Wingbeats of the Mute

Phillip Sterling


Seven mute swans cruise like old-timey pleasure boats upon the surface of Boardman Lake. I watch them through a scrim of fog. A perfect photo op, some would say, and no less beautiful for the regularity of their appearance. Pictures of mute swans have graced the brochures of Lakeside Condominiums from the start, well before Paula and I moved in. They’ve since become an attraction. Paula herself often claimed that we moved into 37A for the swans.

We moved here for the swans, she said, to the young couple that delayed our already sluggish progress from the garage to the front door of our place maybe three years ago. They were looking for the unit that would be vacated at the end of the month. Was 27B down this way? the woman asked, as if blind to the half-dozen arrows and orange Open House signs across the drive. She was short and slight; her thick, dark, shoulder-length hair framed a round, open face of maybe Asian extraction. She looked to be pregnant.

“Building B is not waterfront,” I’d said, waving a quick gesture toward the signs and arrows across the way. I hadn’t meant to be rude, only abrupt. I was anxious to get my wife inside and settled comfortably, as she was fatigued from another round of blood work at the hospital. Still, Paula later berated me for my brusqueness.

 A thoughtless gesture, to be sure, for in the process of waving the ring of keys I was holding took flight and, as if caught by surprise at its weight and lack of wings, clattered into the street, skittering to a stop at the curb. Almost before I’d realized it, the man—whose name we would learn was Issak—released the dark-haired woman’s arm, scooped up the keys, and returned them to me.

His assistance left us obligated to social niceties.

Paula thanked him and introduced us. The young pregnant woman—Sidney—reciprocated. Then Sidney asked how we liked it, living at Lakeside. Were there many young couples?—any children?—or was the community mostly middle-aged like ourselves? (That she was being cordial—even deferential—was obvious, for I wore my Medicare eligibility like a ratty cardigan, and Paula, though ten years younger, was sallow and peaked from the blood work; she’d been sick for eight months.) What, asked Sidney, compelled us to move here?

The swans, said Paula. We moved here for the swans.

Those that now swim a dry-crust’s throw from shore, maybe eighteen yards beyond the footings of our small deck, projected above the lake. I stand another five feet or so from the sliding glass door that provides access to the deck. The swans, then, are maybe twenty yards from where I stand, more or less, not counting the height.

At least two of the seven are adults, though it is difficult to tell which they are, given the scrim of fog and the size of cygnets at this time of year. Were there no haze, the whiter adults would stand out, and I could distinguish the gentle from the rude. But in the dish-water gray of this misty September morning, the swans appear uniformly ashy and shy, the adult plumage washed out, even against the slate color of the lake.

I suppose that to an unsuspecting photographer the seven swans drifting in the light fog above Boardman Lake might present the consummate image of peacefulness—an image of familial gentility and calm. But I know otherwise.

We moved here for the swans—I’d say it out loud, if I could. Yet my voice is inoperative, as if some haughty God has come upon me in the shape of a swan and is clutching my throat in a god-like beak. I cannot speak into the vacancy of the half-furnished room; I can barely breathe. Had I not returned Paula’s hospital bed to Tri-County Medical Supply, I would be standing beside it now. Had she not died, I’d be sharing the view with her.

We moved here for the swans, Paula said, on the day we first met Issak and Sidney on the sidewalk out front. We’d have looked like bookends, if anyone at 27B glanced across the drive to where we stood: identical couples facing each other, each man taller than the woman, each arm-in-arm. We could have been mirror images standing there, three years ago now, though a closer look would have revealed we were not identical but more like computer-generated, virtually-aged models of each other. Issak, a tall thin nondescript man, hovered over his wife, his left arm hooked through Sidney’s right, as if she were the frail and faltering one, his touch perfunctory, a natural extension of a husband’s love for the woman who would bear his children. My grip on Paula’s arm was more functional—no less loving, though we’d had no children of our own—but intended, rather, to assure her safety as we navigated the spit of sidewalk between the car park and 37A. Paula refused to be dropped off at the door. As long as she could walk, she said, she would. But the woman’s arm my hand secured was probably no more than one-half the density of the small one Issak held.

