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Engines of the broken wo.., p.9

Engines of the Broken World, page 9

 

Engines of the Broken World
 


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  The Minister just watched from the sitting room floor, big head resting on its crossed paws, all through our odd jobs. It stood up and tromped into other spots out of the way when we needed to set up more candles or get to the front door, but otherwise just stared, and mostly at Miz Cally.

  “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it this cold around these parts,” the Widow said as she set the kettle onto the stove to heat up water for tea.

  “Don’t know that any of us will again,” Gospel said. “This is once in a lifetime, for sure and certain.”

  “It has been getting colder for the last few winters,” she mused, pulling down chipped teacups and saucers from the cabinets. I wasn’t quite sure what she was about, but Gospel seemed to have a handle on it.

  “Yes, it has, at that,” my brother said, and I could tell he was holding back a smile. He wasn’t the sort to pass the time of day this way. The Minister for sure would notice that much. “But I think this winter’ll be the last of the real cold ones.”

  “Minister, what do you think?” Miz Cally asked, because she knew as well as we did that the Minister had a touch for the weather.

  “It will not be much colder than this,” the thing said, sitting up.

  “I don’t suppose it could be, could it?” the Widow said.

  “It could, but it will not,” the Minister said in its gentle voice, and I could tell that it probably knew better than we did what was happening. The Minister knew the end was coming. It would have been hard not to know, when we were talking about it all the time. And it had such a feel for the weather, surely it could sense the fog creeping toward us. How much did the Minister really know, though? I wondered, did God ever tell it anything, when it was talking to the Lord above about us and our little sins and problems?

  “How can you tell about the weather, Minister?” I asked. I realized it had never before occurred to me to ask.

  “Some things are just given to me to know, Merciful. The Lord God has shown much of the world to the Ministers, so that we could care for you.”

  “Didn’t do such a good job with Jenny,” Gospel said.

  “She was halfway to the Devil just as you are, Gospel Truth; halfway, and far enough that she would not have heard words of salvation even if I had spoken them. The Lord’s mercy is boundless, but some can’t be brought to accept it. No matter, though: I would have saved her if I could.”

  “Oh, would you?” Gospel said. He pushed back from his chair and stomped over to the Minister, which only looked up at my brother. “If you could. Is there anyone you can save, Minister? Anyone at all?”

  “Gospel, you sit down,” Miz Cally said. There wasn’t any fire in her voice, but that made it all the more serious. He turned around with a hard face meant to scare her, but after all he wasn’t quite a man yet, and she’d been walking this world longer than both of us combined and maybe the Minister added in. Gospel swallowed and backed away from the Minister and sat back down in a loose sprawl, his hand settling on the worn leather of his knife’s hilt.

  “What do you know about what’s happening, Minister?” Miz Cally asked.

  “Even in this world, even in this little village, there is so much happening that I can’t begin to answer you,” the Minister said. “Do you wish me to tell you about the swallow huddled under its wing in a hollow of the Great Tree? Or about the mole that’s dying under the garden? Or that there are still a few pale flowers under the snow, trapped and frozen and perfect but dead just the same?”

  “Is that stuff really happening?” I asked.

  “That, and so much more. The Lord notices everything, Merciful, and it is part of my task to see some part of it.”

  “Oh, come now. You’re not answering me at all.” But if the Widow meant to say more, she didn’t because of what happened right then. At first I thought Gospel must have got himself up to a trick to get back at Miz Cally. That was what it sounded like. The little tinny tinkle of notes that made up the music box’s song haunted the air all around us. Only Gospel’s hand shot into his pocket fast as lightning, so that I knew he didn’t have nothing to do with it.

  “Hush, little baby, don’t you cry,” the Widow sang softly, fixing her eyes on the dog’s shape of the made thing. The Minister’s head darted from side to side, as if it were looking for a rabbit out in a field. I thought about Auntie lying there still and silent in the cellar and wondered if she was making this happen somehow. Was she dreaming just now and hearing the song in her sleep? “What do you know about that song, Minister? Where’s it coming from?”

  “Rebekkah was very fond of it,” the Minister said.

  “It’s true, she was,” Miz Cally said. “But you don’t know where it’s coming from now? Or are you saying her ghost is here, making some noise? Is that what you’re telling us, Minister?”

  It said nothing, ducking its head.

  My heart was pounding in my chest, and like the Minister I kept looking around to try to find the cause of the song. But I knew where it was coming from. “We need to break the music box,” I said.

  “It’s not here,” Miz Cally said.

  Gospel pulled it out and slammed it down on the table. He smirked at the old lady, so that I wanted to give him a clout. I didn’t because the Minister suddenly lifted its head back up and stared at the music box like it would at a sinner. Even though the box was closed up, I could tell now that the music was coming from inside, not down in the cellar like I had guessed. I didn’t think it was supposed to work when it was closed, ’cause the Widow had shut it to make it stop before, but here it was making those same notes when it was snapped tight.

  “You little thief,” the tall woman said, and smacked my brother on the side of his head. “That’s mine, and it’s precious, and don’t any of you think of smashing it up.”

