In a hothouse of collegiate sex and ambition, one young woman mysteriously disappears after a wild campus party, and another becomes obsessed with finding her.
It’s Halloween night on a pastoral East Coast college campus. Scantily costumed students ride the fine line between adolescence and adulthood as they prepare for a night of drinking and debauchery. Expectations are high as Leda flirts with her thrilling new crush, Ian, and he flirts back. But by the end of the night, things will have taken a turn.
A mysterious young woman in a swan costume speaks with Leda outside a party—and then vanishes. When Leda later wakes up in Ian’s room the next morning, she is unsure exactly what happened between them. Meanwhile, as the campus rouses itself to respond to the young woman’s disappearance, rumors swirl, suspicious facts pile up, and Leda’s obsession with her missing classmate grows. Is it just a coincidence that Ian used to date Charlotte, the missing woman? Is Leda herself in danger? As Leda becomes more and more dangerously consumed with the mystery of Charlotte and questions about Ian, her motivations begin to blur. Is Leda looking for Charlotte, or trying to find herself?
In Leda and the Swan, Anna Caritj’s riveting storytelling brings together a suspenseful plot; an intimate, confessional voice; and invaluable insights into sex, power, and contemporary culture.
Release date: May 4, 2021
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Print pages: 352
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Leda and the Swan
Saturday, October 31
Leda tied her neon-pink running shoes while angels, astronauts, and superheroes began their first rounds of trick-or-treating. They passed her on the front step of the Psi Delta sorority, adjusting halos, dragging polyester tails, running (or being advised, no running), or simply being carried: an amazed bumblebee, a pod of peas. In astronomy class, Leda had learned that the world was 4.5 billion years old and that humanity had barely wrinkled the cosmic scheme. Life was small, she knew. But it felt big in moments like these-hearing children's high voices, the tit of masked chickadees, and police sirens singing somewhere, almost sweet. It felt big when she could just open her door and witness the dogwood's last red leaves, the crisp sunlight, and the white abacus of clouds overhead, shifting. Here was Leda, with the world around her, ringing. Then, here was Leda wondering, as if the day were a threshold, if today might be the beginning or end of things. Something, she sensed, was slipping.
The children were headed to the college Lawn-a grassy, terraced quad surrounded by ten pavilions and fifty or so upperclassman rooms whose residents, Leda assumed, were already handing out candy from their stoops. As a kid, Leda had come to this festival, too. When she'd caught her mom pilfering a piece of her candy, her mom had joked, chewing, that she was checking for poison.
Now, Leda was too old for trick-or-treating. She stretched wide legged in front of the house, the crown of her head reaching down. She smelled brick moss and dropped leaves. Upside down, she watched a band of pirates cross under the stoplight at the corner of Memorial Road and University. She watched a T-bone steak dash for a neighbor's kiddie pool, which was full of melted ice and unopened Natty Light. The steak's parent (a cow) wrangled the kid and carried him back toward the sidewalk through dewy red cups.
Leda stretched, and her skull grazed the ground. She looked up at her freckled legs, short shorts, and beyond-an arrow of honking geese, the wind pushing clouds. Her guess was: morning. Though the time didn't matter, really. It was Saturday. She yawned, upside down, and covered her mouth. Funny, covering her mouth when no one was around.
She jogged to the nearby Varsity Field for calf stretches. It had a classical Roman theater aesthetic with gray columns and concrete seating, and that crumbly vibe, that dilapidated energy that made students feel comfy enough to pass out there, or leave their used tampons there, or have sex, even though this seemed uncomfy to Leda-there was broken glass everywhere. The arches and colonnades were part of the look her university had gotten off on for two hundred years, though the architecture was less cared for here. It was off-grounds and surrounded by Greek life (aka drunk people everywhere).
Bland, brick dormitories stood at the far end of the field. Beyond the dorms, Leda could see O-Hill (O for observatory), one of her two preferred runs. The trail went through dense woodland and ended at the university's refracting telescope. Her other run took her to a Civil War-era graveyard, downtown. Though this one was shorter in miles, it always took longer than O-Hill because she'd made a habit of wandering among the graves, searching, half-consciously, for family names. She never found anything. The grave that mattered-her mother's-was forty miles away.
Leda turned her back on the mountain, put her toes on the edge of a step, and stretched her heels down. Someone had spilled glitter here, making the grit shimmer. Overhead, five pairs of panties fluttered from a string, tied between two pillars of the Doric colonnade. Across the street, the sun peered over the Kappa Chi fraternity. Greek letters and the tags of secret societies decorated all sides of the building. A girl in a sequined shirt sat on a porch keg in front of a painted chi. The white X sprang from behind her like wings.
