Excerpt from The Salt Maiden
In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it…
– Stephen Crane,
from “The Black Riders, III”
Long before the ancient Aztecs and Egyptians ever dreamed of making mummies, nature had perfected her technique. First, take a corpse — a human’s, for example — and protect it from the ravages of predators and weather. Then find a quick way to strip the body’s tissues of all water content.
Dry winds do a fine job, providing the unfortunate’s final resting place is cold enough to discourage hungry insects. But even in a hot locale — say the arid country of West Texas — certain natural compounds serve the purpose quite as well.
One of the most effective substances is common salt, including the white crystals surrounding a body in a cavern so far beneath the desert’s surface, the coyotes and the turkey vultures never sense its presence. And neither do the searchers, whether they use horses, SUVs, or small planes in their hunt for one missing woman amid the hundreds of square miles where rattlesnakes outnumber humans and scorpions have outlasted every species since the dinosaurs.
Could she speak, our modern mummy might beg the searchers to look longer and look deeper. But of course, she’s been beyond that for some time.
Dana Vanover stopped dead in the middle of the hallway of Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. Her head was already shaking as her mother turned.
“I’m not doing this,” Dana told her. “I’m sorry for these people, Mom. Truly sorry their daughter’s condition is so serious. But I don’t want to get to know them. I don’t want to feel…”
Her mother arched an elegantly sculpted blond brow and folded arms both tanned and toned from tennis. Her latest cosmetic procedures might have smoothed the lines from her face, but they did nothing to erase the disapproval. “Feel what, Dana? Sympathy for the only grandchild I’ll have?”
Spinning on her heel, Dana stormed toward the elevator, her long strides easily outdistancing her mother’s. The staccato click-click of high-heeled sandals trailed her.
“Please Dana, let’s not dwell on —” Isabel’s voice rose to a squeak.
Dana turned in time to see her mother toppling forward and reacted reflexively to save her from a fall.
“You all right, Mom?” She scanned quickly, her gaze sliding from her mother’s sleek, blond pageboy haircut to the summery green-and-white dress.
“I — I’m fine,” she said, then pointed down at the pretty, pear-green sandals to indicate a broken strap. “The price of vanity, I guess.”
As she extricated herself from Dana’s grip, her mother shuddered at the unexpected touch. Isabel Smith-Vanover Huffington tried to hide it, but Dana knew very well that she loathed all forms of physical contact, particularly those that took her by surprise. Dana had heard whispers of abuse once, in her mother’s childhood, but no one in the family was willing to discuss it.
Dana shook her head. “One day, you’re going to break your neck in those things.”
“If I do, at least I won’t be caught dead in those abominations you insist on wearing.”
Dana frowned at her. “Right.” But it wasn’t the insult to her Birkenstocks that grated.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake. You must know I was joking.” Her mother took a deep breath, then reached for Dana’s elbow. At the last instant, she dropped her hand instead and kicked off the broken sandal, then bent to pick it up. “We’ve come this far. Please.”
She bobbed along a step or two before Dana stopped again beside a brightly-colored mural of cheerful cartoon animals.
“She’s really not your grandchild, or my niece either. Angie saw to that when she put her up for adoption. Nikki belongs to the Harrisons. We were never even meant to know about her. And we never would have if she weren’t in such bad shape.”
Tears welled in her mother’s green eyes. “They’ve asked for our help. To save that dear child’s life.”
Isabel had only learned of the “dear child” when a private investigator had landed on her doorstep three weeks earlier, yet here she stood, playing the Queen of Empathy, though she had never shown more than ill-disguised revulsion for her own two daughters’ illnesses. Had Nikki Harrison and her parents really won Isabel over during her first, brief visit to the cancer center, or was she merely trying on the role of distraught grandmother to see how well it suited?
“We’ve both been tested,” Dana told her, “and if the match had been good, I would have gladly donated bone marrow for a transplant. But it’s not a possibility, and I can’t afford to get any more involved in this —”
“You used to be such a caring girl. And you still do so much good. For animals, at least.”
Dana braced herself against the implication that she thought more about her canine and feline patients than people. “I told you, I am sorry. But I can’t bleed for everybody, Mom. I don’t have the energy right now. I have a veterinary clinic operating at a loss, thanks to the time I took off after surgery. And I still have a ton of wedding gifts to send back, along with some pretty damned awkward notes to go with them —”
“You haven’t finished that yet?” Her mother’s eyes shot wide. “Oh, Dana. It’s been more than three months now. What on earth are people going to think?”
Dana didn’t have an answer. She felt guilty enough without Isabel hammering the nail in deeper.
