THE SALT PANS
Since the catastrophe, there had been an acute shortage of salt. To be sure, if you lived near the sea, there was no problem at all; you could place sea-water in flat dishes and leave it in the sun. In a few days, you could garner the crystals. But Sylvia and her people lived hundreds of miles from the sea. What to do? Without salt, life had no zest, and she suspected that a modicum of it might be necessary to life itself. The tang might keep them all alive.
Sylvia found out by accident about the taste of tears. On a particularly doleful day, a trickle became a torrent, and her tears flowed into her mouth. They were salty; and though they were bitter, she savoured the taste. As they ran down her face, they left a track like a snail, and as they dried, a white residue appeared. Sylvia realised that this discovery could be fruitful. She started to frequent funerals - rather informal affairs these days, with a hastily-scraped hole - and took little bottles with her. She begged the mourners to donate their tears, and though she felt rather like Nero hearing of the death of Petronius, she persevered. She even found out about people who were ill, and waited outside their death-chamber with her bottles. She poured all the tears into a pan to dry.
Later, Sylvia realised that sweat was salty too. She had kissed the shoulder of a lover who had been toiling in the sun, and his sweat burned her tongue. She fashioned a sort of strigil such as the ancients had use to clean the skin, and scraped the labouring bodies of those digging the roads or farming the ground. People were suspicious of her, and her work was interminably slow. She carried her precious salt-pans with her everywhere, scraping off the crystals when the tears and sweat had dried. She planned to decant them into little canvas bags and sell them, but the task seemed to take forever.
One hot day, she was walking across a plain and found a ravine. It was a sort of cleft, and she scrambled down into it for shelter, since it contained trees and bushes. Further and further she descended, until at last it narrowed to a sort of door. She squeezed through and found herself in an enormous underground cave, dimly lit by green light filtering through the occasional hole in the roof. The walls and floor were white, and as she progressed, her feet made a crunching sound. Soon she smelled water, and came upon a huge hidden lake. She bent down to drink, and recoiled with shock: the water was intensely salty. But why? She looked at the white crystals of the path, and broke a piece off the wall to taste. It was a mountain of salt. Whose tears, whose sweat was this?
When she had calmed down and become more sensible, Sylvia realised her life had changed utterly. No more collecting tears or scraping sweat: an incredible bounty had been hidden under her feet. She filled her pockets with the rock salt - it was so heavy that it almost tore them. The first thing she did when she emerged was to throw the salt pans away. Their day was over.