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Engines of the broken wo.., p.3

Engines of the Broken World, page 3

 

Engines of the Broken World
 


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  “I don’t hear anything,” I said after a moment.

  “Me neither. So what do you think it was?”

  But I still didn’t say. I didn’t say in case saying made it so. I just held his hand in mine and sat in the dark and hoped whatever it was would go away.

  A couple minutes passed, or at least I thought it was a couple minutes. Gospel took his hand away and slid off the bed, quietly but not silent. I guess he wasn’t trying to be all that quiet because he tossed a couple of logs onto the embers and stirred them up. I kept my eyes on the door, waiting for something to come through—a deer or a bear or something more horrible—and all I could think was that I’d see her toe first, the one that stuck out of the hole in her sock, but nothing opened the door. The wood flared up almost at once, dry as a bone and ready to burn, and the room got lighter and less scary right away. Gospel took the poker in his hand and walked around to the door, while I just sat still on the bed, useless in my pile of quilts. I was that scared, though. I couldn’t move, couldn’t barely even speak, though I tried when he touched the handle, tried to call out to him not to open it and let in whatever horror might be on the other side, but all that came out was a little squeak that he didn’t pay any mind to.

  He pushed open the door. It was dark out there, dark and quiet, and then I screamed when I saw something rush to him and past him, into the room, but it was only the Minister, tail puffed out and eyes wide with what I could have sworn was fear, for just a moment. But then, settled right before me, it looked normal again.

  Gospel had swung the poker down at the Minister, though I didn’t know if he knew what he was swinging at, and it didn’t much matter because he had missed, so fast was the thing at getting up onto the bed.

  “Did you do that scratching?” Gospel asked, not even looking at us, still peering out into the room beyond.

  “You shouldn’t have closed the door,” the Minister said, looking up at me as if I was the one who had done it.

  “It was Gospel’s idea.”

  “Why did you close the door, Gospel?”

  “It’s cold, Minister. I’m just trying to keep all the heat in here instead of losing it out into the house.”

  “You should have let me in.”

  Gospel turned back finally. “You don’t need any heat, Minister. I know that for certain sure. So you were fine out there, doing whatever it was you were doing while I was sleeping earlier.”

  “It’s not right to shut me out, children.” And then the thing wouldn’t say anything more at all. It closed its eyes and rested its head down on soft gray paws and for all the world looked like a sleeping cat—though, just as it didn’t feel the cold, it didn’t need to sleep. Not that I’d ever seen. It was listening still, with those clever ears, and it would hear everything we said now. I was starting to think that somehow it had gotten up higher to scratch the door the way we heard, just to get us to open it for curiosity’s sake. And we did just what it wanted, I expected.

  Gospel looked mad at himself in a way that told me he was thinking about the same thing, but we both knew there was nothing for it. The Minister was right there, and while we could shut the door on it, we neither of us would dare to lay hands on the thing and put it out. Some things just weren’t done.

  My brother reached out to the handle and started to pull the door closed, this time really to keep in the heat, I suppose. He almost paused when he heard me gasp, a sudden sharp intake, but I gestured for him to hurry and tried to make it look like I was shivering from the cold.

  But it wasn’t the cold, and the gasp had a reason. Or maybe not. I was almost worked up to a fit, so maybe I was just seeing things. But I almost would’ve sworn on the Good Book that I saw something, something like a shadow of a person, dim and uncertain, at the far side of the sitting room where the kitchen doorway was, and I remembered that the Minister had seemed afraid. Probably I was just imagining things, but maybe I wasn’t. And since there wasn’t anything we could do about it at night anyway, and since the door seemed good enough to keep out anything that was scratching at it, I didn’t say anything.

  But I should have, with all the trouble that later came.

  FOUR

  The light through the window wasn’t sun, so I guessed it had gotten to be daytime but was still storming outside. Gospel was asleep in the big bed. I climbed out of my own bed and went to look, pushing back the curtains of the window and wiping condensation off the pane. I could see almost nothing but white outside. The snow was still falling at a steady pace, and I guessed there was close on two feet of it piled up. The trees across the garden were bent under the masses that covered them, so that just a few needles stuck out, green and lonely, and some parts of the trunks, which looked like muddy stripes on a clean sheet.

