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Engines of the broken wo.., p.12

Engines of the Broken World, page 12

 

Engines of the Broken World
 


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  In the last months, it was sometimes all of that stuff at once. She’d be Mama, but she’d be talking sometimes to people who weren’t there, and it made her angry and sad and ornery, and we had to deal with it. I had to deal with it, I suppose, since Gospel would just go out hunting or whatever when she got bad. In those last days the Minister couldn’t even come in the room without her snapping at it, calling it names like I ain’t never heard before, and so it kept out of the bedroom pretty much all the time in those last days. In the end it really had been just Mama and me, no Minister, and certainly no Gospel.

  If Gospel hated me, I guess it was fair to say that I mostly hated him, too. He left me alone with her for years, and I hadn’t forgotten it, not by a long shot. And I was still the one who had to deal with Mama, even now that she wasn’t Mama at all.

  “Do you know what made her go mad?” I asked the body.

  Those horrible dead eyes closed up slow as sunset, and I thought maybe she was gone, Auntie, but then she started to speak again. “She was aware of me. She saw what I saw, and lived what I lived, some of the time at least. It must have been very different, very strange for her. Maddening,” she said, and made a noise that I guessed was supposed to be a laugh, only it was terrible to hear. “I wasn’t aware of her, not much. I had strange dreams now and again, dreams where I lived in a cabin in the woods, dreams where I had a husband and children. Such strange dreams.”

  “That’s not what your life was like?”

  The head shifted back and forth awkwardly, like it was hardly connected to a body. “I can’t really explain to you what my life was like. I lived in a city with millions of people, and I was a doctor. I worked with machines and science—things you don’t even know about here. And your mother was smart enough to know it was different, but not quite smart enough to understand it. I think maybe my life, my existence, might have made her mad.” The voice was rasping out now, so harsh and rough that the words weren’t terrible clear.

  “Gospel, go and fetch some water for our guest. Her throat must be powerful dry by now, with all this talking.” I could see that her lips were starting to crack from moving so much, and her tongue looked swollen and rough behind her teeth.

  “I ain’t leaving you down here with that thing.”

  “Fine. We’ll both climb on up and down all those stairs, then, and me with bruises and scrapes all up and down my legs.”

  If he noticed I was sassing him, he didn’t act like it. “You first, then, and I’ll catch you up if you stumble back.” His eyes hadn’t left the body the whole time, and the hatchet was still in his white-knuckled hand. I thought he probably wanted to hit her. I’d tell him that wasn’t the right thing, only I was sure he wasn’t likely to listen to me. So instead I just backed up a pace or two to the steps, and started up them with Gospel following behind, him slow creeping up the stairs like he expected that feeble monster there to spring up after us.

  Thinking on that, as I filled a jar of water from the bucket, where it was icy cold but not quite frozen, I wondered why she got so slow and clumsy. Before, she must have moved real fast to get back under the table, and so on, and now she could barely move at all. I wondered if the body was just getting worse off, only it hadn’t been good anytime, being as it was dead.

  “Don’t go back down yet. We need to talk,” Gospel said, grabbing my arm as I headed for the stairs.

  “About what?”

  “About that thing. And what it said. We ain’t killed the machine, it said.”

  That part I hadn’t wanted to think about. I couldn’t think of any other animals it could be—everything was dead, unless there was a fly on the wall or somesuch. “Yeah. I guess we ain’t yet.”

  “Well? What do we do now?”

  “We take her the water, and we ask her.”

  “Hell with that, Merce. I say we find the Minister and make it tell us what it knows. This thing downstairs, it don’t know nothing good, I’ll tell you that.”

  “And you think the Minister is better? After what it done to Miz Cally?” I gestured at her, out cold still. “You think it would even help us, after all this?”

  “It’s a better plan than yours,” he said, and set his face so I knew he meant to go after the Minister whatever I said. Since I knew it and he knew I knew it, there wasn’t much more to say. I started back to the stairs, and he let me go. I was down only a couple when he stalked off, thumping his boots on the floor extra hard.

