The Purchased Bride

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Tara McDaniel


There’s an old saying. When a woman is beautiful on her wedding day but comes to look like an ugly thing years later, she is married all over. We once knew a woman like that. Truth is, we drove her away. She wasn’t like us, and we wanted to break her open, to bury our noses and eat.

Instead, she ate at us.

 

What explanation can I offer? We were a small town, dying. We clung to whatever was left, which wasn’t much. Our whole lives were bounded by our small streets and even smaller expectations. By this time, so many of our own had left us: for cities, machines, money. The recently abandoned houses stood among our tailors and bakery shops like vacant eyes. That’s when Jim Wisp—the first to ever leave us—came back. He had a woman we didn’t know, and he intended to wed her.

This woman—Marianne—was incredible. Tall and big-boned, her shoulders jutted out the edges of her dresses like wings. Her hair was wild, the color of wheat cut through with blood red and icy gold. We were flabbergasted, didn’t know what to make of her beauty. On the day of their wedding, Jim Wisp stood at the altar, his face bloated in satisfaction. The man had left us on his eighteenth birthday with nothing but an old suitcase. He came back rich with a beautiful woman. He moved into the old, expansive house at the bottom of the hill. I tell you, we all had bulging eyes and slippery tongues. We were choking on our jealousy, and our righteousness. Of course Jim would come back. It was proof of his regret for ever leaving.

 

Well, he told us some great stories. He’d come up to the bar—Sanson’s, we call it—and talk for hours. What excursions! Riding horseback into new towns, setting up workers to dig irrigation, parceling out housing plots. All in all, making some big money. He’d been around to places I’d never heard of—Navaroo and Black Mine City. I could hardly imagine it.

Then there was his wife. She’d sit at the bar, her long back to us, drinking wine. She never came to join us, never touched Jim at the shoulder. She just sat there until Jim passed around handshakes. She would wait then at the open doorway, looking this way and that, as if she were waiting for someone to pull up in the road, bearing a coach. As if she were waiting for someone to come take her away.

It was strange that Marianne didn’t otherwise much come to town, except to do some shopping once a week. She wouldn’t strike up a friendship with anyone, and she hardly spoke. It was rumored—and I admit that my wife Courtsey started this tale—that Marianne had a large garden filled with melons, edible mushrooms, various wild grasses, along with a gaggle of her own geese. She supposedly ate their eggs. At any rate, I felt this could be true or not; but as time passed on, I began to assimilate this information less and less as rumor, and more like fact.

 

I guess we came to accept the silence as the way things were. That is, until Jim said he was leaving, by himself, for yet another adventurous excursion. This was about a year after the wedding. On the night that Jim told us, I was surprised to see Marianne not only sloppily drunk, but talking to the barmaid, Jane.

Now, Jane’s a fine girl, if not a little empty up in the head. She’ll chatter to anybody, that’s not unusual. What’s unusual is that Marianne was answering back. I forgot to ask Jane about it because of what happened the next day. It was just hours before Jim left. Marianne didn’t come to sit at the bar, but she did come stand at the door. She was colored by the moon, and wearing the deepest red ruby necklace I’d ever seen. It looked like her neck had been gashed by a deep blade, the blood thick and glistening in the yellow light. The effect was startling, and I couldn’t help but stare.

The necklace itself must have been worth a fortune. Where in the world would she get something like that? I thought maybe it had been a wedding gift, or an heirloom. It bothered me, but I told myself to forget about it. What would I do with the answer it if I had it? I was, by this time, devoted to Jim as a friend, and felt it was not my business to put my nose directly into his.

 

For about six months after Jim left, Marianne still came for her once-weekly groceries, and to make a trip to the post office. He was sending her packages. Around the third month, though, the packages stopped coming. She still went to the post until about the end of that sixth month. What she really thought of all this no one could know, for she hardly spoke words more than hellos and goodbyes. Not even to the post official, Jester. Except for this one time.

