Minshu is a swan. He’s also a widower. Once, he had a mate, but then a couple new to the neighborhood got drunk one night and went to the pond, caught Minshu’s mate and cut off her head, and dragged home the carcass and curried it. Before that, most people in the neighborhood had not known that ‘curried’ was a verb, but they learned quickly. The smell of curried swan was said to have wafted with the wind, a fragrance that made people feel very worldly indeed. But no one had asked Minshu what he’d felt about smelling his mate being cooked in cardamom and garam masala; and no one, certainly, had bothered to explain to Minshu the misfortune that sometimes befalls those who are not watching close enough as danger approaches.
“Fuck you, Minshu,” says Hank. “That’s right, come closer.” He throws another breadcrumb. The swan is on dry ground. A few steps from the walking path, then across it, a couple of swan-lengths from the bench. Hank casts his bread. Minshu plods nearer. And when he’s close enough, Hank turns up his boot and kicks him in the face.
“Hey!” yells a man in a sweater, the sweater despite the heat. “Hey!” A little boy’s with him, in tears.
Hank stands up, because that’s polite. “What the problem?”
“I saw you kick that bird!”
“The hell I did,” says Hank. “And besides, he’s not a bird. That’s fucking Minshu. He’s just a swan.”
Hanks walks away, as the child cries and the man keeps wearing his sweater. By the water, Minshu is splashing about, dipping his head in the surface like this is going to help him. But it won’t. He’ll float out to the middle of the water later, and think about when he used to be a celebrity, back when there were two of him and people had come to the pond to see if he would breed with his mate. He’s forgotten the name of that girl now, the other swan, but he remembers how invigorating it had been, how natural, to be at some fervent act of love in front of the crowds gathered on the shore.
Hank watches him from the high ground. “Next time you bite me, Minshu, you best take off my head, you hear?” But for all that, and despite the bruise beneath Minshu’s beak, Hank is not the bad guy here, or even close.
It’s pretty, or at least it can be, what you find attached to the sidewalk. Gum, and leaf-stains, dirt smudges, a spot of blood next to a curled-up band-aid, and sometimes the phantom of someone who walked here before you did. They sometimes leave a trace. But sometimes not.
“Someone’s been here,” says Hank, on the porch of Mrs. Victoria’s house. It might have been a squirrel or a person, or a person dressed as a squirrel, or a squirrel that was actually a rat. But there was someone. The door is locked, though, and on the computer inside, a note from Mrs. Victoria. It says that Hank should call her, to let her know how things are going, and if he’s done any better at remembering his wife.
“Sure,” he says to the cradle where the cordless phone should be. “I remember her fine.” But he doesn’t. “I remember her, Mrs. Victoria. Sure and fine. My wife.”
In the basement, there are crates of whiskey. Mrs. Victoria’s husband had collected the last allotment of a distillery that had burned down on a cold winter’s night in Dublin, the townsfolk trying to put out the flames with shovels of snow because all the pipes had been frozen. There’d been explosions, eruptions, and then the smell of churned mud and forest floor descending on the town and inhabiting the woodwork of the window frames until they had been impregnated by it, so much so that people could never again escape the smell of whiskey. Mrs. Victoria’s husband had come and rescued the last few crates and taken them to Boston, where he’d stored them in a basement in hopes that people would one day pay a handsome price for that murky, brown substance.
Hank sits amongst the crates and thinks about his wife. It helps to take a swig of whiskey, the long bottle a perfect fit for his mottled hand. It was made for him, he thinks, as he swigs down Mrs. Victoria’s fortune, the first sip the most guilt-ridden, but after that he can’t stop and put it back anyway, so he might as well keep going. At the far side of the stone basement, with its mortar chipping to dust, with cracked concrete on the floor that sometimes is dark with water that is desperately trying to get in, a figure appears. It’s a woman. She’s wearing a dress. And she’s got that hair, and those lips, and though her face isn’t quite distinct just yet (for only half the bottle is gone), this is someone he knows. Someone he knew for a long time. He stares in fascination through the brown of the bottle, as the figure gets clearer. Clearer and clearer, every minute.
TV with a salt shaker on top. Calendar next to a dart board, and shopping bags on a coat hook, but really it’s the snow tire leaning against the back door that is the most incongruous element here. It’s been there for two years. Seasons change and the rubber sits in the sunshine, degrading bit by bit to basic elements, carbon and sulfur, bits of nitrogen and some more complex chemicals that are present in trace amounts. Eventually, given sufficient years, the rubber will flake apart to reveal the steel inside, a long belt of metal that will itself begin to oxidize – and the sun will provide photolytic energy sufficient to make the metal soft, until one day it crumbles like a ghost and becomes dust that will sit on the floor until someone with a broom comes along to remove it.
It won’t be Maria, she thinks, as the TV glows. It will be Gerald, if he lives that long, because he refuses to move the tire. She can’t remember the particular disagreement that led to the placement of the tire against the glass door, but it was probably not a significant one, just one of those things that has unintended consequences – for instance, she can no longer get to the backyard through these doors. Rather, she has to go through the garage to get to her garden, and while it’s a pain, she’s not going to move that tire. And neither is Gerald.
A coffee mug painted green on the outside, red inside, but this is not a Christmas mug. This is morning tea, and the TV on loud with the salt shaker wobbling on top, getting closer to the edge where eventually it’s going to fall. That’s something Maria will clean up. If it happens.
The tea is half-gone. The tire is going nowhere. And the salt shaker teeters.
“An airplane has crashed in Fresno, California. JumbleAir Flight 365. All passengers reported dead. More details to come as they are available.”
There should be more days in the year, she thinks, as she hears the report, but something else is bothering Maria. The phone rings, but she lets it go. Rings again. And again. But she drinks her tea and waits for the salt shaker to fall, but it’s actually going nowhere and neither, it appears, is she. The calendar is next to a dart board for a reason, because now and then Maria needs to think, and it’s easier to do that when throwing darts. She has to be careful about that, because if she misses the board, she’s going to hit her painted wooden cabinets.
She’s at the calendar for no reason other than the scrawl of ink on a date, the one that spells out the flight Gerald was taking back today. She reads it a few times. While a salt shaker teeters. And the TV blares. And the phone rings.
You’d think it would be easy to simply concentrate on getting my novel out there, but it isn’t, because there’s so much more to write. This story, Three Birds, is too long to take in one piece, so I’m chopping it up and putting it out there in five pieces. I’ve never done that before. But I have real love for this story.
Appreciate everyone who commented on Girl Island’s 10-word synopsis. More details are coming. And as always, thanks to you folks who read the book and gave me such great comments.