Below is Part 13 of 18 monthly installments for Visitant.
Sunlight seeped into the sky from the horizon, bleaching the mottled purple and perfect black of the night before into a crude imitation of day. The white and jagged veins of stone thrust from deep in the earth threw shadows before their bulks. The creeping luminosity drew the details of the landscape, rendering the headlands into rocky spears. It coaxed the scrubby brush and scrawny arms of grass to reach from the gritty soil clumps in dark crevices. Like a pale, golden wave, it lapped across the shattered grassland, finally running along the clapboards of the three story Uxor home, freshly slathered with a coat of primer that took on the gray hue of dawn.
Within the home, on its second story, Lotte was awoken by the taupe light oozing through her window. She spent a moment looking out across the receding indigo sky.
She rose, accepting that the nightlands had fled and day begun. Lotte pushed her arms in and pulled a shapeless brown dress over her head. Sitting before her vanity, she gathered her hair in two plaits, reaffirmed by touch, the braids lay symmetrically at the sides of her head. As the season wore on toward darkest winter, she lit the occasional lamp, but she preferred the cold surfaces of the early morning to be untarnished by the light.
Fastening the buttons on the bodice of her simple, last-generation dress, she glanced out the window again. The sky was turning from slate to ink and would soon tip a butter yellow.
The men would already be out looking for. If she timed it well, she would cross their path as she left to milk the two neglected, knob-kneed cows. If she timed it perfectly, they would see her hurrying across the swathe of feral fields that belonged to her grandfather the long way as they climbed up the rocks from the beach. Initially, Lotte had sought to impress upon her father the earnest nature of her work ethic. Instead, he railed against her rising so early.
If you had done your duty, he had thrown at her the first morning, you would be in bed, belly swollen, complaining of the aching of your feet! Then he had called her Lana.
It was difficult to discern if he meant the name to be an insult. In some way, she suspected confusing her with her sister allowed her father to chastise her inability to carry out the tasks assigned in one fell swoop. In another way altogether, she wondered if Lana was not just the worst thing he could think to call her.
Even Lotte’s father referred to the girls as twins. She imagined he must have been present, or at least nearby at the time of their births eighteen months apart, but he was not one for cherished stories. Sometimes he even referred to them as one generality: his daughter. He would talk about only one to her cousins and uncles, and regret loudly that he had no sons when he knew she was nearby.
Until last year, both her and Lana had been treated with equal disdain. She liked to believe that had her mother survived her birth, the woman would have been far less repulsed by Lotte than by Lana. Of course, Lotte imagined her older sister had much the same notion.
She was checking her hair for even braiding with the tips of her fingers, staring at a dark corner of the ceiling without focus when there was a thump in the next room over. Lotte sighed heavily. Instead of investigating, she went to her bed, willing silence on the largely sleeping house. Lotte turned back the corners of the invitingly weighted pile of faded quilts and crocheted blankets. There was plenty of straightening to be done in her own room before she crept past the offending doorway down the hall.
This portion of the house had been built over a century earlier by their ancestors. It was an ambitious two story farmhouse of queer design. The lower floor had been vastly improved upon, but the three upstairs bedrooms were relics from the original plans. Even so, the house had not been full realized until forty years after the homestead was in use. When the land was discovered to be unworkable without investing a small fortune in labor to clear the stony fields, their ancestors had resigned his family to dwell in a single floor one bedroom with the ghost of his intentions hanging over their heads.
The family had come a long way since scratching a meager living out of fishing off the coast. After surviving 1846, when half the county’s population had been carried off, they thrived exponentially. The house now had two wings, with a full dining room and even a leisure room, though Lotte never saw it.
There was another thump as something in the adjacent room was knocked over. With honed mental effort, Lotte cut through her anxiety and went to the door. She allowed herself a brief involuntary shudder at the terrible task before her. It is hardly the worst task in the world, she chastised herself in her father’s voice.
The hall in this wing creaked as if those walking on it were on the precipice of falling through the floor. A single coat of paint, now a quarter century old, had been applied to the cheap pine boards. Paint splotches remained on the floorboards, like a pale murder. Although her father and her uncles had obtained ornate crown molding to hammer into place, the panels were carelessly hung and misaligned. Large chinks caught and held shadows stretching from the thinly-veiled oblong windows at the end.
The unheated room next to hers had a finely filigreed metal doorknob that stuck in her hand in the freezing morning air. The knob squeaked gently and she peered into the shadowed room beyond. A single window glowed behind a thick curtain. The rest she could not yet make out. Something croaked in the far corner.
