The Salt Letters

The Salt Letters

by Christine Balint

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The Salt Letters by Christine Balint

The sensuous evocation of a young woman's sea journey from refined England to the wilds of Australia. It is 1854, and with the certainty of land behind her, Sarah flees her home for the uncertainties of life in the new colony. In steerage, she joins the other unmarried women, where the horrors of their close confinement bring an unraveling of secrets no one can control. Sarah endures, longing for her mother's forgiveness and the sweetness of her cousin Richard's breath. As she draws closer to her new land, she becomes increasingly haunted by her own tale and the letter home she cannot write. Moving between the voyage in which pigs run through flooded living quarters to the hallucinatory visions induced by heat and doldrums, Christine Balint's astonishing debut novel brings us close to a time when the world was still a place to be discovered. Shortlisted for the Vogel Literary Award.

Author Biography: Christine Balint, born in Melbourne in 1975, teaches writing at the Victorian College of the Arts. Her work has appeared in Australian Short Stories.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781865081489
Publisher: Allen & Unwin Pty., Limited
Publication date: 01/01/1999
Pages: 204
Product dimensions: 5.28(w) x 7.72(h) x 0.59(d)

About the Author

Christine Balintis the author of the highly praised The Salt Letters. She was born in 1975 in Melbourne, Australia, and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Melbourne.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Our beds are made on two raised platforms, oneabove the other, two feet apart. Lying side by side there aretwo to a bed. Even so, only a thin slat of wood separateseach pair from the other girls. Our toes point towards thedining table at the centre of our mess. I share my bed onthe bottom bunk with Annie. We have a Donkey BreakfastMattress, which scratches like dry grass. It is brownand smells like dust. It is not soft and swollen like the oneI had at home, but thin and worn as though rubbed bareby too many bodies.

    Some people on board say our mattresses are filled withthe clothes of drowned women. The stuffing gathers inlumps in the corners. When I woke last night to findAnnie wrapped in our sheet, it was only the coarsenessbeneath my nightdress that reminded me I had anypadding at all. At night the hatchway door is locked. Anoil lamp smokes the wood of our berths.

    Annie is thin and pale with long arms and legs. Hergreasy hair reaches her waist. Her breath smells like castoroil and she presses her lips tightly together as though shehas swallowed something bitter. Or to stop her secretsspilling forth. Annie sucks my air and breathes emptywords into the darkness. She reminds me of an octopus:her tentacles tangle around my neck and wrists. These lasttwo days I have not seen Annie smile and she rarely speaksto anyone.

I am violently awoken during the night, landing on thefloorboards at the foot of my bed. My head swells withthought just as the boards swell with moisture. Perhaps ifI were to lie on my stomach with my right hand underneaththe mattress, I could prevent beingflung into theair and bruising my skin on the beds above. When I climbback into bed, Annie and I are tossed together like lamb'sfry. Had I known it would be like this, I may not havecome.

    For two mornings I have woken to find Annie sittingnext to me, clasping her knees to her chest, rocking evenmore than the vessel would make her. Her face musclestwitch and her skin is light green.

    'We are still in England,' she moans. It is true. And Ican feel the anchor beneath us, holding the vessel backwhen she would move. Yet we rock enough to find nopeace even in sleep. We have all been weakened before ourjourney may begin.

    It is possible that I am being granted time as a test ofstrength. I imagine waiting until the sighs of sleep fill theair around me, and hobbling barefoot to the cabin at theend where Matron sleeps. The light from the lamp abovethe hatchway would allow me to find my way. I would becareful not to fall too heavily against oak as the rockingvessel tried to toss me to the boards. I would feel Matron'spetticoats for the key, swing about in alarm to hear hersnort. Then the silver key around her neck would catch myeye. I am sure she sleeps heavily. Fat folds of skin underher chin and on her bosom anchor her to the world ofdreams. She would not notice my fingers slipping the cordfrom around her neck.