They moved into 27B the following month, and—by proximity, perhaps—we became friends, despite the differences in our ages. Bored with her easy pregnancy, Sidney began stopping by to spend time with housebound Paula, especially if I had errands to run and Issak was “on the road” for his job. Then, when Lilly was born—beautiful perfect Lilly—Sidney brought the baby along, and Paula, on her good days, fussed over the child as if it were her own granddaughter. Issak seldom talked about his family, other than acknowledging “an uncertain estrangement,” and Sidney’s divorced parents both had what she called “relief families” somewhere on the West Coast. By default, then, Paula and I assumed the role of god-parents.

When Lilly turned two, Sidney started working part-time, in the office of RJS Properties, which manages Lakeside Condominiums. Two, sometimes three afternoons a week, Lilly would come stay at our place. Hour upon hour, the swans became our entertainment.  

From our deck, a good throw of a crust of old bread will reach the water, and the swans, if they notice, will tack and motor back and gobble up the leftovers from yesterday’s sandwich or Paula’s unfinished English muffin from breakfast. No question they are a joy to watch—one of the few things Paula could do with any pleasure toward the end—and more and more often toward the end she’d call me from whatever I was doing and we’d sit together and watch the swans. And she’d recall when there were just the two adults, and they would laze in the glitter of sun not thirty feet from shore, their necks arched and bills almost touching, not unlike those sappy Valentine’s cards you’d find in Walgreen’s—an angelically white, neck-framed pseudo-heart encompassing the silvery-blue water of Boardman Lake.

At other times—especially once the cygnets were born—they could be a nuisance.

If I took three steps forward and slid open the patio door and then the screen and stepped out onto the deck, eighteen yards beyond which seven mute swans drift and pause and circle as if anticipating bakery treats, I could look to the south and see the public boat launch that’s sandwiched between the mouth of the Boardman River and Mama Pasta’s Restaurant, where unknowing tourists encourage the massive birds’ confidence and aggression—a familiar photo-op—by serving the gravel parking area with selections from their doggy-bags: bread ends, croutons, or scraps of Caesar salad. “Mute swans can be dangerous,” warns a small DNR sign thumb-tacked beside the kiosk of Boat Launch Regulations. “A breeding pair will protect its cygnets at all cost. Use caution when feeding. Keep your distance.”

Fucking swans.

Paula refused to admit that our decision to sell the house we’d lived in for over thirty years and move into 37A—a lakeside, ground-level, handicap-modified condominium—had more to do with her leukemia than with the swans. But that was Paula’s way. We moved here for the swans, she’d told Issak and Sidney the day they stopped us on the sidewalk in front of this house and asked.

I’ve heard Sidney say it as well—loud enough for Paula to take note, I think—during Lakeside’s last Fourth of July celebration, a meet-and-greet potluck and barbeque, which takes place at the common space before the fireworks. It had been one of the few times we’d gotten out to greet the new people in the “neighborhood” (as Paula called it) once she had taken to the wheelchair. But she wouldn’t have missed the chat-fest for anything since Lilly had asked us to go, even though we just as easily could have watched the fireworks from our deck. Or from the hospital bed we’d had delivered to the living room.

Now, resigned perhaps to the absence of human service, the swans dunk and fend among the algae and weeds and mud of Boardman Lake. They tip and bob like chunks of ice—a visual precursor to the wintry view I will have in a month or two, when I will be standing alone in the living room of a half-empty house and watching for movement on the lake, for signs of life or companionship. Without Paula, without the swans, without Sidney or Lilly.

If I could—though I can’t, with my feckless body clutched at the throat by some fearsome swan-god—but if I could, I would place the toe of my right foot slightly behind my left heel and turn an about-face, one-hundred-and-eighty degrees, as I had been so well trained to do in boot camp nearly fifty years ago—and I could direct my attention out the window above the kitchen sink to where a stubby gray U-Haul truck is backed up to the sidewalk in front of 27B. A whitish-gray truck, through the scrim of fog, similar in hue to the seven mute swans that scar the smooth surface of the lake like stigmas. If I could, I would turn and face the swan-colored truck, the truck that as I stand and look at the swans is swallowing everything I have come to care for—to love—in the wake of Paula’s death.

