Wing-Feather Fables: Hearts of the Drowned

widow's walk, flash fiction

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.

~ Photo by Brenda Gottsabend; Story by Lisa Ahn

Learn more about Wing-Feather Fables here.

17 thoughts on “Wing-Feather Fables: Hearts of the Drowned

  1. Pingback: Wing-Feather Fable: Hearts of the Drowned | How to Feather an Empty Nest

  2. I want to hug you each time I read one of your stories. They transport me, give me butterflies and I find myself lost within them. The only bad thing is when they come to an end. You have such an incredible gift, truly magical.

    • Thank you so much! I am always inspired by Brenda’s photos and I have a lot of fun writing the fables.

  3. You express your imagination so clearly even though your mind is still veiled in a post-concussion fog! The imagery and story can be seen vividly in both my mind and my heart. You truly are a fantastic writer and story-teller!

    • Thanks, my love. You probably know better than anyone what a struggle writing is for me now. I complain enough . . .

  4. So beautiful. And in light of the previous comment, awe inspiring. I hope you’re feeling better soon. I’m loving these fables.

    • Thank you so much for reading and commenting. Writing is a struggle lately, but the fables are still a joy for me.

  5. I have a love affair with the sea, having spent every summer of my youth in its thrall. With that said, we were raised with a strong sense of respect for not only its beauty, but its destructive qualities. I’ve always known that the sea could give and could just as easily take away. The image found at the link above (,550×550,075,f.marine-memorial-at-hampton-beach.jpg) really typifies that duality for me. I came to know this statue during my adult life and it birthed my moderate obsession with photographing sculpture because of it’s heartbreaking tableau- a lone woman looking out to sea and remembering the loved one she’s lost. It levels me whenever I see it and your story swept me instantly to its base. Well done!

  6. Hi Brenda and Lisa,
    Wow, you two make a powerful creative duo! I love how Brenda inspires you (and us!) with such stunning photos, Lisa, and subsequently how you creatively rise above the physical challenges you deal with, and still consistently produce such imaginative and well-crafted stories.

  7. For me, this brings home the truth that grief is not on any timeline. Those who say you should be over your grieving after a month, or a year. Here, I see a woman grieving for twenty years. Or maybe hoping, and sometimes grief and hope feel the same. So glad I found this site. I’ve missed fables.

    • Hi Lisa — nice to meet you here. I think grief creeps in to a lot of what I write, but I’ve never thought about the connection between grief and hope before. I think you’re right about the connection between them. Maybe the “snap” of letting go releases them both, and send hope in a new direction. You’ve given me a lot to think about. Thank you!

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