After attacking Devil’s Reef in 1928, the U.S. government rounded up the people of Innsmouth and took them to the desert, far from their ocean, their Deep One ancestors, and their sleeping god Cthulhu. Only Aphra and Caleb Marsh survived the camps, and they emerged without a past or a future.
The government that stole Aphra’s life now needs her help. FBI agent Ron Spector believes that Communist spies have stolen dangerous magical secrets from Miskatonic University, secrets that could turn the Cold War hot in an instant, and hasten the end of the human race.
Aphra must return to the ruins of her home, gather scraps of her stolen history, and assemble a new family to face the darkness of human nature.
Ruthanna Emrys’ debut novel Winter Tide is available April 4th from Tor.com Publishing. Check back all this week for additional chapters as we dive headlong into this new Mythos tale!
I shut the door of the old Victorian behind me, and the stuffy atmosphere closed in: overheated, dry, and redolent of mothballs. Remnants of cool mist clung to my skin, already transmuting to sweat. A whiff of old paper cut through the miasma. I focused on that familiar, beloved scent, and steadied myself.
Charlie, clearly untroubled by the warmth, took off his fedora and looked around the estate sale with a practiced eye. Choice artifacts adorned a table in the foyer—an antique globe and a few Egyptian-looking statues of uncertain vintage. The newly dead patriarch had been not only well off, but a professor emeritus of ancient history at the university. That combination was sufficient to draw us both away from the bookstore on a busy Saturday morning.
A woman approached us, frowning. She wore a floral dress and pearl necklace, but the black veil pinned over her curls marked her as part of the family hosting the sale. A daughter, perhaps? I was never good at estimating ages. Her eyebrows drew together as her gaze lingered on me. I smoothed my plain gray skirt—the color of storms and of mourning—then forced my hands still. She might not like the shape of my face or the pallor of my skin, but I wouldn’t give her any reason to complain about my composure. In the privacy of my chest, my heart beat faster. I tried to reason with it: beyond my chosen family, almost no one in San Francisco could know how to interpret my bulging eyes, thick neck, and receding hairline. She’d see an ugly woman, nothing more—the disquieted frown would likely be her worst reaction.
Charlie frowned fiercely back at her. Silence lingered while she twisted her strand of pearls between ringed fingers. At last he said: “I’m Charlie Day, and this is my assistant, Miss Aphra Marsh. We’re here to look at the books.”
“Oh!” She startled back to some semblance of her script. “Yes. Father was quite a collector. It’s mostly old academic junk. I don’t know that you’ll find anything interesting, but you’re certainly welcome to look. All the books and magazines are downstairs.” She jerked her head at the hall beyond the foyer.
Charlie led the way. The wooden stairs, hollow under our feet, shook with our steps. I held out an arm to help Charlie down, but he waved it off.
“Cheer up,” I murmured. “If she’s dismissing them as junk, she’ll likely sell cheap.”
“If she’s kept them in a damp basement, they will be junk.” He gripped the rail and descended, leaning a little to favor his right knee. I stared at his back, wondering how he could expect any part of this house to be damp.
The basement was not only dry, but hotter than the entry hall. A few books had been laid out on shelves; others remained piled in boxes and crates.
Charlie huffed. “Go ahead, Miss Marsh.”
Embarrassed, I picked up the nearest book—a thirty-year-old encyclopedia, Cartography to Curie, Pierre—and inhaled deeply. My pulse slowed. Over two years now since I’d gained my freedom, and above all else it was the scent and touch of printed paper that assured me of safety.
He laughed. “Let’s get to work. And hope she’s too busy sucking lemons to bother us before we’re ready to haggle.”
I immersed myself happily in the crates, laying aside promising volumes for Charlie’s approval while he started on the shelf. His store had no particular specialty, serving discerning antiquarians alongside anyone willing to pay three cents for a dime novel. The dead professor, I discovered, had maintained an unacademic taste for gothic bodice-rippers, and I amassed a stack of the most promising before moving on to the second box.
Here I found more predictable material. Most were histories and travelogues mere decades old. There were a few fraying works dating back to the 1600s—in languages I couldn’t read, but I set them aside anyway. Then, beneath a reprinted colonial cookbook, I found some. thing unexpected, but very much desired.
