CONJUNCTIONS:64, Natural Causes (Spring 2015)
The Dead Swan
It’s a cold, windy, early spring day and Sadie is walking by herself along the beach, not looking down or at where she is going so that she nearly trips over it—the dead swan—only she doesn’t right away recognize what it is. She stops and stares at it for a while and, typically, because she is unhappy and perverse, she thinks it is beautiful. She picks up the dead swan and walks home with it in her arms.
What does a swan weigh—twenty? twenty-five pounds?
Her husband, Mason, is away—actually, he is away in jail awaiting his trial—otherwise she would not have brought the swan home. Sadie can imagine what he would have said to her about it:
Christ! Sadie, get that damn bird out of here.
Or, more threatening,
Get rid of that fucking bird before I—
If he was high, which he usually was, he might have raised his hand at her. A couple of times already he had swung and missed. Mason is not as coordinated or as strong as he used to be. The drugs, Sadie guesses; part of the reason he is now in jail. The other part she tries not to think about.
Mason has been diagnosed as bipolar and a bunch of other things and Sadie can’t remember what they all are offhand. But manic depressive was one of them. He was on meds but half the time he refused to take them. Mason said that the meds made him feel slow and stupid and gave him a dry mouth. I can’t even get it up anymore, Mason had complained, making a sound that was meant to be a laugh but wasn’t.
Holding the swan like a baby, Sadie places it gently on the old-fashioned canvas swing chair in the screened-in porch, careful not to rock it. She spreads out one of his great wings—three feet?—then the other. She runs her hand down the swan’s gray legs. No breaks—last year she saw a one-legged seagull hopping pitifully on the beach—and no dried blood. She feels along his dark, rough, orange beak to the little black basal knob. The swan’s head and long neck are resting on his breast as if he were asleep and he appears perfect. Carefully, Sadie sits down next to him. He, she thinks, but perhaps the swan is female, and a she. Impossible to tell about birds unless she was to examine the vent area, which she is not going to do. In fact, Sadie is not sure what she will do with the dead swan.
Sadie works as a substitute teacher at the local elementary school. From one day to the next, with no preparation until she arrives at the school and is assigned her class, she can be teaching third-graders about the Lewis and Clark expedition or sixth-graders algebra or—as she did last Monday—Greek myths to fifth-graders. They had discussed all the gods—Zeus, Athena, Apollo, Aphrodite—their traditional roles and their deeds but not, as she suddenly thinks now, their misdeeds—transmogrified into a swan, Zeus the rapist.
At least, Sadie thinks, Mason couldn’t rape anyone.
Instead he took off all his clothes in a playground full of children. Sadie does not want to imagine the scene, but can: terrified kids, screaming parents, a rush of security guards, then police. Fortunately—if there is anything fortunate about this—Mason’s disrobing occurred in a different state and, so far, the school where Sadie substitutes has not gotten wind of the incident. Otherwise—otherwise, she might be dismissed.
Mason was not always crazy. Sadie remembers how a few days before the incident at the playground, they went to the local pound to adopt a dog. Immediately Sadie had fallen in love with a little brindle terrier mix but Mason, in his reasonable voice, said that a dog was a big responsibility and they should think it over some more. He also said that Sadie was too impetuous, too quick to form judgments. Afterward, they had gone to the only decent restaurant in town and she, Sadie remembers, had the swordfish and Mason had the hanger steak. They also drank a bottle of wine and he made her laugh by wiggling his ears—first the right one, then the left—and promising to show her how. Later that night, Mason tried to make love.
Ha! Sadie now thinks.
A month ago when Mason was first jailed, Sadie had gotten up at four in the morning in order to arrive at the detention center on time for visiting hours. Although she was early, the line of visitors—most of whom were either black or Hispanic—was already long and she had to wait, standing, for over an hour outside in the cold. First her purse was searched and her bottle of Valium was confiscated and thrown into a trash bin, then she was told to remove her shoes, her jewelry—a simple gold chain and her wedding ring—which along with her purse she had to put inside a locker for safekeeping. Sadie then went through a metal detector and was body-searched by a police woman. The police woman felt her bra for wire and put her hand inside Sadie’s underpants. Finally, she was taken to a large room where several prisoners and their families were already sitting around small tables and Mason was brought in. Mason had lost a lot of weight and his hair was cut very short. He had stitches over one eye and it took a moment for Sadie to know what to say to him.
“What happened to your eye?” she finally asked.
Mason shrugged as he sat down across from Sadie.
No physical contact, the guard warned her.
“Are you OK?” Sadie continued.
Again, Mason said nothing.
“Can you still wiggle your ears?” Sadie said in an effort to make him smile. “I’ve been practicing just the way you said by just going through the motions in my head, thinking what it would be like to—”
Cutting her off, Mason stood up so abruptly that he knocked over his chair and yelled, “Jesus! I don’t believe you, Sadie!”
A guard came over. “Keep it down,” he told Mason.
“The hell I am going to keep it down.” Mason was still yelling as he pushed past the table between him and Sadie.
The guard grabbed Mason just in time and started to take him away.
“You know what,” Mason shouted back at Sadie before the door shut behind him, “you’re a fucking idiot and an evil cunt.”