    This key would be the key to my escape. I would tiptoeto the hatchway and unlock the door, which flaps loudlyeven when fastened. The creaking would make no morenoise than the creaking of the ropes, which has become ourlullaby. The blackness of the sky, the salty air and thespecks of starlight would grant me strength. On the deck Iwould bound towards the lights of Birkenhead, relishingthe uncluttered space. I would fling the metal key into thebay and watch it disappear into the inky ocean. Then Iwould dive overboard. I know the sea would be cold andrough, and that my nightdress would tangle around mylegs. But my arms would pull me towards the certainty ofland.

    Alone among the immigrants, we unmarried women arelocked deep in the ship. We are in the rear section belowthe cabins; my mess is next to the married people's accommodation.I breathe faint lavender through the cracks inthe wall, my ears ache with the sounds of people. I hearshort sharp gasps of breath and airless giggling. The airhas known us all intimately and is tired. It is as trappedwithin us as we are below the deck.

    Each mess of girls has been assigned a constable. Theconstable is a married man whose job is to take food to thegalleys to be cooked after it has been prepared by the captainof the mess. When the food has been cooked, theconstable brings it back. Apart from our constable, MrGreenwood, we will not see a man for days at a time.

    Already I feel as though there is nowhere for me to go. Ihave no standing room to speak of and even my half-bed isconstantly impinged upon. The berths are scattered withuntidy articles of clothing and cooking implements. Sincewe have no drawers or cupboards there is nowhere to hideour belongings in pretence of tidiness. Our clothing formsirregular mounds in the canvas bags hanging from thebedposts.

    Today we lie on our beds and stare up at the rough greypaint. Some of us gossip to each other when our stomachsallow speech. Others try to sing. I hear children runningup and down the 'tween decks, chasing each other andmaking the boards tremble. A small boy peers into theunmarried women's accommodation as if to discover whywe are so quiet when everywhere else is movement andnoise. My mind has nowhere to rest.

    They say we are awaiting the arrival of the captain. Weare all curious to see who will guide us into the NewWorld. We want to know how many times he has travelledthere and returned. He alone will have the knowledge ofwhat is there. But we worry that he will become mesmerisedby the sea and will lose his sense of direction.That we shall be slashed to pieces and stripped of all thatwe possess by cannibals in Africa. We dare not speak of thewild men of the New World.

* * *

Grandfather Fryer was a ship's captain. He likedto talk about currents, and said that they were determinedby the temperature of the sea. He talked about a river ofcold water flowing between layers of warm. The warmwater was like veins for the cold sea blood. The oceansruled the air.

    It was said he had an internal compass that allowed himto navigate a vessel even in the most treacherous of conditions.He could be blindfolded, Mother said, and couldstill steer a ship away from sharp rocks. Grandfather Fryersaid that at some points the ocean was so deep that its bottomcould not be discovered. In fact, he said, we cannoteven be sure that there is a bottom. The water may reachthe centre of the earth. The deeper the colour, the higherthe quantity of salt.

    Grandfather Fryer spent some years at the salt works inFrance. He said that just before crystallisation the waterturned crimson.

    Grandmother Fryer was fond of sailors; she said theyhad the inconsistency of the ocean running through theirveins. She was excited by their ripples. She relished thesmell of salt on their skin and in their hair. WheneverGrandfather Fryer's vessel returned, Grandmother Fryerinvited his sailors to stay. In the evenings they woulddrink gin and sing sea shanties while Captain Fryer read inhis library.

* * *

It is the third day and the cabin passengers have begunarriving. We hear their boots on the deck above our heads;gentlemen complaining over the lack of private room inwhich to wander and contemplate; women annoyed thatthey shall not be permitted access to their trunks until amonth after departure. They do not appreciate that theyhave three days fewer to endure the swelling and droppingof the ocean. The cabin passengers arrive on little rowingboats. We hear small groups of musicians playing 'RuleBritannia'. It is as though they believe that if the music isloud enough, Britain will even be able to rule over theocean.

