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Engines of the broken wo.., p.13

Engines of the Broken World, page 13

 

Engines of the Broken World
 


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  “You will tell me right this instant what is happening down in the cellar, or so help me God I will turn you over my knee until you squeal out the truth. I expect it’s something dreadful, just from the bit I could see, and I want to be prepared before I go to clean up that awfulness.”

  “You can’t!” I wailed. I knew she meant to set herself to doing something, and the way that she talked back at her house maybe she knew well enough what needed doing. Which would be a sore trial if she got rid of Auntie, because I still thought we needed her, no matter how awful she was. “It’s a lady who knew Mama. And Miz Cally, she’s helping us.”

  “Helping you? Oh, no, child. That’s possession, and that’s a devil down there in the body, making it stir and move. If the Minister was here, we’d have an exorcism right now, no matter what you think that made thing might have done to me. But since it’s gone, and probably not eager to come back, I gather, I’ll have to do my part.”

  “Miz Cally, she knows things. Things that can help us, things that can stop the fog.”

  “We should rather be dead and saved than live and be damned, girl, and that’s the sort of thing this’ll lead to. Such a thing hasn’t happened much since we got the Ministers, but it’s the end of days, and all the heavens and hells are breaking loose, I expect. Now, are you going to help me or slow me down?” She tapped her foot expectantly.

  I didn’t know what to say, because I knew she was mostly right—that it was something awful, whatever was inside Mama’s body. On the other hand, I didn’t want the world to end, and me still just a girl. So I clamped my mouth shut, and the Widow did just what she’d done before, which was ignore me being useless and get on with her business. In this case, she took up the bucket and the cloths that sat by the sink, picking them up for what reason I couldn’t begin to guess, and she pulled open the cellar door.

  Mama was right there, as if she had been waiting for the chance to make an entrance. She rose up, pushing from the stairs, and I screamed in surprise and a little in terror because she was awful bad to see in better light, all purple on her whole back half, and with a few spots where her skin was broken and weeping clear fluid, with her mouth hanging open and her eyes as pale as the storm outside. Esmeralda Cally, always practical, didn’t scream at all, just swung the bucket of water overhand and brought it down, splashing like a fountain, on Mama’s head. The whole operation produced a noise like a frog jumping into a pond, and then Auntie reeled back and tumbled down the stairs. With her other hand, the Widow flipped down the hatch and put one big boot right on top of it.

  “That was plenty satisfying, indeed it was,” the Widow said, and as she turned to look at me I dropped the hand that had risen to my mouth in fear. “Now, was that what you expected, Merciful?”

  “No, ma’am.”

  “And did that seem friendly, and at all like your mama?”

  “No, ma’am.” I could hear something moving about in the cellar, the thump of something settling on the stairs and then a wheezing sound, and scraping. She was crawling up the stairs, I supposed, dragging herself maybe.

  “Now do you see why I say we need to dispose of this thing?”

  “Yes, Miz Cally.”

  “Then fetch me some snow, and we’ll get to work on the matter.”

  I took the bucket from her hand where she held it out. “What do you need snow for?” I asked, because it was mighty cold outside and I didn’t want to open the door.

  “You can’t cast out a spirit without pure water, girl, and snow’s as pure as you’ll get.”

  I was about to ask her why she didn’t just get it herself seeing how the door was just three feet off from her, but then I took a moment and saw as how she was shuddering like a new chick. She was an old lady, after all, and probably this wasn’t what she’d expected to do with her day. So I stepped over to the back door and opened it enough to scoop in a mound of snow, most of which ended up in the bucket, but some scattered on the wood of the kitchen floor. The thumping, scraping, and wheezing wafted yet from the cellar, but it sounded a little closer, and after I shut the door tight I hurried to carry the bucket back to the Widow’s still-extended hand.

  “Good work, girl. Now, it would be better if it was water proper, because water is cleansing, but there’s enough good in snow, I suppose, and we ain’t got no time to melt it down. And we ain’t got a Minister to lead the prayers, but I might know them well enough, I guess, after a lifetime of praying.”

