A wild swan, p.3
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       A Wild Swan, p.3

           Michael Cunningham
 
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  Still, habits resist change. The giant devours his creature, spits out horns and hooves, and demands his last remaining treasure: a magic harp.

  The harp is a prize of a different order entirely. Who knows about its market value? It’s nothing so simple as gold coins or golden eggs. It too is made of gold, but it’s not prosaic in the way of actual currency.

  It’s a harp like any harp—strings, knee, neck, tuning pins—but its head is the head of a woman, slightly smaller than an apple, more stern than beautiful; more Athena than Botticelli Venus. And it can play itself.

  The giant commands the harp to play. The harp obliges. It plays a tune unknown on the earth below; a melody that emanates from clouds and stars, a song of celestial movements, the music of the spheres, that which composers like Bach and Chopin came close to approximating but which, being ethereal, cannot be produced by instruments made of brass or wood, cannot be summoned by human breath or fingering.

  The harp plays the giant into his nap. That gargantuan head makes its thudding daily contact with the tabletop.

  What must the giantess think, when Jack creeps in and grabs the harp? Again? You’re kidding. You actually want the very last of our treasures?

  Is she appalled, or relieved, or both? Does she experience some ecstasy of total loss? Or has she had enough? Is she going to put an end, at last, to Jack’s voracity?

  We’ll never know. Because it’s the harp, not the giantess, who finally protests. As Jack makes for the door, the harp calls out, “Master, help me, I’m being stolen.”

  The giant wakes, looks around uncertainly. He’s been dreaming. Can this be his life, his kitchen, his haggard and grudging wife?

  By the time he’s up and after Jack, Jack has already traversed the cloud-field and reached the top of the beanstalk, holding firm to the harp as the harp cries out for rescue.

  It’s a race down the beanstalk. Jack is hampered by his grip on the harp—he can only climb one-handed—but the giant has far more trouble than Jack in negotiating the stalk itself, which, for the giant, is thin and unsteady, like the rope he was forced to climb in gym class when he was a weepy, lonely boy.

  As Jack nears the ground, he calls to his mother to bring him an axe. He’s lucky—she’s semi-sober today. She rushes out with an axe. Jack chops the beanstalk down, while the giant is still as high as a hawk circling for rabbits.

  The beanstalk falls like a redwood. The giant hits the earth so hard his body crashes through the topsoil, imbeds itself ten feet deep, leaves a giant-shaped chasm in the middle of a cornfield.

  It’s a mercy, of sorts. What, after all, did the giant have left, with his gold and his hen and his harp all gone?

  * * *

  Jack has had the giant-hole filled in, right over the giant’s body, and in a rare act of piety he’s ordered a grove of lilac bushes planted over the giant’s resting-place. If you were to look down at the lilac grove from above, you’d see that it’s shaped like an enormous man, arms and legs akimbo; a man frozen in an attitude of oddly voluptuous surrender.

  Jack and his mother prosper. Jack, in his rare moments of self-questioning, remembers what the mist-girl told him, years earlier. The giant committed a crime. Jack has, since infancy, been entitled to everything the giant owned. This salves the stripling conscience that’s been growing feebly within Jack as he’s gotten older.

  Jack’s mother has started collecting handbags (she especially prizes her limited-edition Murakami Cherry Blossom by Louis Vuitton), and meeting her girlfriends for lunches that can go on until four or five p.m. Jack sometimes acquires girls and boys in neighboring towns, sometimes rents them, but always arranges for them to arrive late at night, in secret. Jack is not, as we know, the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, but he’s canny enough to understand that only his mother will uncritically adore him forever; that if one of the girls or boys were suffered to stay, the fits of mysterious frustration, the critiques, would set in soon enough.

  The hen, who cares only for the eggs she produces, lays a gold one every day, and lives contentedly in her concrete coop with her twenty-four-hour guard, Jack’s attempt at exterminating all the local foxes having proven futile.

