From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Swan

My brother has turned into a swan, which makes it hard to concentrate during band practice. After one particularly loud honk that should have been a B flat, Mr. Zankowski starts to shake his head when he looks at me. Which reminds me of the way Mary Anne Bosnick shook her head this morning when she noticed the white feather stuck to the back of my plaid skirt. Of course, Mary Anne also laughed and pointed it out to Michael Landing — beautiful, blond Michael Landing. Mr. Zankowski doesn’t laugh. He just purses his lips and frowns until my hands are so sweaty that I can hardly hold my clarinet.

“Dani,” he says when practice is over and I’m trying to put my things away as quickly as possible. “You seemed distracted today. I know you can do better than that.”

I nod and manage to let my algebra book fall out of my backpack and flop open onto my foot. I’m always clumsy, but now, since Brendan changed, it’s worse than ever.

“Really. I expect more from you.” Mr. Zankowski pauses. “Is everything okay?”

My toes throb inside my shoe as I bend over and pick up the book. “My brother is leaving his shit all over the house,” I say after I straighten up. “I keep having to clean it up.” Swans aren’t very good about using the toilet.

“It’s not your job to look after your brother. He’s what, seventeen, eighteen?”

“He just turned eighteen,” I mumble.

“Well, I think he can pick up his own things. It’s not your job to look after him. Don’t your parents have anything to say about it?”

I shrug. My parents either haven’t noticed that my brother is now a swan, or they’re very good at hiding their feelings about this development.

Mr. Zankowski pats me on the shoulder. “Don’t let it get you down,” he says. “He’ll come around. A lot of teenage boys act like animals half the time.”

*

Swans are not nice animals.

They honk and hiss and grunt. They pull up more vegetation than they can eat and chase other birds out of their territory. Given half a chance, they snap with their strong, sharp beaks.

I was bitten by a swan once, at the park, when I was six and Brendan was nine. Our mom was sunbathing in the backyard and told Brendan to take me down to the pond to feed the ducks. We took the heels of a loaf of bread to tear into pieces and throw to the birds.

There was a chain-link fence around the pond to keep people from stealing the swans’ eggs. I wedged my hand in between the diamond-shaped holes in the fence and hurled the bread at the ducks. When one of the swans approached, I held onto the wad of bread too long, waiting for the huge white bird to come just a little closer. It bit me on the hand, on the fleshy spot right between my thumb and forefinger, then hissed when I screamed. I cried, partially out of pain and partially out of indignation, and had to use my shirt to wipe my nose. Brendan walked me home and put a band-aid on my hand, even though it wasn’t bleeding.

*

At home, Brendan has torn up one of my pillows with his beak. There’s stuffing everywhere—on the bed, on the floor, stuck to the lamp. He’s squatting in the biggest pile of stuffing and trumpets a warning at me when I try to move him. I’ve gotten good at evading his beak, and I think I could probably push him off without getting bitten. But then he looks at me with his black eyes, and I decide to let him keep some of the stuffing.

By the time I clean up the rest of it, Brendan wants to go outside. He’s shifting his feet and fluffing his wings, which I’ve come to realize means he’s about to bite something or pee on the floor. So I open the door to my room and lead him down the stairs and out into the back yard. A privacy fence surrounds the backyard on all sides, so none of the neighbors have asked if we have a permit to keep swans. Brendan waddles around, stopping every now and then to poke his dark beak through the grass. He spreads his wings occasionally, and even does that chest-puffing flap once, but he doesn’t seem to know how to fly. After a while, I hear my dad calling, so I leave Brendan in the backyard and go inside for dinner.

My mom has been knitting. She makes huge, shapeless sweaters out of wool. The sweaters are so scratchy they leave rashes on my shoulders if I don’t wear a T-shirt underneath them. A half-finished sweater lies on the living room couch, only one of its arms complete. A bottle of red wine and a lipstick-stained wine glass sit on the table beside the couch.

