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The making of moko was a parametric curve. The first and most traditional method was the chisel: whalebone, the blade straight or serrated and malleted into the flesh to leave deep grooves for the dye. Less painful, and easier to heal, were the needle moko that followed: made with a small cluster of sharp points lashed to a piece of wood, and the more needles the wider the lines were. This too was surpassed, by the Pakeha method of electric tattooing, quicker and more convenient, if suspiciously untraditional. Yet this too passed away, as loyalty to the old ways brought back the needle and then the chisel, so that the women who took it could not lose it, could not lose themselves, no matter how far they were from home. 

Her daughters were growing up without her.

It was something Makareta regretted, but she didn’t have much choice. When her husband had died, three years back now, someone had had to keep the business going. She had gone with him herself, in the first days of her marriage and before the girls had come along, but the dark spaces, the recycled air and salt dust and long silences between the stars, had palled. It was no place to raise a child, the cramped, hard-edged compartments of the one transport ship they owned, and Makareta had resigned herself to a long-distance marriage and a new baby every couple of years to fill the gaps. 

She had gone with him herself, and it had been enough to get her qualified, to learn the piloting and navigation and trading skills needed to keep afloat after he was gone. Makareta didn’t like the confinement or the quiet any more now than she did then, but it was a job when jobs were hard to come by. It kept her little daughters safe at home with her own mother, who spoiled and settled her mokopuna with the ease of practice and long experience.

“Waiting to hear from the whanau?” Her cousin was with her, quick and bright and not old enough yet for his own license but serving as an apprentice on her ship, someone to take the second watch. Whetu was also company when he wasn’t locked in his tiny cabin, sending long letters to his latest boyfriend.

“Nothing’s come through yet,” she said.

“It’ll come,” he said. “Not long now, and then on our way home again.”

“Not long now,” she said. The words beat in time with her heart. It was easier for him—Whetu was young and without real ties, and the excitement of his first trip was still upon him, blunting the sharp dark edge of homesickness. She waited for it to descend on him; watched for it, ready to comfort and console. If he was not her child he was still the young cousin of her husband, not much older than her first daughter, and Makareta felt a responsibility for him.

“Is it what you expected?” she said.

Whetu had heard the tales from her husband’s father, tales of space and salt and sex, of a woman in every port. “That stopped when I started bringing home the boys,” he said. “I guess the old man figured he’d have to find another way to get me interested.”

“You keep yourself to yourself,” said Makareta. “They don’t always think like us, where we’re going. You don’t want to go getting yourself into trouble.” Although her memories were more of the trouble her father-in-law had brought to his wife, the rumours of affairs and infidelities and other families; the forlorn expression on the face of the woman left behind, left alone and with children to raise, left to the whispers of neighbours whose sympathy was humiliation.   

She wondered what whispers her own daughters heard.

Makareta could not look away from the chisel and the mallet. Even the dye making, the kapara charcoal ground into dust, mixed with water and decanted into a mussel shell, could not hold her attention. The chisel—sharp and straight, the blade wide and shining—was all that she could see.

Makareta was afraid of the pain; knew it would be excruciating, even lulled as she was by soft-sung karakia and her mother’s firm grip on her hand. And today was only the half of it, her chin and lower lip, while the tattooing of the upper would wait until the other had healed.

“If you can stand this, you can stand anything,” her mother had said, and that was why Makareta was doing it. “Old enough to be wed, old enough to be tattooed,” the saying went, although Makareta had refused the moko before her own wedding, content with her choice and needing no pain to mark it, no sign of herself to stand with her ring.

Leaving her babies was different. This was a mark she could take with her, take into the cold, sun-shot emptiness of space. That chisel stroke was the birthday cakes she had made, that was the scraped knees she had soothed, that was baths and bubbles and bedtime stories. . .

Makareta made herself laugh after each stroke, made herself grateful for the pain.

