The Seventh Swan
Gina L. Grandi
One of his brothers was getting married so he needed to get a suit. Normally, he’d just cut a sleeve off something he’d picked up at a regular store, slicing down the side seam in order to fit his wing, but this was a formal occasion and loose threads just wouldn’t do. The princess, his sister, had called to say she’d be happy to help, but he had said, Are you sure you have the time? I wouldn’t want you to leave anything unfinished, and she had hung up in tears. When will you stop punishing me? she had asked. When will you forgive me? He wasn’t sure. It wasn’t a normal situation; there were no models of behavior.
At night, he still dreamed of flying.
Have you seen a doctor? well-meaning friends were always asking. He would sigh and say yes, and leave it at that. There was no need to go into details, to talk of the parade of specialists that had clamored for him once he and his brothers had come home (they to resume their lives, he to learn to work the can opener with one hand). Every surgeon had wanted to be the one to save him, to cure him, to add ‘doctor to the stars’ on their nameplates. (He had been a star of sorts, at first. Or at least an object of curiosity.) They had poked and prodded, measured wingspan and plucked pinfeathers. Each was grimly determined to cut, to fit a prosthetic, possibly to preserve the amputation on an attractive wall mount. But there was something complicated about tendons and arteries that, in short, meant he would bleed to death if the wing was severed. Now when he went in for a checkup the doctors mumbled and averted their eyes, embarrassed. They resented their lost shot at glory.
He didn’t sleep well. Sometimes he stood on the bridge all night, leaning over the side. Listening to cars rattling past. Closing his eyes into the wind. Wondering if falling held hands with flying, if they might be that close.
The tailor made faces and used what seemed an unnecessary number of pins. It was hard to move through the world without apologizing.
Tell me how it happened again? His date swirled her wine.
He sighed. It was a spell, he said.
I figured, she said. All these stories are about spells.
We were turned into swans, the six of us. My sister had to make shirts.
I remember the shirts, she said. To change you back, I remember that part. And she wasn’t allowed to talk. The whole time she was making them, no talking, right?
Right, he said. Or the spell wouldn’t break. And the shirts were made of nettles.
Right, she said. Ouch. Well, that was nice of her, to try. So she made the shirts, yeah? And you all changed back?
There was more to it, he said. The story. There was a curse and a king and a wicked stepmother and there was a fire, and the last shirt didn’t get finished. The sleeve.
I don’t remember that part, she said. I remember she married the prince. Happy ending and all that. Which is right, for a story.
It was called The Six Swans, he said, irritably. When they wrote it down.
I don’t know about that, she said. I heard the story and remembered the wedding.
You know, she still doesn’t laugh, he said, realizing.
My sister. The princess. She doesn’t laugh. Maybe she forgot how. Having to be silent for so long.
Well, I don’t know about any of that. I just remembered the spell breaking. And the wedding.
Right, he said.
I didn’t remember about the sleeve.
It’s only a mention, he said.
I guess, she said. So, no sleeve, no arm.
No, he said. No arm. Still a wing.
Well, it could be worse. Hey, you ever seen a doctor?
The second oldest brother’s toast was sloppy, champagne in his grin, toasting the groom, the bride, the family, the happily ever after. The brothers sat in a line down the table and clapped, except the youngest, of course, who couldn’t. He tapped the table, self-consciously. The second oldest toasted his sister, the princess, and her bravery and her love. The brothers cheered, except the youngest, who looked at his fork. The princess blushed and said nothing. She did not smile.
When he got home he threw the suit jacket away. His date had left a lipstick in the pocket but he didn’t retrieve it. He went to the bridge and he stared at the water.
Your nephew’s birthday is next week, his sister said, on the phone. Are you coming?
I might, he said.
He’d like to have you there. His father is – often away.
He’s only two, he said. He doesn’t know the difference.
I’d like to have you there, she said.
He heard her breath through the line.
I’m trying, she said finally. I don’t know what else to do.
I don’t know either, he said.
When he arrived with a present his nephew burst into tears. He tried to laugh, but the nephew hid his head under his mother’s shirt and wailed. The princess apologized and said it wasn’t the wing, it was the boy’s age, please stay. He put the gift on a table and went home.
He woke from a dream of flight and lay in the dark. As a swan, his brain had been small. A swan didn’t worry about life or love or destiny. A swan ate and eliminated and slept and mated and lived and then died. He wondered how long he had left, back in this body, human brain clicking. He saw his life stretching before him, an endless series of days. The weight of time still to be lived sat on his chest and howled.
He went to the bridge and trudged to the middle of the span and someone else was there. He stopped and looked at her. She stood on the rail, palm flat against a cable. Her feet were bare. She had left her crown at home.
Hey, he said, finally. The princess startled and swayed, clutching the cable.
Hey, she said, looking over her shoulder at him. What.
Nothing, he said.
She looked back out. He waited.
Are you still looking at me? she asked, not turning around.
I’m looking in that direction, he said.
Did you want something?
No, he said. I just wasn’t ready to go home.
She pivoted, slowly, on her toes, holding on with both hands, and turned to face him. He moved forward and leaned on the rail next to her.
Have you ever wondered, she asked finally, if, instead of falling, you might fly?
I have flown, he said, and she ducked her chin, embarrassed. I can’t anymore, he said. The bones are wrong. I’m too heavy now.
Do you miss it? she asked, her chin still down.
I miss being whole, he said. I miss being one or the other.
Me too, she said. I miss that, too.
Will you come down? he asked. She didn’t answer. He looked at the water.
I just want to be held, she said after a while. I just want someone to hold me. Her eyes might have been wet but he couldn’t tell in the dark.
I can’t get up there, he said. I only have the one hand, for gripping. I don’t want to slip.
I will come down, she said. But I don’t know how long I will stay.
That’s ok, he said.
I am not coming down permanently, she said.
And then she stood before him, looking up.
I don’t know what else to do, she said.
I know, he said. Neither do I.
She rested her forehead on his chest. He folded himself over and around, and she leaned against him, feathers over her face. The underside of his wing was warm and she sighed, tucking herself in, a bird, a chick, an egg.
Gina L. Grandi was formerly a public school teacher, a teaching artist, and an arts administrator. At the moment she is a doctoral candidate and adjunct professor at NYU in Steinhardt’s Educational Theatre Program. She is also the artistic director of The Bechdel Group, a theater company that works to challenge the role of women on stage.