  “But it’s got to be the machine!” I said. “It’s making the music, the song that I keep hearing!”

  “No it ain’t, it’s just an old music box.” Her long arm snaked out and covered the shining shape with a hand big for a woman, and she drew it in close to her on the table.

  “But, Miz Cally, it’s playing the same song that my mama sang to me! How’s it playing that, when it’s shut down?” Because we could still hear it in the air, that song.

  “I don’t know that, Merciful,” she said. “I know your mama used to listen to this box playing the music, and she loved it. Maybe it’s a sign from beyond the grave, though I don’t hold with that sort of thing. The dead are in Heaven; they don’t trouble us here on Earth.” Carefully, like she was handling a badger or a snake or something that Gospel would’ve loved, she flipped the lid open. The tiny ballerina twirled about, and the music plinked on.

  “Take out the key!” I said. The Widow did, pulling it from the little keyhole, but it didn’t matter. The music kept coming.

  “Dear Lord who loves us, stop this deviltry,” Miz Cally said, but the music didn’t listen. She clapped down the lid and covered the box with her hands.

  “If it’s so full of the Devil, maybe you shouldn’t be touching it?” Gospel said, smirking again. “And if it ain’t your music box causing all these tribulations or what have you, then what machine is it?” he asked. “Unless she’s got spells coming on her, Merciful got told there was a machine by that old ghost angel.” The Minister whimpered a little when it heard that, so quiet that maybe nobody but me noticed. “Though it’d be nice if someone could tell me what the Hell a machine really is.”

  “A machine’s a thing built by people to do things for them,” Miz Cally said, and that made me think of something. The brown-furred doggy face of the Minister, only a couple feet away, turned to glare right at me, and I got a kind of sick feeling; suddenly, I was dizzy and had to blink a few times to clear my head. I didn’t know what I had been about a moment before, but I caught up with what Miz Cally was saying. “There ain’t no other machines around here, child, leastwise not any that work. I got a few broken things over at my house, things we used to
have when my husband, rest his soul, was still with us. Not a one that’s worked these twenty years or more, and I think most of them are gone to rust and ruin by this time. Maybe you got something here, but I guess you’d know, wouldn’t you?”

  And then her face scrunched up, as if she was thinking hard. “Minister,” she said, and her mouth hung open like she meant to say something more. Then she made a little noise in the back of her throat and set both her hands palms down on the table, and then she fell right out of her chair. Just at that instant the music plinked to an end, and there was a moment of such complete quiet that I could hear the snow falling on the rooftop.

  Gospel was up before I could do much of anything at all, up and at the Widow’s side and with a hand taking her wrist to see if her heart was still beating. I didn’t move, though, because I’d noticed something.

  The Minister was staring right at Esmeralda Cally, with its fur all hackled up, and it had been staring at her when she fell, and its eyes followed her down and kept right on staring. I could almost feel something in the air, and I knew the Minister had made her fall. I knew it. So while Gospel felt around at the Widow’s wrist, and her feet started to drum on the ground because she had started to shake, I jumped up and grabbed a saucer with a teacup still on it and I threw it right at the Minister, though I cringed to think on what I was doing. This was the Minister, and me throwing something at it like I was a girl still in diapers what didn’t know any better. I was grateful that the Widow couldn’t see, even though I thought she’d understand in the present moment.

  The saucer sailed through the air, losing the teacup, which spilled as it went, and smacked right into the Minister’s neck. Or it should have—somehow it bounced off without seeming to really hit the thing, though the black eyes blinked and Miz Cally’s feet stopped their dancing. I was already following right after the dish, heading for the Minister to yank it out of the room like it was nothing more than the dog it seemed, but I slipped on spilled tea and tumbled forward. “Do not touch me, Merciful!” the Minister said, quick as could be, but I was already falling right toward it. There was a smell in the air like after a storm, and as I fell I could feel my hair stand on end, and I landed on the Minister and everything went pins and needles and then dark, and I wondered as it all went away if this was what it had felt like for Jenny Gone.

  THIRTEEN

  I wasn’t dead, though, or leastwise I woke up and it seemed only a moment later. Footsteps thumped past my head, and the Minister’s claws scratched on the wood of the sitting room as it scrabbled away. I still felt all pins and needles, though, like I had lain on myself entire and gone sleepy, but it was everyplace at once. My hands felt both numb and hot at the same time. I was for sure and certain falling down a lot today.

  I pushed myself up and blinked my eyes over and over, because I couldn’t really focus. There was some sort of fierce noise going on in the sitting room, thumping and growling and cussing and I don’t know what all, but I had trouble seeing what was happening. Some shape I half-saw was moving around, fighting maybe, and another thing as well, and maybe one of the things was Gospel. I was scarcely able to stand, leaning on the door frame, and I rubbed at my eyes with my left hand. When I blinked them clear, I could see Gospel trying to hold on to the Minister, which was snapping and snarling and being in general a ferocious thing.

  “Gospel, keep ahold of it. I’ll help you,” I said, only I didn’t think much about how I would do that. When I moved from my post, I dropped right away to my knees and one hand, hardly keeping myself up at all.

