Excerpt from "Child Ballads"

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Maisry was in her secret room in the rafters of the storage barn, where she did all of her experiments. The worker’s voices filtered in from outside and echoed through the barn air, the distant tones mixing with the dust motes, which spun and fell through the beams of light as though the soot was dancing to the old farming tune. The workers were nearby, but they came into this room rarely, for what would they look for in this chamber of dead equipment? Some of the machines could still be salvaged for spare parts, their wheels and gears put to use in new contraptions, but for the most part this was a graveyard for lost technology.

Maisry’s father still held out hope that the machines would be revived someday, but she knew better. After the wurm had eaten the web, everything had stopped working. These tools belonged to the old world, the world of children’s tales, the lost Xanadu. Surely, it couldn’t have been as perfect as her grandfather had made it out to be, for the world he’d described seemed absurdly idealized, with predictable weather and constant seasons, and no famines, wars, or plagues—not until everything collapsed and the old world decayed into this one. 

Everything about the so-called Silver Age seemed like a bedtime story for children, but the part of grandfather’s lost world that seemed the most fabulously embellished was that there had been something called “money” that everyone seemed to have and yet was, as far as she could gather, imaginary. Despite this, people had used it for all kinds of things—for buying the fantastic clothes she saw in old magazines, or even buying themselves power, political or social. Her father disliked Maisry listening to these stories, and would be quick to find her afterward and tell her that her grandfather was full of lies.

“He’s always had a wrong idea about the world, Maisry,” her Papa told her. “Always thought that things were okay when they were already rotten. In this world there are… people… who would try and take from others what they’ve rightly earned. This farm, for instance—it’s been in our family for generations, and yet they tried to snatch that away, and it was only due to our good blood and quick thinking that we kept it and made it into what it is today. Your father,” he said, meaning himself, “had a good many allies in the army, and it’s to them that we owe our lives and our livelihood. So don’t you go getting any foolish ideas just because gramps tells you a few tales about how life used to be peachy. It’s rotten out there, I’ll tell you. Rotten then and rotten now.” 

As her father spoke, Maisry couldn’t help but notice his rotten teeth, which were particularly visible when he spoke emphatically like this, and it seemed like little raisins were sticking out from his gums. He ought to have let someone pull them, but he chose to tough it out, believing that in the end his good blood would keep him healthy. Due to this, Maisry had developed the habit of rinsing her mouth with water after every meal, and sometimes using a soft frayed branch to scrub away food that clung to the crevices of her teeth, as her grandfather had told her everyone had done in the old days.

Grandpapa had died two years ago, done in by his fourth heart attack. He was sitting in his rocking chair on the front porch, sipping lemonade that Maisry’s mother had squeezed, and then he clutched the glass with all of his might, his old veined fingers straining as if to break it, while the other hand clasped his chest, his rheumatic eyes bugging out as he gasped, “Mother Mary, take me!” and she did—or at least, after that he was gone to wherever the dead went. There were stories about that, too. Maisry often thought of them, particularly when she was in the middle of one of her experiments.

 

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