Moon and Memory

Laura Blackwell


As we expected, all three of the girls landed in the North Atlantic. Océane inhaled a lungful of water without feeling it, but the others had more trouble.

Alvilda gashed her arm on a nail as she pulled herself onto a piece of the broken rowboat. Ignoring the sting of the salt water, she pushed a bedraggled hat-feather out of her face and turned her steady gaze to the brigantine. She remained still and silent as an iceberg, even as she noted the awkward extra deck built onto its bowsprit.

Beatriz sputtered and choked, flailing skinny limbs in the water. Océane prayed to Athirat for the ocean’s mercy, and a board bobbed up between Bea’s arms. She grabbed hold of Bea’s board and Alvilda’s to keep them together and afloat.

The ship came around, and men threw down ropes for them. Cramped in unaccustomed corsets, weighed down by sodden skirts and bustles, Alvilda and Océane let themselves be hoisted aboard. Bea clambered up ahead, monkey-like in her lighter child’s clothing, boosted by a whispered word to Hermes.

Océane collapsed artfully onto the deck in a mess of waterlogged cloth and ruined straw hat. “Oh, thank you, sirs!” she cried in an exaggerated island accent. “We have been lost at sea for…I could not even say how long.”

“I’m the one you should thank!” called a merry voice from the bowsprit. Down to the foredeck sprang a girl younger and smaller than Bea. Eight years old, perhaps, tanned and bright-eyed. “I saw you from the special deck my papa built for me!”

“How clever of you,” said Alvilda. Her pale eyes were unreadable as she counted the figures crowding around them, and took in the clamor of their English and American accents. She reached a white hand toward the woman who bustled towards them with exclamations of concern. “I begin to feel faint. Could we please get out of the sun?”

As the captain’s wife ushered them to a cabin, the three girls exchanged looks. “This is the limit,” muttered Bea.

That is how they told it to me. Alvilda says now that she’s sure she was kind to the child, and Bea swears she didn’t complain in front of Mrs. Briggs. But I know what they told me. They told me so that I could remember.

***

Miss Hammond will tell you that the story started not on the ship in 1872, but well before the invention of the Gregorian calendar. My part in it started on a chilly autumn night in 1950, when Miss Hammond called a meeting. Most of us were students at the Ball Academy then. Girls and women alike, we all lived in the same sleepy hamlet in Switzerland.

“Sleepy” was a good word for me that night, too. It was a new moon, and I would not have crawled out from under my warm duvet if Damini hadn’t rousted my roommates and me from bed. No one could say no to Damini, nor to her reason for the meeting.

“Come quickly, Diana,” said Damini as I groaned and burrowed into the bedclothes. Bea was rushing about the room looking for clean knee socks, and Alvilda was methodically buttoning her uniform pinafore. They were nearly dressed already. “It’s an emergency.”

“What kind of emergency?” I asked.

“One Miss Hammond couldn’t predict.”

The other adepts were waiting when we reached the top of the tower. It looked like they’d been given as little notice as we had. Océane’s braids were still wrapped for the night, and neither Mrs. Goldblum nor Mrs. Stella had styled their hair or put on lipstick. Mrs. Stella, rosy-lipped by nature, looked more gorgeous than usual with her chestnut tresses tumbling about her shoulders. She was the sort of woman whose hair could fairly be called “tresses.” Miss Barat—or as she preferred, Cicelle—looked rumpled but relaxed in trousers and a mannish shirt. Only Miss Hammond appeared unruffled.

No one was yawning any more. The air was charged with anxiety. We quickly paced through the planetary diagrams and called on our deities for strength. Bea shivered even when Miss Hammond silently led us down the stairwell, past her own door, and into the warmth of Cicelle’s quarters.

I had never seen Miss Hammond’s quarters. She traveled often, and when at home she did not entertain.

Cicelle offered Miss Hammond the grandest seat, a red velvet wing chair. As she lowered herself into it, Damini caught my puzzled look and said with amusement, “Of course, Cicelle is offering the place of honor to the oldest lady.”

Miss Hammond’s wavy hair was long and black. Her olive skin was smooth, without the worry lines that creased Mrs. Goldblum’s forehead or the laugh lines that added warmth to Mrs. Stella’s eyes. Mrs. Stella had five daughters—two of them grown women who worked at the school—so I’d assumed that she must be the oldest. I wanted to ask how old Miss Hammond was, and how Damini knew, but we’d arrived at the business of the meeting.

“Thank you for assembling quickly,” Miss Hammond said. “Since even I am pressed for time, you understand that this is urgent. I believe that one of the bloodlines is in peril.”

Bea shifted, drawing her knees to her chest. We students were untested, having taken on our duties in the last few years. I was trying to fill a dead aunt’s shoes; Bea, her mother’s. Alvilda had lost a grandmother and a sister. It was the same with all of us, but the pangs were sharper for some than others.

“Which bloodline is it?” asked Mrs. Goldblum, lifting her chin. Her eyes were bright, her mouth tense. She was barely thirty, and had only one child. A threat to her bloodline was a threat to her six-year-old daughter.

“None of ours.”

The girls relaxed, but Mrs. Goldblum frowned. “Ceres? I didn’t think it would be a planet again in our lifetimes.”

“Not Ceres,” said Miss Hammond decisively. Then she hesitated. “That’s all I can say. It hasn’t been identified as a planet yet, and I don’t dare visit that time. I must rely on spells and invocations for glimpses. But the heavenly body exists, and so do the deities. So does the bloodline. Or did. Someone is trying to change history. What do you remember about the Mary Celeste?”

It took me a moment to realize that she was addressing me.

“Um. It was a ship. One of the greatest nautical mysteries of all time. It was sailing from New York to Italy with a cargo of alcohol, but it was found a month later with no one aboard. The ship was in good condition, and things were still sitting out as if people were coming back, but everyone was gone…the captain, all the sailors, and the captain’s wife and daughter. They were never found. I remember a girl telling the story at a slumber party. Except…” My voice trailed off as my stomach sank.

“Yes?”

“I have another memory, just as clear, of the same girl telling a ghost story at the same slumber party. I remember never hearing about the Mary Celeste until tonight. I don’t know which memory is real.”

“The Mary Celeste was real,” said Damini with conviction. “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about it.”

