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The Spice of Life

Alexandra Grunberg is a Glasgow-based author, poet, and screenwriter. She received her BFA in Acting from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and her MLitt in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow where she is currently pursuing a DFA in Creative Writing. Her short stories have been published in Flash Fiction Online, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Cast of Wonders, and more. She is the resident screenwriter for the film production company Magic Dog Productions. You can learn more about her writing at her website, alexandragrunberg.weebly.com. This is her fifth story published in Daily Science Fiction.

They forgot to bring flavor with them.
They packed only the necessities, and even if someone remembered that eating was more than nutrition, Rivka doubted that cargo space would have been "wasted" on something as frivolous as pepper, paprika, cumin, and rosemary.
As the colonists grew thinner, the medical professionals who comprised the majority of the new Martians could not account for the decline in health. There were no physical illnesses draining their strength, forcing their meals out again. There were no mental illnesses accosting the population, no pining to reach an abstract idealization of beauty found in an ever-decreasing waistline. Rivka knew what was wrong the very first night, that first bite of pasta that could have been paste.
On Earth, people imagined a future where the necessary food intake could be minimized down to the size of a single daily pill. But Rivka knew that people would forgo, or forget, if the meals became so bland. These foil packets of necessities masquerading as meals were not quite so stark, but just as unappetizing. Rivka did not complain, though she missed thyme, oregano, and turmeric. She missed them, but she was willing to settle for something simpler and so much more necessary than the sludge contained in foil packets. And as one of the few artists brought to Mars, for the sake of humanity's creative soul, she knew the art of improvisation.
"Why are you crying?" asked the psychologist, less caring and more curious, his eyes as flat and cold as the lenses of his glasses.
Rivka shrugged at each session, but declined explaining, no matter how many times she was reported by the painter and the singer who thought their complaints about the unusual actress were anonymous.
"I'm not sad," she assured the psychologist, who recorded her response on a small pad.
It was true. Despair turned other colonists into skeletons, though they could not explain why they withered. Rivka's tears grew with the curves of her body, until all eyes darted envious glares at the woman who seemed to feed on her own sadness. It was a filling meal, until the painter (a man with long fingers that were always ready to point an accusation) saw her crying into her microwaved "tomato" soup.
Rivka knew many actresses back on Earth, wonderful actresses, who could not cry on cue. But she was one of the ones who could. It was just harder under the pressure of ten professionals' stares, under stark fluorescent lights while a sandstorm blew like a wail against the side of the research facility, with ten empty jars waiting in front of her.
"I'm not sad," she said, and it was true, but the doctors took it as a challenge.
The world they left behind was harsh, even if it still tasted like cinnamon and nutmeg. The harshness led people to close in on themselves, asking questions without feeling the answers, writing down words that held no emotional meaning. No one could risk letting themselves feel, except for the people who felt professionally, who stood on stages and performed their feelings, reminding people of what it once meant to be human. Before being human meant living in metal bunkers on almost empty planets and eating mush with a cold spoon. The audience built a wall between themselves and the performance of emotion, but they still could recognize the cause of tears. Those little triggers that made Rivka a reliable actress. And they knew how to use those triggers to fill their jars.
They played the videos on a small tablet, one that she could have easily flipped over, or looked away from, but the kind of person who pursued a career in professional feeling found it difficult not to open their heart to the images on the screen, to take the pain inside of them and let it flow out; The last rhino, falling to its knees in a cloud of dust. The bodies piled outside walled cities that had no room in graveyards, where skies filled with ashes from the already over-worked crematoriums. The cathedral on fire that politicians promised they would rebuild, even as decades passed and it remained a smoldering ruin. It was not pepper or cinnamon, but Rivka's soul ate the images all the same, and she could not help but cry.
Salt did not seem like a luxury on earth. It was not remembered as a necessity. But the colonists turned from skeletons back into humans with the new addition to their meals, while Rivka went to that bright room everyday with the tablet and cried.
It was all going well, until she stopped crying. They tried changing the videos, finding worse images, worse monstrosities, but nothing seemed to help. Rivka tapped through each clip with an increasingly bony finger, shrugging at each offering. The feast displayed before her had lost its meaning. And no matter how much of her own salt she added to her pasta packet, she could not bear to swallow it. It held the flavor she had longed for, that everyone needed. But the eyes of the colonists around her, as flat as foil and as matte as paste, who prospered as a protective wall grew around her once-open heart, left a bad taste in her mouth.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, November 5th, 2019

Author Comments

This story was inspired by myths of faerie trees that cry salty tears and the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral. I'm not sure how those two ideas found each other on Mars, but I'm glad Rivka knew that's where she belonged.

- Alexandra Grunberg
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