Fiction

Black swan event

THE FIRST THING Dawn heard every morning was her brother stretching his wing. The soft whooping travelled down the hall and woke her from whatever doze or dream she lay in. Through the first bird-calls, or the wind hissing or the rain rattling or the traffic whining and rumbling on the distant highway, came the whoop and settle, whoop and settle, as Neddy worked the itch out, worked the cramp out, oiled the joints of the thing, before binding it to himself for another day of pretending it wasn't there.

He made no other sound as he stretched it, no groan or yawn. And he kept that room as neat as a pin, with nothing loose to fall or fly about. Whoop and settle. Whoop-whoop-whoop-whoop and settle. She would watch the wall, or the lightening ceiling, or her own clutter, the knick-knacks from her children that would be swept off and smashed by such wing-beats here, the yarn-scraps that would whirl into flight all colours. She watched their stillness, and listened to the air being struck and stretched down the hall, and felt nothing in particular, not anymore.

SHE HAD THOUGHT she must be sickening for something. She had not quite a headache, not quite an earache, not quite sinus pain. And maybe that last period eight months ago hadn't been the last after all. Was that what this feeling meant?

She got up early, troubled after a troubled night's sleep. The kitchen was cold but tidy; last night's casserole dish stood soaking on the stovetop. She got the jug boiling for tea, emptied the dish, turned on the hot water and put a fingertip into the first cold streaming.

She felt it then, very strong and unpleasant, in her womb and her bowel, in her thighs, something being torn up by the roots. Her hand snatched itself out of the water, and the dish thunked to the sink-bottom. The feeling stopped, just like that.

She stood breathing hard. The water twined down, warming. Slowly she brought her fingertip to just beside it. Yes, there was the ghost of what she'd felt, a dragging in her throat, a horrid anxiety in her guts. Her knees locked, ready should she put her finger in further.

She washed the dish, careful not to touch the running water. She towelled it dry, and bent and put it away.

Ned's footsteps sounded in the hall, his work boots, though he'd had no work in how long? She straightened and backed up to the cupboard as he came in. She must not greet him, must not speak. She knew this for a hard rule, and with that knowledge things began to come clear.

He saw the way she stood. 'What's up?'

She put her fingertips to her mouth and shook her head. The water scrambled in the jug, coming to the boil.

'Are you all right, Dawnie?' he said. 'Do I need to get you to the doctor's?'

The jug clicked off and she rushed to it, poured their tea. She brought the mugs to the table, snatched the calendar from the wall and a pen from the bench-top, and returned to sit, kicking out a chair for him. By mark and hand-sign she managed to tell him that she would not be going to little Josie's christening tomorrow, or the girlfriends' book club Thursday evening, that Phillip and Martha could not come to stay next weekend as planned and the whole family gather for dinner on Saturday night – and that Neddy must break this news to everyone.

'What'll I say, though?' he said after all this busy silence.

She shrugged and looked at him, made a motion of zipping her lips. The boys will understand, she wrote on the back of the calendar.

'It's not so much the boys I'm worried about,' he said. 'Does Martha even know about that stuff? You'll be really in the poo with her.'

Phil might have to tell her, wrote Dawn. She sat back, looked at Ned levelly, sat forward again to write. You know how important this is. Her gaze fell from his eyes to the misshapen shoulder of his shirt.

'Don't muck me around, Dawnie,' he said, very low, very hard. 'We're both too old for that.'

She put her hand on his, wishing he could feel her certainty. But he only looked terribly vulnerable, so sad and so old, her baby brother.

Well, he'd see, wouldn't he. She patted his hand, drank down her tea and got up from the table.

 

THERE'D BEEN THAT one speaking glance. He'd cried out, as close to a human 'No!' as a beak and swan-throat could shape; he had fallen back from her, and flung out his wings.

But Dawn had been exultant. Look at what she'd already done, her five brothers standing there! And Neddy was youngest and smallest, after all – perhaps the unfinished shirt would be enough. So she'd thrown it over him.

She had un-thrown it in her mind again and again over the years. It doesn't matter, the dream-crowd said, between cheers. With those other five handsome and whole, what do you need to prove? Finish it properly, girl; cast it then. The boy won't mind waiting, now that he sees you free. The boy can be a bird a while longer.

