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The Salt Grows Heavy

The Salt Grows Heavy by Cassandra Khaw

the book The Salt Grows Heavy on a watery field

The First Night In the shadows stands a ruined house that looks like bones and ragged skin, crooked fingers and a gaping mouth. Inside a mother watches her two days-old daughters eating, sitting astride their meal. The children croon to each other as they lick blood from their fins and fingertips. They have their father’s beauty, but their mother’s teeth. What once was a human adult has been thoroughly feasted upon. The mermaids leave nothing to waste. 

The plague doctor, the last of the mermaid’s husband’s people after her children’s hunger caused an apocalypse, asks where the mermaid is going, but she cannot speak. The mermaid dreams of returning to the inky depths but she has been on dry land too long. Perhaps she could find another kingdom, marry another prince, murder her family, then pull her teeth until her daughters come with their hunger. The plague doctor seems to know her thoughts and asks her if she would like company. The mermaid smiles, for she cannot speak, her husband cut out her tongue, cooked it and fed it to her seasoned with five-spice and saffron when he discovered she was pregnant.

Before the plague doctor and the mermaid mount their horses and leave the kingdom, it is burned to ashes at the plague doctor’s request. It’s cold as they travel. The plague doctor’s breath plumes though the mermaid doesn’t feel the cold, but at the plague doctor’s insistence, the mermaid is wrapped in furs. They travel through the wilderness, stopping occasionally, once for the plague doctor to leave a black feather in a little shrine, until they reach a clearing with old cairns and empty graves. 

The pair make camp for the night amongst the long dead, the mermaid making a fire and badly cooking a fish while the plague doctor does everything else. The mermaid taps her nose indicating the plague doctor’s mask, which they take off for the first time to reveal an androgynous, untextured face almost doll-like with fine stitching across it. The plague doctor offers a trade, one question for one of their own. 

The mermaid touches the stitches, the plague doctor says they are manufactured. In return, they ask the mermaid’s name and are given a guttural exhalation, which is, frankly, very hard for the plague doctor to pronounce. Suddenly, two boys run into the clearing. The smaller boy in front is naked holding his slashed belly, the second is holding a piece of metal with a black tip. The second boy leaps at the smaller and stakes him shouting “the pig is dead!” The mermaid watches, but the plague doctor, mask replaced, steps up as more boys emerge from the forest. The plague doctor reaches for the murderer, called Samson, separating bones and tearing cartilage. The other boys shout their objections, saying it is only a game and that they’ve all been the pig before and that they come back from it better once the saints fix them. Warily, the plague doctor and mermaid agree to go with the boys and see for themselves, but first Samson cuts a bezoar from the pig-boy. 

The boys drag the corpse behind them and begin to sing until they emerge from the forest into a village whose only remarkable feature is the gallows with fifteen corpses in various stages of decay swinging from it. Samson takes the bezoar and shouts their return while teenagers appear from the cottages whooping with delight and circle the group, bombarding Samson with questions and paying no heed to the plague doctor with their knife or the mermaid with her sharp teeth. 

The plague doctor stiffens when they hear deeper, older male voices amongst the teenagers welcoming them back. Three men dressed the same, including their antlered bone masks, approach through the teenagers asking Samson what he brought them, indicating the plague doctor and the mermaid. Samson, nonchalantly, says he found them while on the Hunt. 

The plague doctor and mermaid are led to a small hovel. As the mermaid looks at the belongings scattered about, the plague doctor remarks in surprise at the arrogance of the three army surgeons for setting themselves up as gods. The plague doctor explains that their people believe in an afterlife, that some, like the three army surgeons, could prolong life, exchange failing parts of the body for new until they eventually assembled new life from parts. Someone comes to the hovel door summoning them. 

The body of the hunted child, Luke, lies on a pyre of dried leaves and flowers surrounded by children on their knees, humming. Silently, the three surgeons watch on until they welcome the plague doctor and the mermaid. The three surgeons arrange themselves around the body of Luke and begin their ritual. They fill the corpse with the bezoar, bronze cogs, spirals of wire and meticulously measured organs from salt water jars. At last, Luke screams and convulses. This is not a willing resurrection. What have they done? The plague doctor is disgusted, accusing them of “catalyzing murder, dragging the child back to be bound by steel and sinew.”

