The Sea Hearth
Chapter One: Parched
“We called the sea The Elderwrath, the oldest of all angers. To be remembered by The Elderwrath, it would never forget you, never forgive you. There would be no hope, none at all throughout your remaining days. Until it sank you.”
-Journal of the Unknown Stitcher, Passage 21.
Every year at the approach of winter, the commune slaughtered a pig.
Kitty could remember more than a dozen pigs across a dozen winters, but this time it was Pigly’s turn, their happy gent with black dappling across his stout neck and shoulders. After breakfast on his last day, Kitty and three of her commune sisters gathered in the cramped cloakroom, in a sea of brown robes that hung along each wall. By candlelight, they changed into boots and placed their house slippers in neat rows along the wall. Sky and sea threatened their island with the first winter storm, so they also shouldered into heavy overcoats for the brisk trip out to the pigsty.
Kitty held her overcoat and stared at the mark that made a thing belong to her. While Sister Kearne’s garments were marked with a tidily embroidered ‘K’ on the inside collar, Kitty’s clothes were instead marked with a circle with a little line across its middle. She knew some letters, not many, enough to know which scissors or basket to fetch for a sister. Kitty knew enough, that her mark was not a letter. She also knew better, by now, than to bring it up with the sisters.
“Kitty, I really wish you hadn’t named that pig.” Sister Kearne opened the commune’s great almanac and tally book. She read one of its back pages, where they noted the calendar and seasons. Kearne counted something on her fingers.
“He needed a name,” Kitty answered as she shouldered into her overcoat and stood on her tiptoes by Kearne’s elbow to see into the book.
The candlelight revealed illustrations of the sprawling stars and constellations that made up their sky. Kitty’s eyes glazed over at the lists of numbers and dates that ran alongside the pictures. Those ink marks practically meaningless to her as she wavered on tippy toe. She instead took any opportunity to stare at the complex lines drawn between the stars that imagined the animals of this world.
“Yes, Sister Warren, you’re right.” Kearne ignored Kitty and spoke to the nearest sister. “The pig is of age today. And it’s a prosperous time to cull him.”
“You mean Pigly?” Sister Warren joked, using the animal’s name.
Sister Kearne ignored her and snapped the book shut. “Kitty? We’ll need several bowls to collect the pig’s blood for sausage-making. Fetch about three from the pottery store. Make sure they’re deep enough. Ceramic bowls, not wooden, or else his blood might stain.”
Kitty shared a commiserating glance with Sister Warren, but nodded in agreement with Sister Kearne’s order. Kitty placed an embroidered leather hood over her headscarf and sooted hair. She mulled over the constellations as she closed the hood toggle just under her chin. Everybody here brushed soot into their hair whenever they washed, until the tresses of each sister lay ashen and flat. Eyebrows too. They even wore their hair alike, shorn to the nape of their neck, so that everybody looked alike.
“Meet us out at the sty, Kitty,” Kearne went on as the other two sisters, Warren and Darne, leaned on each other for balance. They tucked the hem of their brown robes into the top of shapeless, supple boots. Sister Kearne tightened her bootlaces up the back of her calves and made sure Kitty’s were tight enough, too.
“And by everything beneath the stars, don’t dally,” she added.
Kitty nodded again. She thought something passed between the three women, a look or glance of some kind, but as she watched, their faces remained implacable.
Sister Kearne stood to her full height. Her overcoat loomed her even taller in the packed cloakroom. She sighed.
“You do need to open your mouth every now and then and actually answer me out loud, Kitty. You have a tongue for a reason.”
“Three bowls, yes, Sister Kearne. For Pigly. Not wooden,” Kitty replied. Warren and Darne watched in sympathetic silence. Kitty kept her head down as she finished getting ready and tucked her long laces into the top of her boots.
“It’s the beams and pillars of any building that keep things aloft.” The corners of Sister Warren’s eyes crinkled as she smiled at Kitty. “That cooperation is a thing of beauty. We should all strive for such cooperation. It is the very basis of the minutes of our days.”
“It’s like how I know that it takes longer for dried fruits to bake into porridge,” piped up Sister Darne, who struggled to right her hood over her often wayward scarf. “But I don’t mind waiting, even if I am amongst the last the finish breakfast. It’s worth it.” She laughed and poked her fingers into Kitty’s back, tried to jostle her into laughing along.
But Kitty hated their lessons. She followed Kearne, Warren and Darne as they trooped out of the cloakroom. They bundled into a corridor laid with warm and well-scrubbed timbers. The heady scent of cooking. Life for the coming winter would revolve around their great hall, where the fires never went out. Laced boots over long woollen socks tensed along Kitty’s legs as she paused outside the pottery store. She turned away from the sisters and only shared a secret half-smile with Sister Warren. The trio greeted other sisters as they made their way outside, until their shuffle and soft chatter died away. Kitty listened to the noise and hum from the rest of the commune too. Its upper floors, corridors, and landings, all echoed the industriousness of sisters in their morning tasks.
