issue twenty-six

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(1640 words)
Ken Poyner
The Saltman's Wife

I was to be but a simple anchovy salter, a man of fine brines and evaporation. No complexity to me, no knowledge of commerce, no science beyond what is inherited; every element of my industry, and the industries of others that support my own, all as flat and round as a ritual, as accepted for unchanging fact as the myths about religion told in child church services and secretly believed by adults.

This was to be me: a man of crystals, a man of scraping the gray rock out of wooden buckets and barrels. A man who knows what brine is best and how hot the spleenful fires of evaporation must be; a man who challenges the worth of a house by the saline in its airs. A man of all these details, and absolutely no more. A man who has his comfortable rung on the ladder, his accustomed step on the plank that leads to the brine pool, his thatched place on the line that hoists the huge wealths of salt to market: the salt that women work into ringing beds for the commercial catch of anchovies. I was to watch in pride as the sealed barrels of anchovies in salt rolled down the thick planks of our communal pier and were stacked by my brethren of export onto cavernous ships which then strutted and struggled loose to sail nobly to places I cared nothing about.

Had only I found, for my season of stiffness, a girl whose small hands would work in the gutting and boning of anchovies, a girl who could fathom the science of a layer of fish, a layer of salt; it would have been enough to have hurled my salty passion at a mate who then sweat of brine, with the rough skin of her hands feeling of fish bone and salt, whose breath of extreme was but the smoke of evaporation and pristine layering for preservation.

But no. I was to begin a different history. I could not be a laborer, with his knockabout wife. My circumstances were to be smitten by better circumstances. I was to be a better merchant, with a better wife.

I first saw the woman who was to be my mate lying spiritless in the road. Younger than some might think proper, she had a wealth of features admirable in transition: a nose still turned slightly up; hair remaining the shade of sun leaked into a cellar; tiny points of breasts that saw gravity as bendable; the unscraped skin of virgin, or the next best thing; a waist that looked as though it might fit seditiously on a man's tongue.

It was so early that no one was about. I would not have been out, but I was making a delivery before the morning had properly opened up, only to catch what I had promised to deliver the night before, but had missed. One workman's wheelbarrow of spoken-for salt. I must have been at that heavenly point in the street, pushing my empty barrel back from a lackluster leaving, just bare empty moments after the day's mortuary cart had passed. Since the onset of the great sickness, it had been agreed that the mortuary harvest would be accomplished when the day was still shut, and that the cart would be filled and emptied before proper people rose to toss the contest of their chamber pots into the street. Only a slow delivery man, bent such as me into his lone foul moods, finding himself an evening late on delivery, would be out, with his attention tethered to navigating clean ruts in the dark road.

She could not have been there long. She was dressed in a house coat, one that would be the sign of a lower post in domestic service, or the height of style in a proud working class home. The edges of it turned slightly up, but the modesty of it remained an open declaration. Her long fingers lay out like a daughter's accusations. I could see no outward marks of calamity. She seemed as calm as though napping in a fall meadow, with rain two days away from either side of the moment, and the lean clouds thrilling her into a remorselessly animal sleep.

I could have kept to my own business, but I live in the bowels of a lonely house and in the street by herself she seemed the fueling curd of loneliness and I thought: what is the harm? So I picked her up, folding her into the brace of my wheelbarrow, and turned back to my house, traveling no less like a man with a mission when I left it, the barrow then loaded with paid-for salt. She jostled and burbled in the barrow like a cake of holiday jelly and one hand independently trailed off into the road and I let it draw a dust path alongside our travels. I noted how well she remained in the barrow, how little trouble she was, how convenient the geometry.

In my basement, she was cool and compliant and I made a place on one shelf where normally my buckets are bandaged or stored, and where sometimes the salt is spread out to be picked clean of impurities. To fold and unfold her was a joy. She was remarkably light and had not yet given into the rigidity the less faithful embrace. The smell of her was still an opulence of local oils and flowers, and the brine air of my cellar would hold her close for yet a few days; but I knew I would have to make my decisions soon, as my preservatives do not work by proxy, but directly.

I know the anchovy packers' arts, the careful work of women with delightfully small fingers who find in the fish what will halt the salt in its protection of the flesh; who know what to leave still in the pure anchovy for the product to remain identifiable as the product. I have seen them ladle in my salt, or the salt of my competitors, and embed the beautiful fish, press out the brine, break up the crystals that are too large. We sell our fine anchovies in farther lands than otherwise an anchovy could venture. We know how to keep anything you want, if you want it dear enough, from spoiling.

And so I worked.

I rearranged my work cellar. I set my buckets on other tables. I spread my salt on other platforms, picking it clean with light bent across new angles. Evenings I would talk to my salt-eyed companion and we quickly, near workmanlike, became comfortable with each other. All about our tiny space I could sense only the presence of salt, the remains of long years of industry, the product of the current day's travail. And I made my decision.

The magistrate came to my cellar to perform the ceremony, and my two witnesses were a rival saltman, with whom I was on good terms, and his huge and indelicate wife. It took the two of us to get this rival saltman's wife up and down the stairs to my cellar. She was in no way as pliant and carefree as my wife-to-be, and it is my understanding that she started the marriage as a handful of electricity, only to strike water and ground out early, then elapse into a bitter taste of sweet against the sodium chloride of her husband's quarreling house.

The truth is, my fellow saltman, as we waited to see if his wife might make an entrance without our assistance, asked me if I might be getting the better wife in the deal. All things taken aside, there are some attributes in a mate that might ease the chaffing of the salt trade, and some that might ring like a cut on the hand that must sort the salt, naked and thriving on pain.

The magistrate ended the service with the usual wish for many industrious children, but then grew nervous and left. In the interest of good manners, my fellow saltman and his wife, one stair at a time and with the huffing of trash fish left on the deck of a prize anchovy boat, soon followed.

In the weeks since, I have made no secret of my happiness. And I have made no secret of the fact that I am chronicling how a saltman encourages a wife into the seeming perfection mine has achieved. I have taken the well-worn steps that I applied from the anchovy packers' intricacies, noted where there is more to do when salting a wife, taken away what might be necessary with an anchovy but not with a spouse. I have refined the times of brine and salt and sunlight and air, and how to rub the skin so it does not go raw.

At first, saltmen and their wives would visit, making the obligatory rounds to the newlywed's house, bringing a gift of salt ham or salt pork or salt beef, or a cabbage cured in brine. Conversation would invariably slip into how my wife has remained so serviceable, so unchanging, so in need of only minor attentions and upkeep. I would regale my guests with the details, hold my wife's hand and speak glowingly of the art that seeded our love and keeps us forever the charring spice of each other's existence.

Soon it was more than the saltmen. Soon it was more than the hard bitten, labor cramped men of no means who wanted to know my methods. The old were followed by the young, the odd-jobs man by the ship's mate, the ship's mate by the ship's captain, the ship's captain by the sons of the anchovy merchants. I give them the tale of my marriage process, but the salt I sell.


M  C  R

This work is copyrighted by the author, Ken Poyner. All rights reserved.