Read The Gilly Salt Sisters Online

Authors: Tiffany Baker

The Gilly Salt Sisters (5 page)

“What was that?” her mother asked.

“Nothing,” Jo answered. Jo’s mother scowled at her and then turned to go back to the house, empty now of both Jo’s brother and her father.

“Don’t go putting things in the salt that don’t belong there,” she said, “unless you’re prepared for the worst to happen.”

“What could be worse than Henry dying?” Jo asked, and dabbed her eyes.

“Plenty,” Mama said. “You just aren’t old enough to guess that yet.”

Jo waited until she was sure Mama was back in the house, and then she tossed another pebble into the pond, watching as it sank into the red sludge, where it might linger and stay down in the earth with her brother’s bloated remains, a token of her sorrow, the only one she had to give.

O
n the day of Henry’s funeral, the townswomen of Prospect crammed the pews of St. Agnes, filling the church with the competing scents of lavender water and gardenia perfume, not to mention plenty of rustling whispers.

“Sit up straight, now,” Mama instructed Jo before the service began, adjusting Claire on her lap. “Others are watching.”
And talking
, Jo wanted to add but didn’t.

It was muggy in the sanctuary, and Jo was tired. Somewhere behind her a fly buzzed, and then the double doors banged open and Ida Turner, of all souls, the undisputed first lady of Prospect,
marched up the center of the tiny church, the beady eyes on her fox stole the perfect counterpart to her own. Her presence gave Jo a bitter sort of comfort. If anyone was more unpopular than they were in Prospect, she knew, it was Ida. It was just that everyone was too scared of Ida to say it to her face. She was pulling her six-year-old son, Whit, by the wrist, and seeing him reminded Jo all over again of her brother, even though Whit’s hair was the color of a chestnut and his eyes were as brown as hers. She tried to catch them, but he stared down at his polished shoes, as if shamed by his mother’s entrance. Something just came over Ida Turner whenever she walked into church. She got like a fire someone had stoked too high. Even Father Flynn, with his watery blue eyes and shaky fingers, avoided looking straight at her.

People in the church gasped now, however. In Prospect it was in the worst taste to approach an aggrieved family until after Mass was over and they’d had a chance to lay a bunch of wild herbs at the feet of the painted Virgin. Only then, after the family members had risen and made their way down the little aisle, would the mourning line form on the way out the door. Even Ida should have known better.

She didn’t seem to care. She tugged off her calfskin glove, reached into her pocket, and stuck her bare hand out to Jo’s mother just as Father Flynn opened the door from the sacristy. He saw Ida and froze. When she had the floor, even God paused. In the dull light of the church, her hair was shining like an evil queen’s, and Jo could see that underneath all her powder Ida was as dusky as a Gypsy. Against her breastbone a single pearl dangled from a silver chain, clashing with a ruby brooch, her diamond wedding band, and knotted gold earrings the size of small doorknockers.

Jo took her fussing sister out of her mother’s lap. Without Henry next to her to distract her, she was seeing things she’d never noticed before: the way her mother’s chin jutted forward when Ida came near her, the crocodile set of Ida’s lips, the way the air almost crackled between the pair of women.

Jo thought maybe Ida wanted to shake hands with Mama, but
Ida reached over to her instead and grabbed the point of her chin with her red-varnished nails, tipping Jo’s face up so she could see it better. Startled, Jo let her arms fall open, and Claire scuttled out of her lap and over to her mother’s, where she stuck a finger into her mouth and whimpered.

Ida leaned down so close that Jo could see the individual spikes of her false eyelashes quiver. She watched Ida lick her lips, as if she were savoring something delicious at a cocktail party. She looked like a woman on whom everything was polished, but when she spoke, her voice rattled like a stew bone on the boil. “It should have been you in that ditch,” she said, low and hard.

Jo flinched, scratching her cheek on one of Ida’s nails as her mother lunged forward, unwilling to let Ida have any word, never mind the last. “Remember, Ida,” she spat, “salt is the essence of heaven and the measure of the soul. Even yours.” She looked like she was considering which one of Ida’s veins to tear open first.

Jo wondered what her mother meant by that, but she didn’t dare ask. And anyway, Mama was full of platitudes. They were as worn and familiar to Jo as the breeches she donned to work.

Ida turned a shade paler under her makeup. “If I wanted to, I could take everything you call yours, Sarah Gilly, and make it mine today. You and I both know that.” Her lips hung open for a moment more, as if she weren’t quite finished, but then she clamped her jaw shut anyway, spun on one heel, and pushed Whit back down the aisle toward the church’s double doors. He turned miserably to glance at Jo, his eyes meeting hers in silent apology.

She shivered and reached for her mother’s cracked hand. “Could she really do that?” she whispered. “Could she really take away everything that’s ours?”

Her mother’s black scarf had slipped back, revealing her red hair, a bonfire roaring across her skull. She pursed her lips. “Don’t be silly. I’d give both my arms away before I’d give an inch of anything to Ida Turner. Now, stand up. Mass is about to begin.” Just then, mercifully, Father Flynn began moving toward the altar,
cassock sleeves fluttering, his hands folded as though nothing unusual had just happened.

