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.
Charlie, shivering beside me on the San Francisco beach, looked doubtfully at the clouds. “Do you think we can do this?”
“I’ve ignored Winter Tide for too many years.” Not precisely an answer. We’d done our best with De Anima Pluvia, but our biggest challenge had been finding a place to practice. The Tide itself was worth the risk of discovery, but any pattern of larger workings would draw notice. We’d managed a few small pushes to mist and rain, but couldn’t be certain we were capable of more.
“Ah, well. If it doesn’t work, I suppose it just means we’re not ready yet.” He wrapped his arms around his chest, and glanced at me. He wore a sweater to bulk out his slender frame and a hat pulled tightly over his sandy hair, but still shivered in what to me seemed a mild night. When I left the house, Mama Rei had insisted on a jacket, and I still wore it in deference to her sensibilities. California was having an unusually cold winter—but I’d last celebrated, many years ago, in the bitter chill of an Innsmouth December. I would have been happy, happier, with my skin naked to the salt spray and the wind.
“I suppose.” But with the stars hidden, there would be no glimpse of the infinite on this singularly long night. No chance to glean their wisdom. No chance to meditate on my future. No chance to confess my truths. I was desperate for this to work, and afraid that it would.
We walked down to the boundary of the waves, where the cool and giving sand turned hard and damp. Charlie’s night vision was poor, but he followed readily and crouched beside me, careful not to put too much weight on his knee. He winced only a little when a rivulet washed over his bare feet.
I glanced up and down the beach and satisfied myself that we were alone. At this time of night, at this time of year, it was a safe gamble that no one would join us.
I began tracing symbols in the sand with my finger. Charlie helped. I rarely had to correct him; by this point even he knew the basic sigils by touch. You must understand them as part of yourself, no more needing sight to make them do your bidding than you would to move your own legs.
Outward-facing spells had been harder for me, of late. To look at my own body and blood was easy enough, but the world did not invite close examination. Still, I forced my mind into the sand, into the salt and the water, into the clouds that sped above them. I felt Charlie’s strength flowing into my own, but the wind tore at my mind as it had not at my body, pressing me into my skull. I pushed back, gasping as I struggled to hold my course and my intentions for the night.
And it wasn’t working. The clouds were a distant shiver in my thoughts, nothing I could grasp or change. The wind was an indifferent opponent, fierce and strong. I fell back into my body with cheeks stung by salt.
Charlie still sat beside me, eyes closed in concentration. I touched him, and they flew open.
“It’s no good,” I said.
“Giving up so soon?”
I shivered, not with cold but with shame. As a child we had the arch-priests for this. Not a half-trained man of the air and me, dependent on distant memories and a few scavenged books. “I can’t get through the wind.”
He tilted his head back. “I know De Anima likes to talk about ‘the great war of the elements,’ but I’ve been wondering—should it really be through? When we practice other spells, at the store… I know these arts aren’t always terribly intuitive, but ‘through’ doesn’t seem right. When we’re working on the Inner Sea, or practicing healing, you always tell me that you can’t fight your own blood.”
I blinked, stared at him a long moment—at once proud of my student, and embarrassed at my own lapse. My eyes felt heavy, full of things I needed to see. “Right. Let’s find out where the wind takes us.”
I closed my eyes again, and rather than focusing on De Anima’s medieval metaphors, cast myself through the symbols and into the wind. This time I didn’t try to direct it, didn’t force on it my desires and expectations and memories. And I felt my mind lifted, tossed and twisted—whirled up into the misty tendrils of the clouds, and I could taste them and breathe them and wrap them around me, and I remembered that I had something to tell them.
I knelt on the strand, waves soaking my skirt, and gazed with pleasure and fear as the clouds spiraled, streaming away from the sky above us, and through that eye the starlight poured in.
“Oh,” said Charlie. And then, “What now?”
“Now,” I murmured, “we watch the universe. And tell stories, and seek signs, and share what has been hidden in our own lives.”
