The Wild Swan by Anne Bean

I wish I could remember what it was like before I lost my left arm. Lost is a funny word—it’s not like I misplaced it or anything. It just changed after the swan incident. I have a wing now. Large, white, feathers. When I extend it fully, which takes some pretty serious strain on the lats and pecs to do for more than a few seconds, it reaches nearly six feet from my left shoulder. Folded, it curls around my left side and across my back, with the primary feathers tickling my calves. The top of the wing still sticks out about a foot, even when I have it folded as tightly as possible. Have you tried walking down Broadway with a wing? It ain’t pretty.

At least Frank’s into the wing. He keeps one of my feathers (large, white, soft) on his desk at work. At night, he’ll lay in bed with me, sheltered between my wing and my body, head laid on my chest. The best place in the world, he calls it.

My mother, when she’s had enough cocktails, cries and calls me “my angel Michael,” which you would think means she’s aware that I have a huge damn wing. Usually she, and all six of my big brothers, pretend not to notice it, which is of course the opposite of not making a big deal about it. My brothers seem to forever be throwing pool parties or black tie dinners with narrow seating arrangements, like they can never let me forget that I am different. That I do not fit. I want to scream at them, “Can’t you remember when you had wings?” But we do not talk about the swan incident. Ever. Instead I sit next to my sister, in mutual silence, and she cuts my steak while I fidget with my altered tuxedo—the feathers near my shoulder get caught at the shortened sleeve and pinch. This is family, I suppose.

*

On Tuesday, an invitation comes in the mail. I tear it open with my teeth. It is for my youngest brother Thomas’ wedding. It will be in winter. They will rent out the ice rink in Central Park, the one that’s a pond for toy sailboats in summer. They will be married while skating. His fiancée, Tamsin, is a ballerina—a tiny woman who’s always looked like more of a girl to me, a rotating figure on top of a music box, with about as much personality.

I call up my sister on the computer—her face appears in a window on the screen.

“So did you get this yet?” I wave the invite.

She nods, looks down and off to one side.

“Did Thomas talk to you about being in the wedding party yet?”

She shakes her head.

“Do you think he will?”

She shrugs. She looks distracted. Even by my sister’s standards, she’s not doing too well.

“I think I’ll put Frank in a tux and me in a hot pink sequined tutu, just to piss everyone off.”

She smiles a little, but doesn’t look me in the eye.

“You and I must be the only ones who haven’t had Mother lecture us on our sovereign duty to give her grandbabies. Like adoption hasn’t occurred to her! Who says I don’t want a child?”

Ellie curls her lip in contempt.

“Well, here’s to another round of being the family pariahs! You and me against the world, am I right?”

Ellie looks right at my face. There’s a fierce energy I don’t recognize, and for a second it looks like she’s about to say something. But then she sort of collapses in on herself: shoulders bowed, head down. My sister, I realize, is weeping silently.

“Shit, Ellie. Want me to come over?”

She moves her head in what might have been a nod, without looking up.

“Don’t go anywhere on me. I’ll be right there.”

*

Let me tell you about my family. Seven boys, including me, and one girl. My mother, long since widowed. I never knew my father, although some of the older ones remember him clearly. I’m the youngest boy. My sister, Ellie, the youngest altogether. Ellie doesn’t talk. Like ever. She can, she just doesn’t. I wish I could remember what her voice sounds like, but I haven’t heard it since she was a kid. She’ll be twenty-seven come September and has not, to the best of my knowledge, been on a date in her life. The lack of speaking is probably a major part of that, although I wonder if she’d have sought out anyone’s company, even if she did speak. I wondered for years if she was lesbian, but she won’t tell me and crosses her arms when I broach the subject.

My oldest brother, Jeremy, is the one who mostly throws the dinner parties and black tie affairs. He made it big on Wall Street before the stocks crashed in ’08, and weathered the recession well, a fact which he loves to flaunt whenever possible. I almost joined Occupy just to spite him, but my rehearsal schedule didn’t allow. I act. The wing does set me apart. It also lends itself to limited roles: I’ve been in Angels in America seven damn times, Godspell twice, and once in a particularly experimental production of Death of a Salesman.  Even though I’m a solid decade too young for Willy Lohman, they thought my wing was a great metaphor. Of what, I am not sure.

