The First Wife

I walk along a deserted corridor. In the dead of night, the auspiciously painted red walls gleam like blood when the moon glances over the palace.

I smile. I see blood everywhere—the rouge my servants use in the morning to blush my cheeks, the sun glinting off the lake as it sets, the robe my son wears as he plays in the garden.

My footsteps are soundless. My nightdress swishes along the floor with the faintest whisper of the finest silk. There is something magical about the quality of our district’s silk—nowhere else in China is silk created as it is here. The harvesters tell us there is a juice in the caterpillar’s bodies that produces the perfect quality of thread.

I think I hear breathing behind me and pause, my body tensing. But no, it is only the ancestral spirits swirling around me like a heavy veil.

I near the other wives’ compounds. As my husband’s first wife, I live in a separate, grander section of the building. The other two wives live in close proximity—so close, in fact, that they bathe together in the courtyard between their compounds. I sneer, imagining the dishonor of sharing my bathwater with another woman. But at the same time, my heart fills with regret. I know that my husband enjoys watching the two younger wives wash themselves. I have seen him myself sitting on the balcony, one hand stroking his beard while he studies the foolish girls splashing themselves under the cherry blossom tree.

The door to the courtyard slides open with the slightest squeak as I make my way outside. The night air nips at my cheeks and the gravel lining the pathways hurt my bare feet. I hurry toward a large, glazed jar standing against one wall of the courtyard. It takes all my strength to slide the top off the jar. The lid drops onto the gravel, revealing the dark water inside. I pant as I pull a silken bag from inside my nightgown and pour its contents into the water shimmering in the moonlight.

"Liu Ai-Mei, must this continue?" I ask myself. But I know the answer.

I harvested the poison myself from the bodies of silk caterpillars after observing the effect of their juice on the laborers’ hands. I began to collect the caterpillars in secret, sweeping several into my sleeve every time I visited the harvesters. I spent months straining the liquid out of the little bodies, carefully collecting the juice until I had enough poison to destroy. Before the dawn when they took their weekly bath, I took my midnight trek. And now my dedication was reaping its benefits.

Already the effects of the poison are taking place. Shi-Shou, my husband’s second wife, was once the village beauty, renowned for her clear, perfect skin. But her eyes and mouth now are starting to sag. The supple skin on her neck will balloon up and drool like wax on a hot candle. Yu-an, the third wife, has less delicate skin. But the results will eventually be the same. The poison will melt their skin in an agonizing, painful process that will strip away both their beauty and their lives.

A grin creeps across my face as I push the heavy clay lid back on, imagining Yu-an and Shi-Shou’s faces as distorted as my reflection in the water.

A vision of their mutilated spirits dances around me as I travel back to my compound, skin dripping off their bones, eyeballs rolling in sunken faces, hair graying and floating in a nonexistent breeze.

They are so beautiful.


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