After word of the Snow White incident got around the kingdom, someone made a killing off the invention of spring-loaded glass coffins. Just pull a lever inside and — Bang! — the lid is up and you’re free. None of that nasty business Snow White had to deal with, pounding on the lid and gasping for air while she bounced around in the back of a cart pulled by the prince’s horse. The inventor sold them to the gullible and the believers and the ones who couldn’t let go — meaning just about everyone.
When the girl I was to marry died of tuberculosis only two weeks before our wedding, I bought one for her and laid her out on the table in my cottage with her parents’ blessing, where I could gaze upon her red hair and lips each morning as I left and each evening on my return. But when it got to the point that she could induce vomiting on sight — luckily the coffins were good about sealing off the smell — I had to take her up into the mountains with the others. On clear days, you could see them shining like ice on the peaks: an army of dead maidens.
Years went by and I got on with my life. I married another girl, the daughter of a traveling tinker. She had long golden hair that shone like wheat in the sun. Neighbors lost sisters and daughters and lovers, and took them into the mountains, and had more children or married others or learned to forget. I suppose we thought that if they ever woke, as Snow White had done, they would come back whole, not as the shambling wrecks who stumbled down the mountain one morning under the summer sunlight.
Their rotten flesh peeled off of their yellowed bones. Their bloodless lips were pulled back in skeletal smiles. They shuffled through the village in packs of four or five, knocking on the doors of their loved ones with shredded hands. No one wanted them cooking their dinner or sleeping in their bed, except maybe the prince with the strange fetish who had made off with Snow White. But what could we do? We took them in.
They didn’t like having been replaced. “Faithless,” my betrothed breathed, her voice rattling through the lose stumps of her teeth, when my wife opened the door. I gave her a chair by the fire, where she sat, day after day, grinning at us and coming apart by degrees. Her hair, red as blood, had once held me captive. But now it was matted and dull, her skull showing through the strands.
The dead never slept. At night, they gathered in the cemetery on the hillside. Perhaps there they felt at home. If you woke in the darkness and peeked out of your window, you could see them, sitting in a circle so still they may have been stones, hear their murmurs running down into the village, and your hair would stand on end.
If they no longer needed to sleep, the dead made up for it in their hunger. They were ravenous. Whole loaves of bread, bowls of porridge, roast chickens, carrots and turnips, sides of lamb — all of it disappeared down my betrothed’s gullet, until her stomach swelled and started to split, whole meals tumbling out again from between her ribs. At night when I came in from the fields, I would often find them together — my wife sweating at the oven, her hair falling in wet tendrils across her glowing face, my betrothed seated in her chair, holding a gnawed bone in her hand, her dry lips dripping with fat.
Maybe the dead and the living were not meant to live so close together. Maybe if we had truly forgotten them, the way we told ourselves we had forgotten them, and shut them away in the earth, this never would have happened.
Summer turned to autumn. The gourds and the wheat ripened, like the swollen limbs of our sisters and daughters and lovers. My fingers and feet grew stiff with cold. In the morning, dry chunks of hair covered my pillow. The harvest moon rose, and by its light I noticed one of my neighbors following the dead to the cemetery, shuffling up the hill with his back bent like an old man.
Autumn turned to winter, and the bare trees scraped the sky like the skeletal fingers of the dead. A constant hunger gnawed my belly. One morning, I found one of my wife’s teeth in my porridge, the crown white as snow, the roots twisted and rotten. My betrothed grinned at me from her chair by the fire.
Spring came, and we planted, our stiff arms barely strong enough to push the plows. When my wife cut herself peeling the first of the year’s vegetables, she did not bleed.
Summer came again, and the harvest ripened. It was a full year since the dead had come down from the mountains, and all anyone in the village could think of was food. I ate my meals almost before my wife had a chance to prepare them, and still I could feel starvation clawing at the inside of my belly. I passed the neighbor’s boy one evening as I came in from the fields, sitting in the ditch that separated our property. He had a sparrow in his hands. The bird struggled weakly, its wings beating, as he wrenched off its leg and brought it to his mouth.
We decided to prepare a feast. A feast for the dead, to commemorate our first year together. Hans donated his barn for the occasion. We strew last season’s dried rushes across the floor. The village men set to work building long tables of soft pine to hold all of the food. The village women ground flour and butchered livestock and pulled vegetables, and the dead looked on, their ravenous mouths gaping.
When all was ready, we gathered inside to eat and dance. We led the dead through the dances, our stiff and swollen feet stumbling through the straw, Old Gunter’s curled fingers nimble enough for only the simplest of tunes. The living danced with the dead. The dead danced with the living. Our shadows flickered on the walls like demons.
We sat down to eat at tables bent under the weight of the food: tureens of thick soup and golden potatoes, carrots dressed with herbs, steaming loaves of bread and crackling roast pheasants. I ate like the dead, soup dripping from my lips, my stomach tight and distended. The sweet scent of the dry rushes mingled with that of the food. Wax tapers lined the tables, their tiny flames filling the darkness as the sun went down.
And now I am standing. It is not easy — my stomach aches and my knees creak. I raise my mug of beer: rich and golden, brewed right here in our village. In my other hand I grasp a burning candle. Its flame illuminates my face. The other men do the same. The eyes of the dead are black as ebony, and the flames dance in their depths. I am able to pick out my betrothed by the red of her remaining hair. Her face is turned towards me.
“To the dead,” I say. “May we dwell together in peace forever.”
In a moment I will lower my candle. In a moment the other men will do the same. The straw will take first, and then the soft wood of the tables, and the dry walls of the barn. By now we are all, dead and living alike, too slow to escape.
Let us be forgotten.