Leda and the Swanlings

“Tell us about our father,” the chicklets said, bouncing up and down in their car seats.

“What about?” I asked, although I knew the story they were looking for. I was hoping they’d want to listen instead to their Swansongs for Kids & More CD. We were driving to Maine to stay with my aunt, and we still had seven hours of highway left.

“Tell us,” they chirped. “From the start.”

I had met the chicklets’s father in Central Park, springtime. It was my last-ditch try at dating, I promised myself, though I was only twenty-two then. He was a swanling when I found him, a little cygnet. I knew I’d have to catch him early. I plucked him right out of the nest, a new fuzzy brown hatchling. I wasn’t even sure he was male; it’s hard to sex young birds. But I wanted him imprinted. I wanted to be everything to him. I took that gamble.

We took the subway back to my studio apartment in Brooklyn. He hissed the whole way, pecking his tiny beak against my collarbone. At home, I made him a nest out of sweatshirts. I weaved the cotton arms together, put a hot water bottle underneath. I named him Zeus and he loved me by morning. It was simple that way.

Our first few years, Zeus was more of a pet really, a party trick. He was the cutest thing, no ugly duckling, not my guy. I fed him seaweed salad and shaved carrots, the occasional anchovy. I taught him to play the piano, just one song. I still had guests over then, friends from college. They cooed over him, they all wanted one.

“My first love,” I told my friends, while the swanling nibbled on my ear. No one mentioned my affair with our World History professor at Middlebury. No one mentioned my three-week stint at the hospital upstate that followed our breakup.

When Zeus reached maturity, it was harder to entertain. He was jealous, and with an 8-foot wingspan, he was dangerous too. He maimed the mailman, and my former roommate still walks with a cane.

Zeus hurt me badly the first time we slept together, ripped a chunk of flesh right out of my shoulder with his beak. In the morning, I had wing-shaped bruises on my ribs. But our communication skills got better with time. I learned how to hiss when I didn’t like something, to honk when I was pleased.

We were so happy for years, I tell our children. We fought too, but we were mostly happy. We went to the Farmer’s Market on Sundays, bought rubber-banded bunches of spinach and kale. We went swimming when it was warm, and I kept the bathtub full all year round. He slept with his neck wrapped around mine, squeezing me like a boa constrictor. He gurgled in his sleep, wings twitching against my chest.

We decided to have babies near the end of his life, after his feathers had yellowed. I wasn’t sure it would work. I’d never been pregnant. I’d never even held a human baby. But I was scared of being alone, so I stopped rubbing spermicide on his undercarriage. I passed four speckled eggs into the toilet one morning.

“Four,” I croaked. I was overwhelmed.

“They won’t all hatch,” Zeus typed. He had learned to use my old typewriter. “Don’t worry, my pretty Leda.”

Right after Christmas, Zeus caught pneumonia. The vet gave him several rounds of antibiotics, but he wasn’t getting better. We knew it was over. I don’t know if it was because his lungs were full of fluid, but he didn’t sing when he died. I held the tape recorder to his beak toward the end, but there was no swansong, no final gift. I thought about smashing the eggs after Zeus stopped breathing, considered dropping them off the roof of our apartment building. I even brought them up there, held them over the ledge.

I sold Zeus’s body to the French restaurant on 54th, where they served him as duck. It was still illegal to eat swan most places. I felt bad about it, but we needed the money. The restaurant made the New York Times that week, with five-star reviews. I cut out the article and put it in our scrapbook, next to one of Zeus’s feathers and a toenail clipping.

All winter, I kept the grapefruit-sized eggs swaddled in sweatshirts, took turns warming them against my stomach. Zeus was right; one egg was not fertilized. I could tell it had no heartbeat by the second trimester. I ate it scrambled with ketchup and Tabasco.

Then hatching time came, and two babies arrived in one egg.

“Two for one,” I grumbled, as the twins struggled to open their eyes. “Buy one, get one free.”

All four chicklets hatched almost-human, with few feathers. But they each had a hard beak, and breastfeeding was a nightmare. They were nothing cute. I hoped they’d swan as they aged.

“Again, again, again,” the babies squawked from the back of the car. Unlike their father, they could speak just fine. They had human tongues inside their beaks, and were all extremely early in their language development. They’d already outgrown the Baby Einstein videos.

We still hadn’t crossed the Maine border. My aunt Susan had promised to help me raise the chicklets if I came to Jonesport, and I was at my wit’s end. Six times a day, I had to chew and regurgitate their food, tins of herring and sheets of dried Nori. The babies wouldn’t sleep unless they spent three hours in the town pool, but they got eye infections from the chlorine, their feathers were tinged green. They had mites.

“No more car,” one of the babies complained.

“Itchy,” whined another.

