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Engines of the broken wo.., p.6

Engines of the Broken World, page 6

 

Engines of the Broken World
 


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  “Does it hurt at all?” I asked finally, because I wanted to know.

  “No, it doesn’t. There’s no pain, there’s no blood, and I still feel like I can move it, only I can’t. It’s just not there. And sometimes I think I hear things from the missing ear, too. Voices, like lots of people talking, but there’s nothing there and I don’t hear it with my good ear.”

  “You just can’t get enough of this, can you, Merce?” Gospel said with a chuckle.

  The Minister spoke up from its post by the bedroom. “That is quite enough of the questions. Miss Gone has suffered enough, I should think.” Such compassion in the voice of the made thing. It shamed me to hear it so that I looked down at the rug and picked at the edge of it, where the fur was getting ragged and ratty.

  “It’s all right, I don’t much mind. My own damned fault, really. I should’ve known it was nothing but badness and left, at least after the deer went by, but I didn’t. I got just what I merited, I’d guess.”

  “No one merits such punishments, nor even knowing of them,” the Minister declared, and rose up, walking in its bounding way up to Jenny and laying its great head on her lap like a benediction. Old as it was, sometimes it did the right thing without any call being made, and this was one of those times. The poor crippled woman closed in on the Minister and started to weep freely, like I had with the Widow Cally just that morning. Gospel nodded his head to the kitchen, and I went with him, quietly creeping away to the other room so as not to embarrass Jenny any more than she likely would be already.

  In the kitchen, Gospel reached up into the top of the cabinet above the sink, where I couldn’t even get my arm to and he had to stand on his tippy toes, and pulled down a brown glass bottle.

  “What’s that?”

  “Whiskey, dope. Papa used to drink it, and the bottle’s just sat here all this time. I reckon Jenny could use a swig, and maybe I could too.”

  “The world’s coming to an end and you want to start up with liquor?”

  “Ain’t like I’ll have any more time later. And maybe you should get yours in too, huh?” He pulled out a few little glasses, the sort of thing we never used but had gobs of anyhow, and splashed some brown, smelly stuff into three. He carried one out into the other room, and I watched him set it down beside Jenny, but she didn’t seem to notice. The Minister was whispering things to her, I thought, though it was hard to tell over her sobbing. Gospel came back a moment later and took up the other two little glasses, holding one out to me.

  “No thank you, Gospel, no thank you at all,” I snapped, and pushed the glass away.

  “Suit yourself, but I’m betting if Esmeralda Cally herself was here and had heard what we just did, she’d have a plug and call it medicinal.” He nodded at me as he set down the glass I’d rejected, and then tipped his head back to gulp down his own whiskey. Which he then promptly spit out in the sink, coughing and gasping. “That stuff is foul. How’d Papa drink it at all, I wonder?”

  “Reckon you get a taste for it, probably, same as stewed cabbage,” I said, remembering one of my least favorite foods when I was little, though I had kind of gotten to like it before we quit growing many vegetables. That work had become too much trouble for Mama.

  “Well, I don’t expect I’ll get a chance. Shoot. I wanted to be a man who drank.” He was disappointed, I could tell, but not as much as he put on.

  “Do you think we’re really going to die, or go away, or whatever?”

  He looked at me eye to eye and licked his lips, and then he nodded real sharp and looked away, corking up the bottle again.

  “It’s not fair,” I said, quiet, and like a little girl.

  “Life ain’t fair, or Mama wouldn’t’ve gone crazy, and Papa wouldn’t’ve got shot, and you would’ve had little friends to play with and all that. No, it ain’t fair at all.” He reached up way high to put the bottle away.

  And then I heard it, over the click of the bottle settling into place and the murmuring of the Minister and the softer but still-present sobbing of Jenny Gone. The creak of a step, of one of the steps in the cellar, and my head turned and my eyes flew to where the big chair should’ve been but wasn’t.

  “Gospel, did you move the chair?”

  “Sure I did,” he said. “I needed to get down there with the chickens and the goats, hang them up. I’ll cure ’em in a little while, but I wanted to get them in.”

