Monday, 22 August 2016

The Dead Sea, the Undying Lake


Nothing grows in the Dry Sea: but there are fields, and blooms, and flowers, for there is salt. The body of the sea is gone, but its bones, jagged crystals in ivory and rust and pure snow white, persist in pristine drifts along the edges of the great depression. Salts of reaction and combustion, salts that tint and temper, innocuous and undetectable toxic salts, ash-like natron which makes the dead inviolable. The lake blooms, and where it blooms, it can be harvested.

The salt farmers, heavily bandaged, skin cracking and eyes ruddy, work the pans by night and sleep beneath white canvas by day, in week-long expeditions of half a dozen, travelling from the half-nomad human hamlets east of the lake, from where their product filters slowly, often secretly, to Vyrhrad in the north and over the mountains into the true east, and to the steppes between. They bring no beasts onto the lake, nothing that can crash through the crust to the pockets of mud beneath (though men do this too, and are lost forever), nothing that needs excessive water and fodder (though men who get lost on the lake die screaming of thirst, surrounded by salt). They carry away their harvest on their own backs, tasting and sifting into grades and strains. They guard the knowledge of the best deposits jealously, above all from their clients, and they take any opportunity to slaughter their competitors and leave their corpses incorruptible amid the salt.

The natron, most precious of minerals, they sell to the horsemen who embalm their leaders and their priests in it before they set them beneath the hills to die forever: and more and more, the salt-farmers do thus also with their own dead, in sandier burials. As do the horsemen, the salt-farmers revere this death and revile those others who seek natron for its applications to undeath. They wage an endless war against the resurrectionists and would-be necromancers who trouble the lake.