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Engines of the broken wo.., p.4

Engines of the Broken World, page 4

 

Engines of the Broken World
 


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  “It did happen, Miz Cally. I saw her.”

  “Did Gospel see it?”

  “He’s still abed,” I admitted.

  “Well, then, we should go and wake him and see where your mama’s got to. And I bet the Minister will know more about this than you and I put together, now don’t you just think?” And although I didn’t want to go back, and tried to tell her that, she shushed me up and got out an old pair of her son’s shoes from a great many years ago, and a musty coat, and bundled me up with a scarf and hat, and herself in layers and layers. She banked her fire, and finally we set off, returning through the snow toward my house, my feet still icy in my wet socks.

  * * *

  The back door was banging open and shut with the wind when we reached it. The Widow set her foot to the steps, going before me, which made me feel a little better. She went into the kitchen, while I hovered right on the steps.

  “Come on in. There’s nothing to be afraid of,” she called out, and I stepped up to the door, full of fear, but she was right, it was as it should be. On the table were potatoes and onions, with one onion settled on the floor right up against my mama’s shoulder, there where she lay with her hands crossed, a towel over her face, and one toe sticking up through a hole in her sock.

  “Is this your onion that you dropped here?” she asked, stooping slowly to pick it up. I nodded. “Well, child, that it rolled up right here against her shoulder, that would be enough to set me to wailing, if it was my mama who was lying there, and bad enough that it’s my good friend Rebekkah. But she’s still and cold, Merciful, and nothing to be afraid of. Now come in and shut that door. It’s chilly outside.”

  And I did, but I didn’t go near to the table, because I had noticed something. It wasn’t our best tea towel on Mama’s face, though I could see a bit of that beneath her head on the plank floor, where I had seen it earlier. No, it was just a rag towel, one that always sat near the sink, and which, if one had been rushing to get under the table, could’ve been grabbed at the last moment and laid over one’s face.

  But I couldn’t say something so full of nonsense to the Widow Cally, whose fancy went no further than her jewels, despite what you might think from looking at her. No, I surely couldn’t.

  FIVE

  Gospel had slept through the whole thing, of course, and the Minister, curled up right by his head as if to keep a watch even on dreams, hadn’t been disturbed by anything and seemed not even to have heard the slamming of the back door, for all the craft of its ears. When I went into the bedroom to stir them up and get them ready for company, Gospel shot awake in the bed at the creak of the door, his hair wilder than ever, the Minister springing up with its fur raised, making it look even fatter.

  “I went and brought the Widow Cally over to help out with Mama,” I said.

  “What’s she going to do, help us to dig? We don’t need her old meddling self butting in,” Gospel said.

  “You hush up, Gospel, and put a polite tongue in that mouth. The Widow walked over here through a mess of snow all the way, and I don’t want you being rude to her one bit, no matter who you think you are. Tell him what’s what, Minister, while I see to putting a kettle on and getting some tea for our company.” But I felt a little silly as I told him off, because “company” implied something a little grander than just one old lady who was over at least twice a week, anyways. Still and all, he needed to be polite, because this was, really, the only company we ever had, and like as not ever would get now.

  Which got me thinking about the mist, and how it could creep right up on us in the snow, and we wouldn’t ever notice, and that was a piece scarier than Mama walking around, maybe, and so I shuddered with a little delight of fear and headed back to the kitchen. It was warmer now that the door was shut, and the stove still lit, and Esmeralda Cally had set herself in the wooden chair that we used to shuck peas in when we still grew them, and which Mama had sometimes settled in, even in the last days, muttering to herself and looking at things only her wild eyes could ever see.

  “I’ll put on the kettle,” I said, taking it down from the hook on the wall. Water we had in bucketsful, only there was a skin of ice on it, which told me how cold it had got, and made it hard to fetch out.

