Roderick heaved the axe and watched through squinting eyes as it struck the pale cavern wall. Shards of varying sizes split off from the rock in an explosion of dust. The other men and women around him didn't complain if some specks got on them except to mutter a nearly forgotten swear if any salt reached their eyes. Everyone in the tunnel was covered in the grayish salt. They tried not to let too much accumulate on their tattered clothes in case the overseers thought they were trying to steal any.
Roderick lifted the ax again. The dim glow from the hanging lanterns showed the wear and tear on the thin metal that made each stroke a little more difficult. Calloused fingers wrapped around the wooden base. Roderick could feel the sting where his skin had been rubbed raw and bloody. He ignored the pain as usual and let the tip of the ax collide with the wall again.
The metal missed its mark. Roderick nearly lost his balance as the axe slid out of place and nicked the ground right beside a woman's bare feet. Had it found its mark, the other slave wouldn't have to worry about that sickening green infection beneath her toenails.
"Keep going," was all she said. There wasn't anger in her cracked voice or even fear for her nearly missing appendage. It was simply an order. It was the same order everyone in the line was given. Moving and working was their only path to living. Freedom was no longer an option.
Roderick opened his mouth to apologize, but he thought better of it. He knew this woman and everyone around them were lost in thought, if one could call that state of being thought. Their minds were focused on an image that trapped them in their jobs. Some unnatural paradise called out to them. It sent them spiraling into an endless pit of salt and labor, but left them internally smiling all the while.
Roderick sighed and a plume of disregarded salt flew off his soiled shirt. He wedged the axe from the stony ground and slapped his palm against his stiff pant leg, caked in crusted salt bits. For a moment it reminded him of his days back home. Roderick would shovel snow in sweatpants until his legs were frozen and his pants were stiffened with white snowy ridges around every crease just so his wife could drive their kids to the park for sledding. Cleaning his hands now did little to dry the sweat from his hours of labor, but it stung as salt dug into an open wound.
He could use a rest. How long ago had the overseers allowed them to stop for food? The pinch in his stomach said it was longer than he cared to think about.
Hefting the ax again, Roderick grunted a bit as he slammed it into the rock face with more force than before, anything to keep his mind from wandering where it didn't belong. He struck a mound of salt the size of his head and watched with delight as it broke off and rolled to the ground. He hoped that would please the overseers enough to earn the luxury of a sleep break.
A small gasp sounded from beside him. It was the woman he nearly dismembered. Her pale eyes lingered on the sizeable chunk of salt before drifting up to meet his. They widened for just a moment and then she turned back to her work, drilling her too large ax into the rock. Her flimsy arms looked even smaller in the oversized, ratty dress. They shook as she held the ax over her head and let it crash down with little to show for it. Her previously deadened eyes became glassy with unspent tears as she lifted the ax again and again, but only managed to collect little bits of salt dust in her bucket.
Roderick considered speaking up again, but this time he was interrupted by a piercing whistle echoing through the tunnel. The flames in the glass lanterns flickered against a sudden breeze. The ground rumbled beneath thousands of cracked and bleeding feet and a putrid stench like festering animal carcass filled the air. Roderick stood at attention and tried to hold his breath as the overseers approached.
Each creature was an eight foot tall towering presence over the hunched slaves. The overseers looked about with four eyestalks that ended in a bulging black ball with a red pupil. Wherever it gazed, it felt like being struck with a laser to the soul. The overseers never spoke in any recognizable tongue. The enormous maw that wrapped halfway around their oozing, spud shaped heads would open to reveal rows of black razors dripping blue saliva and an even worse reek. Gurgles reached each human's ears and they didn't make sense until the laser beam found their minds.
Roderick looked at the woman beside him. The only sign that one of the flailing eyestalks had found her was that her once tense jaw went slack. She could hear them now. She could see the world she nearly climbed out of and Roderick knew she was back.
One of the black eyes landed on Roderick's face. He knew because in an instant he had vanished from the mines and found himself in paradise. He stood beneath a friendly old tree in a desert valley. The sky was layered in pinks and purples beneath an ever setting sun. The mountains had a dangerous beauty to them, too treacherous to climb. He could admire them from afar.
The fact of the matter was that he was alone and he was comfortable. Roderick leaned against the tree as the perfect amount of warmth soothed him. He slid down the smooth bark and looked up at the pink buds in the branches. The gray sand was soft underneath him as he sat. It enveloped him and he ran his fingers through it. Each little speck kissed his skin.
"Keep going," a bird chirped from a higher branch. Roderick nodded slowly and looked back at the mountains with his hands still dancing in the sand. Each level of the harsh terrain shimmered in a different soft hue. Roderick's eyes crossed as if looking for hidden love notes in the beauty. "Keep going." His back slumped against the tree. A beam of light untangled itself from between the leaves and caressed Roderick's cheeks. His bare toes wiggled in the sand as if being tickled by angels. "Keep going."
"Keep going," he said to himself. Then something stopped him. A tiny speck, a shadow within the mountain's shadow, was moving upwards. Something dared to tame nature's glorious temper. Surely it wouldn't last long. "Keep going," he heard himself say again.
A bird squawked overhead as Roderick followed that shadow. Its journey was slow, but methodical. It ducked and weaved and crawled wherever it could find footing against the jagged spires. He felt like he was watching a movie and he found himself cheering for the underdog.
"Keep going," he said louder. The speck continued its journey. Roderick found his heart quickening and easing with each misstep and each save until finally the speck was at the top of the horizon.
It was still. The sun continued its stance in the sky. The shadows and colors didn't move as if painted in place. Roderick froze in anticipation. Did something live on the other side of those mountains?
The spot finally moved. Somehow Roderick knew it was turning in place. It had a head that spun and a face with eyes that now stared at Roderick. They perfectly matched his own from what he remembered seeing in small dirty pools in...the cavern. The tunnels. The salt mines.
Roderick's heart skipped a beat. He looked around him and the paradise dribbled away like water poured over unsubstantial chalk art. He looked back to find the speck melting away too, but the last parts to vanish were its eyes. Those were so real that he could still see them as he returned in body and mind to the tunnel. The stench remained, but it was fading as the overseers completed their rounds. The thousands of slaves continued the chorus of pickaxes meeting salt rock. Their eyes were glazed over and they all hummed.
"Keep going. Keep going."
Roderick looked himself over for a minute realizing that he would keep his sanity another day. However he also knew each time the overseers implanted that paradise in his mind, he found escape more difficult. The first time he ever entered it, that speck was his size. It had sat with him once and it had walked with him. It was nearly past the mountains now, but he still sat in the dust.
Roderick picked up his axe in brutalized hands and he let it swing to the rhythm of the hopeless choir as he made his own harmony.