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Engines of the broken wo.., p.10

Engines of the Broken World, page 10

 

Engines of the Broken World
 


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  “Way I see it, we got two choices right now,” Gospel said eventually. “And they’re both stupid ones. Either you can go and try to talk to Mama again, not that I’m saying there’s anything to talk to, but maybe there is. Strange things are going on. A ghost angel might not be the strangest.” I was pretty surprised he came even that far in not making fun of me or just acting contrary, so I held back any smart words that I might’ve let loose. “Or else I can go after the Minister. It’s mighty cold out there, but I don’t reckon it’ll go all that far—it ain’t likely to just vanish into the forest or anything. Only reason it ever got very far away was to look after some trouble for people, and there’s no folk left but us here, maybe in all the world. So probably I can find it, I guess.”

  He didn’t seem all that eager, though, and I didn’t blame him. The wind that blew in had shuddered my skin from just a hint of touch, and me still in a coat and boots and all. I didn’t even want to consider the outdoors, and what it would be like in the dark and wind and snow out there. I didn’t much like the other idea, though. Whatever was in Mama wasn’t much help, either because I was too simple to understand it or it was too different or something; and anyway, I was starting to think that Auntie was maybe lying, or maybe wrong, because it kept talking about machines and suchlike when there weren’t any to be found. But I guessed there must be some truth under the mistakes or lies or whatever they were, and if I talked to Auntie, maybe I could get to the bottom of it.

  I really didn’t want to talk to her. There wasn’t a way to think about it that made it a good idea: either she was a dead person talking to me, and that wasn’t in keeping with the Good Book; or else I was touched in the head and going the way Mama did, which was a fearful thing to ponder. I didn’t feel like I was losing my mind, but I suspected that wasn’t a thing you really noticed.

  Sometimes we all had to do things we didn’t want to. “I’ll go down and see if she’s back. Probably she is since we heard that music. She got real tired and couldn’t talk to me anymore before, so maybe she won’t be able to. But I’ll try.”

  “You do that.” Gospel hadn’t looked at me while he was talking at all, just watched one of the candles’ dancing flames instead.

  “I’ll be going now,” I said, slipping out of the chair, which creaked back and forth behind me. Gospel didn’t turn, and I decided I didn’t care. I walked calm out of the room and then ran with my boots thumping and the floor creaking across the sitting room and the kitchen, right to the cellar door. I crouched, taking a moment to look over at tall Esmeralda Cally lying there and make sure she was still breathing, which she was, slow and steady. I stood back up and grunted and strained to move the big old chair off the hatch.

  “Hey, Merce?”

  “What, Gospel?” I expected he wanted to complain about how much noise I was making or something just as stupid.

  A long silence. “You be careful down there, now. Come on back up safe.”

  I drew in a long, raggedy breath, half a gasp and half a sob. I glanced over my shoulder at the kitchen doorway, but I couldn’t see him: he was still on the bed, I supposed. “I’ll do my best.” And then I lifted up the hatch and propped it open, took a deep breath, and called down, “Mama? Auntie?”

  I thought maybe she’d move if she was there, but I didn’t hear nothing at all, so I guessed I’d have to climb down. The lamp we’d gone down with before was still there at the top of the stairs, and I lit it with a punk from the fire in the stove, pardoning myself to Miz Cally for standing right over her while I did so. She didn’t seem to mind any, so I headed for the stairs again, careful not to trip as I went down slow.

  I was getting to be an expert on degrees of cold, and it felt especially chilly down in the cellar ’cause we’d had fires going upstairs long enough to feel almost warm. Still, the cellar’s cold wasn’t a patch on that blast of winter that poured in when the Minister leapt out, so I kept on downward. Mama was still there, unwrapped and with the sheet pooled around her, just as I’d left her. One arm was flopped out to the side where I had pushed it when I was getting loose, and her mouth and eyes were open. I couldn’t move any closer when I saw that. I felt like I had so often in the last day, like I wanted to be sick, and the smell, which was stronger than the earth and onions of the cellar, didn’t make it better. I almost went back up and told Gospel I couldn’t talk to her and he’d have to go out, and wouldn’t that serve him right? I couldn’t, though. Hate me or not, he was my brother, and I’d never send him out alone into the cold night unless it was needful and certain. So I stepped down all the way and over to the body, and I knelt down by Mama’s head, careful not to touch that floppy arm, and I tried breathing real shallow while I leaned over her.

