THE SALT MINES

 

I drank so much water from the hose as a little girl in summer I asked my mother if I could die of drinking too much. She told me no, transferred a band of sweat from her forehead onto her wrist, then reverted to weeding our garden. I put the hose back in my mouth and let the water rush down my trachea, trying to smoothen its ridges. I imagined the water rushing over them like waves upon rocks speckling a beach with lumpy bodies of beiges. Regardless of what she said, I still felt drowning in my own skin was possible. I loved my mother but knew her to be oblivious to dying’s commoner causes.

And then she was no scientist. Later, I realized she had never heard of water intoxication along with a thousand other maladies that might beset us. I had not heard of such a thing either then, at eight or nine or ten, yet sensed my blood should be saltier, weighted with something heavier than water. She herself drank only Tab and instant coffee, hot even in August, and so dismissed the danger of thirst that overstretches the bladder to the point of rupture.

Too much water can desalinate your blood so quickly your heart will flood and go the way of minnows eaten by a dolphin. Too little salt and all your cells become waterlogged while your blood-brain barrier is a barrier no longer. For a time, your skin accommodates the influx. You swell as if you’ve overeaten, becoming round as a penguin and walking just as labored with your bloated abdomen. Your neurons, though, have no space to grow within your skull. Your brain expands then all your brain’s electricity quietens.

My mother hardly taught me to cook but reminded me to salt my meat on occasion, that without it steak would taste insipid to the point I might as well be eating boiled vegetables. Only I have often forgotten yet never noticed the difference. I don’t bother cooking steaks, however, only chili with hamburger, to which I add so many jalapenos my eyes begin to water, allowing me to cry under cover for my long lost mother.

And when I cry, I drink more water to replace that which I have just shed forever. I attempt to intoxicate myself with it in the privacy of my kitchen, which overlooks an abortion clinic where protestors gather. They scream for babies unborn to them or any other women while I drain yet more glasses of water, something I have done more times than I ought to admit to anyone who might care to keep me here longer. I hold in my urine while drinking nine glasses so fast I begin belching over the sirens drowning out the roars of the pro-lifers, thinking this death will be a painless one, as if I’ve died several times before by way of comparison. Thinking this way at least there will be no blood to clean up afterward.

Blood leaking from steaks’ muscle fibers I thought was only juice when younger. I slurped it from my plate with a spoon after finishing my dinner. But juice and blood both consist of mostly water. Plasma makes up 55 percent of blood and looks straw colored, water enriched with enzymes and salt to transport hormones.

Like plasma, you’re not supposed to drink water from municipal fountains meant for decoration. This is owing to its chlorine concentration, though a certain amount of chlorine is necessary to kill microorganisms. Without it, none of us would drink water from the tap and survive the experience. More studies, however, link consumption of chlorine to climbing rates of cancer.

So you are not advised to drink from the Trevi Fountain, originally built for this express purpose and not for tourists to take their pictures. Its source remains an aqueduct installed by Marcus Agrippa, but now its water is heavily treated chemically as well as recirculated. If you throw a coin in, the fountain will quickly clean it, making it sparkle as it floats to its bottom. The water is too clean, though, for our digestive systems.

Anita Ekberg, who played Sylvia in La Dolce Vita, died not long ago and I have yet to see the movie that made her famous. She is recorded as saying her only regret in life was that she had no children. I don’t want children myself, though when I’m on my deathbed and surrounded by only nurses and possibly my husband, I may warm to the idea. For now, I’d just like to resemble Anita Ekberg in a black strapless and have as many lovers. If only I had kissed a man as she had within the Trevi's waters.

hile I was a junior in college studying on the outskirts of Rome, with the term nearly ended, I awoke realizing I had yet to see the Trevi Fountain. Later that night, without a map and unable to navigate the city by feel alone, I eventually gave up hope of finding Neptune on his Baroque throne. I knew better by then than to ask Italian men for directions, so after exploring as far as I felt comfortable, I shuffled back to the bus stop to return farther north to campus.

I wore a summer dress I had bought in a small shop in Trastevere a few days earlier. It was sleeveless with large red roses printed over white fabric, and inside it I felt an approximation of a real Italian woman, as close to being Anita Ekberg, who was Swedish, as I’d ever hoped of becoming. When Massimo first spoke to me from behind, an embodied shadow with legs like an ibis, he whispered, “You seem strange,” to which I didn’t bother responding. “Yes, there’s definitely something strange about you,” he repeated, when I turned slowly around to face him. “You’re American. I can tell by the way you dress,” he said smiling, pleased with his assessment.

