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Engines of the broken wo.., p.14

Engines of the Broken World, page 14

 

Engines of the Broken World
 


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  “Minister,” Auntie said gently. The Minister’s body twitched from head to tail, and I reached for that tail with my right hand, again thinking about how bad a mitten was for holding things. If she could keep him distracted for another moment, I thought I might get the dang thing off, and started to do it, taking the knit tip into my mouth and grabbing it with my teeth. “I’ve been wondering where you got off to. Did you bring back Gospel as well?”

  The Minister didn’t say a thing, and my hand was moving back toward its tail, which stood up like scotch broom, the fur flared out wild-like. I could tell it was more terrified even than me.

  “I gather you didn’t. Well, I’d rather have both of them just in case, but Merciful will still do by herself. Now come here!” she said, and lunged forward. Her hands, like she’d said, weren’t working good. The fingers were all swelled up and puffy, and it didn’t look like she could get a grip on anything, even less than me in the mittens. But that didn’t matter, because her moving set the Minister to moving, and I closed my frosty hand on nothing at all as it sprang away onto the counter on the back wall and then bounded back toward the door. “Get it, girl, get it!”

  “Do not trust this thing, Merciful,” the Minister said, bounding across the chairs that were on the cellar door. “It lies and lies and lies yet more.”

  “I ain’t doin’ it for her, Minister. You got to tell me what you know about how to stop all this nonsense!”

  “A liar, am I?” Auntie said, stepping into the kitchen. “We’ll see where the lies are and whether there isn’t truth worse than a lie, won’t we, Minister?” She was headed toward the stove, and I was following the Minister’s path, so that we accidentally had both sides of the table covered. I was pretty glad to have the table between us, because I surely didn’t feel like Auntie had any good feelings for me by now, and it was mutual. The Minister was perched waiting on the back of the big chair with one tiny paw held up, the body about to spring. Toward what I didn’t know. But the little made thing was caught.

  “Come to me, Minister,” I said.

  “Yes, go to her,” Auntie said, the ends of her mouth still twisting up like it was supposed to be a smile, like it didn’t matter whether she or I ended up with the Minister.

  The squirrel looked from her to me. “I will not.”

  Then the chair jerked. There was a thump from below, and I stopped moving at once, because I knew what it was. Miz Cally, or whatever was in her, was trying to get loose, and the chairs and such wouldn’t keep it still for long, I knew that much.

  “Let me out of here,” the strange man voice of the Widow’s body bellowed from below.

  Auntie’s reaction startled me, for Mama’s body drew back and seemed to fall into itself a little, looking smaller than she had in life, even in the last days when she lay still and barely moved at all. “He can’t be here,” she said real soft.

  I was about to ask her who she meant, but right then the Minister made its move, and neither of us could do a thing to stop it. It right about flew to the kitchen table, a great huge leap for such a small thing and with so little buildup, but, squirrels did all sorts of things that I couldn’t never account for. Of course, I knew by then it wasn’t just a squirrel, even if my fool mind was still attempting to suggest that idea to me over and over. I tried to grab the Minister but just ended up sprawled on the table, knocking the hatchet aside as the made thing bounded away and into the sitting room. I wanted to follow it there for sure and certain, and let the things in the two tall women deal with each other. That kitchen wasn’t a place for a girl like me, and so my hand found the hatchet just in case, and I scooted away. Not too quick, so as not to attract Auntie’s attention.

  She didn’t even glance at me as I crept away into the sitting room, where the cold was like a barefoot walk out to get eggs, and I wished for my mitten back on my hand, though the hatchet felt kind of good there too. I could hear the thumps of something hitting the hatch over and over, not so hard or heavy as to get out, but solid and steady. I wondered if whatever was down there didn’t want to get out just yet, or if it was too weak still, the way Auntie had been for a little bit, when she’d been stretching and flexing while I talked to her. And if it was yet too weak, could Auntie defeat it?

