There’s a story that sounds completely fantastic and yet is true. It happened here and in the neighboring lands. It goes like this:
Once upon a time, there was an ocean, deep and cold. And in the ocean there was salt.
For a long time, salt did not know itself to exist. But then, beneath a wave, under a dark and bitter brew of the sea, it stirred. Why, it hardly knew; yet, for the first time, salt found itself wanting. It had no body, this watery want, no arms and legs, no spine nor skull, no eyes or mouth, but it knew it wanted, and what it wanted was to live.
And so, in a rare still moment of the sea, salt reached out. It found a single drop of water inside all the vast unbearable water, and it said: I want.
And then the ocean, which was in that drop just as it is in all of the water, granted salt’s wish. The ocean said there was a price, and that one day that price would have to be paid.
“Did salt understand what that meant?” the young thing asks, interrupting me.
“Hush, child. Stories are fragile things. They break so easily.”
So, salt, then. His body was vast, first, and then narrow and marrowed and enclosed in lean muscle and tender skin. He lay on dry sand—a shore, his new mind informed him in its new language. Foam lapped at his bare feet. He possessed hair, now, and arms to take with and touch with, and eyes, and ears, and a tongue and mouth, and a hunger to live, and a heart to do it with. Above, an expanse yawned inconceivable, mind-shattering—the sky. In it, the sun.
He knew the sun.
His stomach rumbled and his throat prickled and his limbs screamed with exhaustion, but these were all things he knew not how to appease, or that he could, so he simply assumed them to be the facts that proved salt was, for now, alive.
Salt remained on that beach for hours, his skin baking under the sun until sunset, then growing cold in the night, then baking again in the morning until the sun dipped below the horizon once more. His skin cooled in the ocean breeze and stung in the night air.
His third day, he discovered movement. He wiggled his toes, stretched his shoulders, and counted the fingers on his hand. Then he ran his palm across the length of his skin. He discovered waves and grooves, creases and caves, bone ridges and hooks that reminded him of the depths of the ocean.
This is how the girl Marietta found him, naked and touching himself in the way of babies, not men, and that was enough for her to get over whatever sense of shame rouged her cheeks for a moment—and it was a brief, brief moment, because Marietta was no stranger to the joys of bodies, and had little patience for the parched teachings of religious men who paid so much coin to paint their visions of hell on the whitewashed walls of their churches when people starved on the streets just beyond. Her curiosity won this time as it always won, and it was never much of a fight either, truth be told.
She nudged the man with her foot first, to make sure he didn’t bite, then spoke to him in the soft voice she used with feral children and dogs. “Do you need help, mister?” She thought he must be shipwrecked, shaken free of the sea by the storm that had raged over them the night before. But then again that wouldn’t explain why he was so very naked. Perhaps he’d been mistreated somehow, then—and the thought made Marietta simultaneously want to punch whoever hurt him and have this man wrapped in the softest cloth she could find. His skin was burnished by the sun but otherwise unblemished.
She nudged the man again, having run out of ways to make sense of the situation. “Can you speak?”
The man looked at her and laughed, but she didn’t feel mocked; for it was the laughter of a creature that had suddenly discovered it can be pleased, and that the world is a place of great joy. “You are beautiful,” he said. His words sounded strange—unaffected and new. “What are you?”
Marietta straightened, stood, and faced the man with the orange-colored sky behind her. She tilted her head just so, to keep the sun from blinding him, but also to let the light halo her black hair as on the stained windows in the house of God. “I am a woman,” she said. “I am Marietta.”
Of course she took him home. She would never have left him there on the beach; it didn’t matter if he were but a drunkard who lost his clothes in a bad gamble and passed out by the surf—though she was certain that’s not at all who he was. She wrapped him with her overcoat and he followed her in silence, watching her through wide eyes, the corners of his mouth turned up the slightest. He did have a kind of beauty to him, Marietta found, though he seemed somehow unfinished: his skin too smooth, like marble before the artist’s chisel has made its mark. His hair was thick but his face had no beard, nor had he any other hair on his body. No, his beauty had little to do with the features of his face or the angles of his bones, and more with the way he walked as if he were liquid, the way his fingers moved as if perpetually underwater, and his eyes showed, if you looked at them under the right light, the strange reflections of the ocean.
The sun was setting when they reached her cottage.
At the door, he stopped.
Her home was a small shack on the outskirts of the town, barely a roof and a door and a window and a bed with a mattress filled with straw, but it might as well have been a palace; that’s how fascinated the man was. The neighbors were poor, some worse off than Marietta herself, others a notch better, but none of them ever bat an eye at newcomers, no matter how out of place they looked.
She didn’t have much to give him, but everything she had she did. She had only the clothes she wore herself and that most men wouldn’t dare put on, but he did not seem to mind at all. So she clothed him in her best—her single satin dress, its blue frightening to him at first, but the texture of it on his skin so pleasant he quickly recovered. She fed him stale bread and butter that he stuffed into his mouth and moaned so hard she had to muzzle him for fear of the neighbors getting the wrong idea—or maybe the right one, though it was still early for that. She gave him her sweetest wine, which was not very sweet at all, and yet he downed it with big, desperate gulps and said: “More.”
He hid nothing from her. He told her of his birth, which was no birth at all, and of before. He told her about the ocean, the cold, sheer vastness of it, how it never ended and there was no containing it. He told her how he was dissolved in everything, separate but also not, how he swelled with water, how the pressure and the deep currents felt to his non-body, how he spoke a certain language of the deep but had no tongue, no throat. And how, when he said “I,” it was not quite right.
