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Engines of the broken wo.., p.11

Engines of the Broken World, page 11

 

Engines of the Broken World
 


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  I stretched back to the hidey hole, and there she was: the little chicken for sure hiding from me. I could tell then that she must be the machine because of her hiding in the cold like that. It made sense, the machine making the cold and hiding in it and living while all the rest of the animals died in the freezing barn. I wondered why it had taken me so long to figure it out. And why else would the stupid thing have taken itself to such a strange place, a little cubby among big logs that I was having trouble reaching into, except because it knew we’d be looking for it?

  The wind picked up fiercely outside, hard enough that even in the cellar I could hear it. Hhhhhhhhhuuuuuuuuu, it sounded like, just like a long breath let out, like the world was exhaling.

  Eventually, I got a grip on the creature and pulled it out. I didn’t have a hatchet or anything to kill it with, so I was going to have to take it up to Gospel and have him do it. But then, maybe I could just stomp on it and break it up, like the music box? It felt like a real animal, but the angel in Mama said it wasn’t and so maybe it would break. I guessed it was probably better to just treat it like it was a chicken, since it had spent years laying eggs and pretending to be a bird. Gospel could kill it, like he’d done to the stupid cluckers so often before. Only fair, really—since I’d done the finding—that he should do the killing. I crawled back, cradling the hen in my arms, but then it started to peck at me and struggle, which it hadn’t at all when it was getting caught.

  “Stupid hen, just come on and let me get you out of here,” I said to it, pulling it in close, and then with a burst of energy it slipped out from my grip and fluttered away toward the stairs and bolted up them lickety split.

  “Gospel, she’s coming up toward you!” I shouted. Then I realized what else he could think from that and added, “The hen, I mean.”

  I dropped one foot to the earth and felt something under it. Right away I stopped, because there shouldn’t have been anything there at all, unless a log had tipped, and I’d have heard that if it happened. Slowly I turned my head and looked down the length of my body. And there she was: Mama, lying on the ground with her arm outstretched like before … but it was stretched a lot closer to me, and her eyes were open and looking at me while her lips moved without noise. The tip of my toe was right on her hand, and I flinched it up and away.

  “Merciful,” she said, or I think so, because her lips moved that way. I couldn’t hear if there was an actual word because of the darned hen clucking and Gospel yelling up a storm.

  “Are you back?” I asked, still holding my leg above her hand, which was shifting slowly toward me, the entire body twitching as it moved closer.

  “Back?” she said, this time with a little noise that I could hear because the hen chase had gone on into the sitting room, sounded like. Nothing more was said, though, and it was starting to be scary again. This didn’t seem quite like the angel who had talked to me before, the one who was but wasn’t Mama. She could actually speak, and whatever was in Mama’s body now didn’t seem to have the knack.

  I leaned back until my bottom was on the woodpile and crabbed away on the stacks, which were falling away under me. The logs weren’t placed in a good way to hold up a body, but I had to try to get away without going inside her reach, and sideways over the woodpile seemed the only way to me. Slivers sunk into my hands, but while I sucked in breath, I didn’t stop moving until an entire section fell away and sent me tumbling down with it. And then her hand, dragging her body with it like an anchor, clamped tight on my foot, and I did scream for real, a horrible loud scream like I had just been beaten. She had a weak little grip, but it was a horror that a body was holding on to me, not a person. Leastwise, I didn’t think there was a right sort of person in there.

  The hand, for all the loose grip it felt like it had, still pulled me closer, because there was just logs under me that rolled right along, carrying my body with them. The other hand came up to take my other leg, and my wailing became nonstop then as I tried to grab at anything to slow myself down, only again it was just logs all around, none even too big or heavy because they were meant for the fire. So I grabbed one and tried to twist around and beat on the closer of the hands, the one what had just got a hold. I didn’t have any too good a position and couldn’t get much of a better one, so I didn’t hit harder than an infant might, and she kept right on dragging me.

