THE SWAN by Elson Meehan

Unknowable and ugly was their mother in her cups. Red clay stained her lingerie. She sang. And in the vacant lot behind their house, it was always winter. The winter lot belonged to no one; it had belonged to the Dysons, but they were a ruin. The lot was deadening and harsh like a snowless January or the waiting room at the public clinic. The breath of it blew over their fingers when they gripped the chain-link at eight and nine and fifteen years old, a pair of twins, one boy and one girl, who sought the source of a cold that knew no season. Their finger-flesh fused to the fence before they could pull their hands away. Raw, then, their frost-blue burning fingertips, while beyond the chain-link the chaff and grasses stirred, waiting, and beyond the lot the forestry’s young pines confined them.

It was out of the forestry that the swan came rampaging late one evening in the April of their seventeenth year. Della and Alan were standing out back shooting pellets into the cans of Milwaukee’s Best that their mother’s first cousin, Tony Reaber, had abandoned on the stoop and kitchen counters, and atop the cinder block well house in the yard. Alan held the rifle steady, aimed, and missed; he was shortsighted, and it was starting to get dark. He cursed because he felt he ought to, but his dispirited, creaking voice belied his irritation. He blamed a headwind that rattled the cans and blew one onto the hard clay of their grassless yard. Della agreed that the wind was really something. It carried the scent of rotten fruit, and rain. She looked to the sky for signs of incipient rotation, but the pines stood so tall that it was impossible to see into the distance. A gust blew her long, flat hair into her sticky lipgloss. Flustered, she pawed madly at her face.

“Do you want to go in?” said Alan. There was one streetlight where their driveway met a storage shed that stood somewhat askew. It came on. Its light was orange.

“Do you want to?” she said.

The wind bent the pines’ crowns. They heaved and, without any warning, the swan hurtled over them and pulled the air along with it, a derecho on white wings closing in. It flapped violently. It honked nonsensically. Its huge pale wings beat upon the purple gloom. It attached itself to Della and took her bare shoulders under wing. Alan raised the rifle, but saw only swiftly shifting white clouds moving over his sister’s suntan, and something dark, like blood, where its lacquer-black feet broke and bruised her skin. He said, “Do you want me to try to shoot it?”

“Nah,” she said.

Alan raised the rifle anyway, but doubted both his pellets and his aim. Vaguely, he heard Tony Reaber’s matte black moped roll up the gravel drive. The rifle was removed from his damp hands. Tony swung it like a driver and knocked the swan off Alan’s twin. The streetlight by the shed cast an orange nimbus around Tony’s shaved head. Kind of like a halo. But that didn’t make any sense, thought Alan. Tony was a fascist. He wore his jeans tucked into his combat boots. He was breaking the swan’s neck. The swan was inert, and Della was on her knees. Her tank-top was torn. She was refusing to get up. There weren’t any bruises on her, and there wasn’t any blood. Only depressions in her skin where the swan had gripped her, and the stain of red river mud on her legs.

Tony put the swan in a black Hefty bag and strapped it to his moped’s rear rack with a bungee cord. He didn’t stay to help Della back inside. It wasn’t necessary. But before he left, he said, “You better get her in the shower before something gets infected. Get your mom to take her to the clinic, too.”

Three weeks later, Tony Reaber gave the swan back to their mother. It was a gift from Gary’s Taxidermy and Deer Processing after all the trouble. When their mother asked, “What trouble?” like she didn’t know, Tony shook his head and shrugged as if he hadn’t explained to Gary precisely what kind of trouble in details both harrowing and profane. So their mother said to Tony, “I’ll keep that swan, but I think you better leave,” but she didn’t mean it. She never meant it. Between his thumb and forefinger there rested a peach-scented blunt. He held it out to her, and she took it.

In general, their mother didn’t like Tony, but relation made her feelings somewhat irrelevant, and he grew marijuana in his closet besides. On weekend nights when he’d stayed too late drinking at the Starlite Exchange, he’d walk over afterwards and stay until four or five in the morning and smoke her out on the moldy lawn chairs that faced into the pines. He walked because he couldn’t drive, and he couldn’t drive because he’d lost his license, and he came over for late nights because he couldn’t stand to be alone in his brown moss-stained trailer in the woods when the coyotes were in rut. The noises, he said, were unbearable. Their mother pointed out that Tony also made a lot of noise. He told everyone about the swan, for example, and worse, the circumstances under which his license had been lost. How he’d been driving fifty—so not so fast—down Chapel Road, through a school zone in the afternoon, after he’d gotten kicked out of the Blue Horn Lounge. He was high as fuck. And a black cop pulled him over. He said if it had been a white cop, he would have been fine, but, “It was like he wanted me to apologize for slavery.” His words.

