It was a cold November day the first time she saw him.
Snow had fallen the night before, covering the arbutus and oaks in strange but beautiful Christmas-like attire. Having grown up near the Rockies, she hadn’t expected this rare and lovely visitation of white on an Island of constant rain, nor the pang – the memory of snow – skies heavy with the smell of it; the bite of Northern wind. Swans in pairs often drifted into the little cove in springtime, but this one, swimming apart from a paddling of pintails, was alone. Somehow she knew – sensed – something was not right.
‘Where is your mate?’ she’d wondered…
The courtship that spring had been a thing of magic, their dark bills dipping together into the welcoming waters of the marshes under the pale, quiet light of a gibbous moon. Had any been near to witness their dance, it would have seemed she had been cast of pink pearls, and he of quicksilver. Soon, in the nest they’d rebuilt from the previous year, its moat plucked clean to ensure no danger would take them unaware, she laid five perfect eggs, and under his careful vigilance, set herself down to keep them warm.
Dew shone upon the reeds the morning he and his mate heard the frail piping of their young through the shells of their eggs. In a turning of daylight, perhaps two, the little ones would slip with them into the warming waters of the nearby marsh and feast upon the bounty of small crustaceans and water beetles waiting there to give them nourishment.
Anticipation brought him nearer the nest, and she had dipped her head at his approach.
Both had piped gentle encouragement at the still intact shells.
Days passed. All but one of their clutch hatched, and when after several more days it became clear the last one would not, she gently rolled it into the water, watching with liquid eyes as it softly bobbed and bumped away in the retreating tide.
Their young were hale and full of life. Between the lush reeds and bulrushes, and along the branches of the lazy river the two led them, sometimes joining up loosely with other families, but most often alone together. Once a young hawk tried for one of the signets as they rested together on a sandbar, but as the little one scrambled to his mother’s side, the swan had at once thrown wide his perfect wings and rushed the interloper, delivering a frightening blow that knocked the red-tail from the air, sending him spinning and sliding upon the seaweed-caked sand. A second time he rushed the hawk, but it leapt quickly into the air and made off, the Trumpeter lifting his chin crisply at the diminishing foe, shaking his feathers and bugling a warning in his wake.
Weeks passed, and the signets, their first feathers almost fully down, were able to feed themselves on the deeper vegetation their kind favoured. They were growing rapidly now, putting on weight and thickness which would serve them well in a few months' time.
Ever vigilant, their sire watched over them, and no harm came nigh them. Summer was gentle. Eagles routinely hunted the smaller mallards and pintails, spiraling high up onto the updrafts that they might bear their prizes to the ravenous eaglets waiting impatiently in strong, ancient nests. But for all their strength and power, they seldom eyed the swans.
The tides came in, and went. Food was plentiful, and now the four were testing their wings, beating them strongly against the playful breezes blowing in from the sea. Clad in soft grey-brown feathers, these were a credit to the pair who had bred them; three daughters and a son.
The signets now gathered in large troupes when they followed their parents from the nurseries in the marshes to the hay fields a short distance away. Here, they enjoyed the sweet, determined shoots growing even after a third harvest, sunning and preening in the late-summer warmth as the adults looked on.
Slowly, Fall began to have its way. Summer colours in the leaves now hinted at the amber, bronze, copper and auburn that would soon enfold green in the promise of rest. The Cob became restless with the need to be moving; gunfire had punctuated the early morning skies these last few days as hunters came to take a share of the bounty of ducks and geese.
It was a sound even those not hunted understood, and he often led his family to a nearby sheltering cove for safety. He knew others of their kind had already answered the call of warmer climes, and he felt his disquietude increasing; they would rise the following morning.
Mist hung low in the estuary. The air was cold and still.
The farmer had left a small stand of cow-corn in the middle of the field as part of his agreement with the local hunting association. A natural ‘hide’, the ducks were unable to pick out the shapes of men crouching there, and past years had seen consistent numbers fall to become seasonal delicacies on the menu of more than one of the finer restaurants in town.
When the light was sufficient, the swans and two other families had floated into the hay field for an early graze. A strange tension lay in the air: there was a sense among the mallards, wood-ducks and geese – a need not to fly.
Having arrived when it was still dark, the hunters now rubbed their hands against the cold as the dull morning light crept in. One or two whispered this maybe wasn’t a good day for it, then fell mute. A silent agreement – ‘wait and see’, passed between them, and so hands were tucked into armpits, legs awkwardly stretched, coughs stifled.
A short time later, a puff of wind tested the mist. It moved, sluggishly. Again the breeze rose, this time more persistent, and like a herd of sleepy cattle, the low clouds ambled forward.
His mate and young still grazing under his watchful care, the swan sensed the moving air and stretched his wings to powerfully greet it, eager to be aloft. One or two of the other adults bugled in agreement, and a wave of preparatory wing-beats passed among them. The signets sensed their parent’s anticipation and called excitedly between themselves as the ducks and geese around them squawked in protest.
