The Ash Wife

Image courtesy of Tyler Lastovich on Unsplash

He buried his third wife on Friday, two hours before noon. The doctor frowned through the service, and the doctor’s wife’s angry gaze fixed on him, not looking away even once. The pastor spoke in low tones, his head down, while the pastor’s wife stood at a distance, arms crossed, jaw tight.

At two hours after noon he drove the last of the sniffling, glowering townsfolk from his house, the pastor’s wife and the doctor’s wife whispering as they went. With the gate closed behind them all and their voices lost in the distance, he took up his axe and his hatchet and his adze and descended upon the ash tree that his mother had planted next to his house.

A good wife she had been to his father. Silent. Modest. Eager to please. Not like the women he had taken into his home.

The ash tree’s long branches shaded the three headstones, two chipped and covered in lichen, the third new and clean.

His first wife had spent too much time sitting beneath it, reading. He had burned all of her books after he buried her.

His second wife had planted flowers at the base of the tree. She had paid more attention to her garden then to him. He had ripped it all out after he buried her.

The ash tree shuddered and groaned with the first hit of his axe. Birds fled, screeching. The tree groaned and shook again with his next hit, and his next, and his next. Leaves and spiders fell down around his ears.

The groaning stopped.

With a loud crack, the trunk snapped and the tree toppled onto its side. The headstones tipped as the ground heaved. Bits of bone and cloth were tangled among the roots, both rotted and fresh. He snatched at the yellowed bones of his first wife, and the frayed hair of his second wife, and the clean burial shroud of his third wife, pulled free of its coffin. He tossed them back into the ground, bit by bit, and kicked dirt back over them.

Next, his hatchet. He hacked away the extraneous roots and limbs.

Sweating, he tossed his jacket across the third headstone.

With his adze, he smoothed and polished the wood, turning bumps and twists into curves.

As the sun set, he piled the debris on a bare patch of ground and lit it with embers from the hearth that his third wife could never keep clean enough. He burned and sharpened the end of a stick. Taking up the smoothed and polished wood, he used the burned stick to mark the outlines of eyes, nose, mouth, breasts, pubis, fingers, and toes. Chisel and sandpaper erased the lines, bringing the eyes, nose, mouth, breasts, pubis, fingers, and toes into relief.

He set down his tools. By the light of the fire, he placed her upright.

His mother’s face and form. But her eyes were brown and wide, and her hair was leaves and slim branches that lifted and fell in the breeze.

A beetle crawled across her forehead. She opened her mouth to speak, and it was the sound of bark grating and wood rubbing. It was harsh to his ears.

“On their blood and their bones have I fed. They cried to me through my roots.”

She swayed, moving towards him, stumbling, her feet refusing to completely leave the ground.

Anger and disappointment gnawed through his guts.

Ants raced up and down her bare legs. A spider danced across her bare breasts.

His mother’s face and form, but not her silence, her modesty.

He reached towards his axe.

The gate creaked. He looked over to see the doctor’s wife and the pastor’s wife and a dozen others he knew to be wed to men in town, but he could not say for certain who. They stood around him in the darkness, the low flames from the pile of debris casting strange reddish light across their faces.

“They whispered to us on the wind,” the doctor’s wife said.

“We tasted their pain in the leaves and sap,” the pastor’s wife said.

He shook his head at their nonsense and reached again, but his hand touched nothing. He looked around, anger changing to confusion and then to fear.

His mouth opened, silent, as the ash wife raised his axe.

[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her publications can be found there.]