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Engines of the broken wo.., p.8

Engines of the Broken World, page 8


Engines of the Broken World

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  “We need to smash it up, just in case,” I said. I was shaking from the cold, dancing from one foot to the other, and I wanted to get it done and head back inside, where maybe it was a little warmer.

  “Waste of time since it’s all busted up already,” Gospel said.

  “Well, there ain’t nothing else out here, Gospel, so where do you suggest we find a machine?”

  “Over at Widow Cally’s,” he said, and I lifted a finger to start telling him off but couldn’t come up with a single thing to say. He smiled a little and nodded at me ’cause he’d figured out something smarter than I had.

  “Do you suppose?” I asked.

  “She’s old enough to remember machines, Merce. She was around when they still made them, I reckon, so she’ll know. And we’ll be away from the Minister for a bit, and that can’t hurt, right?”

  I looked up at my brother, with his eyes half-hidden by the flop of hair that somehow made it out from under all his hats and scarves, and I nodded. “Yes, that sounds about right. And pretty clever, too. When did you get to be smart, Gospel?”

  “Can’t always be you figuring stuff out. I got a brain same as anyone.”

  “Don’t give much proof of that.”

  He snorted. “I don’t like to show off.”

  He blew out the lamp and hung it back up, and I started to cover what all we’d searched through, but Gospel just grabbed my hand and pulled me away.

  It was a long, cold walk to the Widow’s place. Though I’d been over just a while before, it seemed as if it were farther already than it had been. We two followed the fading rut that I had first made in the morning, that Miz Cally and I had made a little deeper coming back, and that I guessed she must have used just the same to get home. With Gospel in front of me, I thought it should have been easy as the alphabet to walk over there by now, but it was a hard slog.

  When we reached the Widow Cally’s cottage, Gospel stopped a minute at the bottom stair, with his snowy boot set up on it. “What do you mean to tell her?”

  “The truth, I reckon.”

  “Which is?” he said plenty slowly, then bent down to wipe the snow from his boots.

  I stared at him, but he wasn’t even noticing my glare. “That we need to find a machine, ’cause an angel living in Mama told me that would save the world.”

  “All right, then,” he said with a grin, and straightened up. Gospel shook his head and laughed as he started up the front stairs. “If that’s the story. Do you think she’ll believe it?”

  “She ain’t like you, Gospel. She don’t doubt a body for no reason except to be on the side of the Devil.”

  “It’s not the Devil making me doubt you, Merce.”

  “You think it’s a made-up story, then? Because it’s not. It’s the truth, even if it sounds like one of Mama’s babbles.” How I wished it didn’t sound like something she would’ve said, but oh, it did.

  “Well. Miz Cally’s heard enough of them kind of stories. She’ll squint up her eyes and give you a look and wonder if you’re Merciful Truth or not, with a story like that. So you better make it good, because if she don’t believe you now, she probably won’t ever believe you. You convince her now, or never.”

  “She’ll believe me,” I said, but maybe he was right. Maybe the Widow wouldn’t think it made any sense at all, and she’d tell us both off and send us away with a paddling. “She won’t think I’m fibbing, will she?”

  “You’re a good girl, Merce,” he said, like it was an insult. “She ain’t got no reason to think you’re a liar.”

  I frowned, because maybe she did. Not that I had lied, because Lord knows I didn’t; only Mama wasn’t up and moving when Miz Cally came to the house after I’d come running in a fright, and I hadn’t shown anyone the dirty socks that proved she had been. So not lying, no—but maybe she’d just think I was going the way Mama had, into spells and fits and not knowing what was true and what wasn’t.

  “You gonna knock, or am I?”

  “I’ll do it,” I said, and stepped up into the shelter of the porch. Gospel half a step behind me, I rapped three times on the smooth gray wood and waited, waited and hoped Miz Cally would believe me.


  The door pulled open and the Widow frowned out at us. “What are you doing back here, children? Got the willies from being all alone at home?”

  Gospel barked out a little laugh, hard and bitter, and then clapped his hand over his mouth. I shot him such a look as should’ve curled his hair and shook my head. “No, Miz Cally, it ain’t that. Or leastwise not all that.”