I probed the clothbound cover with long fingers, confirming that the volume would stand up to handling. I trailed them over the angular letters embossed on the spine, laid the book—perhaps two hundred years old, and clearly a copy of something much older—on the floor, and opened it. My Latin was far from fluent, but I could make out enough.
“Mr. Day, take a look at this.” I set the book on the table where he could examine it without squatting.
“Something for the back room?” he asked hopefully.
“I think so. But your Latin is better than mine.”
“De Anima Pluvia. The soul of the rain.” He turned the pages slowly, touching only the edges. “It looks like the author, at least, thought it belonged in our back room. We’ve had no luck trying…” He glanced at the stairs, confirmed them empty, lowered his voice anyway: “…to affect the weather, with every thing we already have. Do you think this’ll be any better?”
“I’ve seen it before. That was an older copy, and translated, but from what I can make out this is the real text, not a fake with the same title. It’s supposed to be one of the best works on the subject.”
He nodded, accepting my judgment. And didn’t ask where I’d seen it.
For two years now, Charlie had granted me access to his private collection in exchange for my tutelage in its use. And for two years, he’d never asked where I got my first training in the occult, how it had ended, or why a pale, ugly woman with bulging eyes lived in Japan-town with a family clearly not her own. I’d never offered to tell him.
After two years, I willingly called Charlie a friend. But I told him nothing of my life before I walked into his store, and he told me nothing of his. We shared the secrets we’d created together, and respected each other’s privacy for the rest. I didn’t even know whether he kept his own counsel out of pain or shame—or both, as I did.
But I did know that I couldn’t keep my own secrets forever—not if he kept studying magic at my side.
De Anima Pluvia, if we were able to make use of it, would allow a ritual that I’d long missed—and that, done right, would surely require me to reveal my nature. I tried to imagine his reaction. I didn’t think he would flee; he valued what I had to offer too much. But I feared his disgust. I would still trade my knowledge for his books, even without the camaraderie. I valued them too much to stop. But it would be a harder bargain, and I could taste the sting of it already.
The people of the water have always hidden, or tried—and suffered when we failed.
Spring 1942, or possibly 1943: My brother Caleb sits on the edge of Silas Bowen’s cot, while I keep watch by the cabin door. The older man thrashes and moans, but stills as Caleb tilts a bowl of water between his thin, protuberant lips. The water is alkaline and without salt, but seems to help. It’s been years since the camp guards allowed salt at our tables—with only the three of us left it’s a wonder Caleb was able to sneak water out of the cafeteria at all. It’s a wonder, in fact, that no one has checked Silas’s cabin since he stopped coming to meals over a week ago. The guards are distracted. We speculate, knowing the reason can’t be good.
Motors growl through the still desert air. Truck engines, unmuffled, and many of them—more than I’ve heard since they brought the last of Innsmouth’s straggling refugees to the camp fourteen years ago. Or perhaps thirteen years; denied a scrap of paper or coal to mark the walls, Caleb and I disagree on how long it’s been. My breath catches when I think of what this new incursion might bring. The sharp inhalation turns into a sharper cough, hacking that tears at my lungs until I double over in pain. Caleb stares, and his free hand clenches the ragged mattress.
Silas pats the bowl clumsily. “Aphra, child, drink.” Membranes spread between his fingers, but even this new growth is chapped and flaking.
“You need it,” I manage between coughs.
“What?” he rasps. “So I can die slowly enough for them to notice and kill me more painfully? Drink.”
Caleb brings me the bowl, and I haven’t the strength to refuse it.
Usually at estate sales, we were lucky to find even one book for the back room. So when Charlie called me over a few minutes later, it was a shock to hear him sounding out Enochian with his finger hovering above brittle, yellowed paper.
He broke off as I came near. “Good—maybe you can make this out better than I can. Damn thing’s too faded to read all the words, not that I know most of them.”
Dread warred with yearning as I approached the journal. In the years since the 1928 raid, a stolen diary could have made it from Innsmouth to San Francisco. If so, this would be the first trace of our old libraries that we’d managed to retrieve.