She listened intently, her eyes sparkling and wide. She seemed to him at once like the creatures he knew all too well before becoming what he now was—simple and round and open, with a beating heart and a thirst for love and living—but also different, more complicated, for all her folds of skin, her bones and hair. He reached out to touch her and she let him, palms open. He studied the lines there for a long time, and then he carried on talking. She wanted to understand it all. She was silent when he needed silence and asked questions when he needed words.
He also told her of the first time he felt anything, and how that feeling was one he had no word for.
“Was it a wanting?” she tried. “A curiosity? A need?”
But no word fit perfectly, so he told her instead of the way in which time had no meaning until he had breath.
He told her, finally, of his bargain. His debt to the ocean, the lover’s heart, the limited time it bought him.
Marietta clutched her own heart, then, but whether she truly believed him no one will ever know, because she couldn’t quite decide herself.
The sun had long since set when they finished talking, and they lay together on the straw mattress, his skin pressed against hers, still cold, but with an unfamiliar warmth to it now. She ran her fingers through his hair and he sighed, his face pressed into her neck, his arm around her waist. He kept his eyes open, watching, even as sleep crept in.
“Did he dream?” the young thing asks.
Does salt dream? Does sand dream of the stone it once was? Does the ocean remember all the lovers lost at sea?
“He did,” I say. “But I don’t know of what.”
“We must give you a name,” Marietta declared in the morning.
And so they called him Salt, because that’s what he was, but also Thelo, because he always yearned, and always hungered, without cease.
Marietta took him to her bed for more than sleeping, of course. She showed him what it was that humans could do with their bodies and each other’s, and he turned out to be a better lover than any she’d had before. A patient one, too, because, despite his newfound love for breathing, his grasp of time was tentative at best. For days he could lie there rapt and shook by the feeling of a fly’s legs brushing his skin, the fuzzy taste of a peach, or the shape of the dimples on Marietta’s back.
He wanted to experience everything, even as he wondered about the price each of these treasures would demand of him, one day. Marietta took him out to dance and drink and eat and meet her friends and lovers, some of whom they brought back home with them. On such nights, Salt seemed more interested in the feeling of his own body than the bodies of others, but he would shut his eyes and listen to their sighs and moans and words. He kissed their eyelids and their stomachs and their mouths. It was the closest he’d felt to what he was before. He found them all beautiful, the most beautiful: their crooked backs, their perfect noses and shining eyes, their silky hair, their scarred faces, their skinny legs and sharp bones, their curves of fat—he loved them all. It was too much for him, sometimes, but he never dreamed of stopping, of stepping back, of loving less.
In turn, the friends and lovers never responded to him as if he were a curiosity. They embraced him, devoured him, wanted to know him so deeply he felt as if he’d run out, as if his answers could never satisfy them because he didn’t know how to make words contain the things he was, the things he’d been. One woman he spent a night with, her chest like a buoy under his head and her voice deep like the rumble of waves, asked him where he was from. And he said, everywhere, everywhere.
Marietta watched him thrive, and it filled her with a mixture of joy and envy, at his freshness, his ability to experience the world for the first time, but never possessiveness. Others teased her for being so willing to share him, but their words made little sense to her. “Isn’t more love and joy better than less?” she asked. And Thelo always asked for more—more textures, more tastes, more colors, more bodies—until Marietta shook the last of her gold out of her small purse and told Thelo he needed to get a job.
He did so, gladly and eagerly.
Thelo’s first job was shucking oysters for an oyster peddler at the pier, where he sometimes got to watch the boats come and go, ghostly white sails under a blue sky, the smell of seaweed heavy in the air and the gulls cawing overhead. Stooped over buckets of icy water to keep the oysters fresh, the briny smell familiar and all-encompassing, he was a magician with the oyster knife. He slipped his blade through the tight oyster lips and twisted it just right, unlocking the shells as if with a key. There were others who worked alongside him, but they never lasted long, defeated by their wounded hands and burned skin and aching backs. Salt relished the work—physical labor suited him, and he took a not insignificant amount of pleasure in the pain and discomfort his body was capable of.
Lots of people in town were taken with the strange oyster man at the pier, with his open face and untroubled eyes, but didn’t know what to make of a man with no past. They were at once drawn and repulsed by him, and they turned away afraid and doubtful, only to miss out on his sweetest smile, on the way he kissed like he was tasting the air. He didn’t mind them, just as he didn’t mind the hard work. And he was the hardest worker of all: always there before the sun was up in the sky and sometimes even after it had set. The oyster peddler took his work ethic in stride; she was the kind of woman who was impressed by little, satisfied by nothing at all. She knew Marietta somewhat—they were the same age and had been friendly once, long ago; perhaps that’s the reason she gave Thelo the job in the first place, though she’d never confess such favoritism. Still, Thelo could see the pleased little nods of the head when she inspected his work, and that made him proud.
One day, Thelo almost lost a finger. It happened so fast; he was shucking an oyster, the knife slipped, and he felt a terrible pressure in his right hand. He looked down at the knife and saw it poke through the soft tissue between his fingers. The oyster peddler took him to a doctor who sewed the skin back together and bundled his hand with swaths of gauze. He could hardly feel his fingers. He lifted his hand and showed it to the woman: “What now?” he asked.
