Swan Place

Swan Place

Augusta Trobaugh

November 2012 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-2132

Dove, Molly, Little Ellis and Crystal are runaways with nowhere to turn and no one they can trust until they arrive at a secret sanctuary called Swan Place, where they are taken under wing by a remarkable group of women.

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Dove, Molly, Little Ellis and Crystal are runaways with nowhere to turn and no one they can trust until they arrive at a secret sanctuary called Swan Place, where they are taken under wing by a remarkable group of women.

Augusta Trobaugh is the author of acclaimed southern novels including Music From Beyond the Moon,The Tea-Olive Bird Watching Society, Sophie and the Rising Sun, Resting in the Bosom of the Lamb, and Praise Jerusalem!




"[Augusta Trobaugh] streamlines her rich Southern style and creates a narrative as delicate as a line drawing" -- USA Today

"Both inspirational and down-to-earth.” --Publishers Weekly

"The powers of religion, family, and love work together to combat racism while offering hope.” -- Library Journal

"A touching story of people finding sanctuary and kindness in unlikely places when they need it most.” -- Booklist







Every spring, I watch for the first tender assurances of the earth being born all over again—a particular, fragrant sweetness in the air, the green mist of newly sprouting leaves, a veil of dew on the grass early in the mornings, and the savage, melodious songs of young mockingbirds staking out their territories. And I am always drawn back to one particular spring, starting on an Easter Sunday morning when I was only fourteen years old, when I finally started becoming the woman I was destined to become—when I arrived, after a long year of losing and gaining all the strong women who became grafted into my being forever. A year of learning what it meant to get on with living, as Aunt Bett always said. But also of discovering that I had a secret place deep inside that was filled with the strength and love that came from that terrible and wonderful year. A year when I lost almost everything I had to lose—but when I finally came to realize that no howling storm of life buffeting me would ever be as ferocious as the throbbing breath of resolve deep inside, leading me, at last, to the song I was created to sing.



Chapter One

I was dreaming about Mama as that year started, and in my dream she was dancing all around the living room with her favorite honky-tonk music turned up just as loud as it would go. She was wearing her spangle dress and high heels, laughing and jiggling her head, so that her all-over little golden curls went to dancing, too, and the sequins on her dress sparkling and the rhinestones in her dangle earrings just shining! In my dream, I was clapping my hands to the music and laughing with her, while she danced and danced and danced. Then, a little something or other seemed to happen in the music—a sound that was high, like somebody whistling. And another sound—a fluttering sound, so soft.

Mama must have heard it too, in my dream, because she stopped dancing for a little moment, and then she looked right at me with her eyes all blue and shining.

"Listen, sugar! He’s singing for you!”

The honky-tonk music started fading away, and so did Mama, until all that was left of the dream was that high sound and the soft fluttering, them no longer in the dream but outside of it. Outside of my window. Then I knew the coolness of the pillowcase against my cheek.

Somewhere, a mockingbird was singing the most wobbly little song I ever heard. Why, it wasn’t even dawn yet, maybe not even close to it, that’s how dark it was outside. But still the mockingbird sang. He must have been in the big chinaberry tree in the yard, singing his heart out into the darkness. And the soft fluttering sound was a big moth on my window screen, trying so hard to get inside to where the night-light was glowing.

I turned over onto my back and watched the dark ceiling and listened to the soft puppy-squeak breathing coming from Molly and Little Ellis—my little sister and brother—where they slept together in the bed across the room, and to the crooked notes from the mockingbird. I guess he must have gotten awake too early, just like me. Maybe that’s why his song was all wobbly and timid-sounding, like he wasn’t sure if it was time to sing. Not so early. Not before daylight.

I knew what Mama would have said if she could have heard that mockingbird singing away in the dark. She would have said he was real young and hadn’t quite learned his song yet. And in the center of the dark ceiling, I could see my mama’s pretty face, smiling down at me.

