Below is Part 9 of 18 monthly installments for Visitant.
The darkness comforted her. Like so many things she did not question, it was best in Innsmouth to simply accept things. Perhaps it was like this everywhere. She did not know.
Nevertheless, Verna knew that she felt better in the dark. There was something soothing about the loss of depth perception; the way the lamplight was doused and left her without knowledge of objects in the room. She could float in place, and move through the blackness without having to process what lay inside it.
She lay on her back, staring at the invisible barrier above. She knew she could touch it if she stretched her fingers from the high piled bed. At her side, across the white expanse of cold cotton and freezing padding underneath, Alda slept. She was curled in a fetal position, Verna imagined, fists balled tightly, the scars on her body covered by the sheet and thin blanket.
“I love you,” the girl had whispered while in ecstasy, as Verna had moved to be inside her. Verna had paid it no mind. She had lost count of the times that phrase had been uttered to her with other women, some even younger than this one. Now it flew toward her, again and again, like papery wings fluttering in the perfect dark.
As they lay on opposite sides of the bed, each exhaustedly lost in whatever place their mind went to after lovemaking, the girl took Verna’s hand again. Alda spent much of their brief moments together trying to bridge the distance between them, though physically, they were not very far apart. The bed was quite small—made smaller by the fact that it was tucked under an eave. Their heads were thrust against the wall in the claustrophobic space under the meeting of the gabled dormer.
The girl said it aloud again.
“I love you,” she repeated, answering for her mute lover. Verna blinked as if she had caught the tail end of a conversation. The weight of her smile became unbearable.
Alda’s eyes had flicked across Verna’s face, then slid down to the rumpled sheets of the bed. Verna had failed to respond. She felt stuck in place.
In the close attic, everything developed a sticky layer of sweat. Verna looked away. Warm coals kissed the iron grate of the squat parlor stove, interrupting the silence with the occasional pop.
The stove in Alda’s room in the eaves was dull and black and coated dangerously in dust. Rarely was it full of enough coal to last the night. When Verna spent the evening, the window sills were frosted over by morning. At dawn, Alda would toss a couple coals on, but let them burn only until she was expected downstairs to assist Beulah.
In the deep night, Verna failed to answer. She glanced back at Alda, and made a move to get up. Alda sat back on her heels, hugging her knees.
She could not leave her looking so alone. Verna knew that feeling. She took Alda in her arms and they lay back until the girl was asleep. Then Verna unentangled herself and tried to find her own dreams long after the stove had died.
Now, in the dark, she remembered Innsmouth as it had been in her girlhood years. The girls she was educated with would practice necking, as some of the younger women called it now, and more, but it had always been in the hope of a more traditional childhood courtship. Certain aspects of what was expected of many Innsmouth women had been kept quiet and customary in those years. It was not a thing to discuss with girls, until they were truly women, and only then if they were deemed worthy of becoming a bride.
The girls would watch the pick up games of football on New Church Green, marveling at the muscles and slim movements of the male counterparts they rarely interacted with into puberty. It had always been well known, though often ignored, that dating was forbidden in Innsmouth. The ban held in place as much by household decree as unspoken town ruling.
Like many religious communities, purity of thought and deed was supposed to supercede teenaged instinct. All were expected to honor and continue the legacy of their families in some poorly defined way that did not involve mingling with the opposite sex.
Yet, there was dating. Verna herself talked a boy into making love to her at the age of 14. They had dated, by their count, for two years. At some point they would pass each other on the street they grew up on, and with just a glance, Verna knew he would be waiting for her in one of the many abandoned and occasionally roofless barns that bordered Innsmouth on the landward side.
They rarely spoke, or at least, if words were exchanged, Verna would be hard pressed to remember them now. They would make love, sometimes twice, once even three times, then run to be home when the sun finished peeking over the horizon.
They were voracious and passionate and utterly terrible. Their bodies moved in arrhythmic jostles, sweating all over each other. Moldering hay and stagnant grass stuck with dirt to their backs and knees. In winter, layers of clothes separated their bodies, pinning their legs in uncomfortable positions as they hammered away at each other in the smallest patches of skin possible.
Then, one day, their eyes had met outside the crumbling building of her home, and he had looked at her differently. There was no longing in his eyes, but instead they flicked over her in a way they never had before. He looked quickly away. She knew then that he would not be in the barn that night, but she went anyway. The dark hours were spent laying in the sprouting pile of hay, looking up at the stars and holding back tears.
Around the age of 16, any clandestine relationship there had been ended abruptly in Innsmouth. At least any she had heard of.
There had been only women for Verna since then. Still, she never felt as excited as she did with her first.
The sun began to rise outside. Verna could see its incursion through the thin curtain over the only window in the attic room. She figured she should leave soon, before Alda had to rise and bring Beulah her breakfast.