  It was morning, and I didn’t see any better how we were going to bury Mama. Even under the trees there was snow; not as much, maybe, but it had been falling too long and hard for there to be none. And it felt colder, or at least my fingers pressed to the panes were chilled through at once, and my breath made the world outside vanish.

  I didn’t like to think about it, but I was going to have to go into the kitchen. We needed to eat, and that’s where everything was—as much of everything as we still had, of course. Some apples and purple potatoes, strings of onions hung up in the cellar, a wheel of strong cheese that we’d been cutting off of for weeks, pumpkins that we brought in when it looked to start snowing. Preserves of various sorts from spring and summer, whatever I had time to get ready between working on the house and caring for Mama. Two squirrels, skinned and ready to cook, that Gospel had caught in snares. And a loaf of bread that I had just finished baking when Mama started her final agonies, and which, in all the trouble just after, we hadn’t touched at all. Enough for a bit, but all in the kitchen or the cellar beneath, and I did not under Heaven want to walk in there. Nothing for it, though, since obviously Gospel wasn’t going to do the cooking. He barely ate anything but meat nowadays anyway, and that only partly cooked out in the wilds, I gathered.

  No choice but to go. I walked to the door and gave it a shove to open. It was bitter cold in the sitting room, so I grabbed up one of the quilts I had slept in and wrapped myself in it, hurrying out and pushing the door shut behind me. The wood floor was icy on my feet, so that I hopped from one rag rug to another, past the chairs, and all the way to the kitchen doorway, where I stopped.

  She was lying under the table, just where she was supposed to be, her toe jutting up from her sock, nothing at all moved or out of place. Of course she was. Dead people don’t get up and move around, not even if they haven’t been buried by their ungrateful children. I tried not to look at her as I kindled a fire in the stove, one that I would be happy to have lit, because it was fiercely chilly in the kitchen. I considered the trip over to the barn to see if there were eggs, or if by a miracle the goats had got their milk back. I thought that maybe we should bring the chickens and goats over here, because it was frigid cold, and they might die. Or maybe already had. But the snow was deep outside, and I thought I’d wait till Gospel was up and make him do it, because it was a thing he’d probably set to with relish, and not something I was looking forward to. Instead, I’d just make something simple for breakfast, potatoes and onions and toast and cheese, and just water to drink because there wasn’t any milk. Good enough for a chilly morning like this, when I didn’t want to spend much time at the work, and wanted instead to think about what to do with Mama, whom I was drifting around without really seeing.

  After the stove was lit, I opened up the hatch that led down into the cellar, flipping it up against the wall next to the door that led out toward the barn, and headed down into the warmer room below. It was a blessing to have a root cellar, cool in summer and warmer in winter, with the earth insulating it, and I loved the rich smell of the onions hanging in wreaths from the ceiling down there. There were bins of potatoes too, and a few withered carrots that I didn’t like to eat and never had, and the
shelves of preserves that Mama had loved to make, labeled in her neat writing. A few in the front were in my sloppier printing, and probably weren’t too good to eat. Somebody had to set them up, and Mama hadn’t had it in her this summer. I cut down a few onions and gathered up a few potatoes in the skirt of my dress, then walked back up the wooden stairs with them.

  I was so carefully ignoring looking at the body that I didn’t notice, until I had unloaded my burden onto the big table—one onion rolling away as always seemed to happen and thudding to the floor, and me dropping to my knees and snatching it up—that Mama wasn’t under there anymore. I fell on my bottom and scrabbled back against the wall, almost plunging right on down into the cellar, and could barely breathe for terror. She was just gone, though the tea towel was resting in a rumpled heap on the floor, as if tossed aside.

