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The Salt Man
    by Melissa Mead

The Salt Man
Artwork by Anna Repp

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.

Snow lingered farther up the mountain on the day of Hartwin's funeral. The chilled mourners didn't stay long at the graveside. Soon only Gisela remained, fingering her delicate crochet-like work with one hand while she steeled her courage.

"Hartwin, mein Geliebter," she said, and let her tears fall.

She felt the icy touch on her cheek at once, the haunting presence made briefly solid, and turned to confront her stalker. Her hand clamped onto a bony wrist. Untaken tears slid down her cheeks as she glared into bottomless black eyes. "Give him back."

The Salt Man tried to pull away, but Gisela held him fast.

"Release me," he said in a voice that rasped like the hinge of a long-unopened door.

"Give me back Hartwin."

"I have not that power. I am not Death."

"Oh no? You stand by deathbeds and open graves, shrouded in black. I've seen you. I've seen people cross the road to avoid you, even though they say they don't know why they do it. What can you be but Death by another name?"

"I do not take lives. Only tears. I do what I must to live."

"You live on other people's pain. If you're not Death, you're his dog." Her lips curved in a bitter, heartbroken expression that wasn't really a smile. "And a dog that preys on people needs to be chained."

Now she removed her hand from his, revealing a mesh of silver, gold, and white now embedded in his wrist. The work of her long nights with the crochet hooks.

"Made of silver wire, my hair, and a thread from Hartwin's shroud. The book says it will vanish once you give me what I wish." She took a deep breath. "Take time from my life to bring Hartwin back. Years, if you need to. Just leave us a few together, please."

"I cannot."

"Please. Just a few weeks. A few days."

"I have not that power."

Gisela's heart sank. She'd been prepared for rage. Inhuman fury. Treachery. Anything but this impassive refusal.

"If you won't let him go, I won't let you go either."

The Salt Man simply watched Gisela's untaken tears dry on her cheeks. When she walked away, he followed.

People turned as they passed, whispering behind their hands. The young goatherd who took Hartwin's flock to and from the upper pasture stared outright.

"Frau Solberg, your shadow is wrong," said the boy in a worried voice.

Gisela kept walking, ramrod straight, determined not to show fear or despair to the creature behind her. When they reached the cottage, she turned to find the Salt Man paused on the threshold.

"I must not wear flesh for long," he said.

Gisela remembered Hartwin's body lying cold and empty on their bed. "Some of us have no choice about how long we 'wear flesh.' Get inside."

He strode past her into the main room. In the little house, he loomed larger. Gisela braced herself, remembering stories of his bone-chilling touch, his merciless gaze. But the Salt Man just stood on the rag rug before the hearth, shifting from foot to foot as though his soles were tender as an infant's.

"I feel pain," he said.

He sounded more like a child with a bellyache than a creature of nightmares.

"Sit down, then," she said, taken aback.

He sat, clumsily, as though he'd never tried to sit before. He sat on the rug, although there was a chair just steps away.

Gisela stirred up the fire. In its familiar light, she studied her prisoner's inhumanly white face without flinching. "The stories say you drink tears."


"The stories also say you bring sickness and suffering to cause more pain."

"I do not. I cannot. The Law forbids it."

"Will you bring back Hartwin?"

"I cannot. I have no power over death."

"I don't believe you. I still think you are Death. No matter what you call yourself, that chain will hold you. I won't let you stalk anyone else."

The Salt Man fingered the mesh that bound him. It had sunk within the skin. He pulled on the skin as though it were clothing that he could remove, and when that did no good, he turned and thrust his arm into the fire.

Gisela screamed. The Salt Man howled in astonished pain. Gisela knocked him to the ground and threw a blanket over his smoldering arm. When she took the blanket away his charred coat-sleeve fell to ash. The skin beneath it was red and blistered, but the mesh shone undamaged.

The Salt Man stared at his burned arm with a look of disbelief. He held it to his chest, rocking and moaning, but dry-eyed.

Gisela rushed outside and returned with a pan of cold water.

"Sit in the chair. Give me your arm."

To her astonishment, he obeyed. She soaked clean rags in the water and wrapped cool bandages around the burn. Relief flooded the Salt Man's face.

"Kindness for kindness is the first Law. I will repay this kindness, Gisela."

She couldn't meet his eyes. "Don't call me that. Ever. And I'd have done the same for a dog."

"Is that not your name?"

"My name that friends use. If you must call me something, call me Frau Solberg."

Someone knocked on the door. A gentle voice called, "Gisela? Are you there, dear?"

She ran to open the door. "Oma Solberg!"

Hartwin's grandmother hobbled into the room and set a stoneware bowl on the table. "I brought you some einbrennsuppe."

"How can you both be Frau Solberg?" said the Salt Man.

Hartwin's grandmother froze, the fragrant steam from the soup swirling about her, and stared at the chair where the Salt Man sat. Her vision seemed to change focus. "Der Salzmann? Oh dear."

"You can see him, Oma? Really see him, not just a shadow?"

She nodded. "Gisela, child, what is he doing here?"