It was on account of his being unable to drive, that he had enlisted the aid of his mother, Mamie Reaber, in the delivery of the swan to his cousin’s house. Mamie had a face like a Kewpie doll and had driven up from Hamlet. Their mother made screwdrivers while Tony removed the swan from the back of his mother’s Chevrolet Blazer. The blunt smoked in an ashtray on the front porch.

The swan, when Tony brought it in, was mounted to a log and silent. Its feathers were as white as teeth and everyone agreed that if they kept it near the wood stove, it would become dingy, so their mother put it next to the piano on the opposite side of the room. Della said, “It looks like an idiot. That lichen at the base looks like some cheap shit from Hobby Lobby.”

Their mother said, “I like it. It looks good in here. Inevitable. Like it belongs. Like god or something.”

Mamie said, “Don’t let Jesus hear you say that. God is listening.”

“Just look at it,” said their mother. “Look at it, Della. It’s like it was always here. I couldn’t have picked out something better. God, it looks like it’s from a French flea market. I love it. I really do.”

Tony said, “You’re welcome,” and they all stood back and stared at it. The swan’s shape against the log wall. The swan beside the piano. “Kind of makes the place seem civilized,” said their mother. “Old world.”

Della rolled her eyes.

“I thought Tony was taking it to the dump,” said Alan.

“I wish he had,” said Della. “It looks trashy.”

“The Latin name,” said Alan. “Is Cygnus buccinator. I looked it up. It isn’t local. They have them out West.”

“Poetry,” said their mother. “Cygnus buccinator,” she sang. “I’ve always wanted something like this for in here.”

“Dad wouldn’t have had to look it up,” said Della. “He would have known as soon as it came over the trees. He wouldn’t have had to kill it either.”

“Our father was half the ornithologist I am.”

Their mother lifted her fingers to her throat and set her glass down atop the piano where it left another pale ring in the walnut veneer. “My neck,” she said. “I’ve never worn sunscreen, but I stayed in the shade. Look, my skin isn’t crepe-like at all.”

In the early evening Della knelt beside the swan when she was certain she was alone. The adults had gone out for happy hour, and Alan was tethered to the computer in the kitchen corner playing Civilization II. She wished she hadn’t eaten so much for lunch. The waistband of her leggings squeezed her stomach, and she felt a little bit worn-out. She leaned against the swan and put her ear to its breast. Its heart beat, murmuring deep within the polyurethane form, muffled. Its heart beat irregularly. Its heart beat like it was pulling itself back together. Della was familiar with that sensation. She wanted to cry or scream because the swan was stupid and frozen and melancholy. Its feet were wired to a log and its wings were bound to its sides. If it had been born of violence, the only brutality left to it were its violently white wings. If there had once been a long story in its eyes, all of that had been forgotten when they were dashed from its skull and replaced with plastic. The swan wasn’t all bad, she thought. It couldn’t have been all bad. But it was terrifying. Its heart beat. It stood still and absolutely mute, at attention, alive, but unmoving and relentlessly inactive. And therefore threatening.

Within a year Della thought she might be pregnant. She told Alan, and told him not to tell their mother. But he couldn’t not, he said. Their mother said, “Not again,” and sent her to the Dollar Tree for a test, but it was negative. That was the year Della got fat. That was the year Alan got glasses. That was the year their mother went to Vero Beach for six months. That was the year Tony moved in. That was the year of the egg.

Della cut herself in the bathroom while her friend, Leona Bixby, took photographs with a 35mm camera they’d bought at the Moth Mound Rescue Mission. She held a pink disposable razor to her forearm and sliced until she had sawed something like an algorithm or a flower into her flesh. It wasn’t clear which it was; blood muddied the design. After a little while she conceded that the plastic casing on the razor made it impossible to carve anything good, and she would have been better off borrowing one of the X-Acto knives Alan used for model making. When Leona asked her if it hurt, she said, “Kind of, but not as much as an abortion.”

