Restless and troubled by salt-dreams, Dion was up before dawn.
The night workers in the dryhouse sang work songs. Dion yoked her buckets across her shoulders and waded out into the sea, the face of the waters still black and littered with reflected stars. Red bands across the eastern sky shot through heavy clouds that threatened a storm. She closed her eyes, feeling the waters slap against her thighs. Underneath there was a glimmer of something, like light. She waded out until the feeling made her whole body tingle, and then bent her knees, filling her buckets with sea water.
This season had been hard. Perhaps it could still turn sweet at the end. She trudged back to shore and turned her buckets into the first of three big terracotta jars. She repeated this, waiting for the tingle each time. The sun rose higher in the sky. The other women— refiners, harvesters, kit-girls, and runners—all filled the beach with noise and nervous energy.
Kya, one of Dion’s two kit-girls, was waiting for her on a return trip to the shore. Dion dumped her buckets into her jar and knelt on the sand. Kya wiped her brow with a cloth and held up a dish of cool, fresh water for Dion drink from.
“Beaucourt coming in two days.” Kya said, her round eyes in a round brown face softening her look of disapproval. “Be a sore shame to disappoint him with salt ain’t barely blue.”
“Only us that makes the salt, girl. He can be disappointed. Nowhere else for him to buy.”
“Only him that buys it.”
When Dion had started harvesting salt—a girl not much older than Kya—there had been no fewer than eight magicians all vying for the bluest and purest. Now there was only the Beaucourt.
Dion jutted her chin at the nearly full harvest pot. “My right palm itching at this here.”
Kya squinted. “For true? Mama Gwe says your itching ain’t never led us wrong.”
Dion nodded, and spit onto the sand. “Could even be some of the true lapis.”
A spatter of raindrops struck them on the shoulders.
Dion shouted, “Nashi!”
Her other kit-girl sidled out from the inside of the dryhouse, with a guilty look and a mouth full of cornbread.
Dion nodded. “Rain’s starting. We got to get this harvest ready for drying.”
Dion helped the girls filter the harvested water through rough, untinted linen into broad porcelain pans. Each girl hurried the pans inside to the firepits. Olu wood smoke and steam rose in a fragrant pillar where Nashi’s pan slopped over into the fire.
“Careful, girl,” Dion scolded. “One plash of the true lapis is worth four of you.”
Dion carried the third and fourth pans in herself. Her rolling walk was easy. She did not spill a drop.
When Dion got home, Aya stood at the table kneading dough for tomorrow’s bread. Dion wrapped her arms around her wife. Pressed her nose into a space at the nape of her neck. Aya relaxed into the embrace, her powerful arms pounding and pulling the dough. “Wasn’t expecting you home until after dark. Chicken ain’t ready.” Aya glanced at an iron pot hanging over the hearth. Dion could smell the chicken, herbs, and groundnuts simmering. Her stomach rumbled.
Aya slapped the bread dough, covered it and left it to rise. Dion rested her chin in the crook of Aya’s shoulder.
“You was up early,” Aya said.
“Mm. Salt-dreams. Didn’t want to wake you.”
Aya broke the embrace, turned to face Dion. She wiped flour from hands on the front of her apron. “A lot of those lately, beloved. You been harvesting longer than you rightly ought to.”
“My Big Mama harvested her whole life, near. She be out there now if the Grey Barons ain’t take her.”
“And your Auntie Pru? The one was sensitive? Like you? How long she manage?”
Dion looked away. “This been a hard season. We wasn’t gonna make enough silver to put away. But if I ain’t wrong, I may have pulled some of the true lapis. Be enough to stop me arguing with you about working.”
Aya sighed. “Alls I wants is a tough old bird in the pot, and you to keep me warm at night. Don’t need silks. Don’t need lamb.”
Dion said, “Not aiming for a fortune. Just enough so you can have that tough old bird, maybe get a pot mended without worrying how we gonna make it through a fortnight.”
“These dreams of things that happened, or things still to come?”
Dion shook her head. “Don’t rightly know. They wicked. Don’t leave me with no rest.”
Aya’s gaze softened. “Sit down. I’ll knot your hair.”
Dion sat by the hearth. Aya knelt over her, parting and knotting her hair with her fingers until Dion fell asleep.
