The President, who preferred to be called The Wolf, believed The Ungrateful Ones would try to assassinate him via his food. That his meals were prepared using produce grown in the eight-story hothouse on the grounds of what he instructed be called The Wolf’s Lair did not ease his mind. That’s why he had the tasters, his miner’s canaries.
Amongst themselves, the tasters didn’t call him The Wolf. They called him The Invisible Man. Despite their lives being risked for him, they had never seen him in the flesh. They knew precisely what he had for breakfast any given morning, lunch any given noon, dinner any given evening. They knew he liked his cauliflower tender, his peas crisp, his rice dusted so lightly with cracked pepper that among the fifteen of them, only two or three received enough of the black flakes to detect its pungency on their tongues. But they could not say how tall he was or whether it was true that his lips and hands were as dry and cracked as clay that has baked in the sun.
They felt his presence always, though. When they shivered in worn coats as they waited outside their residences for the automobiles, sleek and black as desk accessories, which would transport them to The Wolf’s Lair. When the guards brought out the single plate for all fifteen to share. When they scooped with their hands: no utensils allowed. When they chewed the bland food—always vegetables and grains; no meat, no fruit. When they swallowed. When the food shoved its way into their bellies. When they sat for the required hour of observation, like schoolchildren watching to see if objects tossed into a basin of water would sink or float. When the guards squinted their eyes as though they saw some tell-tale sign of the tasters’ imminent deaths. When The Invisible Man’s dog passed by the window that looked out onto the thick, mossy woods—the trees woolly like an expired air filter. Or when she entered the room with one of the guards and she sniffed and sniffed and sniffed.
Even when they were home again in the evenings, alive for the time being and tucked into their beds, they felt The Invisible Man near. Like in that old movie starring Claude Rains. They knew that though they could not see him, they could never be sure they were out of his sight. The Invisible Man could pass in and out of doors and windows without a sound, and he was raving mad, so when he ordered you to stay put or else, you didn’t dare try to run away. He could be standing between you and the door, poised to intercept.
The Invisible Man was not the first man to call himself The Wolf, nor would he be the last. The previous Wolf died long before they were born. He had fifteen tasters, too. He ate the same foods as well—peas and cauliflower, pasta and rice—or so they’d heard.
“What is it with men and wolves?” one of the tasters—her name was Reyna—whispered in those first few weeks while they waited for the hour of observation to pass.
The guards didn’t mind if they talked as long as they did not laugh. Their talking, in fact, seemed to put the guards at ease. When they were quiet, the guards shifted uncomfortably in their seats. The guards looked bored and agitated. One of the guards, a man with sores on his arms and face, tapped nervously on the table with a pocketknife.
Reyna’s hair was dark and curly and wild, and they all envied it. Lack of even the most basic personal hygiene products, such as shampoo, had made their straight hair limp and oily. When they learned later that she was a painter, they were not surprised. When they learned that she’d painted women in the nude, they were not surprised by this either, but still, they blushed.
“You mean humans and wolves?” another said. Her name was Meg, and her husband Karl had gone to fight for The Invisible Man. What she’d told the others, however, was that Karl had been imprisoned.
Meg explained that there were hundreds of variations on Little Red Riding Hood. The tale spanned place and time. In some of the oldest versions, there wasn’t even a girl or a red hood, only goats, but you’d recognize the tale just the same: a story of predator and prey in which the wolf lures his prey by pretending to be someone familiar to them.
“Wolves are vicious predators,” Esther said. She was the youngest amongst them, seventeen and a virgin at that. There was a boy, but he had been killed during a protest.
“That’s a myth,” Meg said.
When Meg had been a girl, a lone wolf once passed by her and her friend Danita while they’d played by a creek. The distance between them and the wolf had not been small, but not so great that the wolf could not have reached them in scant seconds. The wolf stopped and stared for what felt like eternity. The way the wolf’s fur framed what would have been an ordinary canine face made the creature as majestic as the lions they’d seen in books. After a time, the wolf turned and resumed walking.
“But what about werewolves?” Esther said.
“Haven’t you seen any werewolf films?” Reyna said.
Esther shook her head.
“Werewolves are remorseful,” Reyna said. “When they return to their human form, they spend their days searching for an antidote for their malady, their nights sweating and crying. The man who enlists other men to bring us here is no werewolf.”
