Marlow's Menagerie of Marvelsby Cortni Fernandez / Fantasy
Menagerie of Marvels
By Cortni Fernandez
Siren saw Marlow raise his gloved fist, but couldn't bear to watch the first strike. She heard it, though – a smack of metal on flesh – and she knew he had struck Angel across the face.
Nobody else moved much as Angel fell to his knees. The red-suited guards encircled the stage, lightning batons drawn but at ease, their expressions unimpressed. Behind them all, the other Marvels waited in their hanging cages or on lower platforms, not daring to interrupt. Siren saw her own heartache reflected in their faces. She focused on them as more blows landed and Angel's breath came out in coughs and gasps. She had to be brave for the little ones, like Angel had been for her, when she had first woken up with half her body missing.
Four years ago, Siren had thought she was dead when she opened her eyes and found herself looking up at the shimmering surface of the water just above her. Her world was a silent cocoon of blues and greys. Breathing in the water wasn't difficult until she looked down at her body. She wore nothing but a short stay, and below her waist, her skin had been grafted to a hundred intersecting plates of brushed metal. She felt the mechanics grind against her bones, and nausea ripped through what had been left of her stomach.
It was agony to move. Siren, as she knew she had successfully become, dragged herself across the sand and rocks supporting her until she broke the surface and clung to a slimy barnacled platform, gasping a mixture of water and air that burned her lungs and her eyes. At least she could still cry, even if no voice came out of her aching throat.
The first thing she saw through her tears was not a grim-looking guard with a baton, nor Nathaniel Marlow with his reddened lips and threatening smile. It was a boy with dark freckles, ragged hair, and concern in his brown eyes. He crouched on his knees at the edge of the platform, looking like he wanted to say something, but couldn't.
A glint of metal had reached towards her. Siren winced and the blade stopped, hesitating, before withdrawing. Then she realized it wasn't a blade at all. The boy looking at her had no arms; he had wings.
Behind him, Siren gazed around at other children who came floating down from above like enormous birds, their wings fanning and contracting. Marlow's Marvels: part human, part mechanical wonder. And above them, the great cage – an enormous domed hall of glinting golden bars and scrolls, draped with violet curtains and topped with a kaleidoscope of stained glass.
The boy tucked his wings beneath him, half apologetic, half encouraging. He offered her a small smile, and in time, Siren was able to return it.
Marlow's Menagerie of Marvels was well known as the most exciting and exotic attraction in the civilized world. While privileged ladies and gentlemen took a seat on the train to Marlow's private island to see the show, Siren thought she paid an even higher price than they did for admission to the legendary birdcage.
Not that her legs had been terribly useful to begin with. Confined to a wheeled chair from birth, Siren was used to the looks of pity and revulsion that followed her wherever she went. Marlow's posters promised a life of dignity for the poor and dejected. Marlow himself promised that, if she accepted his generous offer, she would be nothing less than a Marvel, inspiring awe and admiration in all who saw her.
Siren signed over her body to Nathaniel Marlow, as desperate and lonely as any of the other crippled orphans who woke up after their operations, shivering and terrified, on the floor of the great cage. Siren was the only one of her kind – at least, the only one who had survived the transformation so far. Angel himself seemed to be her age, but the others were all younger, smaller, and in dire need of a parent's embrace.
Siren's arms, therefore, remained more important to her than any mechanical fishtail or pair of strong legs she had ever wanted. Her body had healed, and she had learned to swim with the deftness of any sea creature. She and Angel were there the moment a voiceless new Marvel awoke in a panic, and when the sounds of sobs came from the small sleeping cages at night, and when faces singed by a lightning baton needed to be soothed.
Siren learned to sign with her hands and read the language of their wings. She even calmed their fears when Nathaniel Marlow and his guards marched in after every show. When Marlow swore that they would spend the rest of their lives in his gilded prison to pay off their enormous debt to him, Siren casually signed that his lip rouge would look much lovelier on her instead. If Marlow threatened beatings for any who stepped out of line, Siren signed that she wished he had taken her sense of smell as well as her voice. And one day, when she had the nerve and a plan to back it up, Siren silently announced to the entire birdcage that it was time for them all to escape.