 

SHE KNEW EXACTLY how much nettle to cut, for a sleeve. Ah, the smell of it! It was the smell of her youth, the smell of steadfast hope and solitude, out in the open, her urgency all the sharper for everything else idling, oblivious, around her – magpies gliding across the clear morning sky, rosellas flocking squeaking to a tree, Mason's cows tearing up grass beyond the fence there, a breeze flurrying the nettle-tops.

When she got back to the house, she found the old canvas wading-pool assembled, the hose lying in a couple of centimetres of water already, and Ned burrowing into the shed, bringing out boxes to make space to hunt deeper.

She sat by the pool, stripping the leaves off the nettle-stalks. One by one, the brothers who lived nearest came by to confer with Ned, to speak to Dawn just to see for themselves that she wouldn't answer. Neville even hugged her, as if she were sick somehow. She acknowledged them but did not pause in her work, and Ned saw them off as quickly as he could, to dig some more in the shed. Her own children visited, bringing her grandchildren, and it was very hard not to speak to the little ones. Dawn smiled and kissed and hugged them, but signed that they must leave, that she was busy.

 

SEVEN CHILDREN CAN create a world of their own, and a populous one. You can lose one brother to a job at the mines, another to the city or the next big town, and there are still plenty left. And each must get himself a wife, mustn't he? And breed up a storm of kids. Dawn had had her own four, two boys, two girls, so neat. What a whirl it had been, the babies, the schools, the sports, the get-togethers! This house had been the centre, of course; she, Dawn, had been the centre. If it hadn't been for her, they would all have been in the reeds raising cygnets, Gus liked to joke at a certain point in the evening. Not if Ned was around, of course. He wasn't totally heartless.

Neddy had had a wife, too, stringy little Adriane who must have thought she could do no better. He'd had a son, too, for a few weeks, born early but it had looked hopeful for a while there. Well, Dawn hadn't hoped; she'd known there was no point crossing her fingers for that one.

When the boy died, Neddy took it all on himself; he'd always been quiet, but his silence went denser, more complete. And all the wind went out of Adriane, too, as you'd expect. She looked around at them all, their houses and vehicles, recipes and hairdos, their kids running around reaching developmental milestones and bringing home trophies and yapping and crying. And the contrast must have been too much for her, just her and her flattened husband with the wing everyone pretended not to see, pretended didn't matter. All their unspoken pity finally got to her. She left, and Ned didn't go after her. She sent papers, and he signed and returned them. He sold their house and moved back in with Dawn, as her brothers always did when they visited, or were down on their luck.

 

DAWN SPREAD THE nettle stalks in the water in the early afternoon. Ned came out of the shed as she was pressing them down, the heddle from the loom in his hand. 'Set her up in the lounge-room, I'm thinking.'

She shook her head; he might need the lounge for hard-to-fend-off visitors. She led him instead to the lean-to at the back of the house, indicated with a wave that the two grandkids' beds could be stacked one on the other.

'You serious? You'll freeze out here!'

She took the heddle from him and propped it against the wall.

 

SHE MUST NOT have worked fast enough, all those six silent years. She had thought she could go no faster – she'd hardly had time to eat! Thin as a rail, she'd been; she didn't know how Jeff King had been able to see anything in that poor scrawny girl… But he had. Her mouth softened in a smile. Everyone smiled, memories of Jeff, but she most of all, of course. She'd had the best of him.

Right after the bird-business and everything coming right, her first period had started. She'd been sitting in a room full of girlfriends, butterfly cakes and laughter, talking nineteen to the dozen as she ran up her wedding dress, of creamy satin woven by some wonderful machine.

Your first? Cora had cried. You lucky thing! I've been getting them for years, a week out of every month flat out on the couch with a hottie.

Well, this has come just in time for Dawn and her hottie. Sylvie had grinned, pouring Saxa Salt thickly on the stain on the sewing-stool cushion.

Whip that skirt off, Dawn, said Jill. Soak it in cold water. You got a belt and pads?

Dawn had stared at her, mortally embarrassed by the whole business.

Of course she doesn't. Cora had snatched up her handbag. I'll run down the chemist, shall I?

