My mother and my grandmother have always lived together, from the time my mother was a suckling baby till now, sixty years later. Out of a need to support one another, these two women have always lived together.
But to call my grandmother a woman would not be completely accurate.
When my mother was seven, her father died of an unexpected heart attack, and my grandmother, now a widow and the sole caretaker for three small children, turned into a white-feathered swan, complete with an orange beak bordered in black.
Perhaps it was the result of grief, a thirty-five-year-old woman’s body coping with life’s sudden responsibilities in the only way she knew how. She could not simply stop living her life; though she wanted nothing more than to curl up in bed with a blanket covering her head to toe and to sleep for ten years, she was a mother, so she did not have a choice. She had to take her kids to school, find a job to pay for their food, dress up nicely, put her hair up, so on and so forth. Perhaps this is why her body helped her out and turned her into a swan. If she was a swan, she could not well be walking out in public with three small children. No—whoever heard of a swan buying groceries?
There are things a swan cannot do. A swan cannot, for example, wear human shoes or carry an umbrella. A swan cannot sing lullabies or sign checkbooks or speak on the phone to call a handyman. The swan gave her eldest daughter, my seven-year-old mother, power and responsibilities. My mother was given full authority over her sister and brother; she checked their homework, allocated their allowance, and decided who were suitable friends for them to hang out with.
My grandmother did what she could for her family as a swan. She kept her children warm at night, wrapped between her thick, silky wings. She swam with her three kids in the bathtub as they rubbed soap on their bodies and cleaned themselves. And the swan earned money—that was the most amazing thing of all—for though my grandmother no longer spoke the human language, she was just as smart as she was before, quick with numbers and figures. With her beak she punched on calculators all day long and calculated her clients’ taxes. With her feet covered in black ink, she made complex symbols on a piece of paper, symbols only my mother could understand and transcribe onto tax forms as regular roman numerals. And this is how, without ever having to meet or even speak with customers in person, my grandmother earned a living to support her family.
But it was my mother who attended parent-teacher conferences, her siblings’ as well as her own. It was my mother who argued with the landlord when he raised the rent. And it was my mother who answered the door, assuring neighbors and relatives with her dimpled smile and perceptive eyes, that the family was doing fine, that my grandmother was simply recovering from a cold, and that was why they hadn’t seen her in a while.
Generations are shadows of one another, but also mirrors, showing us who we are. When I was eight, my mother and father started living apart, and my mother was similarly burdened with the responsibility of taking care of small children on her own. This time, though, there were only two children instead of three, and my mother had the swan to help her out.
My grandmother had always seemed more like an over-protective, fussy hen than a swan to me—forcing us to wear layers of clothes when it was steaming hot, waking us up long before the alarm clock rang, and pulling clean clothes out of our closets to make up a full load of laundry. She was also the keeper of our daily schedules, ushering us forward to the next important event of the day with a nudge of her sharp beak that left a sting in our thighs: now it was dinner time, now it was homework time, now it was shower time, now it was lock up and go to bed time. When she demanded attention she’d waddle in front of the TV and flap her wings in angry bouts. She could also fly, albeit very short distances, an advantage no one else had.
No one was more annoyed about my grandmother’s behavior than my mother, and from her, we learned to talk back to our grandmother, telling her we’ll wake up when we wake up, and to stop nagging ‘cause we heard her the first time.
To the swan, my brother and I were more than grandchildren; we were her children, too, recast in the roles of my mother’s two younger siblings. She’d drop black and white pictures in our laps, pictures of herself and her three children, back in the days when she was still a woman.
“If you like playing House so much, why didn’t you do it properly, like you were supposed to the first time? Why did you have to turn into a swan?” These were the kind of things my mother said in the mornings, right before she slammed the door behind her and went off to work.
The swan, fierce as she usually was when demanding us to finish our homework or make our beds, would only look down and utter a soft “oh oh” sound from her nose. As soon as my mother left the house she’d look at my brother and I with a renewed purpose, pushing bowls of vegetable soup across the dining table, urging us to gulp the food down.
I should have eaten the soup. It isn’t easy for a swan to cook, standing on the stove counter and stirring giant pots with a wooden spoon between her beak. Now that I’m a grown woman I see that I should have eaten the soup. But instead I said what always got her off my back.
“You can’t tell us what to do. You’re not our mother.”
I believed my grandmother weak for letting us speak to her that way. A swan would be more prideful, more self-absorbed and aloof, I thought, and I did not see that in my grandmother’s plumes, scarce now with bald patches, more gray than white, and even the few remaining white feathers tainted in a piss-like hue. She smelled, too, of a lake, a lake of brown water covered in pond scum, and made our entire home smell like a swamp.
The only time I saw a different side of her was on the one day of the year my grandmother went out to visit her husband’s grave. As she applied pearly powder all along the length of her neck, stretching herself long and tall in front of the mirror, and combing away the wiry, damaged feathers to reveal the tender, baby ones underneath, I thought I saw the woman she must have been before her husband’s death, perhaps even before the encumbrance of motherhood. At those times I could imagine my grandmother, not as a water fowl, but as a young woman, a girl, just like me, with her whole life ahead of her, looking forward to love, and someday marriage, never once thinking she’d one day turn into a swan.
Vanessa Wang‘s writing has appeared in Luna Luna, Flash Fiction Magazine, Kartika Review, and Kweli, among others. Her short story “La Rambla” won the 2015 Bethesda Magazine Short Story Contest. You can read more of her work on wangvanessa.com.
What is Vanessa’s favorite world-changing invention or idea, and why? “It is electric cars and solar panels. The future looks so bleak with global warming and all the environmental issues we have, but knowing that we’re fast-tracking to renewable energy gives me hope!”
Art — Aleksandra Apocalisse was born in the USSR, from which her family fled when she was only 6 years old. She spent most of my childhood and young adulthood in Brooklyn, New York until she moved to Portland, Oregon in 2015. There, she is living the dream; spending the days outside with my dog, playing in the dirt, hanging out with plants, and expressing her dreams and innermost musings through art. She also loves animals, reading, learning about nature, getting lost in music, and traveling to tropical jungles.