Leona lit a cigarette and turned on the extractor fan so no one would know.

Della continued, “I don’t want another abortion.”

“You think you’ll need one?”

Della wiped her arm with peroxide-soaked toilet tissue, and pulled down the sleeve of her blue sweater before the bleeding stopped. They were out of band-aids. It left a stain. “Nah,” she said. “Probably not. Tony and Alan said I smell. Do you think I smell?”

Leona approached and sniffed the air around the toilet, where Della perched upon the closed lid. “No,” she said. “I don’t think so. You just smell like the Calgon stuff my mom sprays on her show cats.”

“That’s weird,” said Della. “I haven’t used anything like that. Just Secret. Sometimes I think I smell something, like sour, but I can’t tell if it’s me or the house. But I think a lot of these old houses smell kind of bad when it’s humid.”

“Maybe the septic tank?” said Leona. “We had ours replaced. It was ruptured. It was, like, sinking into the ground.”

“I think our whole house is sinking into the ground.”

“Tony’s place in the forestry actually was,” said Leona. “That’s what he said. Erosion. That’s why he’s had to move out, right? Did I tell you I dreamed I was in the forestry? I was at the top of the hill, but it was completely dark inside the trees.”

“Tony moved out because he got evicted,” said Della. She scratched her forearm without thinking and winced. “He was blowing glass and growing pot, and the landlord found out. Was mostly concerned about the fire hazard. That’s what Tony said. I don’t believe that.” She pointed to an orange extension cord that ran from the outlet beside the sink, along the baseboard, and into the hallway. “Now he’s growing pot up in our attic.”

“You think he’d give me some?” said Leona.

“I don’t know.”

“What do his knuckle tats say?”

“White pride,” said Della. “He’s a terrible person.”

“Oh,” said Leona. “Oh. At least it’s in cursive and kind of hard to read.”

“My mom said he wouldn’t have been such an asshole if he hadn’t been in prison. She said you have to have something to belong to in prison, otherwise you get fucked. She’s always apologizing for him.”

“He’s hot,” said Leona. “I don’t care. I’d let him fuck me with those tats.” She put out her cigarette under the tap.

“Don’t be sick. You wouldn’t even let him finger you when we drunk. You just lay out topless in the yard until he told you to get dressed. When you went home, he said the last thing he needed was to get pegged as a sex offender.”

“He said that?” said Leona.

“Yep.”

“Oh. So he can’t be all that bad, can he?”

The swan moved for the first time in August. It moved so slightly that it might have been the house settling, but Della felt it even so. How the air stirred around her and carried through the house the scent of the creek below the underpass where she went sometimes to smoke cloves with Leona and the punk rock guys she knew. After the swan moved, Della stared at it until it wavered at its base as though shifting its weight. It puffed out its feathers suggestively. The swan was growing bolder.

When Tony came down from gardening in the attic and found her with it, he told her he’d send her to Hamlet to stay with his mother if she didn’t stop acting weird. Della said, “Fuck that. I’m not going to Hamlet. There’s nothing in Hamlet but boarded up projects and freight rails. And that nasty Piggly Wiggly. And cockroaches. And tornadoes.”

“Don’t you besmirch Hamlet,” he said. “I grew up in Hamlet. You better check that attitude. Anyway, the swan, Della. I’m just asking you to lay off. It’s creepy.”

“The swan!” she said. “It’s the swan that’s creepy. It isn’t me. Have you ever stopped and just looked at it? It’s breathing. It moves its eyes around the room. That’s some taxidermy Gary did, right? Even he’s not that good. We should just get rid of it. There’s something wrong with it. It doesn’t belong in here like this.”

“You know I can’t do that. Your mom. Della, I got to tell you, I’m a little concerned.”

“Good god,” she said. “Maybe if you’re so concerned, you shouldn’t be like, selling around here while we’re at school. Doesn’t do much for home life. Load of junkies coming around.”

“What do you know about that?” he said. He narrowed his eyes and crossed his arms and looked to the coffee table, where rested a wad of balled up aluminum foil beside an empty bag from Burger King.

“Leona’s my friend,” she said. “Not yours.”

