want our child to be happy. Later, while they prepared dinner, Greta asked her mother the thing that had been taunting her all day. “Would you rather have a dead son or a jailed daughter?” Greta’s mother bowed her head as if in prayer. “I’d rather create a world in which I don’t have to make that choice.” __________ In the end, the council did not pass a ban. A child is innocent, they reasoned. The parent was the villain in their story. They came for her mother on a sunny morning not long after Greta turned twelve. When the dogs started barking in the yard, Greta’s mother went to the window and pulled aside the yellowed lace. She turned back to Greta, face white. “Hide.” The councilman's guards did not break down the door. Her father opened it for them and pointed at his wife, who stood like a sentinel in front of the cupboard in which Greta cowered. “There,” he said, his face utterly blank, and then he stepped aside. Greta screamed silently into her fist as they grabbed her mother by her hair - even though she did not resist - and dragged her from the house. “I choose you, my Greta!” Her mother’s last words as they dragged her out the door, a confession that sealed her behind a prison wall for the crime of child abuse. “This is your fault,” her father told Greta that night. He glared at her in her corner, half a pint of whiskey clouding his eyes. “If you could have just been normal, she’d still be here.” His words mirrored what she’d been repeating to herself all evening. So she took her mother’s sewing scissors and sheared off her own hair. Then she fled into the arms of her oak tree in the farthest corner of their farm, and dragged sharp stones across her thighs in the dark. I am Hans, she said, over and over again, and her mother answered in birdcall and brook, My Greta, my Greta, my Greta. __________ Her father didn’t introduce her to the woman he was courting until the day before they married, just three months after his wife was arrested. Greta knew her at once from church: Ivey Ducey, daughter of Pastor Ducey, the head of the council that made the law that locked her mother away. Ivey marched into their little home, surveyed the space with Greta in it, and said, “Disgusting.” At the wedding Greta dressed herself in trousers and bowtie, greased her short hair back, and answered when people called her Hans. But her father still glowered at the way she walked, the way she spoke, the way she was. It would never be enough. As the family joined together for the first time in front of all their guests, Ivey gripped Greta’s shoulder and hissed through smiling teeth, “You’re an abomination before God. Kill yourself and save us the trouble.” Her new stepmother beamed at all her friends. __________ “We must take Hans to church,” Ivey said one day, six months after they’d been married. Greta went still at the timbre of her stepmother’s voice, like a spell brewing black magic. “My father believes an exorcism will cure him of this madness.” Greta’s father looked at her, and she felt as appraised as a heifer would be, before he asked his wife, “When?” They walked through the forest together, like a family on their way to an Easter service. I am not mad, Greta whispered to herself, words like white stones in her mind. The millipedes and termites crawled underfoot, chanting, Hans, Hans, Hans, as she trudged down the path to her exorcism. The church rose from the center of the forest like a confection, sugar spun stained glass depicting the mortification of Christ in scintillating morbidity. Inside, it smelled of sweet incense, woodsmoke, and sweat. Gathered there were the members of the council, their wives, and all those who called themselves faithful. Though Greta obeyed her father when he ordered her forward, she held like a cold stone in her mind the thought, I am a girl. People she’d known all her life laid their hands on her and prayed, “Release Hans from this demon, Lord!” I am Greta, white stones like anchors in her mind. The exorcists held her down and ripped her clothes, cried out in strange tongues and convulsed on the floor. “Heal him from this affliction!” I choose myself, a stone path gleaming in the dark. She gritted her teeth and held on. I choose myself. __________ That night, Greta heard her father and stepmother talking, voices hushed in a parody of secrecy. Her father’s low rumble: “Do you think it worked?” There lingered a long pause before Ivey said, “God is powerful, but Satan is crafty. No. I don’t think it worked.” In the silence that followed, Greta heard her father’s faithlessness echoed back. And weren’t they right, after all? The agony of what her body was and what it should be still plagued her. Perhaps some part of her also hoped she could be free of this. Wouldn’t that be simpler? Would you rather have a dead son or a jailed daughter? she'd asked her mother all that time ago. And her mother’s answer had been neither, but a world in which a third choice existed. “Perhaps…we could have our own family,” her stepmother said, suggestive and shrewd. “A normal family.” Her father, with no hesitation, agreed. “I could start over again.” “The year has been hard. Food has been scarce. Hans is thin as it is – he looks sickly. Would anyone question his passing?” Greta’s bones pressed against her skin, trying to shape her body into what it should be. Her heart fluttered against her chest. I choose myself. __________ When Greta fled, all she took was her mother’s wedding dress. She left her tunic and her trousers folded on her pallet, donned the dress, and made for the trees. Into the forest, where she carved her name into dogwood and ash, I am Greta, stone on yielding fiber, I am a girl. Abomination, aberration, her stepmother’s voice echoed in insects and rot. You never should have been born. Greta trudged away from the path until her stepmother’s voice was devoured by ferns and brambles. I exist, etching herself into bark. She wove vines into braids and draped them across her bare head. I am not alone. She walked into the deepening dark, toward the wolves and witches she feared less than the monsters at her back. “I am Greta.” She walked toward herself.
Chloe Ackerman (she/her) is a writer and psychologist who works with gender diverse individuals and teaches other psychologists about gender inclusive mental health care. Her work has previously appeared in Mirror Dance and r.k.v.r.y, where her story Flame was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her wife and their dog Pants. She can be found on Twitter at @chloedeng8.