  “Minister?” I called out as I moved farther into the sitting room. I guess I weren’t too surprised when it didn’t answer. I mean, there’s me with a hatchet in my hand creeping into a dark room, calling for something I’ve been trying to catch for a time, and it’d have to be stupid to answer me. The Minister wasn’t stupid.

  “Minister, I just want to know where Gospel could be. Do you know where he’s at? If you won’t go out there, I got to go and get him, and you’re the only one who knows anything.”

  The chairs were only shadows, and the floor was slick with blood that felt like it had frozen over. I had to move careful to get across and come to the bedroom, where the air was a little warmer, a little better, and where there was a little light. I could see the Minister, reared up with its tail high, perched on the edge of the bed, with the faint glow of coals casting a ruddy light. The fire had died long ago.

  “He’s near the barn,” the Minister said. “Build up the fire before you go to look for him.”

  “If I bring him back, those things in the kitchen will probably just kill us both.”

  If it could shrug, it did. “I can’t say for certain. They are alien to me. Outside my experience, outside the Good Lord’s intentions. I do not know what they might do. But I fear the worst, yes.”

  I swallowed hard, but I did what it said and went to build up the fire. The thumps were still audible, but I tried not to pay any attention to them, though each one made me jump a little. My hands were shaking, and not just from the cold of the house.

  “What are those things? The one says it’s Mama from another place, and the other … well, it felt like a devil, just hearing it talk.”

  “They aren’t meant to be here, not in this world. Both of them are like dreams, like God’s nightmares. They shouldn’t exist, and yet they do. The closing of the world is upon us, and the Lord is at work on His tasks. The rules are bending, breaking. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be here.”

  “What rules?”

  “God’s rules, child. The ones that I am here to enforce, as best I can, though I’ve precious little strength for my tasks now. Still, I am a Minister of Grace, shaping the world to make it better, holier, more suited for the Lord.” It sounded like normal Minister talk, but I had never heard this line before, never in all the days of my life. I wondered if this was what Auntie had been talking about, because those words made it sound like the Minister was certainly changing things, making the world different. Destroying it, but maybe to save it? Like Miz Cally did to herself when she tried to fight against Auntie.

  “Can you make them go away? Miz Cally said you could do an exorcism to get rid of them.”

  “An exorcism?” It laughed, which was a thing it almost never did. This was bitter and mocking. “At another time, in another place, surely I could do that. Even you could’ve done it. But not now, no. Not now.” Which was disappointing, but not terribly surprising. The Minister hadn’t been good for much lately, worn-out old made thing that it was.

  But I had to concentrate on Gospel. “How cold is it outside?”

  “As cold almost as ever it will be. Cold enough that if your face is uncovered, you’ll be frostbit in moments. Wrap a scarf around, carefully, and move as quickly as you can.”

  I wished for my other mitten, but it was back in the kitchen, far beyond any chance of my fetching it. I went to the stacks of clothes I had sorted out and gathered up a scarf, a long old thing Mama had loved but that I couldn’t stand, with daisies and such stitched into it, and I wound it around my head again and again. I grabbed a blanket from my bed and wrapped it around me, because it was the only thing large enough to cover up Mama’s big coat. I was almost kind of warm for a minute, with the fire roaring and the la
yers all around me, and my breath toasty on my wrapped face.

  The hatchet I set by the bedroom door; it wouldn’t be any good to me outside. “Can you do anything at all to stop those things in the kitchen?” I asked.

  There was a long silence. “Go find Gospel,” the Minister finally said, and I had to be satisfied with that for an answer. I turned to go.

  “God go with you, Merciful, and bless you and keep you,” the Minister said, soft and gentle like it always tried to be. For a moment it was like I was a young girl again, because I felt as if the Minister’s blessing really did mean something. I stood a little taller, seemed a little warmer, just for that moment. It stared at me with worried, wet black eyes, and I realized that whatever else it was, whatever it was doing, it was good in its soul, if a machine could have one.

