The Sockdolager

The Sockdolager Logo

from the Spring 2016 collection

Pure and Without Savour

by Deborah Walker

We sing the Songs of Salt.

Salt is precious and complex. Sodium chloride is not. Sodium chloride is a chemical, easily manufactured in a vacuum process. Pure and clean, sodium chloride lacks flavour.

Salt is flavoured with magnesium, calcium, halides and sulphates. Salt also has the savour of the extremely rare elements the thieves crave. Salt teems with life, with halophile, salt loving, small life.

Salt is born in the oceans. Salt is in our soil, in rain, in the water bubbling from springs. Salt is everywhere. Salt is numinous.

In the begging fields of The Salt Temple, we sing the Songs of Salt.

The Temple salt formed a million seasons ago, the evaporite of an ancient sea. Over countless generations we carved the salt temple, room and pillar. In the temple we sang for innumerable seasons, until we were ousted. Now, we beg in the Temple fields, because of the thieves.

We sing until a spinner approaches, sending the salt rain into squalls, then we are silent.

Scarlet of the 7565th of That Name, who is new to the fields, crawls a little closer. Scarlet’s become attached to me. I don’t mind. She’s nervous; colour washes through her translucent mantle.

The spinner lands. The thick, metal tentacle of the walkway unfolds.

“I think they will ask me to sing. I really think they will.”

“Be calm, Scarlet. They won’t choose yet. They’ll visit the Temple first.”

“Yes. Yes, of course,” she says, colour still washing through her mantle, chromatophores changing: umber to gold, gold to red.

The thieves emerge. It’s an adult male and a female youngling, a daughter. The daughter’s agitated, skittering to and fro on her two legs. They speak in their usual, enormously loud voices. They are a species with poor hearing. I consider the Songs of Salt, deep in my mind.

The thief and his daughter walk along the line of beggars. I swivel one eye lens towards them, considering the beggars with the attention of my third mind. I’ve begged for thirty seasons, and still the sight of the thieves astonishes me. Scarlet of course has all three lenses, all three minds, attached to the thieves.

They are so different from us. Their heads are tiny and they only have one. They have only one brain, which may explain their focus. Only four limbs, without webbing. Only one heart. The blood is salt, but weak salt.

The atmosphere would cause their proteins to aggregate, their flesh to desiccate, as it lacks osmoprotectants or a mechanism for the influx of potassium into their cells. So they wear an artificial mantle; breathe through an artificial beak. They are off-world born and strange. This environment should kill them, but they are a technological people, able to overcome their weaknesses and swim in alien waters.

But to consider their biology is to ignore their most profound differences. Sexual dimorphism has resulted in a need for them to compete. They take what they want.

We do not compete. Our younglings are conceived in the oceanic mingling of our genetic material. Then one who wishes to be a mother will select a larva to mouth breed. We are all.

“Look!” says the daughter, pointing towards me with her divided tentacle. “She’s so cute.”

I am not cute.

“So adorable.”

I am not adorable.

“Thank you for bringing me here, Father. I think I’ll learn much more here than I would have done at my lessons.”

I hope so, thief daughter, as I have something I long to teach you.

The daughter swivels her odd, articulated body and bends towards me. She shouts ‘Hello’ at me.

“Can’t they speak, Father?”

“They can speak. But they’re shy. And their voices are very quiet. We’d need amplifiers to hear them.”

“Except when they sing?”

“That’s right.” The father nods his one head. “Except when they sing.”

“Can we make them sing, now?”

“We need the salt first,” says Father.

“That’s right. From the Salt Temple. Let’s go. Let’s go. Quickly, Father.” The daughter pulls her father’s tentacle. Within a few moments their divided limbs have them standing at Temple Gate.

“There’s no guard here, Father. If they like salt so much, why don’t they go into the temple and get it for themselves?”

“They are a very simple people. Once their Elder decreed that they should obey us, they did. It’s incredible, really. What I might achieve with a regiment of soldiers with perfect obedience. But,” says Father, tapping his only head, “they have no independence of thought. That’s why they never progressed beyond the Stone Age.”

