Sabrina Orah Mark’s monthly column, Happily, focuses on fairy tales and motherhood.
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Bluebeard Illustration, “What She Sees There,” by Winslow Homer, 1868
“Sabrina,” says my husband’s first wife, “is married to my husband.” I hear this through The Grapevine, a multibranched root system resembling the hearts of my husbands’ two ex-wives planted in the same plot of deep, fertile soil. Vines like earthy veins, growing tough and twisty. A friend brings me cuttings. I hold them to my ear and listen.
I tell my husband I am writing about Bluebeard. “Oh fuck,” he says.
I look in the mirror. I have become uglier and stronger. I look out the window. A white shed glows in my yard. I live in “the unguessable country of marriage.”
“Bluebeard” first appeared in Charles Perrault’s seventeenth-century Tales of Mother Goose. A man with a blue beard, several missing wives, and extraordinary wealth gives his newest wife all the keys to all the doors of his very fine house. “Open anything you want,” he says. “Go anywhere you wish.” Except for the “little room,” he says.
I ask my husband to clean out the garage, but instead, while I am gone for the summer with our sons, he builds in our backyard—dead center—a white shed. As the walls go up, his second wife drops their daughter off to live with us, possibly forever. She also drops off many boxes. Contents unknown. The garage is half empty now. The shed is half full. I call my mother. “Now there’s a shed in my yard,” I say. “Of course there’s a shed,” says my mother. “Better check it for wives.”
There are doors no third wife should ever open.
My husband, possibly the gentlest man on earth, came to me in a coat of old vows. I married him knowing he arrived with wives. Maybe I married him a little bit because the vows had somehow deepened the lines on his face. Like handwriting I wanted to read, but never could. I married him knowing, but I didn’t know the wives would keep growing in a locked room in my heart. Sometimes they move around, angrily. Sadly. Wives, like peeling wallpaper. Curling wives. Wives like skin. Wives who tell their daughters things that their daughters, my husband’s daughters, don’t tell me. That silence breathes inside me. “What did she say?” I am always asking. “What did who say?” my husband answers.
“Perhaps,” writes Angela Carter, “in the beginning, there was a curious room, a room like this one, crammed with wonders; and now the room and all it contains are forbidden you, although it was made just for you, had been prepared for you since time began, and you will spend all your life trying to remember it.”
I am not an incredibly jealous person, but it hurts to think of my husband saying, “I do. I do. I do.”
Once a month, for over a year, I am told my husband’s first wife is moving to our town any day now, but she never does. It’s like when my sons put silver spoons under their pillows hoping it will snow in Georgia. Neither the snow nor the wife ever comes. Except for once. But it wasn’t snow, it was hail.
“That’s a terrible comparison,” says my mother. “Wives? Snow? Who is putting what under whose pillow? Who wants the wives to come? You?”
Marriage is hard. There are days when all the dead wives are me. The wife who is never sad. Dead. Hanging on a hook. The wife with a good paying job. Dead. The wife with a clean garage and a window that looks out her kitchen. Dead. The dancing wife. Dead. The famous wife. The wife with straight teeth. The wife who throws sparkling dinner parties filled with brilliant poets. Dead, dead, dead.
What do you call more than one wife? A bluebeard of wives?
For a marriage to survive, pieces of the tale need to be left out. I prick a pinhole through the story so I don’t go blind staring directly at the sun. The deleted text message. The old regret. The surrender. My husband and I have been married for ten years. Longer than he’d been married to the other two wives, but not collectively. I don’t want my sons anywhere near the wives. As if they’d fall in, and I wouldn’t be there to jump in and save them. “‘Sinkhole’ and ‘quagmire’ are not flattering ways of speaking about other women,” writes Margaret Atwood in her version of the fairy tale, “but this was at the back of Sally’s mind.”