Chinese take-out in paper containers clutters the kitchen counter. I ladle some fried rice and sesame chicken onto a plate, then take it into the dining room. My parents are already at the table.

“I took a cooking class this afternoon,” Mom is saying, “and then went for a drink with Marie.”

“They’re tearing up the fountain across from my building,” Dad says, chewing on a bite of egg roll. “A fifty-year-old, Art Deco fountain and they’re tearing it up to put in some parking garage. All that beauty, wasted.”

“Marie’s thinking about having her floors redone.”

“Not to mention the racket it’s causing. I can hardly use my phone, it’s so loud.”

I pick at my rice until both of them are done eating. Then Mom looks at me and says, “Your history teacher called today. She said that you haven’t been turning in your homework.”

I mash several grains of rice between the tines of my fork. “Brendan tore up my report. He bit it into little pieces.”

Mom frowns, two little lines appearing on her forehead. “Don’t be ridiculous. I don’t have time to go to a parent-teacher conference if your grades start slipping.”

“Okay.”

Dad pushes back his chair. “I have a meeting with the owner of that new gallery. I may not be back until late.”

The last time he was late, I found a napkin with a hotel’s name on it in his pants pocket when I was doing the laundry. I wanted to tell Brendan, but he was already a swan, so I didn’t think he would understand.

Mom only nods and takes another sip of her wine.

Outside, Brendan hoots into the coming night.

*

The summer that I was eleven, Brendan taught me how to make shadow-puppets with my hands. One curled, pinched hand and two upraised fingers and he had a rabbit. Pressing my wrists together and curving my fingers into teeth made a crocodile. My crocodile chased Brendan’s rabbit all around the room until it gobbled it up.

The room was dark, except for the one goose-necked lamp bent up to shine on the wall. “We aren’t going to be in the same school anymore,” I said after my crocodile had burped, satisfied with its meal.

“The high school’s just down the street from St. Mary’s,” Brendan replied.

“But it won’t be the same. Who will I sit with when Mom’s late?”

“Don’t be a baby. Waiting by yourself isn’t so bad.”

I picked at the rubber bottom of my sneaker for a minute, then said, “I just wish our school went all the way to high school. It’s stupid to stop at eighth grade.”

Brendan bent his neck to pop it, then cracked his fingers. “You can’t have freshmen and kindergarteners in the same building. The freshmen would mow the little rats down.”

I bit my lip, twisting my hair around my finger. Brendan watched me, then sighed. “Stop it. You’re going to get knots again. Look, if Mom’s really late, you can call my cell phone and I’ll walk down and get you. Just try not to do it in the middle of a rehearsal, okay?”

I nodded earnestly.

“Look, here’s an easy one,” Brendan said. Pulling my hands in front of the lamp, he crossed my wrists one on top of the other, pressed my thumbs together and gently pushed my fingers out, extending them as far as they would go. “Now flap your hands.”

The shadow of a bird danced across the bedroom wall.

At school, my teachers keep asking if something’s wrong. They want a reason for the blue circles under my eyes, for the way I sometimes nod off in class. After all, they say, I’ve never acted like this before.

“You seem . . . deflated lately,” Mr. Zankowski says after practice one day. “Quieter than usual.”

He smiles—I’ve never been exactly talkative. I attempt a smile in return, but even I know it’s a weak one.

“You know, Mrs. McConnall has office hours all day. I can give you a pass if you want to go talk to her.” Mrs. McConnall is the school counselor.

I say I’ll think about it, but I won’t. She might be able to deal with depression, but even if I am depressed, that’s not the real problem. Unless she has experience with swan transformation, she won’t be able to help me.

Only the librarian seems pleased with me lately. Though I used to shun the school library, with its tiny collection—more computers than books—in favor of the downtown library, I’ve checked out more books in the last few weeks than in my whole first year of high school. I don’t tell the librarian that I’m only here because my ride to the downtown library now has wings instead of arms.

