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Engines of the broken wo.., p.17

Engines of the Broken World, page 17

 

Engines of the Broken World
 


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  “I thought all the machines went away after the Last War,” I said.

  “We were not machines, Merciful. We were the Ministers. You mistook us, as mortals will.”

  Gospel drew a breath for another question, but I shoved my elbow into his ribs and he shut up. We didn’t have the time for his foolishness. Or for mine, if I were honest.

  “When God grew angry,” the Minister continued, “we asked for mercy, and He in His wisdom granted it. A slow ending, a winding down, and He would start again. There would be less freedom this time, and fewer opportunities to make bad choices, to choose evil. Even in the ending of days, in the twilight of the world, God knew that people would need guidance away from evil, or else the world might end on its own, outside of His plan. That’s what free will allows, you understand—it means that God’s plan isn’t ever final. You, fragile wonderful creatures that you are, can disturb it and rattle it like the windows in this house.” They were rattling hard, for the wind was fierce and carried so much snow that they looked white.

  “So we were sent, one and all, and I was the first, to this very place, where I saw Esmeralda Cally as a girl, freshly married when I arrived. And years later, both of you would be born. And a hundred, a thousand, a million other Ministers went out into the world, under various names and seemings. And every one with a power about them, to calm people and shape people with words, so that you all became better and better. Even you, Gospel, who imagine you are so very wicked.

  “Years passed, and the world changed. There were bad times and bad things, but the people were good.” It paused, paused and looked at us for a long while with tiny eyes that seemed happy and sad all at once. “Then the winding down began as we had known it would, whether we made you better or not. Only, if we did it right, all the flocks we had tended would go to Heaven, and if we didn’t … well, not a one of us liked to think about that, I’ll tell you. But for the most part this world died without sin and went to God. The people found their way to Heaven.”

  “You made us good so we could die?” I asked, with a catch in my throat.

  “Everyone dies, Merciful. Every single person who’s ever lived was meant to die one day. The best we could hope for, the best you could hope for, was Heaven afterward, and the eternal bliss of the presence of God. That’s what we tried to give to you, one and all. I think we Ministers did well enough.”

  I hadn’t spent much time thinking about Heaven, truth be told. It had always seemed a long way away, and not much of a patch on Earth. Angels and harps and clouds were one thing, but a life was another, with a man and little ones, a house and a garden plot. That was something I wanted, not Heaven. “Why didn’t you just make us better and let us be, then? Let us die naturally in our own time?”

  “The world was being wound down, Merciful. This is your time. We saved what we could, all that was really valuable. Your souls.”

  “God damn it, why didn’t you save us? Why didn’t you save Mama or Miz Cally or any of them?” Gospel was real angry, and his hands kept making fists.

  “I did save both of them. I brought them to their reward.”

  “But they died!” I shouted. “They got killed, the both of them, and you didn’t do a thing!”

  “And I regret the manner of it, Merciful,” the Minister said. “I am alone, and my power is almost all tied up in finishing off the world. I could not make an easy end for them. And I cannot for you, either.”

  “Then what blasted use are you?” Gospel asked, and I felt like saying just about the same thing. What use was a Minister who couldn’t protect us, like they said they always would? Who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, guide us? Why did it even exist?

  And then I knew what we had to do, Gospel and I. He was still ranting on while the sad, dark eyes of the Minister looked at us with something like pity, but I put my hand on Gospel’s arm and he got quiet.

  “We got to go talk to Auntie,” I said.

  “What for? She’s full of lies like the other one.”

  “But she knows how to stop this.”

  “She doesn’t,” the Minister said, but I could tell that it was scared, terrible scared, when it said that.

  “Maybe she don’t. But we’ll go and listen to her anyway. You just told us there ain’t much you can do, so what use are you to us? Maybe she’s got something instead. I’m sure as heck not ready to die just yet.”

  The Minister’s tale was terrible, but was it worse than the thing in the Widow? Not a bit. Worse than Auntie? I didn’t know yet.

  “Stay here with me, children, and wait. I can make you comfortable. Make you ready for His embrace.”

