Winter Tide: Chapter 4

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 Publishing. Head back to the beginning of this new Mythos tale, or read on for chapter 4 below!



Chapter 4

Even as my mind hadn’t quite compassed Neko’s growth from nervous adolescent into restless young woman, so had my image of Caleb regressed, in his absence, to a child eager for adventure in the bogs, anxious lest I should receive the larger share of honeyed saltcake after dinner.

What met me at Logan Airport, after a long night of fitful sleep and exhausted transfers, was instead a gangling man in a suit that hung loosely over his long legs and arms. Like me, he still dressed in mourning grays. We embraced, then he held me at arms’ length.

“Aphra, you look wonderful. It’s good to see you.”

“And you.” He did not look entirely well. His hair remained ragged at the ends. I was minded that he’d been eating boardinghouse food of doubtful quality and stingy quantity, while Mama Rei tried her best to make up all our lost meals at once. (Except for the hot dogs, our mother would have entirely approved her table.) And where I had spent these past months in a set routine, with work for both mind and body, he had been shifting through Morecambe County, seeking in vain some way to influence Arkham’s academic elite.

His appearance could not have helped his quest. He shared with me the bulging eyes, the flat nose, the broad chin, and long fingers that marked our origin. We both fell on the paler end of our people’s range—unhealthily pallid to outsiders’ eyes. What he could not hide, he had made a shield of; when well-dressed passengers came too close, he loomed taller and thinner and they shied away from his gaze. I had always sought my mother’s dignity when I needed to appear sure or powerful. I wondered how much he remembered of our childhood, and of our parents’ strength.

I introduced him to Charlie and Spector. He shook hands with Neko, shyly. Then she laughed, tugged at his sleeve, and informed him that if he needed a suit he should have sent her his measurements. They bickered comfortably as we sought out the car and driver provided by Spector’s masters, more easy with each other than I yet felt with him.

It was over an hour’s drive to Miskatonic, and we passed it in fits of conversation that fell swiftly into silences. I could think of few topics that would not exclude either Charlie, Neko, or Caleb. All three were precious to me, but I knew them in different spheres. Nor did I wish to tell them of my worries where Spector might intrude with unwanted intimacy.

It was a small problem, and distracted me from what we were soon to encounter.

The Massachusetts winter was wet and cold, a shock of familiarity as we stepped out onto the great arching drive in front of the house of the mathematics dean. Snow deliquesced into slush beneath our feet, with a peculiar splash that I had not heard since I was twelve. Neko drew her jacket closer and shivered. I thought of cracked ice in the bog, and snowball fights. My eyes darted to Caleb, but I saw no humor in his stance, and decided against recalling our old pastimes in any active fashion. Besides, there was Spector.

A young negro woman met us at the door, took coats, showed us to a sitting room, offered tea. A clip pulled her hair tight at the nape of her neck, where it puffed out beneath her hat. Fire crackled in the hearth, exuding the smell of birch sap. I sat up straighter, and folded my hands in my lap. Caleb prowled the edges of the room, shuffling his hands from pocket to chest to the small of his back. The maid nodded at Spector and gave a half-smile, nothing like her otherwise deferential demeanor, before withdrawing.

A tentative throat- clearing in the doorway marked Dean Skinner’s belated entrance. Spector rose smoothly to meet him. Skinner hesitated before darting in to shake his hand.

“Well—welcome—that is, I didn’t entirely realize you were bringing such a—crowd.” He surveyed us with an air of grave doubt. “Are these your—scholars?”

“They are.” Spector took on the confident, knowing air with which he had first attempted to persuade me to his cause. “ These are our linguistic specialists, Miss Aphra Marsh and Mr. Caleb Marsh, and Miss Marsh’s student, Mr. Charles Day. And Miss Nancy Koto, our note- taker.”

“Ah. Yes. Marsh, you say.” He adjusted his glasses and peered at Caleb more closely. “Well, that does take one back. Not a name one hears much, these days. You are originally from Innsmouth, then?”