Her third daughter was falling behind in her studies, distracted and made miserable by her mother’s absence. Makareta wanted the child to have the advantage of a good education, one that would give her more opportunities than hauling cargo halfway across the cosmos. It struck at her heart to know that her absence was causing such unhappiness. But “Toughen up,” said her mother. “We’ve got to eat. Can’t live on salt alone.” And she’d asked a local kaumatua to provide extra tutoring for the girl: a retired mathematician sympathetic enough to unravel fractions and basic algebra in return for some home cooking and a little help around the house.

“She’s very strict,” said her daughter, worlds away and pulling faces. “Do I really have to go every day?”

“Yes, you do,” said her grandmother, who had seen the rising test scores, the slow cessation of tears and I can'ts.

“Yes, absolutely you do,” said Makareta, who had slacked at school herself and was now paying for it; who was now having children who paid for it. “I’m not having the neighbours say that I’ve left you at home to run wild without me. If you’ve got time to complain, you’ve got time to study. I’m sure your kuia has an extra worksheet somewhere for you.”

And her daughter had groaned, hid her face in her hands and whined, but when her next letter came there was a decided lack of complaint and her mother was satisfied.

Facing the chisel for the second time was even worse than the first, for now Makareta knew what to expect. Fascinated as she was by the proud blue curves that now marked her face, the pain of the chisel and the long, slow healing were not something she could easily accept. And this time, this time it was different, because for with each fall of the mallet Makareta thought of the times she would miss and wept. That was for the homework she would not be able to help with, that was for someone else brushing hair and braiding ribbons through it, that was for how tall they would be when she could make it back.

Makareta wept at each stroke and her tears stung her wounded skin.

The salt was carefully packed, the iwi-owned mine so practised in their trade that the hard blocks kept fresh and uncrumbled in the hold. The purity of their product, the long history of transport between the two worlds—her husband before Makareta, and his father before him—made the trade easy, the off-loading uneventful. They had always traded with a woman called Miriama. Traded too long and too closely, Makareta sometimes thought. That had been the choice of her husband’s father, who had locked them into a contract, locked them into contact and clauses and catches for reasons that Makareta would not have shamed them at home for telling.

Instead she did her job without comment, looked away from the glare of Miriama’s daughter, whose eyes too nearly matched those of her own children, the eyes passed down to her babies from their grandfather.

“Can you look after things for a while?” said Makareta to her cousin, dusty to her hips under the wide open sky. “I need to stretch my legs.” To feel fresh air, even if it was as dry as shipping; to get away from the appraising glances that abraded her skin and made her want to snap her widowed status at the people around her. “And there’s something,” she said, “that I have to do”—a chore that came from secrets and silence and signatures, a necessary portion of the trade. That was all the detail she could give. Her mouth was sealed with the salt from the sprayer attached to her back, hidden under the heavy cloak she wore for protection against the desert night. It was not a job she could shift onto Whetu. He did not have the sympathy for salt that she did.   

Makareta had grown up around the giant pit, the mine gaping in the earth, and was used to the way it kept her skin soft and her clothes dusty, the way it had tasted of her husband. It reminded her of her children, always, playing as she had played and playing without her. It reminded her of loss and distance and absence, and she could hate it if it didn’t put food on the table, didn’t build as well as banish.

She could hate it if it didn’t give her freedom.


The salt was silver in the moonlight. Edith approached the figure, knife in hand, the fat of her lamp smoky in the darkness. Wind had smoothed the features, the lines of breast and hip. Yet Edith made out the smooth arc of a veil similar to her own, a hint of cheekbone, the head turned back. She followed its gaze, strained her eyes to make out the shadowed blocks, the shattered lines of sand too often broken to be natural.

Edith did not blame her for looking back. Slipping out of her tent onto the night sand, aching between her legs and awkward from the packing used to staunch the blood of childbirth, she had looked back also. She had left her son in the tent, new anointed with oil for the celebration of his birth. It was hard to leave him, but she had also borne a daughter. That did not merit the same celebration; Edith took the responsibility more seriously for it.

