David filled the old, enamelled, claw-footed bathtub with skin-temperature water and pink powder from an old-fashioned milk jar whose sepia label claimed that the contents were hand crafted from dehydrated goat’s milk and attar of roses. He rolled back the sleeve of his red, collared shirt and swirled the water with his hairy forearm until the fluid frothed like the blood-tinted mucous from a plague-victim’s lungs. Sweet, floral-scented steam filled the air and water condensed against the cool white tiles that lined the bathroom walls, clinging until the droplets fattened enough for gravity to draw them down to pool in the seams where the walls met the floor.
When David was satisfied that the water was exactly the way that Marie liked it he fetched her naked body from the bed, carried her in, and placed her gently into the water.
Her body had moved beyond the first rigidity of death. Her decomposing muscles had completely relaxed, gaining a languid softness, a flexibility, which she’d never had in life. She had been a well-muscled woman. Her shoulders were strong, so built up that she could not fully rotate her arms. She needed help putting on a winter coat, or sliding on her backpack. Now, with enough wire and patience, David could conceivably pose her like a yogi.
Instead, he washed her gently. He used a natural sponge loofa to exfoliate her skin, hoping to stimulate something like blood-flow in an effort to undo some of her new piebald colouration. She had been lying on their bed for three days, positioned on her back (her hands clasped across her small, pink-nippled breasts) and her blood had pooled into her buttocks, the bottoms of her thighs, and along the bone wings of her shoulder-blades. The rest of her flesh had grown so pale that her dark hair looked like a bad black wig against a drawn face. She was as pallid as an extra in a Dracula movie, and as still as a tomb.
Her body smelled like meat. Like expensive steaks, aged in a cool place and terribly tender. She hadn’t spoiled yet, but there was something of the butcher shop hanging in the air about her. A miasma. David knew that he would have to act quickly, if he wanted her to stay fresh.
He knew that he could not keep her forever, not the way she had been when she was alive (there was a light about her, something solemn, slightly humorous; an indefinable spark), or even as close to living as she was now, but he was determined to do better than the usual photographs. When Marie was clean, her face floating in its cloud of hair just below the rosy surface of the water, he pulled the plug and let the water drain around his wide-eyed Ophelia.
Lifting her out onto the ceramic floor, he towel-dried her flesh, paying extra attention to the rot-hungry places where skin touched skin. He shut her eyes and used spirit gum to seal the long-lashed lids. He wasn’t sorry. The brown irises had clouded days ago, swallowed by a spreading fog of gray-blue. When the glue set, he dried out the tub and replaced the plug.
The salt was piled inside the kitchen pantry. Fifty five-kilo bags, fine-grained, restaurant quality. He carried them four at a time into the bathroom and poured the contents into the tub until he’d lined the bottom with two inches of white powder. He placed Marie against the salt as gently as he would lower a child into its first snow-bank. He posed her, carefully; her legs slightly spread, arms crossed against her breasts, hair brushed out in a dark nimbus about her small head. He was making an angel, of a kind.
It took him thirty minutes to fill the tub with salt, pouring a stream as steady as sand from an hourglass, designed to eventually stop. When she was completely covered, when the salt brushed smooth and even as polished marble against the lip of the tub, David curled up on the floor, laid his head against his home-made sepulchre, and whimpered, ‘Oh God. Oh God.’
Bethany W Pope is an LBA winning author and a finalist for the Faulkner-Wisdom Awards, the Cinnamon Press Novel competition, and the Ink, Sweat and Tears poetry commission. Placed third in the Bare Fiction Poetry Competition she was also recently highly commended in this year’s Poetry London competition. She was recently nominated for the 2014 Pushcart Prize. She received her PhD from Aberystwyth University’s Creative Writing program, and her MA from the University of Wales Trinity St David. She has published several collections of poetry: A Radiance (Cultured Llama, 2012), Crown of Thorns (Oneiros Books, 2013), The Gospel of Flies (Writing Knights Press 2014) and Undisturbed Circles (Lapwing, 2014). Her first novel, Masque, will be published by Seren in 2016. Her work has appeared in: The Galway Review; The Prague Review; Sentinel Quarterly; The Writer’s Hub; Envoi; Poetry London; New Welsh Review; Poetry Review Salzburg; Sentinel Literary Quarterly; The Brooklyn Voice; And Other Poems; Magma; Tears in the Fence; Ink, Sweat and Tears; The Antigonish Review; Bare Fiction; The Lampeter Review and many more.