  I wanted to shout for Gospel, for the Minister, for anyone, but the words wouldn’t come, and anyways, if she was moving about wouldn’t she hear me too? But she must’ve already heard me: the floor had creaked as I scrambled away, and the stairs before that.

  The floor hadn’t groaned or protested at all while I was in the cellar. If Mama had moved, or if someone had moved her, I should’ve heard it. The floors all creaked in this old house. But I hadn’t heard anything, and that sure as Heaven made it worse.

  I pushed myself up the wall, trying to pretend my legs weren’t like jelly from my fear. My breath was coming fast and hard and making fog in front of my face, the room was still so cold. I took a step away from the wall, toward the front of the room, toward the warmth of the fire and the knife block that was on the counter beside it, where Mama’s old knives, family treasures and always kept terrible sharp, were settled. If it was Mama moving around, like a ghoul for vengeance, a knife wouldn’t do much, but if it was something else, maybe it would help me out.

  With my fingers safely closed around the wood handle of a knife, I looked across the kitchen, out the doorway into the sitting room, and lost my grip. Papa’s old chair sat with its back to the kitchen, so I couldn’t see the face, but a head rested against the back of the chair, hair as dark as Gospel’s but streaked with gray, and now, as goose bumps marched up my arms and my skin went clammy, I could hear her.

  “Hush, little baby, don’t you cry, Mama’s gonna sing you a lullaby.”

  Just the first line and then she was silent. I knew that voice, I knew the song that she sang to me all my life until she couldn’t do it anymore, until Mama became a raving thing that sometimes recognized us and sometimes didn’t, who most often was harmless and quiet but not always. No, not always. This was my old mama, the soft-voiced one who would sing and read stories and play games, and she was sitting in my papa’s chair, which she never used. Not when she was alive.

  I wanted to sick up, but I was too scared to make a noise. Except she knew I was there, or why else did she sing at me, why else did she sing that song, of all the songs she knew?

  She stirred in the seat as if she was getting ready to turn around, and I ran. I bolted for the back door without even looking behind me or thinking of Gospel, still asleep in the big bed and with only the Minister to look after him and our dead mother stirring not twenty feet from where he was resting, but I didn’t care. I just ran as fast as I could, throwing open the door and springing through the snow, through the beastly cold, with a quilt around my shoulders fluttering like a cape and stocking feet turning into ice and the barn looming ahead of me, but I ran right past it.

  Widow Cally, that was all my brain was screaming at me. Get to the Widow Cally. I didn’t know what she could do, but she could do something, I was certain sure. Or something more than a twelve-year-old girl whose mama was singing to her from past death.

  My socks weren’t meant for the cold, the chill that already felt like it was the middle of a hard winter, and they were soaked and soggy within a couple of steps. Then my feet were feeling nothing at all. I knew it wasn’t good, but I hadn’t had the time to fetch boots or even slippers to wear out. No time to do anything but run and try not to scream, though I realized I was praying silently, begging the Dear Lord to save me, to take all of this away and make it like it used to be, even if it meant Mama was still dead. Maybe especially if it meant Mama was still dead.

  The Widow Cally lived just a patch away from us, in a tidy little cottage with a cobblestone chimney that was giving up little trails of smoke, so I knew that she was up and the house would be warm. I could tell her what had happened to Mama, and what was happening now, and have a cup of hot cider maybe, or maybe we’d just hurry back to rescue Gospel. I don’t know what I was thinking, but that was somehow not the first thing I wanted done. I’d lost the quilt along the way, flying off my shoulders as I ran, so it was just me in my housedress and apron and socks, shivering from the cold, who bounded up on the Widow’s porch, where there was barely any snow and her old rocker creaked a little in the cold wind. I pounded on her door, begging her to please, please answer.

