A wild swan, p.6
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       A Wild Swan, p.6

           Michael Cunningham
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  And there it is, unannounced.

  All he can manage is “It’s a prosthetic.” He detaches it, tosses it carelessly, callously, onto the floor.

  His right leg ends just above the knee.

  Car accident, he tells her. When I was seventeen. The summer after high school.

  The tossed-away lower leg sits on the floor. It looks like an accident, all by itself: the flesh-colored plastic calf tapering to an ankle that sprouts a toeless foot.

  He stands before her. He has no trouble balancing on one leg.

  He tells her—he always tells this story, to every girl—that the other car was driven by a fifteen-year-old who’d just stolen it, and was being chased by the police. It matters to him that he was not in any way at fault; that a young criminal, a demon of sorts, took his leg from him.

  She needs a moment to fully apprehend the missing lower leg. His body, from the broad farmhand shoulders to the crop-rows of abdominals, is as flawless as she’d expected it to be.

  He’s harmed, though. He’s been bluffing, since that car accident, which got him right after he’d emerged from high school, laureled and impeccable. It seems that some devil delivered the punch line before the joke had been set up, and that the joke, in its earliest stages (no time for a talking dog or a rabbi or a crazy wager), can deliver only a surreal and macabre finish.

  So, this really handsome guy walks into a bar and … The bar blows up and kills everybody.

  The bravado she’s never liked in him, the thuggish self-assurance that’s turned her off, reveals itself to have been a trick, a way of coping. He’s come off as cartoonishly confident because that’s what he’s needed to do.

  He knows about damage the way a woman does. He knows, the way a woman knows, how to carry on as if nothing’s wrong.

  * * *

  Sometimes the fabric that separates us tears just enough for love to shine through. Sometimes the tear is surprisingly small.

  She marries not only a man but an inconsistency; she falls in love with the gap between his physique and his affliction.

  He marries the first girl who hasn’t treated his amputation as if it were no big deal; the first who doesn’t need to evade his sorrow and his anger or, worst of all, try talking him out of his sorrow and his anger.

  The surprises arrive in their own time.

  After they’re married, as year piles upon year, he’s surprised by how often her abhorrence of sentimentality can render her cold and cruel; he’s surprised by her insistence on calling it “honesty.” How is he supposed to fight with someone who demands that her every lapse or failing be treated as a virtue, as an admirable quality he refuses to understand?

  She’s surprised by how quickly his carelessly incandescent beauty relaxes into the grinning, regular-guy appeal of a car salesman; by the fact that he’s become a car salesman; by the ways in which his heftier, coarser flesh renders him less a sacrifice to some jealous god’s wrath and more an everyday optimist who’s merely missing a leg.

  He’s surprised by how lonely he can feel in her presence, she by how she struggles to stay interested. Her foundering interest feeds his loneliness. His loneliness drives him to be more affable, more desperately charming, which further dulls her interest. It’s not a good sign when she finds herself saying to him, over dinner in a restaurant, “For god’s sake, will you stop acting like you’re trying to sell me a car?” It’s not a good sign when he has an affair with a foolish girl who listens raptly to his every opinion, laughs (perhaps a bit too riotously) at all his jokes.

  The two stay married, though. They stay married because she took maternity leave when Trevor was born and, although she’d intended to, didn’t go back to the law firm—she hadn’t expected to be so endlessly fascinated by her infant son. They stay married because the remodeling of the kitchen is taking forever, because there’s Beth now as well as Trevor, because the marriage isn’t all that bad, because getting unmarried seems so difficult, so frightening, so sad. They can separate after the kitchen is finished; after the kids are a little older; after they as a couple have finally passed through the realm of irritation and bickering and reached the frozen waste of the unbearable.

  They hope they’ll learn to be happier together. They also yearn, sometimes, for the point at which misery becomes so profound as to leave them no alternative.

  * * *

  So, honey, did you like that story?

  It was okay.

  I’ve been saving that story. Until you were a little older.


  Well, eight isn’t old, it’s just older than, you know, six. Why didn’t you like it?

  I hate it when you ask me that question. I said it was okay.

  All right, let’s phrase it a little differently. What didn’t you like about it?

  Can I go now?

  In a minute. Would you answer the question, first?

  You didn’t read that story to Trevor. Trevor is outside, playing kickball.

  I wanted to read this one specially to you. What didn’t you like about it?

  Okay. Why did that soldier have only one leg?

  The toymaker ran out of lead.

  It seemed kind of stupid. How the soldier fell in love with the ballerina because he thought she had one leg, too.

  He could see only one of her legs. The other was raised up behind her.

  But wouldn’t he have known that? Hadn’t he ever seen a ballerina before?

  Maybe he hadn’t. Or maybe it was wishful thinking. If you had just one leg, wouldn’t you want to meet other people like you?

  It doesn’t make sense.

  What doesn’t?

  The soldier falls out a window, some bad boys put him in a boat made of newspaper, and he sails down a storm drain.

  That seems like it makes sense, to me.

  But then he gets swallowed by a fish and the fish is bought by the same family’s cook and when she cuts it open, the soldier’s inside.

