The salt is haunted.
One might as well say the fire is wet, the dawn is dark, the library newspaper’s crossword puzzle is pristine. Salt as purification is as deep as human understanding. Salt is life, salt is defense from bacteria our ancestors experienced as a malevolent force of putrefaction, salt is usually sort of colorless and shiny in such a way as to make a striking visual. Salt is inimical to all that might mean to harm. No rot can creep where salt stands stalwart.
But rot is only unauthorized life. A morsel preserved is a kingdom denied to mold. Salt is life because salt is death. It’s tidy. And yet the salt is haunted.
The one who calls herself Sage because people are less likely to hire a medium named Cheryl, does not feel up to this. Efficiency in exorcism, she finds, does not overlap terribly much with supernatural skill. Just people skills. Most clients are haunted only by themselves, and waving cheap incense while they spill their sorrows over her knockoff Birkenstocks will suffice. Most ghosts, rare though they are, walk the benighted world between worlds with more or less the same needs they had in life. The notion of closure is as fictional as many spirits, but it’s a kind fiction she does her best to nurture.
Even the malevolent ones are simple. Smoke and chanting and runic scribbles as needed, and salt. Lots of salt.
This troublesome ghost belongs to a Laura Simmons who has the air of not being the sort of person to call a psychic. She works at a bank and maintains a complicated fish tank and dealt very healthily with her mother’s timely death, ask her therapist. She wrings her hands and makes sporadic attempts at small talk as Sage-née-Cheryl tries desperately to spot any anchor for what’s left of the mother that isn’t the box of salt. Around her, lights flicker and doors slam, a desultory haunting that reeks of sullen stubbornness.
In the end, Cheryl and Sage both trust in the eccentricity that accountants expect from palm readers and walks to the spice cabinet. A girl in yellow dancing beneath an umbrella smiles out at her from between a graying hot sauce bottle and a depleted jar of pumpkin pie spice. The salt girl twirls and grins and Sage (Cheryl) hopes for a moment that the cardboard cylinder with its cute little mascot is haunted instead. As if to disabuse her of this foolishness, the flimsy metal spigot at the top of the box opens and sprays her with tiny grains that cling to her lips with the taste of french fries and winters past.
“Did your mother like to cook?”
Laura accepts the question with the slightest shrug, her dignity long ago surrendered. “Not much in the last few years. It was hard to stay on her feet. I don’t think she ever loved it. Just something women her age did.” Laura Simmons has gray in her hair she covers with a shade the box calls Deep Auburn, and she does not really believe she will ever be an old lady the way her mother is. Was.
Cheryl was an old lady when she was six years old, and Sage is whatever she needs to be. If cooking was the trick, the pans would be haunted, the dials on the oven, the cracked measuring cups that exude a recent aura of disuse. She lifts a coffee can, then a wooden spoon, and then the salt, as if it’s part of a reasonable investigation. It sits heavy in her palm, caked and solid, and the girl with the umbrella spins, scattering illustrated crystals with wild abandon.
“I cook,” says Laura, faintly defensive. “Especially for Mom. She was on a pretty strict diet. Kidneys, heart, cholesterol. If you need any recipes for low-sodium chicken breast, I have a whole book.”
Ah. Sage smiles. Cheryl mentally balances her books for the week, because there is something of the accountant in every medium.
Under her instruction, a dubious Laura Simmons taps a grocery order into her phone. She and Sage and Cheryl drink weak coffee in a living room that still smells of mentholated lineament. The lights dance, doors slam, and the TV turns itself frantically on and off, far less alarming than the girl on the salt box spinning her tarantella.
The delivery driver is tipped well. (Sage suggests this pleases spirits. Cheryl drives for a ride-share a few nights a week and likes to encourage the habit.) Together, they set out a pastrami sandwich with plenty of mustard, a queenly mountain of kettle chips, and a soul’s ransom in pickles and coleslaw. Sage salts the rim of a beer glass with a skill Cheryl learned over summers and summers of bartending.
The living may not touch the food of the dead. So was Dread Persephone bound to her eternal realm, pith under her nails and fingers dripping red. The dead, in tasting the food of the living, can work wonders.
Sage’s follow-up visit two weeks later finds Laura’s roots grown out like steel and thunderheads and her spice cabinet amply restocked.
About the author:
Malda Marlys teaches science outside Chicago and writes the sort of speculative fiction that requires too many qualifiers for the normal flow of conversation. An out-of-practice black belt, mediocre birdwatcher, and terrible knitter, ey spends most of eir time being bullied by housepets and adding to a monumental TBR pile.
About the illustrator:
Cassidy Johnson is a traveling artist from Nashville, TN. Working primarily in pen and ink, she creates whimsical drawings and designs that seek to entertain and tell a story. You can see more of her work and purchase her art via cassidyjohnsonart.com or her Instagram @chaosssssidy.