Today we print the second of our top five stories in the 7th annual Voorheesville Short Story Contest, Krista Rivers’s “Solace in Saltwater and Lime.” The theme of this year’s contest was customs. Krista’s story,as our judge put it, is one filled with nostalgia, “rich in detail and magic..[that] asks us to observe more closely those things which can neither be seen nor felt, but that hold a kernel of truth all the same.” We hope you enjoy this second runner-up story.
May 17th, 1974
Something hides in this house. It’s not what one would expect in a place like this, ghosts and dust slightly tainted and old floorboards that don’t sit the way they’re supposed to. Instead, it’s in the indescribable knowledge that the walls are coated in tears, not blood, and sobs linger in the air, the wind bringing the aftertaste of salt not from the ocean. Is this what it means to be in a house that is haunted? A house that does not want me to leave, but instead wants to wrap me in the silence, the absence that is grief? It almost feels a crueler fate than death, to be constantly pulled by pain of which you do not know the origin, to sit at a desk that knows it is not yours, to lie safely under the roof of a house that mourns a life you never knew.
I never should have moved here.
She looked up from the slightly wrinkled page, eyes weary from the weight of her words and the truth that now lay within them. She pulled shaking fingers stained with grey up to her face and gently massaged the bridge of her nose, the resounding ache in her sinuses slowly ebbing away. She sighed with relief, a small smile ghosting over her lips as she stared out of the window, the new clouded seascape before her soothing in a way that was almost sympathetic to her worries.
It matched the house quite nicely.
Though, I suppose, the land does have its benefits. To have my toes wiggling under sand as I watched the sunrise, the feeling of waves lapping over my feet and a warm coffee mug in my hand as sleep slipped from my eyes. . .
It was the calmest I’d felt in years.
And there’s something else about this place, something that hangs unspoken but wanting in the air among the desolate regret and mourning. . .and I can’t leave until I know what it is.
There are words still yet to be heard clinging to the gaps in the walls.
And I will be the one to set them free.
The next time she found herself at the desk, the knolls in the wood shuddering under the weight of secrets and pencil shavings, the sun had long since set. Her ears still rang with the sound of children and the boardwalk, the tinge of a campfire clinging to wayward strands of hair that had long since stolen away from her ponytail. She began to write on a page flushed with lamplight, the graphite somehow both softened and defined the longer her pencil left its touch on her page. She began to hum a tune she had heard on her walk home, the cheerful melody somehow not falling flat in the room that seemed to flourish in silence. But instead, it floated gently through the air, the dust pushing it higher until it filled the space, and her words quickly sucked her into the page.
May 18th, 1974
The people of the village, if nothing else, are rather kind. The faces of the old women were creased with years of joy, vibrant colors of yarn coming to life in their hands. The children themselves brimmed with potential, smiles bright and laughter brighter somehow filling the vast expanse of open air. My life was saturated at the boardwalk today, colors that yesterday were dimmed by the sky now shining in technicolor glory from the peak of dawn to the soft goodbye of sunset. It was just as I remembered, Nonna. Only after I had set foot on the wood, seagull cries whistling through the wind, did I realize how much I missed it.
How much I have missed you.
The land was full of life, as was I (to my surprise) but there was a gap in my joy without you by my side. I stayed longer than I had intended, but I reckon I should have known, what with the affliction I have in my mind. It is not one that doctors can identify, but rather the artist’s curse. I was drawn in by the sheer number of stories that bloomed around me today, from the woman who stood at the brink of the sea, skirt whipping around her heels, to the man jogging along the harbor, skin sheened from the sweltering sun. I almost forgot my sole purpose in going, the gleam of life so often lying dormant in my soul uncovering to meet the shine of the sun and sea.
I almost didn’t learn what I needed to know.
But at last, as the sun began to burn a bit dimmer, bright white separating into the dying colors of violet, magenta, and burning tangerine, I drifted back towards the shops that would soon be empty. Something truly inexplicable pulled me back to the yarn shop, one of the few that was a real building as opposed to just a tent. The collection of grizzled women, wizened by life, had dwindled down to one, her eyes closed as though she need not watch the sunset but only feel it to truly comprehend its beauty. I walked slowly up to her, stepping lightly with woven-sandaled feet as to not disturb a moment I knew I was intruding on. She did not even open her eyes when first she spoke.
“Come, child. I don’t bite, you know.”
