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Authors: Joanne Owen

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BOOK: Circus of the Unseen
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I walked to the door through a scattering of silky petals. It had a complicated lock that looked like an iron jaw, with jagged teeth protecting the keyhole. The dogs jumped up and scratched at the door. The jaw snapped, the door opened. I peeped inside.

It was dark, lit only by the glow from the fire. A huge spinning wheel filled most of the space, and there was hardly any furniture – just a table, a couple of stools and a heap of rags in front of the fire. The only other things I noticed were a steaming pot on the fire and a shelf overhead, hanging from the ceiling. As I looked up at it, I lost my balance and tripped on the bundle of rags.

The bundle juddered. It was hairy and bony and had sharp little teeth.

Chapter Eleven

The bundle was a person, an ancient-looking woman glaring at me through glassy, gold eyes, like an eagle's. Tight coils of silver and brown hair wound round and round her head, and the skin on her face was like smoked bacon rind, yellowed and slack over her bones. She waggled the tails of her cloak, furiously. I wasn't sure what she meant, but I wondered if she wanted help getting out of it, so I lifted it from her shoulders. It was an incredibly heavy patchwork of different animal parts. Skin, fur, wool, and claws too, I noticed, as something scratched my arm. Freed from its mass, I saw that her shoulder blades jutted through her smock like stunted wings. She took the cloak from me as if it weighed nothing, and laid it in front of the fire.

‘You boys took longer than I thought.' She was talking to the dogs. She turned to me and stared hard with her animal eyes. ‘So
are the cause of the disruption,' she rasped. Her voice was crackly as leaves. ‘What do you want with this world?'

This had to be Mother Matushka. I just knew it and, in an instant, I felt more trapped than ever. The person everyone said would be able to help me was asking the same questions as everyone else. I was going round in circles.

‘Nothing. I don't want anything here,' I said. ‘I'm lost, and they said you'd know what to do. You are Mother Matushka, aren't you? I just want to go home.'

‘Yes,' she said, drawing the word out with a hiss. ‘Yes, I am Mother Matushka, and sometimes I am
Matushka, Mistress of the Greatest Show Beyond Earth, of this Circus of the Unseen. And you say you “just” want to go home?' She smiled. A nasty, knowing smile that made my insides scrunch. ‘You are not the first to have wanted that, but you
the first to have broken my seal to be here.'

I went to speak, to tell her I'd done nothing, I'd broken nothing – not intentionally anyway – but she lunged towards me. I gasped and froze, but all she did was press a finger to my mouth to silence me. Her touch was gentle, her skin surprisingly soft, but I stayed statue-still, scared of what she'd do next. She looked so frail and small – she only came up to my shoulders – but the way she'd taken that heavy cloak from me showed how strong she was. The thing that scared me the most, though, was having no idea what she was thinking. Now I knew why Scarlet had been putting off coming here.

‘At present, there is much darkness about this situation,' she went on. ‘And it is not good to be in darkness. How can the sun have slipped? How can that be?'

I followed her outside. She walked halfway down the path and turned back to face the cottage. Then she held out her arms and clenched both fists, almost like she was gripping an invisible wheel with her claw-like hands. She pushed down, slow and taut, grunting from the effort. And I swear as her arms turned that invisible wheel clockwise, I saw the sun begin to rise. I swear it looked like she was making the sun move higher. It was now above the cottage. I couldn't believe what I'd seen. It had to be an illusion, a circus trick. Maybe the view behind the cottage wasn't real. Maybe it was like a stage set, a backdrop. Maybe what I thought was the sun was actually fake, just a circle lit up from behind a screen, and someone was there watching us, moving the light up in line with Mother Matushka's hands. I ran towards the trees behind the cottage, and towards the sun, but I didn't crash into a painted background, and there wasn't a screen, or a light or a technician or anything like that. It seemed as real as anything.

‘How did you do that?' I asked. ‘What's the trick?'

‘Trick? There is no trick.' She looked offended. ‘And I did it with difficulty, that's how I did it, which is not normally the case, and I believe that is your fault, like the animals are your fault.'

‘I don't know anything about the animals. Why do you think they have anything to do with me?'

‘I shall ask the questions. Inside,' she ordered, but hesitated in the doorway. She picked up a rose petal and brought it to her nose. ‘Why have these dropped? Why have they wilted? Is this your doing too?' she asked. I had no answer. She shepherded me to a stool. ‘Sit. There is much to discuss, so many things to understand, starting with the question of who you are, and why you are here, and how you broke through, and why you have come to challenge me.'

She spat that word at me, ‘challenge', like I'd done something really terrible. ‘No!' I actually gasped, horrified that she saw me as some kind of evil imposter, and scared of what she might do to me for being one. The way they were all so massively paranoid about outsiders ‘breaking' in was seriously messed up. ‘I haven't come to do anything. I don't
why I'm here.'

‘Then tell me what you
know, girl.'

I told her everything I could remember, starting with the graveyard. She stopped me with another finger to my lips when I got to the part about the horses coming and me getting carried off by one of them and dumped where the girls found me.

‘But I didn't send the horses.' She twitched her head so violently a coil of hair slipped free. ‘And you say the black one came first, and then the white? That's the wrong order. It's always white first. Dawn, through day, to night. And I didn't bring the snow. First I shake out the snow, and then the horses come. I did neither. It wasn't time.'

I didn't know exactly what she meant by it, but her talking about
snow made me think of what Granny used to say about Lady Snowstorm shaking her skirts. I thought it was a character Granny had invented. Maybe it was from a story, but that still didn't explain why this old lady would ‘shake' snow and then make horses come. With every passing minute, this place seemed even more bizarre.

