Fiction from Jackie Kenny
My girlfriend has built her house on the salt flats. The salt flats lie bone white and glittering in the mountains, thousands of feet above the cold roaring sea. She told me that a hundred years ago, the flats were a clear blue lake, salty enough that small stones would float on the surface. People came on pilgrimages from miles away to collect the water in glass vials, plastic bottles, tightly sealed Tupperware. On their return home, they dabbed the water on the cracked lips and warm foreheads of their loved ones. The water was said to cure any illness; in some cases, it was said to grant immortality. When the rains stopped and the blue lake dried into crystalline white plains, the people no longer came.
My girlfriend has lived alone on the salt flats for years. She built her house out of stones so that the salt cannot eat it away. I know I still love her because I’m afraid of heights and I still climb the winding trail through the mountains every month, past iron sharp rocks, crusted dead trees, grey and white leopards slinking around cliffs. I knock sticks together to keep the leopards back as I climb. I come to bring her the things she misses, but it has been a long time since she has needed food or water to survive.
Every trip is like the others. She meets me outside, and I can see her from a distance, standing with the sky and clouds behind her. The white plains are bare except for her and the stone house.
“What did you bring this time?” she asks and takes me by the hand. Her hair is a long rusty orange streaked with white, the white sections as thick as wiry cords. In the kitchen, I sit at the table as she reaches into my backpack and pulls out pumpernickel bread, a carton of eggs, purple grapes. Behind her, jars of salt glimmer on the windowsills.
It was never about the water for my girlfriend; she is convinced all the healing power of the old lake exists within the salt. She began by putting salt into her food and sprinkling salt in the cracks in the floor, the couch cushions, the potted cactus, and her pillowcases. With every passing year, the salt she ate and lived with embedded itself deeper into her skin; it didn’t leave her.
Now, her body has been glazed into a shimmery white thing, hard and statuesque. Salt crinkles in the folds of her sweater and digs under the rim of her nails. It dusts her bare shoulders and hardens in her hair. Her hands are gritty, like little rocks. Every time I visit, I see her body growing farther and farther away from me. She tastes like the ocean must have tasted a long time ago.
My girlfriend knows I will be hungry from the climb. She cracks eggs into a black frying pan coated in salt. I can see her thoughts tumbling behind her dark eyes as she takes a jar down from the windowsill and tips salt into the scrambled eggs: I will live forever, she might stay with me forever.
She watches me as I lift the spoon to my lips. With each bite, I want to vomit. The salt burns. “Do you like it?” she asks, her voice worried. “Is it any good, any good at all?” I choke down the last spoonful and my eyes sting. I know she wants me to be like her. I place my hand on her rough cheek.
“Of course,” I say.
Afterwards, she goes upstairs, and I pour a full glass of unsalted water down my throat. I pluck fresh grapes from their stems in the clay bowl to feel them burst in small sweet bubbles of violet throughout the dark corners of my mouth. I cough and think of when my girlfriend will come back down to me. I think of my house that lies away from the mountain and how it is surrounded by warm green trees and soft vines, home to crawling black ants, butterflies with tiny yellow wings, and bluebirds. I think of the time when the drying salt flats were still covered by a thin layer of clear water and the water reflected the sky and clouds, so that the whole world was doubled and infinite.
At night, she and I watch the grey and white leopards prowl. They stalk their own shadows on the flats, leaving faint trails of paw prints in the salt beneath the moon. I kiss the back of my girlfriend’s gritty hand.
Like always, before we go to sleep, she places her mouth to my ear. Grains of salt fall from her lips. “Will you stay?” she whispers. “Will you stay with me?”
I move closer to her. “I can’t,” I whisper. I feel her body stiffen, but she doesn’t turn away.
Maybe one day, I will love her enough to answer differently. In the back of my mouth, I can still taste the sweetness of the grapes.
Jackie Kenny‘s work can be found in Allegory Ridge and is forthcoming this fall in a short-story anthology published by Flying Ketchup Press.