“That tells us what we need to know.” Posture rigid, Miss Hammond turned only her face towards Mrs. Stella. “Would you please ask the school nurse to place the tower and all the students here under quarantine? Tell her they’ve come down with a fever that we fear is highly contagious, and we must isolate them here. Cicelle and I will tend to them.”

“Of course. And I’ll have her tell the headmistress as well.”

“Good. Another thing: I recall that your family has lived in this village for a long time. Do you have women’s clothing from the 1870s?”

“I’ll see what I can do. It may be rather formal.” Mrs. Stella seemed only too happy at the idea of contributing her mother’s trousseau to the mysterious cause.

Questions and chatter erupted, but Miss Hammond silenced us with a gesture. She had a question for Mrs. Goldblum as well. “Anna, we’ll need money of the correct vintage. Mostly American dollars, but it wouldn’t hurt to have lire and pounds as well. Can you obtain them?”

“I am the very definition of plutocracy.” Mrs. Goldblum’s accent was as crisp and English as a freshly minted pound coin.

Their tasks assigned, the two married ladies left to perform their duties. We all watched Mrs. Stella sweep out of the room.

“All the grownups seem to know what’s going on,” said Bea sulkily. “But we still don’t. Why can’t we leave the tower?”

Miss Hammond picked up a sheaf of yellowed paper from the side table. “We have research to do. It will be difficult; speculation and even fiction were published as fact.” She handed around books, stacks of paper, rolled-up maps. “Be careful with these. Some of them are fragile, and they were secured at no small cost.”

“I understand, but there must be something more,” said Damini. “We could read in our rooms.”

“You need to work undisturbed,” said Miss Hammond. “Read until you can sleep tonight, then more in the morning. By tomorrow evening, we must have a plan for boarding the Mary Celeste and averting the catastrophe that threatens the bloodline.”

We all stared. Alvilda, never afraid to look an awkward situation in the face, said, “That means travelling through time.”

“Yes, it does. I prefer to work alone in time, but since this is an urgent case that requires a change of time and place, and since the fabric of time is worn thin over the course of those weeks, most of my energy will go into keeping the surrounding time intact. A few of you will have to go in my stead. Ideally two, but three if necessary.”

Miss Hammond said all this with greater calm than a normal person would display for discussing a stroll to the bakery. I felt cold, but Damini squared her shoulders, and Alvilda nodded. Océane picked up a clipping with a rustling flourish, and muttered something suspicious-sounding in her Haitian French. Bea took a deep, measured breath and let it out as an elated shriek of “Whaaaat?”

“Well!” Cicelle clapped her hands together. “We’ll need tea.”

***

“That was not nearly as good as a Sherlock Holmes story,” said Damini, setting the book down with a thump of disappointment. It stirred motes of dust that twinkled in the early afternoon sun, then settled into her cold cup of tea.

“No?” asked Océane without looking up from her the maps. She was sprawled across three different ones on the floor, tracing possible routes with paperclips standing in for the Mary Celeste.

“No.” Damini stood up and stretched her long limbs. “The building of dread was good, and Dr. Jephson was a credible character, but he basically stood around doing nothing. The ship’s crew were all boring, and the plot-device savages were hokey. The angry one-handed mulatto murderer was the most interesting character.”

“Was there anything factual in it at all?” asked Alvilda, setting a newspaper clipping into one of the piles that radiated around her. “The particulars in newspapers grow shakier after 1884. They start calling it the Marie Celeste, and sometimes the dates are different. Might anyone have mistaken this story for truth?”

“That happened with another story,” said Océane in her musical accent. “A man named Linford put forth some papers that he claimed to have received from a servant named Fosdyk, who had stowed away on the Mary Celeste. It was a deathbed confessional of a man who did not exist. ”

“And it was widely believed? What was the story?”

“That the captain jumped in for a swim and was eaten by sharks. His wife, daughter, and crew fell in while crowding around to watch. Ridiculous. That’s why I started on the maps.”

“But it’s much more entertaining than insurance fraud,” said Bea, nodding at a pile of yellowed paper. Unable to sit still, she was redoing her ponytails as she read. The results were comically bristly and lopsided.

“What isn’t? Marie Celeste might be from Doyle. It was printed in 1884. We should compare notes.” Damini crouched easily by Alvilda, peering at the neat stacks. “Diana, how’s the other book?”

“Long. I’m skimming the dull parts in case I need to read it later.”

“The parts you find dull may have the information we need,” objected Alvilda. “The sharks and psychopaths are just speculation.”

“It really is long, though. Even the spurned-romance subplot isn’t making it very interesting. And there’s yet more insurance fraud.” I looked at Alvilda’s ever-serious face and sighed. “Maybe I could help you with the clippings again? The Great Mary Celeste Hoax might figure into some of the news stories. The writer said he interviewed the lone survivor.”

“Check all the names against the crew and passenger list, for a start.” Alvilda tapped a piece of paper with names copied in Miss Hammond’s squarish hand.

Bea’s laugh was clear and cheery as a bell. “Did you say the title was Great Mary Celeste Hoax? Is it by a Mr. Laurence Keating?”

“Laurence J. Keating. The survivor’s name was John Pemberton.”

Bea held up a clipping with an image of a man. “This one?” I nodded, and she laughed again, shaking her head. “It’s Mr. Keating’s father. He made up Mr. Pemberton. Made him up completely, and the whole story with it.”

“And yet Keating was hailed as having the true story until he was discredited,” Alvilda said. “There was always some dissent, but many people were willing to believe him. More credible sources didn’t get it right, either. I read that the queen’s magistrate in Gibraltar accused the salvage crew of murdering the captain, his family, and his crew.”

Alvilda handed me a stack of clippings. “We need to make a timeline of fact, hoaxes, fiction, and unverified assertions. Diana, you’re in charge.”

“All right.” I picked up a spiral notebook and a pencil. “There are some solid facts that are never really disputed, only occasionally misreported. The Mary Celeste was a 100-foot brigantine, formerly called the Amazon, recently refitted with copper on her hull.”

“How pretty!” cried Bea. “But why?”

“To keep the hull intact,” said Océane automatically. “It was a wooden ship, wasn’t it?”

“I guess so,” I said. “I haven’t read anything about that. What we do know is that she sailed from New York on November 7, 1872, bound for Genoa, Italy. Her captain was named Benjamin Spooner Briggs. The captain’s wife and two-year-old daughter were the only passengers. The Briggs family, the first mate, and the cook were all American, but the seamen were all German—two of them brothers—and the second mate was Danish.”