  Why didn’t you like that?

  Uh, because it was stupid?

  It was about destiny. Do you know what “destiny” means?


  The soldier and the ballerina couldn’t be kept apart. That’s destiny.

  I know what it means. It’s still stupid.

  Maybe we could think of another word …

  Then the little boy threw the soldier into the fireplace. For no reason. After the soldier came back, in the fish. The boy threw him into the fire.

  A demon put a spell on the boy.

  There’s no such thing as demons.

  Agreed. All right, let’s say he didn’t like it that the soldier was different.

  You always say “different” when there’s something wrong with somebody.

  I’m not crazy about a phrase like “something wrong with somebody.”

  And then. You know what’s really stupid? That the ballerina blows into the fireplace, too.

  Could we talk about what “destiny” actually means?

  The ballerina had both legs. The ballerina was up there on a shelf. The ballerina wasn’t “different.”

  But she loved somebody who was.

  What’s the big deal, about being different? You make it sound like some kind of prize.

  * * *

  The marriage takes its turn on their twentieth anniversary, when the boat catches fire.

  It occurs during the first vacation they’ve taken as a couple since the kids were born. Trevor is a freshman at Haverford, Beth is a junior in high school—they’re pretty much grown up by now. And, according to the real estate agent, with the kitchen so meticulously redone, they could get a fortune for the house.

  All their reasons are evaporating on them. They’re taking the sort of save-the-marriage vacation that generally means the marriage is already lost.

  The chartered sailboat, with its ten passengers and three-man crew, explodes in flames just off the Dalmatian Coast. They’ll learn later about the drunken deckhand, the Zippo, the leak in a
propane tank.

  At one moment, they’re sunning on the deck. She’s noticed a cloud that looks like FDR’s profile and is pointing it out to him, thinking this is what happy couples do; hoping that the impersonation of happiness will evolve into the genuine article. It helps, it seems to help, that they’re spending two weeks in close quarters with eleven strangers; that they heard Eva Balderston say to her sister Carrie, “What a lovely couple,” as they got up from dinner last night; that there are believers.

  He’s trying to make out FDR’s profile in the cloud. She’s trying not to mind that he can’t seem to see it, when it’s so obviously right there. She’s striving not to think about all he fails to notice in the world. He’s fighting off his own burgeoning panic over letting her down again. He’s about to say, “Oh, yeah, right, that’s amazing,” when in fact he sees only ordinary clouds …

  The next moment, she’s in the water. She knows there’s been thunder, she knows there’s been hot and blinding brilliance, but that reaches her as memory. She immediately inhabits a new impossibility, and for a moment it seems she’s always been stroking through seawater, a mockingly tranquil, sparkling blue-green field on which, about thirty yards away, the boat’s black silhouette is suspended in flames, like a skeleton on an orange X-ray screen.

  A moment later, the actual starts reintroducing itself.

  There’s been an explosion. She seems to have been thrown clear. The pain in her left arm derives from a gash long and precise as the edge of a manila envelope. The idea of blood and sharks comes to her as a fact but only as a fact, a piece of long-remembered trivia, nothing actually threatening. It’s as if she’s recalling a story she heard about something awful that happened to a woman like her.

  She seems to be surrounded by oddly random floating objects: a knob-ended length of mast, a baseball cap, an empty Diet Coke can.

  She seems to see no one else.

  As the ship begins its hissing descent into the water, it occurs to her that he’s not much of a swimmer. He’s refused the physical therapist’s contention that swimming is the best exercise for an amputee.

  She’s surprised to find herself irritated with him. The irritation passes, and she’s looking around again, as if awakened in an unfamiliar place, seeing no one but herself.

  Her condition of stunned remove stays with her as she treads water, unsure about what else to do. It stays with her as the dark-haired man, who does not speak English, attaches the harness that pulls her upward. It does not abandon her until she finds herself strapped to a gurney in a helicopter, wearing a neck brace that permits only a view of two scuba tanks hanging from straps, and a white metal box emblazoned with a red cross.

  The red cross means, somehow (it seems clear, if unfathomable), that her husband is dead. She’s surprised (the baffled serenity of shock has not yet fully receded) by the piercing, inhuman wail she hears. She’d had no idea she could make a noise like that.

  * * *

  He will not be able to explain, because he will not remember, how he came to be lying in the shallows of a white-sand beach almost a full day after the boat caught fire. The medics who take him to the modest local hospital will merely say “Miracle,” their accents rendering it “Me-wrack-cowl.”

  They bring her to him immediately. When she enters the hospital room he looks at her with chaste and monk-like calm, and then weeps as loudly and unabashedly as a three-year-old.

  She gets into the narrow bed with him, and holds him. They both understand. They’ve visited a future in which for each of them the other has vanished. They’ve tasted separation. And now they’ve returned to the present, where a resurrection has occurred. They are, as of this hour, married forever.

  * * *

  Do you remember that story you read me?

  What story? Hey, you’re not packing your Britney Spears hoodie, are you?

  I like my Britney hoodie. You know, that story.

  I read you hundreds of stories. You haven’t worn that hoodie since you were fifteen.

