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Salt of the Earth

When the aero landed on the roof of the hospital, her dad was waiting for her by the lift, hunched over. He looked old.

Melia flung herself out of the aero and ran to him. He wrapped his arms around her, holding her close. She buried her face in his shoulder, as if he could still fix everything.

He stroked her hair. “I’m so sorry.”

Melia trembled, rejecting the reasons for his apology. There were other things he could be sorry about. He was sorry she had to come back for a false alarm. He was sorry she was upset. He was–

“Dora didn’t make it.”

He was wrong.

She had heard Dora laughing on the aero. How could a little girl who laughed like that be gone? It wasn’t possible.

He said other things to her as they rode the lift down. Melia nodded whenever he paused; his words were almost meaningless. “Salt overdose…Theo thinks the kids might have thought the supplements were Salties…Dora’s so much smaller. Her size… It would only take a spoonful.”

A long tunnel seemed to be between her and the outside. Was that what it was like for Nikolas?


“How is Nikolas?”

Her dad stopped with his mouth open. He had been speaking, but she had no memory of what he had just said. He cleared his throat. “The doctors say he’ll be fine. They were worried about brain damage, but think he’s out of the woods.”

Brain damage. As if her sweet boy didn’t have enough to cope with.

The lift opened on a lobby filled with people. It seemed as if her entire extended family was there. Theo’s grandmother sat in a corner next to Melia’s aunt. They were holding hands, with their heads bent together. Theo’s grandmother held a tearsheet under her eyes, delicately catching each tear that streamed down her face. Was she going to make a huge show of how much salt she collected for the memorial service?

The conversations stopped as people saw her. A cousin took a step forward, but Melia’s dad shook his head, waving him off. She wanted to thank him for that, but her tongue had frozen in her mouth.

He led her down the hall to a private room. Thank God her children had a room of their own.

The room was dimly lit. Her mom turned as they entered. The lines in her face seemed deeper than Melia remembered. At her side, the hospital bed seemed to swallow Nikolas.

Melia’s heart twisted. His face was puffy and slick with sweat. The sheets under him were damp. His eyes were closed. His right hand fluttered against the sheet in the pattern he made for distress.

What had happened to her son?

Theo stepped between her and Nikolas.

The tunnel protecting her shattered. All of the anger she had swallowed boiled up and over. Theo had killed her child.

She launched herself at Theo, swinging her fists wildly, beyond words. He had taken her children from her. Dora was dead. It was his fault. His fault. “What did you do to them?”

Theo tried to catch her hands. “I didn’t do anything!”

Over his shoulder she saw Nikolas. His eyes were open and he was watching them.

Melia dropped her hands.

She pushed past Theo. Nikolas looked at the ceiling when she got to the side of his bed. He hummed through his nose and his right hand beat against the bed.

She wanted to hold his hand, to brush the hair back from his forehead, but she clutched the rail on the edge of the bed so hard that her fingers ached.

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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. :)