by Rochelle Cashdan
A year ago, when I was out of work, tired of the four walls of my shabby apartment, and knowing few people in the city, I started spending Thursday mornings in a neighborhood park where I watched a swan glide among the ducks on an hour-glass shaped pond.
One day when I saw one of my former workmates at a bus stop, I mentioned my pastime. She in turn said that on her vacation two years before a Turkish villager had teased her about staring at ducks making love. I explained stiffly that my situation was different. I didn’t care about the underwater parts of the birds gliding the pond, I just liked watching them move without friction.
That spring the swan started swimming my way and even stopped right in front of me. Bruised by events in my life, I enjoyed the attention. I started coming to the pond regularly, always walking around it. Each time, the swan glided near with a display for my pleasure.
He was quite an ordinary swan as I am an ordinary human, but of the two of us he was the more experienced in flirting. One morning while I sat by the stone edge of the pond, he reached gently with his wing, brushing the hair slowly back from my face. Then with the same wing, he motioned me to follow. I slowed my pace to his glide so that I would be a step or two behind him.
All through our promenade, I watched his movements, seeing him back away or stretch his neck in my direction. I enjoyed our games, our slow circling, my reawakening curiosity. I began learning his gestures. I thought about what I would say if he offered me even the smallest of presents.
Captivated by my own fantasy, I wanted to learn more. The next Thursday instead of going to the pond, I went into the city to find a teacher of Swanese. In the river district, I found a language school where a long-necked woman described the lessons, adding that she also taught English as an Avian Language. I took a short sample lesson and arranged to come to her on Tuesdays for accelerated tutoring.
Pleased with my enterprise, I returned to the park the next week. When I reached the pond, I did not see the swan but a few minutes later he glided toward me through a clump of reeds. By the time he was halfway to me, I thought he held his bill at an arrogant angle.
As he drew closer, I saw him using his chest to push what looked like a barge of brightly colored feathers, red, violet, and ginger. He stopped directly in front of me and extended a wing toward the feathers, gesturing for me to lift the heap from the water.
I found I was holding a human-sized bodysuit. Arranging the suit along my length, I stroked the glossy feathers, relieved I knew at least a few polite phrases in his language. The swan had ducked his bill underwater, nibbling, then turned his head in my direction.
To my disappointment, the suit didn’t fit. In my unexpected frustration, I turned peevish.
“This made for other one,” I said abruptly, combining my simple Swanese with gestures shaping a swannish being with wing-like arms and broad feet.
With a sharp turn of his head at this first sound of my voice, he looked straight at me but kept noticeably silent. After some time had passed, he made a triangle with his wing, pointing to the suit and then our two heads. After that, he looked off to the side as if too well-bred to say anything more.
“Swannu,” I said, using the formal title, “Garment no fit body. You see thing you want see.”
Instantly, he straightened his neck. I could tell I had hurt him. He drew himself up, his broad chest larger than I remembered.
I backed off. “I just start Swanese,” I said, sitting down so my eyes were closer to his level.
“Swanese?” he said abrasively. “Sounds more like Goosish to me.”
“Humans no try it, “ I said, unable to say quite what I meant.
The swan gave a swannish version of a sniff as he moved closer, raising himself again in a vertical display of his grandeur. “She... still... wingless,” I caught some words as the swan talked to the water. “Perhaps... forever.”
I replied loudly to the water that I liked my arms and fingers.
“Indeed,” he sniffed, gliding closer, his neck bent discreetly.
His expressiveness frightened me. In my most detailed fantasies, feather lapping on feather, I had not imagined him so firmly against me.
But, turning to leave, I said in Swanese I would return the next Thursday.
“I’ll be in the pond, one part or another,” he said. Then he glided away through the reeds.
His disdain led me to put in a session practicing the breast stroke at the neighborhood pool. My old-fashioned stroke was out of fashion, but it had the advantage of barely ruffling the surface of the pond. I wanted to surprise Swannu with my aquatic ability. The next Thursday, instead of arriving at the pond in the morning, I waited until dusk when I could barely see the letters on the sign posted against swimming. “I will show him by night what laws forbid in the day,” I thought. “He’ll see I’m more than a landlocked creature who stammers in Swanese.”
To my chagrin, when I came to the pond, I found I had left my swimsuit at home. I felt driven to swim with the swan but I couldn’t risk being dragged under by my clothes. I would have to swim nude.