It was a rather cold afternoon and Marianne came in. She remarked to him on the fine weather, it being so crisp that she almost expected snow to fall, even though it was still early autumn. He was surprised that she’d spoken a whole sentence, and so tried not to look too shocked. I guess it worked because she went on.

“It reminds me a little of my home. One of my homes. Well, my second home.” She stuttered and grew nervous, her sentences punctuated. She pulled a stray piece of hair back into her bun, and looked at Jester sideways. “It was cold where I came from, living against a mountain. I loved it there. Until the mine fell.” But that was all she was going to give. She immediately straightened her back and said formally, “Do I have a package, Mr. Bullock?”

She didn’t.

“Not from Mr. Wisp, I mean,” she said, agitated again. “From someone else perhaps… a woman? A letter, with a return address marked from an Anne Marie? An Anne Marie Monroe?”

Jester averted his eyes. He played at examining his fingers. I’d say he was rightfully confused. When he finally looked up, it was just the edge of her skirts going out the door.

 

After that day, Marianne stopped coming to town altogether.

At first Courtsey thought that she was sick, and went to visit several times. Marianne would answer the door, but never invited Courtsey inside. She wasn’t sick, though; Courtsey saw that much.

“You know what I think,” she said to me one night at dinner. “She’s got some secret in there. Has to. Why else wouldn’t she ever let me inside?”

“Secret?” I said. “Like what?”

Courtsey leaned across the table, fork clenched in her hand. “Treasures. You said yourself that Jim admitted to leaving her a stash. Maybe that’s why she doesn’t come out ever. Don’t need to. She’s got blocks of gold in there!”

“Now, you don’t know that’s true,” I said, wiping my chin a little nervously. I was thinking of the ruby necklace, but pressing myself against gossip. “Besides, what would she do with the gold? She’s no alchemist; it’s not like she can turn the gold into cash.”

Courtsey sighed. “I don’t know, but it sure seems funny to me. She’s never been right, not even from the start.”

The thought hung between us that Courtsey was right about the garden, and that she might be right about this, too. But I didn’t really believe Marianne was guarding some secret treasure. If that were true, then why would Jim have to leave again? He had mentioned something about having a debt to repay, and not having the funds to do so. That’s why he was leaving. Somewhat muddled in my mind over this, I changed the subject to Sanson’s son, and we didn’t speak of Marianne again for the rest of the night.

 

Over the course of a month, my wife continued to make calls. But after awhile, Marianne ceased to answer the door altogether. She didn’t come to town, and we didn’t hear anything of Jim. We began to believe that Jim was dead. We couldn’t figure what to do. What if Marianne, too, was dead? What if she starved to nothing, or had committed suicide? Would we be responsible for a rotting corpse in that house?

Sometime in the dead of winter, we held a meeting at Sanson’s. Nobody agreed on anything, except that Marianne never spoke to anyone, and that she and the whole ordeal were way too weird.

Jane appeared, her face as round and bright as a coin. “That ain’t true,” she said, rubbing the bar with her oily cloth. “She talked to me once.” We were silent as we watched her. She just stood smiling to herself and humming a tune while she went about her work as if she had never said a thing.

Courtsey asked, “Well, what did she tell you, dear?”

“Oh! She said something about her Mama being a ghost in a town full of ghosts, but she had a sack of coins for a heart that were still alive.”

We are all stared at the girl. Whatever in the world was she saying?

Jane nodded. “She’s got a Daddy not whole in his body and neither his mind—it become like a cup of bad dreams—and he living with her ghost Mama but soon’s Mr. Wisp makes his payment they won’t be empty or separate no more.” Jane went back to her humming and working, and after a moment we all dismissed what she said either as dumb ravings or Marianne’s drunkenness. I thought it was probably a combination of the two.

 

That night, we decided we should later go down to her house. The following day at dusk we set out. The women had been baking all day: fresh breads, apple and blueberry pies from their stores of preserves. Many of us wore coats and hats against the cold, but I and several of the men kept to our shirtsleeves. I was burning up, and would have thought I was running a fever except that Coulhon and Sanson’s son, who had likewise neglected a coat, were also sweating. We were all nervous and silent.