Jacob, my second brother, is a corporate lawyer. Richard, my third brother, is on the fast track at an ad agency. Apparently I missed the family memo of “get the scummiest job possible.” John, my fourth brother, is a stay-at-home dad who does contract financial work and takes care of the kids while his wife CFOs some agency or other. He’s the one Mother talks about when she wants to seem inclusive of “alternative family structures.” She never talks about me and Frank. Lionel, brother number five, does HR for Saks Fifth Avenue. Thomas, the one with the impending wedding and the only one yet unmarried aside from me and Ellie, is a middle manager. An actual middle manager. I cannot make this shit up.

What gets me is how they walk through life with their heads down, not just failing to notice Ellie’s depression, but how they ignore me. It’s the wing, but it’s also the boyfriend. They’d never admit it, of course. And Lord knows Jeremy likes to trot out how big-hearted he is from having a gay brother at a fundraiser or the opening of some new foundation every few years. He doesn’t call me so often as he uses our association to make himself look good. He invites me to his charity auctions and shit, but being on the mailing list of a thousand is not the same as having a brother.

I wish they remembered what it was like, before. When we were young. When we were swans. What it felt like to fly, really fly, not just knock myself on my can ‘cause I was drunk and flapping my wing seemed like a good idea. We were happy, the seven of us, when we were swans together. We were all beautiful—my brothers didn’t look at me like the odd one out. There was just the lake and us and Ellie.

*

I hop the 6 train up to Ellie’s apartment in the part of the Upper East Side that’s practically the Bronx. She lives alone, and I know she makes a decent salary doing textile design, but she still feels compelled to live in this monastic bullshit studio apartment with austere furnishings: her bed, her loom and spinning wheel, her laptop on the counter to the kitchenette. That’s it. Her building smells like sewer, even inside; I don’t see how she stands it.

I get off the train at 125th. Walking up from the squealing, sweating subway tunnel does nothing to help with the heat—a rush of air, thick with the scent of rotting garbage, pushes me up to street level. I pause for a moment, senses overwhelmed, then walk quickly the few blocks north to Ellie’s place. Her street is covered in scaffolding and construction workers shouting back and forth. I have no idea how she can get work done in her apartment, much less stand to live there.

Sometimes Manhattan construction gets to me. The Village is so protected, with more trees. Here, a fucking concrete sauna. Sometimes I wish I could just fly over it all, see one more time what a sparkling jewel Manhattan really is from the air. I wonder if my brothers remember that, at least. How beautiful the city looked, from up high.

Ellie answers the door without looking at me, just leaves the door open and walks away. I slip off my sandals and venture into her living room. Like most New York living rooms, it’s windowless; this apartment was obviously a large studio that got turned into a small one-bedroom with cunning use of a paper-thin wall that makes the living room and her bedroom just a little too small.

“Jeez, Ellie, can I turn on a light or two?” I ask. The door to her bedroom is closed, and her living room is a dark cave. She shrugs, so I flip on a lamp. She squints at the light. Along the wall by the bedroom is her loom—a big floor loom that weaves tapestry about five feet wide. It’s half full of weaving, something textured in a flat earth tone. It almost looks like—

“Show me your hands,” I demand, sudden anger flaring. My sister shrinks away from me. I walk to the loom, run my hand over the roughest brown fiber. It’s more abrasive than hemp, almost too rough to touch. I smell my fingertips. Sure enough. Nettle.

My shoulders slump. “Still with the nettle? For the love of—Ellie, why?”

Ellie shrinks farther away from me, glaring at the floor in front of her, hands behind her back.

“Girl, why do you torture yourself? None of this is your fault. Never was. You did what you thought was best and saved our sorry asses, much as I seem to be the only one who remembers it worth a damn. I could slap Jeremy for the number of times he takes you and me for granted.”

Ellie is keeping her distance from me, but her lip is starting to tremble. I step back and open my arm and my wing, inviting a hug. After a long moment, she steps into my embrace, fighting back tears.

“You can cry all over me, kiddo, you know that.” I wrap my wing around her back. “Get snot all over this shirt; it’s not Armani or anything. You can soak it for all I care.”

