Excerpt from The Butterfly Cabinet by Bernie McGill, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Butterfly Cabinet

A Novel

by Bernie McGill

The Butterfly Cabinet
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2011, 240 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2012, 224 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jennifer G Wilder

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It's an odd thing I ended up back here after all these years. You know, it is a kind of home to me, for when you add up the time I was here as a servant and the time I've been here as a resident, I've lived here longer than I've lived anywhere.

The first time I came, Anna, the first time I set foot over the door of this house, I was fourteen years old. I'd never seen anything like the castle. Oh, I'd seen it from the outside, sure enough, you couldn't miss it. Grew up in its shadow, you might say, the way it stands on the headland looking down over Bone Row and the Parade and the harbor and the Green Hill at the far end. On a day like this, you can look out over the sea to the hills of Donegal in the west, Scotland to the east and the Atlantic as far north as you can see. It was never what you would call a pretty building. There's always been a touch of the fortress about it: gray, nothing heartsome. But inside, it was a palace. Rooms the size of churches, not all divided up like they are now, everything light and airy, full of fine-looking furniture but spacious, you would say, nothing too close to anything else. And smelling of lilies, the mistress loved lilies. I hated them, still do, those white petals like curled tongues when they open, the choking way they catch at the back of your throat, the rusty pollen that stains your hands for days. Give me a bunch of snowdrops any day, or bluebells, bluebells from Knockancor Wood. But your grandmother loved the lilies, would have filled the house with them if she could. She thought they cloaked the smell of the gas. Better than the smell of the place now, anyway: Jeyes Fluid and boiled spuds. Washable surfaces, that's what's important now, lino and emulsion; the smell of disinfectant everywhere. Why is it that people come to the sea to die? Is it the sound they're after? The first sound? Mistaking the crash and suck of the ocean for the swill of warm blood in their ears? Is it a return?

Do you see that, Anna, that little mark above my wrist? I saw that same mark on my mother's hand not long before she died. It would put you in mind of a swift in full flight: two dark wings, a divided tail. I know where that little bird is headed: swift by name and swift by nature, straight to the blood. I've been hiding it up my sleeve; I don't want the doctor near me. Let the hare sit, that's what I say. What's the point of rising it now? My time's near as well, but in a different way to yours, thank God. I'm glad you've come.

There's Nurse Jenny, Anna. Do you see her, in her lovely white uniform? She can smell death on a person. She's never said anything, but I've seen her face change, one day when she was helping oul' Mrs. Wilson up out of the chair; another day when she was spooning Jimmy's dinner into him. There's a gray look comes over her round face; a furrow comes in her brow, and then she's very gentle, gentler even than before. Oul' Mrs. Wilson was dead within two days, Jimmy that very night. It'll not be long now, I'm thinking, till she smells it on me.

There's something I want to show you, up in my room, behind the door. Do you know what it is? It's your grandmother's butterfly cabinet: I've had it these years. The keeper of secrets, the mistress's treasure. Ebony, I think it is, very solid: four big balled feet on it. The darkest wood I've ever seen. There was never any warmth in it, not even when the light from the fire fell on it. Twelve tiny drawers, every one with its own small wooden knob. None of us was allowed to go near it; it was the one thing in the house that the mistress saw to herself. I'll never solve the problem of her: what's the point of keeping a dead thing? No luck could ever come of it. Mammy used to say that a white butterfly was the soul of a child and that you daren't harm it or the soul would never find rest.

The cabinet ended up in Peig's house, and when I opened it all those years ago and looked inside there was nothing left but dust and mold and rusted pins where the butterflies would have been. It was one of the saddest things I'd ever seen and for the first time ever - I don't know why - I felt sorry for the mistress and I cried for her. I cried for her loss of Charlotte and her loss of the boys and her loss of the master, and for the days she spent in prison and for the misery of her sad lonely life. And most of all I cried that she didn't know what she had and what she'd lost. Every drawer was the same: dust and mold and the dried-up bodies of carpet beetles and spiders, a waste of small lives.

Excerpted from The Butterfly Cabinet by Bernie McGill. Copyright © 2011 by Bernie McGill. Excerpted by permission of Free Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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