Below is Part 9 of 18 monthly installments for Visitant.
The opening of the office door was announced by a smell of woodsmoke and tobacco mixed with weird herbs of exotic origin. The tendrils crept like fingers around the portal and into the sitting room. Beverly stared open-mouthed at Delilah in disbelief at just how smoky it had become.
Her friend coughed. The smoke wrote words on the wall in a language Beverly had only seen a few times before. What could they be doing in there? She wished Delilah had not run out of cough syrup.
Whatever cold Delilah currently suffered had spread to Beverly, so that now she sniffled and barked like a seal, as bad as a fishwife. When the two women arrived, Delilah had kindly offered the last of the cough syrup she was regularly prescribed. Normally, she would have refused, but going before the Selectmen appearing weakened by symptoms of illness scared her more than the meeting itself.
They were beckoned into the cloud billowing out of the office by a clerk garbed as darkly as the corners of the windowless room. The man’s pale complexion mirrored the smoke, while his eyes and suit shone out of the doorway like holes in the half-dark.
Delilah led the way. She sniffled, and rose to face the condescending finger of the man in the doorway. Perhaps she would not have to say anything.
It was Beverly’s favorite day. Tuesdays each week she was allowed to walk with her mother to the row of abandoned houses along the wharf and leave a basket of fish. If she was lucky, there would be a little movement at the dusky window as they looked back. She imagined it was her Fredrick, though she knew there was more than just him inside.
On those mornings, Beverly and her mother left in the early light, so the harsh afternoon sun would not punish her mother’s fading irises. She routinely crept into Delilah’s room, entreating her to come with. She never did.
Beverly’s mother did not have long left in life. After she was gone, Beverly would have to make the trips alone. It was strange she had not had the dreams, yet, nor been called by her relatives, but Beverly tried not to think about it very often.
The children living on the seaside were too young yet to hunt their own food, but those that were born as exceptionally Innsmouthian as Fredrick, could not long survive in one of the inland homes. Beverly had volunteered years ago to bring the fish and odd lobster provided by fishermen to the empty row of seaside shacks between the quay and cupola crowned houses of the Innsmouth landscape.
Beverly hoped the day of her call would come soon. Frederick was not so young as the other children and would soon go out to sea. He would perhaps be the youngest Innsmouth-born child to do so. Standing along the docks those Tuesday mornings and watching the strange ripples carried in by morning tides, she imagined she felt the pull. The ebb and flow of the waves moved in her head and caressed her daydreaming mind out to sea.
The ocean forever lapped at Innsmouth, taking pieces of it day by day away into the deep. Every week, salt-stained planks from the derelict boardwalks and mooring found new freedom on those waves. She would notice on her morning walks when the water had carried yet another stone from the quay to new depths. In the evenings, she would discover the beach had shrunk once again, providing less and less of a runway for the light of the moon. Instead, even that monumental orb melted into the ocean and dissipated out into the bay toward the reef.
Today, the dull brine crept up and receded in minute steps under a sand-colored sky. Their heeled shoes crunched along the rudaceous road. They ground pebbles into the unpaved route as their ankles fought for purchase. The lonely avenue between sea and city was punctuated by the occasional gust of fishy air, but otherwise lay quiet as a hallowed church.
Stout doorways receded like a countdown, each more damned than the last. By the end of the row, the buildings had become empty shells leaning on each other for neighborly support. The last three houses had window frames filled in with boards looming over piles of shattered glass and wind blown detritus. Sprouting, scraggy greenery clumped randomly took the place of gardens. Each of the doors had two boards nailed haphazardly over the vertical sides and another nailed diagonally. The final door was uncovered.
It had been more recently painted than anything else on the row, but a storm had evidently kicked up before the sickly green shade could set. It bubbled from the ancient boards in some places and was stripped off in long tears in others. The windows on this side were also uncovered. Only darkness peeked from the fractured panes.
Beverly broke into a trot for the last few paces. Her mother sighed heavily from over her shoulder and made no attempt to pick up the pace of her hobbling. Like an excited girl, Beverly giggled and set her basket with great importance on the step. She waited. Nothing happened.
