Cynthia Swanson is the New York Times bestselling author of “The Bookseller,” which is slated to be a motion picture starring Julia Roberts.
Swanson’s second novel, the USA Today bestseller “The Glass Forest,” was a finalist for the Colorado Authors’ League Award. Swanson’s novels have been translated into eighteen languages. She lives with her family in Denver, Colorado
The following is an excerpt Swanson’s new book, “The Glass Forest.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit
Colorado Authors League finalist for Mystery, Crime, Suspense
Door County, Wisconsin, 1960
The day started out clear and crisp—a perfect September morning with no foreboding of what was to come. After PJ woke from his nap, I bundled him into a sweater, stretchy knit pants, and a matching cap—hand-me-downs from my sister Dorrie’s children. Holding the baby against my hip, I stepped outside the cottage. It had rained the night before, and I breathed in the sultry fragrance, familiar as the scent of my own skin, of swollen lake water and sparse Wisconsin woods.
My feet crunched across our sand path over the unpaved road to North Bay. I made my way down the rickety wooden staircase to the bay, careful of the mud that always stuck to the stair treads after a hard rain. At the bottom, I squelched through the tall, mucky grasses to the edge of the water and with one hand turned over the lightweight canvas canoe my grandfather handcrafted decades ago. Over the weekend, Paul had fashioned a small wooden seat for PJ, padded and reclining, across the canoe’s middle bench. I was eager to try it out.
Humming softly, I fastened the baby with leather straps that Paul had hammered into each side of the bench. I paddled onto the bay, which PJ and I had to ourselves, save for a gathering of ducks floating serenely near the shore and a pair of gulls farther out. All the gnats and most of the mosquitoes were gone for the season. Only the occasional dragonfly buzzed over the water, its wings shimmering purple and blue in the sunlight.
I put up the paddle and let the canoe drift. Lulled by the gently rocking craft, PJ babbled cheerfully as he watched birds flying overhead.
I looked up, shielding my eyes from the sun, and as I did, a burst of splashing water erupted to my right. I whipped my head and shoulders around in time to see a trout shooting out of the bay, sending ripples across the surface when it plunged back in.
Pulled off balance by my sudden shift, I felt the canoe tipping sharply. PJ let out a wail. I twisted and saw the baby roll to the side and the top of his head touch the water. His shoulders and torso followed. The leather straps had come loose from the bench—Paul must not have hammered them in securely enough.
I grappled forward and snatched the baby by his ankles just before he went fully underwater. The canoe tilted and I sat down hastily, grinding my hip into the bench as I restored myself upright.
The baby wailed with surprise, his hair soaked, lake water dripping into his eyes and mingling with his tears. I hugged him to my chest and ran my fingers across his drenched head. “It’s okay, my little one,” I murmured. “You’re safe.”
I kissed PJ’s brow, tucking his head against my breast, and with my free hand crossed myself. Thank you, Virgin Mother, I silently prayed. Thank you for watching over for us.
The wooden paddle drifted nearby. Shaking, I stared at it. I snuggled the baby under my left arm, dunked my right forearm into the water, and propelled the canoe by hand until I reached the paddle. I retrieved it and tucked the baby more tightly against my body. Awkwardly, one-handed, I paddled toward the shore—graceless but steadfast.
I was just walking in the door when the telephone began to ring—the two short rings signifying the call coming over the party line was for my household. Still trembling, I slipped off my muddy galoshes. I dashed to the bathroom, wrapped the baby in a towel, and placed him on the davenport.
“Aunt Angie?” The female voice on the other end of the line was unfamiliar. I have more than a dozen nieces and nephews—I’m the youngest of six, and all my siblings have several children apiece—but only a handful of those children were old enough to make telephone calls. And of those few, none had a mature voice like this. Not quite the intonation of an adult, but surely not a child, either.
Only one person might call me aunt in that type of voice.
“Ruby?” I asked. “Is that you? Are you all right?”
There was no answer. I glanced across the room, watching PJ burble to himself as he swatted the loose threads on a sofa pillow. Considering what he’d been through on the bay, PJ was terrifically calm. How lucky I was to have such an agreeable baby, when all I heard from my sisters and sisters-in-law were gripes about colic and crankiness.
“We got us a winner,” Paul said whenever I marveled at this. “The boy’s a winner, Angel.”
