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Salt of the Earth


He closed his eyes.

He must blame her for not protecting him.

“Melia,” Theo said, “I don’t know what happened.”

She held on to the side of the bed. She had lost it once, but she would not do that again in front of her child. Her only child. She held her breath till the possibility of sobs passed. Breathing shallowly, fighting for her voice, Melia said, “I would like some time with my son.”

She squeezed her eyes shut, like Nikolas, and listened to the murmurs around her. Theo’s mother sounded as offended as always, but his father seemed to understand. She waited until the last footstep left the room and the door closed.

Then she opened her eyes. Nikolas’s eyes were still closed, but his hand had stopped beating its rhythm on the sheets. She took that as a sign of forgiveness.

* * *

The extraction room at Seven Seas was intimate, dominated by the flushing machine. Beyond the window in the extraction room door, Melia could see the main factory floor. The workers appeared to go about their business, but she kept catching them as they looked away from her.

She turned back to Dora. The hospital had pumped Dora full of fluids as they tried to restore her electrolyte balance, leaving her skin swollen like a water balloon. Even so, her tiny body looked lost in the flushing machine.

Melia found herself wanting to look for the sweatband, which Dora must have thrown on the floor. She brushed Dora’s hair back from her forehead.

Picking up the first of the tubes she needed to flush the salt from her daughter’s body, she held the sharp metal tip of the siphon over the artery in Dora’s thigh. She had reclaimed the salt from hundreds of bodies, but her mind balked at pushing the siphon into her daughter.

Melia turned slightly so she couldn’t see Dora’s face, so that the body in the flushing machine looked like any other. She placed the needle again. And stopped. This was still wrong. She had wanted to be the one to extract her daughter’s salt; she wasn’t here to extract a stranger’s.

Looking at Dora’s face, she pushed down on the siphon. It slipped into Dora’s thigh with a slight pop. Melia watched Dora’s face for any sign of a flinch, even though she knew there would be nothing.

She picked up the flush tube. Her hands were shaking, but she pushed it into a vein in Dora’s other thigh. A little of the tension eased at the back of Melia’s throat to have that accomplished.

Her little girl was on her way back to the great salt sea where life began.

Melia turned the machine on. As the pumps began to flush Dora’s body, washing the salt from her veins and bones, Melia sank into a chair against the wall. She rocked slightly as she listened to the pump hum.

* * *

Melia’s house was too quiet. She kept feeling like Dora was just in another room, napping. She had to turn off the newsfeeds because she kept seeing Dora’s name. The media could not let go of the extravagance of her death by salt overdose.

Extravagance. In a child her size, it would only take two spoonfuls of salt to throw everything out of balance but that was most families salt budget for a month. So little and yet so much.

The morning of Dora’s memorial service, Melia poked her head into the kitchen to tell Nikolas’s sitter that she was leaving. His plate was on the table, with the vegetables cut exactly the way he liked them, but the room was empty.

Wrong. Something was wrong when he broke his routine. She called him, knowing he wouldn’t answer, but hoping.

“He’s up here, ma’am.”

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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. :)