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Engines of the broken wo.., p.2

Engines of the Broken World, page 2

 

Engines of the Broken World
 


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  I was just finishing up on his trousers, which could have used a washing and were thin as onion skin on the seat—about which I wasn’t sure what to do—when the Minister came padding out of the bedroom and settled on the rug, staring up at me. The creature came and went as it pleased, most often here, but sometimes, we gathered, up to the Widow Cally’s. If it ever went so far as Jenny Gone’s, we didn’t hear of it, but then, we didn’t hear much of Jenny at all, her being three hours’ walk away, and Gospel having already learned all he could from her so he didn’t tramp up that way anymore. I tried to ignore the Minister as the little thing stared up at me, but in time it gave up on getting a response without work and just spoke right up.

  A Minister’s voice is a strange thing, coming from an animal that you know can’t ever speak on its own. There used to be other cats around, when there were more people, and we used to wonder if the Minister could speak cat talk to them, though that didn’t seem likely. The Minister was a made thing, not born, and so it didn’t meow and croon to the others. They didn’t seem to like it at all, I remember from when I was little; nothing could get the cats to move on like the Minister. For humans it was different, since we liked the Minister just fine, and it was nice as nice could be most often, but it made us feel the guilt of all the things we did that we shouldn’t have, and there’s a lot of that in every life, I guess.

  “Your mother is still cold under the table, isn’t she?” the Minister said, soft as almost always, a gentle sweet voice like a tiny bird or a girl child small enough to hold in your arms.

  I pulled my thread tight and snipped it off, making a neat little knot of it with my neat little fingers. “What do you want us to do? Go out and catch our deaths?”

  “The body shouldn’t be lying there under the table like that. Not at a time like this.”

  I looked right at it, into the yellow eyes that stared like nothing else could: not a real cat, not Gospel, and not even one of my old twig dolls that couldn’t move or blink at all. I couldn’t outstare the Minister, but for a minute, maybe, I could make it see I understood. “Minister, it’s cold as death outside, and the snow’s near a foot already and still falling steady, and you want my brother and me, as is just now orphans, to go out and dig a grave? You that’re supposed to help us, that’s what you want?”

  The Minister stared right back, though I think it didn’t so much stare as just look, if I’m being honest. It doesn’t manage to blink, or make anything like living responses, most of the time. Made things never could, my mama used to say, but I didn’t ever know quite what she had meant. “The snow will only get deeper, Merciful, and the task only harder.”

  “Do you know how long it’s going to snow?”

  “A day, and a day, and more than a day more,” the silly thing said, which was Ministerspeak for a long time. But the Minister did have a touch for the weather, and knew it well enough: better than me for sure, and better than Gospel, who thought he was clever (and probably was clever enough, truth be told). So if it said it would snow for a long time, I figured that it was right, and I thought of the body in the kitchen and that maybe we should do something after all. Something, but I didn’t know what. I really didn’t think we could bury it, just the two of us, a not-quite-man and a girl half-grown, in the snow in the dark.

  “Can we wait till morning?” I asked. Of course I didn’t want to wait. It was wrong not to bury her, and anyway, it gave me the shivers just thinking about there being a dead body about the place, even if it was Mama. “Probably there won’t be too much snow under the Big Tree, and we can bury her there.”

  “Leave her that birthed you to sit and harden till dawn? Ungrateful child, crueler than poison.”

  And I felt guilty, yes I did. But there really wasn’t anything at all I could do on my own, and I knew Gospel wouldn’t stir from his bed for anything less than a bear or a catamount or something worse, so it had to be the morning, if I could even convince him then. Morning or not at all, and I couldn’t think of that because, after all, it was Mama lying there, with her toe sticking out of a hole in her left sock and her long painted fingernails crossed on her chest and her face under our best tea towel.

  The Minister waited a silent moment until I turned away from its yellow gaze. I used to be a good girl and do exactly what it said and what it told me, and it liked me better then, I gathered. But since Mama got so sick and I had to be in charge more often than not, I started to feel like it was just bothering me. Only I hated how its eyes staring out at me still could make me feel guilty. More than that, I desperately wished to have someone to tell me what to do—even a preachy little cat what I’d been growing more used to ignoring with every passing year—but it wasn’t as easy as all that anymore. The Minister stood up and stretched, for a moment almost what it seemed, and paced purposefully past the chairs and into the darkness of the kitchen. I couldn’t hear it, so quiet was its tread, or see it in the dim and flickery light of the lamp, so I just waited with Gospel’s pants in my chilled fingers and a needle thrust into the arm of the chair and a spool of Mama’s perfect thread on the table beside me, along with a teacup filled with melting snow that Gospel had fetched me when I was working.

  It came back and settled down again. “She’s growing hard and almost as cold as outside, Merciful. And tomorrow she’ll be harder yet, and a load to maneuver. But if it can’t be helped, it can’t be helped, and dawn is better than dusk, tomorrow better than never.” That last was another Minister phrase, one that didn’t get much use, but I knew it still. The Minister hopped up to Papa’s old chair and breathed two long breaths onto my teacup, and the snow melted and grew to steaming just a little. I drank it down and said thank you kindly both because it was the polite thing for me to do and because I really was grateful to get a little warm into me. The Minister didn’t do things like that often.

