This story is by Robin Michaels and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I was back at the lake of swans. It looked the same as it did the day Owen met his death. It was early autumn then too. The same stand of oaks released their drifts of leaves to float over the water. The golden and amber hues of those crinkled offerings seemed to protest with the warmth of their colours against the coolness seeping into the mornings. Leaves gradually eddied to the center, mingling with the black swans. They moved serenely out there on the lake. Their bright beaks a sinister red. I shuddered as I watched.
Maybe he wasn’t coming. I huffed a warm breath into my inked hands, rubbing them together as I scanned the mist shrouded area. Not a soul around. Just the lead-coloured sky, reflected in the still lake.
I swung around and saw him standing there, no longer the weedy teenage brother of the boy I had loved. Time had made an adult of him, too.
“Whoa, is that really you Julie? You look so different.”
“I don’t think I’ve aged too badly.” I said with a half smile.
“You know what I mean, the whole …” he waved his arms vaguely at me, “thing you have going on. Tattoos, piercings, shaved head. Quite a change from the sweet girl I remember with the waist length, blonde hair.”
“Yeah well, shit happens.”
He snorted, “It certainly does.” He looked at me, his direct gaze engulfing me. “Thanks for coming. I wasn’t sure you would show up. I know my call yesterday jolted you.” He looked away. “It’s just, well, since my parents died, you’re the only one left who was a part of it all.” A sweeping sigh escaped him. “I imagine you’ve tried very hard to forget that day. Hey, I did too, but a whole decade has gone by, and a part of me is still stuck here.”
Holding his gaze, I nodded slowly and told him, “it took months before I could sleep without seeing him struggling every time I closed my eyes. That look on his face when he realised that it was no joke, that a bloody territorial swan was going to drown him. On bad days it still replays in my mind.”
He hummed in commiseration. Then gestured toward the lake. “Well, here we are, back at this lake of swans. We may as well take a turn around the old lake track.”
I narrowed my eyes on the path, then took a deep breath. “Okay.” We moved in silence along the dirt path.
Looking at my tense face Zane released a sigh and half whispered, “maybe this was a bad idea. I’m sorry to have dragged you back into this. Truly. I know the whole experience …set you on a different path.”
“If changing everything about me that I could, and throwing myself into anything that offered a brief oblivion is a different path, then yes, yes it did. Everyone assumed it was simply the loss of my love, my fiance, that sent me in that direction. I didn’t know how to explain the rest without sounding selfish.”
I looked down. “I just … lost faith in life. Owen was drowned by a swan. Where is the meaning in that? How was that part of any path that was meant to be? It seemed like a bad cosmic joke at best, and on the worst days, a ‘fuck you, Julie’ from the universe.”
Zane nodded thoughtfully and put a hand on my shoulder. He turned back to the lake and gestured to its coal black inhabitants. “Did you know they tagged that swan? They tagged it with a big, red, neck marker, like its scarlet bloody letter.”
I stopped short and shook my head in disbelief. “You mean to tell me that it wasn’t put down?”
“That’s right. They tagged it and said they’d monitor it. It wasn’t its fault, they said. Just a territorial animal.”
“Wait, what!?” I exclaimed, startling some sparrows into the sky. “You’re saying the exact swan that murdered Owen is still here?”
“I haven’t been to see it myself but friends have occasionally reported seeing it.”
I put my head in my hands, “That’s so messed up, I don’t even know what to say.”
Zane huffed in agreement. “You never know, we may even see it today. The Bird of Death,” he intoned, half seriously, and started walking again. We trod our separate ways, alongside each other, both lost in thought once more.
As we headed into the last corner of the walk we spotted a group of swans ahead of us, grazing in the grass around the path. They were massive out of the water. Their bodies were even bulkier than I remembered, and taller. Their heads came up to my stomach. With scornful satisfaction I noted how they lost their much esteemed grace on the land. Here they were forced into an unbecoming waddle, no different to geese or ducks.
As we approached, the swans raised their heads in vigilance. We slowed up, stopping a few metres away. Instead of tottering off, the swans only fluffed their feathers, craning their necks toward us. One moved to the front of the others.
Our heads whipped toward each other simultaneously “No way!” I exclaimed. Zane nodded “Oh yes, that’s him alright” He laughed. “There’s only ever been the one with that bright red neck band. There’s your universal plan Julie – it exists. We were meant to come face to face with this swan today.” He held his hand out toward the creature.
The swan only arched it’s neck and tilted it’s red beak upward in a distinctly unfriendly manner.
“Zane.” I said “I don’t like the way it’s looking at us right now.”
“It’s just a bird Julie.”
“Yes, an evil bloody bastard of a bird that murdered your brother, remember? Let’s just go back the long way.”
Zane’s gaze was locked with the swan’s, his fisted hands resting on his hips.
“Oh no, there’s no going back. We’re finishing this.”
He took a few steps forward. The swan spread its wings. When Zane didn’t move, it hissed. Its neck was a sweeping arc, over ripe with tension, like the curve of a bow drawn ready to release an arrow. Undulating in a serpentine manner.
Zane stepped forward in a rush, calling the alpha bird’s bluff. The smaller, flanking birds scattered in a flurry of wings and honking. Owen’s swan only came on aggressively, striking out with its blood red beak at Zane, who gave a hair-raising war cry. The battle began.
A cold wind blew through my mind, with the chaos of the whirling feathers, the shouting, the hissing. As I watched, the similarity of the past and present scenes slammed together, in a violent collision in my mind. I closed my eyes, legs trembling.
After a few moments it was quiet. Zane stood, panting, a crumpled black lump in front of him.
“You killed it.” I gaped at the dead swan.
He panted. “Yeah, well it attacked me. It was a quick neck snap, no suffering.”
I looked around, but thankfully there were no other witnesses. “Killer swan or not, I’m pretty sure vigilante justice has been illegal for quite some time now.” I said with an eyebrow raised. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”
He bent down and hoisted the swan’s body. My eyes widened, “Ah, Zane, what the fuck are you doing?”
“We are taking this Julie, it only seems right.”
“I’m not sure the authorities would agree.” I eyed him dubiously, “whatever, but you can’t just walk out of here with a dead swan, like that’s okay.”
I took off my jacket and threw it over the bundle of feathers. Zane grinned at me and tucked the corners around it. We reached the car park and I hopped in with Zane, our contraband wildlife in the boot.
We were both silent as we made our exit. After a while I mused, “You know, I thought my fiance being killed by a swan was ridiculous. But, making a getaway from the scene of the revenge killing of said swan, its corpse in the boot, on the tenth anniversary of that day may just take the cake.”
Zane looked at me and and a snort of laughter burst out of him, then more, then a wild roar of laughter, the deep, belly clenching kind. I startled, and burst out,
“Jesus, it really wasn’t that funny!”
Which only set him off again, and after a moment, I dissolved into mirth. Deep, howling laughter, the kind I hadn’t had in years. He was laughing so hard he had to pull over, which only renewed our shrieking.
When we were spent, clutching our aching bellies, and wiping our leaking eyes, I looked at Zane speculatively,
“I know this makes me crooked, but it seems forgetting wasn’t working for either of us, but revenge, well, it feels pretty damn good.”