Mary Swan’s work has been widely published in the US and Canada. Her novella “The Deep” won both the Malahat Review Novella Prize and the 2001 O. Henry Award for short fiction. Her novel, the Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist The Boys in the Trees, garnered international praise.
When Mary sent me the piece below, which she’s deleting from her latest book, I was tempted to write back and say Don’t cut, don’t cut! Greedily I’m posting it here instead.
The piece is from the book I’m working on now, not exactly a novel, not exactly a collection. A section will/must deal with the boy, Alec, and his uncle. This image of the weeding, green-stained woman is firmly lodged in my head; I’m sure that I’ll do something with it, but I sense that I need to get it out of this book, instead of trying to re-think time & relationships to fit around it, and around the character of this particular aunt.
That long summer his aunt sometimes came home with her fingers stained green from pulling weeds in other people’s gardens. He knew that because he followed her once, hanging back behind trees and prickly hedges although he could tell by the way she walked that it wouldn’t cross her mind that he might be there. Her flowered skirt swirled around as she knelt and took some kind of tool from the straw bag she had carried, hooked over her arm. The sun beat down on her wavy hair, sparked off the pins that tamed it, and he felt it on his own head too, the same heat. The air was heavy around him, his hands as thick and clumsy as his father’s were, his brain just as empty.
He didn’t watch long, didn’t want her to turn her head and catch him; he still had no idea what would make her laugh and what would make her narrow her eyes, slam a heavy mug down on the counter. Sometimes she scooped up his baby cousin and covered his stomach with smacking kisses, rubbed her nose on his tiny one while he crowed and clawed his fingers through her hair. Other times she closed the door on the room where he was crying, dragged two chairs out to the back yard and read a magazine with her feet propped up, or painted her toenails a fiery red.
The baby was small and useless, just waving his arms when Alec picked him up and sniffed the creases in his neck, fighting the urge to squeeze as hard as he could. You’re lucky, he whispered, setting him down and tucking the soft blanket. She’s not even here, no-one could save you. But the baby just blinked, too helpless to even be afraid.
Alec’s aunt was his mother’s sister, but they were nothing alike. Even his name sounded different in her mouth, a hard crack at the end. She was much younger than his uncle, who had another wife, dead, and other children who were grown and somewhere else, their pictures lined up on the mantel. His aunt had her own photo of a soldier, taken somewhere hot. He stood by a palm tree and an airplane, with his hands in his pockets and his hair all messy, falling over his forehead. It was curled up inside a dusty shoe at the back of her closet.