They pulled a corpse strung with marigolds out of the river today. She was studded with stars and lava, her tresses of hair in a spider silk veil. All bloody and bridelike. Her damp cheeks were powdered, over her broken teeth her pale lips were painted scarlet. The town mourned her body like a trophy, and she sat silent.
The women came to mourn her first. They touched the bruise over her eye and gasped at the charming hollows of her cheeks. They bought charms to protect them from her bad luck. She is too beautiful. Someone must have jinxed her.
The women shielded the eyes of the children with a lace-stitched scarf. They described the vivid scenes behind the scarf with their heads held high. She is one of us. They cheered when her betrothed was brought to justice and the children sang of the saltwater bride in their schoolyard.
Next came the river spirits who cried, she belongs to us. Their little fingers tugged at her soaked gown, her pale sandals, her vein-sketched eyelids. We love her. She is ours. But they were no match for a body so pure of sin, so they returned to the depth of the river, hungry.
The elders came to say goodbye to their child, for while she was now young and beautiful forever, she was once their child of the land. They prayed, why, why her? Soon they needed to leave to prepare her funeral, for she was deserving of grandness and decorum. After all, she soaked their feet and washed their hair. Played the harp and crooned for them.
Then, the poor men approached her body with their gazes lowered. For once she was the prize of the village and now, she was at their feet. They felt bad because they loved her. She does not deserve this. And yet, she looked so kind, they decided. Here she would sleep forever.
Finally came the businessmen of the town, associates of her fiancé. They be-cried him a monster, so sinister and cunning as to have slank around their ankles, so oafishly barbaric to be of unrefined taste. They had the man hung and stripped from their association. What a maniacal man. A gala was ordered in her honor.
The gray woman watched this from her cottage at the edge of the riverbank. Between her long, crooked fingers was a letter. They love her. She brought the letter to the mourning postman and did not thank him. Before her, the maid swung bullishly as she tried to light the fireplace. The gray woman threw her porcelain cup at her.
“It’s freezing!” the gray woman screamed. “Can’t you do a simple thing?”
The gray woman felt her heart in her chest as if it were squelching in her palm. She returned her gaze to the window. There stood at the river’s edge a handsome man in a sharp suit. The town’s doctor looked grim and wiped his palm across a welt rising on his chiseled cheek. He was a good family man. He brought candy pops for the small children at his practice. He brought the gray woman to each gala, dressed in the fine silks his salary could barely afford.
He had a beautiful wife, one even more beautiful than the saltwater bride. This is what the gray woman concluded, for she outside her cottage walls was a shining sight to behold, and she was his beautiful wife.
The doctor arrived home on time with a package of flowers. He had plucked them from the riverbank for the funeral.
“It is too warm in here,” he declared and called out for the maid. “Miss Terra, if you would, please put out the fire.”
The maid’s footsteps shuffled through the old wooden house.
“She walks too loudly,” the gray woman grumbled. Her brown eyes brightened. They looked like graveyard soil. “Are those for me?”
The doctor shook his head. “They’re for the funeral.”
The gray woman made a sound under her breath.
He sighed. “It’s for that battered woman, for heaven’s sake.”
“But you promised.”
“A good woman is dead.”
The gray woman’s cheeks were flushed fuchsia as she bared her teeth. “How dare you.”
The doctor made a low hush as if he were calming a forest creature. “I’ve had a long day.” He looked down at her empty teacup. “All you drink is tea. It isn’t good for your health, dear.” He gestured to the cold pastry left on the tea table. “Eat.”
The gray woman seethed. Her eyes burned as she reached out a hand and slapped him.
His eyes widened and he grabbed her hand. He was as still as a grave- side lake.
A slow woosh echoed behind them. There stood the maid over the extinguished fireplace, her eyes pinstriped by the smoke.
The gray woman gathered her silks and walked upstairs with the dignity of a featherless peacock. She sat at her sink basin and splashed some water on her eyes. Then, as she stared at the portrait of herself that the doctor had requested on her wedding day, she powdered her face. She recreated the warmth around her eyes and filled in the hollows of her cheeks. Her lips were rouged, and she smiled, finally content.
She thought, one day I will be as beautiful as the saltwater bride, and everyone will cry at my funeral.
