When Diego married his second wife, they were both certain that this was the end. For Diego, it was the end of his searching for new love. And for Claudia, it was the end of her hope that she would make it through life without a husband, that she would survive the wind and weather of her years like a lone tree on top of a craggy cliff.
The wedding was on a Tuesday afternoon with only the officiant and their mothers present. The newlyweds left together, Claudia carrying the vase they received as a wedding gift from her mother and Diego carrying Claudia’s trunk of clothes.
Diego’s cottage was at the west edge of the village, where a long path cut through the homes, pointing like a finger through the woods to the gray cliffs beyond and the sea below them. When Claudia looked out her new window that first night, she saw the red sun sinking behind an onyx horizon. All the trees fused together in shadow, forming one black stretch of ink. Behind them, the sun sank willingly, not caring to slow down for whatever creatures might still be hunting in the last light of the day.
That night, Diego took Claudia for a walk. They went through the forest that was now lit only by the moon. Diego held Claudia’s hand. Her hand was so soft, he thought, and his was so rough, she noticed. They each dared not let the other one go, even when they passed over the rocky cliffs toward the ocean. To let go first was to lose, and now that they had both reached the end, they each refused to lose for a second time that day.
Among the cliffs, one staircase cut through the stone like the fingernail of a giant had scratched at the rocks when they were still just maker’s clay.
Diego went down the steps first, letting his hand drag back in the dark where Claudia’s fingers pressed into his palm. Claudia sank down the staircase behind him, willing each foot to remain steady on the rough rocks. Diego reached the iron gate at the bottom. It was unlocked as always, ever since the lock had broken years ago. This was it, he thought, the end of it all. No more quest for love, no more hope in people who did not want to know his thoughts or his hands or the shape of his skull.
The gate creaked open and Claudia followed, letting the iron bars blow shut behind her by the soft wind coming off of the beach. Here, below the village and the cliffs, the sand stretched out in either direction. At the wrong tide, the beaches would flood and anyone on them would be trapped with the staircase as their only exit. The gate was in place to keep people out at high tide, but for as long as the lock had been broken, the villagers followed the rules of the tide out of fear rather than the gate’s enforcement.
Claudia was glad to be at the end. The sun was gone, and she could no longer pretend to be a star of her own. She reflected the bright light of Diego as surely as the moon reflected the missing sun with no choice in its work. Ahead of her, she saw Diego’s hair blown up and sideways by the ocean wind.
She could reflect his light for her remaining days, she thought, watching his hand hold hers. She would make an excellent moon, latent to any wishes of her own, unfazed by the passing thunderstorms and clouds on the earth below her.
Together, Diego and Claudia rounded the base of the first cliff, letting their footsteps wash away behind them, until there was no mark of them on the beach.
Diego’s first wife had left him. Oh that she had died, he often mourned. She almost died in childbirth, but fate was unkind, and she had lived while the baby died. Nothing could have been worse for Diego or the baby’s mother. She became only that: the mother of the dead. And in her role, she found solace by coating her whole world with death, like the black tar that they used to seal their roof each summer, slick and alluring from far away, but up close stinking of twigs and small flies that had been battered into the tar by the wind.
Diego alone felt alive in the house. He felt each slammed door through his fingertips, and he caught each scathing glance with every pore on his skin, as he lived on, unwilling to give up his life when his wife had been forced to keep hers.
Finally, she left, disappearing in the night just as quickly as the tar on the roof was hardened by a rough rain, immovable until it was painted over with fresh tar the next summer. After a year without his wife, Diego heard that she was remarried somewhere in the cities. He wrote her name on a scrap of paper and left her on the altar at the church, putting her back where he had been given her three years earlier.
Now, with Claudia, he was determined to keep the twigs and flies of sticky tar out of their home. He held Claudia tightly as if he needed to keep her in a place of life, or at the very least, away from the slick tar of his past.