A woman with a large brown mole beneath her left eye glanced at them from time to time, but she said nothing. Months would pass before they learned her name: Lucille.
Not long after Karl left to fight for The Invisible Man, Meg’s neighborhood was ransacked—every window in the home she shared with Karl shattered. She discovered this from her car when she returned from the rations building. She didn’t dare go inside. She drove straight to Karl’s parents’ house. She had nowhere else to go.
When she arrived at their door, which was taller than a door needed to be and was made up mostly of glass, as though they had nothing whatsoever to hide, his mother said she was lucky.
“Lucky?” Meg said.
“You weren’t in the house when those people came,” she said.
“The Ungrateful Ones,” she said.
“I didn’t see who did it,” Meg said.
“Who else could it have been?” Karl’s mother said.
Although Meg now lived in the house where Karl grew up, the only thing she had of his anymore was a solitary brown button. It had been in one of the drink holders in her car. She carried the button with her everywhere she went, even to the Wolf’s Lair, especially to the Wolf’s Lair. She kept it in a secret pocket sewn on the underside of her thin dress because it was safe there. Shrouded in cloth like that, she could not feel the button’s smoothness, but she could feel the firmness of it if she pressed her hand against her thigh. The button gave her comfort when she put that terrible food into her mouth. She thought, I cannot die. Karl will return to me. He will realize his mistake. He will be remorseful. This will soon be over.
Early on they wondered why there were so many of them. Wouldn’t just a couple of tasters do? But then one chilly evening after they were dropped off at their residences, the guards returned not even an hour later, demanding that they accompany them to the Wolf’s Lair a fourth time that day. When they were back in the room where they tasted The Invisible Man’s food, one of the guards said, “The Wolf says the cauliflower tastes unusual.” Another guard brought out a plate heaped with cauliflower and demanded they eat every last piece and that this time they would sit and wait for an hour and a half “just to be certain.”
They gingerly placed the cauliflower into their mouths. There was no reason, they supposed, to fear they were in danger. Never had any of them gotten sick from The Invisible Man’s food. And they all believed he was paranoid—that he must be to have fifteen of them. Still, they cried as they ate, the only thing unusual about the taste being that the cauliflower was a bit saltier than normal as a result of their tears.
But then nothing happened, and they were sent home again, and they lay awake all night, too shaken to sleep. At last they understood that there is no such thing as too many tasters. Because there is no such thing as being satisfied that your food has been thoroughly tested, that it cannot possibly kill you.
“We’re like lab mice to him. We’re dispensable, useless,” Esther said. She was plucking petals from a ratty looking daisy that must have been in the pocket of her dress for hours.
“Not useless,” Reyna said. “We have many uses that haven’t been tapped yet.”
They were silent, for they knew just what Reyna meant. This was in the days before the arrival of the guard who smelled like sausage, his breath on their faces as invasive as his hands on their bodies. This was before what the guards would do to Lucille. But they understood they were not safe from such threats. Indeed, when Reyna said, “If our Invisible Man were in need of an instrument with which to pick cauliflower from his teeth and had nothing else on hand, he would pluck a bone from your body and file it to a point. And when that pick grew dull or splintered from wear and tear, he’d pluck another bone and another,” not one of them was so foolish as to argue with her.
The others believed Lucille kept her fear secreted away. She was the only one who never shed a tear—not during the tastings and not after, either, when they sat there on those wooden benches for that long, terrible hour. It never really got easier, at least not as much as they thought it would, the way so many difficult things become easier with practice. Like beheading a chicken for dinner. Like telling your mother-in-law that you do not mean to insult her cooking, but you simply have no appetite anymore, not for anything, no matter how delicious. Like remaining cool and calm when your mother-in-law says that the work you are doing is important, that you are doing a great service to your country. Their minds played tricks on them while they waited. They felt a cramp or a headache coming on, and they believed it was poison at work. They braced themselves. But Lucille looked out the window at the woods that surrounded the Wolf’s Lair. She stared calmly at those downy trees as though they were put there for her enjoyment, as though she had simply stopped to rest during a stroll through the woods, stopped to enjoy the fresh air and the scenery. Meg imagined Lucille’s fear as a little brown button pressed against her thigh.