    We lie on our hard beds, in heavy contemplation of themonths before us. I cannot believe I will survive the conditionsof the voyage: the damp darkness below deck, thestagnant, rotting air. The preserved cabbage. People quarrellingover provisions. The constant noise: the groaningfrom the married people's accommodation, the childrensquealing and wreaking havoc on board, the sobbing andheaving of the other unmarried women. There is nothingto be of comfort.

    As the afternoon begins to cool, we hear excited chatterbut few words. A woman is weeping, a child screams. Peoplebelow deck begin to mutter.

    'The captain wishes to speak,' a man somewhere in themarried people's accommodation says quickly, whilewomen snap at their children that it is time to climb thehatchway stairs. My head sways as I try to stand. I wonder,suddenly, if there is a problem with the vessel and if wewill be required to alight immediately to prevent drowning.Or if perhaps there is a criminal amongst us whoseidentity must be discovered before we are to leave England.It is possible that there are too many passengers onboard and some of us must remain behind.

    The matron, her eyes twitching behind her spectacles,begins to walk towards the hatchway. One of the girlsmoves from her bed and makes as though to follow her.

    'Remain in your berth!' Matron orders. 'All that thecaptain wishes to say is not for your ears.'

    Silence billows and drifts until it fills all the spacebelow the poop. The unmarried women lie on their beds,some sniffing quietly and others trying to muffle theirretching with handkerchiefs. As soon as Matron disappearsfrom view, girls begin to whisper.

    'Something is wrong!'

    'We shall die of consumption!'

    'We are all to be put in chains!'

    The words of the captain, the ship's husband, streamthrough the flapping hatchway door and float in the staleair. Boards creak under the weight of boots. But words areswallowed by shrieking winds and the waves beating thevessel. Feet thump towards the sea and a man's voiceshouts, 'I cannot!'

    There is a muffled cry of 'Hurrah!' and the vessellurches forward. She is free of Old England.

Now the water is still closer. Even in steerage where wecannot see the ocean, salt water foams and trickles downfrom the deck. A small ocean splashes tiny waves againstour ankles and splatters our stockings. We try to mop thesalt water from the boards before it seeps its way into ourbelongings; we dread that it will poison our treacle andstain our dresses with green mould.

    Although it is only late afternoon, Matron has agreedthat we may go to bed without supper if we wish. Evenshe is pale. I wonder if she has given us permission to restso as to relieve herself of responsibility for our wellbeingand our whereabouts. It is certainly easier to endure themovement lying down. If I grip my arms around mystomach I can almost forget the muddy tea from lunchtime,burning the inside of my belly as it rises slowlyupwards.

    I try to talk to Annie. It is usual to converse, albeitbriefly, with one's bedfellow before sleep. I ask whether herparents were distressed when she boarded to leave England.For some time she does not speak. She stares sullenlyat the boards above our bed. I hold my breath and wonderif she will answer.

    When she opens her mouth, the words are barely audible.'Everyone was glad to see me go,' she murmurs.

    'Do you know people in New Holland?'

    'My brother ...'

    As I lie under my blankets, the creaking ropes echo inmy head and already I wonder if we shall ever arrive. I hearthe dregs of the sea washing in through the water closets.The ocean on our floorboards, even when it is fresh, is notblue but the colour of mud. It laps a quiet echo of thegrand ocean beneath the vessel. Perhaps the water willcleanse the boards, ridding us of some of the dirt that findsits way into our quarters. I fear that soon steerage will fillwith gushing water. With no one awake to keep an eye onthe tiny sea, and only the faint light from the oil lampabove the hatchway, the ocean on the boards will rise untilwe are swimming in our beds. By then it will be too lateto mop. We will have to wait while the vessel sinks andthe water rises, lifting us upwards. There will be time tobe afraid and time to pray. Finally we will float with barelyenough space for our heads between the rising tide and thedeck. Afterwards people will claim that the unmarriedwomen sank the vessel.