  Another creak of a stair, almost stealthy, but somehow I could hear it. A few feet off in the next room the Minister had fallen silent, but I couldn’t spare a glance to see if it, too, was looking this way. Then I heard the tiniest sound, like a fingernail on wood: tap tap tap. Gospel looked over from the cabinet to the back door, where I suppose he thought it came from, but I knew—oh, I knew. It was the hatch to the cellar.

  “Put the chair back on top of the hatch, Gospel,” I said, trying to stay calm.

  “Move it your own danged self if you want it there,” he barked, and I didn’t even argue. I just hurried past him and picked up the heavy old thing, grunting and straining, and staggered over to the hatch and dropped it there, falling with it just as I swear I saw the blessed thing lifting, the tiniest crack off the floor. Me and the chair slammed it shut, and I plopped onto the seat and shushed Gospel, who was suddenly all interested and full of questions.

  I heard the creak of a stair, but it was farther away, and then another, probably right at the bottom, and then nothing. I got on up to my feet from where I’d been sprawled out over the chair and backed away a foot or two.

  “Do you mind telling me what the heck is going on?” Gospel demanded, sitting down in the big chair, which right then was about the thing I most wanted him to do.

  “You won’t believe me.”

  “Like you didn’t believe me about the fog?” His face was a big smirk that I wanted to slap right off of him, but he had a point.

  I leaned in right to his ear and whispered real soft, “Mama’s up and walking down there.”

  “She’s dead, Merciful.”

  “I know. All the same, though.”

  And I stood up, and he looked at me and he laughed a little, and then was quiet for just a moment. He tried to laugh again, but something in my face told him I meant it, meant it for real.

  “You’re dead serious, ain’t you?”

  I nodded.

  “Well, shoot. I thought the fog was big news, but this is … this is just plain crazy. Does the Minister know?”

  “I think so. I think it’s scared of her.”

  “I know I am, for sure. If it’s really her.” He looked down at the door at his feet. “We should go and look.”

  “No, Gospel, we can’t.”

  “Merciful, there’s a fog full of death or worse closing in on us. How bad can it get?”

  I admitted then that he had a point and that maybe we should go downstairs, but not aloud. Just to myself. To him and to the part of me that was terrified by the idea, I just said, we couldn’t, we shouldn’t, we mustn’t, and tried to leave it at that.

  But he was Gospel, and he wasn’t likely to listen to any kind of sense, for all my pleading. He just smiled and stood up and started for the sitting room, and I trailed along.

  Outside, the light was finally dying, probably for the last time ever.

  EIGHT

  Gospel went to fetch the poker from the hearth in the bedroom because he thought Jenny should have a weapon. He still had his knife, though I was hoping we wouldn’t really have a need to protect ourselves since it was Mama. Only maybe it wasn’t. Gospel came back and pressed the poker into Jenny’s one hand, the Minister padding up behind but not really even coming into the kitchen, hardly sticking in its head. I knew—this time I for certain knew—that it was terrified of whatever was down there, even if I was the only other being in this world who could tell there was something to be scared of.

  Gospel took aside the chair, setting it back in the corner where it normally rested, and looked to me. I wasn’t sure how I’d
ended up running things, but I supposed that was because I heard the sounds. Since I’d noticed Mama up and moving, I was the one with experience, same as Gospel’d be in charge and no questions if it were a hunt. So I nodded to him, and he took a moment to start up a lamp, his hands steady like I didn’t reckon mine would have been. Then he gripped the hatch and flipped it against the wall. He started down with me following and Jenny bringing up the rear. The Minister didn’t even come close, like I thought it wouldn’t. It only paced and padded next to the far edge of the table with its head down, whining faintly in the back of its throat. I didn’t think to ever see the Minister so obviously afraid, but I guess with the end of the world approaching all things were possible.