Cora had gone through the change early, too, middle of her forties. The rest of them had pitied her then, but now they were all envious that she was done with it, the uncertainty, the insomnia, the dressing in layers – and the fear of old-hagdom, spilling at them like fog over the rim of the ranges. They joked loudly about it all the time, but that didn't make it go away.

 

IN THE NIGHT she went out, drained the pool and hosed down the stalks, filled the pool afresh. Even through the hose-plastic, even with gloves on, she felt the grab of the water. It took nothing from her, but oh, it wanted to. She paced around the filling pool, trailing clouds of white breath, and the blotched moon watched her, and she didn't speak a word to it, either.

 

EVERYTHING HAD BEEN fast, crowded and noisy after the boys came back. As soon as I have a minute, she'd said to Neddy, I'll sew up that last sleeve.

No worries, sis, he'd said. You've got a lot on your plate, haven't you? He'd had a rare, slow smile that lit up the room. How long was it since she'd seen that smile? And most of me's right, hey? I can manage one-armed for a bit.

As soon as she and Jeff got back from Bateman's Bay she'd gone out to the gully and cut nettles, brought them home, stripped and retted and pounded them and spun. Queasy, she was, with the beginnings of her eldest, Charmaine. She had ploughed on, knowing in her heart that something important had gone from her, that her life was no longer quiet enough, or sad enough, to bring what was necessary to the weaving.

How embarrassed they'd been, she and Neddy, trying to fit the finished sleeve over the wing, cramming the feathers in, and neither feathers nor cloth firming up into flesh.

I don't understand, she'd said. I never spoke a word to spoil it. I made it just the same as all the others.

Neddy had put his hand on her shoulder. Maybe they had to be made all of a piece, those shirts. It makes sense, sort of. So anxious to ease her dismay, he'd been – and too young, then, to know how much he should mind for his own sake.

And he'd hidden the wing away in shirts with the sleeve turned inside out. He wouldn't let her sew up the armholes – he held out that much hope, at least. So just the shape of him reminded her, the shoulder too wide and too shallow, the back too rounded on one side, but no worse than that scoliosis that all Dennis's kids were born with. The wing edge curved down his side and into the back of his pants. All that his nieces and nephews knew was that Uncle Ned didn't go swimming. He'd lost his arm in a threshing machine, was the story the grown-ups spun them. Don't ask him about it. And don't stare.

 

ALL THROUGH THE days of retting she maintained her silence, kept to it as if the old rule still applied, that Ned would die if she spoke. Cleaning and spinning the fibres, she never so much as hummed a tune to herself. The telephone rang, and if Ned was out she didn't answer it; the doorknocker sounded, and she sat motionless until the person went away, or if they were one of her blustering family and came around the back, wanting her to chat, wanting her usual noise, she sent them packing with a note.

Ned sometimes stood at the lean-to door, watching the sleeve creep into being. Everything he wasn't saying pressed against the back of her neck, but she didn't shoo him away. He had a right, didn't he, to watch and worry and hope there? Besides, she was more than occupied with her work, with the thread that was being spun from her and laid down in the fabric with the back and forth of the shuttle. She didn't remember this feeling from before, of being expended this way, from some deep store.

She measured the sleeve length, then went out to find Ned. He was on the front veranda reading the Saturday paper, pretending to be interested in the doings of the world. She knelt beside him and pressed the metal end into his armpit where his shirt seams crossed. Her thumbnail on the tape lay halfway down his shirt cuff. 'Nearly there, eh?' he said softly.

She went back to the lean-to, wove, measured again and began the shaping; it all came back to her across the decades. She was that girl again, determined, lonely, with the whole town against her, in the dark before the day when everything would crash and burn for her. This flow through her fingers was all she had, its sureness, its grace, its knowledge of the shape and size of each brother's body.

She passed the shuttle through for the last time and snipped the thread. She took the piece from the loom and sewed in the hem of the cuff, left the threads loose at the armhole end, took fresh thread and sewed the inside seam from cuff to armpit. And then it was completed, as grey as clouds, as soft as smoke.

