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Authors: Lauren Carter

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Dystopian, #Contemporary Women

Swarm

BOOK: Swarm
13.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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In the not-too-distant future, thirty-seven-year-old Sandy lives a challenging and unfamiliar life. She survives by fishing, farming, and beekeeping on an isolated island with her partner, Marvin, and friend, Thomson. When the footprints of a thieving child start appearing in their garden, the family must come together to protect both the child and their fragile community.

In the face of scarcity, Sandy still dreams of being a mother. The thought of a child compels her to revisit her earlier life in a city plagued by power outages, unemployment, and protests. There she met Marvin and joined his violent cause, initiating a chain of events that led to tragic and life-altering consequences.

A powerful debut novel,
Swarm
is about persevering in a time of shrinking options, and coming to terms with regrettable choices.

“Imbued with dark lyricism and a disturbingly credible view of the end of the world, Carter's debut sifts through the lives of people existing on an isolated island, grappling just to survive a time of enormous social upheaval and change...A somberly melodic, literary foray.”

—
Booklist

“In
Swarm
, Lauren Carter imagines with brave sensitivity a dystopian world only one turn of the dial from our own. Fleeing a decayed city, her characters struggle to survive in the rural wild—yet it is the fundamental human emotions of love and longing and the spectre of loss that shape their lives and animate this haunting novel.”

—Catherine Bush, author of
Accusation
and
The Rules of Engagement

“You wake up one morning and the world has changed but not in a good way. Lauren Carter's enthralling elegiac tale of what happens when the oil disappears is tender and terrifying and absolutely believable. In the same vein as Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro's speculative fiction, Swarm belongs to that illustrious tradition of combining what is human and familiar with life-changing circumstances.”

—Susan Swan, author of
The Wives of Bath
and
The Western Light

For my mother.

The god of the bees is the future.

—Maurice Maeterlinck

Go, entrust your wound to a surgeon,
for flies will gather around the wound
until it can't be seen.
These are your selfish thoughts
and all you dream of owning.
The wound is your own dark hole.

—Rumi

1
Island

By the time
I noticed you, Melissa, the supply ship was nine days late. Thomson had taken to rotating between resting spots—the couch, the chaise lounge, and, less often, his bed—while he grew sicker, waiting for the boat to deliver his pills. I was in the garden, tilling the soil, trying to encourage a larger bounty of tomatoes and collard greens, when I saw it. Your footprint. A dent in the earth as if a stone had been removed. Five toes, the heel no bigger than a head of garlic. A yellow zucchini flower curled over its crumbling edge. I stood and looked around—Thomson on his chaise lounge on the porch, Marvin invisible, out on the water, setting his nets. I lifted the thick green stalk half hiding your footprint and touched the hollow of your baby toe. So small. Quickly I buried the evidence: nudged the hole closed with the toe of my boot and went back to work. Tearing out the arugula that had gone to seed. Thinning the crowded beets.

Marvin
acted unconcerned about the ship. “It's been late before,” he said, reminding us of the time nearly three weeks passed before it sailed up to the town dock. It came from Midland, a larger city on the other side of the bay, loaded with donated rations and trade goods: luxuries like flour from the mills down south, sugar from Ohio beets, and a doctor who did his rounds, weighing babies on a battered chrome scale and delivering medicine like the prescriptions that shrank the shadows in Thomson's lungs.

Days earlier, I'd tipped the last of Thomson's pills into my palm and fed them to him with a ceramic cup of lake water. I hadn't wanted to tell him there weren't any left. But when I did, he only twisted his head to look toward our garden, the blue-shingled shed, the stand of pines and through the trees to the lake, which is always changing. The water moves from blue to turquoise-green to grey to no-colour, just a sheet of reflected sunlight like a large mirror you can lose yourself in. He didn't say a word.

Most
summer days we eat the evening meal together. Like family, like normal. I lay out the tarnished cutlery the way my mother taught me—knives and spoons on the right, forks on the left. I enjoy it even though the plates are usually half empty—a dark slice of boiled beet, forest greens, a scrap of squirrel or fresh fish if Marvin's catch was big enough. In late fall and winter and early spring we don't do it like that. The table gets shoved into a corner and sits there, taunting. Last year I had to stop Marvin from breaking it apart and burning it and sent him instead to the mite-infested hives. A mistake.

In our L-shaped living room, off the kitchen, I laid three mismatched plates and straightened the hem of the ragged lace tablecloth. Tense, I tucked closed the gaps of its tears as Marvin talked about the last time we were worried about the missing supply ship. He sat in the plaid recliner, its fabric torn by a long-gone cat, and stripped his left sock from his foot. Cupped his fingers around his toes, white as fish fat.

“Anyway,” he said. “I'm more worried about the hens.” He glanced at me. “And you've been harvesting the carrots too early.”

“I have not.”

“Well, something is.”

“I hear them,” Thomson said from the couch. “They rattle the underbrush. They take things.”

“Squirrels,” Marvin muttered.

I set the last spoon. Not that we needed spoons. There wasn't any ice cream or crème brûlée.

“Nymphs,” said Thomson. Greasy twists of grey hair hung in his face. His cheeks were sunken and waxy. Still, he was smiling.