My sister is rocked by a sob. She presses her face into my shirt, which is getting a good damp patch going. I pet her head, like I am calming a distressed animal. After a while, her breath returns to a slow, steady pace, and I find myself staring at her nettle weaving.

“I still have it, you know,” I say. “The shirt. The one you made me.”

She pulls back, startled. “Y-you do?”

The words are out before either of us can process what has happened. Ellie and I stare at each other wide-eyed for a moment, then she claps her hands over her mouth, eyes wide with horror.

“Ellie?” I ask, not trusting my own senses.

She shakes her head violently, eyes brimming with tears.

“Oh, come on. You already saved us. It’s not like you continuing the vow is gonna bring me, like, more back. I’m as back as I’m gonna get! Why can’t you accept that?”

My sister wipes her eyes with the back of her hand, then says softly and clearly, “You don’t know what I’m doing.”

It’s stupid. Somehow I’m surprised at this woman’s voice issuing from my sister’s lips. What was I expecting, a little girl’s voice?

“Okay,” I say, my own voice softening, “What are you doing?”

Ellie doesn’t answer; instead she sits in front of her big loom. She runs the shuttle back and forth a couple of times: clack, clack. The piece on the loom actually looks like it has sleeves, but it’s longer than a shirt. I’m not sure what it is. But why would she be making a nettle shirt, if not to try and fix me?

No matter how stubborn she is, I need some further explanation. I perch on a stool by the little breakfast bar between the kitchen and the living room and fold my wing behind me, cross my arms. Ellie keeps weaving. Clack, clack.

“What kind of woman turns her boys into swans?” she asks, pausing the movement of the shuttle back and forth.

I sigh. “I stopped trying to figure out Mother a long time ago.”

Ellie stands and walks to me. She reaches out, hesitates, then strokes my wing. “I never told you why you have this.”

I open my mouth to reply, but she holds up an index finger and I shut up.

“I had seven years,” she says. “I made six and a half shirts.”

She pauses and I fight the urge to interrupt. I’m not used to being the silent one, but who knows? She might never speak again.

Ellie continues, “It was two years in and I was about to start the third shirt. Mother was being insufferable, and I thought how unfair it would be to make you boys come back to her, to the woman who cursed you. So I stopped. I didn’t collect nettle that spring, and I didn’t spin or weave for six months.”

She strokes one of my feathers. I wait for the count of five, but she remains quiet.

“What made you change your mind?” I ask.

“Realized it wasn’t my call. If I made you stay swans I was no better than Mother. I’ve cleared up a lot of stuff in my head since then. About staying and escaping.”

She turns and sits back at her loom. Clack. Clack.

“Well, I think I’ve done a good enough job escaping or whatever,” I say after a pause.

My sister shoots me a cryptic look, then returns to her weaving.

“It’s good to hear your voice, Ellie. You should talk more.”

Ellie stands. She pads over to the apartment door, and opens it. Then she returns to her weaving without looking at me.

The brush-off stings. “Fine, whatever. I can take a hint.” I walk to the door. “I’ll see you at the wedding.”

*

The fall passes. I have to start wearing heavy coats again, which is not the best for the wing. I either end up crushing the wing under a too-large jacket or wear my expensively tailored peacoat that has a hole for the wing in the back. I hate how much I have to spend on tailoring. But the cold’s coming whether or not I want it to. I let days slip by. I audition. I’m cast in another damn Ionesco play. Every night Frank curls up in the shelter of my wing.

“You sure you want to come to the wedding with me?” I ask him.

He nods. “Are you kidding me? I wouldn’t miss that kind of drama for the world.”

“Wanna take bets on if he asks me to be in the wedding party?”

Frank considers. “Not if, I think. When. I put twenty bucks on a month out.”

I sigh. “You’re right. That’s exactly what he’ll do. God. Sometimes I wish I just didn’t talk to my family.”

Frank turns away from me and sighs. “Not all it’s cracked up to be.”

“Sorry. That was an asshole thing to say.” Frank has devout Baptist parents and a sister somewhere in Ohio, none of whom speak to him.

I curl around him as closely as he’ll let me.