The moth fluttered against the screen again, Molly murmured in her sleep, the bird kept on singing, and Mama smiled at me from the ceiling, so that it all came together and made a music of its very own. I tried so hard to hold on to it, because I wanted to stay that way forever and ever, with Mama so pretty and happy. But no matter how hard I tried to keep it all, I felt it just drain away, so slow-like—and what was real took its place: Mama couldn’t dance anymore, couldn’t even remember how to smile. Her just a little, wasted person not much bigger than me, sitting so still and quiet in the corner of the couch, all drawn up and inside of herself, not seeing or hearing us, looking at nothing, and wearing a blue scarf on her head. Under the scarf, no blond curls anymore.

When Mama first started getting sick, Roy-Ellis—my stepdaddy—told me she was going to be all right. But she just got sicker and sicker—until finally she was so bad off that Roy-Ellis had to take her to the hospital, down in Louisville. He stayed there with her as much as he could, had stayed almost all day long the day before—Saturday—but then he came home late in the afternoon, just after I’d fixed Molly and Little Ellis their supper of grilled cheese sandwiches and saltine crackers and applesauce. When I heard Roy-Ellis coming up the steps to the front porch, I thought at first that Mama must be getting better, because he was singing "In Your Easter Bonnet,” and he came into the kitchen carrying a big paper sack and smiling. I started to ask him about Mama, but when I looked at him, there was something in his eyes that stopped me. So instead, I said to Little Ellis and Molly, "You all eat your sandwiches before they get cold. Roy-Ellis, you want me to fix you a grilled cheese?”

"No honey. Thanks. I just wanta show you all what I’ve brought you, though.” He started taking things out of the sack: three cartons of eggs from the A & P down at Louisville and a little box with Easter egg coloring tablets in it and some cardboard punch‑out bunnies and chickens, for the eggs to sit in and look pretty and some paper decals to stick on the eggs. After Little Ellis and Molly finished their supper, Roy-Ellis set about helping us to make colored eggs. He burned his fingers pretty bad on the pot of boiling water but made himself say "Shoot!” instead of what he usually said. And he didn’t fuss one little bit when Little Ellis almost spilled the whole cup full of purple dye, just trying to see it real good. But he gritted his teeth when all the little paper decals stuck to our fingers instead of on the eggs.

I knew how hard all that was on Roy-Ellis, because he really didn’t like fooling around with us kids very much, not even Little Ellis, who was his very own child, and so I figured either Mama was lots better, and he was happy about that, or else he was trying to do something nice for us because Mama was so sick. So I just went along with what Roy-Ellis wanted to do, because maybe I really didn’t want to know why he was trying so hard.

Roy-Ellis let me and Little Ellis help him color some pretty eggs that evening, but Molly, who was only a year and a half older than Little Ellis, wouldn’t color herself a single egg. She just got up from the table and stood back against the sink and watched us with eyes that looked like they were on fire, sucking her thumb the way she always did, with the thumb deep inside her mouth, her index finger curled around her nose, and her soft, baby-mouth in a pout.

"Come on, sugar,” Roy-Ellis coaxed her. "Come on over here and color you some pretty eggs.” But she just stood there and watched us the whole time, with those storm-cloud eyes of hers. Oh, I’d seen that look plenty of times before, especially when Mama would finally get out of the bed Sunday afternoon and walk barefooted into the kitchen, still wearing her spangle dress and with mascara shadows under her eyes.

Back then—before Mama got sick—she and Roy-Ellis almost always had their Saturday night fun at a big roadhouse called Across the Line, because it was just across the Beamer County line. The county we lived in was what they called a dry county, on account of nobody being able to buy beer in it, so they went to Across the Line almost every single Saturday night. After Mama got all dressed up in one of her spangle dresses—just like the dress she had been wearing in my dream—she and Roy-Ellis would go honky‑tonking; that’s what they called it. And she always looked just like a movie star, with her hair silver‑blond and in all‑over curls and dangle earrings that sparkled when she moved her head and with her makeup done so nice—even down to a little dot of eyebrow pencil right beside her bright-red lips. A beauty mark—that’s what she said it was.