I cleared my throat, the gossamer floral of my skirt swishing around my ankles as I approached her, an aura older than even the sand in between my toes surrounding this tiny figure in a wooden rocking chair. I drifted closer, the wind tugging at my hair as though to tell me the importance of being in her presence. I shushed it with my mind, simply telling it I knew, that the peculiar thrum was alive in my bones. There was no way not to, with hair as white as snow still so firmly in her scalp, the lines along her face reading stronger than any scripture. Her dark, leathered skin spoke of years under blue skies and scorching heat, and though it was hard to make out her eyes, as she was then squinting at me, a lively glint was clear within them. Her rounded form, presumably from the doting luxury that comes from old age and a large family, was swathed in a hand-woven skirt worn by time, paired with a peasant blouse likely twice as old. She seemed almost magical, like a character from a storybook, as though if you touched her she would either end you with a single breath or dissolve into fairy dust, as though she had never truly existed at all. There was nowhere else I could go at this point, so I simply stood there until her voice, creaky not from disuse but with knowledge, rang out into the space between us again.
“Tell me your name.”
I swallowed. “Saira Oake. My name is Saira Oake.”
Something gleamed within her eyes, and she let out a chuckle, one found deep in her throat.
“Oake? Are you Margaret’s? The writer child who came and inherited her home?”
“I-ah. . .” All the words leaked from my mind, leaving me without a voice to speak. I simply nodded, all I wanted to ask conveniently lodged in my throat. She, however, nodded her head, as though my silence told her all that had been contained within my mind. She smiled, the movement puckered with wrinkles.
“Ah, Margaret. I miss her often. What a woman. Sharp as my finest knife, but oh, did she love her secrets. I suspect there were many things she took with her to the grave, some that she now left for you to find.” She narrowed her eyes, but it was not with any menace. “I should have guessed you were hers from the moment I saw you, all tall, blonde, and willowed just as she was.
Seagrass floating in the breeze, the two of you, and yet twice as strong as you seem.”
The invisible hand clamping over my vocal cords released, and I let loose a laugh that was perhaps more bitter than I had meant it.
“Yes, my grandmother was a special soul. I only wish she had shared more of the memories she tried so desperately to keep hidden, because I can’t help but feel that I might not be quite as lost as I am today.”
“My, child. You are well-spoken.” The woman rocked in delight, and I felt the charge in the air that always accompanied conversations with fellow intellectuals, my cheeks burning brightly with pride.
“Thank you, ma’am.” I pulled my notebook from my pocket (the small one bound by leather, not the one currently under the tip of my pen). “I was wondering how much you did know about my grandmother. There are some very important things she neglected to tell me, and I was hoping that someone in this town could provide me with some insight.”
The woman’s eyebrow quirked. “What sort of important things?”
“My grandmother left me everything she owned, including the house and everything in it. I’m grateful of course, save for one thing.” I paused, my throat shutting in anger.
“She never told me where she had hidden the rest of the items bequeathed to me in her will.” I sighed. “And that includes all of her money.”
Surprise bloomed across the face of the old woman, before a cry of laughter, just one, rocketed from her body. The sound was loud enough to scare the birds from the phone lines above our heads. Her laugh was beautiful in its unique nature, the full-bodied chuckle seemingly too big for such a small woman. But slowly, the exclamations turned to coughs, and I suddenly found myself at the side of a woman I hardly knew. The skin of her hand was papery against mine, as though the events of her life had sucked her nearly dry. I stepped back as she waved me off, the thunderous coughs slowing to a stop, and I released a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. The old woman fixed me with a wry gaze, her smile kind but firm.
“If there is one thing I know about Margaret, it is that her whole heart lived in her house. That home held many memories for her, and I can’t imagine her most treasured possessions finding their rest anywhere else.”
I nodded and whispered a small “thank you,” because I didn’t know what else to say, not really. She nodded to me before leaning back in her chair, seemingly to enjoy the last tendrils of sunlight still peeking over the horizon. I turned to go, hope rising in my gut, but a question still slipped into my mind, begging for release. I whipped back around. My mouth was clumsy with words not correctly phrased, but nothing truly atrocious came from my mouth, so I consider myself lucky.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t think I caught your name.”
The woman smiled, not quite opening her eyes. “My name. . .ah, that is something I have not been asked in a long time, for most already know.” Her eyes opened slowly to look not at me, but through me as she continued. “Thank you, child. My name is Ebele.” And with that, she let her eyelids flutter shut once more.
I let my mind linger for a moment before turning my back on Ebele, the sunset roaring across the waves, and the indescribable contentment that came from the conversation that did not feel quite real, save for the imprint of words still left on my tongue.
I still miss you, Nonna. It never hurts any less.