‘I have another question,' she said. ‘A question relating to the theft.' She shuffled to the fireplace and rapped her nails on the steaming pot. ‘Why did you steal the soup? How did you
about the soup?'

‘I didn't steal it. One of the girls, Lola, brought it to Scarlet's last night. I was hungry, and I ate it, but I didn't steal it.'

‘Scarlet knows about you? You were with her last night? What was she thinking? She should have brought you straight here. Has she lost her head from all that swinging around the wrong way up?'

I really didn't want to drop Scarlet in it, but what could I say? ‘She was going to bring me to see you this morning. I went for a look around while I was waiting for her, and then your puppies  … '

‘Cubs,' she corrected. ‘Wolf cubs.'

I couldn't believe it.
And they'd actually had their teeth in my dress. ‘They're real wolves? Are they dangerous?'

‘Yes, they are real wolves. But wait  … ' She crinkled her nose, which looked more like a beak than a nose. A sharp beak, covered in skin the texture of almonds. ‘You said you were hungry. How could you be hungry?'

‘The usual reason.' I shrugged. ‘I needed food.'

‘Tell me what happened. What was the cause? You haven't told me that.'

‘Because I hadn't eaten for ages?' I hoped she didn't think I was being rude, but what else could I say?

‘I mean, what is the cause of you being here? The death, child. The
.' Her chest rattled, and another coil of hair came loose. ‘What was the cause of the death?'

‘What? How do you know about Granny?'

‘Granny? What granny? Was your grandmother with you when you came? Where is she now?'

I bit my lip, trying really hard not to get wound up by her speaking in riddles. It was maddening, like we were talking different languages. ‘Nowhere. I mean, she's dead. She didn't come with me. It happened a few months ago. There was a fire.'

‘Were you in this fire? Is that how you hurt your head? Is that what brought you here?'

‘My head?' And then I wondered if the cut on my head
have something to do with me being here. I didn't know. Maybe I had an accident and couldn't remember exactly what had happened. Nothing made sense, and I started to shake and shake and it felt like the world was spinning out of control. Mother Matushka laid her hands on my shoulders. I winced, but she pressed harder and I could feel the warmth of her body and the smell of soil and salt coming from her, as if she was made from earth. I started to feel calmer and the shaking stopped. I let go of her, embarrassed that I'd been clinging onto her like she was someone I knew well enough to cling onto.

‘What should I do?' I wiped my face. ‘Can you help? Scarlet said you'd be able to help. It can't be far. My mum and dad will be out of their minds. How would you feel if your children didn't come home? Do you have children? Grandchildren?'

‘I have many children. All creatures are my children, and you have broken into their home. You have disrupted our world.'

There it was again, them making it sound like I'd intruded on their secret cult. ‘Where exactly am I?'

‘Since you have already asked so many questions, and since there shall surely be many more, I very much need to drink some blue-rose brew. Fetch three heads for me. The most succulent you can find – if there
any succulent ones left.'

I suppose I could have just made a run for it right then, but I didn't. Something made me do as she asked, even though I couldn't see why me asking questions had anything to do with her needing to drink rose tea. Most of the blooms were withered, but I eventually found some healthier-looking buds.

‘Rosie.' I felt a hand on my shoulder and jumped. My fingers slipped onto a thorn.

Scarlet pulled me round to face her. ‘Why did you wander off like that? I was going to bring you. And what did Mother say? Does she know you stayed with me last night?'

I nodded, and felt my face reddening. I know I didn't really have anything to feel guilty about, but I didn't want to get her in any trouble.

‘Sorry,' I said, but Scarlet wasn't listening to me. She was watching over my shoulder, eyes wide with fear.

‘Oh Mother, I know I should've brought her straight to you when I saw her with Coco and Lola. I know, I know.'

Ignoring Scarlet, Mother Matushka took the roses from me and inspected them up close. ‘Perfectly juicy and sweet,' she approved. ‘I thought you'd destroyed them all.' Then she caught sight of my finger. ‘Blood?' she spat, staring at it. ‘
' She gave Scarlet a look.

‘It's just from a thorn,' I said, but she ignored me too.

‘And you didn't think this was important, Scarlet? Leave us. I shall see you later.'

She shut the door and nudged me inside, and I watched her pluck every petal from the three roses and put them in a mortar. Then she ground them into a bright blue paste and added some water, and I swear the veins on her arms and hands looked bluer once she'd drunk it down. I swear it looked as if the juice had run directly into her.

‘That's better.' She smacked her lips. ‘Questions age me, you see, but a drop of this puts me right. But things are not right, are they?' She made a high-pitched sucking sound, tongue against teeth. ‘I
that your presence is disrupting the order, and what I do here is
order. I perform a balancing act between life and death. I exist to help people pass through, and to uphold the boundaries between worlds.'

‘What do you mean? Passing travellers? Scarlet said –'

‘All that matters is what I say, child, not what Scarlet says,' she screeched. ‘This is my world and you shouldn't be here.'

‘I don't understand  … '

‘Do you understand
, child?' She was raging now, rearing back like a wild beast asserting power over its prey. As I jumped away from her, I swear I could see her bones through her skin and I swear that her hair was moving about her head and her teeth were clacking like they were made of metal. The overhead shelf started shaking and sent dozens of birds swooping down from the rafters. I ran to the door, but she got there first and went out with the birds swirling around her. She slammed it shut. I heard the iron lock snap down. I was locked in the cottage, like Gretel when the witch shut her up in the cage – only I didn't have Hansel, and there wasn't a cage, and this wasn't a story, and I didn't know what to do.

BOOK: Circus of the Unseen
12.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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