Roy-Ellis could look right nice himself on Saturday nights, especially after he’d had a good bath and combed his wet hair and then settled his cowboy hat on his head just right. Mama always had a pair of freshly ironed jeans for him to wear and a clean shirt. But it was the cowboy hat and the boots that sure made him look so special.

I didn’t mind being left alone to take care of Molly and Little Ellis one little bit, because if honky-tonking made Mama and Roy-Ellis that happy, then I wanted them to have it. Even when they came home real late, they would still be happy as could be and having the best time. Mama always laughed when Roy-Ellis tripped on that broken front step and almost fell down and said bad words and then shouted, "Gotta fix that bugger, one of these days!” And Mama would shush him and laugh some more and then go back to singing a jukebox song real soft‑like under her breath.

"Come on, baby,” she’d say. "Mama’s gonna help you.”

But on Sundays—usually in the early afternoon, when us children had gotten back from going to church with Aunt Bett—when Mama would finally get out of bed and come into the kitchen, Molly would stare at her like maybe she’d caught Mama doing something really bad.

"Don’t you go giving me that Sunday School‑teacher look, missy,” Mama would say while she lit a cigarette with shaky hands. "I got a right to have me a little fun once in a while. And Roy-Ellis, too.”

I thought so too—what with her working all day long every day in that little air‑conditioned room Roy-Ellis fixed up for her on part of our back porch, cutting ladies’ hair and giving them permanents and sometimes putting lots of little shiny strips of aluminum foil in their hair. But I didn’t know what that was for. And Roy-Ellis needed some fun too—after a long week of driving that truck loaded with crates of live chickens back and forth, back and forth to the poultry processing plant and him coming home haggard‑looking and smelling of chicken feathers and fear and saying to Mama, "Don’t you never put a piece of chicken on this table when I’m sitting down to it. You hear me?”

And Mama saying, "Yeah, I hear you, honey.”

The only person besides Molly who thought Mama and Roy-Ellis’s honky-tonking was bad was Aunt Bett. She and Mama fussed about that lots of times, with Mama telling Aunt Bett she had a right to live her own life any way she wanted to, and with Aunt Bett crying and saying Mama and Roy-Ellis were gonna burn in everlasting hellfire if they didn’t mend their ways.

Because it wasn’t just the beer-drinking that bothered Aunt Bett. What she really hated was that neither one of them would... or could... wake up on Sunday mornings early enough to take us to church. I asked Aunt Bett about that one time. Asked her why Roy-Ellis and Mama didn’t like to go to church. She clamped her teeth together and mumbled something about Mama and Roy-Ellis simply not being churchgoing folks. But it was hard for her to say something that easy-sounding, so she added, "I’ll just keep praying for them.”

But she did lots more than just praying for Mama and Roy-Ellis—she took it on herself to raise us right. She said that maybe she couldn’t do a solitary thing to stop all that honky-tonking Mama and Roy-Ellis did, but she could certainly take us to church with her every single Sunday, so we would grow up knowing the difference between right and wrong. So every Sunday morning, she drove up in front of our house and honked her horn, and we children would go running out and crowd ourselves into the backseat, in and among all our damp, clean, soapy-smelling cousins for the ride to church.

But Easter Sunday was always the best of all, with everything feeling all squeaky-clean, or something like that, and us children being so proud in the pretty clothes Aunt Bett always brought over for us the day before, and the church with all that sunlight streaming in through the windows and the voices singing, "Up from the grave He arose!” And then, "Hallelujah! Christ arose!”

Made me think that any minute, Christ Jesus Himself, raised up from the dead,was going to come bursting in through the swinging doors at the back of the church, making them go bang! And He’d have strong, brown arms and beautiful eyes and white teeth, and He would grin and wave at us all with those big carpenter’s hands and stride mightily right down the aisle to the altar, and we all would jump up and down in the pews, whooping and hollering and clapping and cheering for Him. Why, it gave me goose bumps, just to think of it!

