The Mythology of Salt by Octavia Cade

Posted by Nicky Drayden on Oct 12, 2014 in Reviews |

Strange Horizons
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This is a story of three women, tied together by motherhood, grief, infidelity and salt. Their lives are so interconnected, and yet they are all strangers to one another. Makareta has lost her husband and the father of her three daughters. She has been left to continue the family business of hauling salt across the galaxy to a planet that uses it in a secret birth ritual. Edith has just given birth to twins, a boy and a girl, though before the girl can suckle from her mother’s breast, her first meal must be that of salt, harvested by Edith’s own two hands after a grueling journey, her legs still bloodied and unsteady from so many hours of labor.  Miriama is Edith’s lost aunt, banished away from their homelands after a sexual encounter with a man from another world that left her with child. She is old now, and her daughter is grown and is ready to venture out on her own–unsure of why her mother clings to the traditions of the people who shunned her, but the tie of the mythology of salt is strong, both across generations and bloodlines:

Salt was a precious commodity. Scarce, although the pillar endured—partly because the men thought it cursed, a punishment for disobedience, and the women took care not to alter that perception. Other sources were imported. Brought by spaceships from ocean worlds to the desert and too expensive for traditional communities such as Edith’s. So be it, said the elders, who wanted little contact with traders anyway, arguing that they did not understand desert life, and contact with them polluted. It had done so to her mother’s sister, and Edith had been raised on warning tales at the back of the fire, whispered where the men could not hear and spit on her name into the desert. “Miriama was not so much older than you,” her mother had told her, on the night of Edith’s first bleeding. “She fell in love with a man from another world, and gave herself up to him. Of course that was the end of it—tossed out, she was, without so much as a single date, a single cup of water. She gave it all up for salt. I wept into my blankets at night, knowing I would never see her again.” And that was the end of it; the end of interaction and transaction and trade. 

It was these strictures Edith thought of first when she arrived at the pillar and saw a strange woman, in foreign trousers and jacket, her head immodestly bare, her chin and lips scarred blue with ink. At first Edith thought she was blowing sand at the pillar, but the quick warm smell of water permeated the air, jolted her out of weariness into feverish dismay.

Her mother’s stories came suddenly back to her: abandonment and disconnection and loss, a life looking back to a sister kept separate forever. At her breast, the baby cried—and the sharp, stabbing fear that her child would be lost as her mother’s sister was lost spurred her into action.

This story is one of subtleties, and I had to reread it to pick up what I missed on the first go-round. It is an interesting commentary on the sacrifices mothers make to keep their families whole, and the secret sub-culture of womanhood that happens under the noses of menfolk. I feel like theses women are tied down by the traditions surrounding salt, but at the same time, it is salt that puts food in their mouths, gives them identity, and ties them together in sisterhood. Will the tradition continue, or will Miriama’s daughter or someone of the like deny her heritage and seek something greater, or at least something different? And will the disconnect from one’s culture eventually drive her back to the comfort of salt?

Anna Lee Fisher, First Mother in Space

REAL Women in Space
Anna Lee Fisher
First mother in space.
STS-51-A (Nov. 8, 1984)
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