[ 1. ]
Francis awoke to the grey, mid-morning light, which streamed through the blue curtains of his small, boxy room, highlighting the ample dust that floated freely but dully throughout space. The pillow his head was lying on was soaked with what he hoped was sweat. He didn’t want to check. He didn’t want to move. Everything hurt.
The pain started in his head. A sledgehammer was beating against the inner wall of his cranium, picking up speed and ferocity with every breath, driving shards of razor-sharp glass into his grey matter. His arms and legs were heavy and useless, inflamed and sore. The thought of shifting them in bed caused him to seize in fear and remain rooted to the spot; the thought of them supporting his body or directing his movement was unimaginable, an impossibility, a pitiful and cruel joke.
And his gut? Well, the whole thing felt ruined, a wretched mess of organs and viscera that had been pickled beyond measure. It had all been turned into a noxious, volatile arena, prone to rising tides of nausea that defied comprehension. His innards had been reduced to a pool of inky, rancid liquid; a sea of black bile; a temperamental, poisonous morass that any moment could surge up like a biblical flood, overwhelming his senses and drowning out everything.
He lay in his agony and his self-pity, desperately hoping for a tonic, a panacea or at the very least a blunt object to bash himself back into the sweet, welcoming darkness of unconsciousness. But none came; he was awake and he was helpless, and inside his heavy yet strangely weightless head, he was at the mercy of forces that were beyond his control but were, at the very least, not beyond his understanding.
A knock rang out from behind the thick, rough timber of his bedroom door. He knew who it was from the first muted thump. He knew that a wizened, boney hand was responsible for the din, and that this evil, merciless claw belonged to his Mrs. Martha Mooney, landlady and professional battleaxe.
He had been renting from Mrs. Mooney from the beginning of his stay at Cravenmoor one week ago. The night he arrived in the seaport, he had found her boarding house on a side street off the downtown’s main arterial, adjacent to the local notary office and a shuttered tannery. Stumbling towards it, quite drunk from the four scotches and two lagers he had guzzled greedily at a ramshackle old bar up the street, the house felt like a refuge from the October drizzle inundating the town’s streets and the unforgiving, rocky terrain where land met water. A welcoming oil lamp hung above a battered, oaken sign, inscribed with peeling golden letters proclaiming “Rooms Here.” The flame blazed merrily amidst Cravenmoor’s gloomy atmosphere – but only the immediate area. It couldn’t abolish the darkness the hung across the cobblestone-laden street on which the house sat, nor penetrate the narrow, weed-filled alleyways, where human forms sat huddled in black, ragged cloaks.
The house itself was nothing to look at. The two-story, timber-framed building was grey and brown in color, slick from Cravenmoor’s perpetual rain. Dark green growths of moss were interspersed between the battered wooden paneling of the facade. It felt tired, as if it had been rubbed raw throughout its many years of existence. The roof also looked as if it could survive only a few more winters before it would need serious repair. Some spots of discoloration were visible even from the road, and there was a faint smell of rot and decay that assailed him every time he entered the house’s proximity.
Still, it had character in spades and was adjacent to everything he needed. The boarding house stood only a block or so from the main marina of the town, separated by the Gothic demonstrativeness of one of the hamlet’s churches. He could hear the lapping of the Atlantic’s dark, blue-black waters against barnacle-encrusted docks from his bedroom’s window, even with the hum of Cravenmoor’s foot-traffic. He could also smell its salty brine, even over the rancid odors of the wharf: an inescapable mixture of rotting fish, old beer and raw sewage, which perpetually belched into the sea from rusty pipes a quarter-mile from where the boarding house stood. Even better, the municipality’s few remaining pubs were around the corner, their amber and burnt sienna-colored delights a mere hop, skip and a jump from where he rested his head on his room’s yellowish, gnarled pillow.
Mrs. Mooney was a great landlady. Although sometimes cold and severe, and physically ailing from a lifetime tending to roughnecks and seamen, she was clear-eyed and indomitable, sharp as a whip and acerbic in tongue. She didn’t miss anything, and she often let him know it. When speaking (admonishing) him, she could be counted on to extend a leathery and cracked finger in his direction, emphasizing one or another of his failings, calling him out on his drinking, his women. This almost maternal harshness could be grating, but it was mostly appreciated. He had gone without it for so long that he often caught himself secretly hoping for her violently verbal recrimination.
Outside the door, Mrs. Mooney huffed and puffed, before slamming her hand back down on the oak that separated her from Francis.
“Coming,” said the man, voice slurred and barely intelligible.
Mrs. Mooney shook her head, silvery hair remaining unmoved due to the tight bun that she wound it into every morning. Her silver crucifix, which she slung around her neck every morning, swung mildly to and fro, glancing off her monochromatic dress.
She didn’t know why she bothered with Francis. When he originally turned up at her doorstep, she had no qualms with renting him a room, but his boozing and philandering had soon reared its ugly, outrageous head and disrupted her relatively quiet life of dealing with the half-wits and imbeciles that constituted her typical clientele. She supposed it was because he simply seemed worth it. Francis was a self-professed writer and reporter by trade. And while, at the moment, it was difficult to think of him writing more than his own name, she had caught him in more lucid states, putting pen to paper in a way that was startling and unique. He also reminded her of her Amos when he was young, a man who had now been gone so long that little things – like the way he sighed in her sleep or the way he lit his pipe while nestled in the parlor chair – were fading away from her. So there was that; there was that.
She listened intently to the sounds coming from behind the door. There was the usual thrashing, the frenzied rustling of clothes being thrown on an awkward, uncoordinated and sleep-deprived body. The heavy door then creaked open and he stood before her, accompanied by a pungent aroma of liquor so powerful she was afraid it would burn off her nose hairs.
