Fiction: So Doth the Swan

 

Read More: A brief interview with Susan Frith

So Doth the Swan

Friends of Lake Guinevere Swans: Vol. 13. Issue 26

Myth vs. Fact: Swans are not vicious. However, they will protect their nests if threatened, as seen in the 2009 drowning of an out-of-town man who stupidly unfortunately chose to leave the safety of his boat to obtain a closeup photo of Mute Swans and their nesting cygnets on the western corner of Lake Guinevere. More often it’s the swans themselves who are in danger due to the idiocy follies of humans. (Yes, I mean you, owner of the unleashed Chow Chow.) For everyone’s safety, please enjoy our swans at an appropriate distance. Do not chatter your teeth, cat call, or attempt to stroke, pluck, or fondle our swans. Do not attempt to dress up our swans in costumes. The only approved swan costume—more of an accessory, if you will—is the floral ring we put around Celine’s neck for weddings and the small top hat we affix to Spencer, her mate. Those of you who have attended a wedding at Lake Guinevere know how regal our dominant pair look as they parade into the water (for which they are amply rewarded with non-GMO un-buttered popcorn).

Friendly reminder: A full thirty percent of our operating funds come from donations. If you wish to keep swans in your municipal lake, we ask you to consider a donation. From weddings and picnics to Shakespeare in the Park, Lake Guinevere’s Mute swans have served as the backdrop to many special moments of our lives. Some of us even lost our virginity on this very lakeshore with the swans snorting and whistling yards away. If you’ve ever been touched by our swans, we encourage you to enclose a personalized thank-you note along with your donation. All letters will be read to the swans and we’ll post a sampling in an upcoming newsletter.

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Personalized thank you. The hell he would.

When Vernon found out that one and one-half percent of the municipal tax went to maintain Lake Guinevere’s swans, that was the last straw. The newspaper should have blown it up on the front page. But they only put a short item below the fold on page 7: “It costs an average of $31 per household to maintain the Mute Swans of Lake Guinevere each year. That money goes toward paying a keeper, veterinary fees, and supplementary feed along with an access ramp for the more arthritic swans.” Stoplights, yes. Police, sure. But Swans? Not with his tax dollars.

Bloodsuckers. They’d taken from Vernon and now he was taking back.

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I, Celine, entertained a rare visitor today. Arrogant Trumpeter from distant waters. Flight wings intact. (Of course he didn’t hesitate to point that out.) And what news do you bring from the world? No, I’m not flirting with him, Spencer. No, I didn’t notice the size of his knob. Not really.

The world, Trumpeter tells us, is full of mountains and caves and caramel seas. Sultans in holographic silk tunics. Also, polo players and ventriloquists. There is a hotel made of ice. A woman who can do pull-ups with her tongue.  A single mushroom the size of Minnesota. What is Minnesota? You mean you’ve never been?  Minnesota is a place, a very large and often cold place. And what do you do here on this little pond?

It’s a lake, I say, and paddle off furiously. In the distance I hear him prattle on about emerald mines, supercolliders, and extreme sports. Also, Paris, single-serve coffee machines, mimes, the Dalai Lama, kangaroos, Nutella, the Prado, the Great Pyramids, 3-D printers, Faberge eggs, Transcendental Meditation, spacecraft Cassini and the 62 moons of Saturn …

Show-off, I think. But it makes me wonder.

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Fun Fact: Swans possess an extra eyelid, a clear membrane, which allows them to see underwater. A word about Kenny. Some in the community have left creepy messages on my voice mail expressed concern after seeing Kenny restrained in recent weeks. Kenny, born to Celine and Spencer two years ago, is my worst nightmare one of our more active male juveniles and has taken to chasing the keeper like her stalker ex-boyfriend. Kenny has not been mistreated at any point under our care. When a young male swan attempts to assert his dominance in disruptive ways, an appropriate corrective is to throw a white blanket over him, hold him gently and speak softly until he calms down. Think of it as a time-out for the water-fowl set.

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It’s quiet on the drive back from Lake Guinevere. Almost too quiet, Vern thinks. Shouldn’t the swan be pecking his eyes out, or at least smacking its wings up against the truck’s windshield? Instead, she sits nice and dainty next to him on the front passenger seat like his wife used to do. Rush Limbaugh’s on the radio and Swan seems soothed by the host’s booming voice. Maybe, Vern thinks, she shares his opinions about supply-side economics. He smiles, imagines writing a letter to the newspaper. Even the swan agrees with me.

As soon as Vern turns into his subdivision, he gets nervous about being seen by one of the neighbors. He throws an old Army blanket over the creature’s head, which may have been a mistake because she suddenly starts hissing real loud. It’s a struggle to get her into the bathroom, to turn on the faucet, what with her beak pounding his arm like a mallet. Somehow, he wrestles her into the tub, shuts the door.

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Clearly, I, Celine, have made a miscalculation. Misled by a stranger, an outsider, that large-knobbed Trumpeter Swan whom I most certainly was not flirting with.