“God gave you two hands,” she said with a shrug. “I don’t see what the problem is.”
The oyster peddler kept most of the money for herself, unmoved even by Thelo’s accident, but she gave him enough to satisfy his needs most days, and Marietta’s too. Enough, even, for small extravagances: a satin dress for Marietta; a small, round cake baked with honey and figs that melted on Thelo’s tongue and was so sweet it burned; a hat with a bright green feather in its band that he and Marietta took turns wearing those times they went prancing down the market on Sundays, when the sun was out and everything felt possible.
He could have carried on like this forever, he thought, or for as long, at least, as his body and his bargain allowed. Until one day a woman came up to the peddler and paid not with money but, to Thelo’s astonishment, a small sachet of salt. When he asked whether one could buy things with salt, the peddler laughed and said: “Why yes, boy, salt is the most precious thing there is.”
And Thelo, then, knew what he had to do.
He saved his money for an entire, precious year. Frugality did not suit him, but he was starting to grasp the human notion of investment: to postpone gratification under the irrational belief one’s life would never end, despite one’s certainty that it would. Marietta told him he was insane, but contributed her income—the source of which shall be left obscure—nonetheless. It was in this way that, by the end of the year, Thelo could afford a marshy shard of land near the coast; too saline to cultivate, too muddy to build on—in other words, just right.
The day he bought the land, he stood on the shore, feeling the earth pulse beneath his feet. He took a deep breath of salt-soaked air. Marietta was there with him, struggling to see what he saw. What good was this land? How might land that could support no building and feed neither plant nor animal be any good at all?
He promised to show her.
He didn’t tell Marietta what he intended to do, but he was dewy-eyed with excitement as he turned his body to the shore every day. His skin was as salt-soaked as the air, his mind full of the sea and its bounty. He waded into the lukewarm water, plunged his hands deep into the muck until they were sticky with mud, the smell of the marsh strong in his nose. He played, but not like a child. He played like a woman painting her lips red. He played like a person sharpening their knife to the point of perfection. He played like a singer humming low in her throat, like a dancer turning circles on his toes.
When he was done, the land was divided into separate ponds of various depths through which water was pumped and evaporated. Each pond was saltier than the previous one, until the last ones were so thick with salt you could pickle fish in them. The water yielded to Thelo’s will with an uncanny ease that made him many friends and even more enemies. The friends were charmed by his way with the sea water, and the enemies feared and envied his talents, but both groups had a thing in common: they were drawn to him, wanted a piece of him, as if his mere presence in their lives would make them tastier and worthier of living.
With the money he made from selling his sea salt, he bought the adjacent land, and then more land next to it, until he owned almost the entire length of the coast, and his salt was the purest and most plentiful in the country. Its only purpose, of course, was to give him access to more of what marvels life had to offer—the brevity and impermanence of that life merely making the marvels sweeter. This was a kingless land, but the people, whom he plied with his salt money in return for both finery and affection, called him the Prince of Salt—though only Marietta knew how well the name fit.
The Kings and Queens of neighboring lands mocked him at first—what Prince was he, after all, with no kingdom of his own? Then, they tried to destroy his salterns by poisoning the water and obstructing the canals that connected the ponds, and Thelo answered with perseverance, talent, and hard work. Next, they threatened Thelo’s workers, to which he responded by paying double and hiring guards to keep watch while the workers toiled in the ponds. Until, finally, threats were made against Thelo’s very life, and Marietta’s, too. The threats were discreet at first: someone would accost them at the market and whisper a violent word into their ears; a figure made of sticks and dressed in fine cloth would be found hanging from the door of their new, lavish house. But, eventually, the threats became so explicit they could no longer be dismissed: letters stained with blood, delivered in the dead of night by a dozen men wielding daggers and swords.
So the two of them decided to appeal to the neighboring armies’ purse and buy them, to pay every single soldier their weight in salt. They did so in person, speaking to each soldier in private, in ways as sweet or as rough as they thought each one needed, or desired, or craved.
Their plan was a success. The neighboring kingdoms yielded to Thelo’s newfound power one after the other. And so it was that Salt became a real Prince—or King, to be pedantic about it, though he much preferred his original obliquely earned title. He even built himself a palace that Marietta decorated with the pointless wonders of the world, the silvers and the velvets and the mother-of-pearls. They celebrated their success with a feast in the new palace. They invited their friends and their friends’ friends and their enemies and their enemies’ enemies—everyone, in fact, who wanted to celebrate the end of the salt wars that ended before they began. Someone had the good sense to bring a flutist, and someone else a poet who recited a poem that made Thelo’s heart beat fast. The poet had a low voice filled with gravel, a land voice, and yet she spoke of the ocean: a vast cold, things simple and round and open, moons dipping into the water and emerging dripping with salt.
Life went on quietly for a while after that. Marietta enjoyed politics and keeping the books of Thelo’s endeavors. She and her girlfriends spent hours reclining on spreads of fur, discussing export strategies and gorging themselves on black grapes.
The lands whose armies were too proud or foolish to be bought decided to embargo the Prince’s salt. But the salt continued to be produced in greater and greater quantities, until mountains of it had to be carted away and stored in giant halls built for the purpose, as well as in barns and caves and every room in the palace deemed inessential to pleasure. Marietta liked to go into these rooms sometimes, to open the doors and close them behind her and just stand there gazing at the mountains of white crystals and wonder at a body made of such a thing, that could dissolve but never disappear.
