The Salt Man
by Melissa Mead
When a widow weeps, the Salt Man comes to her.
When the surgeon's knife has bitten deep, the Salt Man is waiting.
He takes the tears of grief and agony and despair, and of joy so sharp and fleeting it feels like
pain. The salt drops, from prisoner and penitent alike, collect on his thin, pale palm and nourish
him. Only the first tears of a newborn are forbidden to him, for it is said that one taste of them
will unmake him.
His cadaverous face and long black coat, half-glimpsed in moments of despair, haunted the
people of Volkburg. Mourners saw, briefly, bottomless dark eyes looking into theirs from a salt-white face, and felt a cold hand touch their cheek. Then the Salt Man vanished, to become part of
the shadows and frost until human pain called him forth again. Those he'd touched gasped, felt
their hearts resume beating, and life went on.
Gisela felt him stalking her even before her husband died. She wouldn't cry in front of Hartwin,
who'd given her a white-faced smile after the surgeon left and assured her in a whisper that he
still had another perfectly good leg. She only allowed herself to cry in the other room of their
little cottage. That was when she first sensed the cold presence in the room with her. A dark
shadow, half-glimpsed. A scent of stone and sea. She dried her tears before they could fall and
hurried back to Hartwin's side.
She held back her tears while Hartwin thrashed and moaned, while she sponged fever-sweat
from his forehead, while his loving eyes stared through her as though she were a stranger. But
when those eyes lost all expression and his damp, hot hand turned as cold as clay, she knelt by
the bed and sobbed. When something colder still than Hartwin's clay hands touched her face, she
screamed, and the touch withdrew.
From that point until the funeral, Gisela kept silent and dry-eyed, working until last light on what
visitors assumed was a piece of delicate crocheting. The ignored visitors shook their heads,
murmuring sympathetically about Gisela's youth, the cruel brevity of her marriage, and the
fragile state of her nerves. Gisela pressed her lips tight and kept working.