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Salt of the Earth

Melia adjusted Dora’s salt-suit, feeling as if it were futile because the two-year old would have the sweatband off her head the instant Melia’s back was turned. She caught her daughter’s hand reaching for the soft, green mesh. “No. You have to leave that on.”

Dora twisted away from Melia and pulled the sweatband off. “No.” She threw it on the ground and reached for the high thin turtleneck that caught the sweat from her face.

Melia’s ex-husband, Theo, leaned against the doorway, waiting to take the children to his house. “Just let her leave it off.”

“Daddy!” Dora toddled to her father with her arms raised.

Theo scooped Dora up, ignoring Nikolas, who seemed oblivious as he rocked in place, staring at a sunbeam on the wall.

Melia’s smile felt tight. “We don’t waste salt.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Melia watched Theo while she checked Nikolas’s saltsuit. Even though he was six, he sometimes took his cues from his little sister. His light mesh suit still covered him from chin to toe, ready to retain any salt if he sweated in the warm New Gaean sun.

Theo tickled Dora into a trill of laughter. “You’ve got enough salt to spare.”

Melia picked the sweatband off the floor. “Because we don’t waste it.” She settled the band on Dora’s head.

Theo bounced Dora on his hip. “You don’t want to wear that do you, A-Dora-ble?”

“No!”

They had never agreed on disciplining the children. It was as if Theo took a perverse pleasure in watching Melia undo the damage he caused. Given a choice, she wouldn’t let him take either child, but it was his week for custody. “We reclaim our salt, just like everybody else on New Gaea.”

“But you’ve got plenty in the Salt Baron’s storehouse.”

Melia held her breath, biting down on the words she wanted to shout. Dad’s salt money had supported Theo for years. Her great-great grandfather’s luck in discovering a salt deposit on this sodium-poor planet had started her family’s fortune, but they retained that money because they weren’t wasteful. She let her breath out slowly. The only way to end an argument with Theo was to relent, to let him think he had won. “Please. It’s important to me.”

He smiled at her over Dora’s head. “I’ll remember that.”

Melia turned from his mocking face and knelt in front of Nikolas, inserting herself into her son’s line of sight. “Nikolas? It’s time to go with Daddy.” She looked for a sign of life behind her son’s eyes. “Nikolas?” The rocking slowed a little.

Theo said, “Just leave him. He won’t even notice when I’m gone.”

Melia bit the inside of her lip. Theo had never been able to deal with Nikolas’s autism. “If you want me to contact my attorney, I’ll be more than happy to make that a permanent arrangement.”

“I bet you’ll like that.” He shifted Dora to his other hip. “Just get him ready.”

It was probably just as well. She had spent most of the last year getting Nikolas adjusted to the new schedule; he knew that every seventh day he switched between his parents’ houses. Breaking the routine now would upset him. “Nikolas. It’s time to go.”

His eyes flicked to the clock and then back to the dustmotes in the sunbeam. He shook his head once, and then began rocking again.

Melia looked over her shoulder at the clock and sighed. They still had three minutes before the scheduled time.

“For Pete’s sake.” Theo strode over, still holding Dora. “Nick. Let’s go. Now.”

“Just give him a minute.”

“I don’t have time for this.”

Melia pressed her fingers between her eyebrows, as if that would stop her impending headache. “Please.”

“Then let’s go.” He reached down and took Nikolas’s hand.

Nikolas screamed as if the world were ending. He pulled away from Theo, leaning back with his whole body. Theo let go of his hand and Nikolas dropped to the floor, still screaming.

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8 comments

1 Redstone Science Fiction #4, September 2010 | Redstone Science Fiction { 09.01.10 at 7:16 am }

[...] Salt of the Earth by Mary Robinette [...]

2 Tweets that mention Salt of the Earth | Redstone Science Fiction -- Topsy.com { 09.01.10 at 1:24 pm }

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by SF&FWritersOfAm., Mary Robinette Kowal, Michelle Anderson, Caren Gussoff, John McCarthy and others. John McCarthy said: RT @MaryRobinette: You can read my short story SALT OF THE EARTH at Redstone SF today. http://is.gd/ePHlf [...]

3 Pete Wood { 09.01.10 at 2:56 pm }

Wow. This is the kind of story I like. Great characters acting like real people with a SF backdrop. Some people have the SF first and the characters second which I think misses the point. The story got me thinking. It is almost the flip side of Dune. I found the treatment of salt very possible given the constraints of the world of the story. And, salt has often been in short supply here on good old Earth. There were salt riots in the South during the Civil War. Overall, a great read!

4 Sunil { 09.01.10 at 3:37 pm }

Salt! An inventive premise, and I like the sort of funny/creepy image of everyone at the memorial service crying into tearsheets.

5 Sam M-B { 09.01.10 at 7:39 pm }

I agree with Pete, though I’m going to nitpick only a very little on a story I really enjoyed. As a parent, definitely some heartstring pulling, but the mother’s reaction overall didn’t quite sit with me. There was a little anger there, but not the rage I’ve had over tinier things (HOW COULD YOU LEAVE THE WINDEX OUT WHERE THE KIDS COULD GET IT OH MY GOD). What was particularly missing to me was the grief; losing a child in such a horrific, stupid, pointless way… I don’t know how, even with another child to think of, the mother was able to put herself together so quickly and carry on.

Still, the world built here held together quite well and the bits and pieces interlocked in a very satisfying way. Particularly poignant was the depiction of the mother’s (and father’s) relationships with the autistic older son.

(The hardest disbelief to suspend was that, on a world where salt was so scarce that it was reclaimed from human sweat, salt was used as a child’s treat. But this was redeemed in the way it foreshadowed what was to come. )

I do love two of the little details: 1. the title! 2. cursing with “Lot’s Wife!” was, simply, awesome.

6 Pete Wood { 09.02.10 at 11:04 am }

Good points. I guess I figured that Mom was in a depressed stupor and that is why she didn’t express the rage and grief. I thought Mom came from a rich family and that maybe they could afford expensive salt treats.

7 Editor’s Note – September 2010 | Redstone Science Fiction { 09.02.10 at 1:36 pm }

[...] main fiction this month is an excellent story, “Salt of the Earth” by Mary Robinette Kowal. She won the 2008 Campbell Award for Best New Writer and has been a [...]

8 Merc { 09.12.10 at 11:36 am }

I really enjoyed that one–especially the end. (Also love how “Lot’s Wife!” is a curse–that’s so perfect!) Thanks for the fun read. :)