In today’s installment of featured fiction, we present an excerpt from Season Butler’s novel Cygnet, out today from Harper.
Publishers Weekly called the book poignant, adding that “Butler has created an appealingly rich world with quirky, flawed characters and a dramatic landscape determined by the constant action of wind and water. Butler delivers a potent and finely calibrated novel.”
“Pocahontas, you little ignoramus. Shouldn’t you be at school?”
That’s our little joke.
“Well, Miss Mental Health Day, you better move that caboose. You’re late.”
I am, or nearly anyway.
Before I can make an excuse, Rose starts shaking her head and clears her throat. “Got a call from Nick a minute ago,” she says with deliberate lightness, like someone calling a hurricane a spell of windy weather. “Says the slip last night rumbled the cat awake and it went skittering across his bed. Everything all right down at Violet’s?”
I don’t miss a beat. “It’s fine. I didn’t notice anything last night. Slept like a baby.”
This makes Rose roll her eyes. I wish I could remember not to say stupid shit like that.
“You know I don’t like you in that house,” she says flatly.
“No one likes me in that house.”
“And that’ll do with the back talk.”
“Sorry, Rose.” Just before I say goodbye, I build the courage to put myself in the way of disappointment. “By the way, when Ted brought over the boots from your niece, was there any mail for me, like bills or whatever?”
“Nothing for you, sugar.” She does that head-tilt thing that people do when they’re trying to be affectionate or sympathetic, but when Rose does it, it doesn’t seem fake. It doesn’t make me feel better, though. It’s like, come on, if they’re not going to call, they could write me a letter, send a postcard. Even if they couldn’t remember where they’d written down the address, even if they couldn’t even remember my name, they could just write: The Kid, Swan Island, New Hampshire and it would have gotten to me.
“He did bring a stack of newspapers, not even that old.”
“Just a paper then, Rose.”
I slide my nickel across the counter and she pulls a copy of the New York Times from two days ago out from under it and drops it down with a satisfying slap. That’s just the way she likes to do things, like everything needs a big yee-haw at the end. I know that five cents is cheap for a newspaper. The community subsidizes the price for nostalgic value so it only costs a nickel. This fat, ridiculous coin that’s pretty much good for nothing. Even pennies make up odd amounts, so they’re useful even if they’re practically worthless. On Swan Island selling newspapers makes a loss because the newspapers cost a nickel and that’s the way they like it.
“Go on now, scoot.” She turns away to switch on the radio—she likes Top 40s in the morning—and I catch her limping as she goes to take a box down from a far shelf. The little bells jingle behind me, laughing at a private joke.
Next to Rose’s grocery is the Relic, Swan’s tavern, then a rocky hill I have to climb up to get to Mrs. Tyburn’s house. The Relic is full every night and plays on the whole pirate island thing, the way that Bluebeard or Blackbeard or one of those dudes was supposed to have spent some time here, marauding or hiding treasure or whatever. I forget. It has one of those cute signs out front that swings from a chain old-fashioned-style with a picture of a ship on it. The blackboard outside always says the same thing:
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
Eat, Drink, and Be Merry
For Tomorrow We Die!
Another thing about this place is that the island is so small that you can see the ocean from wherever you are, which I really could do without. Seeing all that water is when it comes back to me: Lolly and my parents are gone, and however nice Rose and Suzie and Johnny are, I’m alone.
But the Swans are really proud of being able to always see the ocean. I’ve had at least four of them corner me at one point or another and whisper, like it’s the most amazing secret ever, “Have you noticed that you can see the ocean from every point on the island?” And I play dumb every time and say something like, “Wow, that’s amazing,” and then look around and say, “Oh, yeah, I see what you mean. Wow.” Older people really need you to put on a little show for them sometimes. It’s annoying.
The terrain flattens out to the last stretch leading up to Mrs. Tyburn’s house. Hers is taller and broader than most of the others, the same age as the chapel and the Oceanic, with fancy gables perched on top like a tiara. It’s just before nine when I let myself in. Mrs. Tyburn’s the only person I know with those long, old-fashioned keys, the kind that jailers have in old movies. And, as far as I know, the only one who bothers to lock her door on Swan. Even though I’ve done this a hundred times I’m still nervous when I walk through the foyer over floorboards dark and serious enough to be part of a musical instrument. The huge portrait of her late husband hangs on the far wall. It’s one of the parts of this job I’m looking forward to the least. I can doctor vacation snapshots and tweak home movies, but I’m not sure my skills will stretch to cinching the waist of a large man in an oil painting. I’ll do what I always do. Break life up into its parts, make it soft, blow it up, and fix it a pixel at a time.
From the book: Cygnet by Season Butler. Copyright © 2019 by Se