Simon Watson, a young librarian, lives alone in a house that is slowly crumbling toward the Long Island Sound. His parents are long dead. His mother, a circus mermaid who made her living by holding her breath, drowned in the very water his house overlooks. His younger sister, Enola, ran off to join the circus six years ago.
One June day, an old book arrives on Simon’s doorstep. Fragile and water damaged, the book is a log from the owner of a traveling carnival in the 1700s, who reports strange and magical things-including the drowning death of a circus mermaid. Since then, generations of “mermaids” in Simon’s family have drowned—always on July 24, which is only weeks away. As his friend Alice looks on with alarm, Simon becomes increasingly worried about his sister. Could there be a curse on Simon’s family? What does it have to do with the book, and can he stop it in time to save Enola?
The Book of Speculation is Erika Swyler’s gorgeous and moving debut, a wondrous novel about the power of books, family, and magic—available June 23rd from St. Martin’s Press!
Perched on the bluff’s edge, the house is in danger. Last night’s storm tore land and churned water, littering the beach with bottles, seaweed, and horseshoe crab carapaces. The place where I’ve spent my entire life is unlikely to survive the fall storm season. The Long Island Sound is peppered with the remains of homes and lifetimes, all ground to sand in its greedy maw. It is a hunger.
Measures that should have been taken—bulkheads, terracing—weren’t. My father’s apathy left me to inherit an unfixable problem, one too costly for a librarian in Napawset. But we librarians are known for being resourceful.
I walk toward the wooden stairs that sprawl down the cliff and lean into the sand. I’ve been delinquent in breaking in my calluses this year and my feet hurt where stones chew at them. On the north shore few things are more essential than hard feet. My sister, Enola, and I used to run shoeless in the summers until the pavement got so hot our toes sank into the tar. Outsiders can’t walk these shores.
At the bottom of the steps Frank McAvoy waves to me before turning his gaze to the cliff. He has a skiff with him, a beautiful vessel that looks as if it’s been carved from a single piece of wood. Frank is a boatwright and a good man who has known my family since before I was born. When he smiles his face breaks into the splotchy weathered lines of an Irishman with too many years in the sun. His eyebrows curl upward and disappear beneath the brim of an aging canvas hat he’s never without. Had my father lived into his sixties he might have looked like Frank, with the same yellowed teeth, the reddish freckles.
To look at Frank is to remember me, young, crawling among wood set up for a bonfire, and his huge hand pulling me away from a toppling log. He summons memories of my father poised over a barbecue, grilling corn—the smell of charred husk and burning silk—while Frank regaled us with fishing stories. Frank lied hugely, obviously. My mother and his wife egged him on, their laughter frightening the gulls. Two people are now missing from the tableau. I look at Frank and see my parents; I imagine it’s impossible for him to look at me and not see his departed friends.
“Looks like the storm hit you hard, Simon,” he says.
“I know. I lost five feet.” Five feet is an underestimate.
“I told your dad that he needed to get on that bulkhead, put in trees.” The McAvoy property lies a few hundred yards west of my house, farther back from the water with a terraced and planted bluff that’s designed to save Frank’s house come hell or, literally, high water.
“Dad was never big on listening.”
“No, he wasn’t. Still, a patch or two on that bulkhead could have saved you a world of trouble.”
“You know what he was like.” The silence, the resignation.
Frank sucks air through his teeth, making a dry whistling sound. “I guess he thought he had more time to fix things.”
“Probably,” I say. Who knows what my father thought?
“The water’s been coming up high the last couple years, though.”
“I know. I can’t let it go much longer. If you’ve got somebody you trust, I’d appreciate the name of a contractor.”
“Absolutely. I can send someone your way.” He scratches the back of his neck. “I won’t lie, though, it won’t be cheap.”
“Nothing is anymore, is it?”
“No, I suppose not.”
“I may wind up having to sell.”
“I’d hate to see you do that.” Frank’s brow furrows, tugging his hat down.
“The property is worth something even if the house goes.”
“Think on it some.”
Frank knows my financial constraints. His daughter, Alice, also works at the library. Redheaded and pretty, Alice has her father’s smile and a way with kids. She’s better with people than I am, which is why she handles programming and I’m in reference. But we’re not here about Alice, or the perilous state of my house. We’re here to do what we’ve done for over a decade, setting buoys to cordon off a swimming area. The storm was strong enough to pull the buoys and their anchors ashore, leaving them a heap of rusted chains and orange rope braid, alive with barnacles. It’s little wonder I lost land.
“Shall we?” I ask.
“Might as well. Day’s not getting any younger.”