  The light didn’t seem so very bright in the cellar, but it was enough to make out the piles of wood and the barrels for keeping potatoes and apples in and the onions hanging from the rafters, now joined by the chickens head down and two goats strung up by their feet. It was a sight to give me the shudders. Still on the floor was Mama’s body wrapped up in the good sheet, only now it seemed like we’d laid her out as a piece of meat just like the animals hanging down above her. The body seemed not to have stirred at all. Gospel went to stand by it, and I came to hover next to him. Jenny kept on the bottom step, not moving into the cellar proper at all, and I didn’t blame her a bit. If I’d been through half what she had I’d be upstairs crying and holding onto the Minister and wouldn’t let a soul lay any blame on me for it.

  “Well … it’s still right here,” Gospel said in barely more than a whisper. “Wrapped up, even. I don’t think anything was climbing on the stairs.”

  “But I heard the steps creak,” I said. It sounded stupid and childish even to me when I said it.

  “Yeah. It’s an old house, and the weather changed so fast I’m not surprised some things are creaking. But it’s not Mama, Merciful.”

  “I knew you wouldn’t believe me,” I said, and poked him in the side. Inside his words I could tell he meant maybe I was going a little crazy, just like Mama had, and I didn’t like that at all. “You’re mean and hateful, Gospel Truth, and I don’t know why I even put up with you.”

  “You won’t have to for much longer,” Jenny said from the steps, and Gospel said pretty much the same at the same time, and that was a sad thing to think on, so we were all quiet for a minute.

  “The Minister’s scared of coming down here,” I said. “You noticed that, right?”

  “I noticed it didn’t come down. But maybe it just doesn’t like to disrespect the dead.”

  “I tell you it’s scared, Gospel. Jenny, did you notice?”

  “My girl, you’re the one living with the danged thing all the time, and you’d know better than me, I should think.” She was breathing really shallow breaths, like she didn’t like the smell down here or something. “I’m going back up. You two can figure out what to do with your mama there on your own time.” She turned and took one step, but then paused. “Do you hear that?”

  I didn’t hear anything out of the ordinary, and I looked and saw Gospel was as confused as me.

  “Must be the missing ear. Thought I heard a song. Hush little baby … that one. You know it?”

  I gasped and felt faint, leaning into Gospel.

  “Our mama used to sing it,” he said.

  “I don’t hear it anymore. Just one moment, I guess. Probably I used to have it sung to me, too, when I was a sprout. I’m hearing all sorts of things I used to hear, now that my ear is gone. Or else I’m going crazy like…” And she didn’t say it, but we both knew who she meant: our mama, and it was so awkward that she hurried up the stairs.

  “I heard Mama sing that song while you were gone,” I said to Gospel. I hadn’t told him—I’d been afraid of what he’d think.

  His mouth ticked up sideways, and I knew he wasn’t happy with me. “You did? Did you see her?”

  I shook my head, even though maybe I had seen her in Papa’s chair, but I didn’t know for sure. “She’s about, though, all the same. Maybe a ghost, because we ain’t got her in the ground.”

  Gospel shook his head. “There’s no ghosts, Merciful. That’s only kids’ stories. You’re probably just missing her something fierce.”

  “I want to unwrap her.”

  “Well I don’t. So let’s just go upstairs and have some supper and figure out what to do about this damned fog.”

  “You watch your mouth, Gospel, and cut out that cursing. There’s no one to care if you’re trying to act like a man, let me tell you. And I’m going to unwrap Mama and take a look, whether you believe me or not.”

  “Fine. Here’s the lamp. Come up when you’re done.” He set down the lamp and almost jumped onto the steps, climbing them two at a time though his legs weren’t really quite long enough. I didn’t care none that he was gone, anyhow, because he didn’t believe me and he wouldn’t help me. I didn’t know how, but I knew it was important that Mama was singing, that she was moving about, whatever she was doing. Purely terrifying, but important. I knew there would be some kind of sign that she had gone about, if only I could find it. And if I didn’t faint dead away, I thought as I leaned in real close to where her feet were wrapped up.

