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Engines of the broken wo.., p.5

Engines of the Broken World, page 5

 

Engines of the Broken World
 


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  “What in tarnation are you doing that for? She’s hours away without the snow, and you might not make it back here before dark.”

  He shrugged. “The fog, Merce. The fog might’ve got to her by now, and if it hasn’t, I want to get her out. If it has, I want to know. Either way, it’s worth it, unless you just want me to leave her out there.” He had leaned in real close to whisper to me, and the Minister was back again on Papa’s chair, so maybe it hadn’t heard what Gospel said.

  Of course I didn’t want to leave Jenny out in the wilds dying by her lonesome. I still only half believed him, that there was this cold fog rolling in over the hills and the mountains and the plains and over everything, but it had gone on a bit long for a joke. I didn’t think he would try this hard to trick me, not with Mama just dead, even if he maybe hated me. So I told him to be careful and tried to sound like I meant well and surprised myself because I did. He gave me a look that I couldn’t quite place. The Minister when we called it said a prayer over him, that he should come back safe in the protective grip of the Lord God and all that sort of thing, and a pretty good prayer it was. A moment later, in a whirl of snow because the wind had picked up something fierce, he was gone.

  The instant he was out the door, I took up the heavy chair that the Widow had sat in and dropped it down on the hatch to the cellar. The Minister looked on but didn’t say anything, didn’t really react except to watch, and I remembered how terrified it had seemed for just that instant when it scrambled into the bedroom last night.

  “Have you seen her?” I asked.

  It turned yellow eyes up to me but said nothing at all.

  “Fine, don’t answer. But I think you know something’s going on, and that’s more than I can say about Gospel, him who thinks he notices a lot out in the woods and can’t even see things in his own house. Just don’t move that chair, all right?” I said. I thought it couldn’t do anything like that anyways, but you never did know.

  I pressed down on the chair as if to give it more weight, and then took up the coat I had set off for a spell and went into the sitting room. It wasn’t as cold as outside, that was for certain sure, but it was plenty chilly enough, and I was glad to have the coat. I wanted to be about something useful, and on the loom was a rug Mama’d worked on when she was in a good patch. I’d worked on it the rest of the time, and I thought it would be nice on the floor with the cold like it was, and it was almost finished besides. So I set to the task, not as good as I wished to be, but practice could only improve me, and it at least let me not think for a time about anything but the movement of threads and the clacking of the shuttle. Other than that there was just the sometimes fierce wind outside, and once or twice a pop from the fire in the stove, and nothing else to bother me for who knows how long, since the light never seemed to change and the room stayed cold and Gospel wasn’t come back yet.

  For a time there was a sound that I didn’t even react to, not at first, and then all of the sudden I knew what it was and my hands clenched on the loom’s frame and I stopped breathing. For I knew that noise well, knew it and had once loved it, but now it was nothing but dread. It was the sound, soft and creaky, of the rocker in the bedroom rocking away, slowly and regularly, and I had been so used to it as a girl and now, too, that I hadn’t barely heard it. Even in her worst days, Mama would take to that chair for a time, and sit a spell rocking, and it made her more calm and biddable for a while so that we could sometimes get her to bed when she was otherwise antsy and fretful. For a minute I thought maybe it was the Minister, what set itself there at times, but then I recalled that the Minister couldn’t really make the chair rock, not more than a back and forth when it jumped up, and this rocking was going on, slow and steady, like a body was in the chair. Just like a body was moving it.

  And then I heard her singing. “And if that mockingbird don’t sing, Mama’s gonna find you a diamond ring.”

  I turned my head and looked over at the kitchen, where I hoped the Minister would be rising up, coming out to find me, protect me, drive away whatever it was, but if the made thing heard anything at all, it truly didn’t want to face it and was staying put.

  “And if that diamond ring don’t shine, Mama’s gonna see about a mist so fine.”

  I moaned for terror, because the voice was just what it should be, but the words, oh, the words. It wasn’t just that they were the wrong words, that they were so dreadfully possibly true, but that she sung them just as if she were singing a lullaby still, and I couldn’t hardly breathe for a horror that stirred my stomach and made me want to run away.

