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Salt of the Earth

Following the sitter’s voice to the front door, Melia found Nikolas, rocking slightly. The sitter stood beside him, shifting uncomfortably, so she seemed to rock with Nikolas.

Melia took a breath to brace herself for the fireworks that would go off about the break in his routine. This was not the right time of day for her to be leaving the house. This was his lunch time.

The sitter said, “I’m sorry, ma’am, I know we should be having lunch, but he won’t come.”

Melia crouched next to Nikolas. “Do you need something?”

He turned his face slightly closer to her, but still didn’t meet her gaze. His right hand fluttered in his distressed rhythm. He licked his lips before whispering, “Dora.”

Melia waited a moment to see if he would say anything else, then asked, “Do you want to go to her memorial service with me?” She had not been sure that he understood or even noticed that Dora was gone.

Nikolas jerked his head once in a quick nod, still looking sideways at the wall.

“All right, then.”

She led him down to the garage, keeping a careful distance from him. Nikolas was silent on the way to the memorial service, not even rocking as they drove through the streets. The road in front of the chapel was thronged with tourists and paparazzi anxious for news about the Salt Baron’s granddaughter.

The security system recognized Melia’s vehicle and passed her through the barricades. She went around the car to let Nikolas out. When she opened the door, he slipped out to stand quietly on the pavement next to her. In the throng of people, Nikolas huddled closer to her than he usually stood to anyone. Melia chewed on the inside of her lip. The crowd could overwhelm him. “Nikolas, you tell me when you need to leave, all right?”

He didn’t answer, but she rarely got a response to that question. He might, just might, grunt before melting down.

As they went inside, the people surrounding them all had tearsheets under their eyes catching tears for Dora. Melia wondered which ones were really shedding tears, and which had bought pre-salined sheets to demonstrate their shared grief.

The reclaimer by the entrance to the chapel was already full of the tearsheets.

Every person she passed seemed to want to clutch her hand and express the same banal condolences as the person before. Melia kept nodding and thanking them for their thoughts, but her attention was on Nikolas. She diverted the people who wanted to pat him on the head, but could do little to protect him from the closeness of the crowd as they worked their way across the lobby. Her dad saw her and arrowed through the crowd to shepherd them across to the private family waiting room.

He stopped outside the door. “Theo is inside.”

“I won’t say anything.”

He squeezed her arm once before opening the door.

At first, she only saw her mom and grandma. Her mother looked as if she had been crying off and on for days. Grandma was patting her hand.

Theo’s father stood up when she came in. Mr. Lathouris’s eyes were as red as her mom’s. He had a wad of tearsheets in his hand, and she had no doubt that he had saturated them all himself; he had always been so good with the children.

Nikolas screamed.

He had his hands over his ears and was staring at Theo.

“What the–?” Theo flung his hands out in exasperation. “Why did you bring him?”

“He wanted to come.”

“That’s great, Melia. What did he do, tap it out in code?”

Melia ground her teeth together to keep the silence she had promised her dad. She knelt between Nikolas and Theo, hoping that cutting into his line of sight would help. “Nikolas? Do you want a Salti?”

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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. :)