Her daughter did not get oil. Daughters did not get oil. They were given salt.

Edith’s husband did not know she was gone. None of the husbands ever knew—the time after birth was one of either celebration or commiseration, and the men spent it apart. So Edith had left her boy with her sister, left him with her breasts aching and tears in her eyes. But it was only for a few hours, even if those hours were on the first night of his life—and her sister was kind and had small children of her own, could nurse him if needed.

Her breasts ached all the more because she could not nurse her daughter. Her son she had fed first, as expected, but no girl could be given milk before she had been given salt. The baby was weak in her arms and cried for hunger. Edith’s sister had stopped her ears with tallow in silent sympathy. She too had a daughter.

But if the tallow stopped her ears it could not still her daughter’s crying, and Edith's arms echoed with the child’s wails on each step of her journey. The marks along the way were subtle but where she had been told to expect them. The abandoned city, shattered under sand, was an hour’s walk for a healthy woman, but weak from labour Edith felt as if she had spent half her life on the dark sand before the figure rose before her. Brought to the pillar of salt on the night of her own birth by a mother long dead, Edith had not been back since. That was the way of it. The pillar was for birth and birth only, and visited in the dark, so as not to draw attention.

Salt was a precious commodity. Scarce, although the pillar endured—partly because the men thought it cursed, a punishment for disobedience, and the women took care not to alter that perception. Other sources were imported. Brought by spaceships from ocean worlds to the desert and too expensive for traditional communities such as Edith’s. So be it, said the elders, who wanted little contact with traders anyway, arguing that they did not understand desert life, and contact with them polluted. It had done so to her mother’s sister, and Edith had been raised on warning tales at the back of the fire, whispered where the men could not hear and spit on her name into the desert. “Miriama was not so much older than you,” her mother had told her, on the night of Edith’s first bleeding. “She fell in love with a man from another world, and gave herself up to him. Of course that was the end of it—tossed out, she was, without so much as a single date, a single cup of water. She gave it all up for salt. I wept into my blankets at night, knowing I would never see her again.” And that was the end of it; the end of interaction and transaction and trade. 

It was these strictures Edith thought of first when she arrived at the pillar and saw a strange woman, in foreign trousers and jacket, her head immodestly bare, her chin and lips scarred blue with ink. At first Edith thought she was blowing sand at the pillar, but the quick warm smell of water permeated the air, jolted her out of weariness into feverish dismay.

Her mother’s stories came suddenly back to her: abandonment and disconnection and loss, a life looking back to a sister kept separate forever. At her breast, the baby cried—and the sharp, stabbing fear that her child would be lost as her mother’s sister was lost spurred her into action.

She smacked the spray from the foreigner’s hands, clawed and shrieking, but in a moment the other woman was lowering her to the sand, her movements strangely gentle until Edith realised that she was being held up rather than dragged down. Her chest ached, her thighs ached, and between her legs was red as sunset. The woman tried to give her water, but Edith glared and turned her face away, too weak to protest further.

She did not relent until the woman wet her fingers in the liquid from the spray and smoothed it along Edith’s lips as if she were a baby. The shock—the sharp bright taste stirring a fragment of memory like sweat and sex and blood but more so—brought Edith out of her daze, made her accept clean water and fruit as if they were given by her own mother. She dug the tallow from her ears.

“Salt,” said the woman in accented tones, offering up the nozzle. Her clothing and the strange blue marks about her mouth marked her as an off-worlder. “Be not afraid. Salt only. Salt water.” She gestured at the pillar, the lovely sad lines of it. “I build,” she said.    

“That is God’s work,” said Edith clearly and with more than a hint of disdain, but the woman only shrugged, unconcerned.

“More women than God,” she said, with a quick smile at the bundle in Edith’s arms. “More babies. Wind, sand. The pillar is made small, yes? For very long time, made small and small again. One day, no help, and it will be gone.”

