The Salt Path19 min read

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At first the others didn’t trust Ilahi because he’d never killed anyone. But he could find things. This had been his job with their unit, finding the enemy, finding supplies, finding… anything. Away from the war, he became essential, and by the time they reached the salt marshes, Tran had begun to make excuses for him to the others whenever he did anything too outlandish.

Mishy never made excuses for anyone, and she waved away Tran’s excuses whenever they came up.  Mishy felt that excuses were beside the point. They were short on rations and short on ammunition, and none of their dreams were giving them any direction that indicated anything useful about finding their way back to the unit or even any allied unit any time soon. It was not time for excuses. It was time for results, and Ilahi had them.

Edward spotted it first: the blistering white house in the salt marshes, with its full complement of blue bottle trees and tiny blue flowers around its hedges. When they got closer they could see that the windowsills were lined with blown glass pufferfish, amber and blue and clear. No one found it strange that there were no lights on, as it was broad daylight when they got there, but when they knocked and tried the open door, it turned out that no one was inside.

Ilahi carefully took his shoes off anyway.

“What are you doing?” said Mishy.

“We are guests here.”

“No host, no guests,” said Tran.

Edward, unexpectedly, sided with Ilahi. “It’s not our house. Take off your shoes. And if it was my house, I would take off my shoes anyway.”

None of them wanted to count how many months it had been since they had been in a proper house—still more for one that had not been commandeered and turned into the headquarters of one thing or another. This was a house that was still a house. Mishy wondered aloud whether the pufferfish were guards.

“Not good guards,” said Tran, “if they let in the likes of us.”

“Good guards,” said Ilahi. “We mean no harm to this house.”

They waited on the first floor for the owner of the house to come home, perching on the kitchen chairs like long-winged sea birds. Tran went around the grounds to the boathouse and back again. When the colors of the sky warned of impending sunset and still there was no owner, Edward unpacked biscuits from his backpack, and Mishegoss prowled the kitchen.

“Here’s a cold box,” she said. “It’s got things still good. Cheeses. This one has dill in it. Radishes, carrots.”

Ilahi and Tran looked at each other. “Radishes keep,” said Ilahi. “You could have been gone any amount of time and left radishes.”

“Cheese is made to keep,” Tran agreed. “Cheese is what you do to milk so it’ll keep.”

“Come on,” said Mishy impatiently. “We’ll give them—something, money or something.”

“Have you got money?”

“No, but Edward has. Come on.”

“I have,” said Edward around a mouthful of biscuit. The other two watched to see if he would join in. His hand moved almost faster than they could see, even when they were watching, and he was the first one to light candles in the front room, making the light dance weirdly off the pufferfish, the first one up the stairs to give the second floor a more detailed look than they had given it when they were just assuring themselves of the owner’s absence.

They slept under the guest bed, on the planked floor, except Mishegoss, who sprawled across it, at first with defiance and then with the boneless snores of a child. Edward and Ilahi were awakened in the night with hooting cries outside. They crouched at ready, catching each other’s eyes, but it was only sea birds or the wind, they came to think, for nothing came of it. Mishy and Tran slept on unhindered.  Eventually Edward fell back to sleep, and then Ilahi.

In the morning, Edward grew restless. “We’re not setting up housekeeping in someone else’s house. What if they come back? What if we lead the army to them?”

“No one is following us,” said Ilahi, and the rest of them looked away, uncomfortable, not asking how he knew. They had long since stopped the normal, healthy practice of pooling their dreams every morning, only mentioning them if someone had a dream that had something useful to say about the next day’s directions.

“Still, it’s not our house. There’s food left here. Someone’s coming back.”

“We’ll meet them when they come,” said Mishy. “Perhaps they’ll want us to tend their land for them. We’ll be field hands. That’s a thing people are, isn’t it?”

“None of this land is fields,” said Tran.

“We can clear it for them. I know how to clear and plow. I did before. I think. I think I remember. It was a long time ago.”

Ilahi was making breakfast of some oats he had found in the pantry, some dried fruits he could not recognize. They were the same size as berries he knew, but yellow and still squashy instead of red or purple and wrinkled. “I cleared lands,” he said. “There were—tricks to it.”

The uncomfortable silence fell again.

“Probably they’re fisher-folk,” said Edward. “Probably they traded for the cheese and their main trade is on the sea. Probably that’s where they are. We should go down to the sea to look for their boat coming in.”