  “Wait?” Gospel said, spitting out the word. “Wait for the end of everything, for the damned fog to come chew us up like it did Jenny Gone? Hell, no. We’ll take our chances. We’ll make our own choices.” I took up the lantern that was sitting near the little made thing, and we started out of the room.

  “Be careful of those choices, children. The world’s ending is no more set in stone than anything else. It can be worse than this. Much worse.” The Minister’s warning words followed us out of the room, as I could tell its eyes did, but I made myself not look back. You should never look back. It’ll only break your heart.

  TWENTY-FOUR

  The kitchen still had the touch of warmth what the Minister had left in it, and the fire still burned brightly, but I didn’t feel any better for being there. Spatters of blood on the floor, white gunk from where Auntie had got shot, the smell of the gun in the air—I didn’t want to be there longer than I needed. But at the same time, I wasn’t any too eager to go into the cellar and wouldn’t be going at all but for Gospel leading the way. I didn’t expect the thing down there to be too happy with me, and I expected it would still be pretty perilous to talk with.

  Gospel took a deep breath and stopped in the kitchen, in the middle of all the wreck and ruination. “Merciful. I got to tell you something. Something hard.”

  “Is it about Papa?” I asked.

  He nodded. “Yes. And it ain’t a nice story. It’s a sad story.”

  I bit at my lips a second and then let out my breath in a whoosh. “I reckon I should hear it all the same, shouldn’t I?”

  “You were just a little girl,” he said. “It was a bit before you turned six. You remember? I was playing with you, with those little wooden men I used to have. We were in the bedroom, and you’d made a fort out of the pillows, and my men were attacking yours.”

  It came back to me clear as day. Gospel wasn’t quite nine, and we were still, as best we could be, friends. Even if we argued about our little games. And then … I shut my eyes as Gospel kept talking.

  “Such a crack. You looked over at me, and I thought maybe you were going to cry. I knew what it was, but I didn’t tell you.”

  “It was the gun. A gunshot.”

  “You didn’t know that, Merce. Not yet. We told you later, but you didn’t know it then. I grabbed you down off the bed, and you started to cry because I’d wrecked the game. You still had one of the wooden men in your hand, and you held it real tight to your chest. I pushed you under the bed.”

  And that I remembered: under the bed, with the dust and an old sock and a folded-up blanket and a pair of shoes that didn’t fit anyone quite right, too big for me and too little for Gospel. It was hot and close under there. Outside it was late summer, with the bees buzzing around, and the honeysuckle smell filled the air, but under the bed it was just stuffy.

  I could remember that I had lain there and watched Gospel flipping down the blankets, and then I was alone, almost in the dark, and then I started to cry. Quiet, gulping sobs, but nobody came: not Mama or Papa, and not Gospel, who’d left me there.

  And then something pushed up under the blanket and came and sat down next to me. In the light when it came in, I could see it was a cat: plump and gray and with yellow eyes that shone under the bed.

  “Don’t be afraid, Merciful,” the Minister had said to me.

  “I
m scared, Minister,” I said, and reached out and drew it in to me. It was soft and didn’t resist, which as a bigger girl I realized had been strange. But all this memory was something I hadn’t thought much about: that terrible day when Papa died, so maybe even then I knew it was peculiar to touch the made thing.

  And then the little cat, because that’s what it looked like just then, said something I’d completely forgotten. “Do you know what helps sometimes when you’re afraid?”

  “No, Minister.”

  “Praying. Will you pray with me, Merciful? Just say what I say. ‘Our Father, who art in Heaven,’” its soft voice said, and I recited the Lord’s Prayer right along with it.

  I don’t know how long we lay in the dark that day, me and the Minister. Not all the memory came back to me. But we were there enough time that I felt a little better, I knew that much.

  “The Minister came and prayed with me,” I told Gospel, there in the broken-down kitchen six years later.

  He frowned. “It wasn’t there when we came back in,” he said.

  “Maybe not. But it prayed with me.”

