Wild Swans - Jessica Spotswood
Granddad says all the Milbourn women are extraordinary.
Amelia, the Shakespeare professor up at the college, says cursed.
Judy, the bookseller down at the Book Addict, says crazy.
Here in Cecil, girls are still expected to be nice. Quiet. All sugar. Maybe a little spice.
But not us. We Milbourn women are a complicated lot.
The Milbourn legacy goes back four generations. Folks were just starting to drive over from Baltimore and Washington, DC, to buy my great-great-grandmother’s portraits when she tried outracing a train in her new roadster. It stalled on the tracks and she and her two youngest were killed instantly. My great-grandmother Dorothea survived and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for her love poems—but she was murdered by the woman whose husband she’d been sleeping with for inspiration. Grandmother painted famous, haunting landscapes of the Bay, but the year before I was born, she walked out the back door and down to the water and drowned herself. My mother had a voice like a siren, but she ran away from home the second time she got knocked up, and we haven’t seen her since.
And me? I don’t feel crazy or cursed. But I’ve grown up in this house, haven’t I? So I don’t know. Maybe there’s no escaping it.
I’m home alone tonight, and a storm is sweeping up the Bay. Through the open french doors I can hear the waves crashing against the shore. They make a frantic shh-shh, like a desperate mama rocking a colicky baby.
I hear mothers do things like that, anyhow. I wouldn’t know.
I’ve been reading Jane Eyre for about the twelfth time, but I set it down on the coffee table and leave the warm lamplight to go stand in the doorway. The wind catches at my hair and flings it back in my face. I push it away and squint down at the beach.
Lightning hasn’t split the sky yet, but I can taste it coming. The air’s so thick I could swim through it.
Jesus, but a swim right now would be delicious. I imagine tearing off my blue sundress, running down the sandy path, and diving right into the cool waves of the Chesapeake. I could swim almost before I could walk. Part fish, Granddad says. But he doesn’t like me to swim by myself. Says it isn’t safe, especially for a girl, alone and at night. That’s one of his rules. He’s got about a million. Some of them I fight; some I just let be. Given how his wife killed herself, it seems reasonable enough to humor him on this.
Behind me, something rattles in the wind and I startle. Goose bumps prickle my shoulders in spite of the heat. Lately it feels like a storm’s coming even when the sky’s blue. Like spiders crawling through my veins.
My friend Abby tells me I need to quit worrying and relax. It’s going to be golden, this summer before our senior year. There will be barbecues and bonfires and lazy days volunteering at the town library. She doesn’t believe in family curses or premonitions of doom. Her family has its own troubles, but they’re not town lore.
My friend Claire says “fuck the family curse; you’re your own woman.” Claire’s all rebellion and razor-sharp edges—especially since her dad had an affair with his secretary and moved out (such a cliché). Claire doesn’t believe in fate; she believes in making choices and owning them.
But she’s not a Milbourn girl.
The rain starts with a fury. It pelts the windowpanes and drums against the flagstones out on the patio. The wind picks up too, sending the gray curtains spinning into the room like ghosts. I pad back toward the sofa, trailing my fingers across bookshelves stacked with Great-Grandmother Dorothea’s prize-winning poetry. All along the walls hang Grandmother’s landscapes—our pretty Eastern Shore transformed by twisting rain clouds. She only painted hurricane weather.
They were all so talented. Troubled, sure. But look at their legacy.
What will mine be?
Granddad’s had me in all kinds of classes: piano, flute, ballet, gymnastics, oil painting, watercolors, landscapes, portraits, creative writing… I threw myself into every new subject, only to be crushed when I didn’t show a natural aptitude for any of it.
I’m on the swim team, but I’m never going to be an Olympic athlete. I’m an honors student, but I won’t be valedictorian. Sometimes I write poems, but that’s just to get the restless thoughts out of my head; my poems have never won any awards. I am completely, utterly ordinary.
Granddad won’t give up; he thinks there’s