We knocked at the door, jiggled the lock. There was no answer, but a light was on upstairs. We decided to go around the side of the house. I tried to peer into the bottom floor windows, maybe to get a look into the kitchen or sitting room. But they were completely dark. They were painted black, with what looked like little pin pricks of stars and thin outlines of snowy mountains lining the bottom panes. The whole thing honestly gave me the creeps.

Coulhon was at the door. “Marianne!” he yelled. “It’s only us! Your neighbors! We know you’re in there, now open up!” After a few moments of silence he pounded again, “Marianne!”

In response, a bit of music came from inside. It was a tinkling melody, like something from a wind-up box. The sound reminded me of the jewelry box Courtsey had given Lagnah’s daughter, on her tenth birthday, with a little ballerina inside that twirled when you opened the lid. But this sound seemed older and rusted, as if the inner wheels had not turned in years.

I guess that was all too much, because Courtsey fainted. Several of the women shrieked and dropped their pies, surrounding her. I pulled at my hair and swore, pushing my way through the women until my hands were put firmly beneath Courtsey’s thighs and shoulders. What the devil, I thought. I picked her up and walked around the house and out onto the road.

The group followed my lead, leaving behind the lot of baked goods upon the lawn. They didn’t leave behind their fear, though. It spread over the town like a heavy fog the next day, and did not lift until it was burned away the following night.

 

Courtsey was fine, of course, once I got her home and put her in a hot tub with a jigger of whiskey. She fluttered and made theories about the mansion, which I am sure she shared with the women who came to our doorstep a little past sun-up the next morning.

I heard from the kitchen: “Oh, but it’s true. I saw her with my own eyes! Her face is pale and a little blue—kind of like watered milk—but her lips are even bluer.” That was Lagnah Parrish.

“Who?” I said, coming in. “Marianne?”

The women, who were practically talking over one another just a moment before, stopped short.

“No,” whispered Lagnah, “not her.” Her eyes scuttled about the kitchen before landing on me again. “Though she was the one that did it, I’m sure.”

She told me that Donald McClane had woken to find his wife in a kind of coma. Dr. Olsen had come to the bedside, but did not know what was wrong with her, or why.

 

The McClanes didn’t live but a short walk from my front door. I went to their doorstep, removed my hat, and rang the bell. Donald opened the door. The living room was gloomy, every available surface covered with yellow candles. He led me down a long hallway to a bedroom. Patty’s form looked lumpy under a pile of blankets. I stepped to the edge of her bed, where a stool had been placed close to her pillow. Looking at her, I had to admit to myself that Lagnah was right—I’d never seen anything like it in my life. Donald stood behind me, with his fists hard against the windowsill opposite.

He said, “It’s a right strange thing, Frank. At first, I thought she had caught some kind of cold from last evening. But then she wouldn’t wake, and there’s the funny color. Olsen sat with her all morning, but has no idea what’s the matter.” He turned around and his hands were shaking. “Lagnah Parrish, she says it’s witchcraft. At first I thought her crazy, but after what happened last night, I’ve a mind to say she’s right.”

I sat regarding him blankly. I was somewhat surprised by what he said, but then what could I say? His wife looked as if she were in the throes of death. I didn’t blame him at all.

All I said was, “It’s a shame, Donald. A real shame.” I reached out and touched Patty’s face, and it was cold, like the winter’s night itself.

 

There were other fallen women that day. The only answer seemed to be at the bottom of a bottle. Most of the men went to Sanson’s, talking among themselves for hours. Sanson brought out trays of meat and nuts for us to eat as we ordered round after round of drinks. It is amazing to me still that we could even speak we were getting so drunk.

Around sunset, a group of women came through the door. There had been a fifth fallen woman. Lagnah.

Many voices rose to a pitch in the room, and above them all, Courtsey’s.

“I say, let’s burn the witch, and stop this madness!”