  The door swung in and there she was, a tall, lean, walnut brown woman with her head inside a knit cap of awfully bright goats’ wool and a dress that hung loose on her skinny form. She wore boots inside her house, and costume jewels on her fingers that Gospel and I had delighted in finding for her in abandoned houses when we were younger. Her face was almost as smooth as the one that peered out from her wedding pictures, but now it sagged just a little, and under her cap I knew her long hair was gone but for a few thin wisps that she trimmed with pinking shears. She looked down on me with her brows knit and free hand planted on her hip, and then she reached out and pulled me into the warm of the inside without so much as a word. Esmeralda Cally was her name, but in spite of that she was practical down to her jeweled fingertips, and no way was she going to have a girl shivering on her porch while passing the time of day.

  “Child, what in Heaven’s name are you doing out on my porch on a frosty morning like this? Is your mother gone badly? Should I come over to help sit up with her?” Because Mama, so far as the Widow Cally knew, was only and always still sick—with her spells and fits and muttered threats, and not dead—if you could call her that.

  “Miz Cally, she’s not sick any longer, no she’s not,” I gasped out through chattering teeth while the old lady gathered up an afghan that sat over her padded chair and draped it around me.

  “Oh, my dear girl.” She said that and nothing more, and then she took me in her skinny old arms and pulled me in tight. I could smell faded flowers on her; I knew she stored her clothes with them in a big chest that came from far away and was carved with animals and roses and vines. It was what a mother should smell like, and all at once I started to weep as I hadn’t yet, except for right when Mama died, and then only just a little because Gospel told me not to be a baby. But here I cried and I cried, and I tried to tell what was making me scared and what I thought I had seen, but mostly I just snuffled and sniffled and wailed, and the Widow held me close and swayed a little side to side.

  She drew me away from the door after a few minutes of this behavior, and we settled onto a sofa that didn’t get much use except for company, not since her son had passed away two years gone. She pushed me back a bit, with some struggle, I’ll admit, because I didn’t like to let her go. And she took up the corner of the afghan, and she wiped my face, which must have looked a bit of a mess. She waited for me to be a little more calm before she asked what had happened, and why it wasn’t Gospel here, who liked the outside more than I did and should’ve been the one to cross the snowy reach between us.

  Somehow I made myself calm down, I don’t know how, gulping back sobs and reciting the Lord’s Prayer in my head, because for whatever reason that always made me feel better. And after I had run through it once and started on a second try, I felt about able to force out some words.

  “Mama passed yesterday, just at sunset. She didn’t seem to be any worse, not really, but then she gave a little gasp and started to shake, and her eyes weren’t open at all because she’d been
napping like she did. And they didn’t open again. Gospel helped me hold her down, she was shaking so much, but when it was over, she just let out a breath, and…”

  “And that was all. Oh, Merciful, I’m so sorry for you and your brother. I wish to God I’d been there, but sometimes these things come on sudden like. But child, what earthly reason could you have for running over in your stocking feet through a yard of snow when the worst is already done?”

  And I was afraid to tell her; afraid that she’d think I was a silly girl like I was sure Gospel would. But she just looked down at me from her great height, and she wasn’t smiling, because she didn’t do that much, especially not at a time like this, but I felt like she was willing to listen, and ready to believe me.

  “We couldn’t bury Mama, not with the snow.”

  “No, of course not.”

  “The Minister said we should, though. Said we needed to put her in the ground to give her rest.”

  “Minister knows what it’s about, I’m sure,” the Widow said in a tone that made it clear she was sure of no such thing.

  “We couldn’t, though. But … oh, you’ll think I’m telling fibs, but I’m not.”

  “I’ve never known you to lie, not since you knew the difference between true and false. You tell Esmeralda what happened, and I’ll see if it feels like a lie or not.” And she took my cold hand in both of her warm ones, and she nodded at me to continue.

  “Mama won’t stay dead,” I finally blurted out, and tears were running down my face again.

  “What do you mean, Merciful? ‘Won’t stay dead,’ what’s that mean?”

  “We put her under the table, but she’s not there now, she’s sitting in Papa’s chair, and she was singing.”

  “Oh, child, I’m sure that’s just your sorrow making you see things and hear them. I had days when I swore Tom was in the house and that someone had moved his shoes from by the door, but it never happened.”

 
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