  “Well. That’s good, I suppose. It did something of some use. But we could’ve used it outside. Me and Mama and the Widow and her son, we all clustered round. Or they all did, the grown-ups, and I hovered, but nobody wanted me there. If they hadn’t been taking care of Papa, I’m pretty sure they would’ve sent me away with a fearsome paddling, but … well, that thing in Mama told you the truth. There wasn’t no stranger. There was only Papa, and a gun.”

  “Why didn’t you ever tell me?”

  “Mama said I couldn’t tell you. Not ever. She said it wasn’t fair, a girl growing up without her papa, and it would’ve been worse to have you know.”

  “But you knew. You knew it all.” I wasn’t yelling, because the Minister and Auntie and the Widow were all so close, but I was doing a whisper that was halfway to a hiss, and boy was I getting mad.

  “Do you think I wanted to, Merce? You think I wanted to know our papa killed himself? Hell, no, I didn’t. And the last earthly thing I wanted was for you to have to know it too.”

  My mouth slowly dropped open, my hand raising to cover it. “That’s why you went away.”

  Gospel sighed. “I didn’t mean to. Not at first. But I knew you’d bring it up, and I knew if you brought it up enough, I’d tell you. So I ran into the woods, and I stayed far away as long as I could.”

  “But why didn’t you come back more often? Even when Mama got sick? I was taking care of that. You could’ve come back, you could’ve told me. I’m strong enough to take it.”

  He turned his face from me and stepped a few feet away, kicking at a bit of broken wood. “Oh, Merce. I could’ve, sure. But by then … by then I kind of hated you. Because you didn’t have to know. You got to be innocent still and think your papa protected you. And there I was freezing to death in the woods, without a soul to speak to, and with that secret burning a hole in my heart. No, I wasn’t going to come back at all. But then the damned fog showed up, and I didn’t have no place I could go any further.”

  I took a step toward him through the broken wood. My hand lifted up, but I didn’t quite touch his back. I couldn’t imagine what it had been like to hold in a secret like that.

  “Do you remember when we came to get you? When Mama and I came back into the house? You were under the bed, and you were playing with that little wooden man there, telling it crazy stories.”

  “I don’t remember,” I said.

  “Mama told you Papa’d been shot. You started to cry, and you kicked and hit her and told her she was lying. You said you wanted to see him, if he was dead, and when we wouldn’t let you, you said we were both lying: that Papa was alive and we were just keeping you away from him. And Mama just held you close, lying on the bed. I was on mine, under a blanket, peeking out. I was crying so hard, but so quiet. I hadn’t said a word since we came in: I didn’t trust myself to tell the lie, not yet. And then Mama started to sing.”

  My skin popped up in goose flesh. “What did she sing?”

  “You know,” he said. “That song. ‘Hush, little baby, don’t you cry, Mama’s gonna sing you a lullaby.’” Gospel’s voice was rough and awkward, but he sang the words as best he could. “Good Lord, I hated that song ever since, that lying, cheating song. But you stopped crying eventually, and you fell asleep.”

  “Papa was gone in the morning,” I said, remembering.

  “The Callys took care of burying him. And we went to see the grave, and you were crying. So she sang that damn song again,” Gospel said.

  I froze as a noise came from the cellar. “Hush, little baby, don’t you cry, Mama’s gonna tell you why you’ll die.” The horrible voice so close to Mama’s but not quite, a little gurgly and wet and very faint, was singing again as we came to the open cellar door. Gospel looked back at me, a touch nervous, I supposed, and I sure as Heaven was feeling the same. He licked his lips, and his fist got tight on his knife.

  “Are you ready to talk to her?” he asked.

  I didn’t trust my voice to speak, so I only nodded. But I reached out and took his hand for a moment, and I pressed it hard. He tried to smile, with his black-blistered nose and cheeks and his bruised face, and then he started down the steps.

  If I hadn’t been holding his hand, I don’t know if I could’ve followed. But I didn’t have any choice. Down into the dark we went, with my mama’s old song of comfort twisting in the air around us.

  TWENTY-FIVE

  The stairs creaked under Gospel’s feet, and the voice fell suddenly silent. Halfway down, I slipped on frost that was thick on the lowest steps. I caught myself on a frigid wall. “Lord, it’s cold down here,” I said, my breath misting up.