When the man snatched me up, I was all for it. I didn’t even fight. I said Show me the world! But the Trumpeter Swan must have been lying. He promised minarets, marionettes, and puffed pastry. Calliopes and foosball tables. The Chunnel. The Matterhorn. Mount Kilimanjaro. Blah blah blah. Instead, the world appears to be nothing but a blue tub with a rust stain down the middle and a giant bottle of follicle-stimulating shampoo on the rim.

Oh, Spencer, I am fortune’s fool!

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Emergency Between-Issues Update

Missing Swan! We at Lake Guinevere are deeply saddened to report the disappearance of one of our prized swans, Lady Celine, sometime between 6 p.m. and midnight.  Many of you know of this pen’s important role in wedding ceremonies. For two years she has been the dominant female in the lake. We don’t know who would be cruel enough to kidnap her, but we will not prosecute if Celine is returned promptly, unharmed. If anyone has information that could lead us to her, please call our municipal hotline. There will be a $100 Reward for her safe return. All coming from my own pocket because the municipality is too stingy to pony up the money.  We all miss our beloved Celine.

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Vern should have thought this thing through. Now he can’t bathe. Can’t brush his teeth or shave either. All his toiletries are in the full bath, which the swan is probably at this very second filling up with large green turds. What do swans eat anyway? He looks online and reads about a bunch of things he’s never heard of, but swans can eat lettuce apparently.

At the grocery store the cashier gives him a hard time about all the salad mix in his shopping basket. “Doctor on your case? That why you’re eating vegetables all of a sudden?”

Vern shakes his head like it doesn’t bear talking about.

As soon as he opens the bathroom door, the swan comes charging at him. Vern drops the half-opened bag of lettuce on the floor. Retreats. Now it sounds like she’s ripping down the shower curtain. Swan was a lot calmer in the car listening to conservative talk radio. This gives Vern an idea. He goes and turns on the TV at full volume. Fox & Friends are discussing the merits of a border wall.

When he opens the door a crack, the swan is now perched calmly on the toilet lid.

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Spencer in the eelgrass, waiting for me.

Spencer keeping the eggs warm, hissing away the Boston terrier and the cyclists in Spandex.

Spencer growing amorous after Shakespeare in the Park

Graze on my lips and if those hills be dry

Stray lower where the pleasant fountains lie.

My Cob, Cobbie. I’m sorry I left.

When our beaks dip in the water, our dance begins. We lift our wings, wrap our necks around each other—love how you bite—and Oh! 15 seconds of—

Sigh. Spencer, will you wait for me?

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Vol. 13, Issue 28

Many are the questions asked since Celine’s abduction, such as why do we clip our Mute Swans’ wings? Could her kidnapping have been prevented by preserving her ability to fly?  No, dip shits. The sad fact is that nothing can stop a determined swan thief.

Every now and then we get inquiries about this routine surgical procedure known as pinioning, typically done during the first weeks of a cygnet’s life. Does it seem cruel to you? Well, how does pulling a dead swan out of a tangle of power lines sound? Or scraping one off the highway after a smash up with a tractor trailer? Our swans don’t know another existence outside of Lake Guinevere. They don’t know how to behave or which unsafe places to avoid. But clipping our swans’ wings is unnatural, you argue? It is impossible to be natural in this world we’ve made.

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Vern’s grown daughter, Cindy, is studying his arm, pressing the tender spots. “Dad, what’s the deal with these bruises?”

When Cindy frowns, she looks like his dead wife Jean. The sharp blue eyes, the thick worry line in the middle of her forehead. She’s 42, with no kids, and just married a year. Her husband’s been out of work for six months.

“Physical therapist probably did it. She’s a rough one.”

“But Dad, you haven’t been to the physical therapist in weeks. And she was 5’2. What’s going on? What’s that hissing sound coming from your bathroom?”

“It’s my tax dollars,” he tells Cindy once she’s stopped screaming. “I’m getting my money’s worth.”

“I’m a municipal employee. You can’t put me in this position. It’s got to be illegal.”

“You’d narc on your own father?”

“I’m going to pretend I didn’t see this,” she says. “But when I come back next week, I want the swan gone.”

Vern nods like it’s settled, but as soon as Cindy leaves, he goes out back and starts to dig. He works all afternoon just to dig a hole twice the length and width of the bathtub. All of a sudden, his chest feels kind of funny, and he’s got these floaters in his eyes. He goes inside and lies on the couch like he used to Sundays during football season.

When he wakes up, the TV’s on. His wife, Jean, comes in with a bowl of salted nuts.

He makes a pouty face. “You didn’t get me any?”

“Get your own,” she says, and sits in the recliner across from him. “Or root for a better team.”

“Don’t you wish.”

Jean’s wearing an oversized Giants jersey and her powderpuff slippers, which is an invitation for later. Vern rolls up his sleeves. Which is his.

The Cowboys score another touchdown against the Giants. “Your guys still suck,” he says, and Jean pelts him with nuts. A cashew bounces off his chin. He picks it up from the carpet, blows off the lint, and licks the salt slowly, smiling.