  “Come on in, Merciful. You too, Gospel, but remember you’re a guest here, so keep your tongue trained.”

  “Yes, Miz Cally,” he said, stepping in beside me.

  The fire was burning huge and bright, and the air was filled with the smell of biscuits, warm and toasty. The Widow glanced into the kitchen as we sniffed. “I thought it would be nice if I baked up some treats and brought them over to help with supper. Truly, I’d have been to your place in an hour at most.”

  “Shouldn’t have wasted the trip, then. It’s pretty damned cold outside.”

  “Gospel Truth, don’t think you’re big enough that I can’t teach you manners.”

  I didn’t really expect him to back down, but Gospel did, bowing his head as he unwrapped one of the scarves that he was bundled in.

  “I’m glad you came all the same. The biscuits will be just as nice over here as there, and … oh, I don’t know, but your house can’t be comfortable to you right now.” She started for the kitchen, for the big iron stove that was giving off a little steam from the baking.

  “Thank you, Miz Cally,” I said. “But wait. There’s things I got to tell you.”

  The Widow paused. “More than you already have, Merciful?”

  I knew she meant about my mama walking around, and I could hear the doubt in her voice. I looked over at Gospel, but he was busy taking off layers of warmth as if we were going to sit and have treats and talk about how unseasonable it was. “A lot more, maybe.”

  “Well, let’s get the biscuits and some jam, and then you can tell me whatever you need to.” And she set to getting things ready, putting out a cast-iron pan full of biscuits on the kitchen table, and a jar of strawberry jam, and knives and little plates and even fancy napkins, while Gospel set aside his warm things and I just stood there with my hat in my hands, wringing it because I was so nervous.

  Miz Cally lowered herself into one of the narrow chairs around the table and gestured us to sit. Gospel dropped onto one and immediately dug into the biscuits, smearing jam all over one and forcing it steaming hot into his mouth. “You’ll burn yourself,” the Widow said, but without much more than the faintest note of caution. You couldn’t warn Gospel off that sort of thing.

  “Is it all right if I start telling you what I need to tell you?” I asked.

  “Not till you take a biscuit,” she said, putting one onto my plate. She stared at me hard until I picked it up and took a little bite. It was perfectly warm and wonderful, but it sat like mud in my mouth until I forced myself to chew up the bite and swallow it. “I suppose that’s the best I’ll get out of you right now. I don’t blame you for feeling so out of sorts, but I do wish you’d try to distract yourself from your sorrows. It’s a great help, distraction.”

  “Miz Cally, there’s things a body can’t distract herself from,” I said.

  “I don’t know about that. When my husband passed, God rest his soul, I did everything I could to try to lose track of it.”

  “It’s not that, Miz Cally. It’s not Mama being gone.”

  “Well, then what is it? It’s not you thinking she’s up and about again, is it? I thought that was all settled.” The Widow gave me a stern look, the sort that should have sent me cringing into silence, only I wasn’t about to shut up now after I’d come all this way.

  “I got to ask you a question,” I said.

  “For Pete’s sake, Merce, you’re taking fo
rever,” Gospel said around a mouthful of the last biscuit. “Either spit it out or I do.”

  “All right, all right.” I drew in a deep breath and let it out slow. “I need to know if you’ve got any machines around the place.”

  “Machines? Why do you suppose you’d find any of them around here? They been gone a good long while, Merciful. And what kind?”

  “I don’t know what kind. What kinds are there?”

  A soft laugh came from the tall black lady. “There were all kinds, I suppose. Kinds that did things for us, and that made things; kinds that told the time or showed pictures. I don’t even remember all the kinds of machines there used to be, Merciful. They all went away years ago, or fell apart. We didn’t need them anymore after the Last War. Why do you want one now?”

  “Why didn’t you need them after the war?” Gospel asked. It was all stories to him, and to me, those terrible days when folks fought and killed and died for reasons that never much made sense to us. But Gospel, he liked guns and fighting, and he was always keen to ask a question if it might have anything to do with the war at all.