Lilly and her mother are moving—following Issak, who left for Texas six months ago. He’s found them a place, apparently, a house with a yard, in a neighborhood of houses with yards and no swans. And I imagine if you asked Sidney today—though I cannot—I would suspect she would say they’re moving because of the swans. Or, perhaps, because of me.

“My living Valentine,” Paula called them, when the swans were just the two adults, lazing for hours in the glitter of sun not thirty feet from shore, their necks arched and bills almost touching, not unlike—Paula said—one of those sappy Valentine’s cards you’d find in Walgreen’s, an angelic, pseudo-heart of swan necks, encompassing silvery-blue lake water. Day after day, they were a joy to watch—one of the few things Paula could do with any pleasure toward the end—and, toward the end, she’d beg me from whatever diversion I’d attempt—computer solitaire, meager loads of laundry, quick runs to the grocery store or pharmacy—and we’d sit on the bed, its back raised like a chair, and watch. Or she’d have me throw Frisbees of Lumberjack bread from the deck, to entice the swans to disperse a frenzy of crumbs for the fish.  

“My year-round love card,” she’d said.

And now they are moving to Texas: the woman I love and the child that calls me “Poopa.” It was, at first, a two-year-old’s variation on Paula, which got jumbled into the toddler’s perception once Sidney started work and Lilly began coming to stay with us twice a week. She loved spending time here, baking or playing games or putting puzzles together (on Paula’s good days), or just sitting with me and reading, or watching Sesame Street, if Paula wasn’t up to it. You’re going to see Paula today, Sidney would intone, and Lilly (we were told) would pack her “Lilly-bag” with animal crackers and books, her green baby blanket, and Stuffy the swan, a gift we’d given her long before she knew who we were. Stuffy was meant to be a goose, I think; I’d found it in the dog-toy section of Walmart. But Lilly called it a “’wan” and refused to nap without it.

“Poopa” included both of us at first. On her way to work, Sidney would bring Lilly over, and Lilly would burst in the door, calling “Poopa! Poopa!” dragging her Lilly-bag from one arm and swinging Stuffy by his long white neck from the other. She’d run to Paula for a hug and then come to me, jabbering—incomprehensibly at times—about her day. Yet once Paula became bed-ridden, and I began to spend the majority of the time with Lilly—playing games and reading or watching TV—when Lilly was told that Paula was tired and resting and so we must play quietly—Lilly began to use the name exclusively for me: Poopa, King of the Swans.

Now the closest one lifts, tilts on its tail, arches its neck, and slaps great splashes of water in what seems to be an exercise in territorial display, powerful wide-spread claps of strength.  Perhaps it’s the adult male, and perhaps he’s warning his adolescent offspring that they have approached too close to shore. That danger may lurk in the shadows of the deck that projects from our living room, a room that, just now, is lifeless. He would be an easy shot from where I stand, and I lift the rifle that’s been dangling from my right hand and grasp the stock beyond the trigger with my left. Then I sight down the barrel—through the glass of the sliding door—at the swan’s display. Twenty yards at best, an easy shot, even though I’d not fired the gun in years, not since we’d moved to Lakeside.

Yet Paula would surely be furious if I destroyed the patio door, scattered fragments of glass into her living room. Better, I think, to step out onto the deck. But I don’t move. My left hand loosens and I lower the gun, rest its barrel on the bamboo laminate.

Even before Lilly was born, Sidney stopped by frequently. She was bored with an easy pregnancy, she’d said, and found a sympathetic ear with Paula. Paula bemoaned her own inactivity. They played cribbage and drank watery tea. It was a nice respite. I lingered at the fringe of their friendship, found other things to do and still be within calling if Paula needed me. But that was early on, long before we filled the winter sun of our living space with a hospital bed. Once a week or so the two women would take a short stroll; occasionally they managed an afternoon’s excursion to the mall.

