Friday 10 November 2023

A Pinch of Salt by Jane Spirit, a glass of Madeira with a few salted crisps

It wasn’t the kind of thing anyone would expect to receive as a family heirloom, thought James, whilst the delivery people carried in the hefty, oddly shaped object wrapped in what looked like old oil skins. They set it down to the right of the small wall mounted electric fire that James could not currently afford to turn on.

After they’d gone, James stood for a while looking at the mysterious object. The shape gave nothing away. Although it was wider at the bottom than the top, it had no precise symmetry. In fact, it reminded James of the increasingly bedraggled Woolworths Christmas tree that had stood in his parents’ living room each year throughout his childhood.

Altogether, thought James, this was an odd situation. He had met his father’s uncle only sporadically as he was growing up and had been fascinated by the old man’s itinerant lifestyle. James had a vivid memory of announcing precociously at some family gathering that he too wanted to be an archaeologist. Uncle Cedric had bent down to be closer to him. James had sensed the hairs from his uncle’s maverick moustache as they almost prickled his cheek. Cedric had whispered to him, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’

To be truthful, when he had received the solicitor’s letter, James had been thrilled. He had found himself hoping that the bequest would turn out to be something rather exotic; a metal sword perhaps, or some ancient pottery unearthed on his great uncle’s ramblings. James hoped also that it might be valuable enough to tide him over as he tried to pick up the pieces of his fractured life and stick them back together again. Owning something of modest value would give him the peace of mind to take up that offer of joining his old colleague on the Mallorca dig.

James went to rummage in the kitchenette cupboard and returned with an old pair of scissors. He worked on the unwrapping by cutting the bonds of parcel tape and working the coverings slowly downwards before pulling away their bottom layers. Then he stood back and looked at the pale stone-coloured object with its dented conical shape. It was almost as tall as him, shaped from a wide base, as if chiselled by wind and time into a quasi-human form, narrowing towards the top to give the semblance of shoulders supporting a rounded head-like pinnacle.

James moved only to draw the curtains against the darkening skies and to turn on the single ceiling light before stepping towards the thing and examining it more closely. Even in the low glow emitted by the bare bulb, he could see that the surface of the object seemed to glisten. He bent even closer now, realising as he looked intently that the surface was much finer than he had expected and made up of even grains. Instinctively he sniffed the whiteish torso in front of him. It gave off the kind of faint ocean tang of something salty. Could it be some curious ancient sculpture discovered by Uncle Cedric? Might it be worth something in the right kind of auction? Alternatively, James knew how pricey a few grains of rare salt could be to buy in the trendy delicatessen where he window-shopped. He sat down on the sofa opposite the piece, picturing himself as the owner of a high-end online business, the purveyor of a unique and ancient salt only recently re-discovered and ready to be cut off the block and supplied to discerning customers, perhaps even to royalty. James hurried for a second time to the kitchenette. He returned with a sharpish knife and a plate to catch the cut salt on. He wanted to know how soft it was and how easily he might be able to grind it into sellable crystals.

Tentatively he placed the tip of the blunt knife on the thing at heart height. The rebuke was instant.

‘How dare you do that to an old woman? You should show more respect.’

The voice had a high-pitched quality and sounded slightly wheezy. It was an older person’s voice, yet strong and shrill enough to make James drop the knife with a clatter. He stepped back, looking round the empty room as the voice continued to address him. James stood open mouthed. He listened. He reeled. The object was speaking to him.

‘Oh yes, I remember now. Cedric tried to do the same thing in the early days, and I had to speak to him sharply too. It was a week or two after my arrival and I saw him approaching me carrying a little metal implement. He began to chisel away at me with one hand, capturing my precious grains in the little dustpan he held in the other. I’m sorry if I startled you, by the way. I can see you’re a kind man, like Cedric. He listened of course, just as you have. He put his scalpel down and we talked for the first time instead.’

