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Engines of the broken wo.., p.7

Engines of the Broken World, page 7

 

Engines of the Broken World
 


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  “So you’re … my auntie?”

  “If you like.” She hugged me tight for a moment longer, the cool softness of her arms a little unpleasant, but I could pretend it was really my mama for a minute. “You’re going to have to be a brave girl, because I need you to do a very important thing. I know why things are going wrong here.”

  “Do you mean the fog? And the cold and snow?”

  “If that’s what it seems to be, then yes, the fog. My mind is here, as I said, but this body, it’s not mine. Sometimes I’m not even sure I’m in it, and not just dreaming all of this. But I think I’m really here, really holding on to you.”

  “Of course you are,” I said.

  Another cool sigh. “Yes. I must be. I don’t see everything the way you do, so I can’t be very clear, maybe. But I know what’s making it happen. And if you can shut off the thing that’s making it go bad, it’ll stop, and your world will … well, I think it’ll get better.”

  “Shut off what? What’s making the fog?” Eagerly, I turned my head back a bit so my ear was right by her mouth, wanting her to tell me what to do. Gospel would be so surprised and so jealous, only I realized I couldn’t even tell him because he wouldn’t believe me. I’d just fix it all myself and smile at him afterward because I took care of everything and he didn’t do anything.

  “A machine. I don’t know what exactly it is, but there’s a device that’s calling the fog to you, causing it to encircle your home. Whatever it is, the machine is going to run right until that fog devours the world if you can’t stop it.”

  And that was when I got confused all over again. I knew that word, machine, but I didn’t really know what it meant. All I knew about machines was that they were for towns and cities, far away and gone now anyhow. “We don’t have any machines here, Auntie.”

  “There is one, somewhere. It might be small, something you just haven’t noticed. But your mother knew it was there and knew it was causing all the problems. Can you look around and check?”

  At least that was something I could do: look around. Maybe there was something out in the barn, something that looked old that I never paid attention to. Or in one of Mama’s trunks that I hadn’t looked completely through? I didn’t even know what a machine might look like, other than a few old pictures in some of Mama’s books. “I can try.”

  “Good girl.” The arms that were wrapped around me began to slip loose. “I can’t stay any longer. It’s hard for me to be here—it makes me so tired. Where I’m from, we don’t have much strength. We’re dying there, too, but differently.”

  “You’re dying?”

  “We all are,” she said, so soft I could hardly hear it. Upstairs, I heard a great, huge thump on the kitchen floor like something heavy falling over, and then the creak of floorboards. “Go on upstairs now. There’s trouble. Gospel needs you.”

  And the body slid back to the ground, carrying me in its limp arms still wound in the cold drape of the sheet, so that I was lying on Mama’s chest. There wasn’t anything left in the body. I could feel that much, and now I knew I was just lying down with a corpse, and I felt like I would be sick. I shrugged the heavy limbs away from me, only they didn’t really want to go now. They were all tied up with me in the sheet, and I was whimpering and working at it when Gospel called out my name. I took a deep, foul breath and tried to think—the sheet was really the problem, tying me up, and I twisted to push out from the cloth that seemed to hold me like a net. It was a terrible long moment, but I finally came up for a gasp of air to hear Gospel yelling for me from up in the kitchen.

  “Merciful, come quick. Jenny’s dying!”

  Without even wrapping Mama in her shroud, I heaved to my feet and ran up the stairs, snatching at the lamp as I dashed past. I was in such a rush that I caught the tip of my boot under a step and slammed my shin and my face down onto the wooden slats. The lamp flickered and went out. I lay there for a moment, stunned, then pushed up gasping and climbed the rest on all fours like a dog, as best I could with the blasted light gone out. I winced when my right leg, the one with the smacked shin, set down.

  Jenny Gone was on the table, though it looked like Gospel had just put her down there, and he was taking off her coat. I got to my feet and paused, not sure I wanted to see what was under that bundle at her shoulder, but when he slipped the coat loose there was nothing, nothing at all, just the coat itself that flopped down on the tabletop and her shirt under, except where it wasn’t.