  “Don’t forget to close the door behind you, Gospel. It’s really, really cold out there!” I shouted after him. It was mean to say, but he’d made me so mad that I just couldn’t help it. And then it was too late to take it back or say I was sorry because he was gone. So I prayed inside that the Lord God would keep him safe and bring him home, and that he wouldn’t get eaten like Jenny Gone or gobsmacked like the Widow. With such a small space of world left, I thought the Lord would hear me extra loud even without the Minister to help me out.

  It was right there, Mama’s body, Auntie. I didn’t know quite what to call it—no, her, because she was a woman and I was certain of that. There she rested at the bottom of the stairs, with her back on the wall and her legs sprawled out in front of her and her arms the same. Her eyes were open staring ahead, and her mouth partway open too. I put my right foot really careful on the floor between her legs, my left still on the bottom step, and made sure I wasn’t touching her at all. With both hands I held the jar of water and leaned it in to her mouth, tipping it slightly. The head turned up a little to take the water, and it flowed into her. She didn’t swallow, she didn’t gulp, it just flowed like I was pouring it down the drain, and then it was gone.

  “Did that help?”

  “A bit, yes. But I don’t really have the muscular control to handle such things. I’m new in this body. Before I was just visiting in dreams: I moved like you do in dreams. Do you know what I mean?”

  I nodded, because of course I knew dreams. And I guess it sort of explained how she got from place to place like she did. “But how’s that work? You might have been dreaming, but I was awake. This isn’t a dream, this place here.”

  “I don’t know for sure. If you made me speculate, I’d say that this world is more like a dream than you imagine, Merciful. But now for me, the same as you, it’s real. And I can’t just run fast as the wind, or float from place to place. Now I’m stuck here, trying to figure out how this body works. It’s like moving into a new house: you don’t know where anything is, how to turn on the lights. It’s taking time is all.”

  I couldn’t figure properly what she meant, because nobody I knew ever moved from their house, but I nodded anyhow. “Well, it’s good to be a help to you,” I said. “Now I’m going to need you to be a help to me. I need to know what this machine really is.” I plopped my bottom down onto the stairs, resting my chin on my hands and elbows on knees.

  The white eyes drifted up to me. “I told you it moves and it changes. Is there anything like that here? Because whatever it is, that’s the machine.”

  “Nothing ever changes here, leastwise not till just now.”

  “I wonder if you’re right. I think more things change than you know.”

  “What’s that supposed to mean?” I wished she would just make it more clear, because I surely couldn’t get my head around it.

  “A dream, remember?” That was all the answer Auntie gave me before she went to something else instead. “As clear as you can, tell me what’s the Minister.”

  “Servant of the Good Lord, doing His work here on Earth,” I said promptly, because that’s what the Minister was, officially. Not that we called it that much, but that’s what it was. “It leads us in prayers and does the services for the dead, consoles us in times of troubles, and keeps us on the path of righteousness.” It sounded a bit much when you said it all together like that.

  “You keep saying it. Where I’m from, ministers are people, men and women.”

  “Oh, no. It’s not a person at all. It
s a Minister. I guess there’s all kinds, but the one here, it was made to look like a squirrel. I guess because we’re out in the woods and all.”

  The ghastly face leaned forward a little, the hands curling up like fat white spiders. “Was it always a squirrel?” She thumped her hands on the ground and let out a little growl.

  I scooted up a step to move away from Auntie. “Yes, of course. It’s always been that way, long as I can remember.” Just for a moment, then, I felt dizzy, and in my mind I saw something else: a big brown dog, like the one we used to have. Only we never had a dog, nor a little gray cat with yellow eyes that would sit in Mama’s rocking chair … but for a minute I knew we had, somehow under the sun we had. I rocked forward, my head aching fiercely like I’d hit it on something, and the dizziness got so much worse that I felt I was going to be sick.