    The icy breeze wafts down cracks in the hatchway doorand freezes my toes. There is a quiet time this evening,just after we have settled in for the night, when our stomachscease heaving. But the illness remains within me,rocking from one side of my stomach to the other with thewaves. The lamp near the hatchway is lit and flickers violentlyin the cold air. It gives off the faint odour of smoke,which, if I concentrate, can remind me of winter eveningsin Father's library.

    At night I long to go back there. A place ticking to theregular rhythms of the mantel clock. Where time is rigidand stories are captured in crisp leather-bound pages.Where nothing is foreign except perhaps the chess setWilliam brought back from Edinburgh.

     For all its peacefulness, the library held the sour, dustysmell of death. Polly once told me that dust was formedfrom the skin of dead people.

    Everything on board the ship is alive. Death is thrownto the sharks.

* * *

Grandmother Fryer smelled of fish. She saltedthe air around her so that, during the summer, she wastrailed by flies. People would wrinkle their noses as shewalked past, and wonder whether it was possible that sucha foul smell could emanate from the gentle old womanwearing the blue bonnet. It was said that GrandmotherFryer's diet consisted entirely of seafood. Mother frownedas she told me that my grandmother ate herrings forbreakfast, mackerel for lunch and a baked cod or an occasionalhaddock for her evening meal. Her skin took on asilver shine and in her dreams she walked on the seabed.She used to suck the eyeballs of fish until they dissolved inher mouth. A friend of Captain Fryer's, who was a medicaldoctor, took a great interest in her and began to conductsecret experiments. It was said that she had developed theability to breathe under water.

* * *

There is a kind of madness in perpetual movement. Itis never long before my mind begins to wander and I amdistracted by all that surrounds me. I can do no more thanbegin letters to my mother. None of us are ever still andwe can rarely walk two steps without being thrown fromone end of our berth to another. I can control my directionno better than the boots I leave under my bed in theevening only to spend the following morning scouring themuddy boards to find them again. When my eyes areclosed, the movement frequently makes me dizzy and ill.It is impossible to forget I am here.

    The pitch of the sea becomes deeper as we move furtherfrom home. I sense the depth of the ocean by the depth ofher voice. Now it is not a regular and steady slappingagainst the sides of the vessel, but a number of differentvoices constantly interrupting each other, whispering.During the night I make out words. I can almost ascertainthe pitch of my name as the ocean sighs, 'Sarah. Sarah.Sarah.'

    When the sea is particularly rough, our illness, in all itscolours and textures, is washed into a colourful fluid thatsloshes from one end of the vessel to the other. I have hadto convince myself that it is specks of sea life and not softenedhusks of oatmeal or half-digested peas that haveflowed from the mouths of my fellow passengers.

This morning Mrs Dawson's infant was scalded to deathwhen a large wave hit as his mother was carrying a teapot.Doctor Carpenter said that this would be the first of manydeaths on the voyage. He shook his head and said weshould be grateful for our good health.

    The first service was read by the schoolmaster. The childwas wrapped in a canvas bag with a cannonball to make itsink. His body slid down a wooden plank into the sea.

The tiny ocean on the boards has many objects floatingupon it. Pocket handkerchiefs sink to its grimy ocean bed.Tin cups are tossed and flung against each other. I haveeven spotted a small jar containing a letter that was probablyintended to float all the way to the single men'saccommodation.

    My belongings make miniature voyages all of their ownthat I can only imagine and something has begun takingsmall bites from my skin. I have been dreaming aboutbeing stung by giant insects. And, indeed, I awake to findmy arms covered in tooth marks.

    It seems as though I am on an ark. On the quarterdeckthere are three wooden sheds. One of them houses a cowwho must provide milk for all the passengers. I have heardthat Bessie has not yet discovered her sea legs and thatthere is fear she will not survive even the first half of thejourney. She groans so loudly that if it were not for the factthat she must provide milk, I am sure she would becomefood for the captain's table. The smallest shed houses twopigs who have no room to do anything other than slurp upthe remnants of our food. The tallest shed contains a mare.She has smooth round flanks and a matted mane. Shethumps the floor of her shed with strong hooves and likesto peer over the top of her gate. The inside of her shed iswalled with the skin of other horses, stuffed to appear asthough heavy with life. They are intended to providepadding during the sudden lurches of the vessel and tosupply company during the tribulations of the voyage.However, I am sure that the mare does not find comfort inthe fur of dead horses.