  “Lord in Heaven,” he breathed out. I stepped over, breathing sharp from the hurt to my face and leg, and saw what he saw. When I looked where her shoulder should have been, I couldn’t see flesh nor skin nor meat, and I couldn’t see what should have been beyond, either. It was just something the eyes couldn’t focus on, so it was hard to tell what it was or wasn’t.

  Jenny’s eyes were open, and her breath came fast and shallow, but other than that she didn’t seem to be moving or doing anything at all. I took her good hand, but she didn’t even squeeze back when I pressed hard. She didn’t turn to look at me. Gospel was pushing back her shirt, and I thought to tell him no because it was her chest he was pushing it back over and her breasts that he’d see in a moment, but I was too scared to even talk. He kept pushing and pushing, and from where I stood it just looked like the shirt had been hanging over air, and still was.

  “Lord above, Merciful. It’s eating her up. I think … I think it’s right at her heart,” he said, and at last there was a hint of pale flesh, and he stopped pushing. The shirt was inches in from her side, and if I had to argue for something, I’d say we were already past the tip of her breast, on the inside slope, maybe. “This’s where the heart’s at, ain’t it?”

  I nodded, but he wasn’t looking at me and I don’t think he noticed anyhow that I had or hadn’t answered. I didn’t know quite what he was seeing, because he could maybe see where the flesh and the absence met up, and I didn’t think that could be a sight for mortal eyes.

  “Jenny?” I asked, leaning in real close to her remaining ear.

  She didn’t say anything, didn’t turn her head. I wondered if she had known it was spreading, but then, she said it didn’t feel like nothing at all, so maybe she hadn’t. Gospel took up the jacket and tucked it back over the part of her that wasn’t, and he turned away and stepped to the back door, as if he was trying not to notice a woman was dying a few feet off. The hen pecked around his feet, strutting through the kitchen with soft clucks. I wished I didn’t notice any of that; I wished that I just watched Jenny, paid her the attention she deserved, only I can’t say that I did.

  She called me back quick enough. It didn’t take long when the moment came. Her back arched suddenly, her face drew tight, and her hand gripped mine so strongly I forgot about my shin and my cheek that was throbbing, and I hissed in a breath while she coughed and gasped for a moment, and then she sagged, not slowly but like the life had just gone out of her.

  And it had. She went limp and she died, right there on the table, with her hand in mine and something that didn’t exist eating her up inside. I reached up and closed her eyes.

  TEN

  I was hurting and I was sorrowful and I was suddenly very tired, even though I’d slept the afternoon away like the lazy grasshopper in the storybooks. And Gospel just stood there by the door while I tried to put some order to poor Jenny’s twisted limbs—what was left of them—and settle her on the table, straightening out the jacket she was wearing and smoothing down the grimace on her face. I didn’t know what more to do for her, poor thing. And all I could think was that we’d all go that way, tomorrow or the next day or soon enough after that in the best case, unless I found the machine and shut it down somehow.

  The Minister came into the room at last, tail low, head down. Usually you could count on the Minister when there was a death, but I thought maybe because Mama had been lively it had stayed away, terrified as it was of her. Made me think she was rather unnatural, and she was, I’m sure; but she knew things and wa
s trying to help, which was more than I could truly say for the Minister. But now it came and set its snout up on the table, and then it started to murmur a prayer, and I prayed along with it, and even Gospel could be heard, though he didn’t move or look at us or nothing like that.

  “Heavenly Father,

  You made us not for darkness nor for death,

  But for life with you for ever.

  Without you we have nothing to hope for,

  With you we have nothing to fear.

  Speak to us now words of eternal life.

  Lift us from perdition and suffering

  To the light and peace of your presence,

  And set the glory of your love before us;

  Through the Lord, Amen.”

  I didn’t know when the words of a prayer had felt more real to me, or when I might ever feel them more than just at that moment. The Minister dropped its head from the table and circled around the body and around me, just as it had with Mama a day ago, and then settled down, alert, by the kitchen doorway, looking at the body.