  I heard footsteps on the kitchen floor, and then Gospel was coming down the stairs with a bloody hatchet in his hands. “Merciful?”

  “Gospel, help! She’s got me!” And I was a little ashamed at how gratified I was to see him leaping down the last steps and springing over the fallen wood and lifting up the hatchet over his head.

  “Gospel Truth, you put that hatchet down this instant,” the body said, in a tone that was weak as a kitten but still purely echoed Mama when she was in a mood, in the days before everything was a mood. And my brother did just what he would have done then, he paused and he looked shamefaced and he didn’t do what he’d been told to; but he didn’t not do it, neither. The hatchet just hung there, red and steaming. Gospel’s hair was a shadowy cowl around his face, his breath panting. At least I’d stopped screaming, though she still held both my ankles.

  “You know who I am. I know Merciful’s told you. I’m here now, completely here, in this place for good.”

  He looked at Mama’s body and then just past it to me. “Sweet God Almighty, she does talk,” he said.

  And here I thought for sure he’d believed me. “Yeah, she talks. She moves around. She does all kinds of things, just like I told you she did.”

  “I’m sorry. I thought I believed you, but … there’s believing, and then there’s seeing. Should I get you loose?”

  “I expect she can let go of my legs any time she wants. And now would be a good time.”

  And she did just that, so she could use her hands to push herself up like she was rising from her grave. It was awful to watch, because her skin was all discolored where she’d been lying, and this was really the very first time I’d seen her moving around much. It was horrible. All the joints seemed to be a little loose, with the skin bulged out, and there were purple markings on half her body that looked like bad bruises. Her eyes were milky, and her lips were dry and tight, so that her mouth didn’t quite shape things just right.

  “So is it you in there, Auntie?” I asked, because she sounded and moved so differently from before.

  “Oh yes. No place else to be. The world I came from, it’s almost gone. I must be dead there, same as your mother is here. Which means that this is where I’ll stay. Until the end, one way or another.”

  “I’m sorry I didn’t believe you, Merce,” Gospel said from the stairs.

  I gave him a quick nod, but that was all the time I could spare him. “You’re dead?” I asked Auntie. I didn’t know angels could die, if she was an angel; and if she wasn’t, well, I hadn’t really thought if she was living or not. I was almost up to my feet, moving away from her and toward Gospel across the tricky woodpile. He was finally lowering the hatchet.

  “It’s not that simple: dead and alive don’t mean what they used to. But yes, you could say I am. There isn’t enough left of me to be alive, is maybe a better way to phrase it. I needed to join with what’s left of your mama, with this place and what strength remains here, to keep even as little life as I still have.”

  “So some of Mama’s still with you?”

  “Oh, I suppose so. She and I were very close in a way. I know a lot of what she knew, so I guess you can say some of her is with me. But really, it’s just her body: even dead, it’s stronger than mine was alive. Where I was, the world was growing very … thin, very frail, and all of us who lived there were doing the same. I don’t think most people even noticed, but I could see your place here and I knew we were dying, even if everyone else said I was mad.” The sagging face shaped itself like it was trying to grimace, but it couldn’t quite do that. I put my fingers in front of my eyes, peeking out through the g
aps, because no human being should look like that.

  “It doesn’t matter now, though. I’m here. We must find the machine and destroy it. Then it’ll get better. The worlds will right themselves and it’ll all go back to how it was.” She had raised herself and drawn up her legs while she spoke, and was trying with wobbling limbs to push to her feet. I felt like I should help, but couldn’t bring myself to reach out to her. She was still powerful awful.

  “I broke that machine. Or killed it, I guess,” Gospel said, holding out the hatchet with the gore of the hen still on it.

  She achieved her feet and stood there unsteady, her milky eyes looking at the hatchet. “That’s blood,” she said.

  “Sure is,” Gospel said with a laugh. “You should’ve seen how much that damned clucker bled. All over the place in the sitting room, though at least I kept it from running around.”

  “You killed a … a chicken?” she said. I started to feel like maybe I had been wrong, though I couldn’t figure out where I messed up.

