The sand garden glowed eeriest during the hour right after sundown, like the earth itself was churning out its last breath.
For as long as Rika could remember, her father dragged a wooden rake across the reddish sand every morning as the sun rose and again in that uncanny twilight before he prepared dinner.
“Why do you do it?” she asked once as she watched him peel potatoes for a thick chicken stew, his rake resting against the front door like a loyal guard. Outside, the moon slipped behind a gauze of clouds, casting shadows over the patterns in the sand.
“Because if I don’t, you will turn to salt,” her father said, scraping the potato skins into the garbage bin.
Rika isn’t superstitious, but she loved her father’s stories. There was the one about the boy made from dead skin and grime scrubbed off his parents. The other about the little princess that had fallen from the moon, nearly beheaded by a bamboo cutter.
Sometimes he told the story of the Salt Girl, a faceless sea creature that had fashioned a woman’s body out of ocean salt to lure humans out into the water. How the humans, angry from being deceived, captured the creature with their metal trawlers and harvested its body endlessly for salt. How as a final curse, the salt was said to taste so good the humans couldn’t stop eating it until they themselves had turned to nothing but husks of dried-out skin.
“What happened to those people?” she sometimes asked, hoping to drag another story out of him.
“They all became little salt people,” he’d answer, standing near the doorway, shadowed by the light in the hall. “Raking their little sand gardens, just like us.”
Now her father lays in bed. Now he rakes nothing but the unfinished thoughts in his head, unable to summon the strength to even walk down the hall to the bathroom. Rika warms honey tea for him in their soot-covered kitchen. It’s her turn to tell him stories of her day, unweeding the garden, sweeping up the piles of dead leaves into empty planters, finding the chickadees hiding in tree cavities, clustered for warmth. Her father has not been out of bed in days, but he tells her to stay close, that there is no need for her to head into town in search of help. Help is not waiting for them.
Instead, she scrapes dead skin from his callus-worn feet and watches time cascade over the sand garden through the open sliding doors in blues and oranges. Twice a day: when dusk spills over the hypnotic whorls in inky blues, when dawn blushes over the horizon, that is her time to work. She pulls the wooden rake from the hook near the door and resumes her father’s daily ritual with the sand.
He’s made sketches of the patterns for her: clockwise spirals around the three moss-covered rocks (six loops each), fifteen horizontal lines from the top of the gate to the middle like ocean waves, and another fifteen from the middle to the bottom gate like slanted rain. They’re taped up on the ceiling of her room so they’re the first thing she sees each morning and last thing she sees at night. She memorizes every spiral and wave, those micro land masses and phantom bodies of water like a map of her world, the only one she knows. She sees them pulsing in the colorless darkness behind her eyelids before sleep washes over her.
On the night her father passes away, he holds her hands in his last moments, his eyes sunken like hollow barrels. “Every morning. Every night,” he repeats like a spell, sparks crackling from the fireplace.
“I know, Father, don’t worry,” she promises the dying old man, pressing his cold leathery hands to her warm cheeks.
Three men from town appear the following morning, noses red, frost clinging to their boots as if they’ve been waiting outside for hours. They do not knock, waiting instead for her to come out to them first.
“We’re here to bury the body,” the tallest one says, his left cornea milky white. His toad-faced brothers stand behind him with shovels, a large black sheet, a hand saw, and a burlap sack.
“We’ll make sure it’s quick and honorable,” Toad Face #1 says. Toad Face #2 grunts and waves the shovel at her, either as a greeting or a threat.
Rika knows nothing about burials or honor, but she knows enough by the extensive scars on their bodies and the sharp weapons corded to their waists that she doesn’t have a choice.
The tall one shambles up to her with his shovel. She winces when he brushes the back of his hand against her face, the sharp calluses scraping her cheek.
“Your dad and I were good friends back on the Island. I told him I’d take care of everything after he died, so you wouldn’t have to,” the man says. “You need to take care of yourself.” He brings his hand to his lips, licking his knuckles where they had brushed her face.
For three months, Rika tends the sand garden like an animal that has forgotten how to live without work. She rakes the sand every hour until the skin between her fingers hardens with calluses. Her face and forearms burn under the sun, red blisters slowly settling into an uneven brown. She drinks from her father’s plentiful stash of teas, always thirsty. She drinks and rakes and eats and sleeps, the sand garden her only company. The only sound she hears is the church tell in town, tolling each evening, her only reminder that time is moving without her.
