BY KELSEY LUEPTOW
I lived across the street from Lake Michigan for a year. Waves lisping like turned pages. I did not lift the coffee pools from that ivory carpet. I didn’t sweep the deck; I had a stare down with the bird nesting on my light fixture. I’ve never been to an ocean or saltwater body before, no thick brine casing to hold my cheeks like a statue; but I lived across from fresh waves and the seven and a half mile mariner trail, from cool rocky beaches and a short bike ride to the thin path to the lighthouse. Gripped toe sock yoga down the concrete lane while dirty gulls tore across the yacht yard with debts to settle. My breaking periphery. Back in my apartment, I had packed a box of waitress books into a decorative wine crate. Thirty-three of them. I had my favorites. The ancient Roman sea goddess was named Salacia. Salacia of the seas and salts. She married Neptune. Mother of Tritan. Not a single mother, but I like to think, still tough. I roll my fingers over the smooth break of plastic books before pulling one up. A thick, black apron choking up my hips. The box reads: Louis Jadot. I don’t recognize the font.
My sister celebrated her Neuroscience PhD in Israel. She brought back small white pouches that read Dead Sea Salts in steely cobalt Helvetica. I brought home my salts. I wore my Dead Sea satchel at school. I muddied the cool white sides of my over-cleaned tub: Dead Sea minerals are believed to have a wide variety of healing effects. I think that magic has always been placebo. That believing in mysticism is actually firmly rooted in science. And, maybe it’s all politics: naming something. An artificial binary with arbitrary alignments. Or maybe, I think, placebo is just the palatable scientific term for magic and magic really is magic and it’s okay to believe that. To say it. I think that I can feel centuries of this mud and salt crying down my arms, voices muffled under the label of mysticism, witch craft. The politics of knowing. I wash the tub again and feel the same. I get a cold.
Throughout time and culture and space, salt’s abilities to preserve foods and bodies, to clean and heal, to ignite—they crafted wars. I pull hard against the white package of Dead Sea Mud after twelve hours of weighty clay plates at Holy Family Memorial’s fundraiser. The mud smells like clay. The word soldier is rooted in the Roman word solidus, a gold coin. Solarium argentum was a Roman soldier’s salary, usually paid partially in salt. Draping merlot into a woman’s glass, my black cotton sleeve along the right side of her periphery, the host of the event says through the sound system: “Your donation will help a single mother with no insurance get care.” I find the mud unnerving, smooth. Soldiers in the War of 1812 and the Civil War were also paid partially in salt. During the Revolutionary War, Britain withheld salt from the colonies to weaken them. From behind my olive green curtain, I imagine the stoic crumple of an American rebel grinding flour for his mess, his brother’s blood fresh on his fingertips. I rinse the mud off my cheeks and then my fingers.
Where I’m from in rural-suburban Wisconsin, people are quite fond of the phrase “salt of the earth.” Void of its sermon on the mount connotations, this phrase is almost exclusively applied to men. Men who work hard, who physically labor. It translates into: deserving. These men are worth their salt. They lift heavy things and put them down. Where I’m from in rural Wisconsin, they say about men who do not know better than the –isms of generations past that they are “salt of the earth” types of men. In the South, they might be the Good Ol’ Boys. They work hard and do what the men before them have done. They seek what has been sought. They teach the next men to seek what they have sought.
One of Mahatma Gandhi’s largest acts of civil disobedience took the form of a march to Dandi in protest of British colonial Salt Act exploiting the poor. He stopped every night to preach against colonialism in a different village. I imagine the callous soles of his feet gently brushing rocks from the path, the lisp of his sleeves across smooth wrists in waves. His eyes slowly tilting out the top of round wire glasses. The two hundred forty mile march drew tens of thousands of viewers. At the Arabian Sea Gandhi declared: “With this, I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire,” as he grabbed a fistful of earth and illegally boiled the salt out of it. Although later jailed, it is this civil release of salt that shook British roots, began shaking free from deep within the colonial sand. It is salt that has created and demolished powerful root systems. In a salted field nothing can grow.
I remember first learning about the Dead Sea in Bible class, in maybe second grade. I wore my new black and white platform shoes for the first time, but Jessie had them first so I was a copycat. Natalie got them next. We learned that you can float there because there is so much salt. Now the Dead Sea is losing salt. The water level is also going down. Someday the Dead Sea will be another crater scar in the earth’s thin skin. It will become myth, like Lot’s wife who turned to a salt statue because she could not leave Soddom and Gommorrah without looking back. I think about Lot crying on a sandy hill, his wife softly drifting from his hand in beautiful granules. I wonder if poor, desperate beggars chipped her apart and sold her for bread. Single mother outcasts. I wonder what actual hunger feels like. Sustained hunger. Beyond the month or two that I had no food in Iowa. I think about when I told my friend that it felt like coming home whether driving into Wisconsin or Iowa City. I think that I have never left a home without looking back, my hand on my chest like a statue.
