A Coven in Essex County | Delilah

Below is Part 6 of 18 monthly installments for Visitant.

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


DELILAH

Delilah had remarried ten years ago, after being widowed by the hypothermic colds that occasionally took non-Innsmouth fishing folk. Clement had been a whaler from Boston who moved to New Bedford for work when the fleet was shut down. She met him outside the wharves in one of the bothies, temporary shelters that popped up in those days along the brick and wood rowhouses that otherwise stood empty. They had been married months after.

As a younger woman, Delilah had been desperate to get out of Essex County by any means. Somehow, getting a ride with the fishermen and whalers that stopped on their way to New Bedford or farther up the coast seemed a better option to simply fleeing over land. Arkham, Ipswich, and Newburyport were not far enough, and everyone’s father or uncle had fingers in Boston and New York. You could always be brought back to Innsmouth, young girls before her had learned. Marrying out seemed the only sure course of action.

After they made something like love, Clem talked about Boston and his ‘old neighborhood.’ He cradled her head in the crook of his arm as he slumped over her. The wind whipped up from the sea, whistling around the corner and into the narrow alleyway. The bulk of his steaming bull-neck kept her warm, except for her naked ankles, calves, and knees.

He talked for several minutes like this, lips thick and words slurring with drink. She struggled once to get more comfortable under him, but settled instead for shallower breaths. After a long anecdote, the relative softness of the pile of netting they had lain on gave way to the intrusive scent of fish and splintering edges of crates. This would be the most tenderness she would feel from Clem in their short life together.

Finally, he slipped off of her. The unexpected shift of weight caused her to tumble from the incline of empty containers. He turned briefly to close his pants and clumsily tuck in the tails of his shirt, then offered her a hand up.

Delilah hoped and assumed they would move to his native Boston immediately after a marriage could be procured. Marriage to native Innsmouthians without familial consent was mostly nearly unheard of,  so pretending at star-crossed love, was convincing enough for those who drank ale off the piers and could get a paper notarized, signed, and off to the Arkham courthouse. The two were able to find those among Delilah’s carefully cultivated friends who were willing to get the thing on paper.

They did not move. Instead, the couple stayed and lived in a small home by the seaside. Unwilling to lose their grip on their daughter, the Mowrys got Clem a job at the old gold refinery, which he gratefully took.

Keeps us off the char’ty of others,” he explained to his new wife. It did not keep them far from it, in her opinion, but she quietly accepted their position and learned to cook and clean their tiny hall and parlor house. It was not all she dreamed, but it was farther from the fate her family had intended. At least now she was safe from that.

It was after one of his drunken rages that Clem had died. Delilah simply had not heard his pounding on their dead-locked door to be let back in from the sinkhole he had slunk off to. After ale and whatever companionship old fishermen had to offer each other, he’d returned a little less raging, but just as loud. His cries of “Lilah! Lilah!” slurred by wind and drink had not made it past the burrow of blankets she hid her bruised face under in deepest slumber, she swore up and down. The night was bitter cold, and he had forgotten a coat in his quick escape from the miserable house.

He had frozen on their doorstep, facing the ocean that spat gusts of deathly gales back at him. It had been a very bad cough that had wracked his lungs before he left, she had explained afterward.

Clem was not a year in the ground before Delilah was informed a wedding celebration in her honor would take place in two days’ time. It was unknown to the womenfolk of Innsmouth why the wedding had to be conducted so quickly—it was the first time in anyone’s memory that an Innsmouth widow was to be given in matrimony. At 18, three years after her first marriage, Delilah Farthing became Delilah Mowry once again as she was adopted back into her family and married off a second time.

Over a decade later, she was feeling that same sinkhole in the very pit of her stomach. Sitting next to Beverly Buckingham in the side room of the gentleman’s club’s salon was the closest she had been to the place since her second wedding. Then, the letter had been a simple card slipped under her door after she had been too sick to rise and answer it. After reading the ink-blotched paper, she had dropped it into the meager fire that warmed the seaside cottage.

She remembered the paper—the short lived glow as it lit and curled, burning quickly to a crisp. The thing had looked as light as any calling card, she supposed, but it seemed so much heavier. It was on weighty paper with a discernible weave that caught the drops of ink scratched in by an impatient and lazy writer. The cursive was heavily slanted as if in a rush to slide off the page. There were spaces between the elliptical elements and at least one ‘t’ had not been crossed. It said simply:

dagon-delilah-invitation

Sitting now in a room off the office of the old Masonic Hall, Delilah saw not much had changed. The same dramatic painting screamed over her from atop the mantle. The same couch sat against the wall, just as worn. The same palm leaf fern remained just as dead, though perhaps a little more dusty.