  “You should sleep now, Merciful,” the little thing said, and went back over to the kitchen doorway, where it settled down facing into the dark room. Its gray tail swept back and forth, almost like that of a normal cat. I finished the hot water and set down the cup. The pants were just about the best I could do, so I folded them up and put them aside and tucked the needle and thread carefully into Mama’s sewing kit. I supposed it was mine now, though that didn’t seem right. And still the Minister just sat, staring into the dark, the tail always moving, so that for a moment I thought maybe it was nervous; only that was silly, because a made thing couldn’t get nervous.

  The light was poor and ruddy in the bedroom, but bright enough to see that Gospel had taken over Mama’s bed as someone should have, but it might ought to have been me, since I’d been here all the time taking care of her and he hadn’t. But he was older, and anyway, he got to the bed first. Probably he wouldn’t stay to use it long, but then, I supposed neither would I, and the bed, the entire house, would go to rot and ruination like so many other places around here.

  I tugged out my bunk, the upper one, and then flipped down the supports that my father had built so long ago that I couldn’t remember it. The lower bed in the cupboard was bigger, and I was only just still able to sleep in my own. I should probably have moved to Gospel’s like he moved to Mama’s, but it smelled like my brother, all farts and sweat and greasy hair and wild things, and I hadn’t had any time to air it out, so I just hopped on up into my own bed.

  “Did you shut the door?” Gospel whispered.

  I hadn’t, because we almost never did, not since Papa died and the big bed just became a bed, not anything else ever. “No. Why would I?”

  “The Minister’s out there, not in here, right?”

  “Yeah,” I said. I wiggled into the quilts and worn sheets that made up my bedding, not caring to climb back down for Gospel’s silly idea, whatever it was. Turned out I didn’t have to, because he rolled out of bed suddenly and bounded to the door, throwing it shut in a flash. Beyond, I heard the scrabble of claws on the floor, then scratching at the door.

  “The Minister wa
nts in,” I said softly. In the dim light, I could barely see Gospel, could barely tell he was pacing over to my bedside. His shoulders and head were above the level of my body, and he rested one hand on the frame that held my mattress.

  “I know it does. That’s why I kept it out. It wants to hear everything we say, Merce. And maybe I don’t want it to hear every word I’ve got to say to you.”

  “You already said you want to run away while it was there, right in front of us. What’s worse?”

  He breathed out slowly, completely. “There is worse, Merciful. And I got to tell you, because I can’t tell anybody else. And I don’t want that made thing to hear, because who knows why it was made?”

  “It was made to keep us on the righteous path, the path of goodness, and to tend to us, body and soul.” It was what we were taught, and it was what I was supposed to say, and I even think I believed it, most often.

  The scratching was almost frantic now, but the door was sturdy wood, and there was no way the Minister was going to get in.

  “Come and sit on the bed, away from the door, and we’ll talk. I got a lot to tell you. You’re clever, Merciful, and I want to hear what you think.” He stepped back and flopped onto the big bed, crawling over and away toward the headboard, and then settled down where the light was a tiny bit better, sitting cross-legged, with his hair falling into his face like it always did.

  I didn’t want to move, finally getting a little warm, and not wanting to hear whatever cockamamie nonsense Gospel was about to spew out. But he was my brother, and my mother had just died. I had no one else, so I went to listen to him speak, quilts wrapped around my shoulders, on the bed that was almost still warm from the dead woman.

  THREE

  I dragged the tails of quilts over the wooden floor to the head of the bed. Gospel had set himself on the fire side of things so he would be a little warmer, but I had my pile of covers, which meant that would even out. I wished it were switched, though: him all used to spending nights up trees and whatnot, and me a girl who went to milk the goats in the summer mornings and shivered for the chill of it. The Minister scratched something awful as the quilts hissed along the ground, like maybe it thought I was coming to open the door and let it in, or maybe it just realized what we were doing, talking about things it wouldn’t like. The Minister heard very well, I knew that much from times when I’d tried to sass it under my breath. I hadn’t got anywhere with that, for it would turn its head right quick and tell me what was what.

  “We have to be quiet,” I said as I sat down on a pillow, leaning against the headboard that my father had carved before he asked my mother to marry him.

  “I know,” Gospel breathed. “The Minister’s got a lot of problems, but hearing isn’t one of them. Whatever they did when they made it, the ears got a lot of it.”

  “So what do you have to tell me?”

  I couldn’t see his face at all, could only see the wings of his hair in silhouette from the embers in the hearth, and I couldn’t tell what his face was doing, what emotions he was running through in the silence that followed, but I could almost feel that he was suffering through something just then. I didn’t reach out to him, because he didn’t like me, and didn’t like to be touched, and maybe I didn’t want to touch him anyway. Not that kind of family, I suppose. It hadn’t been for years and years.