“We could learn to help clean the catch,” said Mishy, undeterred. “We’ve gutted enough things in our time.”

“Men are not like fish,” said Ilahi from his place at the stove. He had not found any dried fish in the pantry, but there was no good way to explain about this to the others, and he supposed there might be some fisher-folk who ate or traded all their catch fresh all year round. He couldn’t conceive of it really, but he could make a picture in his mind where it was true, and it was more comforting than a picture with no road, no fields, no fishers, no forge, no tools, and what then? Better that Mishy not get her heart set on humble fisher-folk.  Better that she not get her heart set on humble anything.

“Guts are guts,” said Mishy cheerfully. Ilahi sighed. Her heart set itself without his interference. It always had.

Seeing nothing better to do, they all went down to the shore after they had their oats. The slope was sudden, held in place with sea-grass, but there was a path for them to scramble down, a way that people went often, with the grass paved over with boards leading down to a dock.

“The ancestors far back,” said Edward, “before, when we came here. Their dreams were like children’s dreams. They didn’t mean anything, they were just—brain noise. The thing about being king of infinite space—that man in the drama doesn’t mean he sees anything coming. He just has bad loud brain noise. Like a child.”

“So what?” said Tran, her voice loud noise on its own.

“I think these people changed themselves too,” said Edward slowly. “I think they changed more than just their dreams. Here by the sea with no road.”

“Less than their dreams,” said Ilahi, but no one paid him any attention.

When they had a good look at the dock, it was not what they expected, not the rickety wood structure that went out a bit to let little boats moor at will. It would do that, if they had had a little boat. Ilahi immediately yearned for one. But no. When they were standing on the edge of the water-darkened wood, peering out, the dock was thick and sturdy, with stairs going down under the water and a very specifically shaped hole.

“Like a lock for a key,” said Mishy thoughtfully.

“Wrong kind of quay,” said Edward, and laughed immoderately at his own joke. No one else did. He scowled at them and dipped his fingers in the water and tasted it.  “It’s ordinary salt water,” he went on, hoping to cover up the quiet mood the others seemed to have fallen into. “Possibly lots of things in it, who knows? But it’s definitely the ocean. An ocean. Definitely salt.”

While they were speaking, Ilahi was taking off his boots and uniform jacket and trousers. In just his skivvies, he slipped into the water, holding fast to the dock.

“Well?” said Tran. “How is it?”

He grinned up at her. “Fine. Warm. We’re farther south than I thought.” He groped for the metaphor, which had gone unfamiliar when he wasn’t looking. “It’s like a bath. Like a bath where no one jostles you for the soap and no one hustles you out again and the water hasn’t gone cold from three battalions being in and out before yours.”

“Oh,” said Tran. Mishy was already halfway out of her uniform. Edward felt it was his duty to scowl and protest—felt that someone should stay on land, to explain themselves to the owner of the house—but the sea was there, warm and clear by the dock and the deep green of fused radioactive glass further out. He thought of the battlefields he had fused like that, with the tools he had left behind, and bent to take off his boots.

“Can you dive, Ilahi?” he asked. “At least see what’s under there. Make some pretense that we’re exploring something and not just, you know, frolicking like seal pups.”

Mishy, by then treading water next to Ilahi, blew a spout of seawater out of her mouth, then spat the last of it, making a face at the brine. “I’m frolicking like a seal pup.”

“I dove as a child. Yes. I’ll dive.” Ilahi swam around underwater, blinking against the sting of salt and then finding it natural, remembering it of old. There were mooring clamps under the water, against the dock, and they had not had time to rust or grow barnacles. He surfaced and reported this.

“They’re still using it,” said Tran.

“They might come use it now,” said Edward, still sitting on the dock in his skivvies.

Ilahi blinked up at him, long dark lashes matted together with the water. “Edo. Come on. We have not been able to go back ever. Eh? We’ve salted the ground from the first. From the time we left, yes? And that would have been bad, and then we kept going. And then we took the food, and slept in the house, like we were some child’s tale. Every step goes forward. No step goes back. So if they come for this place in an undersea machine, it will have to be a machine, to stay undersea and work with these clamps. So we’ll see it, or we’ll hear or feel the vibrations. So never mind all that and come in for a swim, eh?”

