By the Sea, By the Sea

Caroline Totten

My mother and father loved the sea, but its dark water terrified me. At night, I would huddle on the Innsmouth beach next to my mother while she held the lantern as a signal for my father. He would wade out into the cove, carrying the lobster cage, and then the strobe light attached to his head would sink into the water. He said lobsters came out at night to feed and that was the time to harvest. My mother said the sharks also hunted at night. She didn’t like sharks, and though she was a strong swimmer, one scary shark encounter was enough to keep her out of the water at night.

Fishing and scuba diving occupied my father. Each time he left the house, I thought I would never see him again. Once he had taken me out in his boat, and I cried and screamed until he brought me back and dumped me with my mother. “I think we got a landlubber,” he told her.

I adored my mother, but no matter how hard I tried, I could not share her love of the sea. Nor did I share my father’s delight when he dropped the wiggling lobsters into a kettle of boiling water. He had a fire pit in the yard and cooked the lobsters outdoors because mother didn’t want the stink in the house. He cleaned fish outdoors too on his work table. He knew just how to slice them and lift out the backbone. Then he would put them on the grill. We almost never ate meat. It was always fish, lobster or clams.

My father was bald, thin but solid. He said he was born bald and he would die that way. My mother said he would live to a hundred. When I was six, a hundred seemed like a long time to me.

My mother was beautiful. She had long, wispy blond hair and eyes blue as the sky. She was much younger than my father. She was his third wife. I was the only child, and I think my father wished I had been a boy. In fact, I’m sure he wished I had been a boy. His son by his previous marriage was a disappointment. From time to time, he came to stay with us. All he did was eat and sleep and wander the beach. I called him Walrus and he called me Brat.

I wasn’t a brat. I played quietly with my dolls or helped my mother in the garden. One day when my mother was hunting for clams, I found three red rocks that had been washed up by the tide. They were round and smooth and about the size of baseballs. Mother helped me carry them home and put them in the garden. She planted parsley around them. They were my treasures and I thought they were magical. I loved to touch them because I thought they were teaching me something, though I didn’t quite know what. Anyway, one day when I touched the rocks, I became inspired and I asked Walrus, “Where is Venus?”

“It’s in West Virginia, stupid.”

The one thing Walrus and I had in common was a fear of the sea. When father suggested a day of fishing, Walrus would vomit, then roll on the bed and say he was sick. I knew he was afraid. He came to Innsmouth only when he was desperate for a place to stay. He told me the place creeped him out. He was a baby when his mother took him to Ohio to live with his grandparents. After the divorce, he didn’t see his father until he was three, and even now that he was older, he and Father were like strangers. Actually, I think Walrus liked my mother more than he liked his father.

She would defend him in a kind way. “Stop nagging the boy. These are depressed times. There are no jobs in Innsmouth for a young man with his talents.”

When my father bit his lip, I knew he was thinking: What talents? Then he would give Walrus money and put him on the bus going back to Ohio. I wondered if someday my father would put me on a bus and tell me to get a life.

I was six when my mother gave birth to a purple baby. In those frightful hours when I heard her moaning, I also heard my father shout at the doctor. He called him a “worthless boozer.” He ordered the doctor from the house. I was hiding in the corner of the hallway in my nightgown, terrified that my mother would die. The grandfather clock at the bottom of the stairs was bonging midnight when I crept toward the bedroom of my parents. Through the crack in the door, I watched my father tie a string around a tube that was hanging from the belly of the baby. There was blood on the bed. He wrapped the baby in a blanket and placed the bundle on the pillow next to my mother. She smiled and her face glowed like the moon. I knew then that the new baby had replaced me in the position next to my mother’s heart.

From the very beginning, my little sister was strange. My mother protected her with an obsessive devotion which was shared by my father. I was supposed to love Lisalee and I tried, though she was nothing like me. Not the slightest resemblance. She was tiny, thin, and bald like my father. Her eyes were black marbles and mine were blue. I thought I might learn to love her when she stopped crying.

At night when the surf pounded on the beach, I could still hear her wailing in the other room. My mother rarely slept. She spent the nights rocking Lisalee. In the morning, father took over Lisalee’s care while mother stayed in bed.

Father did not have a regular job. From time to time, he collected rents from Innsmouth properties that he had inherited. In 1927-28 when the houses along the waterfront were burned by the Federal government, my grandfather bought the land dirt cheap. Gradually, with the help of his brothers, he built cottages. At first, he rented to tourists curious about Devil’s Reef and the imps from Hell. Later some pagan crafters, shady ladies, and fishermen rented the houses. My father didn’t talk about the renters, but once in a while, he referred to them as “pond scum.”

So, even before Lisalee was born, my father was anti-social. Afterwards, he was even worse. He didn’t want anyone to see Lisalee. He said she had baby rash, but it looked like fish scales to me. She couldn’t drink cow’s milk. It made her vomit, so mother nursed her in secret until she was four years old. Lisalee would also eat pureed fish, seaweed, and mashed peas, and father said she had a delicate stomach. But her disposition was far from delicate where I was concerned. She tore my dolls apart, ripped my drawings into shreds, and though I was upset, I wasn’t allowed to scold her. Strangely enough, she liked my three red rocks. She named them Dorty One, Dorty Two, and Dorty Three. She talked to them as if they were invisible playmates. She wasn’t stupid, but she did odd things. When in the garden, she ate dirt. In the house, she ate all the erasers on my pencils. Father said it was nothing odd, just something that children did. Mother said she had a mineral deficiency, and she gave Lisalee little sips of cod liver oil.