Francis was a towering yet thin fellow, long hair flecked with grey. Although she had never asked, she pegged Francis at around 40 years of age. He had a pale, lined, unshaven yet not unkind face. It had seen a few too many years to have maintained its boyish charm. It had also been introduced to a few too many bottles, now possessing that slightly puffy, inflamed look – the look of a drunk – which she knew all too well.
His clothing was worn and lived-in, patchy with stains and abrasions. She wasn’t entirely sure of his economic circumstances. His clothing looked like it had originally been refined and of good quality. But it was now degraded, well past his prime. She imagined Francis as a young man, being fawned over by his parents, sent to posh boarding schools and gorging on expensive sweets. What had led him to her door, clutching a battered satchel and dressed in such old, fraying garb? It didn’t matter really, but it was fun to think about. Was it some petty grievance, some silly act of rebellion? Difference in political opinion with the familial patriarch? An embarrassing misstep made in a high society circle? What had he done to deserve banishment to the dumpy port of Cravenmoor, an exile to their sad, broken hamlet of fishmen, criminals and vagabonds?
“What do ye’ ave’ to say for yourself?” she crowed with her Irish inflections, blue-grey eyes flashing with annoyance.
“Whada ya mean?” he croaked in response, as if he had a mouthful of molasses. Rubbing the small strip of skin between his dark brown eyes, he seemed barely able to focus on her. He had tied one on again last night. The inimitable, unmistakable burden of a thundering hangover was all over his face. She stifled a smile. Something about this young man amused her and elicited her pity. She would let him off the hook – but only slightly.
“I told ye’ that I wouldn’t put up with any funny business in this here house,” she said, extending a weathered finger towards his face, where it wagged slightly.
In the week that Francis had been staying with her, he had come back to the house every night from the bars reeking of cheap alcohol, sin and depression. On these nights, he didn’t just reenter the house, he crashed into it. The night before last, he had sent his room’s water pitcher careening to the floor as he stumbled into bed, where it shattered into what must have been easily a thousand pieces.
“If you thought that was funny, you’ve got a twisted sense of humor,” Francis said, smiling painfully while rubbing his temples.
As much as he liked Mrs. Mooney, and as much as he respected her, he couldn’t do this right now. The pain in his head had grown, like a throbbing, hot crown of thorns. He wanted to go back to bed and drift into endless sleep. He was growing annoyed with her finger jutting ever closer to his face, and for a moment he envisioned leaping forward, snapping it up and tasting blood.
“Oy! This is me’ place. When I took ye’ in, it was clear that ye’ needed someplace and someone. But don’t think for a second ye’ going to walk over me. I ave’ struggled far too long to keep this house’ afloat to ave’ it wrecked by the likes of ye’!”
“I’m sorry,” he murmured like a chastised schoolboy, corners of his thin-lipped mouth edging downward into an unmistakable pout.
Mrs. Mooney could feel herself relenting, breaking. “Fine,” she said, looking him up and down. He looked so helpless, so miserable, like a puppy who had piddled indoors and whose rump was now destined to meet a rolled up newspaper. Something moved inside of her, but then it met resistance, a brittleness, shaped by the decades, that left it feeble and immobile.
“Listen, I worry about ye’. I don’t know ye’re problem or how to fix it. I suppose if ye’ want to kill ye’re-self with that swill it’s ye’re decision. But wake the house again, and I’ll do it for ye’.”
She turned on her heel and walked back down the narrow hallway, passing a still photograph on the wall that depicted Cravenmoor almost 40 years prior. The picture had been taken directly after she had fled to America in hopes of escaping The Great Famine. The photo showed the town before the war that had torn the country apart. She had been a young woman then, only a few years away from wedding Amos and opening the doss house. Back then, the skies over Cravenmoor had still been grey and grim. In the picture, they were thick from the coal smog billowing away the town’s rooftops, which turned the surrounding rocky hills into a sort of hazy mirage.
Still, in those days the streets were bustling and the mills and fisheries were humming. It was a time before the uncertainty, before the collapse of industry left Cravenmoor in dire straights, eroding who and what it was. This was before the town’s fishermen began to return with their lines empty and, in their growing, beer-soaked depression, began to display an odd aversion to the sea that they had once loved and replied upon, claiming to have seen monstrous, chalk-white horrors swimming alongside their skiffs and schooners.
This was also before newcomers began pouring into the area with alarming frequency. To her, these were strange, insensible people, hailing from wild, far-flung areas like the Orient. Their influx has been, and continued to be, disturbing, particularly as it seemed to coincide with a lasting uptick in crime, which stripped the community of a sense of safety, and a slew of disappearances that had touched her personally.
The ancient wooden flooring creaked dramatically as she walked away from Francis, despite her footsteps being relatively light. Remembering something left unsaid, she circled back. “Breakfast is on,” she said, looking at him with genuine concern, her voice softer. “Ye’ need to eat. I worry about ye’.”
What he needed was a shot or two more, the hair of the dog to keep himself from the abyss. He watched Mrs. Martha Mooney walk off, her gait ungainly due to an injury that had healed poorly long ago. He was irritated and exhausted, but also touched and shaken. His insides were still in agonized ruin, and his head felt several sizes too large. But within all that, there was something else building, a pressure which snaked up his throat and stung his eyes. He couldn’t remember the last time someone had said that to him.
Francis cleaned and dressed himself more properly, pulling on his last clean white cotton shirt and tucking it into his woolen trousers. Before going downstairs, he also pulled out a banknote and scribbled his signature on the paper:
Rent was due, and if he didn’t get it to Mrs. Mooney soon, there would be additional hell to pay.