As she sat with it across her lap, a car came along the road, and she raised her head to listen. Yes, it was slowing, and turning in on the gravel at her gate. She stood up and took the sleeve through the house, impatient for an end to this, ready to speak now, to come back to life; she hoped the visitor wasn't some stranger who would require hiding from.

She pushed the screen door open; the low autumn sun gleamed on the veranda boards. Ned was out of his chair. 'It's Phillip,' he said, but she had seen that. 'They've come anyway, when I asked them not to. Shall I tell him to – '

He saw the sleeve and stopped. She gestured that he should take off his shirt. 'Here? Now?' She nodded. Warily he pulled the shirt-tails free of his trousers.

Phillip killed the engine as Ned undid the first button. Car doors opened. 'Aunty Dawn, Aunty Dawn! Uncle Neddy!' cried the kids strapped into the back seat. Said Phillip, 'No, you stay right there, Nathan.'

Dawn hadn't seen the wing in years, but it was exactly as she remembered it. That corner of Ned flowed seamlessly from man to bird. The first feathers were hardly more than glitters in his skin; the muscle and bone adjusted millimetre by millimetre as human chest gave way to feathered wing. Young Nathan, running from the car, stopped on the frost-burnt lawn to stare. Dawn stared herself, and Phillip and Martha stared, at the reality of Ned that he alone had lived with all these years, binding his secret to his side to protect them all from the sight, from the impossible sight.

He cast a glance of dismay and shame across his nephew, his brother, his sister-in-law, the other children open-mouthed in the car. Tears stood in his eyes as he turned from them, jabbing the wingtip at Dawn; feather whispered on feather, and the trailing edge rustled.

'Come on, Dawnie,' he said. 'Make this right for me.'

She threw the sleeve over the wing as she'd thrown all those shirts years before, wildly, almost carelessly, the crowd silenced around her. It filled with air as it flew in the sunlight; it landed and sank away into the shining dark feathers. She had known it would. The loose threads of the armhole knitted inside him, rippling the feather-sketched flesh of his shoulder. When they were done, this arm would plump out to match the other one.

She looked to Ned's face, to reassure him or to be reassured herself. One of his tears fell, but the emotion behind it had passed; he was busy now with all the changes being worked on him.

They amazed him, those changes. He lifted his slow smile to Dawn. His eyes were bright blood-stained gold, with pinprick pupils.

'Oh, Neddy! But I didn't mean – '

'It's all right, it's all right, honestly – ' And then words were beyond him to form, as his mouth reddened, flattened, lengthened out of his face. Black feathers sprang flat across his cheeks, fanned out on his forehead, and in the next moment he was wholly swan, a cob the size of a man, wings out, grey webbed feet paddling above the sunny veranda-boards, the shoulder-mass of him sunk and spread into the shining belly, the long black neck kinked to keep his elegant head clear of the veranda-rafters. Martha exclaimed, but Dawn had no voice to spare; hands to her cheeks, she only gasped in the air that the vast wings huffed her way.

The change complete, Ned shrank to swan size. He fitted his wings in against his feathery body, and the cosiness of that, the tidy self-satisfaction, turned Dawn's next gasp into a hoot of laughter. From the car came the tiny voice of her niece: 'Wow, Uncle Neddy turned into a bird, Daniel! Did you see?'

The swan lumbered to the edge of the veranda. It spread its wings, tipped out over the flowerbed, and after brushing the lawn grass with its breast-feathers, rose over a quailing Nathan, and Phillip who flung up his arms, and began a great circle out along the drive, over the fields and cows, the sheds, the dam, the stands of gum-trees with their loose heads of leaves.

Dawn went down the steps to the grass. Nathan ran up and clung to her, and she held him at her side while the long-necked bird passed trumpeting over the house and the lawn again, and began another circle.

'Can you change him back?' said the boy.

'I don't know, Nathan.' The three little ones were out of the car now, and all seven faces swung as one to follow the swan's flight. 'Do you think he wantsto be changed back?'

'Yeah,' said Phillip, 'would you want to be a person again, if you could do that?'

Martha turned, baby Daniel in her arms. Phillip's head was tilted back to watch the swan fly over. But Dawn saw the look his wife gave him, and the shock in Martha's face, the betrayal, pierced her to the very heart.

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