Susan was an ornithologist, an Audubon Society member. I’d avoided her for years, hadn’t seen her since before Zeus, though she had tried to reach out. She said she was supportive, she said she understood more than anyone. But I’d read that J.J. Audubon had stuffed birds, kept taxidermy specimens for his drawings. I knew that the chicklets would be priceless tanned and preserved. The Smithsonian would go nuts.

“You don’t want to pickle them?” I asked Susan on the phone, nervous. “You don’t want to see them in jars?”

“I will feed them cake crumbs and I will kiss their baby beaks,” she assured me. “Leda, my dear, please come.”

We drove up a long dirt road to Susan’s farmhouse after dark, the chicklets finally asleep in the back. Susan helped me carry them in, and they nuzzled into her ample flesh. My own breasts had deflated from breastfeeding, and I had lost weight from the stress. She had three cribs set up in the living room, and rabbit stew for me on the stove.

I marveled at what happened next, watched as Susan groomed the sleeping chicklets with an antique mustache comb. When she came across a mite, she plucked it from the comb’s teeth, put it on her tongue and swallowed.

“Won’t you get worms?” I asked. My friend’s cat had gotten tapeworms once from eating her fleas.

“Nonsense,” she shook her head. “Protein.”

“You’re a natural,” I sighed. I was glad that Zeus hadn’t lived to see how I failed at motherhood.

“The seaside will do you good,” Susan turned to me, tucking my hair behind my ear.

The next morning, Susan used a food processor to make the chickfood. She dispensed the ground fish and oatmeal mixture into their beaks using a turkey baster. The chicklets ignored my own chewing mouth, in love with Susan’s plastic tube. I felt both relieved and unwanted, somehow envious of the baster. Regurgitation was exhausting, but it was my doting maternal sacrifice.

“To the beach,” Susan declared after breakfast.

“No dogs,” I said. Susan said there wouldn’t be people there, and definitely no dogs. It was a protected habitat for nesting gulls. No humans for miles.

The chicklets squealed in delight at the sight of the ocean. They were in the water before they had changed into their swimsuits.

“Mommy,” the youngest cygnet shouted. “We are pirates!”

I was surprised at how quickly they took to the vast ocean, the frothy waves. Zeus hated the seashore.

“Swans sometimes live in salt water,” Susan explained, shrugging off my concern. “It’s not unheard of.”

The babies swam and splashed. It was amazing to see how they kept their upper bodies afloat, paddling with their webbed toes under the surface. One of them, one of the twins, caught a fish. He held it flapping between his beak, shrieking in both glee and frustration when the fish wiggled free. My creatures, I thought, my sweet evil babies.

“Leda, you’ll burn,” Susan clucked, handing me a tube of SPF 45.

For months, things were good. Susan cooked, and I put on weight. She helped me name the babies; I’d been too overwhelmed to do it before, and I thought one or two might still die. Susan insisted that I was being irrational, and she named Helen, the eldest. I named Pollux and Castor, the twins hatched from the same egg, and the youngest girl, Clymie.

In November, Helen molted. She was soon completely featherless, the poor swanling. Her human hair grew in ringlets, a Shirley Temple child. Her beak looked more mouthlike everyday. Susan began to make her swim wearing a lifejacket, just in case.

The other babies shed their brown baby fluff too, but grew fine white feathers in its place. All three sprouted bigger wings, boasted broader chests. Clymie was all swan-necked elegance. The boys, Pollux and Castor, were almost too big to carry, and were looking more and more like their father every day.

“If swans are the only bird that has a penis,” I wondered to Susan one night, after a few glasses of red wine. The chicklets were asleep. “How does that work? For the other birds, I mean.”

Susan laughed. She explained bird mating to me, calling it a kiss of vents.

“Does it feel good,” I asked, remembering Zeus’s thin tongue between my thighs.

“I imagine it doesn’t feel like much,” Susan said. “It only takes a minute.”

“We need to get laid,” I told Susan, licking my wine-stained teeth.

“That must mean you’re feeling better,” Susan nodded. “That good salt air.”

On the first days of spring, the chicklets announced that they wanted to fly.

“We’ve never tried it,” they chorused. “Looks like fun.”

Ever since the chicklets’s adult feathers had grown in, I’d been clipping their wings, giving them weekly trims at the kitchen table. I called it Barbershop Time, tried to make it a game.

“What about Helen?” I asked. “It wouldn’t be fair.”

The younger siblings all loved Helen the most, squabbled over who got to sit next to her at mealtime. She was sweet like a Georgia peach, we said, we wanted to eat her whole, pit and all. So the chicklets stopped asking to fly for a while, because they didn’t want to hurt their kind, featherless sister.

But one morning when I brought out the shears, Clymie hid under her bed, hissing. When I peered under the mattress, she drew back her long white neck and spat at me. I went to clip Pollux and Castor, but they had escaped into the yard and climbed a pine tree.

