The Black Swan
by Cassie Ingaben
Münster was cold and damp, and its zoo even drearier than zoos usually are. Dorian waded through the slimy, mucky path as fastidiously as possible. At least he'd lost the schoolchildren now, who'd stampeded forward to jeer and be jeered at by the monkeys—which was where they belonged, as far as he was concerned. His hair tangled with a bare-branched bush, dark twigs swollen with soggy rainwater. Dorian tried to ban his dispiriting surroundings and focus on the reason why he'd come here. The black swan.
As he grew older, he'd found himself remembering more and more long-forgotten poems, school hours spent daydreaming over the wrong books. Yeats' swans were now flying inside his mind, wheeling in great broken rings, nine-and-fifty from nineteen autumns before. More like 17, actually.
Another time, one Indian summer day flaming with warm liquid light, also in the past, he'd quoted the poem to Colin. He had laughed, told him he was being morbid, he should "lighten up." Yet he'd been light that day, heart not grown old, nor body; unwearied still, lover by lover.
Dorian almost slipped on the uneven path, and shivered, torn back to the present. Colin had gone—and good riddance, he warned himself—so had the October light. It was February, and darkening already. He'd better hurry, before the black swan flew away. The pond could not be that far.
The path twisted once more, and Dorian was surprised by the white plastic boat, pure Neuschwanstein kitsch. It was bigger than he'd imagined, much bigger than any swan, floating unbending and severe on the dun pool, staring at some far-away horizon from the dark eyebrow shading its invisible eyes. A bell-beat of wings announced the black swan, descending honking and shrunken by its unresponsive mate. Next to the boat's streamlined profile, the real swan looked scruffy and moist, ridiculously small, moulting wings mangy and old. Spotting Dorian, the animal hissed and spluttered, pathetically trying to defend its white, fearless mate. The pond rippled and splashed, splattering his boots. They were already ruined anyway—stupid idea to wear suede—so Dorian stood still, until the swan quietened down, paddling to stay in place. The plastic swan bobbed its head gently, approvingly. Loyalty was appreciated, it seemed.
Abruptly, Dorian turned and left without looking back. He had not been loyal—but then, he'd never had Klaus; not really. He'd just paddled along, honking and preening; and then, tired of being beaked and hissed at, flown south. The voice in his head switched to the other poem, as it always did when Dorian got closer to his February pilgrimage. He hated it, but he could not stop it. And maybe he deserved it. He quickly retraced his steps, out of the dreadful zoo, away from the swan's doomed love. Stupid bird, really—summer flings over, forever returning to its unresponding, hopelessly ill-fitting boat. Looking for what? Resting their wings.
It started to snow, sleet actually, grey and slushy, destined to melt in icy puddles. No deep snow piled above thee. Yet, it would slow down his southward drive; he'd get to Eberbach late into the night. Well, the gasthaus knew him by now, and they would not mind. Last year he'd been so late, he'd almost missed it. Have I forgot, my only Love, to love thee? Dorian threw himself into his car—a rented Mercedes, he was stupid that way—fumbling for the keys with frozen fingers. Cold in the earth.
The drive was long, icy roads mercifully treacherous, requiring all his concentration, almost drowning out the obsessive repetition of lines in his mind. He finally stopped the car and got out. The graveyard's gate was ridiculously easy to open—but then, who would get in or out in a sleety February night? It was dark, but Dorian knew his way.
The stone was solid white, plain and streamlined. Iron-black letters spelled out a name and two dates. It was always strangely jarring to realise how Dorian, who had been five years younger, was now the older by almost a decade. He knelt, and laid his single red rose on the cold marble. Sweet Love of youth, forgive, if I forget thee.
Far away, a church bell rang midnight. Another year he'd made it just in time. How long again? How long before he'd wake up one day and realise he'd missed it? And how old would it feel, then? How forlorn?
21 June, 2007
In memoriam M.C.
7 July 1967-21 June 1992
You can read the story of Petra the black swan here.
Here is a picture of Neuschwanstein, the swan-themed Bavarian Schloss built by Ludwig II.
In the story, Dorian refers to the following poems: