Of Salt and Promises

The city stood on a hill, cut into the white stone in progressive steps that climbed the slope like an arthritic mounting stairs. The streets were crooked and narrow, and not much good for more than one, maybe two, donkeys to pass, assuming it wasn’t festival season or market day, or Speaking Day. Then, the streets filled, teeming with life like shoals in the sea below, bright colors on display, pinks and golds and greens. Between the streets that circled the tiers of the city like the hoops on a country girl’s skirts, narrow and crooked alleys wound their way between blocks of crowded buildings, and where there was a single open space where two met, an olive or cypress straggled up from between the stones, casting its small mercy of shade.

Where the stone met the sea at the base of the city, an inlet of sand reached inward, beneath the walls, and it was there that they gathered for Speaking Day. From the wealthy traders and councilmen at the top of the hill to the artisans and craftsmen  at the middle to the beggars that squatted at the base, their homes the shade of those scrawny trees, they all gathered, great and small. There, with the sound of waves licking eagerly at the white sand, the gendarmerie raised a great pole, easily the height of a man and again some, and from each face, a noose.

From each noose hung the body of those the magistrates had condemned, and as the life seeped from them, faces washing to purple, gurgling choking sounds leaking from chapped and swollen lips around thick tongues and the babble of a crowd that might have once made an army, the sea increased her wash until it was all one.

I was ten the first time my nonna took me to the Speaking. I wore a white dress, the hem bedecked with fine lace, the sleeves open, exposing my birdlike arms. And there, amid the stink of death and the fresh scents of salt and water, I heard my name.

After, nonna and I walked through the press of people in the streets to her cottage just below the middle, the painted stucco sky-blue, the walk swept, the walls pressed by two other homes thin and tall. We waved to Alina, her neighbor, who wore a dress much like mine, hair done in ribbon and daisies. Then, we went inside and nonna served lemon cakes with a light wine—she said I was allowed to have a little on such a special day—then she asked if I heard anything.

I told her that the sea had spoke my name, and I remember her hesitating, if only for a moment, asking if I was sure. I don’t know if she believed me, or if perhaps there was some other weight behind that question. What could I know then at ten of the vagaries of adult expression? Of the twitch of an eyelid, the movement of the throat, like a kingfisher dipping its head below the water?

Still, I asked if all was well. She smiled then, and patted my hand, and reassured me that she was only curious. Not everyone hears her, she said, and to hear one’s own name was no small matter.  The sea was fickle, and those she called by name were special. A name heard was a promise, and the sea kept her promises.

*

We went again when I was sixteen. By then, my nonna had grown old, her bones brittle, her gait shuffling and unsure. I held her by the elbow as we walked the mezzanine of the streets, step by cautious step downward, the crowd jostling. That day too, I wore white with lace, and delicate shoes she’d commissioned from Petra the cobbler. Special shoes for a special girl, she’d told me with a wry smile.

It had been six years since last I’d been able to attend, and once again, as the sea rushed forward, as it lapped at the shore and the pole was raised, swollen tongues and broken lips creaked out my name. I clasped my hands to my chest, and felt a warmth there I had not in years. I was still special. My nonna looked at me then, tears in her eyes, and I knew she was happy for me.

Later, as before, she served a crisp wine and lemon cakes. I ate with delight, savoring the sour-sweet tang, and traced the thorn pattern on the delicate ceramic plates. My grandfather had made them for their anniversary, she’d said. I’d asked why he had forgone the motif so many homes used in honor of the sea, and her lips had tightened. Your mother, she began, then collapsed, plate bouncing against the edge of the rug and coming to break in a tinkling as it struck the hard floor, the sound like a herald bearing chimes, her last words ringing in echo in my ears.

We mourned my nonna that year as they lay her out in her best dress, the satin edge shining in the sun atop the pyre on the hill. They lit it, and the fires reflected in Alina’s now rheumy eyes. I was glad for her attendance. Most of the dead we gave to the sea, as was her due, and as such, few would attend the ceremony. This was my nonna’s wish, however, and she was vehement in it, though none understood it, and the magistrate could not enforce otherwise without being seen as tyrants.