Edith shivered despite herself. No more salt. What would happen then, to the girls born into a world without salt? They would not be named, would grow up without looking back. Without concern or regret. Forgetting the first mother, the first Edith who could not bear to turn away from the neighbours who had lent her spices for baking and been lent milk in return, who had watched her children while she went to market as she had watched theirs. . . The sewing circles and morning gossips, the laughter and petty fights and borrowed jewellery and jealousies that made life interesting, and bearable, as Edith’s husband had carped and complained and offered up their daughters like cattle, as he had not looked back and called it justice.  

The baby squirmed in her arms and Edith stroked the tiny hands. She would not let her daughter lose herself for want of salt.

“Are you my aunt?” she said. “Are you Miriama?” But Edith knew as the words left her mouth that it could not be so. Her mother’s sister would be an old woman by now, if she was still alive, and this one was older than Edith herself but not that old. Besides, the strangeness of her face and dress belied any connection to the desert-born.

“Miriama send,” said the woman. “I am Makareta.” Her head tilted to one side, and she regarded Edith with cool interest. “You want me to take message for you? To Miriama?”

Edith shook her head, shook it instinctively. She had been taught the story of her mother’s sister as a warning. All the older women taught it to the younger, taught them to look back and see the cost of choices made, taught them the price of salt. Sometimes the price was worth the bargain, but Edith did not know that this was the case here. She had never thought to see another at the pillar, had not prepared herself for it.

“Why are you here?” she said.

The woman reached towards the baby, withdrew her hand at Edith’s sudden tightened arms. “I have daughters also,” she said. “If they were here. . .” she trailed off, and shivered with what could have been cold. The desert was not warm at night. “Different lives,” the woman continued. “If born here,” she gestured at the desert, “I want them come here,” and again at the pillar. “Like you.” She cocked her head, looked at Edith speculatively. “I think kinship?” she said.

Edith was not convinced that the other had fully understood her question, but the answer she had been given rang true. Life in the desert could be hard, and the bonds between social groups needed to be strong. It was not unthinkable that off-worlders could behave properly towards each other in such a way. Perhaps the space between the stars could be as cold as the desert at night. Perhaps the woman across from her also looked back, and knew the importance of doing so. Wearily, warily, Edith rose and circled the salt figure until she was close enough to scrape off two small flakes. They shone silver and red on her knife. Tucking the baby closer to her body, she knelt by the other woman and pressed the larger flake between her lips. “Remember,” she said, and fought the urge to taste the salt again for herself, to return to the statue and lick up the long eroding line of leg until her mouth was cracked with it.

“Come here again?” said the woman, startling her out of salivation.

Edith swallowed. “I cannot. I have a little boy also, born when my daughter was born. He cannot come here, and I will not leave him longer to do so myself. I will not come back, not unless I have another daughter. Else it would be too tempting to stay.”  

“And the husband?” said the woman. “Where he is buried, you take her there?”

Edith shook her head, her jaw hardening. “It is not a place for women,” she said. “Or so the men tell us. I think they have even come to believe it. No woman would go there, none would honour his life. Then or now. We do not even speak his name.” She looked at the other woman with her strange clothes and open expression and held her daughter tightly to her chest, pulled back the blanket to show the small face. “I would open her throat myself before I would let her go.”

“Honour,” said the woman.

Yes,” said Edith. “It is our honour. She is our name, our honour.” She took the second small flake of salt, pulled open her daughter’s mouth with her little finger and slid the flake inside. “Remember,” she said. The baby grimaced and squalled; Edith’s entire body loosened with relief. She brushed away the tiny tears and spoke softly, breathing into her daughter’s eyes. “I name you Edith,” she said. “Remember.”

“Edith?” said the woman.