Edward splashed sheepishly into the water, leaving his sparsely loaded gun on the dock where it ought not to be. There were tiny blue fish, and the underside of the dock echoed when they huddled underneath it to rest.

Ilahi dove under again and found a tiny notch. It clicked back and forth under his curious fingers.  Back, and then forth again. It pulsed. He surfaced. He said nothing to the others of what he had found.

They didn’t feel the vibration of the undersea vessel coming towards them through the water until they were dried out and sleepy in the kitchen that night, eating the last of the cheese and drinking slightly stale-tasting water from the kitchen tap.

“They’re coming back,” said Tran, going very still.

Edward moved to shut off the lights of the kitchen before anyone could see, but Ilahi stopped him.  Mishy slipped out the door through the dark to watch. Blue light bubbled up through the water by the dock. And then there was stillness and silence.  Mishy came back in.

“It’s a sphere,” she reported in undertones, though no one was there to hear but them. “The clamps are engaged. I—it—shall I go back and look?”

Until that moment no one had to be in charge to tell her. No one knew who would be if someone had to. There was an awkward silence. While they were all realizing what the awkward silence meant, the splashing started, a regular churning splashing that sounded like nothing they had heard before. Mishy slipped back out into the darkness. The rest of them stood frozen in the kitchen, trying to tell from the strange noises what was going on.

Mishy returned after a few minutes. “It’s gone dark now. I think it’s gone to sleep for the night.”

“First watch,” said Edward. “I won’t sleep a wink anyway. I’ll wake you in a few hours, Mish. Ilahi third. Tran’s always up first anyway, she can just have morning watch.”

“That makes sense,” said Ilahi. There was a distinct thawing of the air then, as they all remembered that, despite taking watches, they had not gone back to their unit, no one was in charge of anyone, and they still had to agree on things.  They could still act like people who agreed on things.

“But we’re still sleeping in the house?” said Tran.

“It’s more comfortable,” said Ilahi, “and I don’t think it’s any less defensible than having them find us in the bushes somewhere.”

“But if it’s their house—”

“Whoever is awake will talk to them.”

“But if we don’t speak their language—”

“We can pantomime to them just as well at night as by day, and you know it. The lights are good here,” said Ilahi. “What you mean is that you hoped they wouldn’t come, and now they have.”

Tran finished drinking her glass of water. “Yes. That’s what I mean.”

“I didn’t see anyone,” said Mishy. “Maybe it was some kind of automatic drone or probe or—” Not knowing how to make it sound more comforting and less likely to blow them up with no further negotiations, she stopped.  She went back outside. When she came back in, she was carrying handfuls of the tiny blue flowers they’d seen. “Soldier sedge,” she said. “Careful not to crush it. If they step on it, it’ll warn us with the smell. It was made like—like us.”

Edward and Ilahi looked at each other. “Mish, did you notice that was planted around the house before?”


“Why didn’t you say?”

She shrugged. “No cause to flutter. It’s pretty, we can use it, no problem.  Lots of people have it.”

“Maybe in your region,” muttered Tran, but they scattered the flowers behind them like wedding attendants as they went up the stairs to bed.

They managed to get to sleep under the bed, knowing that Edward was watching, knowing that he was the vigilant one. Mishy joined the others this time, resting but not able to drop into the comfort of the night before. It was Ilahi’s watch before anyone heard anything further.

He was sitting against the closed door, looking back and forth down the hall, when he heard footsteps in the kitchen below. Just one set, and nothing so comforting as voices. The feet padded, like their own feet. Ilahi took in a quiet breath through his nose: the person below had taken off their shoes. He ached to believe that this made them a guest or a host and not merely aiming for stealth. But he knew what he wanted to be, and he knew what he was, and he knew the sleeping forms in the room the same.

He held his breath.

The figure that ascended the stairs, sounding almost like another wind through the sea grass, was almost like Ilahi himself. Almost. It was paler and greener, and in the dim light of the hall he could not tell whether it was male or female. The stranger’s limbs bent and waved like the sea grass his ear had yearned to mistake it for. There were more joints than Ilahi expected, and there were—he was the finder, he knew to look for them—webs between the fingers, shadows along the neck that might be gill slits, might be anything.

“Is this your house?” said Ilahi. “We can—we can pay you for the—if you take money, if they were your cheeses—” He stopped. It did not look like the sort of stranger who made cheeses. Was he making too many assumptions?

