A Coven in Essex County | Birdie

Below is Part 5 of 18 monthly installments for Visitant.

◄◄  Read the first installment / prologue
◄ Read the previous installment, BEULAH


BIRDIE

Betta’s usual table had been reserved for two at Ridgemont’s. It was at her normal position in the center of the room. She had also insisted tea be on her credit. This was in spite of the fact that Birdie had a more than sufficient allowance herself, compounded by successful investments made in her name by a brother in Arkham. Betta had taken care of all the arrangements. Birdie tried not to be annoyed.

The young Mrs. Bridgeford had insisted. She must feel treated, Betta had explained. We’ve got to vamp her, she had informed Birdie in her obnoxiously hip style. It was clear Betta thought she knew the girl. Birdie was not so sure.

None of their group except the Uxor twins had met her. They assured the women everything had gone as planned and the girl had been primed, but how good was the word of an Uxor? In any case, Betta had apparently been filled in by one of the twins. Birdie allowed Betta to do as she wanted, and intended to do as Betta bid. The social world of Innsmouth kept turning.

She arrived at Ridgemont’s five minutes after the hour. There had been some trouble with a farmer’s boy passing through on the road. His cart blocked their way while he attempted to coax his horse past the close architecture and over the hard stone.

Birdie had not envied him. Though she had little experience with animals personally, she had observed they abhorred Innsmouth. Just as well, many denizens of the city shunned the companionship of animals. It was a lucky thing that feral creatures gave the city a wide berth, or cats would have been necessary in more kitchens to catch rats. That made Birdie think of Arkham and her landlady there. She spent the time waiting turning over those private memories.

As she left the scene, she noticed several faces peering out of the dark windows lining the avenue. They stared hard while the child sweated and pulled on the dumb beast, then let their curtains fall or simply stepped back from the window. It was a rare thing to have view of those simple country people that were not in the Innsmouth Way. A handful of citizens appeared on the end of the block for a slow moment to take in the scene before skulking off on their business. Nobody greeted anyone else.

She crossed the bridge, listening to the Manuxet as it progressed out into the sea. There were an unusual number of people out that afternoon. She wondered if the uncommonly sunny weather had attracted the Innsmouthians out of doors, then immediately doubted it. Word must have gotten around that something was afoot. Anxiety was always high around the November holiday, but this year would be different.

Birdie did not like being late for a reservation. It was not as if the shabbily kept Ridgemont’s restaurant would cancel a reservation by its only permanent patron, but still it was rude and she had been brought up with some measure of manners. Might as well have gone to the counter off the square, she thought to herself.

It wore on her also that she was to dine in full view of Innsmouth society with one of those country people that were so alien to them. The city’s only restaurant close to decent, Ridgemont’s was hardly private, and well patronized. Today, Birdie and her guest would be in the limelight and now she was late.

The girl she was meeting had been right on time, it appeared. She sat with her hands folded, as properly dressed as Birdie imagined she could manage. She did not know much about the girl, except that she was destitute with a brother to care for.

Such people had been on their land for some generations. When the trouble in Innsmouth happened in the 1840s, some had banded together and purchased a good deal of the surrounding land. As the city began to spread, it was forced in one direction along the coast and never inland. The progeny of those inland residents of Essex County had spread over the land from Innsmouth to Ipswich, dotting their fields with construction and small shacks for illegitimate fieldhands and low relations and the likes.

As Innsmouth’s wealth grew, the surrounding farm community navigated the ups and downs of their independent markets separately. They neither bought from nor sold regularly to the city, turning instead to Arkham and the communities in between. Then blight hit the trees two decades ago, and the rest of the crops continued doing poorly.

Many rural families moved off, packing up their households and trying their luck in the cities or on land opening up elsewhere in the country. The girl’s father had been one of these. Her mother was long dead, and when the market fell and harvests failed to return what had gone into planting, her father had packed up his spilt-milk legitimate children and his bitter wife and moved off somewhere.

Birdie and her guest were seated across from one another at a table in the center of the room after passing through a sea of silent eyes. Ridgemont’s was not a large restaurant, but Innsmouth was without polite conversation; the sullen quiet at a time of import made each action accentuated, every stretch of floor that needed traversing more lengthy. It was off putting to be in a room full of Innsmouthians to most outsiders, but the girl seemed unperturbed by walking through a room of people staring at her.

Birdie briefly remembered her own first showing at Ridgemont’s. With a quick intake of breath, she moved past it, through the room, and back to where they sat staring at each other. The girl’s coiling hair was tucked inexpertly beneath a small straw cap. It was old fashioned and needed repairing as well as updating.