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Ten up and ten back. These are the dimensions of my new existence. Better than the bathtub, I suppose. I, Celine, tilt my neck to gaze at the sky. There is one moon, not 62. A Curse upon the Trumpeter. I wish him death by pine needles, moldy bread, bobcat. At the very least a painful case of bumblefoot.

What is Spencer doing at this moment? Is he wooing another swan during Shakespeare in the Park?

“Do not swear by the moon,” I told him that first night,

 for she changes constantly/
then your love would also change.

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Vol. 13 Issue 29

A word about the diet of the Mute Swan. It is fairly diverse including yellow cress, green algae, beaked tassel weed, eel grass, worms, fish, lettuce, and even potatoes. Mashed potatoes minus butter and milk are served to our swans as a special treat on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Does this mean that swans can eat everything? No, it does not. Some of you may think, well, if potatoes are OK, why not my uneaten French fries? Are you trying to sicken our swans?  Or, why don’t I give the swans a bit of extra dog food? Another rotten idea. Though it should go without saying, the following foods are known to be especially harmful to swans: mushrooms, stale bread, chocolate, apple seeds, onions. Have humans attempted to feed these to our swans? We hope not, but there is no end to human stupidity. Please do not feed our swans!

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Vern takes his shopping list to the nursery. “Got any floating sweetgrass?” he asks the woman who works there.

Beneath her sun-visor, her face is tan and creased. “I’m afraid not,” she says. She’s got on coral lipstick, which brings out her bright blue eyes.

“Suppose I could make do with hornwort then. Or yellow cress. Or green algae.”

“We don’t sell those types of plants either.” She smiles. “Are you looking to build a pond for koi fish?

Vern coughs. “Something like that.”

“You’ll need a specialty store,” she says. “I have a friend who put together a real nice pond. If you give me your number, I can find out where she got her supplies.”

It takes Vern a moment to realize that she’s flirting.

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On stormy nights, the man brings me inside and makes a nest of pillows right next to his recliner. We watch a lot of TV. Travel shows, cooking shows, The Weather Channel. He gets out his photo album and points to his wife in a ruffled white blouse and long black skirt. “Community orchestra, first chair oboe.”

Not much of a neck on that one, but it’s clear that she is missed. I wonder what mating was like for the two of them. Does he miss rubbing her cloaca? I listen to the man’s sighs and think every one can master a grief but he that has it.

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Vol. 13 Issue 30

To answer another exasperating question: Yes, weddings at Lake Guinevere will proceed with Spencer as a single swan attendant. We cannot provide refunds on booked weddings as we rely on these fees for our operating expenses. You will say perhaps that you signed up expecting Celine and didn’t get what you wanted. Well, we don’t always get what we want. I certainly don’t.

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The lake grows slightly bigger each day. Vern plants marsh-grass, which the lady with the coral lipstick helped him find before inviting him out to lunch. They went to a little deli where empty coffee cans doubled as flower vases. They sat in a corner booth, where she did most of the talking. Vern could barely finish his tuna melt. It felt like cheating on Jean.

Cindy comes over later and tells him that her husband’s found work in Michigan. They’re moving soon.

Vern’s only cried once in front of her, and he doesn’t intend to do it again. “Good news about the job,” he says. He doesn’t mention the floaters. He doesn’t mention the lady who took him to lunch.

“It’s time to return the swan,” says Cindy. “You’ve more than proved your point, such as it was. Plus, I hear they carry lice.”

“I’m not afraid of anything like that.”

After his daughter leaves, Vern looks up swans and lice. “Blood-sucking lice can cause swans to be anemic,” says the article. “Monitor your kept swan for signs of anemia by routinely checking the color of its tongue.”

“Let’s get a look at you.” He squeezes on Swan’s jaw hinge with one hand and uses the other to lift the nail, just like it shows in the picture. She mouths his fingers, but it doesn’t hurt. Vern is pleased to see that her tongue is a healthy pink.

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I, Celine, am well aware that this man is no Shakespeare, but he reads aloud from the newspaper and back issues of National Geographic. “They’ve got these microbots they’re going to inject in our bodies to go after cancer cells,” he says one day. On another, “They used sticky rice as mortar to build the Great Wall of China.” His voice is quite soothing, actually. When he tries to scratch a hard-to-reach spot on his back, I rub it with my bill. Are we happy? I would say we are growing comfortable with our arrangement.

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Vol. 13 Issue 31

Fun fact! It seems so gallant, the male swan bowing to the female as they conduct their courtship, but is it true? Actually, both swans, male and female, dip their heads into the water as a prelude to mating. The act itself is fairly brief, but mute-swan pairs typically stick together for life. Did you know? A group of swans is called a game. So what do you call a group of kids at a birthday party who fling their juice-box straws into the lake, endangering our swans? Spoiled Brats.

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Cindy sounds happy when she calls home. She’s made new friends in Michigan, and the strain in her voice is gone. There’s no good reason for Vern to tell her about the symptoms he’s been having. He’ll get to the doctor soon. […]


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Susan Frith writes from Orlando, and her short fiction has appeared in Moon City Review, Sycamore Review, New Madrid, Nashville Review, Phoebe, The Cossack Review, and other publications.

Read More: A brief interview with Susan Frith