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Salt of the Earth

“Hush, hush.” Melia was by his side in an instant. She watched the tears flow down Nikolas’s face, knowing that the salt in them was lost. Damn Theo. He knew better than to touch Nikolas without warning.

“Oh for the love of Pete.” Theo pulled a salt candy from his pocket and held it out to his son. “Here. Want a Salti?”

The screams stopped as if a switch had been thrown. Nikolas took the Salti, and removed the paper wrapper with precise motions. He put the candy into his mouth and folded the wrapper in half, then half again and then dropped it on the floor.

“Me too, me too.” Dora called.

“Sure, Adorable.” Theo stripped the paper off one and popped it into his daughter’s mouth.

Melia picked up the wrapper, and put it in her pocket to drop in the reclaimer later. She got off the floor, feeling every joint ache with sudden weariness. “Don’t give them too many.”

Theo snorted. “You control them your way, I’ll control them mine.”

Melia opened her mouth to retort, but Nikolas stood up, abruptly, and went to stand by the door. She looked at the clock. “Time to go.”

“Well. I wouldn’t want to break his schedule.” Theo stopped by Nikolas and turned to smirk at her. “See you next week.”

* * *

Traffic in Delfie City was crawling. Scattered thunderstorms dumped heavy rain randomly, followed by brilliant blue sky. The few pedestrians had slickers pulled tightly over their saltsuits to keep the salt from washing down the gutters.

During the drive, Melia replayed every moment of the conversation with Theo a dozen times, filling in all of the I-should-have-saids with bitter rhetoric. By the time she arrived at the Seven Seas salt factory, she was ready to bite someone. The receptionist at the front desk only gave her a half smile as Melia stormed past.

Her dad looked up from the dehydrator lamp he was adjusting when she burst onto the factory floor. He raised his eyebrows. “How’s Theo?”

“He grabbed Nikolas’s hand!” Melia crossed her arms holding in the desire to hit something. “Lot’s Wife! He knows Nikolas hates to be touched.”

Sighing, her dad screwed the cover back over the lamp. “We can go back to court if you want to try for sole custody again.”

“If I thought it would do any good, I would, but he’ll just put on another show of how much he loves his children.”

“It’s good for them to spend time with their father.”

“Is it?” She glared into the shallow pan of water under the heat lamp. A mosaic of crystalline salt shimmered down the length of the pan, except under this lamp.

Her dad cleared his throat. “Feel up to a blind tasting before you leave?”


Dad was trying to distract her, and Melia was more than willing to get Theo off her mind. Her dad led her up to the tasting room and set three tiny dishes of salt in front of her.

Moistening the end of a toothpick in neutral water, she dipped it in the first plate, catching some of the crystalline grains on the end. Melia touched her tongue to the salt and closed her eyes. “Sweet, with a little bit of a caramelized quality, nuances of…tobacco?” She opened her eyes. “Pure human reclaimed?”

Her dad was grinning at her, so she must be right. “Go on. Try the next.”

She got a clean toothpick and sampled the next plate. “Oooo…this is that new salt lick in the South Valley, isn’t it? I like the traces of magnesium you’re leaving in. Very tangy.”

He was bouncing on his toes with pride at her palette. “And our final sample?”

At the first taste, Melia frowned. A bitter aftertaste clung to her tongue. “Potassium chloride. Oh, come on, Dad. Don’t tell me you’re going to start blending too.”

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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. :)