It didn’t last. Paula relapsed, and Sidney—a short, petite woman—filled her maternity clothes to the point of discomfort.

Then Lilly was born. Within weeks, Sidney began bringing the baby to our place. Paula was invigorated, cheered by the visits.

I was happy as well.

The next two years were glorious in their sameness: Sidney and Lilly coming by, Paula’s positive check-ups, trick-or-treat at Halloween, Christmas cookies cut in the shapes of swans (heavy with green frosting and red sprinkles), Easter eggs and little hands dyed the color of a bruise. Paula insisted we buy a digital camera. She started a virtual scrapbook.

Our non-Lilly days were pleasantly routine as well: trips to the library or the bookstore, slow reads of the latest best sellers or new non-fiction, or the 19th-Century classic we’d meant to get to eventually; 1000-piece jigsaw puzzles on the kitchen table; afternoon siestas. We played cribbage and drank weak tea. We watched old movies on TV, reruns on PBS. When the weather and her blood allowed, Paula would want to walk and we’d circumnavigate the condominiums—the “neighborhood,” she called it—often ending up at the common space, where Lakeside maintains a gazebo and barbeque pit and a single length of floating dock for residents’ use. Feeding waterfowl at the common space is prohibited—so as not to attract noisome seagulls, gob-shitting geese, or disease-infested ducks—and, for the most part, Lakeside residents cooperate (if only to avoid the additional fine one may accrue on monthly association fees). Paula and I would sit for a time on one of the benches in the sun there and marvel at the quiet beauty of the lake—relatively undeveloped for so close to the mall (the boating regulations extensive and deterrent). We’d watch the swans in the distance.

Other days we’d take Lilly along. At first in her stroller. Then I bought a Little Tykes wagon, and we’d wheel her down to the common space, where we’d erect and destroy castles built from the play sand RJS Properties hauled in every spring, or we’d feed bits of seaweed and grass to the fish. When Lily began to walk, we’d walk down together—slowly, if Paula was able—one on each side, holding hands.

Then the swans took to nesting nearby, and the common space was quarantined. About the same time, Paula’s health took a turn for the worst. It felt natural to blame the swans.

And again, the bird rises on its tail and swats the water with his—I’m guessing it’s the adult male—five-foot wingspan. Then a second swan does the same in a kind of brutal, macabre dance, or thrust-and-parry. The action sends smacks like rifle shots echoing across the lake, ripples washing to shore. My heart responds in kind, pumping its thick wings against the surface of my chest. My comparatively short neck throbs; I can feel beads of sweat forming on my forehead. My arms break out in goosebumps—or should they be called swanbumps. I want to kill one of them.        

Paula’s death was not, of course, unexpected. We’d been preparing for months—years, even. And yet, unexpectedly, a choke developed in the throat of my acquiescence to it; my lungs filled with an intake of breath that I didn’t think I’d be able to release. Even with all the preparation—the counseling and advice, the working through the stages of her death, the openness and acceptance that Paula and I had developed through years of remissions and regressions—the waxing and waning, the high tides and low—I was surprised by the finality of the thing. I hadn’t prepared for the certain loss, the aftermath, the grief, the solitude. I wasn’t ready for loneliness. I wasn’t thinking. Which is why I wasn’t able to deal in a reasonable way with anyone else’s loss—Sidney’s or Lilly’s. Why I may have perceived it as something else.

When Issak was promoted and relocated to the Houston office, Sidney refused to move. She’d only been working for RJS Properties eight months, she said, and she didn’t want to leave them in the lurch. Nor could she leave Paula at that point (during a slight relapse); nor disappoint Lilly, who’d come to look forward to spending time with us. But mostly it was because of me (she said, afterward)—she didn’t want me to be alone. She’d come to care for me “very much.”

