Today, we have an excerpt from Jennifer Thorne‘s Lute, a folk horror novel that has been described as “Wicker Man meets Final Destination“. Check out the synopsis:
On the idyllic island of Lute, every seventh summer, seven people die. No more, no less.
Lute and its inhabitants are blessed, year after year, with good weather, good health, and good fortune. They live a happy, superior life, untouched by the war that rages all around them. So it’s only fair that every seven years, on the day of the tithe, the island’s gift is honored.
Nina Treadway is new to The Day. A Florida girl by birth, she became a Lady through her marriage to Lord Treadway, whose family has long protected the island. Nina’s heard about The Day, of course. Heard about the horrific tragedies, the lives lost, but she doesn’t believe in it. It’s all superstitious nonsense. Stories told to keep newcomers at bay and youngsters in line.
Then The Day begins. And it’s a day of nightmares, of grief, of reckoning. But it is also a day of community. Of survival and strength. Of love, at its most pure and untamed. When The Day ends, Nina—and Lute—will never be the same.
Now, on to the excerpt, which is taken from the second chapter in the book…
I knew it would happen.” Jo slides a piping mug across the table—she’s given me my favorite cup from her motley collection, slender and curved, a Welsh dragon curling around its base.
I run my finger along the sharp rim. “What, are you psychic now?”
“Not a bit, to my everlasting dismay.” She smiles out the tearoom window at the village lane beyond, but her eyes are distant. “No, it’s just the way of it here. Hugh left last time, bless him. It simply wasn’t going to happen again.”
“He’s still trying to leave.”
For the first time this morning, Jo looks surprised. “You’re not going to get a boat to come here now.”
“I’m realizing that.” I try a sip. Too hot. I put it down. “He’s trying to get one of his old boarding school friends on the phone. Harry Enston’s wife is an MP, so Hugh thinks she might be able to wrangle a helicopter, requisition one, whatever. Since we gave ours to the RAF.”
“He should know better,” Jo says quietly, resting her chin on her hand.
“It’s embarrassing to even ask. We’re in the middle of a freaking war.”
I glance out the window just as, on cue, a trio of fighter jets roars past to the west. We tense, listening. We can tell from the pitch that they’re ours and relax back against our creaking wooden chairs. It’s a patrol, I hope, not a battle. There’s been a cease-fire for more than a week now. If the cease-fire leads to talks, the talks could lead to a peace agreement, but everything feels so tenuous. The press dubbed the past four years of global conflict the Water Wars, not World War III, like they’re holding out that name for another worse conflict to come. Maybe we’ll at least get a nice long break in between. Everyone will come home long enough to forget.
I scratch the edge of that dragon with my fingernail, over and over, irritation returning. “It’s a waste of time to even try. If they weren’t allowing helicopters here at the beginning of the war, they’re certainly not going to do it now. Even if the cease-fire is holding. Even if you’ve gone hunting with an MP.”
My voice has deepened in imitation of Hugh. Jo pretends not to notice.
I know she shares my aversion to snobbery, the clannishness and entitlement of the upper classes in Britain. The way class works here is subtle, not in your face at all, but sometimes it’s that subtlety that bugs me the most, the sense that they find their own superiority so obvious that it need not be mentioned. You can tell who’s old money here by how shabby their furniture is, how muddy their boots, how overrun their houses are with animals. You can tell by the little glances they give each other. Who they talk to and who they ignore.
Hugh’s not a “toff,” thank God. I wouldn’t have married him if he were. He’s got a polish to him mixed with landowner earthiness, but not that aloofness I see in so many of his friends. He cares what people think of him. He doesn’t use that title as a shield; in fact, I didn’t even find out he was landed gentry until after his dad died and I saw the obituary.
Maybe he’s a little more normal because he grew up here, in this tiny, tight-knit community jutting out of the ocean. Even so, I do notice snobbery sneak in from time to time, especially when we’re visiting his sister in Surrey or meeting his friends in their country homes and London town houses.
I dread going to the mainland, is the truth. They tease me, thinking I’m too provincial, too American to notice, and all I can do is stay polite and play along to avoid making the waves that will only prove them right.
I never complain about it outright to Jo, only in oblique ways, a valve to relieve the pressure. And she never criticizes Hugh either, never complains about the upper classes directly. She talks about Britishness and how ridiculous it can all be, apologetically, as if she and the rest of the middle class were complicit, which in and of itself is extremely British.