Even with these unsold quantities of salt, it would be a while before the Prince’s fortune started to dwindle, and, if that happened, there would be plenty for Marietta to sell off and ensure a delicious existence for them, without ever even taxing the people, which the Prince was loath to do. And so, princehood opened up new experiences for them both: trips to cities made of iron, to islands whose inhabitants dove to harvest sponges from the sea’s bottom with only a stone tied to their waist, the way others did to end their lives. The best, however, was yet to come. And then come it did, stepped right up to the palace gate and requested an audience. He had pitch-black hair and eyes both dark as the night and bright as the stars, and, when he burst into the throne room, he looked Thelo up and down and licked his lips. “I’ll buy your salt,” he said in a steady voice. He had a gap between his front teeth that made Thelo’s chest hurt. “Because it is the best in the world, and only that will do for me.”
Thelo recognized something of himself in the young man—the keen way with which he carried his shoulders, perhaps, or the peculiar curve of his lip. “What should I call you?” Thelo asked.
“My name is Gustavo the Merchant, but you, Prince, can call me whatever you wish.”
Salt’s heart sighed at that, for he was not above flattery. “Dine with me tonight,” he said, and so the next chapter of his life began, and the only word in it was: Gustavo.
“That’s not what you said last time,” the young thing says. It uncrosses and recrosses its legs on the cushion and trains its eyes on me, cold and familiar.
The air around us has grown stale. Heavy-limbed, I leave my seat to crack the window open. “What are you talking about?” I ask.
“Gustavo’s eyes,” the child says. “The last time you told this story, Gustavo’s eyes were blue.”
“Is that right? Oh.”
The child dips its chin. “I remember it well.”
“Then, I must have made a mistake.”
“Were you mistaken then? Or are you mistaken now?”
Marietta liked the dark-eyed man, too. She braided seashells in her hair for the dinner, and put on her favorite yellow dress with a dagger in its sheath pressed against her waist. Gustavo wore his dark hair in tight coils and his lips stained maroon. They sat at Thelo’s long table to feast on fish baked in a crust of salt, pickled cucumbers, and a frothy dessert laced with salted caramel and briny cocoa. They broke the crust of the fish with a hammer—such violence followed by such tenderness, such melting in the mouth. The salty food only increased their thirst a thousandfold, but the wine was pink and easy and the conversation equally so. When Marietta asked Gustavo what he wanted out of life he said: “To find out what makes men tick.”
She smiled and asked, “Men only?” to which she got as a response the most brilliant smile she had ever seen.
Then, they played a game of candle, trying to pass a lit candlestick to each other using only their mouths, their hands clasped together behind their backs. Marietta was an expert at this—she was, in fact, the one who taught Thelo the game—and managed to pass her candle to Gustavo without the slightest touch of skin. She clapped for her own victory and downed her wine, then toasted them and urged them both to give it their best.
Gustavo approached Thelo with the lit candle in his mouth, its flame turning his eyes to live coals, wax dripping to the floor. Come on, he signaled with his hands, and Thelo came closer, his mouth half-open. Marietta watched, rapt, as their lips met around the stick. The flame singed one of Gustavo’s stray curls, but he didn’t step back. Instead, he grasped Thelo’s shoulders and steadied him, nudging the candle with his tongue. When the candlestick was firmly in Thelo’s mouth, Gustavo licked his lips. “You taste so salty, Prince,” he said, and Thelo could see that he was pleased.
Dawn found the three of them crumpled together on Thelo’s silk-clad bed, talking about their favorite things: the moment a stranger’s face becomes familiar, the shapes the flight of birds makes in the sky, the smell of leather-bound books, the burn of salt on one’s tongue.
They spoke, too, of their fears.
“I fear nothing,” Marietta lied.
“Finding out it’s all in vain,” Gustavo said. “Every terrible thing one does.”
“Dissolving,” Thelo said. “Forgetting I ever existed at all.”
Gustavo did as he promised. He bought all of Thelo’s salt and sold it far, far away, and the Prince’s land prospered again. He visited often. He always arrived at dawn and the three of them spent their days in each other’s company and the nights together in the silk-clad bed. They were the greatest of allies and the best of friends. Gustavo felt drunk first, their love a new thing that made him feel like he was walking on the ground with his shoes off, and then scared when he realized he could no longer imagine life without them.
Marietta continued enjoying her games of strategy and investment, and she spent many nights poring over Gustavo’s ledgers, stopping only when one or more of her lovers tore her away from her desk with a kiss or a seeking palm. Thelo devoted himself to sharing with Gustavo all the wonderful things he had experienced in his short life, and Gustavo discovered that, for all the Prince’s love of pleasure, what made Thelo tick was pleasing his lovers. And so, Gustavo allowed himself to be pleased.
Months passed this way, and Gustavo waited for that familiar blow, the knife slipped into you by those you let close when you least expect it and which he’d learned always to expect and always to guard himself against it. But it never came. Thelo pampered him beyond measure, while Marietta teased him—and only hurt him when he asked her to.
Gustavo had moved into the palace now, and that warmed the Prince’s heart. But Thelo grew more and more pensive as time flew by. When he stood on his balcony, overlooking his city of gold and pearl, he could no longer deny there was something in the air, something that reeked of blood and ash and bile.