“Danish? That could be important,” said Alvilda, deadpan. I could never tell when she was joking.

“The Mary Celeste carried a cargo of one thousand seven hundred and two barrels of alcohol. Upon the cargo’s eventual arrival in Genoa, nine of them turned out to be empty.”

“Did they drink it?” asked Océane. “Sailors love their rum.” Her family made double-distilled sugar cane rum, far better than any ship’s rations. She had given Cicelle a bottle at Christmas, which the lady accepted with a gratitude bordering on reverence.

“Probably not. It was industrial alcohol, not really drinkable. Besides, Captain Briggs was a teetotaler and didn’t allow his crew to imbibe.”

“Really?” Alvilda looked up from her sorting. “So much for the drunken sailor theories.”

“And there are a lot of them,” said Bea. “But I remember reading somewhere…” she rummaged through the piles before her. “I can’t find it. But I remember somebody who knew him being surprised. He thought Mr. Briggs was a good captain, and he wouldn’t leave the ship without a reason.”

“At any rate,” I went on, “the sailors would have known what they were in for when they signed up. The last log entry was dated November 25th. The ship was sighted off Saint Mary’s Island—”

“Santa Maria,” interrupted Bea. “Call it by its correct name. It’s in the Azores.”

“The articles all call it Saint Mary’s. It was sighted from…that island…on November 25th. The ship was seen sailing unattended on December 4th and boarded by Oliver Deveau, first mate of the Dei Gratia. That’s the beginning of the salvage you were talking about, Alvilda. Some of the ship’s records and instruments were missing. Some reports said all lifeboats were on board, but most say that one of those was missing, too.”

We heard a rustle and clatter coming in from the stairs. The ladies were back from Miss Hammond’s, where they’d discussed strategies while we researched. I envied them the change of scenery, and not just because I was curious about Miss Hammond’s quarters. Cicelle’s cozy apartment had grown stuffy, and a night of sleeping on the floor made me long to stretch my legs. A respite from Océane’s moods and Damini’s big laugh wouldn’t have bothered me, either.

Cicelle flung the door wide. Her fair cheeks were rosy, as if she’d been out on a windy day. That meant they’d been arguing. From her grin, I could only guess that she’d won.

“Damini, finish your tea if you’re going to. We leave as soon as we’re dressed for the year 1872.”

“Why Damini?” asked Océane, nettled. “I control the seas.”

“Most sailors didn’t swim in those days,” said Mrs. Goldblum. “But the ship may have encountered bad weather. Damini can quell a thunderstorm, if needs be.”

“Or call a wind,” said Damini in a matter-of-fact tone. “I can keep the Mary Celeste on course. But is your bloodline sufficiently secure, Cicelle?”

“More than anyone but yours and Rosalind’s,” said Cicelle. “Five sisters, all but one with daughters. I have a dozen possible successors, and they’re descended from my mother. They are strong.”

“I would go,” said Mrs. Stella, the Rosalind in question. “But I was voted down.” She lowered her lashes in resignation.

I pictured Mrs. Stella on a boat full of lonely sailors. I pictured squabbles, and fights, and possibly mutiny.

Alvilda broke the silence. “Diana and I will brief you while you change.”

“Very well,” said Damini. She nodded to the book. “Keep the Doyle for me, Diana. I’ll read the other stories when I get back.” She loosed a laugh that rattled the glass lampshades.

***

Unable to secure a porter's services, Cicelle and Damini spent nearly an hour hefting their own luggage along the docks before they found the brigantine. The air was chilly, the comments from sailors often too warm. A gray autumn sky threatened to drizzle on them. Damini told it in no uncertain terms that Hadad would not allow the insult. That was to be their greatest success for the day.

Cicelle bore down on a red-headed man dressed in a blue uniform and a black-billed cap. In the charming but commanding manner of a foreign baroness, she asked for directions to the Mary Celeste.

“I understand she is leaving for Genoa. I am meeting my family there, that so I may recover from my illness. My maidservant and I seek a comfortable ship, and this one was recommended to us.”

This was the cover story we had invented after seeing that the hats of the day would not cover Cicelle’s bobbed hair properly. She would have to pretend she’d been shorn during a fever. Cicelle didn’t care one way or the other, but Damini was never happy with second billing, and even less happy to be carrying Cicelle’s cabin trunk.

The policeman answered, “Aye, I know it well, an’ her captain too. I’ll show ye the way, and gladly.”

He trooped ahead of them along the dock, stopping when they fell behind. He answered each of Cicelle’s questions about the ship with more utterances of “Aye, I know it well.”

“Hard of hearing, I suppose,” said Damini in a conversational tone. Cicelle shot her a look, but after several seconds passed without a reaction from the policeman, Damini drew herself up taller and responded with a victorious smirk. She knew better than to laugh out loud. Her laugh might catch even his attention.

When they reached a certain brigantine, he left them with a tip of the hat and a “top of the mornin’ to ye.”

“And the balance of the day to you,” said Cicelle with a polite nod.

“It’s past noon,” said Damini, a little too loudly, to the man’s retreating back.

“Never mind, Damini. Look at the ship.”

Damini read the name aloud. She frowned. “Marie Celeste? That’s not right.”

“Is it possible that this is the correct name after all?”

“I don’t trust it.”

“No matter. We’re here, so we must see what we can do.” Cicelle’s manner shifted from baroness to damsel. “Pardon me, sir,” she called to a well-muscled black sailor. “If there is any room for passengers, I should like very much to speak to your captain.” She swayed slightly, a flower in a breeze.

“Me show you to the saloon, missy,” the sailor told her. “Me show you there, and me tell Cap’n Tibbs you here.”

Cicelle’s smile stiffened in perplexity. She’d gone to Haiti to persuade Océane’s parents to let her attend the academy. She’d travelled in West Africa. She had never heard anyone speak like that.

“Missy come. Me show you.”

Polite protestations made, the two adepts allowed themselves to be ushered into a sumptuous wood-paneled room. Cicelle longed to take off her boots and sink her toes into the lush carpet. Instead, they perched on settees, excused the sailor, and waited for the captain.

