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Authors: Joanne Owen

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Chapter Twelve

I bashed and kicked against the door, yelling for Mother Matushka to let me out, screaming for Scarlet. My fists were sore and grazed and I felt like I was suffocating. I could hardly breathe. At first I thought it was due to all the bashing and panicking, but it wasn't just that. There was steam, or smoke, seeping through the spaces around the door. I screamed louder. Was she burning the cottage? Was she trying to
kill
me?

I frantically scanned the room for another way out. Maybe there was a back door I hadn't noticed, or a shuttered window – something, anything I might be able to escape through. But then, as I looked round the room, I saw that the smoke wasn't grey and there was no burning smell. It was white and vaporous, and the air was humid, not smoky. I laughed with relief. It was mist. It was like the mist that had closed in behind the sisters and me yesterday.

But that feeling of relief didn't last long. I wasn't going to die from smoke inhalation, but I was still trapped. Whenever I went near the door, more smothering vapours streamed in. If I retreated, the vapours thinned. So there
was
a cage, but made of mist, not bars, and I couldn't see a way out, and I didn't understand why I was being held prisoner by Mother Matushka.

That's what it was. I was her
prisoner.
And what was all that stuff about the sun and the animals? Why was she blaming me for whatever her problems were? The more I heard about this place, the more I thought it had to be some kind of secret sect, and that's why they called themselves ‘the Unseen'. They wanted to keep themselves cut off from the outside world. I mean, what kind of circus was this? It didn't travel anywhere. There weren't any regular performances, and the only people who seemed to know about it were part of it.

There had to be another way out. There
had
to be. I explored every inch of the room. Mother Matushka didn't have many things, just the few pieces of furniture, the pot hanging over the fire and two buckets. One was filled with earth, the other with what looked like salt crystals. Then I found an ancient-looking instrument, a wing-shaped harp. I picked it up and it began to make a shimmery, chiming sound, like a creepy music box. I could see the strings moving as if someone was plucking them, but no one was. It stopped playing as soon as I put it down, like it could see me, or something. I know that sounds crazy, but it was like some strange magic was at work. Maybe their paranoia was rubbing off on me, but that's how it felt. I stepped away from it.

After feeling around all the walls a few times, and finding nothing, it struck me that there might be a way out through the roof. Maybe there was a gap around the spindle that poked through it. I looked up at the overhead shelf, thinking I could probably climb onto it. It wasn't very high. I was about to fetch a stool to try to pull myself up when I noticed that the shelf was connected to the spinning wheel by a chain. I pressed on the foot pedal and the chain unwound. As the shelf juddered down, something fell from it and landed at my feet. A Russian doll! I picked it up and stroked its shiny head. Another reminder of Granny. No, there were hundreds of reminders. The whole shelf was full of dolls, which made me smile. It was as if Granny had sent a whole army of little mother dolls to look after me – which I know sounds completely dumb, but it
was
uncanny to find them there.

I wound the shelf up a little and climbed onto it so I could get a look at the ceiling. The chain creaked and the platform wobbled, and I knocked more dolls to the floor. I gripped the chain to steady myself. I could almost touch the roof, but there was no gap around the spindle. I could feel my throat closing, like I was choking. There was no way out.

I don't know how much time had passed, but a while later the door was thrust open and Mother Matushka tumbled inside. I jumped to my feet. ‘Can I go now? You really don't need to keep me here. I'm not here to do anything bad. Please.'

‘Out of the way, girl!' she screeched. There was no oppressive mist, but she was engulfed in the same cluster of birds that had swept down from the roof. Their squawking was unbearably brutal, and the force from their flapping wings was so strong it felt like the cottage was revolving, with only the spoke of the spinning wheel pinning it down. She raised her arms and made a strange sign in the air with a finger. She did it again, and again. Frustrated, she cried out for the birds to come down and stop, but they didn't. It just got worse. They swarmed in and circled around me, transforming the cottage into a throbbing mass of feathers and beaks.

‘Draw them down!' she screamed at me. ‘Draw them down before they knock the shelf. Like this!' She made that sign with her finger again. It was a bit like a figure-of-eight loop. I didn't see how that would help, but she was screaming like our lives depended on it, so I did as she asked, as best as I could. It wasn't exactly easy to see anything through the chaos, and I had to keep covering my eyes to protect them, but I made that same loop with my finger, over and over again, and gradually the squawking and snapping faded to a gentle swishing. It became hypnotically regular, almost soothing, like lapping waves. I dared to raise my head. The birds were following the path of my finger, as if there was an invisible thread between us. I could feel it, too, like the thread really existed, like I was controlling a kite string, which in turn controlled hundreds of birds.

‘Lead them out, steady and calm,' Mother Matushka instructed. ‘Widen the loop to slow them down and send them away. I cannot keep them here in this state.'

She ushered me through the door and guided my arm to demonstrate what she meant, and together, somehow, we coaxed them to calmness and, through drawing an increasingly larger loop with our united arm, we made them vanish beyond the horizon.

‘What children would turn on their mother?' she murmured, and I actually felt sorry for her. It was like she really believed they'd betrayed her. ‘May you return to me as you were,' she called after them.

After that, neither of us spoke for some time. We both caught our breath, and I don't know about Mother Matushka, but I was also drinking in the silence. It was like the beautiful coolness that comes after a summer thunderstorm, and I felt really alive, all clean and refreshed.

‘What
was
that?' I whispered. ‘Is that normal? I never knew I could do anything like that. I mean, I didn't know it was possible to control things like that. It was incredible. How does it work?'