  “Merciful, you don’t need to make any special fuss for me. I know you haven’t got but a bit of tea left, no more than I do, and your mama loves it so…” She fell silent and looked down at the floor, at what lay there, because she realized what she was saying and that we didn’t really need to save up tea any longer after all. In a moment I had the kettle set on the back of the stove, where the fire was hottest and the warm air vented out, and I stood awkwardly, trying not to get too close to the body, because I knew what it was up to when no one was looking.

  The Minister came into the room with its tail held high and nodded to the Widow Cally, who gave it a how-do-you-do in return. It paced once around the table, sniffing at the air as it went, pausing by the Widow’s chair to give her a yellow stare before finishing the circle just at Gospel’s feet. My brother had pulled on his better pants but was still wearing just a ragged shirt that left half his skin on show like some kind of savage, and his hair was a mess, but I supposed the Widow knew our mother was dead and wouldn’t think too badly of him, even if it wasn’t any sort of grief but his wild side instead. He yawned and nodded his head to the Widow, and that was about all the greeting he gave, so that I wanted to march right over and box his ears. But he wouldn’t put up with that, I knew, so I stood by the stove and smiled at the old lady and tried to pretend everything was fine.

  “I’m sorry for your loss, Gospel,” the Widow said, and she gave a sad little nod of her old black head, and Gospel had the decency to at least look a little affected by it all, and to glance, for just a moment, at the body under the table. “She was a wonderful lady, before she was taken with her spells.”

  “I kinda remember that, yes, ma’am, I do. Those were good days,” he said, and the Minister nodded its feline head approvingly, if a made thing could be said to do so much.

  “Now how on Earth are we going to show her some respect, in this weather and all? I don’t suppose we could carry her out to your barn and bury her inside, could we? There’s no snow there, I’m certain, and the floor’s dirt, isn’t it?”

  The Minister perked up as Esmeralda Cally spoke, and added its own voice to urge that action, which seemed to me like it might work well enough. But Gospel wouldn’t have any of it.

  “No, ma’am, and no, Minister, as well. She’ll lie in the ground next to our papa if we have to wait a week to bury her. The barn—like she was a cow or something. What kind of nonsense is that?”

  “Nonsense, young man? It’s not nonsense, when this storm might last days, and your mother’s poor body just resting here on the kitchen floor like a chicken waiting to be cooked! That’ll never do, Gospel, never ever, and you know it. Sure and all it’d be better to have her in the ground next to David, but we can do that later, when the weather turns, and not worry ourselves that she’s not got her rest.” The Widow seemed less offended than I thought she would’ve been, but then, it was Gospel’s mama who was dead, so maybe he got the benefit of the doubt in an argument right at that time.

  I piped up, because I thought it was a fine notion, and I said so. “Allowing that we move her later, Gospel, I think the barn’s a good idea for a time. We need to bring in the animals anyway, before it gets too cold for them and they perish of it, so there won’t be nothing out there to trouble her.” Nor her in here to trouble us, I didn’t add, though I saw that the Widow gave me a soft look, as if she knew what was on my mind.

  Now it was three to one, and while Gospel relished a fight normally, this was Mama’s body he was fighting over, and I don’t think he was all that eager to leave it out on the floor, truth be told. With no one to support him, he shook his head and gave way, went to the corner where the kitchen chairs rested till we needed them for supper or somesuch, and took one of them right up t
o the table and sat down. I noticed he was careful to keep his feet back underneath his seat, away from Mama. There were limits even to his contrariness.

  “As long as you’re sitting there, Gospel, you might as well set to cutting up them potatoes and onions,” the Widow Cally said, and stood to fetch a knife for the task. She passed it on to Gospel, who grumbled but started on the work while I fetched down a pan and we had as merry a little breakfast as one could hope for under the circumstances. The Widow had just a slice of toast and tea, as she had already eaten, but Gospel and I, huddled at one corner of the table, polished off a fair mess of food while the Minister hovered by the back door, eager to be about the sacred work of a burial. It had a prayer for that sort of thing—or rather, a number of them—that it would lead us in, depending on the situation. I wondered, as I ate, if it knew one that fit for when the world was ending and you had to bury your mama in a temporary hole with just one mourner from outside the family and maybe the body doesn’t even want to be down yet. I suspected not.