“Something’s not right,” whispered Damini urgently. “I’ve read so much it’s running together in my head, but something is off. And the policeman and that sailor were straight out of central cast…”

The door opened, and a thin, clean-shaven gentleman stepped in. He looked surprised, but his smile looked sincere, if a little too big. “What a pleasure to have fellow passengers!” he cried in a reedy voice, striding toward them.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” he said, taking Damini’s hand and bowing. “Goring, isn’t it? I hear you hail from New Orleans.”

“You are mistaken,” said Damini, drawing back her hand sharply.

As if she hadn’t spoken, he continued, “Despite my experiences in the war, I am fond of the South. I believe the swamps near New Orleans are among the most majestic and moving places imaginable.”

“I am not from New Orleans, and my name is not Goring.”

He ignored Damini and turned to Cicelle. “I see that Mrs. Tibbs has been making you comfortable. Mrs. Tibbs, I am pleased to see the hospitality you show our Southern guest.”

“I am afraid you have my advantage, sir.” Cicelle’s voice was demure, her blue-green eyes all innocence.

“Can you have forgotten me already, Mrs. Tibbs? Ah, but our new friend from New Orleans does not know me at all. I have forgotten my manners. I am J. Habakuk Jephson, a physician.”

Damini flexed her right hand slowly, staring at him. “Do you practice here, sir? In New York?”

“I practice in Brooklyn, but…you do know that we are in Boston?” He smiled again, showing more teeth than the conversation required.

“You are mistaken,” repeated Damini in a harsher voice, continuing to work her hand.

“Mrs. Tibbs,” he said, still looking at Damini, “don’t you think little Doddy will be up from her nap?”

Cicelle rose smoothly. “Of course. And this lady will want to meet her. Pardon us, sir.” Cicelle gripped Damini’s arm firmly and swept her into the hall before Dr. Jephson could protest. “We’ll find the way ourselves.”

In the hall, Damini said, “We have to go now. Leave everything. This isn’t the right ship.” Thunder grumbled overhead.

“Together. You’re distracted.” The doorknob rattled. Cicelle grabbed it and leaned back.

“Saturn, return us to our time,” they chanted in unison, ignoring the insistent knocking on the door. “Uranus, Jupiter, lend us your might. Return us to our orbits.”

They arrived on the roof of the tower, right on the chalk circles we had sketched for the purpose. Miss Hammond and Mrs. Goldblum were waiting for them, shadows visibly longer than when the mission had started. Mrs. Goldblum’s tense expression gave way to alarm when she saw Damini grimly massaging her right hand with her left.

“Something went wrong,” said Cicelle. “It was the Marie Celeste, not the Mary Celeste. We met a strange man who called us by the wrong names and said we were in Boston.”

“It’s worse than that.” Damini accepted a blanket from Mrs. Goldblum and half-closed her right hand into a fist. “We weren’t in the right place. We weren’t at the right time. We weren’t even in reality.

“We were in Boston in October 1873, where the plot of Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement’ begins. That man was powerful. He pulled us into fiction.”

After a stunned silence, Miss Hammond caught her breath. “How do you know it was his doing?”

“He…cast us in the story. Cicelle is twenty-five, Hungarian, and wears no ring, but he called her by the name of a thirty-one-year-old American wife and mother. I am a teen-aged girl from India, but he called me by the name of a mulatto man from New Orleans. A man who is the villain of the story. A man who has no fingers on his right hand.”

Damini closed her fist tight. “That’s the first time I’ve been able to do that since he touched me. The longer he talked, the less I could feel the fingers of my right hand.”

***

Alvilda paced the floor of Cicelle’s parlor with even steps, neatly avoiding Océane’s maps. “Who is this adept, and what does he want? What will he do next?”

“We’ve described him as best we can.” Damini curled her fingers around a hot cup of tea, but she didn’t lift the cup to her lips. “He did seem different from the other people there. More real, strange as it sounds.”

“Their accents weren’t accurate,” said Cicelle, “and their conversation was odd, as if they were playing parts in a play. Like actors who had only a few lines and didn’t dare make up any more when something changed onstage. They did get us where we needed to go, but that was all they did, no matter what else we said to them.”

“Constructs, most likely. They may have been part of a trap. At the very least, they were guarding his perimeter and driving interlopers toward him.” Alvilda shook her head grimly. “I’ll wager that if he wanted to hurt you, he could have done more than temporary damage to Damini’s hand. Once he had you there, he wanted you to be part of his story.”

“He’s already done some damage.” I patted the papers before me. “This stack is an inch higher than it was when they left.”

Bea gave me a blank look. “You moved some papers from one stack to another? What kind of damage can a few clippings and notes from dead professors do?”

“If the papers are new to us, we can’t say what’s in them.” Cicelle lifted the topmost paper and studied it. “This one suggests a kraken picked everyone off the deck and ate them.”

“And I didn’t move anything,” I said, sounding a little snippy. “It’s a dual memory. I remember this stack of papers being shorter. The ship’s desertion has become truer.”

“Perhaps not truer,” said Miss Hammond, “but better-documented is a step towards it. Doyle’s story was influential. We don’t know if the adept got what he wanted, but he might try again in history.”

“Can we still save the Mary Celeste?” asked Océane.

“I would like it if we could, but we may have to settle for saving the bloodline. Time is worn thin, and it becomes thinner the more either we or other adepts pluck at its threads.”

“The only females on the ship were the captain’s wife, Sarah Elizabeth Cobb Briggs, and their two-year-old daughter, Sophia Matilda Briggs,” I recalled aloud. “If we can save them, or perhaps just Mrs. Briggs, we can preserve the bloodline.”

Mrs. Goldblum looked pensive, and a little uneasy. “Something else is bothering me, but I can’t put my finger on it. I think it was something I read, but it was a long time ago.”

“Time is a luxury we lack. I’ll lead the team as soon we’ve reviewed Diana’s timeline,” said Alvilda. “We’ll need to boost our signal to make it more accurate. Océane, can you help Miss Hammond to zero in on the time and place?”

“I can. It will be easier if you are headed into the ocean. Easier yet if I am headed into the ocean.”

“Good idea. We can’t let him choose the battleground again. We’ll need a rowboat for our cover story. A broken one will do. Our team will have three members: Océane, Bea, and me.”

“Alvilda, you can’t go without a chaperone,” objected Mrs. Goldblum. “It’s not safe, and it’s anachronistic.”