After my sister was born, my father wanted to send me to boarding school, but my mother would not permit it. She had spent twelve years with the Sisters of Mercy. The Sisters, who dressed in long, grey robes and helmets with grey veils, ran a boarding school for girls near Hathpine. My mother was sent there by her father when she was eight. He wanted to remove her from the “curse of Innsmouth,” which he claimed had killed his wife.

Mother insisted on schooling me at home. She bought books from the itinerant book peddler for a small sum and began to teach me to read. I was an eager student and soon I was reading nursery rhymes and children’s stories to Lisalee. She would sit beside me on the sofa and listen with rapt attention. Before long, Lisalee was turning the pages and repeating the rhymes. Father thought she could read, but it wasn’t that. She memorized everything. She particularly liked the picture book of sea creatures. She would point to dolphins and say “duffins.” She made me laugh, and mother said I was a good influence on my little sister. But that influence did not extend to outdoors.

Our cottage, the one my mother’s father had built, was nestled on the rocks above the beach. The foundation was stone and the fireplace was made of pudding stones, but the second floor and the widow’s watch were made of solid timbers weathered to a dull brown. The window in the sitting room faced south and overlooked the sea. The kitchen in the back of the house had steps down to the herb garden. It was protected from the winter winds by an L-shaped pudding stone wall with a smooth top. I liked to play Monkey on that wall. I would climb onto the garden bench and pull myself up to the top. Very carefully, I balanced myself with outstretched arms and walked the top of the wall. Only once did I fall into the rose hip bushes.

Lisalee wanted to play Monkey, but she couldn’t. She had weak legs and bruised easily. The bruises bled, wouldn’t heal, and gradually turned into seeping holes that impaired her walking. Although mother treated the wounds with a poultice of honey mixed with rosemary and lavender, Lisalee did not heal. Neither of my parents trusted the Innsmouth doctor, who was rarely sober. Sometimes at night, I huddled on the stairway and listened to my parents talk of the curse. My mother cried and said, “It killed my mother and it will kill Lisalee.”

I didn’t know what the curse was, but I suspected it was a flesh-eating disease. I didn’t know my grandparents. They died before I was born. My father said Innsmouth people did not live long; it was the Devil that took them.

Sometimes, when I went to the beach to play with other children, Father would lecture me, “Don’t drink from the same cup as them. Don’t eat candy from their hand.”

I was eleven when my friend Tommy told me, “You best not play on the beach after sundown. The imps will getya.” He wore an ugly, little amulet around his neck. It was carved from wood and looked savage. It had one shiny ruby eye. It had washed up on the beach and he found it. His mother told him it was worth plenty, so he kept it. When he went swimming, he asked me to hold his amulet. I knew he liked me because he trusted me with his treasure.

Mother allowed me to go to the beach when Father was away, but did not allow me to bring my friends home. She did not want anyone to see Lisalee. By the time, my sister was five, her feet had turned a reddish-purple and her toes were stiff. Mother carried her around the house, and I read to her.

Then one morning, Lisalee stopped breathing. I heard mother wailing and ran to Lisalee’s room. Her skin was dark, something like a purplish blue. She lay very still and peaceful. When mother left the room to call Father, I asked Lisalee, “Are you really dead?”

I swear she winked one eye. I believed her spirit was still alive. When father came into the room, he looked at Lisalee and said, “Well, it is done.” He wrapped her in a blanket and said we would bury her at sea like the good fish that she was. I didn’t know what to do. I ran to the garden and sat, staring at the three red rocks that Lisalee had called her invisible friends. I didn’t want my sister to go into the sea alone.

An hour later, trembling with fear, I climbed into my father’s fishing boat. The mist was thick as chowder, and I could not see anything but the dark water lapping at the boat. The tide was going out as father stood at the wheel and started the engine. The chugging sound was harsh and I covered my ears. No one talked. My mother sat in a somber daze, clutching the bundle. My sister was wrapped in a white blanket; the boat was white; the mist was white; and the water looked black.

Father steered the boat through the cove, past Devil’s Reef, moving steadily toward the deep ocean. It was like slow death. I expected to be sucked into the underworld, gasping for breath. I leaned against my mother for warmth and comfort, but she seemed oblivious to my whimpering. Then my father cut the engine, and the boat drifted on the whispering water.

My mother handed over Lisalee, and my father unfolded the blanket and slipped her into the sea. For a moment, she floated and then the current pulled her under. I was hysterical when I dropped my three red rocks into the water. I imagined Lisalee’s invisible friends going with her. My father ordered me to hush, and my mother wrapped the blanket around me and held me under her arm.

When we back on shore, Father said, “Never speak of this day.” Together we climbed the stone steps to the house.

Slowly, my parents resumed the quiet routine of a reclusive life, but I was restless. Every morning when the weather was fair, I walked the beach for miles. I didn’t go into the water, but its murmuring made me feel less lonely. About a year later, after a stormy night of churning waves, the tide brought my three red rocks back to me. I was ecstatic and carried them home as if they were a message from Lisalee.

My parents were awed. They didn’t know what to make of the rocks. The mathematical possibility of finding them again was astronomical. Father polished them and put on the mantel of the fireplace. They were beautiful, and on dark nights, the rocks glowed red like beacons that had broken loose from the underwater world.

The End

Caroline Totten lives in Canton, Ohio USA. She has worked as a reporter and a teacher, and currently is a freelance writer. Her fiction, humor, and poetry have been published in print and on the Internet. She is a member of Writers With Humor and the Canton Writers’ Guild. A few of her recent publications are listed in the Directory of Poets and Writers.