After the service, after the last wife in Prospect had finally greeted them with cool eyes and a cooler hand, after Father Flynn had blessed them and offered his own condolences, Jo replayed the encounter in her head as they traveled the last bit of the sandy lane toward the farmhouse, still unsettled by the fury in Ida Turner’s eyes. The wealthy Turners couldn’t abide the marsh-bound Gillys—everyone knew that—but Jo still felt as if she were missing something, some small detail that niggled at her like a vague cloud of gnats. She pictured Ida’s jewels, ferocious as armor, and the tiny smear of lipstick that had feathered over one corner of her mouth.

It should have been you in that ditch.
It was a terrible thing to say to a child, but odd, too, Jo thought, for if Ida had meant to threaten Mama, why had she done it staring straight at Jo? She scuffed her feet in the sandy dirt, comforted by the stagnant air and the familiar odors swarming around her. Maybe Ida had been a little right. Jo was alive, and her brother was not. It certainly could have been her caught in the weir, and maybe it should have been. Jo just couldn’t tell anymore. When it came down to her family and Salt Creek Farm, even she had trouble recognizing where things began and ended, and over the years, much to her frustration, that line wouldn’t grow any clearer.

Chapter Two

T
he first time Dee Pitman ever looked upon the mangled face of Joanna Gilly, she thought for sure the devil had sprung to life and come to snatch her soul. She’d been warned about Jo’s appearance, of course—how she was burned all up and down the right side of her body—but no one had cautioned Dee that Jo’s spirit was still smoldering hot under those wounds. She was the kind of person Dee wanted to trust but didn’t dare, in case Jo burst back into flames and took Dee up with her in smoke.

It was Dee’s first week in the Cape village of Prospect, and her father had just bought himself a diner, even though he wasn’t a restaurateur. The pair of them weren’t really ocean people either, and Dee was still trying to get over the rush of nausea she got every time she looked out at all the water swirling on the horizon. She’d never seen the ocean in person before and wished it would just keep still, but wishing never made anything so, something Dee knew all the way down to the little pockets of marrow in her bones.

Between the two of them, only her father, Cutt Pitman, had ever spent any time on the sea. Dee’s natural habitat was Vermont, but her father had been a cook in the navy during the Korean War, and then for a little while after before returning home and becoming a father unexpectedly late in life. To hear him tell it, a
person would have thought Cutt was Sinbad the Sailor or something, but in reality he never saw much of the ocean. He’d spent most of his time in the stinking belly of a warship, getting mashed from side to side with boxes of powdered eggs, sacks of half-green potatoes, and tins of unidentifiable meats. When the navy finally let him go and Cutt found himself back on a mountain in Vermont, it was like he’d never left, he said, and that just didn’t sit right with him, but what was he going to do about it with a wife and a new baby to look after? He took a job in the local hospital cafeteria, got his land legs back, and that was all that.

But then Dee’s mother got cancer and died when Dee was seventeen. Losing her seemed to make Dee’s father restless again. He’d go on drinking binges, and at the hard end of them he’d ramble on about freedom and the sea, weeping into his nicked hands. He didn’t exactly plan to move them to Prospect, Dee knew. He’d just unrolled a map one day, jabbed a pencil point down somewhere on the Cape, and then told her to read the name of the town out loud to him.

“Prospect,” she said. It sounded strict and biblical to her ears, not a place she wanted to rush straight off to. Cutt put down his bottle, staring at it like he’d never seen it before, then looked around the living room with the same expression.

“Well, then, I guess Prospect it is,” he said. “Eastward ho.” Like he thought he was being funny or something, when the truth of the matter, Dee knew, was that their hearts were about as heavy as two balls of tar. There wasn’t a single laugh to be had between them.

A
s they drove up the Cape, it quickly became apparent that they were arriving in a summer region at the butt end of the season, which made Dee feel even lonelier. The closer they got to Prospect, the more crowded she watched the other side of the road grow with station wagons and little sports cars, all of them full of families and couples heading back to the mainland and their real
lives. Dee stared out the car window and wished she were going with them, but instead she was trapped with her father in their sweatbox of a sedan, entering into a low landscape of scraggly bushes, ugly grasses, and, of course, the ocean. Right off she could just tell it wasn’t for her. The creepy way it swirled reminded her of a snake twisting. She couldn’t say if it was coming at her, fangs ready, or slithering away, having failed to bite.

It was so muggy she fell asleep, her head pressed against the car window’s glass, and when she woke up, a string of drool was hanging from the corner of her mouth down to her chin. She sat up and realized they’d stopped and that she was alone, so she wiped her face and took a hard look around. As far as she could tell, they’d gotten not just to the end of the road but to the end of life as she knew it. They were parked in front of the diner her dad had bought, on a street so oyster gray that Dee automatically squinted. There were no green mountains to make her dry eyes feel better, no farms with dumb happy cows, no granite ponds. Just a one-street town stuck on the lip of a bay, a bunch of blank-eyed buildings with their shingles all cracked, and so much damn water she didn’t even have to dip a toe in it to feel like she was drowning.

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