Few fairy tales have as rich an afterlife as “Bluebeard.” Sometimes it’s a bloody key, sometimes a withering flower, or an egg, or a rotten apple, or a heart-shaped mark on the forehead that is proof of the wife’s disobedience. Sometimes it’s the mother with her “black skirts tucked up around her waist” who saves the last wife from decapitation. “A crazy, magnificent horsewoman in widow’s weeds.” Sometimes it’s a dragoon and a musketeer. Sometimes it’s the wife who saves herself.
Like marriage, the cultural resilience of “Bluebeard” is mystifying. And like a fairy tale, marriage belongs to a never-ending circulation of happily-ever-afters in the shape of a cliff. I rummage through a big box of gowns and beards. Someone has worn these before. Now my husband wears the beard. Now I wear the gown. I do. He does. We wear it like skin.
In Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber,” the nameless wife and the marquis’s matrimonial bed is surrounded by so many mirrors that when the marquis undresses his new bride what she sees is dozens of husbands undressing dozens of wives. And when the marquis tells his wife to prepare for her death, “twelve young women combed out twelve listless sheaves of brown hair in the mirrors.” On the edge of sex and death, the wife multiplies. She becomes the army of wives coming up over the hill. Are they coming to save her or join her? It’s hard to know.
I shouldn’t be writing any of this down. It is not a good idea. This essay is the bloody key. It’s my act of disobedience.
In the 1812 “Bluebeard,” published in Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Wilhelm Grimm (in the annotations) makes a handwritten comment that Bluebeard believed the blood of his wives could cure his beard of its blue. This is why the wives’ blood is collected in basins. He bathes in it. His dead wives are his medicine. An imaginary disease needs an unimaginable cure. “Magic,” writes Maria Tatar, “happens on the threshold of the forbidden.”
I look through old photographs of my husband. In one, he is with his second wife and their newborn daughter, who is asleep on a pillow. The pillowcase is gray and white and I recognize it as the same soft, worn pillowcase I now sleep on. Have slept on for years. My head fills up with hot static. A biting shame. I pull the pillowcase off and put it with the rags. I should give it to my stepdaughter, but I don’t and I don’t know why I don’t. I just don’t.
I am married to a man I love very much who had many lives before the life I now share with him. Sometimes I look around for myself in those lives. Under the bed. Behind a tree. One day I might just jump out, whispering boo.
Or maybe the wives should put me in a barrel stuck full of nails and roll me downhill into the river.
The first time I met my husband’s father was at his funeral. The casket was open. To this day, my husband’s father is the only dead person I have ever laid eyes on. Our son, Noah, would have his eyes, his mouth, but I didn’t know this yet. After my husband gave the eulogy, but before he could return to the nave, my husband’s first wife flew toward him like a soft white bat. A blur in the air that had been locked in a chamber for years. She collapsed into his arms. Shaking and sobbing and coming into focus, as if she was returning to life. I sat in the pew like a dumb little girl. They shared grief and they shared daughters. And by the time they had broken each other’s hearts, I was still nothing but a child.
If Bluebeard’s wives were killed for having laid their eyes on all the dead wives who came before them, then why did the first wife die? What could she have seen?
At the funeral I say hello to the first wife. She just stands there. Doesn’t say hello back. Just looks at me. I don’t know what to do so I hug her. And there we are. In each other’s arms. Swaying in a church. She is old enough to be my mother.
This is how you make a chain of paper wives: Cut a piece of paper lengthwise. Fold it into quarters, accordion-style. Draw half a wife on the top layer. Cut the wife out and unfold. Voila. You will get a chain of paper wives holding hands.
I’m the wife all the way at the end of the paper chain. I look to the left down the long hallway. I see the little room. The little room where writing is safe. Here is the combination: key, flower, egg, apple, heart. I open the door. I go in. Look at this place. It smells like being alive. If I could do it all over again I’d marry my husband in this little room. I’d give birth to my sons in this room. I’d die in this room. I would. I will. I do.
Sabrina Orah Mark is the author of the poetry collections The Babies and Tsim Tsum. Wild Milk, her first book of fiction, is recently out from Dorothy, a publishing project. She lives, writes, and teaches in Athens, Georgia.
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