But as I examined it, I realized that we’d found something far stranger—if anything at all. I blinked with difficulty and swallowed, surprise making it easier to ignore the dry air.
“What is it?”
“I’m… not sure,” I said. “Or rather, I’m not sure it’s real. If it is what it appears… it purports to be the notes of a visiting Yith.”
“Borrowing a human body?” Charlie sounded doubtful, and I didn’t blame him.
“That’s usually the kind they wear, during humanity’s span on Earth. But when they end the exchange of bodies and cast their minds back to their own time, they try to destroy this kind of record.”
I’d told Charlie about the Yith, as I’d told him about all Earth’s species whose civilizations and extinctions they traversed aeons to document. For me it was vital knowledge—at my lowest, I found comfort remembering that humanity’s follies marked only a brief epoch in our world’s history. But for Charlie I suspected that those species, and the preservation of their memories in the Great Archive, might still be a half-mythical abstraction: something he tried to believe because I did and because it served as foundation to the magic that he so deeply desired. He’d never said otherwise, and I’d never been certain how to handle his unstated doubt.
“And one of them just happened to leave this journal behind?” He pursed his lips against the unsatisfying explanation.
“It seems unlikely,” I agreed, still trying to make out more of the text. If nothing else, the manuscript was the oldest thing we’d found that day. “I suspect it’s a hoax, albeit well-informed. Or the author could have fallen into delusion, or intended it as fiction from the start. It’s hard to tell.” The fact that I recognized most of the vocabulary, alone, suggested an entirely human origin.
“Should we buy it?” His eyes drifted back to the page. I suspected that he, like me, was reluctant to abandon anything in one of the old tongues.
“It’s beautiful. As long as we don’t expect to gain any great use from it…” Further examination confirmed my guess—the all-too-human author had dropped hints of cosmic secrets, but nothing that couldn’t be found in the Book of Eibon or some other common text. I suspected a real member of the great race would have been more discreet and less boastful—and made far more interesting errors of discretion. “If it were real, it would be priceless. Even the fake is old enough to be worth something. But our host doesn’t seem the sort to know its value either way.”
The door creaked, and Charlie jerked his hand from the journal. I flinched, imagining what my mother would have said if she’d heard me judge someone so in their own home. At least it was a young man in army uniform, and not the woman in the floral dress, who came down the stairs. He nodded briefly, then ignored us in favor of the vinyl albums boxed at the far end of the room. He muttered and exclaimed over their contents while I tried to regain my equilibrium. His uniform kept drawing my eye—making me brace, irrationally, against some punishment for my proximity to the books.
“I hope her father did,” said Charlie more quietly. It took me a moment to recapture the conversation: our host’s father must have seen some connection between the journal and his studies, or he wouldn’t have owned it. “I hope he got the best use he could out of the whole collection.”
“You wouldn’t want to waste it,” I agreed.
“No.” He bent, wincing, to rub his knee. “It makes you think. I’d hate to have someone go through my store, after I’m gone, and say, ‘He had no idea what he had.’ Especially if the Aeonists are right—no heaven where we can read every thing we missed and ask the authors what they meant.”
I shrugged uncomfortably. “I can offer you magic, but only in the universe we’ve got. Except perhaps for the Yith, immortality isn’t a part of it.”
Though he might not see it that way, when he learned more about who I was. I really couldn’t put it off much longer.
My brother was very young when they forbade us paper and ink. “The scollars,” Caleb wrote,
refuse my evry effort to beg or bargin entre. I have not yet resorted to steeling my way in, and in truth don’t beleev I have the stelth to do so nor the skill to pass unseen throu Miskatonic’s alarms. Sister deer, I am at a loss. I do not kno wether they forbid me do to knoing my natur or in ignorranse of it, and wether it is malis or uncaring dismissel. Pleaz rigt. Yors in deepest fondness.
“He should come home,” said Anna. “He should be with his family.” Mama Rei nodded in firm agreement.