  “Wait,” we could hear, muffled by the wood, “listen to me.” Scratching and scraping, the body was climbing up closer, I could tell.

  “Evil spirits don’t impress me much. Open up that hatch, Merciful,” the Widow said, and hefted the bucket up high as she started to pray for strength from the Lord. I lifted up the hatch and crouched by the back door, holding it up. Miz Cally was at the other end, where the stairs met the floor, while I was looking down into the dimness.

  Auntie was draped across most of the steps, her head just a couple of stairs down from the opening. “I’m not an evil spirit,” she croaked out. “I’m a woman, like you. I know you, Esmie. I know you inside and out.”

  “You don’t have no right to call me by that name,” the Widow said, and dumped down the mound of snow onto Mama’s body, which was pulling itself bit by bit up the stairs.

  “I’ve got all the right in the world. I know you, Esmie, I know your sorrows,” Auntie said. The snow hadn’t seemed to hurt her none, and the Widow wasn’t praying too steady, what with stopping to yell down at the thing in Mama’s body.

  “Don’t tell me none of your lies,” Miz Cally said, and then called on the Lord and started up her praying again.

  I didn’t think this was how an exorcism was supposed to go, with all the interruptions and the bickering, and if it hadn’t been so generally terrifying, I suspected I might’ve laughed. But the one bloated hand that slapped down on the kitchen floor wasn’t funny, and then the other reached out for the far edge of the flipped-up hatch and they both started to tug. Lurching, dripping wet, and with snow still piled on her back, Auntie loomed up into the kitchen. The Widow had stepped away. I could hear her praying up a storm, calling on the Good Lord to make it right.

  The beast on the stairs pushed itself up, dragging its legs behind it, while the Widow stepped back farther, her hands making the sign of the cross. I crouched back against the kitchen door, feeling the cold of outside burning into me. Auntie straightened up fully and set her left leg onto the wood floor of the room. As she stepped out I could see that one leg didn’t hold her straight at all, because it looked like it was broken in the calf, and I supposed that happened when she got knocked down. But if it was broke, it didn’t stop her from standing on it. She listed just a bit to the right.

  “Now, Esmie, you have two choices. You can keep pushing me down these stairs until you get tired of it and lock me in, though that won’t keep me out of the way for long; or you can talk to me, the same as Merciful has, and see that while I look a bit ugly, I’m still a person. We don’t have much time, only a few hours to talk, and then one way or another it’ll all be over.” Her hands were out before her like she was pleading.

  There was something in her voice when she said the last bit. It was hard to tell, because she sounded dreadful all the time, but right then it seemed like there was even more dreadfulness, and it sent a shudder right down my spine. I bent my head down a little so I couldn’t barely see, but I still peeked out through my eyelashes.

  “Before all the saints and angels, I’ll have no truck with you. Good Lord give me strength!” the Widow said. She snatched a necklace from around her neck, one with a big and dangling crucifix, and leaning forward she shoved hard at the thing’s chest. I was mighty proud of her just then, for standing up for herself. Talking to the thing in Mama didn’t seem like the best of notions anymore.

  But Auntie didn’t fall down this time. Instead those pleading hands reached up and wrapped around Miz Cally’s wrists. The monster spun
out of the way, pushing Miz Cally. I gasped as the old lady kept going forward, though I don’t think she really much wanted to. She was moving fast, though, and was getting a bit of help from Auntie, and before I could say anything, before I could do more than try to catch at her tall, falling form, she was taking a tumble down those stairs. The cellar door slammed shut behind her, bouncing off my knuckles as it passed. Auntie’s half-purple, half-white hand had flipped it shut, and there was me with my hands outstretched only three feet from her, the skin scraped from the banging hatch. The fat hand reached up and pushed at her cheeks with spread fingers, twisting up the corners of her mouth, or trying to, so that she could make herself smile. Her lips split while she was doing it, and I felt like being sick again.

