The Salt Debt

Nana Moira sat in a corner, darning Socks by the fire. Silvered needles whipping and stitching, bony fingers steady and sure—certain as any surgeon’s hand.

“Silly puss lost ‘is head again,” she cackled, tugging at the long, dark thread.

An old joke, that one, and much reused, just like everything in that tiny stone and thatch cottage. But Daidoe Seamus laughed anyway, just as he always did. A sharp sound of creaking springs and crab claws clacking, the brass key driving his long-dead heart turning slow circles as it jutted from his chest.

I watched those two together as I floated languidly in my bath. Measured the love that flowed between them—tangible as the scents of liniment and lavender hanging heavy on the air. And I, being granddaughter and dutiful, laughed with them. My own voice a blubbering bubble rising upward from the brining vat in which my tentacled body reposed.

A song of yearning. Of envy most foul.

No clockworks for me, after all. The sea claimed my body, spitting back just my head, but Nana Moira worked a deal with yon Alders Bay Kraken. Offering the Great Beast a gift of life eternal—a clockwork framework of brass and gold—in exchange for a single seed. Nana Moira’s pick of the litter from the Kraken’s next get.

Death begot death and from it life. A short one for me—just a hundred years and five before this Kraken’s body came apart—but long enough, really. Enough years to suit me, who’d died once already and drifted downward in the salty dark.

A last loving cackle, one more whipping stitch, and Nana Moira tied off a snug knot, right under Socks’ black and white chin. Leaned in close, wrinkled lips disappearing in the patched and faded fur of Socks’ patched and faded neck. Teeth nipping daintily as she expertly snapped the thread.

“There ya are, luv. Good as new.” She chortled fondly, patting the old cat fondly on the rough fur of his snaggle-toothed head. Scooped his bag of bones body from her bag of bones lap and nuzzled her grey-skinned nose to his.

Daidoe Seamus watched her, saying not a word—not in all that time. Nor I either, lacking lungs of sufficient to drive the muscles of my larynx. I just thrashed my suckered legs in the briny sea bath I called home, whipping the water into a froth, spraying rainbow shimmer bubbles in the fire lit air.

Socks caught sight of one and batted at it lackadaisically, swiping with a nubbin clawed foot until the bubble drifted away, bursting brightly in the fire. He mewled mournfully, missing his catspaw already. Mewled again, rusted voice croaking as he swiped his worn, sandpaper tongue across the seamed landscape of Nana Moira’s much wrinkled face.

“That’s my boy,” Nana Moira crooned. “That’s my sweet prince.”

A peck on the nose and Nana Moira set Socks on the floor, steadying his bony old body with her knob-knuckled fingers as he tottered over to the knitting basket. An oversized whicker seashell overflowing with yarn bundles, strategically placed between the tickling reach of Nana Moira’s fingers and the decadent warmth of the crackling fire.

I flicked a stream of water at him as Socks settled down, salted droplets sparkling as they dusted the air, raining down like diamonds on his onyx and snow fur.

Socks barely noticed—an old game, this one, like Nana Moira’s jokes and cackling laughter—and he an old puss. Ancient, by feline standards at nine and ninety years. Wise as the broad-winged owl who sheltered in Nana Moira’s barn, and grown accustomed to his comforts.

The soft food Nana Moira fed him, and the touch of her gentle, skilled fingers. The warmth of the glowing fire, the occasional fat mouse with which to amuse himself. Socks mounted his throne of yarn with stiff-legged steps and settled into a softly carved out nest. A lick at his tail-thin and worn like all the rest of him—and he erupted with purr, clockworks ticking like castanets inside his belly and chest.

Nana Moira touched at him, and at her temple, her own emaciated breast. Storm grey eyes looking sad now, wrinkled face—once so beautiful, now an aged, sage roadmap one and thirty and one years in the making—turning thoughtful. Filling with regret.

“Seamus,” she said, soft voice flowing like honey. Like all the love in the world. “Seamus, luv, it’s time.”

Daidoe Seamus looked at me, freckled hand lifting to turn the key embedded in his chest. A sigh escaped him—dry as dust, a sound of aspen leaves fluttering in a winter wind—as he stepped close to Nana Moira’s chair, knelt down and took her head between his hands.

Stroked her cheek as the light in her eyes dimmed, and her heart—overburdened by one hundred and thirty and one years of love and learning and infinite patience—slowed its beating. Thumped once and stopped.

Socks yowled pitifully from his woolen string lair. Daidoe Seamus yowled with him—a groaning, moaning, grief—filled wail of despair.

And I…I was dutiful. I was granddaughter and the last of our line. Witness to Nana Moira’s last breath.

Helpless. Useless. Just like when Mama passed.

Not this time, I decided. Not again.

Daidoe Seamus bowed his head in mourning, clockworks ticking endlessly inside his chest, as I took up Nana Moira’s needles—stretching to take them from her hand. Balanced those silvered spears with exhausting exactness, holding them carefully in my tentacle hands.

Steeled myself as I drove the points downward, piercing one Kraken leg and another, black blood spurting in fountains, turning green as ichor, as poison most foul. Swirled in snaking patterns, mixing with the oily brine of my bath.

A last sharp-tipped puncture and I dragged myself from the salt soup that sustained me, flopped to the floor and tentacle-walked to the corner and Nana Moira’s chair. Conscious of Socks watching me, golden eyes shining with fire. Of Daidoe Seamus cranking his heart-shaped key, priming the heart-shaped organ sitting inside his chest.

He stood, kissing Nana Moira’s cooling hand before backing away, standing betwixt Socks and the fire’s flames. The two of them bearing mute witness as I, in the firelight, scaled the wooden frame of Nana Moira’s perch. Clutched at her woolens to hug her to me and splay my tentacled body across her chest.

Held her tightly, like a lover in the night. Sobbing softly as I reached for the last of Nana Moira’s workings, gathering the trailing end of yarn dangling from her limp, dead hand. A touch at her cheek to inject the poison and I slowly, painstakingly rebuilt the patterns. Knitting myself to her. Creating a replacement for Nana Moira’s stone dead heart.