I check out books on swan species, books on swans throughout history, books on swan behavior. Swans mate for life, I learn. I try to read a book about the human genome, but it’s too complicated, and besides, it doesn’t say anything about people turning into birds. I even check out a book of swan folklore. Only one of the stories seems helpful, with information about swan reversal, but I’m not a princess, not even close, and I have only one brother, not eleven.

Still, when I get home, I take one of Mom’s unfinished sweaters. Outside, when no one is watching, I throw it over Brendan, like the princess with the coat of nettles. It takes a few tries, but finally the sweater lands on his back. He squawks angrily, shaking and running around until it drops off, but he remains a swan.

I gather up the sweater and take it back inside. I’m carrying it to Mom’s study when she sees me.

“Is that one of my sweaters?” she asks.

I nod, offering it to her. “I just—I wanted to—”

She takes it, then scowls. “It’s full of grass. It’ll take hours to pick all this out. What in God’s name have you been doing with it?”

She thrusts it at me, and I see the bits of dried grass caught in the brown material. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. But Brendan—”

“Don’t try to blame this on your brother, Dani,” she snaps. She presses a hand to her forehead and sighs loudly. “Just go. Go to your room. I don’t want to look at you right now.”

Up in my room, I close the door, leaning against it for a minute, eyes squeezed shut. Then I go to the window to look down into the backyard. Brendan has arranged himself under the Japanese maple, neck folded gracefully across his back. I swallow against the thickness in my throat. The sweater thing didn’t work anyway, I tell myself. Maybe I have to make it myself, or maybe scratchy sweaters aren’t enough to change swans back into brothers. Maybe I need real nettles, but I don’t know where to find them.

*

I want to say, “Brendan is a swan,” and have someone believe me. My parents would be best, but Dad has been at meetings every night and Mom has taken to watching the home and garden channel for hours while he’s gone, a glass of wine in hand. And anyway, part of me thinks they should notice it themselves.

I think about telling Mr. Zankowski or the librarian, but the sentence won’t come out. I end up muttering things about clarinets or books I’ve read and flushing hot around my neck, then tripping over nothing when I walk away.

I dream about telling Brendan, the old, human Brendan. But in every dream I choke, white feathers spewing out of my mouth instead of words.

*

Brendan is trying to fly. He runs around the backyard, pumping his wings and stretching his neck out until it’s a taut, thin line. He’s wearing a track around the perimeter of the fence, something Mom does notice.

“Have you been pacing near my flower beds?” she asks, and threatens to ban me from the backyard if the grass doesn’t start to grow back.

So I try to get Brendan to vary his pattern, to cut across the yard occasionally. It’s hard to reason with a swan, though, and after he bites me a few times, I give up.

Brendan gets more and more agitated every day. I can’t let him inside anymore, not after what he did to the bathroom. I lean a board from the garage up against the side of the house, so he has a roof to sit under when it rains. I don’t know if the rain bothers him, now that he’s a swan. I wish that we still had the blue plastic kiddie pool from when we were little. I could fill it up to make a pond, and I think Brendan might like that.

*

The week before Brendan became a swan, he was in the school play. He played John Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest. I saw it twice.

I was in my room, reading, when he came home on closing night. It was late and quiet, so I heard the front door open and close. I waited a while and then went to knock on his bedroom door.

Brendan was sitting on his bed in a T-shirt, boxers, and socks. “How’d it go?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Okay. Good. A full house.” He picked at a loose thread on the comforter. Then, looking up at me: “They didn’t come.”

I shifted, my bare feet cold on the wooden floor. “I reminded them. I told them you were really good.”

“I know.” The hand that was picking at the thread clenched suddenly, and I saw the veins in his neck stand out for a minute.

“I can’t wait to get out of here, Dani,” he said. It was a whisper, but sharp. “God, they’re so . . .” He stopped, exhaled, shaking his head. “I don’t know how you stand it. Have they ever even seen you play during a game? Come to a school concert?”

I scooted a pen on Brendan’s desk around and shrugged. “You come to those.”
He laughed, but it wasn’t a happy sound. “Yeah. But sometimes I just wish…”

“What?”