They’d brought me dinner—Sidney and Lilly—a pizza they’d made from scratch, and they’d come to ask if I’d be willing to continue to watch Lilly a couple days a week, while Sidney worked, if I was up to it. Paula had died a week or two before. After the pizza and the wine (sparkling juice for Lilly) and then ice cream bars, we’d stood on the deck and tossed our crusts to the swans—how cute the babies were!—and Sidney had turned and leaned against me and placed her small hand on my bare arm and asked if I would, and when I said yes—Absolutely, No problem, I’d love to—she’d raised on her toes like a dancer and kissed me and thanked me and said it meant a lot to her because both she and Lilly had come to care for me very much.

And my body responded in a way it hadn’t responded in years—with physical tremors of anticipation. For a moment, I was a young man again, young and single.

“What about Issak?” I’d said, thoughtlessly.

“We moved here for the swans,” said Sidney. She smiled the kind of smile that Paula hadn’t managed in years. “We can’t very well go to Texas and leave the swans—they’re still babies—on their own.”

If I did an about-face—spun on my heel one-hundred-and-eighty degrees and raised the .22 to my shoulder, sighting down the barrel and out the kitchen window—a window much less expensive to replace than the patio door—I could shoot out the windshield of the U-Haul truck. Or the driver’s side window, given the way the truck is parked at an angle on the pine needle and bark bedding in front of 27B. I could shoot the driver, if one was sitting in the cab. Or, at the very least, the front tire on the driver’s side, or puncture the engine compartment, ruin hoses, wires. I could cause enough damage that the move would have to be delayed, postponed. But it would only be temporary; it would only stall the inevitable. Sidney would still move away. And I’d likely have to pay for the damages, maybe be arrested. Not that jail would be any worse than solitude for a sixty-eight-year-old single man. Meals would be prepared for me at least. And how long of a sentence would I possibly get? Life, at most? Life could be six years. Six months. Six days. No difference.

And it still wouldn’t solve the problem of the swans.

Paula gave me the rifle on Father’s Day the second year we lived in the house we’d designed together, the house we sold to move here. Two acres of former orchard that Paula intended to turn into gardens. But the wildlife was out of control the first year—rabbits, squirrels, woodchucks, turkey, deer. As soon as any sprouts appeared the animals would ravage them. She bought me the gun as a deterrent. Not to kill anything—Heaven forbid! We’d moved there for the wildlife!—but to scare them away. “You’re a good shot,” she said, indicating the marksmanship pin among my other Army memorabilia. “You should be able to hit close enough to keep them at bay.” I didn’t mention that the marksman designation was pro forma—that every soldier was expected to achieve that standard. Nor did I ever tell her about the ground squirrels I’d used for practice, the woodchuck I’d had to bury before Paula returned from the beauty shop, the white-tailed yearling I’d wounded as it bounded off.

The next year she abandoned any attempt at vegetables and from then on landscaped with only pest-resistant perennials and flowers—enough for some grazing to occur without noticeable damage. After that, I rarely shot the gun, other than for practice:  plastic milk jugs, cans, cereal boxes (“What do you have against the Mini-Wheats guy?” Paula teased). Then, as more housing developments grew around us, the township restricted firearm use (and fireworks as well), and I put the gun into storage. When Paula got too ill to garden—too weak to manage all the stairs in our multi-level house—we felt it would be better to move to a condo closer to town. I kept the gun more for its sentimental value (a Father’s Day gift) than anything else.

I’d found a box of .22 shells in my old footlocker—stored for its own sentimental value in the metal shed assigned to 37A behind the garage. Shells, if I recall, never go bad.

The night Paula died—not three feet from where I’m standing, when the hospice nurse had stepped out to the sidewalk for a cigarette (since I’d asked she not smoke on the deck, as she had the week before)—one lone swan plied the dark water of Boardman Lake, about fifty yards out. I was sitting beside her bed, resting my frigid fingers on Paula’s. I’d abandoned trying to hold her hand days before. Hers was lifeless, even colder than mine; there was no strength in it. If I hadn’t been able to see that it was attached by a thin arm to the emaciated body that vaguely resembled my wife’s, I’d not have believed it was hers. Yet I meant to sit and listen as long as it took—at first for her slight breaths and then for their absence. And as I sat staring out into the void of an unlit lake, the reflection of the moon suddenly appeared, like the hole of a bullet shot from a dark room into daylight. The brightness was astonishing. I felt as if the whole world was turning to vapor and being sucked through that small hole—Paula’s breath, her warmth, her soul—a pinpoint of a universe in which everything of substance has imploded and become encased as in a small clear globe, where the whole world swirls briefly before settling into watery stasis.

