The Year the Swans Came –

Growing up amidst cobblestone walkways of an ancient city, best friends Ruth and Maidy live next door to one another. Stunningly beautiful, Ruth has always insisted she will marry Pieter, Maidy’s eldest brother, only to have him vanish the year swans first visit the city.

Is his disappearance linked to the arrival of the swans, feared as cursed and birds of ill-fortune? What will happen when they return six years later, on the morning of Maidy’s sixteenth birthday?

For Maidy they usher in love and the return of her beloved brother. For Ruth only destruction as she captivates every boy around, including Pieter and the enigmatic and mysterious Zande.


They set out in the dead of night. Not the witching hour between twelve and one, when ghouls and warlocks roam, but the hour between three and four, when souls depart their bodies and even monsters sleep.

The men have not slept. Gathering together early, they have sat out the hours in a low-beamed room lit by rushes and lanterns, supping at pale gold Jenever and beer that smells strongly of hops, in an effort to keep both demons and fear at bay. Another night and their drinking will lead to merriment and song with an accordion ringing out. Tonight, only a dull confused muttering breaks the silent air.

Around the hostelry, stinking of poverty and superstition cluster close-knit houses, their streets made not of stone but of water. Women wait too, in dark rooms lit only by candles – no one sleeping. Some are big with child. Others, the young and beautiful and innocent, are held captive, screaming into the implacable faces of the elderly to be let free, to be allowed to run … to warn.

Outside, clinging to tiny islands of stone on which houses perch, lurks the detritus of the fishermen; lobster pots and broken nets, oars resting against a wall, small skiffs tied up to the bank or upturned. Boats, their sails neatly furled, await the approach of early dawn before venturing out to sea.

Nothing moves in the darkness except fleetingly: a rat scurrying along a gutter pursued by the looming shadow of a cat. Silence falls and with it the sound of death.



Leaving my books scattered about the lawn, I wandered down to the tiny beachhead, the afternoon sun layering sheets of steel across the surface of the lake. To the east, not far as the crow flies, a few kilometres only, lies a tiny fishing harbour and on days when the sky rises higher and higher, it felt so close you might imagine if you stretched out your hand you would touch it. Today only a tall-masted ship is tied up at the dockside, the tip of its masts lost in the blue wash of the sky. And nearby, staring at me balefully like a hungry black toad – Klüsta – the island of a thousand rumours.

I dreamed about it again last night. Until I came here to college and stumbled upon the lakeshore, I knew it only as a black shadow lapped by waves in which I saw figures moving. I imagined my brother Pieter to be among them. That might well have been wishful thinking for the island is no longer inhabited except by birds.

There was a village there once. Even that is difficult to imagine for the rocky outcrop lies cocooned within a mesh of turbulent water. Sometimes when out walking I’d overhear fishermen boasting about their escape from the dreaded Devil’s Hand, a little line of five rocks on the island’s foreshore, its stormy waters greedily anticipating their next meal of wood and hemp. They’d swap stories as they tidied their nets checking them for holes, about how the current around Klüsta was set fast that day, dragging them onto the rocks, and only a belief in the Almighty gave them strength enough to escape.

‘For goodness sake, Maidy, what is it with you and water?’

Startled, my pen hand jerked leaving a nasty smudge. Ruth was strolling across the grass, her corn-coloured hair swept into an elegant chignon. I wondered which magazine she’d copied it from – and when? She’d been wearing it loose at lunchtime. Behind her, the college building gleamed pale against its background of dark fir trees. Embellished with pillars and porticos, and flanked by wide angled steps, it reminded me of the vulgar opulence of a sultan’s palace, its fancy cupola tall enough to block the afternoon sun which threatened my writing with its gleaming spirals of light.

‘You told me you were planning to work. Haven’t you a story to write?’

I picked my way across the pebble bank onto grass, careful to avoid stepping on a cluster of daisies, their cheerful faces capable of brightening even the gloomiest of days. ‘I have and I was,’ I laughed a shade self-consciously. ‘Only last night I had this dream—’

‘Tell me later.’ Ruth cut across my words, her attention fastened on the swing doors. It didn’t bother me, well used to my remarks brushing past her unnoticed like the wings of a moth. ‘It’s more important to find Jules before he leaves for home.’

I glanced down at my watch. ‘No one’s out yet – it’s still a few minutes to the bell. How did you manage it?’

‘I simply bat my eyelids and look feeble.’ Ruth smiled and a dimple tugged at the corner of her cheek. ‘Works like a charm. You know what it’s like when the bell goes – a stampede with everyone rushing to get out first. Ugh!’ She shuddered dramatically, ‘I can’t bear it. All those unwashed bodies. No, thank you!’

‘Honestly, Ruth, however will you cope when you’re a doctor?’

‘Don’t worry, I’ll be a brilliant doctor, you’ll see. Besides, patients are always washed before the doctor sees them.’

‘So why Jules? I thought it was Frederick.’

‘Frederick! He’s no use, he’s languages.’ Ruth flipped her hand, dismissing him. He was last week’s companion. ‘I need Jules.’

‘Why him in particular?’ I persisted, adding more cautiously, ‘He’s not … dare I say it, really your type.’

‘Who is, in this god-forsaken place?’ Nonchalantly, she swivelled her long fingers in a circle. ‘However, in this instance, Jules is perfect for the job. I was reading a magazine in anatomy and wasn’t paying attention when Professor Blaize announced our anatomy assignment.’ She giggled. ‘Luckily, Jules was.’

I began to pack my books away. ‘You mean he’s clever.’

‘The cleverest.’

She bent down as if to help, picking up my journal that was lying open on the grass, its pages fluttering back and forth in the breeze. I’d never used it as a diary, writing dull lines about even duller events; instead, I filled its pages with memories of childhood and scraps of stories. Of little interest to anyone except me, for whom they were precious jewels that needed guarding against pickpockets and burglars. I’d hate for anyone to read them and scoff – especially my best friend. I waited, my hand stretched out, palm upwards.

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