In the yard, a fleshy mask drooped from the end of a stake. Inside the frat, something like feedback cracked. Leda picked up her feet, ducking the panty flags, about to start running, when piano spilled from the fraternity. Two doves, like firecrackers, lobbed into the sky. The sequined girl looked after them as the music wobbled-synth now, and again piano. It could have been a warped LP, or it could have been Leda's ear misinterpreting the sound: major chords staggering into minor, an unclear key. Then the piano flared again, then the dizzy singing:
You can dance . . .
A train clattered along the far edge of the athletic field, drowning "Dancing Queen." By the time Leda had shuffled her feet-a groggy dance-she could barely hear the music. The train flashed behind diamonds of chain link, repeating black, red, and gray geometry. Leda usually waved at the conductors of trains-a silly habit from childhood-but she didn't see a man in the engine window today.
See that girl . . .
The sequined girl disappeared as Leda turned the corner. She passed more frats and a few sororities. She crossed Beta Bridge, layered in generations of paint, where already a long stretch of silence thwacked in the wake of the train. A sedan passed, and the air stirred behind it. Down the sidewalk, a tiny Power Ranger walked with his mother. Leda ran. She leapt over a patch of broken glass-gravelly, smashed-and crossed to the other side of the street, where there was also glass. The Rotunda rose in the distance, but she turned down a side street and lost sight of it. Overgrown shrubs blocked the sidewalk. Disney Princess towels hung on a sorority's porch railing: Jasmine, Belle, Sleeping Beauty.
Down Fraternity Row, she passed another girl running. Then another. She passed a dining room table jutting into a holly tree, its surface covered with fake cobweb and orange beads. She passed three Styrofoam containers holding something that didn't look like food. She passed four boys sitting on a fraternity's roof, drinking from red cups and eating bunless hot dogs. Only one wore a toga, but all four held themselves like small-time gods. One threw his sunglasses off the roof and shouted something. Leda ran, steady. She didn't want to give them the pleasure of being noticed. She hummed, Young and sweet . . . The street widened. Behind her, the gods howled from the rooftop, appalled at how little attention they'd gotten.
"Cunt," one called after her. "Bitch."
Leda saluted. In her three years of college, she'd been called worse things. The names found for women, men-anybody-were like the names of plants and animals: just a method of convenience, a dumbing down of the world's endless manifestations. Because, before all this naming-before she could remember, really-she had been a child holding a plastic pumpkin: tiny and wondrous and growing into today. Same as anybody.
She yawned again. Covered it, sparing the world the sight of her tongue and teeth. She'd heard that a girl had fallen off one of these frat roofs recently. Not a god, she guessed. Not an angel. Just some wasted chick.
A church clock struck the hour as Fraternity Row came to a T with a busier street. Here, there were still more runners: more short shorts, more neon sneakers. A bus wheezed and knelt in the crosswalk, and Leda waited for it, face bobbing in the dark grime of the windows, red ponytail bouncing. She hummed with the engine noise, looping the same "Dancing Queen" verse. The church bell kept hitting. It was not morning, actually. Surprise: Leda had slept in. The clock on the bank read 12:00 p.m.
Children flocked to the Lawn. Behind them, parents toted pumpkin buckets and lunch boxes. In the midst of all of this, Leda could make out university students, dressed as extravagantly as the kids. She ran past three in fencing garb-their masks lowered, their white gloves flaunting foils with wobbling thrusts. She ran past the anthropology building, where animal busts glared from the stone frieze: a walrus, a tapir, a rhino, and some openmouthed beast.
Leda took the Rotunda's wide steps and jogged the terrace, level now with white pediments and southern magnolia canopies. Her shoes squeaked on the marble. Her reflection, no more than a slip of color, darted in and out of the Rotunda's windows. She rounded the building, passing beneath trunk-thick columns and brimming capitals. A balloon sailed overhead-one, and then three, and then uncountable.
The world was awake; the day had started without her. Over and over this happened to her: the future hit, as if the world she'd left on the other side of the Rotunda's steps (the ginkgos shimmering, the stone chapel, the stacks visible through library windows) were a curtain that could be thrown back. Revealing . . . nothing awful, obviously. It was just surprising. Here, she turned an ordinary corner and met a slap of face paint, sequins, and braided wigs. Voices rising. Joyful screams. Jack-o'-lanterns in the midday sun, grinning.
No one else looked surprised. No one else seemed to notice Earth's endless, incremental turmoil. But Leda had to stop. Take it in. It was as if time had cracked, letting some of the past spill out and the future seep in. Year after year, the festival did not change. Her mother could be here, even now: the red clogs, the Nikon around her neck. It was easy to picture the reading glasses in her hair, the wool purse, and these same white columns around her, roped in orange streamers. But her mother herself-her actual face-she had trouble imagining.