The question was directed to Caleb, but he only frowned in response. I drew myself up in my chair. “I am still from Innsmouth. However, I currently make my home in San Francisco.”

“Ah—yes—well. I’m sure some of the anthropology students will wish to inquire of you regarding Innsmouth’s famous—or infamous—folklore. It is still a topic of interest among those, ah, interested in esoterica.” He waved the matter aside before I could respond, and turned back to Spector. “I suppose you must know what you’re doing, hiring people with such a—distinct—background. But where on earth are we to put them all? You know that we’re always happy to support federal research, though of course we’d do better with more details about what you’re looking for. But you made no mention of, ah, students of the female persuasion. It certainly wouldn’t be proper to—that is—or—perhaps we could board them at the Hall School?”

“It’s almost an hour away,” said Caleb quietly. His hands were clenched at his side.

“Yes,” I said. “We’re here for the library, not the roads.”

Miskatonic’s ostensible sister school was not a well-kept partner like Radcliffe or Pembroke. My mother, never one to gossip, had spoken witheringly of the Miskatonic professors’ beliefs about female intellect. They held Hall at a well-chaperoned distance on the far side of King-sport, and it lived off the dregs of the more famous school’s materials and collections.

Dean Skinner glanced between us, blinking rapidly. “Well. Then I suppose we must—hmm.”

I considered suggesting that he and his wife might host us without impropriety. But it would have been cruel, and perilously close to a threat. When he was not so off-balance, the dean must be a formidable predator. And he would not be pleased at having been seen so vulnerable.

At last, his face lit. “Ah. Just the thing. Professor Trumbull has room in her house, I’m sure. She’s Miskatonic’s first lady professor, you know. Multidimensional geometry. Stunningly brilliant of course—although she—well—they do say that study interferes with the development of feminine faculties—and she is certainly—” He glanced at me and trailed off. “I’m sure you’ll get along splendidly. Yes, just the thing.”

“That sounds promising,” said Spector. A touch of exasperation crept into his voice. “Now, perhaps we might begin our explorations of the library?”

“Let’s get you settled in, first,” said Skinner, and this time I caught a glimpse of the predator behind the civilized words.

Spector caught it too, and raised an eyebrow. “Briefly,” he conceded. “We’re eager to get to work.”

After wandering the slushy maze of the grounds, I suspected that Skinner had sent us to Trumbull, in part, due to her inaccessibility. Eventually, however, we rounded a corner and came to the Mathematics Building. It was one of the smaller buildings on campus, but rather than being dwarfed by its neighbors it suggested a sanctum for the elite. Columns rose to either side of carven mahogany doors. All were covered in complex, abstract designs—not symmetrical, but constrained by some formula or ratio that made them by turns either pleasing or disturbing to the eye. Gargoyles on the cornice pieces draped stone tentacles around the rainspouts. I saw no recognizable gods. Still, they reminded me of the statues in Innsmouth’s central temple, or the cemetery that memorialized those lost in the cradle or at war.

The short lifespans engraved on the churchyard stones—and the paucity of those stones—loomed often in the rumors against us. I shivered as we walked between the doorposts.

Trumbull’s office door stood ajar, and through it drifted a woman’s voice, low, even, and calm, and a man’s tenor rising and falling in distress. I caught mention of ten-dimensional equations and void matrices—the jargon by which Miskatonic’s academics girded themselves against entropy. A moment later, the young man in question stormed out. His hair was shaved close, and he walked with a military stamp made ir. regular by a missing arm.

“Gi. Bill,” commented Spector approvingly. I gazed after the soldier, wondering which front he’d fought on and what he would have thought of Neko, had he noticed her. Then I wondered what he’d seen, to make the university’s coldest mathematical studies seem appealing.

Trumbull did not look up as we entered, already engrossed in a clothbound textbook. She was thin and without curves in either body or face, and she wore her hair clipped back severely. Her dark gray dress was well-tailored but extremely plain. She appeared no older than me—she might even be younger, if she’d moved quickly through her schooling.