After passing a nurse’s station, her mother paused to check the room numbers on a sign before she turned a corner. Still hobbling, she made careful progress while Dana followed in her wake, helpless as a leaf drawn by the current. But not as unprotesting.
“I’m sorry, Mom. Sorry I won’t be giving you a grandchild. Sorry I haven’t been able to write your friends to tell them, ‘Here’s your Waterford dust-catcher back, thanks anyway. Alex, the rat bastard fiancé, thought the whole hysterectomy-at-thirty-one thing was too much of a downer.’” She wanted to deck the sniveling coward every time she thought about how he had dumped her by text message and then ducked the resulting shit-storm with a quick transfer to the New York office of his brokerage firm. “And I’m especially sorry I can’t get sucked into another of my big sister’s dramas right now.”
People were giving her a wide berth as she passed them: a frail-looking young mother towing a small boy by the hand, a round-faced woman in raspberry-bright scrubs pushing a cart of trays that stank of steamed broccoli and heart-healthy chicken. Poor, sick kids were going to love that.
“You’re making a scene,” her mother whispered as she hobbled. “And finding Angie is the least we can do to save that sweet child. And her parents — when you see how hard they’re praying for a miracle, how totally devoted they are to —”
Still following, Dana cut her off. “There’s no guarantee Angie’s going to be a match, even if we did know where to find her. She still hasn’t cashed those checks, right?”
Dana and her sister each received a modest monthly stipend from a trust fund set up after their father’s death. Neither would come into the full amount until she turned thirty-five. For Angie, that was less than a year away. Then she’d be free to blow two-point-four million dollars on her various addictions. Until then, however, she depended on the monthly payments. But Dana wasn’t too worried that Angie had put off cashing the last two mailed to her. It probably meant she’d drifted into a relationship with a man content to pay the bills for as long as the ride lasted. Or possibly, she was so into one of her commissioned weavings that she’d temporarily forgotten about drugs — or even food. Or maybe she’d hooked up with some commune and given over all her cares to Jesus. Where Angie was concerned, almost anything could happen — except another rescue from her sister. That ship had sailed — and sunk — already.
“She hasn’t cashed them,” Isabel confirmed, “and when I called, the sheriff told me no one’s seen her in at least two months. But she can’t have gone far. He found her car out by the house where she was living. Apparently, the engine’s gone bad. Something about a cracked block, maybe?”
Dana felt the first frisson of unease then. “What about her loom?”
“He says as far as he can tell, all her things are still there. And I asked especially about the loom.”
It’s not my problem, not my problem, not my problem. Dana repeated the words until they blended like a mantra. Angie had sworn at her for rushing to the rescue at the last place, had skipped out of town and vanished the time before that. And if I have to fight with her now, on top of everything else… Dana rubbed her temples, but she couldn’t hold back her concern.
Troubled though she might be, Angie wouldn’t leave her loom behind. Not that one thing, not ever. Once, during a rare, calm visit while Angie was in rehab, she had described it to Dana as her only constant: the shuttle that married the varied strands of warp to weft and wove scant snatches of peace out of her chaos. She could become almost poetic when she talked about it. Angelina Morningstar, she called her weaver self, the artist. Other people called her that, too, and during her more stable periods, “Angelina” made good money selling work inspired by years of cultural anthropology courses that had never quite translated into a degree.
“Maybe you should fly out there and check on her.” Dana’s suggestion slipped out before she could stop herself, though she already suspected it was a lost cause.
Her mother paused before a closed door. “Heaven knows I’ve tried enough times. But you know very well she’ll head for the hills if she hears I’m within a hundred miles. Besides, Jerome has put his foot down this time.”
Although her mother’s husband of six years loved nothing more than seeing his name listed among the big-time benefactors of well-publicized charitable endeavors, the real estate developer had never approved of his wife “enabling” Angie’s irresponsible behavior. But Dana suspected Isabel was using him as an excuse, that she would far rather send her younger daughter as an emissary and throw money at the trouble than risk yet another heartbreak. It was tough to fault her mother, since Dana wished that she could do the same thing, wished that the buck didn’t always stop, inevitably, with her.
“I’m not doing it this time,” she insisted. “And I’m not going to make the Harrison family’s tragedy mine.”
Her mother raised her knuckles toward the door and paused to give her a look from the intersection of Shrewd and Appraising. “Come inside for just a minute. We’ll need to wash and put on masks and gowns. Then we can meet the Harrisons. Do that much for me, and I swear I’ll never bring up this subject again.”
Not my problem, not my problem, not my problem, went the mantra. But the moment Nikki Harrison looked up at her through Angie’s brown eyes, Dana’s resolution shattered, along with her vow to stay out of her sister’s life and get her own on track.