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08.12.02


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salt

by sally gwylan

 

Back then none of the creatures of the earth ate flesh but scavengers, the hyena and the raven and those, and then only when it was properly rotten. They weren't more peaceful than we are now. They had their arguments and sometimes their fights; they knew how to make the thick red life run out of an enemy.

But no one had thought of eating living flesh or that freshly killed.

Fighting and eating were different things, after all.

Some ate fruits, and some ate grasses, and some stripped bark from trees, but all creatures needed salt. Here and there across the land were salt licks, plenty of salt for everyone. But the nearest lick could be a long journey from where a bear, say, or a river horse lived.

Among the creatures was one species, not small but not very strong or fast either, that secreted salt from their naked skin. They sweated; they cried. And they could be caught most places, and held down, and licked until need was satisfied.

Everyone was content with this situation but the salt-skins. Such encounters interrupted daily tasks and left their skin raw and sticky. Serving someone else's need unwilling was a humiliation, as well.

Occasionally, when the licking creature was careless or hurried, blood would flow from the salt-skins. Blood was salt and sweet at once. A few among the creatures— the wolf, the bear, I've heard it told, and the sleek-furred cat— grew to crave this delicacy, and then the rich flesh beneath.

At that, the salt-skins rebelled. They began to carry sticks with them, and to keep stones by them where they slept. They began to fight those who came to lick.

Often they died, and the scavengers, patient bystanders, feasted.

But in time the clever salt-skins learned to grow the hungry red flower that blooms in the wake of dry storms. With it they guarded their camps and, night following night, resentment swelled between them and the other creatures. It happened at the last that a bear fled one such camp with his shaggy fur alight, seeding the hungry flower to roar in the trees and in the grasses before the wind.

It was a great desolation.

Who of the survivors first ate the seared flesh is disputed, but of all the creatures only the salt-skins continued to do so. They dressed this flesh with salt dug from the salt licks; they traded the salt; they made hard, sharp weapons with the red flower to gain both flesh and territory.

And in time they overran all, trapping us in fields edged with sticks and webs of bright stuff they've won from the stones. The wolf hunts now at their heels; the cat sleeps at their feet. Only scavengers run free.

But they bring us salt in blocks to lick.

 

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Sally Gwylan lives off the grid in a handmade house somewhere west of Albuquerque. Her novelette "In the Icehouse" is forthcoming in Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine.

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