The room smelled like fish and damp clothing. Leaving the door open, she inched her way in cautiously, prodding the floor with her boot toe before taking each step. The door provided no light past a couple of feet and she was enveloped in darkness.
Something shifted quickly on the floor then sighed. After another step from Lotte and it scrabbled again, wheezing. Closer to the wall, Lotte kicked a knocked over lamp base. The crunch of glass sounded from underfoot. The inhabitant beyond screeched pitifully.
She stooped, reaching down toward the floor. Immediately, there were fingers clutching at her arms. They made their way onto her shoulders, felt past her breasts, and lightly grasped her neck. She grunted under the force of their pull. The front of her dress became wet from the searching hands and felt frozen.
Holding her breath, she returned the embrace, lifting from bent knees. One arm still wrapped around the lithe form, she felt behind them for the lip of a metal tub. Finding it, she eased the gasping, man-like form over the edge of the tub, splashing it into the water.
She knelt and pawed around the base of the tub with freezing fingers for the tin cup. Dunking it into the shallow saltwater, she poured the stuff over him a few times. It gurgled appreciatively and clicked clawed fingers against the tub.
“Where were you going?” She asked him, as if speaking to a child. The purled reply was horrifying enough to remind her just how much she despised the room and its occupant. Sobered, she left the mess for one of the distant relatives they had hired and exited the room quickly.
Back in her room, she allowed herself a quick sob before changing her drenched clothes and going to milk the neglected heifers.
The breakfast table was insufficiently prepared. Lotte was informed of this fact by the hollering of her father from the staircase. Avoiding the breakfast room, she skulked instead into the small, brick-lined kitchen. Cooking still had to be done largely in the hearth, or on the woodstove which also warmed the space.
Her cousin’s wife stood at the doorway, yelling something back at Lotte’s raging father. A pot of coffee bubbled on the stove. Lotte checked under the shaking lid and stirred it briskly. Armoring her hand in a cloth from the table, she lifted the pot and brought it with her as she stepped around her cousin’s wife and into the breakfast nook. Cups had already been placed. She set the coffee down beside the unceremonious pile of food where it was immediately descended upon by her cousins and uncle.
Lotte sat before a haphazard stack of plates and began serving herself a small portion of fried eggs and sausage. One of her cousins moved a cold plate of pfannkuchen and sat beside her. The men acted quickly, but quietly. No one dared interrupt the argument happening over their heads.
At one end of the breakfast room, Lotte’s cousin’s wife stood in the doorway, apron balled up in her hand. At the other, Lotte’s father stood yelling intermittent German and English at the woman.
“Dumme Kuh!” He tossed at her. “Ich würde nicht—” he paused, gathering his shaking breath. He began again, this time in accented English, “I would not have allowed the staff off if I thought you could nicht umgehen!”
“Handle. Not.” The woman corrected in a calm but loud voice. Lotte took a bite of egg and gazed up at her in admiration.
At that moment, one of Lotte’s cousins knocked the fork out of her hand reaching for the pepper. As she angled to retrieve it, she was able to glance up at her father as he wiped his face off with the yellowed cloth.
His skin reminded her of clotted cream. Impossibly pale and pockmarked, no matter the activity, vati Uxor seemed never to succumb to the ruddiness that normally appeared in other well-worked humans.
Unfortunately for Lotte, her gazed lingered too long. The Uxor patriarch’s light eyes landed on her as she clamored to an upright position. He glared at her a moment, then exploded into another tirade.
“Und Sie!” He stepped down from the doorway, pointing at her with a dangerous look in his eyes, “Wo warst Du? Du lassen ihr Vetter die ganze Arbeit?”
“Nein, Vati.” was all Lotte could manage in reply. Her father picked up a glass that had been put out for milk and flung it against the wall. The resulting crash caused Lotte to exclaim and jump. Two of her cousins did the same.
Lana entered now from the kitchen, stepping out in a costly beaded shift utterly offensive for the time of day. She smirked at the pale faces in the room.
“Clearly I missed the party,” she laughed.
Lotte rose and rushed past her father into the parlor.
Her cousin Albert found her later. She held one of the few books in the room, The Marshall Islands in Earth and Ethnology by Baldamus Leipzig. The page she had begun was held open by a finger, but her eyes were directed out the window at the waves on the horizon.
Taking a seat on the ottoman in front of her, he reached out and removed the volume from her hand.
“Ist das deine?” Albert was the son of her father’s cousin, but vati Uxor called all relations outside the immediate family “Vetter.” Unlike the score of other cousins that either seasonally or permanently resided in or near the family manor, Albert had known the girls since they were very young.
