Swan song, p.31
Swan Song, p.31Robert McCammon
Swan did, but Sister's face was blurred through the tears. Swan wiped her eyes.
"The summer's. . . finally come," Sister said. "There's no telling when winter will be back. You're going to have to work while you can. Work as hard and fast. . . as you can, while the sun's still shining. Do you hear mei"
Sister's fingers tightened around the girl's. "I wish I could go with you. I do. But. . . that's not how it's going to be. You and I. . . are going in different directions now. But that's all right. " Sister's eyes sparkled, and she looked over at Robin. "Hey," she said. "Do you love heri"
"How about youi" she asked Swan. "Do you love himi"
"Yes," Swan said.
"Then. . . that's half the battle won right there. You two hold onto each other, and you help each other. . . and don't let anybody or anything pull you apart. You keep going, step after step. . . and you do the work that has to be done while it's still summertime. " She turned her head, and squinted up at the black giant. "Joshi" she said. "You know. . . where you have to go, don't youi You know who's waiting for you. "
Josh nodded. "Yes," he finally managed to say. "I know. "
"The sun. . . feels so good," Sister said, looking up at it. Her sight was dimming, and she didn't have to squint anymore. "So good. I've come. . . a long way. . . and I'm tired now. Will you. . . find a place for me to rest up here. . . so I can lie close to the suni"
Swan squeezed her hand, and Josh said, "We will. "
"You're a good man. I don't think. . . even you knew how good you were. Swani" Sister reached up with both hands and cupped them around Swan's beautiful face. "You listen to me. Do the work. Do it well. You can bring things back. . . even better than they were. You're a. . . natural-born leader, Swan. . . and when you walk, you hold yourself strong and proud. . . and. . . remember. . . how much I love you. . . "
Sister's hands slipped away from Swan's face, but Swan caught and held onto them. The spark of life was almost gone.
Sister smiled. In Swan's eyes she could see the colors of the glass crown. Her mouth trembled and opened again.
"One step," she whispered.
and then she took the next.
They stayed around her as the sun warmed their backs and thawed out their muscles. Josh started to close Sister's eyes - but he didn't, because he knew how much she loved the light.
Swan stood up. She walked away from them and dug her hand into her pocket.
She brought out the silver key, and she climbed up on a boulder and walked to the edge of Warwick Mountain.
She stood with her head held high, staring into the distance. But she was seeing more armies of fighting and frightened men, more guns and armored cars, more death and misery that would still be lurking in the minds of men like a cancer waiting to be reborn.
She gripped the silver key.
Never again, she thought - and she flung the key as hard and as far as she could.
Sunlight winked off it as it fell through space. It bounced off the limb of an oak tree, hit the edge of a boulder, fell fifty more feet into a small green pond half hidden by underbrush. as it drifted through the water and into the leaves at the pond's bottom it stirred up several tiny eggs that had been hidden there for a long, long time. Shafts of sunlight stroked the pond and warmed the eggs, and the hearts of tadpoles began to beat.
Josh, Swan and Robin found a place to let Sister's body rest; it was not sheltered by trees or hidden in shade, but lay where the sun could reach it. They dug the grave with their hands and lowered Sister into the earth. When the grave was filled again, each of them said whatever was on his or her mind, and they ended with "amen. "
Three figures came down off the mountain.
Sunlight had touched the camp of the army of Excellence as well, and each man, woman and child there saw what was exposed.
Faces that had been hidden in twilight now emerged monstrous. The light hit the grotesque demons on the carved steps of the Central Command trailer, fell upon the trucks with their cargoes of bloodstained clothing, illuminated the black trailer where Roland Croninger had tortured in his quest for truth, and men who'd learned to live for the sight of blood and the sound of screams shrank back from that light as if pinpointed beneath the eye of God.
Panic ruled the mob. There were no leaders now, only followers, and some men fell to their knees and jabbered for forgiveness, while others crawled into the familiar darkness beneath the trailers and curled up there with their guns.
Three figures walked through the howling, sobbing mass of humanity, and many could not bear to look at the face of the girl with hair like fire. Others screamed for Colonel Macklin and the man they'd come to know as Friend, but they were not answered.
"Halt!" a young, hard-featured soldier leveled his rifle. Two other men stood behind him, and a fourth came out from behind a truck to aim his pistol at Josh.