“Respectfully, madam, I must insist. A bloodline is at risk. Océane’s presence will give us a safer arrival, and Bea’s can give us a speedier exit. And I must go, because this adept, whoever he is and whoever he counts as allies, has declared war.”

***

The fictional Mrs. Briggs’s solicitousness was surpassed by only her credulousness. Alvilda’s tale of bad weather sweeping them away from a Portuguese school picnic brought tears to her eyes. “You poor dears,” she said as she gave them hot tea, as she laid out her own clothes for them, as she insisted they rest. “You poor, poor dears.” Half an hour passed before she left them alone.

“I thought if he took us into fiction again, it would be Keating’s for sure,” hissed Océane as soon as the door was closed. “It’s a book, a tome of a book, and it had people fooled for a while. The Linford story is very short, and it is inaccurate in some very obvious particulars.”

“Did you hear the crew speak?” asked Alvilda. “Half the men should be German. Not a one of them is. There is no Dane, either. I am certain.”

“But it’s that ridiculous extra quarter-deck that gives it away. That, and the girl is too old.” Océane clicked her tongue in exasperation. “Sharks. Let’s leave before that. Why are people so unfair to sharks?”

“I’m going to explore,” announced Bea, worrying a candle from its holder. “I want to see the cargo.”

“There won’t be much to see,” said Océane. “Linford said it was coal.”

“There’s more to see here than there is in the captain’s quarters.” Bea drummed her fingers on the table impatiently. “I just want a quick look. I won’t be long.”

Alvilda gave Bea a level, appraising stare. “Don’t be capricious. Come back at the first sign of trouble.”

“Sure thing!” Bea leaped to her feet and set off running in place, inhaling short puffs of air and exhaling whispered incantations. Less than a minute later, her feet rose from the carpet. Seconds after that, she was gone.

“I never get tired of seeing that,” said Océane. She leaned out of the captain’s chair and began searching the bookshelf for maps.

***

Bea had guessed the hold to be a little deeper than it was. As she landed, she barked her shin on something hard that made the “tock” of struck wood. She loosed a string of words her father didn’t know she knew. Several large somethings rolled past her in the dark, splashing across the wet floor of the half-empty hold. The close air smelled like spilled disinfectant.

She ran light fingers over the insulted piece of furniture, discovered a band of metal, and struck a match on it. Her mood improved as she lit the candle. Older girls were so stodgy and fussy sometimes. Everything was working out nicely…except that the light revealed that it wasn’t furniture.

It was an oak barrel.

And she wasn’t alone.

“I’d be careful with that fire if I were you,” said a reedy tenor. A tall, thin man sat on a barrel, tense as a surprised cat.

“Why? Is there something inflammable?”

“Of course there is. It’s industrial alcohol. Over a thousand barrels, but…” he leaned forward and caught a rolling barrel with one foot. “As you see, some of them are leaking. Dangerous cargo.”

“Why is the ship carrying alcohol, Mr. Fosdyk?” Bea surveyed the hold. The closest exit was through the hatch above him. The heavy smell of the alcohol was oppressive. “It is Mr. Fosdyk, isn’t it? The stowaway?”

“It is for now.” He smiled unpleasantly, a deep smile that showed his gums. “You’re no better than a stowaway yourself. I heard your story. Do you really think no one will notice that your Scandinavian friend isn’t sunburned? And who’s ever heard of a school that teaches white girls and a black one together?”

Bea’s scalp prickled. Her temples began to throb.

“Does your head hurt? That’s good.” He added in a confiding tone, “But I took the sextant and chronometer, just in case. And the navigation book.”

“In case of what?”

“Don’t worry your foggy little head about it.” As if reciting a holy text, he added, “‘We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of the black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.’ Listen.” He cocked his head to one side. “I think they’re talking about you now.

“Captain Briggs is saying that a man can most certainly swim with his clothes on. He’s about to jump into the water to prove it.” As he spoke, the man launched the barrel toward Bea. It came at her faster than it should have, hastened by a spell that left glowing footprints in the swirling water and alcohol.

Bea leapt on top of the rolling barrel and broke into a run, spitting out her incantation as fast as she could. “Great Kothar-wa-Khasis, open the way. Mercury, I beseech thee, crown me with wings. Your adept implores you—”

Her prayer faltered as he hefted a crowbar and swung it at her legs. She heard a crack, felt a sharp pain, and ran onto his shoulders and into the air. The candle blew out in her hand. He grabbed at her, but he was too slow, and she fell across a table, a real table this time.

“Trouble,” she gasped.

They heard splashing and shouts of horror from the bow of the ship. Océane picked Bea up like a baby as Alvilda said crisply, “Mission aborted. Saturn, return us to our time.”

***

My fingers scrabbled at the carvings of the gigantic door as the three of us climbed up—or perhaps across—it. The door was bigger than it had looked, and I felt like we had been crawling across it for hours. I could hear Mrs. Goldblum drawing steady and determined breaths, planting her toes and hands firmly. It was a dismal climb. Even Mrs. Stella’s presence, which usually made me feel warm and powerful, failed to hearten me.

At first, I thought I was dizzy because of the wind that whipped my hair across my eyes and into my mouth. Then my hair fell straight back from my head, and I clung harder to the carvings, although the strange shapes made my fingers cold with revulsion. Gravity was changing as we climbed.

Finally, we reached the top lintel. The door curved below us, belling out in a way that obscured the ground. The carvings seemed to writhe like swarms of small, eerie creatures.

“The door’s falling inward,” said Mrs. Stella anxiously. Darkness bloomed from the opening like spores from a piece of rotten fruit. “Anna, is that one of your realms?”

“No.” From the look on Mrs.Goldblum’s face, it was something worse.

“Hold on to me.” I shut my eyes. “Artemis, great huntress, guide me. Make our path straight as your arrows.”

Hand in hand, two of the strongest adepts and I slid down the rough face of the door, the strange carvings catching and perhaps clawing at us on our way down, down…

I woke to Damini’s voice. “Diana, come up to the tower. They’re back, but we have more to do.”

Adjusting my eyes to the dimming light in Cicelle’s front room, I blinked and focused on the figure outlined in the doorway. “Mrs. Goldblum, you’re all right.”

She lifted an eyebrow. “Yes, of course.” Then her expression softened. “You haven’t had enough sleep. I’m sorry to wake you mid-dream—”

“That’s all right,” I said quickly.