Their heavier bodies required the swans to take a long take-off run, beating their wings with tremendous effort in order to get clear of the ground. As they rose, the nervous energy coiled around them was unleashed. Flocks of smaller birds seemed to explode into the air with the Trumpeters as if drawn helplessly in their wake.
Seeing this, the men lifted their rifles, leading the path of the game curving gently away from them.
They had begun to form a wide arrowhead, bugling encouragement to each other as the layers of mist fell away below them. Cracks like lightning shattered the air.
His mate fell first without a cry; her breast torn wide. He turned his head and called to her, hesitating in mid-beat as agony poured through his right wing.
He spiraled clumsily – too fast – toward the ground, the shape of what had been her perfection crumpled in a heap below him in the deep, dying reeds not far from their nursery. Somehow, he controlled his fall well enough to crash into the water near her, or he surely would have died from the shock of impact.
His existence was now a blinding woe of pain, made worse as he flapped to pull himself out of the water; where the end of his wing should have been was only shattered bone and torn flesh. It was gone from the elbow.
He called out to her as he approached, called again with a soft crooning urgency; trying to reassure. But she too, was gone from him.
Distantly, their young flew on with the others.
The men came shortly afterward. A half-suppressed sneeze had strayed the hunter’s aim just enough to cause this tragedy.
Not one given to weeping, he wept.
When they saw the male yet lived, and not fully grasping the extent of his injury, they tried to approach him thinking to take him to hands better able to help, but here was a creature strong enough to shatter a man’s arm with his wings, and he charged, hissing at them, driving them away from the wreckage of the stolen beauty tangled hideously in the reeds behind him. So deep was his bond with her he could not yet sense she was dead, and so he defended her as though she might rise again as if from slumber.
They stood awkwardly, then, some distance from him. One dug out his phone. Perhaps Conservation would know what to do. They mused about the fine – for there would surely be one, as the one on whose conscience this lay stood apart from them, deaf to their ruminations.
“I’m sorry, shit I’m sorry…” he whispered at the glaring Cob and the ruination of his shattered wing, his tears cold against his skin.
Hours passed. The stand off continued. Some nearby residents, drawn by the unusual sight of hunters gathered so near the homes along the shoreline joined them. A single mother and her daughter struggled their way across the treacherous mudflats then stopped – somehow impossibly close to the swan. They’d enjoyed many visits from the little family throughout the summer, but now as they watched him panting from the dizzying stress of his pain, their faces were pale and sad. They held onto each other tightly, and cried.
Finally, the Conservation officer arrived.
“Had some trouble figuring out where you were,” he said gruffly as he slogged through the sucking mud, “You might want to step back away from him, there,” this to the mother and child, but it fell on deaf ears.
The men drew into a semicircle around him, the few remaining residents who’d braved the chill clustered just close enough to witness the exchange. There was a resignation in the air, a sense there was but one humane outcome to this sad occurrence as they listened to the uniformed officer’s terse questions; watched him take notes.
“’Fraid there’s gonna be a penalty out of this, sir, you know that though.”
The hunter nodded numbly.
The officer turned toward the swan, flipping his notebook closed and tucking it into a pocket on the front of his pant-leg. He shook his head and spit, an unpleasant metallic taste building in the back of his mouth. He hated this part of his job. Hated it. He made his way toward the Cob who in turn rose unsteadily to his feet, his head pushed forward in a posture of warning as the man unclipped his pistol’s holster.
“Don’t you hurt him!”
So focused had he been on this grim task, the officer had all but forgotten about the mother and child.
“Don’t you hurt him – don’t!” the girl shouted, jumping free of her mother’s arms and into the path of the swan.
The officer stopped. Having no children of his own, he blinked at the girl, unsure of what to say.
“Honey I’m sorry, but you see…you see how he’s panting like that – ?”
“Don’t you hurt him – I won’t let you!” the child shrieked, her voice rising as she put her hands out in front of her.
The officer looked to the mother for help, but found none in the lifting chin, the tearfilled eyes.
‘You do this yourself. You’ll get no help from me.’ Her expression said clearly.
He shifted his cap awkwardly, and – stumblingly – continued.
“Honey, he’ll…he’ll never fly again with that wing, do you understand? If I don’t put him out of his misery, well, he’ll be alone. That’s if he lives. But he,” the officer cleared his throat, looking for words a youngster might grasp, “he’ll take a long time to die, honey. It’ll be painful, and the eagles will probably –“
“No they won’t, I won’t let them – mum and I won’t let them!”
He looked pleadingly toward the mother, and was about to speak again when the hunter who’d caused this misery interrupted.
“I’ll stick around. I’ll help. Let ‘im be, officer. Maybe you’re right and…” he looked at the Cob, his voice trailing off. The lump in his throat returned.