As Birdie stared on, a russet hue crept over the girl’s face. To Birdie, she evolved suddenly from foreign and poor looking, to utterly exotic. There was something romantic about her rural appearance, her shoddily worn clothes.

“Alethea,” Birdie broke the silence.

“Allie. That’s what my people called me,” she corrected. Her speech was accented. But Birdie thought she caught a calculating glint in her dark eyes. The girl sized her up as she herself had appraised Alethea just a moment ago.

“Allie. I think we ought to straight to business,” Birdie blundered her way through clear speech. Something about the girl’s direct stare had thrown her off. Maybe she had miscalculated. Birdie always miscalculated.

The waiter appeared just then. He awkwardly placed himself behind Birdie so that he had a clear view of Alethea, obviously not able to contain his curiosity. Alethea looked at the floor. There was a moment of throat clearing.

“Mmm, tea mademoiselles?” he suggested in French tinged with an entirely unFranco accent. Someone tittered nearby. The room picked up in murmurings. Everyone to their business, nothing out of place. It was an exceptionally noisy room for Innsmouth all of a sudden.

Birdie craned to look up at him. She imagined herself a puffed up little sparrow, yet still she tweeted.

“It is why we are here.” She attempted a harsh edge, but it arrived at meek annoyance.

The waiter sniffed and moved off. He moved through the tables without grace, looking instead like there was a string somewhere pulling him home. Birdie watched him go, then looked over to the table nearest them venomously. It had little effect on their decorum, but they did slightly shift their bodies away.

Birdie cleared her throat, unsure of how to proceed. Alethea played with the napkin in her lap. A plate of sandwiches was put down in front of them, Courtesy of Missus Orne, the waiter explained. Birdie looked up to meet Liza Orne’s eyes a couple tables over. Her mouth was thin and tight. Everyone could tell things were not moving forward.

“Alethea… Allie. Do you know what is expected of you? Why you are here?” The girl nodded. “I mean, is it clear what is intended, and what is expected for you to do? For your-” she dropped her voice,” brother to do?”

“I understand,” Allie responded immediately. There was something less than shy in her demeanor. It occurred to Birdie that it was possible the girl fully understood what was to happen, and it did not bother her.

Something sad cracked into Birdie. She wished for the witty veneer or the practiced mask of one of the other women of Innsmouth. Her polite smile felt laborious.

“We will provide you with enough money to establish yourself, and keep you in comfort. Beyond that, you and your brother will have raised standing in Innsmouth. The respect of—”

“You can keep your standing,” Alethea interrupted her as the tea arrived. The waiter sniffed and set down the china with little finesses before smoothly removing himself.

Birdie was taken aback. She began to stutter a response, but Allie continued.

“You and the rest of them. Those farmers from North of Innsmouth, except they ain’t farmers anymore. They come to ‘offer my brother a better life,’ they said. You’re just another one looking for a big, strong worker dumb enough to do what he’s told. We understand each other, alright.”

“So you won’t help us?” Birdie croaked.

“Help you? That’s not what I would be doing. You and yours don’t need my help. You and yours’ll do for yourselves. Like you always have.”

Alethea served herself a sandwich and sipped her tea a little before continuing. The tirade had come in the form of a strong hissing whisper and the smile had never left her face. Now her mask dropped off and she looked at Birdie, cold and intelligent.

“But you can have him. You can have him, and God can judge you. I’ve seen how you folks do things around here. I live outside your city, so you think I don’t know. But we’re watching, and we’re seeing and one day you’ll do something to the wrong person and you’ll all be wiped off this earth.

“Now, here come another one of your degenerates to gawk.” Birdie looked in alarm over her shoulder in the direction Allie’s eyes were fixed.

Gertrude Tanner wove her way through the tables, keeping her eyes off their occupants. It was quite a feat in her puffed up fur coat. Her lips moved as she apologized for the chairs she bumped without stopping.

In her wake was a tall man with wide eyes that seemed to wrap around his strangely pointed head. He carried several blue boxes with white ribbons tied around them. His speed matched hers. Yet he somehow moved more smoothly, despite taking up nearly twice the space she did.

Gertrude reached them. Birdie stood and motioned Allie did the same.

“Miss Louvain,” Gertrude said loudly, shaking Allie’s fingers before they were offered. Allie glanced at the place Gertrude’s second eye should have been, then looked at Birdie.

