Snow and Salt
By Genevieve Cogman
19 July 2004
They said that she was poisoned. People always talk. Doc knew that it was the illness, though—the one that comes with the snow and leads people away behind it into the thaw. He said that it wouldn't be long before her husband visited us.
Her husband came with the spring, eyes dry and red, collar clean, overcoat swinging on his shoulders, the smell of gin on his breath.
"I want her back," he told us. Outside the shack's window, the graveyard was very quiet and very still, the tombstones rising at angles like broken teeth. The clouds hid the moon and stars. "Name your price."
Doc asked for the usual amount of money. I think our customer had been expecting more. And then it was the old story of rattles and songs and dancing, all seven of us, the signs and the vevers, the blood at the crossroads and the knocking at the door.
She came up out of the ground even more beautiful than when she had gone down into it. Her face was as white as snow, and her hair as black as ink, and her lips as red as the blood on her gravestone. She looked around with that slow confused stare, the one they always have, her mouth working as she tried to remember what words were.
We would have let it go at that, but Sleepy heard talk in town.
"He's saying she's his daughter," he reported. We were sprawled around the shack, smoking and drinking and talking, the harsh smell of rum in the air.
"Yeah?" Doc asked lazily.
"Yeah," Sleepy said. He concentrated on lighting his pipe before speaking again. "Yeah. I suppose he had to tell the new wife something. And she only looks sweet seventeen. But there's talk."
"There's always talk," Grumpy muttered.
"Something will happen," Doc predicted.
And it did, of course. Next thing I knew, I found her wandering in the graveyard. Her hair was all mussed, like a child's, and her eyes still had that staring blankness, that false innocence. I took her hand, and it was cold to the touch, perfectly still and cold.
"He brought me here," she said, voice flat as it always would be. "The hunter with the cross. She told him to take my heart out so that I'd sleep, but he wouldn't. He dropped the knife and told me to lie down and rest."
I nodded. Same old story. It's one of the first things they always try. "Come with me," I told her. "You can stay with us."
So I led her back to the shack, the autumn leaves whispering against our shoes, her dress whipping around her in the wind. The others laughed, and gave her a broom to sweep the floor, and a pan to cook with. It wasn't as if she had intelligence for more than that. But she needed the work to do. They all do.
We were all out of the shack the day that the second wife came visiting. She must have been the woman I passed on the road that morning—I didn't know her, had never seen her before or even heard her name. There was a similarity, looking back. Both of them had dark hair, pale skin, lips as red as bruised berries. She was wearing dark glasses in an attempt to hide the stains of purple and yellow around her eyes, and huddled under her raincoat as though she were cold. She could have been any battered wife.
Happy got back first. He told us later that he'd found her trying to dig her way back into her grave, her hands already bloody from pawing at the rough ground, whimpering, huge tears falling from those lovely dark eyes. The apple lay on the floor in the shack, a single bite taken out of it. It had been coated with salt—salt to remind her what she was, salt to make her look for her grave again.
We discussed what to do. Doc had the final decision, as usual. "Put her in a glass coffin," he said. "He'll be here to find her, eventually. It's not the same if he has to see her crawling up out of the soil. That spoils it for them. They don't want to remember it."
So we rigged up a coffin with spare panes of glass and aluminium poles, and laid her in it. She lay there as if she was sleeping, eyes closed, bandages over her fingers and hands to cover the wounds that wouldn't heal.
She lay there all winter.
When he came again, it was spring, and there was fresh grass growing throughout the graveyard, tender green against the old grey and dirtied white of the stones. There were cuts and bruises on his knuckles, and a smell of brandy on his breath and clothes.
Doc told him what to do, and he wiped the salt from her lips with a kiss. She opened her eyes, still with that same emptiness that she'd never lose, and got up to follow him again. There was no eagerness in her pace, and no delay either. There was nothing. There would never be anything, unless she tasted salt, and then there would be only the yearning for her own grave, for that quiet soil.
I saw the second wife once, dancing in a nightclub that burned with heat like Hell's own ovens, sweat pouring from her bare shoulders and face. She was turning her eyes to the lights above, dancing her soul out as the music screamed and shuddered round her, dancing to life's pulse, dancing, dancing, dancing in shoes that glowed in the lights like red-hot iron, dancing her life away.