The gray lady imagined the letter she sent traveling through the markets. When she went to the market, she had stares of all kinds. Her silks were finer than theirs, her nose held straight in the air. She was the doctor’s wife, not one of those philanthropic snots spending their lavish days in an orphanage. The gray woman knew who she was.
In her mind, everyone needed someone to aspire to be. Everyone wanted to be cruel, just a little bit, taste saccharin pain on their lips. When men on the street tipped their hats to her, she did not smile. They could do nothing about it because she was the doctor’s wife. She relished in those little joys. The only control she had.
Past the markets her letter would travel to the most esteemed of their town’s several papers. She wanted only the best. The gray women imagined it at some eager young reporter’s desk and breathed out a sigh of relief. The world would hear her, and know she was as divinely beautiful as the sunken woman.
When the doctor came to bed that night, she announced: “I am going to my family estate tonight.”
He set down his book and laughed at her. “In your nightgown?”
She frowned when he kissed her. Her heart jumped a beat. He held onto her hair, and it was soft in his fingers.
“Yes, I am,” she said, wrapping a robe around herself. She left the blue sheets of their bed, felt the silk tug on her feet like a river current.
The doctor was weary for he had work during the day and for the next day, so he returned to his book. “I will see you in the morning for the funeral, then.”
The gray women said nothing. She took her carriage across town and ate her slice of bread topped with salted butter. But the bread was too soggy, prepared too early, even though she specified that it be made after twilight. She did not get a wink of sleep that night, even in her bed, far across town for she was a child on Hollow’s Eve, waking for the sweet candies of revenge.
In the evening the town was gathered to put to rest the beautiful body of the saltwater bride. The gray woman wore her best silks for she had to be as pure as the smothered woman. Her letter would be published alongside the obituaries, and they would come back to life again. But the townsfolk eyed her strangely and crowded the doctor. Maybe they are assembling the pitchforks at this moment, she decided.
She believed that so strongly, that when she picked up a few stranded newspapers, her clay eyes sprung wide open. There her letter was, but it was all wrong. Doctor’s wife calls abuse. The next one said, Our kind doctor, a wife-beater? Her fingers shook as she read the last. Maybe the good doctor will finally divorce crazy wife!
How could her letter have failed so thoroughly? She wondered. Was she not as beautiful as the saltwater bride?
The gray woman heard the swirling voices around her, as if they belonged to river spirits, pulling her into the depths.
“Have you seen the scratches on the doctor’s face?” asked a village elder.
“She wouldn’t even dare to smile at one of us in the street,” said a poor man.
The children had already made a rhythm out of her. “The doctor’s wife was cold as ice; she bared her teeth and stole his life.”
She felt the weight of many eyes on her skin, searching for her soul. They did not see beauty when they stared at her. She stepped toward the casket and seized hands with the saltwater bride. The gray woman cried and begged and screamed. “Come to life. Come to life. Tell them!”
A sea of arms snatched her from the body, ripped at her fancy silks, reveled in ruining her perfect ringlets, smudging the lipstick from her cakey face. They tossed her out, while the doctor remained, silent and troubled. She could hear the many voices consoling him on what a cruel and vindictive wife she was.
The doctor was so beautiful, they didn’t understand. She had to ruin him. From her tower she watched the townsfolk in their glee. Their doctor was kind to the children and the poor. He took his wife to galas and dressed her in the finest.
She threw bowls and priceless pottery until she drove her last servant. The gray woman sat alone in her chipped porcelain tub. She watched the ripples of light in the bath reflect across the rose petals. They floated in a crown around her head. If only the doctor was here, and he’d pushed her head beneath the water. Then she could be beautiful forever.
She sat up feeling so cold. It wound in a ball in her chest as if she could hear the knock at the door down below. When she went downstairs, she found a large, flat package waiting for her. It taunted her with its neatly creased, brown parchment, like it had eyes and a face and teeth. She could feel the paper in her throat, and she couldn’t breathe.
“No,” she screamed and tore at the package. It ripped like water in her hands—she couldn’t truly hold it.
She stood heaving before the portrait of herself, all shiny and clean. She wasn’t smiling—she didn’t believe the painter was skilled enough to be graced with her smile. He wasn’t. She reached out to touch the painted glass, and its fingers met a fist. The gray woman smashed and smashed, tearing through the skin of her knuckles. The glass cracked and several large pieces scattered to the ground.