Poor Pigly, she thought. Sister Warren's culling knife, always at her belt, caught the light along its edge whenever unsheathed. Later, Kitty would wash Pigly’s blood from the blade, and from the bowls she was supposed to fetch. She helped make the blood sausage at this time of year. It was Kitty’s special job to rinse out the winter pig's innards, hang them to dry on twine across the kitchen, until his innards looked like pale stockings dangling on a clothesline. Then, after stuffing and curing and hanging and settling, they could slice and fry and taste pig.
Kitty did not go to the pottery store. She even passed right by it. It was one of their larger, walk-in cupboards nestled under the impressive stairs that led up to the dormitory. She could even recall the pottery store’s faint mustiness that told of things put aside and carefully stowed away. Kitty slipped outside by a different door.
The dim morning threatened to deliver winter’s first and faint snow. The odd flake fell against a grey sky. Open sea lay beyond the commune walls. Today the great waters groaned loud and mean.
The belfry rose high above the rooftops. It was the only place in the whole commune where Kitty could see over the island’s high wall, witness the ocean, even catch a glimpse of the long cliff path. The other side of the belfry held a great view too: over their main courtyard and precisely laid vegetable gardens. On her gaze could go, to the forest hugging the roots of the island’s mountain, until she saw all and everything that anybody could see on the island.
The best hiding spot was in the belfry. She could edge around the great bell’s shiny curve, into the corner between the bell and the railing. There, she would do her bit to prolong Pigly’s day. She climbed the bell tower’s narrow steps. Fabric and needles were tucked into her apron, beneath layers of overcoat and robes. The saw-and-draw, the lift and fall of thread through fabric would occupy her for hours.
Ocean winds scalped over the railings as Kitty put her weight to the belfry’s door and cracked it open. The sea echoed throughout the bell tower and haunted the great bell itself. It sounded like the waters mocked her for even thinking that, by hiding and lingering, she could save Pigly at all.
Kitty’s confidence deflated when she heard someone already inside the belfry. She had hoped to hide at least until dinnertime. She sighed, and peeked around the thickset door.
Sister Entra had just returned from collecting gannet eggs. Her tall figure was streaked with mud and bird droppings. Several angry scrapes stood fresh across her arms and throat. Coils of rope hung from Entra’s shoulder, a large basket tucked against her hip. Broken seabird wings and feathers poked from pouches tied along her worn belt.
Sister Entra laughed when she noticed Kitty peeking inside the belfry.
“Yes, I thought you might come up here. Pigly’s time not yet come?” Entra unlocked a trunk set against the belfry’s far wall, into which rattled grappling hooks and rope. “I won’t tell on you. I had a good haul today and in a few weeks, once nesting season is in full swing, there’ll be even more eggs for pickling,” Entra chattered. She opened the basket on her hip to show off a bounty of white and mottled eggs.
Kitty edged inside and nodded her approval. Entra cracked a raw egg straight into her mouth. That is right, Kitty thought, if Entra were out at the cliffs, she would have missed breakfast.
“You can tell there’s proper snow coming.” Entra wiped her mouth with her scratched and muddy arm. Sea spray dripped from her hair. Soot-rivulets ran down her neck to mingle with her bright red scratches. “They’re so testy though, the gannets. Flew right into me several times. Look, they even drew blood.”
Entra cut quite a dashing figure. The only sister allowed outside the commune’s walls, and that was strictly to climb to the the gannet and puffin nests along the sea cliffs. Kitty, as usual, found herself wordless in Entra’s company. She longed for the day when Entra would bring her on a cliff climb. The world beyond their walls felt like the height of pure adventure to Kitty. The sisters would prefer she never even look beyond the belfry railings. All other windows in their buildings were set too high near the ceiling to see out of.
Kitty longed to even stand on the shore, to feel the sea spray and let it drip from her, just like Sister Entra.
“You’re quiet, Kitty? Pigly lives to oink another day?” Entra continued as she closed the chest of climbing gear and sat on its lid. She held up a ring of keys and lockpicks to the pale, grey light and squinted until she found the right one.
Kitty avoided all mention of Pigly and asked a question of her own. “Why do you keep your climbing stuff in the belfry, Sister Entra?” She casually leaned against the bell--too large and heavy ever to move--and took out her sewing scrap, hoping to keep Entra talking for as long as possible.
“It’s not that I keep my equipment up here specifically, Kitty. It’s more that it’s locked away.” Still sitting on the chest, Entra emptied her water pouch onto a cloth from her belt and scrubbed at her dirty face. Her sooted eyebrows lifted. “To keep them safe from young ladies who might head out to the cliffs without proper instruction. Or permission.” Then Entra made a teasing oinking noise.
“I wouldn’t just take things.” Kitty blushed and tried not to laugh at the oink. “And hide them or hinder you.”
“Isn’t that what you’re doing, though? Hiding?”
Kitty pressed her lips together. She disliked when the sisters, even Sister Entra, could read her.
Entra changed out of her climbing clothes, back into long brown robes, her paler skin contrasted against the dark tan on her forearms. The strong muscles in Entra’s thighs rippled in delves as the sister moved and dressed. A climber’s body, Kitty thought.