“We use this house. Sometimes. You called,” it said, its voice like a horn. “I see what you are. I see what you have been. We can make it quiet.”

Ilahi had only known one kind of quiet offered to him by strangers. He couldn’t imagine that it would be better from those who bent in strange ways. He whimpered and instinctively lashed his hand out to say no. The stranger put up a whippy bent hand to stop him, and then his foot was going, too, and it was all instinct, all army training, and the stranger bent and squelched and crunched in sickening places.

Then the stranger went down. Ilahi bent to the whistling noise coming out of the stranger’s nose.  Then nothing.  He made an involuntary high strangled noise himself. There were more footsteps below, and this time voices, a chorus of horns. The footsteps on the stairs were more like footsteps this time.

Mishy woke up and eeled out from under the bed, her light brown skin and her dark brown hair and army-issue undergarments all one shadow in the darkened bedroom. She, at least, was holding her gun. Ilahi thought he might have remembered his and wondered why he had not. He looked back at her, not wanting to look at the others in the hall. “Ilahi?” she called out at him. “What’s happened?”

“They’ve come,” said Ilahi. The others stood looking at him.

Edward and Tran joined Mishy in a moment, with no fuss, and they all looked at the others standing there. “Hello,” said Mishy, and then looked down at the body at Ilahi’s feet. “Oh, Ilahi. Oh no.”

“He didn’t mean to,” said Tran. “He never has before. He didn’t mean to. He didn’t know. None of us knew.”

Ilahi, staring down at the body, said nothing.  It didn’t bend the way he expected even for a dead body. The ones on the battlefield had all bent oddly, but all in the manner of death. This, though. This was a modified person, a person who had been modified long before he arrived to kill it.

“What did it do to you?” said Edward.

“It reached,” said Ilahi.  “He. He reached. He told me they could make it quiet, and then—”

“And then,” said the nearest one, prompting.

“I tried to make him not touch me,” said Ilahi, his quiet gentle voice returned. “I needed—I needed that he not touch me.”

“He will not,” said the nearest one.

Ilahi laughed, no mirth in it. “Clearly.”

The farthest stranger, the one ready to bolt, said, “Who are you, to do this to our kin?”

“We’re deserters,” said Ilahi steadily.

Edward made a sharp noise and raised a hand to cut him off, and Mishy burst out, “Don’t tell them that!”

“We walked away from our army unit,” Ilahi continued, looking straight in their eyes, one after the other. “We got lost at first. And then we realized, and we didn’t say anything, we just let ourselves get a little more lost. And then we ran.”

The strangers said nothing.

“And we have kept running since. The entire world is—you know what the world is.”

“The world is what you have done.”

“Yes,” said Tran, and they looked at her, standing there with sleep in her eyes and a knife in her hands. They looked from her to the knife, and no one in the hall failed to notice the knife, or failed to think about it. “He didn’t mean to do it. But he did do it. This is what we were made into. This is what we are.  Who are you? Who made you?”

“We make ourselves. As you make yourselves.”

“Yes,” said Ilahi, looking at Tran and her knife. “We do make ourselves.”

Tran made a scornful noise.

Edward cleared his throat. “Well, no matter who made us, here we are, doing as our masters would have intended.”

“We do not have masters,” said the most talkative of the strangers. “We come and go in the paths of the sea as we will. You may accompany us if you will, but the one among you who has done this thing—” The gesture that he made at his fallen comrade ripped and waved, and Mishy leaned forward to watch it, surreptitiously trying to copy behind her back with the hand that did not have her gun held down by her side.

“Mish,” snapped Edward in a harsh whisper.

“The one among you who has done this thing would face our people for it.”

“I didn’t mean to,” said Ilahi.

“You can of course explain this, if you join us,” said the middle stranger. “Here we have no jurisdiction. You had no jurisdiction either. That did not stop you.” The most outgoing stranger turned and made a harsh bubbling noise in its throat. Edward stared.

“We will leave you to decide,” said the outgoing stranger. “We will stay in our vehicle for the night. We thought you were someone else when we received the signal. You stay or come out to us. The choice is yours.”

They turned and shuffled down the stairs. Ilahi pushed the others back into the guest room and followed them in, shutting the door.

“What do we do?” said Mishy.

“What do you mean, what do we do?” said Ilahi. “We leave here in the morning.”