The morning after their wedding, Claudia and Diego were not at home. Their mothers found each other at the front door of Diego’s house, each knocking to become the first to visit the couple at home. There was no answer. Newlywed bliss? Or Diego’s reckless decisions? Or Claudia’s flaky temperament? Each mother blamed the other’s child, and they left separately, seething with the indignation of sharing a life when their own lives felt so full. When they returned that evening and found the house still empty, they searched the windows together, each one this time blaming her own child for the house that did not open.
They went to the neighbors who went to their neighbors who crossed the village to tell their nosy friends that Claudia and Diego were gone. The nosiest neighbor on the way out of town recalled seeing two figures crossing the field in the moonlight the night before, one leading the other, though he didn’t know who was at the front. The village, in parade, followed his story to the path, calling out as they walked it. With no sign of the couple, they reached the end of the path and the top of the stairs in the cliff. With the mothers at the front holding each other for support, the parade sank down the staircase with lanterns and torches, looking for the lost lovers, tossing out frenzied ideas of what they might find. Young people giggled at the prospect of sand beneath their clothes, and older couples nodded knowingly, wondering if it was ever possible for young people to think of anything that the older generations had not. The mothers reached the bottom of the stairs and pushed on the gate. The gate was locked.
Diego’s mother shook the door. It rattled but did not move. The lock was repaired, and a locked gate meant that anyone could be trapped at high tide with nowhere to go.
Claudia’s mother rattled the gate, letting her shawl fall off of her shoulders and begging the bolts to let her through. The gate remained steadfast, and they heard a gasp in the shadows beyond it. Claudia’s face appeared. Her dress was muddy and her feet were bare, sand stuck in waves to her arms and legs.
Claudia’s mother reached out, and Claudia gasped again, a graveling breath that shocked her mother’s hand away. Between the bars of the fence, Claudia’s face gaped at the torches and lights. Several men surged forward and begged Claudia to stand back. She slipped away into the darkness as they heaved against the bolts. Up the staircase, word trickled through the villagers that the couple had been found. Another wave of whispers corrected them: Claudia alone waited on the beach.
The gate groaned with pressure and relented, the bolts bending and the locked door finally breaking out of place. Claudia’s mother ran to her as the rest of the village surged onto the beach, calling for Diego. Claudia could not speak and collapsed into her mother’s arms as the whole village asked her: Where is Diego?
She did not wake up until two days later, and when she did, she saw the black tar of Diego’s roof over her head, his tools by the door, and his clothes in the dresser. Her mother sat by her side, plying her with water until Diego’s mother burst forth. Seeing Diego’s mother with his dark curls and the years of their shared life, Claudia cried at the sight and relapsed into wordless mourning. Diego’s mother picked up the wail, and the cry through the village told them the news. Wherever Diego was, he would not return.
For two years, Claudia lived in that house. The roof went unpatched in the new seasons. Spring shoots of grass stayed untrimmed in the yard. Diego’s clothes did not leave the closet, and his tools remained by the door. But Claudia kept her eyes on the field behind her home. Each day, as the sun sank behind the dark trees, she wondered what in those woods wished for a bit more light, aching to be free of the trees.
Around her, Claudia now housed the death that Diego had combatted before her. The village was plagued by losses these years, and all the tendrils of mourning seemed to find their way back to her.
Near Claudia’s home, a young family sat outside at night watching their children play in the setting sun. The mother, Julia, would wave to Claudia whenever she passed, and Claudia began stopping by the house with the green beans from her overgrown garden. When David, the oldest boy, finished school, Claudia allowed him to come by, taking home any beans that he picked. Julia would stop by as he worked, and together, she and Claudia would watch the sun beat down on the garden, seeing David’s head pop up from among the vines, a spot of golden-brown glimmering in the sun as the vines sought more light and water from the earth around them.
That summer, when David was thirteen, he left in the evening to camp by the creek and fish through the night. Many summer days would end like this, and the next would begin with him bringing home the biggest fish for the family’s breakfast. Julia prepared for breakfast as she waited for him, imagining a bigger and bigger catch as the morning grew late. She mixed the cornmeal and salt and beat the egg. With nothing else to prepare, she stood at her doorway with her eyes on the fence. Impatient to use the best of her fire, she sent her two youngest sons to the creek to bring their brother home.