Swan regarded each of them in turn and held herself tall and proud, and when she took a step forward, all of the soldiers moved back except the man who'd spoken.
"Get out of our way," Swan said, as calmly as she could manage, but she knew the man was scared, and he wanted to kill somebody.
"Fuck you!" the young soldier sneered. "I'll blow your head off!"
She tossed something to his feet, into the steaming mud.
He looked down.
It was the black-gloved hand of Colonel Macklin, its palm and nails smeared with dried gore.
He scooped it up, and then he grinned crazily as the realization hit him. "It's mine," he whispered. "It's mine!" His voice grew louder, more frantic. "Macklin's dead!" he shouted, and he lifted the hand for the others to see. "It's mine now! I'm in command! I've got the pow - "
He was shot through the forehead by the soldier with the pistol, and as the false hand fell to the mud the other men went after it, fighting like animals for the symbol of power.
But another figure leapt amid them, flinging first one man back and then another, tearing the gloved hand away and holding it in his own grasp. He stood up, and as his mud-smeared face swiveled toward Swan she saw the shock and hatred in his eyes; he was a brutal, dark-haired man in an army of Excellence uniform - but there were bullet holes across the front of his shirt and dried blood around the heart. The face seemed to ripple for just a fraction of a second, and then the man lifted one dirty hand to either shield himself from the sun or ward off the sight of Swan.
Maybe it was him, she realized. Maybe he'd already put on a new skin and climbed into a corpse's clothes. She couldn't tell for sure, but if it was him, she had to answer the question he'd asked her down in the mine. "The machine's stopped, and the missiles aren't going to fire," she said. "Not ever. "
He made a low, garbled noise and stepped back, still hiding his face.
"There won't be an end," Swan told him. "So yes, I do forgive you, because if it wasn't for you, we wouldn't have a second chance. "
"Kill her!" the dark-haired man tried to shout, but his voice came out weak and sick. "Shoot her down!"
Josh stepped in front of Swan to protect her. The soldiers hesitated.
"I said kill her!" He lifted Macklin's hand, his face averted from Swan's. "I'm your master now! Don't let her walk out of here a - "
One of the soldiers fired at point-blank range.
The rifle bullet went into the dark-haired man's chest, and the impact staggered him. another bullet hit him, and he tripped over the dead man and fell into the mud, and already the other soldiers were leaping onto him, fighting again for the nail-pierced hand. and now more soldiers were coming, drawn by the shots, and they saw the disembodied hand and threw themselves into the fight as well. "Kill her!" the dark-haired man demanded, but he was being pressed down into the mud under the thrashing bodies, and his voice was a high whine. "Kill the little bi - "
Then the soldiers closed over nun, and she could no longer see any part of him.
Swan went on. Josh followed, but Robin paused. Lying on the ground was another pistol. He started to reach down and retrieve it - but he caught himself and did not touch it. Instead, he shoved it deeper into the mud as he passed.
They went through the encampment, where soldiers ripped off their filthy, blood-caked uniforms and threw them into a huge bonfire. Trucks and armored cars roared past as men and women fled to destinations unknown. The shout, "The colonel's dead! Colonel Macklin's dead!" was carried over the camp, and more shots rang out as last quarrels were settled or suicide was chosen.
and, finally, they came to Sheila Fontana's trailer.
The guards had gone, and the door was unlocked. Swan opened it and found Sheila inside, sitting at her dresser before the mirror, looking at herself and holding the shard of glass.
"It's over," Swan said, and as Sheila stood up the piece of glass pulsed with light.
"I've. . . been waiting for you," Sheila told her. "I knew you'd come back. I. . . I prayed for you. "
Swan walked toward her. She embraced the other woman, and Sheila whispered, "Please. . . please let me come with you. all righti"
"Yes," Swan answered, and Sheila grasped her hand and pressed it against her lips.
Swan went to the mattress, reached inside it and brought out the battered leather satchel. She could feel the shape of the crown in it, and she pulled it to her chest. She would protect it and carry it with her for the rest of her life, because she knew the man with the scarlet eye would be back. Maybe not today or tomorrow, maybe not even next year or the year after that - but someday, somewhere, he would slip from the shadows wearing a new face and a new name, and on that day she would have to be very careful and very strong.