Skinner ahemmed. “Miss Trumbull.”

She looked up, and her eyes were not young. Miskatonic’s studies are said to leave scars—but I was unaccountably reminded of my paternal grand mother, who had gone into the water before I was born. Here, though, was neither recognition nor fondness.

Skinner did not quite flinch under her gaze, but he did correct his address: “Professor Trumbull. We have a party of visiting scholars from the government. The gentlemen can stay in the visitors’ quarters in the dorms, of course, but we need some place to put the girls. You should be able to fit a couple more into your household easily enough.” He smirked.

Trumbull swept him with cold eyes, then deliberately turned back to a passage in her book. “Dr. Skinner, if you wish to hire a hostess, then by all means hire a hostess. It is not one of my native talents, nor is it one I care to develop.”

“Miss—Professor Trumbull. Hosting visitors is one of the burdens we must all take on from time to time. We can hardly send Miss Marsh and Miss Koto to the Hall School if they are to concentrate on their work at the library.”

She marked her place in the book, and this time I was the one who winced under her focused attention. With effort, I avoided checking the tidiness of my skirts. After a moment her gaze turned to Caleb, then flicked back to me.


I sighed inwardly—I could expect to repeat this conversation many times during our stay, but had hoped to avoid it with the younger professors. “Yes.”

“Was it not… 1928, yes? I have not misremembered.”

“Yes,” I said stiffly. “The town was destroyed in 1928. I’m here to find artifacts that might have survived.”

“Ah.” She seemed struck by this. “Yes. You and your colleague may stay in my house. As Dean Skinner has implied, however, you should not expect much from it. The college sends someone to clean once a week; I do not employ servants, nor guarantee regular meals.”

“That’s fine,” said Skinner, tension leaving his shoulders. “They can eat at the faculty spa. That’s settled, then; I’ll leave you to it.”

Trumbull raised her eyebrows after his passage. “He’s not pleased by your presence. I hope he doesn’t expect me to show you gentlemen around the dorms.”

Spector shrugged. “Now that we’re here, I imagine we can find
our way.”

“We’d really rather get started in the library,” added Caleb.

She snorted. “You wouldn’t be the only scholars sleeping there.” She set aside her book. “I don’t suppose any of you are experts in the most recent theories of algebraic topology? Or have access to obscure texts on the subject?”

We all shook our heads. Charlie said, “I have a nice edition of the Book of Eibon with R’lyehn and Latin opposing pages. But I imagine Miskatonic has one as well.”

“Nine. They assign it in graduate level anthropology classes. In any case, you might as well come and see what else they have. I would certainly be intrigued to learn what survives of fabled Innsmouth. One never does know what one will find in the collections.”

“I see their temples are still standing,” murmured Caleb.

The Crowther Library was a temple indeed—and not Innsmouth’s, where flickering lamplight glinted off statues and icons, making them seem at once intimate and unknowable. This was more like the Christian cathedrals I’d heard of, where the priests face away from the congregation, murmuring in tongues unknown to their listeners.

On entering, we found ourselves in the grand foyer. Light filtered through stained glass windows depicting obscure allegorical figures. A young man fainted against a pile of books, with abstract shapes floating above him. A woman knelt by a pool of water, dangling a pendant from a chain above the moon’s reflection. Beneath the windows ran, in Latin: The world offers its secrets to the willing mind.

No bookshelves marred the expanse of stone and marble. Around the walls, arched doorways opened into shadow, promising the world’s secrets to whoever could negotiate the mazes and barriers placed in their way.

Trumbull frowned at the windows, and led us through the far archway and into the central reading room. This chamber was somewhat more welcoming in furnishing if not scale, and both the central desk and the tables with their padded chairs were peopled by students and staff. Relatively few, since classes hadn’t yet started for the spring semester, but enough to mitigate the forbidding impression of the entrance. Caleb drifted closer, and I put my hand on his arm.