Before noon, the whole town had heard that David had been crushed by a rock. The town doctor who looked at the body said that a stone cracked David’s skull, but each person had their own belief of how the stone and the skull had found each other. David’s family, like the crackle of sparks over a fire, departed their own ways and fizzled out, sharing food without sharing meals and living their time when no one else seemed to be watching, as his father stayed up all night, and his mother kept herself out all day.
The fingers of death seemed resilient, even when Claudia wept at David’s funeral and dropped flowers on top of his grave. The rest of the village watched her with broken hearts. To go through so much and to have death snatch again.
After the next death, they were not so merciful. Diego’s mother died when her cart overturned—was the wheel loosened by time or by deft fingers, unseen in the yard the night before? The town began to watch Claudia as one watches a fire in the next field. Will the neighbors contain it or will it become your problem as well? They eyed her with new sorrow of the worst kind: a selfish sorrow that lamented what this pain would do to them.
In Diego’s home, Claudia fought back, tarring the roof for the first time in years and moving his tools to the shed where they could not be seen. The grass was trimmed, the house repainted, and then another person died, the baker that sold Claudia her flour. He slipped on his stairs at night. But why now, when he had gone up and down them so many times before?
Could no one touch her without death seizing them? Claudia’s mother died two months later at an age appropriate for death to hold her hand, and she had always been sick. But the village forgot this, and Claudia walked alone at the head of her funeral, the rest of the guests there only to watch and not to partake. Whatever cursed communion Claudia offered, the village stayed away.
The young and old and healthy and weak all succumbed to the death of Diego’s house. At the end of a long summer, the swarm of death peaked and then stopped. Claudia’s door stayed shut one day, and no one dared to check on her. The following day, her door remained closed. Curious neighbors circled the property on cursory errands, hoping for a hint of what fate had done without drawing its attention to their own families.
In the evening, children dared each other to approach the house. A witch lives there, they said, and one little girl was given the challenge. Tess approached the house from the back, where the green beans grew rampant and no one dared to pick them. To win, she only needed to touch the doorknob, and so she squatted in the grass watching the painted white doorknob glow steadily in the fading light.
Around her, the grass slithered on her legs and the vines felt like a snakes approaching her calves. Finally, she stood, letting her dark head peek over tallest plants, looking to the door. She ran to the house with no shoes to slow her speed. Grabbing the door knob, she felt the wood scratch at her palm when it moved under her hands. Tearing her hand away, the door slipped open—unlocked—and the smell reached her first.
For the rest of her life, she would smell death and fill in its stench with the scratch of grass and the soft, fresh scent of green beans. She told the other children what she smelled: that house smells like a witch’s death. Yes, they agreed, because Claudia was cursed. But when their parents heard, they climbed the front path and knocked. Receiving no answer, they walked to the back. The door was open where Tess’s small hand had touched it. The farmers in the group knew the smell immediately, filling in its edges with their own memories of cows slaughtered on a hot day or steel buckets scraping along a wooden floor.
Inside, Claudia lay on her bed, eyes open and dripping, her face bloated with all the weight of death’s process. Next to her on the floor, a second body lay with arms and legs spread broad. The farmer turned it by the shoulder and saw Diego—his hair longer and wrinkles deeper—his face painted with the same fullness of death.
For many years afterward, the villagers wondered. Not even the nosiest neighbors could find out where Diego had been. Had he come back to kill Claudia? Had Claudia killed him? Both were scratched from either work or fighting, and the bloated smell was equal between the two. Those who were the worst to Claudia now rushed to her side: Diego had killed those people, and she had taken the blame. Those who sympathized with her were now indignant about her betrayal. After she had tried to kill Diego and failed, she had killed the others and succeeded, they said.
The bodies of Claudia and Diego were removed from the house and buried together near the woods that evening. Later, in the darkness, the dirt over them fused together with the trees and the cliffs beyond to make one dark, scratched silhouette, a line unbroken in the setting sun.