Drownings (part seven)
In the morning…fog more than fogs of memory, riddled with Dustin’s compatriots, figures with a fish-belly gleam to their skin, in dress of centuries, passing…
McAlley waited at the bench for Faia to appear. Greater than her other divinations was this, that she had conveyed to him by vision, of Herbertson’s chosen place.
Dustin and Victor were not there to denounce their killer, but Herbertson, suffering, could be heard. His hands slapped the iron rail. Startled grunts and whimpers came to McAlley’s ears. He supposed the dead—Stephen’s magnet had summoned them, after all—were impeding him, making themselves material to him, as a kind of life welled back into their drowned forms.
“Come along, sir!” he shouted. “Why did you ever set foot in the tunnel?”
Running feet on gravel. Stephen Herbertson out of mist, brown-haired and brown overcoated. He spotted McAlley and flung himself, hugging onto the bench back.
“My God! I’m ill, I must be! Please…”
“Have a seat, Mr. Herbertson. The sun will rise.”
Faia’s red coat, her purposeful gait, and she, coming clear to them, made herself opposite sentinel, Stephen shivering between the two. Faia rested her tote at her feet, and bent for a thermos. “Hot tea. Cinnamon ginger.”
“No. It’s nauseating.” He meant the sage and grease of sausages, the scorched-flour smell of pancakes. Breakfast at the Old Parish restaurant.
“Ginger will settle that.” She handed Herbertson the cup.
He drank, haste closing his throat, spilled drops beading on his herringbone. He twisted his mouth with distaste.
“And so it was calm for you yesterday,” Faia said. “Your wife sounded unsuspecting.”
“If you are Julia…”
“And I am Swan,” McAlley said.
“Yes, yesterday. But the thing creeps. It… No, it blooms.” Herbertson seemed to wake to implications. “You found the body. You saw.”
“Why, right there.” McAlley pointed to the riverbank, from where a number of the drowned were peering, afloat upright now, less gruesome of appearance. Nor so in the least to himself and Faia, who had seen such dead, while Herbertson cringed and shrank.
They did not really have eyes, the drowned; they were not really commanding his with vengeance. They were like new puppies, waving limbs and sniffing after the life source.
“What have you made, at your Bitterroot Cooperative? Some infernal machine.”
“You thought it wasn’t you, causing the world to go bad, then?”
“How…? I don’t believe you.”
“Our own provincial da Vinci, Stephen…now I recall, a Tambinder himself. The name had its resonance. The magnets in their circles, the great ring of smaller rings, to move perpetually with the rotation of the earth.”
Among attractions in this district of the Old Parish was the Heritage House. Most of its displays were dull, glass boxes on tables housing commonplaces under muted lighting. And in the way of museums lacking enough to show, the walls were painted, the timeline and history of the Old Parish unfolding under no one’s eyes, from the indigenes to the engineers’ opening of the floodgates. Tambinder’s sketches were on great-sized papers he had tacked to his walls; they were full of his equations, his private symbols with no Rosetta stone to decipher them.
“But you and your fellow directors took the matter seriously. You wished to achieve it, the Tambinder Engine, the engine of God’s design, so Tambinder dared. To lay claim to the globe itself as essential to your own designs.”
“We had got it to keep itself going, weakly. Days ago…only days…we were discussing what was the trouble… Even writing it off, you know, talked of. A failure, but the company would recoup.”
“You had a spate of workers missing from their posts.” Faia took over.
“No reason it would have meant anything. You want me to say we were covering up.”
“One or two of the directors felt convinced a rival had hired them away. A gag order, the matter to be looked into. The drawings had been stolen from the museum.”
“As was reported. We did not conceal that we’d made scans. But then… Then…three bodies.”
“Reported as well. And another. And another. Stephen, Victor for one had begged you to stop it. Stop the machine. You must.”
“But… Whatever is wrong, they’ll discover. I can’t stop it. I can’t. A little time…”
Here, as the dead had come close, emerging in such numbers they could only spread like wings, flanking the three seated on the bench, and would soon surround them, Stephen broke from sustaining inwardness and gave a shriek. He drew his knees up, eluded the hands of his protectors, stood on the slats and tumbled backwards, lay supine continuing the noise. With McAlley’s aid he rolled onto mudded elbows, but staggered to his feet and fled.
Or would have. This man who had summoned them, summoned them still. They were blind and patted at his face; they pinched his garments with cold wet fingers—
And Stephen Herbertson fell faint to the ground.
(2021, Stephanie Foster)