It’s a sick sort of sorrow.
Saira placed the pen gently atop the surface of her desk, slipping the notebook shut and securing the elastic strap around it. She rubbed absentmindedly at her writing hand as she leaned over to snuff out the lamp. Her bare feet prickled at the cold of the wood floor as she rose from her chair at last, the occasional shadow of wind flowing around her figure, calling her to dance even as sleep pulled her urgently towards the warm covers of her duvet. She slipped under the cover of her sheets, neck and back sighing with relief as the warmth surrounded her exhausted muscles. She drifted softly to sleep with the knowledge that the heart of her search might have been right under her nose after all.
May 20th, 1974
Something hides in this house. It is just as true as the day I first sat at this desk, bent with the memory of another and about to break under the weight of loss. We are alike in that, I suppose. The wood under my forearms groans despite the fact that I am not much weight to be held. But regardless, there is more shimmering under the surface of this place, my sorrowful words from just four days prior having an entirely different meaning.
Saira took a deep breath, weary eyes looking out to once more regard the whistling wind and a stormy sky, the sea rumbling with a steady unease.
Everyone always praises the one about whom the story was written. It is rather rare that we hear the regale of the one who wrote it. It’s funny, but I think that this time I may be both. You were always the star on the stage, the sunny day on the boardwalk, the smile that blinded. I was content to stay where I was, with my little notebook in the cool embrace of the shadow cast upon me by a legend, a golden girl who had been long destined to become a flawless woman. But now you are gone, and I fear that instead of being the one behind the spotlight, I am stumbling into it instead, the story I once wrote only for you becoming slowly my own. And that scares me, Nonna.
But it doesn’t scare me half as much as it did the day I first came to your queer little house, with its grumbling, crumbling walls and chattering floorboards chilled without the soles of your feet.
The walls have ceased their tears and the floorboards seem just a bit warmer, content to once more have sand rustling against them with the wind. It has only been four days, but I think I am beginning to understand the true meaning of you giving this house, this home, to me. I could not set foot in here for two months, you know. I spent my formal mourning in that little crappy apartment you despised, with the cracked teapot and thin walls, wrapped in the grief, guilt and the million other things that swirled around in that putrid city air. It’s clearer here, and much easier to think straight. I see why you liked it. But this home needs the healing as much as I, its very foundation bending with want for you, just as I always am.
It’s difficult, but that is grief, I suppose.
They say it hurts less, but I don’t think that’s quite the accurate diagnosis, not really. Everyone has this sort of patchwork heart, each square belonging to one person and one person alone. My square for you was so large, Nonna, and when it was ripped from my chest I thought I would forget how to breathe. But that’s the odd little thing about agony. When you’re strangled within it, you forget that there is a way out. The light at the end of the tunnel seems unbearably dim. It takes time to remember that the human body heals and grows and smiles again despite the stitches in an already vulnerable organ.
But then again, maybe we aren’t as flexible as we think we are, trapped in what we think is healing. If that wasn’t the case, then why would I be writing to you when by all knowledge and logic I know you aren’t there to hear me?
I don’t know the answer to my own question, Nonna. I don’t know if I ever will.
Riddle me this, though: Is it easier for me to move on because I lost you long ago?
When you “left” us in body, I had an inkling that your heart, your mind, your soul had been long gone, even before you forgot how to eat, to stand, to breathe. Who even are we without our memories? Nonna, the plug they pulled was not from your body anymore, but a husk of it.
If I so wished, I suppose I could call it slow exposure. I lost a little bit of you every day, but when you “truly” died, it hurt just that little bit less.
That’s the reason I’m able to smile while penning these little thoughts to you, the wind that has touched you and played with your hair now fluttering through my own, the sawdust under my feet having likely touched yours and the furniture that still isn’t dusted, just the way you always kept it.
It was the most beautiful gift to give.
However, I’m not saying that the money you supposedly left me wouldn’t be a nice addition to that gift. If only you were here to give me hints as you did when I was a girl. The difference there is that then I was looking for candy, and today I plan to search for the last bit of you I have left to discover.
I know it must be something good. If it wasn’t, why else would you go through such trouble to hide it from me?
As you always said, “The greatest rewards are only earned through the most perilous of trials.”
It’s a comforting thought to know you were thinking of me, at least.
Saira placed her pencil down upon the desk for a moment, running shaky and graphite-stained fingers through her hair, the soft wisps of honey and gold fluttering across her skin. She remembered the ghost of a touch upon her head, a warm voice filled with the sort of gravel that only came with age and wisdom, and the little girl that ran to her grandmother, tiny hands filled to the brim with sweet treasures, bright Saturday after bright Saturday standing right next to her sun and the sea.