“He is home. As close as he feels he can get, anyway.” I put down my fork, half-grateful for the distraction from the hot dog and egg mixture that clung vertiginously to my rice. The Kotos had somehow developed a taste for hot dogs in the camps, where we ate the same surplus rations for days at a time. To me they tasted of sand and fever-dry air.
Mama Rei shook her head. “Home is family, not a place. It does not help him to wander through his memories, begging books from people who do not care about him.”
I loved the Kotos, but sometimes there were things they didn’t understand. That brief moment of hope and fear at the estate sale, when I’d thought the journal might have been written in Innsmouth, had made Caleb’s quixotic quest seem even more urgent. “The books are family too. The only family we still have a chance to rescue.”
“Even if the books are at Miskatonic—” began Neko. Kevin tugged at her arm urgently before sinking back in his chair, quelled by a look from Mama Rei. It was an argument we’d gone through before.
“They didn’t take them in the raid. Not in front of us, and so far as Mr. Spector can determine from his records, they never went back for them. Anyone who’d have known enough to… scavenge… our libraries would have passed through Miskatonic, to sell the duplicates if nothing else.” Even books with the same title and text weren’t duplicates, truly, but few outsiders would care about the marginalia: family names, records of oaths, commentary from generations long since passed into the deep.
“Caleb’s a good man,” said Neko. She was perhaps the closest to him of us all, save myself. He had been just enough older to fascinate her, and her friendship had been a drop of water to cool his bitterness, the last few years before we gained our freedom together. “But a group of old professors like that—I’m sorry, but what they’ll see is a rude young man who can’t spell.”
“Nancy,” said Mama Rei. Neko ducked her head, subsiding under the rebuke of the given name she so disliked.
“They will, though,” put in Anna defiantly. “She’s not saying it to be mean. He should come back to us, and learn how ordinary people make friends, and take classes at the community center. Aphra is always talking about centuries and aeons—if Caleb takes a little time to learn how to spell, how to talk nicely to people who don’t trust him, the books will still be there.”
That much was true. And it was foolishness to imagine our books locked in Miskatonic’s vaults, impatient for freedom.
May 1942: It’s been years since the camp held more prisoners than guards, months since I’ve heard the shouts of young children or the chatter of real conversation. Over the past three days, it seems as if thousands of people have passed through the gates, shouting and crying and claiming rooms in long-empty cabins, and all I can think is: not again. I’ve done all my mourning, save for Silas and my brother. I can only dread getting to know these people, and then spending another decade watching children burn up in fever, adults killed for fighting back, or dying of the myriad things that drive them to fight.
When they switch from English, their language is unfamiliar: a rattle of vowels and hard consonants rather than the slow sibilants and gutturals of Enochian and its cousins.
Caleb and I retreat to Silas’s bedside, coming out only long enough to claim the cabin for our own. Most of the newcomers look at us strangely, but leave us alone.
The woman appears at the door holding a cup. Her people have been permitted packed bags, and this stoneware cup is the most beautiful made object that I’ve seen since 1928. I stare, forgetting to send her away. She, too, is a different thing—comfortably plump where we’ve worn away to bone, olive-skinned and narrow-eyed, confident in a way that reminds me achingly of our mother.
“I am Rei Koto,” she says. “I heard you coughing in the next room. It is not good to be sick, with so many crowded together and far from home. You should have tea.”
She hands the cup first to Caleb, who takes it automatically, expression stricken. I catch a whiff of the scent: warm and astringent and wet. It hints of places that are not desert. She starts to say something else, then glimpses the man in the bed. She stifles a gasp; her hand flies halfway to her mouth, then pulls back to her breastbone.
“Perhaps he should have tea also?” she asks doubtfully. Silas laughs, a bubbling gasp that sends her hand back to her mouth. Then she takes a breath and retrieves the confidence she entered with, and asks, not what he is, or what we are, but: “ You’ve been hiding in here. What do you need?”
Later I’ll learn about the war that triggered her family’s exile here, and crowded the camp once more with prisoners. I’ll learn that she brought us the tea five days after they separated her from her husband, and I’ll learn to call her my second mother though she’s a mere ten years older than me. I’ll be with her when she learns of her husband’s death.
Excerpted from Winter Tide © Ruthanna Emrys, 2017