In front of the bathroom mirror that night, Sadie, in vain, tried to wiggle her ears; instead she burst into tears.
The swan’s eyes are closed and Sadie is smoothing his feathers. She has heard that swans can be very aggressive, especially if they have a nest nearby. Flapping their huge wings and hissing, they will chase away predators—human predators as well. A Japanese photographer who wanted to take a picture of a nest and came too close to it was killed by a swan. How, Sadie can’t help but wonder. Was he beaten to death by the swan’s powerful wings? And how, she wonders, was his death explained to his wife and to his children? Killer swan. However, this swan, her swan, Sadie thinks, looks peaceful.
Secretly, Sadie was relieved that Mason could not get it up anymore, although she would of course never have told Mason or anyone else, for that matter. Before sex had been rough and unsatisfying. Scary, really, and more like Mason was some stranger she had met on one of those Internet dating sites. A really crazy person who might defecate on her or hack her to pieces.
She wonders what swan meat tastes like. Probably a lot like goose. Sadie once ate the goose Mason shot and cooked for Thanksgiving dinner and although she remembers telling him the goose was delicious, privately, she had disliked the tough texture and gamy taste. In the olden days, only kings and queens were allowed to eat the “royal dish”—a swan stuffed with a goose that was stuffed with a duck that in turn was stuffed with a capon that was stuffed with a guinea hen that was stuffed with a woodcock. The woodcock, Sadie imagines, would be stuffed with a blue pigeon egg.
The other fact Sadie knows about swans—a fact almost everyone knows—is that swans are monogamous and that they mate for life. Not so, she thinks, about herself and Mason. Unless he gets clean she will leave him.
“In a heartbeat,” she bends her head to tell the swan.
A couple of times now, Ron Shirer, the math teacher at the school, who seems like a nice guy and is single, has asked her out for a cup of coffee and as yet she hasn’t taken him up on it.
“I’ll go for coffee,” she says to the swan. “Maybe I’ll go for more than coffee,” she says, giving a little laugh.
When Sadie was a young girl she took ballet. For a while she fantasized that she would become a dancer—a principal dancer in a large company like the Bolshoi or the ABT. She would be famous and she would travel. For years, too, she was a good dancer. She had the body for it and a great turnout—Alicia, her teacher with the fake Russian name, had told her so.
Ta da dum, ta da dum, Sadie hums the first few bars of Swan Lake and is tempted to get up and dance. She regrets it now. She should have persevered. After ballet, she decided to become a vet but she hated the college biology courses and gave that up too. Next she took up photography—she was told she had a good eye—and she managed to buy a secondhand Rollei 3.5f, her prize possession, which had cost her plenty; she also managed to get one of her black-and-white photographs—a flock of starlings perched on a power line—in a group show, which was where she met Mason. They were going to start a bed-and-breakfast; instead, they went into debt renovating the house and Mason started to deal in illegal substances and she got a job substitute teaching.
Maybe, Sadie thinks, if she kisses the swan, the swan will turn into a handsome prince. Or, if not a real prince, into a handsome young man with whom she will live happily ever after.
Inside the house the phone rings. Sadie does not move; she lets the voice mail pick up.
“Hey, Sadie,” she hears Mason say. “Good news. They’re letting me out on probation next Wednesday. Can you come pick me up and bring me some clothes? A pair of khakis and my jacket—the jacket is at the cleaner’s. I love you, baby.”
The cleaner’s is next door to the pound and Sadie wonders if the little brindle terrier mix she liked so much is still available for adoption—probably not.
Time to go in, Sadie tells herself, feeling cold all of a sudden. Tomorrow she will take the swan back to the beach. And, if it’s a nice day, she also tells herself, she may bring along her camera—it’s been ages since she has taken any photographs. She gives the swan a little pat and stands up, then hesitates, not wanting to leave him out on the porch alone. In the fading evening light, his shape becomes more and more indistinct. Soon all Sadie can see is the silvery gleam of his feathers. In the night’s approaching lonely darkness she wonders about the swan’s forlorn mate.
Upstairs in the bedroom, Sadie looks on the top shelf of her closet, behind the boxes of old sweaters, scarves, and hats, where she hides the camera, but the Rolleiflex is not there.
The fucking bastard!
Right away, Sadie suspects Mason of taking it and selling it. Still, she can hardly believe that he could have done that and, to make sure, she sweeps all the contents off the shelf—the boxes of sweaters, hats, and scarves—onto the floor.
Afterward, Sadie rummages through the bedside-table drawers looking for where Mason keeps pills—Ambien, Percodan, oxycodone— anything that will let her sleep. She takes two of the pink pills and goes to bed.
When Sadie wakes up the next morning it is already noon. Quickly, she puts on her sweatpants and a T-shirt—she has no memory of getting undressed and, briefly, she wonders if she ate supper. In the kitchen, she starts up the coffee machine before going out to the screened-in porch. The porch door is wide open and the canvas swing chair is creaking slightly. The swan, of course, is gone.
Lily Tuck is the author of two collections of short stories and a biography of Elsa Morante, as well as six novels that include the PEN/Faulkner Award finalist Siam (Overlook) and the 2004 National Book Award–winning The News from Paraguay (Harper). In the fall, Grove/Atlantic will publish her The Double Life of Liliane.