What is the power of a word, of fear? I think on this day I learned it. As if propelled from an invisible power, people leapt from their seats and milled about, bumping into one another and shouting orders to light a fire. To gather torches. We became, in just minutes, like a mob of yellow jackets. It was so easy to set our target: the mansion, and the woman inside it.

The energy hot from each body carried us down the road, fires blazing in our hands. The shadowed form of the house flickered in the red light of the torches as we approached, and I was dizzy with an excitement whipped up by the fire in my fist. Even now I cannot explain it; if you’d have asked me then, I would’ve told you God directed me at it. My heart was beating hard, and my own chant to burn the witch rose into the smoking air along with everyone else. Perhaps I had never felt so alive, so totally a part of something great, because it seemed that there was an electric current running through us all, spinning a magnetic web from person to person. My fingers and brow were tingling as we placed the torches into the bushes surrounding the house. The fire caught quickly in the dead branches, and licked at the walls of the mansion within minutes.

We watched as the house began to catch fire at the foundation, and the bottom floor soon succumbed to the heat. It was only when the planks nailed into the mansion’s edifice began to crack and buckle under the flames did I notice a murky shape appear in the windows above, watching us, as we jumped about in the orangey light.

 

Summerlund was quiet again. We did not speak of our act, and no one went to sift the ashes. It was perhaps enough that for several days afterwards a kind of gray cloud blew on the wind from the hill and into our main streets: dust of the house and the witch, Marianne, leaving behind a trail of what we had done. It was like a bitter kiss goodbye, but no one would speak of it. Instead, we swept our porches and cleaned our windows in silence, saying good day to passersby.

The illnesses stopped altogether, and every fallen woman recovered quickly. Dr. Olsen still could not say what had happened to them, but we all silently agreed that it was because of the burned witch that the curse was broken. We returned to our small lives in our small town: the mail ran orderly, Courtsey entertained with her baking, and the men went sometimes to Sanson’s to play cards and not speak of Jim or Marianne at all.

 

It was not longer than a month when a stranger walked into the post office while I was chatting with Jester.

It was an old woman. She looked like a traveling gypsy, or maybe a beggar going from town to town asking after food and money. Her hunched form was covered in dirty blankets; in fact, the wool itself was stuck through with little bits of crushed leaves and twigs.

She came to the counter, and drew a box from the inside of the blanket. When she set it upon the counter and pushed it forward, it tinkled. The sound made my skin creep up my forearms, reaching the edges of my scalp until I felt that all the hair on my head was being drawn up, and backwards.

“Good afternoon,” she said to Jester. “I would like to send this article by post. To Black Mine City, in the care of Anne Marie Monroe. I’m afraid I haven’t much money, but,” and she drew out a large ruby necklace from the same fold in her blanket, “I have this to pay for its passage. Will you take it?”

Jester reached out and took both the necklace and the music box.” Aye,” he said, “I think we can see what we can do.” I stared at the necklace, and darted my tongue at my lips, where were becoming chapped and dry.

But Jester, never having seen the necklace before, examined it somewhat curiously.

She said, “I want to send the box to my family. It was my mother’s, and the only thing other than the necklace that remained mine after I was sold. Perhaps, if I send it back, she will take it as a sign to send for me.”

The words came out before I could stop them. “Sold? Whatever do you mean? Who are you?”

She turned towards me. “You don’t know, do you?” She was smiling wryly. “I think there are a great many things you don’t know, not about me, nor your dearest Jim Wisp, whom I know to be a sly deserter, with his silver tongue and pockets lined with the souls of the unfortunate.”

I stared at her, repulsed. She had stepped quite close to me. She was not as old as I had thought. Yes, her skin was dry and loose, and her hands like claws… but her hair, wild and tangled that it was, was not wholly white. My eye was drawn to the knots of red and gold coursing from her temples and woven into the white; each strand caught in the afternoon light like strings of glittering fire about to ignite.

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Tara McDaniel lives in Oklahoma with her husband and three cats. Her previous work has been published in Staples, Project for a New Mythology, and Words-Myth. She is currently working on a master’s degree online at the University of Denver. E-mail: like.the.pale.lily[at]gmail.com