  “This thing’s got a lot of fight, but I don’t think it’ll hurt me none,” Gospel said. “Not for purpose, at least.” He was gasping out the words as he struggled with the Minister. Why it didn’t just do to him what it had done to me I wasn’t sure, but I guessed what it’d done to me was mostly an accident because of how it warned me at the last. I crawled around the edge of Papa’s big chair and saw them still wrestling on the bearskin rug, Gospel’s arms wrapped around the Minister’s belly, the made thing looking like it was trying to scratch and scrape itself away but couldn’t get a grip on anything for all its trying.

  I pulled myself mostly up onto Papa’s chair, holding to the back and with one knee on the seat and one foot on the floor. My body wasn’t so tingly now and I felt almost normal, though my hands were still real hot and itchy. I watched and waited for a moment when I could help Gospel out, for though the Minister couldn’t get free, it didn’t seem like Gospel was wearing it down or getting any better hold on it. “Don’t you do it, Merciful,” he called out, but his grip looked like it was slipping and like the thing was going to get loose, and so I moved. I pushed off of that chair and into the melee, and I crashed into the Minister’s snout with an elbow and then my head, which I cracked down on its skull, but I regretted this, as the Minister’s got a very hard head indeed. But from there I kept falling, and ended up landing on Gospel’s nose, which I suppose must have caused him to lose his grip and let the Minister slip away. Or maybe it just got loose like I thought it was going to, but I knew which way Gospel was going to take it.

  And then the Minister did something plain impossible, something I never had seen before. Somehow, without touching it or making any sign, it made the front door swing open. I hadn’t thought the made thing could do anything of that sort, had never seen the like, but there it was, the front door creaking wide and bleak wind sweeping the snow in. The Minister bounded for the door while Gospel shoved me aside and lunged for it, only he didn’t have near the reach and it was gone into the cold and the dark, gone as quick as lightning. I landed on my side and rolled away into Mama’s chair, and coughed and came up to see Gospel’s face red with rage.

  “Now why’d you go and do that when I told you just a minute before to not do a danged thing, Merce?” he yelled at me.

  “I was trying to help! The Minister was getting loose. I could see it.”

  “It was not getting loose. You just messed the whole thing up. I could’ve had it if you hadn’t gotten in the way.”

  “What, wear it down? It’s a Minister, for Pete’s sake, and they don’t sleep and don’t eat and don’t need rest—how do you think you’re going to make it tired?” We were both yelling now at the tops of our lungs with the cold air rushing in, and then Gospel turned and flung the door shut and plopped down with his back against it, glaring at me.

  “It don’t matter now—the Minister’s gone for sure. Whatever you thought it knew, whatever answer it was going to give, it’s gone now.”

  “I didn’t have any choice, Gospel. It was making Miz Cally sick.”

  “How do you know that, Merciful? How in the name of anything holy do you even think you know what the Minister could do? Huh? How?”

  He was so angry, his face like a beet and his eyes wide and wild, and I remembered that he didn’t much like me and maybe I shouldn’t have given him another reason not to, but I had to do it. There was no answer to his question. I just knew the Minister had been up to something bad, but I didn’t know how I knew. Which is what I told him.

  “Just knew, huh? Well, that’s swell. Why the Hell don’t you just know where the danged machine we’re looking for is, then?”

  Again I got that kind of dizzy, sick feeling in my head when he said that. Something about knowing where the machine was that we were looking for, only it made me feel wretched just thinking on it, so I didn’t. “I think Miz Cally was about to tell us, and that’s why the Minister used its power to shut her up.”

  “And then didn’t use it to stop me wrestling with it?”

  “Look, I don’t know everything! Maybe whatever Miz Cally was going to say was really trouble for it, and you wrestling it wasn’t any danger at all? It got away quick enough.”

  “Thanks to you,” he said.

  “I didn’t mean it to go that way, Gospel, and you know it! But doesn’t matter how that turned out. What I mean to say is that the Minister was doing something to Miz Cally. I bet s
he’s fine now that the Minister’s not here anymore.”

  Gospel snarled and pushed off the door to his feet, holding out a hand that gripped mine with harsh painfulness. I was yanked up so hard that I almost lost the feeling in my arm again, and he dragged me out to the kitchen. The Widow was laid out on the floor, but it was clear right off she was breathing.

  “See, she’s not dead or nothing,” I said.

  “No, but she ain’t awake neither.”

  And I couldn’t doubt that; nor could we get her to wake up, for all our trying. I thought maybe we should move her to the big bed, but she was tall and we were tired and, anyway, Gospel said he wasn’t about to shift such a weight. So instead I just fetched a cushion from Papa’s chair and set it under her head, and draped a quilt over her. She seemed fine to both of us except for not waking up, but then, we weren’t neither of us so skilled in physic that we knew all that much.

  The house was colder even than it had been before, and I could see snow not even melted on the sitting room floor where it had swirled in. It was a little warmer in the kitchen, but the Widow on the floor not two feet from where Mama had been laid out made us a little less than comfy, so we both without a sign made our way to the bedroom. Gospel set himself on the bed and I climbed up into Mama’s rocker, and we sat quiet and ignoring each other for a time.

 
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