Her Saturdays weren’t quite so bright anymore.
The now-familiar sting of tears prickled at sore eyes, her mind and body much too tired to fight them. Saira tried taking a breath but found herself drowning in salty water, in the phlegm in her throat, in the hopelessness descending upon her mind. She closed her eyes, trying to blur out the visions of those now bittersweet days. But it was too late, the scrabble of little fingernails against a wax wrapper permeating her memories despite the darkness behind her eyelids.
Saira hiccuped, her eyes flying open as each and every smile, every film photo on the wall, every pat on the head and each “Goodnight darling,” her grandmother’s favorite farewell, crashed upon her like waves, drowning her in a sorrow that was almost more wistful than painful, beautiful and tinged in dying seafoam. However, it was then that the quiet storm began to crescendo, lightning and thunder raining down upon her head, water flowing into her ears and her eyes and her nose. The fear pushed in and out like currents, spinning and dancing under the surface with denial. Saira was dragged under quickly and placed in the odd suspension that only those floating within water ever are, watching the chaos unfolding across her world, her body, with calm eyes. It was a rather odd state when the rest of her, her shaky legs and pounding heart and lungs working just a little too quickly for her to truly breathe, was in such a torrent of turmoil. She curled within herself, letting the gentle kiss of water-bent sunlight and the simple whisper of “I love you, Saira” be her anchor, her way home within the hurricane.
After the waves had drawn back, Saira left sweaty and panting and drenched in an odd mixture of a deep ache and a desperate relief, she simply let her head fall to the desk, ready for the dull thud of her headache to take her away into sleep.
That is, until she heard the clatter echo within her desk.
She sat up quickly, still slightly woozy. But eventually, bitten nails scrabbled at the top of the three drawers set into her desk, and she pulled the first open, certain she had not imagined the sound. The driftwood within revealed nothing but balled up pieces of paper she herself had placed there. The next drawer yielded just as little, and Saira could feel her vindication dwindling quickly as she wiggled the last one open.
If it had been anyone else’s desk, anything else in that drawer, Saira would have shut it softly and crawled back into her bed to nurse her mental wounds, saving this so-called journey for another day.
Except it wasn’t.
Trembling fingers brushed down the length of the drawer, dust kissing bitten nails and pale skin. They finally came to rest atop a crinkled wrapper, the flimsy item resting on a raised portion of the wooden bottom. The wrapper was clearly old and just as crested with dust as the rest of the place, but the crinkles under her fingers, the little drawing of a lime, the bright lettering. . .
It reminded her of a time simpler than her current salt-brined Saturdays and the ache in her bones.
The memories were scattered in her mind like fragments of dust floating in the caress of the sun, but they shined brightly despite the fuzzy edges. Little feet peppered with sand pattered along the rim of her childhood memories, the taste of lime candy on her tongue and the brim of a sunhat blowing a breeze into her face. One of her small hands, antsy with the energy only afforded to the very young, was clasped in a much older one, the slender fingers of her Nonna’s hand periodically squeezing as though to tether her to the ground.
Unfortunately, the only thing young Saira wished to do was fly.
Instead, she settled for the alternative, releasing the hand and throwing her arms out to either side of her, sweeping up the steps of the old house with reckless abandon. She paused at the door, turning back to peek at her grandmother. Nonna stood back at the beginning of the pathway, smile bright as she followed behind. When she reached the house, Saira was brimming with impatience.
She turned to go into the house, but felt a purposeful hand descend on her shoulder before she managed to move. She peered back, a wink awaiting her upon her grandmother’s face. A piece of paper was placed in her palm, small and fragile and Saira picked it up, hungrily devouring the words upon the page.
X marks the spot, darling. Enjoy your stint as a pirate.
Saira took off like a shot, combing the waves of sun and sand for even the slightest hint of a clue. After an hour, she finally stubbed her toe on a sharp rock, the final glow of fuschia sun upon the sea revealing a small pattern of stones, spelled out in a rather explicit “X.” The throb of pain in her foot was quickly forgotten as she fell to her knees, hands scrabbling at the sand until she unearthed her treasure.