“—but we really must go. The news is urgent.”

Bea couldn’t be moved yet, so instead of carrying her down to the comfort of Cicelle’s apartment, Mrs. Goldblum marched Damini and me up the spiral stairs to the top of the tower. Damini, recovered from her ordeal, ascended the stairs with her usual confidence, long sleek ponytail bouncing. She didn’t use the handrail, but she never had.

“He diverted them to the shark story,” Mrs. Goldblum told us as we climbed. “He stole the instruments and navigation log, and he changed the cargo. He made it match the real cargo.” She looked at me sharply. “It was really alcohol, wasn’t it, Diana?”

“Over seventeen hundred barrels of it, most of them white oak. Nine were red oak, a more porous wood. The Mary Celeste had hauled coal on its previous voyage. In the Fosdyk story, Linton misstated that Briggs’s voyage carried coal.” The trouble with a good memory is that one can’t always tell which tidbits are important.

“Little Bea said it smelled awful,” said Mrs. Goldblum. “She threw up when she came through.”

“Is she better now?” I asked.

“She heals quickly. The smell wasn’t the worst of it, I’m sorry to say.”

The next voice I heard was Bea’s, crying, “I’m fine! It’s just a tibia! I can still help!”

Mrs. Stella gently prodded Bea’s left leg, which was visibly bruised and swollen even through her stockings. Bea’s face was pinched, bloodless under her caramel-colored skin. Océane sat next to her, leaning back against the parapet, head bowed and eyes closed. She was breathing hard.

“We had to leave in a hurry,” explained Alvilda, rolling up her sleeve to let Cicelle bandage the oozing gash in her forearm. “Océane bears the greatest burden of long travel.”

This didn’t strike me as completely accurate. If Océane looked tired, Miss Hammond looked haggard: staring eyes sunken, breath fast and shallow. Mrs. Goldblum sat back down as if preparing to catch her.

Alvilda recounted their mission, with interjections from Océane. Bea, energy temporarily regained, related the encounter with the man in the hold in present tense, with emphatic gestures and shouting. We all looked at each other and the darkening sky.

“Will he invade the Keating book next, do you think?” asked Mrs. Stella at last. “I should go on that mission. If it has a love triangle, perhaps I can change the story.”

Suddenly, it was worth suffering through Keating. “He won’t. He didn’t want Keating. That book didn’t have what he needed.”

A spark returned to Miss Hammond’s eyes. “Go on, Diana.”

“Doyle’s story had a five-year-old boy named Doddy, and—”

“Doddy was a girl,” said Damini with conviction.

“Not in my original memory. Doddy Tibbs starts out as ‘a dear little child just able to walk and prattle’ and is referred to only twice by name and once by sex, when the captain’s wife takes him out ‘to give him a breath of fresh air before putting him to bed.’ All the adept needed was a witness, a real-life witness, to the change of pronoun, and the story changed. That made it similar enough for him to change the scene to the Fosdyk story.”

“The child in that Fosdyk story is even less like a two-year-old girl,” argued Océane. “She’s an eight-year-old tomboy. Unless he changed that, too?”

“He didn’t. He wanted a girl, and the age didn’t matter. He changed the cargo from coal to alcohol. He must have plans to use the alcohol on the real Mary Celeste.”

“I still don’t understand why he would pass over Keating,” said Alvilda.

“That’s the key. The other adept changed Doddy into a girl because the bloodlines are matrilineal. Keating’s book is the only story that doesn’t have a child on board. That’s why the adept skipped it.”

Mrs. Goldblum stood up. “The child.” Her face was terrible. “The bloodline’s power has passed to a two-year-old child.”

“Sophia Matilda Briggs must be a very formidable toddler,” said Mrs. Stella drily. Then she smiled, and no one could hold anything against her. “I volunteer for the mission. Océane can help me home faster if she’s here with Miss Hammond, but the origins of Aphrodite make me a serviceable ocean goddess. Perhaps we can save Sarah as well as Sophia.”

“I will go with her,” said Mrs. Goldblum, chin held high. “Black seas of infinity are rather my specialty.”

“Anna, no! Think of your daughter! Kitty’s only six.” Cicelle’s cheeks burned red. “I’ll go again.”

“I must go,” said Mrs. Goldblum. “If this is our last chance, then it’s the other adept’s last chance, too. And I am very good with last chances.”

“We’ve had no success on the ship, either at the dock or on the seas,” said Damini. “It will take a great effort, but you must go to the lifeboat. Whatever happens, it happens on the missing lifeboat.”

I took a deep breath. “Then I’ll go, too.” My dream was just a dream, and I did not have the gift of prophecy. “The Mary Celeste’s last log entry was dated November 25th, 1872. It’s a pity the moon was waning, but at least it was a Monday.”

***

Shivering in our light modern clothing, we paced our orbits on the roof of the tower. Lanterns made our shadows as dark and long as the trees outside the tower. The air hummed with our murmurs, each voice to different deities and a different celestial body. Only Bea’s small figure stayed in place, seated inside her circle with her splinted leg sticking out. Even she was busy, chalking spells and muttering incantations.

The moon here was nearly full, beneficent and kind. “Yarikh, I beg you, please keep me in your thoughts and your heart even as your face turns away.” I hoped that he, and all the gods and goddesses of the moon, were listening. It can be hard to tell.

I hadn’t seen the other adepts leave for their missions, so I didn’t know what to expect. Miss Hammond gestured with a clock-key as if it were a magic wand. When it glowed white, she traced a sigil in the air, then placed the key on her tongue and swallowed it.

Then I was in the water and in the cold. There was enough moon that I was spared the dark.

Mrs. Stella’s hand plucked at my shoulder, directing me upward. I surfaced several hundred yards from the Mary Celeste, far from even the shadow it left on the water. It would not be easy for me to swim to it. A long rope trailed from the deck into the ocean.

I was much closer to the lifeboat, a little yawl that had been capsized. A bedraggled, bearded man in Victorian clothes clung to one end; a thin man and a bug-eyed woman rested more easily at the other. They wore thick, form-fitting clothes like leotards and did not shiver as the bearded man did.

The male adept brandished a large, curved knife. The woman held a small, blonde girl, gripping her close with large, short-fingered hands. The child was crying loudly and angrily, and she had a crust of blood under her nose.