  “Auntie, are you there? Can you hear me any? I found a machine, but I don’t think it was the one. And now the Minister’s gone wild, and I think it knows what machine we’re looking for. Can you hear me? Can you help?” My breath misted out to moisten her face. I knelt there, looking at my hands, which were red from whatever the Minister did to me, I supposed, and thinking about how I didn’t want to die and just wondering what was going to happen.

  “I guess you can’t hear me. But if you can and just can’t say anything, we really need your help. If you can make it back here and tell me anything more, I’ll do whatever you want me to. Even Gospel, I think he believes in you too. So we’ll do what we need to, if you just tell us what it is.”

  Still nothing at all. The cold outside was waiting for Gospel, and I didn’t want to tell him I hadn’t tried everything, so I put my hand on Mama’s shoulder, which was getting kind of soft, and I shook her. I didn’t think it would wake her or anything, but maybe Auntie would notice it better than my voice. It seemed stupid, that I was shaking my dead mama’s shoulder to get an angel to talk to me out of her mouth, and for a moment I wondered if I wasn’t, in fact, just plain crazy. But I didn’t have anything else to try. Nothing happened, and I pulled my hand back and wiped it on my thigh.

  “Fine. Don’t do anything. And when Gospel goes out and dies in the cold, it’s your fault for not helping me.”

  I reeled back as breath hissed out of her lips. The air didn’t mist at all.

  “Are you here?”

  “Only for a moment.” Like a whisper forced through a door, that’s how quiet it was. I leaned in close to hear. “So tired. Find the machine. It’s moving. Always moving.”

  “It moves?”

  “It’s a machine, Merciful. They have moving parts—some of them move. This is one of those,” she said with an edge to her voice I hadn’t yet heard from Auntie. Mama had carried that edge around a lot. I started to get mad, because how was I supposed to know that machines moved? Machines I’d seen were just pictures, and pictures never moved none. But I thought of the little ballerina, and it moved when the box got wound up.

  “Is it the music box? The one that plays the lullaby?”

  “What music box? No. Oh, God, it hurts,” she said, but I didn’t think she was talking to me. I wanted to do something to help her, but there wasn’t anything I could think to do. It like to killed me how much she sounded like my real mama did in the worst of her spells. A shudder went through the body there on the ground, and Auntie gave a little cough and then started to speak again. “I don’t know what it is, exactly. Your mama saw it, but she saw it as all different sorts of things, and I only saw hints of it through her. She was a little crazy. You know that.” The voice was getting quiet, like she was moving away from me.

  I knew it. I didn’t need this thing to tell me. “Well, what do you think it looks like?”

  “A cat,” the voice said, fainter, “a dog.” Which made me think of something. I remembered the front door opening, the snow billowing in—something there, a shape, but it was like there was a pressure in my head and I couldn’t focus on it. I closed my eyes, dizzy for a long second, and then blinked them open. What had she been saying? About the machine? “Maybe a bird. Or a squirrel? Have yo
u ever seen one of those?”

  “Yes, ma’am. We have them in the woods, leastwise when it’s not snowing up a storm.”

  “Look for that,” she said, so faint that I had to lean in close to catch even a hint of the words. I felt no wind coming from the lips, only a faint, sickly sweet smell that made me pull back now that she was quiet.

  I didn’t know what she wanted me to look for any more than I had before. There were clues: it moved around, and it looked like an animal, and my mama had seen it. Something tickled at the edge of my mind, something I knew I should know, but it wouldn’t come to me for all the trying in the world. Something … something the Minister had said, maybe? I got really dizzy again for a minute and couldn’t remember what I had been thinking on. I blinked and frowned, feeling frustrated. I couldn’t figure it out.