The storms begin the last week of spring. For days, the rain doesn’t stop, battering the wooden roof of the house, soaking the sand and the surrounding soil into a muddy slurry. At night, she sees the reddish light glowing under the surface of the water from her bedroom window, sometimes waking up to the feeling that her house has been swept into a bloody sea.
Still, Rika drags her rake through the flooded garden, the wet sand and mud soaking through the holes in her leather shoes. She can barely see through the sheets of rain, but the patterns are programmed into her muscles and bones, a language her body knows before her brain. She wills them through the ankle-high water with a prayer and brute force.
What she doesn’t notice, though, is how the sand has disappeared little by little with the rain. Washed up and mixed into the soil, wind-blown across the field, swallowed by passing birds.
When the clouds finally break, she wakes up to find the garden cracked, its concrete slabs left bare in the morning sun, only a scattering of sand left, like a missing child’s crumbs left on the street.
“Do you know where I can buy some sand?” Rika asks in Town, testing her voice out for the first time in weeks.
The Town is bigger than she remembers, with its strange spires, dark windows, darker alleys, and gas lamps so caked in grime that she wonders what color they glow at night.
The townspeople are curious about the pretty girl who now comes into town without a father. They point her in the direction of a shop on the east end of town, complimenting her long hair and foreign clothes, some offering to pay if she promises to have tea with them.
“Thank you, but I have to hurry back,” she lies, silently hoping to disappear from their vision. She’d spent so much time in her father’s shadow that she doesn’t know how to stand alone in the light.
The shopkeeper is an old woman with burn scars over half her face and angler fish jowls.
“What do you need that much sand for?” she asks.
“For the garden.”
“What garden? You mean soil?”
The old woman clicks her tongue, still puzzled by the girl’s request, but brings out a sack of pinkish salt from the backroom.
“Red Snow,’” she reads the label. “From a salt mine down south. Harvested from ancient animal remains. Apparently, this stuff covers an entire secluded beach on the Southern tip…where mermaids still live too,” the old woman grins with chipped teeth. “The world’s saltiest sand.” The label’s got nothing actually written on it except for a ‘harvested’ date, but the old woman watches to see if Rika bites into her story. Customers are like fish, after all; most of the time, they need to be baited.
Rika dips a finger into the salt, the familiar texture of sand, the coarse grains scraping her skin in the best way. Relief balloons in her chest.
“How much do I need to fill a garden?” she asks.
Rika rakes her salt garden morning and night. She brews tea and goes for long walks in town, watching the trees grow heavy with summer leaves. Some of the other girls stop her on the street. Everyone is curious about the Salt Girl and her Salt Garden. What do you do with all that salt? Is that the secret to your gorgeous skin? Does your husband have a fetish for it? Sometimes she sells packs of Red Snow for Miss Lurid, the old woman on the east end of town who then pays her a small commission. These are new feelings: making money, befriending strangers, her heart a cauldron of new tiny joys. The days are peaceful, and Rika finally starts to forget the emptiness left by her father. The toll of the bell towers at dusk becomes just another background sound as she makes her way home.
But then the itch starts.
Just a tickle at first. A nudge at the base of her head, slowly radiating up like tiny ants marching across her skull.
She scratches her head constantly, a shower of dead skin falling with each rake over her scalp. Tiny flakes cover her pillow in the mornings.
By late summer, her hands and face have turned scaly.
“Miss Trina’s got a miracle cream,” one of the street vendors suggests when she buys ingredients for supper. “It’s important to keep the skin moisturized, even in the summer.”
He points at a small metal tray for her to leave her money. Everyone in town avoids touching her hands, trying not to stare at the thick white patches on her neck and face, but Rika can see the morbid curiosity in their eyes.
“It’s a seasonal thing,” she explains, trying to hide her hands under her long sleeves. She fights the urge to scratch, the itch gnawing at her day and night, from her gut up through her arm to her fingertips and toes. Every time her resolve slips and she scratches, the skin thickens. “It’s probably the summer pollen,” she continues, smiling. Her lips crack painfully, but she doesn’t let the smile waver. “I usually try not to go out as much, but with father passing…”
The street vendor rolls a dried plum in his mouth, nodding sympathetically.
“Aw, ma’am, sorry, didn’t hear nothin’ about the old man,” he says.