To prove they would not do unto others what they have not had done to themselves, each of the three surgeons demonstrate that they are willing to be cut apart and reassembled. The first removes their hand, the second their eye that can be taken out, and the third their heart by way of other organs piled high. The plague doctor stays quiet throughout the demonstration.

The Second Night The mermaid leaves the hovel and heads into a hut hidden in the trees filled with bottles and jars of parts. Amongst the clutter, the mermaid finds the oval black stone she was looking for. After, she eats the offal and detritus of the three surgeons, the parts they have removed and discarded as no longer having use for. Returning to the hovel after her meal, the mermaid tells the plague doctor they should leave. At first, surprised the mermaid can speak, the plague doctor soon realizes the mermaid has had her fill, however the plague doctor cannot leave, they want to help the children free themselves. They are interrupted then by an unfamiliar boy sent to fetch them for breakfast.

In the banquet room, the three surgeons sit upon their thrones, a fat repast laid in front of them. There are two empty stools at the table and the children cluster around the three surgeons. The plague doctor declines the meal in favor of tending the horse but mentions that Samson is not there. The surgeons tell the plague doctor that Samson is off doing what children do, though the doctor notices that one of the surgeon's eyes looks just like Samson’s. 

On the river bank, the mermaid tries to persuade the plague doctor to leave, however they can’t leave the children because they remember what it was like. The mermaid calls the three surgeons the plague doctor’s creators, masters, saints, gods, and parents though each label agitates them further and solidifies their need to help the children. The mermaid doesn’t understand, all the children look like they have all been changed under the three surgeons’ ministrations and seem to relish the change. The plague doctor argues for compassion, they are just children after all, but to the mermaid, they are all just meat.

The village is bustling with activity. In one field, boys plant bones into the soil. A girl tells the plague doctor and the mermaid they are for the Witch Bride, a familiar name to the mermaid, rumored to have been the downfall of a distant kingdom. The same girl also tells them to mind their business before taking the horse to be tended. The plague doctor turns to the mermaid, they have an idea on how to kill this religion, they just need to convince the children the saints are wolves, and to do that, they will need a Judas goat.

They find Luke at a shrine at the back of the village. When the mermaid calls the three surgeons “makers,” Luke gives a similar agitated reaction as the plague doctor, stating they are to be called saints. At first, Luke is reluctant to show the plague doctor the work performed on him, but the plague doctor offers to help with the pain. Once Luke is partially disrobed, the plague doctor inspects the poor stitching and mismatched skin across the boy’s back. Luke grants permission for the plague doctor to tend to his wounds. The plague doctor talks to Luke who is skeptical about what has been done to him and why, he spouts the saints’ doctrine but with no enthusiasm. The plague doctor is able to sow the seeds that the three surgeons lie. 

Later, in their hovel, the plague doctor tells the mermaid of where they came from. A century ago, they were found nearly dead under a pile of corpses by the three surgeons. Their countries were at war and despite orders that no prisoner of war should be left alive, they were one of the first to be administered to by the three surgeons. The plague doctor left with them and became their test subject for every new experiment they concocted. Eventually, all that remained of that child is what became the plague doctor after they ran away. It seems after they left, the surgeons recruited more children for their experimentations. 

One of the surgeons has changed their eye color again. Instead of wearing their robes and antlered masks, they wear burlap robes,  instead of speaking as one, they have split, and instead of being ceremonial, they laugh with the children. “The normalcy rankles. It reeks of rehearsal.” Finally one of the surgeons asks what the mermaid is, they know some aquatic creature but not exactly what. In reply, they receive a smile filled with teeth. In the end the mermaid strikes a bargain with the surgeons. If they perform two more miracles, including if they change their eye color again, pretending they have always been that way, the mermaid will give the surgeons any part of them they ask or require. 

The three surgeons again perform the miracles upon themselves, removing their hand, removing their eyes, removing their heart. Later, the plague doctor questions what the mermaid is doing. Yes, they are showing the children their saints are only men. The mermaid begins to eat: the hand, the eyes, the heart. In the remains of the surgeons, the mermaid can taste Samson and his traumatic death. 