She didn't know what other powers the crown held, didn't know where the dreamwalking would lead her, but she was ready to take the first step. and that step, she knew, would take her along a path she'd never imagined when she was a child, growing her flowers and plants in the trailer park dirt of Kansas a world and a lifetime away. But she was no longer a child, and the wasteland awaited a healing touch.
She pulled back from Sheila Fontana and turned toward Josh and Robin. She knew Sister was right: Finding someone you loved, and someone who loved you, was half the battle. and now she knew, as well, what she had to do to make the wonderful things she'd seen in the glass crown come true.
"I think. . . there are others who might want to go with us," Sheila said. "Other women. . . like me. and some of the men, too. They're not all bad men. . . they're just afraid, and they won't know what to do or where to go. "
"all right," Swan agreed. "If they put down their guns, we'll welcome them. "
Sheila left to gather the others, and she returned with two bedraggled-looking RLs - one a heavily made-up, frightened teenager and the other a tough black woman with a red Mohawk haircut - and three nervous men, one of them wearing a sergeant's uniform. as a show of good faith, the ex-soldiers had brought knapsacks full of canned Spam, corned beef hash and soup, as well as canteens of fresh water from the spring in Mary's Rest. The black prostitute, whose name was Cleo - "short for Cleopatra," she announced dramatically - brought an assortment of gaudy rings, necklaces and trinkets that Swan had no use for, and the teen-age girl - "They call me Joey," she said, her dark hair all but obscuring her face - offered Swan her prized possession: a single yellow flower in a red clay pot that she'd somehow kept alive.
and as the light of the new day faded a truck with Josh at the wheel and carrying Robin, Swan, Sheila Fontana, the two RLs and the three men left the camp of the army of Excellence, where a group of rampaging madmen had set fire to Colonel Macklin's trailer, and the last of the ammunition was exploding.
Long after Josh had driven away, the wolves began to come down from the mountains, and they silently circled the remnants of the army of Excellence.
The night passed, and patches of stars came out. The truck, with one remaining headlight and not much gasoline, turned west.
In the darkness, Swan cried for a while with the memory of Sister, but Robin put his arm around her, and she leaned her head against the strength of his shoulder.
Josh thought of Mary's Rest and of the woman he hoped was still waiting for him with the boy at her side. Sheila Fontana slept the sleep of the innocent and dreamed of a beautiful face looking back at her from a mirror.
Sometime during the night, Cleo and one of the men jumped out of the truck with a knapsack full of food and water. Josh wished them good luck and let them go.
The stars faded. a thin red line crept across the eastern horizon, and Josh almost cried when the sun peeked back through the thinning clouds.
The truck coughed and ran out of gas about two hours after sunrise. They started off on foot, following the road that led westward.
and on the afternoon of that day, as the light slanted through the trees and the blue sky was dappled with white, slowly drifting clouds, they stopped to rest their legs. But Swan stood on the edge of the road looking down into a valley where three small shacks were clustered around the brown stubble of a field. a man in a floppy straw hat and a woman in overalls were working in that field with a shovel and hoe, and two small children were on their knees carefully planting seeds and grain from burlap sacks.
It wasn't a very large field. It was surrounded by withered trees - maybe pecan or walnut trees, Swan thought. But a sparkling stream of water meandered across the valley, and it occurred to Swan that it might be a trickle from the underground river that had powered the machines in Warwick Mountain.
Now, she thought, that same water could be used for life instead of death.
"I'll bet they're planting beans," Josh said, standing beside her. "Maybe squash or okra, too. What do you thinki"
"I don't know. "
He smiled faintly. "Yes, you do. "
She looked at him. "Whati"
"You do know," he replied. "You know you have to start somewhere. Even a field as small as that one. "
"I'm going back to Mary's Rest with you. That's where I'm going to st - "
"No," Josh said, and his eyes were gentle but pained. across his forehead were three gashes that would heal into scars and forever remind him of the old wrestling trick. "We don't Have enough food and water left for us all to make it back to Mary's Rest. That's a long way from here. "
"Not so far. "
"Far enough," he said, and he motioned toward the valley. "You know, there's plenty of room down there for more crops. I imagine there are a lot of other shacks in these mountains, too. Plenty of people who haven't had fresh okra, beans or squash in a long time. " His mouth watered at the thought. "Soul food," he said, and he smiled.
