Below is Part 15 of 18 monthly installments for Visitant.
Cora examined her filthy nails and sighed before returning to the broken lobster trap. How different things were from when she had first arrived in Innsmouth, speaking only Marshallese, Pijin English, and what she had thought at the time was an impressive amount of German. She had washed up on the beach, naked but for the stick chart demonstrating half her journey in her hand.
The wind shifted over the water and Cora felt suddenly afraid. Sitting beside the water had never been threatening back home, but this was a different ocean. She sat in a different place now; a world away from her waters and her island. Eleven years had done little to dull the pain of being abducted from her home.
Still, the islands had changed while she was away from them. It was doubtful she would recognize the atoll now. For most of her life, the islands had been a Deutsch Protektorat, but before she left, the Japanisch had claimed it and the children had begun learning that language.
Cora self-consciously buttoned her shirt all the way up to her collar as someone shambled up the beach behind her. The Selectmen did not like her tattoos to be in view, especially at the seaside. They had only met her once, but she did not wish their wrath to fall upon her again.
The night she had arrived, Cora had been dragged, stiff muscles lagging behind the men carrying her through the cobbled streets, into the hard wood house so much like those Germans had built on her island. Once inside, they threw a shirt over her nudity and asked in English what she was doing in Innsmouth.
At the time, she understood very little. Their English was not far from her comprehension, but under the stress of their shouting, it became garbled into snatches of words. They argued with each other for a while as she shook her head at their questioning tones and sunk to the floor, exhausted.
Finally, a tall and blanched man with sable hair and pale eyes addressed her in a bastard tongue she understood, at least partially. Her people had no name for the language he spoke, but it used some words she knew. This was not the first time she had heard the language, or at least something close to it. It had once been used heavily on one of the islands in the atoll, but those people were gone.
He asked what purpose she had in their city. She looked up from where she sat on the floor and shrugged, unsure anything she said would be understood. In response, he spoke several words she had previously only heard whispered.
Once, Cora’s father had sat with a man from a neighboring island. He came over in the late afternoon, the sun glinting off the sail of his korkor in a blinding white against the bright green striped blue of the lagoon.
Her father sent Cora and her sister off a ways down the beach, but they had not gone far enough to miss all of what was being said. The man was being asked to give something up by those on his island. Something very precious to him. His eyes strayed multiple times to Cora and her sister, once motioning to them and in a raised voice.
Her father shook his head. Finally, the man stood and affronted him, called her father a coward. He was thrown from the beach. Her father and their neighbors pushed the oblong body of his korkor, sail flapping and paddle clattering, off the sand after him. The man waded to the escaping proa and climbed aboard. Cora never saw him again.
She also never found out what those words meant. Too afraid to ask her usually passive and generous father, she had thought those syllables were lost in her childhood. Until she arrived in Innsmouth.
Now, they ushered again from this stranger’s lips, crippling her further. She spared one glance into his stern face then looked away. The homesickness rushed over her, hot and feverish. Then she knew, she could not say how, but the forbidding notion that she would never see her family again froze her to the core. Immobilized, she stared at the maroon damask of the carpet.
The men left Cora where she lay and exited to the waiting room she had been dragged through. Their foreign arguments assaulted her from afar until someone among them had the presence of mind to close the door.
Cora closed her eyes against the pressing border of books subdivided by wood slats. The pop of a fire from the stone hearth registered for the first time. She felt its heat permeate the otherwise chill air, touching the parts of her closest to it.
Her skin goosebumped and her head pounded. Cora’s stomach growled and stabbed at her with hunger. Her lips split and stung and her parched throat swallowed upon itself, bringing up a dry heave.
All of these sensations built up, washed over her, pushed into her and out of her. Her chest heaved again, and she cried.
She was still sobbing when they reentered. The four of them worked together to lift her once again and carry her to a cart that was waiting. The streets had become populated with trios and duos of downturned faces, feigning disinterest. They gathered, and made a slow progression back down to the beach in the wake of the bumping cart.
They took her, one man at each limb, and one leading with a strange tall hat and robe, out to the sea. Waist-deep, they lifted and tossed her in, the man in front going deeper still. He yelled in that bastard tongue: beseeching, offering, requesting the presence of something. He repeated its name again and again and again.
The surf rippled and bubbled as if a huge school of fish had been scared to the surface. But there were no fish. Dark shapes blackened the sea from below. The moon was rising on the dimming skyline and shapes had begun to push at the surface of the water.
Cora struggled to stand in the chin-deep tide. Then she did the only thing she could think of: she made a mark her father had taught her. With her right index finger on the blank skin of her left arm, she traced the pija’fhtagn.
The selectmen seemed to believe whatever had happened to turn back the things that were coming from the sea for her that night had been signaled by her tattoos. It was a stupid idea.
Her purpose in their city was still a mystery to her. Whatever prowess had brought her to the New England shores was gone now. Dead as the whale that had been her captor.
Footsteps clopping along the beach interrupted her thoughts. Old lady Mowry was walking from the direction of the broken down pier. She floundered about on the sand, though Cora knew better than to rush to offer her an arm. The women of Innsmouth feared being seen interacting with her almost as much as the religious minded men.
