The wood was old and crumbling, as if nibbled by a ravenous grief. The staircase threatened to collapse, and half the window panes were missing. The tower existed for the widows of the sea, and by their will alone it lasted.
The widows came from scattered points along a compass. They came wearing saris or cambric or britches, with the lingering scents of anise, or whale’s oil, or peat. They came with a gritty rime of salt, and they carried their dead husbands’ hearts, misshapen lumps of crystal and ore.
Sybil arrived later than most.
At the general store, the clerk pointed. “Down the road. Can’t miss it. How long you been a widow?” He was making conversation, building up a sympathy. “Twenty years, about,” she answered, picking flour from her nails. “So long?” he said, “Must be a record, that. Most come right away.” Sybil nodded, and cinnamon fell from her hair, sugar crystals from her eyelashes. She imagined a whisk or spoon in her hand, like a trapeze pole of steadiness.
For company, all along the rutted path, she invented a recipe for periwinkle sauce. It was how she had won him, after all, long ago, with frothy meringue and glazed lemon tarts and chocolate spun as fine as lace. She was still in the glow of her victory, a wife for only a year, when the Asphodel returned without him. For a decade, every souffle she baked was as heavy as a waterlogged cask.
At the tower, the bird on the weathervane shook itself loose. “You’re late,” it croaked in a cast-iron voice.
“I was trying to tempt him back.”
The bird cocked its head, “And now?”
“The dead,” she answered, “they have no appetite.”
“A shame,” the bird replied, and Sybil only nodded.
The hearts were strewn across the floor, in the full light of the windows. They were malachite and jade, quartz and marble, ruby and obsidian, all polished to the sheen of mourning. “I thought there would be more,” she said. “Think of all the drowned.”
“Their weight would crush the world,” said the bird, “I siphon it off, a heart at a time. There’s always a gap in the clouds above me.”
Sybil reached into an apron pocket flaked with pastry dough. Her husband’s heart was honey-colored amber. She set it on the pile of stones. “Where do you take them?” The bird lifted first one foot and then the other, clicked its beak and blinked. “Away,” was all he said.
She looked out along a length of waves, the widow’s squint against sea and sun. By the time the stars came out, the bird had disappeared. “A whiskey cake,” she murmured, on her way back into town, “with bittersweet chocolate, coffee, and almonds.” She thought she heard the call of a crow in the distance, and she caught a trace of absinthe, as swift and fleeting as a minnow beating back the tides.
Learn more about Wing-Feather Fables here.