She watched the man, woman and children at work. "But. . . what about the people in Mary's Resti What about my friendsi"
"They made do before you got there. They'll make do until you get back. Sister was right. You need to work while it's summertime - and there's no telling how long that'll be. Maybe a month, maybe six. But the cold will come back. I just pray to God the next winter won't last as long. "
"Hey! Hey up there!" The farmer had seen them, and he lifted his hand and waved. The woman and children paused in their work and looked up toward the road.
"It's time to make new friends," Josh said softly.
Swan didn't reply. She watched the man waving, and then she raised her own hand and waved back. The farmer said something to the woman and started up the winding trail that connected their land with the road.
"Start here," Josh told her. "Start now. I think that girl - Joey - might even be able to help you.
"Yes, I do!" Her lower lip trembled. "Josh, I'll always need you!"
"Bird's gotta fly," he said. "and even a swan has to spread her wings sometime. You know where I'll be - and you know how to get there. "
She shook her head. "Howi" she asked.
"Field by field," he said.
She reached for him, and he put his arms around her and held her tight.
"I love you. . . so much," Swan whispered. "Please. . . don't go yet. Just stay one more day. "
"I wish I could. But if I did. . . I wouldn't leave. I have to go while I still know I want to. "
"But - " Her voice cracked. "Who's going to protect youi"
He laughed then, but his laughter was mixed with tears. He saw the farmer coming up the trail, and Robin was walking to meet him. The others had gotten to their feet again.
"No man was ever prouder of a daughter than I am of you," Josh whispered in her ear. "You're going to do wonderful things, Swan. You're going to set things right again, and long before you come back to Mary's Rest. . . I'll hear your name from travelers, and they'll say they know of a girl called Swan who's grown up to be a beautiful woman. They'll say she has hair like fire, and that she has the power of life inside her. and that's what you must return to the earth, Swan. That's what you must return to the earth. "
She looked up at the black giant, and her eyes shimmered with light.
"Howdy!" the farmer in the straw hat said. He was skinny, but he already had a sunburn on his cheeks. Dirt clung to his hands. "Where you folks fromi"
"The end of the world," Josh said.
"Yeah. Well. . . doesn't look like the world's gonna end today, does iti Nope! Maybe tomorrow, but surely not today!" He took off his hat, wiped his forehead with his sleeve and squinted up at the sun. "My Lord, that's a pretty thing! I don't think I've ever seen anything prettier - except my wife and kids, maybe. " He held out his hand toward Robin. "Name's Matt Taylor. "
"Robin Oakes. " He shook the man's sturdy hand.
"You folks look like you could use a drink of water and sit a spell. You're welcome to come down, if you like. We ain't got much, but we're workin' at it. Just tryin' to plant some beans and okra while the sun's shinin'. "
Swan looked past him. "What kind of trees are thosei"
"Whati Those dead onesi Well, sad to say, those used to be pecan trees. Used to just about break the branches down come October. and way over there" - he pointed toward another grove - "we used to have peaches in the spring and summer. 'Course, that was before everything went so bad. "
"Oh," Swan said.
"Mr. Taylor, where's the nearest town from herei" Josh asked.
"Well, amberville is just over the hill about three or four miles. ain't much there but a few shacks and about fifty or sixty people. Got a church, though. I ought to know: I'm Reverend Taylor. "
"I see. " Josh stared into the valley at the figures in the field and the grove of trees that he knew were not dead, only waiting for a healing touch.
"What's in the bagi" The reverend nodded toward the satchel Swan had set at her feet.
"Something. . . wonderful," Josh answered. "Reverend Taylor, I'm going to ask you to do something for me. I'd like for you to take these folks down to your house, and I'd like for you to sit yourself in a chair and listen to what. . . to what my daughter has to tell you. Will you do thati"
"Your daughteri" He frowned, puzzled, and looked at Swan. Then he abruptly laughed and shrugged. "Well, this has sure turned out to be a crazy world. Sure," he told Josh. "Everybody's welcome to come and sit a spell. "
"It'll be a spell, all right," Josh replied. He went across the road and picked up one of the knapsacks full of food and a canteen of water.
