Fiction · Short Story

In the Absence of Swans

Boston, March 2015.

The garden awakens from a winter deeper than any in recent public memory.

The last in a line of four girls seated on the pond’s perimeter screams dramatic fury as winged bodies, en route to plunder the thawing earth, whisk behind her head.

“Where do the swan boats go in the winter?” a man asks aloud to no one as he saunters the curving path, one hand tugging at the strap of his messenger bag as the other fingers an itch beneath his suede-patched elbow.

A woman, fingers clamping pages of the deteriorating binding of the paperback she reads on one of the wooden benches, wrapped in an oversized sweater, hears his question. Is he referring to the query of a Salinger protagonist? How many of his students are writing their term papers on the connection between Holden’s ducks in Central Park and Tony Soprano’s in his New Jersey pool? How many college kids come down out to the Public Garden, not to see the now-even-more-famed Robin Williams bench, but to look out on the water and listen to the softly humming insects as they perk awake the sleeping flora. Her gaze falls on the empty pond bed, stretching way out under the footbridge.

The mud appears thick and cool. Up until ten days ago, when the temperatures started to rise, the surface was a sheen of brown, cracking crust, reminiscent of that long-forgotten fudgesicle, surviving in the grip of the icebox. Each morning since, the thick sludge loosened, its hue lightening into a tannish, stagnate chocolate pudding in need of whisking.

Another man walks in front of the gazing woman, holding his son’s hand with three fingers. “See how they drain the pond for winter? I bet it’ll be full by next week,” he says, aiming his words down to where the boy’s ears can reach them.
“And the swan boats come back then?” the son looks up to be sure his father is taking this seriously.
“They’re put back soon after.”
“Put back? No, Dad. They fly south for the winter and back north to Boston when it’s warm again,” the boy insists, pulling on his father’s hand and swinging like a pendulum.
“Of course they do,” the father says, soaking up the boyish mysticism with a wry grin. “When paddle boats fly,” he thinks.

Their steps spook two small birds who’d been pecking the soft mud of the pond bed. The birds rise and swoop behind the heads of the row of girls. The last in the line shuffles her feet and flails her arms in way of unnecessary protection, marking a dramatic retreat from the pond’s edge. Her shrieks convince the others to follow her out to Bolyston Street.

The woman pulls close her sweater and goes back to her broken book, feeling fortunate for the sunlight of springtime making its return to the greening sanctuary.

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