Swan Tree

by Michelle Wright

Before my parents sent me to the hospital in Houston, I saw two swans sail out of the cattails of our little farm pond and march onto the bank, necks and wings outstretched, guiding a youngling covered completely in grey down. The adults were so brilliantly white, they glowed in summer’s unforgiving sun, and I hid in the branches of the apricot tree to witness them hiss mallards airborne and claim the place with outstretched necks and wings. They even chased a barn cat who crept up on the little cygnet, clacking their black beaks on its tail.

My long legs dangling, grey hairs matted in a messy braid as I plucked fresh apricots and laughed for the first time in months since I had returned home. The baby swan took shade beneath the adults’ wings, rode their backs in the water, and swam in perfect figure eights. I thought there was nothing lovelier than that young bird growing into her mask, and each day, I ignored meals for the apricots, walked loose and easy through the yard to my tree, where the sun and finally my mother found me, straddling a high branch.

When she asked what I was doing, I explained about the swans and she said swans couldn’t survive in so hot a place, that there had never been any swans on this farm or anyone near it. I smiled and gestured with a hand stained with juice that indeed they could, but she didn’t follow my gaze, one hand on a large hip, the other on her forehead. She squinted up at me, the skin puckered at her eyes, and she said that I should come down, and I said that I would when the swans went back into the cattails for the evening because it was the one thing I enjoyed. She said that if my father saw me—a woman my age in a tree—he would have a heart attack. I dropped the apricots and climbed down.

I knew a decision had been reached, and I knew that nothing I could say would change it one way or the other, but I tried to get my mother to look at the swans. I stepped in front of her, walking backwards, told her about the baby. She stepped around me. There was sweat on her upper lip, and I tried again. I asked her to see how beautiful they were, how they shimmered. There were only three and they chose this place, this one, but her arms were pumping hard at her side. I took her wrist gently, pulled her to me.

“Just come see how they tend their wings.”

My mother started, jerked backwards. Her wide eyes looked me up and down as if I were dangerous. I dropped my hands, looked at my feet. She almost ran to the house, breathing hard, and I heard the back door clap shut. I followed the trail she left in the sweet grass, my neck arched, my feet moved in little marching steps, and when I stopped to look back, my mother knocked a fist hard against the glass of a window where she stood watching. She called my name as if there were some emergency, but her voice was muffled, and I thought if I stood there long enough, pretending not to hear, she would leave me alone, change her mind, and I could begin the next morning, nestled in apricot branches watching those shining creatures trace the water.