“Father,” asks Eritrea, “why are we a people of salt?”
Her father, Sabin, is an older man, kind of coffee colored, kind of gray. There’s a bit of gray in his hair, too. His eyes are very blue.
“Once upon a time,” he says, and puts Eritrea on his lap, “there was magic in the world. And it is the nature of magic to take two forms: dark and light, and the nature of the dark to eclipse the light.”
Eritrea adjusts herself for comfort, and looks up, and listens.
“We were gods in Babylonia,” he says, “and in a monster’s thrall; and in his hands all terrors and all sorrows. And we raised up one of our number to be a hero, and kill the monster, and free the world, and her name was Mylitta, and she was the mother of our line. And the dark enchantments broke, and following, the dawn; and Allah said to us, ‘No more shall you be gods, for you are needed no longer.'”
Eritrea thinks. “That is not very salty,” she says.
“Have you heard me say,” Sabin asks, “that we are a people defined by our sorrows?”
“We did not bring that dawn,” Sabin says. “The hero fell, and the monster triumphed over her. Not our hand but Allah’s broke his tyranny. Not our efforts but Allah’s will saved us from eternal slavery. And, even so, some of our people are still in the monster’s hands.”
“Oh,” she says. “That’s sad.”
“That is one reason,” he says, “that we are a people of salt.”
There is a sword calling to Sabin as he tells this story; and the path of his life is close to ending; so let us look back to its beginning.
It is 715 years into the common era.
In Syria there is a carpenter’s apprentice, and his name is Sabin, a self-effacing young man with startling eyes. The daughter of Caliph Sulayman falls in love with those eyes, so, will he or nill he, Sabin is summoned before Sulayman.
“Tell me,” says Sulayman, “are you worthy of my daughter?”
“No, milord,” says Sabin. He shakes his head, and a shock of hair falls across his eyes.
“I thought as much,” Sulayman agrees. “Yet if I execute you, I shall hear nothing but weeping and wailing for all my days.”
“It must be terribly hard to be caliph.”
“You cannot imagine,” Sulayman assures him. He hesitates. “Very well,” he adds, decisively. “You shall travel to the edge of my domain, where a great scorpion troubles the lives of my people. You shall kill it and prove your heroism, or you shall die trying; and either way, I shall benefit.”
“The caliph is wise,” Sabin says, and does obeisance, and leaves the court. He travels to the edge of the caliphate. He digs a trough and fills it with wine, and waits for the scorpion to come. Eventually, it does, stalking along the earth with sinister intent. It is as long as Sabin is tall, and a sickly brown.
“Respects, mighty scorpion,” Sabin says. He prostrates himself, and the scorpion slows its advance.
“It is rare,” says the scorpion, in a high thin voice, “for someone to greet me in this manner.”
“I have been sent,” Sabin says, “to kill you, or die trying. Since I cannot kill you, I feel that I should make the best of things, and drink wine with you before I die.”
“You are wise,” the scorpion says, and sidles up beside him, and sips from the trough of wine.
“How did you come to be?” Sabin asks, with genuine curiosity. “I had not thought that creatures like you still existed.”
“Here and there,” the scorpion says. “Now and again.”
“I was an ordinary scorpion, limited in scope,” the creature explains. “Then I stung the local mullah. As he died in agony, he cried out, ‘Ah! Allah is no merciful God!’ This blasphemy shocked me so terribly that I became . . . as you can see.”
“Does that happen often?”
“I have never seen another of my kind,” the scorpion admits, “but I do not mind; my libido is much smaller than my stature. So I wander this land, stinging and eating humans and cattle, and living as a scorpion must.”
It sips some more from the wine.
“They do not appreciate me,” it broods. “I mean, perhaps I am the only one. Perhaps I am a wonder of the world, the greatest of all scorpions. They should fete me with fine foods and I should have palaces and silks. Instead, they send you out to kill me.” It looks up. “I suppose you are hoping that I will become drunk, and fall into this trough.”
“No,” Sabin admits. “I mean, that would be clever of me, but my thought was this: you are a wonder of the world, the greatest of all scorpions. You’re neat. And I did not want to die as just another unknown bit of prey. I wanted to drink with you through the night and then wrestle drunkenly until one of us met a tragic end.”