  The story about the one-legged soldier.

  Oh. Yes. Why are you bringing that up now?

  Maybe because I’m leaving home.

  You are not leaving home. You’re going to college two states away. It’s a six-hour drive. This will always be your home.

  I’m not going to wear the Britney hoodie, what kind of dweeb do you think I am?

  What is it about the one-legged soldier?

  I knew what you were doing. I thought I should tell you I knew what you were doing. Now that I’m leaving home.

  And what, darling, do you think I was doing?

  Duh. You were telling me the story of you and Dad.

  If you’re not going to wear the hoodie, why are you taking it at all?

  Sentimental reasons. A reminder of my glory days.

  Your glory days are still ahead of you.

  People keep saying that. What point were you trying to make, reading me that story?

  I don’t think I was trying to make a point at all. It was just a story.

  It was just the only story there is about somebody who’s missing a leg, and gets followed into a fire by his ballerina girlfriend.

  Do you really think I was trying to make some kind of point about your father and me?

  I remember you asking me if I knew what the word “destiny” meant.

  I guess I wondered … If you were worried. About your father and me.

  Fucking right I was.

  I’m not crazy about that word.

  Tell me you never noticed that Trevor and I knew how miserable you both were. You seem to be getting better, though.

  Leave the hoodie here, all right?

  I’m perfectly capable of keeping it safe, all on my own, in my dorm room. This hoodie does not need to reside within the House of Safety.

  Honestly? I’m not really sure what we’re talking about, anymore.

  We’re talking about a paper ballerina who had two perfectly good legs of her own but flew into the fire anyway.

  It’s silly for you to pack something you’re never going to wear. Dorm rooms have extremely limited storage space.

  Okay, let’s keep the hoodie here. Let’s keep everything here.

  Please don’t be melodramatic.

  Trevor’s gone. I leave tomorrow.

  And you keep saying that because …

  That story was all about the paper ballerina. She didn’t have a destiny. Only the one-legged soldier did.

  Do you want us to read the story again?

  I think I’d rather eat glass.

  All right, then.

  I’m going to leave the hoodie here. It’ll be safer here.

  Good. It’s nice to be told I’m right about something. Some little thing. Every now and then.

  * * *

  They’re into their sixties now.

  He’s still selling cars. She’s returned to her practice, knowing she’s too old and yet too inexperienced to rise above the level of associate. The firm is doing well enough to have room for a competent-enough tough-but-compassionate mother figure. She’s not only there to litigate, but to be salty and irreverent for men whose own mothers tended to be prim, mannerly, and cheerful almost to the point of madness.

  She minds, more than she’d thought she would, that she appears to others as a cantankerous, endearing old lady.

  He’s worried about sales. Nobody wants American cars anymore.

  The two of them are at home tonight, as they are most nights.

  He’s become the only person to whom she remains visible, who knows that she hasn’t always been old. Beth and Trevor love her but so clearly want her to be, to always have been, grandmotherly: reliable and harmless and endlessly patient.

  The next surprise to come, it seems, is true decline. The surprise after that is mortality, first one of them, then the other.

  Her therapist encourages her not to think this way. She does her best.

  Here they are, in their living room. They
’ve built a fire in the fireplace. The movie they’ve been watching on their big-screen TV has just ended. His prosthetic (it’s titanium, beautiful in its way, nothing like the grotesque, Band-Aid-colored appendage of their college days) stands beside the fireplace. As the closing credits roll, they sit together, companionably, on the sofa.

  She says, “Call me old-fashioned, but I still like a movie with a happy ending.”

  Watching the credits roll, he wonders: Have we reached our happy ending?

  It feels happy enough, in its modest, domestic way. And there’ve been happy endings already.

  There was that night in his fraternity-house room, forty years ago, when he took off his clothes and revealed the damage that had been done to him; when she did not, like so many girls before her, insist that it was no big deal. There’s the fact that they didn’t have sex until the following night, and when they did have sex on the following night he was already halfway in love with her, because she was able to look at him and apprehend his loss.

  That was a happy ending.

  There was the sight of her walking into that hospital room, and his sudden, surprising awareness that he wanted to see nobody more urgently than he wanted to see her. That only she could get him out of there and take him home.

  There was the night Trevor came out to him, at Beth’s engagement party, when they found themselves alone together with brandy and cigars; the night he realized that Trevor had decided to tell his father first (aren’t the sister or mother usually the first to be told?); the chance Trevor gave him to hold his trembling and frightened son, to assure him that it didn’t make any difference, to feel his son’s worried head burrowed gratefully into his chest.

  That was another happy ending.

  He could name dozens of others. A camping trip when, as the first light struck Half Dome, he knew that Beth, age four, was comprehending the terrible clarity of beauty, for the first time. A sudden rainstorm that soaked the whole family so thoroughly that they danced in it, kicking up puddles.

  There’s this text from Beth, sent less than an hour ago, a selfie of her and her husband, Dan, in their kitchen on an ordinary night (the baby must have been asleep by then), their heads pressed together, smiling into Beth’s iPhone, with only the message, XXX.

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