I strip off my shirt, heft the chains and ropes over a shoulder, and begin the slow walk into the water.
“Sure you don’t need a hand?” Frank asks. The skiff scrapes against the sand as he pushes it into the water.
“No thanks, I’ve got it.” I could do it by myself, but it’s safer to have Frank follow me. He isn’t really here for me; he’s here for the same reason I do this walk every year: to remember my mother, Paulina, who drowned in this water.
The Sound is icy for June, but once in I am whole and my feet curl around algae-covered rocks as if made to fit them. The anchor chains slow me, but Frank keeps pace, circling the oars. I walk until the water reaches my chest, then neck. Just before dipping under I exhale everything, then breathe in, like my mother taught me on a warm morning in late July, like I taught my sister.
The trick to holding your breath is to be thirsty.
“Out in a quick hard breath,” my mother said, her voice soft just by my ear. In the shallow water her thick black hair flowed around us in rivers. I was five years old. She pressed my stomach until muscle sucked in, navel almost touching spine. She pushed hard, sharp fingernails pricking. “Now in, fast. Quick, quick, quick. Spread your ribs wide. Think wide.” She breathed and her ribcage expanded, bird-thin bones splayed until her stomach was barrel-round. Her bathing suit was a bright white glare in the water. I squinted to watch it. She thumped a finger against my sternum. Tap. Tap. Tap. “You’re breathing up, Simon. If you breathe up you’ll drown. Up cuts off the space in your belly.” A gentle touch. A little smile. My mother said to imagine you’re thirsty, dried out and empty, and then drink the air. Stretch your bones and drink wide and deep. Once my stomach rounded to a fat drum she whispered, “Wonderful, wonderful. Now, we go under.”
Now, I go under. Soft rays filter down around the shadow of Frank’s boat. I hear her sometimes, drifting through the water, and glimpse her now and then, behind curtains of seaweed, black hair mingling with kelp.
My breath fractures into a fine mist over my skin.
Paulina, my mother, was a circus and carnival performer, fortune-teller, magician’s assistant, and mermaid who made her living by holding her breath. She taught me to swim like a fish, and she made my father smile. She disappeared often. She would quit jobs or work two and three at once. She stayed in hotels just to try out other beds. My father, Daniel, was a machinist and her constant. He was at the house, smiling, waiting for her to return, waiting for her to call him darling.
Simon, darling. She called me that as well.
I was seven years old the day she walked into the water. I’ve tried to forget, but it’s become my fondest memory of her. She left us in the morning after making breakfast. Hard-boiled eggs that had to be cracked on the side of a plate and peeled with fingernails, getting bits of shell underneath them. I cracked and peeled my sister’s egg, cutting it into slivers for her toddler fingers. Dry toast and orange juice to accompany. The early hours of summer make shadows darker, faces fairer, and hollows all the more angular. Paulina was a beauty that morning, swanlike, someone who did not fit. Dad was at work at the plant. She was alone with us, watching, nodding as I cut Enola’s egg.
“You’re a good big brother, Simon. Look out for Enola. She’ll want to run off on you. Promise you won’t let her.”
“You’re a wonderful boy, aren’t you? I never expected that. I didn’t expect you at all.”
The pendulum on the cuckoo clock ticked back and forth. She tapped a heel on the linoleum, keeping quiet time. Enola covered herself with egg and crumbs. I battled to eat and keep my sister clean.
After a while my mother stood and smoothed the front of her yellow summer skirt. “I’ll see you later, Simon. Goodbye, Enola.”
She kissed Enola’s cheek and pressed her lips to the top of my head. She waved goodbye, smiled, and left for what I thought was work. How could I have known that goodbye meant goodbye? Hard thoughts are held in small words. When she looked at me that morning, she knew I would take care of Enola. She knew we could not follow. It was the only time she could go.
Not long after, while Alice McAvoy and I raced cars across her living room rug, my mother drowned herself in the Sound.
I lean into the water, pushing with my chest, digging in my toes. A few more feet and I drop an anchor with a muffled clang. I look at the boat’s shadow. Frank is anxious. The oars slap the surface. What must it be like to breathe water? I imagine my mother’s contorted face, but keep walking until I can set the other anchor, and then empty the air from my lungs and tread toward the shore, trying to stay on the bottom for as long as possible—a game Enola and I used to play. I swim only when it’s too difficult to maintain the balance to walk, then my arms move in steady strokes, cutting the Sound like one of Frank’s boats. When the water is just deep enough to cover my head, I touch back down to the bottom. What I do next is for Frank’s benefit.