  Gospel was still at the door, looking out through the tiny window mounted in it. It was as dark as the inside of a sack, so I don’t know what he was looking at, but maybe he just didn’t want to look back at Jenny, and I didn’t blame him. I wanted to tell him what Mama had told me, but I didn’t think he would listen to me or believe me if he did. And I wanted to search around for the machine, but I didn’t even know where to start.

  Except I guessed the Minister would, because it was a made thing and came a long time ago from a city. It would know what a machine would be like, and whether there were any around. For sure, with all the poking and prying it did, it would know if it cared to. So I walked the few steps to the thing, and I sat right down next to it, rubbing at my shin as I did, for it still ached. I was sure I had a bruise on my cheek, too, but I ignored that as best I could.

  “Minister, do you know if there’s any machines around here?”

  The Minister stiffened, hackles rising, and stared up at me with wet black eyes. I could hear Gospel turning around off to the side.

  “Machines? No, there aren’t any machines here. You know that, Merciful.”

  “Not even a little one someplace?” Even though I didn’t think it was going to answer, I asked, because the thing seemed to be losing all control of its reactions these days, and I was pretty sure it was lying to me now.

  “There were few machines even in the towns and cities in latter days, and now there must be almost none. As for these simple farms, you folk never really needed machines, had only a few, and they stopped working long ago.”

  “So there were machines? Where are they?” Maybe it was something the Minister thought was broke and it wasn’t.

  “Scrapped, torn apart for bits in years past. There aren’t any machines here, Merciful. I’ve told you.”

  “Why you want to know about machines all of the sudden, Merce?”

  “Just something I heard once, Gospel. Nothing important.” I didn’t know if there was any point in even looking. Maybe the Minister was right and there was nothing. But Auntie was sure there was, and I didn’t rightly trust what the Minister said anymore, so I would have to take a look around all the same.

  “You’re darn right it’s not important. We got us another body here,” Gospel said.

  “Rest her soul,” the Minister added.

  “Right, rest her soul, Good Lord watch her. Keep up the work, Minister. But we humans got to do something with it.”

  “Out to the barn, maybe?” I didn’t like to suggest it, but I was kind of feared of what might happen if we just left Jenny where she was. “It’ll keep there.”

  “I don’t know,” Gospel said. “It’s not like we can bury her right now. Down in the basement was good enough for Mama.”

  “No, Gospel, I don’t think it’s a good idea, not with Mama,” I said, and grabbed at his hand. How hard I stared at him I can’t say, wishing and praying he’d understand what I was trying to tell him but didn’t want the Minister’s floppy ears to pick up.

  “Out in the barn, huh?” Gospel said, and his chin dropped just a hint and picked back up after. A nod so faint maybe it wasn’t one, but I thanked God quiet-like for letting my brother hear me.

  “That is not respectful of the dead,” the Minister said.

  “Well, shoot, Minister, I don’t know that I give a fart for what all’s that respectful nowadays,” Gospel said, shaking my hand off from his. I was a little shocked, but I was getting tired of the Minister not doing anything and just complaining and fussing all the time too, so I didn’t say nothing. Gospel walked over to the table and poked where Jenny’s arm should’ve been. “In case you haven’t noticed, things are a little bad right now, and maybe respect ain’t exactly high on my list of things to worry about.”

  “This is the time when it should be highest on your list, Gospel. For these are perhaps the last days. And every human action has weight and merit.”

  “Sure. Weight and merit. Merciful, you want to help me take this body out to the barn? It’s got a lot of weight, and you’d earn some merit with me if you did.” And he laughed, a quick bark of a laugh that I thought sounded worse than it would’ve if he’d cried.

  “All right, Gospel.” I patted the Minister on the head, which it didn’t much like, and I went to grab Jenny’s legs. I was getting awfully used to moving bodies, only this one was still limp and floppy, and it weighed a lot more than I would’ve thought just from guessing. It was horrible, how she dropped off the table, and we kind of had to tug her along with us across the floor and then set her down by the door, me already feeling tired and thinking of how deep the snow was.