“We are all Edith,” she replied. “Our first name, here in the dark before the pillar. Blood becomes salt, and through us becomes blood again.” Tenderly, she arranged the blanket to shield her baby’s face from the cool desert air. “Tomorrow, her father will give her another name and he will think it her only one. But she will be Edith first.” She looked at the pillar, at the salt drops beading onto the frozen form, the outline blurred and ancient looking still.

“You build well,” she said.

“Do you mean me, mean her?” said the other woman.

Edith did not answer. She had given the other woman salt, taken on in that way a maternal role towards her, younger as she was and with the sharp taste given again to her own lips. That question she had been asked was a question the other woman could look back on and work out for herself. It was better that way. Instead of answering, she stood—her legs steadier from the rest and the release, and began the long walk back to the camp. Beneath her scarf, the baby latched on to a nipple and began to suck.


When the traders brought her the salt, there was always an extra brick. Miriama would soak herself carefully in hoarded water, brought up from the springs in small jars and jealousy and decanted into the tub where the salt lay, breaking it up with her fingers until they were more wrinkled than her face. She would float in the bath, the heavy-salted water easing the ache in her hips, in her ankles, easing the grinding pain in her knees.

The door flung open, barely missing the bath in what was little more than a closet. They could not afford a lot of space, she and her daughter; who would pay them well for their efforts, the whore and her half-breed child, subsisting on the fringes of civilisation and spaceports, subsisting on the small business brought in from other worlds?

“It’s always the same,” said her daughter, too big to sit on the side of the tub and too old to hide her bitterness. “They don’t want to deal with the off-worlders, but they’ll take the salt. And they’ll look down on us while they do it.”

“Always so angry,” Miriama muttered, the water saline on her skin and softening her speech, the speech she had so often given. “Be grateful we can find a place between them. We’d be begging on the streets, else.”

“I would not beg,” said her daughter, a child of edges and merges, hands on her hips and her anger swelling against the walls, face and hands and skin all proclaiming a parent from another world than hers. He had been such a beautiful man, Miriama remembered, with his ship and his dark skin and the salt crystals scattered round him like stars. So beautiful, and such an adventurer. Never content with what he had, always wanting more. His daughter was like him in that respect, for better or worse. “Not ever would I beg,” she said now, the child of a mother who had begged, once, not to be left and had been left regardless, with her hands full of guilt-salt and her belly huge with child. “And nor should you. There’s no reason to stay here. We should have left a long time ago.”

“You always say that,” said Miriama. “Always, when the ships are in. You’ll settle again when they’re gone.” She reached out a hand that was fish-slick with salt water, tried to drag one wet finger across her daughter’s lips, but the girl turned her head away and her mother could only graze her cheek. “This is our home,” she said. “This is the place where our family is, where our family grows. I heard today, my sister’s daughter, she has given birth. Twins.” That Makareta had brought no word back from the girl, no message, was not something to dwell on and not something she would share. The news was enough, and more than she could have hoped for. Still. . . “I would like to see them one day,” she said, wistful.

“You know that will never happen,” said her daughter.

She had known, when she first saw the man with the battered ship, that it held something more than a miracle. The salt had blinded her, so much in a land of so little, and for the first time she had felt desire in her mouth and her legs and her belly. First it had been for the salt, and then for its seller—a man with teeth that shone as if he polished them each day with the hard crystals in the hold, a man with skin that tasted of newness and knowledge and something other than a place at the far edge of the fire and following behind.

Known, too, that when she had left her family they would not have her back, not have her with dry eyes and dry mouths when she had wanted more than they could give. She always wanted more, even if she could only get it in instalments, as she did when he came back from another world with another cargo, came back with stories and sex and an extra block of salt for her to bathe in to soothe the old breaks from when she was driven out for love of him.

And sometimes she thought that she would not go back even if she could, even though she was lonely for her family, for if she looked back it would be because she regretted what she had done, and she did not. But then there was a child, a little girl of her own, and it turned out that he already had a family, already had a child, a son who would inherit his ship and take his own family through the stars. There was no place on it for her, nor for her daughter.