"Hey!" Robin called. "Where're you goingi"
Josh walked toward Robin; he smiled and grasped the young man's shoulder. "Home," he said, and then his expression went severe and menacing: one of his glowering masks from the wrestling ring. "You watch yourself, and you take care of Swan. She's very precious to me. Do you understand thati"
"Yes, sir, I do. "
"Make sure you do. I don't want to come back this way to kick your butt to the moon. " But he'd already seen how Robin and Swan looked at each other, how they walked close together and talked quietly, as if sharing secrets, and he knew he wouldn't have to worry. He slapped Robin on the shoulder. "You're okay, my friend," he said - and suddenly Robin put his arms around Josh, and they embraced each other. "You take care of yourself, Josh," Robin said. "and don't you ever worry about Swan. She's precious to me, too. "
"Misteri" Reverend Taylor called. "aren't you going down into the valley with usi"
"No, I'm not. I've got a ways to go yet, and I'd better get started. I want to make a couple of miles before dark. "
The reverend paused, obviously not understanding, but he saw that the black giant did indeed intend to continue on his way. "Just a minute, then! Hold on!" He reached into the pocket of his canvas jacket, and his fingers came out with something. "Here," he said. "Take this to carry you on your way. "
Josh looked at the little silver crucifix on a chain that Reverend Taylor was offering him.
"Take it. a wayfarer needs a friend. "
"Thank you. " He put the chain around his neck. "Thank you very much. "
"Good luck. I hope you find what you're looking for when you get where you're going. "
"I do, too. " Josh started walking away, westward along the mountain road. He'd gone about ten yards when he turned back and saw Robin and Swan standing together, watching him go. Robin had his arm around her, and she was leaning her head on his shoulder.
"Field by field!" he called.
and then he was blinded by tears, and he turned away with the beautiful image of Swan burned forever in his mind.
She watched nun until he was out of sight. Except for Robin, the others had already gone with Reverend Taylor down to his house in the valley. She gripped Robin's hand and turned her face toward the landscape of mountains and hollows, where dead trees waited to be awakened like restless sleepers. Off in the distance she thought she heard the high, joyful song of a bird - perhaps a bird just finding her wings.
"Field by field," Swan vowed.
The days passed.
and high up where Warwick Mountain's peak almost touched the blue sky, tiny seeds that had been scattered by the whirlwinds and stirred to life by the fingers of a girl with hair like flame began to respond to the sunlight and send out fragile green stems.
The stems searched upward through the dirt, pushed through the surface and into the warmth, and there they bloomed into flowers - red and purple, bright yellow, snow-white, dark blue and pale lavender.
They glowed like jewels in the sunshine and marked the place where Sister lay sleeping.
Weeks passed, and the road lamed him.
His face was grayed with dust, but the knapsack was lighter on his bowed and weary back. He kept walking, one step after the next, following the road as it wound westward across the land.
Some days the sun was out in full force. Some days the clouds returned and the rain fell. But the rainwater was sweet on his tongue, and the storms never lasted very long. Then the clouds would scatter again, and the sun would shine through. at midday the temperature felt like the height of summer, which he realized it must be - at least by the calendar of the world that used to be - but the nights were frosty, and he had to huddle up for warmth in a roadside barn or house, if he was lucky enough to find shelter.
But he kept going, and he kept hoping.
He'd been able to trade food for matches along the way, and when he was out in the open at night he built fires to keep the night-things at bay. One night in western Kentucky he was awakened under a starry sky, and at first he didn't know what had jarred nu
The sound of whistling, fading in and out, as if from a great distance.
He knew he must be losing his mind or coming down with fever - but he thought the tune was "Here we go 'round the mulberry bush, the mulberry bush, the mulberry bush; here we go 'round the mulberry bush so early in the morrrrrning. . . "
after that he looked for a house or barn to spend the night in.
On the road he saw signs of awakening: small green buds on a tree, a flock of birds, a patch of emerald-green grass, a violet growing from an ash heap.
Things were coming back. Very slowly. But they were coming back.
and not one day - and very few hours - passed that Josh didn't think of Swan. Thought of her hands working the dirt, touching seeds and grain, her fingers running over the rough bark of pecan and peach trees, stirring all things to life once again.