“Nothing.” He shook his head again. “You should be in bed. It’s late, and you look cold.”

I wanted to argue, but I couldn’t stop a massive shiver at just that moment, so I nodded and turned to go back to my room. A few steps from his door, I heard him, or I thought I heard him, say softly, “I just wish I could leave.”

*

One day, when I get home from school, I can tell it’s close. Brendan is running around the backyard as usual, but there’s something different about it this time. He’s gaining some lift, hovering off the ground occasionally. Once, he even manages to fly for about three feet before flopping back to the ground. I want to yell at him to stop, to just stop it, but I can’t. So I sit down and watch my brother try to fly.

I watch all afternoon, only going inside to use the bathroom and get some crackers to eat. From the east, a storm is coming. I can see the dark clouds and an occasional flash of lightning. The wind buffets Brendan’s wings, ruffles his white feathers out of their smoothness. It makes him look wild, not at all like the swans that drift around in the pond at the park.

The storm is close when Brendan finally stops his frantic attempts to fly. He pulls his beak across his back a few times, arranging himself. Then he wobbles toward me, webbed feet plopping across the grass until he’s close enough to touch. I raise my arms in front of myself, ready for him to strike and bite. But Brendan only looks at me, shifting his weight from side to side. Finally, I reach out a hand and lay it across his back. His feathers are soft, and he feels warm and heavy. He lets me stroke him once, twice, three times. It’s the only time I’ve touched him as a swan.

Then he’s gone, moving out from under my hand. He pauses once in the middle of the yard, and for a moment, when I look at him, all I see is the swan. Then he flaps his wings hard against the wind, fighting to get off the ground. He’s so bulky and awkward that, for a minute, I don’t think he’ll make it. My heart thuds, and I press my lips together so tightly they hurt. But then he lifts into the air, pushed upward by the wind. He glides out in a circle above the house, and is gone.

I look around the backyard. Nothing left, not even one white feather to take inside. I’m crying, I realize, but silently. And when the storm comes, even I won’t be able to tell the tear tracks from the rain.

*

It’s strange not having a brother. Again, I’m the only one who seems to notice he’s gone. My parents mention him sometimes, but like he’s off at college or in the army. Somewhere they could find him, if they wanted to.

Sometimes I’m so angry at him I think I might wring his swan neck if I ever saw him again. But most of the time, I don’t feel mad, just light, insubstantial, like part of me flew off with Brendan and hasn’t come back yet. I go to school, I do my homework. I eat dinner, sometimes with my parents and sometimes by myself. More by myself, these days. I walk in the park and look at the two swans swimming in the pond, but I’m pretty sure they’re the ones that have always been there.

One day, months after Brendan’s flight, I’m sitting on a bench in the park. It’s hot and the sun glinting off the pond hurts my eyes. I close them and I’ve almost fallen asleep when I hear something moving beside me. When I open my eyes, a swan is standing a few feet from the bench, a bit of trash in its beak.

I glance at the pond, checking, but the two other swans are gliding serenely across the water, unaware of the intruder in their territory. The new swan is looking at me. Its eyes are bright and black and birdy, with nothing human in them. So I don’t say anything, I just gaze back at it. After a minute, it takes a step closer. The piece of paper falls from its beak.

A child on the playground shrieks and the swan jerks, startled. There’s a great whoosh and then it’s in the air, a white shape against the sky. The force of its takeoff sends the trash skidding away across the grass. I hesitate, then scramble off the bench and reach for the piece of paper.

It’s a crumpled bus ticket envelope. Two of the corners are ripped off, and it’s so dirty on one side that I can hardly read the writing: Greyhound Lines. I shove my fingers inside, but the tickets, whoever they belonged to, are gone. The envelope is empty.

I press it between my fingers, feeling the tears and creases in the paper. No, I tell myself. It’s empty this time.


Eilis O’Neal lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she is managing editor of Nimrod International Journal. Her fantasy has appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Leading Edge, and Wild Violet.

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