As I mentioned here, the new anthology Monsters and Mormons will be publishing my story “The Living Wife.” And since it’s a ghost story, we are posting an excerpt for Halloween. This section takes place after Zina, who can see ghosts, discovers that her new husband is actually a widower, and that she will be sharing their home with the ghosts of two predecessors, Agnes and Grace.
Grace hovered around me one washday, as I boiled water, grated lye soap, and scrubbed. Washday was a good day to be a ghost, I thought, watching other people rub their hands till they bled, knowing you’d never have to do it again yourself. I worked stains out of our clothes. She followed me into the yard, as far as her house-binding would allow, as if daring me to talk to her. Finally I said, “What?”
“You shouldn’t be so rude. You ought to know what I’ve guessed already.”
“What is it?”
“Haven’t you noticed the laundry? Or have you not been counting the weeks? If I’m right, you’re with child.”
She was right. And I had lost track of weeks. “You’re the first person to know,” I said. “I didn’t realize.” And then I scrubbed at the washboard and cried a little. She had stolen my good news from me.
Her glee at being right dissipated when she saw me crying. “I thought you’d be happy,” she said.
“I wanted to know myself,” I told her. “You should have guessed that. Or haven’t you been pregnant before?”
“I was, once,” she said. “But the baby came early, and died, and I died too. Didn’t Nathaniel tell you?”
I shook my head. “But that’s how Agnes died.”
“I had made all the clothes,” Grace said. “The little gowns, and the cloth hemmed for diapers, and tiny booties. Quilts, too. I’ll show you, if you want.”
“Let me finish the wash,” I said. She left me alone as I washed, wringing out the clothes in long twisted sticks, shaking the water out in a fine mist, hanging them on the line so the cold breeze would blow them dry. Sometimes I noticed the spirits watching me work, and I envied them their indolence, their clean, idle existence. Don’t wish away your work, the Holy Spirit told me. You don’t want their pale half-life.
Grace waited for me inside the door. “Upstairs,” she said. “In the left bedroom, beneath the bed, there’s a long flat box.” She followed me as I went up the stairs and into the bedroom, and pulled the box from beneath the bed. I opened it and it was as she said, only more so. Stacks of diapers, rows of gowns, two baby quilts. Each little gown embroidered with flowers. Baby quilts dotted with tiny, even stitches.
“I didn’t become pregnant for four years after we married,” she told me. “I had time to work. I worried that Nathaniel would give my things away, but he didn’t. He saved them.”
“To remember you? Or to give to his next child?”
“I don’t know.” She reached for a white gown, but her hand passed through it. “I’ll let you use them.”
“You will?” I could use her baby things without asking, but I wanted permission. These were too beautiful to poach.
“I’ll let you use them if you’ll talk to Nathaniel for me. Give him a message from me.”
Such a condition. “I can’t,” I said. “I can’t do that.”
“Of course you can. You can tell him that Grace loves him as much as she ever did. Or no, tell him this. Tell him that he’s got the best darned socks in the world.”
“It was our joke, what he always used to say when I mended his things.”
“And am I supposed to run messages between the two of you?”
“Not lots of messages. Just this one. Please.”
I picked up a tiny bootie, knit out of white yarn. Five pairs of booties, each slightly larger than the one before. Careful anticipation for an arrival that came too early. “I’ll think about it,” I said.
I folded the baby clothes, stacking them in even rows, making them look as perfect and tidy as they had before. If Grace’s baby had survived, she would have spent many hours scrubbing these clothes, removing yeasty yellow stains, doing wash more than once a week to keep up. A living, crying, messy baby, ruining and redeeming every stitch.
In the story I tried to find both the potential humor and the real pain of the Mormon doctrine that a man can be sealed to wives who are deceased at the same time as one living wife. We don’t practice polygamy anymore, but we do have men sealed to both deceased spouses and living wives. How do you feel about widowers remarrying? Do you want your spouse to remarry, and would you visit them if you could?
As for me, I would want my husband to remarry if I died. I wouldn’t want him to be alone. But if my mom died, even though I’d hate to see my dad lonely, I would also struggle mightily with having my father remarry. I would try very hard to be kind to her, but there’s no one like my mom, and I hope I never have to see her replaced.
I realize this can be a tender topic for many people, and I hope that I don’t open any wounds, but I’m interested in your opinions here.
And have an excellent Halloween, filled with cute kids and the best candy.