At night Meg removed the button from the inside of her skirt and lay it on the mattress next to her. There was not room on the tiny mattress that Karl once slept on as a boy for Karl and her both, only for her and Karl’s button.
She could no longer remember the sensation of being in love, but she missed Karl. She missed sex.
So she closed her eyes and touched her finger to the button—then her wrist, her bare shoulder, her cheek, her neck, her thigh. She imagined Karl and her squirming all over each other like joyful worms feasting on the dead.
She heard a howl outside, and she remembered The Invisible Man. She sat up quickly, and Karl’s button fell to the wooden floor. She could not move to retrieve it because she feared that something she couldn’t see would snatch her wrist. The Invisible Man could be anywhere. She eased back slowly beneath the sheet and worried for Karl’s button, cold on the floor.
After that encounter with the wolf when Meg was a girl, she bought a book about wolves from a library book sale and amazed her parents at dinner with her knowledge of wolf habitats, diets, and mating habits. Number of teeth in an adult wolf’s mouth: 42. Average weight of a newborn wolf pup: 1 pound. Running speed: up to 38 miles per hour. Prey: ungulates such as deer, caribou, and moose.
She imagined that if that wolf appeared again, she would befriend it. The wolf would love her. Sink its teeth into any creature that threatened her.
Karl voted for The Invisible Man, as did his parents. They’d argued about this. She’d begged him not to do it. He’d said, “Do you really want me to sacrifice my vote for you?” She’d said, “Yes.” He’d said, “You’re wrong about him.”
The question that haunts her now is, after all that has happened, would Karl vote for him all over again?
One evening Lucille managed to preserve a solitary pea in her mouth without the guards noticing. As the guards led the tasters outside the Wolf’s Lair and back into the cars, Lucille spat the pea into her hand and let it slip quietly from her fingers, a crumb.
The next day, the pea was gone, but whether eaten by The Invisible Man’s dog or a different animal or stuck to the bottom of one of the guards’ boots, they didn’t know.
When they saw the dog next, a few days later, Lucille watched her carefully.
“What are you looking for?” Esther whispered.
Lucille ignored her.
“If she were poisoned, we would be, too. We’d already be dead,” Esther said.
Lucille spoke the most they’d heard her speak up until that point. “If the dosage is very small, poison takes its toll slowly. It may be difficult to register.” Her voice was so quiet they had to hold their breaths not to miss a word. “But the smaller the organism, the faster the poison will work.”
She looked around at all of them and then they saw what Lucille had perhaps seen all along. Fifteen women, and not one of them weighed more than about a hundred and twenty pounds.
Meg dreamt that the guards brought them a huge slice of chocolate cake. “It’s The Wolf’s birthday,” the guards said. None of the tasters had seen anything like it since before the war began, so in spite of their fear and to their shame, they salivated like dogs. They tore at the cake with their claws, all fifteen of them at once. The cake did not disappoint. It was moist and sweet and rich, and Meg thought there were worse ways to die than by chocolate cake.
Karl’s mother surprised Meg with a jar of blueberry preserves she’d kept hidden, saving it for a rainy day. She dipped a spoon into the sticky, violet jam and pushed it toward Meg. “Now surely your stomach can’t turn away something so sweet,” she said. Reluctantly, Meg placed the spoon on her tongue. The metal felt cold and strange. How could she explain that utensils felt crude to her now, like she was running her tongue across the hood of a car? When Meg closed her mouth and sucked the jam from the spoon, she thought about botulism, how all it took was one spore to survive the boiling. She thought too about how easy it is to mistake a poisonous berry for a safe berry if you don’t know what you’re doing. Before she knew it, the jam had dribbled down her chin. The mouth of Freia, her mother-in-law, fell open, too, but only for a moment. Then she wiped Meg’s chin, and she apologized. Meg said, “No need to apologize.” Freia looked so uncomfortable that Meg excused herself to wash up.
They were sitting and waiting for the hour to decide whether they would live or die when a guard entered the room with The Invisible Man’s dog in tow. Lucille put her hand to her mouth and then dropped her hand to her side. She was on the far left end of the bench, closest to the doorway where the dog sat. As tiny as that pea was and as bland as it tasted, the dog knew it was there. She sniffed. She looked at Lucille’s hand. The guards were talking, paying no mind to them, so Lucille slowly opened her hand and let the pea fall to the floor. It was so wet, this pea, that it stuck as it landed; it did not roll. But the distance between the pea and the doorway was no matter for the dog, who scrambled across the floor and was on that pea before the guards could see what it was that had caught The Wolf’s beloved dog’s attention.