Tears stung Gisela's eyes. The Salt Man leaned forward in trembling anticipation. Oma Solberg frowned, and he leaned back.

"I want him to give back Hartwin."

Oma Solberg dropped into a chair. "Oh, child, don't you think I'd have asked for my Heinrich back, if such things could be done? I loved my grandson, but this . . . No. This poor creature can't help you."

The Salt Man's indignant look at being called a "poor creature" would have made Gisela laugh, if she weren't so near tears.

"But isn't he Death, Oma?"

"No, Gisela dear. Just a child of the mountain and the sea." She sniffed. "What have you been burning? Old clothes? Sausages?"

The Salt Man held out his arm. Oma Solberg looked horrified.

"I've bound him with the Undying Link," said Gisela. "I learned it from one of your books, Oma."

"Oh, Gisela! Herr Salzmann, I ask forgiveness for my granddaughter's foolishness."

The stern pale figure inclined its head. "Forgiveness in return for young Frau Solberg's relief from pain. Kindness for kindness is part of the Law. Perhaps this is a good way to end."

"End? What are you talking about?" said Gisela.

"I cannot do what you ask, but no mortal can break the Undying Link. Therefore I must serve you until the child is born."

Gisela went cold. "What child?"

"The one you carry, of course, Frau Solberg. The one who will be my end."

The room spun. But Gisela hadn't fainted at her first sight of Hartwin's mangled leg, and now she managed to stand straight and reply with only the slightest tremor in her voice. "Nonsense. Why would you know something like that before I would?"

"I see lives. The one inside you shines both like you and like the man."

"His name is -- was Hartwin." Gisela's tears spilled over. The Salt Man stood up. He loomed over her by at least a foot.

"Don't touch me!"

He stopped, and bowed. "As you command, Frau Solberg. Perhaps this is another kindness. The child's first tears will taste all the sweeter, after I go without any for so long."

Gisela stood with her hand pressed to her stomach. She couldn't feel any life stirring there. To have Hartwin's child, with Hartwin gone . . .

The Salt Man had to be lying. Could he lie? Her plan had seemed so simple: detaining Death long enough to plead for Hartwin's return, offering as much as her own life in exchange as he demanded.

But Oma Solberg, who'd welcomed her when the rest of Hartwin's family had eyed her askance, said that the Salt Man wasn't Death. If that were true, she'd trapped a creature from one of the Marchen told to children, no more threatening than a kobold or an elf. The pale stranger's look of confusion as Oma Solberg pushed the soup bowl toward him only strengthened the impression. Surely the End of All Things wouldn't look so bewildered when confronted by a spoon?

"Eat, Herr Salzmann," said Oma Solberg. "Nothing with a belly can go long without food in it."

"But this is not tears."

Gisela hesitated, then stirred a heaping spoonful of salt into the broth. "Now try."

He stuck a finger into the bowl. Gisela had to demonstrate how to use the spoon. She caught Oma Solberg's amused look and guessed what the old woman was thinking: If the Salt Man's prediction was true, she'd welcome the practice in teaching helpless beings how to eat.

A tear slid down Gisela's cheek.

The Salt Man, intent upon his task, didn't look up when Oma Solberg led her from the room.

Gisela woke convinced that the events of the previous day had been a nightmare. She opened the door to find the Salt Man still sitting in the same chair.

"Oh. Have you been sitting there all night?"

He stood up. "No, Frau Solberg. The weise, alte Frau said that you would need a fire. She showed me how to keep it alive."

Sure enough, a rejuvenated fire crackled on the hearth. Gisela's cast-iron skillet sat amid the flames. Gisela noticed the blackened lump resting inside it.

"Ah… what is that?"

"A sausage, Frau Solberg. For you to eat."

Gisela rescued the pan. "No one's going to be eating this. Unless you like charcoal?"

"I would not know. The weise, alte Frau called it a sausage."

"Oh dear." Gisela went to the stone crock in the corner of the kitchen and scooped up a bowlful of sauerkraut. "Try that. It's salty."

"I cannot drink that."

"You don't drink sauerkraut. You eat it." She ate a spoonful herself by way of demonstration. He followed suit. His eyes widened, and he dug in with relish.

Gisela, on the other hand, left the room when her stomach gave a sudden twist of revulsion. Not at the Salt Man. At the smell of sauerkraut, which she'd always loved. Her stomach knew what her heart denied. The Salt Man was right.

Every time Gisela coaxed her unwanted prisoner into trying a new food, or dressing himself in Oma Solberg's late husband's clothing (Gisela wouldn't let him touch Hartwin's), she saw herself doing the same for her child. Sometimes it was a girl, sometimes a boy, but it always had Hartwin's loving eyes. And soon she couldn't help but think of it daily. Her breasts ached. Her body thickened. People soon noticed that she was with child.

They noticed the Salt Man, too. Every day he became more solid, more visible. Oma Solberg commented on it first.

"You have color in your face, Herr Salzmann! And you look like there's a body in those old clothes of Heinrich's now."

At first, when he followed Gisela to market, carrying cheeses and charms for her to sell, people had made comments about her odd shadow while looking straight through him, not even seeing the items he carried. Now Volkburg knew him as Menno, Gisela's simple-minded cousin, come to help the young widow during her pregnancy.