  Only the harp is restive and sorrowful. Only the harp looks yearningly out through the window of the room in which it resides, a room that affords it a view of the lilac grove planted over the giant’s imbedded body. The harp, long mute, dreams of the time when it lived on a cloud and played music too beautiful for anyone but the giant to hear.

  POISONED

  You wanted to last night.

  And tonight, I don’t think I want to.

  Why, exactly, is that?

  It’s weird. Don’t you think it’s at least a little bit weird? And I’m, well, getting tired of it.

  When exactly did you change your mind?

  I didn’t. Okay, I’m tired of pretending that I’m not tired of doing it.

  Is it because of that apple joke, today at the market? Did that bother you?

  Hell no. You think I’m not used to apple jokes by now?

  You’ve always told me you liked it. So, you’ve been lying?

  No. Well, not exactly lying. I suppose I’ve liked it because you like it so much. But it seems that tonight, I don’t really want to.

  That’s a little ever so slightly humiliating, don’t you think? For me, I mean.

  No. I’ve been doing it because I love you. When you love somebody, it makes you happy to make him happy.

  Even if you think it’s weird. Even if you think it’s disgusting.

  I didn’t say disgusting. “Weird” and “disgusting” are not synonyms.

  You didn’t get tired of doing it for the midgets.

  They weren’t midgets. They were dwarfs. I don’t know why you refuse to understand the difference.

  Sorry. I’m sorry. I’m displacing my emotions.

  You got that phrase from your shrink, do you even know what it means?

  I’m sorry about the dwarfs. I know you loved them.

  Or I loved it that they loved me, I’ve never been completely sure.

  Do you think we should have them over again?

  Because it was so much fun the last time?

  I wouldn’t say it was unfun. Did you think it was?

  You had to lift them up to get them into our chairs. Our spoons were the size of spades to them. Have you really actually forgotten that?

  I was trying to be kind. I was trying to be hostly. I took away the love of their goddamned lives. Did my position that night strike you as easy?

  No. You were trying to be generous to them. I know that. I do.

  Okay. Ten minutes. Just ten, okay?

  This really matters to you, doesn’t it?

  Please don’t condescend.

  Could you tell me something to say that won’t offend you?

  It matters to me. Okay, right, I’m a little ever so slightly embarrassed that it matters to me. But it does.

  Tell me something you love about me.

  Come on.

  Be specific.

  Okay. I love the thing you do with your mouth when you’re concentrating. This little squinchy thing, sort of half biting your lip but not exactly, it’s just … squinchy, it’s totally involuntary, it’s so you.

  Tell me another.

  I love it when I wake up before you do, and then when you wake up you have this kind of pure astonished awed expression, like you can’t quite believe you’re … where you are. It fucks with me. It’s what gives me those morning hard-ons.

  Okay. Ten minutes.

  Are you sure?

  Does it bother you, that I like making you happy?

  Ten minutes, then.

  Hey, I’ll go to twelve. For you.

  I adore you.

  Be careful with the lid, all right?

  Aren’t I always careful with the lid?

  Yes. I’m honestly not sure why I said that.

  Are you all right? Is this comfortable?


  I am. It is.

  Do you think …

  What?

  I feel like some kind of creep, now.

  Just tell me.

  Do you think you could cross your hands just a little lower down? More like directly over your breasts?

  Mm-hm.

  Yeah. Perfect. That’s so entirely completely perfect.

  I’m closing my eyes now. I’m going into the zone.

  God, you’re beautiful.

  I wish sometimes I could watch you. Watching me.

  I’d like that, too. But it wouldn’t …

  Of course it wouldn’t.

  Look at your skin. Look at your lips. Look at the petals of your eyelids.

  I’m going to stop talking now. You can lower the lid.

  I’m the luckiest man in the world.

  I’m not talking anymore. I’m going into the zone.

  Twelve minutes, tops. I promise.

  Shh.

