House of Salt and Sorrows – Erin A. Craig

Candlelight reflected off the silver anchor etched onto my sister’s necklace. It was an ugly piece of jewelry and something Eulalie would never have picked out for herself. She loved simple strands of gold, extravagant collars of diamonds. Not…that. Papa must have selected it for her. I fumbled at my own necklace of black pearls, wanting to offer her something more stylish, but the battalion of pallbearers shut the coffin lid before I could undo the clasp. “We, the People of the Salt, commit this body back to the sea,” the High Mariner intoned as the wooden box slid deep into the waiting crypt. I tried not to notice the smattering of lichens growing inside the gaping mouth, drawn wide to swallow her whole. Tried not to think of my sister—who was alive, and warm, and breathing just days before—being laid to rest. Tried not to imagine the thin bottom of the coffin growing fat with condensation and salt water before splitting asunder and spilling Eulalie’s body into the watery depths beneath our family mausoleum. I tried, instead, to cry. I knew it would be expected of me, just as I knew the tears were unlikely to come. They would later on, probably this evening when I passed her bedroom and saw the black shrouds covering her wall of mirrors. Eulalie had had so many mirrors. Eulalie.

She’d been the prettiest of all my sisters. Her rosy lips were forever turned in a smile. She loved a good joke, her bright green eyes always ready for a quick wink. Scores of suitors vied for her attention, even before she became the eldest Thaumas daughter, the one set to inherit all of Papa’s fortune. “We are born of the Salt, we live by the Salt, and to the Salt we return,” the High Mariner continued. “To the Salt,” the mourners repeated. As Papa stepped forward to place two gold pieces at the foot of the crypt—payment to Pontus for easing my sister back into the Brine—I dared to sweep my eyes around the mausoleum. It was overflowing with guests bedecked in their finest black wools and crepes, many of them once would-be beaus of Eulalie. She would have been pleased to see so many brokenhearted young men openly lamenting her. “Annaleigh,” Camille whispered, nudging me.

“To the Salt,” I murmured. I pressed a handkerchief to my eyes, feigning tears. Papa’s keen disapproval burned in my heart. His own eyes were soggy and his proud nose was red as the High Mariner stepped forward with a chalice lined with abalone shell and filled with seawater. He thrust it into the crypt and poured the water onto Eulalie’s coffin, ceremonially beginning its decomposition. Once he doused the candles flanking the stony opening, the service was over. Papa turned to the gathered mass, a wide shock of white streaked through his dark hair. Was it there yesterday? “Thank you for coming to remember my daughter Eulalie.” His voice, usually so big and bold, accustomed to addressing lords at court, creaked with uncertainty. “My family and I invite you to join us now at Highmoor for a celebration of her life.

There will be food and drink and…” He cleared his throat, sounding more like a stammering clerk than the nineteenth Duke of the Salann Islands. “I know how much it would have meant to Eulalie to have you there.” He nodded once, speech over, his face a blank facade. I longed to reach out to ease his grief, but Morella, my stepmother, was already at his side, her hand knotted around his. They’d been married just months before and should have still been in the heady, blissful days of their joined life. This was Morella’s first trip to the Thaumas mausoleum. Did she feel uneasy under the watchful scrutiny of my mother’s memorial statue? The sculptor used Mama’s bridal portrait as reference, transmitting youthful radiance into the cool gray marble. Though her body returned to the sea many years ago, I still visited her shrine nearly every week, telling her about my days and pretending she listened. Mama’s statue towered over everything else in the mausoleum, including my sisters’ shrines. Ava’s was bordered in roses, her favorite flower.

They grew fat and pink in the summer months, like the plague pustules that claimed her life at only eighteen. Octavia followed a year later. Her body was discovered at the bottom of a tall library ladder, her limbs tangled in a heap of unnatural angles. An open book adorned her resting place, along with a quote etched in Vaipanian, which I’d never learned to read. With so much tragedy compressed into our family, it seemed inevitable when Elizabeth died. She was found floating in the bathtub like a piece of driftwood at sea, waterlogged and bleached of all color. Rumors ran from Highmoor to the villages on neighboring islands, whispered by scullery maids to stable boys, passed from fishmongers to their wives, who spread them as warnings to impish children. Some said it was suicide. Even more believed we were cursed. Elizabeth’s statue was a bird.

It was meant to be a dove, but its proportions were all wrong and it looked more like a seagull. A fitting tribute for Elizabeth, who always so badly wanted to soar away. What would Eulalie’s be? Once there were twelve of us: the Thaumas Dozen. Now we stood in a small line, my seven sisters and I, and I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a ring of truth to the grim speculations. Had we somehow angered the gods? Had a darkness branded itself on our family, taking us out one by one? Or was it simply a series of terrible and unlucky coincidences? After the service, the crowd broke up and began milling around us. As they whispered their strained condolences, I noticed the guests were careful not to get too close. Was it in deference to our station, or were they worried something might rub off? I wanted to chalk it up to lowbrow superstition, but as a distant aunt approached me, a thin smile on her thin lips, the same question flickered in her eyes, just below the surface, impossible to miss: Which one of us would be next? I lingered in the mausoleum as everyone left for the wake, wanting to say goodbye to Eulalie on my own, free from prying eyes. His services rendered, the High Mariner gathered up his chalice and candlesticks, his salt water and my father’s two coins. Before setting off down the little path to the shoreline and back to his hermitage on the northernmost point of Selkirk Island, he paused in front of me. I’d been watching the servant boys seal the tomb’s entrance, piling bricks slathered with gritty mortar over the crypt and obscuring the rush of swirling eddies below us.