Oma Solberg had scolded her for calling him simple-minded. "He's older than either of us, older than the mountain itself. He's not the village idiot, Gisela! He knows things we can't begin to understand."

"He doesn't know how to tie his own shoes, Oma,"

"I do now," said the Salt Man, holding out a shod foot as evidence.

"But they're on the wrong feet," Gisela pointed out. "Oma, how else would you explain the strange man in my house? You know the things some people said when Hartwin married me and not a local girl. A simpleminded cousin is, well, innocent."

"He is that," said Oma Solberg, and Gisela felt another pang of guilt.

"Fourteen," said the Salt Man from his place by the window.

"Fourteen what?" said Gisela, puzzled.

"People crying outside in the street today. Yesterday it was twelve."


"Not all. Frau Muller, Herr Hoffman, Herr Schmidt --"

"The blacksmith? Crying in front of everyone? I can't believe that."

"I have worn flesh for too long. Tears fall with no one to gather them and make them part of the earth and sea again. There are too many tears in the world."

"Nonsense." Gisela shook her head. "You're telling me that you stalking people like a carrion crow somehow makes the world a happier place? I don't believe that."

"Someone must gather the tears."

"I don't believe that either."

Oma Solberg said nothing.

Summer turned to autumn. Gisela's step got heavier. She sat down more often to rest and stretch her aching back, letting "Menno" do the actual marketing instead of just carrying her purchases. She had to admit; now that he'd learned the concept of money, he did it well. No one cheated him. Not out of fear, though. No one crossed the street to avoid him now. In fact, it looked like people sought him out, greeting him with a handshake or a hug. Gisela was forced to realize two things: The people of Volkburg, who'd always borne injuries, bitter winters, and hunger with grim determination, now cried at burnt porridge. The butcher wept while slaughtering cattle. The minister sniffled over his sermons.

And the Salt Man's touch lessened that sadness, however briefly.

The somber pall over Volkburg deepened, and Gisela's time drew near. Oma Solberg explained the concept of birth to the Salt Man. His look of shocked incomprehension made the old woman smile for the first time in weeks.

The baby arrived with the first snow: a perfect, healthy girl with her father's eyes. When her first cry rang through the little cottage everyone, even the Salt Man, smiled.

But little Ruth didn't stop crying.

Gisela's heart broke to hear her, but no amount of rocking, soothing or songs from either her or Oma Solberg could quiet her. Gisela cried too, in sympathy.

"Give her to me," said the Salt Man.

Gisela held her sobbing daughter closer. "No. You said that her tears would mean the end of you. I've done enough wrong to you already."

"Frau Solberg, as long as I wear flesh, people will grieve without stopping. This is part of the Law, like giving kindness for kindness."

"It's not kindness to kill you!" Gisela had to shout to be heard over her child's heartbroken screams.

"Your child will cry forever."

"Take my tears, then. A mother's tears must mean something."

He shook his head. "You may hold her, Frau Solberg, but let me take the child's tears."

"Gisela," she said.

"Your pardon, Frau Solberg?"

"Call me Gisela. Please. Tell me, will it . . . will it hurt?"

"I don't think so, Gisela."

Gently, the Salt Man touched the newborn's cheek. The tip of his finger glistened with tears. Little Ruth stopped crying at once.

"No, it didn't hurt her at all. I think she's happy."

"I meant you . . . Gisela protested, but the Salt Man had already touched the finger to his lips. Gisela held her breath.

And the Salt Man stood there, staring at his finger as though he'd never seen it before.

"You're, ah . . . still here," said Gisela at last.

"Yes," he said, sounding puzzled. He held out his wrist.

"The Undying Link is gone. But you're still here," Gisela said. She knew she should feel relieved, but instead an overwhelming gloom swept over her. Ruth's cries started up again, and redoubled.

"No, he's not, said Oma Solberg over the din. She, too, was crying. "The Salt Man is gone. That's just Menno."

"But . . ." said Gisela.

"I wore flesh for too long. I broke the Law. Forgive me." Menno, who had been the Salt Man, trembled.

Gisela had never seen him cry, but now tears streaked his face.

Gisela kissed her daughter, handed her to Oma Solberg, and kissed the old woman's cheek. "Danke," she said, and went to stand before the former Salt Man.

"You had no choice. I didn't mean to trap you. I only wanted Hartwin back. Can you ever forgive me?"

"You have shown me nothing but kindness, Gisela. If giving you my forgiveness is kindness in return, I give it freely."

Gently, as she would have for Ruth, Gisela wiped the tears from his cheeks with her thumb. She saw the look of shock on his face, then on Oma Solberg's as the tears touched her lips.

Then all was salt and darkness.

A salt-white, black clad figure haunts the town of Volkberg. Mourners see her face briefly, feel her touch on their cheeks before she vanishes and life goes on. Some call her the Salt Widow, although her touch is gentle. Only one person now living, an old man with a grown daughter, knows the reason for the name. When asked to tell the story, he turns away, his eyes bright with tears.

And when the Salt Man weeps, the widow comes to him.

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