  “And if that mist should cloak the land, Mama’s gonna put out a helping hand.”

  “Shut up!” I screamed suddenly, throwing myself from the loom’s stool toward the bedroom door and into the room, and there was the chair, rocking softly back and forth with no one in it, and the fire poked up to a merry glow when I knew it had been low and soft since morning. The bed was turned back just as if it were ready for someone to climb into it. I didn’t see any sign that she was there, but still it seemed like the song hung in the air, that I heard her voice singing when it wasn’t.

  The Minister loped into the room, sniffing with its black, wet nose and stopping, in a moment, at the chair. For just an instant I blinked at it, because it looked so strange right then: big and brown with too-large paws and dangly ears. That was the way it had always looked, but there was something about it, about the Minister, that felt different. It looked back at me with soft eyes and whined a little, and I knew what was wrong. It was as terrified as I was, though I didn’t know why it would be, a made thing that didn’t feel like a person and was supposed to comfort and protect us, anyway. But I went over and knelt beside it and scratched it along the flank, and it licked me just as you would think it should, if it were really the dog it looked like. For as long as I could remember it had been big and strong and loyal, warm and furry and comforting, and I wanted to stay leaning against it for a long spell, but I needed to be sure, I needed to go and look. And my courage, such a little thing as it was, wouldn’t last for long. I needed to go right away, before I curled up with the Minister and didn’t move again until Gospel came back to laugh at me, or the fog closed in on us all.

  So with my hand on the Minister’s head, and it pacing along beside me radiating strength and warmth, I walked across the cold floor of the sitting room, and into the warmer kitchen, where the hen was pecking around as if there were somehow food on the floor. The big chair was still sitting on top of the cellar door and nothing had been moved out of place, and I felt a mix of happy and confused and scared because it didn’t make any sense, and I looked down at the Minister with its tongue hanging a little out.

  “Are there ghosts?” I asked it, really softly.

  “The dead go to Heaven,” the Minister said, which was true but didn’t answer the question. Its voice was softer than you would think from such a thing as it was, and not just because it was trying to be quiet, like me.

  “But do they ever come back?”

  It whined, the Minister who was supposed to protect me and steer me from evil, and I wanted to cry because I felt so lost and alone. I knelt down right then and started to pray to the Good Lord to bring Gospel back lickety-split and to keep me safe and to hold Mama close to Him, so that she couldn’t come down and sing to me any longer, couldn’t move around, couldn’t … I don’t know what all. And the Minister gave me an Amen at the end, and I realized I had breathed out my prayers loud enough to be heard, but that, I supposed, didn’t much matter right then.

  I didn’t want to be in the kitchen, and I didn’t want to sit back at the loom and maybe find myself hearing the song again, so I went into the bedroom, where even if there’d be a bit of awfulness, at least I was far from the worst of it. The Minister paced beside me, tossing a look behind us over its shoulder that made me even more nervous. I climbed onto the big bed and curled up with the covers pulled over me. The Minister flopped down just beside me, next to th
e hearth, where the fire was still stirred up. I was feeling so fretful and fearful that I thought I’d lie there, eyes open, for hours, but instead, I was dead asleep in minutes.

  SEVEN

  There were voices talking but I couldn’t make out the words, and for a moment in my slumberous state I thought it was Mama and Papa, which caused me to jolt awake all at once and then realize it was just Gospel and a voice I recognized right quick as Jenny Gone, talking in the other room. They weren’t very loud, and I wondered how I had woken up, but then I thought about what was in the cellar and I knew. I was scared right through, and I didn’t think I’d ever sleep very deep again, whatever came.

