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art by Jeffrey Redmond

The Taste of Salt

Rachel Halpern is a graduate of Grinnell College and the Alpha Writer’s Workshop. She likes dark chocolate, bright socks, and strange stories. This is her first publication.

Aina watched the other humans crowd around the martyr's table. They pressed close to Evan as if they wanted to touch him, kept watching him even when they spoke to each other. Of course no one did actually touch him; the sacrifice had to be pure. The demon was going to eat him, after all, and its servants, their masters, would never give it sullied meat.
The masters stood quietly lining the walls, dark robes and tall spears. Even now, after seventeen months of captivity, they looked to her almost like a cliché from bad television, but without the comforting distance of black and white, which might have hidden the bloodstains on their clothes. Aina could see their eyes move, quick and deadly, saw one tense as little Martha who really knew better leaned slightly too close to the martyr when she passed him rice. Aina was more cautious, would keep her distance when she served the bowl of steaming broth that was her offering.
Outside, the sun was setting, spilling through the window in dim red streams that left Evan looking burned and pale in its glow, and though they could not see it, the full moon was rising. He was going to be eaten, and he knew it. That he held the fear in at all rather than weeping, ate his final feast with mostly steady hands, made her think well of him, though he was mostly a stranger, and in the days before the demon, they had been far from friends. Aina hadn't made many friends at all since she'd moved to the Isles, which felt pathetic when she was a three-year resident and barely knew her neighbors, but had ended up a blessing when crackling radio reports of homicidal cultists became radio silence and robed sorcerers conjuring death throughout their small town. After the demon came, the survivors were all friends, and none of them friends, allies in simple humanity, with plenty of trust but little room for affection.
She and Evan had had only one real conversation, a few weeks ago, after the old and the young were in bed. The adults were too, mostly, tired from chores and fear. She'd been sitting at the edge of the roof, contemplating the miracle of the human mind, that she could live utterly without hope or happiness and still feel no urge to jump.
"You either?" he'd asked, and that had startled her enough that she'd almost slipped. He'd caught her arm, quick and impersonal, the only time they'd ever touched, and released her just as quickly, murmured an apology as he settled beside her.
"I dream about it," he said after a moment, staring down into the shadows, and she thought of her own dreams, of shattering into pieces and blowing away, letting violence and wind set her free. "It doesn't look like much fun, though, does it?"
Her cousin had jumped after the first sacrifice, when his brother had been killed, and Aina had been set to cleaning up the remains. She hadn't known Dano well, the age difference too great, but she hadn't much enjoyed mopping up the mess of him, either, had managed not to throw up only because their masters were watching and she wouldn't give them the satisfaction.
"Besides, they'd probably make Henry wash us off the pavement," she said, and was pleased that her voice sounded absent rather than revolted. "You know he's a vegetarian."
Evan had snorted, and she'd smiled back, and for an instant it was almost like their old life, and she could imagine becoming friends with him, over the years, imagined babysitting for him and insulting his taste in sweaters and introducing her wife to him someday, if she got married. And then she remembered, with that faint cold shock that always came, and saw the sympathy and sickness in his face as he remembered too.
They had fallen silent, and he had left soon after; since then, they had only exchanged the words they traded with anyone, the latest news, quick discussions if they shared chores. She had not been the first to hear that he was the new martyr, had not been the one to tell him.
Now, standing and watching the others crowd around, she thought of that one hand gripping her arm, almost the only human contact she'd had since they were taken, of how brief it had been. She'd imagined, before, that when she married she would make her wife the bitingly sharp soup her parents used to make for her, seaweed and so much salt it tasted like diving into the ocean on a hot day. She'd made some now, because she would never make any for her true love, and she might as well try to do some good.
The broth perfectly made, she'd laced it very carefully with the cleaning fluids and poisons she'd been storing up slowly since she arrived. She had never quite admitted to herself that she was doing it, had never let herself think she might kill even someone condemned to death, never allowed herself to hope, but now she had enough to kill a man slowly, she thought, and she stirred it smoothly in with the salt and herbs she had taken from the kitchen as they prepared the martyr's last feast.
It might kill the demon, eating someone already dying, that was the dream; at the least it would starve this day, this month, for want of a pure sacrifice. If it died, their masters would lose much of their magic, and though her people would still be slaves, they would be slaves with a faint but real chance at revolution. It felt like unnecessary cruelty making Evan taste bleach and rotting almonds, but this was the briniest soup ever tasted, and the salt would mask the poison.
She smiled as she set the bowl in front of him. That more than anything was her sign to him, and she saw the realization in his eyes, and something a little like hatred but maybe more like gratitude. He ate every spoonful with meticulous care, and thanked her for the food, and then went on to take food from every hand, protecting her, and when he stumbled as he rose she did not catch him.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, August 28th, 2012
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