by Nancy Fulda
The vase cracks against the hardened floor of our street-house, splitting into a dozen pieces. Shards fly everywhere – under the workbench, across the floor, even beneath the gears of the big mechanical clock that Grandfather brought down the hill this morning.
Everyone in the room freezes. There’s no sound at all, except the tick tick tick of the clock trying to count time. Mama’s holding her paintbrush, the hairs dripping with the special paint that keeps the magic alive. Grandfather looks up, one eye looming through the funny round glass that’s glued over it. Me, I’m still halfway through knotting my shoelaces, staring at a jagged wobbling plate that used to be part of the vase. Magic crackles at the broken edges, little blue streaks that don’t know where to go.
My little sister’s backing away from the workbench, hands tucked behind her back. She’s the only one besides Mama who was anywhere near the vase when it fell.
“Grandmama did it,” she says.
I think that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard, because everyone knows ghosts don’t come back to the places they lived before they died.
“It was Grandmama,” Sandi says again. “I saw her.”
She starts crying. I feel like I should do something, because she’s seven and I’m nine and that means I’ve got to be the big brother. I can’t think of any way to make things better, though.
Mama sighs and slumps against the workbench, burying her face in one hand. She puts down the paintbrush, since there’s no point trying to repair the broken lines on the vase anymore. It was a special commission, very valuable. The rich folks brought it for Mama to fix.
That’s what our family does. We fix things. Mostly for rich people who live up the hill, but sometimes for friends and neighbors, too. It’s what we’ve always done. Except somehow, I don’t think we’ll be doing it for much longer once the rich folks find out about the vase.
The shutters rattle. Outside, dry leaves gust along the winding pathways of Pity Street, rushing along rooftops and window panes. A sharp rain begins falling, and the whole street is black and gray.
The door swings open and Papa comes home, stomping dirt from his boots. He’s still carrying the shovel he used to fill Grandmama’s grave. Ghosts howl and try to push past the billows of his coat, but he doesn’t pay them any mind. He looks almost like a ghost himself, gaunt and thin-haired, with hands that poke too far past the edges of his sleeves. He looks at Mama and the paintbrush and the broken pieces of porcelain, and his eyes grow very sad.
It’s three hours later before I get a chance to talk with Sandi. We’re cuddled up on the floor mats, holding the frayed edges of our blankets away from the candle we’re not supposed to have lighted. Outside, the ghosts rattle the shutters.
“It was Grandmama,” Sandi says for the hundredth time. Her eyes are wide beneath the covers.
“It can’t have been,” I say. “Ghosts don’t remember who they were before they died.”
“No, she doesn’t. She couldn’t have found her way back here. You must have bumped the vase without realizing.”
Sandi looks at her lap. She’s collected all the pieces of the vase in an old scrap of cloth she was saving for a doll dress. She has the bundle half-open on her knees, pale white shards in varying sizes, clinking and sparking every now and then.
“Why are you keeping those?” I ask.
“Grandmama told me to.”
I don’t know what to say to that. Sometimes ghosts talk to people, but they never say anything useful. They mostly just moan and complain that the world ain’t as it should be. They’d be kind of boring, really, if they weren’t also frightening.
On the other hand, Grandmama was always different from other people. I guess maybe her ghost might be different, too.
Sandi’s cradling the cloth with the shards like it’s a baby or something. “Grandmama says I can make things all right if I take the broken pieces up the hill.” She pauses, a little glow brightening her eyes. “Maybe someone at the top of the hill will help us! Rich folks have things, right? They have glue and tools and stuff that even Mama and Grandfather don’t have. Maybe they can fix the vase!”
I don’t want to make Sandi cry, so I don’t tell her there’s no one up that hill who will help us. Rich folks have things, that’s true. Their clothes aren’t ever torn, and their houses are full of pretty things. They don’t share that stuff with us, though.
There’s no way Sandi can keep the rich folks from being mad about the vase. There’s no way to undo what she’s done. It’s tough, but that’s just how it is if you’re poor. Once you make a mistake, it’s forever.
Next morning, as soon as the sun starts creeping through the cracks in our house, Sandi pounds her fist on my back.
“Get up, Rodd!” she whispers. “Get up, get up!”