I rubbed my eyes, teary from staring, and refocused. It wasn’t the reflection of the moon at all. It was a single swan, come to ferry Paula’s soul to some otherworldliness.

“My calling card,” she’d said.

She had no funeral, no memorial. Paula asked only to be cremated, and for her ashes to be dispelled into Boardman Lake.

I could always turn the gun on myself, of course. I know how it should be done. I have been trained to take another’s life—something one never forgets how to do. I know where to rest the barrel against me and how to reach the trigger so there would be the least amount of mess, of damage. But that wouldn’t eliminate the problem of the swans. Nor would it achieve anything like retribution; no God would find the act sufficient, in my way of thinking.

So Lilly and I played and read and watched the swans two—sometimes three—afternoons a week while Sidney worked. On Fridays the two of them would make pizza from scratch and bring it over—continuing (Sidney said) a family tradition. We’d have wine. We’d throw the crusts to the swans. And when they’d leave, both Sidney and Lilly would hug me goodbye.

I would be lying if I said I’d never entertained the idea of intimacy, of Sidney and Lilly becoming the family that Paula and I never had. But I am a practical man at base, a faithful man to some extent. There was Issak to consider, of course—despite the hint of a rift in the marital canvas—and the forty-year difference in ages between Sidney and me. And there was Paula’s ghost. Yet it would be disingenuous if I didn’t admit that my enthusiasm for Lilly’s entertainment—my need to please the child—was in part mitigated by a desire to endear myself to Sidney in a way that would reciprocate love.

I believe I am a practical and faithful man, as I said. But I am still a man.

I dubbed the child Princess of the Swans. We called the house a castle, the lake our kingdom. “Let them eat cake!” I’d declare, as Lilly threw bread from the deck, most of which fell short, littering the mucky shore, as the swans refused to come in any closer, at first. But then the cygnets molted and grew bold and, despite the hissing admonition of the parents offshore, ventured onto land. They’d crowd beneath the deck, their necks extended, their beaks open, and Lilly could drop pieces of “cake” right into their mouths. Like tossing treats to trained dogs.

The cygnets were playful and awkward on shore, and Lilly begged to pet them. She asked to move among her worshippers. And as I wanted to please the young princess—in spite of my better judgment—we loaded her blue plastic wagon with pizza crusts and slices of bread and journeyed to the common space, where we could kneel on the dock and—just maybe, now that the young swans had grown accustomed to her, now that they could see there was nothing to fear—feed them by hand.

I’d not expected that the adult male would come flailing up the beach at our approach, nor that he would leap upon the child, nipping and pecking and flailing, until he’d ripped away a small piece of her ear. I was not prepared for the terrible hissing, the screams and cries, the whirl and smack of feathers, the brightness of Lilly’s blood.

We moved here for the swans is, in point of fact, a bold-faced lie—one we all shared in. That was the beauty of the thing: a purity as of the whitest feathers, the feminine charm, the quiet gentility—all meant to mask the swan’s “black sinful flesh,” as the authors of certain medieval bestiaries warned. We moved here, instead, to prepare ourselves—to prepare me—for a loss, an insuperable loss, a loss—I have come to realize—it’s impossible to prepare for.

We moved here for the swans is a lie I can no longer perpetuate.

Three steps to the patio door, two steps out. I raise the rifle and aim, and seven mute swans, in anticipation of what they have learned to expect, turn my way and swim gracefully toward me.

Phillip Sterling.JPG

Phillip Sterling is the author of a collection of short fiction, In Which Brief Stories Are Told, two poetry collections, And Then Snow and Mutual Shores, and four chapbook-length series of poems. New stories have appeared recently in Pacifica ReviewPermafrostFiction SoutheastCloudbankTemenosThird Wednesday, and The Best Small Fictions 2017.