Dion found herself in a city in the dead of night. Sleepy-eyed linkboys carried their torches through narrow wynds. A priestess sang a call to prayer. Cypress trees swayed gently. She walked along avenues as broad as a river. This was a good place, she was sure of it.
Then a horrible, guttural word shattered the city’s calm. And a dread, cobalt light bloomed in the east. Pillars of blue flame taller than redwood trees swept through the city, roaring and whipping up caustic winds. She could almost feel the heat. Screams echoed against high adobe walls, then fell silent. Run, she thought, but the pillars swept past her, leaving her unharmed.
She found herself in a courtyard painted with frescoes which blistered then ran from the walls to pool on the floor. A slender youth, crowned by curls, face frozen in horror, dropped a silver dish of citrus fruits. She heard a single word, N’chala, it echoed through her head in a tenor. The youth’s lips hadn’t moved. He reached towards Dion, but when she outstretched her own hand, he crumbled into ash that was blown away by the winds.
Dion sat bolt upright in bed, covered in a sticky sheen of sweat. She sobbed into her hands, waking Aya, who cradled her, covered her face with kisses, and held her until she slipped back down into dark dreamless sleep.
The sky was clear and mild on the day the Beaucourt was set to arrive. The women and girls in the dryhouse bustled. Fires burned brighter. Voices louder. Laughs a little too shrill. Dion felt no tingles as she waded out from shore, but Mama Gwe told her that the batch from two days before was shaping up to be something, and her heart felt light. No salt-dreams the night before, and the end of season warmth suffused her limbs, making her feel lithe.
The sun was high in the sky when Kya came running to meet Dion in the shallows. “Beaucourt coming!”
Dion made no special haste, dumped her buckets as usual, then ducked into the dryhouse. Mama Gwe was waiting inside with six boxes of salt, ranging in color from cloud pale to robin egg. Dion nodded.
Trundling down the road at a deceptive speed was the Beaucourt’s conveyance, black and silver and gold. In relief against the marsh and the redwoods beyond. It was pulled by a team of four creatures that only resembled horses if you didn’t look at them too closely. Mottled grey and black, with manes made of dark, translucent tendrils that moved independently of the wind. Paws instead of hooves. They seemed to glide effortlessly like cats. No coachman to drive the beasts. The conveyance slowed to a stop just short of the open double doors of the dryhouse. At this distance, its elaborate finery was made clear. It was an ornate six-wheeled carriage decorated with twisting silver filigree vines and heavy ormolu panels. Different, and much richer than the carriage the Beaucourt had travelled in on previous trips to purchase his salt. Dion wondered if this meant a change in his station.
Two gray wraiths slithered out through a panel in the conveyance door. Dion shuddered. The Beaucourt’s wraiths moved like octopuses, no fixed shape, undulating through the air as if it was water. They drew open the door, and assisted him to the ground.
The Beaucourt was an ordinary man. Just past middle age. Skin a few shades lighter than the townspeople. Kinky hair combed back from a widow’s peak. Kind smile. Judgmental eyes. His robes of office were silver, and unadorned.
Mama Gwe was first to meet him, Dion at her shoulder. Mama Gwe bowed deeply. “It has been too long, old friend. Can I offer you some cool water? Fresh cornbread? Sea greens with trotters?”
The Beaucourt shook his head. “I live in service to the Spiral Senate. The work proceeds. Water will be sufficient.”
Mama Gwe gestured. One of the kit-girls brought the Beaucourt water in a porcelain cup. He drank it in one pull. He raised an eyebrow. “You have something to show me?”
Mama Gwe had the runners bring out the boxes of salt. The Beaucourt looked them over. His smile grew thin. “It will suffice. But I had hoped the season would be kinder to you.”
“Lighter than you want, I reckon. But this ain’t all. Dion’s our best harvester, and she’s prepared a surprise,” Mama Gwe said.
Dion climbed the ladder to the second floor, where her salt rested in a refining box. It had time left before it was ready, but it was already the deepest blue she had ever seen. She brought this down for the Beaucourt to view.
A look of undisguised delight crossed his face. “This is excellent! When will it be ready?”
“Needs another fortnight’s drying, and then maybe another moon before it’s seasoned?” Dion said.