And I would smile, both at his words and his pet name for me. Angel.
“Ruby?” I said again. “Are you there? Are you all right?”
“No,” Ruby answered in that restrained voice of hers, devoid of emotion and cool as the water in the bay. “No, Aunt Angie, I am not all right.”
There was another pause, and then Ruby said, “Aunt Angie, my father is dead. And my mother has run away.”
Stonekill, New York, 1960
“My mother left a note,” Ruby says to Aunt Angie on the telephone. “Explaining to my father and me that she was leaving.” Her voice lowering to a whisper, Ruby goes on. “She said she was sorry. But life is too short to wait.”
“That’s awful, Ruby,” Aunt Angie says. “Just awful.”
Ruby doesn’t answer. After a moment, Aunt Angie asks, “And your father…?”
Winding the telephone cord around her thumb, Ruby tells Aunt Angie the rest of the story: her father’s body was found slumped on the forest floor, just a few feet into her family’s woods behind their house. “He was at the base of an oak tree. He had a teacup in his hand,” Ruby says. “They’re testing the cup for poison. The police told me the coroner will likely rule it a suicide.”
Ruby’s voice is matter-of-fact. Because these are the facts, after all.
“Oh, my goodness,” Aunt Angie says. “I’m so sorry.” She pauses, and then adds, “Where are you now, honey?”
Ruby is silent. She is taking in the word Aunt Angie used. Honey.
Nobody calls Ruby anything like that. Not anymore.
“I’m at home,” Ruby says. “Would you have Uncle Paul call me as soon as he can?”
After they hang up, Ruby turns and opens the patio door. She steps off the patio, crosses the backyard, and enters her family’s dense forest. All she hears are birds and insects and the occasional squirrel scurrying through the underbrush. Passing a thick-trunked oak, she taps it gently, then moves on.
Ruby tramples along the narrow, barely perceptible path. She presses her threadbare gray-white tennis shoes into supple earth and soggy fallen leaves.
Eventually she comes into a small clearing. She sits on a rock. A heavy, rut-topped boulder, two feet in diameter, two feet tall. A rock that’s slick with dew, embedded quartz chips sparkling in the late-morning sunlight that filters through the treetops.
The rocks are the earth; everything around them is temporal. These rocks were here before the Algonquians, who in their turn inhabited this forest long before the Dutch settled New York State a mere three hundred years ago. Boulders like the one Ruby perches on have seen trees, animals, and people come and go. They’ve known the nearby oaks and pines for fewer years than the life span of a tortoise.
She crosses her left ankle over her right knee. Gently, she picks at the little blue rubber tag on the heel of her left shoe. The one that once said keds but because she’s picked at it so much now only reads ke.
Ruby lowers her fingertips, anticipating the cold chill of rock.
And then—quickly—she pulls her hand away. Because instead of hard stone she felt something rippling and leathery.
She looks down. Coiled on the rock, not six inches from where she sits, is a solitary, thick-middled snake.
It hisses and she jumps up. She moves away, staring. The snake glowers, its beady eyes gleaming, its forked tongue flicking. Its flesh is mostly dark green—the color of the forest—with narrow stripes of yellow running the length of its body.
To prove she’s not afraid, Ruby extends her hand.
The snake hesitates. It elongates and then recurls itself.
She wiggles her fingers.
That’s all it takes. The snake pulls back its head to gather strength and momentum. With a vulgar hiss, it flings its open mouth toward her outstretched hand.
She could scream. But no one would hear her if she did.
I deposited PJ in his crib, put my galoshes back on, and flung myself out the door. I sloshed across the mucky yard as fast as I could.
My mind raced, taking in what Ruby had said. Suicide—what an awful thing. I couldn’t imagine how I’d find the words to tell Paul this news about his brother. He was going to be crushed.
And Ruby! What a situation for a young girl to be in. Abandoned by her mother. And her father, too—brokenhearted, obviously, and had killed himself rather than face reality. How could parents do such things to their child?
I thought about the pet name I’d called Ruby, and how she clammed up when I said it. Honey. It was the term of endearment I used for all my young nieces and nephews, and it had come out spontaneously.
But Ruby was seventeen and I was twenty-one. Ruby would not consider herself my honey. I should have known better.