“Yes, Ursula, this is Mrs. Gertrude Tanner and her brother, Gilbert.” Gilbert smiled wide at his name, but did not contribute any words to the conversation.

“Ursula Louvain. Soon to be Mowry? We’re very excited for you to join our little club,” she said companionably. It almost sounded friendly.

Allie, now called Ursula Louvain, smiled finally, and shook Gertrude’s hand in response. The deal was finalized.

◊◊◊

Birdie strode from their farewell like the queens she was. She was the top, the best, the cream of the market. Birdie felt no resolve, but there was a dull sense of purpose realized in her duty. It was an old feeling, an almost comfortable one. Later, in her room, she would let it fall away and think no more about it. Right now, she had simply replaced the will of the Innsmouth selectmen with the coven of their daughters and sisters.

That is how she liked to think of them: a coven. At college, in a New England history course, a particularly encouraging professor had suggested she read a book on witchcraft in Europe by Margaret Murray. From it she had learned about Dianic cults and women that worshipped more ancient gods in packs of thirteen. It was a portrait surprisingly without condemnation. It was also the first time she had learned of women banding together without the supervision of men to do more than drink tea and gossip.

After marriage, she was allowed a year’s stay in Arkham to attend Miskatonic on a trial basis. Unfortunately, her family quickly recalled her after discovering certain ‘indecencies.’ It had been their description. Birdie still had no knowledge of how the Dwyer clan had become aware of what went on inside of the apartment she kept in the women’s’ room off campus.

Her time at Miskatonic had afforded her several types of unsupervised interactions with women. Outside the firm watch of her family’s servant-sentries, and her father’s eyes working through her mother’s constant attentions, Birdie had changed. “Bloomed” was not quite the term—she had remained quiet and fairly reserved. It was a slow process of review and introspection. Her inner workings began to anticipate an appropriate response better than ever before, providing her a satisfactory volley in conversation or when delivering a lecture.

Still, she appeared slow and unsure to her exasperated teachers. The assignments she turned in were both well lettered and well worded. They offered a practiced, pleasingly feminine hand on top of extremely specific and archaic language unknown to other students. To her English professors, she appeared to be on par with them when it came to her command of the language.

Despite her disappointing level of participation in class, Birdie had received high marks at Miskatonic in all classes except Ethnology. In the courses focusing on the rapidly expanding field of Anthropology, Birdie had confused several of her professors. She received middling marks, despite having a curious familiarity with standard texts before certain dates. A particular favorite professor of hers had acknowledged that the theories she proposed or challenged were evidence of some religious affiliation, though he seemed too polite to ask what religion. It was “unlike any I have seen before,” he admitted, but would address it no more. In Arkham, one did not pry into matters of religion and personal spirituality.

Now, back in Innsmouth, she had become one of Murray’s witches. Birdie held her head high as she exited a dealing that would change the city forever. She and her coven controlled it now.

The streets had changed. Constructions of Innsmouth’s skyline no longer loomed somberly into the haze. They squatted each in their place, parting a way for Birdie to pass on her way from important task to important task. Each building was a reminder of Innsmouth’s authoritative past, but each step Birdie took placed a foot of that history behind her. It was literal forward progress.

Clouds moved over the swathe of cerulean above her. Under her feet, tendrils of vert clung to cobbled walks and patches of dirt that created the city’s byways. They played against the viridian and raw umber of creeping moss over gray bricks and stones. It was a day of carnival colors.

She stopped on the way home in the First National grocery store off Federal Street. She ignored the annoyingly earnest teenager behind the counter while she picked three good looking pieces of saltwater taffy from a barrel. Birdie then deemed him worthy enough to retrieve a box of cheese crackers she pointed out.

Innsmouth was tragically without a sweets shop, but these would do until she got home and could sneak some of whatever the cook had made for dessert. As she crossed the bridge once again, she felt infinitely more light.

The banknotes that had weighed so heavily on her mind on the way to the meeting were no longer in her care. Innsmouth was admittedly without crime, but it had been more money than Birdie had ever handled. All in Innsmouth was done on credit, and the shops she was limited to in Arkham were the same.

Now she could go back to trusting the shop owners and her household to settle the bill. The money and a neat set of instructions had been passed off to Allie, now Ursula Louvain. In six days’ time, the biannual wedding would take place on the last holiday of the year for Innsmouth. In six days’ time, the unbroken lineage of women given over to those that lived just outside the Innsmouth bay would be ended.

◊◊◊

► Next installmentDELILAH

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