Not long afterward, we circled the nearby piazza. He bought me a scoop of hazelnut gelato and told me he was leaving in a month to work for an architectural firm in Germany. He would miss this, though, he said while gesturing toward Neptune’s baying cavalry at the fountain where he’d led me. He would miss this beauty, he repeated, when his lips flew toward me.

He asked two, three times for my phone number, but I refused him. Later, leaving me at the bus stop where he had first taken my hand as if I’d offered it, he said, “I cannot make you do what you don’t want to,” and walked away, leaning forward and attenuating into the shadow of a firefly begun to blink out of existence. Had I only drunk enough water from the fountain fast enough, I could have died then, while life was relatively painless.

In 2007, a vandal made the Trevi run red for several hours. He soiled water so clean it kills all algae, inundating it with a red liquid still to be determined. Some blood looked spilled, to no lasting damage. Had it come from a steak, I would have drunk all of it. Had Massimo only reappeared to give me directions. Had I only fucked him.

Everyone possesses some modicum of intelligence by virtue of being human. Everyone has the sense to eat when they are hungry, to masturbate when they’re horny if no one will fuck them. The body exercises its own acumen regardless of your desire to live or its opposite. So if you’re thirsty, drink rather than resist the temptation. Dilute your blood’s salt content. However much you may want to, odds are you won’t die of it, whereas too much salt in the body makes your blood pressure skyrocket. Your blood panics and runs to exhaustion.

The Dead Sea is six times saltier than the ocean. And though you’ll find no fish within its edges, several types of bacteria thrive there as well as a single algae species. We just float once we dive in, however, bobbing like a cork dropped in dishwater. Because the Dead Sea is denser than our bodies, we become buoyant inside it. Every year, the sea sinks 13 inches or more while growing saltier and saltier. Every year, we float more easily in water that itself is sinking lower.

With spiritual enlightenment, the body too becomes lighter. So say those who have risen to higher levels of consciousness, those whose egos have softened to the consistency of gravy. So say those who as a result feel more like a duck gliding on water’s surface rather than a coin sinking to its bottom, those who have realized the ultimate but are also fuller of emptiness, which leads to levitation. From the air, they look down on the rest of us scurrying like crabs along sandbars tapering into scalpels.

Emptiness is something I’ve tried to embrace, but there is no grasping it. Even water feels heavy in comparison, because water too has a weight to it. Swim down too deep, I’m told, and it crushes your bones into powder looking like salt from a distance.

Many Israelis make their living working in desalination, which reaps a large profit. The byproduct is sold at premium because the salt comes from the Holy Land, as many consider it. Among early Christians too, catechumens ingested salt before receiving baptism. The salt, however, first was subject to exorcism. Before being blessed with holy water, the bodies of young Christians were all properly seasoned. Even God, in other words, eats meat every so often. When we’re alone in the shower, he keeps his eyes open.

Because so many waters flow into the Dead Sea and evaporate soon after, the salt contains minerals that have spawned a whole industry devoted to beauty. After reading all the benefits of the Dead Sea’s extra helpings of potassium and magnesium, it’s hard too not to be intrigued by their healing properties. It’s harder yet not to book your next vacation to Jordan.

An old landlord did this as a single woman. She joined a local travel club I was also a member of until I saw her at a meeting and went to no more of them. She lived on the top floor of a four-story building, and my husband and I lived in the garden unit. Half our windows were filled with dirt through which we watched rats forge tunnels while trying to keep our attention on the television, until I finally called the city to exterminate them. At this she took some umbrage, and when we left she kept our security deposit, saying we didn’t clean when we left it better than when we moved into it. Nothing dirtier than rats, I would have told her had I only the courage. As it was, we just moved to a cleaner apartment.

Some people drink an excess of water or juice as a way of cleansing their internal organs. More liquids, less solids equate to purity for a large percentage of the public concerned with detoxification. I never, though, watch my diet, if only because I like to think my appetite has its own awareness, that if I eat too much I will be forced to drink more water to balance the solids. Ingest too much salt and you’ll experience more of a desire to urinate, I found when I traveled to Spain and survived on jamon salted to preserve it. For just how long the meat can last, though, I’m not certain. It likely depends on the salt’s mineral content.