But “I’ll take care of you, don’t worry,” he had said to her, and the contracts were made. She was bound into a place of middles, a place between the worlds; their contract was sealed with salt. But after that he came less often, and she was the one taking care.

Her daughter was helping her out of the tub, bracing her weight to take the pressure off her knees, when one of Miriama’s feet knocked against the sprayer that she kept hidden under the bath, where no-one would look for it.

“What’s this?” said her daughter. “What is it?”

“You know what it is,” said Miriama, wrapping herself in a worn towel. “You won’t use it. Someone has to.” They both knew it couldn’t be her; half crippled with arthritis and gout she couldn’t make her way across the sands. They both knew that when the young woman went it was—it would be—with an axe in her hand, an instrument of destruction, a sharp blade and a flat one to swing and settle into sands.    

“She should keep to her own business, her own world,” said her daughter. “It’s not her place to do for them!”

“Is it yours?” she said against the furious lines of her daughter, against the bitter anger that came from exile and contempt and refusal. Miriama had visited the statue only twice—once for her birth, and once for her daughter’s. Yet that same daughter had hunted it out in the desert and gone for it with axes and anger, shearing off portions to bring home for profit.

We have to eat, said her daughter, when she came in the early morning, came back out of the night with blisters on her feet from the sand and blisters on her hands from the handle, from the rubbing of salt against the sores of the axe, against the salt-infused sacks that brought home the pieces and chunks that kept them afloat. The worn, brief outline of shoulder blades beneath a cloak, the slow gentle curves of thighs and flanks, the hints of hair and hands that could be ground down into thin powder and sold in small packets for oil and flour and fruit.

“It is the way of our people,” said Miriama, who had broken from those ways and never regretted it.

“They’re not our people,” said her daughter, who had been taken to the statue as an infant for salt but who had never seen her mother’s people. “They would not have you back, and neither would I go to them.”

“They are our people nonetheless,” said Miriama. “Their ways are our ways. Your first meal was salt. You do not remember, but I gave you that much of us.”

“And look how much it’s helped,” said her daughter. “We live on scraps. We don’t belong anywhere, or to any people.”

“We survive,” said Miriama, dry now and seated on her pallet, using the towel to dry the spray nozzle. “Did you think I would just let you destroy her?”

“I’ve destroyed nothing,” said her daughter, watching her mother polish as she herself polished, careful to keep her axe blade free of corrosion, careful to keep it bright and sharp. It was too large for her purpose, too large to shear off the small pieces necessary to keep them afloat, too large to promise anything but annihilation. Nothing yet. “And even if I did, who’s to say that destruction wouldn’t serve a purpose? If you truly want to see your sister’s child, you’ll have to make them accept you. Lose one source of salt, and they’ll come looking for another.”

“I took you there when you were a baby,” said Miriama. “In secret, as it should be. I still dream about it.”

“I dream about it too,” said her daughter, although her dreams were not of birth and recollection and duty, but of breaking and grinding to dust, of rolling in salt and sand until it was ground into her skin in silver lines, until she was tattooed with it and shining. Salt reminded her of freedom and banishment and choice, and she could love it if it didn’t put food on the table, didn’t give just enough to keep her chained to a history that was only partly hers.

She could love it more if her mother loved it less. 

Octavia Cade is a New Zealand writer. She’s sold close to fifty short stories to various markets, and several novellas, two poetry collections, an essay collection, and a climate fiction novel are also available. She attended Clarion West 2016 and was the Massey University writer-in-residence for 2020.
Current Issue
4 Dec 2023

“Ask me something only I would know.” You say this to your wife because you know you’re human. You can feel it in the familiar ache in your back, and the fear writhing in your guts. You feel it in the cold seeping into your bare feet from the kitchen floor. You know you’re real because you remember.
now, there is the shape...humanoid, but not / necessarily human
He came from a salt mine that used to be solid all the way through
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