“Slowly, Simon,” my mother told me. “Keep your eyes open, even when it stings. It hurts more coming out than going in, but keep them open. No blinking.” Salt burns but she never blinked, not in the water, not when the air first hit her eyes. She was moving sculpture. “Don’t breathe, not even when your nose is above. Breathe too quickly and you get a mouthful of salt. Wait,” she said, holding the word out like a promise. “Wait until your mouth breaks the water, but breathe through your nose, or it looks like you’re tired. You can never be tired. Then you smile.” Though small-mouthed and thin-lipped, her smile stretched as wide as the water. She showed me how to bow properly: arms high, chest out, a crane taking flight. “Crowds love very small people and very tall ones. Don’t bend at the waist like an actor; it cuts you off. Let them think you’re taller than you are.” She smiled at me around her raised arms, “And you’re going to be very tall, Simon.” A tight nod to an invisible audience. “Be gracious, too. Always gracious.”
I don’t bow, not for Frank. The last time I bowed was when I taught Enola and the salt stung our eyes so badly we looked like we’d been fighting. Still, I smile and take in a deep breath through my nose, let my ribs stretch and fill my gut.
“Thought I was going to have to go in after you,” Frank calls.
“How long was I down?”
He eyes his watch with its cracked leather strap and expels a breath. “Nine minutes.”
“Mom could do eleven.” I shake the water from my hair, thumping twice to get it out of my ear.
“Never understood it,” Frank mutters as he frees the oars from the locks. They clatter when he tosses them inside the skiff. There’s a question neither of us asks: how long would it take for a breath-holder to drown?
When I throw on my shirt it’s full of sand; a consequence of shore living, it’s always in the hair, under the toenails, in the folds of the sheets.
Frank comes up behind me, puffing from dragging the boat.
“You should have let me help you with that.”
He slaps my back. “If I don’t push myself now and again I’ll just get old.”
We make small talk about things at the marina. He complains about the prevalence of fiberglass boats, we both wax poetic about Windmill, the racing sail he’d shared with my father. After Mom drowned, Dad sold the boat without explanation. It was cruel of him to do that to Frank, but I suppose Frank could have bought it outright if he’d wanted. We avoid talking about the house, though it’s clear he’s upset over the idea of selling it. I’d rather not sell either. Instead we exchange pleasantries about Alice. I say I’m keeping an eye out for her, though it’s unnecessary.
“How’s that sister of yours? She settled anywhere yet?”
“Not that I know of. To be honest, I don’t know if she ever will.”
Frank smiles a little. We both think it: Enola is restless like my mother.
“Still reading tarot cards?” he asks.
“She’s getting by.” She’s taken up with a carnival. Once that’s said, we’ve ticked off the requisite conversational boxes. We dry off and heft the skiff back up on the bulkhead.
“Are you heading up?” I ask. “I’ll walk back with you.”
“It’s a nice day,” he says. “Think I’ll stay down here awhile.” The ritual is done. We part ways once we’ve drowned our ghosts.
I take the steps back, avoiding the poison ivy that grows over the railings and runs rampant over the bluff—no one pulls it out; anything that anchors the sand is worth whatever evil it brings—and cut through the beach grass, toward home. Like many Napawset houses, mine is a true colonial, built in the late 1700s. A plaque from the historical society hung beside the front door until it blew away in a nor’easter a few years back. The Timothy Wabash house. With peeling white paint, four crooked windows, and a sloping step, the house’s appearance marks prolonged negligence and a serious lack of funds.
On the faded green front step (have to get to that) a package props open the screen door. The deliveryman always leaves the door open though I’ve left countless notes not to; the last thing I need is to re-hang a door on a house that hasn’t been square since the day it was built. I haven’t ordered anything and can’t think of anyone who would send me something. Enola is rarely in one place long enough to mail more than a postcard. Even then they’re usually blank.
The package is heavy, awkward, and addressed with the spidery scrawl of an elderly person—a style I’m familiar with, as the library’s patrons are by and large an aging group. That reminds me, I need to talk to Janice about finding stretchable dollars in the library budget. Things might not be too bad if I can get a patch on the bulkhead. It wouldn’t be a raise, a one-time bonus maybe, for years of service. The sender is no one I know, an M. Churchwarry in Iowa. I clear a stack of papers from the desk—a few articles on circus and carnivals, things I’ve collected over the years to keep abreast of my sister’s life.