The High Mariner raised his hand in what appeared to be a blessing. But somehow the curve of his fingers was off, more like a gesture of protection. For himself. Against me. Without the press of people in the crypt, the air felt colder, settling over me like a second cloak. Sickly-sweet incense still danced through the room but couldn’t quite block out the tang of salt. No matter where you were on the island, you could always taste the sea. The workers grunted as they hoisted the last brick into place, silencing the water altogether. Then I was alone. The crypt was really nothing more than a cave but for one unique feature: a wide river ran underneath, carrying fresh water—and the bodies of departed Thaumases—out to sea.

Each generation had added their own bits to it, fashioning stonework around the burial site or gilding the ceiling with an elaborate mural of the night sky. Every Thaumas child learned to read their way across the constellations before ever picking up a book of letters. My great-great-grandfather started adding the shrines. During Elizabeth’s funeral—an even bleaker affair than Eulalie’s, with the High Mariner’s thinly veiled chastisement of suicide—I counted the plaques and statues dotting the cavern to pass the time. How long before the shrines completely overran this hallowed space, leaving no place for the living? When I died, I wanted no monument to remember me by. Did Great-Aunt Clarette rest better in her eternal slumber knowing her bust would be gazed on by generations of Thaumases? Thank you, no. Just push me into the sea and return me to the Salt. “There were so many young men here today,” I said, kneeling before the wet masonry. It was honestly a wonder they bothered bricking it up at all. How long until these stones would be broken open for another of my sisters to be shoved inside? “Sebastian and Stephan, the Fitzgerald brothers.

Henry. The foreman from Vasa. And Edgar too.” It felt unnatural having such a decidedly lopsided conversation with Eulalie. She normally dominated everything she was a part of. Her stories, outlandish and full of hyperbolic wit, held everyone in her audience captivated. “I think, of all the mourners here today, their tears were the biggest. Were you sneaking out to meet one of them that night?” I paused, picturing Eulalie out on the cliff walk, in a billowing nightgown of lace and ribbons, her lily-white skin drenched blue in the full moon. She would have made sure to look especially lovely for a secret assignation with a beau. When the fishermen found her body smashed on the rocks below, they mistook her for a beached dolphin.

If there truly was an afterlife, I hoped Eulalie never learned that. Her vanity would never recover. “Did you trip and fall?” My words echoed in the tomb. “Were you pushed?” The question burst from me before I could stop to ponder it. I knew without a shadow of a doubt how my other sisters had died: Ava was sick, Octavia was notoriously accident-prone, even Elizabeth…Drawing a short breath, I dug my fingers into my skirt’s thick, scratchy black wool. She’d been so despondent after Octavia. We’d all felt the losses, but not as keenly as Elizabeth. But no one was there when Eulalie died. No one saw it happen. Just the brutal aftermath.

A drop of water hit my nose and another fell on my cheek as rivulets ran into the crypt. It must have started to rain. Even the sky wept for Eulalie today. “I’ll miss you.” I sucked in my lower lip. The tears came now, pinpricking at my eyes until they fell freely. I traced an elaborately scrawled E across the stones, wanting to say so much more, to spit out my grief, and helplessness, and rage. But that wouldn’t bring her back. “I…I love you, Eulalie.” My voice was no more than a whisper as I fled the dark cavern.

Outside, the storm raged, churning the waves into frothy whitecaps. The cave was on the far side of the Point, a peninsula on Salten, jutting out into the sea. It was at least a mile back to the house, and no one had thought to leave me a carriage. I pushed aside my black veil and began walking. “Aren’t you forgetting something?” our maid, Hanna, asked before I headed down to join the wake. I paused, feeling the weight of the older woman’s motherly eyes on my back. I’d had to immediately change clothes once I returned. The storm had soaked me through, and curse or not, I wasn’t planning on dying of a cold. Hanna held out a long black ribbon with a look of expectation. Sighing, I let her encircle my wrist with the thin strip, as she had many times before.

When death visited a household, you wore a black ribbon to keep from following after your loved one. Our luck seemed so bad, the servants even took to tying the maudlin bits around the necks of our cats, horses, and chickens. She finished off the ribbon with a bow that would have been pretty in any other color. My entire wardrobe was nothing more than mourning garb now, each dress a darker shade than the last. I hadn’t worn anything lighter than charcoal in the six years since Mama passed away. Hanna had chosen a satin bauble, not the itchy bombazine from Elizabeth’s funeral. It left welts on our wrists that stung for days. I adjusted my sleeve’s cuff. “I’d rather stay up here with you, truth be told. I never know what I ought to say at these things.

” Hanna patted my cheek. “The sooner you get there, the sooner it’ll all be over with.” She smiled up at me with warm brown eyes. “I’ll be sure to have a pot of cinnamon tea waiting for you before bed?”

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