Swan & The Swan

A young girl in an immaculately detail lace dress stands atop the head of a giant swan on a moonlit lake, offering a golden peach to an even more massive swan whose eyes seem to pour downwards like rivers.

Eight years ago.

Suo tucked the phone into the space between her thumb and forefinger, its chamfered edge lining up along the L-shape made by her hand. The screen was white with cracks and abrasion. She gripped the phone as tightly as she could and whipped her wrist forward, sending the rectangle spinning. It struck the water and bounced, and then again, and again. Five times before it sank with a resonant thulgk that broke the silence of the reservoir.

“Not fair!” Yao cried. Suo just grinned, absorbing her sister’s scowls. “You are just finding all the good skippers.”

Yao pawed through a pile of detritus for a few moments before emitting a triumphant “Aha!” and brandishing an object similar to the one Suo had just thrown: a glass-and-metal phone sporting a noticeable bend in the middle and half of a bright yellow plastic case. “Now watch this,” she said, pulling back her arm. She hurled the phone in a wobbly arc which ended in the water with precisely zero bounces. Yao let herself fall to the ground atop strewn electronics.

Suo’s grin had softened. She was only half-watching her twin’s antics. “You need more practice. Maybe if you came to your music lessons you’d be better with your hands,” she said without moving. The air over the waters was silent and still. She turned to look at Yao and her sister’s eyes were like stormclouds, crackling within.

You don’t know anything,” she said. Suo’s heart pounded three colossal beats behind her eyes, against her temples, and the ropes of her neck tightened like cable-car wires. The sensation passed.

Yao picked up a plastic box with cords dangling out of it like a jellyfish and hurled it as hard as she could out over the water. The splash sent ripples outward until the whole reservoir seemed to undulate from the impact. The steam-white sky felt cold in spite of the day’s sticky heat. Suo’s gaze followed the widening circle of waves to the edge of the water where something drifting through an inlet caught her eye. It was a swan, though Suo did not know this name. It floated slowly, carried by the crawling current. The white bird’s neck made an S-shape on the water’s dark surface. She watched, transfixed, as it moved motionless across the reservoir.

Behind came more. Two, bellies up, pale orange feet askew. One on its side with its head bent backwards. One on top of another. Some drifted close enough to see that their feathers were patchy and that parts of them had been bitten away, to smell the decay that arose from them. Their bodies kept coming until the reservoir looked like a marina of capsized ships and Suo lost count of the number of them, though she did not stop trying.

Thuglk. The sound tore outward from the water, as though it were a dog ripping the bars of its cage away. Suo’s gaze immediately went to her sister, whose hand already held another dense brick of gleaming technological detritus poised to hurl.

“Think I can hit one? I bet I can,” said Yao.

“No, stop,” said Suo


“Just don’t.”

“I’m going to.”

“Leave them alone,” Suo said, her eyes prickling in her head. The birds were still drifting in. “What did they do to you?”

“Nothing, but it’s going to look funny.” Yao wound back her arm and threw. The clod of glass and corrosion found its mark with a soft thud, tearing the skew wing of the dead bird. Yao put both arms over her belly and emitted a series of barking shouts that were like laughter inverted, laughter flensed of joy.

Suo shut her eyes. The sound of Yao’s voice battered her heart, and the darkness did not free her from the image of the lake of dead swans. She tensed every muscle she knew of and charged her twin, shoving her into the dirt.

The mocking laughter changed to crying. Through her tears Yao looked up at Suo. Her face was wrinkled and sobbing, but her eyes were devoid of feeling.

That night, rain splattered on Suo’s window, water worming along glass like a hag’s tongue. The sound of the storm had no rhythm but as she listened, lying in the dark of her room, she began to fixate on patterns of softness and loudness, on a recurrent flanging pulse as fleeting as the whipped-around beam of a lighthouse. Perhaps there was nothing, though. Perhaps she was looking for the structure of the bone of the wing in the sound of a flock of birds as they took off. Or as they fell.

She held her tablet against her ribcage, its screen still smudged from where she had kissed the image of her mother good night, and where her tear-stained cheeks had brushed against it. Its plastic edge dug into the crooks of her fingers. Her right eye spasmed. Her sleepless mind simmered. The darkness flickered slowly as water licked the window.

In the noise of Suo’s thoughts, wings emerged. Like white feathered archways of roofless temples, or snow caught by smoke, they spread heavenward. Hands that grasp the sky, pull on it like rope, surmount headwinds and gusts as slopes and riverbanks. Suo’s breathing was deep, warm updrafts that call to the waterbound birds, like moonbeams scattered by ripples on the surface of the reservoir. Their wings extending, some are reddened, some at anatomically impossible angles, some skeletal, but one by one they began to take off. Soon the flock is airborne, a receding and fluttering cloud, soon a bright wedge above the horizon, soon a murmured constellation.

Only one remained in the water. The lake was calm, the shoreline cut from grey shadow. Suo stood there, fingers drumming. The bird seemed to swim like a slowly cresting wave, spectral, a part in the night’s curtain. It swelled as it approached, as a white fire that spreads on spilled oil. Its eyes watched Suo, who opened her mouth to speak. To say that she had seen the bodies of the other swans, broken and rotting and twisted and dead, and dead. To say that she was sorry she had become angry at her twin sister on their behalf. To say that she loves both the swans and her sister. To say that she wished she could have seen the swans alive and flying and singing to one another on a lake where death holds no power. Not the power to break a body, or the power to evoke anger, or the power to cut the threads of love that tie her to the world.

Suo opened her mouth to say these things, and instead of speaking she felt herself vibrate, her insides like a nest of taut strings, teeth like carven wood, tongue an implement granted motion by a secret will, and the sound which emerged from her parted lips was a dissonance not wholly unfamiliar. The lake and its atmosphere received this wordless reverberation.

“Hush, child,” said the Swan. Suo put her hand to her mouth and felt a softness within. A soft fuzz. She drew back her lower jaw, far back until her chin rested between her collarbones, cradling her vibrato throat. Her fingertips squeezed around the fleshy object. It scraped against the back of her teeth as she pulled it out: a gold-orange peach. The sound coming from her ceased and its smoke rose up around her, diffusing the moonlight over the lake into a curling white fog. The peach was dormant her palm.

The swan spoke again: “I will bear you to her.” It laid its draconic neck on the ground at her feet and Suo strode across it, a bridge made of white iridescence. Here she stirred in her bed, rain splattering on her window, land receding, the hump of the animal cold against her bare feet. The air was shifting. A strain that was partway between a smell and a sound bled through the fog, riling the memory and the imagination. A wavering tone like plucked glass yet also the sense of being enveloped in the arms of a friend one has never known. The swan she rode bowed its head as a second swan, vaster by far, arose from the sky, fell from the lake. Its spread wings were like the horizon at the rising of a ghost sun, pale and stark, beyond dusk and dawn. A kaleidoscopic whiteness crowned by a constellate neck and head.

The air vibrated in heart-like pulses. Without thinking, Suo raised the peach towards the second swan. Its eyes, like dark, vitreous nebulae, sparkled in acknowledgement. It extended its neck towards Suo, an arching that reshaped the sky. The vibrating air became manic, fibrillated. Suo did not fully perceive what happened next. Her hands were empty. The swan’s bill, half-open like the riven night, was gripping a colossal gold-orange peach that glowed with its own light, an ember-jewel around which the rest of the heavens seemed to spin.

Raindrops fell hard against Suo’s window. She blinked and watched the water distort the city lights behind it. Her thoughts are no less quiet. She opens the pill dispenser beside her bed and sees that she has already taken the most that she can for today.

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