*

Frank’s right on: Three and a half weeks before the wedding, Thomas calls me in a tizzy, begs me to be in the wedding party, apologizes for being last minute. He wants Ellie there, too, of course. As always, I am Ellie’s unofficial spokesperson, and he trusts that I will tell her for him. It’s more humility than I expected from him, so I accept gracefully. I slip twenty dollars in Frank’s back pocket.

Three weeks later, after seemingly endless tux fittings and dress fittings, we are all lined up: all eight of us kids plus five wives and a fiancée. There will be seven attendants each for the bride and groom. We are gathered at the Central Park ice rink, which they have reserved for the damn wedding rehearsal—Lord knows how much that cost, never mind the actual wedding. We’ve all got our skates on and our formalwear and it’s about twenty-five degrees. Good thing the women’s outfits involve big ugly white fur coats, or else someone was going to die of hypothermia before the end of rehearsal. Tamsin, the dancer, the bride, is wearing a three-quarter length flowing red rehearsal gown—she has a white one for the wedding, but she bought into that groom-shall-not-see-bride-in-wedding-dress-early crap. The only part of her actual wedding outfit that she’s rehearsing in is her real white fox-fur stole. Wasn’t the Arctic Fox endangered?

“Ellie,” I hiss and jab my sister’s mass hunched under her fur coat. “Look! There’s an actual head on her stole. It’s macabre.”

Ellie raises her head to look. Her lips tighten ever so slightly, like she’s trying to hold back a smile. As far as I know, she hasn’t spoken since the summer, and I don’t feel like pushing the issue.

“Places, everyone!” The wedding planner clomps onto the ice in her fashionable coat and figure skates that she looks unused to wearing. She is a fat, blonde woman in her forties—she looks like Cinderella might after three kids and a sedentary castle lifestyle.

Obediently, the bride, groom, attendants, Mother, Tamsin’s father and step-mother, and priest skate out toward the center of the ice rink. There’s a crash as one of the bridesmaids—the only one other than Ellie who was obviously not a ballerina, skates over someone’s trailing scarf and slams onto the ice. The ballerina bridesmaids flock around her at once, lifting her up and cooing over her injuries. Her knee is bleeding; she holds her dress up out of the way.

“Don’t get blood on your outfit, Angie!” shouts Tamsin from across the rink.

I skate past and slip Angie a tissue from my suit pocket.

“Thanks,” she says in a low voice.

After dabbing blood and arguing for a few minutes, everyone gets sorted into their places. The seven groomsmen line up stiffly on one side of the rink—Thomas’ best friend from undergrad plus his six brothers. Across from us, the seven bridesmaids line up like an opposing hockey team—Angie, five indistinguishable ballerinas, and Ellie. Angie and Ellie stand at the end of the line, looking out-of-place and defeated.

The wedding planner skates slowly out in front of the group, holding a clipboard. She scrutinizes us and takes a few notes. “Don’t you all look gorgeous,” she says breathily. “Now, I’m just going to move a few of you around.”

She starts to skate forward, comes to a tottering halt, and points at one of the ballerinas with her pen.

“Genevieve, I’ll just have you—”

“I’m Natalie,” interrupts the ballerina. She indicates the bridesmaid next to her, who is also a tall, disturbingly thin blonde with high cheekbones. “That’s Genevieve.”

“Oh yes, of course, what I was going to ask was for you two to switch, so that Natalie is next to the Maid of Honor. Yes, there. Now the line of the composition is smoother.”

I tried to catch Ellie’s eye—we were both at the end of our respective lines—but she was tuned out, staring at the ice in front of her.

“Now…um, Michael.”

I look up. The wedding planner has me in the crosshairs of her pointing pen. “I’d like to have you and Lionel switch places.”

“He’s taller,” I point out. “I’m just thinking of the line of the composition.”

“Let’s just try it, shall we?” the wedding planner says with a tight smile.

“All right,” I say with an equally fake smile. I see what’s going on. The bride’s party is on the right. The groom’s party is on the left. Currently, my wing is the front-most item in the spectacle. I skate around Lionel, who steps sideways to the spot on the ice where I had been.