  I closed my eyes and said the Lord’s Prayer, holding my hands on my temples. Blood rushed around my body. Now I half remembered times I’d been scolded by a dog, or heard Gospel get prayed at by a cat, and it was so strange, because I knew all of that was wrong. I couldn’t tell what was a memory and what was a fancy.

  I took a deep breath and opened my eyes. Auntie was still there, right in front of me, not moved at all. The world hadn’t changed. Except that it had.

  “The Minister’s the machine,” I said.

  “Yes,” she said, water bubbling out of her mouth to spill over her sagging chin. “I believe it is. But why do you think so?”

  I turned my head away from her, grimacing and closing my left eye so I couldn’t see her face any more. “I can … I can kind of remember now. That it used to be a cat, and a dog, and … and I think it was other things, long ago, when I was littler. And it knows about the weather—it keeps saying how the cold is going to get only a little worse and then it’ll be over. Only how in the Good Lord’s name does it do what it’s doing?”

  “Because it’s got real power, some kind of … magical power. It prevents you from knowing, from understanding. Magic—how stupid I feel using that word, but I don’t know what else to say. And how obvious, now that I know: a made thing, a machine, what’s the difference? Nothing, to me. But to you, there’s a world of difference in those two items. Maybe because of the same power that keeps you from knowing it changes form.” A sort of sigh came from Auntie, and it wasn’t as bubbly sounding as her voice had been. I peeked open my left eye and saw that there wasn’t any more water running from her mouth.

  “Do you know when the Minister came here?” she asked. The lumpy, swollen hands had started to move, forming into fists and then releasing. I couldn’t help but stare at them. “I’m just practicing, Merciful. Getting to know my new home. Answer the question, please.”

  “Fifty years ago, just about. Mama wasn’t even born yet, but she came along soon enough after. The Minister did the baptism and everything.” I almost laughed, wondering how a squirrel could have done that, or even a dog or a cat, but there wasn’t enough bravery in me to laugh when the body was right in front of me, looking powerful wrong.

  “And why did it come here?”

  “’Cause of the Last War. God was angry and we needed guidance, so the Ministers were sent to guide us into a better path. Everybody said it worked—we ain’t had no wars since then.” I supposed there were few enough folk left in the world now that when Gospel and I fell to it that would be a war, but it wouldn’t really count. “And what with all the plagues and sicknesses that came after the war, it was good we had the Ministers, because there weren’t folk enough to take up the work of the Lord. We needed them.” Or at least that’s what I’d been told in my classes, with Gospel for a bit and with a boy named Thom who had been only a year older than me but died of red sickness. After that there weren’t any more classes at all, and besides, I’d had Mama to take care of by then too.

  Auntie flexed her neck, bending her head to the left and the right. “So it’s been the same Minister here the whole time?”

  “Yes, ma’am. One of the oldest, one of the first made things. Once I saw a newer one, and it was fancy as could be, not worn out and threadbare like ours. I must’ve been only about four or so. That was the last time we saw more than a tinker in town.” And there was something else, something I didn’t mention because I had decided I was saying too much already. That other Minister, the fine and fancy one, I could remember that it had nodded its fine and fancy head at our Minister, what sat on our porch and didn’t nod back at all, like it didn’t have to.

  “Your Ministers were up to something—they were all parts of the same great machine making bad things occur—what you see now as the fog, the cold, all of it. I could tell that much from my world. And I’m beginning to suspect that your exact Minister is the primary driver for it. The device that makes it all happen.”

  She was talking about things the same way Mama would have, back when she was carrying on her conversations with no one. And that’s what finally made me start to believe the being in Mama’s body. “Mama used to talk like you sometimes. She’d talk about all sorts of things that didn’t make a lick of sense. I think she must have been saying what you were saying over there,” I said, gesturing vaguely because I didn’t really understand where the other world was. Of course, I couldn’t really say where Heaven and Hell were neither, but that didn’t make them less real.