Mrs. Stella and Mrs. Goldblum’s heads and shoulders emerged from the water. Together we swam to the rowboat. “Are you with them?” asked the bearded man.

“Certainly not, Captain. We’re here to help you,” said Mrs. Goldblum. The water slicked her hair into a dark skullcap. She eyed the adepts with distaste, then placed her hands on the yawl. Her pupils began to dilate.

“They are not Christians,” said Captain Briggs. “He cut the first mate’s throat, and they called webbed people from the ocean. Those…things…pulled my wife and the rest of the crew under.”

“Well, if you require Christians—” began Mrs. Goldblum in an exasperated tone.

“We’re more like angels,” said Mrs. Stella with a warm smile.

Mrs. Goldblum’s eyes were just black and white now. “Keep looking, Rosalind. One of them is still alive, but barely. A little north of here, and about ten fathoms down.”

“Right away,” said Mrs. Stella, and she disappeared under the waves.

Mrs. Goldblum turned her attention to the adepts. “Who are you?” she demanded. “What are you doing with that child?”

“We are waiting,” said the man in a reedy voice. “You don’t need to wait with us. Your cohorts were useful in fiction, but we don’t need you now.”

“He’s mad,” whispered the bearded man. “I can’t talk a word of sense into him. He says they’ll kill Sophy if I come near them. He spilled the cargo so the stench would make us ill and drive us from the ship.”

“You don’t need the child,” Mrs. Goldblum told the adepts. “She is no use to you, but she is everything to her parents. Let us take them home.”

“Sallie was the first one they pulled under,” said Captain Briggs in a hoarse whisper. His clear blue eyes looked alert, but there was little hope left in them.

The male adept’s grin bared too many teeth and did not soften his eyes. The woman threw back her head and belched out a crazy, deep, bullfrog’s call of a laugh.

“The child is for our god,” said the man. “She is of the line of Eris, goddess of strife, and the scent of strife can rouse him from his slumber. He is a greater and more malevolent power than you can imagine, but he has slept far too long. He must break his fast.”

Mrs. Stella surfaced, shaking her head grimly; Mrs. Goldblum answered with a slight nod, pressing her lips together in regret. Mrs. Stella gestured toward the ship, indicating that she would catch the rope and swim it to the yawl if it would extend that far. She dove again, just as the bug-eyed woman cast a suspicious glance over her shoulder.

“Your gods are not the only ones from the sky,” he gloated, “and the stars are right.” A look of horrified recognition crossed Mrs. Goldblum’s face as the two cultists chanted in unison, “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh…

“Gods of the Underworld, open not their gates but thine,” Mrs. Goldblum snapped. “I have read of their god, and he is from fictions younger than I. Ereshkigal, Great Lady Under Earth, I call upon your ancient and inexorable power.”

…Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn,” they finished. Something bubbled in the water near the Mary Celeste.

All four of us chanted at the same time, less like arguing than like a brawl. Mrs. Goldblum and I chanted in Greek, in Latin, in the long-dead language of the Phoenicians. The enemy adepts declaimed in a language unfit for human tongues. My own prayers and spells filled my entire body; it is only from searching my memory that I ever heard the others speak.

Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn,” they repeated.

Mrs. Goldblum and Captain Briggs exchanged a look, his eyes ice-clear and hers cave-dark. They understood each other, but I did not understand their exquisite pain until years later, when I had children of my own.

“We’ll take good care of her,” I assured him before turning away. Perhaps Mrs. Stella could rescue him, but I had to concentrate on Sophia.

Mrs. Goldblum didn’t stop her chant, but as she inched toward the child and her kidnappers, she changed it to a curse. “Every shade of my bloodline will follow you through all the hells. I will fight you on every path of Tartarus until you die a final death.”

“That is not dead which can eternal lie,” they chanted, “And with strange aeons even death may die.”

“That may apply to your gods,” said Mrs. Goldblum, “but not to mine. Persephone will have no pity for you, and Orpheus will silence his lyre.”

I crept along the other side, hoping to pass unnoticed while the ocean churned and Mrs. Goldblum dragged the cultists into her spell. I whispered, “Tanith, Artemis, Diana, virgin goddesses of the moon, pity your adept and this child, whose life and bloodline are in peril.”

Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!” The sea roiled around us, rocking the yawl madly. A mass of slimy green tentacles seethed near the ship, blotting out my sight of the rope. I could not see Mrs. Stella.

Mrs. Goldblum clamped a hand on the man’s arm, ignoring the knife and the blood as he stabbed at her. I don’t know if she felt pain. “I carry you to Hades, and there you will meet your end.”

She seized the woman’s shoulder with her other hand as I finished, “Goddesses of moon and childbirth, let me bear this child into another time.”

The girl threw her arms around my neck. The ocean screamed, and tentacles surged at us, but Mrs. Goldblum and the cultists vanished as if they had fallen into a well, and Sophy clung to me as we left behind everything and everyone she knew. I did not see Captain Briggs again.

***

Cicelle threw a blanket over my shoulders and tried to wrap Sophia in another, but the child would not let go of me. “Mama,” she sobbed. “Papa.” She cried even as she fell asleep on my lap.

“Where are the others?” asked Océane. “Are they all right? Do they live?”

“I don’t know. Mrs. Stella…maybe. I hope she’s helping Captain Briggs. He was alive last I saw.” My voice shied from the worst of the news; the other adepts leaned in to hear me. “I think Mrs. Goldblum is dead.”

“She is not dead,” said Miss Hammond. “But she will not return.”

“How do you know that?” demanded Océane. “How do you know?”

“Many ways.” Miss Hammond slumped sideways out of her kneeling position and propped herself unsteadily on one arm. I remembered then that Mrs. Goldblum had always sat by her, watchful and quiet. “Far too many ways.”

I found a glass of water and a handkerchief. Without caring whose they were, I wet the handkerchief and cleaned the crusted blood from Sophy’s face. I wrapped her up and did not let go.

Mrs. Stella returned a little before midnight, alone and empty-eyed. She was not herself. Her hair was rough and tangled, its color drab. The roses were gone from her cheeks, and I had never realized she had such a funny chin. She sat hunched and stiff-shouldered, rocking herself, muttering in shrill gasps.