When she finally stood close enough for her words to be heard above the crashing surf, Cora looked furtively away toward the horizon of the gray water and the stone sky that pressed down on it from above. Mowry sneezed awkwardly and Cora looked toward the woman’s feet.
“How is it, Miss?” Cora pushed a wooden slat back into place on the trap and began tying it shut. It would not hold for long, but it would do until she could get back to the fish dealer’s base.
“I have not been a ‘miss’ in a very long time,” Mowry said with a sniff. “Do you have to carry that all by yourself?” Cora looked up to see her pointing at a crate filled with clams.
“Ah, just up to Ridgemont’s. I have a cart by the road. Do you want a few? On me,” she tried to sound polite. Mowry ignored the question.
“I have an invitation for you. An invitation, do you understand?”
“To what?” Cora put down the lobster trap and took out her shucking knife to check a couple of the clams. They sometimes washed up with strange things inside from the Innsmouth bay. She had once found two in one shell, wrapped around each other as if to strangle, or perhaps it was something more loving. Cora admitted she would not know the difference.
Mowry tugged at her own collar with gloved hands as if a breeze had come upon them suddenly. The air was still.
“Is anyone watching you work?” she asked, quieter.
“What?” Cora was genuinely confused. She explained that most people ignored her, and she was certainly never supervised by her bosses. As long as she got her loads in on time. It was best to associate with “the island girl” as little as possible.
Her answer seemed to satisfy Mowry, who continued so quietly that Cora had to lean closer to hear her. Mowry looked nervously at the water, squinting against the overcast haze. Cora doubted she could see much further than a few feet out.
“Some of us, the women that is, have decided to come together. To see what can be done, rather what can be done in response to that which has been—” she stopped abruptly and turned back to Cora, “It is clear to you what happens to women in Innsmouth?”
“I’m not blind.” Cora winced too late at the phrasing. Her tone could’ve been construed as a slight.
“In any case, we have been planning for a long while now and the final meeting will be next week. At the Bridgeford’s, for tea. Can we count on your attendance?”
Cora looked at Lady Mowry in disbelief. With the exception of the weddings, she had never before been included in any of Innsmouth’s society happenings. In fact, she had assumed they were nonexistent.
Cora looked down the beach toward where the weddings took place. The next would be in less than two weeks’ time. Her presence there would be expected, but she always stood as far away from the ceremony as possible.
“Yes,” she said finally, “I would love to attend.”
“Who is that?” Cora motioned to the drunk-looking man Liza had in tow. She led him by the wrist through the short doorway of the bothy that the brides and their attendants were expected to use for preparation. Outside, the wind howled, occasionally refilling the whitewashed stone space with freezing air.
Liza waved away her question as Delilah came in behind her, sneezing.
“Mildred never showed up,” she said, wiping her nose.
“Never mind. Cora, do you have the dress and veil?” Liza was always straight to business. Cora nodded and handed the paper bag containing them off, walking back toward the door to hazard a peek out toward the waiting men.
Gertrude quickly blocked her view, and pushed her aside as she entered. Cora glared into her missing eye.
“Anthony Bridgeford is coming up the beach, and Beverly will not come inside.” There was panic in her voice, “He’s got that girl behind him. Beulah’s girl. She’s trying to delay him, and Verna’s pulling at the maid.”
Now that Cora had thought about it, she had not seen Alda all week. Usually the girl visited the supply house to purchase fish once a week, but she had not appeared. This was not good.
She began to speak when Anthony Bridgeford ducked into the doorway, dragging both Verna and Alda. They were yelling. He threw them into the room, before striking Verna hard across the face.
“Really, you’re much too old for this kind of display,” he chastised her in a voice far too calm for the violent action. He looked around the faces in the room, crouching under the low ceiling. The windowless room had become very dark with all of the bodies crowding the doorway.
Liza stood petrified after unceremoniously cramming the arm of a homeless man as makeshift bridegroom into one of the gown’s sleeves.
“We heard your girl had run off,” Bridgeford looked around again, addressing all of them, “Along with her brother. Yes, we know about that, too. We have decided to supply a replacement.”
“And you,” he turned around to measure Cora, “What are you doing anywhere near the water line? Did you think we would not notice? At least the height difference, surely?
“We have been talking a good deal over you. There are other ways to get rid of women like you. More traditional ways,” he sneered and added, “Women like you disappear all the time.”
Liza made a sound and Bridgeford rounded on her. He was very tall and hard looking, but Anthony Bridgeford had never taken a punch in his entire life. Cora landed the flat side of her fist into his cheek, then kicked his right knee out from under him.
He collapsed, clutching against Verna, who shoved him to the ground in disgust. There was a sharp cry as he landed, but only silence after Cora ricocheted his head off the concrete floor with her boot.
The women took mere minutes to recover.
“Is he dead?” Delilah’s voice was muted behind her handkerchief. Cora knelt and checked his pulse.
“No. Not yet. He might be fine, in time.”
“What do we do now?” Gertrude whimpered, on the verge of tears.
“I have an idea.” Cora said more confidently than she felt.
Below the circle of women, Anthony Bridgeford moaned.
► Next installment: September | A November Wedding