“We can go back,” said Tran. “If we bring them. Even just one of them. Even the one that’s already dead. They just left him in the hall, they don’t mind.  We can go back, and then we weren’t deserters, see, we were explorers, we got lost, we did the best we could, and look what we brought back! They can use him. For the war. They can study him.”

“Tran,” said Ilahi.

“And then I can see my grandpa again,” said Tran. “And my aunt and my sisters and my dad and mum. And all of us can. When they give us leave, when—when the fighting, when—”

“Tran,” said Edward, in a gentle voice none of them had ever heard him use. “How hard was it to get here?”

“Ilahi can find anything. He’ll find us the officer who will listen. We’ll pack the body in salt and—”

“Tran!” said Mishy, sounding like herself, sounding like she was about to propose that they go skip rocks on the beach. “I’m not going back to the army. I’m not. I have a mum too, if they didn’t kill her trying to get her to tell where I was.”

“We weren’t important enough for that,” said Edward distractedly, trying to convince himself.

“It’s easier to get found than stay hidden,” said Tran. “It would be easier this way.”

“With a corpse,” said Edward. “With a—what would we even carry it in?”

“We could make a coffin. We’ve made enough coffins. Ilahi could find us—”

“I don’t want to,” said Ilahi, “and always before we had carpenters and tools.”

“There are probably tools in one of the cabinets around here.”

“I don’t think,” said Mishy. “We haven’t seen them. Who knows what kind of person lives here, if they’re summoning people like that. Why did they think we summoned them?”

“Probably the people who really live here are returning,” said Edward. “Probably they’ll be quite angry with us if they realize we’ve killed the friend they summoned. Our only hope is to go with them and try to explain. And learn from them. I liked the bit where they had no masters. I could—I could do quite a bit there.”

“You could be their master, you mean,” said Tran.

“No, but,” said Edward, his gentle voice back. “I think they have a lot to say.  Didn’t you see how different they were?”

“Oh yes.”

“Oh yes,” Ilahi repeated. “It’s all right for you. They made me no promises.”

“We’d protect you. And anyway you can apparently protect yourself,” said Mishy.

“You’d never thought it, had you,” said Ilahi bitterly.

Mishy put a hand on his shoulder. “Neither had you. What happened?”

“He was just grabbing, and then I could find—all the ways the different joints could flex and bend and go wrong in a fight, and I could see them, and it took over, all the battlefield—”

“Yes,” Edward stopped him. “We all know. Let’s get some rest. We don’t have to decide in the middle of the night.”

When Ilahi woke, he was ready to share his dreams again for the first time, like a normal person. He had found in them a road leading south along the sea coast. But his friends had left the guest room. Someone had cleared the stranger’s body from the hall.

Tran was alone in the kitchen. All of the guns and knives except Ilahi’s own were in a neat pile on the table. “Where are—” he started. She jerked her head at the kitchen window. He peered out it. Edward and Mishegoss were climbing from the dock to the top of the bubble. It closed behind them. Then the churning, splashing noise began again. This time, as it was full daylight, they could easily see from the kitchen window that the water was making a great froth, suds on the deep green. When it cleared, the bubble was gone.

Ilahi and Tran sat down and stared at each other across the kitchen table. “I don’t think they’re coming back,” said Tran.

“No,” said Ilahi. “Probably not.”

“Even if we pack the body in salt, I don’t want to take it back to our unit after all,” said Tran. “It wouldn’t—do what I hoped.”

“Good,” said Ilahi. “I wouldn’t help you.”

“Where are we going to go?”

Ilahi shrugged.  “They came from somewhere. There’s got to be somewhere.”

Tran peered at him.  “I’m not sure there does. And…maybe that’s where Edward and Mishy have gone. Down in that sphere, under the water. Maybe that’s where they came from.”

“Maybe not,” said Ilahi.

“So where are we going to go?”

Ilahi buckled his pack. “Tran. Where do you want to go?”

“Somewhere I’m not constantly thinking about our unit and the battles and all that.”

Ilahi sat down at the broad wooden table, his pack in front of him. He put his knife in it, thought about it, and put Edward’s gun in. Then he took Edward’s gun back out again and placed it back on the table, carefully aligning it exactly as it had been. “I don’t know where to find anything like that. Shall we try further down the coast? I’d like another little house like this. Somewhere we haven’t lost anyone.”

“Yes,” Tran said softly. “Somewhere we haven’t lost anyone. That sounds nice.”

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