Jo was born in Bristol, like her parents, but all four grandparents were Jamaican immigrants. I wonder if she feels like she’s got one foot out of the UK by virtue of her ancestry. I suspect she likes me better for being American, even though I find being American pretty darn embarrassing, especially now that we’re the ones on the wrong side of a global war. I do hold on to my language, my accent, and American vocabulary out of vague stubbornness, but the truth is I’m much happier living in Britain. It’s only little annoyances that niggle at me sometimes. Food packaging that’s tricky to open. References to sitcoms I’ve never heard of. Moments of cultural ambiguity—is she really inviting me in for tea or just being polite? Moments where I wonder if I’m being too loud, too honest, too much myself. Private jokes between Hugh and his friends. Ancient customs that are impossible to wrap my brain around.
“I hope no one tries to fly out here on the Day.” Jo’s brow furrows. “That could end it right there.”
Before I can ask if she’s serious, the shop bell rings, Mrs. Wickett shuffling in for her midday cup of tea. Jo stands to greet her, offering an arm to help the tiny old woman sit. I wave to Mrs. Wickett and am favored with a dignified nod.
As Jo goes into the tearoom kitchen to put on the kettle, I gaze around at her cozy business, the cream lace curtains, low ceiling with beams painted white, cheerfully crooked walls, zigzag cracks where damp’s getting in, and mull the look on my friend’s face before that bell rang. I’ve always assumed she’s playing along with everyone else. Jo’s sensible. If I were asked to describe her in a single word, that would be it. She’s only in her fifties. She wasn’t brought up here like most of the others were. But with every day closer to the Day, I wait for her to break, to wink, to show that it’s a tradition, no more, and so far it hasn’t happened.
Jo seems worried. Industrious as ever, but with a weight to it, not unlike that certainty Charlie had in his face yesterday.
I sip my tea, too fast, again. I haven’t been in this country long enough to adapt to the heat of their beverages. I set the dragon cup down clumsily, and a dribble spills over the edge onto the white lace tablecloth. I dab it with my napkin as Jo sets the teapot and cup in front of Mrs. Wickett and flumps back down in the chair opposite me.
“We got your biscuits in before we shut down orders for the week. Forgot to tell you, but they’re in the shop.” She nods over her shoulder.
“Oh, that’s great.” I try to match her light tone. “Charlie doesn’t mind my baking, but Hugh’s been missing his digestives.”
I don’t know why I said my baking. Sally does all our cooking. Maybe it just felt like something a mother would say. I catch myself sometimes, aiming for normal and missing the mark.
Jo pretends not to notice that too.
I take two more careful sips, and then: “What did you mean about flying in on the Day?”
“I don’t expect it’ll happen,” Jo says quickly as if to reassure me. “Everybody knows not to fly here this week, even when it’s not restricted airspace, as it were. But I’d hate for anybody unsuspecting to get wrapped up in all this. It’s why we shut the cottages down and the campsites, you know. T’wouldn’t be fair.”
“So you think it’s fair as it is?”
I smile so big I’m practically winking, broadcasting the fact that I haven’t been taken in. This conversation is for the fun of it. My stomach isn’t clenched, my foot not tapping peevishly under the tearoom table.
She considers the question thoughtfully. “It’s fair in its way. It’s a deal that was struck a long time ago, and we do see the benefit of it. Especially in times like these. I’ve never lived anywhere so peaceful, so safe. Can’t beat the views either.”
Mrs. Wickett murmurs something I can’t make out, and Jo laughs.
“Should we go sit with her?” I whisper.
Jo shakes her head, still smiling. “She likes to be alone, where she and Fred used to sit for tea. It’s her ritual.”
And this is mine. Escape while the kids are occupied, tea with a friend, and then something all my own.
Jo reads my mind, psychic or not, sliding a folded napkin over the table with a complicit glint in her eye, like we’re thirteen. She starts to whistle, overdoing the innocence, and I swat at her. As Mrs. Wickett looks away, staring at a porcelain plate hung on the wall, I pull my contraband out from under the napkin and stick it in my pocket.