And then, right before we settle in like good little toy soldiers, I stretch, both my right arm raised to the stent it can be in the stiff tuxedo jacket and my wing, extended out to its full six feet behind the standing group of men. My wing is surprisingly quiet, like an owl’s, so Lionel doesn’t even notice. The wedding planner’s eyes bug out, though. I can see my mother pointedly ignoring me from the watching crowd; she’s scowling, eyes fixed on the wedding planner. About half the bridesmaids notice and are staring. I don’t dare to glance back at Thomas.

“Uh… let’s move on,” the wedding planner says a little too quickly. “So once we have our places after the procession, Father Nathanial will say a few words…”

*

Thomas corners me in the lounge of the hotel, where we’d ventured after the rehearsal for a warm-up drink. The whole group, well over thirty people, has taken over the lounge. The wedding planner is holed up with Tamsin’s father, probably talking money. Mother is off somewhere having a headache. Tamsin is holding court, surrounded by the fluttering ballerinas. I am sitting with Angie and Ellie at the bar, sipping a hot toddy, when Thomas grabs my arm and pulls me aside.

“I don’t want you to pull any of that shit at the actual wedding,” he hisses.

“What?” I say with big doe-eyes. “This?”

I start to raise my wing; Thomas’ jaw tightens and he reaches out, physically pushing my wing back towards my body. I relax my muscles and give him my most derisive look.

“Really?” I say. “Are you that ashamed to have me as a brother?”

“I’m not ashamed of you,” Thomas says. “I just want this wedding to be perfect. Not…weird. It’s for Tamsin.”

“So I’m weird and imperfect, then? Why invite me at all?”

“Look,” says Thomas, “it took a lot of bargaining to get you and Ellie even included in the wedding party. I want you two there, you know that. This is a big deal.”

I can feel the blood rushing to my face. “So having Frank come to the rehearsal, was that an item of bargaining, too? Which is weirder for dear Tamsin, your gay brother, or your deformed brother? Can you only pick one to showcase?”

At this point, I’ve gotten loud, and people are noticing. Tamsin is glaring daggers of ice in our direction, but I’d die of shock if she ever directly confronted us. Most people are sort of staring openmouthed, seeing what theatrics I’ll pull this time, drama queen me. I’m tempted to play into it more, but Ellie stands up from where she’s been sitting watching and walks over to us. She says nothing, just stands in between us and throws an arm around first my shoulder, then Thomas’. She squeezes us both in a one-armed hug. Her fingers stroke my wing, smoothing the feathers.

“Oh, honey,” I say. “Always the peacemaker.” I kiss the top of Ellie’s head.

“Can we just hold it together until the wedding?” asks Thomas in a small, defeated voice. “Just until the wedding’s done.”

“I’m not gonna ruin your special day, Thomas, darling,” I say in my best exasperated drag queen voice. “Don’t you worry your pretty little head.”

*

The day of the wedding creeps up on me, and before I know it I’m line up behind John, standing with my wing feathers fluffed up to keep warm. Swans don’t hang around New York in the winter for a reason.

A crowd of people is assembled on the ice rink in Central Park, lined up on skates in rows, with a few chairs for leering great aunts and the like. Mostly everyone is standing, waiting, little puffs of steam issuing from their mouths. I can barely see Frank’s face, off to one side in the crowd. I wish he were next to me.

String music begins playing, piped in live from the reception area, because even Tamsin’s iron will can’t make bows function properly below freezing. The processional begins: the priest, smiling, waits at the end of the aisle as each pair of skaters glide up the ice. Ellie and Lionel are first, then Angie the not-ballerina and me. My wing is facing her, and she swallows nervously as we being our trek up the ice.

“You think you’re gonna biff it, just grab on the wing, honey. I can take it,” I tell her out of the corner of my mouth. She smiles one of those wish you weren’t gay smiles and we part at the front of the aisle. The whole thing is playing out like ballet—silent prescribed movement. The rest of the siblings. Our mother. Tamsin’s father and step-mother. I find myself imagining how many divorces and remarriages I’ll have to endure from everyone in this line. How many time I’ll be standing tuxedoed while Frank is over somewhere in the crowd. I look over at him, and we lock eyes. He looks sad. We make fun of shit like this all the time, but I’d bet he’s thinking what I’m thinking right now: If we got married, who would come? Who would be there for us?

