Excerpt: The Swimmers by Marian Womack
Last year, The BiblioSanctum had the pleasure of featuring The Golden Key by Marian Womack, and today we’re thrilled to spotlight her sophomore novel which published on February 23 from Titan Books and is available now wherever books are sold. Set on the rich and colorful coasts of Andalusia, Spain, The Swimmers is a heady, poetic climate dystopian novel that has been described as a beautiful fever dream–much like that gorgeous cover! Below, we’re sharing an excerpt from the book, which we hope you’ll check out and enjoy!
After the ravages of global warming, this is place of deep jungles, strange animals, and new taxonomies. Social inequality has ravaged society, now divided into surface dwellers and people who live in the Upper Settlement, a ring perched at the edge of the planet’s atmosphere. Within the surface dwellers, further divisions occur: the techies are old families, connected to the engineer tradition, builders of the Barrier, a huge wall that keeps the plastic-polluted Ocean away. They possess a much higher status than the beanies, their servants.
The novel opens after the Delivery Act has decreed all surface humans are ‘equal’. Narrated by Pearl, a young techie with a thread of shuvani blood, she navigates the complex social hierarchies and monstrous, ever-changing landscape. But a radical attack close to home forces her to question what she knew about herself and the world around her.
Excerpt from The Swimmers by Marian Womack, published by Titan Books. Copyright © 2021 by Marian Womack
Gobarí was my home, with its crumbling walls and its mouldy porch, and those flowers and bushes and trees, all closing above like a roof. The Venus flytraps as big as a small child, the vines and the tendrils that moved like the living things they were. And those strange days when the sky was green, blue, electric. We did not know it then, what it meant, when the blue surge of light blotted up the sky; most people still don’t know. The day would have been atypical, even in a place like the forest. You could sense it: the animals refusing to make an appearance, the odd silent birds. And the greenery twisting and twirling around you, as if it were on edge. Then, at dusk, the sky an ominous purple, followed by the blue light dancing over us, caressing the stars and the constellations when night fell. At the time, I thought the sky was going to collapse upon us, finally devouring all the monstrosities that lived with us in the forest. Now that I know what the light means I can only feel sadness at my past ignorance.
After one of these events, the forest would grow a little, but never engulfing Gobarí. At the beginning of the property, the green stopped abruptly. At night, I closed my eyes and thought of trees and the vines and the branches, advancing towards the house, and I could hear the shrieks of so many creatures, unnamed long-agomutated things that now came back to feed on us. But I couldn’t have slept anywhere else; the smells and the odd noises and that feeling of oppression, of not being able to breathe… To me, that was home. The forest gave us everything we needed: wood, for fuel and building things, and the cork that furnished the insides of the vessels; plants and flowers and vines and shrubs, and we ate them, we cooked them, or we transformed them into remedies and potions; and wild animals, surreal creatures that changed so quickly that they could never be trapped by any taxonomy, and were wilder than the forest itself, the only meat we consumed. It was fair that they in their turn consumed us, that the forest gobbled up a beanie child now and again, advancing towards a settlement and making it disappear from our world.
At the pond I was surrounded by flowers and plants of many different colours. I could see rabbit’s bread and the sierra poppy Eli liked to collect in thick bunches. Pale flowers grew on the bank, and close to it some silver sage. Savina would know all their properties. Love-in-a-mist, mournful widow, oleander. It was poisonous. The prettiest flowers usually are: she had taught me that when I was very little. Never, ever, succumb to hunger if you don’t know what you are eating. Her first rule of many.
Gobarí wasn’t like the wall, not by a long way. It was a late twenty-first-century construction, the vestige of a lost civilisation, brick and sand and mortar. No one understood why it still stood, situated as it was in the middle of the overgrowth. It had survived the green winter that devoured everything in its wake; it had survived floods and extreme cold and extreme heat. It had survived all the darkness that came after. The storms that hit against its walls every rainy season, but which did not seem to erode its crumbling buttresses, as if some kind of unspoken contract mediated between the house and the elements. Gobarí had always belonged to Mother’s family: an old family, one with certain rights and a ruin in the middle of nowhere. They had been allowed to keep it.
I spent most of my time in the little meadow by the pond, among the eucalyptus plants. It was rich in wild orchids. I had heard somewhere that they could be literal aliens, fallen from some distant planet. They were odd and beautiful, and their names were odd and beautiful: the bug, the bee, the lizard. Frightening, unreal. Orchids were my favourite plants. Eli hated them. She would look at them, terrified. And then she would say: ‘Those horrid things!’ Little by little, the story emerged: the orchids in Gobarí were like miniature versions of the flowers that had killed her grandparents.