One cigarette a day. It hardly counts as a vice, but Jo’s the only one who knows I do it. I could buy a pack and hide it, but that would feel more like an actual addiction, especially with the gory photos they cover the packaging with here: diseased toes, rotting gums. I hardly ever even finish smoking the things before stubbing them out and depositing them in the hollow of the tree trunk that serves as my hiding spot in the grove. It’s a nothing habit.
Still, I wouldn’t want the kids to find out. Not Hugh either. He’d lecture: “Now that we’re parents, we have a responsibility to look after ourselves.” At least he never frames it in terms of motherhood, the ideal of female self-effacement. We’re co-parents, both of us equal. He’s been good, so I should be good.
I really should. Just not yet.
“Thank you,” I mouth, then, “I’ll grab those biscuits now.”
Jo heads toward the glass door that leads into the shop.
I stand to join her. “The kids’ll be almost as excited as Hugh. It’s gonna be hard to ration them.”
“Oh don’t ration too much.” She says it abruptly, like she was considering not saying anything at all and then dared herself. “Not this week. Just let them enjoy themselves.”
I realize what she means and swallow hard, willing the words You don’t believe in all this back into my throat. It would be rude to say it aloud with Mrs. Wickett here. Elsie Wickett’s in her nineties, a Lute by birth. I’m essentially a guest here, compared to all the others. I would hate to act disrespectfully toward her beliefs.
But I have to find a way to press Jo a little. It makes me feel queasy, not knowing where she stands, like I’m on a raft alone, drifting farther and farther out to sea while everybody else stays on land.
The glass door hisses shut, and we’re alone in the shop. Before I can find my voice, Jo reaches behind the counter for a pack of digestives and murmurs, “What have you told the children about the Day?”
“The children?” I echo, surprised. “Nothing.” I shouldn’t have to justify myself, but I find myself scrambling for an excuse. “It feels like Hugh’s story to tell.”
I pull out my ration book and set it on the counter.
Jo keeps her eyes on me as she flips it open and marks it. “And has he told it?”
“He, well, he doesn’t like to talk about it. Understandably.” I feel like I’m defending us both to a detective. “We’ve just said there’s a special day here, so we’re going on vacation to celebrate.”
She lets out a breath, nostrils flaring. “You’re not going on holiday now, though.”
I look away to put my ration book in my jacket pocket. It slides in above the cigarette, but I pretend it needs more nudging so I can keep my eyes averted. “I told them we’ll celebrate here.”
“If he won’t tell them, you need to.”
“Tell them what?” My voice comes out in a shout. “Emma’s three. She doesn’t even know what dead means.”
Jo backs up half a step. “You may be right.”
“I’m sorry.” My skin prickles as I register what I’ve said. I forget sometimes that Jo’s a widow. Her husband died from a stroke long before I got here; that doesn’t mean her grief is dead too. “I shouldn’t have—”
“No, you’re probably right. You can talk to Charlie about it after the Day—he’s bound to have questions—and of course Emma doesn’t need to know until she’s older. She’ll hear about it from the other children anyway.”
I let out a desperate laugh. “Not to be puritanical, but I have to say, it doesn’t really seem like an appropriate custom to celebrate with children!”
Jo turns away, mouth open. She bites her lip. “I’m sorry, Nina. You know I love you, but you’ve got to stop saying celebrate.”
She stops talking, abruptly, breathes, and I can see her reeling emotion back in like a fish on a line. It’s rage, actual rage, at me. I don’t know what to say that won’t make this worse.
This is the closest I’ve come to a fight in years, and Christ, my heart is thudding.
“I’m sorry,” I say again. It takes me a second to catch my breath. “This has been the hardest adjustment.”
“Because you don’t believe in it.” She turns, busying herself with rearranging her stores of tinned fruit and beans. “But why would you? I have to keep reminding myself that I didn’t believe in it either when I moved here. I was so angry with Peter when I realized it was true. My God, that he’d married me, brought me here, made me fall in love with the place only to . . .” She shakes her head. “You’ll understand it soon, and when you’re one of us, you’ll come to value it as we do. It’s a fair trade.”
When I’m one of them.
“A fair trade.” I dare echo Jo’s words because her expression has, thankfully, lightened.
“Look around!” She beams, glad as I am for the slight change in topic. “Look at the weather, for starters. Gorgeous, isn’t it? Rain just before dawn, more sunny days than the UK average.”
“It’s a lucky fluke of geography,” I argue, smiling back. “That’s what John Ashford says.”