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
She doesn’t answer, just pulls me to the door and out onto the beat-up cobbles. The ghosts swirl around us, tugging our hair and whipping grit along the ground. We stumble down the street with our hands in front of our faces, trying to see where we’re going. Sandi’s got the broken shards with her. They’re all bundled up against her stomach, clinking in the wind.
I look at her face and decide not to ask where we’re going.
When you walk up the hill toward the rich people’s houses, it’s like you walked from one world right into the next. You come to a certain place and, once you step past it, the wind’s gone. No more ghosts. No more howling. There’s just sunlight and birds chirping and a warm hot stillness that you can’t even imagine unless you’ve felt it before. And clouds. They hang in the sky like white fluffy kittens — not at all like the gloomy storm clouds that hang in the air above Pity Street.
Sandi and I stop at the border. We’ve never been up the hill on our own before. Only with Mama or Papa, to help with deliveries. My skin tingles likes it’s covered with invisible bugs.
The ghosts are shrieking, and one of them almost rips the bundle out of Sandi’s hands. She grips it tighter and steps across the divide. I follow her and suddenly, everything’s peaceful. The sun makes my face feel funny and warms my chest through my shirt. Birds sing from the trees along the road.
I can still hear the ghosts, howling as if I’m a traitor. Part of me is sad to leave them behind, because Grandmama always used to say a ghost’s job is to wander the world righting wrongs and wronging rights, and Sandi and I could sure use some things being made right today. It’s nice to be able to stand up straight, though.
When we get to the top of the hill, Sandi and I move a little closer to each other. There’s a rich man standing in the square up ahead, next to a fountain that shoots water in fancy patterns. He’s watching us, and he doesn’t look friendly, and Sandi makes a noise like maybe she’s scared.
I grab Sandi’s hand and walk past the fountain with my head up, like I know where I’m going. We go up one street and down another one and then around two corners until I think we might be lost. It’s shady here, on the cobbles between two rows of tall buildings, and the sky is a big bright rectangle above our heads.
Everything’s so quiet.
Sandi’s looking back and forth, along the tall row of houses. She picks a door and walks up to it. Her fist sounds awfully timid when she knocks.
The woman behind the door frowns at us. “I’m sorry,” she says. “Do I know you?”
Sandi tries to explain about the vase, but it’s like the woman can’t hear us. She shakes her head and closes the door, looking kind of sad. Sandi looks sad, too, but she sets her lip and goes to the next house.
We knock on a lot of doors. Sometimes the people inside shout at us. Sometimes they frown and say our parents should teach us better manners. Sometimes there’s just empty silence, while we wait with thudding hearts to see if anyone’s home.
“Maybe Grandmama was wrong,” Sandi says finally. She’s crying for real now, little wet streamers running down both sides of her face. She wipes them away when she thinks I’m not looking.
“Grandmama’s never wrong,” I say, even though I only partway believe it. “Grandmama’s the smartest woman ever born in a hundred years, and if she said there’s a way to fix things by going up the hill, then there is.”
“C’mon, Rodd,” Sandi says. “Let’s go home.”
She drops the broken shards on the ground. They clink like bones, and something angry rolls around inside me. I’m not going to give up. Not yet. Not after we went to all the trouble to come here.
I pick up Sandi’s bundle and set it over my shoulder. “Don’t be such a quitter.”
At the end of the street, up a hill and so far away that it looks like a toy, I see a building with spinning wheels that poke out from its roof and sides. The sounds whisper at us from far away … whir clank creak groan. It’s a big house, and it has colored patterns on the windows. A little gust of wind swirls around my shoulders, whispering like a ghost. It seems to be pushing me toward the building, and I decide that people who build a house with moving parts must know how to fix a broken vase.
I press my lips together and start walking.
“Rodd!” Sandi runs to keep up with me. She says something about Grandmama, but I’m not really listening, because right now I‘m kind of mad at Grandmama, too. Ghosts are supposed to balance things – that’s what Grandmama always said: They wander around, giving good luck to people who need more of it, giving bad luck to people who are doing too well, keeping things the way they should be.
Except, looking around at the pretty houses with flowers in the windows, all I can think is that the ghosts are doing a lousy job of it. All the sickness is in our part of town. All the fires, too. The people on the hill get richer every day, and my Mama hides her face because of a stupid broken vase.
We get to the building. Up close, it’s big. Really big. I have to tip my head back to watch the wheels spinning at the top. They’re gears, like a clockwork, only larger and made of funny-colored wood. They spin and spin as if they’ll keep going forever.