He crossed the Mississippi River on a flatbed ferryboat captained by a white-bearded old man with skin the color of that river's mud, and his ancient wife played the fiddle all the way across and laughed at Josh's worn-out shoes. He stayed with them that night and had a good dinner of beans and salt pork, and in the morning when he set out he found his knapsack heavier by one pair of soft-soled sneakers that were just a little too small, but fine once the toes were sliced open.
He entered Missouri, and his pace quickened.
a violent thunderstorm stopped him for two days, and he found shelter from the deluge in a small community called, laconically, all's Well, because there was indeed a well at the center of town. In the schoolhouse, he played poker against two teen-age boys and an elderly ex-librarian, and he wound up losing five hundred and twenty-nine thousand dollars in paper clips.
The sun came out again, and Josh went on, thankful that the card sharps hadn't taken his sneakers off his feet.
He saw green vines trailing through the gray woods on either side of the road, and then he rounded a bend and abruptly stopped.
Something was glittering, far ahead. Something was catching the light and shining. It looked like a signal of some kind.
He kept walking, trying to figure out what the sparkling was coming from. But it was still far ahead, and he couldn't tell. The road unreeled beneath his feet, and now he didn't even mind the blisters.
Something sparkled. . . sparkled. . . sparkled. . .
He stopped again and drew in his breath.
Far up the dusty road he could see a figure. Two figures. One tall, one small. Two figures, waiting. and the tall one wore a long black dress with sparkles on the front that was catching the sunlight.
"Glory!" he shouted.
and then he heard her shout his name and saw her running toward him in the dress that she'd worn every day, day in and day out, in hopes that this would be the day he came home.
and it was.
He ran toward her, too, and the dust puffed off his clothes as he picked her up and crushed her to his body, and aaron yelled and jumped around at their feet, tugging on the black giant's sleeve. Josh scooped aaron up as well and held them both tightly in his arms as all of them surrendered to tears.
They went home - and there in the field beyond the houses of Mary's Rest were apple trees, loaded down with fruit, from saplings that the army of Excellence had missed.
The people of Mary's Rest came out of their homes and gathered around Josh Hutchins, and by lamplight in the new church that was going up he told them everything that had happened, and when someone asked if Swan was ever coming back, Josh replied with certainty, "Yes. In time. " He hugged Glory to him. "In time. "
Settlements struggled out of the mud, built meeting halls and schoolhouses, churches and shacks, first with clapboard and then with bricks. The last of the armies found people ready to fight to the death for their homes, and those armies melted away like snow before the sun.
Crafts flourished, and settlements began to trade with one another, and travelers were welcome because they brought news from far away. Most towns elected mayors, sheriffs and governing councils, and the law of the gun began to wither under the power of the court.
The tales began to spread.
No one knew how they started, or from where. But her name was carried across the awakening land, and it held a power that made people sit up and listen and ask travelers what they'd heard about her, and if the stories were really true.
Because, more than anything, they wanted to believe.
They talked about her in houses and in schools, in town halls and in general stores. She's got the power of life in her! they said. In Georgia she brought back peach orchards and apple trees! In Iowa she brought back miles upon miles of corn and wheat! In North Carolina she touched a field, and flowers sprang forth from the dirt, and now she's heading to Kentucky! Or Kansas! Or alabama! Or Missouri!
Watch for her! they said. Follow her, if you like, as many hundreds of others do, because the young woman called Swan has the power of life in her, and she's waking up the earth!
and in the years to come they would talk about the blooming of the wasteland, the cultivation projects and the work being done to dig canals for flatboat barges. They would talk about the day Swan met a boatload of survivors from the destroyed land that had been called Russia, and nobody could understand their language, but she talked to them and heard them through the miraculous jeweled ring of glass that she always carried close at hand. They would talk about the rebuilding of the libraries and the great museums, and of the schools that taught first and foremost the lesson learned from the awful holocaust of the seventeenth of July: Never again.
They would talk about the two children of Swan and Robin - twins, a boy and a girl - and about the celebration when thousands flocked to the city of Mary's Rest to see those children, who were named Joshua and Sister.
and when they would tell their own children the tale by candlelight in the warmth of their homes, on the streets where lamps burned under stars that still stirred the power to dream, they would always begin the tale with the same magic words:
"Once upon a time. . . "
Swan Song by Robert McCammon / Horror / Science Fiction have rating 5.1 out of 5 / Based on41 votes