Indeed not true. Our thinkers considered the possibility of metal, many thousands of seasons ago. Once they’d extrapolated the consequences, the Elder chose not to swim along the path of what the thieves would call progress. That decision has been confirmed by every subsequent Elder.

“So we told them not to go in here, and they didn’t. And now they beg outside? That seems sad, Father.”

“This salt in this building represents a substantial concentration of rare elements. We haven’t mined it yet, out of respect for the natives’ beliefs. But we may have to, if the conflict with the Eaters doesn’t improve.”

“We need to destroy all the Eaters,” said Daughter, nodding her one head. “Hey look, there’s another one, crawling down cliff face.”

All lenses except mine swiveled to the cliff. I turned my three minds to the task of selecting the perfect song for the daughter.

“Shall we wait for it, Father?”

“It’s too slow. Let’s go inside the temple.”

“It must be a new beggar,” says Scarlet. Only beggars and thieves come here.

“This is an extraordinary day,” I tell her. “We go for weeks without company, and within the space of one degree three strangers visit the begging fields.”

“A new beggar,” says Scarlett. Her thoughts are swimming. Another beggar will mean fewer alms, as we always divide our share.

But a new beggar will also mean new songs. And that would be good. It can be lonely listening to the same few dozen songs.

“I wonder what shoal she’s from,” says Scarlet.

I cast my second lens at the cliff. “It is my youngling,” I say. “She’s coming to visit me. Not to beg.”

“Your youngling?” Scarlet’s gill’s flutter. I know what she is thinking. If I have a youngling, why am I begging?

Scarlet came to the begging fields when the thieves discovered a seam of rare element beneath her family home, and evicted her shoal from the land. Her youngling decided to cross the Great Sea in the north to look for a new home.

“She begged me to go with her,” Scarlet told me. “But I refused. I didn’t want to be a burden.”

The thieves take our land. In return they give us new things. Before the thieves no mother could ever have been a burden to her youngling. Scarlet’s youngling has not sent the youngling’s duty. So Scarlet assumes that she must be impoverished.

There are two other possibilities: that her youngling has died in the dangerous crossing, or that she has forgotten her mother. Scarlet did not mention these possibilities, and neither did I. Although, no doubt, Scarlet sings of them deep in her mind, in that dark space where the three minds join at the stem.

“You must be so happy that your youngling is visiting you,” says Scarlet.

I do not like my youngling to come here. She does not like to see me begging. “Yes. I’m happy.” I tell Scarlet. It’s the simplest thing to say.

I could tell Scarlet that my youngling always sends her duty, even though I do not need it. I could tell Scarlet that the thieves allowed me to keep my ancestral farm. I could tell her that my salt ponds number in the thousands, and although many have been drained, I farm a hundred active ponds. I go home to a patchwork of silver light on saline, as the Star condenses the brine to its essence. I go home to the colour dazzle of the archaebacterial bloom, to myriad great strings of salt grass strung from briquetage pond to pond.

I could tell Scarlet that I beg not out of necessity, but out of choice. But I say nothing. She’ll learn my story when she’s ready to hear it. We may be all beggars, but the tides that brought us here are as diverse as the ocean.

I watch my youngling crawl down the cliffs. I think that Scarlet senses that I’m anxious, for she’s uncharacteristically quiet.

As my youngling approaches, the thieves leave the Salt Temple. It is a day indeed of coincidence and parallel.

“The temple is so beautiful,” says the daughter. “The carvings are wonderful.”

The daughter is right. The Salt Temple is very beautiful. I remember. Over a millennium of seasons, our craftspeople have carved our stories into the salt. The Salt Temple tells the beginning of the world and the end. There are no carvings of the thieves. And this I chose to believe means that they are not the end.

Scarlet edges even closer to me. Although I am only a part time beggar, I am the eldest here. I have begged for many seasons and I have things to teach, although my youngling does not think so.

“You can choose one,” says the father.

The daughter dashes back and forth. “But will they sing, Father?”