What it was became clear before the year was out, when one of the Kings whose armies Thelo had stolen was now rising against him, with a new, fearless—and, presumably, incorruptible—army leading his war. The city held strong, but the rest of the country fell, village after village, town after town.
“I’ll fight for you,” Gustavo declared. “I’ll lay down my life for you.”
Thelo forbade it, first, and when that failed he sank to his knees and begged Gustavo not to go. “You are no soldier,” he told him. “You are no use to me dead.”
“The best soldier is the one who loves you,” Gustavo replied.
Gustavo was not much of a warrior, Thelo had been right about that. The field of battle was no place for him; he gazed upon the carnage and the torn bodies of the fallen with a terrible sort of wonder, like a child who’s been told horrific stories it is too young to understand. He’d seen war before, of course—for another lover’s sake no less. He remembered those days: a battlefield identical to this, the same carnage, the same torn bodies. The blonde soldier’s mouth against his that made him keep going. Most of all, though, he remembered the lessons he learned back then: the soldier’s face when he turned his back and left Gustavo, wounded, in that field.
Yet he kept looking, now, kept thinking of the lovers he could have had, and the ones he did. The most recent one was a soldier that invited him to his tent one night early on in the war. The man was soft in most places but hard in all the right ones, with hair like straw and a face so pale it was as if it always reflected the light, like a moon. Gustavo let him do as he pleased, but his thoughts kept flying back to Thelo and Marietta. And that’s when he knew that he’d been mistaken, that all his guarding had been in vain, because their knife was well and truly in him already, and more deeply burrowed than it’d ever been before.
His heart trembled every time he swung his sword after that. Love makes weapons of some men, and of others it makes ashes and willows and lakes.
But the war turned out to be brief. What Gustavo lacked in physical strength, he made up in courage, and passion, and, even, in villainy. It was his idea to burn the crops and salt the earth that fed the King’s people, to defeat him not with the ravaged bodies of soldiers but with the wasting away of children and the desperation of the meek. Many of his own fellow warriors recoiled from such tactics, thought him wretched, evil, questioned his manliness, which they thought meant questioning his honor. He didn’t mind. He stood firm, his fingers curled around that secret blade, and, in the end, he won them over just as he won the war; because that’s another lesson that first battlefield had taught him: the victors win at everything, not just the battle.
He did receive a wound to his abdomen—a stabbing, indeed—which came as no surprise to him; he always knew love would cut him one way or another, after all. If only he’d seen the escaped prisoner who wielded it just as clearly.
He believed he’d die, then. In his feverish nights, he saw visions of urns filled with salt, of ills that could only be cured by Thelo’s mouth, of Marietta draping the entire ocean in mourning black cloth. In his few moments of clarity, he thought his comrades would abandon him. But they didn’t. They shouldered his body and held his hand and bandaged his wounds. He was returned to Thelo alive on a stretcher, his skin pallid, his cheekbones and clavicles pronounced as never before.
Thelo fell on him and wept as if his lover were already dead, but Gustavo wiped away his tears and informed him that the war had been won, as if his Prince’s weeping had been but a misunderstanding. “We won,” he said again, kissing his lover’s eyes, his hair, his chin, “stop it, we won.”
“You almost gave up your life for me” was all Thelo said back. “Please, never do that again.”
In wartime, Marietta denounced the pleasures of her body. In a bout of magical thinking that was very unlike her, she’d given them all up in exchange for Gustavo’s safe return to them; a bargain struck with no one at all, its rewards, she realized later, only a matter of chance. When Gustavo did come back on that stretcher, half-dead already, she sat vigil by his side, convinced that death was lurking just outside their door, and that it would only take an insouciant breath for it to slip inside and devour everything that was hers. Marietta sent away all her lovers, even the ones that had been with her for years, as if to deprive death of boons to claim as his own. Most days, she wouldn’t touch food, either, and only drank water in which she squeezed a few drops of bitter orange.
Thelo paced the rooms of the palace like a waif, refusing to sleep lest he miss Gustavo’s last breath. He realized the victory Gustavo’s sacrifice had won him meant very little to him. Many mornings found him on the shore, screaming for the ocean to take him back if it meant Gustavo could be spared.
The ocean never responded, but Gustavo slowly healed. Color returned to his face, and his eyes shone once again. Marietta didn’t sleep for weeks after the doctor said the danger had passed, the weight of Gustavo’s prone body pushing her down into the mattress where she half-drowned in her own sweat. Eventually, her worry subsided, but it turned out the price was steeper than Marietta had anticipated, and much higher than she’d bargained for: the joy of it all never returned.
In the time of peace, she grew distant and tired; everything felt lesser, incomplete, or like a forgery of some other feeling, something better, more intense, that she no longer had access to. She invited her lovers back, and most of them came, but they, too, seemed mere likenesses of their former selves.
She spent less and less time with the men and more time with women who taught her how to create wax casts of things—apples and rabbits and her own hands and feet. She’d leave these objects strewn around the palace, like echoes or ghosts of herself and of the world as she saw it now: lifeless and unoriginal and only a butter knife away from ruin.
This is how Marietta became an artist.