There was not much to look at in the room but ugly mustard walls and paintings. Framed in a minimalist black construction, stepped layers drew the viewer into the tempestuous scene of Andromeda moments before being saved by Perseus. There was no Perseus in Innsmouth.

Ten years ago, the layered black and blue swipes of the pallet knife had bitterly reminded her of the stinging wind and ripping tide the night her short lived freedom had been conceived. Today she found more in common with Andromeda.

The chained woman’s black skin shone richly in umber hues against a cruel white and gray sky. She protruded from the horizon against a sheet of slate broken by spiraling cloud forms. The coming cyclone above was broken by the upward thrust of the gunmetal rock she was chained to. Long, charcoal hair tumbled from her bare shoulder as she screamed, looking helplessly away from the cetus bubbling from the dark watery depth beneath her.

Now older, Delilah realized it was a poorly rendered subject. The composition was at best uninspired, and at worst lazily plotted. Andromeda was an off-center column to the towering spirals forming above and below her. The perspective was too poorly planned to take advantage of such an architectural attempt at narrative. Lines never reached the vanishing point. Each element was neatly confined to its plane, with no wave or jetty moved the eye.

On another wall, a painting  in a similar frame was a dingy scene in need of restoration. The varnish had darkened and bistre underpainting made the setting indistinct, but two eggshell and powder figures curled around each other. They were illuminated from a top corner by a single candle stick.

One stood, hair cascading over gauze covered athletic breasts and the other sprawled, entrenched in sleep with a sheet that just covered his genitals. A single drip of tallow fell straight down from the candle in Psyche’s hand to Cupid’s vulnerable breast, closing the space between them. Psyche saw the form of her dark and unknown husband for the first time.

She sniffled, wishing she had brought more cough syrup. Her mind had ceased to be clouded. The clarity was uncomfortable in this little room in a horrible building in an ugly town.

The door to the office finally opened. Smoke filtered into, then filled the waiting room. Delilah coughed dryly.

A man, not one of the Selectmen, beckoned them inside. Beverly rose from the couch like wax liquefying and sliding down an heirloom candle stick. Delilah entered the room after her, standing with her back to the closed door. Within, the office was just as sparse.

A desk dominated the far wall, strewn with documents and books. There used to be shelves of books lining the walls, she recalled. She wondered where that library had gone.

The room looked larger, though chairs had been placed along the walls. To the right, the Selectmen all stood in a row. She looked firmly away from them, shocked the First Selectman had made an appearance. This was being taken more seriously than she could have imagined.

He was flanked by the  tall, brooding Anthony Bridgeford and Elias Gilman, a minor branch of Dorothea’s mad and quickly disappearing family tree. He had taken over running the Gilman House Hotel and though he had a deep grip on Innsmouth dealings, he was rarely seen with his well established cousin.

Between them sat Barnabas Marsh, fat and staring. He sprawled wide-kneed as if he could not fold his legs properly at the hips. His skin was sallow and patchy under old fashioned clothing, and blue in his flat cheeks. Jowls had taken the form of inhuman methods of breathing at his neck and his fingers had become slender, webbed, and tipped with claws. First Selectman Marsh seemed to stare at the hooded figure across the room from him.

Delilah had failed to notice this hooded fourth person after the clerk left them. He sat silently, wrapped in a cloak that concealed most of his face. Usually he wore a tall hat and the complex robes of the Order of Dagon, but she recognized him now anyway, just as every woman that had ever been the bride at an Innsmouth wedding recognized him and would dream of him when the dreaming was bad and honest for the rest of their lives.

The interview was not long. Beverly stood staring at the floor. They did not stay for lunch.

A sense of urgency radiated from the selectmen: the wedding was only a month away, and the bride they had in mind apparently would not do. Only Marsh had the gall to sound annoyed. The other men seemed dimly distressed, but otherwise kept their eyes off the hidden features of the man facing them.

Beulah had been consulted and it was decided. Beulah would pick a liaison for the wives, who in turn were to pick the bride. They had a better handle on the women of Innsmouth, anyway.

More like Beulah had suggested it, Delilah knew they were saving face.

Beulah’s position was quietly respected, even by the men. Their reverence bordered on appreciation of her sacrifice, but stopped short of acknowledgement. Delilah marveled at her seemingly fading aunt’s maneuvering.

They left before lunch.

“What is the matter with you?” Delilah hissed as she exited the old Masonic Hall from a back door, the useless Beverly in tow. Her anger at Beverly dissipated as the dull sunlight washed over them. Delilah emerged triumphant, her cough evaporated for the moment.

If everyone played their parts correctly, or stayed out of the way as they were instructed, in one month, a groom would be given in Innsmouth for the first time in 70 years. As long as the secret could hold until the first of November, the Selectmen, their uncles, their brothers, and anyone else would not be able to say a thing about it.

◊◊◊

► Next installment: DOROTHEA

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