Water and Salt
There were three parts to every day.
First came the Harvest. Maggie woke up before the sun every day, as she had for as long as she could remember. She pulled her heavy wools over her shift, piled her rough clay jars onto her cart, and made her way over the rolling green to the salt huts. She had to make it there before the sunlight crested over the cliffs and through the gaps in the cane roof. You wouldn’t think salt could melt, but Maggie had had to scrape the crusts off her metal pans enough times to know that it was a waste of time. If the salt melted and dried again in the sun, she would have to melt it back into the water and then dry it over again, which meant that she would lose that many coins that day.
She stopped at every pan to see which ones were dry but not overdry. If the salt was ready, she would gently shake the pan until the spiky crystals stuck together in little mounds. That made it easier to scoop into the jars.
After the salt had been harvested came the Selling. Salt never brought in enough money for a donkey or a cow, so she pulled the wagon to the marketplace herself.
First to come were the tradesfolk - the baker, the alewife, and anyone else whose living relied on salt. They would bring back the old jars from the day before and choose a new one. Maggie didn’t save salt for anyone - if you weren’t there with ready money, then you would have to take your pick of what was left. When she was younger people had tried to argue, but Maggie would just purse her lips thin and shake her head. Now everybody in Portswich knew that it was useless bargaining. Instead they watched to see who walked away with the biggest jar to see whose food would be seasoned the best.
Next came the housewives, and for them the salt was measured with a blue-tarnished copper cup. Some days a girl would come for her mother, and Maggie knew this meant that she was learning to be a housewife herself. The girls would ask questions, blushing, and sometimes try to pull Maggie into a conversation. They were not much younger than her, after all. But Maggie would hold her hand out in silence, and eventually they would lose interest and hand over the coins.
When the jars were empty, Maggie pulled her cart back home, stopping on the way to buy dinner plus enough extra to stuff into one of the jars for the next morning.
Finally was the Climb, and this was the reason Maggie was the Salt Girl.
Portswich sat a mile or so inland, about a day’s travel from any road that led to a bigger town. On the one side were rolling green hills, lying year-round under a blanket of dull grey clouds. On the other was a sheer cliff face that dropped onto a shallow inlet of sharp rocks. No boat could dock there, no road could be etched into the solid stone, and no one but a madman would ever venture to cross it.
Years ago it had been a privateer town. Only the men who made a career of driving their ships through dangerous waters could get close. Bolted into the stone were a series of rusted iron pulleys by which the port wives would lower hooks and ropes and hoist up the bounties from the ships. But now the pulleys sat useless on the coast, a reminder of the plundered wealth that once flowed through this town like heart’s blood.
It was best not to wear shoes for this part, so Maggie always left them on the top of the cliff by the pulley she was on. If you asked her why she wouldn’t be able to tell you; perhaps because she knew that someday she would fall, and the shoes would be the only sign left of what had happened when someone eventually came looking for her. She threaded one end of her hammock into the pulley, tied it securely, and climbed in, a dozen empty bladders hooked onto her belt. Then began the long descent to the water.
The art of keeping her seat steady while lowering herself was hardly the worst part, though most people shuddered at the thought of dropping toward the jaws of the ocean with only the strength of her arms to keep her. Worse by far, in Maggie’s opinion, was the way that her balance shifted around with every waterskin she filled. She always alternated sides to keep it as even as possible, but that meant that she was unevenly weighted for half the journey.
Then came the long journey back up, her weight nearly doubled by the heavy skins. Maggie was small from years of hard work and harder eating, but her shoulders were as broad and muscled as a boy’s. She hoisted herself, hand over hand, like a sailor up the side of the cliff, her toes clinging to the craggy stone to steady her. Once at the top she clasped her hands around the iron pulley and scrambled over the edge. There was always a brief moment where her hands felt like they might not purchase, and she might fall back down the cliff, the water skins dragging her down to their home. But Maggie did not stop to think about danger because it would only paralyze her. She clasped more firmly, pressed her naked feet into the cliff, and pushed herself to the ledge and safety. Then she emptied the skins into the pans, hooked them back onto her belt, and did it over again.
Maggie never took sabbaths. She was rarely ill, and if she was, she went over the cliffs anyway. If she did not go over the cliffs, she did not sell salt. If she did not sell salt, she did not eat. If she did not eat, she would be sicker still. If it rained, she draped leather over the cane roof of the salt hut to keep it dry and went over the cliff. It made no difference whether she got wet going down; she would be soaked by the end anyway. Whether it was light or dark, summer or winter, she went over the cliff; her only view was the mottled wall of rock regardless of where the sun struck it.
When her arms had gone numb from the strain, she would empty the final load of water into her pans, peel the wet clothes from her skin, and crawl under her blankets. Her throat was parched and her long hair matted and crisp from the salt spray, but to her the bed was incredible luxury. When she closed her eyes, she could almost feel the ropes under the mattress swaying back and forth on the waves, hear the shouts of the sailors above deck, smell the leathery sweetness of her father’s tobacco. Her skin felt rubbed clean and her callouses melted away by the Spanish wool blankets. And though it had begun to fade, before she slept she could still cling to the edge of a distant memory of his lips on her forehead, his strong hand stroking her hair back from her face, and his voice whispering into her ear.
“Goodnight, Maggie girl. I love you like water.”
And with her last breath before sleep took her, she whispered back,
“I love you like salt.”
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