The guard who brought The Invisible Man’s dog into the room quickly registered what had happened, however. He was on the dog, wrestling her to the ground, his hand in her mouth, before the other guards made a move. The guard cried out in pain when the dog bit his hand.
Lucille smiled at this. The rest of the tasters sat so still, they probably looked like wax statues.
Finally, the guard retrieved the desiccated pea. He held it up in the air triumphantly.
He leaned over Lucille, and he pried her mouth open and he shoved his bleeding hand all the way inside. He crammed that mangled pea down her throat. Then he closed her mouth and told her to swallow. The guard cursed. He stomped. Still, Lucille did not cry.
Peas look like little bullets. Or like little planets. When Meg was a little girl, she and Danita used to pretend that the tiny mushrooms growing in patches alongside the creek each housed a hidden world. Now when Meg smashed peas with her teeth, she imagined she was crushing hidden worlds full of teeming things. She envied these creatures she could not see, for they died from one fell blow.
This is what happened to Lucille:
The guard who tended The Invisible Man’s dog grabbed her by the hair and dragged her outside. He yelled at the other guards to bring the rest of the tasters out, too. One of those guards had the dog on a red leash. The dog’s mouth opened and closed, opened and closed, but Meg could not hear her barks over the other tasters’ cries. She hardly even heard the gun shot as it knocked Lucille to the ground.
Esther cried for days. “I hate him. I hate him,” she said.
“Hate who?” Meg finally asked.
Esther looked at Meg like she was crazy to ask.
“The Invisible Man.”
Meg pointed out that The Invisible Man did not kill Lucille.
“But he’s why she’s dead. He’s why we’re here. He’s why your Karl is gone,” Esther said. Her eyes twitched.
Meg hated Esther more in that moment than she hated The Invisible Man, though.
Because he was invisible to them, The Invisible Man was more like a devil than a man. Not of this earth. It was fear one felt for a devil, not hate. Hate was reserved for the people you saw every day. The people who played cards while you waited to die. The people who insisted you should be grateful. The people who reminded you that your husband had abandoned you. Hate was reserved for your husband, who chose The Invisible Man over you. Yes, more and more, Meg hated Karl.
Outside the window of Karl’s boyhood bedroom, a solitary tree stood naked all that winter. Meg spent the few waking hours she had to herself watching the tree. In the beginning, she envied the tree. It didn’t know loneliness. It didn’t know fear. The tree’s body was strong and sturdy. She thought that if she could project herself into the tree, become the tree, she would feel strong, too.
Then she watched a machine yank a series of trees along the street from the ground like rotted teeth, only the trees were very much alive. Their roots exposed and suspended above the earth reminded her of the heart surgery video she’d watched with Danita before Danita was to receive a similar operation. In the video, the surgeon had lifted the patient’s beating heart from his open chest cavity, and Meg had grabbed Danita’s hand. Danita had said, “It’s no riskier than transplanting a tree.” Danita didn’t survive the surgery, though.
Miraculously, the men stopped before they got to Meg’s tree.
But she never could see the tree quite the same again. She remembered the countless ways a tree’s body could be exploited—made into firewood, paper, office furniture, toothpicks.
When Meg was more bone than anything else, she thought the tree outside Karl’s window looked frail and cold. Resisted the ridiculous urge to wrap it in knits.
In the film The Invisible Man, another character, upon seeing some of Claude Rain’s bandages removed, calls out, “Look, he’s all eaten away!”
Each bite of peas, each hour of waiting to die, Meg felt some part of herself erased. She wondered if by the time Karl returned, if Karl returned, there would be nothing left of the woman who’d once loved him. Just as already there was nothing left of Karl. She’d dropped that brown button on the grounds of The Wolf’s Lair. The dog didn’t even turn its head.
Michelle Ross is the author of There's So Much They Haven't Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Nashville Review, Electric Literature's Recommended Reading, TriQuarterly, and other venues. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review and was a consulting editor for the 2018 Best Small Fictions anthology.