The fire ate her skirts, then her blouse, then her skin, until she was only ash. Below us, the sea hissed in jealous rage at the fire’s feast, and I wondered when she would present me with my due.

*

The next time I heard the sea speak my name, I was twenty-five. My lover, Giovanni, had sailed away. He did not sail back. The ship had gone down, all hands aboard, in a summer storm. Sailors, for the most part, do not swim. Why struggle against the inevitable? You die quick, or you die tired, but you still die. I know which I would choose.

That year, I wore black, and when the dead spoke, I imagined it Giovanni, calling to me. It will be all right, my love, he said. For a time, my heart was lightened.

I wondered then what the sea might have for me, when she would present me my gift. Surely this sacrifice was enough?

*

I did not hear the sea speak to me the year I turned forty. By then, my womb had refused to quicken, no matter the suitors I took on, and in time, they lost interest. My grandfather’s pension had dried up, and nonna’s neighbor, Alina, was long beneath the waves. Giovanni had left no fortune.

I was turned out and spent my days on the bottom tier, my last good dress now ragged, my shoes little more than worn slippers. Some days, when the wind came off the summer fields, I smelled lemon, and while I chewed a stale crust, or eked out the last meat from a stolen nut, I imagined the taste of my nonna’s treats.

I was three weeks without real food when the gendarmerie caught me. I had nicked a small loaf of bread from a vendor of some repute—a momentary lapse of rationality I cannot account for—when my feet caught in the tattered hem of my own clothing, spilling me to the stones. They drug me away amid his claims of injury, rough men’s hands with wide fingers and hard callouses smelling of oil and garlic. I did not think to cry then, though perhaps I should have.

The trial was quick, as it was almost time for the Speaking. The judge spoke, and I hardly heard the charges as I wondered if maybe I should have cried, if maybe I should plead that the sea spoke my name. Surely that meant something?

I opened my mouth to speak, and snapped it closed as the judge pronounced sentence. The pole. The pole? I looked to the magistrate, his perfect curls hanging in glistening loops above his shoulders, then to the judge, all stern gaze and gray hair. To the seal above his seat, set in driftwood. The pearl inlay, the conch on his bench. The sea had given us these things, had she not? Perhaps this was my sign.

I spoke then, told them of the times I’d heard her speak, of her sibilant voice calling my name. Silence. Had I moved them? They smiled gentle smiles, almost pitying smiles then, and led me away. Back to the dark, to leaky rock and rusted iron. To the sound of the sea even there beneath the stone of the hill. They closed the door with a sound like an omen. I watched them go, their lanterns diminishing as they moved on and upwards, at their gentle, soft speech. I knew then they thought me mad. I lay down on the stinking straw cot, and dreamed of freedom, of her gentle voice.

In the morning, they brought me to the beach, to that inlet of sand. I stood with three others, and they fit the nooses to our necks, the fibers rasping like grains on the shore. I found no words, for what would they believe? Then, as they raised the pole, I felt the noose tighten, felt my lungs heave. Fire in my chest as my body grasped, struggled, screamed for air. Pressure. Was this what Giovanni felt? Was this drowning?

My lips, so dry. They had given me no water, in a place where we lived a short distance from sweet shallow shoals and cool depths.

I stuck my tongue out, tasting the air, but could not pull it back in. It had swollen in the heat of the day. Below me, a girl in a red dress, no more than ten, pressed upon all sides by the crowd, looked up with expectant eyes. Was this her day, then? Was this my purpose? A terrible certainty settled on me, and finally, a voice, heavy as the deep, old as eons, spoke in my head.

You belong to me, it whispered. I will not be denied.

I would have screamed, had I been able. Instead, the sea filled me. I felt her longing, her ache. So much ache. Loss, like a heart broken and never mended. A dream never come to fruition, of her children leaving her waters on unsteady legs, and the salt that fled her body as they went. I understood then the jealous rage I had heard so many years ago as my grandmother burned, and knew with certainty it was spite at the loss of my mother that had stoked those fires.

I spoke the girl’s name in a stolen voice. Stolen by the sea, by men who bowed to her whims. Below me, the girl smiled, beamed. Had I been able to weep, I would have. But the sea had even reclaimed that little bit of salt, because in the end, the sea keeps her promises.

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