  When we had washed up in water that was icy cold, Gospel went to get his winter clothes on while I sat with the Widow. I should’ve gotten dressed too, I knew that, but I was strangely comfortable in her son’s shoes—even with my socks still wet—and the old coat, which was warm enough, though probably not for outside. Maybe I didn’t want anyone left alone with Mama’s body, just in case. When Gospel came back, in a sweater with a wool coat over it, and his big boots that were actually Papa’s and had extra socks stuck in the toes, and with a hat and two scarves because it was truly growing cold outside, well, I realized I needed more than I had and went to go get dressed.

  First off I changed out of them soggy socks and into a fat woolly pair that I figured would give me the best chance against all this winter cold. As for the rest, I had more to choose from now than before, because I had set aside the few of Mama’s clothes that would work for me, and so I pulled on a lovely blue and green sweater that she had made long ago, maybe before I was born, when you could still get such bright colors for the wool. Over that was her good winter coat, which hung down to my knees whereas it had sat on her waist, but then, she was tall, tall like the Widow, which was part of the reason they had been such good friends, tall women who had felt strange always and with each other at least felt more ordinary. I wrapped a massively long scarf over and around my head and neck before putting a big cap that had been my papa’s atop it all and setting out, mittens tucked into a pocket, back to the rest of the house.

  Gospel was drinking tea in the kitchen, staring at the Widow Cally as she darned a sock, the very sock that had been on my mother’s left foot, which now jutted out naked as a jaybird from under the table. I felt a little shock to see that, almost as much as seeing the different towel over her face (and had Gospel noticed that, I wondered?), but then realized it was only respectful that we not send her to the afterlife with a hole in her sock like a beggar. The Minister seemed right happy with what the Widow was up to, rubbing itself around her legs like a real creature might, and murmuring a satisfied little prayer that I could barely hear, so quiet was its already soft voice.

  “Soon as I’ve got this done, you two can carry her over. I’ll get the barn door open somehow, and then we can say a little prayer with the Minister and see her to her rest, for now. It shouldn’t take but an hour or so; we don’t need to put her too deep in the ground or anything. I do wish we had a coffin, but I suppose there’s nothing for it, as it’d take days to get one ready even if it weren’t snowing. But, Merciful, you go fetch an old sheet or somesuch, and we’ll wrap her up in a shroud. If it was good enough for the Lord, I suppose it’ll do just fine for your mama.”

  Gospel snorted into his teacup, which earned him a harsh look from the Minister but not so much as a glance from Esmeralda Cally, who I suppose had decided to simply forgive everything he did today, in light of circumstances. I nodded and went to the chest in the sitting room, where I dug out the second spare sheets, the fine ones that Mama didn’t ever use and I couldn’t see us needing.

  I carried a sheet back in, and me and Gospel dragged Mama’s stiff body out from under the table. It was a clumsy job. I felt like we weren’t being very respectful, but then, we were just kids after all and couldn’t do it any better. After some grunting and struggling, we rolled poor Mama onto the sheet and folded it around her except for leaving it open where her bare foot was. I shuddered to touch her, but she didn’t move at all, gave no sign that she had been singing to me just an hour or two before. I snatched up both towels when we were done, before Gospel could maybe notice, not that he would have cared. He just went back to his tea, which he was drinking an awful lot of. Both towels ended up on the counter, the fine tea towel beneath the rag one, and I realized I was mighty hot in all my layers, in the warm air of the kitchen, and went to stand by the back door, where it was a little cooler.

  Only a few minutes passed before the darning was done, and the sock was slid back over the bare foot and the body wrapped up, all without me so much as moving. Gospel had taken care of the shrouding but then gestured me over, and together we managed to lift the body, him taking the head and me the feet, Mama stiff and unmoving, and the Widow Cally getting the door. The Minister led us out and paced across the snow, somehow not breaking through the surface, though I knew from experience that the little made thing weighed a good fifteen or more pounds. But with such a thing one couldn’t say what might happen, and this was just a touch of strangeness on top of the rest. At the barn door, the Widow had to struggle to get it open at all, what with the snow, and in the end we set the wrapped body down on a white powdery bed and shoveled out some snow and eventually got the door open.

