It was barely light out. Faile had packed a bag, climbed out a window cat-quiet, and headed for the docks- but she’d made a detour. Call it sentimental. Down a back alley, up Pearl Lane, and…there. Her house, or it had been. A notice on the door proclaimed it repossessed.
She was sitting cross-legged on the dirt floor while her mother repaired a sail.
She traced shapes in the ashes of the hearth with chubby child’s fingers. Her mother paused mid-stitch.
“You know how I told you sometimes things go back out with the tide? Your da did that. But I ain’t mad for it, we both decided it was right.”
“Oh…did he love us?”
“Yes he did, flower. But sometimes love ain’t enough and you have to go out with the tide. It’s not your fault.”
“He’s better off on his own. Just like we are, yeah?”
Faile tore the notice down, ground it into the mud under her sandal.
“How old is the girl?”
“Old enough to work. Come here, little one.”
The big man, the one that smelled like rot, took her hand.
“I’m a close friend of your ma, and I need a special job done. Can’t just be anyone, and your ma tells me you’re a quick and clever sort. Can you help me?”
Faile looked at her mother, anxious, twisting her hem between her fingers. Her mother was never anxious. Something was wrong.
“Yessir, what d’you need?”
He smiled, she saw jeweled teeth.
“That’s what I like to hear. Basia, your girl is smart.”
Her mother didn’t say anything, wouldn’t look at her. Not even after she’d come back spattered with blood, carrying a paring knife and a heavy sack of coins. She’d thrown up, washed her face in the basin, and curled up by the fire, dreaming of serpents carrying her out to sea. Ten. Ten.
The lock was old, it crumbled in her hand. She slipped into the house- a room, really. They’d barely gotten by, even with the neighbors’ help.
Her mother’s illness had run its course, finally. She couldn’t focus on the body, her eyes automatically went to the wooden lion her mother had nailed to the wall just above the hearth. Her ears were ringing. She’d seen bodies before but this was different- she had to prepare it. Should she be crying right now? Where were the tears? Did she even have time to cry before she went next door to ask Ma Tallett for help? Wait, wait…Faile fumbled in her pocket, produced a coin. Placed it carefully under the dead tongue- da had said you have to pay for the crossing but she didn’t know if it was some outrageous bit of folk nonsense or some old truth- closed the mouth. Closed the eyes. Washed her hands raw in the basin by the grimy window. Then she went next door.
The service was short- the other women in the neighborhood covered the cold, pale thing on the bed in flowers and wept over her while a priest sang something slightly off-key. Then the body that wasn’t mother anymore was wrapped in sheets. Taken away to be buried. She couldn’t bring herself to follow. The women sighed and patted her hand, they just assumed she was grieving. So young, they said, on her own without her ma and da. What will become of her, of the house. So young.
Everyone trailed out, with varying degrees of pity.
And then it was just her in that house of silence, her and that fucking wooden lion and a pitiful little dent in the narrow bed.
Faile looked at the room one last time. The flaking paint on the walls. The filthy, cracked window. It had felt like a palace when she was a child, something marvelous where she could roam uncontested. Her domain. It had been cleared of furniture. Of any signs of life. And now, in the grey, wet dawn it looked like a crypt. A memorial to the family that wasn’t. A monument to her mother’s shortcomings and Vos’s endless greed. And she was cutting it loose, letting it drift away from her on the tide. Somewhere, a bell rang.
Time to go. She shouldered her bag, closed the door. And didn’t look back, not until the ship was leaving the harbor and the city was a colorful smear on the horizon.
Seven. Ten. Sixteen. Twenty-eight.