The scorpion peers at him blearily. “You are an odd creature.”
“We are a people of salt,” Sabin says.
It thinks for a moment, then sighs and lowers itself into a crouch. “Ah.” It hesitates. “I almost do not want to kill you,” it says. “For the wind spoke the story of your people, and I know that we are kin.”
“It is all right,” Sabin says. “Kinslaying is a tradition.”
“I know,” the scorpion says. “And besides, I am a scorpion. I cannot very well resist my nature; not for kin, not for pleasure, and not for all the riches of the world.”
“It must simplify things.”
“That,” says the scorpion, and lowers its head to sip from the wine, “it doesh.”
“You’re getting drunk,” Sabin says. He’s a bit tipsy himself, so it seems very amusing.
“What of it?” The scorpion’s tone is defensive.
He laughs, and the scorpion joins him in his laughter. Then there is a silence, and then more words, and they talk late into the night. In the morning, they rise, and face off against one another.
“Do you want to win?” the scorpion says.
“Why do you ask?”
“It’s important,” the scorpion says. “I would call you friend, but I have no stance for fighting friends. I must fight you as enemy, or as prey.”
Sabin thinks. “I do not want to win,” he says.
The scorpion thinks about that.
“You are an odd man,” it says.
“No,” Sabin says. “It’s not that. It’s just . . . if I kill monsters, I’ll die.”
The scorpion stops.
“That is a strange statement,” it says.
“The world is full of strangeness,” Sabin says.
“True,” the scorpion says; and they face off; and as the stinger charges down, fear takes hold of Sabin’s throat, and he catches it in flight and drives it down into the scorpion’s brain. The scorpion twitches, twice, and goes still.
“Oh,” says Sabin. “Oh.”
He sits for a while, and travels for a long time, and then he stands, dustily, before the Caliph.
“You killed it,” the Caliph says.
“Sheer luck!” Sabin assures him. He has grown more cheerful as he traveled. “It is not something I could normally do.”
“I heard,” the Caliph says, momentously, “that you got it drunk and it fell into a trough.”
Sabin frowns. “I should not wish to dispute the Caliph’s illustrious sources.”
“Your methodology was clever; but clever enough to earn my daughter’s hand? This is what I must ponder.”
“Great Sulayman,” Sabin pleads, “Your daughter is lovely, and your kingdom great, but I wish only to be a carpenter’s apprentice. I have no wish to perform great deeds. I do not want to marry into wealth. I wish only to labor with my hands and die in obscurity.”
“Perhaps,” the Caliph says, stroking his chin, “I should assign you a more terrible monster.”
“As the Caliph thinks best,” Sabin grumbles.
“In the northern region,” the Caliph says, “there is a beast, or so I am told, with thirteen limbs and seventeen eyes, and great fierce claws, and a rumbling roar, and it is a great disturbance to the peace. Its skin is hard enough to turn aside a soldier’s blade. You shall kill it and prove your heroism, or die trying.”
“Ah!” Sabin says, stricken. “Surely the Caliph’s great beast is a better tool for that than I!”
“My daughter does not wish to marry my great beast,” says the Caliph.
Sabin sighs and lowers his head.
“The caliph is wise,” Sabin says, and does obeisance, and leaves the court. He travels to the north. With the caliph’s funds he buys seven great bolts of silk, fine foods, and the service of a young maiden named Parmys. He goes to the creature’s haunts, and roasts the meats, and waits, and in time the creature comes stalking out. It is huge and grey and powerful and it has many legs and many eyes and many arms and its shape is somewhere between an elephant’s and a bug’s.
“Respects, mighty beast,” Sabin says. He prostrates himself, and the creature stops.
“Hm,” it says. “You show respect.” It looks at him through its seventeen eyes. Five of them blink. “You are unusual.”
“I have brought you gifts, too,” Sabin says. “Fine foods. Silks. A woman for your harem.”
“No sexual services,” Parmys clarifies. She studies the creature, and then nods firmly. “I am strictly a prestige odalisque.”
“You are generous,” the creature says. It strides forward on its muscular legs and regards the silks. It looks up at Sabin. “You are hoping that I shall try on these silks and find myself tangled in them, unable to move while you locate the one weak spot in my armor and pierce it with a blade?”