“Rodd?” Sandi whispers. Her voice gets lost in the clatter from the spinning wheels.
“Shhh. I’m thinking.”
I lead Sandi around the side of the building, away from the main doorway. There’s something prickly in the air, like the feeling I had when we crossed into the rich part of town. Goosebumps tingle along my neck. There’s a little side door, painted blue, halfway down the building. I look around, but there aren’t any people nearby. So I walk up to the door and turn the handle.
The room inside is not quite rectangular, with walls that all slant inward. Eerie. Sharp-edged symbols are burned into the bracings, as if someone traced over them with a hot poker.
We stand in the doorway, and my heart starts thudding. I almost close the door again, but then I think of Sandi and of Grandmama and of Mama being sad because she can’t afford to replace rich-people vases. The bundled shards feel heavy on my shoulder. I grab Sandi’s hand and pull her through the door.
It’s dark inside, and the floor vibrates. Everything sounds louder in here, and once I close the door all we can see are strange shadows on the ceiling and a dim glow around the corner at the end of the room.
“What are we looking for?” Sandi asks. Her hand is small and warm and solid, and I don’t let go of it.
“I don’t know,” I say.
We walk into the darkness. My skin is tingling, and it won’t stop, but I think I feel something else, too: A breeze, or the faintest whisper of one. It brushes against my hair near my forehead.
The glow around the corner turns out to be a pair of blazing orange spheres that hang from the ceiling. They quiver on their chains every time the walls rumble.
Sandi and I turn lots of corners and pass beneath lots of glowing lights. The hallway keeps going, down and down, as if it wants to reach the center of the whole world. Finally, we’re standing at the end of the tunnel in front of a big door that’s painted red and covered with scratches. Just as we reach it I hear voices on the other side.
The handle creaks.
I grab Sandi, and we press against the wall. The door swings toward us, and we scoot behind it, out of sight. Two pairs of boots thump into the hallway. They pass into our narrow crack of vision, and we see that they’re carrying metal buckets.
“…don’t see why we have to lug coal down here,” one of them is saying. “Plenty of grunts down on Pity Street who’d do it for a few scraps of bread.”
The complainer is rewarded with a slap on the head. “Are you daft?” his companion says. “If those rats down the hill ever found out about this place….”
The voices fade, lost in the rumble that, this deep down, is almost ripping the building to pieces. The door we’re hiding behind begins to swing shut. It’s thick and heavy, and I don’t know whether we’ll be able to get it open on our own, so I dart around it and into the room beyond. Sandi follows me.
We step into the light and stop, mouths open. The door slams shut behind us.
We’re on a narrow wooden ledge above a gigantic room. The walls reach above and below us, cut into sections by giant spinning wheels. The wheels are covered with symbols, and the symbols are glowing, so the room seems lit by a thousand twirling scribbles of light. The whole contraption roars so loudly I’m afraid I may never hear anything else ever again.
At the center of the room, held up by nothing at all, is a giant, pulsing bubble of blackness. It’s sucking up light from the whirling symbols. Ghostly glows stream past overhead, vanishing into darkness. There are people everywhere – on the far side of the catwalk, on platforms near the center of each wheel, on the heavy flagstones far, far below – but somehow I can’t look at them, or even wonder whether they’ve noticed us. All I can think is how big the bubble is, and how it’s hanging almost directly above us.
I don’t know how long we stare at it. Long enough to get dizzy from watching all the wheels spin beneath it. Long enough to feel my skin tingling from its presence. I feel something else, too. A pressure, as if the bubble is pushing against my spirit, trying to shove me back down the hill toward Pity Street.
And then I think I hear Grandmama’s voice, pleading, as the pulsing bubble pushes her away.
“Sandi,” I say very slowly. “I don’t think it’s Mama’s vase that Grandmama sent us here to fix.”
Maybe Grandmama is helping me, or maybe life’s just like that sometimes, but suddenly I know why the wind never comes up the hill to the rich people’s houses. Sandi knows, too. I can see it in her eyes when I glance toward her. She stares at the spinning wheels and says, “That’s not fair!”
“You’re right,” I say. “It’s not.”
And somehow I know we’ve got to fix it.
Keeping life fair – that’s really the ghosts’ job. But this big building with its wheels and its symbols is keeping them away. They can’t spread bad luck anywhere along the top of the hill or even come to this side of town.