  “I do believe I’m getting the hang of this body. Now, I’ve a few things to say, Merciful, and I expect you to listen carefully.”

  SEVENTEEN

  There was a moment of silence then, and I strained for any sound, even a groan, coming from the cellar, but there weren’t nothing I could hear over the wind that still howled outside. I wondered if Gospel might suddenly come back and save me from what I’d got myself into, but I didn’t figure that was very likely. No, not very likely at all. He’d been gone awhile now, though I wasn’t sure exactly how long. It was so cold inside that even with the fires going the snow had barely melted inside the back door and my breath was a visible fog every time I panted out my fear, so that I couldn’t think he’d be all right outside. I was sorely sad that I had sent my only family out into the horrible wilds. Didn’t suppose it much mattered, though, as we weren’t likely to get to make up with each other.

  I did about the only thing I could, which was to shuffle my feet around the cellar door real slow and hope she didn’t notice I was moving until I was out of her reach. After all, her eyes were milky and rotten, and I thought she probably didn’t see none too good. Except she had seen the Widow without any problem, when she needed to. Whatever this thing was, she wasn’t quite what she had tried to seem in the basement, helpless and confused. After I figured I was far enough from her grip, I spun on my heel and bolted away with the quickness that only a girl with an older brother can muster. Around the table and through the door I went, into the god-awful sitting room, which was frigid cold and covered in the blood of that danged hen that lay by the door, dead in a pool of slick, frozen red.

  With the hatchet propped by the door where Gospel had left it, shining and bloody.

  I heard the creak of the floor behind me and knew she was moving, but I didn’t guess how fast. Long steps, too long for the way she looked, too long even for Mama’s height, and I reached down for the hatchet and took it in my mittened hand and realized that was no way to hold it, because it would just slip loose—but I didn’t have time. Both hands around it, I turned, and there she was. She stood up above me like a mountain, so tall. I was always a little afraid of Mama when she was alive, she was so big a lady, and not afraid to hit a body either, but this was different. Auntie seemed even taller, and I could tell there was a fierce strength in her. She wasn’t putting on a show anymore, she was being true, and I didn’t know if there was anything a girl could do against her, but I had to try. And by this time I was pretty certain there was just selfishness and wickedness in there, but I still wasn’t sure that maybe she didn’t know something we could use all the same. I just couldn’t tell no more.

  She looked terrible, but she didn’t actually do anything. She stared and glared, and I held the hatchet in my mittens and panted, and then she stepped back.

  “You don’t trust me any longer,” she said.

  “No, ma’am, that I do not.”

  “I’ve only tried to help. I’m sorry about Esmie. I know her so well from all the care and attention she showed your mother that I feel like I’m her friend, and it’s a shame what had to be done. She has a strong will, and she wouldn’t listen. I do hope she’s not hurt too badly. I understand how you wouldn’t trust me. But if you don’t listen to me, this world will be gone. Her injury, her death, won’t mean a thing. That will be your fault if you haven’t tried to help. Our time is running short.”

  I didn’t want to listen. I just wanted to go and help Miz Cally, and wait for Gospel, and then maybe if the world ended, it wouldn’t be so bad, because at least I’d be able to apologize to him for being a stupid little girl. But on the other hand, I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want the fog to get me. And probably Auntie knew how to stop that from happening. So I guessed I would listen, but I’d listen to her like she was Mama toward the end, when she was plumb crazy and you had to be careful with doing anything she wanted you to. Because this angel, this devil, this thing in my mama’s body, was just as mad as Mama.

  I didn’t put down the hatchet, but I didn’t hit her either. “What do you got to say?”

  “I haven’t been as honest with you as I could have been. I know more than I’ve said.”

  “Well I hope so, or whatever plan you got ain’t got a chance.”

  “It only has a chance with you, Merciful. Only if you do as I say.”

  “The first thing we got to do is help Miz Cally.”