All this effort we take to live a little longer, curing meat and trying to keep things from rotting within our refrigerators. I often wonder if it’s worth it. My body’s will to live, however, resists all argument. Hunger’s clamor can be deafening when trying to access higher levels of awareness.

Would my bones float in a bathtub? If only they were lighter. If only they were eaten with holes from cancer like those of my dear, sweet mother. As of this moment, only my skull might bob at water’s surface were a tub well salted, because my head is almost all orifices. So many holes it’s almost useless.

Some people, though, think the head’s holes insufficient. Ancient Incan skulls reveal several holes half an inch in diameter near the amygdala, the gateway of long-term memory where we process emotions. These lacunae are evidence of Peruvian trephining, the world’s oldest surgical procedure and astonishingly widespread throughout early civilization. Most anthropologists agree the holes served as portals allowing gods, goddesses, and spirits of loved ones to visit, making the body more porous to numinous experience. Yet if you make too large of one or drill too quickly, all the light in the brain darkens. Too much emptiness—too wide a doorway for spirits to enter your nervous system—and your own spirit vanishes.

Were your diet too bereft of sodium, your muscles could neither contract nor relax while your nerves could relay no electrical impulses. This is what comes of salt uneaten. You would never have sex, and this world would have no babies in it. We would die before we were born and had a chance to grow heavy then decided we needed to eat fewer solids. Before we all became enlightened.

She said, “He’s sleeping even when he’s crying.” She was a young mother eating with what I supposed was her own mother by their similar shape of noses at the table to my left. She sat so close to me that my buttocks brushed her shoulders when I slid out to use the toilet. When I came back, they were talking about 401(k)s and financial goals they’d set. And I thought, “What about the crying baby? Why is money more important?”

When my younger sister and I went to Peru a year and a half after our mother died and our father soon after, we spent an afternoon in the salt mines near Ollantaytambo. We followed our guide on a trail so narrow I felt sure I’d lose my balance, that I’d fall into a salt pit that would preserve me for the cannibals or God himself if he was interested. Yet somehow I didn’t.

Those women we met working inside what looked like the Dead Sea drained of water appeared ancient judging by the creases on their faces. We assumed they were elderly and had to keep working because they had no pension. Then we noticed they were carrying babies in slack papooses. Our guide observed our puzzlement and explained they were our same age or younger, 28 years at the oldest. He said salt was an aging agent then walked on ahead of us. But didn’t salt keep flesh from rotting? I wanted to ask him but couldn’t catch up with him. Shouldn’t these old young mothers look much younger? I had no answers, only a hypothesis that from the Fountain of Youth springs saltless water. As well as making you look younger, it can also help end your life faster.

And what is it about old women drinking wine, like the mother of the younger mother worried about her savings? Why do I find it repulsive when they drain a glass in front of me? Why shouldn’t they enjoy getting a little drunk and have a headache next morning? I am hardly young myself any longer. I’ve spent some time in the salt mines, though while carrying no baby.

If I did any financial planning—any beyond planning to kill myself when I have no more money—I might drink wine more often and celebrate this living. Money, though, doesn’t consume too much of salt miners’ thinking, I’m guessing. By the end of the day, they’re too tired to do more than fall on top of another body and make another baby who will age prematurely.

Today I walked through a tunnel painted white while trodding a blanket of whiter snow beneath me. It was a cathedral of whiteness, and I understood again the longing for purity, for flavorlessness, for being a person so empty I might begin levitating. I longed for my own flawlessness, for blood so pure it ran to clarity, so that I could see the salt within it sparkling, salt looking like snow that refused to melt after it fell onto my sleeve. When I opened my mouth to the snow still falling, it was tasteless.

My body, though, consists mostly of emptiness even without me rising to higher levels of consciousness. A hollow tube runs from mouth to anus. I have always thought this, and no diagram or x-ray will alter what has become conviction. Science too has borne out that I’m mostly correct. The tube just gets crooked in my abdomen. Were it not for this, what we eat and drink would fall right through us. The body would retain no salt, water, or vitamins were the tube a straight one. The danger of water intoxication would remain a phantom, like the Fountain of Youth, only even more specious. There would be no health warnings about the prospect, no hope to others of us of breaching our blood-brain barrier with water from the faucet.