  But I knew where a bird was. One that moved around, and one that Mama had seen. That old hen that had lived through the cold, and didn’t that just make it seem like it was unnatural? I surely knew that it felt like a real living thing, and that it had laid eggs and clucked and scratched, but I couldn’t for the life of me guess what else it could be.

  I wished Auntie’d said something useful about the Minister, and why it was playing its tricks, but it didn’t matter now. We didn’t need to worry about the stupid old thing. Let it play outside in the cold; we’d stay warm inside and make Miz Cally better and stop that moving machine. It’d be easy now that I knew what to do. I just needed to find the hen.

  FOURTEEN

  I climbed the stairs with purpose, hurrying up them like when I was a little slip of a girl. Killing a hen was an easy thing, something even I’d done a time or two, though I didn’t relish it like Gospel did. I couldn’t recollect the chicken getting out of the house when the door was open, and didn’t think a machine would have been stupid enough to go out in the cold, so she had to be around somewhere. But any old normal hen could and would get into strange spots in a new place, and it might take a while to find the creature even with Gospel helping.

  He was sitting on the floor by the Widow when I came up the stairs, staring right at where I appeared. “Did you talk to her?” he asked me when I stepped up into the kitchen.

  “I did. She wasn’t too helpful, but I figured it out.” It felt like a brag, and maybe it was. If he thought I was messing up, I really wanted to make sure and rub it in that I knew what was going on. “It’s an animal, Gospel, one that Mama saw. It’s got to be the hen. That hen lived through the cold, and that’s not a normal thing.”

  “That’s plain silly. Thing was near dead when we brought it over here, and no mistake. And it’s just a clucker, nothing special. I think you heard wrong, Merciful.”

  I was right tired of him not believing me, no matter how obviously right I was. I thought I should just tell him that, but there wasn’t much point, I was sure, because he didn’t care. So I started to poke into corners and make scratches and clucks like another chicken, to call the creature out.

  “You’re not seriously looking for it that way, are you?”

  “The Lord knows I am. And you sure as your hope of Heaven should help me.” I didn’t look up at him or anything while I set to searching, and probably that made him mad, me ignoring him.

  I heard the smash of metal on the floor and turned to see Gospel stomping the heck out of the music box with his boots. Bits and pieces of the thing scattered all over the floor, coming to rest against the cabinets, on top of the hatch to the cellar, right up against the Widow lying there quiet and peaceful.

  “There. That’s your God-damned machine, all right? So it’s done, and we’re done, and we don’t have to worry no more.”

  For just a moment I thought maybe he was right. It seemed so silent and still right after, with all the little pieces shining in the light, the jewels that were only glass sparkling, the ballerina without her legs lying right in front of me.

  And then the music started up again, the tinny tinkling coming from the floor, from every bit of the cracked-up box. Plinking notes rang out, not quite as clear as they had, but it was still the same song. I fell back against the counter as the ballerina started to turn on the floor without a sign of how it was moving, as if it were still in the box, still attached to the machine.

  “Make it stop, Gospel!”

  “I’m tryin’,” he said, and brought down his boots again, those heavy boots that my father had worn right up until he got himself shot. But nothing Gospel did made a difference: the music just kept playing on and on, though the little fragments got littler and the jewels got smashed up into dust and the bits of the ballerina couldn’t even make themselves turn over any more.

  I dropped to my knees and clasped my hands. “Oh, Lord, forgive us sinners, and save us from perdition, and please, please make it stop.”

  “He ain’t listenin’, Merce!” Gospel said. He plunged to his knees beside me and shook my shoulders. “God’s not paying any attention to anything down here. Can’t you tell that?”

  “Lord, forgive my brother. He’s a sinner, but he don’t mean to be wicked.”

  “Hell I don’t,” he said. “Now stop your praying.”

  “You better pray with me, Gospel, if you want this to be over,” I said. I reached out and grabbed his arms and brought his hands down from my shoulders, and I clasped them in front of him. He could’ve stopped me, but he didn’t. “Now pray with me. Just say the words after I say them.”