  It was as cold inside as out, or very nearly, and I knew that would be trouble for the animals. But it shouldn’t have been this cold at all, this bone-chilling tooth-chattering knee-knocking cold that even in January we didn’t get, and especially not when it was barely fall, even if we were coming off a spell of cold winters. The Widow ducked inside right quick behind the Minister, softly noting how cold it was, her breath steaming from her mouth in a great gout. The goats in their pen were lying down and still, and the chickens were all huddled together with their feathers fluffed out, and after we set Mama down on the hard packed earth I went to check on them while Gospel fetched down shovels from the tool rack on one wall. The goats were cold as ice, dead for sure, and the chickens barely warmer, though the red hen in the middle of the mass stirred when I touched her, so I supposed she was still alive. For the rest, that was all our animals gone, and winter only just beginning, and that was a bad thing. Though if the fog was really coming, and the end of everything with it, I didn’t guess it much mattered.

  “The goats and all but one chicken are dead, and that one might not live,” I said.

  “Well, take that one over to the house, and I’ll set to digging a little,” Gospel said.

  “Yes, go on with it, girl, and hurry back to help with the shoveling,” the Widow urged. She was pacing about, beating her gloved hands on her opposite sleeves to try to keep herself warm. About that time, Miz Cally must’ve been wondering, why she was only wearing one hat, a question I for certain was asking myself. It just took me a moment to hurry across the way with the red hen and wrap her up in both the towels and rest her near the stove, where there was some comfort, and then hurry back in time to hear Gospel curse a blue streak.

  The ground in the barn was packed down hard, which we expected, but it was also nearly frozen with the cold, which we hadn’t expected. But then, we hadn’t thought it would get so very chilly in the barn. For all that he jumped onto the shovel with his weight, and pushed and thrust and gave it his best, the ground would barely crack for Gospel. It was obvious after a few minutes that we couldn’t bury Mama here, any more than we could outside.

  “Told you we shouldn’t have even bothered,” Gospel said, tossing down the shovel fifteen minutes later, when it was obvious even to the Minister that it wasn’t
going to work.

  “We had to try, Gospel, for your mama’s sake. But I guess you’re right, it won’t happen, and we got to take her back to the house and settle her in there.”

  And we did, Gospel and I managing the body again, though he was tired and sore and I was chilled right through and the Minister seemed desperate upset, which isn’t something a body should be able to tell about such a thing.

  “Can we do something with her, instead of setting her under the table again?” I asked as we came through the door.

  “I don’t know, child. I recall that, once, bodies were laid out actually on the table, and anything less would be awful disrespectful,” the Widow said.

  “But right here, where we live and eat and all? I don’t think I could take that, Miz Cally.”

  “No, and we shouldn’t have to, neither,” Gospel said. “Let’s set her in the cellar. She’ll keep there as well as anyplace, and not be there for tripping over or…” My brother didn’t say or what, but I think he was as disturbed as I was about having Mama sitting out in the open, though probably not for the same reason.

  Strange enough, the Minister didn’t say a word against it, though it didn’t say anything for it either, but in the end we carried her down the stairs, straining at the job and gasping for breath when we were done. Gospel grabbed up a stack of firewood while we were down there, and we shut up the cellar behind us and each took a seat, chatting for a time before we saw the Widow on her way. By that time the chicken was clucking a little, and I was more content than I had been in a day, and still outside the snow was falling, and the cold was growing, and maybe the fog was closing in, but for a bit, I just didn’t care a whit for all that.

  SIX

  Gospel hadn’t taken off his coat and hat or any of that, though he did have another cup of hot tea, and then he announced that he was going out to try to find Jenny Gone.

 
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