Della brought Alan to see the egg in October. She led him to the winter lot, where she lifted up the faded blue tarp that draped the farthest side of the fence to reveal a gap in the chain-link. The wind met their hesitation, encircled the pair, and guided them in. Frost-stiff blades of grass and withered Virginia creeper broke beneath their footfalls. The hard, cold, compacted soil was frozen, and the cold rising from below ate through their sneakers’ soles. She directed him to the center of the lot where someone had abandoned an old electric cookstove. The oven door was gone, and inside there rested an egg about thirteen inches in diameter, partially swaddled in Della’s old blood-stained sweater. The egg was not a particular color, but something more like a shadow across fallen leaves at dusk in January. Alan crouched down, poked it with his finger, and said, “That’s pretty unusual for birds in the Southeast.”

“It’s not from a bird.” She paused to pull her shorts out of her buttocks. “I don’t know what to do with it,” she said.

“I know what. Let’s put it under Tony’s grow lights. Maybe it’ll hatch.”

“You don’t think he’d mind?”

“Leverage,” he said as he removed it from the oven. “We have leverage. This is kind of heavy. If it’s not from a bird, what’s in it? A snake? I’m not aware of any North American monotremes, but perhaps something escaped someplace. Lot of people around here keep reptiles. Didn’t Tony used to have an iguana? Are you sure this isn’t an ostrich egg?”

“I don’t know what’s in it,” she snapped. “I just found it. It’s probably nothing.”

The origins of the egg were not made clear to Tony, but he suspected something horribly impossible, unspeakable, unnatural, and foul. Nevertheless, when Della and Alan brought it to him, he granted access to the attic and oversaw the installation of the egg in a cardboard box filled with pink fiberglass insulation. They placed the box under the grow lights in the foil-lined hothouse, behind the hydroponic buckets where Tony’s cannabis grew.

The hothouse was humid. He kept it at around eighty-degrees. Two small oscillating fans made the leaves to whisper, and the grow lights bathed the plants in lemonade-colored brightness. The hothouse was thus a place set apart from the shadows and the grime of the surrounding attic, from twenty years of cobwebs strung like ragged linens from the rafters, heavy with dust and the passage of time; from the boxes of brittle photographs and paperback books, ornaments, and water-stained uniforms and lace, grandparents’ belongings, a half-full bottle of something odd. A paper bag filled with cinders. When November came and they couldn’t pay the propane company, for Tony wouldn’t settle what was owed on the previous year, Della sat near the egg and waited for something to happen. It was the only time she ever felt warm.

Their mother returned the week before Christmas. Mamie Reaber drove her over from the train station. They brought fast food home for dinner, and as soon as they were in the door, luggage dumped and coats abandoned on the kitchen table, their mother said, “Della, you lost weight! Look at you. And your lil’ boobies got so big. No more turkey titties!” She took a plastic bottle from the back of the freezer and made Greyhounds for herself and Mamie with the grapefruits she’d brought back in a mesh bag. Underneath the hairspray and the ratting, and a thirty-dollar dye job, her hair was thinning and her scalp reflected the lights from the Christmas tree. Alan stood back with Della and whispered, “Arsenic. In the well water. We’re on a sheet of volcanic shale that leeches it into the groundwater. Grandma was bald, too. They all were.”

Della said, “But Mom’s been gone.”

Alan shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. It builds up in your system over time. We’re all going to go crazy and night-blind.”

Mamie Reaber placed a diminutive Santa hat on the swan and said, “Isn’t this cute?” She tossed a handful of tinsel over it. Her fingernails were primarily acrylic.

Della said, “I think it looks stupid.”

“Jesus, Della,” said their mother. “Can you not just keep your mouth shut?” She leaned against the doorframe and cupped her glass with both hands. “Tony, it reeks of pot in here.”

“Sorry,” he said. “Didn’t know you were getting back tonight.” He opened up a beer and fed another log into the wood stove. Mamie sat down on the couch. Their mother said, “God, I’ve got to pee.” She wobbled and patted herself down.

“The indoor bathroom’s busted,” said Tony. “We’ve been using that pile of leaves some. Plumber’s coming tomorrow.”

“If he’s coming tomorrow,” she said. “Then I don’t care. I’m sure he’s seen worse.” She stepped into the hallway, where the orange extension cord was stretched along the baseboard and up along the closet doorframe. “What the hell is this?” she said, toeing it.