The box contains a good-sized book, carefully wrapped. Even before opening it, the musty, slightly acrid scent indicates old paper, wood, leather, and glue. It’s enveloped in tissue and newsprint, and unwrapping reveals a dark leather binding covered with what would be intricate scrollwork had it not suffered substantial water damage. A small shock runs through me. It’s very old, not a book to be handled with naked fingers, but seeing as it’s already ruined, I give in to the quiet thrill of touching something with history. The edges of the undamaged paper are soft, gritty. The library’s whaling collection lets me dabble in archival work and restoration, enough to say that the book feels to be at least from the 1800s. This is appointment reading, not a book you ship without warning. I shuffle my papers into two small stacks to support the volume—a poor substitute for the bookstands it deserves, but they’ll do.
A letter is tucked inside the front cover, written in watery ink with the same shaky hand.
Dear Mr. Watson, it begins. I came across this book at auction as part of a larger lot I purchased on speculation. The damage renders it useless to me, but a name inside it—Verona Bonn—led me to believe it might be of interest to you or your family. It’s a lovely book, and I hope that it finds a good home with you. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions that you feel I may be able to answer. It is signed by a Mr. Martin Churchwarry of Churchwarry & Son and includes a telephone number. A bookseller, specializing in used and antiquarian books.
Verona Bonn. What my grandmother’s name would be doing inside this book is beyond me. A traveling performer like my mother, she would have had no place in her life for a book like this. With the edge of my finger, I turn a page. The paper nearly crackles with the effort. Must remember to grab gloves along with bookstands. The inside page is filled with elaborate writing, an excessively ornamented copperplate with whimsical flourishes that make it barely legible. It appears to be an accounting book or journal of a Mr. Hermelius Peabody, related to something containing the words portable and miracle. Any other identifiers are obscured by water damage and Mr. Peabody’s devotion to calligraphy. Skimming reveals sketches of women and men, buildings, and fanciful curved-roof wagons, all in brown. I never knew my grandmother. She passed away when my mother was a child, and my mother never spoke about her much. How this book connects to my grandmother is unclear, but it’s interesting nonetheless.
I dial the number, ignoring the stutter indicating a message. It rings for an exceedingly long time before an answering machine picks up and a man’s weathered voice states that I’ve reached Churchwarry & Son Booksellers and instructs to leave the time and date in addition to a detailed message as to any specific volume I’m seeking. The handwriting didn’t lie. This is an old man.
“Mr. Churchwarry, this is Simon Watson. I received a book from you. I’m not sure why you sent it, but I’m curious. It’s June twentieth, just six o’clock. It’s a fantastic specimen and I’d love to know more about it.” I leave multiple numbers, cell, home, and library.
Across the street, Frank heads toward his workshop, a barn to the side of his property. A piece of wood tucked under his arm, a jig of some sort. I should have asked him for money, not a contractor. Workmen I can probably find, the money to do the work is an entirely different matter. I need a raise. Or a different job. Or both.
A blinking light catches my eye. Voicemail. Right. I punch in the numbers. The voice at the other end is not one I expect to hear.
“Hey, it’s me. Shit. Do I call enough to be an it’s me? I hope you have an it’s me. That would be good. Anyway, it’s me, Enola. I’m giving you a heads up. I’m coming home in July. It would be good to see you, if you feel like being around. Actually, I want you to be around. So, I’m coming home in July, so you should be home. Okay? Bye.”
I play it back again. She doesn’t call enough to be an it’s me. There’s noise in the background, people talking, laughing, maybe even the sound of a carnival ride or two, but I might be imagining that. No dates, no number, just July. Enola doesn’t work on a normal timeline; to her, leaving a month’s window is reasonable. It’s good to hear her voice, but also concerning. Enola hasn’t called in more than two months and hasn’t been home in six years, not since announcing that if she spent one more day in this house with me she’d die. It was a typical thing to say, but different in that we both knew she meant it, different because I’d spent the previous four years taking care of her after Dad died. Since then she’s called from time to time, leaving rambling messages. Our conversations are brief and centered on needs. Two years ago she called, sick with the flu. I found her in a hotel in New Jersey, hugging a toilet. I stayed three days. She refused to come home.
She wants to visit. She can. I haven’t touched her room since she left, hoping she’d come back, I suppose. I’d thought about turning it into a library, but there were always more immediate concerns, patching leaks, fixing electrical problems, replacing windows. Repurposing my long-gone sister’s room wasn’t a priority. Though perhaps it’s convenient to think so.
The book sits by the phone, a tempting little mystery. I won’t sleep tonight; I often don’t. I’ll be up, fixating. On the house, on my sister, on money. I trace the curve of a flourished H with my thumb. If this book is meant for me, best find out why.
Excerpted from The Book of Speculation © Erika Swyler, 2015