Mother Matushka didn't reply. She looked drained, and that fiery, gold glint in her eyes had faded a little. She set about making herself more blue rose tea.

‘I'll do that,' I offered.

Mother Matushka looked at me through narrowed eyes, all wary and distrustful, but she took the cup from me and raised it to her lips. As I watched her gulp it down so greedily, my stomach made a massive growling noise.

‘You are hungry? I thought you already ate my soup.'

‘I did, but that was a while ago, wasn't it?'

‘One serving should be enough, girl. It usually is.' She went to the pot and served me a bowl. I hadn't thought about food until now, but I slurped it down like I hadn't eaten for a week. Maybe the tea had invigorated her, or maybe the frailty she'd shown was a just a tiny, temporary moment of weakness, but as I finished the last drop, Mother Matushka pounced across the room.

‘What have you done?' she screeched, gathering the dolls from the floor. ‘Is that why you're here? You have come to tamper with the Soul Mothers? Did you open them? Tell me the truth, girl. The truth!'

I shrank back, shaking my head. This was crazier than ever. I mean, I could understand someone being annoyed about their stuff being messed around with, but her reaction was way beyond annoyed.

‘Sorry. They fell off the shelf. They're not broken. I'm sure they're not.' But she clearly didn't believe me. She checked each one in turn, from the base to the head, taking extra care over examining the split around their bellies.

‘What else have you meddled with, girl?' She got down on her knees in front of the fire and pulled on a ring that was fixed to one of the floorboards. A panel of wood opened. She let it slam down flat and I could have kicked myself for not thinking of checking the floor as well as the ceiling. A wall of icy air blasted from the pit she'd exposed and I could see it was full of more dolls, hundreds of them.

‘Did you open the hatch, girl? Did you take any from here?'

‘I didn't even know this opened. I knocked them off the shelf. I'm sorry, I didn't mean  … '

‘It must be sealed. Everything must be sealed.' Mother Matushka shut the trapdoor and scattered a handful of salt and earth around its edge. ‘Quickly, child. Do as I'm doing.'

While I followed her lead, pressing salt and earth into the crack around the hatch and the hearth, wondering why the hell we were doing it, I thought of what Mum had said about the devil and bad luck. Maybe she should have thrown the whole cellar over her shoulder.

And then something shot into my head and I had to sit down.

Seeing Mother Matushka there in the hearth made me think about Granny, and the tin I'd found in
her
hearth. I must have blanked it out, I don't know, but until now, until seeing Mother Matushka like this, I'd forgotten about that heart-stabbing letter that said Granny had
meant
to die. And then my mind started racing. I wondered if Mum had found it, and I hated to think what that was doing to her on top of me being gone. Maybe Mum thought that's
why
I was gone.
Jesus.
I swallowed hard. What if that did have something to do with it? What if that
was
the reason? That was the last thing I remembered before being here. Maybe I totally lost it and ran off and somehow ended up stumbling into this place. I don't know. My vision blurred and I was filled by a terrible, gut-wrenching longing to be back with Mum, arguing about the necklace and finding out about Granny's secret life.

‘I think I know what happened,' I blurted.

‘What is it, girl?' asked Mother Matushka. ‘What do you know?'

I spilled it all out. I told her exactly what happened with Granny and the fire, and then finding her letter.

‘I need to go home to Mum and Dad. Why can't I just go? Why has this happened to
me
? Why are you keeping me locked up here?'

Mother Matushka inhaled deeply, like she was sucking all the air from the room. ‘I must go to the Big Top. I must find the answers.'

She left me alone again, and I heard the door lock, again, but this time Mother Matushka hadn't turned into an ogress, all sharp teeth and fiery eyes and bones about to break through her skin. This time I felt a pang of hope. She said she would find the answers. That had to offer
some
hope, didn't it?

As she walked, Mother Matushka went over what she knew. The girl had come through the seal from the outside, which explained the unsettled animals and the struggle with the sun. But the birds had gone to the girl, not to
her
. It was the girl who'd controlled them and drawn them down. So she had restored order, as well as disrupted it.
And would someone seeking to disrupt my world make tea to restore me?
she thought.
And would they
express such a strong desire to go home?

Of course, Matushka had seen many newcomers struggle to accept what had happened to them. She had seen scores attempt to leave, either hungry to return to wherever they'd come from, or even desperate to go through, hoping to end what they thought they couldn't bear. But, in time, everyone found their place here. They came to accept their condition, and they found things to enjoy, and things they were good at, and the desire to leave slipped away, like a serpent through wet hands, and the Circus became more than something to bear. It became a place in which they could do things they'd never dared do, a place in which they could become whatever they wanted to be.

Matushka could see this girl wasn't like the others, but she was here, and now, to her relief, she had some inkling as to why she'd come. The hearth she'd mentioned was clearly the reason for her arrival, and Mother knew she would uncover the details in time. That was often the case. Newcomers took time to voice what had happened to them. They couldn't say the words, because saying the words made it true. But for now, the girl being here was a fact, and that had to be accepted.
Shouldn't this girl be given the same chance as the others?
she wondered.
Shouldn't she also be sent to the Big Top to find her way?

Mother Matushka's performers parted a way for her as she passed through them. None dared ask about the unexpected arrival, none voiced their fear, but she sensed it. It was there in the playing of her musicians. It was there in the twirls of her dancers, the somersaults of the tumblers and, strongest of all, it was there in Lola's refusal to meet her eye. She beckoned her over.

BOOK: Circus of the Unseen
13.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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