  “You poor girl, having to deal with that.” The right leg drew up, her knee raising and then lowering, and the left a moment after as she continued speaking. “You’re strong, Merciful, stronger than she was—Rebekkah, I mean. I tried to help her, but I didn’t know what to do. Such strange times…” She closed her eyes and fell silent, and I wondered if she was gone again, or if she’d died for really real.

  “Hello? Auntie?”

  “I’m still here. Just thinking. Have you ever heard the phrase ‘The first shall be the last’?” she asked, in a sort of way that made me know she was quoting, like from the Good Book. It was something the Minister had said, more than once, only I didn’t know why or what it had meant, but now …

  “You think it’s the very first of them, because it’s the very last?”

  The eyes opened, shining white now, and the head nodded slowly. “The only one left, and it’s bringing the world, every possible world, to an end. If we destroy it, it’ll all stop. At least, your mother thought so.”

  Oh, how Mama had raged against the Minister in those last days of her decline, and now I guessed I knew why. “But how can we destroy it?”

  “I don’t know,” Auntie said. “But it will not want you to. And it’s powerful. More than I guessed.”

  I realized I was a stupid little girl, and Gospel was out in the snow because of me, and he’d never catch the Minister because it was terrible and clever and Heaven knows what all else. I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t ever, I guessed, know what to say to Auntie. She weren’t like anything else I’d ever seen, and there was no fashion in which she could be made familiar. And what she said … well, Gospel had the right of it in some way, ’cause it was unbelievable and seemed like a lie, but then again so was the cold unbelievable, the cold that was so intense that even in the cellar, where it should’ve been warmer, I could see every tiny breath I let out, and I was shaking on the steps, and even Auntie in Mama’s dead body was giving off the faintest steam of heat in the frigid air.

  I heard something upstairs and wondered if it was Miz Cally up and moving. Or maybe Gospel had come back, and that was something I truly hoped for. But like a cloud came the thought that maybe it was neither of them. If it wasn’t, that would be … well, it didn’t bear thinking on at all.

  SIXTEEN

  I scrambled up the stairs, not casting one single look back at the thing at the bottom, and ran into the kitchen. The Widow was standing up, swaying like a willow tree with one ringed hand on the table and the other held to her head, where her hat had slipped and her smooth dark head shone in the light.

  “Miz Cally, you’re awake,” I said,
slipping my shoulder under her arm to help her stand.

  “What’s happened, girl? And why’s it so blasted cold now?”

  “I don’t rightly know what happened, Miz Cally. The Minister, I think it did something to you. It made you go to sleep, or something like that.” Really I kind of thought it had tried to kill her, but I didn’t ought to say that, I guessed. A body didn’t like to be told that something she had trusted for a span of years tried to push her into an early grave, and maybe that wasn’t what happened at all, though not if you asked me. “Why it’s cold … well, it’s just been getting colder all this time, and the door’s been opened for a moment and let out the warm.” It sounded really stupid to say it like that, but it was the truth.

  “For how long did I swoon?”

  “An hour, or two hours, maybe. I don’t rightly know. It’s been cold and awful, and Gospel’s gone out to chase the Minister, who ran away after it hurt you, and downstairs…” I fell silent.

  She stood up on her own, looking down at me from her great height. “Downstairs what, Merciful? What’s downstairs? Is there really some kind of horrible demon possessing your mama’s poor unburied body? Tell me the truth, now, girl.”

  “The truth is there’s something in there, and I don’t know if it’s good or if it’s bad.”

  “You ain’t been down there to speak with it, have you?”

  I squirmed under her glance, and I didn’t want to say I had. I knew I was probably trucking with the Devil when I talked to Auntie, and Miz Cally took all that sort of thing very seriously. So I didn’t make a peep, which meant that of course she just pushed right past me, a little unstable still, and moved over to the stairs. The light in the cellar was dim and shaky, the oil in the lamp probably running low, but you could see something down there, a shifting something that was probably Mama’s leg. The Widow set her hand on the hatch and flipped it down so that it closed with a bang.

 
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