Scientists consider water the least toxic chemical compound nature offers us. Even water, though, can become a poison, they acknowledge with reluctance. Were I only athletic and inclined to sweat, I’d have a better shot at overconsumption. I would only be doing what was natural to replace that lost through my exertions. I would only be diluting the salt content necessary to keep my body functioning at optimum performance. I would induce a tidal wave for the sheer exhilaration of turning from body to spirit, leaving more salt here for those who want it. Whole pillars of it.

Lot’s wife has no name in the Bible. And if we did not pick up on it earlier, her presence should alert us that God likes some people more than others. Because Lot’s wife did nothing terrible. Still she was turned to salt for looking back at Sodom set afire, because who would not be curious? To see so many people, former friends and old lovers, becoming carrion. 

Killing Lot’s wife only punished her daughters.

The Bible and other holy books like to stress salvation, to save one person and not another. These books were written by people, remember. People who like to anticipate reward to others’ exclusion. People who like to think better of themselves than others.

And they could be right. There could be a savior who saves only people of certain didacticisms and prejudices. They could be saved while I am damned, though to this I am accustomed. A world without my mother already has too little love left in it. So I make salty comment after comment, to the point my husband tells me I’ve lost my sweetness, for which he married me to begin with. Because I’ve looked back and watched her dying thousands of times and feel only the need for more water, I don’t tell him. Because there are still some ridges within my trachea and I’d like to smoothen them.

Even when I was only eight or so I knew I did not want to live without my mother, either tomorrow, should she die in a car accident, or years in the future. The specter haunted me because she was older and would likely outlive me, she admitted when I asked her. I thought I knew everything, and time has not disproved the rationale of my thinking. I knew a cylinder of nothing ran through the core of me.

I believed in God too, as she taught me. She told me to pray to him when I really wanted something. And so I prayed for only one thing because nothing else mattered comparatively and I wanted him to concentrate. I prayed for it five or six times a day while still a child and mostly happy. I prayed to die in a car accident—careening off a cliff while flying through the windshield if that were the only way—to die with my mother, whom I always wanted with me.

If that sounds silly, like worship of a woman hardly worth worshipping or something equally disturbing, I cannot alter its reality. Of course I wanted other things, but she remained so primary I decided I could do without all of life’s other good things, including boys I wanted to kiss already, including everything else that would ever happen to me. Including whether I would be homeless and decrepit or go hungry. Including my father, because I loved him too, but I loved my mother more deeply.

And when I turned twenty, having signed a lease for my first studio apartment, I told her this while she helped me carry a loveseat we’d bought at a used furniture outlet up a stairway. I no longer believed in God, but I wanted her to know this was the only thing I’d ever prayed for seriously. “Well you got it, honey,” she said smiling. “I’m here and I’m healthy.”

Living to her was such an essential thing. She loved to drive from southern Indiana to Chicago to visit me, but I have always hated driving. Rather than drive to friends’ houses once I turned sixteen, I spent more time inside the bed of the pickup my father loaned me. The truck once belonged to his younger brother, who had committed suicide by shooting himself in the temple one early autumn morning. The truck was blue, and its bed I considered a small ocean, perhaps because we lived so far from either the Atlantic or Pacific.

I bought paint from the hardware store and brushed yellow shafts of light filtering down its sides in waves denoting refraction. I painted as many schools of fish as I could in between them. Eventually there were more seahorses than trout or perch or whales or dolphins. I painted each a lighter shade of blue than the previous one, rendering them near colorless.

When my mother asked them why I didn’t depict them a brighter color, I told her seahorses typically mirror their environment. They camouflage their whole bodies, including prehensile tails with which they hold onto eel grass to avoid being swept away by currents that can usher them into the maws of predators. Only less than one in a thousand baby seahorses, I told her, survive to adulthood as they drift along the plankton layer of the ocean, borne up by the salt within the water. This she ignored, however, saying only, “Yes, that’s nice,” then turned away from me.


Melissa Wiley is a freelance writer living in Chicago. Her creative nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in literary magazines including DIAGRAM, Superstition Review, Prick of the Spindle, Tin House Open Bar, PANK, Stirring: A Literary Collection, Poydras Review, Gravel, Eclectica Magazine, Gone Lawn, Split Lip Magazine, Menacing Hedge, Beetroot Journal, Specter, Lowestoft Chronicle, Midway Journal, Pithead Chapel, Great Lakes Review, and pioneertown. She also serves as assistant editor for Sundog Lit.