  He frowned and his eyes narrowed. His hair had fallen down over the left one. “Dear Lord, preserve us from evil and from wickedness,” I said, and Gospel said it after me. I don’t know what all I babbled then, prayers like I had done when I was really little, begging and pleading and trying everything to get God to listen, and Gospel just went on saying whatever I did.

  But the music didn’t stop. God wasn’t listening.

  “Well, all right. I guess it’s Your will, then. Thank You anyway.” Gospel didn’t say that part, but he did chime in with me when I finished with an Amen, and right then, right as we said that one word, the music stopped playing.

  “See? You see? God did it. He shut it off.”

  “You think God did that? Why didn’t He shut it off when you asked, then, if He was going to do it anyway?”

  “Because we weren’t done praying yet. I don’t claim to know what God’s about, and why He didn’t stop it directly when I asked. But we said ‘Amen’ and it stopped. Why else did it happen?” Sometimes I wondered how deep Gospel was in his wickedness.

  “Aw, Hell, Merciful. I can’t believe you’re so gullible.” He pushed himself up from the floor. “Do you think it ended?”

  “What?”

  “The storm. The fog. All that stuff? ’Cause we broke the machine?”

  “That’s not the machine,” I said. I pushed myself up and walked the few steps to the back door, and I pulled it open, just a crack, to let the the furling edge of the blizzard whistle in, and then shut it right fast. “No, sir, that wasn’t the machine.”

  “Fine.” He kicked at the little bits and pieces, making up a pile of them by the water bucket. “Let’s find your damned hen, then.” His lips pursed up, and he looked mad as the Minister did back when we used to pull on its ears, but Gospel helped me look. He searched around the kitchen in the cabinets and such, because even if you think a chicken couldn’t get in them, you would probably be wrong. But the blasted thing wasn’t in the kitchen. It wasn’t in the sitting room either, when we went to looking there for a long spell that involved turning over everything in the room, looking in the baskets of sewing supplies and the chests and under the chairs where their fringes swept the floor. And then I knew of course that it had to be in the bedroom, only I couldn’t find it for all the looking I put in.

  After a time, Gospel pronounced himself completely stumped and bothered, since it was just a silly old hen, and how could it get away from us, anyway?

  Of course, there was one place we hadn’t looked, and that was in the cellar, wher
e I had started the whole thing. I didn’t figure it was too likely that it could have happened, a hen sneaking past me, but the thing wasn’t anywhere else, so eventually, in the midst of all the disorder, I said I’d head back down and have a peek. Gospel got a look of such relief on his face that I realized he had figured out a while ago that it wasn’t just a hen, but something clever enough to creep on downstairs, and was too blasted scared to tromp on into the cellar. I wanted to shame him for that, him being the older and a boy besides, but then I decided it was a bit silly to trouble him when he already knew. I suspected it was shame enough to see me go down there again, my head high and unbothered.

  Even after just such a short time, the air below seemed colder then I expected, though perhaps that was just because we had been moving so much abovestairs. In spite of the brave thoughts I’d had about showing up Gospel by being bold, I was still getting the shudders all along my spine. The body was lying there quiet and still, but who knew for how long or whether, finally hearing me, Auntie might sit up just when I started searching around?

  I couldn’t help but stare at her for a bit, with the shroud half around her. For a minute I imagined that the fingers of one hand were closing, but I blinked and couldn’t see them moving anymore. Lord, how much of a fraidy cat was I, seeing things in the dark like I was still seven or eight? I mumbled prayers to myself as I started to go around and around the room, holding up the lamp to see into corners.

  After I’d felt all around behind the barrels and crates and had started on the piles of wood, I realized there was a spot among all the logs that I couldn’t get to with my hands because it was too far back in the corner. I just knew the hen was hiding back there in that little dark nook, waiting for me to go away before it came out with some strange machine satisfaction at having tricked me, and no sir was I going to fall for that. I set down the lamp and clambered up onto the logs, scratching my shin. It hurt because right there was where I’d bruised it before; I bit my lip to keep from making a sound that maybe Gospel would get a laugh from, thinking I was scared down here.

 
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