“Should we… ?” I started to ask. But Trumbull was already striding toward the desk, and the rest of us perforce followed. Once again I was aware of our motley appearance, as students peered above their texts and ashtrays to track the strangers passing through their midst.

I tried to imagine the books we sought, somewhere in this very building, that might lie beneath our hands if only we could ask the right questions. They seemed as vast and wondrous as the Yith’s own archives—and I feared that they might be near as inaccessible.

The reference librarian, a middle- aged man with thinning hair, took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. Trumbull started in before he could speak: “We’re looking for a collection of rare books, esoterica, accessioned about 1928 or ’29. Probably including duplicates of some of the common texts as well as more obscure volumes.”

And annotated throughout in the hands of my family, my neighbors, our ancestors. Some might still contain childhood essays or exercises secreted between pages. But Trumbull did not seem inclined toward such personal details, and the librarian’s face was already clouded with irritation.

“You’ll need the rare books section, and special permission from the collection man ager. Second door on the right as you come in the foyer, go through the 100 and 200 stacks until you get to the Second Supplementary Annex.”

As soon as we were back in the foyer, Caleb swore. “Special permission? Those are our books!”

Neko put a hand on his shoulder. “Keep your voice down, they’ll hear.”

“The void I will. They stole them, and now they want to keep them from us.”

“Perhaps we will try showing our credentials to the collection manager, and being polite.” Spector looked at me wryly. “I hear that works sometimes.”

“Your presence here is an abomination,” Caleb told him.

I winced, but Spector merely ducked his head. “I hope it’s a helpful one. I’m not sure anyone is in a position to apologize for the Innsmouth raid, but I can at least make some small reparation.”

“Because we’re useful to you. Would you still make ‘reparations’ if we refused to track down your Russian?”

“Caleb, please,” I said, but he shook me off and strode forward into the stacks. Charlie looked uncomfortable. Trumbull pursed her lips as if studying a mildly interesting equation. I caught up with my brother. “Like the government or hate them, a Russian who could switch bodies could do terrible things. Drop all the atomic bombs anyone’s built on all the cities they can reach. Start another war. That wouldn’t be good for anyone.”

He shrugged. “As far as I’m concerned, the land can burn. We’ve made as much use of it as we can. Let the ck’chk’ck have their turn.”

I drew back. “Let’s go find out what they’ve done with our books.”

It wasn’t as if I’d never thought such things, in dry moments. But perhaps Caleb had more than one reason to live apart from the Kotos.

The Special Collections librarian was not sympathetic.

“Certainly we have the Innsmouth collection,” he said. “Students must show scholarly necessity. Non-students—there have been incidents. Those are dangerous books.”

Already I retreated into a stiff-held spine and a face that would show only the most necessary anger. “I started reading them when I was six years old.”

“Indeed?” He shuffled back a half-step.

Caleb leaned across the desk. “ Those books belong to us—to our family. Whether or not you can handle them—” I touched his wrist and he subsided. The librarian looked on, implacable, from his chosen safe distance.

Spector stepped forward and flashed his badge. “Sir, if you won’t listen to these fine folk, then perhaps it will change your mind to know that we need the books for national security purposes.”

“Sir, this is a privately held library. If you want to see collections that we judge dangerous, you’ll need specific scholarly justification for specific volumes, like everyone else—or a warrant.”

I closed my eyes, attempting to gain some measure of calm, opened them again. “What, precisely, constitutes scholarly justification?”

“A note from the instructor of a class you are taking, or your thesis advisor.” His lips compressed. “As I said, we’ve had incidents with non-students. And with students, when our rules were more lax.”

Trumbull glided forward from her post by the door. “I am an associate professor in the Mathematics Department. I wish to explore the collection.”

He braced himself—without awareness or intention, I suspected. “Are they—are some of the volumes—relevant to a class you’re teaching?”