My last such holiday, as a child, had been a natural Tide: the sky clear without need for our intervention. They were supposed to be lucky, but my dreams, when at last I curled reluctantly to sleep beside the bonfire, had been of danger and dry air. Others, too, had seemed pensive and disturbed in the days following. Poor omens on the Tide might mean anything—a bad catch, or a boat-wrecking storm beyond the archpriests’ ability to gentle. No one had expected the soldiers, and the end of Tides for so many years to come.
That past, those losses, were the hardest things I must confess to night.
We lay back on the sand. Cold and firm, yielding slightly as I squirmed to make an indent for my head, it cradled my body and told me my shape. Wet grains clung together beneath my fingers. The stars filled my eyes with light of the same make: cold and firm. And past my feet, just out of reach, I heard the plash of waves and knew the ocean there, endlessly cold and strong and yielding, waiting for me.
I said it plainly, but quietly. “I am not a man of the air.”
Charlie jerked upright. “Truly.”
I was about to say more when he spoke instead. I had not expected the admiration in his voice. “I suspected, but I hadn’t felt right to ask. You really are then—one of the great race of Yith.”
“What? No.” Now I pushed myself up on my elbows so I could see him more clearly. He looked confused, doubtful. “How could you believe I… no. You would know them if you met them; they have far more wisdom than me.”
“I thought…” He seemed to find some courage. “You appeared out of nowhere, living with a people obviously not your own. You found your way to my store, and my collection of books, and acted both singularly interested in and desperate for them. And you know so much, and you drop hints, occasionally, of greater familiarity in the distant past. And sometimes… forgive my saying so, but sometimes you seem entirely unfamiliar with this country, this world. I’d suppose shell shock, but that wouldn’t explain your knowledge. I didn’t want to pry, but after you told me about the Yith—how they exchange bodies with people through time—it seemed obvious that you must have somehow become trapped here, unable to use your art to return home. And that you hoped to regain that ability through our studies.”
I lay back on the wet sand and laughed. It was all so logical: a completely different self, a different life, a different desperation, so close and obvious that I could almost feel what I would have been as that other creature. My laughter turned to tears without my fully noticing the transition.
Charlie lifted his hand, but hesitated. I struggled to regain self-control. Finally I sat, avoiding his touch, and scooted myself closer to the waves. I dipped my palms and dashed salt water across my eyes, returning my tears to the sea.
“Not a Yith,” I said, somewhat more dignified. “Can’t you guess? Remember your Litany.”
“You sound like a Yith. All right.” His voice slowed, matching the chanting rhythm that I’d used to teach it, and that I’d taken in turn from my father. “This is the litany of the peoples of Earth. Before the first, there was blackness, and there was fire. The Earth cooled and life arose, struggling against the unremembering emptiness. First were the five-winged eldermost of Earth, faces of the Yith—”
“You can skip a few hundred million years in there.”
His breath huffed. “I’m only going to play guessing games if you are a Yith, damn it.”
I bowed my head. I liked his idea so well. I briefly entertained the thought of telling him he was right, and placing that beautiful untruth between us. But ultimately, the lie would serve no purpose beyond its sweetness. “Sixth are humans, the wildest of races, who share the world in three parts. The people of the rock, the K’n-yan, build first and most beautifully, but grow cruel and frightened and become the Mad Ones Under the Earth. The people of the air spread far and breed freely, and build the foundation for those who will supplant them. The people of the water are born in shadow on land, but what they build beneath the waves will live in glory till the dying sun burns away their last shelter.”
And after humans, the beetle-like ck’chk’ck, who like the eldermost would give over their bodies to the Yith and the endless task of preserving the Archives. And after them the Sareeav with their sculptures of glacier and magma. I could take this risk; even the worst consequences would matter little in the long run.
I raised my head. “I am of the water. I am ugly by your standards—no need to argue it—but the strangeness of my face is a sign of the metamorphosis I will one day undertake. I will live in glory beneath the waves, and die with the sun.”
His head was cocked now—listening, waiting, and holding his judgment checked. As good a reaction as I might expect.
“I will live in glory—but I will do so without my mother or my father, or any of the people who lived with me on land as a child. Someone lied about us, about what we did in our temples and on beaches such as this. The government believed them: when I was twelve they sent soldiers, and carried us away to the desert, and held us imprisoned there. So we stayed, and so we died, until they brought the Nikkei—the Japanese immigrants and their families—to the camps at the start of the war. I do not know, when the state released them, whether they had forgotten that my brother and I remained among their number, or whether they simply no longer cared.