    There is a man on board known as 'Keeper' whose taskis to feed the animals and muck out their byres. Keeper isalso a clown. He delights in giving freedom to the pigs,and this afternoon he allowed them to roam freely insteerage for hours before any of the other passengers orcrew discovered that the animals were missing from theirshed. It was of some concern to the cabin passengers whenthe animals were gone only because they feared that theyhad been deprived of a hearty meal in which everyone elseof importance had taken part.

    Keeper also hands out rations to the immigrants, butsince our rations are not given directly to us but to ourconstable, I have never met him. I imagine him to besmall, thin and boyish in appearance. He must have theability to move deftly and at great speed in order to releasethe pigs into steerage without Captain Coughin noticing.

    It seems to have befallen the unmarried women to keepthe animals from mischief. Mother would be horrified tolearn that her daughter is sharing living quarters with apig. Yet I am growing accustomed to her company. Sincewe left Portsmouth she has been well fed on the nourishmentwe are offered but remain unable to stomach. Thereis no comfort in food. The pork is so salted that she probablyremains unaware of her cannibalism.

    She is dusty pink with a small triangle of thin fleshmissing from her left ear. The pig has been followingEliza, who is captain of the mess. She snuffles at Eliza'sankles before lifting her head to the sound of blunt knivessawing soft vegetables, as though expecting food to bethrown to her. The pig pushes her snout under a differentgirl's bed each evening she is in steerage. She likes to sleepin complete darkness but only her head will fit into thespace at the foot of the bed. She is grateful for mud. Wemust all be careful during the night that we do not tripover her. Early in the morning she wakes and explores theberths while they are empty of life. She leaves long darklumps of the most potent odour on the boards. Eliza hasspent a number of hours trying to train the pig to relieveherself away from the beds, beneath the hatchway stairs.When we laughed at Eliza's earnest discussion, she glared.The pig was listening, she said.

    'Can't you see her ears twitch? We must try to train heror we shall all be wallowing in filth for months.'

    The pig, unlike the rest of us, wanders freely in steerage.If Eliza could train her to speak she would have manystories to tell. She would know from the different smells inthe married people's accommodation and in the men'saccommodation what they were eating. She would knowhow they pass the time and what they talk about.

The other pig has now been slaughtered for the saloontable. Quite a game the men thought it was. That was theonly time they have been free to enter the unmarriedwomen's accommodation, though Matron kept a verystrict eye. Sly Bill came bustling through behind thetable, just as Annie was removing her stockings. Anniesquealed almost as loudly as the pig did, fearing for its lifeand ramming its head against the splintered leg of ourdining table.

    Sly Bill did not wait until they had removed the pigfrom our quarters before pulling out his knife and slashingthe thick flesh around its neck. The pig continued tosqueal until it was almost beheaded; a number of girlsscreamed and clutched each other. Hot blood flowed fromthe wound and ran in rivers down its flanks. The pig collapsedin a crimson puddle while steam rose to cling to ourskin. Matron tried to shout, but it was several minutesbefore she was heard.

    'William Green, this is not a slaughterhouse. You arenever, never again to kill an animal in the unmarriedwomen's accommodation. Now, take the creature away andclean up the mess.'

    For days an orange-coloured ocean lapped at our feet.Every unmarried woman wore a dress rimmed with brown,her stockings splattered. All clothing beneath our anklesbecame tainted with blood and we learned to walk withclamped jaws in an attempt not to succumb to our disgust.

    I am growing very fond of the remaining pig and havecome to look out for her. I am aware, almost constantly, ofwhether she is in steerage or in her shed on the quarterdeck.


Excerpted from The Salt Letters by Christine Balint. Copyright © 1999 by Christine Balint. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


By Michael Lind


Copyright © 1997 Michael Lind. All rights reserved.

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