Fiction · 11/15/2017

Of Lakes and Swans

My daughter likes me to tell her stories before bed. She keeps quiet as I try to weave something meaningful with words, her eyebrows knitted in concentration. Being a parent in the evening is wretched — arguments over bowel movements, hallway lights, and the angles of doors fill your time, when you desperately want them to sleep. And yet, this evening, with the lamp turned low, I began to tell her a story.

Some time ago there was a duchess who lived on the shores of a lake. The lake was formed during the period when glaciers started to melt, leaving behind large swaths of water in declivities — or so the duchess had read in a book from the library. In the evenings, moonlight threaded through the water, and she watched the patterns of light from a large bay window that overlooked the lake and trees. If the evening was warm, she would open it and listen to the boughs of the trees bending in the wind.

During the colder months, she’d keep the window closed, but she often leaned against it, letting the chill suffuse her body. She found herself wishing she could take flight to somewhere warmer. She was lonely, which is not an unusual condition in this fairy tale or life.

The duchess often saw a black swan swimming on the lake, visible through the limbs of beech and bays. The swan arrived early in the evening, from sky to water, spreading its wings as it settled — beads of water fanning out like mist. The swan glided along as the evening blued, and dragonflies whirred in the gloaming. The duchess watched the swan with the intensity that a child loves their first blanket, or a parent’s voice.

There was also, in this strange land, a Komodo dragon, who slipped through the cattails to stand on the shores of the lake, his claws gripping the peat moss. The Komodo dragon was not conventionally beautiful, which he understood as he gazed at his reflection. Small eddies of wind blew across his scales, leaving him cold as he watched himself. He knew that something divided him from the swan and that it went beyond scales and feathers.

He saw that the swan was lovely, white feathers and swayed neck, and he wanted to emulate that beauty. He understood that, as a Komodo dragon, his perspective on the world was circumscribed: hunt, poison, death. A terrible rhythm. And he wasn’t sure how he would go about capturing the beauty that he saw in the sway of the swan’s neck, the way that water left in her wake moved like the pattern of dreams.

The Komodo dragon didn’t understand boundaries and stared at the swan for hours. Finally, the Komodo dragon decided that the way to possess her beauty was to kill her. He understood that this action fulfilled a narrative function that was deeply troubling to his self-conception as an individual capable of transcendence. And yet, it occurred to him that perhaps eating the swan and feeling the lightness of her bones in his belly was the only way that he would ever fully comprehend her and achieve real transcendence, so he slipped into the water.

Suddenly, the lonely duchess heard an insistent pounding at her door, shaking her from her reverie. As she looked out the window she wondered for the first time how she’d gotten into the house with the bay window, wondered why she was alone. Didn’t she have some friends who would stop by and drink rosé before falling asleep to a movie? She couldn’t remember if she was paying a fifteen- or thirty-year mortgage. In fact, did she even own the house? Perhaps the person who was banging at the door and yelling her name, if it was her name, owned the house. Was her name Penelope? What a silly name that was. She didn’t know why her wardrobe consisted only of white frilly dresses. Why was the door to the house always locked? Who brought the food that she ate each evening?

Her heart pounded. The thumping at the door was insistent; she heard glass being smashed and someone fumbling with the lock. She frantically looked out at the Komodo dragon, who was making his way towards the swan with dogged strokes. The duchess locked her bedroom door.

Then the duchess came to a strange realization. She wasn’t a woman standing at a bay window. Rather, she was the swan swimming in the lake and also the woman. How she could simultaneously be a woman staring down at a swan by the lake, and also that swan itself is beyond the scope of what I can explain in the short amount of time we have together. Needless to say, identity is fluid rather than fixed.

Whoever it was at the door had gotten in; the duchess heard footsteps on the lower level of the house and someone still shouting her name.

If I were to read into it, I’d say that this story is a bit about possession and perhaps sexual power dynamics, but also about beauty and freedom and maybe identity formation.

Anyhow, upon realizing that she was also the swan, the duchess wondered what she should do. The footsteps stopped at her bedroom door and the pounding echoed through the wood. She saw the Komodo dragon churning water only a few feet from the swan. The wind whipped through the trees, the white curtains billowed (as white curtains do) and the duchess, knowing now what she should do, stepped onto the window pane, her toes gripping the ledge as she stood, her thoughts racing as she tried to put the fragments of her life into a new and coherent whole. Her breathing slowed, and she jumped. The house that possessed her and the voice that called for her could no longer contain her. She belonged to the lakes and skies now.

She was going to fly forever. She was going to soar up into the clouds and spread her arms out wide, feel the moisture washing across her fingertips. But first, all she felt was the sensation of falling.

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Andrew Bertaina currently lives and works in Washington, DC. He obtained his MFA in creative writing from American University where he also now works as an instructor. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in more than thirty publications, including The Threepenny Review, Tin House Flash Fridays, Hobart, apt, Bayou Magazine, and Catamaran. He is currently a reader and book reviewer for Fiction Southeast.