  Twelve minutes on the dot. Promise. Thank you for doing this, I know you’re stopping speaking. But, well, thank you. It matters to me, it does. Okay. Twelve minutes and I lay one on you. Then we can order in, okay? Or we can go out, whatever you like. We could catch a movie. But thank you for twelve minutes. I mean, look at you. Sleep like death. Before I even existed. For you, I mean. When I was, okay, I like thinking this way, when I was a dream you were having, when I was a premonition, when I was perfect because I didn’t exist, when I was pure possibility, and, I really hope this isn’t weird, when you were immaculate, and entirely strange, and the most perfect and beautiful creature I’d ever seen. Before I lifted the lid, I mean, and kissed you for the first time.

  A MONKEY’S PAW

  Take the Whites, a modest but happy family. A happy-enough family. It’s just the three of them: mother, father, and son. The son works in the local factory. If he’s cross about supporting his parents; if he chafes at his sexless nights or wonders about a youth devoid of carousing and petty criminality; if he’s upset about certain premature afflictions brought on by his labors (that tricky knee, the painful knot at the base of his spine) at the age of twenty-two, he never brings it up. He was not born into a place or time when sons kiss their parents goodbye, gently chide their mother’s hanky-dabbed tears, and stride off into lives of their own.

  They live in a cottage, though it’s not the thatched, tidy dwelling the word “cottage” ordinarily brings to mind. It sags in a slushy, wind-haunted remoteness. The Whites have not been offered much in the way of choices.

  And yet, they don’t bicker. They don’t get snappish over minor domestic failings. These quarters cramped and damp, this road rendered impassible by mud more than half the year, strike them as inevitable, and they console themselves with vague references to how it could have been worse (although it’s difficult to say what “worse” might entail). There is no hint among them of Why did I let you bring me here? or When will you die, so I can escape?

  The visitor who arrives one mucky night is not a stranger; or not exactly a stranger, though he is in fact strange. He’s an old friend of Mr. White’s, a man who, when young, was prone (more so than Mr. White) to wild and defiant inclinations. In the way of certain trouble-prone boys, he eventually joined the army. He’s been away on military errands for more than two decades, most recently in India. He’s spent the last twenty years helmeted, taciturn, a defender of the Empire, in realms of superstition, of blessings and curses, of darkly magical acts that are usually faked but can seem, on occasion, to be not exactly genuine, but … other than counterfeit, as well.

  The visitor brings with him a gift, the severed paw of a monkey, which he claims has the power to grant three wishes.

  The Whites are unsure about how to receive this particular present. They could use three wishes—a single wish would be riches beyond calculation. But, really. This gruesome, withered little thing, its dead, brown-black fingers curled into themselves? It would seem that Mr. White’s old friend has lost his mind, which is not unusual among men who’ve been long in strange and remote places.

  Still, it’d be impolite to refuse it. Right?

  Mr. White takes the paw into his own hand, and is astonished and appalled when it convulses, ever so slightly, upon contact with the flesh of his own palm.

  Before he can cry out, though, the visitor has snatched it back. He says, in an unsteady voice, that he was about to commit a crime. He’s been unable to rid himself of the paw, he’d thought he could free himself by giving it to a poor, innocent family …

  The Whites just stare at him. What is there to say?

  The visitor tells them he bemoans the day he ever laid tired eyes on the monkey’s paw.

  With a spasm of lunatic resolve, he throws it into the fireplace.

  Mr. White just as quickly retrieves it, singeing his own fingertips. He’s embarrassed for his friend. He assures him that a gift is a gift. He says he’s always been drawn to exotica, and there’s not much of that in this neighborhood.

  The visitor, looking gaunt and terrified as a muskrat in a trap, stumbles to the door. Before taking his leave, he warns the Whites not to wish on the paw, and implores them, should they find themselves wish-prone, to restrict their requests to the most sensible possible desires.

  Then he’s out the door. The rain absorbs him back into the night.

  Mother and son are quick to render their verdict. They break out in gusts of laughter.

  Sensible wishes? Please send us a new dustpan? Grant us, if you will, fewer roaches in the larder?