“I don’t know,” said Alan. “I think Tony stuck a bulb up in the attic to keep the pipes from freezing. There was a cold snap while you were gone. He was very helpful, somewhat. He got us some wood, anyway. We owe Suburban Propane four hundred by the way. We paid it down a little, but they’d still only give us half a tank.”

“There aren’t any fuckin’ pipes up in the attic,” said their mother. She yanked on the cord, but it was duct-taped at both ends and wouldn’t move. “What the hell is this?”

Della said, “Oh, it’s nothing. Me and Leona were taking pictures in the attic and set up some lights. I forgot to take them down. Sorry. I’ll pack it up tomorrow.”

“Like hell. Tony, pull that ladder down.”

“I’d really rather not do that,” he said.

“I can’t reach the pull-string,” she said, jumping up. “Alan, fetch me a chair.”

“Mom, you’re drunk,” he said. “You’ll hurt yourself.”

“I’m sure,” she said. “God, all of y’all are worse than useless.” She pulled a chair from the kitchen into the hallway, placed it below the attic door, mounted the chair, and pulled the string. The door’s hinges complained with a spring-loaded, metallic pop and low whine. She unfolded the wooden ladder, and looked up; the grow lights were on.

Their mother howled. She climbed up to the top where the lamps were like sunlight and she became a shadow and a silhouette thrashing. Two plants fell to the base of the ladder. Another landed on the chair, its unmoored pallid roots tangled up in its leaves. Then came another plant, and a rain of gritty water when she tipped a bucket over, and kicked it down. And then, the egg.

The egg fell fast, violently fast. And when the egg landed, its fall was not blunted by the debris in the hallway; it rolled off of the cannabis, cracked, and bled all over the pale peach floor tile. Their mother came slumping down the ladder, rung by rung, screaming about unmanned aircraft and thermal imaging technologies and the cops and the feds—all of them out looking for unusual sources of heat in attics and sheds all over the country. And the electric bill. Oh god, the electric bill.

The egg’s blood was thin and dark. It crept down the hallway and into the living room while Alan sought for paper towels with which to sop it up. Della was pale. Her lips were blue. She sat down on the couch next to Mamie, who sucked her teeth and chewed the ice left at the bottom of her glass. Tony tried to sneak out through the mudroom, but their mother caught him by the arm, and dragged him back, slapping him across the chest, calling him an asshole.

The swan spread its wings. It beat them once and pulled the wind through the house’s pores, the gaps in the log walls, cracks under the doors, and the window panes. The wind was warm, like April, and it smelled of sex and river water, raw sewage, compost, and silt. The swan lifted one leg from the log, then the other. Pins and wires fell away from the webbing of its feet, from its legs as it shook, stretched its neck, and opened its beak to taste the air. When it took flight, its wings beat supersonically and raised tinsel from the floor and loose pine needles from the Christmas tree. Mamie Reaber covered her face, and Della bent over and covered her head, as she had been instructed to during tornado drills at school. Alan ducked out of the room. Their mother was mounting the ladder again. Tony shouted and tried to pull her down, but the swan was quick.

The house was old, the ceilings were low. They were constructed of cellulose tile, warped and cracked and stained from various sorts of leaks and not running the AC enough during the summer. When the swan hit the ceiling, it burst. It blew a hole through the tile and erupted into a violent rain of foamy filling, and feather, and wing and beak, all propelled outward through the room. Its straight black legs fell with a clatter to the floor. The beak put out Tony’s right eye. Their mother took a feather in the arm, but only fell from the ladder when she tried to carry the grow lights back down with her.

The swan’s skin had been cast across the room by the force of the explosion. It was intact, though it had burst along the seam and it lay in a heap in front of the wood stove. In a haze of white feather, Della and Alan approached the skin where it lay, and found nested in its center, a new unbroken egg. But by then their mother was crying out for help. Tony had cupped a dirty kitchen towel over his eye socket, and Mamie Reaber, who was a little drunk, said somewhat involuntarily, “Who’s going to raise that?” She pointed to the egg, but when she realized what she had said, she sobbed and hedged and said, “Oh, it’s gone straight to my head.”

Elson Meehan lives in Carrboro, North Carolina with her husband. Her fiction has appeared in Drunken Boat and Metazen, and she blogs sometimes at elsonmeehan.com.

Her favorite old thing is Pando, an aspen colony the age of which is estimated to be at least 80,000 years.

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2 Responses to THE SWAN by Elson Meehan

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