“He says most days it’s like treading water. Taking lots of deep breaths, and praying for rescue.” Much like I felt at that very moment. I hoped my tart reply would be enough to encourage Mrs. Gill to go pester someone else.
“Marta?” Mrs. Kissack, the baker, called from a short distance away. My rescuer. She took a step forward, but paused and licked her lips.
“What is it?” Mrs. Gill asked.
Mrs. Kissack gestured to a few waiting neighbors, the last of the onlookers. “We were just wondering what time we’ll be gathering.”
Of course. The town leaders would want to plan a search for the drowned girl’s kin. Perhaps they’d even make funeral arrangements.
Mrs. Gill nodded. “Let’s meet in an hour, at my place. Right after supper.” She looked from Mrs. Kissack back to me. “I’d best go.” She heaved a long-suffering sigh. “Now I have to clean the house, on top of everything else.”
Turning back to the churning water, I took a deep breath. My lungs filled with briny air, and the salt on my tongue made my stomach squirm. I was probably the only islander in existence who couldn’t stand the grit of salt and sand in everything she owned, and who felt nauseated whenever she smelled fish.
But perhaps it wasn’t so strange, hating the sea’s very existence when it had taken my grandad from me much too soon. Just like the Gills had never quite forgiven the sea for stealing their oldest son many years ago.
“Bridey!” Mrs. Gill shouted over the billowing breeze. She stood at the top of the cliff, leaning on a weathered post. “I suggest you head straight home after visiting Mr. Vondy’s.” An unfamiliar shadow crossed her face. “You shouldn’t tarry after dusk, especially not here.”
I nodded and took the path at a run, legs swallowing up the distance between the cliffs and the heart of town.
“Evenin’, Bridey!” a girl called as I passed the first group of shabby wood and stone houses. Nessa Daley stood in her front yard, clutching a handful of scraggly white-and-yellow flowers, wearing a smile as brilliant as the sun on water.
She hadn’t seen the men bearing the girl’s body into town, then. Keeping my word to Mrs. Gill, I didn’t stop to tell Nessa about the grim scene by the cliffs. I gave her a halfhearted wave and hurried on.
As I ran, I pictured Mrs. Gill’s face as clearly as though she still stood in front of me, wearing that unsettling expression. I hadn’t seen her so troubled since her sister passed away five years before. Or since she’d heard my account of how Grandad died.
Had the sight of the drowned girl bothered Mrs. Gill more than she cared to admit?
Opening the door of our cottage, I inhaled the familiar scents of home: hearth smoke, the earthiness of dried sage, and the metallic smell of Mam’s paints. The tang of freshly skinned fish wafted toward me a moment later. I wrinkled my nose and fought the urge to gag.
Shedding my cloak as warmth washed over me, I crossed the main room and entered the bedroom I shared with Grayse and Liss.
“Bridey? Is that you, bird?” Mam called.
“Of course,” I answered, lighting the greasy fish-oil lamp on my dresser. By its muted amber glow, I located my sheepskin slippers half-hidden under the bed. Grayse had left her entire collection of ragdolls strewn across our quilt, where a trail of suspicious-looking spots suggested the dolls had been subjected to another tea party with real tea.
“Well, hurry with the bacon, unless you’ve decided to have fish like the rest of us.”
Rusty old lanterns rested on every available ledge of the kitchen, creating a bright glow, though none sat too close to the cantankerous stove in the corner of the narrow room. The stove’s innards blazed as it greedily consumed the wood I’d chopped for Da last week.
“You’re late, love,” Mam chided, turning away from a boiling pot. She swooped down to kiss my cheek. Her lips were dry against my skin, chapped from the cool, salty air. “Where’s the bacon?”
I thumped the package down on the counter. “Would you fry it? Please?”
“You’ll have your bacon as I make it. And tonight, that’s boiled with the fish and potatoes. I don’t have extra pots to spare for picky daughters.” Mam wiped her damp brow with a rag and unhooked the latch on the window.
A breeze ruffled my hair, coiling around my shoulders like an unwelcome embrace.
I glanced sideways out the open window as the frigid fingers of a northern wind penetrated the hot kitchen. Far below, restless gray waters rolled and crashed, sending up a furious spray. I couldn’t see it through the dark, but the sea crowded in around us, writhing with the pull of the tide like blood pulsing through a body.