My reasons were selfish, but I hoped the dinner guest would succeed.
She had made an effort to be presentable, even though that only amounted to plaiting her hair into a few coarse braids and shaking some of the filth from her clothes before she stepped out of the lightless passageway and into our home. But small actions carry great weight in the Mine.
Husband didn’t agree.
“You won’t survive this,” he said. “I can tell.”
The dinner guest’s determined expression didn’t waver, but her scabbed, scraped knuckles tightened around the sackcloth bag in her hands.
Unfortunately, Husband had a point. Even I could see the dinner guest was a shell of the person she once was. Her face was gaunt and there were dark circles under her eyes and a few festering scratches on her check. She had washed, but couldn’t wash away her desperation.
“Are you Herbert Howard?” she asked. “The Guard with the way out?”
“Who else?” Husband replied, seeping with resentment.
But the dinner guest stood her ground. “Thank you for hosting me for dinner,” she said, as if she’d been invited in. As if she hadn’t fought her way out of the Mine, pushed through the door, and stepped into this old, narrow house in the adit. “You have a lovely family.”
On the living room sofa, the three Children stared at her with blank expressions.
“Wine?” I asked and pushed a glass into her hand before she lost her nerve. This startled her, as if I’d been holding a knife instead of crystal. The red liquid sloshed. She held it slightly away. Didn’t taste it.
The wine wasn’t poisoned, though. I believed all dinner guests should have the chance to enter our home and let their eyes adjust to the light. Though our lamps flickered terribly and the fabric colors were muted by time, our guests should be able to look at the sateen furniture, the hand painted dishes, and the silver that was only slightly tarnished. Look at us, the Family in the Adit.
They should have the opportunity to turn back.
“You barge into my home,” Husband said, through clenched teeth. “And you refuse my hospitality.”
The dinner guest hesitated for only a moment. “I would love to join you for dinner,” she said and took a sip of wine. I smiled and she noticed.
“My name is Melody,” she said to me. “And you?”
“She doesn’t have a name,” Husband said, glaring in my direction and I recoil. We all have our roles.
“I’m the Wife,” I whispered.
• • • •
I’ve always been a terrible cook.
Our meal started with turnip soup laced with arsenic and a tossed salad. Husband doesn’t like feeding guests past the first course.
The dinner guest looked around the table, watching Husband and the Children systematically devour the murky soup. She couldn’t have known the soup was poisoned or that arsenic had no effect on the Family, but she suspected. Her stomach rumbled while we ate.
But I am not a heartless monster. Eventually, she noticed how my soupspoon remained in its place, but my salad fork did not.
Husband noticed too.
“Mine scum,” he said. “Always shoving into my house, making demands. We are the type of family who doesn’t like being disturbed.”
This wasn’t quite true. It wasn’t a pleasure to entertain guests, but it did offer me a welcome distraction. A bit of hope.
“I’m sorry to impose,” the dinner guest replied, though her posture said she apologized for nothing. Then, she tore into her salad, though the greens were wilted and sour. She probably hadn’t eaten anything resembling fresh food in months. “They say you have a way out of the Mine,” she said, with a full mouth.
“I do,” Husband said. “But I’m not giving it to you. You’ve only been in the Mine for what? Two months? Three?”
“Pathetic. You probably have fingers that haven’t been broken from digging. You probably still have friends in the Mine. You can’t know how monstrous the Taskmaster really is yet.”
Around the table, the Family went still. It never ended well when Husband brought up the Taskmaster. The Children put down their soupspoons and picked up the steak knives in unison.
“I know what sacrifice is,” the dinner guest said, quietly.
That was when Husband pulled off his face.
She hadn’t noticed the seams around his scalp or at the base of his chin. She didn’t notice the parts of him that were flesh and the parts that weren’t. But underneath Husband’s mask were cogs and bleeding flesh and dead tissue and pins and screws holding together this creature that could eat arsenic in his soup every night.
Husband smiled his greediest smile.
The dinner guest shoved back from the table, stumbling to her feet as her chair banged against the floor, hand over her mouth to stop herself from heaving. She hurried from the room and into the kitchen.
I moved to follow her, but Husband turned his uncovered face to me. “Stay,” he said, and I did. I was a terrible Wife, but I’d learned it was better not to disobey his commands.
I listened to the crashes, the rattle of the locked door in the back of the kitchen as the dinner guest fought futilely with the knob. I watched the Children put down their knives as their blank, shiny faces became mirrors of Husband’s raw visage. They were good mimics, the Children, these perfectly hollow creations that were seldom heard, but always seen.
When the dinner guest returned, she was paler than before, but composed.