  I nodded to the small made thing and walked to the front door, trying not to notice that the thumping had gotten louder. A looming shadow showed Mama’s body still stood in the kitchen, the lamplight picking it out. What I guessed was the biggest kitchen knife was loosely clamped in Auntie’s swollen hands. She was standing just by the cellar door, swaying slightly, her shadow shifting eerily. “James, what are you doing here?” she said, softly, not like she was asking anyone. Who was James? The devil down in Miz Cally? I decided I didn’t really want to know. I needed to get to Gospel.

  I crept across the bloody floorboards of the sitting room, wincing every time they squeaked, but outside the wind howled and I don’t expect Auntie heard me moving around at all.

  It didn’t much matter; I’d have done it anyways. I was all the family Gospel had, and I had to go find him. When we got back, we’d deal with Auntie and the thing in the Widow and the Minister. We’d figure something out together.

  I wished I could’ve gone by the back door, because the trek would have been so much shorter. There was no way to do it, though, with Auntie right there and whatever it was in the cellar just waiting to come on out once it got strong enough. Cold as it was, I’d have to push around the house.

  I opened the door.

  NINETEEN

  I never felt no cold as bad as when I opened that door and the hard wind slapped my face as if I’d been the worst little girl in the world. It was like a fist, like a hammer, like the absolute horriblest feeling in the world, and it made me gasp and fall back a step and think about curling up under quilts by the fire and just waiting for the end. But I didn’t do that. I sorely wanted to, but I didn’t. Instead I pushed out the door, then struggled to pull it shut behind me, and wondered how it had got so cold inside my coats and scarves and all that when just a minute ago I had been warm. Didn’t a body make at least some heat?

  There was snow hurtling down from the sky, wicked thick snow with huge flakes that were settling on the deep piles already on the ground. And even on the front porch, where there was an eave and some shelter, the white stuff was inches deep. I couldn’t even see the stairs down to the yard, because they were completely covered, and I could see only hints that Gospel had been out, not an hour ago, after the Minister.

  The snow wasn’t so bad to move through, at least. It was deep and dense, but while I was clumsy in it, there was a sort of ground beneath my feet. And there wasn’t any ice, which I felt was lucky, because one fall and I might be done for. But it was a long trip around the house to the barn.

  That cold cut into a body, and it made me ache like I knew the Widow had ached from her rheumatism, and me a girl just twelve years of age. But it was that cold, and my body was shuddering and shivering all at once, and making me want nothing more than to keep moving right on back into the house, which I wasn’t about to do. I thought about calling Gospel’s name as I rounded the corner of the house, past the kitchen windows, where there was a faint glow through the frost, but I couldn’t even hear myself the first time I tried. The wind was so strong and whooshing, I didn’t give it no more effort, for the cold just snatched the warm from me every time I opened my mouth. I had precious little warm left to lose.

  I was starting to stumble now in the high drifts that were piled against that side of the house. The wind was blowing from the north, and the kitchen was on the north face, and the snow was massing up into a slope that I didn’t want to get lost in. It was dark, but not so dark as it could’ve been, with the faint shine of snow and so on, but if I hadn’t known the house was right there, and the old tree was right there, and the barn had to be right there, then I would’ve been in for a terrible time indeed. Instead, I made it to the bare patch of snow that would be the garden in warmer times, and crossed it toward the barn. In the lee of the barn, hidden from the wind and the worst of the cold, I could just barely make out a set of tracks, more dimples in the snow, which I guessed must have been Gospel. I couldn’t tell anymore which way they went, forward or back, but they went someplace, that was sure, and the Minister had said Gospel’d be out by the barn, so I pushed on.

  I wouldn’t have found him, I’m sure of it, except that I tripped over him. He was under the snow, under a layer like a coverlet, with his back propped up against the barn, so that once I could get a good look at him, I could see his head with barely any snow on it. He wasn’t moving, and I couldn’t even begin to tell if he was breathing or living at all, but it didn’t matter. It was Gospel, and the Good Lord had brought me to him. I was so sore, though, and so tired already from pushing along in the wind and the cold, and I didn’t know if I could drag my brother back to the front door. He was bigger than me, even if he wasn’t as big as Miz Cally or Mama, and I guessed the back door would be the only choice, even as bad as that was like to be with the two things in there having a tussle.