“You thought that I hoped, through our studies, to return home. I have no such hope. Our studies, and my brother, are all that remain of my home, and all of it I can ever hope to have.”
“Ah.” The unclouded stars still burned overhead, but his gaze was on the water. At last he fell back on: “I am sorry for your loss.”
“It was a long time ago.”
He turned toward me. “How long were you imprisoned?”
That figure was not hard to call up. “Almost eighteen years.”
“Ah.” He sat silent again for a time. One can talk about things at the Tide that are otherwise kept obscure, but one cannot suddenly impart the knowledge of how to discuss great cruelty. It was hardly a piece of etiquette that I had learned myself, as a child.
“Aeonist teachings say that no race is clean of such ignorance or violence. When faced with the threat of such things, we should strive as the gods do to prevent them or put them off. But when faced with such things already past, we should recall the vastness of time, and know that even our worst pains are trivial at such a scale.”
His mouth twisted. “Does that help?”
I shrugged. “Sometimes. Sometimes I can’t help seeing our resistance and kindness, even the gods’ own efforts to hold back entropy, as trivial too. No one denies it, but we need the gods, and the kindness, to matter more anyway.”
We talked long that night, memory shading into philosophy and back into memory. I told him of the years in the camp, of the sessions with my parents where I first learned magic, of my brother’s quest, far away on the East Coast, to find what remained of our libraries. I told him, even, of my mother’s death, and the favor I had done for Ron Spector, the man who gave me its details.
I knew nothing of Charlie’s childhood or private life, and he told me nothing that night. Still, as much as I had learned of him in our months of study, I learned more through his responses now. Charlie was a brusque man, even uncivil sometimes. He was also an honest one, and more given to acting on his genuine affections than mouthing fine. sounding words. And he had been entirely patient with his curiosity until the moment I made my confession.
Now that I had shown my willingness to speak, his questions were thoughtful but not gentle. He would pull back if I refused, but otherwise ask things that drew out more truth—a deftness and appropriateness to the season that I might have expected from one of our priests, but not from even a promising neophyte.
At last, worn with honesty, we sat silent beneath the stars: a more comfortable silence than those we had started with, even if full of painful recollection.
After some time had passed, he asked quietly, “Are they out there?” He indicated the Pacific with a nod.
“Not in this ocean, save a few explorers. There are reasons that the spawning grounds were founded in Innsmouth—and in England before they moved. I am given to understand that the Pacific sea floor is not so hospitable as the Atlantic.”
This led to more academic questions, and tales of life in the water beyond the Litany’s gloss of dwelling in glory. Few details were granted to those of us on land, as children miss so many adult cares and plans despite living intimately alongside them. Still, I could speak of cities drawn upward from rock and silt, rich with warmth and texture and luminescence in lands beyond the reach of the sun. Of grimoires etched in stone or preserved by magic, of richly woven music, of jewelry wrought by expert metalworkers who had practiced their arts for millennia.
“Is that what you’ll do down there?” he asked. “Read books and shape gold for a million years?”
“Almost a billion. I might do those things. Or consider philosophy, or watch over any children who remain on land, or practice the magics that can only be done under the pressures of the deep. Charlie, I don’t even know what I’ll do in ten years, if I’m still alive. How can I guess what I’ll do when I’m grown?”
“Are we all children, on the land? I suppose we must seem like it—I can’t even think easily about such numbers.” He glanced back toward the mountains. “And such badly behaved children, too, with our wars and weapons.”
I grinned mirthlessly. “Be assured that the atomic bomb is not the worst thing this universe has produced. Though no one knows the precise timing of the people of the air’s passing, so it may be the worst thing that you produce, as a race.”
“I suppose it’s a comfort, to know that some part of humanity will keep going.”
“For a while,” I said.
“A billion years is a long while.”
I shrugged. “It depends on your perspective, I suppose.”
Excerpted from Winter Tide © Ruthanna Emrys, 2017