“You can’t know anything about sacrifice,” Husband said, speaking slowly, with relish, so we could hear each pop and click of his uncovered jaw. “You’re still whole.”
He didn’t notice what the dinner guest brought back from the kitchen until the butcher knife caught the dim light. In one swift, determined stroke, she brought the blade down past the second knuckle of her left ring finger. The digit parted easily from her hand.
“Not anymore,” she gasped.
• • • •
I didn’t need to poison the fish course. Even in death, the barbed, fanged Mine eel was vicious enough.
We waited for the dinner guest to stop bleeding. There was a large wet spot around her plate as she clutched a napkin to her maimed hand. But there would be no stain to remove; the tablecloth was already red.
The dinner guest swayed in her seat, but stayed upright.
“Serve the damn fish,” she said, through clenched teeth.
With the same butcher knife she’d used, I severed the head and the tail and cut the eel’s long body into six equal pieces. I served Husband first, the dinner guest second, then the Children, then myself. The fish looked like sewage and stank like a forgotten corpse. The dinner guest gagged.
“You understand that if you don’t eat, I will kill you?” Husband said.
“Yes,” she whispered and picked up her fork.
We ate carefully. Mine eels were spiteful creatures. Their bones liked to catch in our throats and cling. There were sacs of venom randomly scattered throughout their bodies like traps and their barbs were obstacles, sharp, cruel, and deep. Even after years of practice, I never learned how to eat a Mine eel without pain.
Which was probably why Husband loved them so.
“Mine scum,” he said as eel bones crunched between his teeth. “Did they tell you how I became what I am?”
The dinner guest didn’t reply. She was struggling to swallow the miniscule piece of eel in her mouth. Husband smirked.
“I was here when the Mine was a shallow cut in the mountain. The Taskmaster only had one whip back then. I was the first to sign my name in the books, the first to dig, the first to know the tunnels like my own lifelines. I dreamed of veins of copper at night and I’d dig like a madman in the morning. We were close, I could smell it. I could taste eureka. Didn’t even notice how far down we tunneled until I couldn’t get out.”
“Couldn’t or didn’t want to?” the dinner guest asked.
My Husband snapped the eel’s vertebrae. “Don’t interrupt. I’ve been stuck in this adit for decades. And you know why? Because I begged the Taskmaster to let me go back to my family. And that bitch laughed at me.”
He began to puncture the eel’s venom sacs with his fork, splattering the contents. I winced. It would be a terrible mess to clean later.
“I tried to escape, but the Taskmaster knew me too well. I told her I just wanted to go home. But she laughed and said “That ain’t what you want, Herbie. Not really.” She made an example out of me. She pulled me apart while everyone watched and remembered. There’s a reason you know my name, Mine scum.” Husband pointed an accusing finger at the dinner guest, but there was pride in his voice too. “Later, much later, when we were alone, she put me back together. And you know what she said to me? ‘You done good work, Herbie. Consider this a promotion.’”
Husband slammed his hands down on the table and we all jumped. “That bitch thinks this is a promotion. A neglected house. Stupid kids and a useless wife.”
My hand tightened around my fish knife. An old, almost dead anger rose up in my throat. But I swallowed it back down with a piece of barbed fish.
“And,” Husband continued. “These pathetic weaklings keep coming to my dinners, always begging for the key out.”
“So why don’t you leave?” the dinner guest asked.
“Same reason as you, Mine Scum.”
He didn’t elaborate. He didn’t need to. Everyone dreams of riches in the Mine, eureka waiting patiently on our tongue. Even me.
The dinner guest stared and Husband’s laugh was full of barbs too.
“Don’t look so surprised, you’re nothing special down here.” Husband leaned back and spat the last of the Mine eel’s bones on the tablecloth. “We all have our roles here. So tell me,” he said. “Why should you get off easy?”
“I have three children I left behind.”
“Riches aren’t everything,” I said. “Did you dream of rubies?”
“Salt,” the dinner guest replied, startled, turning to me. “Enough salt to preserve food for generations.”
Husband turned to look at me too and his glare was poisonous. I would pay for this infraction later.
But it was worth it. The dinner guest took full advantage of the momentary distraction and changed strategies.
“I was told that for that key, I needed to bring the main course,” she said.
“And what could you possibly have that’s fitting for my table?” he sneered.
The dinner guest bent down to retrieve the sackcloth bag she had brought with her from the Mine. With one smooth motion, she reached in and pulled out the Taskmaster’s severed head. She tossed it on the table and it rolled to a stop in front Husband. Slowly, his skinless face stretched itself into a smile.
“I did my research,” she said.
• • • •
It had been a long time since we’d had a dinner guest with us for the main course. Usually, they died over the soup or choked on a bone or had their skulls bashed in by Husband when he grew angry or bored. With shaking hands, I arranged the Taskmaster’s head on a platter and placed it at the center of the table. But that was not what we ate.