“The worthy creature misjudges me,” Sabin says. “I wish only to honor you as you deserve.”
“Very unusual,” it sniffs. Then its eyes narrow all at once. “You smell of kin.”
Parmys looks at Sabin. She looks at the creature. She looks back.
“I don’t see a resemblance,” she volunteers.
“I am a god,” it says. “He is a god.”
“No,” Sabin says. “We are gods no longer.”
Parmys looks at him.
“We aren’t,” Sabin says. “At least, I’m not. I don’t even know what he . . . it . . . is.”
The creature lowers itself into the silks, and thinks.
“I do not know myself,” it says. “Once, I was a person. But I . . . don’t know. I don’t remember what I looked like.” Its body ripples, shifts, and sprouts a new limb. “Like this, perhaps,” it says. “I do not know.”
“Ah,” says Sabin.
“I am content,” it says.
Parmys stares at it. “Sometimes I forget what I look like,” she says. “Or even who I am. But I do not look like that.”
“No,” the creature agrees. “You are lovely.”
“And you,” Sabin says, “are fortunate.”
He stares at the creature with naked envy in his eyes; and it blinks at him seven times.
“Why do you say that?” it asks.
“Both of you,” he says. “You have no idea. You can afford to forget yourself.”
It hulks closer to him. One foot snags on the silks.
“And you cannot?” it breathes.
“I have a gift,” Sabin says. “I can kill monsters. And it is always nagging at my mind. If I forget myself, then I will kill you, and I will die.”
“I am not a monster,” it offers. It sounds almost offended.
“I use the term loosely,” Sabin admits. “But come: you stalk around on many legs killing people.”
“I also rip out their brains and sup on their memories of self,” the creature admits. “But still. Call me titan. Creature. Beast. Not monster. I have seen monsters in my day.”
Sabin sighs. The creature looms closer. Then it trips on the silks and falls on them both. Parmys screams. Then there are knives in each of Parmys’ hands and she is stabbing at the creature’s eyes. It is roaring. It is kicking out at them with one great foot. Everything is confusion and war. In that chaos Sabin, drowning in indecision, finds himself reaching out his hand and pushing it through the creature’s weak spot and into its brain. It is shrieking and his mind is spinning as he squeezes the pulp therein. Then it twitches, and casts them both aside, and dies.
“Sabin!” Parmys says, and shakes him. “Sabin! Are you all right? Don’t . . . don’t . . . die however it was you thought you were going to die!”
Sabin’s eyes are white and staring, and his hands are twitching. Impulsively, Parmys kisses him, hard; and he gives a horrible jerk and falls back, and his eyes clear.
“I am here,” he says, and his voice is quiet. “I am still here.”
“Good,” she says. “I . . . I have never seen . . .”
“I hired you,” he says. “So I will take you back with me to the court of the Caliph; but you must never say what you have seen and heard.”
“Of course,” she says.
And so they travel back, and the Caliph calls them to his court, and with great honor greets Sabin.
“Sabin,” he says, “you are truly a hero of my land.”
Sabin grits his teeth.
“And,” the Caliph says, “you may marry my daughter, and have a great parcel of land, and six sacks full of gold; and do not think of refusing, for she has set her heart on this.”
“She is beautiful,” Sabin says, “and kind, and she would accept it if I said ‘no’.”
“Perhaps,” the Caliph says, “yet I would be the one to live with her grief, not you; and, in an odd coincidence, I am the Caliph, and you are not. Thus, you shall wed.”
“The Caliph is wise,” Sabin says, and does perfunctory obeisance.
Sabin takes the Caliph’s daughter, and Parmys, and lives in a grand estate. At first he is unhappy and eats every meal in sorrow. As time goes by, his affection for the Caliph’s daughter grows. For she is, as he has said, beautiful and kind, and it is not her fault that her father’s ways are stern. They become more and more in love, and in this all would be well; but a jealousy rises in Parmys’ heart, and she says to the Caliph’s daughter, “Ah, he does not love you much, you know.”
“Oh?” the Princess says, and raises an eyebrow.