Unbuttoning my skirt and taking off my skirt, I did not see Swannu. But if he slept at night, he slept lightly. I soon heard the sound of moving water, then saw his white shape gliding along that part of the curve where I waited timid as always to enter cold water. Swannu had heard my movements or seen me before I had seen him.
This time he swam the full circle of the pond, coming close for a moment to display the feathered cap on his head. From where I stood, I could see its intricate pattern, silver gray mixed with rich colors even in the moonlight.
“Now, with a little stretching, that would fit me,” I thought, even as the swan, without even a gesture in my direction, instead gazing straight ahead along the water, started an accelerating reverse spiral toward the center of the pond.
I stood shivering in the cool evening air, aware with a corner of my mind of his bulk. The swan moved faster and faster. After I lowered myself over the concrete edge into water warmer than I expected, I saw the swan making tighter circles now, the cap still fixed to his head. I waded toward him, thinking of Swannu’s webbed legs, the strength visible at times in his earlier displays. Before long I was standing in the deep part of the lake, the water up to my chin.
l began to swim my human stroke toward the center of the pond. With the warm water on my skin, I almost forgot Swannu. For some seconds, I let myself float on my back watching the moon, feeling the strain flow from my body.
At that moment, the swan crashed his full weight against my belly. Under his spread wings, I felt the hardness of his muscles, the edges of his feathers sharp against me. Even with these recognizable signs, at first I thought a helicopter had crashed, not an animal.
We humans think in a strange fashion but I came to my senses as I struggled to take in air beneath his huge bulk.
Swannu held me between his webbed feet and his feathers. His great heart throbbing against me, he started to rub. As heat flooded my cheeks, I sensed that it was not his heart I could feel hammering my belly.
I had no way to move from him. He turned me, surrounded me, touched my soft places, prepared for his pleasure in the most swannish of ways.
All was in order, so much so the swan became careless. While he was working to pry my limbs apart, I freed my left arm (I am a left-handed woman) and plunged my thumb into the center of his deceptively small eye. The swan pulled back immediately, then began to scream.
His release came so suddenly I had no time to think, but my legs pushed me through the roughened water. I could see the cap between us. I reached out, still not thinking except for expecting his blood on my hand. Instead, the turbulence had already carried it away. I saw only my own pale skin and the silvery shades in the pattern of the cap.
By the time I clambered over the edge, the cap still in my hand, I was too dazed to be prudent. Exhausted and panting, I exposed that part of my body the swan wanted to take for his own. But I needn’t have worried. What had happened had already happened. The swan was shrieking his pain in the distance, taking no notice of me anymore. The swan’s cap was adrift by the side of the pond.
I was shaking from head to foot. I remember putting my head halfway up a sleeve in my effort to put on my sweater. When I finally had my clothes on except for my sandals, I began walking barefoot toward the entrance of the park. Then, suddenly, I changed direction and walked back to the pond.
I stood there on the edge, my feet planted firmly. Over his shrieking, I launched cries of loathing from the back of my throat.
Hugging myself in an effort to crush a return of the trembling, I started to walk away. At the stone gate I stopped to put on my sandals, but when I looked around for the cap I had meant to pick up, I knew I had left it behind. I wasn’t satisfied to just let it go. I wanted to rid myself of it formally, properly. I walked back through the moonlight. picked up the cap and ran my fingers along the feathers, imprinting their rich colors in my mind.
The water was absolutely quiet. I looked toward the reeds, where the swan could be waiting for vengeance. But all I saw was the moon’s reflection on the water and a small gleam faraway.
While I stood there, I felt my thigh starting to shake again. Until the trembling passed, I could not rid myself properly of the cap. And then, at last, I was still enough to take a step back and cast the cap away, sending it skimming out across the water.
Even so, when I went back toward the gate, I was still not breathing as usual or walking as slowly as usual.
And then, as if a glass wall rose in front of me, I fell backward, any sense of the fit order of things knocked out of me for the second time that night. All I know is that I felt what they call exquisite pain sear the upper front of my body, forehead to pelvis. Of the sources of terror who can say which is worse: violation, hopeless days, or my final undoing at the gate?
I lay on the path until the shock lessened, wanting to discard every trace of the night. If I could have, I would have walked home without a stitch of clothing. As it was, when I felt strong enough, I pulled myself up and then walked slowly on the dry summer grass, stealing out from the park through the bushes.
Months would pass before I could accept the power of my own left hand.
Copyright © 2009 by Rochelle Cashdan