“I am planning my syllabus. I wish to see all of them. These people will assist me.” She put her elbows down on the desk, bringing herself closer to him. I would not have expected her to be the sort to take advantage of manly weaknesses, especially given her insistence on dignity in front of the dean. Or to be willing to play such a card for our sakes—and now it occurred to me that she, too, might have some use in mind for us. Anger rose within me, overpowering as hunger, so that for a moment I could not focus on what was happening.

The librarian blinked rapidly, and licked his lips. “I can’t—that is—” Trumbull straightened, and he recovered somewhat. “We have a policy. I must have the names of specific volumes.” He held out a sheet of paper, and pushed pen and ink across the desk. Trumbull stepped aside and flicked a finger at me. Dumbly, I took her place, and began writing such titles as I could recall. Caleb, and occasionally Charlie, murmured additional suggestions.

My hand shook, spattering ink. I trembled with the knowledge that I must inevitably forget titles, leave out obscure pamphlets that had failed to attract my childish interest in the houses of distant cousins.

“All the copies of each that you have, if you please,” I said, amazed that I could get the words out.

The librarian blanched. “If you insist on multiple copies, this is a substantial portion of the collection!”

I flinched, but Trumbull looked at him calmly and he turned away. “Perhaps if I brought out five at a time? They will be easier to track.”

“That will do,” she said, sounding indifferent once more.

We waited while he gathered assistants and retreated into the library’s further caverns. Once he was gone, I sank into a chair and buried my face in my hands. I did not cry, only tried to find my way through the maze of fear and longing that the conversation had raised around clear thought. Behind me I heard Caleb pacing, heard the swish of skirts and muffled click of patent soles as Trumbull and Spector stepped out of his way each in their turn. Air displaced on either side of me, whiffs of dusty paper and peony, and twin chairs scraped against the wooden floor. I let the world back in, cautiously, as Charlie grunted into a seat on one side of me and Neko took the other. Neither spoke, but in their presence the maze faded. I sat in an ordinary mortal building, recently built and soon to crumble, and I could face whatever awaited me here.

Caleb still paced, and I saw that his hands were shaking. At last, he pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, lit one with a match.

“Caleb!” In Innsmouth, men had enjoyed their tobacco as they did elsewhere—though at some point during our incarceration, the outside world had judged it proper to smoke in mixed company. But the desert had left its mark on our lungs, and I could hardly imagine that Caleb found the stuff any more comfortable than I did.

He took the cigarette from his mouth, let it dangle. “What of it? Why should they take this from me, too?”

So it was another defiance, and one I could not entirely begrudge him. “Not near the books, though. We’ve nowhere to get replacements if you let loose a stray spark.”

It was a full half hour before the librarian returned pushing a pine-wood cart—the metal wheels shrieked protest—bearing five leather-bound volumes. I half rose, then forced myself back down. As if in the grip of ritual, tiny movements and expressions filled my attention. Caleb put out his cigarette—his seventh as I’d counted them—and came at last to rest in the seat opposite mine across the long reading table at which I sat. Spector and Trumbull almost sat on either side of him, but then Spector hesitated and moved to Trumbull’s other side instead. Derision crossed her face, quickly masked. Neko flashed Caleb a smile, but he only grimaced in return.

The books were unloaded one by one: three copies of the Book of Eibon, one children’s text—never one of my favorites, more focused on moral platitudes than true history or ritual—and a Necronomicon. This the librarian placed on the table with some hesitation, and I recalled that it had a particularly infamous reputation at Miskatonic.

Trumbull immediately snatched up a Book of Eibon. Caleb and I drew startled breaths, but did not argue, only craned our necks to see.

To her credit, Trumbull treated the volume with respect once she had claimed it. She opened the front cover, and ran a delicate finger down the inscriptions within. Even upside down, I could pick out names: Horace Eliot, Felix Eliot, Eliza Gilman Eliot. Neighbors, but all I could remember of them was Mrs. Eliot’s cross-stitched bonnet, dangling from her hand as she tested the morning wind, and a bowl of salt taffy that they kept on the parlor table.

I mourned, but did not look away.

Excerpted from Winter Tide © Ruthanna Emrys, 2017


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