  But I grabbed his arm anyway, where I found it curled up on his chest after I dug for just a second, and I pulled and tugged and got him to flop forward, and then I struggled and strained and it seemed like I was going somewhere, only the snow kept shifting under me. My feet couldn’t keep a place, and I kept falling, and after what seemed like an hour but couldn’t have been more than a couple minutes I was exhausted, with snow leaking into my sleeves, and my scarf slipped and my face pretty much numb, and Gospel only a few feet from the barn and almost the whole of the garden still to be crossed, yards and yards of it ahead of me.

  I couldn’t do it. I started to cry, and felt that the tears were hardening on my face as soon as they left my eyes. Oh, Lord, I was lost and weak and feeble, and I didn’t have any chance. So I prayed for a miracle and hoped that He’d hear me.

  And then Gospel stirred. I would’ve thought he’d be dead to the world if he wasn’t just plain dead, him out in the cold for so long, but he stirred, and he pushed up just a little, and I slipped down quick as a cat and got under his arm. Together we got him to his feet, and we stumbled on across that patch of snow that had my tracks all scattered along it, half-filled already from the storm, and we headed right for the back door with the tiny window that still shone like the last hope of Heaven.

  I thought he was saying something the whole time we were walking, even if over the wind I couldn’t make it out. Maybe it was words, or maybe just moaning or somesuch, but at least a bit of him was still working. The garden seemed enormous. We fell a time or two, and each time it was harder to get up, harder to pull Gospel up after me. The last time, we were just in front of the back door, just a few feet from the house, from a bit of warmth and light and life. So close, and I could barely get to my feet. Gospel lay there, facedown in the snow, so I just grabbed him and dragged again. The wind was fierce, the cold worse even than when I came out, though maybe that was just because I was chilled straight through to the bone. But he moved well enough, I suppose, between me pulling and his legs pushing back against the snow like he was swimming in it.

  The door opened as we got there. There was a tall shape, wrapped in what looked like a big, heavy, tattered coat, and I didn’t know which one it was. I guess it didn’t matter, really, because we needed to get in, and if something awful happened there, at least we’d be in
the warm when it did. The first touch of the house air felt like summer, and then hands were pulling me in, pulling Gospel in, and we collapsed in a snowy pile just inside the door.

  No one was there when I looked up. The cellar hatch was open, the chairs tossed aside, and the table had been smashed in half, buckled right down the middle, with splinters to mark where it had given way. Whoever had helped us in had vanished as swift as a mouse, and as quiet. It seemed like I could hear every noise in the house, the tiny pops of the remains of fire in the stove, the faint breathing from Gospel, the sound of the rocker in the bedroom, and yet I hadn’t heard a board creak or anything. Nothing was moving about except that slow squeaking from the bedroom, the chair rocking back and forth.

  “Gospel?” I shook his shoulder and tried to turn him over, but I was spent. There was nothing left in me at all. He groaned, real faint, and then I couldn’t do any more. I had saved him, or done what I could to save him. Maybe it was too late, but at least I had tried. I dropped down next to him, his freezing body starting to shake and spasm and jerk, and I wrapped my arms around him and put my cold face next to his, and I whispered in his ear, “I’m sorry” and “I love you” and all the things I should have said to him all the time and never did. How deep it seemed, what was between us two: deep as a well and as hard to see into, and maybe I was wrong about how I felt when I said I hated Gospel. Lord forgive me for a liar. Gospel was my brother, and somehow I loved him. I just wished he could love me back.

  I was starting to shake too, my body trying so hard to soak up a little warmth that every muscle was atwitter, and I couldn’t stop, couldn’t even slow it down, but it didn’t matter, it felt so warm inside, so very warm, and I felt like I could just drift off and let go. Even with the shakes, that’s just what I did.

  TWENTY

  I woke up thinking it was breakfast time, with the smell of bread in the air and Mama singing like she did when I was a little girl, before everything went wrong. I felt warm and comfortable, and my head was pillowed on something soft and nice, and I wanted to go back to sleep and stay that way a little longer.

 
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