  “Merciful said it was the machine.”

  The dead gaze turned to me, and I couldn’t hardly stand it. “Where did you get that idea?”

  I swallowed hard and clutched my hands behind my back. It was like we were doing lessons again when I was little. “You said it was a bird, an animal.”

  “You children. I’m glad I’m here now. Glad I can take matters into my own hands.” The filmy eyes drifted toward the red-stained hatchet in Gospel’s hand, and maybe Auntie tried to smile but it was hard to tell. “The machine was here in this house. I could tell it was here when I was still in my world, but it’s gone, I believe. It’s so much easier to know what things are now that I have eyes to see. It was shaped like … a dog, perhaps.” When she said that, it made me think of something, like a word that I just couldn’t remember was on the tip of my tongue. I opened my mouth like I was about to speak, but there weren’t any sounds that I could put together. All the time now, I was getting these strange feelings, like when one of your sums won’t come out straight. I wished I knew why. But Auntie kept right on talking, not taking any notice of me or my troubles. “And now it’s not. Now it’s different. I don’t know any longer. But it’s changed.” The last word was stretched out and strange to hear, almost like I was listening to something foreign, though I didn’t know any foreign speech.

  “Changed how?”

  “It must have changed even as I was naming it. This machine is something that’s been here a long time and knows this world. It’s smart, you understand, not just a thing with a function—you don’t just press a button and something happens. It’s a complicated device, this machine. It doesn’t look like … why am I bothering? You don’t have a frame of reference for any of this. So: it moves, it can think. And it knows you two very well, I suspect.”

  “A thing that moves? There’s nothing here that moves except me and Merciful and Miz Cally. Oh, and the Minister, I suppose,” Gospel said with a laugh. Blood was dripping slowly off the hatchet.

  “I’m starting to think the Minister’s no use for just about anything, Gospel,” I said. “But whatever the machine is, it can’t be moving. She’s probably wrong. Whatever she wants to say, she just got here.”

  “Right. Except for how you been listening to her this whole time,” Gospel said.

  “Well … yeah. I didn’t have anything else to go with.”

  “Quiet!” Auntie said, wheezing her breath out in one long, dragging word, then sucking air back in like she was pumping a bellows inside her dead chest. She sounded so much like Mama that we both turned to look at her, and I finally noticed something that had gone by me till now: there wasn’t any mist in her breath like when Gospel or me talked. “The Minister. What is it? What does it … do?” Auntie asked, her head craning forward and tilting a little right.

  “It doesn’t do a God-damned thing when you need it to,” Gospel said.

  “It’s supposed to look after us. Only it’s not very good at it. It’s old, and I think it’s a little crazy.”

  “But what is it?”

  I blinked at her and gawked for a minute. I looked over at Gospel, but he seemed just as confused. Finally, I just shrugged. “It’s the Minister.”

  “That’s not an answer!” she said, and reached for me. Gospel lifted up the hatchet, and Auntie fell back a few steps.

  “You get over here now, Merce,” Gospel said, calling me over with his free hand. “I don’t think I like this version of Mama any better than the real one.”

  I sidled over to my brother’s side. I didn’t want to say anything disrespectful about the one who birthed me, so I didn’t, but I was for sure and certain thinking the same thing as my brother. And the way Auntie looked was, allowing for the body being a bit turned for the worse, just about the same as Mama had when she was in one of her spells: her face twisted, her hands bunched up. In the eyes, even milky white as they were, I could see the same thing I’d seen so many times in Mama’s.

  Madness, pure and simple, and if I didn’t like to think about it, it didn’t matter. Sometimes God didn’t give you no choice.

  FIFTEEN

  Them eyes. I’d seen them so many times, so many ways. When I was little, they didn’t show up at all, or leastwise I don’t remember it. But by the time I was six or seven, with Papa killed so it was just the three of us and more often maybe even just two, I would see them all the time. Mama’d be sitting at the loom and then she’d give a little gasp and she’d turn and look at me, and there they were. Or we’d been making up preserves, and then I’d know I had to leave her alone in the kitchen, because she’d turn such a stare at me that I shivered. And it wasn’t just the eyes.

