3LBE #16
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The Swan

by Dirk van Nouhuys

 

Stretch thought back to the large swan that commanded the lake on the farmstead, thought of how it landed, of how it once fought off a wolf, of how it floated in the moonlight, of how it lumbered into the air where it suddenly became wonderful. As these pictures swam in his mind, his shoulders sloped, his neck snaked forth, his vision sharpened, his legs diminished, his arms were encumbered with feathers. On tiny legs, he took a tottering step into panic. He wanted to plant his feet and breathe deeply, but they were like twiggy stilts and air twisted in his long throat. His friend Gebrelis knelt and tied the little bundle just above one of his little feet. He walked a few steps, dragging the package along the sand. He stretched his wings, great wind gulpers. Rainwater slid off them as if he were in the clouds already. He tottered forward, gaining speed, griping air with his wings. He made great heaves with his shoulders. His feet scratched free. It became easier as he rose. He looked around down at his friend, at the shrinking village. His vision was amazing. He saw his father walking south along the high road. He looked across the lagoon and saw in the distance the many mouths of the Neris River. He beat the air toward them, hurling himself adrift.

Flying over unfamiliar country in moonlight was disorienting despite his keen vision, but he had counted on following the course of the Neris and that was not difficult. The rain did not bother him. He wondered if the fish could see him, or the dead under the water watched him. He flew under the clouds. Another town confused him for a few moments, but he realized it was too small for the capital and lacked the fortified palace. Something disorienting began happening in the air, like bad TV, and he realized it was snow, brushing unfelt off his feathers.

• • •

He spotted Wilna easily by its distant spires, but as he approached the structures became more complex. Dawn neared and the smell of wood smoke and garbage drifted to his level. From directly above, the palace merged into walls and buildings so he could not piece it out — all dark lines and masses under fresh snow, it lay as unrecognizable as a unlabeled map. He circled the city twice at lowering altitudes. Then he tried to recapture the route he and Katrenis had ridden into the capital city a few days before. He guessed that one of the walled compounds housed the Duchess, and settled into it. Everything was in focus, and the very way space related to his body shone with difference. It was not the Duchess’ compound after all, the largest building was on the left of the entrance rather than the right. He took off again. He found the river again and retraced his course. The eastern sky was turning from light gray to gray gold. He settled in another yard. He heard dogs barking. He looked about. Yes, it was familiar, this was it.

Five dogs edged toward him barking and growling. He had landed at the back of the yard, on the uphill end to avoid the buildings. He doubted that he could concentrate enough to change back while he was holding off the dogs. He started toward the canines on his hobbly legs, swallowing wind with his shoulders. He caught the air just in time, the dogs leaping at his black, dangling feet and at the little bag.

He circled the stockade. In the first light the people were emerging, opening the stable, someone was scolding the dogs and looking skyward. He circled and landed on the ridgepole of the main building. He settled himself with a shuffle of wing joints; the perch seemed secure. He sidled to the edge of the smoke hole. Then he concentrated on his own form. The edge of the shadow dimmed, his balance floundered, he extended his wings towards the edges of the smoke hole and griped them with his hands, tottered for a frightening moment and then righted himself in a squat over the opening. He cautiously wedged his legs in, found it too small. He retracted his legs and struck at a timber with his heel. It gave. He lowered his legs, wriggled his hips through, hung for a moment, and dropped lightly to the floor. With his dulled sight, he could dimly make out a bed before him where he moved swiftly and put his hand over the mouth of the blanketed occupant. He was sure now it was her. The dogs were barking in the yard. Someone knocked on the door.

“You know me. Stretch, Katrenis’ friend,” he said. She shook her head in recognition. “I take my hand off your mouth and you tell them to go away.”

The Duchess nodded her head affirmatively, so he removed his hands and crouched beside the bed. What if she called for help? He would not force her; his master loomed in his mind. He thought he could make it back to the roof and from there take wing, but what then? His master had not taken account of needing someone as much as he needed Katrenis.

But she spoke as instructed. A woman said through the half open door that they had heard a noise. Was there a problem? The Duchess said no, she had heard a noise outside, was there a disturbance? “Only the dogs chasing a swan that landed in the yard,” the shadowed figure replied.

“You maybe excused,” the Duchess said peremptorily. “Have Jayolis take the guard duty.” The figure made a courtesy and closed the door.

“How did you gain entry here?” the Duchess asked.

“Where is Katrenis?” Stretch demanded.

“Where she is safe.”

“You are not afraid. I won’t harm you or her.”

“What happened?” the Duchess said.

“I am not of your world, I can’t say,” Stretch said. “It makes no sense to me, but I go on to Katrenis.”

