The old couple walked into the marriage broker’s office. They both wore their white mourning clothes, which were starting to turn brown. They’d been wearing the same clothes since their son died. His status as a bachelor had caused his family and the village some concern. The few girls of marriageable age, in the surrounding area, had been paraded in front of him, but none had caught his eye. His mother had also not approved of most of the girls’ lineage. His was a bloodline that any family would be proud of, and one that many families would pay a large sum of money for. But the daughters from the better families had already been married off before their son had reached his maturity and now it was too late. They’d waited too long and been too particular in their choice of bride. He’d died alone.
‘Please sit,’ the marriage broker gestured at the two chairs opposite his desk. ‘What can I do for you?’
The grieving mother looked to her husband for permission to speak. The husband, aged by his grief, gave his permission with a single nod of his head.
‘My son is lonely in the after-world. He cries out for a wife.’ The mother wiped a tear from her cheek.
‘Has your son contacted you from the hereafter?’ The marriage broker leaned forward in his seat.
The mother nodded and wiped another tear from her face. The father examined his shoes.
‘Has he indicated if there is a specific woman that he wishes to have as his bride?’ The marriage broker leaned further forward and rested his chin on his cupped hand.
The mother shook her head.
‘It is most fortuitous that you have come to see me. I have a catalogue of young women that are perfect for these purposes. They will not be missed. They are all second children. I will consult their zodiac charts and find the perfect match for your son. I will deliver the bride for a nominal fee. You could go to one of the other brokers, but I assure you they will not give you the quality that I do. The bride will not have a mark on her, I promise you this. She will be perfect. The other brokers are not as careful as I am.’
‘How much?’ The father choked out the question. It tasted foul in his mouth.
‘Twenty thousand Yuan.’
‘What? Have you lost all sense?’ The father stood in his outrage. The mother touched her husband’s hand and silently implored him. His anger left him and fell back into his seat.
‘When will you be able to deliver her?’ The mother asked.
‘Twenty four hours.’ The marriage broker said with a self-assured smile.
‘That will give us enough time to prepare for the ceremony,’ the mother said.
‘We will pay you the twenty thousand on delivery, but she had better be all that you have promised. If she is not, your wife will have to find a new husband,’ the father said.
‘You will not have to worry. The girl will be perfect.’ The marriage broker stood and thrust out his hand. ‘Do we have a deal?’
‘We do.’ The father stood and shook his hand.
The marriage broker watched the old couple leave and walk down the street, their heads bowed and holding hands. He already knew which of the girls in his catalogue would be perfect. Getting her would be a problem, though. Her father was protective even though she was just a female and a second child. Her father would also not sell her. He was a strange man. Most of the other fathers of the girls on his list would be amenable to a small payment, but not this one. The marriage broker would have to be creative.
The girl took the same narrow foot path from the well to her father’s cottage every morning. That morning was no different. The buckets of water were heavy and she took her rest on a rock. Her shoes were too tight. Her father couldn’t afford to buy her a new pair. The marriage broker watched as she took a shoe off and rubbed one sore foot. It was a strangely erotic moment for him. He was a predator stalking his prey, and like any silent and deadly predator he pounced before his prey could bolt. The girl was unconscious and flung over his shoulder before she could put her shoe back on her foot.
The journey back to the village took a little over an hour on horseback. The girl only woke up once they reached the outskirts. She made a futile attempt at escape. If he hadn’t needed her alive for the ceremony, it would have been tempting to kill her. Girls who fought back irked him. The thought that she wouldn’t see another sunrise made him feel better. The ceremony would be perfect, even if he had to beat her to an inch of her life. She only had to be breathing; there was nothing in the ancient texts that said she had to be conscious during the rite. But he would be careful not to leave marks, especially on her pretty face. Her face had to be perfect for the ceremony.
It only took one punch to her stomach to make her compliant. She dressed silently in the red satin dress he’d acquired for the wedding. She was the perfect bride, silent and obedient. Her soon to be in-laws would be pleased and so would her groom. She was well worth the twenty thousand Yuan.
The moon was at its zenith when they reached the cemetery. Paper effigies of the household products as well as effigies of servants the couple would have had in this life formed a circle around the grave. They would be burnt so that they could join the couple in the afterlife. The groom had been dug up by his family and lay on a bamboo table in his wedding outfit. His decomposing hands were covered by pristine, white gloves. He’d only recently died, so his body was still in the early stages of decay. His parents had lovingly cleared the maggots out of all his orifices. The bride realised what was about to happen when she saw her groom. Her screams irritated the marriage broker and upset the parents. She stopped screaming after one more fist to her midriff.
The mother examined her soon to be daughter in-law like she would have inspected a horse. She checked the girl’s teeth and hands. Once she’d completed her examination she simply nodded her approval at the marriage broker. The father handed over a pouch containing the agreed upon amount. Their business was concluded. It was now just a matter of conducting the marriage ceremony.
At the summons of the Taoist priest, the groom’s spirit appeared next to his body. The shock of seeing his own corpse made him shimmer out of focus. He almost fled, but the priest managed to calm his spirit. The bride was led to stand next to her groom, beside the open grave. She would spend her wedding night and all of eternity with him in their tomb.
The priest said the words over the brides hysterical wailing. They were pronounced husband and wife. The effervescent form of the groom planted a tentative kiss on the bride’s tear-soaked lips. The mother force-fed the bride a piece of cake laced with a fatal dose of cyanide while the grooms body was lowered into the hole. The scent of almonds drifted up the bride’s nostrils as she swallowed the morsel. Her breath came in gasps and her heart rate quickened. Her legs buckled under her as she sunk to the ground. The marriage broker stood behind her and pushed her into the grave. Her unconscious body landed on top of her groom’s corpse. The brides limp arm fell over her husband’s chest in a grotesque simulation of an embrace. Her body convulsed as the earth was shovelled onto their bodies.
The spirit of the bride rose out of the grave and joined her groom next to his parents. The bride stared down at her body while it was covered by shovels full of dirt. Her wailing had stopped and was replaced by an eternal silence. She would never again utter a sound that was audible to human ears. She would never again speak to her father or cook him his meals. She would only be able to say goodbye to him in his dreams. The groom put his arms around his shimmering bride. The paper effigies were set alight and as their possessions burnt, the couple made their way to the after-world. The mother and father wept tears of joy. Their son was no longer alone in the after-world; he had a companion for all eternity. They were bound together forever. Nothing could separate them, not even the bride.
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