  “You know how I said that I had gone here and there, seen this and that? Just now, I mean; not all the time, but what I told you out in the sitting room?” It came in slow bits and bobs, tiny gasps of words that forced themselves out past some trouble within him.

  “Yeah, I remember. The Hollows, and Windblown Ridge, and up and down the river.”

  “Uh-huh. I done that, it’s true. I went every which way. And I saw just what I said. Only something else, too.…” And he fell totally still and silent, and turned to look at the door, so that I could see his profile, the hooked nose and the strong chin, sharp against the light. He sighed out a full breath. “There’s an end to things, Merciful. Not like when you die or when a storybook stops. I mean an end.”

  “What sort of end?” I didn’t know what he meant that was different from dying, but he was scaring me a little.

  “The first time I went all the far way down the river was two years past, and I went just as far as I said, three days down into the dry country, where the trees don’t grow no more. But there used to be farms—you can see the fences still, though it’s nothing but weeds. Or, you could see the fences. You can’t see anything anymore, now.”

  “Why not?”

  “It’s not there anymore, least as far as I can reckon. There’s something, maybe, but you can’t tell.”

  “What nonsense are you trying to scare me with, Gospel?” I hissed, and drew up the quilt around me not for the warmth, though I wanted that, too, but because the shivery feeling that I got thinking of Mama lying there dead was only getting worse from my brother’s tales.

  “It’s not nonsense!” he said, only as loud as real talking, but it seemed terrible as thunder after all the whisper and quiet of the night, and there came a single slow scratch from the door that made both me and him stare at it. “It’s not,” he said, whispering again. There’s nothing there anymore, just mist. Mist and cold and a feeling like you’ve died, and I couldn’t dare to walk into it. And last year, in the summer, when I went down the river, I could barely go a day and a half. I walk faster, and my legs are longer, so maybe two days it would’ve been, the first time. But still, nothing.”

  “So it was foggy,” I said. “Fogs come up sometimes, and then they go away. Did you wait?”

  “Did I wait? Yeah, I waited. And the next morning, the fog was over me, and it was cold, and the ground didn’t seem like much, like the rocks were worn down and the grass was faded and brittle. There weren’t no sun at all, not even through the mist like you’d think you might see, only a glow like moonlight on snow, and I got out of there right away. And this summer … this summer, Merciful, not three months gone, I went down the river and there was fog a few hours away, the same damned cold fog.” I gasped because he’d sworn. Oh, I knew he did it, and I’d heard it a time or two before, but it was always to make me blush. This was different: just a swear like it was a way to talk. I’d only heard the words used that way by Mama, and only when she was at her worst. “And there was that same feeling like death,” Gospel continued, “and that’s all that’s out there, every direction. I’ve checked, Merciful, and there’s not a damned thing in any direction.”

  “But … I don’t understand.”

  “Hell, I don’t understand it either. Don’t matter if we do. There’s just the fog, and by now I don’t know how close or how far away it is. Probably it’s right over the hills, so we can’t see it, or maybe even closer. With the snow falling would we notice at all, do you think?” He sighed and leaned back against the headboard, his face close to mine. “I think it’s the end, Merce. I think it’s the end of everything, that fog, and we’re really all that’s left, for however long until it gets here.”

  “It can’t be everywhere in the world, Gospel. It just can’t.”

  “Yeah, well. They say the world’s a big place, so you may be right, but it sure as heck is everywhere around us.”

  “Maybe we can walk through it and get to the other side,” I said, though I didn’t really much care for the idea.

  “I thought you didn’t want to leave?”

  “I don’t. But we got to, right? There’s no staying here, if this fog is coming.”

  He was quiet for a while, and it was warm and almost totally dark and the only real sound was the hissing of snow outside, faint and soft. My mind wandered a minute, half into dreams and memories, mostly about Mama. I think I drifted off then for a bit. Probably Gospel did as well, because both of us shot up full of startlement when the next scratch came, this one long and loud and rattling.

  I had put my hand to my mouth to keep from crying out. Gospel fumbled to take my other hand in the
darkness that had grown more intense since I’d closed my eyes a moment before.

  “That wasn’t the Minister, was it?” he asked.

  “It sounded like it ran down almost the whole door. I don’t think it was the Minister, no.”

  “Then what was it?”

  I didn’t say it, but I could only think of one thing, which was Mama’s painted nails, and how we should’ve buried her even if it took all night and got the both of us sick to death. I thought of that, but I didn’t say it, because it seemed silly and childish to believe in ghosts, and I didn’t want Gospel to laugh at me. “Do you think something got into the house?” was what I did say.

  “Like a bear or something? They wouldn’t scratch like that, I don’t believe. And we’d hear it moving about, I bet. Do you hear anything moving around out there?”

  I listened hard for a moment, but I could only hear my own breaths, quiet but sharp as birds’ beaks. I was scared, very nearly out of my wits, and I supposed Gospel wasn’t much better but had to play it off because he was older and a boy, while I was just a girl and could work myself into a fit for terror if I wanted.

 
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