“You’ll get sap in your feathers,” I pleaded. “You come down.”

“They’ll resent you,” Susan warned.

“Everyone resents their mother,” I sighed, thinking of my own mother at home in Connecticut. I hadn’t seen her in years; she’d never even sent a baby gift. I put the scissors in the junk drawer, and left them there for weeks.

When my birthday arrived at the end of April, we went to the Super Wal-Mart to celebrate. Since we had lived in the northernmost part of Maine, certain odd things had become special. Fresh picked blueberries were no longer special, nor were banana nutmeg pancakes on Sunday or a deer in the backyard. The Super Wal-Mart was special.

We always planned to get there at opening, at six a.m. The store was empty then, with only one employee, usually a half-asleep teenager. I didn’t want the chicklets to be stared at, they weren’t used to it. We hardly ever saw other people anymore. Plus, I shoplifted almost everything we got from the Super Wal-Mart so it was good to be there when they were understaffed. Susan had worked there part-time years ago, and she knew the branch had never installed security cameras; they were always over the budget. Every trip, I wore a huge cargo parka with rows of pockets, and then bought a few items at checkout to ease my guilt. I stole our pumpkin last Halloween.

We left the house before dawn that morning. Susan drove her truck, the chicklets warbled in the back. I made Helen ride up front; she was the only child that looked human at all anymore.

No shirts, No shoes, No service, Wal-Mart’s sliding doors read. The chicklets were all wearing flip-flops, but I left them with Susan on the playground in the front just to be safe. The Super Wal-Mart even had a working water sprinkler. The chicklets were in heaven, dashing over and over through the spray.

My list was full of special items, processed food. Susan had us going on beets and carrots, almond milk and goat cheese, fresh baked corn bread and black bean chili. My yellow notepad read: Hot Dogs (Oscar Meier), Double Stuff Oreos, Four-Ply Toilet Paper, Mac & Cheese (Orange), Case of Diet Coke, Covergirl Mascara—Black, Packs of Lunchables (four), Ghirardelli Brownie mix. It was my birthday, I figured, we could live richly.

I was smearing trial lipsticks on the back of my hand when a gun went off inside the store. I fell flat to the floor, my cheek smacking the tile. There was only one shot, and it was quiet after. Britney Spears continued to sing over the Super Wal-Mart loudspeakers. I knew there was a hunting section in the far corner of the store, one with real guns and camouflage jackets, a camping tent already set up. The shot may have been accidental.

I crawled toward the front of the store, shaking too much to stand up. In front of the checkout counter, Pollux was lying facedown in a white birthday cake. His feathers were scattered all over, a pool of his blood creeping towards the magazine display.

I scrambled over to him, pulled him to my chest. The gunman stood ten feet away, holding a gun that still had a price tag on it. He was middle aged, brown bearded, wearing a blue Wal-Mart apron with a huge yellow smiling face on it.

“No geese in the store,” he said.

“This is my child,” I growled, gathering feathers off the floor and putting them back onto Pollux’s body.

“Mommy,” Pollux whimpered. The Super Wal-Mart employee was no marksman; the bullet was in Pollux’s shoulder. I wiped the frosting off his beak, and pulled my phone from my pocket, pressing the speed-dial for the vet.

I was put on hold with the office at the Animal Hospital, was greeted with elevator music and an automated message. I looked up to see Susan and the other chicklets standing in the frame of the automatic door. The door kept trying to close on them, then lurching open again. The Super Wal-Mart employee had his back to them, tapping his foot at me impatience. He held the rifle in one hand, a wet mop in the other.

I was about to call out to Susan, when Castor spread his nearly full-grown wings and lifted himself clean off the ground. He dove down towards the gunman, knocking the rifle to the floor. Clymie flew in next, honking, pumping her neck, spreading her webbed feet like talons. Helen spread her chubby human arms and charged at the man’s knees, mouth open, baby teeth gleaming. Susan grabbed a baseball bat from the Athletics display.

They didn’t kill him. I checked when we left. His pulse still throbbed by his earlobe, and from his wrists. Susan reassured me later that there was no one else in the store, and still no telling black bubbles of cameras on the ceiling.

I pictured the gun-wielding employee recounting the story, after he emerged from the coma.

“Bird-people,” he’d say. “Arrest the geese and their mothers.”

The cops would nod gravely, and gently touch his wife on the shoulder. Back at the station, they’d throw his file in the trash.

On the way home from the Animal Hospital, Pollux stitched and bandaged on my lap, I read out loud from the copy of the Sibley Guide to Birds that Susan kept in her glove box.

“A cob,” I read, “is a male swan. Can be very aggressive, defensive of nest.”

“We’re all cobs,” Susan crowed. “Look at us.”