  Gospel fumbled open the door and we lifted her again, but it was pretty obvious that we weren’t going to make any good distance carrying her like we were. “We got to turn around and drag her,” my brother said, and I didn’t want to but I did just the same because I wanted to get to the barn. So we shut up the house and we twisted her around on the snow, which at least was easy, and then we each grabbed a leg and started to walk with her dragging behind us like a shame we couldn’t cover up. I wanted to scream or throw up or at least to curl in a ball and hide, but I couldn’t, not then and not later. I had to find the blasted machine and smash it if I could, and the barn was the place to look, I was certain.

  The barn door wasn’t too hard to force open, what with most of the snow cleared away that morning, and we pulled Jenny in. It was cold—fierce cold outside and almost the same inside—cold like I’d never felt, and I wished I had another coat, another hat, thicker mittens, everything. We pulled poor Jenny into the middle of the barn, in the near darkness, and then stood around, not certain what to do.

  “So what was that about machines, Merciful?” Gospel asked, billows of steam almost spelling out his words.

  “Mama told me there’s a machine that’s making the fog come in,” I said, not trying to explain all the details.

  He blinked a couple times and pushed out his lips. “Mama told you that?” he asked.

  “I don’t expect you to believe me, Gospel. It sounds stupid, I know. But I believe what I heard, and if you’ve got a better idea for stopping what’s happening, I’ll gladly listen.”

  I waited as the mist of my breath cleared away, but he didn’t say anything. I was trying to remember if there was a filled lamp out here in the barn, and if there were matches, when I heard one being struck and saw Gospel lighting a hurricane lamp.

  “Let’s have a look around, then,” he said, holding the lamp up above his head.

  I wanted to give him a hug, so I did. He reached his free hand around to pat me on the back, which was better than I expected, and then shifted away from me, and we started to look around. The barn was big, had once been meant to hold a passel of animals. Even when I was little there were more: three cows, and some pigs that really lived in the wallow out to the side, and an old, old horse that I loved to pet on the nose when Mama would li
ft me up that high. So there was a lot more space than we had made use of in the last few years, and bunches of that space was just cluttered with old things. When I was really little and Gospel liked me, we used to play in the barn sometimes, going up into the loft for the short space when we were still friends and my legs had grown long enough, and otherwise clambering in and out of stalls and making forts and suchlike. I thought I’d know most of what was lying about in the place. But now that I was looking with the intent to search instead of just to play, I realized I hadn’t seen much of the old junk out here at all.

  I remembered the broken chairs piled up in a back stall, though I didn’t recall all the detailed carving on most of them, and I didn’t recall, even when Gospel told me, that I had broken two of them in a week by jumping up and down on them over and over for hours. The old burlap sacks that had once carried goods shipped upriver from the nearest towns I could remember playing in and with. But the piles of old metal scraps, which I had just recalled as that and nothing more, I now saw were bits and pieces from tools that I recognized: a frame from a loom, hoops from barrels, fragments that looked like they would make a rifle. And other things that I couldn’t place.

  “Do you think this came from a machine?” I asked, holding up a rusty sheet of metal the size of both my hands put together, with strange bumps scattered on the surface.

  “Heck if I know. That ain’t familiar to me,” Gospel said. “But these gears, these should be from something. Papa told me once we used to have a few plowing machines, that sort of thing, and I bet they used gears. Like in a watch,” he said, because at least I’d seen a watch, even if Papa’s old one didn’t work and was broken across the face besides.

  And then we found what was surely a machine, a rusted hulk tucked in one corner, with mildewed cloth draped over it. It had been green, but most of the paint was chipped off, and the metal all rusted and broken. There were gears, and there were things that looked like they would move if they weren’t rusted together, and Gospel and me agreed it had to be a machine, though what it might do we couldn’t say. It was the only thing in the whole barn, loft and all, that we decided could possibly be what we were looking for.

 
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