A Mysterious Woman Has Unspoken Secrets In This Excerpt From A Sweet Sting of Salt

Books Features Rose Sutherland
A Mysterious Woman Has Unspoken Secrets In This Excerpt From A Sweet Sting of Salt

Retellings are all the rage in publishing at the moment, but most of them tend to revolve around familiar stories: Greek myths, popular fairytales, or novels we all had to read in high school. So it’s always exciting to see an author embracing the unexpected in terms of the source materials that inform their stories. And such is the case with Rose Sutherland’s atmospheric A Sweet Sting of Salt, which takes its inspiration from the Scottish folktale “The Selkie Wife,” but gives the story a decidedly queer twist. 

Set in 1830s coastal Nova Scotia, the story follows Jean, a young spinster and midwife who discovers a woman in labor one dark and stormy night. The woman turns out to be the new wife of a neighboring fisherman and as the pair grow closer, her unhappiness in that situation becomes increasingly evident. (And if you know anything at all about folklore involving selkies, you’ve already guessed where this story is going, but Sutherland undoubtedly offers plenty of surprises along the way.) 

Here’s how the publisher describes the story. 

When a sharp cry wakes Jean in the middle of the night during a terrible tempest, she’s convinced it must have been a dream. But when the cry comes again, Jean ventures outside and is shocked by what she discovers—a young woman in labor, already drenched to the bone in the freezing cold and barely able to speak a word of English.

Although Jean is the only midwife in the village and for miles around, she’s at a loss as to who this woman is or where she’s from; Jean can only assume she must be the new wife of the neighbor up the road, Tobias. And when Tobias does indeed arrive at her cabin in search of his wife, Muirin, Jean’s questions continue to grow. Why has he kept his wife’s pregnancy a secret? And why does Muirin’s open demeanor change completely the moment she’s in his presence?

Though Jean learned long ago that she should stay out of other people’s business, her growing concern—and growing feelings—for Muirin mean she can’t simply set her worries aside. But when the answers she finds are more harrowing than she ever could have imagined, she fears she may have endangered herself, Muirin, and the baby. Will she be able to put things right and save the woman she loves before it’s too late, or will someone have to pay for Jean’s actions with their life?

A Sweet Sting of Salt will hit shelves on April 9, but we’ve got an exclusive first look at the story for you right now. 

Jean perched on the edge of the bed and studied her toes, debating whether she should take off her socks. It had gotten every bit as chilly as she’d feared, the wind howling down from out of the Northeast.

When Jo Keddy had still lived in town and they’d still been friends, Jean had stayed over with her family sometimes. They’d shared Jo’s bed and Jean would leave her socks off on purpose, to press her icy toes to Jo’s in the dark and hear her squeal and giggle, and then Jo would catch Jean’s feet between her own to warm them up. The memory opened up a hollow between Jean’s shoulders, where her spine ought to be, as empty and cold as the hours after midnight.

Josephine Keddy was married to Victor Gaudry these four years past and had moved clear across the colony, closer to his people in French Acadia. Jo didn’t even speak French. Still, she’d not gone against her family, not fought the marriage, not fought for Jean.

Not that Jean had fought any of it, either, though God knew what she could have done to stop it. That was the biggest shame of it all—that she’d not even tried when Jo had needed her. Jean’s throat tightened painfully, and she shoved her feet down under the covers and the memory away, curling on her side in a tight little ball. There was no one outside the house, no one calling for help, and she should stop letting her mind run away with her or next she’d be imagining ghosts drawn by her own loose tongue, just as Ida Mae had warned her; the drowned captain of the Teazer come ashore from off his flaming ship.

Flame.

She’d left the lantern burning on the table. She cursed. Oil was expensive, and even turned low she couldn’t afford to leave it to sit and burn the whole night away. Jean sighed and slid her feet back out from the covers, dropping them onto the plank floor.

A cry from outside caught her halfway between sitting and standing. It was unmistakable, sharp, and real, not a dream at all. There was someone out there, and something was wrong to have brought them here now, in the night, in a storm. Jean grabbed up the lantern, raising the flame she was now thankful for, and went to open the door, a blast of wind and icy rain stealing her breath away and whipping her hair across her face. She squinted into the dark, straining her eyes to make out anything in the darkness beyond the circle of lamplight as she stepped out into the yard.

Blackness. Slowly she turned, her eyes adjusting, the chill wind flattening her shift against her body. A darker black behind the house, the trees. The woodshed’s bulk at the corner of the wall, the chicken coop, the goat shed there. A pale spot, blue-white and rippling at the edge of the marsh, its presence spectral, unearthly.

Jean’s scalp prickled, and she froze; the breath turned solid in her lungs. An icy trickle of water ran down the back of her neck. She was going to be murdered by ghostly privateers. She was mad to have come out of the house at all at this hour, by herself. Laurie was right; the last time he’d visited Anneke he said that Jean ought to have a rifle, out here all alone. Although, if it was a ghost—

The white thing in the darkness contracted in on itself, and carried on the back of the wind came a moan. A moan that was altogether human, full of pain and despair. Jean’s heart started beating again, and she pressed forward into the teeth of the wind and rain, suddenly sure—at least in part—of what she would find.

It was a woman, shaking and sodden, clad in nothing but a wet nightgown. No shoes on her bare feet, which were sunk ankle-deep into the thick mud at the edge of the marsh pond. Another step and she’d have been in the water. The woman was hunched over so that Jean could make out nothing more of her, save that she had long dark hair. She was in danger of catching her death out in a storm like this.

“What on earth—?” said Jean, breathless. She caught at the woman’s arm to pull her toward the house.

The woman straightened with a yelp, jerking her arm back and nearly toppling over.

“No, come, get inside—” Jean reached out to steady her, and the stranger’s eyes widened and sparked, a short breath puffing out of her mouth, still ajar. The woman grabbed at Jean’s wrist, tugging her toward the marsh pond, dark eyes pleading in her pale face. She was much taller than Jean, and heavier, too, strong and solid. Jean’s heels dug into the soft earth as she resisted, try- ing to keep her footing in the wet grass. Tugging Jean’s wrist again, the woman pointed off into the night, first to the pond and then away over the road toward the sea, as she began to speak in hushed tones, rapid and urgent.

Jean couldn’t understand a thing. The woman’s words were strange, liquid, rolling things that growled in her throat before being whipped away by the wind that flapped her thin nightdress around her like a bit of loose sail. They cut off abruptly as she doubled over again, moaning and hugging her round, taut belly. Her legs nearly buckled beneath her, but Jean had her now, one arm tight around the woman’s waist to keep her on her feet.

Jean drew her away from the marsh, across the yard, and into the house, not allowing for any refusal. She held firm even as the stranger cried bitter tears, pleading brokenly for God only knew what in her strange language. Jean still didn’t know what the woman was trying to tell her, but this this she knew. She had to act quickly. Understanding could wait; the baby would not.

Excerpted from A SWEET STING OF SALT by Rose Sutherland. Copyright © 2024 by Rose Sutherland. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

 A Sweet Sting of Salt will be released on April 9, but you can preorder it right now. 


Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB

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