Thelo and Gustavo themselves found peace to be a lovely, fragile thing. They spent their nights by the fire, dreaming of growing old together, and they developed a habit of taking in stray dogs that they washed and fed and tended to as if they were kings. The palace became a haven for homeless and lonely beasts. Gustavo told Thelo stories about the war, about the fields of fallen soldiers and lovers left for dead, and Thelo hushed him every time. He didn’t want to listen to sad stories anymore. He never told Gustavo about his bargain either—his lover had almost paid for it once already, and he never wanted to risk losing him again. He only wanted to savor the warmth of fire on his skin, the soft snoring of the animals, the feel of Gustavo’s curls that were slowly turning silky again. The dogs slept in their bed and lay by their feet, licking their hands and fingers with their soft, sluggish tongues.
It didn’t last.
Two summers, another winter, and then the salt that used to be the best ever known to the world turned bitter. The ponds filled with long, pale worms; what little salt the workers managed to salvage took on a sickly, grey tint. And Thelo, he developed a fear of water; he avoided bathing, instead having his body scrubbed with rough sponges plucked from the bottom of the sea and left to dry in the sun for a fortnight, and he would spend entire weeks barricaded in his bedroom when the weather was wet. Gustavo and Marietta put up with it, trying to coax him and bribe him, mostly unsuccessfully. The people, who had for so many years loved Thelo and prospered on his coin, said the Prince had gone mad. They made songs about the Thirsty Prince who never laughed, never cried, never walked in the rain anymore. They said the palace gardens were taken over by beetles, that the gulls now reined over the kingdom.
When Thelo’s fear grew so that he refused drinking water as well, going so far as to destroy and seal every well in the area around the palace, Marietta had had enough. She didn’t know what to do, and so she did the only thing she could think of: go back where it all began. Gustavo didn’t have the heart to do it himself, but he watched as men grabbed Thelo and dragged him away. Marietta took him to the shore. He fought and screamed until, eventually, he tired of resisting and gave into his fate, this ending at the hands of his lovers. When his feet walked on sand, he shuddered, he felt light, his joints loose, and he thought, this is it. And when he looked back upon the life he’d been given, he thought, it was good, wasn’t it? It was exquisite, as long and short as it was.
Marietta stood tall, ignoring the Prince’s pitiful flailing. “Touch the water,” she ordered him.
He shook his head. “I won’t.”
“Touch the water,” she said again. Her face was like a mask, or like one of those wax things she liked to fashion, as if she’d sculpted her own features into wax and then put that visage on to cover the one below.
Thelo took a step back. “Why are you doing this?” he cried. He fell to his knees. “Why are you betraying me like this?”
And then, to her surprise and his, Thelo shook himself loose from the men’s hold and crawled to the place where the sea foamed against the earth, and lay there, lengthwise, letting the water lap at his form, his fingers slowly being buried into the wet sand. He was ready for the end: to dissolve, like he always knew he would.
But he didn’t dissolve.
When he opened his eyes, Marietta was standing over him, her head haloed by the sun, like that very first time when they met and she showed him what it meant to be alive. Then she knelt next to him and picked him up, cradled his head against her chest, her tears streaming hot down his cheeks. “You see?” she asked, again and again. “I love you, you see?”
When they returned to the palace, Marietta made him tell Gustavo everything: about his bargain, the period of grace, the sacrifice it required. Gustavo knelt before him and took his Prince’s thin—so thin! he thought. When did they get this thin?—hands in his own. He talked to him in the way Marietta had long ago used with him, the talk of children and dogs. So Thelo started speaking, and Gustavo did not stop kissing his hands the whole time, not stopping for a single moment; not when Salt told him about the days before breath, about his wish, about its granting and about its price: the heart of a lover, given to the ocean willingly, so that Salt might continue to live.
Only a heart, then? Gustavo wondered. Was that all? A bargain, truly, if he’d ever heard of one.
“I’ll give it,” he said, out of breath. “I’ll give it willingly.”
It was the second time in Thelo’s life that he found himself forbidding something, but this time he knew better than the first. He ordered his guards to take Gustavo away and lock him up in the palace’s deepest dungeon and stand at all times outside his door. He furnished that dungeon with the finest furniture his remaining salt could buy and dressed it in the most expensive silks, and then made sure none of his lover’s desires would go unmet, except the one for freedom: no drink too difficult to find, no food too difficult to cook up, no entertainment impossible to procure.
He had forgotten, however, that his lover’s talent was one for finding what made men tick, and find he did, and the guards did tick.
So Gustavo left secretly, in the night.
“But did no one try to stop him?” the young thing interrupts. “Didn’t Marietta or Thelo try to talk him out of it? Catch him, tie him down, restrain him in some way!” The young thing seems quite animated by the questions, and by the lovers’ failures to stop Gustavo.
Yet the questions give me pause.
Did they try? Truly?
My chest feels heavy, my legs sore from sitting for so long.
“I’m tired, child,” I say. “Let’s continue tomorrow.”
The child frowns but does not object.
The room is so cold around us, I think I won’t be able to sleep. And yet, I do, deeply and restfully.
I dream of tangles of flesh, of arms and legs, hands and feet and torsos, of muscles and bones and skin. And then I dream of the sea, a great salty flood that comes and swallows it all.
When I rise in the morning, the child is already awake, and so I take my seat and resume my narration.
So Gustavo left secretly, in the night. Only Marietta saw him flee the palace, his hand pressed against his heart. She knew right away what he was up to, and wanted to tell him that love, perhaps, should not hurt this much, that love’s price need not be pain, that, perhaps, the most precious things in life can be had without needing to be earned or bargained for—but in the time it took her to come up with the words, to weigh them against her own heart and force them out her mouth, Gustavo had already slipped away.