“It’s okay, he’d been sick for a while.”
“I can have a looksee later with Miss Trina. Maybe she can get someone to deliver some cream to ya. You take care of yerself, ok?”
As Rika peels carrots for dinner, she brings the paring knife close to her calloused hands, the edge of the metal shining against the cracked white skin.
She cuts. Shallow at first, and then deeper.
White flakes chip off like truffle shavings, but there is no blood. There is no pain. Only the dull sensation of scraping scales off a dead fish.
The following morning, she has trouble lifting her legs from the bed. Her muscles strain, her bones impossibly heavy. When she finally manages to raise her feet, her pant legs slide down, revealing the stony, gray skin of her shins and calves like concrete pillars. In a panic, she drops her legs back to the bed. The skin on her calves split, revealing marbled gray flesh underneath. White powder spills out from the open wound instead of blood. Curiously, she presses a finger to the powder and brings the granules to her lips. Salty.
As the morning sun heats up over the garden, Rika brews a cup of tea and eyes the browning autumn grass along the perimeter, the tips parched from the lack of rain. How long had it been since that earth-shattering storm had washed away all the sand?
When night falls over the garden, she is still seated on the wooden porch. Her teacup is empty, the dregs sunken to the bottom, cold. She hasn’t moved since morning.
She tries to lift her arms, but they flop at her sides like useless logs of bone and skin. With every breath, her lungs filling with more dust than oxygen. She thinks of her father for the first time in a long time, of his limp body as the three men carried him away like a sack of rice. How dried out his skin had been.
Someone knocks on the front door.
“Rika? This is Kana from Miss Trina’s shop. I’ve brought a sample of our new cream,” a voice calls out.
Rika opens her mouth, but only salt pours out.
“Sorry to intrude if you’re busy,” the woman continues. “Mr. Hasegawa said you were in need of moisturization for extra-scaly skin? Our cream’s been super effective for people with seasonally dry skin! I’ll just leave the sample out here by this…uhh…rake?”
Rika pulls her body up and drags herself toward the front door, the wooden floorboards creaking under her labored steps. She tries to call out, but her throat is a pinhole filling with sand.
Steps from the door, her legs give out, and she tumbles to the floor, her left arm and knee shattering into a shower of brownish salt-like dried blood. Shocked, she lies still on the floor, unable to feel anything below her neck.
The sun rises and falls several times. The church bell tolls and tolls.
On the seventh day, Rika listens to the cry of crickets in the fields—they are always loudest in the hour after sundown.
The front door unlocks from the outside, slowly sliding open. Rika listens to the steps approach in the dark. Scaly cataracts cover her eyes, the world nothing more than differing lengths of light and sound behind frosted glass now.
“Who are you?” Rika croaks from the floor, her throat choked with sand.
“The Harvesters,” a familiar voice answers.
Slowly, the person gathers the salt from her shattered arm and knee into a shovel, carrying it out to the empty garden outside. Little delicate piles, almost like ruby dust in the twilight light. When the scraping sounds stop, silence pools across the corridor like black water. Rika wonders if the stranger has left.
The shovel suddenly drills down on her other arm and leg. Rika lurches from the impact. Her stomach and chest are shattered next, then her ribs and lungs, everything crumbling into more piles of salt. The person diligently transports those outside too.
When only Rika’s head remains, the stranger picks her up, gently stroking her face, their fingers warm against her cold cheek. She tries to speak, but her throat is already gone.
“Just a bit more, you’re almost there. Almost ready to harvest. The old man kept you alive longer than any time before. The rest of the Island thought he was either a genius or a greedy idiot,” a voice says, carrying her out to the garden. The air is warm for a mid-autumn evening. “You’ll be our highest quality batch yet.”
The person lays her in the center of the empty garden atop the pile of Red Snow, like a throne of pink sand. He licks the grains of sand from his hands.
In the cage of her own mind, Rika thinks of her father dragging the patterns through the sand day and night. She remembers the calluses on his hands as she pressed them to her cheeks. But more than that, she remembers his stories. The boy made of dead skin and grime, the moon girl narrowly avoiding death, and that lonely sea creature that had fashioned a companion from sand. Rika is not superstitious, but she is sentimental. Slowly, light pulses around her, like millions of candles coming to life in her kaleidoscope eyes. Like a final breath. Or being born again.