Within the hour, her two grown daughters arrived. The headmistress led Mrs. Stella gently away, but the school nurse stayed with us even after she had checked our injuries. She was enchanting company, and my tired eyes took solace in looking at her, but we all sustained our vigil.

At dawn, Cicelle and Océane drove Mrs. Goldblum’s car into the lake. “A tragic mistake brought on by exhaustion and fever,” said the nurse, who asked us to call her Aurora. “She sacrificed her own health, and finally her life, for the children. My own mother went mad with the same fever and worry for the students. I will always blame myself for not realizing what they were doing.”

That was my job, I thought, but Aurora’s fiction was compelling. In time, almost everyone believed it.

But first, there was the question of Sophy.

We went down to Cicelle’s apartment to raid her kitchen for breakfast. I carried Sophy down the stairs. She was warm and heavy. She stirred a little from the jostling, but she did not cry again.

As we sank onto the carpets and into the upholstery, Miss Hammond said, “I must go on another journey. I will bring the child.”

“No.” I stroked Sophy’s blonde curls, matted though they were by wind and salt. “You can’t take her, Miss Hammond. She came with me.”

“She is powerful, and Eris is strong. I will raise her outside of time until her potential is realized. ”

“No.” I kept my voice low. “She came with me willingly, and I won’t betray her. I won’t hand her off to the next person who has plans for her.”

“The world will be safer. Eris should not go uncontrolled.”

“Strife is part of being human,” said Océane. “The more human we let her be, the better it will go for all of us.”

“She has a strong name. ‘Sophia’ for wisdom and ‘Matilda’ for strength in battle,” said Alvilda.

“The strength and wisdom to fight only the righteous battles,” said Damini. She laughed, a great booming sound that added weight to her pronouncement.

There was a long, tense silence. Cicelle cleared her throat. “I agree with them. Sophia has lost her family and her place in time. She doesn’t need to be out of the way. She needs people to teach her, people to rear her, people to love her.

“I have one sister who doesn’t have children yet. She and her husband will come if I ask. Sophia will be my niece in name, though not in blood, and we will all bring her up together. When she is older, she can choose another time if she agrees.”

“We have all gone ape for this baby,” said Bea. “Miss Hammond, you can’t take her away.”

Miss Hammond did not argue any more. It occurs to me when I review my memory that perhaps she stopped not out of exhaustion, but relief. Perhaps that was what she wanted all along.

***

The phone call I expected came through on a muggy August day in 2006. Summer school enrollment was low, even for Ball Academy; I taught only one history class that morning, and I was supervising noon recess when the school secretary came to get me. “It’s from Cambridge,” she told me. “The headmistress says you can take it in her office.”

I picked up the receiver, a modern cordless one that buzzed when I strayed too far from the desk. “Hello, Angie,” I said to Mrs. Goldblum’s granddaughter. “How are you?”

“Weak, as you’ve no doubt heard.” She chuckled, a wry sound that was neither happy nor bitter. “Miss Hammond told me that Pluto would be reclassified, but I didn’t believe it until Veronica called from the IAU meeting. A dwarf planet! Maybe I’ll get new powers from Dungeons & Dragons.”

“That would be nice for the adept of Ceres, too. And the other one.” I waited, letting Angie tell the rest in her own time.

“My mum’s mum is dead. I’m sure I’m a weak adept compared to the rest of you, but my spells are stronger than they were, and I have some abilities I didn’t have before. Mum’s a good sorceress, but she’s no adept. I can contact Grandma now, and Mum’s never been able to, so…” Angie drew a ragged breath. “I’m sorry. I know you knew her.”

“I’m sorry you didn’t know her. She was a remarkable person.” I stared out the window at nothing. The green trees were still, and even the children were lazing about quietly. “Do you realize she kept two rival adepts busy for over half a century? We never found out exactly what they could do, but I’m sure she saw it all.”

“…Does that mean she failed?”

Even though I knew Angie couldn’t see me, I shook my head. “Cthulhu has become more popular, but he’s still bound in fiction. Although the Mary Celeste mystery has never been definitively solved, it hasn’t grown any stranger. I can’t say what happened to those two cultists, but it’s clear they didn’t succeed in their mission.”

We chatted a few minutes more, trying to set each other at ease. As Angie’s break time drew to a close, we said goodbye so she could go back to work. She would be all right.

When I left the office, someone was waiting for me in the hall. She was old enough to be petite, not just small for her age. An Alice band held her wheat-blond hair off her face. Although she looked like none of the adepts of my youth, I felt for a moment that I was fourteen again, smoothing hair matted by the sea.

“Good afternoon, Sophy,” I said. “How are you doing?”

She turned to look at me with ice-blue eyes. Her father’s eyes. She smiled. It has always made me sad that I don’t know whose smile she has.

“I’m still getting used to it,” she said. “I mean… Xena? We’ve already had arguments in the dorm about whether it’s a stupid name or an awesome one.”

“At least it’s only your planet’s name. I just spoke to Angerona, daughter of Hecate, granddaughter of Inanna.” I didn’t feel disloyal telling Sophy this; Angie and Kitty told me straight-up they didn’t like explaining their full names, and Mrs. Goldblum didn’t like to stand out, either. “Miss Hammond says they’ll rename Xena ‘dwarf planet Eris’ soon, and then your powers will be stronger.”

“And you’re sure that’s all right?” She bit her lip. “You don’t think I’ll screw it up?”

“If you restrict your powers to television fandom, I don’t see what you could hurt.”

She didn’t laugh, so I tried again. “Your genes are strong on both sides, Sophy. Your mother carried the bloodline of Eris, but she was a peaceable person. So was your father. They were intelligent, and fair, and good. They loved each other, and they loved you.

“That’s what you inherit from them. The other adepts are training you as best we can. And the rest…”

“The rest is up to me.” For once, I didn’t mind being interrupted by a student. “I have a feeling it won’t be easy.”

“You’re right, of course. Does that bother you?”

Sophy frowned, then laughed and shook her head. “Not really.”

We walked together down the hall, savoring the last moments of air conditioning before heading back out into the heat. I stopped for one last cool breath, one moment to reinforce Sophy’s truths. Mary, not Marie. Briggs, not Tibbs. Eris, not evil. Sophy would strive, and I would remember.

Always. Always, I remember.


 

Laura Blackwell is a writer, editor, and journalist living in Northern California. She finds the International Astronomy Union’s scruples in naming moons and planets highly pleasing.