  Mama spent a lot of years talking to people we couldn’t see, and seeing things we couldn’t either, and sometimes doing things that didn’t make sense. At first it was harmless, or so it seemed: just a few words to herself. She would stop what she was doing and say something, but it wouldn’t be at us, that was pretty obvious. Then she’d go right back to knitting or milking or telling a story, whatever it was, and if we asked her what she had been talking about, which we did at first, she didn’t know exactly what we meant, but she would get angry all the same. I tried to pretend it wasn’t happening, after I realized it was a touch peculiar. I figured that out, even young as I was.

  Gospel, being Gospel, had to bother at her and me about it. That just made her angry and made me sad, which—Gospel being Gospel—was probably about what he expected. This went on for some months, until I was crying most nights because Gospel kept taunting me, and Mama was hard-faced whenever she saw him. He went around feeling put upon because nobody liked him and ran off a lot to learn woodcraft from Jenny Gone. He was only ten, but he’d vanish up into the hills for days on end.

  The spells got worse, and sometimes Mama would carry on whole conversations, only one side of course, that would last for minutes at a time. You could make some sense of them, at least in the fact that it seemed as if someone could’ve been talking back. But no one at all was there. Sometimes Mama would start to move in strange ways, like she was climbing stairs or opening doors that didn’t exist. And it made her mad, because she didn’t recollect anything she had done. But she always noticed something had happened, for sure she did. Time had passed, things had changed. The tea water might be ready when it had just been set to boil, or the sun might have vanished behind a cloud, or the fire might be suddenly roaring when it had been dying down a moment before.

  She didn’t know what was happening and didn’t want to listen to Gospel because he never had anything good to say, or me just ’cause she was cussedly stubborn. She would get angry with us both, and then sometimes she would go outside and sit alone for hours, or close herself in the bedroom. We didn’t neither of us know what to do. Gospel went away more and more. Which left me and Mama and her spells.

  The Minister had never been much help with her. In the beginning it still had rounds to do, visiting local folk and seeing to their proble
ms, and so it missed much of the strangeness at first. But when things got worse and worse, and there were fewer and fewer people to see to, it still didn’t do much. Sometimes, to be fair, it would touch her with its tiny paw; her eyes would start back to life and she would know where she was and what was happening. I had no living idea why the made thing didn’t do more for her, because if not, then what in tarnation was it made for after all? Why didn’t it heal her like that more often, or just medic her all the way better? It was a Minister, made for our aid and comfort, and should’ve done such a thing. It never did, though, just watched and spoke calmly now and then to me or to Gospel when he was about, telling us “This, too, shall pass” and other fairy-tale stuff that I tried so hard to just accept. I prayed more and acted better so she’d get well again. But inside I felt like for all the trying and believing the Minister was failing us all. Sometimes Mama couldn’t even stand the little made thing—she’d throw something at it, or try to get a grip on it and weep when it slipped away from her quick as could be. She’d used some pretty ripe language about the Minister, but nothing worse than what I kept to myself whenever it ignored her problems.

  And then of course, because that’s the way of things, those problems got ever worse and worse. There was less time when she was Mama and more when she would sit, sometimes talking, but sometimes just still and silent, her eyes jumping around at nothing, her hands shaking or pointing or what have you. I’d lead her to bed then, which was easy enough, as she moved along pretty simple. It got to where you could leave her there for hours and just spoon-feed her and make sure she hadn’t messed the bed, which she didn’t, often. Only rarely was she Mama again, and then she’d be angry but mostly at herself; Gospel’d get his hair cut and the house would be spic-and-span and socks would be darned. But that was less and less often. Usually she’d walk around or yell at things, or act like she was climbing, or building, or running from horrors that no one but her knew the whereabouts of.

 
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