I picked my way along the wide, muddy path to Paul’s studio. Dappled sunlight fell on my shoulders through the thin stands of cedar and birch. After clear-cut logging in the late 1800s, the woods of Wisconsin’s Door County peninsula were only now beginning to fill with maturing trees. The sparse forest provided the odd effect of simultaneously exposing and enfolding me.
Paul’s studio, set back in the woods about ten yards behind the cottage, was doll-size. “Paul,” I called, banging open the studio door.
Paul looked up from the half-painted linen clipped to his easel. The table next to him was littered with boxes of watercolor paints, brushes of various sizes, water pots, and a couple of rags. On a chair rail that Paul had mounted to the shed’s walls were paintings in various stages of completion—scenes of North Bay, Lake Michigan, and the sunset over Green Bay on the other side of the peninsula.
“What is it, Angel?” Paul stood, facing me.
“I don’t…I don’t even know how to tell you this.” I walked into the studio. “It’s Henry. And Silja.”
“What about them?”
I swallowed hard. “Ruby called. She said…oh, Paul.” I put my arms around him. “Henry is…dead.”
Paul extracted himself from my embrace and sat down heavily on his stool. “I don’t understand.”
“Me, neither, really,” I said. “But Ruby says…” I bit my lip. “She says Henry was found in the woods near their house. His body, I mean. The police are expecting it to be ruled a…a suicide.” I felt tears stinging my eyes. “And Silja is missing.” I hesitated, and then added, “Ruby said Silja has abandoned them.”
I told him about the note Silja had left. And then I trailed off, letting him put the pieces together for himself.
Paul didn’t say anything. Then he asked, “Are you sure? You’re sure that’s what she said?”
I nodded. He looked out the studio window, blinking, then turned back to me.
“Tell me everything,” he said. “Word for word, Angel, repeat exactly what Ruby said.”
In Brooklyn, love at first sight only happened in one place: the movies. It happened every Saturday afternoon, to girls who spent their pin money each week to sit in velveteen seats in the Sunset or the Coliseum, contemplatively munching popcorn and watching as Barbara Stanwyck fell hard for an affable Henry Fonda, Vivien Leigh stared hypnotically into Laurence Olivier’s eyes, Irene Dunne found herself defenseless against Cary Grant’s charms.
And then the girls went home through the blustery, littered streets—home to their overworked mothers, silent fathers, and hordes of little brothers and sisters. The starry-eyed girls scribbled things like “Mrs. Emma Olivier” in their school notebooks, imagining what would happen if dreamy Laurence showed up on the doorstep. For surely he would forget Vivien in an instant, if he had her, Emma, to love instead.
That girl was Silja Takala. Twenty years old, bespectacled, and untarnished as a new copper kettle yet to feel the heat of fire, Silja was a girl whose only knowledge of love was through the movies.
But then real love did happen. Just like in the movies.
She met him at a bus stop. She was on her way to visit her friend Johanna. It was Friday, Silja’s short day at Hunter when she only had morning classes. She had loads of homework to do over the weekend, but she hadn’t seen Johanna in months, not since Johanna’s family moved from Brooklyn’s Finntown to New York’s other Finntown, the one in Harlem.
As she waited for an uptown bus on Lexington, a tall young man, thin as a cane and dressed in uniform—so many young men were in uniform these days—hesitantly tapped her shoulder.
“Hi-de-ho, miss.” He grinned sheepishly. “I’m trying to get to the Bronx Zoo. Is this the right bus?”
“The zoo? Why do you want to go there?” She couldn’t take her eyes off him. With twinkling eyes and an inviting smile, he was Cary Grant’s double.
“I’m only in New York for a few days. I thought I should see the sights.” He looked up at the bright, sunny sky—remarkably cloudless for the first Friday in March. “And it’s a nice day for the zoo.”
Such a peculiar thing for a GI to do on leave. There were burlesque clubs and taverns lining every side street in Manhattan. There were jazz joints and dance halls and any type of restaurant you could want. There were pleasures galore that a young man on his way to an uncertain future should surely enjoy while he could. What nutcase—especially such an attractive one—would choose the Bronx Zoo?
“I’m Henry,” he said, almost as if she’d asked.
“Silja,” she replied. The bus roared up next to them, spitting diesel fumes. “This is your bus,” she informed him. “Mine, too.”
— Buy “The Glass Forest” at BookBar
— Interview with author Cynthia Swanson