“Well,” Parmys says, “when he slew the monster for me, he said, ‘Why, this is the least of the things I would do for the woman of my heart; I like you but scarcely, and still you deserve this death. Ah! If I loved you, then I would pile such beasts before you as to make a kingdom of their meat.'”
The Princess’ nose wrinkles. “That seems unsanitary; and, moreover, difficult, for there are not so many monsters to go around.”
“There is,” Parmys says, “the Caliph’s great beast.”
“Foo!” says the Princess; but the seed was sown. And one day, as she lay with Sabin, she says, “Will you kill the great beast for me?”
And he rises, and glares at her.
“It is as I thought,” she announces. “You love me not! With your eyes and your ways you woo’d me, but you love me not!”
“More than the mountains love the sun,” he says. “More than the deserts love the sand. I would bring you its heart, Princess, but I cannot.”
She snorts. “Men are easy with such words.”
“Yes,” he agrees. “I am hardly the only man unable to slay the Caliph’s great beast.”
She leaps to her feet, and cleans herself, and dresses, and says, “Come. We will go to the palace, and beneath it, and I will show you to the beast, and you will kill it for me.”
“You do not understand,” Sabin says. “If I kill it, I will die.”
“I am a hero,” Sabin says. “It is my nature to kill monsters. But I am also djinn.”
She hesitates, and then sits upon the bed. “I should like to hear such things,” she says, “before the wedding, rather than after.”
“We were gods in Babylonia,” he says. “And in a monster’s thrall. So we rose up a hero from our numbers, to kill the monster and free the world. It was the final battle in centuries of battle. It was the chance that Allah gave us to answer our long pain and end the tyranny of the monster’s power. And the hero met the monster, and they fought, and the monster won.”
She looks him up and down. “You are here. You are alive.”
“We are a people of salt,” he says, “defined by our sorrows.”
“You are alive.”
“As the monster gloated of his victory,” Sabin says, “the hand of Allah struck him down. It obscured the sun. It blotted out the sky. Everything was chaos and terror. But we were not strong enough, you see. We had failed. So he cast us down too. Allah banished us from Heaven. He cast us down to earth, to live in the mud and the muck. He stripped us of our godhead. And without it, we are simply slaves.”
“Allah is merciful,” the Princess protests.
“I am a hero,” Sabin says. “It is the law of my nature. I can kill monsters. That is my slavery, and it is not a harsh one.”
“Then why do you not?”
“It is not a time for heroes,” Sabin says. “That time is ended. And Allah’s judgment on us was harsh. If I succumb to my nature, if I become more than human, if I let myself transcend, then I will die, and it is no clean death. I will become a god stripped of godhead. It means becoming nothingness. Not even the angel of death will come for me.”
“I do not believe you,” she says. Then, with a wisdom uncharacteristic of a Princess, she adds, “but I trust you. You need not kill the beast for me.”
“Thank you,” he says.
And Parmys’ jealousy withers as the days grow long, for she is a practical woman. Sabin’s happiness and the Princess’ happiness grow, but still that conversation nags at his mind and does not give him peace; and only the birth of his daughter Eritrea keeps him there so many years.
“I don’t think,” Eritrea says, “that we should define ourselves by our sorrows.”
“Oh?” Sabin asks.
“Those things are sad,” she says, “but they’re done. Maya’s tears. The monster’s victory. They’re done. We should make things brighter, and not dwell on the bad things.”
“Ah,” Sabin says. “But it is not to dwell that we call ourselves a people of salt.”
“It is not?”
“It is the nature of those who suffer tragedy,” Sabin says, “to say: this is our nature, this is as we deserve, this is part of us.”
“We are a people of salt,” he says, “to remind us that we were worth Mylitta’s sacrifice, and Ella’s before her, and all those after, and most of all of Maya’s tears.”
And it is seven nights thereafter that he rises, and dresses in armor, and takes up a sword, and travels down into the Caliph’s dungeons.
“I am here to kill you, beast,” he says, and there is a hissing and a rumbling and a shining in the dark. And he draws his sword, and for a moment all is light, and then he shreds, like a tissue in a gale, and the angel of death does not find him, nor any place thereafter bear accounting for his soul.
And Eritrea does not forget.