“Trolls,” I said.

“Fairies.” His eyes glittered.

“Enough.” Marvin nervously tugged the tangle of his ponytail. “This isn't a game.”

Thomson exhaled roughly, an impatient sigh that started him coughing, and I went to him, pressing the back of my hand against his forehead. The heat of his skin made my knuckles burn. If the supply ship didn't arrive in a few days with Thomson's medicine, he wouldn't last more than a week. And then there would only be Marvin and me.

Our
island is shaped like the leaf of an elm. The stem is the swing bridge to the mainland and the serrated edges are the limestone cliffs. The tip is occupied by the lighthouse. It had been dark for more than a year by the time we arrived and took shelter under its extinguished lamp. The farmhouse that's become our permanent home is a few miles east of the lighthouse, inland. Built by pioneers, there are cracks in the cement that covers its wooden structure. It's also unheated; like most houses on the island, we have no forced air furnace or electricity. The car that brought us here sits abandoned on the edge of the dirt driveway. Dark grey saplings grow through gaps in the engine block, weaving through the slackened belts.

According to Mr. Bobiwash, our nearest neighbour, the island has had many lives. Once, it was the bottom of a warm, tropical sea. Millions of years later, it became a sacred place for his father's people. He took Thomson and me to see the spot where his great-grandfather was buried, where the wigwamace once stood on the grave, a small house built of split cedar that held provisions for the journey to the afterlife: tobacco, dried corn, a bow and arrow, maple sugar cakes, a miniature canoe. That custom died out when white settlers came. Loggers cut down the giant pine forest and pushed the Natives onto reserves. They built busy wooden towns that were burned to the ground by fire. After the lumber was gone, most of the settlers left. Without the binding roots of trees, a lot of the topsoil blew away. Cedar grew in place of pine. Then white birch, black cherry, and beech, with its grey bark like elephant skin.

Mr. Bobiwash grew up on his white grandmother's farm. The western half of the island, where we live, is mostly limestone and sandy soil, but Mr. Bobiwash came years ago when the land was cheap. When he found us squatting in our house, nearly starving, he helped us, taught us to bolster the soil with fish guts, wood ash, organic waste. His first wife, Mona, had strapped their infant daughter, Abigail, to her body and helped me cut tall grasses to use as mulch. We learned to take water from the lake when the rain doesn't come, and when we get too much rain there's nothing we can do. Planting the gardens and wild harvesting are my jobs, and Marvin does the fishing, heaving his nets over the side of the boat, chunks of balsam bark tied to their edges as floats. In the afternoon, he drags the nets in again, silver fish flashing in the green weave. In the beginning, he had to be careful because we were on the run, but there's no danger since the government office shut and more and more unlicensed boats are out on the bay.
Too many
, Marvin says, always wary.

While we work, Thomson watches us. Early on, when his illness was still in remission, he helped with darning our socks, shelling peas, or scavenging in nearby houses for anything we could use. He even went to town with Mr. Bobiwash, to take fish and honey to the market and hear the news. Marvin asked him not to, but he said he'd learned not to be afraid in Czechoslovakia and Chiapas and he wasn't about to start now. “It's got nothing to do with that,” Marvin said, and we both thought of it, the thing we were really afraid of, getting caught for what we'd left behind, but Thomson turned away and did what he wanted.

From him we got bits of information: fighting over good farmland, city streets powdered with soot. A woman once told him the central government had buckled, but nobody else could confirm it. There had been phones on the island, but they petered out when the cell towers fell, unmaintained, and the wire was stripped away. One day Thomson came home and said there'd been a meltdown at a nuclear power plant in China. For days we braced for impact, but nothing came of it. If fallout arrived it was invisible. And, as Marvin said, we no longer have the luxury of worrying about our health. Now, though, he is worried.

Leathery
fish fillets disappear from the smokehouse. Tomatoes vanish. So do pods full of hard beans, vital to our winter supply. We aren't hungry right now, though. No more than usual. We have pickerel caught during the spring spawn, whitefish, the plants I learned to identify and harvest from books I looted from the library in town. Cattail roots, purslane, Labrador tea. But despite the summer's food, the white animal of winter is alive in Marvin's eyes. At night he stays up to watch for you, our garden thief, and I sit with him, hoping to distract him if you come into the yard. Maybe you slip into our plot when we are busy doing other things. Marvin peeing off the edge of the porch although I have asked him not to more than a hundred times. Me, in the kitchen, fetching us tea. I imagine you looking in: my face in the window, white like birch against the black rooms.
I know you
, I think. And I do. The divots of your footprints in the damp earth, your body's blur in the cedar trees. So quick you could be anything. An animal, an escaped thought. But what you are, I feel, is mine, and what I want is simple. For you to come inside. To wash you in a warm, soapy bath. Wrap a towel around your skinny frame. Braid your hair on picture day. Stand on the side of the road waiting for the yellow school bus. Play a cartoon on the computer, make popcorn in the microwave, and sit on the couch and laugh. That perfect life. The one we once aspired to that won't ever exist again.

BOOK: Swarm
13.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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