Leda reached out and held on to a railing.
From the grass, a voice called, "Lee!"
Near one of the Lawn's massive trees (a maple, by the red of the leaves), silver balloons reflected people-gnawing on Sugar Daddys, pulling up tights, sheathing and unsheathing plastic knives. In many cases, it was hard to tell the difference between the college students and the kids. Leda held the railing. Some of the balloons reflected the white curtain of sky. Here was the world: bright, overflowing, and yet swollen with vacancy.
The voice in the grass kept on. "Leda the slut! Ho bag. Lee!"
Of course, the balloons weren't really empty. Just because she couldn't see the helium and whatever else, didn't mean it wasn't there.
Leda blinked. Below her, a blond witch brandished a carved pumpkin. A Reese's slipped from the pumpkin's mouth, and a skeleton-a man in a full, boned bodysuit-snatched up the candy, showed his skull to Leda, and disappeared into the crowd.
The witch adjusted her boobs. "Leda, where's your costume?"
"You're looking at it," Leda said, coming out of it, meeting her friend and fellow Psi Delt Carly at the base of the steps.
"Funny. Will you hold this for me?" Carly loaded the pumpkin into Leda's arms without waiting for an answer. Carly was Leda's "Big"-short for "big sister," i.e., her mentor when Leda had first joined the sorority-so Leda, Carly's "Little," was used to the servitude (joking-not-joking). Now, Carly adjusted her pointy hat and combed a plastic spider out of her staticky hair. "I should have just done a plastic pumpkin, but I thought this would be, like, witchy. Now I think my arms are going to fall off my body."
Somewhere, recorded maniacal laughter was on repeat. Leda shifted the pumpkin, damp and heavy. A ghost in a white sheet rushed by, excusing himself by saying, "Ladies," while a boy in a too-large football helmet stood before Leda, singing, Trick or treat. Leda lowered the pumpkin, and the boy took a Reese's.
"Thank you," the boy said, and placed the candy in his pillowcase.
"I thought I would unload that thing in no time," Carly said. "But the kids here are so frickin' polite. They use two fingers to pluck out one tiny piece. What happened to stealing the whole bowl?"
"I think that was just you." Leda moved her feet.
"Also, it's not even night. Part of the fun was going up to some stranger's house, right? And there'd be someone sitting on the porch in the dark, like, dead or asleep, with the candy bowl in their lap and you'd have to sneak over and you'd have to reach . . ."
"Trick or treat!"
Leda lowered the pumpkin for a fairy trio. The girls each took a piece of candy, shivered their wands at Leda, and ran off, legs flinging.
"It's a fucking tragedy," Leda said, coming to herself again. "A war on Halloween."
"Someone should do something. Plus, ninety percent of these costumes are stupid."
"You're a witch, Carly."
"The witch is classic. Untouchable. It's historically interesting."
"Have you seen Mary?"
It was an innocent question, but Carly seized on the opportunity to dis their former sister. "Oh my god." Carly rolled her eyes. "Mary's wearing black wings. She told me what she is, but I can't remember. It's not even pretty. She must be drunk or something."
Mary lived on the Lawn this year. Her door opened straight onto the long, grassy quad. This was an honor-you had to be in high academic standing in order to live here. But lately Leda's sorority sisters were saying that Mary had gotten weird.
Carly applied lip gloss. "Would you take that for me?"
"The pumpkin. The candy. I can't even lift my arms, Lee."
"Love to, but I'm running O-Hill."
"No, you're taking my pumpkin to go say hi to Mary, whose single redeeming quality is her suite's proximity to Ian Gray, who is, this very day, wearing but a loose toga over his magnificent chest."
Leda tried to veil her interest. "Sounds like an event."
"He is so cute," Carly said. "And he likes you."
Ian was in the A School, which stood for architecture. He was blond and a swimmer and had this tuned-in, blue-eyed face that said something like, I listen or You're beautiful.
Leda said, "Says who."
"Lee." Carly gave her the round-eyed duh look. "It's obvious. Please."
Carly was not the only one who had been talking about Ian lately. The Psi Delta volunteer leaders were always gushing about his work building homes in this or that village, about how he wanted to learn how to build structures as well as design them. This past summer, his appendix had apparently ruptured on a volunteer trip, and he received an operation in a field tent under only local anesthetic (though the details changed slightly, depending on who was telling it). After recovering, he went back to building the house he had started.
He is so dedicated, Leda's sisters went on, ad nauseam. Not to mention gorgeous.
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