  It was barely light outside, the bit of the end of the day when it got all dim and special, only with snow falling it was just almost dark and nothing pretty about it. I rubbed at my eyes and then got up out of bed still in my coat and all. The Minister looked up at me from by the hearth and then dropped its head back down, but I could tell it was listening close like always. I paid it no mind and walked out to say how do you do to the company. It wasn’t quite what I expected, though. Gospel was sitting in Papa’s chair, layers piled up around him, looking almost the same as when he had left but for being more pale, like he was a little scared. It was Jenny that was wrong, or different at least, in that part of her wasn’t there at all. She didn’t have her left arm, and maybe not her shoulder, either; though it was hard to tell because she was all bundled up too. But there was definitely no arm, and there was something wrong with that side of her face, too, which was turned mostly right at the bedroom. They both looked at me as I came in, and I could see what it was that was wrong—she didn’t have an ear, though her hair was tucked down over where it should’ve been. I tried to not stare.

  “What happened to your arm?” I blurted out before the sensible part of me could even say a hello.

  “And good evening to you, too, Merciful Truth. So glad to be here,” Jenny said. Her voice was tart and mean, like she was most times, when she wasn’t just out of sorts. She’d got a touch of what Mama had, a bit of wandering eyes and mutters, but not all the time and not so bad when it came on her. It made her right cranky, which was why after the Widow Cally’s son died she took herself away. Not that she didn’t like people, because she was social as anybody else, but they didn’t often like her for long, not even those of us who were used to her. The last time a tinker come through, six years ago, she had cursed him up one side and down the other before he was gone. For a long while we all blamed her for no one else coming, before we realized there maybe just wasn’t anyone left to come our way.

  “Sorry, Jenny. Hello and how do you do, I see Gospel already set you up with some tea, now what in the name of Heaven happened to your arm?” I plopped down on the bearskin rug as I finished, looking at her with a smile that I hoped didn’t show how fretful I was about the matter.

  It was Gospel who spoke, and he didn’t even answer me. “I found her partway up the mountain. She was already coming down, and guess what? The fog was coming down behind her. Not that I could see it, but that’s why she left her place.”

  “You saw the fog?”

  Jenny nodded. “Saw it, went into it, and came out with a little less, if you get my meaning.”

  I breathed out slowly with terror and awe. Jenny Gone exploring the fog and losing her arm. “How come you’re still alive, then?” It was a stupid question, but I couldn’t help myself.

  “Your sister needs some manners lessons,” Jenny said, looking pointedly at Gospel.

  “Ain’t neither one of us going to give them to her, though. So you might as well answer. You already told me and I’m dying to tell her, only it’s your story and you’re right here, so I haven’t. But if you don’t spill soon you’d better believe I will.” He seemed pleased with himself, as if he was having a great time now, which maybe he was. Going out into a dreadful storm to save womenfolk was just the sort of thing that would make Gospel’s eyes light up, so long as he didn’t have to take care of them after. But then, that’s what I was for: taking care of everyone. Though not, it appeared, as regards a woman like Jenny Gone, who didn’t want any caring for.

  “Fine and I will. Now you listen here, Merciful, and don’t interrupt, not that it’s too long in the telling. It was yesterday morning when I saw a fog rolling in across the hillside, where there’s a barren patch with nothing much growing in it, so even with the snow falling and all, I could still see the wall of white moving toward me. Up there, fog’ll tend to roll on up the mountain or on down, but not so much side to side, so that was peculiar. Well, I wondered about it, so I got all bundled up in my long coat and a wide brimmed hat and took a pack with some gear in it, because it was that kind of weather. In case I got stranded I didn’t want to just be doomed.”

  Jenny was a good talker, once she got to talking, and I liked to just watch the way her mouth formed the words, each one carefully made and placed by her thin lips. She was probably about thirty years of age, though I didn’t know for sure. When I was very small, she still had a pa and was being courted by Benjamin Cally, who was dead these two years now. She wasn’t much of a looker, thickset and with hair of no particular color or fineness, but then, there weren’t too many choices around neither.

  “The fog was cold as a witch’s tit,” she said, and I like to laughed, only it wasn’t in me right then, so I held it back, “and there wasn’t no sound that came into or out of it. After just a few yards, I didn’t even see any snow falling, though it was thick on the ground still. A deer went right past me, so close I could have reached out and touched it, heading out of the fog. But there was something wrong with it, sure as there’s something wrong with me now. It had a patch missing on the flank that faced me.”