  The thing looked like it was ready to spit for just a second before it put that face away, and I stepped back but then she got all calm again. “All right, but I can’t help you. My hands don’t work very well for anything delicate.” She balled them up into rough fists, and I could tell she didn’t mean that just for show. “You can see to her, if you like. I’ll have a seat in the rocker and wait for you.” She slipped around the chairs, her dead eyes not leaving me, and I kept a watch on her all the way to the bedroom door. Not that I thought I could stop her if she tried to do something, but I at least wanted to know where she was. I ran into the kitchen, tossing the hatchet onto the table, and dropped to my knees to pull up the cellar door. There was no light at all at the bottom, so I couldn’t see anything.

  “Miz Cally?” I called down. “Miz Cally?”

  Something stirred in the darkness.

  “Miz Cally?” I whispered.

  “Hello, little girl,” a voice said, a voice that was as if the Widow had tried to sound like a man. I moaned with a sudden dire fear, fear so strong it made everything that had come before seem like a bedtime story. “Looks like someone left open the door for me.”

  I reached out and slammed the hatch down hard. The big chair was only a few feet away, and I moved it right on top, and then the smaller chairs too, and the bucket. I didn’t expect it’d do much, but whatever was down there wasn’t the Widow Cally anymore, and it made the thing on the rocker seem just about comforting. Even with the door shut, even with things piled on it, I still felt the evil coming from the cellar.

  Somewhere inside the wailing wind and my panting breath I thought I heard something. Faint and weak, like a scratch on the door.

  Gospel.

  Crawling to the back door, I pulled myself to my feet holding on to the handle. I could tell now that the scratching was definitely there, that it wasn’t just my mind, too tired and worn, making things up. It had to be Gospel, weak from the cold.

  Only it wasn’t. When I opened the door, a squirrel rested on the mounded snow without leaving the faintest impression. It was the Minister, bushy little tail held over its tiny head like an umbrella, all the fur on its underside draggled and wet.

  It sprang in past me and was gone just as quick. I couldn’t see it anywhere in the kitchen, but then, it wasn’t too bright in the room anymore, just one lamp lit and the glow from the stove and a single candle on the table. I looked outside but didn’t see any sign of my brother.

  “Where’s Gospel, Minister?”

  “He is outside.” The Minister’s voice came echoing from everywhere and nowhere.

  “You left him out there?” I sent my eyes around in the dim, looking for any sign of the little made thing.

  “He was angry, Merciful. He would have hurt me if he had found me. I made certain he didn’t find me and came
back as soon as I could.”

  “He’s going to die out there!”

  “It is likely, yes.”

  “You have to go and find him, lead him back. He won’t be able to hurt you if he’s freezing.” I didn’t mean to sound as desperate as I did, but I couldn’t help it. Even if he wasn’t any good at it, Gospel was my only brother.

  “Perhaps not, but the fog you two spoke of has come closer. I don’t dare get too close to that fog, Merciful. The consequences would be terrible.”

  “I don’t care, Minister. You get on out there and you bring him back, right now! I know what you are now, you dang blasted machine, so you just make yourself into something that can rescue him and you go find my brother!”

  “Ah,” it said, that and nothing more for a long moment. “Merciful,” the calm voice continued, still without any source I could place. It seemed sad to me, sad and weary. “You don’t understand enough.”

  A creaking and then a smash came from the cellar. I thought I could see something start in the shadows on top of one of the cabinets. I can’t claim I didn’t jump a little too.

  “What was that?” the Minister asked. “I feel I should know, but I have been … distracted.”

  “I don’t rightly know.”

  “Is your mother’s body still down there?”

  “Not anymore. What’s down there is worse,” I said. I had crept over to the cabinet, and now I gave it a shake. The Minister sprang light as the wind from there to the table, and then away with me in pursuit, trying to get my hands around its tail.

  We both pulled up short at the end of the table. Standing in the doorway was Auntie, and she didn’t look the least unhappy to see the Minister. Just the opposite, really. That smile was back on her face, and I didn’t like it one bit.

  EIGHTEEN

 
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