‘How do you know that’s true?’
‘There were witnesses. They were at the bank of a river, the Guadin. The tendrils surrounded them. They spent ages dying, minutes and hours.’
She explained this with a serious face on, as if she had learnt to live with the horrid knowledge. But I could sense some intense feeling underneath, as if she were trying very hard to remain composed, when in truth she was as horrified as anyone. I knew it then, that there was a hardness inside her.
Me, I could live with the greenery, I could navigate the forest. I could anticipate a sudden change in the landscape, a passing moment of danger. I could sense new noises, interpret the metamorphosing terrain, an intimate knowledge of the space, developed somehow from early childhood. Allowed to roam freely, I had to look after myself from very early on. Animals scared me more than plants. Some of them made me think of demons, crawled
scratchily up to the surface of the Earth to torment us. I knew this knowledge was one of the few things that remained from when Father was with us. He would insist on passing this on, books and diagrams and conversations that would always end in this one lesson.
‘Never venture somewhere if you hear a call you don’t recognise. Never make friends with a small animal: its mother may come after and eat you. Never go into the forest when the birds are not singing; never go when their shrieks are so loud that they are all you can hear.’
And so on. I would be sitting next to him, my childish senses picking up a hidden current, something underneath. I have a clear recollection of my mother asking me to be quiet because my father was around, and I now know that the moods of the house depended on his moods, that he expected us to be cheerful and happy if he was, and to be subdued and out of sight when he was morose. I now wonder if I internalised this fear of animals because he was the one teaching it to me, and I was scared of upsetting him or something worse. Was I scared of animals, or was I scared of him?
Many years later, when my father was already dead and in the ground, one morning I was waiting for Eli at the pond, by the water, and something happened. A hare came out of nowhere. She was so beautiful, orange with streaks of yellow all over her body. But she was also as big as me, and obviously much stronger. The hare got up on her hind legs and heaved her body up, looking at me with curiosity. Her head tilted softly, as if she were asking a question. She stretched her body up even further. I realised she could kill me with a bludgeoning of her powerful front arms. I took a step back, and of course a branch cracked under my feet. The hare did not like the noise.
She opened her mouth, showing me her pointy teeth, and hissed loudly. I knew she was marking her territory. I thought of Father. If I didn’t make any sudden moves, I would be safe. Hares can be impressive creatures, but you are usually okay if you treat them with the same caution you would take with the larger centipedes.
Something moved through the eucalyptus trees; a rustling sound of branches and leaves being pulled aside. Someone was approaching the pond.
The hare turned in the direction of the disturbance with another sudden hiss. Her eyes as open and big as her mouth as she prepared to attack the intruder.
I grabbed a branch lying on the floor; it was thick and heavy. I moved swiftly, bludgeoning the hare just before she could attack Eli. Next thing I knew, I was staring at a beautiful pattern of colours I couldn’t for a second make sense of. And then it hit me: I was looking at the hare’s brain pouring out of her head, mixed together with a dark red liquid.
I stayed where I was, spattered with the warm blood. I was trying to think of anatomy lessons, the circulation of the blood. How to put it all back, all that patchy learning, first aid, basic cures, herbals. Those things all surface children needed to learn, in case we were one day sent up to the sky. How to put it all back? The thought, like a flash: you cannot put it back. The brain would stay there, on the ground. I looked at Eli, her head round, and in place.
The hare jerked horribly. I kneeled down close to her, and beat her until she stopped moving. Perhaps a couple of times, three, four.
I was panting, covered in blood and sweat. I looked up to the hot sky, white dots still clouding my vision.
Eli was staring at me, at the hare, at the branch that I dropped.
‘Thank you,’ was all she could muster.
But I had an odd flavour in my mouth, as if I were remembering something from long ago. It was the metallic taste of the hare’s blood, splattered over my mouth, horribly. I saw my father in my mind, coming towards me. Towards us: me and a little beanie girl. She used to be my friend. She was dead now.
We were playing, my father advancing towards us, a malignant look on his face. Was it my father, or was it a mullo with his face, coming up from Hell to take us back there with him?
About the Author
Marian Womack is a bilingual writer, born in Andalusia and raised in the UK. She is a graduate of the Clarion Writers Workshop and the Creative Writing Masters at Cambridge University. She works for Cambridge University libraries, and her professional background is in academic libraries, having worked at Glasgow University Library and the Bodleian. Whilst living in Spain, Marian worked as a translator, desk editor, fiction publisher, and bookseller. She now lives in Cambridge, UK. She tweets @beekeepermadrid.