We won’t ever know her name, but her existence seems certain, as does her demise in the early days of the Jamestown colony. She is mentioned in a document included in the Journals of the Virginia House of Burgesses describing what became know as “the starving time” of the winter of 1609:
Driven thru insufferable hunger to eat those things which nature most abhorred, the flesh and excrements of man as well of our own nation as of an abhorred Indian, digged by some out of his grave after he had lain buried three days and wholly devoured him; others, envying the better state of body of any whom hunger has not yet so much wasted as their own, lay wait and threatened to kill and eat them; one among them slew his wife as she slept in his bosom, cut her in pieces, salted her and fed upon her till he had clean devoured all parts saving her head.
Captain John Smith corroborates the story, and even is so candid to admit that the settlers actually murdered the Indian in question instead of merely digging him “out of his grave”. (Of course, all mispellings are extant to Smith's original text.)
Nay, so great was our famine, that a Salvage we slew, and buried, the poorer sort tooke him up againe and eat him, and so did divers one another boyled and stewed with roots and herbs: And one amongst the rest did kill his wife, powdered her, and had eaten part of her before it was knowne, for which hee was executed, as hee well deserved; now whether shee was better roasted, boyled or carbonado’d, I know not, but of such a dish as powdered wife I never heard of. This was that time, which still to this day we called the starving time; it were too vile to say, and scarce to be beleeved, what we endured.
I dubbed her the Salted Wife and made her a character in a play I wrote called An American Book of the Dead – The Game Show. She appears in a section called the Bardo of the Salted Wife, which I include at the end of this node. I made her a Bristoler, since it seemed likely she would hail from the most seafaring of 17th Century English cities. I gave her and the Bardo voice, a dialect I thought appropriate to characters who are near contemporaries of Shakespeare. I decided to zag instead of zig in developing her afterdeath emotions for her husband, wagering that it was more interesting that her spirit should hold no malice toward him. Ghosts often confuse or misunderstand the nature of their murders, and I wanted to play with the irony of her believing her husband had finally “found his love” for her. Without explicating (and thus eviscerating the impact) too much, I wanted to create a counterpoint between our classic notions of the bold American colonizers, and the grim reality that perhaps better echoes our own modern self-consumption. Blah, blah, blah. Here’s the scene...
( . . . Everything fades to black with two exceptions: the yellow light illuminating Kim’s isolation booth, and a panel of the Bardo Wheel that glows with the words "Bardo of the Salted Wife".
Lights up on a woman, standing on a barrel. Next to her, in the darkness, is another woman who speaks as the Voice of the Bardo.)
BARDO VOICE: Oh free and bravely born, having died and failed to grasp the clear white light of reality, which is nothing but thine own nature most true, thou art entering now the Bardo of the Salted wife.
Be not distracted. Be not afraid or attracted. Whatever fear and terror might come to thee here, forget not these words:
(As the Bardo Voice speaks the following, the words flash upon a screen above the stage.)
“Although the clear light of reality dawned upon me I was unable to grasp it, and so I must wander here. Whatever visions appear now, I must accept them as the reflections of mine own nature most true.”
Repeat this now:
(The words flash again, as the audience repeats:)
BARDO VOICE & AUDIENCE: “Although the clear light of reality dawned upon me I was unable to grasp it, and so I must wander here. Whatever visions appear now, I must accept them as the reflections of mine own nature most true.”
BARDO VOICE: Behold, she stands before thee. Born in Bristol and bred there, she sets sail for the New World in Sixteen Hundred and Nine.
SALTED WIFE: All I ever wanted was to sail the Ocean Sea.
BARDO VOICE: Pitching and plunging over an angry Atlantic.
SALTED WIFE: All my brothers are sailors. All my girl's life, to ride the waves as they do is my only wish, my only hope. I made no bones about this to the man who took me as wife and takes me across. ‘Tis an even exchange. My body buys this journey, not my soul-- my body and the brood it will bear him.
The English, so says he, can only claim this colony with womanhood. New subjects to the crown do not flower from the mere mud. The female sex itself is the soil of this New World.
BARDO VOICE: Jamestown.
SALTED WIFE: As soon as we land all I want is to be at sea again. My only hope: for us to fail and sail away. Looks likely enough: squalid huts crouched inside ramshackle fort, savages culling us one by one when stray too close to the suffocating forest which holds us forever in its shadow.
Oh, perhaps tomorrow we'll ship for some place else. Or better still perhaps we'll just keep sailing round and round and round this wonderful globe Columbus found.
BARDO VOICE: It was a hard winter, 1609.
SALTED WIFE: A hard winter.
BARDO VOICE: Ice-caked.
SALTED WIFE: Bitter.
BARDO VOICE: Dark.
SALTED WIFE: Sickness.
BARDO VOICE: Starvation.
SALTED WIFE: Who'd've thought that in such a terrible time I'd find my love for my husband.
BARDO VOICE: The livestock went quickly. Too quickly. So the pets became livestock. But they only lasted a day or two. Then it was the rats and mice and worms. But there weren't enough. Leather, bark, grass, feces.
SALTED WIFE: Become hungry enough, and suddenly the world surrounds you with food.
(A man appears out of the shadows. He moves toward the Salted Wife.)
BARDO VOICE: A few settlers held hope that perhaps God would forgive them if they snuck out after dark and dug into a few of the fresh shallow graves.
And another... well another had yet a fresher meat in mind.
SALTED WIFE: Isn't that strange. I never loved him, not a jot, and then, one night it all changed, the moment he kissed me on the neck with his razor.
(The man reaches up and slits the woman's throat. The front of her dress runs dark with color.)
BARDO VOICE: Be not afraid.... Be not attracted. Beings in the bardo often do not realize-- as thou dost, as thou must-- that they are dead.
SALTED WIFE: Now my love flows from me with such force that I doubt that I could staunch it if I tried.
BARDO VOICE: He took the rump first, the most obvious meat.
(The man starts to carve the woman into shadows.)
SALTED WIFE: He pays me so much more attention now.
BARDO VOICE: Then he worked his way down the legs: first the thighs, then the calves, then boiled the feet for a bouillon.
SALTED WIFE: He caresses me so tenderly.
BARDO VOICE: He made bacon of her back; rubbed her ribs with salt.
SALTED WIFE: And looks after me so carefully.
BARDO VOICE: Packing what was left of her in a barrel.
SALTED WIFE: It’s strange. Something has certainly changed. But I can’t put my finger on it.
BARDO VOICE: Because she has no fingers. He’s gnawed them to the quick and crunched the bone open to suck the marrow.
By the time his fellow survivors grew sufficiently suspicious of his uncanny health and vigor, all they found left of the Salted Wife was her head.
(Tight pin spot on the woman’s head.)
They killed him of course. And thou canst hardly doubt they let him go to waste.
SALTED WIFE: With my husband’s love, I dream anything is possible. Now I am sure I could become the mother of a nation.
(The Salted Wife disappears.)
BARDO VOICE: Thou hast journeyed past the Salted wife. Go now. Leave this Bardo quickly. But know thou never canst forget her, for she is nothing but thee.
(Lights fade to blackout, with the exception of the glowing yellow of Kim’s booth. . . .)