“Maybe he will die, but it won’t be no eagle that does it. He could live…have something of a life here. I’ll stick around and help. It’s the least I can do…” he said, his voice growing thick.
Everything in him – all of his training – told him he should do what had to be done. He swore under his breath, and looked toward the swan. There was a fierceness in his eyes, perhaps enough to keep him alive. The weather here was pleasant enough, even in winter. Maybe he’d make it.
The officer sighed, shaking his head.
‘I shouldn’t even be thinking this way,’ he thought.
“I can’t take responsibility for this, but okay. If he really starts suffering –“
“I will.” The hunter said hoarsely.
A strange and mostly silent vigil followed. Taking it in turns, the three kept watch as the swan lay in the reeds near his mate’s body. For days he hissed at and threatened anything that came near. One seagull, thinking it had found an opportunity, was nearly beaten to death before it escaped, but the effort of attacking it renewed the bleeding from the swan’s elbow, and that night he fell into an exhausted slumber haunted by the sensation of falling.
Nature though, in Her tender, gentle way, came to his aid. Under brooding clouds that swallowed the moonlight, the high tide reached the dark reeds where the body lay. Lifting it in gentle, lapping waves, the briny water softly carried her away as the Cob slept. In the morning, he awoke with a start, a jab of pain rising through his maimed wing. He looked round, and found himself alone.
The healing began.
Fall arrived gently. For the first time in his life, the swan witnessed the bounty of Nature’s treasure – leaves of gold and copper, floating upon the wind, dancing and pirouetting and at last coming to rest upon the tidal flats where eventually the sea claimed them.
His youth and strength served him well, and the amputation closed quickly. He fed in the rich beds of vegetation largely unaffected by the turning of the seasons, and found comfort in the company of the little pintails who stayed the year-round.
Often, he drifted up and down the branches of the river flowing between the sandbars of the estuary, finding his way inevitably to the little cove where the child would sometimes fling a handful of soaked bread into the water for him. He did not always eat, but drawing near, would watch her as closely as she did him.
His first winter was a blessedly mild one, and he adjusted – haltingly, to his inability to fly. Sometimes the sun would warm the tidal flats, and he would stretch and beat his wings against the inviting breeze, running and flapping hard, expecting to rise.
In the early Spring, when the others returned, he trumpeted his welcome and strained for the sound of her. He swam among them as they reclaimed their nesting sites, sometimes calling expectantly, other times, just seeking.
But she was gone from him.
Several nights later, he was drifting in the warm waters under a sky of perfect stars, listening to the courtship song of a newly bonded pair nearby. A pang so like loss poured through him; from some deep place like memory.
He let sound then a long trumpeting cry that echoed across the water and into the sheltering cove.
It was the last time, so far as any knew, that he uttered a sound.
That summer, the mother and child moved away.
When the tide was in, some expectation in him brought him near what had been their rocky beach, but the cottage stood quiet and empty; none greeted him upon the shore.
The months passed. He watched the pairs and their little signets, watched the young ones grow into their grey-brown feathers, followed this family or that from a tolerated distance. He could no longer join them when they flew to the fields to graze, so his joy was increased when they returned in the evenings. The weather became colder, crueler. Soon, they were leaving him again.
Sometimes he would forget, and running upon the surface of the water with one of the families, would beat his wings hard, expecting to join them.
October brought driving, biting rain. Many days, his only shelter was in the little cove.
There was enough food. Only a few of the pintails remained with him as winter set in.
It was a cold, crisp November day. The sun brought cheer to the estuary, and lay bright upon the snow that had fallen the night before.
Out of habit, the swan came into the sheltering curve of the beach below the little cottage.
He had almost reached the shore, when the familiar sound of a door closing floated down toward him. He looked up.
He did not recognize the woman making her way to the little stairway, and he hesitated, swimming some distance from where the retreating tide lapped the stones. He studied her carefully as she tentatively made her way down the ancient steps, and watched as she scattered food into the water between them, listening to the sounds she made as she crouched down. He sensed her patience; there was no threat here.
Cautiously, he drifted in, and fed.
LONELY earned an Honorable Mention in the 2008 Competition.
Joanne Bentley’s life-journey to this point has included learning to fly small aircraft (something she very much intends to return to), joining initial-attack forest fire fighters on the front-lines as the crew first-aid attendant, and lately, working and communing with birds-of-prey under the hat labeled “Professional Falconer”.
The short story “Lonely” is based entirely on her observations of a living Trumpeter swan near her home in North Cowichan Bay, and comes from her meditations on how he could have received such a life-lesson as the one he endures. Joanne’s current works-in-progress include several short stories, and a series of fantasy-fiction novels.
Saturday, June 13, 2009
LONELY by Joanne Bentley
Posted by Lorian at 11:27 AM