  With just the tip of my thumb and pointer I reached for the fold of the cloth there. I was breathing fast and shallow and thinking that the body would move, that she would move even before I touched her, but it didn’t happen. I got the edge of the sheet in my hand, and I pulled it down and then flipped it away from her legs.

  And there it was, clear as day. There it was. Dirt on the bottom of her socks, both of them: the freshly darned one that I knew was clean or the Widow wouldn’t have put it back on, and the other; both of them dirty from the floor of the cellar.

  My mama had been walking around.

  But it didn’t make me feel good to be right. It made me feel terribly alone and afraid because I was down here by myself, and there was a body that maybe didn’t want to stay put not a foot away from where I crouched down. The lantern that was throwing light over me and the little puddle of glow from upstairs were the only two things making me not just scream and run off or fall down dead.

  The light flickered something wild, as if there was a wind. The sheet was billowing, and the body began moving, and I meant to scream, only a hand clamped down over my mouth, a hand cold and growing too soft, and a voice whispered in my ear, “Hush, little baby, don’t you cry, you know your mama was born to die.”

  NINE

  I could hear Gospel and Jenny talking upstairs, knew they were so close they could rescue me, but it was too late. She had me, maybe had always wanted me from the first time she stirred. I could feel tears on my cheeks, could hear my own faint sobbing, but she just drew the sheet up and around us. I smelled her and only her, the smell of the dead woman going a little bad now, and in the dimness she hummed the lullaby on and on while I wept silently.

  Gospel would come down eventually, I knew he would. He would come down and he would see and he’d rescue me. He had to. But he didn’t.

  The humming continued, and after a while I found that I wasn’t as scared anymore, that it was almost like being held in Mama’s lap as a little child. Back then it had been me quiet and her humming while she braided my hair or knitted, or later, her just humming and nothing else, because it was something she could still do with her eyes closed to shut out the worst of the world. Now I stopped crying, and though I was still stiff with fear, it wasn’t as bad as it had been.

  “Are you ready to listen to me, Merciful?” Mama whispered inside the stuffy tent of the sheet. I could tell my own breath was making it that way, because it wasn’t her. She was a wrapping of cold all about me, even her hand on my mouth still chilly to touch.

  I nodded, and she moved her hand just a little away from my mouth so I could take a deep breath. I coughed from the stench, for sure as sin she smelled a bit.

  “I don’t know how exactly to begin. I don’t know how well you’ll understand.” It wa
s Mama’s voice but not Mama’s words, not the way she said things. “Do you know yet that the world is dying?”

  “Yes, Mama.”

  I felt cold air exhaled on my neck, and I guessed the body had sighed. “I’m not actually your mama. I suppose I’m close enough, but not quite. Your mama, she died, just like you thought she did. But I could be her, nearly.”

  “Are you Mama or not?” And I felt like crying again when I said it, since I had only stopped because it was my mama right here, even if she was dead.

  “I’m not doing very well, am I?” And that sounded like Mama, if not in the way she said it, then in what she said. She used to most times think she was messing things up, even when, as usual, she was doing well. But this Mama, she wasn’t making any sense. Upstairs the floorboards creaked a little as Gospel and Jenny moved around, and I was torn between wishing they’d come down and save me and praying they’d leave me be just a little longer. I don’t expect it happened very often that a girl got to be with her mama after she’d given up all hope of it.

  “Let me try a different way. I’m Rebekkah Truth, just like your mama, only I’m Rebekkah from a different place—like a storybook Rebekkah. I knew your mama, because I could’ve been her. And when she died, I … I found out I could put my mind into her body.”

  “Are you an angel?” It sounded a little silly to say, but I couldn’t for the life of me think of any other way a person could not be the person they were, except to be an angel. The Minister said more than once that angels could come down to us from Heaven and do all sorts of wondrous things, but I never had been too clear on what such a thing was supposed to look like.

  She laughed a strange kind of choking laugh and then hugged me tight. “Oh, Merciful, I wish. I really do wish I was an angel. If it helps, think of me that way and think of me as your mother, but I’m not really either. I know a lot about your mother, though. I’m like her twin sister, I guess.”

 
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