The voice paused as if anticipating a reply, but James could not form any words and the old voice piped on.

‘I kept my silence when he discovered me. He instructed his assistants to be ever so gentle with me, not to bash me any more than they had to as they manhandled me off the overgrown goat’s path and down the hill, heavy as I was. It hurt like hell of course when they had to chip away round my base and jostle me down to the waiting truck, but I managed to keep shtum. It was my way out and I did not want to spook Cedric after all those years stuck on the hill side, unable to move, no-one to talk to, and each year weeping as the rains came down and washed just a little more of me away from under the layer of lichen and moss that had clung on to me for shelter. I hung on to my silence, bruised and battered as I was by the journey along the desert plain, then buffeted in the holds of ships and finally brought to rest in the quiet and gloom of that little back study in Norwood. “Be careful, careful,” Cedric had pleaded with my many handlers, but still I ached, oh how I ached, by the time I was settled in that new place. Still, I was grateful to Cedric for finding me, rescuing me and for the warmth and shelter of my new home. After all those centuries I knew that there could never be an end to my suffering, but at least I would have a degree of comfort and even companionship with him.

To be honest it was a relief to tell him about that day and how I had come to be running away in terror as fire and brimstone was falling all around me on the goat path. You see I had waited till the last moment to leave the house, uncertain whether I should try to carry the freshly baked bread I had just placed to cool on the hearth. In the end I had left with nothing, just glad to be a little way behind my husband and the girls so that I could see that they were safe. We were following instructions to flee and not to look back on the town where we had lived and been contented. Then I suddenly remembered our dear little baby donkey and thought that I could hear him somewhere behind me braying and scattering stones with his gangly legs as he tried to catch up with me. I had glanced backwards, only for a moment, but he was not there. Only then, when I tried to turn to flee again, did I realise that I could not move my head or arms or legs, that I was cocooned for all time, rooted to one spot, a pillar of salt. Our destroyer had kept his word, but also left me alive to endure my fate. In my frozen state I could still hear the world moving around me and see whatever passed before me. I could even still speak my thoughts whilst knowing that no-one would ever hear them, or so I believed.’

Now the voice became more tremulous, and James strained to catch the words.

‘It was Cedric of course who told me eventually about what had happened once I was dead to my family. He explained that my husband had fled with my daughters and how they had lived in the caves nearby for many years alone, my daughters forced to conceive their own father’s children. I had wished then that the rains could fall on me once again, so that I could weep salt tears of bitter anger, but I could not even do that in Cedric’s dry study, so I screamed at him and cursed him for the first and only time.  After that that he was hardly ever at home and when he did return briefly from one of his expeditions, he no longer came to talk with me about his travels or about the modern world over his evening glass of Madeira. No, I barely saw him before he was gone again and then, eventually, he was absent for what seemed like an age. I realised that he must have died. Tell me, are you the talented young man who he hoped would follow in his footsteps? He once spoke to me of you if you are. Will you talk with me every day as Cedric once did? I will not speak to anyone else you see. I’d be too shy for that.’

Later that day James left his flat carrying only a small case. He had ‘phoned his delighted old colleague and arranged to stay with him for a few days to talk about the dig before flying out to Mallorca. His boxes of books had been rapidly collected for storage and his landlord had been persuaded to accept the newly delivered ‘objet trouvé’ for the benefit of future tenants. At the door, James could not bring himself to speak to the now silent form as he abandoned her. ‘Be careful what you wish for,’ he thought. Then he pushed the door closed behind him, carefully avoiding any accidental backward glance towards the once eagerly anticipated bequest.


About the author

Jane Spirit lives in Suffolk UK and has been inspired to try writing fiction by going along to her local creative writing class. 

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  1. Brilliant Jane. Lovely to meet you on Saturday. Look forward to reading more of your stories.

  2. Thank you so much for your kind comment, Paula. It was great to meet you too. All the best for your writing in 2024 and have a good festive break!