“My uncle’s,” she explained, switching to English. Her father’s brother had many such books, though most he kept in his room. “I have to admit that I do not understand all the words.”
Albert seemed an expert in most things to her. Before coming to join them, he had studied for a few years at a university in Berlin. He motioned as if to take her hand, but it had been years since any men in the house had touched them. Any man but her grandfather, if he could indeed be considered a man.
“Kleine schwester, you must know that in this house, we have no little sister but you. You are not alone.”
She looked into his face, “Any more. You have no sisters any more.”
Pain passed over his face. She watched him fight for composure, then look down as the anguish opened like a sieve. He had lost so many.
“I’m sorry,” she said, standing. She set the book back on the shelf next to some reprints of older documents from the Essex County Historical and Genealogical society. “I have been put in an ill mood.”
“It will not always be this way. I promise, kleine schwester. He will not always be here. One day, someone else will be in charge.”
“One of your,” she confirmed.
“Yes, and then we will take care of you,” he paused, then added furtively, “You and your sister.”
Someone entered the room behind them. Lotte peeked around the high broad back of the chair she occupied. Her sister leaned against the doorway. On her face was a discoverer’s malice. Lotte’s stomach knotted and flipped over.
“What have we here?” Albert rose at the sound of her voice.
“We were just discussing your uncle’s fine taste in books. I had better get going, your father’s sight is particularly bad today. It’s got him in a mood.” He smiled warmly at Lotte, then nodded curtly to Lana. “You girls have a good day. Enjoy the fire inside.”
As he left, Lana crossed to the tiled fireplace and bent over the grate to put another log on the blaze. Lotte felt too hot. Her sister sat in the window beside her, picking a book off the shelf and inspecting it.
“Shall we talk about this?” There was a difference of over a year between them, but it often felt like more. Lotte shrunk when her sister sat beside her. At least that had been the case recently.
She imagined a much younger time when they really felt like twins. It was hard to remember, but Lotte had concluded that feelings sometimes meant more than memories. “Talk about what?” she tried to keep her voice bright, and stood up as if to leave. “I have tasks to complete, and so do you.”
“I am doing nothing more for them, and neither shall you. Why would you?”
Lotte turned her back toward her sister.
“Because we promised. Because they welcomed us—”
“They did not welcome us. They sneer at us. They laugh at us. We are more gossip for their tea table. ‘The Uxor freaks,’ they giggle, ‘They were just here. Now they’ve gone. Aren’t we all the better for it?” Lana put a hand over her stomach protectively. “Besides, now I have other leverage. I do not need help from outsiders. I do not need revenge. I can fulfill my duty and bargain my way out of here.”
“You’re with child.” Lotte felt very small. “You should not have kept it from them. Now, they will think—” she was silenced by something in her sister’s face. Lana bared her teeth, animal and stark against the red she smeared over her lips. The room grew warmer.
“Why don’t you tell them, then?” her older sister sneered. She dropped into the language their grandfather had taught them—a language Lana only slipped into when she was annoyed at her sister. For these occasions, she ignored the moratorium their father had placed on speaking the tongue outside their immediate family’s private rooms. “These women you’ve chosen over your kin.”
“You cannot—” and Lana shot up from the chair. She cut Lotte off with an arm across her face. Lotte flew to the ground. Her sister was impossibly strong.
“You’re hysterical. Ridiculous. Pitiful.” Lana spat before turning on her heel and stalking from the room. Her heavy gait rattled knickknacks on loosely anchored shelves in her wake. Lotte pulled herself up on the arm of a chair.
Her sister could not be allowed to use their agreement with the women of Innsmouth as leverage in her bid to remove herself from the house. This had been Lotte’s way out, and Lana was going to ruin that.
She sniffed and tasted blood. She blotted her nose against a sleeve while staring at the seat’s weird form. It was hewn from an exotic, undulating wood. Queer, geometric carvings outlined the arms bordering its frame. The legs came to blunted points, then arched back to meet the seat’s dipped shell. Newly upholstered in a velvet the color of fresh blood, the effect of the cloth against the wood was superior to the muted leather that had previously covered the thin cushion. A scene of women presenting themselves before an altar presided by polymorphic alien gods was carved into the back side.
As a younger child, Lotte had heard her grandfather brag to an uncle that some of the house’s furniture had been brought by Obed Marsh himself from the heathen islands he explored the century before. Her father had snorted and derided the old man’s gullible nature. Whatever the truth of the chair’s origin, Lotte now knew what to do. But she would need her cousin’s help to convince her father.
► Next installment: LANA