The Third Night There is commotion in the village and one of the surgeons is hunched over on their knees, their eyes bound by a bloody cloth. They pretend to see the truth, but they slip and fall but do not scream. The plague doctor leans over and carves them open. To the crowds of children watching, the plague doctor tells them their saints promised perfection but they are fallible and full of lies. A scream interrupts the spectacle, and as one, the children turn and head to the source: a small cottage. The plague doctor and mermaid follow. 

In the cottage, there are pants, gasps, and cries, the sound of retching and an already pungent smell of mildew. When the scene is revealed, the girl whose hovel was given to the plague doctor and mermaid is lying, still alive with arms raised, with one of the surgeons buried in her abdomen, feasting, stopping only to rear up and rip out her ribs before continuing their meal. Luke is standing beside the plague doctor and the mermaid, and he tells them they were right about the saints. An older boy hears Luke’s heresy and bashes his skull in with a spade before hitting the mermaid. 

The mermaid wakes up strapped to a table as they are being cut into. Looking down she sees she has been vivisected, every organ removed and placed in glass jars. The surgeon continues to cut and this time her arm is severed. He compliments her on her resilience, and their conversation is cordial given the circumstances. The surgeon inquires about her swim bladder, and she tells him it is in the roof of her mouth. A lie to trick them? Yes. As the surgeon digs into her mandible, the mermaid thrusts upward and her teeth close onto the surgeon’s face. The surgeon fights the bite, but the mermaid is strong despite her organs being strewn about. She does not let up and begins to devour the surgeon, leaving nothing behind.

No one comes to investigate the screams and cries and the mermaid is able to savor the gore under her nails and piece of hip bone on the floor as her organs rejuvenate. A howl rents the quiet, and donning the surgeon's clothes, the mermaid leaves the surgical theater turned dining room. In the snow amongst the blood and footprints, the mermaid finds the plague doctor’s tracks. They have been hobbled, the children intent on playing, but the mermaid follows the tracks. The blizzard grows, the cold for once affecting her, as she passes the not long dead corpse of an impaled boy and kisses his cheek for luck. The sounds of singing children wind through the forest. Eventually a girl attacks but the mermaid is ready. The pain of the injuries is nothing, her teeth are sharp, and the girl's blood warms her. The screams of triumph draw the mermaid’s attention. 

The plague doctor is leaning on a tree, a dead boy on their lap, blood everywhere, their mask gone. They have killed seventeen but are tired and dying. The mermaid picks up the plague doctor's intestines, shifts the corpse and sits on their lap, begging them not to die. At last they share a kiss and the plague doctor asks to be buried except for a lock of their hair which they request that the mermaid carry through the centuries so they may share her immortality. 

The mermaid succumbs to death and the cold until she is slapped and punched in the face, breaking her nose and eye socket. Someone says, “wake up, little fish.” It’s the surgeons and she is surrounded by the children. The plague doctor moves beneath her, still alive. They told her to run but she didn’t because of them. 

The plague doctor and the mermaid are tied to two trees and the children gather kindling to build a pyre. The plague doctor begs the mermaid to tell them stories of the deep until they burn, and she does, she tells them everything. As the three surgeons light the fires and tease them about their fate and what could have been, the plague doctor asks about the power of the mermaid's name, knowing there was a reason her husband cut out her tongue. The mermaid begins to scream and the plague doctor smiles. 

The plague doctor asks the three surgeons if they remember them, but of course they do not. At this admission, the plague doctor starts to laugh saying they will remember her. This quietens the mermaid and the plague doctor speaks her name. The mermaid's body combusts, her flame so strong she burns them all.

In the morning, the mermaid wakes surrounded by ash and charred figures. She spots the plague doctor’s mask, intact and unmarred, surrounded by fragments of their bones, teeth, skull and their bezoar. The mermaid plucks the bezoar and holds it carefully, vowing to make this right.

After four hundred years of searching for knowledge, ten years constructing a chimera body using her own guts, sealing it with sigils using her own blood as ink, constructing onyx and steel bones, the mermaid is finally able to place the bezoar in a new body. The plague doctor breathes again. 

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