The box seemed simple enough, but upon it was a latch, sealed tightly with a four-letter combination lock scattered into an intelligible pattern. Saira felt a surge in her stomach, disappointment lapping at her aching feet and tired eyes. But as she went to reposition the sand she’d disturbed, the tip of a small container peeked out from the ground. Saira grabbed it quickly, screwing open the top and pulling out another piece of paper. On it read, “The answer is found in the last memory of taste upon your tongue.” Saira flicked through the foods she’d eaten that day, coming up with no items of four letters. But then she swallowed, the faintest hint of flavor still in her mouth. She pulled the lock into her hands, fingers flicking through letters until at last the lock simply read “LIME.”
Saira took a deep breath, brushed her hair from her face, and tugged on the lock.
A click echoed into the fast-chilling air, and the lid of the box snapped open to reveal a treasure trove of candy treats, the crowning glories the lime lollipops piled on top.
This was but the first of many clues and games and trials that Saira faced that summer, the game fueling her mind and body through all of those Saturdays in the sun. Nonna continued to supply her with challenges, the stakes only growing higher and the prizes greater. . .
But regardless of whether Saira found a small woven bracelet or a sparkling hairpin, there was always a lime lollipop snuggled in with her treasure.
This was the first time in this house that Saira had not had the sweet acid taste on her tongue.
Saira took a deep breath, cradling the precious relic to her chest. She lifted the wrapper to her nose, hoping to get a whiff of the familiar scent, but only managed to give herself a coughing fit instead. She gently placed the wrapper on the surface of the desk, returning her attention to the drawer from which it had come. She slipped from her chair, crouching on the floor. She let her hands reach out and probe the drawer, a small hope brimming in her gut.
She was not disappointed.
Her fingertips found a knoll just slightly different in texture from the rest of the wood, the odd protrusion being where she had found the wrapper. When she lifted her hand to her nose, breathing in just slightly, the tinge of metal that bit at her senses led her to quickly reach back down, pushing the cold switch to the side. It gave under her touch and a small pop echoed into the room. Saira pried the false bottom open, lifting it gently from the cabinet and revealing the true treasure inside.
What lay within was one of the most beautiful pens Saira had ever seen. The ballpoint piece of art was obsidian streaked with navy, the exact shade of the ocean after dark. She lifted it tentatively into her hands, unraveling a small piece of parchment wrapped around the base.
And on this sheet, in handwriting that was achingly familiar, read a simple message.
It’s drafty in here, isn’t it, darling?
Saira jolted to her feet, chest thrumming with realization. She walked quickly from the room, her pace picking up until she was thundering down the halls of her house, breath hiccuping with the strain. She pocketed the pen as she ran, stretching a hand down to the seam where the wall met the floor, desperate for the split-second of air to touch her skin. She covered the first room in ten minutes, the second in five. With no luck, she circled back to the hall at the top of the stairs, the only part of the house with any natural light, and stopped cold. A faint wind whistled through the wall, and Saira bolted to her feet. A shaky hand knocked at the wood, the hollow sound reverberating back at her.
Saira’s hand slid down the wall, meaning to leave, but stopped as her pointer finger scraped a familiar knoll. Saira stopped, then lifted her fingers to her face, and took in a breath.
She fumbled for the knot, sliding it to the right, then stopped in her tracks as the wall slid back and a new world was revealed before her eyes.
The library was small and quaint, with faded blues on the walls, an intricate golden globe in the corner. Dark oak bookcases lined a medium-sized room, the smell of old parchment and book bindings wrapping around Saira like a blanket. A boarded-up bay window sat right across from the door, sea-foam-colored curtains billowing with the wind that slipped in through cracks in the wood, the force so strong it blew back Saira’s disheveled hair.
She beamed like a madwoman, eyes brimming with saltwater and joy.
Saira stepped into the library, bare feet meeting rich navy carpet. On the desk in the corner lay a box, the lid popped to reveal a large sum of money. However, it did not steal her attention. She instead paced the length of the room, relishing in the smell and the sheer volume of books. . .and then her eyes caught on the edge of a bookcase. She plucked a full sheet of paper and a lime lollipop from under a neglected stack of books, then turned to regard her new home once more, treasures clasped to her chest.
Oh yes. This would do quite nicely.
The secrets once hidden in this house were no longer stuck in the undertow, a new life now hers for the taking.
And at her fingertips danced a note.
“Saira, my dear. I do apologize for the charade that I left behind, but I wanted to leave you access to what I considered my greatest sanctuary from the moment I bought this house. Lying within is my private collection: family records, books thought to be banned from existence, parchments that could live in museums. Knowing that I find a kindred soul in you and the years we shared together, I figured you would cherish it just as much as I.
I love you, darling.
Never stop exploring the sights both below and beyond the stars.