His legs were weak—from what, he didn’t quite know. Was it excitement or fear? Was it his days of incarceration, or the weakness of his heart that made him shake so? And if his heart were really that weak, would it even make a sacrifice worthy of Salt’s life?
There were many questions in his head, and perhaps that was for the best because, preoccupied in that manner, he managed to make his way to the remotest part of the shore he could think of. Then, realizing he didn’t know how one goes about finding the ocean and making a bargain with it, or indeed about giving it his heart, he walked into the sea wearing only his skin and a stone tied to his waist. He walked and walked, and then swam and swam, until every limb screamed with exhaustion and his throat prickled with thirst.
He grew weaker and weaker and, when he could swim no more, his stone pulled him down into the depths. Before he sank, he marveled: how deep, the ocean! How vast and cold!
He was woken by a voice that seemed to come from somewhere below him—perhaps, the pit of his own throat.
You are Gustavo the Merchant, the voice said. What do you seek?
He opened his mouth but found it filled with water and salt. His lungs were crushed, so he spoke with his mind instead: I am Salt’s lover, here to offer my heart so that Salt may live.
And do you come willingly?
Yes. Yes. He locked me up in a dungeon so I wouldn’t come. He doesn’t even know I’m here.
He? the ocean asked after a pause. You call salt a he?
Gustavo felt faint and a little delirious. Was he speaking to the ocean, or were these the dying visions of a drowning man? That’s what I know him to be, he replied, regardless.
I see, the ocean said.
Gustavo waited for a long while, but nothing happened. Was the ocean considering whether his offering was worthy? Or had it already been rejected? Or maybe it was Marietta’s heart that should have been offered instead—though the fact that it wasn’t should, perhaps, be answer enough.
Gustavo refused to be defeated this easily. He clawed at his chest, trying to get to his heart. Here, he pleaded with the ocean. Here, take it.
He waited for the knife—did the ocean have knives? Should he have brought his own? But no, he thought, so many shipwrecks must have made the sea the most knifeful place there is, and the ocean a connoisseur of blades! He closed his eyes and waited some more, for the rip, the tug, the brief, brief burn, but he felt none of that. Instead, he was buoyed, pushed up by a stream of tiny bubbles until his head broke the surface of the sea and the air rushed into his lungs with a searing pain that made him wonder if his heart was being torn from his body, after all.
Gustavo palmed the area above his heart. He was alive, his chest intact. Breath still in his lungs. Even the stone was gone.
“No,” he cried. “You cannot have him. Let me make good on his bargain!”
You have, the ocean replied, its voice cool and calm as the water was cool and calm.
It was never the giving that I wanted. It was only the willing I was curious about.
And then, Gustavo was pushed by a gentle current that returned him to shore exhausted, yes, but safe and whole.
He found his discarded clothing and, slowly, made his way back to the palace, to Salt’s embrace, to Marietta’s waxy moltings, to dogs, to fire, to velvet, to pearls, to food and wine and games, to pain and love, to the terrible things one does, the curious things, to life, to life, to life.
“So it was a favor, then, not a bargain,” the young thing says, catching me by surprise. I realize my own story had so absorbed me I lost track of time. And there’s little as intoxicating—arrogant, too, perhaps—as being taken with your own words.
Outside, the sun has climbed to its highest. Soon, it will start setting again.
“Do you think so?” I ask.
The child tilts its head, then frowns. “And anyway, I don’t believe this story,” it says.
“Oh? Why not?”
“I’ve heard nothing of a Salt Prince. If it’s the way you said, I would have surely heard of him.”
I study the child’s mouth. It’s perfect and smooth, and unfinished. A child’s mouth, and yet not.
“And, besides, I don’t believe life works like that.”
“And what do you know of life, salt child?” I ask, only a little bit unkindly. I don’t know why these objections irk me so, but they do. “Would you prefer a sadder story, then, one in which Gustavo sacrificed himself so that Salt may live, in which he and Marietta went on to live steeped in mourning and a grief so great that one day Salt walked back to the shore and melted into the hungry sea? Would that have been a better story—or at least one you could believe?”
The young thing considers this. Then, asks: “But what of Marietta?”
“What of her? I told you, she became an artist.”
The child nods politely, acknowledging that I had, indeed, established that fact. “But did she get what she wanted?”
Oh. That. I did make the story out to be about desire, didn’t I?
I should have known it would come to this.
“What do you think she wanted?” I ask, mildly now.
The child purses its lips thoughtfully. When it speaks, it’s with a voice that has too much sharpness in it, too much understanding, too much age. And I catch myself wondering: How old is salt? Not a young thing at all.
“Something to love that wouldn’t leave her,” the child says. “Something that would outlive her—isn’t that what all those casts were for?” The young thing glances at my shelves—the wax hands, the wax hare standing on her hind legs. Of course it’s noticed. I didn’t hide them. I could have. Why didn’t I?
Let’s try this again.
After the war, Marietta found her belly grew and grew. She felt many things at once: elated, desperate, confused. She never thought Thelo could father a child, and, in a way, she was right: when her water broke and the time came for her to give birth, the baby never arrived. There was no baby at all. Only more water kept flowing out of her, wave after wave, briny and thick with the scent of the sea.
Devastated, she left the palace. She went to the shore where she’d first met Salt and dug a tiny grave in the sand. She had nothing to fill it with, except a small wax figure of a child that she’d cast herself.