“What’s this?” the dinner guest asked me as I placed the plate of browned meat in front of her.
“A few of the dinner guests who didn’t make it as far as you did,” Husband replied, eyes bright. “Tell me, Mine scum, will you eat your fellows?”
The dinner guest hesitated. Then, she cut a generous piece with her steak knife and slowly, deliberately lifted the fork to her lips. “How do you think I’ve made it this far?” she said, chewing.
Husband grinned. “I’m not going to just give you my key.”
“How about a business deal then?” she said.
“You don’t have anything left to trade.”
“No, but I can help with that dream of yours. All that copper. I have some pull up in the outside world. I can recruit a hundred more men and women to come here. That’s a hundred more people working in the Mines. Think of the progress.”
“You’d add a hundred more to the hundreds of people already trapped in down below?” I asked.
She met my gaze. “Wouldn’t you? For a way out?”
I didn’t reply.
I knew my life in the adit was better than in the Mine. Food was delivered regularly from someone, somewhere down below, and I didn’t have the Taskmaster breathing down my neck. Best of all, in the summer hours, a little sunlight seeped through the bottom of the door in the kitchen for ten minutes or so. It was remarkable how little a person needed to survive. Hope and dreams, after all, was what kept the Mine full.
“Ignore my Wife,” Husband said. “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Let’s discuss details.”
Husband and the dinner guest debated her plan for almost an hour. I refilled their wine glasses twice, spilling both times from nerves, but they didn’t notice. She argued hard for her freedom, even when the Children became cruel and adopted the faces of her children, the ones she left behind. During lulls in the conversation, they asked her to come home in high, sweet voices. The dinner guest ground her teeth and refused to look at them as she pressed on.
Eventually, Husband laughed and slapped his hands down on the table. He stood up and removed his jacket, then his shirt. He took off his chest piece and exposed the ugliness within. Rusty gears and splintered bones and black organs, One by one, he hooked his fingers in his ribcage and with a strength that only he could manage, pulled his chest open.
From within that cavity, he snapped off the key made from bone. It was a small, brittle thing that would open the door in the kitchen, but would break in the lock. The dinner guest’s fork clattered on her plate.
Slowly, with pride, Husband walked around the table with his ribcage splayed wide and placed the bone key in front of her.
“Thank you,” she breathed.
“Except,” he said with a smirk. “There’s one more thing.”
That was when the dinner guest rammed the steak knife through Husband’s heart.
His eyes widened with surprise. Then he slumped over the table, and sent silverware and glasses and plates scattering.
“Finally,” she gasped, looking at me. “He shut up.”
“For the moment,” I replied. “But you can’t kill him. I’ve tried.”
The dinner guest blinked in surprise, she opened her mouth. But I never found out what words matched her shocked expression. Because a moment later, she crumpled to the floor.
• • • •
I didn’t lie, the wine wasn’t poisoned. Just drugged. The dinner guest was breathing deeply on the faded rug. And I knew what she dreamed of.
I hoped her palace of salt was beautiful and vast, where eureka echoed endlessly. It would be the last good dream she’d have for a while. Living with Husband was like living on a knife’s edge. He perfectly suited his role as Guard, his violent moods and resentments never changed.
But the Wives did.
I picked up the bone key and cradled it to my chest.
Across the table, the Children stared at me, but their faces remained blank. They passed no judgment.
“I’m sorry,” I said to the dinner guest. “You haven’t served your time yet.” I believed she did have children in the outside world, but I didn’t believe they were the reason she wanted to leave. No one came to the Mine—or left it—for anyone but themselves.
Me, I once dreamed of forgotten cities, and the fame of discovering them in the belly of the Mine. Foolish, maybe, but at night, I still dreamed of splendid ruins.
The dinner guest was clever, but she hadn’t been in the Mine long enough to learn that cutting off the head of the Taskmaster or killing Husband offered a brief respite, but it did not last. In the Mine, the roles didn’t change, only a few players did. And the Family in the Adit was almost as old as the Mine itself.
I kissed the top of the Wife’s head and wished her luck. Years ago, I had been a dinner guest and the man who was the Wife before me had laced the meat.
Key in hand, I ran to the kitchen door. I placed it in the lock and turned until the bone snapped. When the knob moved under my hand, I almost wept. I had to throw my weight against the door for it to relent, just a little, just enough for me to slip out. Before it locked behind me again.
I left without looking back. Because for the first time in years, I saw more than a sliver of sunlight.
But I’m not a heartless monster. For the Wife’s sake, I hoped the next dinner guest would succeed soon.