  “They never did anything good for us, that’s why. We only needed God and each other. We saw what all those machines led to: foolish wickedness, wars, and killing. Now come on, tell it. What do you want with a machine?”

  “I can’t tell you that,” I said, and Gospel sighed loudly, thumping his hand on the table. “Well, I can’t. You probably wouldn’t believe me if I did.”

  “Maybe I would and maybe I wouldn’t, but until you tell me we won’t know.”

  “Can you just say if you’ve got any around here? I need to find one very desperately, Miz Cally.”

  She narrowed her eyes to slits and stared at me, her face hard. I don’t suppose she liked to dance and jump for a girl who couldn’t say what it was for, but I guessed she was going to give me some leeway same as she gave Gospel, ’cause of Mama dying and all, and I was right. Miz Cally nodded her head at last and stood up, walking back to the sitting room.

  “Why didn’t you just tell her you talked to the angel, or whatever it was?”

  “’Cause she wouldn’t’ve believed me. You said so yourself, and you’re right. It sounds foolish.”

  “Ain’t all that different from how you normally sound to me,” he said, and leaned back in his chair.

  I wanted to kick the legs out from under him, but Miz Cally came back just then with a dusty little box in her hand. It was a pretty thing, made of metal and covered with sparkly bits of glass in all kinds of colors. On the front side, where the lid opened, there was a little metal piece sticking out that I couldn’t quite place. The Widow set the box down on the table and then took her seat again.

  “I don’t suppose there’s another machine in the whole village that works. But this one still does, or I expect it should, at least.”

  “It’s so pretty. How come I’ve never seen it?”

  “There’s plenty here you two’ve never seen. This thing I kept tucked away because I didn’t want it to get broken. It’s very special to me, come down to me from my mama, who died a long time ago, and it was her mama’s before that from when she was a little girl.”

  “Well, what in tarnation is it for?” Gospel said. “Ain’t machines supposed to do something?”

  “They are, and it does.” Miz Cally bent her head in its knit cap over and puffed air across the top of the box, scattering dust. Her long fingers lifted up the lid, which was tall and left a lot of space under, and inside there was a little tiny girl in a frilly dress up on one toe, her arm bent, and a tiny crown on her head.

  “What is that?”

  “That’s a ballerina, a little dancer girl. And this is a music box.”

  A music box. It seemed magical: all the music I had ever heard was hymns and prayers that we sang with the Minister to guide us, and lullabies, only those I didn’t really want to ponder about too much just then. “I don’t hear any music,” I said.

  “Course you don’t. It’s probably broken.”

  “Gospel, you can head on home if you don’t want to be civil. I’m sure the Minister’s got a big long bit of talk saved up special just for you.” The Widow stared at my brother, and he stared back. I didn’t think they’d ever break it up, so I set my hand on Miz Cally’s and shook it gently until she turned her eyes my way.

  “How does it work?”

  “You just turn the key a few times and then let it go.”

  A key, that was the metal bit in the front! I knew what a key was, of course: we had one for the front door that hung on a nail outside it, and Mama had showed me how to work it years ago. Once or twice a year I’d lock it up and then go around to the kitchen door and let myself in, and be amazed that I couldn’t get out again from the front. I couldn’t really understand what it was for, but Mama had said it was to keep out strangers. Since there hadn’t been any of that sort around for years, I guessed I’d never need it.

  I reached out slowly for the key, but Gospel’s grubby hand was there first, turning it fiercely.

  “That’s not fair. I asked about it.”

  “You’re too blasted slow, Merce,” Gospel said, and laughed. Miz Cally slapped his hand away, and the key started to slowly turn back, but I grabbed it and gave it a few more cranks. A single sound had escaped, not too loud, just a little plink. I didn’t really think it was music at all.

  “You can let it go now, Merciful. It’ll play.”

  I dropped my hand to the table and watched. The machine made a faint humming sound, a whirring, and then the ballerina started to spin on her toe at the same time that the box started to make music, real music. My mouth dropped open as I heard it play, and I started to draw in my arms. Why under Heaven was it that song?