The town would not exact her revenge. She placed several shards of the glass in the pocket of her robe and set off toward home. When the gray woman returned to the cottage by the river, she found the doctor staring off into the fireplace.
He turned when he saw her. “Dear?” he asked, but there was a twinge of fear in his voice.
She nodded, saying nothing.
“Remember that portrait, on your wedding day?”
“Our wedding day.”
The doctor frowned but continued. “It is a reminder of my love. The whole world knows I would never hurt you.” He smiled and reached out his arm to hold hers.
She held out a single hand and he clasped both of his arms around it. The gray woman smiled and saw how lovely she felt in the mirror in the main hall. She grabbed the glass in her pocket and sliced into his chest. Bursts of blood spurted through his coat, and his hands shoved her down.
The doctor gasped in big heaves, but his eyes were well alive. He reached for her throat and her vision went blurry. She felt the glass shards piece her hands as well as him. It hurt her. To hurt him.
The gray woman closed her eyes. But you won’t be beautiful, said a voice in her head. If you die here, you will be ugly forever.
“I’m sorry,” she croaked out, and he paused for a single moment.
The gray woman grabbed the stoke from the fireplace and struck him across the head. He went limp over her, and she shrugged his body off. She wrapped her hands in bandages, grabbed what supplies she could, and ran out of the cottage. By the river was a little canoe, their honeymoon present.
That was the first time the doctor struck her.
The gray woman got into the boat with her supplies and began paddling down the river. She felt an itching burn as blood soaked into her paddle, and as she passed the riverbank, she watched white irises twinkle against the morning dew. He had once brushed the bruises down her back and promised her white irises, in a vase tied with a gold ribbon. She loved flowers.
When she crossed the stretch of murky water where the saltwater bride was dredged out, she hummed to herself. That woman had such lovely hair, flowing around her head. She instinctively touched the bald spot buried in the back of her head where he had ripped out a chunk of her hair for buying a new dress. After the next gala, the doctor screamed that she was an embarrassment to him for wearing an old, shabby gown.
The saltwater bride appeared so naturally beautiful, and the gray woman envied her. Beneath the cake of makeup, the doctor so hated were his fingerprints. Her throat felt sore, and her stomach ached within her. That hunger ate at her throat. She drank some of the bloody river water to quench that thirst. She’d had only tea for days…Every time she tried to swallow, she remembered fingers around her neck.
Her hands throbbed so she paddled with her arms. They felt useless, and she felt useless. She only wanted to be as beautiful as the saltwater bride.
In the pounding of footsteps against a dead river, she only heard his voice, over and over. You are a horrid woman. I’d rather you were dead. Rather than his first love.
She saw the townsfolk in droves, and she felt them beat in her heart. They lifted her by her slippery, bloody hands, and the gray woman stopped struggling.
“Please listen,” she begged, arms thrashing. Their eyes gleamed at her cries. She had been so above them, yet at their very whim she sat. “He hurt me, just look.” She lifted her skirts to show the melon-yellow bruise running up her thigh.
But the men had hungry eyes enough and had already seen the marks. The town only saw the blood on her hands—the doctor’s blood and that was enough. It did not matter if it was her blood too.
Her maid stepped forward in the crowd and the gray woman felt a surge of hope. She had seen the gray woman splotched with bruises, blood running between her legs. She had served her the tea.
“I saw her strike him,” said the maid. “The doctor has always been kind to me.”
The gray woman’s heart was bleeding out into her hands. She was never going to be beautiful after all.
She felt true joy that she and the saltwater bride could only be beautiful together. Even as they ripped at her dress and tied her arms to a wooden pyre, she smiled. When the burning started, they jeered taunts, horrible things only a woman could be called.
“And I will live forever,” she screamed as the flames ate at her skin. “For I have lived and died a thousand lives and your hate for me will burn you all.”
She died charred and as all witches did, died innocent.
The affair was over. The town was glad for the gray woman was a cruel witch and justly dead. There would be no more good names sullied and lives taken. The doctor survived his injuries and fortunately would not stay a widower. He found an adoring young girl to marry.