The Duchess did not speak for a moment. He could not see her face in the dark, nor hear her body move beneath the bedcovers.

“She is at her home, at Ungisshaltnis. She sent me a message that she’d been taken there and told to stay. She asked your whereabouts, but I could not tell her.” He remembered the place on the Neris where his Gebrelis had pointed out the mouth of the river that flowed by Ungisshaltnis.

“Thank you,” he said. “If I can do anything for you, I do it.”

“What will you do now?”

Stretch did not answer. He could make out a chest against the near wall, and pulled it to the middle of the room. He climbed it, reached up to the smoke hole and, straining his arms like jaws, heaved himself up through and onto the roof. As he pulled his feet through, he heard the Duchess speak loudly and rapid footsteps in the room below. He glanced down. The room was full of dark figures. He breathed deeply and concentrated. Now it was a path gone before. He hurled himself off the roof, wings shouldering the air.

He did not want to start back down the Neris until there was light enough to distinguish the turn toward Ungisshaltnis. He spotted a small lake in the woods not far off, glided down, and settled gently on its surface. Keeping alert for hunters, he smoothed his feathers; floating he felt as he felt standing with relaxed concentration. He was hungry, but he did not want to eat; he had seen the swans at Ungisshaltnis rooting neck down in the mire and did not want to expose his butt. He envied the fairy tales where what mattered was getting the instructions, and then the story ran on track to the end.

When Mother Sun brightened the treetops he took off from the water.

Twice he circled low over the mouths of tributaries on the southern shore of the Neris. Each time he saw a substantial tributary entering the Neris from the south he circled low looking for the rowan tree and the small house Gebrelis had pointed out to him. He was beginning to think he had gone too far when he found it and turned southwest. He landed in the water, paddled to shore, and waddled to land, dragging the bundle from his leg. He returned to his own form, to rest his mind. He searched the house. Nothing more than a dirt floor, windowless log cabin, central fire pit and smoke hole, home now only to a musty smell. It was deserted. He entered and did exercises of his discipline. Then he went to the water, resumed his bird form, and took off from the stream. His bird legs worked better in the stream. The webs drew strongly and pushed him out of the water as he rose.

He had no sense of how far it would be to Ungisshaltnis. Twice he circled low over pond-side buildings that turned out to be some other farmstead. His heart came to his throat when he circled twice and saw a pond with the familiar outline of the weir and the nook in the shore where they had retted the linen. It was mid afternoon and the small figures on the ground were going about their daily business. He looked for the other swan, suddenly thinking it might not like a companion, but it was nowhere to be seen. He landed on the far shore, clamber-hobbled into a willow copes where he changed back. As on his first day, he found himself tangled in branches, having forgotten to allow room for his own taller body. He broke space for his limbs, then worked loose the bag and cap tied to his leg. He put them safe away next to his heart, and started round the lake toward the bailey. He was famished.

He walked along the shore of the pond. One of the farm hands greeted him, confused because he had not come from the road. The farm hand said he would run and tell Katrenis. So she was here! Tears came to his eyes. He embraced the man and said he would tell her himself. He looked at the land, he smelled the mixture of grass and rot and cow dung. He would miss it, miss seeing a second year of crops, seeing Gebrelis’ children grow, but perhaps he would have his own. He was free to do that now.

He entered the main house. Katrenis was sitting by the bench spinning, as she seldom did. He ran toward her, ignoring who was around. She turned to two figures standing on each side of her. First she cried to one, “See!” and then to the other, “There he is!” It was the dark twins who had ridden with her the first moment he had seen her. Then she ran to him, not caring how their chests colliding, arms clenched around one another. She buried her head in his shoulder, liberating the pungent smell of her wreath. Then stood back eyes blazing at him. “You did it! You are here! I knew you would do it! You are stronger than they are!” She turned to the twins who had drawn their swords.

Stretch whispered to Katrenis. He no longer cared what people saw or didn’t see, what they named or did not name; he was going to be out of here soon. He untucked the cap and slid it on his head. The twins were barely but visibly startled. Stretch strode around behind them and pulled away the sword of first the one and then the other. He placed the swords on the ground behind him, doffed the cap, and assumed a respectful defensive posture.

“You go now,” he said, “and no more trouble.”

They drew daggers and half crouched. Katrenis too was ready, her face wild, her whole upper body tensed toward the twins. Everyone else retreated to the walls. The wise woman Ragnas was reciting a spell. Stretch donned the cap again, stepped to one side and doffed it again.

“Go now,” he said, “no more trouble.”

“Give us our swords,” one said.