This declaration killed some of the smiles on the little faces all around the edge of her pool. The great cage was a fortress despite its pretty ornamentation. One heavy pair of mechanical doors allowed passage into the hall. They opened with a single key that Marlow always wore around his neck – and they locked automatically, with a loud series of clanks and hisses, after every performance. After little Sparrow had flown too close to the open gate during one of their shows, Marlow had burned off half her ear with a single lightning strike. No one had been enthusiastic about escaping after that.
But Siren's plan counted on those doors remaining firmly shut, for there was another way for two dozen winged children to escape a birdcage.
The Marvels had performed their show flawlessly that day. Fifty lucky guests had spilled in through the doors, wreathed in their most luxurious gowns and top hats. They were all gasps and murmurs of delight as they beheld the ornate fountain in the center, where the Marvels perched along the high tower that sprang up from the water. Marlow's guards took up their places guarding the doors. Marlow himself, decked in a tailcoat with silver buttons and threads, declared the audience's luck and welcomed them to the show.
“Where others have seen pitiable and worthless souls, I have seen the potential for greatness,” said Marlow, with a penitent bow of his head. “Most distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I now present to you the astonishing results of my work. Behold, my magnificent Marvels!”
At his cue, a team of operators pulled the levers and cranks in a glass-paned control booth in the center of the stained-glass ceiling. In response, the fountain tower slowly whirred to life. The Marvels leapt into flight, circling its revolving branches and groaning arms, making formations and patterns they had practiced for weeks. They flew high and away from the arcing jets of the fountain, as golden hoops were lowered in on violet curtains. The crowd squealed and cheered as the winged children tumbled through hoops and spun in mid-air. Siren waited for her own cue to break the surface. Her first great leap drew shouts of surprise, and her next brought the guests to the edge of the stage, searching the rippling water to guess where she might pop up next.
Part of her might have enjoyed the looks of wonder in the audience as she cut through water and air, twisting her mermaid body with strength and grace. But her smile was nervous as she finished her routine and came to sit in her shell-shaped throne at the fountain-base. While the guests clamored for her, the pearl of the Menagerie, Siren looked high up instead to the Marvel that crowned the top of the fountain.
Angel, his wings spread wide, made a nearly vertical dive, only to glide in a perfect circle through the rings fastened around the edge of the birdcage. Siren had seen him perform this act a hundred times, but her heart still shuddered as if it was made of pistons and gears.
The show continued and finished without incident, to several rounds of enthusiastic applause. The fountain ground to a halt, and the Marvels gave their bows. Marlow's guards lined up to escort the thrilled audience back out of the birdcage and onto the train that would take them back to the mainland. When the gentry had disappeared, Marlow began his assessment of the performance, dropping his theatrical affectations for a cold, imperious stare.
Siren and the others waited tensely as Marlow clanged his cane against metal and skin alike for emphasis. Then Angel, swooping low over the stage, caught Marlow from behind with his outstretched wing and sent him crashing into the water below.
Siren dove to Marlow's rescue at once, pulling the thrashing man back to the surface and disentangling him from his frilly garments. Once he clambered onto the nearest platform, his anger could have steamed the water right off him.
Angel's beating lasted for the longest ten minutes of Siren's life.
The birdcage was silent by the time Marlow and his guards left, and the heavy doors had latched themselves shut. Siren slipped through the water to where Angel lay, surrounded by a handful of others hopping around like agitated baby birds. Bat, his great ears flicking nervously, had already brought his and Ladybird's flat pillows beneath Angel's head. One of Angel's wings waved jerkily through the air, signing reassurance. Siren approached and echoed his sentiment, sending the little ones back up to their hanging cages and out of