“He still believes that?” Jo muses, then she leans on the counter, her expression shifting. “You know about the Graveyard.”
I do. It’s one of my favorite spots here. The Graveyard is a spot off the northwest shore where the waves break in a long white line. When I first moved here, I’d mistaken it for a natural shoal, but Hugh set me straight—it’s a massive reef formed by the combined wrecks of ships trying to invade Lute over millennia, from Vikings to Nazis. Our pub, the Dane’s Head, is named for one unfortunate Viking who, in attempting to invade, hit the reef and swam to shore, only to have his head removed and set on a pike for children to lob rotten vegetables at, presumably on the spot where the pub now stands.
Nobody has ever successfully attacked us—not even the Normans, really. They sent the first Lord Treadway over, and he promptly fell in love with the place, assimilated, married a Lute girl, refused to pay taxes to the crown, and somehow got away with it.
It’s all a trick of history and geography. A patchwork pattern that proves nothing. There’s a lot of history here to pick and choose from. The currents around these islands are treacherous.
And yet, I do have to admit, we’ve never had any trouble navigating to the mainland or to Sunnan or Elding or even Joseph’s Rock for a day trip. The only time our plans have ever been scuppered, in fact, was yesterday.
Jo is watching me. “We’re all comfortable financially, aren’t we? Untouched by ups and downs for the most part.”
This I do know more than a little about, as the fortunes of Lute are so tied up with the wealth of the family I’ve joined. There are books on the shelves of Hugh’s study about the Treadways, old leather-bound tomes I found amusing enough to crack when I was pregnant with Charlie and too tired to do anything but patter around the house. It seemed like some ridiculous vanity printing, but after I started reading, I couldn’t stop. The history was fascinating enough that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t read about it elsewhere.
The legend of the blessed islanders was what gave Lute notoriety in Britain through the centuries and, funnily enough, money. From the moment ships were crossing the Atlantic or heading north on fishing and whaling expeditions, Lute sailors were sought after for their luck. They said in the Bristol harbors that a ship with a Lute islander aboard was unsinkable, so sailors from here were paid well over standard wages, with larger shares in the bounty—and whether it’s history or legend talking, they say that Lute-blessed ships always wound up with hefty takings.
The Treadways managed it all, their own tiny East India Company. They got a share of the receipts from the islanders and invested it weirdly well, never taking much of a hit from any of the recessions or depressions in the past two centuries. That’s why, along with all the technical contract work that comes with owning four islands—managing tenant agreements, making sure nobody’s violating environmental regulations, shoring up old buildings, doling out land rights for sheep grazing on Sunnan and docking rights to visiting fishermen—most of Hugh’s day-to-day consisted of moving money around and watching it grow. Reinvesting, donating. It takes him all of two hours in the mornings, leaving him time for his real job, visiting with neighbors and learning about what they need, or what they’d like him to communicate to officials on the mainland. His job is really just being present, being human, making sure everybody’s happy.
And everybody is happy. Safe, comfortable, but none more the Treadways, and I’m Lady Treadway of Alder House with not even a single hour of work to do in the mornings. There’s no way to answer Jo’s question that wouldn’t sound smug.
Jo, thank Christ, moves on to her next piece of evidence. “Have you never noticed anything odd about the war memorial?”
Okay. Now I’m stumped. The thing is, I never grew up seeing war memorials outside of the large displays we toured on school visits to D.C. The day I figured out that there was a memorial in every single village in Britain, Hugh explained that the death toll here in the great wars was much greater. I realized then how insulated I’d been from the concept of war back home. Americans move on quickly from tragedy. We think of it as a strength, but I wonder if it’s a sign of immaturity, of an unwillingness to grapple with hard emotions.
I picture our little memorial square here beside the school and the church, and it hits me, for the very first time. “There aren’t any names on it. Just the dates of the wars.”
Jo raps once on the counter. “Because no one from Lute has died in any war. Not a single soul.”
That cannot be possible, I think, but what comes out is, “Well, that’s good!”
Jo laughs in agreement, then shoves herself off the counter and away, poking her head past the tearoom door. “You all right, Mrs. Wickett?”
“I’m ready to go,” the old woman says quietly.
My heart clenches. She probably means she wants to settle up, but she’s been talking about death more and more these days, saying she’s been praying that the Lord will take her soon.
Lute is a seriously morbid place of late.