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 Season Butler. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
I didn’t read much during the first half of the year. Trying to finish up my own novel left me so exhausted, and at one point, so repelled by the creation of fiction that I could barely even look at a book. Which all seemed very much like something out of O. Henry: I’d started writing fiction because I love to read it and yet found myself unable to read because of what I was writing.
Funnily enough, the book that broke this curse was Enchantments: A Modern Witch’s Guide to Self-Possession by Mya Spalter. I picked it up because I aspire to project the appearance of self-possession—fake it until you make it, as they say. It’s a short book designed to remind its reader just how much power our intentions, habits, and rituals assert in our lives. I’m at my most functional when I’m fully engaged with this fact.
I read My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh, and the idea of taking a full year off from my own life to sleep was so appealing that it made me a little worried. At the time, I was feeling exhausted from writing, from work, from the news, from the bizarre way that time seemed to behave in 2018—somehow the beginning of the year feels like it was an eon ago. And yet, I don’t feel that I’m allowed to waste my own time, which makes me wonder if I suspect it doesn’t really belong to me.
I read two books of poetry this year, the first of which being Maps by John Freeman. As you might be able to tell from the title, it’s a strongly setting-oriented collection, and the focus on location was pleasantly grounding for me, even when the poems dealt with violence, grief, and other difficult subject matter. The second book was a re-read: IRL by Tommy Pico, who has been my closest friend for the last decade and a half. I revisited this book because I miss him—for the first time since we met we are no longer living in the same city; his departure was a quietly cataclysmic event that dominated the emotional landscape of my 2018. I love this book as I love Tommy, who is just as insightful and funny in person as he is on the page.
This year, I finally finished The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, which I’ve been reading since 2014. It’s a deeply weird book—the devil and his entourage show up in Soviet Moscow to torture the literati class, and Jesus and Pontius Pilate also appear in a few chapters. I doubt I would’ve kept reading it had it not been recommended to me by some good friends of mine whose taste I really like and respect. There was so much affection for me in this recommendation and so much affection for my friends in my desire to see the book through to the end. Which I’m glad I did. As it turned out, I ended up really liking and respecting the novel as well.
I read There, There by Tommy Orange, which made me extraordinarily jealous—I don’t know how someone writes so convincingly from multiple perspectives. I feel I will never be able to do this well, so of course it’s a feature of the next writing project I’m planning. Because of this project, which features a con artist, I read Fingersmith by Sarah Waters for inspiration. And I also read Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell, because I think I’d like to set it in 1940s New York.
I bought The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling because when I heard her read an excerpt from it, I felt mesmerized by the prose. Kiesling is an arresting writer on the sentence level, which is a talent that makes me as jealous as the ability to write from multiple perspectives. I loved this book because of the way it depicts a mother’s love for her child: unsentimentally, honestly, and intensely. And as a form of love that can be lonely, even though the object of it is always present.
I read XX by Angela Chadwick, which is also about motherhood. I turned 34 this year, and don’t yet have children but want them, so I found myself thinking about motherhood quite a bit in 2018. In the novel, two women, Rosie and Jules, participate in a clinical trial that allows Rosie to get pregnant through a process called ovum-to-ovum fertilization—meaning that they’re both genetic parents to their child. In the world of the novel, as it would be in the real world, this is highly controversial for many reasons, not the least of which being that participants in the trial can only have female children. I love this premise and Chadwick plays it out through characters that are very emotionally compelling.
Earlier this month, I read Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, as I was coming home from a trip to London to visit my grandmother, who’d had a small stroke earlier in the year (she’s fine). It is a short, light book about a woman who feels that nothing “normal” (marriage, children, professional ambition) is right for her. Instead, she believes that her reason for being is to serve the needs of the convenience store she works in and its customers. I loved this novel because it made me laugh when I really needed it.
2018 was an excellent year for new books. There were a few others that I remember reading and wholeheartedly enjoying: If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim, Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley, Heavy by Kiese Laymon and a galley of Cygnet by Season Butler, which will be out in 2019. I read more than a dozen books in the second half of the year, which is a lot for me because I’m not a particularly fast reader. I read so much because I wasn’t writing, which means my year in reading illustrates something very true about me: I either go all out or I don’t go at all. In 2018, I became inescapably aware of this, and as the year comes to a close, I’m trying to develop better habits that will lead me toward a more balanced 2019. Here’s hoping.
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