So on that early Easter Sunday morning when Mama was sick in the hospital, I thought that maybe things would be okay, after all. Because even though I couldn’t see much in the dark room, I knew that our Easter clothes were hanging on the back of the door. Carefully mended, washed and ironed dresses for me and Molly—dresses that were of sizes in-between Aunt Bett’s own girls—and short pants and a white shirt for Little Ellis, from in-between the sizes of Aunt Bett’s boys.

I’d been careful to say thank you to Aunt Bett when she brought over this Easter’s clothes for us—mostly to show her that Mama had raised me right, even if she didn’t take us to church. But Aunt Bett just waved the back side of her hand at me like she always did, and then she got in her car and drove away, still shaking her head. That’s the way Aunt Bett always did, every single time she stopped by our house, especially after Mama had to go to the hospital. She’d come by with a big bowl of potato salad or some extra cornbread she’d made for us—or else with in-between clothes and shoes she thought we could use, and she always ended up looking around the kitchen and the living room, rolling her eyes and clucking her tongue at the way me and Roy-Ellis were doing things. Then she’d heave a big old sigh and roll up her sleeves and wash up the sink full of dirty dishes and pick up the empty SpaghettiOs can and look at me like I’d done something wrong because I’d heated that up and fed it to Molly and Little Ellis for their lunch, and in general do a lot of things to help us out—but she always ended up shaking her head and clucking her tongue and rolling her eyes again, before she said, "Well, I got family of my own to tend to, so I better be getting on back home.” That’s what she always said. But her heart was in the right place. I know that for sure. And whenever Roy-Ellis was home when Aunt Bett came, they would go into the kitchen and shut the door and talk real low for a long time. Sometimes, if Molly and Little Ellis were watching cartoons in the living room or already in bed, I stood real quiet outside the kitchen door, trying to hear whatever they were saying. But I never could make out any of it. Except that they sounded worried. That much I could tell.

So maybe that’s why I wasn’t really much surprised when, on that Easter Sunday morning, the loud ringing of the telephone broke the silence of the dark living room just beyond my door. Because a phone ringing so early always means that something is wrong, somewhere. And for our house, it could only mean that something had happened to Mama.

My heart started thudding in my chest like a squirrel trying to get out of a cage.

Then the phone rang again, and it sounded even louder.

No!I was thinking. No!

I heard Roy-Ellis groan and roll out of bed.

No! Don’t answer it!

But I could hear him stumbling across his and Mama’s room and bumping his shoulder hard on the door frame as he came out. It rang again, and I felt as if all the breath had gone out of my body. No! Please don’t answer it! If you don’t answer it, Mama will be fine, like in my dream!

But then the light in the living room went on, and I could see a little sliver of the light coming under my door.

"Hello,” Roy-Ellis said in a rough‑sounding voice. Maybe because of his shoulder hurting him. I held my breath.

"Yeah, this is him.”

Then silence. A very long silence.

I could hear Roy-Ellis breathing, because my cot was right up against the wall between the bedroom and the living room. Finally, he said, "She did?” And he sounded almost like Little Ellis, the way his voice tilted up in such a sad way. I felt my heart split in two, right inside my chest!



Another long silence.

Then, "Yes. I’ll take care of it.”

The sound of the receiver clicking back into its place and after that, no sound at all. So I could hear what the silence said: Mama was gone! I heard Roy-Ellis pick the receiver up again and dial. Then his voice was husky when he said, "Bett? I’m afraid it’s bad news.” A long pause, then, "Yeah.” I shut my eyes tight and stayed just as still as could be, believing with all my heart that if I moved so much as my little finger, my cot would tilt, the whole world would tilt, and I’d fall out of bed and down into some deep, dark far‑away place—wherever my mama was, all cold and dead.