That means it’s up to me and Sandi.
I don’t know much about machines. But I can see that each creaking gear has a bunch of ropes hooked around its axle. The ropes all come together near a giant glowing oven at the bottom of the room. I look at the ropes, which are spinning so fast that they’re really just a blur. I can’t help thinking that if something were to tangle them up, even a little bit, the whole machine might lurch to a stop.
“Come on,” I say. I start walking along the catwalk before I get scared enough to change my mind.
Grandmama’s smart, I tell myself as we slide onto a narrow bridge leading through the center of the room. Grandmama wouldn’t send us here if there wasn’t a way to make things right.
The central axle is directly below us. The ropes shoot upward to our right and left. The giant wooden gears are so close I can almost touch the ridges as they pass. Up overhead, the bubble of nothingness hangs like a hungry pit. And it’s all so noisy. The room is roaring, and the catwalk is vibrating, and I can’t even tell whether Sandi is behind me or not.
I don’t have anything with me except the bundle of shards swung over my shoulder. I pull it up and hold it over the edge of the catwalk.
Down on the floor, someone spots us. He starts yelling, but I can’t hear what he’s saying. He looks angry.
I let Sandi’s bundle fall. It sails down and down and hits the blurred outlines of the swirling ropes. I hold my breath, hoping they’ll tangle. But instead they tear the bundle apart. In less than a second the cloth is in tatters and shards are whizzing across the room. They shoot in all directions, sharp-edged and gleaming. One piece sails all the way up to the catwalk. Another sinks into the wall near a man pulling levers. Soon there’s nothing left of the bundle – not the cloth, not the shards – it’s all gone. The ropes are still spinning, and I don’t know what else to do.
Then Sandi grabs my arm and shouts, “Look!”
At first I don’t know what she means. The axle’s still spinning; the ropes are still racing; the giant gears keep whirling. It doesn’t seem like anything’s changed.
Then one of the big wooden gear teeth rumbles past with a piece of broken vase sticking out of it. The shard is sunk deep into one of the symbols on the wheel. It’s leaking strands of colored light, and the damaged symbol glows brightly. Too bright.
I look and see more shards. They’re buried in the walls, the gears, even the far side of the catwalk. Some of them are giving off sparks. Others are sending out jagged lines of light, blazing fissures that crawl along the giant wooden wheels. Up over our heads, the pulsing black bubble starts wobbling.
Then it cracks.
It splits straight down the middle, pulling into two halves, and suddenly there’s wind everywhere. I feel Grandmama’s ghost rushing past and old man Tonkin from the corner store and the little Conners boy that died last year. They whisk through the room, fraying ropes, rotting wood, spewing all the bad luck they’ve been saving for the people on the hill.
The catwalk shudders and pulls away from its moorings. I’m too surprised to move, but Sandi grabs my hand and pulls me toward the heavy red door. We open it, heaving and gasping, and slip through. The hallway bucks beneath our shoes, and we hold on to each other for balance.
A man runs from the other direction, panic marring his face. He points an angry finger. “You! You street rats did this!”
I shake my head. “The ghosts did this. We just helped.”
The man tries to knock me down, but a surge of wind pushes him sideways, and I slip beneath his flailing arms. We run for the exit.
The sunlight outside isn’t so bright anymore. There are clouds rushing past and bursts of wind carrying loose leaves and people screaming and running for their houses. Sandi and I run, too. We don’t stop running until we’re all the way down the hill, back on Pity Street. When we finally reach the beat-up stretch of cobbles in front of our house, we bend over with our hands on our knees, catching our breath. When I look back up the hill, there’s a dark gray storm cloud above it with lots of lightning and dark blurs of ghosts swirling in and out of the rain.
It’s different at our house. The broken shingles on the roof don’t look so broken, and the grime on the street cobbles is washing away. The clouds look whiter than they used to, and bright rays of sunlight are starting to shine down. Mama peeks out the door, and so does Grandfather, with the round glass lens still propped in front of his eye. All up and down the street, people are coming out of their front doors, looking at the sky.
I take Sandi’s hand, and she smiles at me, and I smile back. There’s a breeze blowing, just a little one. It scrapes against the pavement and rustles dried-out leaves.
The sound reminds me of Grandmama’s laughter.