  “Shouldn’t be this cold,” Gospel said, helping me back up.

  “I don’t like it.”

  “Let’s go quick, before it gets any worse.” We went real careful down the last few stairs, and I held the lamp up high at the bottom. Resting next to the pile of wood, barely visible in the flickering light, was Mama’s body.

  There was a pool of something white around it, that same stuff that had poured out of the hole in her chest where I shot her. It wasn’t frozen, and it must’ve been pretty warm still because it was giving off steam, or perhaps that was just how cold it’d got. Mama’s head turned up to look at us, the eyes bloody and white at the same time, milked over but with angry red lines all through.

  “I was wondering if you’d get here in time,” she said, sounding almost like Mama.

  “In time for what?” I asked, though I knew the answer.

  “Before I go, of course,” she said, and it made me shiver because Mama had gone, only two or three days ago. I’d lost track. I wished that I’d had a chance to talk to her like I was about to talk to Auntie, but Mama’s end came on too sudden. “I don’t think I’ll last much longer.” A horrid wet chuckle came out of her. “I came to your world because I thought it would be a way to keep living. And here I am, still dying.”

  “You’re really dying?”

  “Oh, yes. All over again. I was dying in my world too, dying of cancer and weariness and boredom. It sounds so banal now. Cancer, that’s something people die of. But weariness? Boredom? How ridiculous.”

  “What’s cancer?” Gospel asked.

  “It’s an old disease people used to get,” I answered, because I had read it in one of the books Mama had on her shelves, on one of the long nights when I watched over her while Gospel was off somewhere being the Devil’s creature.

  “No cancer here, even? Well … a doomed bit of paradise. Or maybe we got the worst of it, where I’m from. Two worlds: this one where the souls were being saved, a place for the good girl. That one, mine, like a twisted reflection, an accident. The horrible brother who hunts in the woods.”

  “Hey!” Gospel said, but she just talked over him: “The mad mother who screams at things she can’t see. Every terrible thing that wasn’t here, though, we got. War and
hatred, too many people and too much disease, aches and misery and horror. You talk about the Last War. We had it too. My father fought in it, before I was born.”

  “Mama’s father did too,” I said.

  “Of course he did. They were the same person. Until a few years after the Last War, we were all the same people. Until just about when I was born—when your mama was born. Then it all changed.”

  “God changed it,” Gospel said, right as I was thinking the same.

  “Yes. Only I don’t believe in God. Even now, I don’t believe in God, and I should. I really should.” Other than her lips, I realized she hadn’t moved at all since she tilted up her head. The eyes hadn’t blinked, there hadn’t been a twitch of the hands, nothing at all. “When I first started dreaming of your mama, I thought I was mad. But the dreams were so real. I didn’t do anything about it for a very long time, but eventually I entered into sleep studies, went to labs … oh, you don’t understand me. You can’t. There’s nothing like that left here, and hasn’t been for years, I’m sure.”

  “I know what a lab is,” I said, and Gospel said he did too, though I didn’t believe he knew any such thing.

  “Not the sort I mean, I’m sure, but good enough. The doctors couldn’t figure out how I had these dreams, how I knew things I shouldn’t. I think it’s because your mama and me were born so close to when things changed. We were, more than most, the same person. I found a way to contact your mama, from my dreams to hers. But not well, not often, not reliably. And I don’t think she ever really understood what was happening.”

  “You made her go crazy,” I said, remembering all the times Mama had talked to something that wasn’t there, had gotten mad and angry and frustrated at things she couldn’t control. And I remembered what the thing up in the rocker had said too, that this Rebekkah had done it, made my mama mad.

  “I never intended that.” She paused after she said it, paused for long enough that I wondered if she had expired. “I just wanted to know what was happening to me. And then the world—my world—went out of control. The air was poison, the land was dying, disease was everywhere. But even with all that, hardly a single person cared. We just didn’t mind a thing but ourselves any longer. I wasn’t much different. I sank into my work with your mama and let the rest of the world pass me by.”

 
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