Then it almost seemed that my cot dropped away from under me, and I was floating up in the air, high above our little gray house and the other ones just like it, all lined up along the silent street, like little shaggy gray ponies waiting for a race to start and falling asleep while they were waiting. And I could look down on the big chinaberry tree in our yard, where the mockingbird curled his toes around a twig and sang his baby‑song into the darkness. Slowly I floated back down onto my cot, inside the blue‑papered walls of the room in the little gray house, where nothing was ever going to be the same again.

I heard Roy-Ellis hang up the phone and go along the hallway, into the kitchen, where the table was still covered with old, rainbow-colored newspapers and the thick white cups holding all those Easter egg colors—purple and blue, yellow and red, green and orange. And in the refrigerator were the three egg cartons holding all those pretty eggs we were supposed to hunt for in the tall grass in the backyard that afternoon. Only now, Mama was gone. And right then and there—in a way I’ll never understand—I knew that my path had just split in two again, that it had split with that very first ring of the telephone. Just like it split for the first time when my daddy—my real daddy, that is—ran off and left me and Mama when some blond-headed lady in the office of the construction company where he worked asked him if he would drive her to California, and he did. And he never came back.

Maybe I could understand how he could leave me, because I was skinny and covered in freckles. I had wild-looking red hair, and my teeth were way too big for my face. But how could he leave Mama, and her so pretty and sweet—and her expecting a little baby any day, a baby that would be Molly, my little sister? That was the first time my path split, and Mama cried on Aunt Bett’s shoulder and said she didn’t know how we would be able to get along without him—without a paycheck coming in. So I decided I would stop loving him, right then and there. It really wasn’t hard, and it made me feel better right away. Now, Mama had gone off and left me and Molly and Little Ellis, and if I could only stop loving her too, maybe I wouldn’t hurt so bad.

But then I thought about Mama not going off and leaving me because she wanted to, like my daddy did. So, lying there in the darkness, I figured that I would always love my mama, but that from then on—from that very minute—I wasn’t going to love anybody else in the whole world, not ever again. Because if I didn’t love anybody, I wouldn’t have to hurt so bad.

I heard Roy-Ellis come back into the living room, and his footsteps stopped right outside the door to our room. The knob turned, the door opened, and his voice came over me like a wave, like how I feel when I’m going to be sick at my stomach.

"Dove, honey? You awake?”

"I’m awake.”

"Well, come on out here and let me talk to you a little bit,” he said.

I threw back the covers and sat up, expecting my cot to tilt. But it didn’t, and I went out into the living room where Roy-Ellis was sitting on the couch with his head in his hands.

"You don’t have to tell me, Roy-Ellis,” I whispered. "I already know.” My voice tried to catch, but I wouldn’t let it.

"Let’s not say anything around the little ones just yet,” Roy-Ellis said, and he didn’t look at me. Just cleared his throat, got up, and flicked the switch to turn on the porch light. So I figured Aunt Bett was on her way. We sat there without speaking, both of us looking mostly at the floor. Almost like we didn’t know each other. I glanced at him once, and he looked so bad, I almost felt like I should say something to try and comfort him. But I didn’t.

I don’t care how bad you look, I thought. I won’t love you. I won’t love anybody.

Aunt Bett finally came, and she looked all pale and shaky. She and Roy-Ellis locked eyes, and then they both looked at me.

"Dove knows,” Roy-Ellis whispered to Aunt Bett, and then he motioned his head toward the kitchen. Aunt Bett hesitated.

"Why don’t you go on back to bed for a little while, Dove,” Aunt Bett said. "Roy-Ellis and me got some things we got to talk about.” So they went into the kitchen and shut the door. But I didn’t want to go back into the bedroom, because I was afraid I’d see my mama’s face smiling down at me from the ceiling, so I turned off the porch light and went out and sat in the swing on the dark porch and listened to that little mockingbird singing his crooked song.



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