It was always this way. Her mother arrived and, taking her by the elbow, continued down to where the path diverged around the corner of the house.
Turning as they rounded the structure, Beverly did not see even an imagined movement from the aphotic space of the window. An involuntary little cry escaped her throat and ended strangled as her mother tutted and ordered her hush.
It was a miserable, winding walk through the dilapidated streets and across the bridge. The journey was made worse by her mother’s insistence they take the long scenic route down the more repaired avenues. In her mother’s mind, this must have provided a sort of comfort Beverly was immune to.
Beverly’s parents had grown up poor. Forever fishing off the breakwater, wharf, and cliffs of Innsmouth depending on the season, they had eaten fish for breakfast and dinner. At least, that is what they told Beverly and her sisters growing up.
It was a lucky day when Beverly was born. Barnabas Marsh called her father into town that very night. It was very late in the evening, going on eleven o’clock when he was summoned through the back doorway of the Order of Dagon. He said they had looked as haggard as he had felt that night. Smoke had staled the room for hours before he arrived, and there were indecipherable pages from books strewn over the desk and chairs.
The room had been more plain than he expected, no arcane geometry warped its unexotic furniture. No idols of the occult topped its shelves. It lacked the cyclopean splendor of enlarged proportion one expected from behind the closed doors of “such an important council,” he had told Beverly as she grew.
Her father had pursued an advanced degree in Archaeology before being called back to Innsmouth to settle affairs in the wake of his parents’ death. It was then that he married Beverly’s mother and began working at the gold refinery when it was still hiring. There had been numerous debts to settle on behalf of the family.
Those debts were paid in full after her parents accepted the offer leveled at them by the Selectmen. Not that they could have refused and remained in Innsmouth any longer.
“Your father never wanted the marriage,” Beverly’s mother said as they passed a false-fronted wattle and daub house with roses struggling in the miniscule front lawn. “But he always had trouble realizing what was best.”
Beverly wondered if her mother was thinking of her own wedding. The dismal affair had taken place in a nearly empty church, when such things still dotted the Innsmouth cityscape in fresh repair, after a short and suspect courtship. The bride had worn a poorly-fitted yellow dress with a generous and frumpish waistline. Beverly had seen a daguerreotype.
It was not a pretty avenue they now strode, but it seemed to be Mother’s favorite. More foreboding than august, the houses of the newly rich had been constructed from the scavenged dilapidations of aged Innsmouth lineage. The foundations of many of these houses had been laid by Captain Marsh’s pirates and those more sober merchant-pilgrims preceding him. Wealthy and retired, they built their homes inland, always facing the sea.
The houses now closing the street had second and third storeys added. The Western side was filled with single and two storey clapboard constructions poorly matched with curtains of expensive make and the remains of neglected blooms in window boxes. Lower branches of the principal families of Innsmouth and those elevated more recently lived in these newer houses.
Beverly’s mother occupied a house very much like the ones on this street. She lived between a cousin of her father’s who had made good investments trading on the margin, and another cousin of some degree who had married well to a foreigner via Arkham. It seemed to Beverly that her father was related to nearly everyone in Innsmouth in one way or another.
Her mother walked them up the block, and finally across the street and around the corner to the house Beverly had grown up in. There was a picture in that house of her father as a youngish man, just after he returned from college. She always stopped to look at it before returning to her own home on the other side of Federal Street to make breakfast for Delilah.
Beverly had not known her father well while growing up. He had always been fairly affectionate, she supposed, but also distant. Watching his decline toward death had still been hard. As she entered her forties, she felt herself nearing the darkness that more pure Innsmouthians never need fear.
The degradation of old age scared her less than being without her son. They must be together, even if only until the end of her life. After taking leave of her mother, on the walk back to her house, she decided there had to be a way. There were powerful magics in Innsmouth. Everyone knew it, though few spoke of it.
Dorothea would know. Or Mildred. Or better yet, the town Selectmen themselves.
► Next installment: VERNA