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The Salted Sea

She selected a single star on which to direct her attention. We are one light, she told herself.

Fiction | Fiction, Flash Fiction
June 18, 2021

Xie had an affliction. Of all the youth in her community, she was the only one that ever suffered from the debilitating episodes that arrived—without warning—multiple times a year. The episodes began with an iridescent aura in her left eye’s field of vision and the stench of burning rubber invading her nostrils, creeping through what felt like every crevice in her abundant figure. It was always this that preceded the massive body ache that lasted for at least five to six hours, but never more than three days. For her entire childhood, Xie had been plagued with these aches. Symptoms that no one else shared. When she had endured her first episode, she was no older than four years of age. She had no language to describe the sensation to her mother or her peers. Instead, she howled.

She wailed into the night—losing herself to panicked sleep during the day and waking into the excruciating night once more. Her free-spirited mother finally had a tether to the land—her role as Xie’s caretaker. Night after night, she sat with Xie through those early episodes, preparing different methods to help ease her pain. But by her adolescence, Xie could anticipate the impending agony herself, and sought refuge in a hiding place of her own creation. There, she would let the ache pass quietly. No one ever came looking for her. And when she would make her way back to the community, her mother greeted her with an imperceptible smile of welcome, expressing trust that what needed to be, was. Xie had not had an episode in over thirteen months. But tonight, on the eve of her twenty-first year, she knew that pain was imminent.

Feeling lightheaded, Xie descended across the sandy dunes strewn with dried leaves and stones to her secret sanctuary. Every so often, she encountered a small collection of unintelligible bones, belonging to some long-deceased creature in this unforgiving land. When she arrived at the structure fashioned from the coiled roots of ancient trees, Xie fumbled around layers of starchy fabric until she felt the scratchiness of a poultice her mother had crafted for her when Xie was a small child.

Among Xie’s people, everything existed in shades of beige and caramel. They lived four miles from what used to be a vacation escape for yuppies in the valleyed land on its perimeter—an eggplant shaped, saline lake once known as the salted sea. It hadn’t been so for decades, no sea remained. Just cracked, parched terrain. But somehow Xie’s mother had gathered this a verdant oasis of medicinal herbs in a small burlap sack, tied with knotted twine, camouflaged into the surrounding brownness.

As she did in her youth, Xie inhaled, hoping to be eased into quiet comfort. But it evaded her. Once fresh and cool with dampness, the poultice was little more than a desiccated bag of even drier herbs. Yet the subtle fragrance—earthy, organic with mechanical notes—lingered. She could not identify the scents in the bag besides Yerba Santa. She waited in her womb-like sanctuary, peeking through the small flap window made from braided vegetal husks, designed so she could keep up with the passing of the hours. The aches began, as a formidable orange glow descended through her refuge in the gloaming. She gripped the corners of the makeshift bed she had built and braced her body, her back arching upward, shoulder blades searing with heat, as if preparing to birth winged appendages.

Hours passed. Xie alternated between perfect silence and whimpers that grew into roars brimming with rage. She shuddered, peering out into the midnight sky, dotted with constellations. The pain permeated her skin and replicated the feeling of joints being dislodged, her body dissolving and reforming, a painful erosion and reassembly. The very physical act of remembering. To become whole once again. Xie sensed the end of the episode nearing.

She selected a single star on which to direct her attention. We are one light, she told herself, gritting her teeth, focusing on the luminous dot. We are energy. We burn together. In the starlight that filled her shelter, she constructed her mother’s face, aureoled by fog. Ample lips and a broad nose, delicate eyes that disappeared when she smiled full.

Xie had last seen her mother five years ago to the day.  

“You may seek commune with the Earth,” Xie’s mother had said then, “Anywhere your feet can take you. Even the sky.” When she had awakened to her first sunrise as a sixteen-year-old the next morning, Xie realized that her mother’s feet had taken her somewhere no one could trace. The tether had been clipped. 

Still, in the years since, she returned to her mother’s words often. They became at once a receptacle for her ire at being abandoned and her solace. We are one light. She repeated her personal mantra in whispers, as her mother’s face liquified into atmosphere, like a ripple disappearing into water. Xie envisioned herself in the forgotten sea, and then in the sky, disembodied. She floated, irreverent, buoyant, celestial, until her physical form returned to reality. We burn together, she said, honing once again in on her selected star. And within seconds, the star abandoned its repose, curving downward and bursting free, as the meteor it was always intended to be. 

Read more flash fiction, including stories by Alli Cruz, Kyle Lucia Wu, Anna Vangala Jones, and more, here.