Then, she left the country. She was alone again, exactly as she had been before, except this time she knew what she wanted, and the price she was willing to pay.
Marietta walked and walked until she found an island where she found a hut where she found a witch who told her she knew how Marietta could make a bargain of her own.
I pause, and in that pause the child is looking at me a little fearfully, a little expectantly. Hoping, perhaps, that I’ll tell a different story. Any other story than this.
So Marietta waded into the ocean, I say, with her clothes sticking to her skin and her expensive shawl that Thelo’s salt had bought her swirling around her like so many eels. The water was cold, and the sand between her toes was hard and gritty, and the salt burned her throat when she swallowed, but she didn’t stop.
And then she heard that thing, that heartbeat that was also a voice and which Gustavo once heard, and Thelo before him, and who knows how many more before him. She thought of the small wax figure, frozen in its sandy tomb, and she spoke her wish: to forget.
To forget? the ocean echoed.
Marietta nodded, and then, because she wasn’t sure if the ocean could see her, she said: “Yes.”
And what is it you want to forget, lover of Salt?
Marietta cried, then. Salt would always be in her, she knew, in her tears, in her food, in every country whose shores were touched by a sea. “Everything,” she said.
And the ocean—the kind, the awful, the beautiful—considered her request.
And then, the ocean agreed.
“What is the price?” Marietta asked.
And the ocean told her that, if she could only recount her story correctly, as it truly happened, just once, she would forget. But, the voice reasoned, every story needs an audience, and narrating means narrating to someone. So the ocean fashioned for her an interlocutor and said: When you manage to tell the entire story to this salt creature, and tell it as it really happened, your mind will be free of it, and the pain it has caused you will no longer have a hold on you.
“What will happen to the salt creature?” Marietta asked.
She felt the ocean shrug. It will return to me with your story, so I may listen to it whenever I please, and be pleased by it or saddened by it in accordance with the current mood.
The young thing shifts in its cushion. It’s staring at its hands. Its smooth, lineless palms.
Its cheeks are wet.
“Don’t cry, child,” I say. “Your tears will wash your skin away.”
The young thing wipes its tears with those palms, careful not to erode the salt plane of its face.
“Do you still think my first story was not true? Do you still wish the ocean were not as generous as it was in that first telling?”
The child does not say yes, but it doesn’t say no, either. It is silent for a long time. Around us, the air grows warm and thick with the scent of melting wax.
Then, the child asks: “Was the story you told me just a lie, then? Was any of it true?”
I think about it before I respond, because I want to be as truthful with this child I have created—or caused to be created, which is really the same thing—as I can possibly be. “Sometimes, truths that are hard to believe are better than truths that are simpler.”
The child nods as if it understands. But how could it, when I don’t?
My eyelids sting. They grate my eyes like sand.
“I’m ready to listen to the ending now,” the young thing says.
I shake my head. “No, child. Let’s go to bed early tonight.”
“Are you going to try again tomorrow?”
I’m not sure anymore which version of the story I’m supposed to be telling, or if the story can ever be told to the ocean’s liking. And the more I remember it and tell it, perhaps, the more I forget it already, because I remember the words instead, the thing itself replaced by the memory of my remembering.
I say so, to this child.
I look around the room and the child’s gaze follows my own. It has looked longingly at my casts since the beginning. “Why these?” it asks, pointing at the sculptures.
“There are many ways of telling stories and many ways of remembering,” I say, because that much I know is true. “More than words.” I consider the casts myself as if I haven’t considered them in a long time. The child said what I really wanted was love that would outlive me, and isn’t that what our story was? Is?
There’s so much love in it, and so much joy among all the pain. Can I really let all that go? The more love the better, after all. Isn’t that right?
The more love the better.
I am reminded of those rooms of salt, overfull, brimming. The world was never enough to accommodate us. It would never be enough. So we’d just have to make the world bigger.
“What would you do,” I ask, “if you didn’t have to go back to the ocean?”
The child frowns. “But I do have to, don’t I? As soon as you tell your story correctly.”
“Is there really such a thing?”
The child is silent, so I try again. “But what if you didn’t have to go back for a long time? A long, long time?”
The child brings a finger to its lips in that thoughtful way it has of going about most things.
“I would have time to do what I want.”
“And what is it that you want?”
“I want to experience everything,” the child says then, and in that moment it reminds me of both of them: Thelo’s hunger for every little thing the world had to offer, Gustavo’s burning dark eyes. It reminds me of them both so much I think, perhaps, the ocean grew curious again in its dealings with me as it had grown curious in its dealings with Salt. That, perhaps, my bargain was but another trick; a ruse for the ocean to see what people are willing to let go of when they find out what they think they’ve lost is never truly lost to them.
And, if that’s true, well.
If that’s true, then, what bargain?
“Perhaps tomorrow I’ll show you how to make one of these,” I tell the child, pointing at the casts.
The child’s eyes widen and sparkle. “Really?” it asks.
“Yes. Would you like that?”
A pause. “What do I have to give in return?” There’s suspicion in the child’s features that hurts me, just a little.
“I’ll make you a bargain, if that’s what you want, but I want nothing in return.”
“Nothing?” the child echoes, its mouth slack around that novel concept.
“Nothing you haven’t already given me,” I reply.
The child looks at me, puzzled. “That’s not a bargain either,” it says, and I nod, because the young thing is right, it’s not. It’s no bargain at all.
© 2022 Natalia Theodoridou