Claire Younger Martin dedicates this piece to Katie Steuhm, the true swan whisperer. Martin's recent fiction can be found in Hair Trigger 40, Longshot Island, Ariel Chart, The Magnolia Review, and Bull & Cross. These days, you can find her holed up with a camera somewhere along Lake Michigan and tweeting @cymartin58.
THE AUTUMN SWAN DIVE
It was always pneumonia. Pneumonia or a cold or tetanus. Every time I left the house, it was “Sweetie, take a coat. You’ll catch pneumonia.”
I never took a coat and I never caught pneumonia.
I started taking those night walks through my neighborhood after I turned fifteen. I was bored and grounded, so I took a walk. I was bored again the next day. So I took another walk. It wasn’t that I was too lazy to get my driver’s license (I was,) there was just something gentler about walking through the duskier parts of the street around the time the colors in the asphalt and the sky matched. Nothing but the trees, the ponds, and me. Sometimes when I slid back onto the linoleum, I would be shivering. Sometimes sniffling or coughing while waiting for my eyes to readjust to the light. But once, I came back with palms covered in blood.
I guess by then it must have been the middle of October. I layered anything I could to avoid succumbing to the parka. Once I turned to that, there was no coming back. I snuck out the door after dinner, careful not to let it slam behind me. I stepped over a half carved jack-o-lantern and headed for the wooded trail that started at the foot of my driveway. It had started getting dark so early that the treetops were only curling arms against the navy. I ducked under a clearing and the edge of the pond I usually walked around came into view. I released the fists that I had let ball up in my pockets, relaxing at the sound of the mud sticking and unsticking to the bottom of my boots. Trees on all sides, I slowed my pace to inhale and catch the musk in their bark. The light from my kitchen dissolved behind me.
Then, I froze in my place before the last branches parted. Not twenty feet from the jutting rock I usually perched myself on I saw a large, white mass glowing in the twilight. The blood drained from my face. I told myself it was a plastic bag. A balloon. A tiny, pale boat. It didn’t matter. It was near my rock.
I picked up a soggy branch that had been resting by my ankle and crept forward. The figure was stoic, curved and slender and light on the water, almost as if it was levitating an inch above it. Even in the low, dusky air it was starched a ghostly white. I hid when I reached the reeds, peering over a cattail. The top of the curve cocked to one side, revealing a beak. I was looking at the biggest swan I’d ever seen.
It raised its wings and reared up, sending me stumbling backwards into the dewy brush. I barely caught myself on a nearby tree trunk, gripping it so hard that my entire body went tense. But just as quickly as it doubled in size, it shrunk back to normal. Maneuvering between a patch of lilies, it stuck its spoon-sized beak into the water and drank slowly. After a moment of holding myself in a suspended backbend, I felt my heartbeat slow and straightened up to look back through the reeds. It’s just a bird. Just a large bird. I repeated this again and again until I found the courage to peel my jumper off and wrap it around my arm, not realizing how much I’d been sweating until the air hit my skin, raising goose bumps instantly. I glanced at my rock, still vacant but directly over the swan. I could make a leap for it, perch there, and stay still until the creature left or fell asleep, whichever a swan would prefer, I thought.
Or I could dash. I could run through the trees and make tons of noise and not stop sprinting until I’d closed my front door behind me. I’d heard ruthless stories about those birds and I imagined it flapping after me, hissing and biting. We’d run and run until I would look behind me to see if it was still there and then- No, I told myself, It’s a swan. Relax. I jumped up to the rock in two steps, curled into a ball, and pretended like I wasn’t trembling. The swan glared at the reeds I’d stirred, swung around to me, and swam in my direction. I jumped to my haunches, ready to tear off into the branches. Just as the ringing in my ears came to a stop, it stuck out its neck and plunged its head deep into the muddy water.