“Things that hide. Things that are hidden away.” Entra settled the neckline of her robe and fussed with her headscarf. She touched a short but deep scrape at the nape of her neck. Entra took out a small pot of ointment from the chest and beckoned Kitty over to help.
Kitty hesitated at Entra’s odd words. She unscrewed the pot. “What does that mean, things hidden and hiding?” she asked and coughed at the strong unguent.
“I’m trying to dissuade you from taking my climbing ropes, Kitty. Those cliffs are cruel. The sea fierce, hungry. The last thing we need is for you to fall into The Elderwrath.”
Kitty opened her mouth open to deny the that the thought had ever crossed her mind, when the belfry door swung open.
“That’s exactly what’ll happen to her, if she doesn’t stop shirking her duties.” Sister Kearne entered with long skirts and a perpetual frown. “Even if I have to drown her myself.”
Kitty froze. Colour burned in her cheeks at the Head Sister’s voice. She looked to Entra but knew that all the sisters, even Entra, would defer to Sister Kearne. Kitty felt parts of herself receding; parts that had just begun to open. They now carefully folded in upon themselves, like the sewing scrap she forlornly returned to her apron pocket.
"Exactly what I told you not to do." Kearne held the three wooden bowls that had been Kitty’s errand, satisfaction clear on her face. “Dawdling.”
"I'm not dawdling," Kitty frowned right back, despite rawness in her stomach. Her hood toggle too tight against her throat. Pigly. His dark blood pooling. Life sagging out of his fat little limbs. It all returned at the sight of Sister Kearne.
"Then what are you doing?"
“Sister Entra was hurt collecting eggs. I’m helping to apply a salve. See?”
Kearne did not look when Kitty held up her fingers dripping with the foul-smelling ointment. Instead, Kearne looked directly at Sister Entra. The belfry silenced, except for the hissing Elderwrath beyond the railings.
“Kitty?” Entra spoke after a few moments in a soft, firm tone that the sisters often used with the stubborn rams. “Go tend to Pigly, yes?”
"Everybody’s waiting on those bowls. We’re out at the sty and you're up here dawdling and delaying." Kearne held the belfry door open.
Once, Kitty taught herself how to sigh so that no one noticed. You sort of sigh in reverse. You make a deep inhale while counting to three. Then silently hold it. If anyone ever asked what she was up to, Kitty always replied with 'just breathing', and bore any odd looks. Kitty inhaled and held it and pushed down her annoyance at being found, at being scolded, even her annoyance that Entra would not stand up for her. She set the ointment on the chest, wiped her hands. Left with Kearne.
"Does it have to be Pigly?" Kitty asked as they left the tower, down that frightful, narrow stairs. The path to the sty lay on the other side of the commune. Trooping after Sister Kearne only jolted and spiked more rawness in Kitty with every step. The flagstones unforgiving underfoot. Groups of sisters passed by and greeted them, everybody busily going about their day.
"What was that?” Kearne had not heard her.
"I said, do we have to take a pig at all this year?”
Sister Kearne's expression made Kitty stop. The sister pushed the stack of bowls hard into Kitty's side, until she winced and took them. With a free hand, Kearne clipped the very tip of Kitty's ear with a strong finger and thumb. “Yes."
Kitty practised silently sighing as she kept pace behind Kearne. She focused on holding her temper, holding her breath until it exhaled in silence.
They passed through the commune’s main building and pushed through the doors on the far side, where animal sheds and pens stood, before the paths gave way to more walled gardens, allotments, and then their farming fields and pastures proper. The wind, it seemed, would never leave them alone. Their coats and robes clung tight about their bodies.
Kitty squashed her leather hood against her headscarf and sooted hair. The wind numbed her through as they took the path inland to smaller pastures. Kitty hoped her ears would be too cold, head too covered, to hear the sea. But still she heard distant waves, that constant backdrop to the commune, as the stars are to the night sky. Waters whined like an overtired kid-goat. Kitty felt it mocked her since as she bore the stinging clip to her ear in flustered and shamed silence.
“Sister Kearne? What’s outside this place?” She hurried ahead to open the low wooden gate.
“Here. This island.”
“Oh. Just ocean.” Kearne answered with a scowl.
“Really?” Kitty made her voice light and innocent. The smell of farm animals and barns now as she shut the gate behind them.
“Just The Elderwrath Sea and this island. No matter how far anybody travels, Kitty, right to the edge of everything. The world is a very small place indeed.”
“What’s beyond the sea, then?” Kitty tried to reason out Kearne’s answer. “How do you know what’s there? Has anybody ever travelled to check? Have you?”
“There’s only water beyond the walls, Kitty. You hide in the belfry so much, you should know that. Water, stretching forever. I couldn’t get you to answer me earlier in the cloakroom and now you won’t shut up.”
Kitty sighed along with the sea. Kearne’s hand slipped over Kitty’s shoulder as they walked. Kitty, in turn, closed her hand over Kearne’s, unable to express clearly the ‘more’ she sought. She just wanted to know there was more beyond their nights of sewing and days filled with farming. Carefully, and keeping attention on where they were going, she glanced to Kearne’s face and searched for an answer. Even the barest flicker would do.