  Mr. White remains silent. He closes the door, through which rain is blowing like a swarm of hornets.

  He could swear he felt the paw clench when it was given to him. He’s holding it again, though, and it’s inert as death itself.

  Mr. White can manage only a muted protest on the poor man’s behalf. “He’s been harmed by too much strangeness, you didn’t know us when we were boys…”

  Mrs. White snatches the paw from him, mutters an invented incantation, and says, “I wish…”

  She pauses. She claims she has nothing to wish for (she who washes dishes in an old iron pot, who does her best to coax fires out of soggy logs).

  “I wish for two hundred pounds,” she says eventually, two hundred pounds being the sum still owed on the cottage. With two hundred pounds, this warren of dim, low-ceilinged dankness could be theirs.

  A more sensible wish is difficult to imagine.

  Nothing happens. No wad of bank notes manifests itself in the sugar bowl, no coins rattle down the flue.

  They take themselves off to bed.

  Once Mr. and Mrs. White are settled under the quilts together, she does not wonder, even as sleep descends, why she married a man who’d convey her, after their modest village wedding, to a place like this. (Should she have guessed, when he appeared at their marriage ceremony in his father’s mothballed suit, when he insisted that a carriage was a needless expense?) Mr. White, a troubled sleeper, does not inquire inwardly, as he turns this way and that, trying to find a sleep-friendly position, about his choice of a wife so lacking in ambition or faith. He does not ask himself, Why would full ownership of this hovel so much as cross her mind, even in jest?

  * * *

  The next morning, the son leaves for work. By late afternoon, a representative of the factory arrives to inform Mr. and Mrs. White that there’s been an accident. Their son has been snatched up by his machine, as if he were the raw material for some product made of manglement, of bone shards and snapped sinews, of blood-spray that turned quickly, before the eyes of the other workers, from red to black.

  The man from the factory is appropriately, professionally sympathetic. He knows there’s no compensation for a loss like this. The factory owners do, however, maintain a practice of paying the families of the men who are, on occasion, taken by the machines. It’s not much, God knows, but the company is prepared to offer the following sum of money to the boy’s parents …

  You do not, of course, need me to tell y
ou the actual figure.

  Nor do you need me to tell you—certainly not in detail—about the boy’s grief-deranged mother, who made the wish in the first place; about how she, late one night—several days after what remains of her son has been sealed into its box (there was no viewing of the body), after the box has been interred in the weedy churchyard—takes up the monkey’s paw and calls, into the empty parlor, into the rain beyond the parlor, “Bring him back.”

  Nothing happens.

  Nothing happens immediately.

  It takes several hours for the Whites, after they’ve gone to bed, to hear the sound of approaching footsteps, coming from outside. It takes only moments, however, for them to realize that the footsteps possess a measured slowness, an aspect of drag, as if each step did not involve boot-sole leaving the surface of the ground and so has to be painfully gained, a slide through the sludge, before the next step can be negotiated.

  Both of them understand it at the same moment. It’s a long walk from the cemetery.

  Mrs. White rushes down the narrow stairs, with Mr. White behind her.

  “He’s back!” she declares.

  He can barely bring himself to respond. “It’s back.”

  The mauled corpse, the creature made now of shattered bone and crushed mask of a face (the creature who had once toddled giggling after a rubber ball, who had skated cheerfully on ponds with its friends) is back. It is, even now, creaking through the garden gate.

  It has been summoned. It still recognizes the light in the window.

  As Mrs. White struggles to unbolt the door, Mr. White takes up the monkey’s paw. He’s prepared to shout, “Make it go away.”

  And yet, he remains silent. He knows what he should do. But he can’t bear the idea of his wife throwing open the door and finding nothing but wind outside. He’s not sure he could survive the sorrow and fury she’d aim at him when she turned back from the empty threshold.

  So Mr. White stands in the middle of the room, holding the monkey’s paw tightly in his hand, as his wife throws the door open, as he and his wife behold what stands before them, expecting to be welcomed in.

 
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