She slipped her dress back on and turned to look at the girl in the growing morning light. Alda was kind in a way that had disappeared in Innsmouth. It showed in her face. She was also loud and spirited in a manner that was offensively alien to the few outside the Mowry household who interacted with her.
Her brown eyes were soft and the girl would have been an incomparable beauty in Essex county, were it not for the fire that had carried away her family a decade previous. Now, scars covered her body, and the memories caused her to murmur occasionally in her sleep. She stirred now, and whimpered. Verna nearly went back to comfort her slumbering lover, but she thought better of it. Soon, Beulah would rise and ring the bell that was to summon her maid.
Beulah had taken the girl in as a ward, offering her work as a maid after the fire at the wharves. It had left her badly burned, but less traumatized than anyone had expected. In Beulah’s otherwise empty house, she quickly grew to be cheerful and helpful.
The eldest Mowry had never treated her as part of the family, keeping her at arm’s length and stashed away in the attic room, but Alda had continued helping her aging guardian into adulthood. Now, barely twenty years old, she had come to know nothing but Beulah’s cold charity.
And now she thought she was in love with Verna. Verna carried her shoes to the door and eased it open, dropping down a step to close it behind her. That’s when she heard the voices, wafting through the house and up the back stairway.
They moved closer, led by the freezing tone of Anthony Bridgeford’s conviction. Beulah’s low voice co-mingled, dripping with subordination and pleas. Light poured in from the doorway below her.
They caught Verna on the stairs. She had no chance to flee. Bridgeford and Elias Gilman led Beulah up the staircase, shoving past Verna without so much as a glance.
Gilman muttered something about needing to get back to the hotel. Bridgeford ignored him and tore the covers from Alda’s slowly waking form. Once he saw she slept naked, he sneered in disgust and tossed them back over her.
Alda yelped and began crying. Bridgeford growled at her and threw a nightgown on the bed. The girl held it to her chest, attempting to shield herself from the intruders.
Verna was frozen in the doorway. She could not decide if staying or fleeing had larger repercussions, but she was also unwilling to leave Alda alone with two of Innsmouth’s Selectmen.
“Get up, girl. You’re to be married, and we’ve only five days to prepare!” Bridgeford’s baritone voice crashed through all confusion. They had been betrayed.
“Please, she’s only a girl. She is not even the right stock—” Beulah was cut off by her cousin’s hard nudge, urging her to be silent.
Verna took in the scene: Alda sobbing while dressing, Bridgeford pacing impatiently, Gilman speaking in hushed and threatening tones to his terrified and ancient looking cousin. She took it all in, then grabbed a shawl off the hook next to the door, threw it over her shoulders, and flew down the stairs. The Orne house was less than a minute’s walk away.
Liza’s maid answered the door, yawning. Verna asked to come in but did not wait for the woman to escort her. The maid moved aside at her urgency. Her cousin was already awake, eating bread and butter in the breakfast room. Windows lining the wall allowed a weak sunlight, and Liza had a lamp lit to read her book by. She looked up slowly, calm and collected as she ever was. Nothing surprised Liza.
“Good morning. I cannot remember the last time I saw you in this house.”
“Good morning.” Verna barked. “I mean,” she continued, taking a moment to collect her thoughts. Verna pulled a chair out from the table and sat down heavily. “We have been found out. They’ve taken Alda, and—”
“Beulah’s maid? Well, they were bound to find out eventually. Granted, this is a good deal sooner than I would have expected, and it does throw out what I had planned. But, what do you expect when you set thirteen women to a task? We could not have accounted for all possibilities.” She took a bite of bread.
“But Alda had nothing to do with any of this!” The maid peeked in at the raised voice. Liza waved her away. Verna quieted, “Even if we are still able to pull it off—”
“Oh, we will pull it off. I have no concerns on that count.”
“Even so,” Verna resolved, “Alda will be punished. You know what they are like. It is not her fault. She does not deserve any of this!”
Liza snorted derisively.
“Are you fucking her?” Liza spat. Verna was taken aback and silenced. “You are, aren’t you?! Tell me, if they had carted off another woman, any other woman, would you be here, whining to me about it? Every other year they take a new bride, and no one says a word. This year will be the same. Except for once, it will be on our terms.” After a pause, Liza finished, “Do not come to me, Verna. I will not help you save your plaything.”
Verna could not account for her cousin’s vitriol. “What could possibly have occurred in our past to make you turn from me so? Am I not still your blood?”
Liza sneered in a replica of her seventeen-year-old self, conjuring memories that Verna had tried to forget. Surely Liza did not still hold the slights of childhood so close?
“We’re too old for family nonsense. It means nothing in this town,” Liza snapped back.
Verna sat quietly, paralyzed by old adolescent emotions. Liza volleyed a terse, “Well?!” at her, but still Verna did not offer rebuttal.
“You’re a pervert, Verna. You’re disgusting, and I wouldn’t have anything more to do with you if it were not for this…whatever feverish dream this is we are attempting.”
► Next installment: MILDRED