Child of Salt

by Genevieve Abravanel
Child of Salt by Genevieve Abravanel

I was allotted one child. I had to earn him by measuring water. Remotely, from my small home above the ocean, I managed the growth of peas at the hydropods. Fresh peas are for the rich. Not for me, not for us.

That summer day, the baby was delivered by a visiting midwife, whom I paid in credits. The heat was unbearable and familiar, the splitting pain of birth somehow suited to the slow boil of the world below. Two years of savings gone. I nibbled reconstituted food while Natan ate the strength from my body, while I gave it to him gladly, having no one else. The man who shared his seeds was a stranger. There is no time for men when you have a job such as mine. I could have earned a love affair, but as I didn’t have credits enough for both, I chose the child.

Now he is eight. We live alone and two days in the week he attends classes at the community school. Otherwise, he assists me. He rubs my feet while I review the nutrient solution. Everything must be correct. 

We had rough years getting to the point where he could become helpful, where I didn’t spend every credit as it arrived on something bright to distract him. Lately, he’s begun visiting Earth back when it was peopled on the ground. The virtual program is wonderfully immersive. He tells me stories at the day’s end. Foxes and white cranes and whole forests of pine trees, their branches sawing in the wind. Rain soaking into soil. He opened his mouth to catch the rain. With wonder, he says it tasted fresh.

Here everything is salt. The de-sal plants have half the money and the grow pods have the rest. They also grow flesh for the workers. Real animals can only be slaughtered by the wealthy.

I will never be wealthy, but my life is not meaningless. I chose the child rather than a man because I needed purpose. My credits protect Natan from starting work before fifteen. He can become interested in things. He tells me stories about terraforming Venus. The moon belongs to the rich, and next, it will be Mars. But no one wants Venus. It’s just out there, free for the taking.

“And how long,” I ask him, “will it take to terraform Venus?”

Natan shrugs. He’s not learning this in school, but from the endless vids he watches, his brow furrowed such that I wish to wipe it smooth. “Billions of years.” His voice sounds calm. “Getting started will take audacity.” He’s proud of the new word, which he hasn’t learned from me. 

Natan is more interesting than a grown companion, lover or friend, I tell myself, because his spirit persists. He sees possibility where I see only crusts of salt. These crusts accumulate and corrode, eating at the pylons of our living pods. Everywhere beneath us, the salt devours. I once told Natan that in ancient times, soldiers were paid in salt, and he laughed in surprise.

The question I don’t like to contemplate, but which tortures me in the dim hours of my allotted sleep, is what will happen to Natan when I am gone. He is going more and more away, back to the old Earth. He says he is getting ideas for terraforming, but I don’t believe him. I think he is drawn back. The sound of the wind in the grass, he tried to describe it for me, because I don’t have the time to join him. He thrummed his fingers at the gate of my ear. “It’s like that,” he said.

One day, a message appeared on my grow screen. It broke through, unauthorized. The authorities call them graffiti, tell us to wipe them clean. I don’t know if they are traced. I’m always on this side of the law, the one that keeps us alive.

But this message touched something in me, a very cold flame that flickered in my chest. 

“Are you angry?” it asked. 

Carefully, I adjusted the temperature of the polystyrene substrate in my western-most pot of peas. I have never been assigned a different type of food, and now, I am an expert. 

“If not, why not?” The letters swam in black. It seemed they were written in fire. As if they could destroy all that I’ve carefully constructed and everything my heart contains. This life, here with Natan, and what we hold.

“The body is mostly water,” I told Natan once, years ago. When he was little, he cried all the time and I used to collect his tears. “Compared to our ocean, these tears are mine to drink,” I said.  

I want to reply to the graffiti, though it would be the end of me, though it would send Natan to work as early as tomorrow, scraping salt from the bottoms of the pylons. I click the data line for oxygen saturation which, in the nutrient solution, must be maintained. 

But there’s no address to which I might write back, for such a thing would be far too easy to trace. Instead, I murmur my thoughts aloud. Natan doesn’t hear me. He’s in the forest, watching the hawks soar.  

For his ninth birthday, I order him a strawberry. 

When he opens the box, he gasps. A red jewel on a bed of plastic confetti, plump and whole with a tiny green cap. He eats the entire thing, not offering me a taste, and then his eyes fill with tears. 

“Don’t cry,” I instruct and catch his teardrop on the tip of my finger. “Your future, it can still be anything.”

Genevieve Abravanel’s short fiction is available or forthcoming in The Missouri Review, American Short Fiction, North American Review, The Normal School, Indiana Review, and elsewhere.