  “A patch of hair?” I asked, and it seemed like it was exactly what she wanted, because instead of cursing at me or somesuch, she smiled.

  “No, not of hair. Just a patch, like it was a kid’s drawing only someone stopped coloring. Nothing there. Not meat or bones or anything, just blankness. I can’t describe it no better than that, and I know that don’t make much sense, but it’s all I’ve got to tell about the deer. Now why I didn’t just get the heck out of there right then I don’t begin to know. I’ve always been contrary, so I suppose I went contrary to myself. I pushed right on ahead into that there fog even though I knew, I knew right from the top of my head to the tips of my toes that it was wrong and I shouldn’t have been there.

  “It was only another couple minutes, maybe, till I realized I couldn’t see any more tree trunks, even though I was past that clear rocky patch and in among the woods. Or I should’ve been. No trees, and the ground wasn’t seeming exactly white anymore, just … well, not white. Like a not-color, but I know that still doesn’t make any sense if you ain’t seen it. And it was then that I started to get a little troubled, or a lot troubled, because I guess I’d been a little troubled all the while, and I turned and started back. Only that no-color ground was slow to cross and seemed to get thicker, because I must have been pretty far into the fog, and then I … well, I can’t say I heard something. I suppose it felt like there was some pressure, and I turned to look over my shoulder—”

  “Your left shoulder?” I said, perking up on the rug.

  “My left. I kind of twisted about as I hurried, pushing my feet forward, and that was when I realized I just didn’t have an arm anymore. It didn’t hurt. I didn’t even feel anything. I guess that’s the whole point: I didn’t feel a thing, only when I looked forward again there wasn’t no arm at all. Nor an ear, but I didn’t realize that for a bit longer. I pushed harder than I’ve pushed ever, and I moved my legs by sheer cussedness and will, and I got out of that fog, only it was right near my house then. I didn’t dare go in for anything more, so I just started on down the hill. I come toward here because you’re all I know. My pack was flying loose half the time since there was nothing on my left to keep it in, and I realized I couldn’t hear so well and that’s when I noti
ced my ear was just gone, vanished.” She was crying then, not anyplace but her eyes, just tears coming down, though her voice didn’t change and she didn’t move at all. Only she leaked out tears the whole time while she was talking, and I didn’t blame her a bit. I thought she was real brave, actually.

  “And with me only partway down the mountain, there comes Gospel up the hill with a path beat down in the snow from where he’d walked. And we hurry back down, with him not even asking any questions till we get here, and now I’ve told him, and now I’ve told you, and I don’t want to talk about it no more if that’s quite all right.” And she took up her teacup with her right hand and had a sip, and then set it down with a clatter, because her hand was shaking that bad. She sniffed deep in the silence that came after her tale, and I felt bad for asking her about it in the first place.

  “I told you the fog was real, and I told you it was a terror.” Gospel said it soft, and he leaned over to me, but I was sure Jenny Gone could hear it too.

  “I know you did. I didn’t ever see it, though. How was I to know?”

  “Yeah, I guess.”

  I realized the Minister must have heard every word, because it had come at some point to lie down at the bedroom doorway with its head raised above its paws and big ears cocked up to listen. It panted just like a real dog with its tongue hanging out, and you could let yourself think it was real—only it wasn’t, of course. After the trouble we took to make sure the Minister hadn’t heard us yesterday, it seemed odd to just let it hear everything, but then, with the fog scarce six miles off I supposed it didn’t much matter. The Minister could catch the whole danged story, for all I cared then, because there was nothing left, no time left. In a few days every one of us was going to die, or vanish into something that wasn’t, into a cold and dead fog.

  Jenny wasn’t crying anymore, though there were still streaks on her face. She was ignoring them, and I thought it was good if I ignored them too, like a woman grown who wouldn’t pay any mind if her friend’s hair was out of place, not till there was a good moment to fix it up. Which this, for the tears, just wasn’t. Everyone was looking.

 
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