“Here,” he says, holding out a disc of salt. “They’ll sing when you give them this.”

My youngling approaches the thieves. “Sir,” she says. She wears an artificial beak to amplify her voice. “I am Serrin.” She uses her thief name. “I have the privilege of belonging to your household.”

“They can talk after all,” says the daughter, clapping her divided tentacles.

“I told you they could,” says Father. “We have made some progress civilizing this species. The old ones have not been able to adapt, but we have taken their best and their brightest and raised them in our ways.” Father turns to address my youngling. “Serrin, eh? You have been selected to visit the home world, haven’t you?”

“That has been my honour,” says my youngling.

Father nods. “What is your business here?”

“Like you sir, I came to see the beggars.”

“Very good. My daughter is in the process of choosing one.”

Daughter skips along the line of beggar, before stopping in front of me. “This one,” she shouts.

“Very good,” says Father. He bends to observe me. “You’ve chosen very well. I believe this is Bright Arms.”

Bright Arms is not my name.

“Bright Arms is famous,” says Father. “The best of all the beggar singers. I hadn’t realised she begged in this field.”

I feel a pang as my youngling doesn’t acknowledge me. She disapproves of my begging.. I see her embarrassment in the slight flutter of her gills. Our relationship is underscored by the memories of arguments.

She would say: “It is undignified to beg.”

I would say: “It’s a way of letting them hear our song.”

She would say: “Begging diminishes you. You don’t need to do it.”

I would say. “It’s the only way they will hear me.”

She would say: “When I am adult, I’ll find another way to take our rights.”

And this was why my youngling had chosen to become part of this thief’s household. I mouth bred her for many seasons, and I still do not understand her. Although I fear, in the dark stem, what she wants to do. She wants conflict. I do not understand the thieves, I do not understand my youngling.

But what I do understand is the Song of the Salt.

The other beggars grow still as I extend my tentacles, stretching the webbing tight. In a swift movement I invert and lower my tentacles to the ground so that the webbing forms a mantle over my lower body, exposing the fleshy spines of my inner web, exposing my mouth.

I have chosen the song. It swims within my three minds.

I concentrate until my blood surges, bringing the rare elements to my mouth spines. The rare elements crystalize on exposure to the atmosphere, growing hard until my mouth is tipped with bright hard gems. I sing, pushing air through my mouth valves to set the crystals resonating into the complex Song of Salt. I sing an ancient song. It tells of swimming in the Template Salt, when the salt flowed as the ocean.

I sing, sing for salt, sing for what is mine, and is now gifted to me. I beg for what is my birthright.

I do this for the memory of those gone, those who are lost to the thieves. I sing in memory of three of my younglings.

I sing the Song of Salt in the hope that it will be understood by the thief’s daughter and by my own youngling. I sing until the song dies.

“That was astonishing,” says the daughter. Through her artificial beak, I see tears of salt.

I return my tentacles to the upwards position. I am content. I am astonishing, not just a primitive. I am astonishing, and if she grows and becomes important in their conflicted milieu, perhaps she will remember.

We watch the thieves return to their spinner.

My youngling turns to me. “I’m sorry that you had to find out that I’m going off world in this way,” she says. “That’s what I came here to tell you.”

I look at the disc of salt. It is fine and heavy and complex. I resist the urge to rub it over my skin. I will make do with the soulless sodium chloride. I will return my share of alms to the Temple. “Did you hear the song?” I ask my youngling.

“I did,” she says. “It was beautiful, though it was not mine. But I heard it, and so did the thief’s daughter.”

That must be enough. My youngling, who will soon cross an ocean of space, departs. We beggars wait until the thieves’ spinner departs and then we resume our Songs of Salt.

Deborah Walker grew up in the most English town in the country, but she soon high-tailed it down to London, where she now lives with her partner, Chris, and her two teenage children. Find Deborah in the British Museum trawling the past for future inspiration or on her blog. Her stories have appeared in Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Nature's Futures, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and The Year's Best SF 18 and have been translated into over a dozen languages.