“I keep your swords as a pledge of good behavior.” The two dark creatures in the gray armor retreated step by step.

“Tell my father Lacy I am ready to make a deal,” Stretch said.

They walked to the stable, and Stretch watched them lead their horses out of their stalls, exit the building, and mount. He and Katrenis followed to thestables and watched them through the doors of the stockade. He called out to two surprised hands to close the doors.

Celebration broke out. Geese were killed, plucked, and roasted. Stretch cut the guts, perhaps for the last time. There was singing. There was round dancing in the bailey, where the walls were kept closed for the day; most of the hands drank more heavily than usual. During the festivities, Gebrelis’ wife came and asked after her husband. Stretch told her that he was coming from the coast by horseback and they could expect him a day or two.

When they were in bed Katrenis kissed and nipped him all over, crying with relief and gratitude and got astride him, where he pushed her up, exulting, and came, and lay there staying hard in her and relishing as she worked and then coming again after she did. They fell asleep with her sprawled on him and his arms locked around her. Before the dawn light, with the sounds of people below stoking up the fire, she told him in detail how the twins had taken her and Ragnas from the shrine of Ungis in Wilna and brought them back to Ungisshaltnis, where they had stolidly kept her as they had kept her once before. The birds were singing when she finished.

• • •

Mid-morning they talked to the wise woman Ragnas. She counseled that they hold a ceremony at the shrine, the place where he had come in the dawn of his first day here. The morning was slowed from the previous drinking and the winter sun did not encourage outdoor work. The three were dallying at the table in the main hall when the door opened and Lacy stepped through.

He was wearing an outfit Stretch remembered from his childhood: tight blue jeans clasped his agile limbs; tanned, tooled, high-heeled cowboy boots shod his nimble feet where polished spurs flashed like fire. He wore a gold shirt with a red inset and gold piping, a gold bolo with a large turquoise, a five-gallon hat on the back of his head, and on his hip in a holster beheld the gold and white shining handle of a gun. Ragnas retreated to the end of the room and began reciting spells.

With his rolling horseman’s gait, and not a word, Lacy came to the table. He seated himself on a bench opposite Stretch and Katrenis. He doffed his hat and laid it before him, put his elbows on each side of it, folded his hands and leaned his chin against them with a thoughtful look as if they had a mutual problem they must all solve together. Stretch could feel his back and hands knotting up. Lacy complemented Katrenis’ spinning. She neither spoke nor moved a muscle.

“Well, now I think you have something of mine.” He addressed Stretch in English.

“I’ll give it to you when we’re back where I came from,” Stretch said.

“Well, ‘we’—well, well, you know that’s a bit of a problem. You, it’s as if you were attached to California by a rubber band, but our friend Katrenis…” he paused and looked at her, Stretch realized he had been speaking in English and she had not understood, but he continued in her language “Are you certain you want to go off with our friend. It may not be in your best interests.”

As he was speaking she was rising. She was standing on the step of her raised chair. She spit at him. The glob did not reach him, but fell on the table.

Lacy shook his head sadly, and said in English, “Of course I don’t have to oblige you.” His eyes seemed both tired and burning as they had at the inn in Wilna. Across the space Stretch felt his interlocutor’s hand tensing toward the handle of his gun. Stretch’s hand to cap to head was faster, his hand to the gun almost as fast, he now gripping the back of the other’s sinewy hand, squeezing over the trigger finger, bang! the bullet splintering the table, the frightened people running for the doors, Katrenis standing, moaning, he now with his finger holding the gun firing at the earth floor, a second time, third, fourth, fifth time, Katrenis screaming, sixth time, the smaller hand relaxing in his, he taking the gun, casting it into the fire. The smell of powder filled the room and wisps of white smoke hung in the still, close air.

Lacy stood, looked around. The room was empty except for the three of them. Stretch stood behind him, cap off, and said. “I’ll hand them over in Santa Monica.”

“It’s not necessary—” Lacy began.

“It is necessary,” Stretch said.

Lacy nodded. Stretch stepped over and put his arm around Katrenis, then he had the sensation of an orange tracery, like the lines bird ankles leave in receding water; he was rising in the water, and his love was in his arms. They broke surface; the sun glistened on the Pacific shore.

 

 

Dirk van Nouhuys was born in Berkeley and has lived mostly around the San Francisco bay area. He has a BA from Stanford in writing and an MA from Columbia in contemporary literature. For a long time he worked as a tech writer but gave all that up. He writes novels, short stories, some experimental forms, and occasionally verse. He has published regularly in literary and other magazines for many years. You can learn more at www.wandd.com.


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ISSUE #16

January 2007

FICTION