A swan would attack a predator. Otherwise, a swan is docile. Somewhere along my second hour of shivering on the cooling stone over the pond, I realized that we had reached an agreement. The bird could swim, the human could sit. Silence was to be shared. Finally, I crept to the end of the stone and let the ends of my long hair dangle into the water in front of me. Even in total darkness, I could still perfectly trace the blanched feathers of the swan, moving in circles, resting, then cleaning itself. It had become hypnotic by then, the ebb of its gentle buoyancy and occasional flick of a wing. It was at rest, and we rested quietly together. Each time it plunged its head into the pond, it’s body bobbed softly before regaining its balance. As the night darkened I found my own eyelids bobbing with it, fluttering to stay open.
The first streetlamp flickered on far behind me, sending a low shadow up to a fallen log near the rock. Mom would ask questions about my whereabouts, I was sure. I cast a final look at the swan and struggled sluggishly to my feet. The night’s first drops of dew had collected on the backs of my outstretched legs and I brushed them off. The rising moon turned the ripples in the swan’s wake silver and I found myself taking a deep breath.
“Can’t believe that freaked me out,” I whispered to myself. Then, my voice rose. “Thanks for the company!” I laughed. The power of my voice struck me, carrying farther over the surface of the water than I anticipated. My laugh sent an echo ricocheting through the branches. Suddenly, the swan froze and hissed, lifting itself off the water and into the air in a split second. I ducked under a branch and froze, my breath stopping altogether.
Oh my god, I thought, I can run or hide, it will kill me regardless.
It’s wings beat through the shallow air like a sheet in the wind, tumbling and catching. It steadied itself and moved spastically, hissing again into the air beneath it. I flinched as I watched it give one more frantic flap, the one I was sure would send it over the trees in the perfect-dive bombing position. I held by breath. I was met instead with a burst of sparks overhead, every shade of orange and white fizzing under the moon. Each flare and fade rained down over the water, bouncing reflections my way. I couldn’t run or shout. I could only sit and watch as the swan let out a final hiss as it fell from the power line it has just struck, a dead weight falling heavily beyond the drifting sparks. Feathers soared across the treetops and the white mass hit the ground with a grisly thump a few feet from where I huddled, and the night was quiet again.
I must have stayed still for a while, because when I finally stood up again the joints in my legs seized and brought me back to the ground. I rose a second time and took the first two steps slowly, careful to let the nauseous feeling packed between my lungs subside. I found myself standing over the swan then, now just a pile of back-bent bones and fraying plumage. Its blood had run into a crevice in the stone where my foot had been resting just moments earlier. I noticed that its neck had twisted itself under a wing, revealing the grey skin under its feathers. I quit wringing my hands together for a moment and reached down to the neck, trying to adjust it over the stone. The feathers were sturdy and cold and I could feel the rest of the warmth leave its body through the base of its head. I shuddered and wound back, realizing that my left hand was covered in down feathers that had turned crimson. My knees locked and I sat back down on the jutting boulder. A cricket sang somewhere in the distance and I choked out a quiet sob.
Mom was too busy shouting about the electricity to ask me any questions when I got home.
“There you are!” She hollered, “All the power’s out in the neighborhood! Find the candles, would you? The electric lines in these woods are useless. Totally useless!” She kept talking as I walked past her and into the kitchen, finally seeing the now-purple blood on my palms underneath the florescent light. I held it under the sink slowly, running the water until it scalded my fingers. I kept them under the tap for a while and let the plumes of steam burn my eyes.
Chatter continued in the other room.
“Would you get someone out here to fix this? My house has no power! You need to be more careful with the electric lines in these parts!” The noise trailed off as the humming in my ears came back. It rose with the steam. Steam on my hands, steam in my eyes, steam puffing out of my nose like a raging bull. My hands were red when I looked down at them. I dried them on the legs of my pants and took off my sweater.
“Thank goodness you took a jacket this time!” I heard mom call behind me. I didn’t look at her. I didn’t speak. I walked over to the coat closet, draped it on a hanger, and slammed the door.
“How was the walk?” No answer.
“Aren’t you tired?” No answer.
“Alright, then. Have a good night. Get some sleep, though. You look white as a ghost.”