The Beaucourt stroked his chin. “I’ll need to make another trip, but this is worth it.” He gestured at one of the wraith things. It produced a fat purse of silver and dropped it into Mama Gwe’s hands with a shadowy tendril. “Consider this an advance. And if the end results are what this promises, much more will come your way.”
The wraiths gathered up the boxes of salt and folded them into themselves. As they swept out after the Beaucourt, one of their trailing tendrils brushed against Dion’s cheek. In her head she heard a tenor voice say, “N’chala.” In her mind’s eye, she saw a youth with curls and a look of quiet desperation.
Dion’s cheeks flushed hot with rage. Shame roiled her stomach. She clenched her fists, bent over double and vomited on the floor. She tasted ash. The sweet olu wood smoke smelled like burned flesh. Dion retched again. This be the ends of our work. She heard Mama Gwe cry her name, but the call echoed as if across a distance.
The Beaucourt was at her side. He laid a hand on her shoulder. He said a short, sharp word and a feeling of calm invaded her. Her stomach unknotted. He gripped her chin with his other hand. His smile was kind, his eyes judgmental. He sighed. “My dear, you mustn’t get too close to my servants. It can be an unpleasant experience for the uninitiated.”
Dion was silent through most of dinner. Aya chattered about how best to use their share of the silver, and what to put it towards to make it last. Dion chewed on her chicken bones and sucked the marrow out. Then, without preamble, she said, “The dreams. They happened.”
Aya looked up, reverie shattered. “What tells you this?”
“One of the Beaucourt’s things—it passed me by and I knew. It was like, Big Mama once had a salt-dream about one of the Senators being near death and getting healed through the salt. And she knew which one, even though they all wear they masks. I knew. Was no hiding it.”
“Town relies on the salt. Silver keeps us all afloat, but maybe you ain’t got to be the one to harvest it.” Aya picked up the coins on the table. “This here will do us, baby.”
“That poor boy had his whole life out ahead of him.” Dion felt hot, angry tears against her cheek.
“Ain’t nothing you can do if it’s past.” Aya put her hands on Dion’s shoulders.
Dion stared into the hearth fire.
Dion ran to the dryhouse in the darkest part of the night. Moon and stars veiled over by the heavy rain clouds that signalled the end of the season. The sea below black ink luminous and glittering with fine-boned fish. Barefoot, she skidded once on the mud-slick path, found her footing and sprinted down to the sandy shore.
The season was over, and the dryhouse was empty. Come morning the girls would expect to turn their hands to preparation and storage, then perhaps take to weaving and hunting until the rain stopped. Dion flung open both doors. The creak was bone-deep and ominous.
Finding by feel and memory the first two porcelain pans, still warm from the day’s evaporation, Dion clapped them together and a shuddering KRACK rumbled as they met and shattered along invisible fault lines. Great sharp shards clattered to the ground, one wheeling into her leg and nicking her along the thigh. Groping in the darkness, she found the rest of the pans resting on their racks, she hurled them, two, three, four, onto the ground, joy rising in her chest as much as dread at each splintering smash. She stifled a wild high giggle when the eighth and last cracked.
The moon broke through the clouds then, piercing the darkness with its pale light. Blood trickled down Dion’s thigh, plashing between her toes. She grabbed a pair of iron tongs and turned over the coals in the firepits. Embers still stirred. She wadded up the linens, but they were still damp from use, and might smother the fire. The oiled tarps. They kept the sifters covered and clean of rust. She pulled them off, flung them into the pits, and in moments, heavy smoke roiled up. She overturned a bin of olu wood into the pit. Orange light licked up hungrily to meet the wood. She climbed the ladder up to the refiners. Kicked over boxes of salt. There, still blue as poison, was the last box of lapis salt. This she cradled, and pressed to her chest, aware of all its value and its worth to the town. She climbed down the ladder. Covered her face against the smoke and rushed out into the cool night air. The fire had caught, and it would not be long until someone in the town noticed and tried to rescue the dryhouse. It was too late. Dion walked to the water’s edge and stared down at the salt. The coin from this could salvage everything you love. She took a long, hard look, and then pitched the box into the sea. The salt was reclaimed by the waters.
Her back to the blaze, Dion knelt in the sand and waited for the tide to come in.
© 2020 Christopher Caldwell