Finally, in skates Tamsin’s father, with Tamsin on his arm. She glides in like some kind of exotic bird, her dress perfectly billowing out behind her. She looks like something out of Swan Lake, which strikes me as a tad ironic considering. Thomas, waiting next to the priest, looks teary-eyed—more genuine emotion than I’ve seen from him in a long time.

They join hands next to the priest. Tamsin looks like she’s in character: the perfect loving bride. The priest goes into some monologue with Bible passages; I’m not sure if he’s marrying them to each other or to Jesus. Mother is bawling, in the rare display of human emotion she reserves for weddings and funerals. Frank and I smile wistfully at each other from across the rink.

My focus snaps back to the priest as he says, “If anyone knows a reason why these two should not be joined in holy matrimony, speak now or forever hold your peace.”

There is a little moment of indrawn breath, and I swear my brothers are all looking at me, just a glance, to see if I’ll do anything dramatic. But I don’t. And in the silence, a dry, wrecked, rasping sound breaks through the cold air. Everyone looks around, trying to figure out where it’s coming from. Thomas looks panicked; Tamsin looks pissed.

The sound continues, and I realize that it’s actually raspy laughter, and that it’s actually Ellie who is laughing, laughing for the first time in years.

“Do you have something to say, my child?” the priest asks, after most heads have turned in Ellie’s direction.

She clears her throat and takes a tottering step forward on her skates, my sister. Standing up straight, she seems taller than I remember her being. She turns to our brother. “I hope, Thomas, that she’s an escape, not a prison. I wanted to say that. Before I go.”

Tamsin crosses her arms and looks at Thomas. Whatever she sees in his face makes her turn back to Ellie. Ellie is regarding her family, lined up before her.

“This was the pond, you know,” she says. “Where I brought the boys back. So I thought it was appropriate.”

My gut clenches: I’d forgotten that it happened here.

“It was killing me, forever holding my peace,” Ellie says, more to herself than anyone else.

Our mother lets out a strangled cry and jerks forward, but Ellie holds up a hand with such firm authority that it’s like a slap. Mother freezes like an ice sculpture.

Ellie turns and looks at me, and for a moment I see my sister like I remember her from before, smiling back at me through the years. She waves a little goodbye and skates into the middle of the aisle.

With a girlish laugh, my sister lets her white fur coat fall to the ice behind her, exposing her pale shoulders to the winter air. She reaches to her side and unzips the dress, too, letting it pool around her ankles. Underneath, she is wearing a drab brown slip of woven nettle. I realize with a twist in my gut that it was she had been working on in the apartment that day. She bends forward gracefully, and with a single pull she takes the slip off and instead of my naked sister there is a clatter, a pair of empty skates, and a swan, beak black, eyes gold, wings as white as snow. Wings that match my own. With an enormous flap, the swan is flying, up away, higher and higher above Manhattan. I raise my wing in a salute as she flies into the southern sky.

Mother swoons in a half-faint onto Tamsin’s father, but no one’s really paying attention. We’re all watching the sky. I finally lower my wing when the speck that was the swan disappears.

Eyes start to filter back up to Tamsin and Thomas. Tamsin has finally broken character and is staring into middle distance, shocked, unsure. I can’t see Thomas’ face, but his knees buckle and he kneels heavily on the ice. No one is moving to help him, not Jeremy, not Tamsin, not even the priest.

“Really?” I cry out, and skate up to Thomas, offer him my hand. He pulls himself up; he’s shaking. I enfold him in a full wing-plus-arm hug.

“I want you to understand,” he whispers fiercely into my ear. “I remember. Why do you think I chose this place? Why do you think I’m marrying her?”

“What?” I back off and look into my brother’s eyes.

“She’s the closest I can get to flying again,” he says, just loud enough for me to hear.

*

Where does it end?

Tamsin and Thomas do end up getting married, after a serious huddle with the priest and a round of emergency hot toddies. We have the reception. Frank and I dance, and for the first time, I don’t give a shit about kissing him in front of my mother.

*

Where does it end?

I have a ring in my pocket. When I ask him, I’m going to suggest that we elope.

*

Where does it end?

I scan the skies every spring, looking for swans.

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