There are written records that testify to boiling brine in clay pots from 800 B.C.; from 450 BC through the 19th Century, it was most extensively boiled out in iron pots. Yi Dun’s practice. Man after man in country after country doing what the men before him had done. Seeking what had been sought. Following motions. I have never been to the ocean. I have never been to an ocean or to any body of salt water. I am comfortably burrowed between great, green lakes and predictable motion, although they’ve swallowed their fair share of boats. On the thin lane to the great lighthouse, there are no riptides. No carnivorous species. It’s where we excavate the town’s water. When I am moving out of the lakeview apartment, I slide over four hundred dollars, a week’s worth of tips, into the Book of Confucious because it seems like the place to store important things. It’s a small red vault the color of church carpet with gold embossment slipped between waitress books in the wine crate. I find it three years later on a leather couch in a different state. Preserved. The waitress books are gone.
Where I’m from in rural-suburban Wisconsin, “salt of the earth” men are preserved in an antiquated ideology. A perfect preservation, conservation, of their past selves, of the selves of the men who came before. As the world swirls forward, they feel attacked. As though boiling brine in an iron pot simply isn’t good enough anymore. Salt as a failed preservative defied their chemistry. The salt on my black button-down shirt leaves a stubborn halo on my tray shoulder and bussing hip. The places where servitude refuses to lift. I wear it anyway. I want my tables to see what has been done and what they will do to me. I want them to see their own faces ghostlike in my newfound gauntness. I want them to wonder. They won’t notice, but my boss will.
Natron, “the divine salt” of mummification for Pharaohs was a simple extravagance. The Egyptians were hoarders in life as in death. Salted meats for the passage to the afterlife and to distant borders for trade. Salted meats for self-insurance; salted meats to insure self-superiority. Maybe it’s natural to seek out and secure self-superiority. Then again, maybe it’s passed down. All that the library turns up under “Salacia” is a news feature on Salacia Salts line of eco-friendly bath and body products. Goddess co-opted. Consumed and sold.
I don’t eat meat. I have never been to the ocean or to any body of salt water before, which alarms me because salt is a time machine halting decay of organics, a preserver, a crystalline lifeline. Salt dehydrates, which can both halt and starve bacteria. It keeps things as they are for a long while without invasion of foreign bodies. It changes through stasis. In Bible class, in maybe second grade, I learned that salt is what predated the refrigerator. We all wondered, could people really live in deserts? Could salt really keep meat safe to eat? I do my second grade science project on deserts. I get a red ribbon.
The 1870s saw a Western American brawl over the Guadalupe Mountain salt ring in San Elizario. A battle between state entitlement to halite and personal ownership of minerals for capitalist gain. Charles Howard manipulated political landscape to claim personal right to the salts, to tax and imprison, to regulate and rule. Twice within a decade, a vigilante mob of Texans overthrew Howard. Dethroned him. Claimed their salts. The second usurpation marks the only time Texas Rangers have ever relegated power to a pedestrian mob. The only time the Texas Rangers have ever surrendered, they surrendered over salt. Simple, tiny grains. Outside the Holy Family Memorial fundraiser, by the dumpsters where the baby raccoons who don’t know they are nocturnal live, I dump the empty wine bottles and cry.
Salt has been a god many times. It is used as an evil repellent in Buddhism and Shintoism. By German, Irish, Scottish, Egyptian. It is the core value of many pagan spells. Salt is used for Neo-Wiccan smudging to purify a space. It’s chained to eternal worship, vilification, and mythology, and a core tenet of human taste—alongside sweet, bitter, umami. Salt has made kings and slaves out of nothing; it has created wars and ended them.
My son has bad dreams for several months. We live in an old building. The furniture here has not left the premises in over forty years. Orange stuffing trailing green armchairs, stool legs agape beneath us teetering, the latent waft of dying fries rising from piles of aprons. The bookshelves are new. A barn board from Wisconsin suspends coats. I leave a coffee mug of salt water. A cheery little snowman mug with scarf and mittens holding his own little coffee mug. I’m not sure if magic can work if you don’t even believe in it yourself. If you use a cheery, cracked mug or if there is an incense prerequisite. A membership card. Meetings. Is there such a thing as Wiccan blasphemy, sister to the deep evangelical anxiety? My son has not had a nightmare since, although he sometimes slides into my bed anyway.
Maybe magic and science are having a rough go of it like my neuroscientist sister and I. Maybe it’s all semantics. Labels. Divisions. I think about the Dead Sea tourists muddying their carefully manicured nails in yet another nation’s treasure bed; I think about the locals I have never met who ail and bathe and pray; I think about Karl Pilkington, the Idiot Abroad floating in a diaper until he finds a band-aid drifting by his head. I think about the Ahava Dead Sea Salts website, which says that they mine the lake and harvest its salts. I think about “mine” and “harvest.” I think about the ugly scar pits across the earth, about gutting her of magic and fortitude.
It’s after dark when we tear down the banquet hall. Linens in the blue bag, cloth napkins in the white. Or maybe it’s reversed. There’s a sacredness to an empty bar where each employee is allotted one drink in the half-dark. Casing myself in the silence of my ’91 Bonneville whose hood won’t open, my arm smells like wine. I toss the shirt on the floor and head east.