  “What’s the matter?” Miz Cally asked, reaching out to take my hand before I could pull it fully back.

  “Probably reminds her of Mama,” Gospel said. “She always used to sing this song to us. How did it go? ‘Hush, little baby’ or something like that? Lord above, I hated that song, but Merce always wanted to have it sung to her.”

  “Oh, I’m sorry, dear,” the Widow said, and dropped the lid with her free hand. The music fell silent instantly. “It was a long time ago, but I remember your mama used to come and sit with me, back before either of you was born, and play this box for a while. There used to be all kinds of music—phonographs and radios and that sort of thing—but this is the last I have left now.”

  The box may have been shut, but in my head I could still hear it plinking along, only there was also an echo like Mama’s voice running through my head.

  Hush, little baby, don’t you cry …

  I let out a breath that I hadn’t realized I was holding in. “Miz Cally, there’s something else I got to tell you,” I said, and looked up at her. I didn’t suppose this was the machine I was expected to find. But it was a sign from God, clear as day, that I needed to talk. I needed to tell what I knew.

  “There’s troubled times coming,” I said, and Gospel, he let out a little laugh but waved his hand for me to go on when I glared at him. “The world’s in a bad way, and no mistake.”

  “Merciful, people have been saying that since I was younger than you are,” Miz Cally said.

  “Yeah, well, eventually somebody had to get it right,” Gospel said. “You gonna tell her quick, or should I just get into it?”

  “Get into what?”

  “There’s a fog closing in on us that’s like to kill us all, and it ain’t but a couple hours from here at most, and the dead won’t stay dead, Miz Cally, and the Minister’s lying to everyone.”

  It wasn’t exactly how I would have said it, but mostly Gospel had it right. I was mad he told it out plain like that, so I gave him a look, but it didn’t have much venom in it because I guess he said what needed to be said. Miz Cally was looking at him too, but it was a different look: the same one she gave when we used to say we didn’t know how the stair got broke, or what happened to the cider.

/>   “He’s not fibbing, Miz Cally,” I said. “He ain’t even told you all of it.”

  “Well, why don’t you two tell me the rest, then?”

  I skipped my eyes over Gospel, but he just grabbed the jar of jam and dug his dirty finger into it, and slurped strawberry preserves. He’d got to shock someone with starting it, and now he’d get to avoid the work of actually telling it. So I took a deep breath. I started to talk about the angel in Mama, and about Jenny dying, and about the closing of the world. Miz Cally just clasped her hands on the table, the jewels catching the light off of her lamps, and listened to me carefully, and didn’t nod or frown or give much of any sign. Only her brow tightened up a little, and eventually her lips did the same, and then finally I was all done.

  “Get your layers on, Gospel,” she said. He was running his fingers around the inside of the empty jam jar and looked up at her, startled. “We’re going back to your place. I need to speak with the Minister.”

  She stood up, so tall and narrow and strong, and went to get her things, and I grabbed my one scarf that I had pulled off. Across the table from me, Gospel set down the jar, and then he reached out and put both hands on the music box.

  “This’s the song Mama sings to you now, ain’t it?” he whispered.

  “Yes. Yes, that’s the song.”

  He nodded and pulled the music box back to himself, and tucked it into the big pocket in his baggy coat. He put his finger up to his lips to tell me to keep quiet, and I did, but I didn’t feel good about it.

  Only I thought that maybe we’d want to smash that machine at some point, and maybe I wanted to have it nearby, just in case.


  When we got back to the house, Miz Cally didn’t get directly to whatever it was she meant to do. First thing, right off the bat, she tutted and fussed about how the place had got so cold and uncomfortable, and so we built up the fire in the stove and set up candles in the sitting room. The Widow had us tuck rags under the cracks of the doors because that would keep out a little of the cold air. She had brought her last bit of tea, and a bag of odds and ends of food, and she put that all away in our cabinets just like she meant to move in. I gathered, since I’d told her everything, that she didn’t mean to go back to her house at all, and I felt a little sad to think that was the last I’d see of the place, most likely. Except that in the back of my head was a notion that the old lady had a way to fix all of this, because why else would she have even come on over?

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